WALK ON BY
Some things never change. Unfortunately, the Bugling Elk in Twin Elks, Colorado, was one of them. Gabe had traveled as far as his passport could take him, lived away from Twin Elks for over fifteen years, and he could say, with certainly, that it remained one of the ugliest bars he’d even been in.
“Gabe Crowe. And still pretty.” Maddison Watts, the Elk’s owner and barkeeper, leaned her elbows on the counter. “Beer?”
“Whatever’s cold and on tap.” The beer there was always good and cold.
A white spangled Elvis suit with yellow armpit stains still watched over the bar. Elvis bobbleheads, allegedly the largest collection in the state, were right where they’d been when he last saw them, stacked up next to the singing carp, which he’d lay money still did an eerie version of Take Me to the River. A couple more pairs of panties might decorate the elk head hanging over the women’s bathroom, but Gabe didn’t want to get any closer to check it out.
The characters in the bar hadn’t changed any either.
Ronnie Falkirk, well into her eighties and still working dispatch for Gabe’s brother Ben, sidled up next to him. “Well, well, well.” She waggled her shocking copper-colored head and eyed him with a sharp brown gaze nearly buried beneath layers of blue goo. “Look who’s back in town.”
“Hey, Ronnie.” Gabe expected no less. He’d gotten out of Twin Elks for college and came back as rarely as he could get away with. “You look good.”
“No, I don’t. I’m older than dirt.” Ronnie cackled and winked at him. “Your mom sure must be glad to have you back.”
Guilt double-tapped him, and Gabe hid his wince behind a sip of beer. “Yup.”
“She missed you.” Ronnie layered more guilt on. “Missed all her boys, really. Other than Ben. Of course, he didn’t go anywhere.” She whistled and wheezed out a laugh. “Got himself a nice little family now, Ben has.”
“Yup.” Gabe had returned for Ben’s wedding a few weeks back. At the time, he had every intention of getting back to Australia as soon as he could. Funny how life laughed when you were making plans.
Ronnie motioned Maddison over and placed her order for a pitcher of margaritas. “Girls and I still have our regular book club meeting.”
Gabe followed her gaze to the far corner.
The group of seven or so octogenarians waved and hollered at him.
Maddison motioned his empty glass. “Get you another one, Gabe?”
“Sure.” He had nothing else to do. Ma had bustled off to one of her meetings and Ben was tucked up with Poppy and her kids.
He liked Poppy, and after Ben’s disastrous first marriage to Tara, Gabe was happy for him. Ben loved Twin Elks and had come back from his tours of duty and settled into being police chief.
Gabe didn’t feel the same. Not even a little bit. Of course, Ben got on his high horse about being the only brother doing his part by Ma. Yeah, Gabe felt like shit about that. Not shit enough, however, to stick around.
The only reason he was still there was that, at this precise moment, his options were somewhat curtailed.
“Whelp!” Ronnie gathered up her pitcher. “See you around, Gabe.” She stopped and waggled her painted-on eyebrows. “While you’re in town, you should drop in on that nice young lady veterinarian we got now.”
“Will do.” He tapped the bar to get Maddison’s attention. “Wanna add a Jack shooter to that beer?” He got the feeling he was going to need it.
“You got it, handsome.” Maddison grinned at him.
Maddison had served him his first legal drink with a grin like that one. Like her father before her, Maddison was a Twin Elks fixture. He bet the local teens still tried to convince her they were twenty-one and fool her with their fake IDs.
Good luck with that in a town like Twin Elks where Maddison had probably attended their baptisms.
A few people he didn’t recognize were playing darts in the far corner. Not that he was likely to know everyone anymore, but Ben had been having trouble with locals and newcomers recently. After an incident with Finn Williams a while back, things had died down.
“They okay?” He asked Maddison as she pulled a draft.
Maddison glanced at the group. “Oh, yeah. Mostly that lot are looking for some action.” She waggled her eyebrows. “If you know what I mean.”
“In Twin Elks?” The singles scene was deader than three-day-old roadkill. It wasn’t even nine a.m., and the Elk was the only place open.
Maddison shook her head. “Go figure! They keep talking about this thing on that Facebook and stuff.”
It was an indication of his level of boredom that he asked, “What thing?”
“Well, would you look what the cat dragged in?” Hank Styles clapped him on the shoulder. “Gabe Crowe, right back here in Twin Elks.”
“Hey, Hank.” Gabe shook Hank’s hand. It looked like Hank had shrunk.
“Woo hee!” Frank shook his grizzled head. “Dot must be tickled pink to you have you back.”
“Yup.” He wasn’t staying in Twin Elks, but he didn’t feel like that conversation was one he wanted to have. People in Twin Elks didn’t get why anyone would want to live anywhere else.
Hank cackled and nudged him. “You clapped eyes on that pretty new lady veterinarian we got here?” He nudged Gabe again. “Wanna find yourself a sick creature and make her acquaintance. If you know what I mean?”
Gabe very much did know what Hank meant and reached for his Jack shooter. It burned the back of his throat and hit his stomach like an anvil.
Damn! He’d forgotten how rough that first one was.
