Silent Protector by Katie Reus

Chapter 1

 

The sound of a ringtone pulled Adeline from the progress she was making on her painting. She’d been immersed in her work all day and had almost forgotten the thing.

Blinking, she turned, scanning the living room for the source of the noise. Seeing that it was Serenity, her business partner and best friend, she answered the phone. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Just checking on you. Making sure you made it to the cabin safely.” Serenity was using her mom voice now.

She grinned slightly as she sat on one of the leather couches of the lake cabin’s living room. It was cushy, and with the rain pattering against the tin roof, she knew she could likely fall asleep with little effort. “I’m only about forty minutes away from you.” She hadn’t even left the state of Florida. But getting away like this was already therapeutic.

Adeline and Serenity had shut down the grooming side of their co-owned pet studio for a week since it was a quieter time of year for them. Christmas was a few weeks away, and while they kept the front portion of the shop open to sell dog treats and other pet accessories, both of them needed a break from the actual grooming part.

“I know, but you’re there all alone.”

Adeline appreciated that her friend cared enough to check on her—she loved having friends who actually cared. Not surface friendships, but the real deal.

Both of them had been through hell not long ago. Adeline had been kidnapped earlier in the year, though it felt like it’d been a decade ago. As if that part of her life was a far distant chapter in her past. Not that it was; she still occasionally had nightmares, still woke up covered in sweat at least once a week. “It’s gorgeous here. Quiet, though it’s been raining a lot today.” She’d been hoping to get in some walks around the lake and to maybe test out the canoe in the boathouse, but instead had been holed up with the fire going and painting…almost all day, she realized when she saw the time. Her stomach rumbled, reminding her that she hadn’t eaten since breakfast. And coffee didn’t exactly count.

“I’m glad you’re getting some downtime.”

“How’s your downtime?” Adeline wasn’t sure Serenity actually got any. Her friend was a busy mom who seemed to have a hard time saying no to people.

“Harper gets out of school next week so I’m catching up with Christmas shopping, wrapping presents I’ve hidden, and all sorts of other things now that I have free time.”

“I hope you’re sneaking in extra alone time with that sexy man of yours?” Serenity’s fiancé Lucas—soon-to-be husband—owned a local construction company and was just as busy.

Serenity snickered at that. “Maybe.”

“Good. You guys deserve it.” And lord knew Adeline wasn’t getting any lately. It had been so long for her that she didn’t even want to think about the actual time frame, much less say it out loud. So she hoped her friend was making up for her lack of a sex life.

“Tell me exactly how glorious it is being all alone,” Serenity said, a slight note of wistfulness in her voice. “I love my family, but I’m kind of jealous.”

“Well, I’m about to take a hot bath, pour some wine, and curl up by the fire with a book. So bring on the jealousy.”

Serenity groaned slightly and then there were voices in the background, very likely Harper and Lucas. “I’ve got to go. I just really wanted to make sure you were doing okay. Keep the phone lines open—don’t completely hole up this week.”

“Okay.”

After they disconnected, she sat there for a long moment. She knew Serenity worried about her, but for the most part she was handling the aftereffects of her kidnapping okay. Except when she glanced down at the faded burn marks on her left arm, a reminder that she had almost died. Again. Though Serenity didn’t know about the time before. Didn’t know about her other scars.

No one in Verona Bay did.

Her gaze strayed back to her painting and she stared at the almost-finished canvas for a long moment. She hadn’t even meant to paint her mother, but once she’d started, there had been no stopping her. She’d been consumed with thoughts of the past, and now…looking into the dark eyes of her deceased mom, she wondered what her mom would think of her. Would she be proud? Sighing at herself, she grabbed her paintbrushes and took them to the kitchen sink to wash everything out.

A friend from Verona Bay had let her use this cabin for the week, saying that since it wasn’t rental season, she was just glad the place was getting some use. The woman wasn’t charging Adeline rent or anything, though Adeline was going to give her something to cover the stay.

The cabin was on a fairly large lake, but not so large she couldn’t see the other side. Though there were no direct neighbors, she still had a view of the huge homes dotted around the lake. And she had phone and internet access out here. But it was nice not to have to deal with other humans close by. Sort of a way to decompress.

After pouring herself a glass of wine, she did exactly as she said she would: started a hot bath and pinned her hair up on top of her head before sinking into the water.

This was her vacation and she was going to take full advantage of it.

* * *

Mac frowned as he pulled into the driveway. Fresh tire tracks led to the closed garage. Derek had told him he could use this lake house to get away for a few days. God knew he needed it.

