Undeniable (A Country Roads Novel)

Undeniable

Shannon Richard

NEW YORK    BOSTON

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To Gloria Berry,

who inspired a lot of Grace.

You have more strength and

courage than you know.

You’re one of the greatest

friends I could ever ask for.

To my parents, I’ll never be able to thank either of you enough. You’ve helped me so much through the years and I wouldn’t be doing this without the two of you.

To Kaitie Hotard, I can’t tell you how much you mean to me. You’ve been on this writing journey with me from the start. You’re an amazing friend and I love you so, so, so much.

To Katie Crandall, for being the best distraction in my times of need. No one makes Mario Kart quite as entertaining as you do, and you play a mean Princess Peach if I do say so myself. I appreciate you in more ways that you can imagine.

To Gloria Berry, thank you for pushing me further and helping me get past a lot of the brick walls. I wish I could say that the deadlines are what have made me crazier than usual, but let’s face it, I was crazy long before any of those and you’ve had to deal with it for years. You’ve been there from the very beginning of my writing, and I hope that you’ll be there until the end. I’m blessed to count you as one of my friends.

I also want to say how much I appreciate all of you going to New York this past October. It meant the world to me that you took the time to celebrate this accomplishment with me. I love you all beyond words.

To Selina McLemore and Megha Parekh, I enjoy working with both of you and I’m glad that you’ve been a part of the creation of my stories. I am so thankful for your continued efforts to make my writing better.

To Lieutenant James McQuaig of the Leon County Sheriff’s Office, who had the patience to sit down with me and answer all of my questions, and oh, there were a lot of them. Thank you for listening to me go through all of the law enforcement scenarios that Jax had to deal with. Any mistakes in
Undeniable
are my own.

To my lovely Beta readers, especially Catie Humphreys, Jenna Robinson, and Ronald Richard. It means a lot to me that all of you took the time to read.

To Kip Moore and Dan Couch for writing “Hey Pretty Girl.” Your words inspired so many of mine and this song was instrumental in the writing of
Undeniable
.

And last but certainly not least, I have to thank my agent but more importantly my friend, Sarah E. Younger. You continue to go past above and beyond. You were there all through the writing of
Undeniable
and this book wouldn’t have been the same without you and your incredible feedback and advice. I always look forward to our chats and talking about
Game of Thrones
and the wonder that is Khal Drogo.

A
t six years old there were certain things Grace King didn’t understand. She didn’t understand where babies came from, how birds flew way up high in the sky, or where her father was. Grace had never met her dad; she didn’t know what he looked like, she didn’t even know his name, and for some reason this fact fascinated many people in Mirabelle.

“What’s a girl bastard?”

Grace looked up from the picture she was coloring to see Hoyt Reynolds and Judson Coker looming over the other side of the picnic table where she was sitting.

Every day after the bell rang, Grace would wait outside on the playground for her brother Brendan to come and get her, and they’d walk home together. Today, Brendan was running a little late.

“I don’t know.” Judson smirked. “I think bastard works for boys and girls.”

“Yeah.” Hoyt shrugged. “Trash is trash.”

Brendan was always telling Grace to ignore bullies, advice he had a problem following himself. Half the time she didn’t even know what they were saying. Today was no different. She had no idea what a bastard was, but she was pretty sure it wasn’t anything nice.

 Grace looked back down to her picture and started coloring the crown of the princess. She grabbed her pink crayon from the pile she’d dumped out on the table, and just before she started coloring the dress the picture disappeared out from under her hands.

“Hey,” she protested, looking back up at the boys, “give that back.”

“No, I don’t think I will,” Judson said before he slowly started to rip the picture.

“Stop it,” Grace said, swinging her legs over the bench and getting quickly to her feet. She ran to the other side of the table and stood in front of Judson. “Give it back to me.”

“Make me,” he said, holding the picture up high over her head as he ripped it cleanly in half.

Grace took a step forward and stomped down hard on his foot.

“You little bitch!” Judson screamed, hopping up and down on his uninjured foot.

Grace had one second of satisfaction before she found herself sprawled out on her back, the wind knocked out of her.

“Don’t ever touch her again!”

Grace looked up just in time to see a tall, freckled, red-haired boy punch Hoyt in the face. It was Jax, one of Brendan’s best friends, who had come to her rescue. And boy did Jax know what he was doing, because Hoyt fell back onto his butt hard.

“And if you ever call her that word again, you’ll get a lot more than a punch in the face, you stupid little scum bag,” Jax said as he put himself in between Grace and Judson. “Now get out of here.”

“I’m going to tell my father about this,” Hoyt said. This was a legitimate threat as Hoyt’s father was the principal.

