Release Date: June 12, 2023
He was the town’s golden boy, their all-American hero. But there was a side of him he’d only shown her.
When Lyric Jackson stopped for gas in Redemption, Tennessee, she wasn’t sure what to think of the small town nestled in the middle of the Smoky Mountains. Then she got one look at Holton Clarke, saw that charming smile, and fell instantly. One night with the man in uniform sparked an ember of hope, but things didn’t quite end how she’d expected.
All Holton Clarke ever wanted to do was protect the people he cares about. He thought he’d be able to do that better as a deputy for his hometown, but one call turned his whole world and everything he thought he knew upside down. Including what he’d hoped for his future with a certain sassy librarian.
But when danger from Lyric’s past comes calling, Holton has to put his fears and insecurities to the side in order to save the woman who has gotten under his skin, but she refuses to make it easy, or give him a second chance. Now she’s under his roof, sharing his bed, and throwing him attitude and dirty looks every chance she gets.
She might claim that nothing is ever going to happen between them, but that one night they’d shared was his favorite mistake ever, and he has every intention of repeating it for the rest of his life.
I knew this day was going to be difficult; it was the hardest day of each year, no matter how many had passed, but the heartbreak never failed to take me by surprise. From one year to the next, I kept waiting for the pain that came every time my little brother’s birthday rolled around to stop feeling like a white-hot poker being stabbed beneath my ribs, but that never happened.
This year, however, was exceptionally worse. When I’d woken up this morning, after the haze of sleep wore off and realization kicked in, the memories created an agony so intense it could have kept me in bed, curled up in a tight ball, all day long. It had taken everything in me to keep from falling down a deep black hole of misery and sadness. The pain in my heart had been almost physical—a stabbing, burning, throbbing thing that only got worse with every passing moment. But I’d still managed to drag myself out of bed. I’d gone through the motions of getting ready for the day and forced myself into the town’s public library where I worked.
Every minute was its own special kind of torture, having to go through the motions, wearing a fake smile and pretending everything was just peachy, when in reality I was trapped in my own personal hell. Yet, somehow, I managed. The seconds ticked by slower than usual, time moving at a snail’s pace until it felt like the day would last an eternity, but, damn it, I’d managed. I was giving myself that win.
I knew going home wasn’t an option. If I was left to my own devices, I’d fall right back into that pit of despair, and there was no telling how long it would take to pull myself out of it. As much as I didn’t feel like being social, I also didn’t really want to be alone either, so I settled on the next best thing.
I’d drink until I was numb, then, if fate felt like being kind, I’d pass the hell out for the remainder of this godforsaken day.
I wasn’t surprised to see so many cars in the parking lot of Bad Alibi when I pulled in, even thought it was the middle of the work week. The place was a popular hangout for locals as well as people from the neighboring towns. It wasn’t packed to the gills like it usually was on the weekends, but the crowd was plenty big enough to line the waitresses’ pockets nicely.
“Lyric! Hey.” Speaking of waitresses, I turned just in time to offer a smile I hoped was believable to my friend, Farah.
“Hi,” I greeted while glancing toward the bar from the corner of my eye. “How’s it going?” My attempt at small talk was lame, at best, but it was all I could manage at the moment.
“It’s good. Are you meeting Deva or any of the girls here?” she asked, speaking of my best friend, Deva Kent, who I’d met only a couple weeks after moving to Redemption, and the rest of the crew we’d accumulated over the past months.
I shrugged. “Nope, it’s just me. Didn’t quite feel like going home yet. Thought I’d stop in for a drink.” Or six, I thought. Six should be enough to drown the pain, right? As long as the bartender was feeling generous with his pours.
She tipped her head just slightly and studied me closely. “You okay?”
I slid my mask back into place, making my smile brighter and forcing it to reach my eyes. “Yeah, I’m great,” I answered brightly.
She looked like she wanted to press, but a person at one of her tables must have waved to get her attention. “Okay. If you’re sure.”
