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by Loribelle Hunt
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance
Description: Walker Graham has spent years reforming his life and has built a good one. The only thing it lacks is having the woman he loves at his side. Grace Monroe is having none of that, however. She's spent the years since her divorce distancing herself from emotional entanglement. She enjoys her affair with Walker, but she won't let him get under her skin? Until his past and her present collide. When Grace, a private investigator, is hired to investigate the murder of a Birmingham crime boss the last thing she expects to find is Walker at the top of her suspect list. As the attempts on her life mount, she has no choice but to turn to Walker for help. But in the end can she trust him with her life and her heart?
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: September 2009
23 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [181 KB]
Reading time: 110-154 min.
The hunter became the hunted, and it really pissed her off. At first Grace thought it was just paranoia--investigating the particularly brutal murder of a drug dealer could do that to a girl, even if the event was almost six years old. But she'd learned to go with her gut in the Army, and that itchy feeling on the back of her neck was not going away.
She was being followed.
Letting the straps of her bag slide off her shoulder to the ground, she quickly dropped to her knees on the sidewalk and scanned the street. Nothing. A few things fell out of her purse during the ruse and she shoved them back in, the straps once again going over her shoulder as she straightened.
A small white rectangle fluttered to the sidewalk and she reached to retrieve it, the three rows of black block lettering making her grimace as her fingers lifted it up. Graham's Garage. Walker Graham. Owner/operator. She'd come here looking for someone else's secrets and had found his. Despite her and Walker's long, strange history, it had been a shock to finally have some of the holes in his past filled in. He'd scrawled Love ya babe and his phone numbers across the back. Someone else to add to her growing list of problems--and suspects.
The hair on the nape of her neck rose. She couldn't remember the last time she'd been so spooked. She hastily pushed the card into her back pocket and cautiously started down the street. It had still been light out when she'd arrived at the police station in downtown Birmingham to speak to one of their homicide detectives, but traffic had forced her to find a parking spot a couple of blocks away on a more secluded side street. A few streets over she could see the hustle and bustle of early evening on the busier main drag, but all of that was too far away to protect her from whatever hunted her here on this deserted road. The feeling of unease increased and she picked up her step, hurrying around the last corner that would take her to her car.
She'd been hired to investigate cold murder cases before. It wasn't like this was the first time. It was the first time she knew people involved in the case, however. Her cousin Lynn had been one of the responding officers, and the Birmingham police detective she'd just talked to had hinted Walker was their number one suspect. She'd been so disbelieving he'd shown her Walker's record. To call it extensive was an understatement. And disturbing. She'd stopped trusting men after just a few months of being married to her ex-husband. The marriage had been over for years. The distrust would never go away, but she'd come close to something like it with Walker. She wanted him to be innocent of this murder, but even if he was he was sure as hell guilty of everything else.
She breathed a sigh of relief when she saw the black SUV waiting exactly where she'd left it. She couldn't wait to get back to Atlanta. Digging through her bag for the keys, she cursed herself for not having them out and ready. She knew better. She resisted the irrational urge to cheer when her fingers closed over the cold metal and yanked them free.
Closing the final feet to the driver's door, she felt a sudden spike of fear. Adrenalin pumped through her veins and seemed to crawl across her skin, and she whirled in anticipation of an attack. Pulse racing, she searched the dark corners of the street. Nothing. The area was clear. But the feeling of being pursued, being stalked did not subside. Keeping her eyes sharply focused on the area she'd come from, she fumbled the key into the door lock. It took valuable seconds too long, but finally clicked open. Pulling the handle up, she backed away a little and edged around the door, tossing her bag inside.
She heard the loud pop before the pain registered a split second later. Her leg crumpled under her, forcing her to the ground. She shifted position to try to get a look down the street and fire arced through her thigh. Her hand brushed against the pain and came away wet and red. She stared at it, mind racing and adrenalin-pumped blood surging. Someone had shot her. Son of a bitch!
She couldn't see anything crouched down next to the car and reached for the seat to leverage herself up. She had to get out of here. Get to her gun. Call the police. Blood pooled under her feet as she moved. Find a freaking hospital.