His brother Joe had invited his girlfriend over for the last few nights, and while he’d never minded living with his two younger brothers, lately Mac was starting to crave some space. To carve out something just for himself. But he didn’t want to kick them out or anything. After their parents had died, Mac had finished raising Joe and Dylan. They all still lived in the house they’d grown up in. He couldn’t very well tell his brother he couldn’t bring his girlfriend around. It was just weird having an outsider in his space so often.

And if he was being honest, seeing them together reminded Mac that he’d somehow blown his shot with Adeline Rodriguez. He wasn’t sure how, but at one point there had definitely been a spark of attraction between them. Hell, more than a spark. The simmering heat between them had been electric.

But the moment he’d asked her out, she’d pulled back as if he’d asked her to make an animal sacrifice with him. And for the last two months she’d basically been avoiding him.

No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get her out of his head. It was because he knew he hadn’t imagined the spark between them, the pull. She’d felt it too, and he knew she was single. But something was keeping her away from him.

Sighing at himself, he grabbed his duffel, and, bracing for the deluge of rain, hurried out into the weather. He raced for the front door, then, using the key Derek had given him, let himself in.

He froze for a moment, carefully setting the bag on the floor as water dripped down his face and arms. He was not alone.

Music drifted from somewhere inside and he heard definite movements above the rain pattering against the roof. He knew Derek rented this place out in the summer, but not the fall and winter. Derek had also told him the alarm would be active but… Mac glanced at the panel by the front door. Nope, it was disarmed.

He stepped cautiously through the foyer, his muscles tensing as he prepared to deal with an intruder.

Moving down the hallway, he heard a soft humming, and a sort of sizzling sound. And…a deluge of spices, something delicious, hit him. Someone was cooking in the kitchen? So the intruder was just making themself right at home.

As he stepped around the corner, he froze at the sight in front of him.

Adeline was in the kitchen, wearing a skimpy little…dress? Lingerie? He didn’t know what the scrap of material was, but she wore it well. The pink dress thing had skinny straps, the color bright against her darker skin, and showed off the most perfect ass he’d ever seen. And she was humming to herself as soft music played and she swayed her hips in the most sensual, free way he’d ever seen.

Oh, hell. He felt like he was the intruder, knew he needed to let her know he was here. “Adeline.”

She let out a scream and whirled to face him, spatula held up like a weapon. Then she froze. “Mac? What…are you doing here?” She blinked those big brown eyes at him.

“Derek told me I could use this place for the next two days.”

She winced and let out a nervous laugh. “Ah, well, Madison told me I could use it.”

Derek’s wife. “They clearly made a scheduling error.” Though he was disappointed to have to leave, he took a step back. “I’ll get out of your hair.” Seeing her jarred him, especially since he’d been more or less obsessing about her the last couple months. Hoping for little peeks of her around town even though it was torture of the best kind. And now she was standing in front of him, her breasts spilling out of the dress, his fantasy come to life.

She shook her head slightly, her big curls swishing softly against her shoulders. “No, it’s late, and the weather is awful.”

“It’s only nine o’clock.”

“The rain…” She trailed off and then looked down as if suddenly realizing what she was wearing, because she cleared her throat. “Ah, hold on.” She turned off the stovetop and hurried from the room.

When she did, he got a glimpse of a lot of skin and a hint of her ass as the little dress thingy flared out.

His muscles seized up as his awareness of her heightened. He’d always been attracted to her. From the moment she’d shown up to tutor one of his brothers. But damn, seeing her like this? He scrubbed a hand over his face and tried to shake away the lust surging through him.

Less than a minute later she was back, wearing a big sweater with a sparkly heart in the middle and yoga pants. “We should probably call Derek and Madison and find out what happened. Or at least let them know.”

“I promise, it’s not a big deal. I’ll just head out.” He hadn’t even gotten settled in, though he was disappointed. He’d been looking forward to the time alone here.

A boom of thunder clapped overhead and they both stilled for a moment as the windows rattled.

She shook her head as she returned to the stove. “The rain is getting worse and I just got a tornado alert on my phone.” As if to mirror her words, his own phone buzzed with the standard alert, announcing that a tornado had been seen in the area. “You shouldn’t be on the roads with this weather. There are probably trees down too.” She spoke as if it was already a done deal.

She was right, he knew that. But he didn’t want to invade her space when she’d made it clear that she didn’t want to be around him. He glanced around the kitchen, studiously not staring at her. “Smells good.”

“It is good, and I’ve got plenty to share. Seriously, there are two bedrooms. Go put your bag in the spare one. It’s the first one on the right down the hall. I took the bigger bedroom.” She grinned slightly and that smile did something to his insides—namely, made him forget how to breathe. “To be fair, I didn’t know you were coming.”

