Tainted Love – Caitlyn Willows

TaintedLove

 

TAINTED LOVE
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic Romance – Short Contemporary – M/M/F Menage
December 2017
April Martinez
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-68252-454-1

They had it all and each other until one of them walked away.

Rock star Quentin Nash walked out on the loves of his life five years before and regretted it instantly. Pride and fear have kept him away. But lost, lonely, and burned out, he’s come back, and he’s praying they can forgive that he tainted their love.

The music world was a hell on earth for Mel and Tasha Keane. They left while they still had their sanity. Now it’s back on their doorstep in the form of the one man they’d lost their hearts to years before. There’s always been a place for him with them, but can they help Quentin find his way without losing their own?

Note: This is a re-release.

 

BUY LINKS:

Loose Id

Amazon

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Barnes & Noble

 

EXCERPT:

Quentin Nash slowed his rental car at the top of the winding palmed canyon. Peace had sifted into his blood on the drive up. He’d turned off the air-conditioning, rolled down the windows, and slowed his speed in order to hear the two creeks that paralleled both sides of the road. Nature’s music soothed his fractured soul.

Winter rains had filled the oasis above to overflowing and blessed the landscape with water, spawning a profusion of wildflowers in this desert canyon. Birdsong reached him from the towering palm trees and dense vegetation. If he was lucky enough, he might spot a small herd of bighorn sheep. Tourists crowded Palm Canyon Drive and every golf course, never realizing true wonder was in the mountain canyons that shadowed Palm Springs.

He wanted to weep at the beauty of it. Or was it fear that made him teary-eyed? Or exhaustion? Or the weight of people everywhere he turned taking pieces of them for themselves? He knew it was the latter. Fans clawed their way through crowds to reach him, to touch him. Agents, managers, and record producers wanted their pound of flesh as well. Everyone loved whatever they could get from Reno and didn’t give a shit about the real man behind the rock star.

He swallowed the heavy lump in this throat as he stared at the resort ahead. Diversions was off the beaten path. Only a small sign on the main road pointed the way to it. If a person didn’t know to look, they might not have noticed that. It was very exclusive. Their only advertising, other than a website, an article the year before in Travel Temptations, and a hit song Mesquite had in honor of the place, was a trifold brochure that promised to indulge the visitor in every luxury and assured no request would be denied. He knew from past experience the place was booked in advance. He’d also been told there would always be room for him.

Those words, given five years ago, had hovered in his mind. At first, they were his safety net. Now they’d become his lifeline.

Tears drifted down his cheeks. Success was hollow without Tasha and Mel. He had all the money in the world and had never felt lonelier. Everyone took what they needed from his Reno self, and Quentin got nothing in return except for more money, more work, more demands. He was Reno and everyone wanted him…now.

Tasha and Mel were the smart ones. They’d gotten out of the business years ago. Phoenix and Diego, Tasha’s and Mel’s personas in the group they’d called Three, had ceased to exist. They’d taken over the ownership of Diversions from Tasha’s parents, married, had each other.

Quentin wondered if they’d missed him as much as he’d missed them. If their invitation to stay was always open as they’d promised. Did they still look the same? Tasha with her waterfall of black hair. Mel with those ocean blue eyes that made you want to dive in? Did they crave him in the night as he did them? Did they curl into each other’s arms and miss the third body pressed to theirs? Had they replaced him in their hearts and lives? He didn’t think he could bear that, even though he’d tried that very thing over the last five years. He never lacked for willing partners. Those attempts had left him as empty as everything else in his life. If Mel and Tasha had found another… If they rejected him…

He smeared the tears from his face. Sitting here staring at the place wasn’t helping, and he knew he couldn’t turn around and leave. If for no other reason, Quentin needed the peace Diversions offered. He needed to heal his fractured soul before he jumped back into the fray. Leaving the music industry wasn’t an option for him. The legal ramifications alone would ruin him. He didn’t want to think about it. He didn’t want to think about any of it.

Pulling in a deep breath, Quentin put the car in motion. The place reminded him of an old mission—white stucco, deep arches for windows and doors, red tiled roof. There was even a bell tower at the far edge of the red-cobblestone drive. The wide entrance circled around a statue of a couple caught in a coital embrace. It was the first of many statues scattered throughout the Eden-like grounds.

A valet greeted him with a smile and a wave the instant Quentin’s car came into view. Quick on his heels was Charles, the head of Butler Services at Diversions. The man was a constant who comforted Quentin. It seemed the man never aged. He looked as tanned and fit as he had the first time Quentin had seen him fifteen years before. Charles’s obsidian gaze flickered with recognition. Quentin thought—hoped—they sparkled a little as well.

