Romance author Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

Romance author Lee Ann Sontheimer Murphy

Monday, August 25, 2014

Free Read: First Chapter Gray's Good Samaritan

Available beginning August 26 where eBooks are sold!



Chapter One

On a morning as ordinary as faded blue jeans, no different from dozens of other Saturdays, everything changed. As she slowed for a traffic signal behind a long string of vehicles, Robin spotted the man. Whoever he was, he ran at furious speed, racing across the open spaces between the electric substations as if his life might be in peril. Robin couldn’t imagine anything else powerful enough to inspire anyone to run so fast, so hard. Curious, she kept an eye on him to see where he went as she came to a stop at the highway interchange. Already ten minutes late for her hair appointment, midway through her weekly errands, she craned her head backward and over the dirty laundry stacked in the back seat. Just as the light went green, the runner changed course. His diagonal path would take him in front of her car so she hesitated, a car length behind the other vehicles, afraid she might hit him. At the last moment, he veered, switched course, and snatched open the passenger door. He climbed inside before she could scream or protest and spat out two words: “Hit it!”
Robin froze, uncertain what to do until the truck behind her blared its horn. After a brief hesitation, she drove forward, heart beating with a rock-and-roll rhythm. Every bone in her law-abiding body screamed to stop. Her passenger’s face shimmered with perspiration and his eyes glittered with pain. Although he had been running hard, he gasped for breath as if he had been hurt. When she sneaked a closer glance, she noticed blood dripping in staccato rhythm from beneath his leather jacket. “Hey, you’re hurt,” she said, shocked. In her comfortable world, people didn’t run or bleed from anything but a minor mishap. “What happened?”
“I got shot,” he said. Each word required a harsh-drawn breath. “Just drive, okay?”
“Shot?” she echoed. Maybe she had heard him wrong. “You were shot?”
He shot her a look from half-closed eyes and she noticed how pale he had become. “Yeah.”
Robin clamped her fingers tighter around the steering wheel as she stiffened. Whatever trouble he’d found, it wasn’t hers but she couldn’t abandon him on the side of the road either. She made a sudden, swift decision.
“I can take you to the hospital,” she said. “I’m sorry, but that’s it. Just hang on and we’ll get there as soon as I figure out if we’re closer to Hillcrest, OSU, or St. Francis.”
He’d closed his eyes, shuttered tight against the pain, but at her suggestion, he opened them and glared at her. “No hospital,” he choked. “Can’t. They report gunshot wounds.”
Disbelief cut through her anxiety so that she spoke without thinking. “Are you telling me you don’t want me to take you to the hospital?” He needed immediate medical attention. Those drops of blood she had noticed had become a stream flowing down the seat and puddling onto the floorboard. “You need to get help — you’re bleeding all over the place.”
His eyes narrowed as he glared at her. “I know, but I can’t go to the hospital. The law requires them to report any gunshot wounds. If they do, I’m a dead man. Can you drive any faster? I don’t think they saw what car I got into but they might have. If so, we’re both in trouble.”
He appeared about to collapse but he’d managed to speak up. And what he said scared her. “Who might’ve seen you?” Robin asked, afraid to hear the answer. The way he had been running, she figured it must have been the police, drug dealers, a gang, or maybe organized crime.
Her passenger slumped down in the seat. “I think maybe the cops did.”
Robin almost slammed on the brakes and her attention strayed from the road. She faced him and got a good look for the first time. He wore black leather pants, a leather jacket, and a black T-shirt. On his hands, he wore leather half-gloves and studded bracelets encircled both wrists. Although his hair was close-cropped in front, he had let it grow out in back. After his crazy run, his hair had wilted but she would bet he had had it spiked with gel before. Robin couldn’t determine if his style screamed biker, punk, Goth, or gang, but whatever his fashion statement might be, it stretched far outside her comfort zone. He had to be a criminal and she struggled to stay calm. Who knew what he might do if she provoked him?
“Were the police chasing you?” Her voice emerged shrill and frantic but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Yeah, they were,” he said after a moment. “That’s who shot me.”
Whoa. She braked hard and pulled into the first available parking lot at a shopping center. “Look, I’m sorry you got hurt but I can’t help you if you broke the law. I’ll take you to the hospital or police station but that’s it. I can’t help a criminal.”