She got the foot of the good leg under her and pushed up. As her upper body cleared the side of the truck's seat, several shots fired over her head and she dropped back to the ground. She set her back to the open door and searched the shadows in front of her, the direction the shooting came from. The last group of shots were over her head but she was still wide open. Anger surged through her. The shooter was toying with her. He could finish her off now, but didn't. Why not?
Her thigh pulsed in pain and she pressed both palms over it, watching blood seep through her fingers. She tried to bring her thundering heart under control, knew each wild beat pumped more of her blood out of her body. She had to get out of here, had to get to a hospital before she bled to death. An ambulance's siren screamed in the distance and she fought back a sob, knowing she was just a few short blocks from one of the best hospitals in the country while her life bled out on a deserted city street. The irony of the situation was impossible to ignore.
She cursed herself again for taking the damned job, still unsure exactly what she'd got herself into. The investigation had sounded like an interesting challenge. Face it Grace, it was the money that did it. That and the boredom. Bitterly, she acknowledged the truth of the thought. Yeah. Money. The root of all evil. She snorted. She was getting maudlin in her near death experience and not being objective about her reasons, her goals. She wanted to expand her private investigation firm. To do that she needed the money. Nothing wrong with that. Except the small matter of finding herself under fire on this dingy street. It was like being back in Iraq. Without the superior firepower. Or backup.
The hell with this.
Turning her head, she studied the interior of her vehicle. Her gun was in the glove box on the far side. No way she could reach it. But her cell phone was clipped to the side of her purse, sitting on the center console. She assumed putting a phone to her ear would get her shot again, but if she could just reach it, she could use it on speakerphone and hide it on the floorboard next to her.
Stretching her arm across the seat, eyes scanning the street, she gripped one of the straps and slowly eased it towards her. It got tangled in the emergency brake, and the phone was inches from her fingers. Out of reach. Taunting her. Gritting her teeth, she raised her body a fraction, got a few more inches out of the stretch and her hand closed over the small black box. Or maybe it was the spots that suddenly swam in her vision that were black. She squeezed her eyes shut, letting her arm fall to the floor and her butt sink back to the ground. The phone and the spots were black. Shit. She was going into shock, was going to pass out soon. Unconsciousness tugged at her limbs.
She leaned against the side of the car, one hand pressing against her leg and the other flipping the phone open. She struggled to remember how to turn on the speakerphone, nearly panicking and blinking rapidly when the spots returned. When the world snapped back in focus, she turned on the speaker and dialed.
"911. What's your emergency?"
The feminine voice was immediate and sweet, the best she'd ever heard. She rattled off her name, location, and that she'd been shot, then the world faded to black. * * * *
She woke slowly, her mind foggy and body leaden, her leg a dull distant throb of tenderness. It was an effort to crack her eyes open and peer around. Her murky brain catalogued the space. A small white room, wires running in and out of her body, a bed. She was in a hospital. Struggling to remember why, she shifted, trying to sit up and gasped at the sharp twinge of pain as she jostled her leg.
The door slid open and a young woman in surgical scrubs came in. Grace squinted at her nametag, but couldn't make it out.
The woman smiled. "Good. You're awake."
"What happened?" she managed to croak in reply and was suddenly aware of how dry her throat was.
The other woman picked up her wrist, fingers pressed to her pulse point and silently watched her watch. When she released it, she smiled gently.
"You just came out of surgery. The doctor removed the bullet and everything looks fine."
Grace dropped her head back against the pillow and closed her eyes. She'd been shot?
"Mr. Graham is on his way. We should have you moved out of recovery and into ICU before he arrives." The nurse winked. "Tell me, is he as sexy in person as he is on the phone?"
Shit. Walker was coming? She wasn't sure she could take him right now. Or maybe the nurse meant his brother, Boyd?
"Walker?" she whispered. "Or Boyd?"
The woman cocked an eyebrow. "There's two of 'em?"
Grace couldn't help the grin that rose in response. Yes, God help us all. There are two of them. It was too many words to force through her parched throat so she just nodded.
"Which one?" she asked when the silence stretched.