Hank leaned in on a waft of cherry pipe tobacco and jerked his head at the dart players. “Wanna get your feet under the table before that lot do. Competition for the fillies is getting mighty stiff hereabouts.” Hank cackled and nudged him. “Mighty stiff. Get it. ”
Gabe managed a wan smile.
“Well, well, well. Look who’s back in town.” A curvy blonde with big blue eyes took Hank’s place beside him. Her mouth, almost too big for her face, broadened into a smile that promised naughty things. “And drinking already.”
And, hello to you too.It took Gabe a moment to place her, and then he grinned. “Well, well, well, if it isn’t Kelly Ashford.” He let his gaze deliberately linger from her booted feet, over the tight fit of her jeans, up to the way she filled her flannel shirt very nicely and back to her pretty face. “And looking as tasty as ever.”
“Shuddup, Gabe.” Kelly nudged his shoulder. “You had trouble even remembering my name.”
Busted, and he didn’t even try to fake it. “It’s been a long time, and we only shared a couple of classes together.”
“We shared every class, Gabriel Crowe. Every single one.” She raised a brow at him. “I even sat next to you for most of those.”
The ball busting, Gabe remembered, and a whole lot more about Kelly. “As I recall, you only cared about Vince Greerly back then, so how would you even know if I sat next to you?”
“You were hot.” Kelly shrugged and then chuckled. “Shame how you’ve let yourself go.”
He might have taken offense if the look in her eyes hadn’t said an entirely different thing. A tingle of awareness tiptoed up his spine.
An answering spark lit her blue eyes.
Kelly had always made him laugh back in school, and the way he had always noticed her sexy curves was all coming back to him. Unlike a lot of stick-insect women, Kelly was built to be explored and savored. She looked soft and silky in all the right places.
Kelly cocked her head, sending a fall of blond curls tumbling down her arm. Even her hair looked ready for a man’s hands to get tangled in it. Kelly Ashton screamed forties sex siren and damned if Gabe didn’t like it.
“Are you ogling me?” She raised a brow.
“Yeah.” Gabe didn’t bother to hide it. “Vince was a lucky guy.”
Her smile faded. “Pity Vince didn’t think so.”
“I sense a story.” Gabe didn’t want to be alone anymore, so he patted the barstool next to him. Time with Kelly Ashford was just what he needed. “Tell doctor Gabe all about it.”
“You’re a veterinarian.” Kelly perched her sweetly rounded ass on the barstool anyway and motioned Maddison. “I’ll have what he’s having, and he’s buying.” Her smile was pure evil. “Speaking of veterinarians.”
“Yeah, I’ve heard.” He gave her a hard stare. “Apparently she and I should get acquainted.”
“You totally should.” Kelly kept her face straight, but her blue eyes laughed at him. “Then the two of you can make sweet, animal love to each other.”
More good memories bloomed, specifically how much he’d liked sharing a desk with Kelly. “There’s nothing sweet about animal love, Kelly.” Sexual awareness entered the two feet separating them and swirled with possibilities. Not that either of them had to act on those possibilities, but a little hot flirting might make the walk to the Elk worthwhile. “Animal love is dirty, hard and nasty.”
“I hear it’s also quick.” Kelly pulled a face. “Kind of over before it’s worth it.”
Holding her gaze, he shook his head slowly. “Nah, that’s only because you haven’t been doing it with the right animals.”
“Gabe Crowe.” Kelly fanned herself with her hand. “Look at you, turning the heat up on a girl.”
“Is it working?”
She wrinkled her nose at him. “I’ll let you know.”
Gabe picked up his new shot of Jack. “In the meantime, why don’t we drink?”
“That’s a great idea.” Kelly downed her shooter without a flinch. “I actually came in here for a burger, but this is a way better idea.”
“A burger?” Gabe barely suppressed his shudder. “From here?”
“Times have changed.” Kelly gave him a serious face. “Maddison hired a new cook a couple of years back. We don’t know much about him, but he makes one helluva burger.”
Ma had made him dinner, but Gabe always seemed to have room for something else. Fortunately, he had the metabolism to allow for that. “Wanna have dinner with me?”
“Are you planning to put out?” Kelly giggled.
Gabe couldn’t resist smiling. “I’ll let you know.”
Kelly ordered their burgers before turning back to him. “You know what? Why don’t we get our burgers to go and take a drive?”
“Lookout Point?” Some things you never forgot no matter how long you’d been away.
Kelly grinned. “You got it.”
Despite the flirting, being with Kelly was comfortable and Gabe nodded. They waited for their burgers and then took them to Kelly’s SUV.
It took about ten minutes to get to Lookout Point, plus another five for the quick stop they made for a six-pack of beer along the way.
Lookout Point was not much more than a path beside the main road leading out of Twin Elks. Over time, cars stopping there had made a small parking place.
In the daylight, it was the perfect place to see the rows of orange boulders rising out of the brush and sharing the same diagonal.
At night, it was a great place to stargaze as coyotes chuckled and bitched at each other.
Gabe waited until they were comfortable. “So, no Vince and Kelly and tiny little Vinces and Kellys.”
“Nope.” Her face grew serious and she stared out the windshield. “Vince and I managed to screw that up after our senior year.”
“No.” At Twin Elks High, Vince and Kelly had been the couple who would make it, the high school sweethearts who would beat the odds and stay together forever.
