Are you ready to fall in love with another SEAL? This week’s spotlight is on PROTECTING KATE.
Running Haven Farm, a shelter for abused women, brings Kate into constant contact with Sheriff Dan Wolff, former SEAL. But he will have to save her and the others when a prison break puts them all in danger.
Clad in his battle fatigues, his face darkened with camouflage paint and his M4A1 rifle in his hands, Dan Wolff crouched in the thicket of trees, staring at the cluster of small adobe houses with straw roofing. At three in the morning, it was very quiet in this village, even though it was a hotbed of activity for the local gang in this small city. Was it too quiet? Should people be moving somewhere, or was everyone asleep? Were there only three gang members guarding the inside, or were there really more? As team leader, he hadn’t been happy with the scarcity of information they’d been given, and neither was their commanding officer, but they were running out of time to stage their rescue. Ten women had been taken captive by gang members who announced they were going to stage an execution to make an example of them. Send a message not to mess in gang territory.
The women had come down here on a trip from the States to study the country and have a vacation. Although why the fuck anyone would want to take a pleasure trip to a place overrun with gangs was beyond him. Oh sure, the resorts were beautiful, and the areas immediately surrounding them were gorgeous. But there was always a sliver of fear in the area that one or more of the gangs would decide to have a little fun. It had happened before, and he’d bet his left testicle it would happen again. Of course, he fervently hoped it wouldn’t come to that since he was intensely fond of both of them.
But the women had been appalled at some of the conditions they’d seen on their trips to the smaller villages—another idiotic move—and talked about bringing organizations to the country to help correct it.
What he wasn’t fond of was the sketchy information they’d been given. Their commanding officer had busted his butt to get as much as possible, but the gang holding the women made sure what was known was sketchy and frequently changing. So, they went with a rundown full of holes. Unsure number of gang members involved protecting the women, but not more than four. Which room in the house they were sequestered in, but probably one of the bedrooms. And more like that. But he was the team leader, so it was up to him to make apple juice out of apples, even as he cursed the newly minted CO every minute.
After he used his night- vision goggles to study everything around them, doing his best to make sure gang members wouldn’t come flooding out of the trees, he waved his team forward. As described, there was only one man guarding the front door and two lounging against a junker across the street. Dan figured they were pretty damn overconfident.
He gave the signals they’d prepared, two of the SEALs crept up on the gang members against the car, and two more of them breached the door, with four others as backup. But when Dan had his men kick the door down and roll in with their guns at the ready, all hell broke loose. Unlike the few gang members they had expected, there were several in the house, standing behind the women who were bound and gagged…and terrified, not to mention other terrorists in a second room. They’d laid a trap so successfully that even checking out the scene ahead of time had revealed nothing.
“Back off, back off,” he shouted to his men, but, by then, it was insanity.
Bullets were flying, people were shouting, and bodies were falling. It was a totally fucked-up mess.
When it was over, three gang members were dead, four of Dan’s men were wounded, and all the women were either wounded or dead. He called for emergency pickup, and those of his men still functioning were able to hold the rest of the gang off until two choppers arrived, cleared the area, and landed to pick everyone up.
He had no idea how he was going to live with the memories of all the people who had been killed on a mission he led. In the debrief, his commanding officer had tried to assure him it hadn’t been his fault. That their information had been bad. A trap, in fact. That he, the CO, took full responsibility for it.
But Dan couldn’t deal with it. Despite efforts to change his mind, he resigned from the SEALs, determined to bury himself as an ordinary civilian, with no mention of the military at all. Someplace where, hopefully, he could redeem himself enough that the nightmares would stop.
He had no idea where that place would be, but he knew just the person to ask.
It had been a long day, and Dan was just as glad to have it over with. The disturbances at Haven Farms seemed to be getting more frequent, local bullies who thought abusing their wives was good entertainment. These idiots were sick fucks who had no respect for anything. Assholes who drank too much, who thought they showed their power by beating their women and destroying property in their rage. And resented the hell out of Kate and the refuge she’d created for those women.
He’d inherited the situation from the former sheriff who’d chosen to turn a blind eye rather than tangle with the guys, which was the reason he was gone and Dan was here. Things had died down for a while as the men in town took their measure of the new sheriff, but that hadn’t lasted long. It was obvious they still believed they had the control. And it seemed to be growing.
