Authors: Kishan Paul
Tags: #romantic suspense, #blind heroine, #handicap, #Disability, #ex-Marine, #Retinitis Pigmentosa, #therapist, #psychologist, #kidnapping, #guide dog
She doesn’t need a hero. But a sexy Marine…that’ll work.
Though Lauren Baxter’s world is a blurry mess of colors, she has no tolerance for pity. With the help of her guide dog, Jack Sparrow, she’s built a good life for herself. She has everything she wants: her PhD, a thriving counseling practice and her independence.
When she meets her new neighbor, the man’s warm Texas accent and clean male scent weaken her knees. Her attraction to the former Marine is mutual and, unfortunately, a complication she doesn’t need.
Gabriel Briggs carries the weight of the world on his shoulders. He has his reasons for indulging only in short-term flings, but the feisty, green-eyed Lauren makes him want to forget every one.
In a rare moment of fragility, Lauren winds up in Gabe’s arms. One night together can’t break their self-imposed rules, right? But when a woman from Gabe’s past is murdered, the reasons he should have stayed away become painfully clear, threatening innocent lives he may not be able to save—especially Lauren’s.
Warning: Contains a blind therapist who doesn’t consider herself impaired; a meddling, erotic-novel-writing best friend; a hot ex-Marine with a shady past; and a loyal guide dog that howls “I love you” and is probably the sanest one of the bunch.
Although only the author’s name appears on the front of a book, there are so many more that should be included; it takes the love and support of many for authors to write their stories. I dedicate this book to all those who helped me in this journey.
To God: For all the blessings You have showered upon me, including my family and friends, and for gifting me with a brain warped enough to conjure up these stories.
To my husband: For believing in me and supporting all my crazy ideas no matter how ridiculous they seemed, and for the countless times you’ve stepped in and taken over
so I could write. You fell in love with someone who doubted everything about herself and helped her believe she could fly. I couldn’t have made it here without your love and support.
To my children: For being the wonderful, kind, independent and amazing creatures you are. You’re not the best of your father and I—you’re already so much better than we could ever be.
To my family: For your encouragement and support, for not judging me about the stories I create, and for stepping in to help so that I could keep writing.
To all my friends: For being my constant cheerleaders and for putting up with all my crazy talk about writing, publishing and marketing without complaint.
There are two friends in particular I have to single out because they’ve stayed glued to my side every step of the way in this writing journey. They have read, and then re-read, every word I’ve ever written so many times they know it by heart. Jaya: What do I say? From the moment I told you about my secret writing hobby until now, you have made it your mission to push me out of the closet and guide me (often kicking and screaming) in directions I never imagined. Asha: For all the sleepless nights you’ve hidden under the blanket reading my stories and telling me how my writing is so much better than so and so.
To my writing friends: There are so many of you from Coffee Talk Writers (past and present), those on Scribophile, and hundreds of others I’ve met along the way. You have given a new writer guidance, encouragement and even slapped her around. Your patience, honesty and generosity mean more than I can put into words. In particular, I want to point out Aubrey Wynne, Valerie Twombly, Renea Mason, Cait Jarrod, Lea Bronsen, Jena Baxter, Isabella Harper, DC Stone, Paula Spencer, Kelly Lincoln, Kristen Sanchez and Janette Spann.
To my editor Tera Cuskaden: I was crazy nervous pitching to you that day in May. By the time I finished, I walked away feeling like I’d made a friend. Thank you for your honest feedback and patience throughout this process and for proving me right, that I had made a friend.
Something hard slammed against the other side of Lauren’s office wall during her phone session. She tried to keep her voice calm and soothing as she spoke into the receiver of her speakerphone. “So you feel like your husband isn’t as attentive to your needs as he used to be?”
“Yes,” the woman whimpered. “I think he’s having an affair.” In a matter of seconds, the woman’s sniffles turned into a full-fledged sob.
“Elise…” Before Lauren could finish her sentence, the pounding started again and continued with such force the framed diploma above the sofa crashed to the floor. Stunned, she leapt out of her seat and placed her hand on the wall, feeling it vibrate from the assault.
What the hell?
The hammering and thumping sounds next door had started weeks ago, but they hadn’t ever been as loud as they were currently. Switching the speaker off, she cradled the cordless phone next to her ear and left the office. Lauren scrambled downstairs, shutting herself into the kitchen closet—the spot farthest from the noise. “Elise, you mentioned earlier this is the busiest time…” As the hammering became louder and more incessant, Lauren punched the pantry door and tried to keep her voice tranquil and comforting. “…of the year for him at work.”
The rest of the counseling session with Elise progressed much the same. Lauren prayed the anxious woman on the phone wouldn’t realize how close her therapist was to exploding. By the time the woman hung up, Lauren wanted to take the damn hammer and bang it against Mr. Fix-it’s head.
But first, she needed to get out of her pajamas.