The valet reached for the car door as soon as Quentin stopped. Quentin offered him a smile he didn’t feel. “A moment, please. I don’t exactly have a reservation.”

Charles stepped forward. “Indeed you do, Mr. Nash. A standing reservation as per Mr. and Mrs. Keane’s instructions. There is always a place for you here. Diversions is ready to wrap you in comfort.”

More tears welled up. All Quentin could do was nod and relinquish the car to the valet, while a bellman darted forward to retrieve his luggage. Nothing in their actions gave away that they knew he was famed rock star Reno. His real name had always afforded him some anonymity…until his face was plastered all over television and magazines. Still, he’d gotten this far in his trip without intrusion. Maybe Diversions was already working its magic.

Charles gave a slight bow. “This way, sir.”

Quentin followed without hesitation. Through the Spanish tiled foyer lined with potted plants. Down the flagstone path that twisted through the lush garden. Past more statues of lovers caught in orgasmic bliss. And when they walked beyond the main conclave of suites, awareness of their final destination nearly brought Quentin to his knees.

How many times had he traveled this route with them, all three wrapped in each other’s arms? How many times had they tangled themselves in the sheets of the suite ahead, or bathed in the hot tub, or soaped each other to heaven in the huge shower? Fed one another in the cloud-soft pile of cushions? Laughed, loved, planned a future that never came to be?

They’d once had a great love, unusual by most people’s standards, but it had worked well for them. Until he tainted it all with his greed and lust for more of something they’d already had plenty of—fame and fortune.

The first sight of the stand-alone cabana stabbed a pain of longing through Quentin’s heart. It looked as fresh as the first time he’d seen it. The Jungle Hut, appropriately designed to look like one on the outside. It had always been their room.

The bellman trotted up the three steps to the deep porch and opened the door. Did Tasha and Mel know he was here? If not, Charles would let them know as soon as he saw Quentin settled.

He paused at the bottom step, staring into the dark interior ahead. From the porch, Charles turned his way, his eyebrow lifted ever-so-slightly in question.

“If you don’t mind, I’d rather go in alone,” Quentin somehow managed to say.

“As you wish, sir.” The man stepped down to his level. “Please let us know if there is anything you need.”

“Thank you.” Quentin barely heard the words over the emotion strangling him.

Charles nodded and walked away. The bellman was seconds behind, not even pausing so Quentin could tip him. No one here would have their hand out. No one here would take pieces of him. The concept of peace and quiet was hard to grasp.

Heart pounding, he walked into the cabana, shutting the door behind. Ambient light filtered to him from the corners, like the sun coming into a forest canyon. Deep greens and muted browns greeted him. Quentin closed his eyes and leaned into the door. He didn’t have to look to know the big bed was hidden behind a veil of faux vines and leaves. Or that the living area was a sunken bed of cushions with the hot tub tucked into a jungle grotto niche beyond. A sliding glass door led to the private patio screened with bamboo. The bathroom contained a shower-tub combination made for love.

He didn’t need to see to know it was all the same. He didn’t need the reminder of the love he’d tossed aside, yet he needed the sanctuary it offered.

He sank to his knees and sobbed.

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One To Grow On – Caitlyn Willows

OneToGrowOn

 

ONE TO GROW ON
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic – Short Contemporary
November 2017
Cover Art – April Martinezr
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-68252-424-4

Reese has something extra special planned for his wife’s 30th birthday—the fulfillment of Judi’s widest sexual fantasies…and maybe a few of his, too.

Bad girl discipline and good girl treats. By his hand…or another’s. With his body…or another’s. In private…or very public. Judi knows Reese always gives her just what she wants…and needs.

And now, with two extra men at her (and Reese’s) disposal, Judi can’t wait to experience every body-quaking moment.

BUY LINKS:

Loose Id

Amazon

Kobo Books

EXCERPT:

Judi Osbourne’s gaze wandered to the thirty-one long-stemmed red roses arranged in the crystal vase that was perched on her desk. A rose for every year she’d been on this earth, plus one to grow on. A gift from Reese, and the promise of what was to come—her…multiple times.

Focusing on work was impossible when she knew he could call at any time to lay out in graphic and sensuous detail everything he planned to do to her tonight. The briefings, case files, and the myriad intricacies of legal documentation she had piled on her desk might as well have been invisible. Other than the folder that had been opened before her for the bulk of the afternoon, Judi hadn’t been able to touch a one. Her thoughts had been on Reese. His call would set in motion the events for the evening. Her every fantasy fulfilled—his birthday gift to her.