Beneath his mussed hair, his sweat-slimed face relaxed and he offered her a faint grin. “That’s good ’cause I’m not one. I promise you, I’m innocent.”
Wasn’t that what they all said? Trying to sort it all out gave her a headache. Skeptical, Robin parked away from any other vehicles and cut the engine. She faced him. “Let’s see if I understand,” she said, with slow precision. Such an impossible scenario couldn’t be happening. Her reputation and record were washday clean. She had never had a single traffic ticket but now a fugitive from justice might be bleeding to death in her car. “You were pursued by police officers, they shot you, and you don’t want any medical treatment because they’ll report it and then authorities will arrest you.”
Despite his injury and condition, which seemed to have deteriorated since he climbed into the car, he sounded serene. “Yeah, that’s about it.”
Robin lacked calm as words tumbled from her mouth. “What am I supposed to do with you? I know what I am doing — I’m getting my phone out of my purse and calling the police. I can’t help you. I’m a law-abiding citizen.”
A dry, harsh sound burst from his mouth and it took more than a minute to realize he was laughing, even though his bleeding increased.
“Go ahead,” he said in a raspy, thin voice. “They’ll charge you with aiding and abetting a fugitive from justice. It might lessen the charges a little because you called, but the fact is you’ve picked me up and drove around with me in the car. The old innocent until proven guilty thing doesn’t always work. If it did, if I could trust it, I wouldn’t be bleeding into the floorboard. I’m innocent.”
He sounded convincing, so much she wanted to believe him. Doubt surged through her and she wondered how she had managed to get into this mess. Robin sighed and rubbed her forehead as her headache expanded. Without a twist of fate, she would have been at Ci Ci’s Curling Iron. Right now, she should be getting her hair done instead of dealing with a fugitive. Her headache pounded like a bass drum at a football homecoming game as she tried to find some way out of her current  mess that wouldn’t land her in jail.
Without a clue how to proceed, she tried. “I have no idea what you want from me. I don’t even know your name.”
Her passenger tried to grin. “I guess you want the real one.”
His nonchalance sent her headache into a new dimension of pain.
“It’d be nice,” she told him, unable to keep the bite of sarcasm from her words. “I’ll tell you mine — Robin Cavanaugh.”
He laid his head back against the seat and nodded. “I know. I remember you from Living Love Chapel. I played bass guitar there a year or so ago. These days some people know me as Spike McGee but I’m Grayson Holcomb. Most of my family and friends call me Gray. I thought you’d know me.”
His words struck her with force and her mouth widened, then dropped open. If she squinted past the leathers, the blood, and the punk rocker look, she recognized him, but he had changed from the quiet, talented man she remembered. He had worn button-down Sunday shirts and dress jeans.
“I do — now,” Robin said. “You look so different now.” And he must have changed, she thought, because the guy she remembered and had spoken to a few times had seemed straight as an arrow.
“I guess,” Grayson said. He sounded puny and his voice wavered. “Listen, do you have anything to stop the bleeding? I’ll tell you whatever you need to know, when I can, but I feel like I might pass out.”
Robin snatched a dirty bath towel from the baskets of laundry in the back seat and handed it over. Gray pressed it against his lower left side with a groan. The yellow towel became maroon with blood so she grabbed another and gave it to him. He needed immediate medical care but learning she knew him had distracted her. “Is the bullet still inside?”
Gray shook his head. “No, huh-uh. It went through but I have two holes, an entry and an exit. I need to get it stopped before I bleed out.” His voice dropped as he became weak from blood loss. Robin picked up another towel and reached under his saturated jacket to press it against the wound. He grimaced at her touch and groaned as the towel blossomed red.
Although she had decided not to help, he evoked mercy, tenderness, or something. Although she should be calling the police, she asked, “Does it hurt?”
“Yeah, it does,” he replied through gritted teeth. “I’ll be okay if I don’t pass out.”
Okay didn’t appear to be a viable option. Grayson Holcomb sounded terrible and his appearance was worse. If his condition alarmed her when he first leapt into her car, it terrified her now. No color remained in his face and his lips had gone almost white… His voice dropped to a whisper and his hands trembled as he tried to fumble the towel tighter against the hole in his side. She removed another saturated one and replaced it. “What am I supposed to do with you?” Robin asked. “I suppose the hospital is still out of the question?”
