Harlan’s Haven by Sandra S. Kerns
Colorado Skies Series; Book 6
Published: February 11, 2015
Published by: Sandra S Kerns
A Wounded Soldier. A Waitress. A Determined Mobster.
Harlan Granger is facing a fate worse than death. He’s been discharged from the Army thanks to a piece of shrapnel near his spine. He was born to be a soldier and hasn’t a clue what to do as a civilian. Hopefully, he can keep himself occupied with work on his parents’ house until the worst happens. All too soon, he realizes the peace and quiet he so desperately needs to heal and think isn’t to be found in his hometown. Trouble has found it’s way to Bluff’s Corner, and it’s centered around his brother’s business. His brother’s pixie-like neighbor has Harlan’s trouble radar going off the charts. It’s not just his attraction to her that has him second-guessing himself, he’s sure she’s hiding secrets of her own, secrets that could be dangerous both to her and his brother.
Rilie Lazar is finally beginning to enjoy life. The people in Bluff’s Corner, Colorado are friendly but not nosey. Her quilting business is going well and her best friend is the funniest guy she’s ever known. At least, he was until the night his brother walked into the bar. He might be the best looking Alpha male she’s ever met, but he’s putting a definite damper on the atmosphere. Worse, he’s bringing back memories she would rather keep buried. Memories that have her looking over her shoulder and being on guard all the time. She thought she left all that behind, but what if he’s right?
If you like brooding heroes, feisty heroines, and romance with a few bumps along the way, you want Harlan’s Haven.
Buy Harlan’s Haven to start romancing your soldier today.
A note from the Author:
You can see more of Harlan in the first book of my new Master Security series. While I can’t give you the link yet, I’ll let you in on a little secret. Harlan is stopping by this series to let you know he’s going to have a spinoff series of his own. That’s right. Later this year, I’ll release the first book in a series dealing with heroes and/or heroines who need some assistance getting their lives back on track after being discharged from the service. In fact, even before that series is released, the second book in the new Master Security series will have a hero who is one of the men Harlan helps. Stay tuned for more after you finish reading Harlan’s Haven.
If you want to know exactly when new books are scheduled, sign-up for my mailing list. You’ll receive 2 free books from my other series, and special offers for my readers. Enjoy finding out how Harlan deals with his haven being breached by a spunky pixie waitress. When you’re finished, drop me a line and let me know what you think. I love hearing from my readers!
Bright lights and an air horn blaring catapulted Harlan from his thoughts. He cut the wheel hard to the right.
“Sonofabitch,” he hissed. His heart did a staccato beat on his ribcage. He pulled to the shoulder for a minute. After popping the gearshift to neutral, he pulled on the emergency brake and then fell against the back of the seat. The dust and dirt whirling in the beam of his headlights echoed what he’d been remembering before the air horn. At least this time his blood pressure had a reason other than his memories for being in the stratosphere.
Maybe he should have flown home and had Larry pick him up. The thought that he would have had to return to the base to pick up his truck reminded him of why he hadn’t done just that. The pity in the eyes of those at the hospital had been bad enough when he was still commissioned. There was no way he would survive going back on base again now that he’d been discharged.
He gave his heart a few minutes to recover while he considered his options. There weren’t many. Releasing the emergency brake, he put the truck back in gear, checked his mirrors, tapped his lights to high since there was no other traffic, and pulled back onto the road.
“You’re almost there. No reason to stop now. There’s nothing to go back to anyway. Besides, Larry’s expecting you. If you don’t show up soon he’ll panic and send out a search party.”
Hearing himself say the last made him grin. When he’d called his brother last night, Larry was already worried because the drive was taking twice as long. Usually laid-back, Larry became a world-class worrier if he had an inkling something might be wrong. That tone had come through the phone line loud and clear. Harlan knew if he didn’t make it home tonight, there would be hell to pay.
The extra illumination from his high beams gave him a look at more of the flood damage he’d noticed while driving across the plains. Now in the foothills, he could see places where the river’s path had changed.
“I guess nothing stays the same forever,” he said as he took the next ramp off the highway. Twenty minutes and four turns later, he was on the main road through town. The small mountain town near the Big Thompson River had changed from more than just the flood since he left almost fifteen years ago. If it wasn’t almost midnight, he expected he would notice even more differences. He’d had a chance to talk with his brother shortly after the flooding. Larry had said the town had some major damage, but everyone in Bluff’s Corner pitched in and it had bounced back.
