|Releasing May 20th|
Someone is watching her…
Shannon Fabray’s career in the art world is on the rise thanks in no small part to her signature sculpture Her Marine. But with fame, comes fans and some like to get closer than others. Coping with the notoriety, Shannon doesn’t let the constant contact get under her skin until one night, it goes to far and to Shannon’s horror, one of them is making it very clear he wants the artist for himself and sees her as a possession that should be added to his collection.
He’s coming home…
After dozen years in service to his country, Lieutenant Brody Essex has lost count of the missions he’s run, the hours he’s spent in the field and the number of days he’s been out of the country. Budgetary issues freeze his promotion, and his unit is left on the ground in Afghanistan, but he makes it work because the only countdown that matters to him is the one that will bring him home—home to the artist that carved a niche in his heart. When bureaucratic snafus hold up his paperwork, he sucks it up until a phone call alerts him that Shannon’s loft has been broken into, and she was nearly kidnapped.
Breaking all the rules…
Now Brody will break the rules and go AWOL, heading home without permission because his girl is in danger and she needs her Marine bodyguard…
Read the first chapter after the jump!
Three weeks earlier….
“I told you that you were going to be a hit.” Liam Gardiner put a hand to the open elevator doors, holding them and allowing Shannon Fabray to precede him.
She glanced at her host and laughed. “Yes, you did, and thank you for saying I told you so.”
After sliding his hands into the pockets of his slacks, he walked with her toward her room. Though he’d initially invited her to stay at his townhouse, she’d declined. Most men made her uncomfortable, and though she’d gotten to know Liam better over the last several months and knew without a shred of doubt that he was no threat to her physically or romantically, she’d preferred the privacy of the hotel. It made her more comfortable.
Like her, Liam waited for his Marine to come home. “How is Brenden?” she asked.
“He’s good. Always has a new story when he calls. I didn’t realize how interesting Embassy duty could be.” A hint of a smile softened Liam’s mouth. Vice-president of a local bank, Liam possessed a quiet, determined charm and impeccable taste. He’d been passionate about advocating her show, helping her with the venue negotiations, facilitating arrangements from the backers to the show itself, and finally escorting her tonight.
“And how long ’til Brody is home?”
They had a pact, the two of them, for mutual support and general bitching as needed—Liam’s words, not hers.
“Soon, I think.” Excitement bubbled in her stomach. “He’s due to be back in North Carolina anytime now, I just don’t know exactly when. Apparently, dates are flexible when it comes to PCSing from combat to relief—or however that goes.” She still didn’t get all of the military terminology, despite all her lessons over the last two years.
Two years. It made her head spin. Two years since she’d met Brody and more than a year since she’d gone to Italy and met him for a long, fabulous week. Both seemed like a lifetime before.
At her room, Liam gave her a quizzical look. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she covered and dug her room key out of her purse. “Tired.” Worried about everything. “Thank you for tonight, really—it meant the world to me.”
“You’re very welcome, just wait and see, you’re going to be a huge hit. I bet you’ll be swimming in orders by tomorrow.”
Laughing at his optimism, she inserted the room key and waited for the lock to flash from red to green before she pushed the door open. One moment she leaned her weight on the door, half-turned to bid Liam a good night and the next she fell as the door yanked wide open. Stars burst when her head collided with the wall. A foot caught her in the shoulder and she bit off a scream at the fresh bruise of pain.
Liam shouted and she struggled to sit up, wincing as the door slammed into her shoulder. Across the hall, he grappled with a man and then crashed into the wall. Masculine grunts filled the air, along with the sound of fists striking a body. Fumbling with her purse, she got out the mace, but too late—the man in black thrust away from Liam and raced down the hall.
“Shannon?” Climbing to his feet, Liam glanced in the direction the assailant fled and then hurried over to her. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth, and he braced the door to get it off of her. “Hey? You okay?”
Voices came from the other end of the hall. “Are you all right?”
“I called security.”
Raising a hand to her head, Shannon found a tender spot. She winced and let Liam pull her to her feet. Blood spotted her fingertips. More guests filled the hallway. Apparently the commotion had garnered some attention.
The expression on Liam’s face turned taut and his mouth compressed. He looked past her, and she turned to find the whole room in shambles. Drawers from the dresser had been pulled out and emptied, her clothes scattered everywhere. Her art case tipped on its side on the bed and her sketchbooks lay haphazardly.
Her pulse jackhammering, she stepped toward the destruction. He wrapped an arm around her shoulders and halted her.
“Wait,” he said and turned toward a fresh wave of voices. “Security is coming, let’s let them go in first.”