Kelly took a big bite of her burger and chewed and swallowed before she answered, “We got into some stupid fight. Actually, on prom night. I had my panties in a wad and wouldn’t let Vince make it up to me.” She waved a hand. “One thing led to another; three weeks later Vince hooks up with Chelsea Finster.”
“Was she the one with the braces and the huge rack?”
“Yup.” Kelly took another bite of her burger. “She still has the huge rack, by the way. The braces are gone, however. She also had Vince until earlier this year.”
Gabe found it hard to believe. “Vince chose Chelsea over you?”
He took a bite of his burger. Kelly was right. Whoever was in Maddison’s kitchen knew their way around some beef and a bun.
Kelly opened a beer bottle and handed it to him. “It got more complicated than that. Turns out Vince’s one night with Chelsea had some serious repercussions. Vince, being Vince, did the right thing and married her.”
“Huh.” Gabe sipped his beer. He’d been too busy trying to get his ass into vet school when it had all gone down to pay it much mind. Still, going from Kelly Ashton to Chelsea Finster was a seriously boneheaded move. As he remembered it, Chelsea had been a nice enough looking girl, but with an annoying way of whining everything she said. “You said Chelsea had Vince until earlier this year?”
“They’re divorced.” Kelly said, and there was no missing the smug satisfaction in her voice.
A tiny pang of disappointment surprised him. “You and Vince are back together?”
“No.” Kelly shook her head. “But I’ve spent enough of my life waiting for him.”
“You made your move yet?” Gabe didn’t want her to say yes.
Kelly chuckled. “I’ve made it clear that I’m amenable to a move,” she said. “But he has to do some of the work.”
“And in the meantime, you’re sitting under the stars drinking beer and eating burgers with me?”
He could hear her naughty smile in her voice. “In the meantime, I am sitting under the stars, drinking beer and eating burgers with Gabe Crowe. The hottest boy in our senior year.” She fist pumped. “Kelly scores.”
Kelly cracked an eye open and blinked the room into focus. Nope, that couldn’t be right. She definitely didn’t have a poster of vintage cars on her wall. Also, her walls were a soothing taupe that she’d spent hours picking out, and not steel blue.
Nor did she sleep in a twin bed with a man spooning her. And a man who was most definitely naked.
Maybe if she shut her eyes again the scene would right itself. Also, take the roiling stomach, parched mouth and thumping head with it.
“Umm…” The arm around her waist tightened, and Gabe said, “So, that happened.”
“Uh-huh.” Words weren’t happening yet.
His erection pressed against her butt but moving away from it seemed pointless. Firstly, because a twin bed didn’t allow her anywhere to go, and secondly—and probably more relevantly—she’d already made friends with that part of Gabe.
More than once, if her hazy, night-before recollections were to be trusted.
“Why here?” They had not only ended up doing the dirty but had snuck into Gabe’s childhood bedroom. She had vague recollection of lots of giggling and shushing. Discarding of clothes had followed, again much giggling and shushing, and then the up close and personal part.
And, wow! She needed to take some time and dwell on those memories, because along with his still-killer body, Gabe Crowe had skills, of the multiple sort.
Gabe wriggled to his back. “It was the closest place.”
“Okay.” Which meant she was currently in Dot Crowe’s house, and she would be doing the walk of shame through Dot Crowe’s house.
Dot Crowe, mother of Gabe of the wicked skills, and also mother of police chief, Ben Crowe. In addition, community pillar, all round great lady and president of the Twin Elks Prayer Chain.
Kelly couldn’t put it off any longer and wriggled around to her other side and faced him.
Gabe’s grin was unadulterated wicked, and his voice a rough, slightly thrilling rasp as he said, “Do we need to talk about this?”
“I really would rather not.” Sweet tortoise tits, she couldn’t say how much she didn’t want a rehash. But she was beginning to get an inkling of how she’d ended up there. “Let’s chalk it up to the Jack Daniels.”
“Works for me.” Gabe rubbed his palms over his face. His short dark hair stood up like someone—ahem—had been digging her fingers in it. Dark morning stubble covered the sharp line of his jaw in a perfect nature-made contour that highlighted killer cheekbones.
Don’t get her started on the body, because no girl was prepared for that. You saw this sort of pretty in magazines, sat in darkened movie theaters and watched it flit across the screen, binge watched Netflix in the hope of more, but you knew it wasn’t real. Men who looked like that came courtesy of photoshop, body contouring and excellent lighting.
And then Gabe Crowe kissed you at Lookout Point, you let events take their course and your theory evaporated. Perfect was real and lay in bed next to you with a sheet artfully draped low over his hips.
It was such a pity she had nobody to high-five right then. She’d tapped that, and Kelly felt sure in the annals of girls who scored above their league, this had to rate a perfect ten.
There was also the not insignificant matter of getting out of Dot’s house without anyone—specifically Dot and Ben—being any wiser.
Gabe turned and looked at her, a smile teasing his mouth. “Kelly Ashton, can I say that was a great night?”
“You may.” An answering smile met his, because it had been a better than great night. “And then we will agree never to speak of it again.”
“But I can think of it, right?” He tangled a hand in the hair at her nape and brought her in for a kiss. “Last night filled up the spank bank for a while.”