He saw the new sign above the door to his brother’s bar a block down the street. Taking a deep breath, Harlan turned right onto the street then right again into the back parking lot. He pulled up beside his brother’s old car. The kid had bought the car in high school planning to fix it up. Obviously, that never happened, he thought with a grin.
After pulling the keys from the ignition, Harlan leaned on the steering wheel and looked at the back of the building. It was quiet. He thought back to when he’d grown up in this town. A few times over the years, there had been minor troubles, but nothing huge. The peaceful area, with the nearby creek, stream, or river depending on whom you talked to, fit Larry and their parents well. Their brother Gil and their baby sister, Priscilla were more like him. They wanted to see what else was out there. He had been more than ready to leave by the time he graduated from high school.
Now he wondered why.
Harlan stepped out of the truck and stretched as best he could. His muscles were stiff from lack of use the past month. Physical therapy hadn’t been half the workout he was accustomed to, but it was almost more than he could manage after being caught between two exploding vehicles.
Just the thought had him pounding his fist on the side of the truck. The resulting pain screaming up his arm was better than where his thoughts had started to drift. A few deep breaths and he shook it off.
A cold wind whipped through the back lot and he shivered. It must have been a clear day because he’d checked the temp and knew it had been ninety earlier. If the sky was free of clouds all that heat disappeared quickly at night up here in the mountains. He reached behind the seat and grabbed his leather coat, glad he hadn’t rolled it up and put it in his duffel. As he shoved his arms in the sleeves, he looked up. The sky was ink black with a myriad of stars. He caught himself naming constellations and grinned.
His dad had started teaching them to him when he was only four. There were some huge boulders near their house by the river. They would go out at night, lie on a boulder, and look at the stars. It was a time just for him and his dad. His brothers and sister never got the star bug, but he never got over it. The desert was the only other place he’d ever known where you could see so many stars. Unfortunately, the fact there was a war going on made stargazing difficult. Maybe he could get back into it now that he was home. He wondered if dad still looked up.
You could ask.
Harlan ignored his prodding conscience. He wasn’t ready to face the whole family. Larry was different. He would give him space and time. As long as Larry could keep an eye on him, he wouldn’t worry as much. Mostly, he was happy. That’s why I came here, Harlan thought lifting his bag from behind the seat. He needed to be reminded what it meant to be happy. The last couple of years, his missions required him to focus on war and survival.
He turned to face the back of the building. “Well, you drove all this way; you might as well go inside.”
He walked across the parking lot to the bar’s back door. Years ago, Larry had sent him a key to the building, the apartment stairwell door, and the apartment for the rare occasions he would come home. Somehow, his brother had known going back to the house wouldn’t have worked. Harlan still wasn’t sure why he’d been so against staying at their childhood home, but he didn’t have to figure it out tonight so he let it go.
The private entrance for the upstairs was immediately to the left after you entered the bar’s back exit. The alcove between the exit and the bar itself was empty, so he went upstairs unseen. He let himself in the apartment and dropped his bag inside the door. Exhaustion weighed on him. He really didn’t want to go downstairs.
In his teens, he’d been the life of the party. Now he preferred solitude and silence.
He didn’t want to upset his brother, so he used the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and headed back downstairs. To give himself a few more moments of quiet and to stretch his legs a little more, he walked around to the front. It had been a long ride from the east coast. The fresh air would hopefully give him some energy.
Opening the door, Harlan felt like he was entering another dimension. Loud music, loud laughter, even louder conversations, and a lot of people filled the neighborhood bar. For the past month or more his life had been filled with beeps from monitors, squeaky wheels rolling down hospital hallways at night, and the quiet of staring out the shrink’s window while listening to him ask questions Harlan never answered. But, he’d wanted a change, and this was definitely different.
Stepping inside he scanned the entire room by the time he’d taken two steps. The place was impeccable, just as he’d expected. The brass accents on the bar gleamed. The real and locally created stained-glass lights cast colors into the mirror behind the bar. The floor had some peanut shells on it, but it was late on a Friday night. Yep, neat and tidy, just the way Larry liked things.
As he made his way to the far end of the bar, several people stared as if trying to figure out who he was before it would register. Then they’d smile and offer their hand. Harlan forced himself to nod and return the handshakes. He clenched his jaw to keep from groaning when a few people slapped him on the shoulder. He didn’t speak to anyone. There was nothing to say, they simply recognized him because he’d grown up here and was Larry’s brother. The resemblance was clear even though they were very different. Harlan didn’t really know or at least didn’t recognize anyone here anymore except Larry. As far as he was concerned, that was fine.