The situation was so weird and she was being so nice to him. As if she hadn’t been avoiding him for months. And…he really didn’t want to drive home. Not because of the storm, but because he wanted to spend time with her.

In that moment, he decided he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth. He simply nodded and backtracked to the foyer, grabbing his duffel and doing as she said.

As he stepped into the spare bedroom, thunder shook the entire house and he figured they might need to get some candles in case they lost power. He texted Derek to let him know about the double-booking and to ask where the emergency kit was.

Mac couldn’t shake the surreal feeling as he stepped back into the kitchen to find Adeline scooping whatever she’d cooked into two white scalloped bowls.

“I’m going to top mine with a fried egg. You want one?” she asked.

He glanced at the bowl of rice and beans and looked up at the sliced avocado on the cutting board. “Yeah, thank you. This looks delicious. What is it?”

“A modified version of my mom’s huevos rancheros—I don’t include the corn tortilla and I don’t make my own salsa.” She laughed lightly, the sound wrapping around him. “I use the store-bought kind,” she said as if confessing a secret. “My mom used to make this for me all the time. I’ve never quite perfected the spices she used on the rice, but it’s pretty close.”

“She used to?”

“Yeah, she died.” She didn’t look at him, didn’t offer up any more details, but he saw the way her jaw flexed slightly as she cracked an egg into the pan.

Mac recognized the sharp bite of pain in her words, something he understood all too well, having lost both his parents at a relatively young age. So he didn’t push.

Before he could think of something to say, she continued. “I’ve got an open bottle of wine over there. I’m not sure if you drink wine, but you’re welcome to have some. And there are a couple beers in the fridge. Derek’s, I’m sure.”

He shook his head as he stepped farther into the kitchen. “I don’t drink at all, so I’m good.”

She paused and glanced over at him. “You don’t drink alcohol?”

“Nope.”

“Well, I’ve got water and tea in the fridge.”

“I’ve got a cooler out in my Bronco. I wasn’t going to haul it in until the morning.” He’d planned to get here and crash.

“Did you eat before leaving Verona Bay?”

He laughed lightly as he leaned against a countertop. “Does gas station beef jerky count?”

She looked at him again, her brown eyes widening in horror. “No, it most certainly does not.”

Being this close to her was doing something to his senses—namely sending them into overload.

Pushing up, he searched around for silverware and set the little table by the window overlooking the lake. The blinds were open but it was too dark out to see much. If he squinted, he could just make out the lake beyond the sheets of rain falling.

“The flashes of lightning are kind of wild. They’ve been lighting up the lake. It’s cool to see,” she said.

He turned away from the window. “I texted Derek and let him know about the mishap. I also told him about the thunderstorm. He told me where all the spare candles are, so I’ll grab them and set them up.”

“Good idea, because I didn’t even think of that… Do you mind if I drink, by the way? If it’ll bother you, I don’t mind putting the wine up.”

He was momentarily stunned by her intuitiveness but maybe he shouldn’t have been. Most people didn’t catch on to what he meant when he said he didn’t drink at all. He always said it so matter-of-factly. Usually people just thought he meant he wasn’t drinking right then. “No, I’m good, I promise. I’ll be right back.”

He stepped into the laundry room and found the box of battery-operated candles, regular candles, flashlights, little tea lights and other assorted things that made up the equivalent of a hurricane kit and carried it back to the kitchen. He set everything on one of the countertops as Adeline set both their bowls on the table.

“I’m sorry to disturb your getaway,” he said as he joined her in the eating nook.

She snorted softly and motioned for him to sit as she took her own seat. “I could say the same thing. You’re obviously up here to get away too. Sorry I ruined that for you.”

“Being around you is a nice change of pace. I haven’t seen much of you the last couple months.” Damn it, he hadn’t meant to say anything. He didn’t want to make things awkward, because it was clear she was trying to keep things light and upbeat. Apparently he couldn’t help himself.

It definitely wasn’t his imagination when her cheeks flushed.

He cleared his throat. “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to make it awkward. You’re just being really nice to me. It…surprised me since it feels like you’ve been avoiding me.”

“No, it’s fine. I guess…I have maybe been avoiding you.”

“Maybe?”

“Fine, I have been.” Her cheeks flushed even darker and she avoided looking at him as she picked up her fork.

“Just because you don’t want to go out with me doesn’t mean we can’t be friendly.” It bothered him that once he’d asked her out, she’d basically ghosted him.

“It’s not that I didn’t want to go out with you… I did. I do. I mean…” Her cheeks were flaming now. “I don’t even know what I’m trying to say. I’m just not dating right now and I guess I panicked. I didn’t want things to be weird, so I flaked.”