"Oh sorry!" The nurse paused while recording the various instrument readings. "Walker." She flashed another wicked grin. "And he sounds yummy."
Grace forced a smile. "He is."
Hot. Territorial. Possessive. Well, he would be if she hadn't managed to keep him at arm's length. She didn't delude herself into thinking that was due to anything but pure dumb luck--she lived in Atlanta and he lived in that little hick town in southern Alabama, Duluth, where she was originally from. She wouldn't be able to resist him if she had to deal with prolonged exposure. She groaned. Damn. He was coming here. He would go all macho and alpha male on her now. Her body tingled and it wasn't from the morphine injection she'd just received.
Definitely yummy, but she felt a trickle of unease the more she thought of him coming, something she was forgetting, a reason she wanted space before dealing with him again. Something that refused to rise to the surface of her drug-addled brain. She fought a great yawn as the nurse slipped out the door, tried to force the correct synapses to fire in her head, but couldn't fight the slide back into oblivion. * * * *
Walker pulled into a parking slot, slipping the gear into neutral and yanking up the emergency brake. The engine still roared in his ears and he clutched the steering wheel, trying to get a grip on his wild emotions. He wouldn't be any help to Grace if he came at her all Neanderthal. Not that it wasn't tempting--grab her by the hair and drag her home where he could keep her safe. He grinned. Figuratively, of course. She'd cut his balls off otherwise. Plus she was hurt.
Fear rose like bile in his throat. He--finally--almost had her, after years of want, years of working his ass off trying to become the kind of man she'd have, but he could have lost her with this incident. He forced the panic away and replaced it with anger. At her. At the son of bitch who shot her. At himself. She needed space. He gave her space. And look what happened. If she weren't so damned busy pulling away from what was between them maybe he'd have an idea what she was up to. Maybe he could have kept her safe. What the hell was she doing in Birmingham anyway? The answer came to mind in an instant. Something that got her shot.
His fist landed with a thunk against the steering wheel. Fuck! He looked out the window at the brown building in front of him. This wasn't helping. He needed to be cool and in control when he went in there. Forcing his breathing to even and his rioting emotions behind an impassive mask, he exited the car.
The parking garage was across the street from the hospital and he jogged down the stairs and out to the street. It was late, almost midnight, and the place looked deserted. He glanced up and remembered one of the things he'd most hated about living in Birmingham. You couldn't see the stars. Even at midnight the city was too bright. Why the hell was she here? In the city where he'd spent some of his worst years, years he was far from proud of? Shaking off the feeling of gloom he crossed the street, entered the building and looked for an elevator.
He'd kept in touch with the nursing staff on the drive up. Technically, they shouldn't have told him anything but he claimed to be her fiancé so they made an exception. He knew she was stable and where to find her.
He found an elevator and slid through the closing doors just in time. The occupants, two young women, edged away from him and he sighed, rubbing a hand over his stubbled head. Yeah. He probably did look a little rough. He'd rolled out of bed this morning, threw some clothes on and headed straight for the garage. He had a ton of work to do and with Boyd and Lynn on their honeymoon, only two hands to do it with. He hadn't been concerned with how he looked.
He worked straight through lunch and dinner, music cranked up loud enough to wake the dead. He heard the phone ring in the lull between two songs and almost ignored it. Some sixth sense made him pick up. Thank God. With mounting terror and rage, he'd hurried through the shower and then grabbed the first clean clothes he came across before dumping the rest of the basket into a duffle bag and running for the car.
The elevator dinged on his floor snapping him back to the here and now and he stepped out, following a nurse's directions to Grace's room. A young cop stood outside the door and moved in front of it when Walker reached him.
"Move," he said, fury that someone tried to block his way to Grace coloring his vision nearly red. That was his woman in there, whether she acknowledged it or not, and no one was keeping him from her.
The cop crossed his arms over his chest and eyed Walker suspiciously. He resisted the urge to roll his eyes. I look like a thug, therefore I must be one, right? The younger man wasn't far off in his assessment. Walker looked the cop over. I can take him. He might have done just that if not for the voice at his side. He must be slipping--he hadn't even noticed the other cop approach.