“Ugh.” She only pretended to push him away, but men who made you laugh got you every time. You laughed and laughed and then you were naked, begging God for the O and demanding they give it to you harder. “You’re a pig.”
“Last night was fun, Kelly.” He pressed his beautiful mouth to hers. Flashes of hotter, needier kisses followed the lip to lip connection. Kisses that made her senses blaze and erased good sense.
Kelly pulled out of the kiss before she lost all hope of escaping before Dot woke up. “It was, but you’re not going to get weird on me about it are you?”
“You know.” She edged away from him and pulled the sheet with her. “Begging me to have your babies. Locking yourself up in a monastery because you know you’ll never have it that good again.”
Gabe chuckled and sat up, making no effort to hide his nakedness, exposed as he was by her hogging the bedding. “I can’t make you any promises.”
“Try.” She unearthed her panties and spotted her jeans nearby. She shoved her panties into the back pocket. Keeping the sheet in place—because no way was she letting perfect Gabe clock the jiggly bits in daylight—she wriggled into her jeans. “I’m not even sure how I ended up here.”
“Well.” Gabe stood and stretched. A ridiculously beautiful snapshot of muscle, sinew, tanned skin and male lickability.
And she stood there with her bra in her hand with no idea what to do with it.
“It started with you saying how long it had been since you’d had sex.” He dug up her shirt and handed it to her. “And then I confessed to a distressing dry spell as well.”
Kelly got her bra on and pulled her shirt over her head. “You and the girlfriend not getting along, right?”
“Ex.” He pulled his jeans on and fastened them. “She dumped my ass.”
What a pity to cover all that. “You deserved it.”
“You said that last night as well.” He pulled a face at her. “I don’t think you appreciated the finer points of our breakup.”
“Nope.” Kelly hauled her socks on. Before she and Gabe had got to the more fun part, they’d spent a lot of the night talking and getting to know each other. “She wants more; you don’t. She said fish or cut bait. You didn’t fish. She cut bait.”
He flinched but disappeared inside his shirt as he pulled it over his head. “I’m sure there was more to it than that.”
“Your career.” Kelly pulled on her boots. Even now, and after last night, she was surprisingly comfortable with him. “You work for her father, and he’s not very happy with you right now.”
“Yeah, there is that.” Gabe looked suddenly vulnerable.
It was him looking like that, like his world had come crashing down on him, that had led to the cuddling, the confessions about dry periods, the kissing, and then the stuff she didn’t have time to dwell on, but planned to replay in detail later. “Right.” She stood and faced him. “Time to get me out of here. Secretly.”
Gabe snuck to the door and cracked it open. He peered into the dark hallway. “All clear. I’m sure Ma is still sleeping.”
And how old were they exactly? “She better be.”
Kelly crept down the hall behind him, wincing at every tiny noise they made, holding her breath.
They reached the kitchen door and Gabe opened it a crack and peeped inside. He motioned her forward with a smug smile. “All clear.”
Yes! Kelly did a mental fist pump and slid into the kitchen. She’d been there countless times when she hadn’t spent the night doing the nasty with one of Dot’s boys. Then again, Dot had five seriously yummy boys, so she couldn’t have been the first girl to sneak out.
“Well hello, Kelly.” Big grin on her face, hair as always a wild gray tangle, Dot bustled into the kitchen. “Coffee?”
“Ergh!” Kelly tried to back into the hallway and smacked into a hard body.
“Steady there.” Ben Crowe took her by the shoulders and shifted her to the side. “Nervous, Kelly?”
He stood beside Dot, and they both grinned at her.
Gabe groaned and threw himself against the wall. He covered his face with his hands. “Have you been waiting?”
“Not so much waiting as being available to the opportunity.” Dot grinned at them and straightened her Chief’s Momsweatshirt. “And now that you’re well and truly busted, would you like some breakfast?”
“Umm…” What she really wanted was to get the hell out of there, crawl under her bed and stay there for the next thirty years or so.
Ben poured himself a cup of coffee and leaned his hips on the kitchen counter. With dark hair and eyes, tall and broad, Ben and Gabe carried an obvious genetic stamp. “Don’t tell me you’re going use my brother and discard him?”
“You dick!” Gabe, the idiot, had his hands on his knees as he continued laughing. “You may as well stay to breakfast.”
“Oh God.” She hung her head and willed the earth to open up and swallow her.
“Good.” Dot rubbed her hands together. “Gabe, can you get me my pancake bowl?”
Kelly stopped fighting the inevitable and took a seat at the kitchen table. “This is so embarrassing.”
“Really, dear?” Dot gave her a saccharine smile that put Kelly on her guard. “But probably not nearly as embarrassing as being woken up by your son and his…er…friend.” She tutted and shook her head. “One of you is a screamer.”
Kelly dropped her head on the table. “Please make it stop.”
“Exactly what I said at about three a.m.” Dot snort laughed.
And Gabe groaned, took the seat next to her, and threw her a sheepish look. “Sorry about this.”
“Oh, come on.” Dot threw her hands in the air. “How old are you two? It happens.” She shrugged, and then her grin turned evil. “But I’m glad to hear you inherited some of your father’s best qualities, Gabriel.”
