Read More from Calle J. Brookes

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 Her dress cost more than some used cars. Her hair had taken hours to style. Shelby Jacobson looked good. Looked expensive. Looked confident, wealthy and well-bred.  Like the world was hers.

It was all a sham.  

But she would never let the people around her know that. 

Her brother held her elbow in his. Protectively. His wife of seven months, Izzie, walked just ahead of them. Paving the way. Protecting.

Shelby knew what they were doing. 

Izzie walked next to the uncle who had raised her.

Him. Jake MacNamara. 

Shelby shivered.  She wished anyone other than Jake was with them. Jake MacNamara saw right through her to the quivering mass of nothing she was inside. And he despised her.  

Technically, he was the man escortingher to this little shindig. But her brother Allen knew that that was the last thing Shelby wanted. 

She’d rather be staked out naked to an ant hill in the dry Texas heat—fire ant hill, at that—than spend two minutes with “Don’t ever call me Giacomo” Jake MacNamara, wonder boy of the Texas State Police.  

As if he knew she was staring at his back, the man in question turned. Looked right at her.  

Shelby fought the instinct to avert her eyes, like one would with a stray dog. He, more than any man she had met in a long, long time, disconcerted her. 

And that was the last thing she needed tonight. People would be looking at her, staring. Wondering about her. Judging her. 

Including people from the TSP. 

The last people she ever wanted to see.

She pulled in a deep breath. She could do this. Could get through three hours of people for her brother and his wife. They were all the family she had. She would do anything for Allen and Izzie. Anything. 

Even spend an evening with Jake.  

“You all good back there?” Jake asked, his eyes on her and not Allen. He was always watching her.

Shelby nodded. “Of…of course.” 

“Neither one of us are too fond of crowds,” Allen said smoothly. He covered her hand with his. Allen was her great protector and he always had been. Ten years her senior, he had been there for her from her first steps to the day they had buried their parents. Until this very moment. Protecting always.  

She was his greatest burden and she was well aware of it.

“Really? I would have thought this was just your cup of tea, this crowd.” Jake smirked at her for just a small moment. Challenging. Trying to disconcert her.  “All fancy and glittery with green.”

“Jake, you’re an ass. Behave yourself,” Izzie said, with a firm warning in her tone. “Shelby, ignore him. You look gorgeous, there are beautiful men inside waiting for you to dazzle them. I heard half the Barratt cousins will be here tonight. Mac was asking about you, Mel said. Or was it Alex? It’s hard to tell those two apart. I’m sorry Jake thinks it’s ok to be a butt already.”

She’d apologized to Shelby a thousand times—for her uncle, each and every time.  Jake had a thing against people who came from a similar socioeconomic background as Shelby and Allen. Unfortunately, that meant he felt free to snip at Shelby whenever he wanted. 

It had just gotten worse in the past six months when the rest of Logan’s estate had been released to her. All tens of millions.

Which just made Izzie and Allen angry. And made Shelby feel like a great big wimp.

Shelby agreed with Izzie. The uncle who’d raised Izzie from the age of fourteen was a card-carrying braying asshole. Shelby was stuck with him. 

“I was just commenting.” His black eyes looked at her with challenge. Jake was part Italian, on his mother’s side. It showed in the dark hair and dark eyes and slightly darker tan. 

Jake was walking sex appeal.

He looked like a male model, especially tonight.

The man was made for tuxes. The gorgeous exterior hid the heart of a troll, though. 

At least where she was concerned.

“Sure…sure…sure you were.” She forced herself to take a breath. To slow down when she spoke, to control the stutter that came out a bit more when she was anxious.

She was always nervous with him.

She hated this.

She’d far rather be home in her living room, behind the walls that kept the world out than here at the Barratt—Finley Creek hotel at an honors ceremony for heroes of the storm. 

Shelby didn’t feel like a hero at all. 

Far from it. 

She just wanted to forget the things she’d seen exactly a year ago when the F4 tornado had struck Finley Creek. 

She’d been in the TSP parking lot—she never entered that building by choice—waiting on her friend Daryn to end her shift as the assistant M.E., before they headed to Garrity three hours away. To where their friend Zoey had been waiting. 

That hadn’t happened. 

Shelby had seen the storm coming. Had known it was going to hit hard. And she had been so exposed.

She’d stepped out of her car, ready to run toward the TSP. To any kind of shelter at all. 

Daryn’s brother had been there—he had been head of the small Finley Creek Missing Persons unit for years—and he’d yelled for her to run to him, instead of the building so far away.

Shelby had always trusted Darrell. She’d run to him.

His hands had reached for her.

Darrell had grabbed her and they’d run. Away from the storm.

They hadn’t made it inside. She’d known they wouldn’t be able to. But they’d had to try.

Darrell had wrapped himself around her at the last moment—and pulled her toward the drainage ditch that had run in front of the building.  

She’d ridden out the storm with her best friend’s older brother wrapped around her in a concrete storm ditch. 

The world had exploded around them. Just like in the movies about tornadoes. She had been terrified they’d just be sucked away.

When it had ended, she and Darrell had been the  only ones outside who’d gotten lucky.

Four other people in the TSP parking lot hadn’t been lucky at all. Shelby and Darrell had dug the first one out themselves.  

Darrell’s truck had been spared major damage. He had had search and rescue equipment in the back. 

Equipment he had taught Shelby how to use years earlier. When she and Daryn had been so afraid of the world, the only place they’d felt safe was outside of the city. Away from people.

