Tucker “Moose” Jacobs paced impatiently back and forth across the hardwood floor in his bedroom. He should be sleeping. His alarm was going to go off in a few hours so he could get to Station 7 for his shift. But Penelope said she’d call.
He didn’t know when she’d call, and he’d been staying up as late as he could every night to try to catch her call. The waiting and worrying was killing him. It had been a long six days since he’d last heard from her.
Not that being worried was anything new. From the second her brother, Sledge, a fellow firefighter, had told him that Penelope had quit her job at the station and taken off to, quote, “get her head together,” Moose had worried.
A full week had gone by before he’d heard anything on her whereabouts, when she’d first left town. A week during which no one got much sleep for worrying about their missing friend. Seven days during which Moose thought he would lose his ever-loving mind.
Then he’d gotten a call. From a man named Tex. Who’d told him that he knew exactly where Penelope was, and that she was fine. That he was helping her. Guiding her to places to stay where she and her crazy miniature donkey would be safe.
It should’ve made Moose feel better. Should’ve made the worry ease. But it didn’t.
He still worried even after the first time Penelope herself had called. Even when she reassured him she was fine.
He still worried when she promised to call periodically to let him know where she was and how she was doing.
When it came to Penelope Turner, Moose had a feeling he’d never stop worrying.
He loved her. Completely and totally. When his feelings toward her had changed from friendship to something more, he wasn’t exactly sure, but now that he knew he loved her, he couldn’t just turn off the worry.
They were an odd-looking couple, that was for sure. At six foot three and very muscular, Moose didn’t exactly blend into a crowd. He had dark brown hair and eyes, and usually some sort of five o’clock shadow. His facial hair grew quickly and shaving was a pain in the ass. With his size and the scruff, he looked intimidating, with a normal facial expression that Penelope teased him for looking like “resting bitch face.”
It wasn’t that he was often mad or pissed; he just didn’t like putting up with drama, and he supposed it showed on his face more than he was aware.
But what all of his friends knew was that, most of the time, he was actually very laid-back and mellow. He was a sucker for kids and animals, and he’d bend over backward to lend a helping hand whenever and wherever it was needed.
Penelope, in contrast to his rough and gruff, looked like a beautiful fairy. She was a foot shorter than he was, with blonde hair and blue eyes. It was no wonder the press had dubbed her the “American Princess” when she’d been held hostage over in Turkey. She looked ethereal and fragile and people were drawn to her.
But Penelope was anything but fragile. She was one of the strongest people Moose had ever met. Both physically and mentally. She’d been given the nickname “Tiger” by the SEAL team that had rescued her, and it fit her to a tee.
But somehow, over the years since she’d been rescued, she’d slowly but surely lost herself. She’d begun to question her reactions and actions at fires and other calls the firefighters had been sent on, and the confidence she used to wear like a cape had disappeared.
Moose wanted to help her find her confidence again. Wanted her to laugh and joke with him and their other friends. Wanted to have the right and the privilege to call her his.
They’d been teased about how different they were—when they stood next to each other, he literally towered over her, and he was dark where she was light—but he knew deep down that they were perfect for each other.
Moose hadn’t told Penelope that he loved her, simply because he wasn’t sure how she’d react. He was pretty sure she had feelings toward him too, feelings she was denying. But until she dealt with what happened to her when she’d been taken captive by terrorists, the two of them didn’t stand a chance.
So he hadn’t insisted she come back to Texas.
He’d given her the space she thought she needed.
He hadn’t pleaded with her to let him help. He’d simply been there for her.
Listened when she called to excitedly tell him about her adventures and travels, even though he could tell she was faking her enthusiasm most of the time.
And his heart bled when she cried and he wasn’t there to hold her. When he couldn’t fix what was hurting.
But during the last call, Penelope said she’d call him “soon.” Then he hadn’t heard from her since. He’d picked up the phone and almost called Tex a dozen times, demanding he tell Moose where Pen was so he could go get her. But in the end, he decided if he ever wanted Penelope to trust him, to love him the way he loved her, he needed to wait and let her call on her own time.