"Walker Graham. What are you doing here?"
He struggled to control the chill that ran through him at the sound of that voice and turned to answer, but before he could a nurse hustled down the hall. She stopped and looked Walker over slowly, arching a brow and grinning. He wondered what the joke was.
"You're Walker?" she asked.
She turned a stern eye to the two cops blocking the door. "I think you gentleman can wait to speak to Mr. Graham until he's seen for himself that his fiancé is okay."
The nurse was an ally. Grinning he turned back to the two cops, hands on his hips and nodded at the door. John Brady--the one he knew--cocked an eyebrow, but moved, pulling the younger cop with him. Walker pushed the door open and behind him he heard Brady's quiet question.
"Walker's her fiancé?"
He ignored that, his gaze riveted on Grace. It was worse than he'd feared, seeing her in the hospital, wires and tubes everywhere. His feisty, sweet, stubborn Grace. A lump clogged his throat and he angrily pushed it down. It wouldn't help anyone now. Maybe later he'd give in to the urge. Approaching the bed, he sat on the side picking up her hand and smoothing her hair away from her face.
Her eyes fluttered open and she smiled.
"Hey," she whispered.
"Hey, baby." His voice was hoarse from unshed tears. He'd have to do better than this.
She looked around him and arched an eyebrow.
"How did you keep Lynn and Joanne away?" Lynn was her cousin, recently married to his brother Boyd, and Joanne was Lynn's mother. They were Grace's only family. He was less worried about her asking for them while he was right there and more concerned that she didn't recall where they were.
"They're still out of town. Remember?"
Confusion briefly marred her brow.
"Ah. Yeah. The honeymoon and the cruise." Joanne had decided to take her own trip while Lynn and Boyd were gone.
She yawned and her eyes closed. "So tired." She smiled again and whispered. "Glad you came, Walker."
He lifted her hand to his lips and kissed her knuckles before answering. "Wouldn't be anywhere else, baby."
She was asleep again so he stood and faced the room's other occupants. His cold mask was firmly back in place, but he saw from Brady's expression the man had seen it slip. Walker jerked his head at the door and they preceded him out.
"Lynn?" Brady asked out in the hall.
"Lynn Jameson. Lynn Graham now." He smiled tightly. "I'm sure you remember her."
Brady's eyebrows shot to his receding hairline.
"She married your brother?" he asked in disbelief. It was an unexpected match. Lynn was the Chief of Police in Duluth and everyone in that small Alabama town knew Boyd had been in prison. Some of them even knew the circumstances, that he'd killed a man in a bar fight ten years ago when the idiot had been stupid enough to make a grab at Lynn while she and Boyd were on their first date. It may have taken all those years for Lynn and Boyd to mend the rift her father, the judge who'd sent Boyd away for so long, had caused, but the couple was definitely good now. Walker crossed his arms over his chest and grinned.
"She did. She'll probably be here tomorrow unless Boyd can talk her into waiting."
"What's her connection to Ms. Monroe?"
"Cousins." Had to love Alabama. Everyone was connected to someone you knew from one end of the state to the other.
"I'll be damned," Brady muttered.
If memory served, and Walker was pretty sure it did, John Brady had been Lynn's shift sergeant years ago when she had started her first year with the Birmingham Police Department. After only a couple of years at the BPD, she'd moved on to the state police before eventually deciding to take the chief's job in their hometown. He wondered what Lynn would think about running into Brady again, especially under these circumstances. She and Grace were as close as sisters and had always both been on the side of the angels, while Walker and Boyd were definitely not. They all had one thing in common though: they took care of their own. Lynn would probably be raising hell about right now.
Walker's grin turned feral as more of his memories of Brady intruded, more complicated and unpleasant than Lynn's must surely be. His light-hearted mood, his relief that Grace was going to okay, evaporated. He didn't want this man anywhere near Grace, didn't want his old life to touch her.
"She still Chief down there?" Brady asked. Speaking of Walker's new sister-in-law. Lynn. The woman who defied a small town to marry an ex-con.
Brady laughed. "Bet that's interesting."
