Sheriff Brandon Schofield is smitten by the new arrival in Clear Water Creek, Finn Austen. But Finn is living in the house by the lake where a murder took place, and his story is no less unhappy than the previous occupant's. Finn is on the run from a violent past and he trusts no one.
Brandon is desperate to break down his defences and win Finn's love and trust, but time is running out, and perhaps he can only protect Finn for so long.
Something caught his attention—the silhouette of a man in the trees. What was he doing out here alone? He stood with his back turned, hands in front of him.
Brandon’s foot shifted to the brake. He pulled over, staring. He couldn’t be, could he? He switched off the engine. Grimly, he got out, put his hat on and slammed the door before he walked into the trees, jaw set. Nobody got away with things like this on Brandon’s beat. He had standards.
The man turned his head, startled and cursed low under his breath before he fumbled at his pants.
“What are you doing, sir?” Brandon stepped closer.
“Ah, Officer.” The man turned around fully so the moonlight fell on his features. He was very attractive. Brandon might have been on the job, but he wasn’t blind. The fact that he was so handsome irritated Brandon further. Of average height with a lean body, wearing jeans and a black t-shirt, he was dark-haired with eyes bleached of colour in the moonlight.
“I…got caught short.” The man slurred his words.
Brandon squared his shoulders, trying not to dwell on the man’s perfect face. “Are you drunk?”
“I’ve had a couple of beers. I came out for a walk and—”
“You thought you’d spoil an area of outstanding natural beauty by pissing on a two hundred year old oak tree?”
The man’s small mouth tightened. “And you’re wasting your time pulling me up for it? Don’t you have doughnuts to eat or something?”
Brandon stepped forward furiously, his aim being to intimidate the smaller man, and it worked. He knew he was an imposing figure at six feet and all muscle, but he had never seen anyone virtually shrink back the way the stranger did now. He almost flinched as if Brandon had leapt at him, one hand up as though he would defend himself.
What was this? First-hand experience of police brutality, or something more? Brandon frowned. His gaze was drawn to the man’s right arm. A thick bandage ran from his wrist up beyond the sleeve of his t-shirt. His eyes moved back to the man’s face, and he noticed a dark smudge on his jaw. A bruise.
Brandon folded his arms, looked the man steadily in the eye and watched the corresponding nervousness spring up on his face.
“What did you do to your arm?”
“An accident.” The man looked away.
“What kind of accident?”
“What the hell is this? Do you cross examine everyone you catch pissing on a tree this way, or is it just me? Either arrest me or let me go, goddamn it!”
Brandon narrowed his eyes. “What’s your name?”
“Well congratulations, Mr Austen. I’m the sheriff here, and you just talked your way into being my guest for the evening. Let’s go.” He grabbed the man’s arm, reaching for his cuffs with the other hand.
Finn let out such a howl of pain at the contact that Brandon let go abruptly. Finn staggered back, face turned away, right arm cradled to his body. He leaned against the oak tree he had just defaced, breathing heavily.
Brandon hovered behind him, composure lost, uncertainty taking its place. His gaze lingered once more on the bandaged arm.
“You going to tell me what you did to it now?”
Finn turned his head. “Go to hell,” he said between his teeth.
Brandon moved up right behind him so he breathed on the back of Finn’s neck. The man trembled visibly, his left hand clutching the oak tree hard. This could go one of two ways. Either Brandon could continue to let Finn’s rudeness wind him up and physically manhandle him into his car, or he could let it go and exercise some compassion.
“You know what? Because you’re hurt, I’m going to let you go this once. But I tell you now, Mr Austen, if our paths cross once more and you behave like this, you’re going to find yourself in a whole heap of trouble. Do you understand?”
He expected cursing or more smart comments. What he got was a curt nod. Brandon peered over Finn’s shoulder, noting how he bit his lip and how his closed lashes trembled on his cheeks. Brandon had clearly hurt him. He guessed he should be the one apologising.
“Fine. Where do you live? I’ll give you a ride home.”
Finn shook his head. When he spoke, his voice was unsteady. “It’s okay, I’m just over there.” He motioned across the lake to the house standing alone.
Brandon was taken aback. He had seen lights on at the previously abandoned house—which stood directly across the lake from his own—for the past week but had never noticed a moving van or anyone unloading boxes. Nor had he heard gossip about the house’s new tenant. It seemed he’d arrived like a ghost and lived like one too.