New York Times Bestselling Author

Chapter One


Zeke checked his watch for what seemed like the twentieth time.

Elsie was late.

She was never late.

He’d gotten to know her pretty well over the last year and a half, and her reliability was the first thing he’d noticed. At first she was just another employee…but she was so much more than that now.

As time went by, Zeke’s attraction to the sweet brunette grew, and slowly, he’d begun to see through the easygoing façade she presented to the world to the woman underneath. No matter how much she tried to hide it and pretend otherwise, she was stressed, exhausted. It made him want to do whatever he could to help.

He also wanted On the Rocks to be a safe space for her. A place where she could let down her guard and know she had people to rely on.

He wanted to think he was succeeding, at least a little bit. She smiled more frequently, was a touch more outgoing, and she seemed genuinely happy while at work.

And little by little, she was finally beginning to loosen up around him as well.

Zeke had only kissed her once. That evening, he’d lost his shit when one of the customers had grabbed her ass, and he’d pulled her into his office and told her he was done tiptoeing around his attraction. Instead of getting upset or telling him he was overstepping his bounds, that she didn’t want any kind of relationship, she’d melted in his arms. The kiss they’d shared had been short but hot, and Zeke definitely wanted more.

He was trying to take things slow. Give her time and space to come to terms with the fact that she had a protector. Him.

It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. All he wanted was to take her home and spoil her and Tony, her nine-year-old son. Wanted to show them both that whatever had made them so skittish and uncertain was behind them. But even after he’d declared his interest, Elsie had remained guarded.

So he’d backed off, while making it clear his interest hadn’t waned. He frequently found reasons to touch her. A hand on her back. A brush against her arm. Standing just a little bit closer when she was talking to him. Nothing threatening or overt. Just intentionally clear. And it was working. Slowly but surely, since that first kiss, she was relaxing her guard.

Most people wouldn’t agree. Would observe how she acted around him and argue she was just as wary now as when she’d first arrived…but they’d be wrong.

Her reactions toward him were even more subtle than his own, but Zeke could read them loud and clear. She smiled shyly at him often. Her sweet blushes when he complimented her came more frequently. And just the other day, she’d touched him.

It had been one of the first times she’d deliberately initiated contact, and Zeke wouldn’t ever forget it. He’d been slammed behind the bar, as both his bartenders called in sick so he was the only one making drinks. He’d been on his feet since arriving right before lunch. In addition, he and his friends on the Eagle Point Search and Rescue team had been out most of the night before, looking for a mentally handicapped teenager who’d slipped out of the house without anyone’s notice and disappeared into the wilderness behind his home. Luckily, they’d found him, cold and scared but without any major injuries.

Zeke had been exhausted and two seconds from blowing up at a customer when Elsie had come behind the bar, loudly announced to the whole place that he was taking a twenty-minute break and their customers needed to just chill, before taking his hand and leading him down the hall to his office.

It had been extremely uncharacteristic. Elsie didn’t like to be the center of attention. She preferred to fade into the background. But for Zeke, she’d faced down the rowdy patrons and forced him to take a break. It had been a surprise to see her standing up to him, as well. Pointing at the couch and ordering him to sit and relax for a few minutes.

He had. But not without pulling her down next to him. She’d hesitantly settled against him, and they’d both just sat in the semi-quiet of his office and decompressed.

Afterward, she’d gone back to being shy and reticent, but Zeke wouldn’t forget how

she’d had his back—not to mention how good she’d felt at his side, literally.

Some people might get frustrated with how slowly their relationship was progressing, but not Zeke. His time in the Green Berets had taught him to be patient. That the most worthwhile outcomes came from persistence.

And besides…after his ex, he’d avoided relationships himself for years.

He suspected Elsie rarely had anyone watching her own back. It was obvious she hadn’t had an easy life before coming to Fallport, Virginia. Hell, she still didn’t have an easy life. But she didn’t complain. Never bitched about how hard she worked to keep a roof over her and her son’s heads. She just did what needed to be done and kept moving forward.