He focused in on the “I do” statement. Interesting. He wasn’t sure what to think about it.

“So how was the drive up here?” she continued, clearly trying to change the subject.

He took her up on it, not wanting things to spiral into a weird place, especially when they were currently sharing a roof. “Not too bad until the rain started. The roads were getting slick the last couple miles here. And the lightning—” As if on cue, lightning flashed across the sky, highlighting the lake in brilliant streaks of white.

Across the table, she shuddered slightly.

Protectiveness surged through him. He didn’t like it when anyone was afraid, but especially not Adeline. Not after what she’d been through. “After we eat, we might want to set up some of the candles just to get things ready.” He glanced over at the fireplace. “And I can get that going again.”

“Yeah, I kind of let that fall by the wayside. I took a bath and then got distracted with cooking.”

The vision of her naked in a tub wasn’t making the attraction dissipate any. Nope. Not at all. “This is amazing, by the way. I think your mom would be proud.” He took another bite, ordering himself not to shovel it all in like a barbarian.

“Thanks.” Her cheeks flushed again and he had all sorts of thoughts about that—namely wondering if she’d flush all over if he had his head between her legs.

Silence stretched between them and he couldn’t decide if it was comfortable or awkward. Things between them were weird but she’d admitted that she’d been avoiding him and…being here with her didn’t feel off. He liked her company, liked her, and she was trying to make the best of things.

“Can I ask why you don’t drink?” she asked suddenly. Then her eyes widened slightly. “I mean, never mind, I’m being really nosy. When I’m nervous I tend to talk too much and say stupid stuff. Just ignore me.”

His mouth curved up as he watched her. He’d never seen her out of sorts like this. She was sweet and funny—always making his brother laugh when she tutored him. But out of sorts? No, definitely not.

“It’s okay. I don’t mind talking about it. I’ve been in AA for about thirteen years. I don’t have the urge to drink anymore.” He paused. “Actually, I should say I get the urge maybe once a year, but it usually passes. I’ll wonder if now I can have just one drink and be done with it. But I’m simply one of those people who can’t drink. I just don’t know when to stop. It’s like there’s a switch in my brain that doesn’t shut off. In high school it wasn’t a big deal, and in case you haven’t heard, I had quite the reputation as a partier.”

She nodded. “I’ve heard some stories.”

Yeah, he figured, and hoped she hadn’t heard the worst ones. He’d been young and stupid, but it was still embarrassing to think of the way he’d been. “So anyway, that was normal, or I thought it was. I was young and stupid and all my friends were doing it.” Of course his friends hadn’t been drinking on weekdays after school like he had been. “In the Marines I basically got my shit together. When I was deployed, I wasn’t drinking much except if we managed to sneak some into our tents. But it soon became clear that unlike my friends, I simply couldn’t stop. One of my superiors had a long sit-down with me about what my life would be like if I didn’t get it together, and I looked into AA, got a sponsor and got that part of my life together.

“It’s not as simple as all that—I hurt people in ways I regret, had setbacks, and I screwed up more times than I want to admit—but that’s the short story of the long road I took to get here. It’s just part of who I am, and I’m at the point now where it’s something I manage.” He didn’t hide this part of himself, but he also didn’t normally talk so freely about it. But he liked being open with her, wanted her to know exactly who he was. Especially since he thought there might still be a chance between them.

“You still go to meetings?”

“Once a week. It’s healthy for me to connect with others, remind myself that I can’t ever risk going back to who I was.” He’d built up his business, had two brothers to look out for, and he liked his life. Ruining everything over a temporary numbing wasn’t worth it.

She took a bite of her dinner, nodded thoughtfully. “My mom was an alcoholic. I’ve always been cautious about how much I drink because of it. I know it can be hereditary.”

“My dad was one too. He covered it well, but knowing what I know now, yeah, he had a problem. I just didn’t see it when I was a self-involved teenager. I honestly don’t think he realized he had a problem. It was sort of the culture of him and his friends, I guess.” He cleared his throat. “Can I ask you something personal?”

“Yeah, of course, especially after you’ve been so open.” She watched him with those gorgeous brown eyes he could lose himself in.

“You never talk much about your past. I guess I don’t have a question, I’m just curious, and now you’ve brought up your mom, so…” Hell, he didn’t know what he was trying to say. He just wanted to get to know her more.

“Ah, well, my mom…she was an artist. A talented one. Drinking and drugs were very much part of her and her artist friends’ way of life. She certainly didn’t think she had a problem, never would have labeled her drinking alcoholism, but…she drank to the point where it was unhealthy.”

Before he could say anything else, another bolt of lightning streaked across the sky, lighting up the lake again right before the cabin plunged into darkness.