New York Times Bestselling Author

Deserving Lara

Chapter One

Callen “Owl” Kaufman ran a hand through his hair in frustration. It had been over three months since he, Stone, and Pipe had gone to Arizona to check into Cora’s missing friend Lara…and found more than they’d bargained for.

Yes, they’d found Lara Osler, but in the process of getting her away from her toxic boyfriend, they’d been drugged, held against their will, almost died at the hands of a serial killer, and had to steal a helicopter to get away from the estate where they’d found the woman.

If he hadn’t been so focused on protecting Lara in the chaos, Owl might’ve found himself sucked down into horrible memories of a time when he’d been held hostage himself, while in the Army. The difference this time was, he hadn’t been tortured. Wasn’t filmed for the terrorists’ sick pleasure. And his teammate Stone, who’d been captured and tortured as well, this time had been the hero of the day. He’d been the one to appropriate a chopper—owned by the rich asshole who’d convinced Lara to come to Arizona—and fly them to safety.

But that safety was an illusion.

He knew it.

His friends knew it.

And unfortunately, Lara Osler knew it as well.

Carter Grant was a serial killer who’d flown under everyone’s radar. He’d been working as a bodyguard for Lara’s ex, while kidnapping and torturing women right under everyone’s noses. He’d shot her boyfriend in the head and slipped away in the chaos of that awful day.

He was still out there.

And he wanted Lara.

Owl’s teeth clenched. He wasn’t going to touch her again. He’d promised Lara, as well as her best friend, Cora. Just thinking about what Lara had already gone through at the psycho’s hands was enough to make Owl’s skin crawl.

But he knew better than most that bad shit happened. All it took was one moment of inattention, and Lara could be snatched out from under their noses. She was terrified. And Owl didn’t blame her.

Since their escape from Arizona, she’d hunkered down at The Refuge as she tried to heal. Most people would say she wasn’t any better than she was all those weeks ago, but they’d be wrong. She’d actually come a long way since her rescue.

But she still had a ways to go. And Owl vowed to be there for her every step.

Cora thought her friend was still a shell of the woman she used to be, but Owl wasn’t so sure about that. Yes, outwardly, Lara was still skittish, didn’t talk much, and wasn’t terribly willing to leave his cabin. But when it was just the two of them, locked in his home, safe and warm, she was starting to open up…revealing a funny, considerate, and incredibly insightful woman.

And Owl was madly in love with her.

Nothing would come of any kind of relationship, and he knew it. Lara saw him as a protector. She’d clung to him since the moment they’d arrived at The Refuge. For weeks, anytime he’d left her line of sight, she’d panicked. Even in that basement in Arizona where they’d found her, despite her drugged haze, she’d latched onto him as her point of safety, and he hadn’t done anything to dissuade her of that notion.

She’d gotten better very recently. Much better. He could go up to the lodge and leave her in his cabin with Cora for a couple hours at a time without her having a panic attack. But if he was gone too long, she’d start shaking and her breathing would increase, prompting a call from Cora. Each time, Lara wasn’t able to calm down until she saw him again.

It broke Owl’s heart because he wanted her to take her confidence back. Her independence. And having her rely on him so completely wasn’t a good basis for any kind of romantic relationship.

But he’d do anything for Lara—even suppress his feelings. He’d be her friend. Her rock. Her protector for as long as she needed him. Then he’d let her go. Watch her leave and spread her wings and fly once again.


Her soft, unsure voice had Owl shaking himself out of his tormented thoughts. He turned to see her standing in the doorway of the guest room. For the first two months, he’d slept in a chair next to her bed because she couldn’t bear to be alone. She’d recently been able to get through the night without waking up screaming, but every now and then, she still woke and needed reassurance that she wasn’t back there. Locked in a basement at the mercy of a madman.

“Hey, sweetheart. Bad dream?” he asked, immediately standing and going to her side. It was the middle of the night, and like usual, Owl’s insomnia was kicking his ass. He didn’t sleep well anymore. Hadn’t since he’d been a prisoner of war.

Lara shook her head as he approached. “No. But I woke up and got scared.”

“Come on,” Owl said, reaching for her hand.

He felt little sparks of electricity when she willingly took hold of his hand, just as he always did when they touched, but he kept his reaction hidden. The last thing she needed was to have to deal with an unwanted advance on top of everything else.

He led her to the couch where he’d been sitting and gently encouraged her to relax. He covered her with a blanket, then said, “Get comfy. I’ll be back with some hot chocolate.”

Owl could feel Lara’s gaze on him as he headed for the small kitchen. He wasn’t a gourmet cook, but he’d learned enough over the last few years of being a bachelor at The Refuge not to starve. Yes, he and his fellow co-owners could go up to the main lodge and eat every meal with the guests if they preferred. Robert was the best cook this side of the Mississippi as far as they were concerned, but as an introvert, Owl sometimes just wanted the peace and quiet of his own space.

He pulled down a large mug and hit the button on the electric kettle on his counter to start heating the water. He scooped dark hot chocolate mix into the mug, added a few marshmallows, and braced himself on the counter as he waited for the water to boil.