“Absolutely.” I motioned to the table that had caught her attention. “Looks like you’re being summoned. I’ll just be—” I finished my sentence by pointing in the direction of the bar.
A sigh of relief hollowed my chest when she reached for my forearm, giving it a quick squeeze before heading off to do her job. I loved the circle of friends I’d made over the past few months. It had been a very long time since I’d had friends like the ones I’d made here in Redemption, but at times like this, the only way I knew to cope was alone.
I started back on my original path, offering half-hearted smiles and waves of greeting to the other people who called out to me. That was small town life for you, everyone knew everyone. Most days I loved it. Most days.
I couldn’t bring myself to be outright rude to the people of my new town, not when they’d been nothing but warm and welcoming since my arrival, but I needed to get a drink in my hand, as soon as humanly possible.
I finally made it to my destination, but instead of hopping up onto one of the vacant stools and ordering something one hundred proof, I stutter-stepped to a halt at the sight of the broad back covered by clean white cotton stretched taut by mounds of muscle beneath.
I would have recognized that back anywhere. It belonged to none other than the town’s golden boy and heroic provider of law and order, Deputy Holton Clarke. The man who’d melted my insides like butter in a hot skillet since the first moment I laid eyes on him . . .
I’d barely crossed the town line when I had to pull over for gas. I was standing at the pump as it chugged along, filling the tank of my car when a white SUV emblazoned with the sheriff’s department logo and star across the side pulled into the station and parked near the door.
My jaw dropped as he stepped out. He was the kind of man who made everything he wore look good; even the unappealing khaki uniform was runway worthy on him. Long legs that seemed to go on forever led upward to thick thighs and higher to what had to have been the firmest, nicest ass I’d ever laid eyes on. His gun belt wrapped around a perfectly tapered waist and a flat stomach that I just knew was carved with muscle. The seams of his shirt sleeves were put to the test by cut, rounded biceps that led to corded forearms roped with even more muscles.
The whole man-in-a-uniform thing might have been a cliché, but it was guys like him who made it such a popular one. He wore his hair longer than you would have expected for a cop, but it looked damn good on him. It was a cross between dark blond and light brown, like it couldn’t decide which color it wanted to be, so it picked both. There were streaks of light and dark throughout, and when a breeze kicked up just then, rustling the strands, it reminded me of a field of wheat swaying in the wind.
“Mornin’, Deputy Clarke,” an elderly man with white hair, hunched shoulders, and a ballcap greeted from the propped door that led into the gas station, lifting his fingers to the brim and shooting the deputy a salute.
“Frank,” the man who’d had me utterly transfixed returned, his voice rough and deep in the most delicious way, like stone covered in velvet. “You got a fresh pot brewing in there for me?”
His voice had a low, smoky, seductive quality to it, like warm honey and fine Scotch.
“Just so happens, the pot finished gurglin’ right before you showed up.”
I’d been so transfixed with this stranger that I was jolted out of my daze by the pump clicking off, the sound seeming louder than usual. I let out a startled yelp, accidentally squeezing the handle as I yanked it from my tank. “Shit!” I squeaked, dancing backward to avoid the spray of gasoline.
I jerked around to see both the sexy deputy and the old man looking right at me. I shoved the nozzle back into place and swiped the hair out of my face, trying to compose myself as I turned to face the men who were now staring at me. “Yeah. I’m really sorry about that.” I waved my hands at the puddle, “I’ll just, um . . .” I wasn’t sure how to finish that sentence. Should I offer to clean it up? I didn’t have the first clue how to handle a gas spill.
The old man, Frank, waved me off. “Bah, don’t worry about it. I’ll get that cleaned up for you.”
I offered Officer Delicious a tentative smile as the tiny hairs on my arms stood on end. Even though his gaze was covered by a pair of aviator style sunglasses that looked really good on him, I could sense his intense scrutiny, and it made my skin feel tight.
