Leaving a toxic relationship and starting over was the hardest thing Phoebe Keller had ever done. Alone, jobless, living out of her car, and completely desperate, she takes a chance on a pipedream—and lands herself right atop the bestseller list. Three years and a handful of bestselling novels later, life is good, and those desolate months are nothing more than a distant memory. But, not all the glitters is gold.
From the ashes.
Coming home from his third tour in Afghanistan, Rayce Hawkins doesn’t quite know where he fits anymore. He has nothing in common with any of his friends, and when they stop calling, all he feels is relief. He can barely make the rent on his one-bedroom, rodent-infested apartment, and his prospects dwindle more every day. Drowning in self-pity and running out of options, he’s ready to give up when he receives a phone call from an old comrade. With four little words, everything changed.
The devil within.
When Rayce and Phoebe meet at a black-tie event for a local charity, their instant chemistry is undeniable, but not everyone is happy about their new relationship. What started as innocent emails and benign gifts becomes increasingly more threatening as a someone in the shadows stalks Phoebe’s every move.
When Phoebe is taken captive, Rayce will do whatever it takes to save her. With the clock ticking and time running out, can he find her before it’s too late? Or will he be forced to watch as his entire life shatters around him?
Bathed by the pale light of a nearby lamppost in the empty parking lot, the decrepit 1973 Chevy El Camino groaned as brisk winds rocked the vehicle and whistled through the broken seal of the passenger window. Sleet pelted against the fogged windshield, freezing to the glass in an icy sheet, and the faded brown tarp that covered the bed flapped and rustled in the gathering storm.
With a red thumb drive clutched in her gloved fist, Phoebe Keller inhaled deeply through her nose, then released the breath past her trembling lips in a plume of smoke.
Everything she owned was tucked beneath the billowing tarp in frayed and soggy boxes. A few clothes, an extra pair of shoes, a picture of her with her parents taken during a family vacation in the Ozark Mountains when she’d been fourteen. Everything else, anything of value, she’d pawned months ago, needing the cash to fuel her ancient car and feed her aching stomach.
Then winter had arrived.
Its icy fingers had stretched across central Texas, blanketing the Dallas area in unseasonably cold temperatures. In the past week, she’d burned through the gas in the El Camino in a desperate attempt to stay warm during the frigid nights, leaving her with barely a quarter of a tank. Food had also been scarce lately, forcing her to find inventive ways to eat.
Saturday, she’d pushed a cart around a nearby discount warehouse store for the better part of two hours, idly dropping items into her basket that she had no intention of purchasing. In that time, she’d made her way to each of the twenty or so stations that offered free samples of things like mini quiche and tomato soup. Then, she’d pushed her partially filled cart into an empty corner before hurrying out of the store with her head ducked to avoid curious stares.
It had been humiliating and completely demoralizing, but it had seen her through another day. She hadn’t eaten again in the two days since, and the warm, spicy scents wafting on the air from the Thai restaurant across the street made her stomach gurgle and her mouth salivate.
She knew of several soup kitchens in the city, and even a couple in the suburbs, but she wouldn’t go there unless she had no other choice. Despite her miserable circumstances, Phoebe realized she was still luckier than most. She didn’t have children to worry about, or anyone else for that matter. As rusted and broken down as her car was, it kept her mostly protected from the elements, and the cracked-leather bench seat of the old El Camino was a lot more comfortable than the frozen ground in a dark alley.
When she’d left her ex-fiancé, Tucker Cromwell, standing in front of their high-rise apartment building in the heart of Dallas, she’d had no plan and nowhere to go, but she’d been desperate to escape the toxic and abusive relationship. For over a year, she’d allowed him to manipulate her, to dictate every aspect of her life, until she’d woken up one day to find she had no job, no money, no friends, and no freedom.
Her mom had died just a year after Phoebe had graduated high school, and her father had followed three years later. Sadly, she had no other family, nowhere to turn for help, but none of that had mattered. She’d been drowning, suffocating beneath Tucker’s ever-tightening fist of control. The relief she’d felt, the weight that had lifted off her chest as she’d driven away, had been worth every cold, lonely, and miserable night since.
This was it. Her chance at a new beginning. Her last hope of getting her life back.
After weeks and weeks of searching for employment and suffering disappointment at every turn, she’d finally landed a position with housekeeping at a motel just off the interstate earlier that day. It was a step in the right direction, and she was grateful the manager had taken a chance on her, but she wouldn’t receive her first paycheck for at least two more weeks.
“It could be worse.”
She spoke the words aloud, her voice vibrating from the cold. It was a reminder, one she gave herself often, that no matter how bad things seemed in the moment, she was still fortunate in many ways. Her car could be impounded, leaving her truly homeless. There were still three days before she started her new job, and in that time, the manager of the motel could change her mind.