Ben shuddered and looked green.
Gabe looked ill.
“Now, Kelly.” She banged around putting frying pans on the stove. “What month do you fancy for the wedding?”
Once she gave in to the inevitable, Kelly enjoyed breakfast with the three Crowes.
Ben had popped in on his way to work. Recently married to her best friend, Poppy, Ben Crowe was one of the good guys. He even dropped into his mother’s house every day or so to make sure she was okay.
After breakfast, Gabe walked her out. Dead leaves crunched under their feet.
“Well.” Kelly tugged her coat around her. “Thanks for a lovely evening.”
Gabe threw his head back and laughed. It was a great look on him. “You’re welcome.” He tugged her closer to him. “I really did have a great time, Kelly.”
“Are you getting soppy on me?” Last night had been fun, but it was over, and they both had lives to get back to. Hers included finding a way to turn back the clock on her relationship with Vince.
Vince! She should have been thinking of him, not rolling around the sheets with Gabe.
“Never.” Gabe chuckled. “We good to leave things here?”
“Perfect.” Kelly rose on her toes and kissed his cheek. “It was fun, but it stops here.”
“Agreed.” Gabe’s gaze drifted to her mouth and lingered for a heart-stopping moment. He sighed. “It sure was fun.”
Gabe walked back into the kitchen and only Ben was still there. “Ma gone?”
“To get dressed.” Ben nodded and carried on reading the Twin Elks Crier.
Taking the seat opposite Ben, Gabe sipped his coffee. Only a year separated him and Ben, but they had never been close. Maybe because as kids they’d competed for everything. At school Gabe had been way ahead of Ben, but Ben had been better at all things sports. Now they didn’t seem to have that much in common.
“The thing with Kelly.” Ben kept his eyes on the paper. “It going anywhere?”
Not that it was any of Ben’s business, but Gabe suppressed the childish knee jerk to say so. “No.”
“She good with that?”
“Yup.” It would be easier not to react like a kid if Ben didn’t insist on going all big brother on him. At thirty-five and thirty-four, they were past that shit.
Ben turned the page and smoothed it down. “She and Vince have a shot.”
Glancing up, Ben raised a brow then returned to his paper.
The familiar itch started beneath Gabe’s skin. Sitting in Twin Elks watching his brother read the paper was time out of his life he wasn’t getting back. He needed to shower and get on with his day. “I’ll see you around.”
“Gabe.” Ben stopped him as he got to the kitchen door. “I know I don’t need to say this, but Ma doesn’t need you bringing your hookups here.”
No, Ben didn’t need to say it, but he had anyway. “Right.”
“Any idea how long you’re staying in town?” Ben put his paper aside and stood.
By the set of Ben’s jaw, Gabe knew to brace for it. “Nope. That will depend on what happens in the next couple of weeks.”
Ben kept that heavy stare bent in his direction.
“I have a couple of feelers out about new positions. The thing in Australia is not totally dead, so I still have to hear on that.”
Nodding, Ben shoved his hands in his pockets. “Ever think about staying?”
“Here?” Gabe almost laughed, but Ben’s serious expression stopped him. “You asking for you or for Ma?”
“Both of us.”
That rocked Gabe back.
Ben said, “You know Ma misses you. She misses all of you.”
Gabe nodded. He did know that. All of them knew that. Not that Ma ever nagged about it. She was a great mother for boys, always giving you room you needed to do you. “Twin Elks is not for me.” He didn’t want to disparage the place Ben loved and made his life in. “And there’s nothing for me to do here anyway.” Gabe tried to lighten the mood. “Unless the ocean has suddenly made its way up here.”
“You could do other stuff,” Ben said.
He was serious, too, and Gabe was missing something. They didn’t hate each other, but it wasn’t like he and Ben needed to spend more time together. “I don’t want to do other stuff. I like what I do.”
“I get that.” Ben’s jaw clenched, and his eyes flashed a warning that Gabe recognized well. They were about to get into it. “But maybe what you want isn’t all there is.”
“Like what else?” Gabe glared right back. If Ben wanted to throw down, he would meet him there.
“Like leaving me to take care of Ma,” Ben said. “Taking no responsibility.”
“Are you kidding me?” Since he’d been back, Gabe had been waiting for Ben to bring that up. Ben liked to shine up his armor and dazzle you with it. “You chose to stay here. Nobody made you. Certainly not Ma.”
Ben stilled and stuck his chin out. “So that makes it okay to dump this all on me?”
“Nobody’s dumping anything on you. And Ma is hardly a burden. She gets on with her own shit.” Fear snaked through him. “Unless there is something you’re not telling me. Like Ma is sick?”
“She’s fine.” Ben made a dismissive gesture. “But she’s lonely, and I’m worried now that I have other responsibilities that I can’t give her the time she needs.”
Now it made more sense. Ben’s recent marriage had brought four young kids with it. Big brother heaviness aside, Ben was not being an asshole. “What about Luke? Or Mark? Mark won’t play hockey forever. And sooner or later, Rafe is going to get tired of working all over the world.”
Ben gave him a hard stare. Finally, he nodded. “Got ya.”
“Jesus, Ben,” Gabe said. “This is not where I want to be. This place stifles me.”