The bell above the door finally rang, and Zeke looked up in relief, expecting to see Elsie rushing into the bar, apologizing for being late and promising it would never happen again. But instead of Elsie, Reina Caudle waved at him as she entered.

Zeke’s brows furrowed. “What are you doing here? You aren’t scheduled until later.”

“Wow, good to see you too,” Reina said with a smile. “And I know that. But Elsie called and asked if I could do her shift. She’s sick.”

“Sick?” Zeke asked, his brow lifting skeptically.

“That’s what I thought,” Reina agreed. “The woman’s never sick. Remember a few months ago when everyone in town seemed to catch that flu? But not Elsie. She did so many extra shifts for all of us, it was mind-boggling.”

Zeke did remember. Elsie had worked two weeks straight without a day off, most of the time pulling ten-hour shifts. She’d been a godsend to the other servers, and everyone, including Zeke, was grateful she’d been willing to pick up the slack.

“What’s wrong with her?” he asked.

Reina shrugged. “I don’t know. She just said that she felt like crap but she should be in tomorrow as usual.”

Zeke’s frown deepened. One thing he knew about Elsie was that she never admitted a weakness. Ever. When asked how she was doing, she always said “great.” When asked if she was tired, she insisted she wasn’t. When the bar patrons got overly rowdy, she never admitted to being annoyed or frustrated. She had a calm personality and always stayed positive, no matter what was going on in her life or around her.

So for her to flat-out admit she felt like crap was unusual enough to worry him.

Hank Blackburn was behind the bar, getting ready for the lunch crowd. They didn’t have near the amount of people coming in for lunch as Sandra Hain did over at Sunny Side Up, the diner in town, but they were busy enough to warrant opening at eleven-thirty every day.

Now that Reina had arrived—joining Valerie, another server—Zeke was confident he could leave the trio to handle things for a while.

Without thinking twice, he headed for the door.

“Boss?” Reina asked, watching him go with a questioning expression on her face.

“I should be back later,” he told her, speaking loudly enough that Hank and Valerie could hear as well. “If anything happens that I need to know about, just call.”

Valerie grinned. “Tell her we all hope she feels better soon!”

Zeke wasn’t surprised the others knew where he was going. He hadn’t made his interest in Elsie a secret. By now, everyone—including the regular patrons—knew better than to say anything inappropriate or to touch her.

Zeke waved as he headed out of the door. The bar was at the end of the row of businesses on one side of Fallport’s main square, and Zeke quickly walked around the building to the parking lot in the back.

He knew some people would think he was crazy. That there was no need to personally go check on Elsie. If she was sick, she’d probably feel better in the next day or two and would soon be back at work. But his intuition had never let him down in the past. When it came to his job, he had a one hundred percent accuracy rate. He seemed to always know when shit was about to hit the fan.

Unfortunately, the Army didn’t run on intuition. There were layers and layers of bureaucracy, and after being forced into one too many situations Zeke knew were going to go bad before his team was even sent in, he was done. He’d been honored to serve his country, but he couldn’t blindly lead his team into deadly situations simply because someone who outranked him gave an order.

So he’d quit, once again following his intuition. And luckily, Ethan “Chaos” Watson, a Navy SEAL he’d gotten to know over the years, had heard he was out and brought up the possibility of Zeke joining the Search and Rescue team here in Fallport. It was one of the best decisions he’d ever made.

The only time his intuition had failed him involved his ex-wife. It wasn’t something Zeke liked to think about. The bitch had betrayed him in the worst way a spouse could. Every time he was off fighting for his country, putting his life on the line, she was back home, sleeping with other men. Lots of them. She’d had affair after affair, and he’d had no idea. At least…not for a long while. Even then, it wasn’t until he’d gotten home from a deployment earlier than expected that he’d been faced with the irrefutable truth.

He’d caught her in their bed with an eighteen-year-old private. She’d seduced the kid…and had the gall to blame Zeke for her adultery.