“You do that.” Jax shrugged.

Apparently the two eight-year-olds didn’t have anything else to say and they didn’t want to take their chances against a big bad eleven-year-old, because they scrambled away and ran around the side of the building and out of sight.

“You okay?” Jax asked, turning around to Grace.

It was then that Grace realized the back of her dress was covered in mud and her palms were scraped and bleeding.

“No,” she sniffed before she started to bawl.

“Oh, Grace,” Jax said, grabbing her under her arms and pulling her to her feet. “Come here.” He pulled her into his chest and rubbed her back. “It’s okay, Gracie.”

She looked up at him and bit her trembling lip. “They called me names.” She hiccupped.

“They weren’t true,” he said, looking down at her.

“What’s a bastard, Jax?”

Jax’s hand stilled and his nose flared. “Nothing you need to worry about,” he said. “Grace, sometimes dads aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.”

She nodded once before she buried her head back in his chest. By the time she’d cried herself out, Jax’s shirt was covered in her tears. She took a step back from him and wiped her fingers underneath her eyes. Jax reached down and grabbed the two halves of her picture from the ground.

“We can tape this back together,” he said, looking down at the paper. He studied it for a second before he looked back to her. “This is what you are, Grace. A princess. Don’t let anyone tell you different. You understand?” he asked, lightly tugging on her blond ponytail.

“Yes.” She nodded.

“All right,” he said, handing the papers back to her. “Get your stuff together and we’ll go wait for Brendan.”

“Where is he?” Grace asked as she gathered her crayons and put them back into the box.

“He got into trouble with Principal Reynolds again.”

Grace looked up at Jax and frowned. She really didn’t like the Reynolds family. Principal Reynolds wasn’t any better than his son.

“No frowning, Princess. Let’s go,” Jax said, holding out his hand for her.

Grace shoved her crayons and drawing into her bag. She grabbed Jax’s outstretched hand and let him lead her away.

T
he nightmares felt so real. They always started off the exact same way as the accident had, but then they morphed into something so much worse, something that haunted Jax even when he was awake.

As a deputy sheriff for Atticus County, Jaxson Anderson was no stranger to being the first person to arrive at the scene of an accident. What he wasn’t used to was being the first to an accident that involved two people he cared about. That day it had been Grace and Paige King. Grace was the little sister of Brendan King, one of Jax’s best friends. Paige was Brendan’s wife.

It had happened over six months ago. Violent storms had raged across Mirabelle for days, and the rains had flooded the river that ran through the town, making the current swift and deadly. By some miracle Jax and been driving right behind Paige and Grace. Jax and his friend Bennett Hart had watched as the SUV the girls were in swerved off the road, crashed through a barrier, and disappeared down to Whiskey River. The only thing that had stopped the car from being swept under the water was a tree growing out of the bank. The tree was barely strong enough to hold the car back.

That day Jax had experienced a panic like no other. He’d gone into the river desperate to pull them out. And that was when the second miracle of the day happened. Brendan, along with Nathanial Shepherd and Baxter McCoy had shown up. It took the efforts of all five men to pull the girls out of the car before it was swept under the water. It had been just a matter of seconds of getting them out before the tree gave way.

Jax went over those moments, over and over again, replaying everything from what he’d said to what he’d done. The one thing he was absolutely sure about was that getting those girls out of that river alive was miracle number three.

But Jax’s nightmares didn’t play out like the miracle. No, in his nightmares he watched as Grace died.

When the accident happened, they had to pull Grace out from the car before Paige. In the nightmare, it was Grace who was pulled out second. Paige was safe in Brendan’s arms, and Jax would go to get Grace, but the tree would snap right before his hands touched hers. Jax would scream her name as the river dragged her away and she disappeared under the surface of the water.

Jax woke up, Grace’s name still on his lips. He was breathing hard and drenched in sweat, the sheets sticking to his skin. He blinked, his eyes adjusting to the darkness as he slowly began to realize that what he’d seen wasn’t real. That it was just another nightmare. That Grace wasn’t lost. She’d walked away from the accident with a dislocated shoulder and minor scrapes and bruises.

Jax lay there and when he got his breathing under control and his heart stopped pounding out of his chest, he turned to look at the alarm clock. It was ten to five in the morning. He didn’t need to be up for another hour, but it was pointless for him to even attempt to go back to sleep. Whenever he had a nightmare about Grace, he was on edge until he saw her and knew she was okay.

So instead, Jax threw back the sheets that were tangled around his legs and sat on the edge of the bed. He rubbed his face with his hands before he got up and padded into the bathroom. He brushed his teeth and splashed his face with cold water. He looked into the mirror as water dripped off the end of his long, freckled nose. The hollows under his eyes were tinged a light purple.