Halfway to the other end of the bar a waitress almost backed into him. At the last moment, she turned, avoiding him with a fluid grace he couldn’t remember seeing in a bar before. She cast him an apologetic smile before turning to give Larry her order. That’s when Larry looked up and saw him for the first time.
He nodded and Larry returned the greeting with a smile. Harlan knew he wouldn’t have long to come up with a better hello. He hoped the waitress had a big order for his brother so he would have a few extra minutes to think. Not having come up with anything in the past four days, he couldn’t imagine what good a few more minutes would do. He watched the waitress for a moment. Larry listened and started mixing drinks, though he kept glancing at Harlan. Offering the closest thing to a smile he could dredge up, Harlan continued his journey toward the back.
He didn’t remember the place being so busy it needed waitresses. Then again, it had been years since he’d been back. That was when he realized the bar itself was almost a full circle. Most of the wall between the two buildings had been knocked down. The bar now encompassed the first floor of both buildings and included a new dance floor. Harlan was impressed. Larry worked hard and deserved the success.
Rounding the end of the bar, he headed for the last seat. He was glad this part of the wall was still intact. When he was here, he always sat here so he could watch both entrances. The stool had a cardboard sign propped on it. Harlan picked up the placard. Reserved for the guy with black eyes. He grinned. It was a family joke. Somehow, he had been the only one to inherit his grandfather’s black eyes. Everyone else had brown eyes. When he looked up, his brother was walking toward him with an amber-filled glass and a smile. Yeah, maybe a scotch would help rid him of the last of the tension from unintentionally playing chicken with an eighteen-wheeler. He dug deep and found a real smile for his brother.
“I was starting to wonder if you were going to make it tonight,” Larry said, grasping Harlan’s hand after setting the glass down.
Harlan held up the sign in his other hand. “Cute.” He was thankful that since the real black eyes he’d had in the hospital had healed the joke wouldn’t take on a different meaning.
“Hey, I wanted to make sure no one took your place. I haven’t seen eyes like yours since you left, so I figured it was a safe bet.”
Harlan nodded as he sat on the stool. “Sorry I’m so late. I needed to stop and get out of the truck more than I used to. Guess I’m getting old.”
“Not old, just human,” Larry said.
Seeing the concern in his brother’s eyes, Harlan shook his head.
“I’m okay, stop worrying. I’ll hang out here until you close up,” he said taking a sip of the single malt. “I hope you have some iced tea down there though. One of these will probably be my limit tonight.”
“It’s brewed and chilled. I figured you wouldn’t want much else,” his brother said as someone called from the other end of the bar. “Gotta get back to it, we’ll talk later.”
Harlan nodded. Turning on the stool, he settled his back against the wall. After a minute or two, he found a comfortable position that didn’t irritate his aching body too much. Unfortunately, the position had the light above him shining directly into his eyes. Snagging a napkin, he twisted the bulb and almost sighed aloud with relief.
It didn’t take long for the noise to become minor background while he observed the room. There was a good crowd, but the place wasn’t packed. The waitress made her way between the various tables with practiced ease. She had a ready smile for each table. She obviously had a good memory as well. He counted four tables before she went to the bar and placed the orders. The length of time it took for her to tell them to Larry, said it wasn’t just four pitchers of beer. Taking another sip of his scotch, Harlan decided to see if she managed to get it all right with the delivery.
While she waited for the drinks, she looked in his direction. It wasn’t a glance. Her gaze was intent and searching. Harlan held her gaze. It felt more like the inspections he withstood in boot camp, than a woman sizing him up. He’d had more than his share of typical female once-overs and he didn’t usually waste his time acknowledging them. He had no intention of becoming involved in a relationship. But this, this was different. It felt like she was trying to assess his right to be here. The moment Larry started setting glasses on her tray the perusal stopped. She gave Larry a megawatt smile and returned to business. Harlan’s gaze remained on her while the shock hit him that he felt she’d taken his measure and found him lacking.
It didn’t bother him. He’d already had his ego blown apart . . . that’s fitting, having your ego blown up like you were, he thought barely stopping himself from shaking his head. With no ego and no idea what life held now, there was nothing left for the little wisp of a woman to hurt, the look did, however, intrigue him.
He watched her deliver her orders. If the bills she stuck in her apron were any indication, she got the first three tables right. She returned to the bar to pick up another tray and returned to the last table. After efficiently placing each glass in front of the women seated there, she patiently waited for the money, returned the change, and smiled before turning away, even though she didn’t receive a tip.