He hadn’t been serious with a woman since. Nothing beyond a single date…but somehow, Elsie had slipped under his radar.

She was nothing like the bitch he’d married. No subterfuge. No deviousness. Every emotion showed on her face. She did her best to hide her thoughts from others, but Zeke had learned to read her like a book. He could tell when she was putting on a happy face for the patrons at the bar. Could tell when she was content, worried, or just plain tired.

But she never complained. Not once.

Which brought Zeke back around to the here and now. Not only was calling in sick unlike her, Elsie needed every cent she earned. Admitting she didn’t feel good was akin to holding up a huge flashing sign that something was wrong.

She was currently living in the Mangree Motel and RV Park at the edge of town. It was somewhat dated and rundown, but had a small sparkling pool and was kept clean. Everyone at On the Rocks knew Elsie was trying to save up enough money for an apartment. But it wasn’t cheap to raise a nine-year-old, and she hadn’t quite made it to the point where she could afford the move, facing one setback after another.

The most recent was a flat tire on I-480, the thirty-mile stretch of lonely road that connected Fallport to Interstate 81, the main thoroughfare stretching from the southwestern-most point of Virginia to the northern border. Afterward, Zeke asked Brock, his friend and SAR teammate, to do a complete inspection of her car. He’d wanted to pay for the four new tires she’d needed, as well as the other work Brock had done, knowing it would take a huge cut of her apartment fund, but Elsie refused.

So Zeke lied his ass off and cut the price in half.

He hated to do it, but Elsie had more pride than most, and he refused to do anything to damage that.

It didn’t take long for Zeke to reach the motel. He pulled into the mostly empty lot and parked outside of room twelve. It was next to the office, which he thoroughly approved of. He didn’t want Elsie and Tony to be on the end of the row of rooms; that was less safe. He climbed out of his truck and headed to her room.

Frowning when Elsie didn’t answer the door after he knocked, Zeke tried to look into the window but the curtains were pulled shut. The hair on the back of his neck standing up, he entered the office. He smiled at Edna Brown, the older lady who worked the front desk every day. She and her husband owned the motel and had lived in Fallport for decades.

“Hi, Edna,” he said as he approached the small desk.

“Zeke! It’s good to see you. What brings you out here? Everything all right?”

“I’m not sure. I’m here to check on Elsie. She called in sick today. Asked Reina to take her shift. I knocked, but she’s not answering. I was wondering if you might let me in so I can check up on her?”

Edna frowned. “Yeah, the poor thing didn’t look good this morning. I found her passed out on top of the sheets she was folding earlier.”

Zeke was confused. “The sheets she was folding?”

“Yep,” Edna said with a nod. “In the mornings, after Tony goes to school and before she heads into town for her shift at the bar, she’s been working for me. If there are rooms that haven’t been cleaned by my regular housekeeper for any reason, she gets them ready to rent. She’s also been finishing up the laundry as well. It takes a while to get all the sheets and towels washed and dried, so she finishes up whatever the housekeeper couldn’t get done the day before. She’s been extremely helpful.”

Zeke sighed in frustration. He’d had no idea Elsie had been working a second job before her shifts at the bar. He shouldn’t have been surprised. The woman was one of the hardest workers he’d ever met, and she’d do whatever it took to make sure her son had everything he needed and wanted.

“Anyway,” Edna continued, “this morning I went to check on her because I hadn’t seen her in a while, and she was slumped over the laundry table where we fold the sheets. The poor dear was burning up. I helped her back to her room and got her settled in.”

Zeke’s worry didn’t lessen at hearing Edna’s story. “She’s not answering the door. I’m sure it’s because she’s just exhausted, but I’d feel better if I checked on her.”