Mirabelle had a whopping five thousand people in its six hundred square miles, half of which was water. The little beach town made up sixty percent of Atticus County’s population, and boy did those five thousand sure know how to keep the sheriff’s office busy. Deputies worked twelve-hour shifts. Two days on, then two days off; three days on, then two days off.

Jax had worked only the first day of his three-day shift, and he’d had to deal with plenty already: a kid who’d stolen his mom’s car to go joy riding with his girlfriend, more drunken college kids on spring break than he could count, and three house calls for domestic disturbances, two of which had ended in arrests.  He was also investigating a string of burglaries that had been going on in Mirabelle. Five alone in the last two months, and they all looked to be connected.

The day before had been a long one and he left work exhausted. For normal people that would mean sleep would come easier, but that wasn’t the case for Jax. For Jax, deep sleep brought on his nightmares. He’d been having nightmares for as far back as he could remember, and at twenty-nine years old, that was a long time. It was hard not to have nightmares when you grew up in an environment that was less than friendly.

Haldon Anderson was one mean son-of-a-bitch, and he took great pleasure in making his son feel like shit as often as possible. When Haldon wasn’t in jail, he was out on a fishing boat making money to drown himself in a bottle of liquor and whatever pills he could get his hands on. And when Haldon got on one of his benders, there was absolutely nothing that was going to stop him. Whether Haldon used his fists or his words, he knew how to make a person bleed.

Haldon had laughed when Jax became a deputy seven years ago. He’d thought it was one of the greatest jokes of his life.

“This is perfect,” he’d said, wiping his fingers underneath his eyes. “A worthless boy doing a thankless job. Working for justice my ass, you’re not going to do anything to make this world a better place. The only thing you could’ve possibly done to achieve that was to have never been born.”

Yup, Haldon Anderson, father of the
fucking
year.

As a child, Jax couldn’t understand why his mother let his father get away with all the abuse. But Patricia Anderson wasn’t a strong woman and her greatest weakness was Haldon. She hadn’t protected her child like a mother should. Actually, she hadn’t done anything that a mother should do.

Jax shook his head and pulled himself out of the past. That was the last thing he wanted to think about.

He put on a sweatshirt, a pair of gym shorts, and his sneakers before he headed out into the chilly April morning. He stretched for a minute before he hit the pavement and attempted to run from his demons.

*  *  *

Grace King inhaled deeply as she pulled out a fresh batch of Bananas Foster muffins. The rich smell filled her nose before it expanded her lungs. She smiled as she set them on the counter to cool. These muffins were going to sell out with the morning breakfast rush.

Grace didn’t care if she was making cookies, pies, or cupcakes; she never got tired of it. One of her first memories was sitting in the kitchen at her grandparents’ house while she watched her mother stir chocolate cake batter. Grace’s fondest memories of her mother were the two of them baking together. Claire King had lost her battle to breast cancer almost fourteen years ago. But before she died, she’d passed on her love for baking to her daughter.

Grace had been working in her grandmother’s café since she was eight years old. Now, at twenty-four, she helped her grandmother run Café Lula. The café was a small, brightly painted cottage out on Mirabelle Beach. The promise of freshly baked food kept customers from all over town and the county pouring in no matter the time of day or the season.

The day promised to be a busy one, as Grace had to fill up the dessert case with fresh goodies. She’d been experimenting with cupcake recipes the past couple of weeks. She’d wanted to make something amazing for her sister-in-law’s baby shower. Grace had eaten dinner at Brendan and Paige’s the night before, and she’d been the one in charge of dessert. For fear of disappointing a sassy pregnant woman, she’d brought her A-game and made two different types of cupcakes.

“I think my favorite is the Blueberry Lemonade,” Paige had said as she’d rubbed her ever-growing belly. “But Trevor seems to like this Red Velvet Cheesecake one. I think he’s dancing in there.”

Trevor Oliver King was supposed to be gracing the world with his presence around the middle of May. Grace couldn’t wait to meet her nephew. Paige was over seven months pregnant, and she was one of those women who still looked beautiful even though she was growing another human being inside of her. If Grace didn’t love her sister-in-law dearly, she would’ve been fifty shades of jealous. As it was, she was only about twenty shades.

But really, Grace couldn’t be happier for her brother and sister-in-law. Brendan was going to be an amazing father. Much better than his or Grace’s had been.

 Neither Brendan nor Grace had ever had their fathers in their lives. Brendan’s dad had gotten their mother pregnant when she was seventeen. When he’d found out, he promptly split town and never looked back. But while Brendan at least knew who his father was, Grace had no idea about hers. It was one of the great mysteries, and a constant source of gossip in Mirabelle.

