RELEASE 26 February 2016
Cody is running from the ghosts of his past. Will Megan's love be enough for him to make a stand?
With his stalker behind bars, former boy band singer CJ Taylor is starting a new life. Heâs bought a house in a small Vermont town, and taken back the name he was born with. Two years have passed since he was last in the public eye and as Cody Brennan, heâs finally feeling safe. Desperate to find some peace, all he wants is to connect to the music in his head, write new lyrics and forget the tragedy in his past.
What he doesnât count on is meeting Megan. From her amber eyes to her tempting smile, she is everything he thought he could do without, the very thing he promised himself to avoid. But heâs thrown into her family and her life, and suddenly heâs found a place he wants to stay.
Megan Campbell is horrified when a stranger, covered in blood, collapses in her shop. When that same stranger, wild and angry, abruptly becomes someone very different, itâs not her safety she is worrying about, itâs her heart.
Meganâs first instinct is to tame the powerful attraction she has to this stranger, but very soon desire becomes something more. Between them can they find the words to make things right? And can they stay safe long enough to fall in love?
Megan Campbell stepped away from the cash register of Notes & Roses and leaned against the back counter. She put her right hand in her jeans pocket and, as carefully and unobtrusively as possible, she removed her cell phone and scrolled to Justinâs name. What should she send to her brother? Help sounded like a good start. Or possibly, thereâs a man in my shop and I think heâs drunk or stoned.
Yep, send something like that to Justin, and he would come in all guns blazing. Then heâd pin the weird guy to the floor and read him his rights. And the man currently staring at a wall didnât look dangerous, just lost. Homeless, maybe?
Something more considered then, like, there is a vagrant in here, and he needs help, what should I do? The man moved a little. Away from her side of the store, the ârosesâ part of the setup, and over to the ânotesâ side. He was peering at the shelves; a collection of stationery and household bits and pieces like cushions and local crafts. He stumbled a little, turned to the side, and looked up at the display of posters on the far wall. Landscapes of Vermont; rivers, small towns, and red high-sided barns with gently rolling hills of emerald green.
âThatâs wrong,â he said.
âSorry?â Megan asked, but he didnât reply.
Heâs talking to the wall now. Should she add that to the text as well? This was going to end up being one hell of a lot of typing to explain what he was doing. Despite how odd it all looked, the visitor wasnât threatening her. Also, Rachel would be back soon. Maybe between them they could sort this out?
He hadnât even spoken to her, but something wasnât right. Maybe it was the way heâd been standing, his hands in fists at his sides, staring now at the new Valentineâs wall display of flowers and hearts. Maybe it was the way he was dressed; dark jeans caked in mud, heavy boots that had tracked in the same mud. Not to mention the black hoodie with the hood partially hiding his face from her view.
Or maybe it was the despair in his hunched shoulders, the utter defeat in the way he had to support himself to stand.
Whatever it was, Megan was faced with two options. Talk to the strange man in her shop while she was alone in here, or call in reinforcements in case things went south.
Her visitor moved, not his feet, but his fists, unclenching and bringing his hands up to knuckle his eyes and then cover them. Meganâs cop brother liked to explain these things to her, but she didnât need his help to recognize when despair in someone turned to anger.
She sent the standard 911 text, startled when she looked up and saw the stranger had stepped closer to her while sheâd been distracted.
âWhere am I?â he asked, his voice very soft.
âYouâre in my shop.â
He shook his head. âI need the music. Someone took it, and I need it.â
Okay, this was so not going the way she wanted it to go. He was incoherent. Maybe he was homeless and needed a place to get out of the persistent snow that had plagued Stanford Creek the last few days. Heâd evidently been somewhere slushy and muddy, if his clothes were anything to go by.
âI donât understand, sir; what music do you need?â she asked, and waited for him to acknowledge her question. Instead, he took another, shaky, step forward, and covered his eyes again. âHello? Can I help you?â she repeated when he didnât look at her.
That finally got his attention. His hands came down, and she got her first clear look at his eyes and face. What she saw had her reaching to send another text. He had blood on him, smeared down from his temple into his wild beard, and his blue eyes were bright with something. Drugs maybe? Long dark hair hid some of his features, and he looked like he was about to keel over.
âWhereâs the music?â he mumbled, his voice low and urgent. He gripped his temples hard and stumbled back, knocking a display of greeting cards to the floor. The sound was a loud clatter in the otherwise quiet room. âShitâ¦ I didnâtâ¦â
âSir?â This time she was within reaching distance as he rounded on her, his lips pulled back in a snarlâor a grimace of pain, she couldnât be entirely sure. Whatever, it wasnât the look of someone who wanted to be spoken to. Time to leave. She glanced at the front door, then the fire exit. He was between her and the only possible ways out, and she was trapped. When she focused back on him, all she saw was a situation that could get out of hand. He was a good six inches taller than her five-nine, broad and built, with tattoos curling around his wrist, disappearing up under the sleeve of the hoodie.
