This ebook is available for the following devices:
Captain Eli Weston glanced at the invitation again, grimaced then tossed it back into the passenger seat of his rented truck as the city limits sign loomed into view. His belly clenched with dread, and tension inexplicably tightened his fingers on the steering wheel.
He so didn't want to do this.
In fact, Eli could confidently say that if he could choose any place on earth he wanted to be right now, Willow Haven, Kentucky, would undoubtedly occupy the dead-last position on his list.
Not because it wasn't a perfectly lovely little town, the quintessential Southern burg with lots of antebellum homes, majestic oak trees and a festival for every food group. Not because he could think of a million other things he'd rather do on his much-needed, too-short leave. He'd seen enough warenough of the ravages of it, more specifically. Not even because he'd be working on the memorial for his late, beloved friend, Micah Holland.
It was the damned lying he most dreaded.
He'd been doing it for the past eight months, insisting to every superior officer who'd interrogated him about Micah's death that his friend had been cleaning his weapon when it misfired, that he'd actually witnessed the accident.
Accident, of course, being the key word.
Lies, all lies. And they knew it, too. But they couldn't prove it, so his "eye-witness" account stood.
And it was because of that account that his friend's parents had been able to confidently bury their beloved oldest son in hallowed ground, believing his death was an unhappy circumstance, not a deliberate act by his own hand. Having lost his own father to suicide, Eli was well-acquainted with that particular brand of grief and had decided within seconds of Micah's death to spare the Hollands that aspect of the misery, to do everything he possibly could to preserve his friend's memory and military legacy. Micah had been one of his best friends and a damned fine soldier. He'd been like a brother. Eli swallowed, his throat suddenly tight, an inexplicable anger welling inside of him.
It was the least he could do, really.
Well, that and sling a hammer, he thought, glancing once more at the invitation in the passenger seat. Honestly, had Sally, Micah's mother, not called and pressed him into coming to help build the Micah Holland Memorial in the heart of the town square, Eli wouldn't have come. He'd have simply begged out of the event or made up an excuse as to why he wouldn't be availablebeing deployed, in that sense, had its advantages.
But when Sally had told him that they'd simply plan the event around his leave, his schedule, he knew he wasn't going to be able to get out of it. And considering how good the Hollands had been to himthey'd practically taken him in as one of their own as soon as he'd graduatedhe could hardly refuse. Eli's own family tree had withered and died with the death of his father, so being brought into the Holland fold had filled a void he'd scarcely realized was there.
Sally was the quintessential Southern mom. Her love language was food and nothing made her happier than a full table and full bellies. There was always a cake on the covered stand, cookies of some sort in the jar and cold iced tea in the pitcher. His lips quirked. And the emergency casserole in the freezer, of course, should she need to quickly provide a meal, either for her family or for someone else's.
Carl Holland was a farmer with a degree in Agriculture from Auburn Universityand had two Toomer's Oaks grown from seedlings standing in the front yard. He had a deep affection for things grown in the soil. He was wise and patient, slow to anger and quick to laugh. Big and burly, with skin darkened from years spent in the sun and hands that were callused and scarred, Sally called him her Gentle Giant, GG for short, a sweet term of endearment that never failed to make Eli smile. He did now, remembering, and the action felt strange, almost foreign.
Probably because there hadn't been much to smile about in recent months.
Truthfully, though he'd never considered a career outside the military, he had to admit he'd been growing increasingly dissatisfied since Micah's death. He couldn't seem to shake the sense that his feet weren't so much on the right path as stuck to one instead. Bound by the very rules and regulations he used to appreciate, relish even. Micah had often joked that while he'd never met a rule he didn't break, Eli had never met one he didn't like.
Too true, he knew.
But rules established order and the absence of order was chaos. And Eli hated chaos. That word virtually described every foster home he'd lived in after the death of his father and the mental decline of his mother. The sweet, smiling woman he remembered from his early childhood had disintegrated into a vacant-eyed stranger who had to be reminded to eat, to bathe, and had to be told that she even had a son who needed to do those things, as well.
"Fragile," they'd called her, when she'd been taken to the psych ward at their local hospital in Twisted Pines, Georgia.
"Irrevocably broken," he'd later realize.