Her heart raced in anticipation. Lower, her body thrummed for attention, getting wetter with every passing second. Judi considered a trip to the ladies room to take the edge off her horny, but Reese had expressly forbidden her to touch herself in any way. Since he could spot a lie from ten miles away, and her flushed cheeks always gave her away where he was concerned, Judi complied, although the temptation to do otherwise and suffer his “punishment” was hard to resist. Being over her husband’s knee, bare-assed, his to do with as he pleased? Or spread and bound for the kiss of the chamois flogger?

A shudder of lust quivered straight to her crotch. Judi crossed her legs to quell the ache swelling her clitoris. She’d been slick with her juices since the roses had arrived after lunch. She’d swear she could smell her arousal over their delicate scent. Thank goodness she had a private office.

Smiling, she pulled a rose from the vase and brushed the velvety petals over her cheek, then down her neck. The scent was subtle, not overpowering. Reese was like that too. A hint dropped from his lips could melt her into a puddle. He always knew what she needed and never hesitated to give it to her. In a profession where she was required to be the aggressor, it was wonderful to know she could give the reins of control to him in their sex life. Not once had he disappointed her.

Her nipples tightened, nudging for freedom from her bra. Judi shifted a little, trying to rasp the material over them as she slowly began to swing her leg to and fro. It felt good, too good, too naughty. Maybe she should call Reese first and confess her lapse to him. He’d tsk and quietly spell out the discipline he planned to administer. She imagined him in his three-piece suit, thick erection hidden behind his desk…

A knock at her door shattered the daydream.

Judi stabbed the rose back into its vase. “Come in.”

Peggy Wilson breezed in a second later, a black dress bag dangling from her finger. “This was delivered for you. It’s from Reese. Another birthday present?”

She smiled. “Yes.” One of many to come. “We have a date tonight after work. Someplace special, I’ve been told. I let him pick something out for me.”

Peggy reached for the zipper. “Want to see it now?”

Judi wondered if she blushing? Her cheeks felt hot. Hell, her whole body was hot. “No. I’ll wait. Please put it in the closet.”

“At least it won’t be a long wait.” For a short person, Peggy could take some long strides. It seemed as if she flew to the small closet across the room. “It’s almost five.”

Judi glanced at her watch. Ten minutes to go. She’d spent ninety percent of her day thinking of the night and here it was. Her breath hitched. Her pussy throbbed with anticipation and her hard nipples rasped against her bra. Reese wouldn’t have to do much work to make her come tonight. She was three-quarters of the way there already.

Her cell phone tweedled as Peggy finished hanging the bag.

Reese!

People thought it was cute how she still got excited about the man after all the years they’d been together. They didn’t have a clue, and she wasn’t about to enlighten them.

Her assistant wasted no time leaving, giving Judi a good-bye finger wiggle as she dashed out the door. She snatched up the phone.

“Did you get everything I sent?” Reese’s voice was low and husky, a caress all by itself. If he were beside her, those words would have been brushed against her ear.

“Yes, the roses arrived noonish, and the dress a few moments ago. I haven’t had the chance to look at it yet, but the roses are beautiful,” she somehow managed to say over the catch in her throat.

“Soft against your skin?”

“Yes,” she whispered in response. “Like velvet.”

“Soft as the petals between your legs? I’ll bet they smell as sweet, but they can’t come close to matching your taste.”

“Oh, honey…” A gasp choked off her words.

“Better than honey,” he softly replied.

Menace To Society – Caitlyn Willows

MenaceToSociety

Menace To Society
by Caitlyn Willows
Romantic Suspense- BDSM
October 2017
Cover Artist – Scott Carpenter
Loose Id www.loose-id.com
ISBN 978-1-68252-395-7

Eileen thought Lance had run out on her, only to find him inadvertently bound for their mutual pleasure. Who knew they’d have so very much in common? The two make one heck of a team in bed and out of it. But there are secrets and then there are secrets.

Lance feels Eileen is his gift for finally getting his life back in order. Sharing his past will only destroy what they’ve got going on between them. But it isn’t his past Lance needs to worry about–its Eileen’s and the twin sister she doesn’t remember. A twin who brings murder, mystery, and the promise of a legacy with her.

If she’s to have any future at all–especially one with Lance–Eileen must face a legacy she wants no part of. A legacy that’s too much a reminder to Lance of his own failings. A legacy that comes with parents she must defeat in order for her, Lance, and her sister to survive.

Related stories are:
Rough Cut
Menace To Society

BUY LINKS:

Loose Id

Amazon

Kobo Books

Barnes & Noble

EXCERPT:

“It hurts my heart, Lance,” she called out. “All that time I was told Tildy was nothing more than an imaginary friend. I might have only been five, but I remember crying myself to sleep in Mom’s arms, the frustration that no one believed me, being so confused, then finally accepting what everyone was telling me. I felt…lost.”

She walked his way as she slipped her arms into a fluffy pink robe, then tied it shut.