Watching the table full of women, to see if the reason for lack of tip was placing the drinks with the wrong customer, he watched each one take a sip. Every drink was in the right place. The women were just cheap.
Score one for the waitress, he thought as his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. When he pulled it out and glanced at the display, he rolled his eyes and stood. Heading toward the back door, he answered the call.
“I’m fine, Colonel. Besides, I’m not your concern anymore. Remember?”
“Are you there yet?”
Harlan clenched his jaw as he opened the door that led to an alcove and the back entrance. He needed less background noise to get through to his ex-CO. “Yes. I’ve already checked in with my brother if you want to call him to verify.”
“I’m concerned about you, son, but I don’t plan on going behind your back or talking to anyone about you. That’s your business. I just wanted to make sure you made it to Colorado. It was a long drive to take so soon after being released.”
Harlan took a deep breath, remembering his close call with the truck less than an hour earlier. Releasing the breath, he managed a calm tone when he replied. “Yes it was a long trip. I’m tired, but that’s no excuse for insulting you. I know you tried.”
“I’m not insulted, Harlan. I’ve known you too many years to let a little sarcasm from you get under my skin.”
“That’s true. Anyway, I’m relaxing in the bar until Larry closes up. I’m still too wound from the drive to go to sleep.”
“I can understand that. Listen, I may not be your commanding officer anymore, but if you need to talk you can call. My phone’s on 24/7/365.”
“Yes, sir.” Flipping the phone closed he shoved it back in his pocket then blew out a tense breath. With the number of deep breaths he’d taken in the past hour and the increased elevation, he should be light-headed. Exhaustion was obviously dogging him if he was mouthing off to the Colonel. The man had backed him at every turn. He scrubbed his hands over his head and squeezed it for a few seconds. Dropping his hands from his head, he released yet another breath, and tried to center himself before walking back toward the bar.
He rubbed his stomach as he walked out of the small alcove and through the door. When he got back to his stool, a plate of nachos waited next to his drink. Looking up, he wondered how his brother had known he was hungry. Larry walked over while he dried a glass.
“It’s Fiesta Friday,” he said, motioning toward the plate. “I held some aside for you before it was all gone. I figured you wouldn’t stop once you got close.”
“Thanks. I take it the customers like it.”
“They seem to,” Larry said, leaning on the bar. “I’m thinking about offering more. There’s a kitchen in the back of the other building. I’m renovating it now and trying out some recipes. I think it would give the place more of a pub type feel and bring in more business during the lunch hour.”
Harlan nodded. The nachos were putting a dent in his hunger. The colonel had backed off. Larry was talking to him as if it hadn’t been over two years since they’d seen each other. The scotch was starting to take effect, too. Maybe coming home was the right thing to do.
“What do you think?”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Harlan said biting into another chip before looking at his brother. Larry gave him a curious look.
“Not the business. Rilie, the waitress?” he said, nodding toward the waitress who had avoided Harlan when he’d been walking through.
Maybe the scotch was having too good an effect. Obviously, he’d missed something. He followed his brother’s gaze to make sure they were talking about the same waitress. “She seems good at her job.”
Larry shook his head. “I asked you why a girl like that would prefer being alone?”
Ah, now Harlan understood. “Struck out, huh?”
“No, never even tried. I know a lot of guys who have.”
Harlan let his gaze follow the waitress in question as she went from table to table. He found himself enjoying it. Her short, spiked, perky, golden hair suited her toned, compact body. He shook his head for looking that closely and refocused his mind. She always had a smile and a few words for the customers. He could tell she had a good rapport with the regulars. He could also tell which people weren’t regulars. Like the table of women who hadn’t given her a tip. And the table of rowdy young men in the front corner where she was heading now.
Out of the corner of his eye, Harlan noticed Larry push off from the bar at the same time his own trouble radar kicked in. So much for the drink taking effect, he thought still watching the waitress.
She cleared the table and turned to leave. Her glance met his for a moment when she looked toward the bar. He sensed unease in it. Then, one of the men grabbed her wrist. Harlan was on his feet instantly. Larry held up his hand to hold him in place. The jukebox chose that moment to go silent. All heads turned toward the table where the man held the waitress. Shit, he didn’t need to get into the middle of a bar fight. Hell, he wasn’t sure he could survive a bar fight tonight, but he’d do his damnedest if it came to that.