One of the perks of doing phone-counseling sessions out of her home: callers had no idea if their therapist wore fuzzy pajamas or a business suit. Stomping upstairs to her bedroom, she unzipped her oversized flannel onesie, created especially for women not interested in finding a man, and tossed it on the bed. Goose bumps pebbled her skin the second she peeled off the furry layer.
She pulled open the drawers of the dresser behind her and reached for a shirt and a pair of jeans. In fifteen minutes, her next client would call. Plenty of time to tell the dumb neighbor, who had killed her wardrobe plans for the day and was ruining her career, what he could do with his stupid tool.
In the bathroom, she grabbed the toothpaste and squirted some into her mouth. After swishing the wintergreen-flavored gel around her teeth for a few seconds, she grabbed her toothbrush. Lauren’s hand moved rhythmically with the thumping of the hammer. Another perk of working on the phone all day: no one smelled your breath. After her teeth had been cleaned and probably scrubbed free of all enamel, she began the tedious process of detangling her brown shoulder-length hair.
She would have liked to check out her appearance in the mirror but that was impossible. One of the drawbacks of being blind.
Well, mostly blind.
Lauren’s emerald-green eyes worked; everything was just blurred. She saw colors, lights, even silhouettes of people—nothing more. Diagnosed with retinitis pigmentosa at the age of six, she had lost ninety percent of her vision by her fifteenth birthday. The timing sucked, considering her friends were learning how to drive while she learned how to walk around the house without bumping into things.
In typical teenage manner, she pitched a fit and hated life. Until she got tired of feeling sorry for herself. Fourteen years later, Lauren had a Ph.D. and a thriving private practice doing phone counseling with people across the country. All of which she couldn’t have accomplished without the help of her very controlling parents and her eccentric best friend, Sunshine Daye.
Speaking of Sunny, if she had actually come into work today, she could have handled the noise pollution. Lauren ran her fingers through her hair to make sure she caught all the knots before leaving the bathroom. Sunny’s parents were high on pot when they named her. In the middle of his drug-induced festivities honoring her birth, her father decided Sunshine was the perfect accompaniment to Daye. As soon as she could tie her shoelaces, Sunny started showing up next door at Lauren’s house. Now, decades later, nothing had changed. More than her best friend, she worked as Lauren’s personal assistant, and was a successful erotica author—a funny career choice for a woman whom Lauren would always envision as the shy teenage girl with braces and a blonde ponytail.
Lauren rolled her shoulders back, tilted her chin, and spoke with an air of confidence. “I don’t need Sunny. I can take Mr. Handyman on myself.”
Her chocolate German shepherd, Jack Sparrow, nudged her leg as soon as she approached the front door. After rubbing his neck, she grabbed hold of his harness and stepped outside.
A beautiful mix of greens and blues touched with red swirled around her. After several blinks, her eyes adjusted to the brightness. She pointed in the direction of the neighboring townhome.
“Jack, Mrs. Rourke’s door.” A pang of guilt ran through her. She and her former neighbor had been close until Lauren placed her in a nursing home. It was one of the hardest things she’d ever done, but when an eighty-five-year-old woman sat in one’s kitchen butt naked talking about the weather, it left few options.
Jack tried to warn her but she ignored him and sent the poor dog to the backyard. She cringed at the memory of Mrs. Rourke’s bare skin under her hands when she hugged the old woman; it was one she wouldn’t soon forget. Since the episode, Lauren made a concerted effort to pay better attention to her guide dog’s whimpers and barks.
Together they made their way across the lawn. Once at the door, Jack sat and waited for her to do the rest. Taking a deep gulp of fresh Denver air, she held it for a few seconds before slowly releasing.
Calm and patient.
That’s the person I am and that’s the person he’ll see.
Lauren felt the wall for the doorbell and pressed the plastic control. A few dozen doorbell presses later, realization hit.
If he’s banging away in there, how’s he going to hear the doorbell?
She slammed her knuckles into the wood for what seemed like an eternity but still no response.
Okay, time for Plan B.
Since her home connected to the demolition man’s, they shared a common backyard.
He rose, maneuvering them back. Together, they marched into their townhouse, through the living room, and out the backdoor. Jack guided them across the lawn, straight to the offender’s patio. She banged her knuckles against the glass pane. After they were raw and felt like they were on fire, his hammering stopped. A few minutes later, she heard the sound of plastic blinds shifting. Lauren plastered on her biggest smile and waved. Metal slid against wood and the door opened.
The faint smell of sandalwood mixed with cedar filled her lungs. It was the same scent she’d gotten whiffs of the past four weeks since he’d moved in.
“Can I help you?” His soft Southern drawl flowed through her skin, warming her face. The image of a shirtless man in a cowboy hat and jeans leaning against the doorjamb popped into her head. For a moment, she forgot why she’d come.
“Umm, hi, I’m Lauren.”
“Hello, Lauren.” The amusement in his voice pulled her out of her cowboy fantasy.