But Shannon pulled away, stepping farther into the room despite the flood of panic. Where was it? Where was her—and then she saw the gleam of silver. Her laptop sat on the floor. It looked like it had fallen off the bed. She didn’t use it for much, but she kept all her records on it.
And then security entered and they had questions, too.
It had already been late when she and Liam left the gallery opening and he’d driven her back to the hotel. Later still after the Boston police took her statement and a paramedic attended the bump on her head. Despite both the paramedic’s recommendation and Liam’s advice, she decided against going to the hospital. The police needed her to inventory the room and determine if anything had gone missing.
The hotel offered her a different room on a higher floor, with more amenities. Liam wanted her to come back to his townhouse. She elected to move hotels entirely, taking one closer to the airport since she was scheduled to fly back to Dallas the next day. To play it safe, Liam suggested registering under a a pseudonym and she was too tired to disagree.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea.” Liam passed his credit card to the bartender after he brought her a glass of white wine. He had a beer, a split lip, and what promised to be a black eye.
“It’s one glass and it will settle my nerves.” She didn’t mention her headaches or the gut-wrenching churning going on in her stomach.
“Let me buy you something to eat to go with it.” He didn’t wait for her response before he gestured to the bartender. “Sandwiches—Reubens and fries.”
Shannon took a sip of the wine and concentrated on keeping her hands steady. Anxiety attacks were not new to her. “I’m not sure that I’m hungry, Liam. And your eye looks terrible.”
The banker gave her a crooked grin and then held out his phone. “Do me a favor and take a picture.”
Setting the wine glass on the bar, she aimed the phone at him and couldn’t disguise her shaking. “Why am I taking a picture?”
“Brenden,” he said, eyeing the camera steadily until she managed to snap two photos in quick succession. “A black eye is pretty badass.”
“Badass?” Though she appreciated his friendship, she didn’t always understand him.
“Badass,” he reaffirmed with a wry smile. He slipped the phone back into his pocket and held up his right hand. “Skinned knuckles. I did some damage of my own. Black eye says I took a punch. Bruised knuckles said I gave as good as I got. I just wish I hadn’t let the bastard get away.”
“It’s all right.” She meant that, too. “You read about people breaking into hotels all the time. I just didn’t expect it to happen to me.” Reclaiming her wine glass, she took another sip. The bartender returned with the hot sandwiches and fries.
At least she’d changed out of the evening dress. In jeans and the dark gray Marine sweatshirt, she felt safer, shielded. The change of hotels, even the pseudonym, added to her feeling of security. She and Liam said nothing, tucking into their sandwiches and she was hungrier than she realized.
The food, coupled with the wine, settled her further. “I think I owe you another thank you.”
“For?” He sat sideways after having demolished his sandwich and most of his fries.
“For insisting on escorting me back.” She hadn’t forgotten the fact she’d argued with Liam’s offer initially, not seeing the sense of him paying a valet charge just to take her upstairs.
“Don’t forget my swift defense. Though it would have been better if he hadn’t tried to trample you in the process.” With a wink, Liam gave her another crooked grin which highlighted his split lip. “But you’re welcome and when you’re ready, I’ll walk you to your room here, too. What time is your flight tomorrow?”
“Evening, after six. I thought I’d do some sightseeing, but since it’s nearly two in the morning, I think I’ll sleep and try to reorganize my sketchbook.” After her sketchbook, the most valuable thing in the room had been her laptop. She’d not brought much in the way of jewelry. What few pieces of worth she owned, she’d worn for the gallery opening. “He tore a couple of pages.” But she had all the pieces—she could put them back together.
“Sketches can be replaced. How’s your head?”
“It aches.” Grimacing, she touched a hand to the tender spot on her scalp. She hadn’t needed stitches, fortunately. Her shoulder twinged too, but she kept that information to herself.
“I’m going to get the room right next to yours and stay here at the hotel tonight.”
The offer startled her. “You don’t have to do that….”
“No, I don’t.” Liam agreed. “I’ll do it anyway. I’ve had a beer and shouldn’t drive, and if you change your mind and want to do some sightseeing—well, I’ll be here.” He motioned to the bartender then gestured at her near-empty glass. “Want another glass of wine?”
The cramping in her stomach relaxed. She blinked back an unsettling urge to cry and shook her head. “One is enough for me. But I wouldn’t mind sitting here a little longer.”
“Then we’ll sit here.” He fished out his phone and set it on the bar. At her quizzical look, he grinned. “Better to remind myself that nothing is private. The whole world is connected. While drinking, that stays where I can see it.”