It took every ounce of his control not to go back to the couch and pull Lara into his arms. Every one of his senses was in tune with her. He heard her shift on the couch, the subtle sound of the blanket moving. His fingers tingled with the remembered feel of her skin against his from a moment ago. He swore he could smell the peach lotion she used as well.

Moving his eyes, but not his head, he looked over at her. Her shoulder-length blonde hair was mussed from her pillow. Her dark blue eyes were a little glazed over, as if she was still half-asleep. She wore a pair of black leggings and an oversized shirt that hid the shape of her body, but given all the time he’d spent with her, Owl knew she was still a little too slender, still gaining back some of the weight she’d lost during her ordeal.

Her nose turned up a little at the end and she was prone to blush at the slightest provocation. She was tall for a woman—they were about the same height, around five-ten—but she was two years older than him at thirty-five. She was a bit clumsy and didn’t seem to have a pretentious bone in her body…and Owl loved her all the more for it.

Having her in his space was torture, but he would suffer in silence as long as it meant Lara felt safe. No one knew of his feelings for his roommate, and if he had his way, no one ever would. Lara had a life away from here. She was the executive director of a preschool back in Washington, DC. Her kids missed her, all the parents loved her, and her boss had actually told Lara that she’d hold her job for her as long as she needed.

She’d be leaving eventually. Owl knew it. Cora knew it. Hell, everyone knew it. Owl would let her go because he loved her that much. He’d never hold her back. He’d do anything for this woman. Selflessly. Because she was worth it. Because after what she’d been through, she deserved the world. He’d give it to her if he could. But all he could do was ensure she could eventually get back to her life safely. Without looking over her shoulder.

Tex, the computer genius who’d brought him and his friends together years ago to form The Refuge, was trying to track down Carter Grant, the most wanted man in the country right now. The cops couldn’t find him. The FBI had lost his trail. But the serial killer couldn’t hide from Tex for long.

Owl had dreams of going after Grant once he was found. Of being the one to end the threat to the woman he loved. He’d probably die in the process, as he wasn’t like his ex-special forces friends. He had basic hand-to-hand combat skills, but he wasn’t as highly trained as a SEAL or Delta Force operative. Though he did have something his friends didn’t—motivation. He loved Lara enough to sacrifice himself to make sure she could live a long, happy life, free of Carter Grant’s threat hanging over her head.

His friends would rake him over the coals if they knew he’d willingly sacrifice himself to save Lara. But since the chances of Tex not telling the others that he’d found the serial killer, and letting Owl go after him alone, were slim to none, his likely demise wouldn’t really be an issue. He just knew that, if necessary, Owl would one hundred percent give his life for Lara’s.

The sound of the water bubbling in the kettle brought him out of his musings once again. Owl reached for the handle and poured the water into the mug, smiling at the rich scent of chocolate that wafted to his nose. He’d used plenty of extra chocolate, because that was how Lara liked it.

He stirred the drink, then turned and headed back to the couch. Owl could sense her gaze on him, and it made him feel warm inside. He sat next to her and held out the mug. “Careful, it’s hot.”

“Of course it is, it’s hot chocolate,” she said softly, with a small smile.

Owl lived for those smiles. They were rare, and he treasured each and every one.

“True. Let me know if it’s strong enough for you. If not, I can add more mix.”

She blew on the drink, then took a cautious sip. Her blue eyes met his. “It’s perfect.”

“Good,” Owl said, leaning back against the couch.

They sat in silence for a long moment, something else Owl loved about her. She didn’t feel the need to chatter unnecessarily. She was as content to sit in silence as he was. She’d told him once it was because of her work. All day she listened to children babble on and on, and while she loved it, she was just as glad to get into her car at the end of the workday and enjoy the sound of silence.

“Couldn’t sleep?” she asked.

Owl shrugged. “No.”

“You really should take the pills the doctor gave you,” she scolded gently.

None of his friends knew the extent of his insomnia. They didn’t know that if he managed to sleep for three or four hours a night, he considered himself lucky. His brain wouldn’t shut down long enough for him to get a full night’s rest. And since Lara had arrived, his worry for her and his need to be there when she woke from nightmares made sure he didn’t sleep through the night.

“It’s fine,” he told her.

Lara frowned. “It’s not. You don’t get enough sleep, Owl.”

“I’m used to it.”

Her brows furrowed.

Her concern for him felt good. Really good. “Seriously, I’m fine. It’s you I’m worried about. Why’d you wake up tonight?”

Lara’s gaze went back to the mug in her hands as she shrugged.

“Talk to me, Lara.”

She sighed. “I just…I’m such a burden.”

“What? That’s not true,” Owl insisted.

She gave him a sad smile. “It is. I can see the worry in Cora’s eyes when she visits. Everyone here is on edge, worried Carter will sneak onto the property in the middle of the night and cause havoc. And you…” Her voice trailed off. “I know you didn’t expect to have me attached to your hip for this long.”

Owl reached for her hand and squeezed it. “As far as I’m concerned, you can stay with me as long as you want.”