“It is,” Gray told her. “How about you take me home instead?”
Although Robin thought his idea had much merit and she would hate to drop him off in his present shape, it might provide an answer to her problem. “Where do you live?”
“I can’t go home, not now. I meant your place.”
Incredulous, her voice climbed the scales to soprano.”Mine?”
“Yeah. Will you?”
Robin couldn’t. She wouldn’t. If he’d lied and wasn’t innocent, helping Gray would be wrong and land her in trouble, too. Her immaculate studio apartment, housed within an old elementary school, wasn’t large enough to hide a fugitive. The small space, once a classroom, had been divided into narrow kitchen, tiny living room, a single bedroom, and a dinky bath. Besides, School House Studios also prided themselves on security. Every door into the building stayed locked twenty-four hours a day and cameras panned the common lobby and the hallways constantly to prevent intruders. Robin couldn’t imagine any way to spirit a wounded man on the verge of fainting into a secure space and keep him in her small sanctuary. Robin opened her mouth to decline, to say no and suggest he think up some alternative, but she realized Gray had run out of options. Maybe he is innocent and if so, he might die if I don’t help. Uncertain whether or not she could live with his death on her conscience, she changed her mind.
“All right. I’m probably crazy but okay. I’ll take you home. But I have to figure out how to get you into my building. You’ll need a jacket or something to hide the wound and blood. I can’t take you through the lobby bleeding and bloodstained or someone will call the police. And I don’t have any first aid stuff to take care of your wound.”
Gray shut his eyes and for a second Robin thought he had passed out. About the time she started to panic, he said, voice faint and weak, “I think I’m in shock but if you’ll go in that store and buy the things I tell you, I can hang on for a little while longer.”
Robin didn’t see how he would manage but without any better idea, she nodded. “Sure. Tell me what I need and I’ll go get it.”
Grayson lifted his head with obvious effort. “First thing, bring me a full-strength Coke.”
He must have been delirious because his request didn’t make much sense. “Full-strength?”
A thin smile twitched the corners of his mouth for a moment. “I want a regular cola, one packed with sugar and caffeine. I need all the help I can get right now.”
Feeling dense, she sighed. “Okay, I’ll bring you one. What else?”
He chanted out a list like a kid running to the store for his mom.”Get some hydrogen peroxide gauze and adhesive tape, big square adhesive bandages, antibiotic cream, some kind of painkiller like ibuprofen, a sports drink, beef broth, antibacterial soap, a cheap shower curtain, a T-shirt, and a pair of large sweat pants. And some kind of jacket, the bigger, the better. Just hurry, please.”
He acted like death warmed over and on the verge of losing consciousness. “Are you sure you’ll be okay?”
He managed to turn his head to look at her and dug in his right pants pocket. Gray pulled out a wad of bills and peeled off a hundred dollar bill. “No, but it’s not like I have a choice.”
Robin gawked at the cash, more than she had seen outside a bank or checkout register, but she made no comment. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.” He offered a weak nod and she grabbed her purse, clutching his money in one hand.
She headed for the chain discount drugstore halfway down the shopping center. Criminal or not, Robin was worried about Grayson. He ought to be in the hospital and as far as she could tell, his condition had deteriorated rapidly. Inside the store, she pushed a shopping cart through the aisles and gathered everything he’d suggested. Although her first aid knowledge was minimal, she added a few other items to the cart. Aware the selection of medical supplies might raise a red flag to an alert clerk, she tossed in a couple bottles of her favorite shampoo, a few cans of soup, a pair of rubber sandals, some vitamins, a paperback novel, a notebook, and a twelve-pack of soda. If she paused long enough to think, she would panic, so she focused on the task. At the checkout, she paid with the Benjamin Franklin Gray had provided and hurried out to the car. From across the lot she saw Gray slumped forward with his head on his chest. Alarmed, she tossed the bags into the back seat and climbed into the car.
“Grayson?” When he failed to respond, she tried again in a louder voice. “Grayson, Gray!”
He roused and blinked with bleary eyes. “What is it?”
Relief flooded Robin and she released the breath she had been holding. “I’m back with the shopping. Are you all right?”