He was determined to find a way to deal with that before it became worse than it already was. He’d love to give them a dose of their own physical violence, but, unfortunately, the law prevented him. Any chance he had to toss their crappy asses in jail, however, he took without hesitation.
If not for Kate Bartlett, these women would have no refuge when they finally managed to break away from their prison of abuse. Dixville was lucky circumstances had allowed such an extraordinary woman to open a shelter here. Haven Farms had become an incredible facility for abused women, thanks to Kate’s determination and dedication. She gave 200 percent trying to help battered and abused women resurrect their lives. She taught them skills and courage and self-respect and how to protect themselves in the future. He wanted to make sure she had all the help she needed.
Kate. Definitely a one-of-a-kind woman. He had such respect for her and wanted to go out of his way to give her all the support she needed. Sometimes, he just wanted to grab these asshole guys and pound flesh until he’d knocked all the fight out of them. Too bad that even if he did, it only worked for a short time. He could restrain their bodies for the moment but couldn’t do a thing about their fucking brains.
Like two days ago, when Robby “Gorilla” Grissom —an appropriate name for him —had decided he’d had enough of waiting for his wife “to come to her senses.” He’d walked away from his job then stopped to buy two beers, which he apparently had downed sitting in his truck. Then he and two of the other husbands took his rifle, jumped in their dual-cab pickup, and barreled their way onto Haven Farms. Banged on the door and screamed for Mary Elizabeth to “get your ass out here.” They’d set off all the security sensors, which then had alerted Dan.
Gorilla had also apparently forgotten or ignored the fact that Kate was a crack shot with her own rifle. When he stormed up to the porch, screaming his lungs out, she’d apparently decided to do more than wait for Dan. Opening a window on the second floor, she pushed aside the screen and stuck the rifle barrel out through the opening. Then she called his name to get his attention and fired into the ground two inches from where he stood. Twice. He was still standing in the same spot, staring in disbelief, when Dan arrived.
“I thought he was going to wet his pants.” Kate, grinning, described it to Dan after he had one of his deputies haul Gorilla to the jail. “And, by the way, thanks for coming so quickly.”
“Always,” he assured her.
But then her smile disappeared. “Dan, we’ve got to find a way to turn this around. These obnoxious jackasses are getting more and more aggressive. Remember, it’s their penchant for violence that sent these women running in the first place. We have to find something that makes them understand their behavior could send them to prison for a long time. The last episode apparently didn’t have a long-term effect.”
“They just can’t understand why they don’t have the right to treat their women like property. It’s a hard fact to make them understand when, for the most part, it’s what they’ve known all their lives.” He sighed. “And they never really believe in retribution. I’m not sure they even know what it is. We just have to figure out how to make that happen.”
“I want these women to be prepared to deal with this,” she insisted. “All of it. Having Susan Stryker conduct self-defense classes here was a huge help, and, for a while, it kept the bastards from trying anything.”
Dan nodded. “But nothing lasts forever. It also didn’t help that Susan’s stalker followed her here and tried to put her and you out of business. I don’t know what these women would do without you.”
He was surprised when Kate actually blushed.
“I’m just trying to do my best with them.” She shook her head. “They need someone to help them get into a new life where they can take control. And away from these jackasses who treat them like property.”
“You certainly do that for them,” he’d told her, “ and very well.”
“Thanks. I sure hope so.” She sighed. “That’s my goal, anyway.
Now, all these hours later, he was still thinking about this morning and Kate. He certainly admired her a lot and made it his personal business to keep an eye on her and Haven Farms and ensure their safety. After all, sad as it was to say, he had nothing else taking up his life. His job was his entire existence, and he wanted it to stay that way. There were places outside of Dixville where he could satisfy his physical needs and be anonymous about it. He didn’t want a situation where a woman could find out about his history and maybe tell people his dark secrets.
Kate wasn’t even aware of the extra hours he spent cruising the area around the farm. Checking on it. Making time to see where those men looking for trouble were and what they were up to. He kept insisting to himself he was just fulfilling his responsibilities as the sheriff.
Yeah, right. At least it made for a good excuse.