But the thought of her being hurt or falling into a pit of despair wouldn’t leave his brain. She wasn’t in a good place mentally. Something was eating her alive. He figured it had to be about the time she’d spent as a prisoner of war in Turkey, but she wasn’t talking about it. Not to him. Not to anyone.
Moose was going absolutely crazy, and if she didn’t call tonight, he was going to have to break his promise to himself to let her work through her emotions in her own way.
Lost in his head, envisioning all sorts of horrible things happening to the love of his life, he startled badly when the cell phone in his hand vibrated.
He closed his eyes in relief when he saw Penelope’s name on the screen.
“Hey, it’s me,” she said.
“Are you okay?” Moose asked.
He heard Penelope sigh. “Why is that always the first thing you ask?” she questioned in an irritated tone.
Exhausted and more worried than ever, Moose snapped back, “Because I’m worried about you. Because not having you here with me is driving me crazy. Because you’re not here and I can’t do a damn thing to help you because you’ve blocked me and all your friends out!”
Silence met his outburst.
Moose mentally swore.
“Sorry,” he sighed. “It’s been a long week, and I didn’t mean to take it out on you.”
“I didn’t leave to stress you out,” Penelope said softly.
“I know, sweetheart. And…I guess I ask you that question because I’m hoping one of these days you’ll say that you’re amazing, and that you’re ready to come back to your life. And to me.”
“I…I’m not sure what to say to that.”
Moose wanted to kick himself. He’d pushed too hard, too fast. But the words had just tumbled out. “Forget I said it. Tell me where you are and what you and Smokey have been doing. How’s the little rug rat doing?” Moose knew putting the attention on her donkey would lighten the mood.
“He’s good. He’s the most amazing travel companion, Moose. I was worried when we left because I wasn’t sure how he’d do for long amounts of time in the car, but he just curls up into a ball and sleeps. He’s only had a few accidents since we left—which is incredible for three months—and those were my fault because I left him alone too long.”
“That’s great, Pen. Where are you now?”
“That’s a long way from Idaho, where you were when you last called me,” Moose observed.
“Yeah, I know, and it’s why it took so long for me to get in touch. After I left Tex’s friend Fish and his wife, I took my time driving south. I spent a few nights in Bryce Canyon in southern Utah. It was so amazing. Peaceful. I did a lot of thinking.”
Moose took a deep, hopeful breath. “About?”
“Lots of things,” she said vaguely.
Moose’s stomach dropped. Just once he wanted Penelope to talk to him. To open up. To let him in. But it looked like she still wasn’t ready. And that killed.
He didn’t respond, knowing his hurt at her unwillingness to let him in would bleed through his words.
She obviously picked up on his disappointment anyway, because she went on quickly. “But now I’m in Riverton, California. It’s beautiful here. I’m staying with one of the SEALs who helped rescue me.”
For the first time in their many conversations, Moose felt a smidgeon of hope flare within him. “Yeah?”
“Yeah. His name is Matthew. His friends call him Wolf.”
“I remember you talking about him.”
“Right. Well, he and his wife Caroline don’t have any kids, so it’s easier for me to stay with them, with Smokey and all. Tomorrow, we’re going to have a get-together on the beach with his team and their families.”
Moose couldn’t read her tone. “And are you excited about that?”
She was quiet so long, Moose was afraid he’d lost the connection.
Finally, she said in a low voice, “I don’t know. I’m scared, Moose.”
His heartrate sped up, and Moose prayed he’d say the right things. “What are you scared of, sweetheart?”
When she didn’t elaborate, Moose wanted to reach through the phone and take her into his arms, but of course that was impossible. She was killing him. Slowly but surely killing him.
“I’m sure seeing the men who were with you in Turkey won’t be easy.”
“Yeah, it’s weird. I know I’m a different person now than I was when I met them. Even though I’d just spent four months in captivity, I hadn’t lost my spunk. I was snarky and high on the fact that I was finally getting rescued. I feel as if that happened to someone else, because I’m just not that way anymore. But…it’s not just seeing them that I’m scared of.”