“No,” he croaked in a dry rasp, “but if you’ve got Coke and some painkillers, I can hold on a few more minutes. Give me six of whatever you bought.”
She tapped six ibuprofen tablets into his curled hand and steered it toward his mouth. He popped them and reached for the Coke she had opened for him. He drank a third in one gulp, then leaned back against the headrest and exhaled. “Thanks.”
“You look like death warmed over,” she said, using one of her mom’s antiquated expressions. At close range, the bloodstains on his clothes stood out. “Can you slip into the jacket now?” At his nod, Robin reached for one of the bags and removed it. She pulled off the tags and held it so he could slide one arm into the sleeve. Gray managed the right one but he struggled with the left so she assisted. When he fumbled with the zipper, she worked it for him. The nylon jacket ballooned several sizes too large but it hid the bloodstains and gave her a chance to get him into her apartment without attracting notice.
Grayson huddled into the jacket, shivering with chills as he swigged more soda. Robin backed out of the parking lot and took the quickest route home. Halfway there, she noticed the puddle of blood in the passenger floorboard and the drenched towels were gone.
“What happened to the mess?”
Gray drank more Coke and answered in a faint voice she struggled to hear. “I mopped it up and shoved the towels under the seats so no one would notice.”
“Oh.” Injured and bleeding, he’d thought of something she wouldn’t have. “Good idea. Thanks.”
At her apartment building, he roused, shifted position, and moaned. Gray glanced up at the imposing brick building. “This isn’t a hospital, is it?”
“No. It’s School House Studios, where I live. We’ll go in the side entrance, then up a flight of stairs. It is shorter and we’ll run across less people than if we come in through the main lobby. Can you make it?” If he couldn’t, it would have to end now. Robin couldn’t carry him upstairs and she’d need to call the authorities or an ambulance. How she would explain his presence in her car was something she would rather not consider.
“Yeah, I can,” Gray said and finished off the remainder of the Coke. Although Robin rushed to the passenger side to help Gray, he still almost toppled onto the pavement. If he went face down in the parking area, someone would call 911 before she could get him back on his feet. She blocked his fall and took hold of his uninjured arm.
“Let me help,” she told him. “Swing your feet around. There. Now let me help you stand up. Good. I have my arm around your waist so you can lean on me. Put your arm across my shoulders or whatever works. We’ll walk in like a couple, okay? It’s the only way this won’t look weird.”
Grayson nodded and did as she asked. They walked the six feet from her parking space into the building with slow, tandem steps, pausing as she unlocked the door with her exterior key. Robin moved up the stairs and paced her steps with his. He struggled, though, and by the time they reached the top, he gasped for breath and his face shimmered with perspiration.
“Tell me there aren’t any more stairs,” he breathed in her right ear.
“No more stairs and it’s around the corner, down the corridor, and then turn again,” Robin said with an effort to sound cheerful. She doubted he would make it inside without collapsing. Because he stood taller and weighed more than she did, she had trouble trying to support his full weight.
At her apartment, Gray leaned against the wall as she unlocked the door. Still panting as if he had run a .400, pale as fine porcelain, Gray rallied enough to be bossy. They no sooner cleared her front door when he said, “Now you’ve got to clean the wound.”
“Let me shut the door first,” Robin said. “Just for future reference, the kitchen is the narrow space to your right and there’s an alcove with my computer to the left. The living room is straight ahead and the bedroom opens to the left, bathroom too. As soon as I put the bags down, I’ll help you to a chair.”
Grayson waved one hand in protest. “Uh-uh. I’m about to pass out. I can’t focus and I’m lightheaded. Put the shower curtain on your bed so I won’t ruin the covers with blood and I’ll try to make it there.”
Robin propped him against the counter dividing kitchen from living room and covered her bed. She returned for Gray, who wobbled as he leaned on her for support.
She tried to steady him and steered him to the bed. He flopped down hard on his back. Within seconds, his eyes fluttered shut and his rapid breathing slowed as he lost consciousness. Frustration brought tears to her eyes. She wanted to bawl like a baby or kick the wall but Robin did neither.
She studied him, uncertain what to do first. As a librarian, not a nurse, Robin had never done more than treat a skinned knee or give someone an aspirin, but she had completed the staff-required first aid class at the library and she was an avid reader. With her own good sense and basic training, Robin determined she could and would manage. Unless she broke the promise she had made Gray, there wasn’t an alternative.