Shrugging into his heavy jacket, Ben nodded. “I said I get it, Gabe.”
Frustration boiled inside Gabe as Ben opened the back door and stepped outside. Long strides eating up the walkway, Ben got to his cruiser and climbed in. Gabe wanted to follow him and make him understand why he couldn’t stay. Twin Elks had nothing to offer him. Unfortunately, if he called Luke, Mark, or Rafe they would say the same thing.
Thank God it was Sunday, the only day of the week Kelly didn’t have to open her coffee shop, Kelly’s Koffee Klatch. After getting home, she had a hot shower and pulled on yoga pants and a comfy sweater. Hangover aside, Sunday was the day for getting her chores done.
Her muscles ached from her night with Gabe. It had been a spectacular end to her dry spell, but she had waited all that time for another chance with Vince, and she was going to take it.
She cleaned her condo before heading off to Grover’s for her weekly groceries. Despite the big shiny Walmart on the edge of town, most people still bought their groceries at Grover’s. As a small business owner herself, Kelly supported other small businesses.
Inside the door of Grover’s hung a selection of large information boards, the second reason for her trip to the store. When she had first come to town and opened her coffee shop, the long hours had been out of necessity. She couldn’t afford help. Now, with the coffee shop doing better than ever, she wanted someone to come in during her busy times, help out with the early mornings and give her the flexibility to extend hours.
On the Help Wanted section of the boards, she pinned her advertisement.
“Hey, Kelly.” Mia Grover hung over her shoulder and peered at her ad. “Are you looking for someone?”
“Yeah.” Mia would be perfect for her, but she already worked at her family’s store. “Do you know anyone?”
“I’ll ask around. A lot of us seniors are looking for something.” That Mia was a senior made Kelly feel old.
Mia was blossoming into a young woman, and a pretty one. Her big brown eyes dominated her delicate features. With her braces off, she had a big, beautiful smile that drew attention. Her little girl shape had filled into womanly curves, and Kelly wished Bart luck with keeping the boys at bay.
Not that there was much scope for trouble in Twin Elks. It was part of the reason so many younger people left town. Although lately, there seemed to be an influx of newcomers, like the lanky teen boy currently giving Mia the chin jerk.
“Hey, Parker.” Mia gave him an eyelash flutter.
Going red to his hairline, Parker tripped into Grover’s.
“Friend of yours?” Kelly couldn’t resist teasing Mia.
Mia shrugged. “He goes to my school. His family moved here about a month ago.”
“I think he likes you.”
“Parker?” Mia scoffed. “He’s too young for me. I’m into older men.”
So Kelly had heard. According to Claire Winters, Mia had a thumping crush on Claire’s man, Finn Williams. Mia was heading for disappointment that way. Not only was Finn way, way too old for her, he was also totally gone on Claire. “I wouldn’t rule out younger men too fast,” she said.
Chelsea Finster nee Greerly—Vince’s ex-wife, still Kelly’s longtime enemy—walked by pushing a shopping cart of bagged groceries.
Chelsea caught sight of her and stiffened. “Kelly.”
Chelsea and Vince’s daughter and Mia greeted each other.
Kelly was locked in a stare down with Chelsea, like they’d done since high school, and both of them would be damned before either backed down.
Chelsea swept past her and into the parking lot. She and her daughter loaded groceries into a top of the line SUV, which Vince must have paid for because Chelsea didn’t work.
“God, I hate her,” Mia whispered.
Kelly kept her gaze locked on Chelsea’s recently red hair and hot pink, bedazzled skinny jeans. “Me too.”
The rest of Kelly’s day passed uneventfully. She tidied her condo, did her laundry, and like an upstanding citizen, went to bed at a decent hour, the sex siren from the night before safely tucked away deep inside her.
Kelly jerked awake to someone banging on her door. Being woken in the middle of the night never meant anything good, and for a moment, she wondered if it was her sins of the night before coming to get her.
Scrabbling for her phone, she knocked it off the bedside table, and then lunged after it. Goddammit! It was three a.m., and she had to be up in two hours.
“Shit!” She tumbled out of bed in an inelegant heap to the hardwood floor. Crawling in the direction of the noise, she yelled, “I’m coming.”
The banger didn’t give a crap and kept right on pounding. “Kelly!”
“India?” Heart in her throat, and hurrying, Kelly flung open the door. “What’s happened?”
India stood on her doorstep, a sleeping Jacob clutched in her arms, tears making mascara rivulets down her cheeks. “I need to come in.”
“Are you okay? Is it Piers? Are you sick?” Kelly had a million questions, and they all fought to come out of her mouth at the same time. “Oh my God, is it baby boy?”
“No.” India shook her head. Her cloud of silvery-blond hair looked disheveled. Even as a kid India had always had perfect hair. “Jacob’s fine.” India stroked her baby’s back. “Is there somewhere I can put him down?”
“Yeah. In my room.”
India knew the way and Kelly trailed her. Surrounding him with pillows, India laid Jacob on Kelly’s bed.
Bad feeling blossoming by the passing second, Kelly waited until they were back in her open-plan living space before she turned a light on in the kitchen.
India reeled and blinked. She tried to duck out of the light but not fast enough.