“Now I feel betrayed, then guilty because I know my parents had my best interests at heart. I want it all to go away.”

“Do you really?” He tucked his shirt into his trousers and zipped up. “This is new and a shock, but what about a year from now? We might not have known each other long, but I think I know you well.” Her emotions were written all over her body in every movement and expression. “You can want her gone from your life, but she will always exist. At some point you’re going to want answers. You’re going to want to compare notes with her. As hard as it is, this is your chance to get off on the right foot with her.”

She sighed heavily. “I’ll get your coffee ready.”

End of discussion. He finished dressing, then grabbed the evidence bag and walked into her kitchen. Eileen leaned against the counter, coffee mug in one hand, brownie in the other.

“Don’t worry. I put a couple in a bag for you.” She jerked her chin to the travel mug and plastic baggie on the table.

“I’m thinking I might have to keep you around for a while.” He braced his palms on the counter on each side of her, kissed her quickly, then turned his attention to the envelope with the key. “Sure about this?”

“I am.”

He put it in the evidence bag, noted the information on the label, then tucked it into his jacket and picked up his breakfast.

“If your lunch plans fall through, call me.”

“I will.”

Another longer kiss said what he couldn’t find the words to express. That he couldn’t wait to see her again. That he’d play hell focusing on work because he knew he’d be thinking of her. That if he didn’t leave right this very second, he’d be buried so deep inside her…

“I’ll see you later.” He gave her tight ass a final squeeze and walked off.

“Lance?”

Fingers wrapped around the doorknob, he looked her way. She stood in the kitchen doorway, arms tucked under her breasts.

“Yeah?”

“I want you to know that I really, really like you a lot.”

He swore his grin split his face. “I really, really like you a lot too.”

Her returning smile washed over him in warm waves. Not once in his career had he ever put pleasure before duty. Not even when he was married. Eileen might be the exception.

“Want me to flash you before you walk out the door?” Mischief danced in her eyes.

Lance laughed and motioned to his crotch. “I’ve got enough going on down here already. Are you trying to kill me?”

“Never.” She winked. “Talk to you later.”

When she ducked back into the kitchen, he hurried out the door.

Happiness put a bounce in his step. Lance couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt this high on life. He was falling hard, and he was falling fast. There was no sense wondering about where this would lead. Living in the here and now was all that mattered. For the first time in forever, Lance felt like he was living rather than merely existing.

His feel-good lasted through commuter traffic, morning greetings and bullshit at the station’s coffeepot, and his partner’s scowl.

“Where is my partner, and what did you do with him?”

Rick growled over the rim of his coffee mug. He’d never been a morning person.

Before Lance could reply, their lieutenant barked at them to come to his office. The tone of his voice didn’t mean good news. Lance’s instincts went on high alert, shoving his joy aside. He and Rick grabbed their coffee and walked into what had to be certain doom. Sure enough, a US marshal was standing to one side in their commander’s office, dressed to crisp perfection in a pinstriped suit, white shirt, and a gray tie. Lance wondered if he’d been pulled off courtroom duty to be here and how that affected him.

Lieutenant Baldwin sat behind his desk, hands laced together so tightly on his desk blotter, it turned his dark-brown knuckles a shade of caramel.

“Detectives, this is Marshal Dillon.”

Rick spewed coffee. Lance pressed his lips together to keep from laughing.

“Save it,” Dillon told them. “I’ve heard it a thousand times. And my first name’s not Matt, nor do I know anyone named Kitty.”

Lance didn’t feel sorry for him. He’d heard Sir Lancelot too many times in his lifetime.

Baldwin jerked his head toward him. “Mr. Dillon—”

Marshal,” Dillon said through bared teeth.

So the lieutenant was pissed Dillon was here. Good. They were on the same side. Not that it would matter.

“We’re to stand down from the murder at Store It Now. Marshals Service is taking over,” Baldwin said.

“Why?” he and Rick asked at the same time.

“Not your concern,” Dillon replied. “We’ve got it from here. I want all your evidence immediately.”

“Then you’re in the wrong place to get it.” Rick slurped his coffee, loud and long.

Dillon cringed. “I’m well aware of that. This was a courtesy call. We finished here, Lieutenant?”

“No, but you are, Marshal Dillon. A patrolman is waiting up front to escort you out. I’m sure you can find your way to the crime lab. I’d warn them of your arrival, but I suspect they’ve already been made aware through official channels.”

Which was how they should have been notified as well. The only reason Lance could see for Dillon coming here personally was to flex his muscles.

“Thank you for your time.” Dillon shot glares at Lance and Rick, then stormed off.

“What the fuck’s going on, Lieutenant?” Several theories were running through his head, and Lance didn’t like any of them.