She could still be living with Tucker Cromwell.
Yes, things could always be worse.
With another trembling breath, Phoebe opened the driver’s door of the El Camino, wincing when the hinges creaked loud enough to echo across the parking lot. Her threadbare tennis shoes slid over the icy pavement, but she clutched the still open door to steady herself. If she were smart, she’d wait until the winter storm had passed, but unfortunately, time wasn’t a luxury she could afford.
The county library closed in less than an hour, plenty of time to use their computer station to send the most important email of her life. With the thumb drive clutched in her hand, she held her fist over her heart and ducked her head against the howling wind. Using her hip to close the car door, she looked up at the towering building illuminated in hazy amber light.
She could do this. She had to do this.
Besides, what did she have to lose?
~ ~ ~
No lights burned in the one-bedroom, pest-infested apartment on the west side of the city. A deafening silence stretched to every corner of the dilapidated building, interrupted only by the hum of the rusted refrigerator and the occasional scratching from the mice that lived within the walls.
Alone with only the glow of the muted television for company, Rayce Hawkins leaned his head back on the threadbare sofa he’d found by the curb during the last garbage day. The black and tan checkered pattern mostly hid the numerous cigarette burns in the fabric, but nothing could mask the smell of sweat and stale smoke.
A single cockroach scuttled across the scarred coffee table in search of food. Rayce wished him luck. The only thing to eat in the apartment was a can of raviolis and a half-empty bottle of ketchup. Considering he was three months behind on his rent, and the gas company had cut him off the previous week, the raviolis were kind of a big deal.
It had been eight months since he’d returned from his third tour in Afghanistan and ended his twelve years of duty to the United States Marine Corps. Everyone was eager to thank him for his service to the country, but their gratitude extended only so far. No one wanted to take a chance on a combat-hardened man with practically zero civilian job experience. He could dismantle and reassemble a rifle in record time, then hit a moving target at fifty paces. Unfortunately, those weren’t marketable skills when it came to finding gainful employment.
Some employers simply didn’t care about his military history. Others worried about anger and aggression, and a few had even expressed concerns about PTSD. They weren’t wrong, either.
More nights than not, Rayce lied awake, staring at the cracked and water-stained ceiling. Since arriving stateside, he hadn’t slept more than two hours at a time, and only by sitting upright in the corner of his living room and leaning back against the peeling wallpaper next to the window. Just a week after he’d moved into the rundown building, a car had backfired down the street, and he’d spent the better part of four hours curled up under his coffee table, trapped inside his own mind.
Many of his comrades had lost limbs. Some had suffered horrific burns, others had been paralyzed, and just as many had come home in pine boxes. Rayce had returned from the war with a few scars and two pins in his right ankle. He knew he was fortunate, and he should be grateful, but every day, he struggled to find a reason to keep going.
So far, he’d found nothing.
A .357 Magnum rested on the stained cushion beside him, a single bullet loaded into the cylinder. He could do it. He could press the barrel to his temple and pull the trigger, then everything would just stop. The nightmares. The flashbacks. The loss of control, and the anger, and the feeling of hopelessness.
His right hand trembled as he inched it across the couch cushion, and his breath plumed from his lips, each inhalation coming in short gasps. Idly, he wondered if anyone would miss him. He didn’t have any family, and he’d ignored the few friends he’d had until they’d finally stopped calling.
No, there probably wouldn’t be anyone to miss him, but maybe it was better that way.
His fingertips slid over the leather handle of the weapon. His hand stopped shaking the moment he lifted the gun, comfortable with the familiar weight.
It was better this way.
It was better…
His prepaid Nokia flip phone slid and clattered across the coffee table, the small square on the front illuminated in a cold shade of blue. No one ever called him, not anymore. Not friends, not potential employers—his cell phone hadn’t rung in nearly three weeks.
Acting on instinct, moving on autopilot, Rayce lowered the revolver to his lap and lifted his phone, frowning when the caller ID showed no name or number. Flipping the cheap plastic open, he held it to his ear and took two deep breaths before finally speaking.
Only the guys from his platoon in Afghanistan ever called him that. “Who is this?”
“It’s Steele. You sound like shit.”
Lieutenant Dominic Steele didn’t bother with formalities or niceties, and he had little aptitude for diplomacy. He was, however, fair, efficient, and damn smart. He’d commanded Rayce’s platoon on two of his three tours, and he couldn’t have asked for a better leader.
“Thanks, Steele. Always uplifting to hear from you.”
“Cut the bullshit,” Dominic grumbled. “Meet me at that dive bar on the corner down from your place in ten minutes.”
“How do you—”
“Dive bar. Ten minutes.”