First, she removed his boots and set them aside. Then Robin stripped away his stained clothing. Blood caked his left side, both dried and fresh. The wound still leaked blood but she washed it away, using warm water and antibacterial soap. As she worked, Gray sometimes moaned or twitched but he didn’t stir. He remained unconsciousness, a good thing for now because it made treatment easier.
After washing the wound, she cleaned it with the hydrogen peroxide, pouring some directly into the wound where it bubbled and fizzed. Gray moved in restless response and although his eyelids quivered, he didn’t open his eyes. Robin spread antibiotic cream around entry and exit wounds with gentle movements and covered both with gauze held in place with adhesive tape. Then she slipped the sweat pants over his legs, pulled them up, keeping them as loose as possible near the wound, and pulled, with greater difficulty, a clean white T-shirt over his head. In the simple garments, he seemed much more like the bass guitarist she remembered from church, younger and less dangerous. Robin folded his stained clothing and checked the pockets, which yielded nothing but the wad of cash, a set of keys, and a cell phone. Robin put them in the drawer of her nightstand and sat on the edge of the bed to assess her patient.
Gray’s condition worsened and Robin worried. His face lacked any color, ghost pale, and his eyes, though closed, sank deeper into his skull. At first, she thought his stillness might mean improvement but after scrutiny, Robin feared he had grown worse. He had stopped sweating but when she touched his face with a light hand, his skin radiated heat. To be sure he wasn’t just over warm; she got her thermometer, bought during last winter’s bout of bronchitis, and inserted it into his ear. It registered 102.2 Fahrenheit. Robin gasped. She hadn’t foreseen any major complication and it scared her. She had been able to handle cleaning the wound but nursing an infection went far beyond her capabilities.
“Grayson, wake up,” she said with urgency. “You should’ve let me take you to a hospital. It’s not too late, I still can.”
His eyes, brilliant blue, opened wide. “No,” he whispered. “Just clean it.” Then he gripped her hand with surprising strength for an injured man.
Was he cognizant? She wasn’t sure. “I did, Gray. It’s as clean as I know how to make it. You’re running a fever, though, and I’m worried.”
His voice came out slurred and hard to understand but she managed. “Don’t… be… I’ll be… all right.”
“You have to be,” Robin said, her voice breaking. If he died, it would be her fault because she hadn’t taken him to the hospital. Whatever he had done, whether he was innocent or guilty, he had to recover. Maybe it was his weak condition or extreme need, but Gray touched her, pulled at her heart in a way Robin couldn’t begin to understand. “Gray, try to rest, please. Let me see if I can get the shower curtain out from under you.”
Robin tugged and asked him to roll until she pulled the plastic free. He shivered as if he had to be cold so she pulled up the cotton sheet and topped it with a simple blanket. She arranged the pillows beneath his head so he would be comfortable and tucked another beside his wound.
His eyes, small slits, widened as he whispered, “Thank you.”
Those polite manners her mother had instilled in her at an early age never failed and though tears burned in both eyes, she said, “You’re welcome.”
Grayson nodded and slipped into either sleep or unconsciousness, but she had no idea which. Weary, anxious, and rattled, Robin slid onto the floor into a nervous heap and pillowed her head against the mattress. Inches from Gray’s too-warm body tucked into her bed, she released the tears she had held for hours and sobbed aloud with enough force to shake the mattress, but it didn’t disturb him. “I don’t know what I’ve gotten myself into,” she said aloud when the emotional storm passed. “But I hope he recovers.”
What she hated to admit, even to herself, was how much she cared.

Friday, August 15, 2014

FREE! First chapter read from Ryker's Justice!









 Meet Jude Ryker!


Home for Jude Ryker is the rugged Ozark Mountains.  When he returns as a Department of Justice agent to investigate a major moonshine operation, he doesn’t share his assignment with anyone.  As far as the locals know, he’s back, like a bad penny.  While he digs into the case for ATF, he puts in time as a handyman at a local inn. When he meets guest Nicole McAdoo, he wants more and before long, they in a relationship.  He shares first with Nicole, then with his family his true purpose. When he uncovers the truth about the moonshiners, things get serious and could prove deadly – for them both.