“You new to town?” he asked, and I had to suppress the urge to fidget.
My head cocked to the side, my brows pinched in confusion. “How did you—”
He tipped his chin up toward my car, specifically, the back seat. “It was just a guess. Either that, or you’re living out of your car.”
I let out a little chuckle as I looked over my shoulder. Sure enough, everything I owned was crammed into the backseat and trunk of my car. I didn’t know it if was sad or not that I had so little I didn’t even need a moving truck. “Good eye.”
One corner of his mouth quirked up in a smirk. “My job to notice those kinds of things.”
“Oh, yeah. I guess so.” I shifted from foot to foot. “I’m Lyric.”
That smirk grew into a full-blown grin, plump pink lips stretching to surround straight white teeth. “Nice to meet you, Lyric. Welcome to Redemption.”
Those last three words had sealed my decision. When I’d pulled into that gas station, I hadn’t quite decided if this would be my new home or not. I had a job interview at the public library, but after months and months of traveling, I hadn’t been sure if I was ready to settle or not. However, that single greeting had been all it took to cement me into my new life.
Forcing myself to the present, my feet came unglued from the floor, carrying me toward Holton before I could give it a second thought, or hell, even a first.
He sat just at the curve of the bar, his shoulders slumped inward, his frame hunched forward ever so slightly. He was giving off familiar vibes. They were currently screaming stay away, and I could only assume that was why the stools on either side of him were vacant. People were giving him a wide berth. You’d have thought that since I’d walked in here feeling the exact same way, I’d have respected that invisible force field he currently had around himself. Not so much.
Instead, I lifted myself onto the stool directly to his right.
Just as soon as my butt fit itself to the cushion, Darla, the owner of Bad Alibi, along with her husband, stopped across the bar from me. “What can I get you, doll?”
“Lagavulin. Neat, please.”
There were two things in life I didn’t mess around with. My haircare products—curly-haired women had it rough, man. It took time, energy, and skill to find the right hair regimen—and scotch. Lagavulin was the only way to go, as far as I was concerned.
“You got it. Be right back.” She turned on her boot heel and moved down the bar to where they kept the top-shelf booze.
“Wow,” Holton said from beside me.
I looked in his direction just as his head twisted my way. His mossy green eyes landed on me and caused a flutter to erupt deep down in my belly as goosebumps broke out across my skin. It was the same reaction my body had every time he looked at me. “You came in here with determination, huh?”
I lifted the glass Darla had just placed in front of me and took a sip. I held it for a moment, letting the rich, smoky sweetness coat my tongue before swallowing it where it settled, nice and warm, in my belly.
“It’s been a long day,” I told him as I brought the glass back down and rested it on the bar.
His long, thick fingers were wrapped around the dark glass of his beer bottle, drops of condensation slipping down the smooth surface as he spun it in place. “I know the feeling.” The words were barely more than a grunt, but still packed a wallop of emotion. Looking at him just then was like looking into a mirror. Both of us were in miserably dark moods.
I lifted my glass his way. “Then cheers to us,” I said with a tight smile. “To shitty days and drinking to forget.”
He clinked his beer bottle against the lip of my glass. “Amen to that.”
We drank in silence, side by side but still alone, and despite my earlier desire for that very thing, whatever it was that had drawn me to Holton Clarke from the very moment I’d laid eyes on him tugged at my consciousness. I had the self-control of a toddler when it came to this man. I couldn’t seem to help myself.
The liquid in my glass got a little lower, his beer was emptied and a fresh one placed in front of him by Darla’s husband, Buck, when I could no longer keep quiet. “You want to talk about it?”
He’d been staring forward at a whole lot of nothing, but at my question, looked back at me with a curious arch of his brow. “Sorry?”
“Your bad day,” I elaborated. “You want to talk about it?” I leaned forward and lowered my voice. “I’ve heard getting it off your chest can be cathartic.” A teasing smirk pulled at my lips as I shot him a wry wink.
What the hell was I doing?