“Then what is it? You know you can tell me anything, Pen. I’m not going to go and report back to your brother or the others. What you say stays between us.”
“Is Cade driving you crazy?” she asked after a beat of silence.
Moose knew she was changing the subject, and he wanted to scream in frustration. She’d been so close to opening up, but had once again decided not to. “He’s good. I tell him and the others when I talk to you and that you’re fine, so they don’t worry, and he knows better than to push me for details on what we talk about.”
“Have you seen much of Blythe’s baby?”
“A bit. She and Squirrel bring her by the station fairly often.”
“Has she grown a lot? Is her hair coming in yet? What do Squirrel’s sisters think about their new niece? And have they gotten together with Milena, Hope, Erin, and all their babies? I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to spend more time with Erin and Lily, and Milena and Steven before I left. I was sorry to miss both Blythe’s and Hope’s babies being born, but I can just imagine the four kids having the time of their lives as they get older, especially since they’re so close in age. I bet Steven and Carter are going to be super protective of Harper and Lily as they grow up. At least I hope they will.”
Moose knew Penelope was sad she’d missed the births of their friends’ babies. He’d hoped it would spur her to come home, but it hadn’t. If anything, she’d almost seemed more determined to stay away after learning Blythe and Hope had given birth so soon after she’d taken off.
“I can send you pics,” Moose told her. “All four already seem to be growing like weeds. Squirrel is super proud. It’s almost annoying how much he talks about his daughter when he’s on shift.”
Penelope chuckled, as he’d wanted her to.
“Oh, and he and Blythe decided to go ahead and get married,” Moose informed her.
“They did? No way!” Penelope exclaimed
“What else have I missed?” she asked quietly.
That was another thing Moose hated, how Penelope went from being happy to upset in a heartbeat. He wanted to tell her if she was home, that she’d be privy to everything going on in their friends’ lives firsthand, but knew she didn’t need to hear it. She knew that perfectly well already. But she was still staying away…to punish herself for something that wasn’t her fault. Or because it was simply too painful to be around the people who knew her best.
“Taco proposed to Koren, and she said yes. They haven’t chosen a date yet though.”
He wasn’t sure if he should tell her the next thing. But he’d promised he’d never lie to her, and not letting her know felt like a lie of omission.
“And…Sophie’s pregnant. She and Chief just got back from visiting his mom on the reservation. They wanted to tell her first. I guess they had a blessing ceremony, and his mom was super excited. She’s got about six more months to go.”
When Penelope didn’t say anything, Moose asked, “Pen? You still there?”
“I’m missing everything,” she whispered.
“Then come home,” Moose pleaded. He’d promised he wouldn’t, but the words just popped out. “Together, we can work through whatever has you so scared.”
“I can’t,” Penelope told him.
“But you are coming home at some point, right?” Moose asked.
“I haven’t decided.”
Moose felt his heart break right in half at her words.
He’d had his suspicions that he’d lost the woman he loved, but until now, she’d never come right out and said that she might not come back to him. And it hurt.
She was shutting him out. Him and her brother and all the rest of her friends.
Feeling the tell-tale sign of tears forming behind his eyes, Moose stumbled backward until his legs came into contact with his bed and he sat down, hard. It was his turn to have nothing to say. The silence over the phone line was heavy and fraught with tension.
“All I ever want is for you to be happy,” Moose started, doing his damnedest to not let his voice crack. “When you were here and suffering, I did all I could to be there for you. I defended your need to keep Smokey, and I let him stay in my barn, and then my house when the barn was torched. After you left, I defended your need and right for some space to the guys. When you missed the birth of Blythe’s daughter, I reassured her that you’d be back, that you were trying to get your head on straight after everything that had happened to you.
“And I’ll have your back no matter what, Pen. I don’t think it’s a surprise that I love you.”