Walker just shook his head, neglecting to mention the town hadn't renewed her contract when she'd married Boyd, not trusting him even after serving his time in prison and helping Lynn bust Tim Monroe, a local drug runner, when he returned home. Walker didn't see how that was any of Brady's business. "You ever seen anything Lynn couldn't handle?"
Brady's smile was almost genuine, but Walker saw through it. "No. Don't think I have."
"She's doing just fine." Not that he'd tell this asshole if she wasn't.
Brady's gaze narrowed on his face in a calculating look. The look raised Walker's hackles. He wasn't here to get sucked into his old world.
"And you? What have you been up to?"
Walker smiled and watched the younger cop, the one he'd never seen before, jerk at the expression. He knew it was cold and savage, a look from a life he'd thought he left behind him long ago.
"Fine. Running my own garage. Completely aboveboard."
Brady's doubt was clear on his face. Walker just shook his head. "I'm serious." He nodded towards the room Grace was in. "She used to be in the Army. Military police. Think she'd have me any other way?"
Brady's expression cleared and he nodded understanding if not agreement. Walker was growing impatient with the chit chat. Enough of old home week. They walked down the hall to a small waiting room and Walker sat down.
"Now tell me what happened here, Brady."
The other man shrugged and sent the young cop for coffee before continuing.
"Not much to tell. Looks like a run-of-the-mill carjacking."
"Downtown. A few blocks from the station."
Walker scowled and muttered. "What the hell is she doing in Birmingham?"
He didn't intend to voice the question, didn't expect an answer from Brady who cocked an eyebrow in response.
"Don't you know?"
He just stared the cop down. No way in hell was he going to admit he didn't know what his woman was up to. Brady knew the tactic for what it was and grinned maliciously. Walker hated being at a disadvantage with this guy and he knew it.
"She was asking questions about Hugo Beaumont at the station..."
The voice droned on but Walker couldn't hear what was said over the roaring in his ears. Answers about Hugo Beaumont would inevitably lead to him and to questions about his less than upstanding old life. Why the hell was she asking about Hugo? What was she working on? Not much to tell my ass.
"...looking for Hugo's killer."
That snapped him out of his thoughts and he met Brady's gaze, studied him. He had a good poker face, but it was obvious he didn't want anyone looking into Hugo's murder either. The cop's smile was grim.
"I don't think either one of us wants that past dredged up."
"No skin off my back." Walker shrugged as he answered, careful to keep his expression neutral while his guts twisted in knots and he saw the future he'd imagined with Grace going up in flames. "I didn't kill him."
His hands fisted. He needed to focus on the present. Carjacking? He didn't think so. He glared at Brady, pinning him under a cold and angry gaze.
"There's no way this shooting was a coincidence."
He stood and stepped close to the other man, suspicious and enraged. Reaching out, he grabbed Brady's shirt and pulled him close. Brady tensed, his body telegraphing anger, but he made no move to defend himself.
"I will find out who did this. And then I'm going to take him apart piece by piece."
Walker let him go, patted one hand over the cop's chest. His tone was purposefully condescending. "Better hope it wasn't you, Brady."
Brady's eyes narrowed, his anger morphing into something more dangerous, aggressive and deadly, and Walker rolled to the balls of his feet. He'd love an excuse to pound on something and the cop was just as good a target as any. Better than most in fact. Brady shoved him, pushed him into the wall and got in his face. Walker saw red.
"I didn't do this. I know you want a target to vent your anger at, but this was just random shit. It happens."
He backed off, putting space between them while Walker struggled against his instinct to lunge against the hold. Getting his ass thrown in jail for assaulting an officer--even a dirty one--wouldn't help Grace. Brady gave him a knowing look.
"Which doesn't change the fact that neither of us, and a whole lotta other people, don't want Hugo Beaumont's murder dredged up. Especially you, if you really have gone straight." He turned his head, watching the young cop come down the hall towards them, and lowered his voice. "Take her home, Graham. Distract her. Make her give up this investigation."
He started to walk down the hall to intercept the kid but paused, turning to level a gaze on Walker.
"It's safer for her ... for everyone that way. And you know it."