Except, how did he explain the constant messages his cock sent to him whenever he saw Kate, or the balloon of desire growing deep inside him? Or the hunger to be with her and get to know her even better. The dreams of hot sex he couldn’t seem to make go away. That woke him up to find his body covered with sweat and his fist gripping his swollen, throbbing shaft. If he wasn’t careful, his meticulously constructed walls could come falling down. If that happened, he would have a huge problem. His secret could be exposed, and who the fuck knew what would happen then. He might even have to move away, which didn’t appeal to him at all.
It especially meant he wouldn’t be around to protect Kate, and he couldn’t let that happen.
Kate was one of the most courageous women he’d ever met. From literally nothing, she’d created an environment that not only provided safety and shelter for scared, abused women but also taught them independence and skills to take out into the world. He admired and respected her, but oh God, it had become a lot more than that. She’d put her personal life on hold for a cause she believed in so strongly.
So many nights he dreamt about her naked in his bed. His palms itching to cup her luscious round breasts and tease those taut nipples. Trail his mouth down what he knew had to be silken skin from her neck to her navel and below. Cup the sweet curve of her ass in his palms with her legs spread wide as he plunged into her wet heat.
He blinked when he realized his dick was straining against the zipper of his uniform pants and his balls had developed an ache. God! He wanted to taste every inch of her body and fuck her until neither of them could breathe.
Stop it! You can’t do that!
If his life had been different, he’d love for Kate to be a real part of it. The problem was, once she heard his story, she’d want nothing to do with him. Which was why he’d avoided actual relationships like the plague. He used hot, intense sex to temporarily blank out the nightmares, but that only worked for so long. Besides, he was getting weary of meaningless physical contact. Would he ever get past it, or would he carry the guilt to the grave with him?
Sometimes, as much as he appreciated Tex Kegan’s friendship, he wanted to curse the man for sending him here. Tex had been his lifeline when he left the SEALs. He blessed his teammate who had connected them while he was still an active SEAL because he’d had no idea where to turn the day he walked out with his gear for the last time. Being sheriff of this small county, headquartered in this small town, was exactly what he needed. Tex had smoothed the way for him so he could walk right into the job, and here he was.
He’d often wondered if Tex was really ten people because it hardly seemed possible for one person to accomplish all he did without working up a sweat. He asked so many times Tex had finally texted him a picture of himself with his gorgeous wife, Melody, and the little girl they’d adopted. In the message he’d written, We’re real!
The man had also been there for him on the nights when the bad dreams and guilt plagued him and he needed a calm voice to talk him off the ledge.
He was aware that, under normal circumstances, sheriff was an elected position. However, this county had lost its head lawman unexpectedly, and the commissioners had voted to hire Dan for a year on a trial basis. Now, more than twelve months later, he’d done such a good job no one had a desire to run against him. Tex had provided him with documentation that he’d worked as a private contractor before this, so his years with the SEALs never had to come into it. His secret was safe.
Except for the nightmares, which, though rarer and rarer, never left him completely.
He had just checked on his night shift and was thinking about picking up a pizza on the way home when his cell rang. He looked at the readout.
Did just thinking of her conjure up the call? His lips automatically curved in a smile. But he also had to send a stern message to his dick that seemed to know when a call came from her. Would his reaction to her would ever fade? Probably not. Just his damn bad luck.
He pressed Accept.
“Hey. How’s it going out there? No more situations like the one this morning?”
“No, thank the Lord, and I’m sure it’s thanks to you.” Her voice was like music to him.
“Just so you know, I’m telling all my deputies to keep an extra eye on Gorilla and his animal friends. I’m just glad the new security system we set up for you is working so well.”
”Yes, and thanks so much for that. I wish you’d let me pay you.”
“Consider it a gift from the sheriff’s department.”
She laughed. “You forget, I have a good idea what your budget is. But whoever my Secret Santa is, we are eternally grateful.”
“I’ll pass it along. Mindy still doing okay?”
Kate chuckled. “I think she’ll be fine as long as Corbin’s around. I am amazed at the bond that formed between the two of them.”
“I think it’s good for both of them. Let’s encourage them as softly as we can without making them think we’re stepping into their business.” He smiled.
“Amen to that,” Kate agreed.