Moose heard her take a deep breath, but he kept going. “I’ve loved you forever. I’d bend over backward to keep you safe. To do what you need to live your life the way you need to live it. But I need you to want that too. To want to stand by my side. To have my back. I get that you’re struggling, I do, and I wish there was something I could do to help you. But I can’t if you don’t let me in.
“If you don’t come back to San Antonio, I’m not sure I’ll ever get over loving you. You’re it for me. I feel that down to the marrow of my bones. I love the woman you are today, the woman you were yesterday, and the woman you’re going to be in the future. I don’t give a fuck if you have PTSD or if you can’t ever be a firefighter again. You can stay home and raise miniature donkeys if that makes you happy. All I want is to be by your side while you do it.
“But if moving away from everyone who loves you exactly how you are, who supports you unconditionally, is what you need to be happy…so be it. Please thank the men who were able to get you out of hell for me, and tell them they have my undying gratitude. Don’t forget to shoot Blythe a text to congratulate her on her marriage, and maybe Sophie too, for being pregnant. Stay safe…and know that I love you.”
“Thanks for calling,” he interrupted her, not able to listen to her try to let him down gently.
He’d never come right out and told her he’d loved her before, but he couldn’t keep the words in anymore. Not if she was deciding whether or not to come back to Texas. He wasn’t about to play fair, not when it came to the woman he loved. He was almost forty; if Penelope didn’t come home to him, he’d never get married. Never have a family. She was it for him. He knew that with no uncertainty.
“I’ll talk to you later.”
“Okay, Moose. Later.”
Moose clicked off the phone and squeezed it so tightly in his fist he knew it was only a matter of seconds before it broke. He threw the phone onto his nightstand and bent over so his elbows were resting on his knees. He put his forehead in his hands and took a few deep breaths, willing himself to calm down.
He thought back over the last few months and lamented all the things he hadn’t done for Penelope. When he’d first seen the signs of her struggle with PTSD and what had happened to her over in Turkey, he should’ve insisted she see a psychologist more regularly. Should’ve gotten her help back then rather than allowing her to just work it out on her own.
Moose wasn’t an overly emotional man. He’d seen some pretty horrific things in his life. Car accidents that took the lives of entire families. Fires that wiped out all the houses in a single neighborhood. But nothing in his life hurt as much as hearing Penelope say that she wasn’t sure she was ever coming back to San Antonio. Back to him.
Tears leaked out of his eyes and dripped onto his thighs, but Moose didn’t move to wipe them away. He cried in frustration for not being able to help Penelope. For not being able to make her love him enough to turn to him when she was hurting. For losing the one thing he wanted more in this life than anything else. Her.
Dubbed the “American Princess” after her rescue from months in the hands of ISIS, soldier and firefighter Penelope Turner has struggled silently since her return to Texas. The media, the danger of her job, the pressure of knowing lives are in her hands…all of it and more has combined to slowly fill Penelope with seething guilt and doubt. Missing memories from her moment of capture cause even more angst. Is she responsible for the deaths of her Army patrol unit? And without knowing what happened, how can she be trusted by her fellow firefighters—or trust them in return?
Worse…how can she ever be worthy of the man who believes in her most?
It took seeing Penelope in the hands of terrorists—in viral videos seen around the world—for Tucker “Moose” Jacobs to realize just how much he loved his fellow firefighter. He died waiting for her rescue, then died all over again when Penelope abruptly left Texas, trying to outrun her past. Now that she’s returned, the kid gloves are off. Moose is a patient man, but even he has his limits. He loves Penelope, and he knows it’s past time for her to face her fears, and remember she has an entire tribe of friends who not only have her back, but need Pen to have theirs, as well.
In the end, Penelope will have to trust Moose, her friends, and most of all herself, if she’s going to make peace with her past…and have any kind of future.
** Shelter for Penelope is the 15th and final book in the Badge of Honor: Texas Heroes Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings. Penelope’s story started in Protecting the Future, and over the years, she’s struggled with her inner demons. Read on to see her finally get her HEA.
Shelter for Penelope
New York Times Bestselling Author
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