Everything about him looked wrong. He didnât move again, or even acknowledge her; all he did was stare with bright sapphire eyes, focused on a point behind her, scary and intense and so damned fixated with his expression in that scowl.
âWhat happened?â He groaned and covered his eyes again. âCallâ¦ Zeeâ¦â
She texted without looking, only glancing at the screen briefly to make sure she was sending another text to her brother and not some random person on her list. 911. Again. The standard sibling instruction for help me right the hell now, reserved for having one of her brothers rescue her from one of her many dreadful first dates. Garrett wasnât even in town, so there was little point texting him, and Justin may not even be in the sheriffâs office. She hoped to hell he was, though, and had read her message. Sheâd know soon enough because the small sheriffâs office was close.
And still the stranger stood there, staring at her. At least he hadnât moved any closer.
He closed his eyes and wiped at the blood that was trickling down his face, looking down at his hand and staring at the red that streaked his skin. She thought she heard a sob, but couldnât be sure. Compassion welled inside her. Vagrant or not, dressed in soiled clothes and with the hood up, he didnât have to be a criminal.
âSir? Do you need help?â She held out her hand, but he stepped closer to her and damn it, she may have had self-defense training, but she wasnât stupid. If the man was hopped up on drugs, she had to stay out of reach. The door opened, and Justin stepped in, all uniform and pissed-off attitude.
âTwo 911s? This had better be good, Megs.â
Megan inclined her head to the man Justin evidently hadnât seen in his dramatic entrance. Justin could handle himself, and he had a gun; heâd know what to do.
âWhat the hell?â Justin said as he assessed the situation, his hand automatically resting on his holstered weapon.
âI think itâs drugs,â she said loud enough for Justin to hear. The man looked at Justin and then to her, before shaking his head a little.
âNo.â The voice was raspy, little more than a growl. âNot those.â He appeared to be struggling to talk, and he pressed his hands to each side of his head. âJust the music; Zee will know,â he added, but his voice slurred, and he coughed and doubled over.
Justin pulled his weapon and held it to one side, his other hand held in front of him as he stepped closer. âSir? Are you hurt?â
Megan saw her brotherâs hand on the sidearm, the other placating and suggesting and warning at the same time. Sheâd seen him stand like this when he broke up the fight at the drugstore. Not that heâd drawn his weapon then; heâd dealt with it by intimidation alone, because everyone involved lived in the town and no one messed with the sheriff. Megan looked at her brother, who teased her, whoâd hidden her dolls and pulled her pigtails as a kid, but who was now in a situation that was serious. He was all business.
âWhatâs your name, sir?â Justin asked.
The stranger stepped back from him, straight into a pile of notebooks this time. The shelf shuddered and some of the display tilted. The movement translated into Justin grabbing the manâs hoodie to stop him falling as he flailed and attempted to stay upright.
He took a swing at Justin, who ducked and swerved. The attempted hit missed Justin by a mile, and the man followed the momentum he had begun, smacked his fist against a shelf edge, and collapsed in a heap on the floor. Then he didnât move, was absolutely still. Justin holstered his weapon and crouched next to the prone form of the hooded man, checking for a pulse and then talking into his radio.
âDispatch, 390D, medical assistance required at Notes & Roses.â
Megan didnât hear the response; she came out from behind the counter and stood next to her brother. The adrenaline that had flooded her to deal with this was beginning to ebb, and she went down in the same crouch. The hood had fallen back and exposed his hair. The stranger was young; maybe the same age as her, and a long cut on his temple oozed fresh blood. Thinking on her feet, she located a clean tea towel from the small kitchen in the back and as an afterthought grabbed the first aid box. There was nothing more than Band-Aids and small bandages in it, but there may be something in there to press against the wound, something sterile.
Justin took the box and the towel and pressed the cloth against the manâs temple.
âWho is he?â Justin asked.
Megan frowned at the unconscious man. âI have no idea.â
âWhat was he doing in the shop?â
Megan glanced at her brother and resisted the urge to give him a sarcastic sister-type comeback. She needed to be professional.
âHe came in and stood in the ânotesâ side, staring at the wall.â
âAnd he didnât say anything?â
âSomething about wanting music and the letter Z. And when I asked him if he needed help, he turned and stared at me like he didnât know where he was.â
âWhat the hell, Megan? You talked to him?â
âWell, what was I supposed to do? He was a customer, and looked like he needed help.â
âWhat did I tell you about drug addicts?â Justin snapped.