Baldwin leaned back in his chair, fingers steepled under his chin. “All I managed to get from the chief was that your shooting victim was a US marshal.”

It had to be a witness-protection issue. Something in that storage unit would expose whoever was in WITSEC. Why else would Carter tell Tildy to leave it alone? But according to Eileen’s father, there were only family pictures and albums. Or that’s all that had been in there twenty-five years ago. Things could have been added over the years. The unit could be empty now, for all they knew. Or it would be soon. The marshals wouldn’t leave evidence like that behind.

“I recognize the look in your eyes, Driscoll,” Baldwin said. “We are off this case. There’s not a damn thing we can do.”

“Not regarding the murder,” he replied slowly. “But all things considered, wouldn’t you agree that Miss Moore might be in some measure of danger and need of protection? She’s clearly stumbled upon something of which she was unaware. We cleared the crime scene last night. Once the facility is open, she’ll want to retrieve the items inside. Already she’s been threatened. Do we want to take the chance that will happen again with fatal results?”

Standing beside him, Rick tapped his finger against his mug but said nothing. Neither did Baldwin.

“The least we can do is give her protection while she gets her things.” They had to move fast. There was no doubt in his mind that unit would be Dillon’s next target.

Baldwin leaned forward. His steady gaze pierced through Lance’s.

“Who is Eileen Cronkite?”

Fuck. So much for that little secret. Damn patrolman had blabbed about his misstep at the scene—confusing Tildy for Eileen. Word trickled up the chain fast. Baldwin hadn’t gotten where he was without having an ear to everything around him.

“My girlfriend.” Lying wasn’t going to get him anywhere, and there was no way in hell he was going to deny his relationship with Eileen. He was damn proud of it. Damn proud of having her in his life. “Eileen and Miss Moore are twins. They were adopted out when they were five. Eileen knew nothing about any of it until last night. You can imagine her shock.”

Baldwin nodded slowly.

“You know this has to be a WITSEC issue,” Rick said. “Though I can’t for the life of me understand why the girls were split up and adopted out.”

“For their own protection, according to Eileen’s father. Because when Eileen’s parents learned there was a twin, they tried very hard to get her as well and were refused for that reason,” Lance told them.

Baldwin sighed and rubbed his wrinkled forehead. “Could be their parents were found and killed.”

“Maybe by now, but not when the girls were adopted. According to Miss Moore, their mother gave them keys for the unit with instructions to use them when they were thirty. Tildy had hers. Eileen didn’t.” He wasn’t about to reveal he had her key tucked in his pocket.

Baldwin’s eyebrows met. “She remembers this from when she was five? And kept it all these years?”

Lance raised his palms. “I agree it’s far-fetched. I’m around kids enough to know they can’t find anything even if it’s only two feet in front of them. And I’d call her on it if it wasn’t for the fact that Eileen’s father had her key. He brought it over last night after she confronted her mother about the adoption. Even better, he was in the unit twenty-five years ago and indicates it held only photo albums and baby pictures. Nothing more. He took the baby pictures of Eileen and left the rest.”

“Odd that he was able to get into the unit without being challenged,” Rick said. “I would have thought, if anything, that the items would have been more protected back then.”

“I didn’t say it made sense. But if the women were separated for their own protection, and now one of them is in the middle of a murder—”

“All right.” Baldwin slapped his palm on the desk. “I agree. It’s logical to presume that under the circumstances, they’re in danger once more.”

Rick snorted. “But not enough for the Marshals Service to take watch over them.”

“We’re not investigating the crime,” Lance said. “We’re merely providing protection while the ladies retrieve their property.”

“Set it up.” Baldwin stood. “I want them there when the place opens. I’m going with you too. Make your calls to them in here.”

“Yes, sir.” Now to convince Eileen. He pulled his phone from his pocket.

“Put it on speaker. I want to hear these women so I can get a read on them.”

Oh, hell no. “With all due respect, Lieutenant. You might have a death wish, but I don’t.”

“Then blame me. I need a handle on this situation, and the best way for me to get that is by hearing their reactions.”

“You’ll be able to judge when you see them.”

“Forewarned is forearmed. On speaker, Detective.”

“Remember, you asked for it.” There was no telling what would come out of Eileen’s mouth. Lance looked forward to the exchange and the men’s reactions.

Always Faithful (Book 1 – Rules of Engagement) by Caitlyn Willows

AlwaysFaithful

 

ALWAYS FAITHFUL
by Caitlyn Willows
Erotic Romantic Suspense
September 2017
Totally Bound
ISBN 978-1-78686-244-0

They hunt a killer who will stop at nothing to protect his identity, even if that means threatening the one link between them—their son.