She didn’t understand and probably didn’t look convinced, because he laughed.
“Nothing is sacred. Anyone can overhear. Anyone can video you and plaster it on YouTube or social media.” He shrugged. “Seeing my ‘smart’ phone helps me make smarter choices.”
“You’re a very complicated guy.” Still, she found the presence of the phone oddly comforting. A reminder of the real world and it helped to puncture the surreal bubble surrounding her since they’d had the bad luck to interrupt someone trying to rob her hotel room.
The bartender returned with Liam’s fresh beer. When Liam held it up, she raised her wine glass. “What are we toasting?”
“New beginnings. I guarantee you that the gallery showing tonight is not going to be your last.”
Shannon hesitated before taking another sip. “That kind of feels like jinxing myself.”
“Then I’ll drink to it, and when it all happens, I can say I told you so.” The smug tease in his tone amused her. “Watch me. I told you so about this and it only took me six months to convince you to say yes to this show.”
Her face warmed, because he wasn’t wrong. Maybe because of the circumstances of the evening, maybe because they’d actually become friends over the last few months—or maybe she simply missed Brody. Their last Skype call had been limited and Brody had warned her he could be in and out of touch until he returned to the States.
Blinking, she smiled apologetically. “Sorry, I was thinking…anyway…yes, you did tell me that it would be successful.”
“But?” He prompted, eyebrows raised.
“But, I’m not cut out for this type of thing.”
“What type of thing?” Liam frowned.
“Traveling, appearing…talking about my work.” God, she wished she’d already flown home and sat in her studio rather than in this hotel. Draining her wine, she put the glass on the bar. She wished Brody were home more—and even that left her stomach knotting. What if his coming home didn’t turn out the way she hoped? The way we hope. Does he share the same hopes?
A hand came to rest atop hers and squeezed gently. “You’re overthinking all of this. It’s late, you’re tired and it’s been stressful day. You don’t have to think you’re going to be fabulous—I can do all of that for you.”
Another laugh broke free and it sounded an awful lot like a sob, so she swallowed the sound and tugged away from his grasp. Bracing her palm over her mouth, she tried to stifle her seesawing emotions.
“I’m sorry,” she whispered.
“No apologies required.” Always a gentleman, Liam pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket. “Remember, I know fabulous when I see it.”
Accepting the pressed linen, she dabbed at her eyes and gave him a curious look. “Do I dare ask why?”
“Of course you can ask why.” His crooked grin deepened, but so did the kindness in his eyes. “I’m fabulous. Just ask anyone—even better, ask Brenden. He’s known my fabulousness for years.”
This time when Shannon laughed, the emotion felt real.
Two days later….
Fortunately, the rest of her visit went pleasantly. Liam managed to lure her back out of the hotel for a few hours to return to the gallery. He’d made a game of it and they’d gone incognito so Shannon could see how visitors were enjoying her work. With a hat to hide her hair and at Liam’s snarky assistance, she found viewing others while they viewed her work far more comfortable than she’d imagined.
Her agent called three times, each with a higher offer for Her Marine, the centerpiece of her gallery exhibit. No matter how often she’d told Henry she had no interest in selling the work, he continued to call her with the latest offers. He described it as motivational and since the most recent one had climbed to six figures—he’d started to lean in favor of the buyers.
She relaxed while the cab weaved through heavy, late-afternoon traffic. Afternoon temperatures were expected to be in the 90s. Unlike most of the nation, Texas hadn’t suffered through a brutal winter, and spring had segued to summer without pausing to take a breath.
The closer to her converted loft she got, the better she felt. Traveling wasn’t easy for her—another symptom of old fears better to be forgotten. She’d made huge strides in the last two years. Brody never gave her a grief about the panic attacks, though those had grown fewer and further between. All she had to do was think about him when things grew tough and the tension winding through her would ease.
At least the headache the bump on the head had earned her hadn’t followed her home. A couple of ibuprofen and a Xanax before her flight and she’d been back to normal. The cab slowed, turned the last corner for her place, and eagerness threaded through her veins.
She wanted to repair the damage to her sketches, review the ideas she had under consideration, and then get to work. If she immersed herself in a project, she could stop wondering when she’d hear from Brody. He’s okay. Not hearing doesn’t mean bad news. They’d gone as long as twelve weeks between contacts, but Brody warned her whenever those lags might occur.
The driver parked in front of her building. “Ma’am?”
“Oh, sorry.” She glanced at the total and counted out the bills, adding a generous tip. After passing the cash to him, she waited while he wrote a receipt. At least she’d remembered to get receipts on this trip. Her agent and her accountant had both reminded her regularly to keep track of her expenses.
