Authors: Carol Ann Erhardt
Tags: #contemporary, #eppie, #fiction, #novel, #romance, #romantic suspense, #suspense
Published by Carol Ann Erhardt at
Copyright 2010 Carol Ann Erhardt
2008 Eppie Finalist, Romantic Suspense
I sighed deeply as I read the last word
as I knew I’d just been in the presence of a gifted storyteller.” –
Kay James, Romance Reader at Heart
A rapidly-turning plot engages the
reader’s attention…” – Frost, Two Lips Reviews
I loved the atmosphere, and the
characters and setting held the warmth of a small-town, close-knit
community. Ms. Erhardt brought to life every aspect of place and
time—and I could easily picture this little community in my mind.”
– Margaret Marr, Nights and Weekends
Smashwords Edition, License Notes
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“I'm sure you understand that given the
circumstances we can't be married.”
Connor's words hit Grace with the force of an
invisible fist. The restaurant sounds grew louder with multiple
conversations, a burst of laughter and the clink of silverware on
fine china. All normal sounds in a normal world.
He lifted his crystal goblet as if to propose
a toast to the termination of their engagement.
Beneath the artificial lights, the diamond on
her finger winked lewdly. She yanked it off and dropped it into
Connor's glass of merlot, where it landed with a satisfactory
He slammed the goblet on the table, sending
forth a shower of wine. With an oath, he mopped at the spots of red
on his otherwise pristine, and very expensive, designer shirt.
“Damn it, Grace, look what you've done.”
“I haven't done anything.” Her voice rose.
“What happened to innocent until proven guilty? Who made you judge
and juror?” More angry words sat on the tip of her tongue, but she
squelched them. She slammed her hands on the table and leaned into
his face. “You're off the hook, Counselor.” Grace's voice turned
the heads of the couple seated at the table next to them.
Connor gazed over the glasses resting on his
nose. His eyes, which once heated her blood, now froze her with a
blast of contempt.
“For God's sake, keep your voice down.”
Grace pushed her chair back and walked away,
defying the bulls-eye she felt between her shoulder blades. The
press loved Connor Thomas, prosecuting attorney and aspiring
senator. At any moment she expected an eager reporter to jump out
and blind her with flashbulbs. She maneuvered her way through the
throng of waiting customers, pushed open the doors of the
restaurant and burst into the warm Tennessee night.
People passed, some giving her a quick
glance, others too wrapped in their own world to notice. Her
temples throbbed, amplifying the pain, the resentment, and the
anger. The parking garage loomed ahead—only a short block away. She
stepped off the curb and her foot landed at an awkward slant, her
ankle twisting painfully. With a muffled gasp, she lurched forward.
She might have fallen had a male passerby not reached out to steady
“Are you all right?”
She nodded through her tears.
The woman beside him gazed at her with
“I'm fine,” Grace insisted in a shaky voice.
She continued on, ignoring the agony twisting
through her body like a buzz saw. The hollow sound of her footsteps
followed her to the parking garage, and she jabbed the elevator
button. The ancient mechanism clunked and clanged, but climbed
higher. She waited until it stopped and punched it again but the
elevator didn't move.
With a curse, she entered the dark fetid
stairwell. Pulling her shoulders toward her chest to avoid brushing
the stained walls, she surged up the stairs gagging at the vile
odor of urine-soaked concrete.
She plunged through the door and took a
breath. Behind the elevator, metal scraped on concrete. She held
her breath and listened, but heard no further noise. She placed her
keys between her fingers and hurried toward her car. The
click-click of her footsteps picked up pace, battling the thud-thud
of her heartbeat. She reached her car and fumbled with the lock.
Finally, she slid beneath the steering wheel.
The car's interior light winked out, leaving
her and her tumbling thoughts in semi-darkness. How had Connor
learned her secret? He had the means to check into her background,
but why had he waited until now? They'd worked together for a year,
been engaged for six months, and never once had he seemed
interested in her past. Evidently, she'd been mistaken.
Once again, she heard the sound of metal
grating across the floor. For endless seconds she held her breath,
listening to her own racing heartbeat.
With palsied fingers, she turned the key and
the motor roared to life. She glanced through the rear window and
inched her car out of the narrow parking space. Her headlight beams
illuminated a man standing next to the elevator. Their eyes made
contact, and with a sense of unease, she pressed the accelerator
and sped toward the exit.
She thought the man was most likely one of
the city's homeless, of which there were many. Some lived on the
streets because they had lost jobs and homes, while others had
drifted there due to addictions. Once, had she not been strong
enough to fight, she might have become one of the faceless
She paid her parking fee and merged onto the
busy street, longing to get home where she could lick her wounds in
private, but every traffic light conspired against her.
“Come on,” she urged the red beacon holding
her prisoner. She swiped at an angry tear running down her cheek. A
haunting country tune wafted from the speakers, lamenting a broken
heart and lost dreams.
With the push of a button she stifled the
Twenty minutes later, Grace Wilkins entered
the sanctuary of home.
“Tiff, here girl. Where are you?” She turned
on the lamp, flooding the living room with light, but there was no
sign of her canine friend.