When Staff Sergeant Rowan McKinley is charged with murder, she wants the best defense counsel the Marine Corps has to offer—Captain Phillip Stuart. Seeking his help means opening old wounds. It’s a risk she must take to save herself.

Phillip swore he’d never have anything to do with the one woman who had not only broken his heart but had crushed it. Helping her was personal suicide. But professionally, it could be the coup de grace of his career—that next rung on the ladder, the next challenge he was looking for.

The love and passion each thought gone sparks to life—only now it is forbidden by military law. Knowing the rules and adhering to them are very different matters. But who should make the sacrifice when both are destined to soar to the top of their ranks?

The choice might be taken from their hands. There is a killer with just as much to lose who will stop at nothing to protect his identity, even if that means threatening the one link between Phillip and Rowan—the son Phillip never knew he had.

Note: This book has previously been released elsewhere and has been revised and re-edited for re-release.

BUY LINKS:

Totally Bound

Amazon

Barnes & Noble

Kobo Books

EXCERPT:

Always faithful. Semper Fi. Captain Phillip Stuart shook his head at the term. ‘Faithful’ didn’t include forcing yourself on young girls or stealing cash out of a platoon buddy’s locker when they were out to sea on a training mission.

What has the Marine Corps come to? Thieves, murderers and rapists? The lot of them should be taken out and shot.

Of course, doing so would put military lawyers out of a job. Heaven forbid the little slime balls didn’t get a fair trial. Phillip was eternally grateful he no longer dealt with defense cases.

Shifting slightly on the hard courtroom chair, he straightened his papers and listened to the continuing drone of the defense attorney’s voice as she pled her client’s case. He didn’t know why she bothered. The look on the jurors’ faces indicated they had already found him guilty. It didn’t matter what extenuating or mitigating matters she threw out. Her client would go to jail for a very long time. He shifted again and let the squeaking wooden chair show his annoyance.

Laura Cushing shot him a glare from where she stood before the members. Good. He’d broken her concentration. Not easy to do. She was a tough opponent. But this long, drawn-out trial was stretching all their nerves to the breaking point.

After a few closing words, Laura sat, looking satisfied with herself. She was good. He was better.

Phillip stretched to his full six-four height and flexed his shoulders. With all the stealth of a jaguar stalking its prey, he approached the center of the courtroom.

Intimidate the witness. Impress the members. That was half the battle. A deep breath, a casual glance toward his opponent’s table, then…

He attacked, going straight to the heart of the case. He dissected Laura’s defense point by point, pulling apart the pieces with the precision of a surgeon. He let his words drift into the minds of those military members seated as the jury. Then, with the same lack of speed, he resumed his seat. The chair groaned under his weight.

Phillip sliced a glance at the defense table. The accused sat there, a fresh-faced young man all of nineteen. His big hands were clasped before him as if in prayer. It set Phillip’s teeth on edge. What right does he have to pray? Those young girls had begged and prayed before he’d forced himself on them. Had he listened?

Laura snapped to her feet and marched forward to take his place. It was no use. All the golden words she summoned could not save her client. Phillip knew it and so did she. After thirty minutes of deliberation, the members of the jury and the rest of the courtroom had realized it, too.

Phillip listened to the sentence with smug satisfaction. Twenty-five years at Leavenworth. That was what he called justice, although castration might not be a bad idea either.

In the back of the courtroom, one set of parents cried while the others—those of the victims—sighed with relief. The accused—the guilty—let his head drop. It was the only display of emotion he showed. No tears. No regrets. He didn’t flinch. Phillip fought the urge to demand to know if the man felt remorse for anyone but himself.

Once the judge had left the courtroom, the prisoner escort came in. Then the young Marine started bawling. Yeah, he had regrets—that he’d been caught. His father refused to look his way while his mother rushed to his side. She wrapped her arms around him in a hug he refused to return.

Rather than watch the guy be hauled away in shackles, Phillip celebrated his victory with a cigar on the back steps of the military justice building. How many times had he reflected on past and future glories in such a way? Lately, though, the battles left his stomach sour, more often than not.

There wasn’t much he hadn’t heard over his career. Most of it sickened rather than shocked him. Now, prosecuting the rabble of the Marine Corps tired him. Time to reach for the next rung on the ladder.

After graduating law school, he’d thought the way had shone clear, focused, his career path set. He shook his head. His goals had been regimented at the time. They had been all he’d had—a means to forget.

Unfortunately, they were still all he had. Phillip wasn’t sure he wanted those same goals anymore.

The door opened behind him. A rush of cool air brushed over his shoulders and back then stopped when the door closed. Phillip knew without looking that it was Laura. He could smell her perfume—an elusive scent that evoked memories of a long-ago time and someone else he wished he could forget.