Jack nudged her leg, reminding her they were there on business, not to drool. “I live in the townhouse next to yours.”
“I see you two jogging the park in the evenings.” From the angle of his voice, he sounded about six feet tall. She could hear the smile in his words. When he shifted his weight, the doorjamb squeaked. She wondered if his shoulder leaned against it, like the half-naked cowboy in her head.
Thank God I changed out of my onesie.
“They have some nice jogging trails.” Her voice came out husky and she caught herself playing with her hair when she responded.
What the hell?
Lauren dropped her arm and grabbed a fistful of her jeans to curb her need to twirl, flick or touch her hair—or him for that matter.
have to try them out.”
Yup, definitely a country boy. Images of tight jeans and cowboy hats filled her thoughts.
He cleared his throat. “Would you like to come in?”
Her heart thudded and her palms moistened at the prospect.
“No, I wanted to ask a favor.”
“A favor?” The evil man continued his flirty tone, successfully melting her organs. “What kind of…
?” The way he said the word had her brain exploring all the inappropriate things he could do with her—for her.
Stop it! You are stronger than this. Focus.
Lauren cleared her throat for the hundredth time. “I work from home and spend most of the day on the phone with clients.”
He chuckled. “Ahh. So replacing crown molding isn’t helpful, is it?”
Her stomach fluttered.
Speechless, she smiled and shook her head.
“Well, what time are you finished with work?”
“Five, tonight. But it varies.”
“So if I work on the molding after five…”
“I’ll be very grateful,” Lauren finished.
“How about giving me your number so next time I have a project I can find out your schedule before I start?”
Wait? Was that a line or sarcasm? He can’t be hitting on me.
No. It made total sense he needed her number. After all, sometimes she did have evening clients. “Okay, you want to get a pen?”
Lauren’s face heated.
Yup, he’s flirting.
She wiped her clammy palm on Jack’s back and rattled off the digits.
“I’m Gabe, by the way.”
“Hi, Gabe, and thank you.” She turned to rush away before she agreed to more than her phone number.
“Since you’re done with work at five, how would you like to go to dinner with me tonight?”
Lauren had relationship issues. They started after her ex-husband cheated on her. Hence the reason she preferred to keep people with dangling parts at a distance. Mechanically, she spouted out the same answer she’d used for years. “Sorry, I’m dating someone.”
“I’m sorry. I haven’t seen any men come over. So I assumed…”
While her feet stayed rooted, her brain buzzed in search of a response. Very rarely had individuals with said parts challenged her “I’m not available” line. “Well, Jack travels a lot on business,” she shot back.
“Tell your boyfriend it’s just dinner. My way of apologizing for ruining your workday. I’ll bet Jack wouldn’t mind.”
Jack Sparrow let out a soft whine at the sound of his name. She nervously rubbed his neck and prayed Gabe didn’t notice. She needed to get out of there before her lies caught up with her.
“After the previous owner, I decided it best to not make friends with the neighbors. Stopping by naked, unannounced and asking for coffee didn’t work too well the last time it happened.”
He laughed. “What?”
She shook her head and giggled. “Long story.”
“A rain check then. Once I’m done refurbishing this townhouse and renting it out, I’ll come back and we’ll do dinner.” Mercifully, he shut the door before anything else stupid came out of her mouth.
Stunned, Lauren escaped to the sanctuary of her home and slumped onto the couch.
My boyfriend Jack? Naked neighbors coming over for coffee? I’ve lost my mind.
Sensing her complete mortification, Jack plopped his head on her lap. She patted him and kissed his nose. “Baby, you are the best boyfriend I’ve ever had. So technically I didn’t lie.”
Unfortunately, she attracted a certain kind of man. The kind who demanded being cast in the starring role as hero. As she had found out the hard way from her failed marriage, heroes needed a constant stream of damsels in distress. Lauren had learned a simple lesson from her experience. She might need a great many things but never again would she need to be rescued.
In the case of her neighbor, did he even realize she was blind? That’s the thing about retinitis pigmentosa. Her eyes looked completely normal.
And speaking of looks, Gabe probably looked nothing like the sexy man she imagined. As she focused on all the awful images of what her neighbor probably looked like, the phone rang. Pushing her canine boyfriend off her lap, she rushed upstairs and picked it up. “Dr. Lauren Baxter, how can I help you?”
“Lauren, it’s Gabe.”
Her stomach fluttered at the way her name rolled off his tongue.
“Hi.” Her voice came out husky.
“I forgot to tell you; I already have some interested renters for the house. They’ll be signing the lease agreement tomorrow. So by the time they leave, we won’t be neighbors. I’ll come by about seven tomorrow to take you for the dinner I owe you.” He hung up before she could respond.
A confusing mixture of excitement and anger filled her veins. Mrs. Rourke’s voice popped into her head.
“Lauren, sweetheart, what mess have you gotten yourself into now?”
“Oh God, Irma, I should have never sent you away.”