“India!” Kelly cupped India’s chin and turned her face to the light. A large purple bruise marred the delicate line of her cheekbone. Another one swelled India’s jaw. Four finger-shaped bruises stood out against the pale, slim line of her throat. “Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”
Tears tracked down India’s cheeks. “Please don’t be mad at me.”
“India.” That her sister would even think that hit Kelly like a truck. “I’m not mad at you. How could I be mad at you?”
“For this.” Sobs made India’s words garbled. “For not telling you. For all of it.”
“Sweetheart.” Kelly put her arm around her sister’s shoulders and led her to the sofa. “What happened? Who did this?”
“It’s not as bad as it looks.” India winced as she sat.
Kelly wasn’t having any of it, but she kept her tone gentle. “Where else?”
“Kelly, you’re overreacting.”
Like hell she was. India had arrived in the dead of night, with nothing but her baby and proof that somebody had been using her as a punching bag. “Who did this?”
India shivered and cried harder. At that rate, she’d make herself ill.
Holding her and rocking her, Kelly fought to keep it under control. Unadulterated rage surged through her, fighting to escape in a primal bellow. Some dead man had hurt her India, and only one name came immediately to mind. “Is it—” She wanted so much to be wrong. “Did Piers do this?”
“Kelly.” India’s slight form shook with the strength of her emotion. “He’s changed. He’s not the same man I married. He gets so angry.”
Kelly breathed deep. She needed to be smart. Think things through. “I’m calling Ben.”
“No.” India reached for Kelly’s phone. “You can’t do that.”
“I’m doing it, India.” Kelly hit Poppy’s number. India needed her to stay calm. Proof. They needed proof that Piers had assaulted India, and while the marks were still all over her body.
As a mother of four, Poppy was used to being woken, and she answered promptly. “Kelly?”
“Hey, Poppy.” Her throat tightened. “I need Ben.”
“Now?” Concern colored Poppy’s tone. “Has something happened? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine.” She was far from fine. “But India needs him.”
“Yup. My little sister.”
“Just a minute.” Muffled sounds came from Poppy’s phone, and then she was back on the line. “We’re on our way.”
“Poppy, you can’t—”
“Finn and Claire are here, and so is Horace. They can keep an eye on the children,” Poppy said in the same voice she used to stop her son Ryan dead in his tracks and turn around whatever mission he had going on in his six-year-old head. “You’re my friend, and I’m coming.”
India stood blinking at her, chewing on her bottom lip. “I wish you hadn’t done that. I don’t want everyone in Twin Elks talking about this.”
“India.” Kelly found a gentle tone. Her sister was so vulnerable, and she needed to take care of her. “You can trust Ben and Poppy. And Ben is police chief, he’s going to need to know.”
India paled. “Why?”
“Sweetheart.” Kelly kept it calm and gentle, but the question shook her. “Nobody has the right to do this to you.”
“I know that.” India chewed her lip. “I do know that. It’s just—the police?”
“You could be in danger,” Kelly said. The raging part of her wanted Piers to arrive on her doorstep. She’d show him what happened to bastards who hurt her sister. “You and Jacob could be in danger.”
Nodding, India subsided into silence. She finally calmed enough to wipe her face and blow her nose. “You’re right. I need to do something about him.”
“Ben won’t be long.” At least Kelly hoped not.
To keep herself busy, Kelly put the kettle on. What the hell, a cup of tea couldn’t hurt. “Has this happened before?”
Please say no. Please say no.
India shivered and folded her arms around her torso. She’d always been slim, but she’d lost weight since Kelly had seen her last Christmas. Had it really been that long?
“Piers has always had a temper, but it’s never been this bad before. And he’s never gotten angry with Jacob before.”
Even as she’d prayed for a different answer, Kelly wasn’t naive enough to believe she would get one. “Did he hurt Jacob?”
India shook her head. She was shivering like a stray dog. “No. He got angry at him, but I…didn’t let him touch my baby.”
How could Kelly not have seen any of that before? Okay, Piers gave off a possessive vibe and could be controlling, but that…
Fetching a throw from the back of her couch, Kelly sifted through the months since last Christmas. She’d spoken to India on the phone but hadn’t seen her.
That meant Jacob was almost a year old now, because he’d been born last November. Kelly had shut her business for a couple of weeks over Christmas and driven up to see them in their beautiful home outside Denver.
Come to think of it, India had tried to delay her visit with excuses about how she didn’t have time to give to Kelly with the new baby and all. Had Piers been behind that? Given this new development, she had to believe he had been.
Isolation. The first step in an abusive relationship. Separate the victim from anyone who could or would help them.
Kelly wrapped the throw around her sister’s shivering shoulders and rubbed her back. “You’re safe now, Indy. I’m going to make sure of it.”
Somewhere in heaven, Gram was shaking her head. The one thing she’d asked of Kelly before she died was to look after India. Christ on a cracker, she’d done a super job of that.
A soft knock on the door ended her foray into self-flagellation. Good thing too, because that was not going to help India either.
Ben and Poppy stood in her doorway, both of them dressed in jeans and jerseys and looking like they’d not long since tumbled out of bed.
“Kelly.” Ben had his police chief voice on. The one that said he was there and he had this.