He drummed his thumb against the steering wheel, biting the inside of his cheek as the familiar sense of regret trickled through him. He'd need to go and see her before he reported back to base, Eli thought with a stoic twinge of dread. Not that she'd know him, not that she'd care. But he would do it, anyway, because it was the right thing to do, because she was the only family he had.
Furthermore, though he often spoke to her doctors and care team at the assisted living facility she called homethe one he paid fora personal visit would remind them all that he was more than just the person writing the check. He was her son and, though he barely knew her, he loved her all the same.
Not that he was suspicious of any kind of abuse. He wasn't. Having heard horror stories about mental hospitals and nursing homes, he'd researched dozens of potential facilities before settling on Marigold Manor. It offered the best in security and care, and smelled more like flowers than antiseptic. Which was a plus if you asked him. To this day the faintest whiff of bleach conjured up images of slumped over bodies too medicated to move, most particularly his mother's. It had been a nightmare. He'd been twelve at the time. Old enough to know that her treatment was horribly wrong, but not old enough to do anything about it. Powerless. Awful.
That was no small part of the reason he'd entered the ROTC program. With both sets of grandparents dead before his own birth and no close family, he'd known that he'd need the funds and the security to take care of his mother.
And he had, since he was eighteen years old. Two jobs, sometimes three, during college, then beyond graduation active duty had done the rest.
Duty, Eli thought. Would he ever escape it? And if he could, would he really want to? He released a long breath and slowly entered the town square. Those were questions for another day. A humorless laugh bubbled up his throat.
As expected, the little hub of Willow Haven was abuzz with activity. Shoppers strolled along the freshly swept sidewalks, peering into windows as the regular walkers smoothly weaved in and out around them. Lots of flowers he couldn't name bloomed from overstuffed planters and hanging baskets, and red, white and blue banners hung from various eaves, proclaiming the Micah Holland Memorial Dedication for the coming weekend. Another knot of dread landed in his belly and a pinch of pain constricted his chest as the image of his bloodied friend rose instantly in his mind.
It haunted him, that image.
And the slightest thing could bring it back. The sound of a gunshot, a whiff of Jack Daniel's, even a laugh similar to his friend's. It would catch him unaware, yank him unwillingly back into that wretched moment when he knew his friend was gone. At some point he was going to have to tell Gage the truth, Eli thought, wincing from the reminder. The third member of their "three amigos" crew, Gage Harper had been running a covert mission when Micah had died. Knowing that Micah had been struggling, Eli imagined Gage already suspected the truth but, out of respect or fearful of the answer, hadn't asked.
He'd tell him, of course. At some point. In the near future, in all probability. And, God, how he dreaded it.
He'd become too damned acquainted with dread, Eli thought. In fact, he was so accustomed to it at this point, he was beginning to wonder if he'd know how to function without it, without the disquieting tightening of his gut or the ever-present whisper of uneasiness along his spine.
A group of men, Carl among them, of course, were busy driving stakes into the ground and pulling string, marking off the dimensions for the gazebo. Eli had yet to see the plans, but had been told the design had been rendered by Micah's ex-fiancée, Shelby Monroe. He hadn't quite worked out how he felt about thathad never been able to work out how he felt about her, for that matter. Not that anything beyond passing friendliness was in orderhe'd be damned before he'd poach on a friend's territorybut somehow the prickling of his skin, the inexplicable jump in his heart rate and the unwelcome stirring in his loins didn't strike the strictly platonic note.
It was odd, really, how well he knew her without really knowing her. He'd been able to read her from the get-go, had been able to discern the thoughts behind the furrowing of her sleek brow, the upward quirk of her ripe lips, the twinkling or dimming of her pale green gaze.
That especially sensitive perception had also allowed him to work out some other things, as well. Like the fact that Micah had been more heavily invested in her than she'd been in him. He wasn't judging. Even now, he wouldn't. It happened. Micah and Shelby had been high school sweethearts who'd let things cool during college, when they'd both dated other people. They'd reconnected after a bad breakuphersand had stuck it out for quite a while. But it had ended six months before Micah's death.
Despite being desperately in love with her, Micah had drunkenly admitted after she'd broken things off that he'd taken advantage of the situation. He'd offered her a shoulder to cry on, then pressed his advantage by proposing before she was ready. "Because she would have said no if I'd waited," he'd explained. "And I just wanted her for my own. She was my It Girl," he'd said, smiling sadly. "I met her and" he'd shrugged fatalistically "that was it."