He offered me a grin and a half-hearted chuckle. “You heard that somewhere, huh?”
Not only had I initiated small talk, but I was now prodding into Holton’s personal life, desperate for something from the guy when all I’d come to do in the first damn place was drink in silence.
He lifted his beer bottle to his lips, and my gaze dropped down to the thick column of his neck as he swallowed. I couldn’t help but wonder what it would smell like if I were to bury my face right there, where his neck met his shoulder.
“Appreciate the offer,” he spoke, breaking me out of the fantasy and dropping me right back into the present, “but I’m good.”
“Yeah, sure,” I said, suddenly feeling stupid for pushing when I knew damn well he wasn’t in a sharing mood. “Of course you are. I didn’t mean to pry.”
I threw back the last of the scotch simply to give my mouth something to do rather than ramble on.
I caught Darla’s eye and lifted my hand in a silent request for a refill.
Holton surprised me by not lapsing back into silence, but instead, asking, “What about you?” Darla brought the bottle over and poured me two fingers.
My brow crinkled in confusion. “What about me what?”
Humor created fine creases in the corners of his eyes. “You feel like getting your bad day off your chest? I’m not going anywhere any time soon if you want to talk.”
“Oh.” The offer was unexpected, that was for sure. But having it come from him flipped a switch inside of me, and the words I’d never wanted to let loose before started spilling past my lips, unchecked.
“It’s my little brother’s birthday today,” I admitted in a quiet, almost shy voice. Unable to stare into those penetrating green eyes as I told him my story, I lowered my head and looked into my glass, my fingers nervously spinning it in circles against the scarred bar top, the deep amber liquid sloshing against the sides. “This day is always the hardest for me.”
“He live somewhere else?” Holton inquired gently.
“No. He . . . well, he died last spring.”
“Shit, darlin’,” he grunted in a low, craggy voice. “I’m so sorry.”
I glanced at him and offered a tiny, sad smile. “It’s all right. You didn’t know. No one knows, actually. I think this might be the first time I’ve said it out loud.” I brought the glass to my lips and drank before letting out a small humorless laugh. “Like you, I’m not usually big on sharing.”
He looked at me with a shrewdness I could only assume came from training and years of experience as a cop. “You said it’s always the hardest day for you.”
“Yeah.” I cleared my throat to dislodge the ball of emotion that had formed. I shouldn’t have been surprised that he caught my turn of phrase so easily. He was damn good at his job, to hear everyone in town tell it. “I guess you could say he’s been gone for a really long time. Drunk driving accident seven years back. He’d been on life support ever since. My mother—” I had to stop to swallow down the bitterness that slithered up my tongue at the mention of her. “She couldn’t let go.” Or wouldn’t, I thought to myself. I was almost convinced that she’d kept Cal stuck in limbo all those years as a way to punish me. And she’d succeeded.
“Jesus, Lyric. I don’t know what to say.”
“Nothing to say, really.” I’d just given him more than I had given anyone else since starting over, and it still wasn’t even half the story. Despite whatever it was that made me want to open up to Holton and give him my secrets, I couldn’t bring myself to pour out the whole ugly, sordid truth. “I could say the whole clichéd bit about him being better off now than he has been the past seven years, and the reasonable side of me knows that’s the truth. I knew it wasn’t fair to force him to stay with us when it was his time to go—”
“But that sure as fuck doesn’t make it hurt any less.”
My gaze jerked back to him, gratitude that he understood warming that place inside of me that had been frigidly cold all damn day. “Exactly. It sucks.”
He lifted his beer bottle. “To getting past the sucky shit.”
I mimicked his motions from earlier and tapped my glass to his in cheers. “Tomorrow’s a new day after all, right?”
“You said it.”
We drank and I was pleased that the small talk came easier after that. The heaviness of the conversation melted away, and I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. The pain was still there. I wasn’t sure it would ever fully go away, and I could still see the darkness lurking in Holton’s features, but the dark black clouds that had been hovering over us had faded to gray.