Edna’s eyes narrowed as she stared at him, and Zeke did his best not to fidget. Some people might take one look at the Mangree Motel and RV Park and make a lot of assumptions. But Edna and her husband ran a tight ship. They didn’t tolerate drugs, didn’t rent their rooms by the hour, and definitely didn’t approve of anything illegal taking place in or around their property. It was one of the reasons Zeke hadn’t already attempted to move Elsie and Tony out. The Mangree was a safe place, even if it wasn’t exactly ideal or practical to live in a motel.

“I’m not sure I should be letting a man into her room,” Edna hedged. “I can check on her and let you know how she is.”

Leaning forward, Zeke met Edna’s gaze. “I’d never do anything to disrespect her, or you. I’m worried about her, Edna. She hasn’t asked anyone to take her shift the entire time she’s worked at On the Rocks. I care about her, and I need to make sure she’s okay. I’d never forgive myself if something happened to her and I didn’t do anything about it.”

Edna eyed him for a long moment. “Haven’t seen you around much,” she said skeptically.

“I’m takin’ things slow because she needs that. I think she’s been hurt in the past, and I’m taking care not to rush her into a relationship,” Zeke said.

Edna took a deep breath and turned, reaching for a key ring hanging on a hook behind the desk. Zeke wasn’t thrilled that the master key to all the rooms was so accessible, but he’d have a word with Edna about that later. At the moment, all he wanted to do was put his eyes on Elsie and make sure she was all right.

The elderly woman moved slowly around the counter and toward the door. Zeke wanted to snatch the key out of her hand and rush out of the office, but he knew better. He was getting what he wanted, so he’d be patient for just a bit longer.

They stepped over to room twelve, and Zeke held his breath as Edna knocked on the door.

“Elsie? It’s Edna. Are you all right?”

There was no answer.

Edna frowned. “I’m going to open the door to make sure you’re okay. Zeke is here with me. Are you decent?”

Still no answer.

Edna put the key in the lock and turned it. She quietly opened the door and stood back, giving Zeke room. He nodded at her, thankful she was letting him take the lead. She waited in the doorway as Zeke entered.

The room was dark, all the lights off and the curtains pulled shut. It might as well have been the middle of the night. Zeke saw a lump on one of the full-size beds and made his way toward it immediately.

The space was typical of any other motel room. Two beds, a nightstand between them, a small circular table near the window, a dresser holding a TV. There was a sink against the far wall, with clothes hanging on a rack next to it. Everything was clean and orderly. Zeke caught a glimpse of a few toys on the table and shoes lined up against the wall under the clothes rack.

A coffee maker sat on a narrow shelf between the sink and the rack, and Elsie had set up a kind of pantry using milk crates beneath. Even though the room was clean, it was depressing to know that she and her son lived here full time.

Frustrated that he hadn’t considered the realities of her living conditions sooner, Zeke sat on the edge of the bed next to Elsie.

“Else?” he said quietly, reaching a hand out to pull back the covers.

For just a moment, Zeke’s absolute worst fear swamped him when he saw her. She was so pale, and she didn’t even flinch when he touched her. Zeke had seen plenty of dead bodies while in the Army, and even during searches in the forest around Fallport. But nothing could have prepared him to see Elsie so deathly still.

He touched her cheek and almost collapsed in relief when he felt her warm skin. But the relief turned to worry when he realized how warm. She was burning up.

“She okay?” Edna asked worriedly from the doorway.

Zeke forced himself to look at the older woman. She was wringing her hands as she stared at him.

“She will be,” he said with determination.

Zeke heard a car pull up outside and saw Edna look over her shoulder before she turned back to him. “I need to get back to the office. You’ll tell me if there’s anything I can do?”

“Of course.” Making a split-second decision that felt more right than anything he’d done in a long time, he said, “I’m taking her home with me.”

Edna’s reaction went a long way toward reinforcing how worried she was for Elsie. She nodded and said, “That’s probably for the best.” Then she narrowed her eyes at Zeke and said, “But no hanky-panky, young man. She’s a good girl.”

In any other situation, Zeke would’ve laughed. No one said “hanky-panky” anymore, and Elsie was a grown-ass woman. But instead, he merely nodded and said, “Of course not. I just want her to get better.”