Poppy provided the much-needed quick hug. Poppy had arrived in Twin Elks this past summer and she was already Kelly’s closest friend. The pint-size pretty brunette was a hundred kinds of sweet and quirky and had won the entire town over.
Ben slipped past her into the condo. He approached India slowly and sat at one of the counter stools near her. “India.”
India tried to hide her face again, hunching her skinny shoulders up to her ears. “Hi, Ben. Sorry to wake you up.”
“That’s okay.” Ben gentled his tone and folded his hands on the counter. “I see Kelly put the kettle on. Maybe we can have some tea, or coffee, and chat.”
Taking the hint, Kelly got with making coffee. At her coffee shop, she had all the fancy machines, but at home she used a simple French press. Her business also meant she knew how everyone took their coffee.
Her hands shook as she added grounds to the press, scattering coffee over the countertop.
Poppy nudged her out of the way. “Go and sit. I’ll make the coffee.”
Kelly didn’t know if she could sit still, but now that Ben was there, she relaxed. Ben would know what to do, how to handle the situation.
“Piers do that?” Ben gave India’s face a pointed look.
Swallowing and hunching her shoulders again, India nodded.
India had always been timid and shy, but now she seemed terrified.
Ben simply nodded. “How did you get away?”
Damn, Kelly hadn’t even thought to ask that.
“He’s not there.” India cleared her throat. “He went on a business trip, after…” She gestured her face. “I waited until I knew his flight had taken off, and I got in my car with Jacob.”
“Well done.” Ben’s tone conveyed his approval. “That was an incredibly brave thing to do.”
India sobbed, caught the sob on a small choked noise and shook her head. “I’m not brave. I stayed there. I stayed there and let him do this to me. He almost hurt my baby because of me.”
“Sweetheart.” Ben loaded the endearment with so much empathy it made Kelly tear up. “That’s not how these things work. If it was as simple as walking out, this would never happen to anyone.”
Poppy’s big brown eyes held all the anger and grief that Kelly felt. She gave Kelly’s hand a squeeze and returned to making coffee.
Kelly said, “She said he got angry with Jacob. India’s baby.”
Ben glanced at her and then turned all his attention back to India. “Is that true? Is that what made you leave?”
India nodded. “I couldn’t let him hurt Jacob.”
“You did the right thing, India,” Ben said. “You saved your little boy.”
Silent tears streaked down India’s cheeks. “I thought it was only me. I was the only one who made him so angry all the time. I didn’t think he could be angry with Jacob. He loves Jacob.”
Kelly couldn’t stand it anymore. She gathered India in her arms and held her. Over India’s head she looked at Ben. “What do we do?”
“First, we need to document the abuse.” He indicated India. “I think she’d be more comfortable if you helped her with that.”
“What does that mean?” India stared at Ben in horror.
“Photographs.” Kelly tightened her hold. “I need to take photos of your bruises. All of them.”
Ben had his cell out. “I’m going to ring Doc to come and examine you,” he said. “Unless you want to go to a hospital?”
“No.” India shook her head. “I don’t want all those people to see me. Why does Doc have to come?”
“Proof,” Ben said. “And we also need to be sure he hasn’t done more lasting damage.”
The night was like a nightmare, and she wanted to go back to sleeping off her night with Gabe. She wanted to wake up and find it was all a bad dream.
Except India needed her. She’d failed to be there for her sister. Kelly couldn’t let her down again. “Let Ben call Doc. Then we can take it from there.”
For a long moment, India stood there, still shaking and looking like she might refuse. And then she said, “All right.”
Poppy handed out coffee to everyone.
Kelly helped India to her couch, rewrapped her in the throw and placed her coffee on the table in front of her.
Staring at it, India made no move to take the cup.
Kelly approached Ben and kept her voice low. “What happens now?”
“We document the abuse and get Doc to verify it,” Ben said. “We don’t want the son of a bitch coming back and saying it wasn’t him or the pictures aren’t real. It would be better if we could do this in a hospital setting, but I think she’s been through enough for one night.”
“Yeah.” Kelly nodded.
India looked like she might crumble at any moment.
Ben sipped his coffee and gave her a level stare. “If there’s one good thing about this, it’s that it happened in Colorado.”
“What do you mean?” Kelly didn’t see any good.
“Colorado has some of the most stringent laws against domestic assault. We’re a mandatory arrest state.” Ben glanced at India. “All I need is probable cause to arrest that prick, and I’ve got it.”
Savage satisfaction surged through Kelly. “India doesn’t need to press charges?”
“Nope.” Ben’s gaze met hers, and she saw the same raw emotion in his eyes. “When I see him, I arrest him.”
“Arrest him?” India paled even more. “You mean put him in jail? I’m not sure I want him arrested.”
“India, it’s the law.” Ben kept his tone gentle, but firm. “I have no choice now but to arrest him.” He crouched at her feet. “If you’re scared, I also need to let you know that as of right now, a mandatory restraining order is in place. He can’t come near you without risking a secondary charge.”
India pushed her hair back with a shaking hand. “What if I change my mind?”
It would be a cold day in hell before Kelly let that happen.
“It doesn’t matter.” Ben shook his head. “Piers is going to pay for what he’s done.”