The waitress turned her head back toward the table and looked down at the man. “Sweetie, if you want to use that hand for fishing tomorrow, I suggest you let go of me.”
Her tone was even, she was giving him an easy out. From the tension that Harlan felt in the bar, the idiot should take it.
“I’d rather use it for something tonight,” the idiot said, tugging on the wrist he held.
Harlan watched, ready to jump in, as the movement unsettled the load of glasses the waitress carried. They all fell into the rude customer’s lap. Harlan took two steps as the man jumped up and grabbed for the waitress, screaming.
“You little –”
The man’s words were cut off by Larry’s martial arts fighting sticks slamming down on the table. Harlan had seen Larry snatch the sticks from under the bar before jumping over it in one smooth motion. Harlan hung back. He kept an eye on the waitress walking toward the bar. He’d smooth things over here, while his brother faced off with the idiot and his friends. There wasn’t a doubt in his mind that Larry could handle them on his own.
The waitress offered smiles to customers who offered comfort as she made her way toward the end of the bar. Harlan could see the smiles were forced. She was working very hard to make everyone think she was fine.
Her movements weren’t fluid as they’d been before the encounter. Her body was tight. It was as if she were trying to make herself so small she wouldn’t touch anyone as she moved. Her gaze was straight ahead, but not really seeing. When she turned the corner, she froze, as if just realizing he was there. He pulled a stool out for her before lifting the hinged part of the bar near his seat. Once behind the bar, he snagged a shot glass and a bottle. While he poured the shot, he looked at the wrist she was rubbing. The guy had been holding on tight from the finger marks left on her pale skin.
“Drink it,” he said, swallowing his anger and setting the filled glass in front of her. She wasn’t paying attention to him. Her eyes were watching Larry and several others herd the idiot out the door. Harlan leaned sideways to block her view. “Drink.”
This time her gaze flew to his. Harlan saw a slight flash of anger, but it couldn’t erase the fear that had filled those gorgeous hazel-colored but Bambi-sized eyes. “It will help calm your nerves.”
She narrowed her eyes just a bit, but picked up the glass. Her hand shook and he knew he’d been right about how upset she was. He’d have to ask Larry if this type of thing happened often.
Thought you weren’t going to get involved in anything.
The reminder slammed him in the gut about the same time the whiskey hit the back of the waitress’s throat. His gut tensed. He prayed no one else noticed the fear enveloping him as he concentrated on the waitress. He gave her points for not choking outright. However, she did grasp her throat and her eyes filled with tears from the shock of the alcohol. He poured her another.
“Sip this one,” he said, before turning away. He faced the bar, but all he saw was the back of heads. A few turned around and looked at the waitress nursing the second shot he’d given her. The way her shoulders were almost touching her earlobes, he figured the attention bothered her. He needed to change the focus from the negatives to a positive. Damn. Fine, he could pretend to be a friendly and interested bartender for a few minutes if it killed him.
“Okay, folks. For your support, this round’s on the house,” he called out. Larry wouldn’t mind under the circumstances. Hell, if free drinks would stop the waitress from staring at him and get back to work, he’d pay for them.
“You heard the man,” Larry said, joining him behind the bar.
Harlan took orders and filled glasses, but his attention never left the waitress at the end of the bar. He glanced her way several times to make sure she was okay. Her color was better. Her easy grin when people spoke to her had him relaxing as he worked the bar. After about fifteen minutes, she slipped off the stool, walked to the jukebox, put in several coins, and pushed a number of buttons. Music once again filled the room.
“Feels like the old days,” Larry yelled from about ten feet down the bar.
Harlan nodded. They’d always been a good team growing up. The only difference was back then Harlan enjoyed people. Now, he was counting the seconds until he could stop smiling. He tried to focus on serving the drinks fast enough not to have to talk. He also tried to ignore the waitress watching him as she walked back toward the bar. It didn’t work. He finally gave in and walked over to her.
“Are you okay?”
Rilie appreciated the low volume of his inquiry. She did not want Larry getting anymore upset than he was all ready. “Fine.”
He focused that black-eyed gaze on her again. The one she’d noticed several times when he caught her watching him. Now she understood the sign Larry had put on the stool. “Okay, maybe fine is pushing it, but I’ll survive.”
The explanation seemed to satisfy him. The intensity in his eyes eased and she swore he released a sigh before he picked up the glass and plate he’d used earlier and turned away. She enjoyed the view. Tall and built he was a joy to watch. His movements were a bit stiff, but she doubted anyone else noticed how tightly he held himself. The tightness in what appeared to be a strong and flawless body intrigued her.