Five minutes later, she had the main door unlocked and set her case inside. The best part of her loft was the private entrance and steel security door. Her mail had accumulated inside, so she left the suitcase and scooped all of the envelopes up to carry with her. The main floor sat empty, waiting to be converted into a gallery later. She had a basket elevator to access the upstairs where she lived and housed her studio. The main room of her place included one large work area with plastic sheeting draping half the tables while the others featured smaller practice pieces.
Dumping the mail on the kitchen table, she passed by her work area to say hi to all her guys. Though Her Marine remained her most popular work, she’d shied away from doing other military pieces—at least publicly. Six pieces sat on the workbench and she studied each one…they were all men she’d met thanks to Brody.
A lean, broad-shouldered Marine stood with his arms folded and a remote expression on his face. The face proved the hardest to capture, scarring had left its mark on his left cheek. It was close, but in miniature, very hard to detail the nuances. And while Logan scared the hell out of her, he hadn’t been remotely unkind.
Bypassing that work, she went to the next one. The young man stood solemnly, staring down at the dog next to his feet. Squatting, Shannon considered the pair. It had taken her three attempts to get the dog correct and she still didn’t think she’d done Jethro any favors. She’s wanted to capture the beautiful Labrador with his soulful eyes and the sense of his playfulness.
The next two statues were more straightforward. Zach Evans had beautiful bone structure—and frankly too pretty to ever be a Marine. But what did she know? The photograph she’d worked from featured him smiling at his wife. His smile, like Logan’s before him, still didn’t seem quite right. She hadn’t quite mastered the tenderness in it.
Damon was the fourth statue, and she’d done him up in the chef hat and all. She’d used photos from the Mike’s Place brochure and their advertising materials. Rebecca Dexter had even sent her a couple of larger photos when Shannon asked about them. Fortunately, Rebecca hadn’t asked why she’d needed them except to say when she had the room in her schedule, Rebecca wanted a commission of Luke.
That piece sat waiting for her—unfinished as it was. Rebecca had provided a photo of a younger Luke in his full dress blues and another of him on his wedding day. She wanted something like the composition of Her Marine, only without the nudity. The difference in the figures, posed back to back, struck her immediately. The rigidity of the man in uniform and his taciturn expression suggested he was every bit the weapon, but the man in the suit showed a gentler side; careworn, and aged…but no one could mistake the laughter.
That piece was the best so far, but would take the longest to finalize as a life-sized sculpture. The sixth and final one had been the last one she’d completed before having to halt everything to get ready for Boston. A special request, the nude figure wore prosthetics from the knee down on both legs. It would face another mirror, as she’d done with Her Marine, only in that one, he would be in his uniform.
The Marine in question, Ryan “Rebel” Brun, had saved Brody’s life. She’d met him on a handful of occasions, at Brody’s request, and she’d never forgotten the man’s spirit and determination. Brody thought the world of Rebel, and he’d told her about the incident in a very quiet, calm voice.
She’d had nightmares for weeks after, nightmares she’d kept to herself. If Brody could be strong telling her, and Rebel so strong in his recovery, what excuse did she have? Even sculpting the work piece had brought the nightmares back.
This one…. It had to be this one that she worked on next. She wanted to chase away the bad dreams before he came home. Decided, she left the worktable and headed for her bedroom. Stripping off her travel clothes, she’d barely pulled on one of her favorite work T-shirts when the landline rang. Only a few people had the studio number. Probably Liam making sure she’d arrived home all right. She’d texted him when the plane landed at DFW, but he turned out to be such a mother hen.
“Hello?” When there was no immediate reply, save for the sound of an open connection, she tried again. “Hello?”
Sometimes calls didn’t connect all the way through. “Hello? If you’re there, and you can hear me, I can’t hear you.” It had happened a few times over the last couple of months. “Okay, I’m going to hang up. Call me back.” Returning the handset to the cradle, she twisted the caller ID box around. She had a cordless phone in the other room—this was an old-style hardwire phone. It would work even in a power outage, but that meant she’d had to add a separate device to track incoming numbers.
It read caller unknown.
Damn it. What if it had been Brody? Perching on the edge of her bed, she ran her fingers through her hair and gathered it all back into a ponytail, all the while staring at the phone and practically willing it to ring again.
With regret, she abandoned her post after five minutes. He would call her back as soon as he could. Getting a bottle of water and the cordless phone, she ignored the mail and went to get her supplies together. Forget the world for a while and focus on the sculpting.
Her work—her art remained the best medicine for her.