There were many things in life that Grace was grateful for, her brother and Paige topping the list. They were a team and they worked together. They loved each other deeply. And Grace envied that stupid dopey look they always got on their faces. She wanted that. And she knew exactly who she wanted it with. It was just too bad for her that the man in question was stubborn and refused to see her as anything besides his best friend’s little sister.

Grace took a deep breath and shook her head, bringing herself back to the muffins that she had to take to the front of the café. There was no need to concern herself with frustrating men at the moment. So she loaded up a tray with an already cooled batch of muffins and went to load the display case before the eight o’clock rush of customers filled the café. But when she pushed her way through the door she found the frustrating man in question on the other side, staring at her with her favorite pair of deep green eyes.

*  *  *

Jax’s whole body relaxed when he saw Grace push through the door from the kitchen. The moment she saw him her blue eyes lit up and her cupid’s bow mouth split into a giant grin. She’d always looked at him that way. Like he was her favorite person in the whole world. God knew she was his.

“Heya, Deputy. Let me guess,” she said as she put the tray down on the counter, “you came here for coffee?”

No. He’d come here to see her. He always came here to see her. But coffee was a legitimate enough excuse, especially since he hadn’t gotten that much sleep and was at the beginning of another twelve-hour shift.

“Please,” he said, drumming his long, freckled fingers on the counter.

“Did you eat breakfast?” she asked as she pulled a to-go cup off the stack and started pumping coffee into it.

“I’m fine.”

“Hmm.” She looked over her shoulder at him and pursed her lips. “You know that isn’t going to fly for a second. I got just the thing to go with this.” She put the steaming cup and a lid down on the counter. “Go fix your coffee while I bag up your breakfast.”

Grace turned around and pushed through the door to the kitchen as Jax grabbed his cup and went over to the end of the counter where the sugar and milk was.

Since Jax was four years old, the King women had been feeding him. Between them and Shep’s mom, theirs were the only home-cooked meals he’d gotten after his grandmother died. If it hadn’t been for them, he would’ve gone to bed with an empty stomach more nights than most.

Patricia Anderson wasn’t much of a Susie Homemaker. Between her long hours working at the Piggly Wiggly, and drinking herself into a stupor and getting high when Haldon was on parole, she sometimes forgot to stock the freezer with corndogs and mini pizzas for her son.

 “Here you go.”

Jax turned to find Grace by his side. She hadn’t gotten the height gene like Brendan. She was about five-feet-four and came in just under Jax’s chin. Her petite stature and soft heart-shaped face inspired an overwhelming urge in him to protect her. She’d always inspired that feeling in him, ever since her mother brought her home from the hospital all those years ago.

“They’re Bananas Foster muffins and they’re fresh out of the oven,” she said, holding out a bag.

“Thanks, Princess,” he said, grabbing the bag and letting his fingers brush the back of her hand.

God, he loved the way her skin felt against his.

“Anytime, Jax.” She smiled widely at him. A second later she stepped into him and grabbed his forearms for balance as she stretched up on her toes and kissed his jaw.

It was something Grace had done a thousand and one times before. She had no concept of personal boundaries with him, and she was wide open with her affection. And just like always, when her lips brushed his skin he had the overwhelming desire to turn into her. To feel her lips against his. To grab her and hold her against him while he explored her mouth with his.

But instead of following that impulse, he let her pull back from him.

“Eat those while they’re hot,” she said, pointing to the bag.

“I will,” he promised.

“Do you need something for lunch? I can get you a sandwich.”

“I’m good,” he said, shaking his head.

“Really?” she asked putting her hands on her hips and narrowing her eyes at him.

He couldn’t help but grin at her attempt to intimidate him.

There was no doubt about the fact that Grace King was tough. She’d had to grow a thick skin over the years. Even though Jax, along with Brendan and Shep, had done everything in their power to try to protect her, they couldn’t be there to shield her from everything. So Grace had done everything to even up the score with whoever tried to put her down. She wasn’t a shy little thing by any means, and she’d tell anybody what was up without a moment’s hesitation.

“I’ll stop somewhere and get something,” he said.

“Or I can give you something now,” she said, exasperated. “I’m getting you a sandwich.” She said turning on her heal and walking back into the kitchen.

“Grace, you don’t have to do this,” Jax said, following her.

“I know,” she said, looking over her shoulder as she opened the refrigerator. “But I’m going to anyway.”

Jax watched as Grace filled a bag with two sandwiches, a bag of chips, a cup of fruit salad, and his favorite, a butterscotch cookie.

“This should last you till dinner.”

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