She had noticed him the moment he’d walked through the door. He was hard to miss. He was over six feet by an inch or so. Granted, not a giant, but being only five three most guys were tall to her. It wasn’t so much his height or size as the persona he had. Dark short hair, black leather coat, black button-down shirt, and black jeans, he stood out. Most of the people here wore flannel shirts, muddy boots, and ripped jeans. The fresh air scent she’d inhaled when almost running into him earlier had her senses reeling. The intensity of his onyx-like eyes had been hard to break.
But break it she did.
She had customers to take care of and fun to have. Her wariness caused by the intensity of his gaze, disappeared when Larry had walked over to shake his hand. The smile that broke on the man’s face was heart stopping. She’d never seen such an honest, glad to see you smile in her life. Obviously, the two men were good friends. After that, he hadn’t spoken to anyone except Larry, and someone on his cell phone. Until he started serving drinks anyway, then he had turned into the ultimate barkeep. He smiled and laughed with the people he served.
“You don’t have to worry about those guys, Rilie,” Larry said.
Having been deep in thought, Larry’s statement startled her. She aimed a smile at her friend. “You know better than that. I don’t worry about anything.”
“I’m sorry,” Larry said. “I just wanted you to know everything is all right. I reminded them they paid with a credit card so I have their names. I told them if anything happened to you or my bar any time soon, the police would be knocking on their doors.”
Rilie rolled her eyes at the over protectiveness, but couldn’t hold back the smile. “Thanks.”
It was nice to have someone looking out for her. She’d been looking out for herself for so long she’d forgotten how good it felt.
When have you ever known how it felt?
That was true enough. With her live and let live parents, if anything got done, she’d done it. Responsibility, or what most people considered responsibility, had never been high on their list of priorities. Rilie spent the majority of her life trying to be the exact opposite of them. Now, she’d give anything to have them back and tell them how much she loved them.
Lord, what was up with this emotional roller coaster stuff lately? The past couple of weeks her moods had been all over the charts. She hadn’t been so changeable since, well, since moving here. She needed to get back on track. Take control.
“So, who’s your friend?” She nodded toward the man who’d again turned his back to them.
“Hell, that’s right, Harlan hasn’t been home since you moved to town.” He hit his forehead with the heel of his hand making Rilie laugh. The guy was just too funny. “He’s my older brother.”
“You didn’t have to emphasize the older part, bud,” Harlan said, walking up behind him.
“Sorry, Major, sir.” Larry saluted. A bar towel hit him in the face.
“Can it, Lawrence.”
The man leaned against the bar pretending to glare, but actually smiling at his brother, while Larry grumbled something about retaliation for calling him Lawrence.
Rilie cracked up laughing. Gone was the polished, too neat for this town, serious man who had walked in. He’d been replaced by a fun-loving boy. Unfortunately, it made him that much more attractive. Any more attractive and she’d be throwing herself across the bar at him. Wouldn’t that get tongues wagging? She couldn’t remember any man ever enticing her like this.
“You served together as well as being related?” she asked trying to ignore the pull.
“Hell no,” Harlan said. “I’m the only one stupid enough to volunteer to have people shoot at me. Larry’s smarter than that.”
Rilie smiled at the offhand praise to his brother. “Yes, he is pretty sharp,” she said winking at her friend before returning her gaze to his brother. “So, you’re on leave then, Major?”
He winced and pushed off from the bar. “The name is Harlan, and no, I’m not on leave.”
Before she or his brother could say more, he turned and walked to the other end of the bar. Guilt immediately wrapped its fingers around her heart for upsetting him. She was supposed to cheer people up, not be a downer.
“Don’t worry about it, Rilie. He’s still adjusting to the fact he was discharged.”
She turned and faced Larry with a frown. “Why? He’s not old enough to retire unless he carries his age extremely well, and knowing your family the way I do, I doubt it was because he was a trouble maker.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure. He called a few weeks ago, said he’d been released from the hospital and was on his way home. He didn’t bother to fill in the details. Shocked the shit out of me.”
“Why?” The way they’d greeted each other and then been teasing each other, she hadn’t sensed any ill will between them.
“First, I didn’t know he’d been in the hospital or why. Second, home has always been the last place Harlan wanted to be.”