Grace tossed her purse on the sofa, kicked
off her shoes, and padded to the kitchen. The humiliation she'd
swallowed had formed into a lead cannonball in her stomach. She
rummaged through the refrigerator and pulled out a partial bottle
of wine. She poured herself a glass and carried it to the bedroom,
hoping it would help kill the parasites of anger and hurt chewing
her from inside out. She stepped out of her slacks and quickly
removed her other clothes, assessing her body in the mirror. She
frowned. Her hips were fuller than fashionably acceptable in
today's world, especially for someone of her short stature. Her
breasts, while not Playboy material, weren't too bad. Her best
feature was her naturally curly red hair. She looked normal on the
outside, no visible scars. The scars were inside where she kept
them hidden from the rest of the world. Connor had inflicted
another one tonight.
She wrapped herself in her worn terrycloth
robe, then sank onto the mattress and stared into the mirror at her
own haunted gaze. Silently, she asked the image if it would have
been so wrong for her to marry, have a decent home, maybe one or
two kids? She'd been so close to fulfilling her dreams. If
The pet door rattled and Tiffany's claws
scrabbled across the kitchen floor. The black and white collie-lab
bounded through the bedroom door, waving her tail like a
The dog gave a short bark. Ninety pounds of
animal leaned against Grace's leg.
“Where've you been?” Grace sat the wine on
the nightstand and ruffled the dog's fur with both hands. Tiffany
gazed at her with total adoration, freeing the tears Grace could no
longer stifle. They streamed down her cheeks and she slipped to the
floor, throwing her arms around the dog's neck. Grace burrowed her
face in the soft black fur and her shoulders heaved. Deep coughing
sobs erupted from the depth of her scarred soul.
Tiffany squirmed closer and licked at Grace's
damp cheeks. Suddenly the dog stilled and her ears perked. At a
knock on the door, she hurtled away.
Grace grabbed a tissue and blew her nose.
Only one person would come calling this time of night—Brad, her
next-door neighbor and the closest thing to a grandfather she'd
ever had. Tonight she wasn't eager for his company. She didn't want
him to see her broken spirit. Not even if he could almost make her
believe she deserved more out of life.
Tiffany whined at the front door, nose to the
Grace flicked on the porch light and opened
the door without looking through the peephole.
Tiffany nosed the wooden screen door,
squeezed through, and jumped to rest her front paws against the
chest of a man Grace had never seen before. Grace stepped outside,
letting the screen door close behind her.
The dog's tail wagged so fast a breeze
stirred the robe Grace clutched tightly against her chest. She held
it together with one hand and reached blindly with the other for
the belt. Finally she secured the two ends in a semi-knot.
“Down, Tiff,” she ordered.
Her visitor laughed, a deep warm
from-the-toes burst of mirth. He rubbed the dog's neck and gently
sent her back to all fours.
“It's all right. We're old
Tiffany plopped at his feet and stared up at
Grace with a panting smile.
The man's gaze fell to Grace's bare feet, and
then lifted slowly, heating her blood inch by inch.
“Sorry if I've caught you at a bad time.”
Emerald eyes locked on hers, belying his apology. “Tyler Sandford.”
He held his hand out. Laugh lines added character to his handsome
face. “I'm your neighborhood veterinarian. I bought the house
through that stand of trees.” He nodded to his left.
He had caught her at a bad time. She jutted
out her chin, daring him to acknowledge her puffy eyes and red
nose. She let go of her robe and gripped his hand firmly. “Grace
Why hadn't she checked before opening the
door? What must he think of the half-naked, sniffling, woman before
him? And why did she care? Somewhere deep inside, hurt knocked
against her ribs. She pulled her hand out of his warm grip, and
adjusted the robe to protect her cleavage. She nodded at her dog,
who acted as if she'd found a new best friend. “And this is
His emerald eyes held her gaze, pulling her
in, magnetizing her. “You have a beautiful name, Grace.”
What kind of line was he dealing? She hated
her name. She didn't even have a middle name since her mother
hadn't given her only daughter one. She was Grace Wilkins. Period.
No middle name. No middle initial. One man had dubbed her Gracie
Jo. She suppressed a shudder.
Tyler's heated glance threatened to melt her
armor, but she stood strong against the assault. She'd met his kind
many times. His dark hair and equally dark lashes set off his
chiseled face. He was handsome, flirtatious and most likely
She eased back toward the door. “Did you stop
by to borrow a cup of sugar?”
Obviously unfazed by her saccharine barb, he
knelt beside the dog. “Your dog and I met on the path in the
woods.” His chin rose to avoid Tiffany's tongue. “I followed her
here, noticed your lights on, and decided to stop and introduce
Grace stared. Both of his knees shone through
the gaping holes in his threadbare, tattered jeans. Dirty tennis
shoes peeked from beneath the ragged cuffs. Though they were in the
foothills of the Smoky Mountains where people didn't exactly dress
for success, his attire didn't fit her image of a veterinarian.
Grace snapped her fingers signaling Tiffany,
but the dog remained frozen to his side.
His dark smoldering gaze swept down Grace's
bare legs, and a smile teased the corners of his mouth. Slowly he
rose to his full height to tower over her.
If he thought she'd succumb to his
not-so-charming come-on, he'd be disappointed. He didn't know the
real woman behind the tear-ravaged face. “So we've met now.” Grace
placed her hand on the gap of the robe and pressed her knees
together. “As you can see, I'm not exactly dressed for
His gaze caressed her again, pausing briefly
where her hand clutched the robe above her racing heart.
“Looks good to me.”
When he leaned closer as if to share a
secret, she caught and held her breath. “You have something on your
face.” His fingers touched her cheek and came away holding a piece
of tissue. “Got it.”