Edna stared at him for another moment before abruptly turning. She tugged the door closed behind her as she went to greet whoever it was who’d pulled into the parking lot.

Zeke leaned over and clicked on the light next to the bed. Now that the door was shut, the room was pitch black.

Elsie moaned a little at the glare of the light, but didn’t completely rouse.

“Else?” Zeke asked, leaning toward her and palming her cheek. “I’m gonna take care of you.”

To his surprise, her eyes opened and she stared up at him.

“Hi,” he said softly.

Her eyes seemed cloudy and her brows furrowed in confusion.

“It’s me. Zeke. You’re going to be okay.”

“I’m sick,” she whispered.

“I know. That’s why I’m here.”

“I’m never sick,” she said almost petulantly.

“I know that too. I was worried when Reina came in and said you asked her to take your shift.”

“I’ll be better tomorrow,” Elsie said.

“We’ll see.”

“I’m cold…”

Zeke frowned. He knew it was the fever talking, since she was burning up. It increased his urgency. “Okay, Else. Rest. You’ll feel better soon.” He hoped.

Elsie nodded and closed her eyes again, tilting her head into the palm that was still resting on her cheek.

Determination rose within Zeke. He hated seeing her like this. Between two jobs and caring for her son, she was burning the candle at both ends, and her body was paying the price. But he’d get her back on her feet, whether she wanted his help or not. Leaning down, he kissed her forehead gently. She sighed at the touch of his lips to her skin, and he took that as a good sign.

Forcing himself to leave her side, Zeke looked around the room and saw a duffel bag on the shelf above the hanging clothes. He grabbed it. He needed to pack some things for Elsie. He wasn’t sure how long she and her son would be staying with him, but it would at least be until she was back on her feet, and she’d need some things. He’d get Tony to pack more stuff when he came back to pick him up after school.

Zeke didn’t think twice about packing her clothes and toiletries. She took care of everyone else, it was about time someone returned the favor. Once the bag was filled to overflowing, Zeke left the room long enough to bring it out to his truck and open the door. Then he returned to the room. He leaned over Elsie once more.

He pulled back the covers, ignoring the moan that left Elsie’s lips at the loss of warmth. He gathered her into his arms and strode toward the door.

She roused enough to put an arm around his neck and mumbled, “What’s happening?”

“Nothing. Go back to sleep,” Zeke told her.

She nodded against his chest and burrowed into him.

Zeke’s heart swelled in his chest. Her unconscious trust, when she was at her most vulnerable, meant the world to him. He wasn’t going to let this woman down. No way in hell.

He settled her on the passenger seat and clicked the seat belt around her. She was slumped over in what looked to be a very uncomfortable position. Luckily, it wasn’t a long drive to his small house. He’d found the place when he’d first moved to town. At the time, it was practically falling apart, but with Ethan and Rocky’s help, he’d been able to fix it up so it was somewhat respectable. There was still more work he wanted to do, but he was enjoying taking his time with the more cosmetic renovations.

Zeke stood there a moment, studying the sleeping woman in his truck. Elsie was petite, at least half a foot shorter than his six-foot-two. She had thick, curly brown hair and, when awake, expressive brown eyes. She rarely wore makeup, but she didn’t need it. She was slightly older than his thirty years. She was also too thin in Zeke’s eyes, and he had a feeling that was because she made sure Tony ate before she did, and probably went without too often herself, just to save a buck.

He’d been hungry before, was all too familiar with that gnawing feeling of an empty belly, and hated that the woman in front of him had probably gone through that and more. As far as he knew, Elsie didn’t have any close family to rely on.

Zeke wanted to be the one to slay all her dragons and reassure her that she’d never go without again. The thought of her or Tony suffering tore him apart inside.

When Elsie made a small groaning noise, Zeke shook himself. He needed to get going, not stand here staring at the vulnerable woman all day.