Chapter One

            In his natural element, Jude moved over the fallen autumn leaves with stealth, so quiet that his feet made little sound.  The woods enveloped him as he blended with his surroundings.  He belonged here and he knew it.  Growing up as the youngest of the half wild Ryker clan, he’d spent many childhood hours beneath these trees.  Jude knew where the deer grazed beneath the full moon, where the sweetest wild grapes grew, and how to track almost any forest creature with success.  He’d hunted here, slept on this ground, and sought solace from nature as long as he could remember.  This forest nurtured his spirit and often sustained his body when the cupboards at home were bare.  When he left to join the Navy, he had grieved at losing this patch of woods almost as much as he regretted leaving his family behind.
            Returning to the old Ryker place, more ramshackle than he remembered, hadn’t been easy.  If he hadn’t been on assignment he wouldn’t be here now. In his fifteen years away, he’d learned to appreciate the sea and to let the never-ending waves provide a sense of comfort, but he’d never forgotten the rocky hills and secret glens of his native Ozark Mountains.  Until now, he’d been back a handful of times, the most recent when his father died  in May. After spending a week scrubbing away the grime of decades, cleaning until his back ached and fingers bled, he had managed to make the old house habitable.
            Jude had burned most of the trash and debris he hauled out of the house. He purchased both a new mattress and sheets for the bedroom, then bought a couple of used recliners in town so he’d have a place to sit.  No way in hell did Jude consider sitting on any of his dad’s aged and stained furniture.  What he hadn’t burned, he’d stored in the barn.
On this October morning, he inhaled the loam of the woods and savored it.  The wind brought a hint of wood smoke, a familiar fragrance.  It reminded him he’d have to cut wood soon so he could heat the old house.  The first frost of the season two weeks earlier had brought a chill to the long nights but he’d hunkered under a heavy-duty sleeping bag and one of his late mother’s old quilts found in a closet upstairs.  Although she had died when he was six, he remembered the smell of the rose scent she favored, the soft timbre of her voice, and the loving contentment he’d known in her arms.  Until she died, she’d rocked Jude, the youngest of the family, to sleep every night and sang to him.  The maple rocker remained in the living room, although he hadn’t dared plant his muscular frame in the seat.  Having it there was enough.
            A yellow leaf fluttered to the ground, slow and lazy.  Jude hoisted the rifle he carried higher on his left shoulder and scanned the treetops for squirrel.  Fried squirrel sounded fine for supper or if he wanted to make the effort, so did squirrel and dumplings.  He hadn’t had either for years but he remembered the taste.  He’d grown up eating game--squirrel, rabbit, venison, and deer, sometimes coon or wild hog.  The rest of the Ryker’s diet revolved around hamburger, hot dogs, and bologna.  A pot of beans had simmered on the stove through the winter, seasoned with ham if they had it, bacon if they didn’t.  His mom had made fried chicken, he recalled, but his father never did.  Fried fish from the river, though, had been another favorite.
            He sniffed the wind, hoping to catch the elusive aroma of cooking mash so he could track down the still he suspected wasn’t far, but all he caught was the river’s smell.  Ten years in the Navy gave him an appreciation for saltwater[A1]  but he’d never abandoned his original affection for a wild river.  Five years spent working as a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives had brought him back to the United States.  Jude had been assigned everywhere from the California coast and the urban sprawl of Washington D.C., to the Appalachian mountains, but when ATF got serious about busting a major moonshine operation in the Ozarks, they pegged him as the agent for the job.
            No one but his supervisors knew why Jude Ryker returned home, not even his brothers.  Everyone assumed he’d exited the military for whatever reason and being a Ryker, considered shiftless in the eyes of the community, he’d crawled home because he had no place else to go.  His brothers had never left so his prodigal return had been long expected.  Local gossip said no Ryker could make it long in the outside world and although he’d spent a decade in the Navy, on ship and later as a submariner, no one figured Jude to be an exception.  None of the rest of his family had gone anywhere.  They followed the expected pattern and even his brothers’ successes weren’t acknowledged by the locals.