She dusted off the step and eased down beside him, careful not to snag her hose on the concrete. Resting her forearms on her knees, she stared ahead.

“Congratulations. Another victory for the great and powerful Phillip Stuart.”

He chewed on his cigar and absorbed the view of the gray mountains surrounding Camp Pendleton.

“Sarcasm, Laura? How unlike you.”

“Cut the crap. That boy didn’t deserve twenty-five years in prison and you know it.”

“Please save me the she-asked-for-it speech. You didn’t have to listen to the sobs each and every time those girls told their stories before trial. Don’t tell me it was faked every time. I know better.”

She tilted her head his way. “Come on, Phillip. He’s only nineteen, still a teenager himself. It was consensual. Daddy caught them and she cried rape. If that girl shed tears, it was only because she got caught. This has been nothing but a witch hunt with an excellent cast of performers. The girl’s past conduct showed that.”

“Irrelevant. Forensics evidence proved their story.”

“It proved they had sex. There was no evidence to support assault of any kind.”

“We’re not talking about one girl here. We’re talking about six. There’s no way you’re ever going to convince anyone all six of them were lying. Get your bleeding-heart head out of the sand, Laura. We’ve had this discussion before. It’s over. Case closed.”

“Obviously, but have you asked yourself this? When you were nineteen, can you honestly say you could resist the charms of a willing sixteen-year-old?”

He leveled a frosty stare her way.

Laura gave an exaggerated wince. “What was I thinking? How dare I suggest you would be less than perfect?” She slowly shook her head and gave a soft, humorless laugh. “You are the most handsome man I’ve ever met—Mister Perfect, aristocratic features, golden hair. Poster Marine all the way. But you’re dead inside. You have no feelings, no compassion. Your eyes are the coldest gray I’ve ever seen—like a frozen pond in the dead of winter. I pity the woman who winds up with you.”

He blew a puff of smoke into the air. “I take it then that you’re saying it’s really over between us?”

She gave a small, bitter laugh. “Don’t flatter yourself and don’t play that game with me. It’s been over for quite some time now. It was never anything more than an occasional dinner with a friend, as far as I’m concerned.”

But the remorse in her eyes told a different story. He had regrets, too. He’d wanted her to be the one to erase the memory of another, to make him love and care and see goodness in the world once more. In the end she, like the few other women he’d dated over the last nine years, fell short of that need. She had been a stand-in, nothing more. Comparing Laura to—

No. Don’t go there. It hurt too much. It always did. If he lived to be a hundred, he doubted the pain and bitterness would ever die.

Phillip looked away to give her some shred of dignity. Or was it to hide the guilt seeping to the surface like a festering wound?

Laura pushed to her feet and slipped quietly inside the building.

He ground out his cigar on the cement steps and returned to his office. Victory no longer tasted sweet. Behind his gray metal desk, some stability returned.

His gaze drifted around his office, taking in the mementos of his career with the Marine Corps—his Amphibious Warfare School awards, the jump school medals in their rosewood frame, a souvenir shirt commemorating his time served in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Boxer. If there was an opportunity, he’d taken it. Anything to further his career. Somehow it still wasn’t enough. Even though his career was flourishing, he felt an emptiness he could not define.

The small picture of his family shoved into the corner of his desk caught his eye. The four Stuarts stood together at his graduation from Naval Justice School, looking uncomfortable. His father exuding aristocratic disapproval. His mother and sister Claudia smiled uncertainly as the camera caught them in such an atypical family moment.

They’d never understood why he’d had to do it—why he’d turned his back on the Stuart fortune. Phillip hadn’t bothered to explain. The year before, Claudia had come to the same realizations he had. Like her brother, it had taken a broken heart to open her eyes.

He turned the picture face down. On second thought, he shoved it into his drawer under a pile of paperwork. With everything else going through his mind, the last thing he needed to resurrect was his relationship with his family—particularly his father.

“Excuse me, sir?” His clerk stuck his head in through the office door. “There’s a package for you. It just arrived from the Commanding General at Twentynine Palms. Must be important because they made sure I signed for it.”

Phillip tore his gaze from the closed drawer. “Thanks, Corporal.”

He shut his mind to his family and accepted the bulky envelope. Once the door closed, he rummaged through the desk for his platinum letter opener, a concession gift from his father upon graduation from law school. Phillip kept hoping someone would steal it.

Then why keep the damn thing? The answer came too quickly. It was a trophy—a reminder of what his father was and what Phillip prayed he would never be.

With a flick of his wrist, he sliced open the envelope. The contents slid out onto the desktop and bold type near the middle of the page leaped out at him.

The accused, Staff Sergeant Rowan A. McKinley, requests your presence as independent military counsel…

Phillip’s face drained of color. His gut twisted. Breathing was out of the question.