He couldn’t resist leaning down and kissing her forehead once more, hating how hot her skin was against his lips. He closed the truck door before going back to shut the door to the motel room. Edna stepped outside, and he met her gaze before he climbed into the driver’s side of his truck. She gave him a nod. It was as much of an endorsement as he was going to get from the woman, and he’d take it.

His mind worked with the things he needed to do. Call the clinic and see if he could get Doctor Snow to make a house call. Get Elsie’s fever down. Figure out what he had to eat in the house, both for a sick patient and a nine-year-old boy. He was sure one of his teammates would volunteer to go to the store for him, if necessary. He also needed to pick up Tony after school. Maybe Lilly would come over and stay with Elsie while he got Tony…

Shit, he also needed to call Hank and let him know he wouldn’t be back at the bar today. Maybe not tomorrow either, depending on how Elsie felt. Lance or Reuben, his other two bartenders, wouldn’t have a problem picking up the slack. They did it all the time when he was called out for a search. They’d be thrilled for the extra hours.

Unable to resist, Zeke reached for Elsie’s hand. He gripped it in his and whispered, “Don’t worry, Else. I’ve got this.”

He didn’t know if he actually did, was feeling a little overwhelmed, but he wanted to reassure her. Elsie didn’t respond verbally, but her fingers briefly tightened around his own.

Feeling panicky but unsure why—she had the flu or something; she wasn’t dying—Zeke drove carefully toward his house. He’d wanted to invite Elsie over for weeks now, but this wasn’t how he’d imagined it would go. He’d promised himself a month ago, when that jerk had touched her ass in the bar, that her life would change for the better. But he’d been too slow in actually backing up that promise, and a proud, reticent Elsie hadn’t made it any easier. Now she was sick, probably because she’d worked herself into exhaustion.

No more. He’d fallen down on the job, but Zeke was going to right that wrong. Starting now.

More plans swirled in his head, and Zeke pressed his lips together. He knew Elsie would fight him every step of the way, but he could be persuasive when necessary.

It was time Elsie Ireland figured out that she didn’t have to do everything on her own anymore. She had him. His search and rescue team. Lilly. And the citizens of Fallport.

First, he had to get her well, then he’d ensure she didn’t work herself to exhaustion ever again. It was time to stop tiptoeing around and make sure Elsie knew just how much she meant to him.

The thought that she might not feel the same never crossed Zeke’s mind. He’d seen the glances she’d shot his way when she thought he wasn’t aware. There was no way a woman who wasn’t interested revealed such…longing. She just needed the confidence to trust in her feelings. In him. It wouldn’t be easy, but nothing worth doing ever was.


 

Searching for Elsie


 Once upon a time, Elsie Ireland thought she’d found the man of her dreams, only to learn her fairytale romance was just another cautionary tale. Beyond a perfect family image, her husband had little interest in Elsie, and even less in their son. Years later, she and nine-year-old Tony have landed in Fallport, Virginia. She’s working two jobs and living in a motel, but Tony has a roof over his head and plenty of love. For Elsie, however, love isn’t in the cards. She doesn’t have the time to spare…or the trust.

After serving his country as a Green Beret, Zeke Calhoun was happy to get out of the military and settle into small-town life as a bar owner. His position with Eagle Point Search and Rescue fulfills his need to serve and provides some of the best friends he’s ever known. He didn’t realize anything was missing until it was right under his nose every day—his sweet, shy waitress, Elsie.

It isn’t easy to convince the independent, gun-shy single mom to let him in, and with memories of his own disastrous marriage still plaguing him, Zeke isn’t fully certain he’s the best bet for a healthy relationship. But one stolen kiss in a heightened moment, and he’s a goner. Vowing that Elsie and Tony’s lives are about to change for the better, Zeke is up for the challenge of proving not all men are like her ex.

A task made significantly more difficult when a complication throws the couple’s fledgling relationship off course—then quickly spirals into a life-or-death situation no one saw coming.