            Adam still worked at the feed mill, Noah as a supervisor at the poultry processing plant, and Elijah taught wood shop at the county high school.  His two sisters, Abigail and Esther, were both married with children.  His siblings welcomed him back with the devoted yet casual sense of family they’d always shared.  When necessary, they were tight and connected.  Adam remained closest to Jude, friend as well as brother, but he hadn’t even shared with Adam his real reason for return.
            I should’ve asked Adam to come squirrel hunting with me, Jude thought, but he dismissed the idea as quickly as it came.  He couldn’t, not when he scouted around for any evidence of a still nearby.  He doubted anyone would dare to trespass enough to put their still on Ryker land but it wasn’t impossible either.  With Daddy dead for more than five years and Jude absent until last spring, someone might think their presence might go unprotected.  And if they had, Jude figured they’d pulled up stakes since he came back in May. 
            But he believed the still to be close, probably on one of the adjacent properties.  If he could discover it, then he’d make major progress in identifying the participants, making the bust, and shutting down the illegal liquor operation in the county.   He’d accepted the duty and he would carry it out.
            Right now, though, he wanted to enjoy the morning in the woods, shoot a few squirrels, and just be Jude, not Special Agent Ryker.  So he ambled through the woods along the familiar paths.  He savored the minimal warmth of the late October sunshine filtering through the trees.  His feet moved across the forest floor and when he came out of the woods to the riverbank[A2] , he paused to admire the water.
            Sunlight danced across the surface and highlighted the ripples.  The current moved fast here, always had.  Across, on the opposite bank, Cockrell’s Country Inn stood as silent as a sentinel and cast a shadow over the water.  The frame structure dated back to the early 1900s and although Jude remembered when it sat empty and almost derelict, the owners had refurbished it in recent years.  Rick and Mary Cockrell had accomplished the near impossible by turning it into a viable inn with a good business.  Since he came home, he’d worked for them as a handyman when needed.  It made as good a cover as any.
            He tilted his head up to gaze at the second story and when a curtain fluttered, Jude grinned.  The room belonged, at the moment, to Nicole McAdoo.  He knew little else about her but her name but she’d intrigued him from the day she arrived at the inn.  He’d spoken to her, a polite good morning or an evening how-do-you-do but nothing more, although he wanted to very much.  Jude ached to know why her eyes were shadowed with sadness and why she seldom smiled.  He’d like to be the guy who made those eyes sparkle and those lips curve into a sweet smile.
            Aware of her gaze, he lifted one hand in greeting.  He hadn’t expected a response and thought she’d probably jump back from the window, startled.  Instead, Nicole opened it and leaned out. “Hello, Jude Ryker!”
            A grin spread across his face.  Her boldness came as a surprise but it pleased him.  She’d seemed too timid to hail him from across the river. “Hello, yourself, Nicole,” he shouted back with a wave.  Then, before the encounter could turn into a calling match sure to attract attention, he turned back into the cover of the trees.  Later, he vowed, he’d get better acquainted with the lady.
            For now, though, he did as he’d planned and scouted the perimeter of the land in search of any clues or evidence.  He found nothing out of the way and by the time the sun stood straight overhead, his empty stomach rumbled.  Jude settled down at the base of a favorite tree, a broad oak so wide it had to be at least a century old.  After resting his .22 rifle against the trunk, he dug out a bologna and cheese sandwich from his backpack.  He ate it without haste, savoring each bite of the simple lunch with relish.  The solitude rested easy on his soul as he ate. He washed the sandwich down with a bottle of strong, sweet iced tea he’d brewed that morning. 
            During moments like this he didn’t regret coming back.  Sometimes he considered what it might be like if he’d come home without an assignment and could stay.  After years aboard first battleships, then submarines, then time spent as a special agent pursuing a wide spectrum of criminals, life in the Ozarks offered possibilities he’d love to explore.  As a single guy, he’d managed to save a fair amount of money over the years.  When Daddy was alive, he’d sent money home each month but after his death, Jude had no other family obligations. 
            Leaning against the oak, he contemplated coming back on a permanent basis.  A lazy lifestyle with no supervisors and no duties appealed to him.  He could hunt and fish to his heart’s content, keep up his handyman duties at the inn, maybe even expand and offer odd jobs to the public.  His choices would be his own, his decisions self-dictated, not career driven.  Maybe, he thought, maybe after this assignment, I’ll think about it.