At least she had. 

She, Zoey, and Daryn had learned the basics. Together. Shelby had taken it further; let him teach her more. And more.

Until she felt confident in something again.

It was coincidence, circumstance, that had had her and Darrell teaming up to start search and rescue of the destroyed TSP building. She hadn’t felt adequate, even for one minute. 

But she was all the help Darrell had had.

He was the true hero. Not her. 

She had just done what Darrell had told her. That was it. She had just been there. Doing what he had trained her to do, to help the people she could help.

She hadn’t been thinking, she’d just been…helping.

Daryn and Zoey would have done the same. 

They’d just done what they could.

But no one would listen when she’d said that.  

No one understood that Shelby just wanted to forget the nightmares. 

All of them.

That was all she had ever wanted.

** 

He was worse than the lowest kind of dog, and Jake knew it. He shouldn’t keep poking at her.

It took everything he had to keep from drooling every time he looked at her, though. She should always wear low cut dresses in the deepest burgundy. It left her shoulders bare and her skin was perfect, flawless. Taunting a man, tempting him to touch.

Except for that one scar. Right there. He could just see the edge of it where it marred her skin.

Where a bullet had struck her—when a killer was aiming at Izzie. A killer Jake had considered a decent cop at first. One he’d trusted—a man who could have killed both of the beautiful women staring at him now. Jake should have been able to see what the bastard was capable of. He’d live with the regret of that for a long, long while. Forever. “Sorry, Iz. I don’t mean to be a jerk.” 

His niece’s dark eyes—identical to his own—showed him exactly what she thought about that. She’d lectured him a good three dozen times on how he interacted with her sister-in-law—just this month. 

He couldn’t seem to help himself. The Jacobsons just got under his skin.  Always would. 

He’d given Izzie to Allen in marriage—he snorted at that—just before Christmas. She was wildly happy so far. But that didn’t mean he trusted the guy. 

He was too old for Izzie, for one thing. There was only a year or so between Jake and her husband. The guy was too polished, too. But he had to admit, Allen Jacobson seemed to adore her. So far.  

Jake was starting to get used to him. 

He’d probably never like him, though. 

Everything he’d dug up on Allen showed that the man was exactly as he appeared to be—no matter what Jake’s gut was telling him.

An extremely wealthy trauma surgeon who had been born into the upper-crust lifestyle. Same for the sister.  

Shelby Jacobson had secrets. Loads of them. They were right there in the storm-colored eyes too perfect to be real. It was her eyes he dreamed about occasionally. 

Her eyes called to him in his dreams.

Jake wanted to know what it was that scared this woman who had just about everything in the world she could want. 

It had just been handed to her—she hadn’t worked for it, not even for one moment. Almost twenty million dollars had just been basically deposited into accounts in her name once the estate of Dr. Logan Lanning had been settled. Months later, another part of his estate had been magically “discovered” in offshore accounts.

Almost thirty-nine million dollars’ worth. 

Jake wanted to know why. Why her? 

He had to admit that ate at him. Other than the deaths of her parents when she’d been a teenager—and he knew how traumatic that had to have been for her—everything had been easy for her.  

Best schools, everything she ever wanted, one of the most beautiful women he had ever seen—she hadn’t had to work for anything. 

She didn’t have to work at all.

But she did. He didn’t understand that. She had a graduate degree in social work and chose to work part-time for the local women’s charity that Izzie was a part of. To help others. She worked another twenty hours each week with the richest woman in Texas as one of her minions. 

As of three months ago, she’d graduated with a masters degree. In social work. 

Do-gooder with a never-ending bank account. She was a walking contradiction. He wanted to just figure her out and move on. 

He was a hunter. Of men. It was in his blood. Jake could do that right here in Finley Creek—and protect Izzie and her friends while he did it. 

Even if that meant protecting her from her husband. 

If Allen was involved in the shit going on in Finley Creek, Jake would bring him down. He’d do  his best to protect Izzie in the meantime. Jake was still searching for those answers.

“It’s Shelby you need to be nicer to,” Izzie continued, as they entered the ballroom at the Barratt—Finley Creek. The conversation buzzing was already a steady hum that grated on his nerves. 

Jake hated crowds.  

Well, if this was a barbecue or something like that, he wouldn’t hate it so much. 

But hobnobbing with the rich and famous of Finley Creek was not something he would ever enjoy. 

“Shelby knows I’m nowhere near nice. It’s one reason why she doesn’t like me.” That was the truth. She couldn’t get out of the room fast enough, the moment he entered. Each and every time. Of course, that was probably his fault. “She finds me fascinating against her will, though.” 

“Fascinating isn’t the word for it. Irritating is more like it. Like a cold sore that won’t heal. Or a blister.” 

Her calm delivery drove him mad. It was delivered in a level tone. She always used that tone. Always hesitated before she spoke. Especially to him. 

It was one reason he was almost certain she was lying every time she opened her gorgeous mouth. No one hesitated like that before they spoke. At least not in his experience.  

Jake glanced at her one more time. Storm-blue eyes were watching every move he made. The way one would watch a rattler. Or would watch a particularly disobedient dog taking a dump on the sidewalk.  

She always looked at him that way—like he wasn’t fit to be within ten feet of her.  

It drove him crazy. 

He’d known woman like her before.  

He wasn’t interested in repeating that experience. Even if he did dream about her almost every night…

COMING LATE 2021!

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