The conversation shifted to more harmless topics. I picked his brain about how he liked being a deputy. He asked how I liked working at the library and laughed when I told him about the time Mr. Hasslebeck, the older man who headed up our Story Hour for the kids each week, had gotten stuck in his costume. It had become somewhat of a tradition that he dressed in character to fit the theme of whatever they were reading that week. Even the other volunteers got into it with hats and crowns and such. That particular week, however, they were reading books about mermaids, and the tail to his costume had proven to be a lot more difficult—not to mention unflattering—than he’d expected. We’d had to wait until the kids left so they wouldn’t be permanently scarred when I had to cut Mr. Hasslebeck out.
His rumbling chuckle was raspy and delicious. “I’m not surprised.” He shook his head good-naturedly. “He’s always been a bit of a character. But I appreciate you handling it yourself and not calling 911 to get him out.”
I leaned over, knocking my shoulder into his playfully. “Oh, please. Like you wouldn’t have been more than willing to ride in and be the hero. That’s what you do. It’s why everyone in town loves you. You’re the closest thing Redemption has to a white knight.” I let out a giggle. “You’re the quintessential Good Guy.”
I could have sworn a shadow drifted across his face, darkening his expression, but it was there and gone before I could be certain. “I’m not a hero,” he said quietly as he used his thumbnail to pick at the label on his beer bottle.
I made a face and let out a scoff. “I’m pretty sure everyone in this town would disagree with you on that.”
He looked away, clearing his throat before taking another swallow of his third beer. “So, what brought you to Redemption?” he asked, changing the subject, and I was more than willing to give him that play if it meant prolonging our time together.
I’d switched to water after my second scotch, knowing that if I kept going the inevitable hangover wouldn’t be worth the few hours of numbness. But also, I didn’t want to dull my senses around Holton. I wanted to be present, to remember everything we talked about.
I was nice and relaxed, the warmth from the booze still with me, but just enough to make me feel loose and carefree, something I certainly never expected to feel today of all days. I’d rested my elbow on the bar, my chin tucked into the cradle of my hand while I toyed with the straw in my water with the other, swirling it through the ice and creating random patterns in the clear liquid. “I only stayed in my hometown as long as I did because I couldn’t bring myself to leave Cal. Once he passed, I traveled for a while.”
A small laugh vibrated up my throat, a happy memory tugging my lips into a smile. “When he was fifteen, he’d done a school project where he had to write down all the different places in the country he wanted to visit. I remember him being really into it. He did research and everything, and by the time he was done, the list took up the whole sheet of paper. I spent a few months traveling to all those places for him. Kind of as a way to honor him, I guess. He didn’t get to see them or experience them on his own. I know it probably sounds ridiculous, but I like to imagine that there’s a piece of him still with me that got to experience it through me. Together.”
I moved my focus away from the glass to look at Holton. The inhale I’d just taken lodged in my throat at the intensity darkening his eyes as he looked at me.
His voice was rougher and heated when he spoke next, like honey dripping over gravel. “That doesn’t sound ridiculous at all. In fact, it sounds pretty amazing.”
Another rush of warmth bloomed inside of me, this one having nothing to do with the Lagavulin. Those hypnotizing sea-glass eyes of his felt like a tractor beam, pulling me in. Pressure deep in my core escalated my breathing and made my skin tingle. My breasts suddenly felt heavier, and my nipples ached as they hardened.
“Can I get you another drink?” The syrupy gruffness of his voice drenched my panties. “I came in here in a shitty mood, and you’ve somehow managed to turn it around. I don’t think I’m ready for the night to end. Are you?”
I licked my lips and inhaled deeply, summoning up the courage to do what I’d been wanting to do for months. “No,” I whispered, shaking my head. “I don’t want it to end either.” I leaned in and rested my palm on his thigh, slowly trailing it upward as I offered, “But how about we have our next drink at my place instead?”