Learning he’d been in the hospital accounted for his stiff movements, though she didn’t know what had put him there. What confused her was the home comment. She’d met Larry’s family and they were the most loving family she’d ever known. Obviously, she needed more information. “He didn’t get along with the rest of your family?”
“What? No, nothing like that,” Larry said, shaking his head. “It’s this town. The slow pace and calm attitudes always drove him crazy. He was always looking for excitement, action, adventure. Before he graduated high school, he had a summer job lined up in Fort Collins so he could get a head start on college. From CSU he went into the military and hasn’t looked back since.”
“He never came home?” Rilie was shocked. Who could turn their back on family like that? Even with her odd family dynamic, she had always loved her parents and visited them.
“Oh he came home to visit. I’ll even give him credit for spending all of his leave time with family. He wasn’t into running around with old friends and such. He came to see us and that was it. Still, he was never all here. His mind was on his next assignment, or his men, or whatever it is soldiers think about. That’s why his call surprised me. I never expected him to come home even when he retired.”
“Have you asked him why?” Rilie asked Larry as she watched his brother serve customers at the other end of the bar.
“Yep and I knew it was a mistake the second the words left my mouth.”
Rilie’s gaze whipped back to Larry. “Why?”
“Because I almost lost him altogether. He said he understood and wouldn’t bother the family again. Can you believe it? He thought I didn’t want him to come home. Stupid bastard’s always been stubborn as the day is long.”
Rilie slapped Larry’s arm. “Don’t talk about your brother that way. You love him and you know it. Obviously, something happened and he needs some time to deal with it. Once you get him to talk about it, he’ll–”
“Talk about it? Yeah, that’ll be the day. Harlan will charge into the middle of a fight no problem, but talk, that he doesn’t do.”
She watched her friend walk away when a nearby customer motioned for a refill. Upset didn’t begin to describe how he felt. She didn’t like it. Larry was the most upbeat person she knew, that’s what had drawn her into their friendship. He was easy-going, carefree except when it came to business matters or people hurting, and best of all he wasn’t interested in a romantic relationship with her. Their friendship was the best she’d ever had because they didn’t want anything more. However, she did want him happy and his brother seemed to be messing that up.
Looking toward the other end of the bar, she saw a man giving a woman the hard sell. It was clear the woman wasn’t interested, even from this distance. Deciding to help her out, Rilie started to climb off the stool when Harlan blocked her view of the couple. His hands grasped the edge of the bar. The way his shirtsleeves pulled tight, he was definitely poised for action.
A second later, the man stood up with his hands held out and backed his way to the door. Rilie watched as Harlan eased back from the bar. He stopped and dipped his head closer to the woman. She could see the woman’s profile. Her face was flushed, but she offered a slight nod and uncomfortable smile to Harlan. It wasn’t hard for Rilie to imagine him speaking softly and offering support to the woman as he had to her earlier. He was an interesting mix of tough and compassionate, a rare combination in a man these days.
I thought you were irritated with him.
The reminder had her glancing at Larry. Now she understood his problem. His brother wasn’t hard-hearted as much as hardheaded and overly independent. A grin pulled at her lips because she knew what that felt like. It meant she had her work cut out for her if she planned to teach him how to enjoy being part of his family and community again. It was a good thing Rilie had never been afraid of hard work. When she glanced up, she saw Harlan walking toward her. His face was similar to the thundercloud it had resembled when she’d found his gaze across the room after the jerk had grabbed her.
He mumbled something to Larry as he walked past and threw the bar towel he’d been strangling under the bar. When he reached her, he lifted the hinged bar top and walked through then reclaimed the stool he’d been sitting on earlier.
“Problem?” she asked.
“Have all the men in this town turned into as–jerks?”
Rilie grinned at the correction he made. She was waitressing in a bar, she’d heard worse than the word ass before.
“Not that I’m aware of,” she said. “The guys from earlier and the man you just chased off aren’t regulars. I can tell you that.”
“I sure as hell hope not. If so, you need to work on your clientele,” he said to his brother as he joined them again.
“He’s complaining about the poor manners of the men here tonight,” Rilie explained.
Larry nodded. “I can understand. It seems we’ve had our share of jerks this evening. If anybody bothers you and I’m not around, tell Harlan. He’ll take care of it.”
“Why would anyone bother me? I’ve been here long enough to know pretty much everyone in town.” Since when had this conversation changed its focus to her?
“Obviously, you’re more special than you think,” Larry said, chucking her under the chin. “Guys are always looking at you.”