Eli had a grim suspicion he knew what that felt like. Because despite the fact that he'd known that she was and forever would be off-limits, to his eternal shame and chagrin, Shelby had had a similar effect on him. For reasons which escaped him, he'd been judging every girl he'd met against her for the past six years. She'd become the reason he wanted to visit the Hollands and the reason he'd desperately needed to stay away.
It was bad business all the way around.
To complicate matters, he suspected that he was partially responsible for the split. The last time he'd come home with Micah had been for his parents' anniversary party. In honor of their 30th, Carl had rented the old Wickam plantation, then hired caterers, decorators and a band because he'd said he didn't want Sally having to deal with anything more stressful than the invitations. When she began agonizing over the guest list, Carl had taken matters into his own hands and put an announcement in the local paper, inviting the whole town. Eli grinned. Problem solved.
The wine and booze had f lowed freely, the food had been plentiful and delicious, and the band hadn't miss a single note. Watching the couples dance, most particularly Carl and Sally, had had the most peculiar effect on him, Eli remembered now. Seeing the love between the two, the affection and familiarity, had made his chest ache and a bizarre sense of. .emptiness had swelled in his belly. It had been an odd, mildly troubling sensation because it smacked of regret and loneliness, neither of which Eli had ever allowed himself to feel.
Regret was pointless and the benefit of the military was the constant company.
At any rate, Shelby had witnessed his momentary weakness? Confusion? Hell, whatever it was, mortifyingly, she'd seen it from across the room and even now, he could still remember the slight arch of her blond brow, the question form in her too perceptive green eyes.
Eli had merely looked away, then proceeded to drink entirely too much. He'd danced with every single woman in attendanceand a few who weren't so single, he'd later been toldand had pretended that nothing had happened, that he was fine, that he wasn't envious of his friend or of his friend's family. He'd laughed, he'd joked, he'd flirted and most importantly, he'd avoided her.
Looking back, that was his biggest mistake. If he'd simply behaved normally, she wouldn't have known that she'd seen something he hadn't wanted her to see. There would have been room for doubt. But he hadn't. What he'd done, he'd later realize, for all intents and purposes, was wave a red flag in front of bull.
She'd waited until he'd stepped outside for some air, then made her move. He'd felt the air change, heat and charge. A wind kicked up, rattling the leaves on the hundred-year-old live oaks, bringing her scent closer. A mixture of fresh rain and gardenias. Summer, his favorite season.
"What's wrong with you, Eli?" she'd asked, straight to the point as always. Directness was typically a trait he admired, but that night, it had grated on his nerves. "You're not acting at all like yourself."
He'd chuckled humorously, then taken another pull from the drink in his hand. "You think you know me well enough to make that call?"
She did, damn her.
She paused, gave him one of those disconcerting considering gazes, then said, "I do, actually. Does that bother you?" she'd drawled. "That you're mysterious but not necessarily a mystery? Not to me, anyway."
His heart had begun to pound, but he'd managed an unconcerned shrug. "Why would it bother me? It's bullshit."
She'd chuckled knowingly. "Oh, I have struck a nerve, haven't I?" She'd moved closer, as though sharing a secret, then cast a meaningful glance back at the house. "They're sweet, aren't they? They adore one another, and are so obviously, achingly in love, even after all these years."
Something in the tone of her voice made him look at her and it literally hurt, because she was so lovely, because she was so close, because she belonged to someone else. The night breeze toyed with the ends of her hair, blowing a wisp across the sweet swell of her cheek. Long lashes curled away from her eyes, revealing a wistful gaze that tore at him. She'd hugged her arms around her middle and was staring through the window, watching Carl and Sally take another turn around the room. The pearls Carl had given her gleamed around Sally's neck.
"They are," Eli had agreed, then looked away because, though he loved them, it was painful to watch. "Just think," he'd said, an inexplicable edge entering his voice. "That'll be you and Micah someday. Although I have to wonder if the tableau is going to be quite the same."
He shouldn't have said it. To this day, he still didn't know why he said it.
Harlequin; April 2013 224 pages; ISBN 9781460309919 Read online, or download in secure EPUB
Title: The Rule-Breaker
Author: Rhonda Nelson