Odd, when he had been thinking of her only minutes before. But then, when didn’t he think of her?

Beautiful, talented Rowan McKinley… The one woman he held up against the others. The one who hadn’t bothered to return his heart before she’d walked out of his life.

What the hell is she doing in the Marine Corps? More importantly, what had she done to need the services of a Marine defense attorney?

Time stopped as he grappled for the stack of papers—or maybe it took a giant step back. In either event, Phillip couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. Before he could read on, the door to his office flew open. The tan, inquiring face of his best friend and fellow attorney, Captain Zachary Taylor, poked around the doorjamb.

“I got a call from a friend of mine at the base in Twentynine Palms. There’s been a murder involving a staff sergeant, some woman by the name of—”

“McKinley,” Phillip muttered. Afraid Zach would see the true depth of his feelings, he kept his gaze locked on the papers. “The case has been offered to me.”

Zach lunged for the papers, snatching them out of Phillip’s grasp. “Well, aren’t you Mr. Popularity. Let’s have a look-see.”

He scanned the request form, eyes widening. “Why you? You’re not a defense counsel. This staff sergeant could have any military attorney at that base or even a civilian lawyer, providing she could afford one.”

Zach glanced up before Phillip could mask his feelings. The teasing stopped as Zach’s deep brown eyes narrowed with suspicion. He knew Phillip too well. A definite downfall in having a best friend.

“What is she to you?”

“What was she, you mean.” Phillip met Zach’s steady gaze with one of his own. “She was once the most important person in my life.” His mouth twisted and he whispered, “The bitch.”

Zach tossed the papers back to the desk. “That’s funny. I’ve known you for over eight years and you’ve never mentioned her.” He dropped into the chair across from Phillip, resting his feet on the edge of the desk. “Why the big secret? What’s the story?”

Phillip sighed and copied his friend’s position. Zach’s ability to focus on and unearth information was uncanny. Now those relentless abilities were focused in his direction. He forced a deep breath and sketched out his turbulent history with Rowan McKinley.

* * * *

Rowan drew her knees up against her chest and wrapped her arms around them in an effort to control her shaking. Nine hours of confinement in this tiny cell and she still hadn’t been allowed to speak with or see anyone—not that they would listen to her, anyway.

Fools.

She took pride in her work. Her record reflected that. Legal administration might not be the blood and guts of the Corps, but it was important. Every separation, every investigative report that crossed her desk was dissected until nothing was left in question. So why would her word be doubted when she suspected foul play in the Lava training area?

Imagining things. That was what Rowan had been told over and over again, despite the five seemingly unrelated incidents that had come across her desk in the last month. Only Charlie would listen and now he was dead.

She was sure the command would see she was right, but the finger of blame was now pointed in her direction.

Rowan rested her head on her knees then winced as the bruised and swollen side of her face protested at the contact. Rocking back and forth on the metal-framed cot, she tried to quell the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. It was so close in the holding cell and she was so alone.

“Stop it!” She pushed the words through clenched teeth. “This isn’t going to help you at all.”

She flicked her gaze to the camera mounted in the corner of the room on the other side of the cell partition. Its baleful eye watched her every motion, allowing her no privacy. This portion of the room was small, too small. The cell’s dimensions barely spanned ten feet across. Even the dim light in the hallway didn’t help.

Rowan closed her eyes. Breathe. Take deep breaths. No hyperventilating.

Phillip was her only chance at getting out of this. She had to be strong—strong enough to endure the claustrophobia closing in, strong enough to face him again.

Phillip. She had forgotten nothing about him. How could she when she lived with his image every day? The way the sun gleamed off his golden head, the ready smile and his eyes.

God, those eyes! They could burn like quicksilver when his temper flared or glow a soft, satiny gray when they made love.

She was probably a fool for contacting him after all these years. But there was no doubt she needed his help and she would accept whatever consequences resulted from having him back in her life. Only Phillip could save her now. That was, if he accepted her request for his services.

The hallway door opened. The roar of the evaporative coolers lessened. A military policeman walked in and glared at her through the bars. “Your request for counsel has been expedited. They’re waiting for the captain to either accept or decline the case.”

“How long will that take?” Rowan fought in vain to keep the quiver from her voice. “When will I be able to contact my family?”

“You work in legal. You tell me.” He lowered his voice. “Frankly, I hope you get what you deserve. He was a friend of mine, murderer.”

He slammed the door in his exit, putting pressure back on the cooler. The roar this time was nothing compared to the pulse of blood in her ears.

“Yeah, he was a friend of mine, too,” Rowan replied to no one.

She tucked herself into the farthest corner of the cot, her despair as smothering as the walls surrounding her.