“You’re crazy, and I may not know the tourists, but most of the time they don’t act like idiots. You know I can handle myself when someone does get too friendly. If you hadn’t slapped those silly sticks down, he would have found out just how well I can handle myself,” she told him, aiming her I’m serious glare at him for all the good it ever did her. Then the man beside her spoke and totally ruined the effect.
“Hopefully, you’re as good as your word, because I’m nobody’s hero,” he said solemnly. “Also, I can’t vault the bar to rescue you like Superman here.”
Rilie laughed, she couldn’t help herself. The image of muscled but thin Larry in red and blue spandex was too comical. “Good, because I doubt the wives of the men who come in here could handle seeing you in spandex.”
A pained expression screwed up his handsome face. “Just thinking that is painful.”
She watched Harlan shake his head and chuckle, but that was about as loose as he got. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw several couples step onto the small dance floor as a new song came on. She also noticed concern wrinkle Larry’s forehead as he leaned on the bar across from his brother. Shamelessly, she listened to their low-voiced exchange.
“You really need to loosen up. All this tension isn’t good for you,” Larry said. “It sure won’t help you heal faster.”
“Don’t start. All I want from you is a place to sleep. I don’t need or want anything more.”
Rilie noticed the tension level increasing. Obviously, Larry’s penchant for mother-henning didn’t go over any better with his brother than it did with her. She decided to help her friend before his brother stormed out ending their reunion before it began. Slipping off the stool, she snagged Harlan’s hand from the bar but spoke to Larry.
“Mind if I take a spin on the dance floor before getting back to work?” She didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she turned her gaze to Harlan and offered a smile and a nod toward Larry hoping to get him to agree to the dance. When he stood, she felt rewarded. Deciding not to wonder what that was about, she led him to the dance floor.
The song wasn’t fast, but it wasn’t too slow either. She wondered if the guy even knew how to dance to it. A second later, she felt his left arm at her back as he moved to the beat. Obviously, he knew how to dance. This wasn’t the arm flailing, gyrating, and groping dancing most of the kids she watched on teen night did. This was smooth, well, as smooth as you get when someone is pretending they’re not in pain.
“You’re lucky I’m too tired to get into it with Larry.”
“Lucky?” Rilie asked tipping her head back to see his expression.
“Yeah, I don’t dance.”
Rilie couldn’t keep the smile from her face. “Obviously, you do, and well I might add. Don’t worry. I know it’s not what you want. I just didn’t want you walking out and upsetting Larry more than he is already.”
“I don’t need a keeper. Never have.”
His insulted tone made her frown a little. “I didn’t say you did, but I have been on the receiving end of his mother-hen nature. Sometimes he can lay it on a bit strong. You didn’t seem in the mood. I thought this would give you both a break. Plus,” she added wiggling her eyebrows as she stared into his bottomless black eyes, “I haven’t had a decent dance in I can’t tell you how long. Looks like I picked the right guy for my splurge. Now relax and enjoy the moment.”
He watched her face in silence for several heartbeats making Rilie wonder if he would ever do as she asked.
“I don’t do relaxed.”
She shook her head, amazed that her easy-going friend could have such a serious brother.
“Try,” she said, and found herself twirled out then pulled back into his embrace. For a man who said he didn’t dance he was putting on a great impression. They moved around the floor as if gliding on air. Rilie felt more carefree than she ever had in her life.
Then someone bumped into him from behind.
Meet Sandra Kerns~
Sandra is the author of three series, totaling 18 books so far. She writes contemporary romantic-suspense. The majority of her stories are located in Colorado because it possesses such a diverse selection of heroes and heroines. In less than a minute you can see a cowboy, an engineer, a lawyer, or a stay-at-home mom/dad. The combinations of characters keeps her very busy. You can also find her characters visiting New York or finding trouble in Florida. These two locations pop up because she grew up in central New York and enjoys vacations at Cocoa Beach.
When she’s not writing you might find her at a sewing machine. Learning to sew at age seven, she enjoyed making clothes for herself and family for years. Now she prefers making quilts for family and friends, though occasionally she will whip out a skirt or two.
Before writing full time she had various jobs. Her employment started as a substitute church secretary when she was in high school and ended as a faculty assistant (aka Copy Lady) in a high school in Colorado with stints as bank secretary, fabric store clerk, and temp secretary in between.
She lives in northern Colorado with her husband and Rudy, their rescue dog from Japan. Her sons are grown and move around the country, but still provide endless inspiration and support for her writing.
Connect with Sandra~
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