“So, what can I do for you?” He held up a hand. “Wait. Gorilla didn’t show back up again, did he?”
“No, no, no. Nothing like that. The girls asked me to call you.” He could actually hear a smile in her voice. “They’re so grateful, not just for this morning but for everything you do for them. Today is cooking day, so they decided they wanted to make dinner for you. I told them you might not be available, but they worked so hard, and it came out so well, I said I’d call and ask.”
“You know they don’t owe me anything,” he told her.
“I know, I know. But they want to show their appreciation. They tried a new recipe today, chicken cacciatore, which turned out damn good. “Please say yes. They’ll be so disappointed if you don’t come.”
He weighed the conflicting emotions of knowing he should keep his distance from Kate and wanting to be with her more than anything. Well, they’d be surrounded by a crowd of women, and he could keep his dick in his pants for a few hours. He hoped.
“Uh, sure. Tell them thanks, and I’ll be on my way in a few.”
“They’ll be very happy to hear it,” she assured him. “Thank you, Dan. It means a lot to them.”
And, to him, it meant another chance to spend time with Kate, even if he did have to keep an invisible wall between them.
His house was close to the sheriff’s department office, so he ran home to take a very quick shower.
For the women, he told himself.
Good thing all that military training had taught him how to clean up fast. For a change, he ditched the uniform and pulled on a clean pair of jeans and a plaid shirt, rolling up the sleeves. Boots on. And his gun, which he was never without, in its holster beneath the plaid shirt. He could be casual but not unprotected. Never unprotected.
Dusk was just falling, and the farmhouse was brightly lit, both inside and out. After that last dustup, Dan had insisted on outside lights at night. Kate had ordered blackout shades for the bedrooms, so the women could sleep and not be disturbed by them. If the lights didn’t chase away troublemakers, Kate and her rifle were at the ready, and the women had all been trained to shoot.
Kate opened the door as he climbed up onto the porch. God, his mouth watered just looking at her. This morning he’d been too focused on business to fully appreciate the sight of her, but now he couldn’t help himself. Her hair, as usual, was a mass of golden curls tumbling to her shoulders that made her appear like a young girl. Her face was devoid of makeup, but as far as he was concerned, she didn’t need any. And her eyes. A soft hazel mixture of brown and gold that drew him in. Damn, but he could lose himself in them. H ow would they look if she was naked under him and he was balls-deep inside her?
Cut it out, or you’ll embarrass yourself.
But crap, it was getting harder and harder to resist.
He’d noticed when he looked closely that behind the warmth in those eyes there was a hint of tragedy. He wondered what that was all about and if there was someone he should plan to beat the shit out of.
“Well, Sheriff.” She grinned. “You clean up pretty good. You know, I think for as long as we’ve both been here I’ve never seen you in anything except your uniform.”
He frowned. “Is that possible? Well, maybe.”
The uniform was his protection, his shield against personal involvement with anyone. Suddenly, he felt emotionally naked and questioned whether this had been such a good idea.
“Come in, Sheriff.” One of the women moved toward him, smiling shyly. “You don’t have to eat in the front hall.”
The rest of them giggled, and Kate winked.
“We do have a seat at the table for you,” she told him.
“I want to thank all of you for making this dinner,” he told them as he followed them into the big dining room.
“We want to thank you,” another one of the women said. “It’s little enough to show our gratitude for all you do to make us feel safe.”
“No thanks necessary. It’s my job.”
“I know,” Kate told him. “But they want to thank you for doing it so well. Come on. Have a seat.”
In the dining room, the table had been set with her best china. There were even roses in a small vase. When he had unfolded his napkin in his lap, he saw her nod toward the doorway. The women all filed in, several of them carrying platters and bowls of food.
“Smells good,” he said, doing his best to be a good guest.
“Chicken cacciatore, like I said” she told him. “And wait until you see dessert.”
All in all, it was a pleasant evening. Throughout it, however, he’d been acutely aware of Kate sitting at the opposite end of the table from him. He had to stop pondering what it would be like if this was real. If they were married, and this was their home. He was damaged goods and should stay away from her except for business.
They were eating dessert, a mouthwatering chocolate cake with ice cream, when Kate cleared her throat.