âThe same as attackers, drunks, and anyone else who got anywhere near me, call you. I did that.â
The man on the floor moved, his eyes flickering open and staring up at Justin and Megan. âI donât feelâ¦â He never finished the sentence, his eyes closing again.
All Megan could think was, whoever he was, he had pretty eyes, the kind of blue that jumped out at you and screamed gorgeous. She couldnât see much of his face, covered as it was with a bushy beard and blood.
âShould we find his ID or something?â
âSOP is not to go searching in drug addictsâ pockets,â Justin said with exaggerated patience.
âYou think heâs a drug addict?â
The door chimed again, but it wasnât the paramedics yet. Instead her business partner and cousin, Rachel, stood in the door, her jaw dropped and the cold of the rain blustering in behind her.
âShut the door,â Justin and Megan said at the same time. Rachel closed the door with care, and her expression didnât change.
âWhy is there a man lying on the floor of our shop?â she managed. Then she stepped closer, staring down at John Doe, and her eyebrows climbed before she paled and grabbed hold of the nearest display. âShit, thereâs so much blood. Is he dead?â Like heâd heard her speak, the man coughed and curled in on himself on one side, muttering something, and she stumbled backward with a yelp.
âHeâs clearly not dead,â Justin said. âDrugs, head wound, we donât know yet.â Then he spoke into his radio. âDispatch, do we have an ETA on the paramedics?â
âThree minutes out.â
âIs he bleeding out?â Rachel asked, her hand on her chest and her skin pale. Megan frowned; they really should get Rachel out of here. Sheâd never liked blood, not since the incident where sheâd broken her arm in kindergarten and the bone had pierced the skin.
âNot enough blood for that,â Justin said.
âDo we know who he is?â Rachel asked. âShould we check his wallet or something? He could be here with someone?â She glanced out the shop window as if expecting the manâs friends or family to be searching for him.
âI canât look for his wallet yet,â Justin explained. âSOP with suspected addicts.â
âSOP?â Rachel half whispered as an aside.
âStandard operating procedure,â Megan whispered back. âThe guy could have needles on him.â
âWhat about the recovery position?â Rachel pointed out. âShould we at least move him?â
Justin indicated the unconscious man with a wave of his hand. âThink he already did it himself.â
Then in silence they stood and waited for the paramedics to arrive, and all that time Megan stared down at the stranger, memorizing every bump and scratch on his face. What a waste. He could be so handsome, almost pretty, with those stunning sky eyes and the plump lips. Heâd be a killer if he smiled, she thought.
âHe doesnât smell,â Rachel commented, even though she wrinkled her nose. She gestured at him. âAnd those jeans? Theyâre an expensive brand you know. So heâs probably not homeless.â
Megan didnât feel much like discussing the unconscious man. She wanted the help to get here soon.
The paramedics arrived and in a flurry of motion, they asked rapid questions of Megan, which she couldnât answer in full. âDid he have a fit? Did he choke?â She answered as best she could and hoped that was enough for them to have some idea what had happened. They checked John Doeâs vitals, hefted him onto a gurney, and left, all without the man regaining consciousness. Justin followed soon after, giving Megan a quick hug and extracting a promise from her to stay safe, and then it was Rachel and Megan alone in the shop.
Rachel looked anywhere except at the blood and Megan knew she had to get her out of the shop. âYou go up to Carterâs and get some fresh coffee.â
âYou need help,â Rachel began. She looked torn as she gestured at the floor.
âIâll clear this up. Go.â
âWhat if someone else comes in?â
âAnother vagrant covered in blood?â Megan smiled as she said it. She hoped sheâd had her full quota of vagrants for this year.
âYou never know,â Rachel said, frowning.
Rachel looked at the door and back at Megan, as if she were expecting another strange man to come in while she was out and was worried about leaving her. Megan went back to the small storage room at the back of the store. She pulled out the mop and bucket and the cleaning supplies and by the time she came back out Rachel had gone. She wasnât surprised. Evidently alongside her phobia about blood, Rachel had analyzed the situation with her rational, logical approach and had decided Megan could manage another strange man collapsing on their floor if she had to. Megan cleaned up the smears of scarlet and the tracked-in mud, and realigned all the notebooks and stationery on the knocked shelf. While she worked, all she could think was despite the shock and drama of what had happened, the man with the beautiful sapphire eyes hadnât seemed dangerous to her.
Confused, high or drunk, desperate, traumatized, wet, and muddy, maybe. But certainly not dangerous.