“You don’t mean that,” Lara protested.

“The hell I don’t. Look, I get it. I’ve been where you are. When Stone and I were rescued, I was a paranoid son-of-a-bitch. I didn’t trust anyone. Couldn’t even go to the grocery store without having someone with me to watch my back. It hasn’t been that long, Lara. Cut yourself some slack.”

“I’ve read what people online are saying,” she whispered.

Owl mentally swore. He’d read what assholes on social media were saying as well. When the story came out, some people actually blamed Lara. Insisted she must’ve done something awful to deserve what Carter had done. The victim blaming was vicious and horrible to read. And since Carter Grant was actually a very good-looking man—tall and muscular, dirty-blond hair, mid-thirties, hazel eyes—some sick assholes even said they wouldn’t have minded being in Lara’s place.

They were all fucking idiots. Had no idea what they were talking about. It was easy to sit in their houses, safe and warm, and cast judgement on Lara and every other woman who’d found herself in Carter’s clutches.

“Fuck them,” Owl spat.

“But they’re right. I went to Arizona of my own free will. I wasn’t kidnapped.”

“Maybe so, but that didn’t make it okay for Michaels to lock you in the basement, and it certainly didn’t give Grant the right to abuse you the way he did. You can’t read that shit, Lara. It’ll eat you alive, and those people online have no clue what they’re talking about. Trust me, when Stone and I got home, people did the same thing. Armchair quarterbacked everything about our situation. They said we were pussies. That we should’ve fought our way free. That we weren’t ‘real’ soldiers. If I took to heart everything they said, I would’ve put a bullet in my brain a long time ago.”

“Owl,” Lara breathed with a look of concern on her face.

“All I’m saying is that you can’t read that stuff. I mean it. You won’t talk to Henley—who could help you a hell of a lot better than I do—and you barely talk to Cora about what happened. Since I’m the only one you’ve opened up to, you need to listen to me. Stop. Reading. That. Hateful. Vitriol. Hear me?”

Owl wished like hell Lara would talk to Henley. Their resident psychologist would be able to help her much more than he could. But since she refused to speak about what happened with anyone but him, Henley had given him some tips that would hopefully help. But it was times like this when he felt as if he was completely out of his league. He just prayed he didn’t screw Lara up even more.

“I hear you,” she said.

“Good. The only people’s opinions that matter are yours, mine, Cora’s, and everyone else here at The Refuge. The people who actually know what you went through. Fuck everyone else.”

Her lips twitched.

Owl’s heart soared. Every time he could make her smile, it felt like a miracle. Especially given the first entire month after she’d arrived at The Refuge, when she was so damn broken.

“Now, you want to stay out here with me or head back to bed?”

“Here,” she said without hesitation.

“TV or book?” Owl asked.


“You want to continue with that documentary we started yesterday? Or something else?”

“Can we watch Cinderella?”

“Of course.” Owl picked up the remote and queued the movie. He didn’t mind in the least watching the cartoon for the hundredth time. If that was what Lara wanted to watch, that was what they’d watch.

Honestly, he was relieved about her movie choice. He’d heard more than once from Cora that Lara was a romantic. That she believed in soul mates and true love. At least, she had before everything that happened. But the fact that she still enjoyed this movie, that it was a comfort to her, made Owl believe the woman Lara used to be was still in there. She might’ve been battered and bruised, but she was there.

Lara snuggled into the corner of the couch, her gaze glued to the television. Owl couldn’t keep his eyes off her. He wasn’t tired in the least, but he was thrilled when, not even fifteen minutes into the movie, Lara nodded off. He was pleased she felt safe enough to let down her guard around him and sleep.

Owl had seen this movie just as many times as Lara had since she’d been here, but he didn’t turn it off. He let it play. And prayed that one day, the woman next to him would find her own Prince Charming. A man who would love and cherish her as much as he did. He knew it couldn’t be him, but he wanted that for her more than he’d ever wanted anything in his life.

She’s a survivor, but it will take someone truly special to make her see how strong she can be.

As a former Night Stalker Army pilot, Callen “Owl” Kaufman has been in his share of dicey situations. Long-since retired from the military, he thought dangerous missions were a thing of his past, but rescuing Lara Osler from a serial killer was definitely one of the most harrowing yet. Now safe at The Refuge, Lara is struggling to heal months later…and Owl is struggling just as hard to hide his growing feelings. But he’ll do anything to help the vulnerable woman recover—even if that means letting her go.

Kidnapped by a boyfriend? Check. Held against her will by a serial killer? Check. Falling in love with her rescuer? Triple check. Lara thought her life was over, until her best friend showed up to save her with one of the most intriguing men she’d ever met. Owl is gentle, considerate, and he makes her feel safe. As time passes, Lara slowly begins to reclaim her life, thanks to the man who opened his heart and his home to a broken woman. But Owl doesn’t see her as damaged. He sees someone who’s gone through hell…and come out stronger on the other side.

But strong enough to face a serial killer? Owl and Lara both know the man who terrorized her is still out there, biding his time. Waiting for his chance to steal back what he views as his…