            Comfortable, he heaved a contented sigh and shut his eyes.  He slept little most nights, consumed with desire to find the moonshiners and shut down their operation.  The past haunted him, too, sometimes.  Although he didn’t believe in ghosts, at night he often thought he heard the floorboards creak or caught the smell of his mother’s perfume.  Memories, the good and the ugly, assaulted him and kept him awake.
            In the quiet forest, he let the bird songs lull him to sleep.  A squirrel chattered overhead, fussing at Jude’s intrusion, and if he concentrated he could hear the quiet gurgle of the river.  Distant highway sounds, an eighteen wheeler shifting gears, and the whine of steel-belted radials against the pavement filtered through the other sounds but they didn’t disturb.  Completely relaxed,  Jude drifted into a light sleep, aware that if anything happened, he’d wake.  He’d been trained to rouse at the slightest interruption and he knew he would.
            No dreams came and when he woke, Jude judged by the sun’s position that he’d slept about two hours.  Time to bag a few squirrels and head home, he decided.  He rose and stretched his tall, muscular frame.  He marched through the woods, quiet and with cunning.  Unless the tree rats had changed their habits, he knew where to find a large squirrel population.  When he reached the site, the animals scampered overhead.  He aimed and fired, bringing down the critter with a single head shot.  Jude got two more and decided three would be enough for his solitary supper.  He field-dressed them to save time and headed for home through the woods.
            Jude washed them at the huge, old-fashioned kitchen sink and cut each into four pieces.  He tossed them into a bowl, added water and a little salt, then stuck them into the ancient refrigerator.  To pass the time, he sifted a little flour and cornmeal together, then added some seasonings from the cupboard.  A little salt, a bit of pepper, some Cajun seasoning blend, a dash of onion powder, and a hint of garlic would do, he decided.  On impulse, Jude shook a little cayenne pepper into the mixture, too.
            As he glanced at the clock to see if he had time to split some wood, his cell phone on the counter buzzed.  “Ryker,” he said as he answered, in case his supervisor phoned.
            “Jude?” Mary Cockrell, who ran the inn with her husband, said. “Are you busy?”
            Supper could wait. “No,” he drawled. “What’s up?”
            “I’ve got an electrical outlet that fried,” she told him. “And the bar sink won’t drain again.  Can you come fix them?”
            “Sure, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes.”
            Mary laughed with relief. “Oh, thank you. You know I love you, Jude?”
            The woman had to be sixty, at least.  He chuckled. “I know, Mary, like the son you never had.”
            “Exactly right and I’ll see you when you get here.”
            He changed out of his hunting camouflage into faded jeans and a snap-button Western shirt.  As soon as he pulled on his oldest cowboy boots, Jude headed out to the truck, a beat-up forest green Ford, and drove to the inn.  If he hadn’t had to cross the river, he could’ve been there in five minutes, not fifteen.
            After he parked across the narrow two-lane old highway, Jude paused for a moment to look at the place.  The grey clapboard structure dated to 1910 or 1915 with its high gables and full porch.  It sprawled out in haphazard fashion, some sections added over the years to the original.  Crisp white curtains covered each window and the vintage rocking chairs on the porch sent out an invitation to unwind.  The place radiated homey charm and he liked it.
            With toolbox in hand, he mounted the porch steps and entered the lobby.  A fire crackled in the massive fieldstone fireplace to his left and the desk loomed empty.  Jude rang the shop bell on the counter and waited for Mary or her husband Rick.  When he heard footsteps on the stairs behind him, he didn’t turn around but he knew they didn’t belong to either of the Cockrell’s. 
            “Hello, Jude,” Nicole said. He would recognize her voice anywhere, a little deep for a woman with the rich, sweet sound of honey in her tone.  “You made it back from the woods, I see.”
            A grin stretched his lips as he faced her. “Oh, yeah, I did.”
            Nicole’s perfume wafted across the lobby and he inhaled it with pleasure.  The sweet aroma of summer roses filled his nose and his body prickled with anticipation.  After he did the jobs, he thought maybe he’d linger at the inn awhile.
            His planned fried squirrel supper could wait.
Available at Evernight Publishing, All Romance Ebooks, Bookstrand, and Amazon.  Coming soon at Smashwords and Barnes and No



 [A1]“saltwater” is one word
 [A2]“riverbank” is one word


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