“Sheriff, the ladies were wondering if you’d have time this week to give them a course in rifles, sort of following up on what they learned with Susan.”
Another situation where he’d be very close to Kate. He could just man up despite being continuously torn between doing anything he could to spend time with her and trying to put distance between them before he did something they’d both regret.
“Is it because of this morning?” he asked.
She nodded then smiled. “They want to be able to handle them the way I did.”
Dan glanced around the table. “That right, ladies?”
They all nodded.
“Please, Sheriff,” one of them said. “We need all the skills we can get to protect us from these assholes.”
Everyone appeared pleased at her words, but then their faces turned serious.
“Kate teaches us a lot of things,” another one said, “including courage. But we want all the skills we can get.”
“Well, then. I think that can be arranged. I’ll work out a time with Kate.”
He was lingering over a cup of coffee while the ladies cleared the table, waiting to talk to Kate, when his cell phone rang. He looked at the readout. Marsh Crawford, his senior deputy on the night shift. His nerves jangled because Marsh never called except in an emergency situation.
“Yeah, Marsh. What’s up?”
“Sorry to bother you, Sheriff, but Gorilla’s building a riot down at Shooter’s. Again. I guess he didn’t learn anything from his overnight stay in our lovely accommodations. I left two deputies inside while I came out here to call you.”
Dan bit back a sigh. This guy was getting to be old hat, and that bar had become a breeding ground for anger and displeasure.
“Apparently, his boss was pissed at him for his little episode this morning and told him not to come back till he cooled down. He spent the day at Shooter’s getting even more drunk. And after they got off work, his friends joined him.”
“Fucking shit.” Dan spit the words out. A headache was inching slowly up through his scalp.
“Anyway, it’s on the edge of a full-out brawl, and he’s working up a head of steam about Haven Farms.”
“I’m on my way.” He found Kate in the kitchen and drew her aside into the hallway. “I’m locking Gorilla’s ass up for tonight, but he’s got a hard-on about this place, so we need to prepare. I’m calling a friend to beef up your security system, and I definitely will be out tomorrow to give your ladies a firearms lesson.”
“Good.” She nodded, just as he’d expected her to. “The training from Susan Stryker was a huge help, but I think we need a refresher course. Just tell me whatever you need from us. I’m going to protect these women from those assholes whatever I have to do.”
Before he realized what he was doing, he reached out for her and gave her a hug. The feel of her warm, toned body against his, the soft press of her breasts, and the tantalizing scent she wore… He wanted to rip away the garments between them and run his hands over her smooth peaches-and-cream skin. When he realized what he was doing, he was even more shocked to realize she hadn’t pushed him away. Then she took a step back and studied him for a moment with a strange expression on her face.
He gave himself a mental shake. What the hell was he doing? He’d lost the right to have emotions like this a long time ago. From the look in Kate’s eyes, she was battling some of the same feelings. Shit. If only he could wave a magic wand and make his past disappear. Because they’d been doing this dance for a long time now, and he had no idea how long his discipline would hold out. Kate Bartlett made him want things he’d long ago told himself he didn’t deserve.
It wasn’t that he lived like a monk. He’d had his share of women over the years, still did, but always away from home base, and always with the understanding that once they got out of bed, it was over. He couldn’t ask someone else to share the burden he carried, so he’d locked the part of himself that wanted a real relationship with Kate Bartlett away. Only her. And that was impossible.
But, for some reason, he couldn’t make himself leave. If just being with her like this was all he’d have, he wanted to stretch each episode out as much as he could. Protecting the farm and the women who lived there gave him plenty of opportunity to be with her without crossing the danger line. Something he very badly wanted.
“I’ll call you and let you know what time tomorrow for the class,” he told her. “Meanwhile, be extra vigilant. I’m going to have someone do a drive-by several times tonight.”
“Dan, you’ve got the entire county to patrol. We’ll be okay.”
“You will because I intend to make sure of it. Okay. Make my apologies to the ladies, and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
And then he left before he did something he’d regret. Like kiss the fuck out of her. But he couldn’t get rid of the look in her eyes that made him think she’d be more than willing.
Damn! Now what did he do? Good thing he had some assholes to wrangle tonight to help get it out of his system.
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