Series: The Barnes Brothers #5
Published by: Shiloh Walker. Inc
Release Date: 11/6/2023
Buy the Book: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iBooks | Kobo
Travis Barnes isn’t looking for a happy ever after
Unlike his brothers, he doesn’t think he deserves one. As a teenager, he broke the heart of the girl he’d fallen in love with and he’s never forgiven himself. He sure as hell doesn’t expect her forgiveness.
Since then, he fell into a dangerous double life, one nobody, not even his twin, could begin to guess at. He accepts the risks, hoping to atone for his sins and save others like he couldn't save his former love. When an assignment lands him in the hospital with a near fatal injury, his handler gives him a choice, take a break…or he’s out.
The last thing Travis expects is for his handler to put him up in a house next to her, the woman he’s never been able to forget…
Bella Franklin was once known as Isabel Steele, daughter of a high-powered, corrupt U.S. District Attorney. Meeting Travis Barnes had been the one good thing in her life—then he’d abandoned her.
Years later, living in witness protection, she takes care of foster kids and pretends she’s forgotten him…until the day she finds herself face to face with an unforgettable gaze the color of the ocean. Travis Barnes, the boy who nearly broke her, is now a man who carries shadows in his eyes and holds far too many secrets.
The fire still burns between them. But can she forgive his betrayal, forgive his abandonment? And can she trust the secretive man he’s become?
Trigger warning: this story involves miscarriage, infertility and off-page references to abuse suffered by the heroine at the hands of her father, et al. It also involves found family and two battered souls who find their way back to each other.
The rhythmic pounding woke him up.
It was the second morning in a row but at least this time, he didn’t strain his slowly healing side by rolling out of bed in a crouch and coming upon the side with his weapon in hand.
It had taken a few seconds to realize the pounding he heard was actually some sort of intent behind it. Somebody wanted that sound—that sound in particular.
A few seconds of glaring out his bedroom window in dismay had assured him he wasn’t drawing the wrong conclusion because somebody had walked out of the neighbor’s open garage with a guitar in hand, the cord trailing along behind him like a restraining leash.
Now, with a groan, he grabbed his phone from the nightstand to check the time, although what he wanted was the gun under his pillow. If he put a bullet through the amp…
“Just kids,” he muttered to himself. “They’re just kids. Lighten up before you turn into the grumpy old bastard.”
The kid playing the guitar hit another off-note and Travis grabbed his pillow, covering his face. He’d had another mostly sleepless night and desperately wanted a few more hours before trying to face the world.
But there was no blocking out that…music.
He was a light sleeper anyway, had been all his life and over the past twelve years, he’d refined that trait. Seemed a good idea, he’d figured, since he worked a job where anybody who didn’t wake at the drop of a pin might find themselves waking up with a knife at their throat or a gun at their base of their skull.
There was always worse.
In the shadowy world where he made a living, there were things much worse than dying.
He’d seen that firsthand for himself.
“Maybe that’s what this…a new form of torture,” he muttered, cringing at the chords lingering in the air. They sounded like the guitar’s death refrain. Maybe they were—maybe the guitar was in its death throes and the torturous sounds were a plea for help.
He sat up, grimacing at the pull of healing muscles and skin in his side. He’d taken a bullet in his left side just under a year and half back and now he had a near identical wound on the right, off by only an inch or so.
At this rate, his sorry ass was going to be able to double as a sieve—assuming he didn’t end up dead first.
Another discordant series of notes from the guitar player and he shoved upright and stormed over to the window.
The one thing Miles hadn’t mentioned when his handler and friend updated him about this place was the wannabe rockstar. Slamming the window shut, he sighed with relief as the guitar riffs immediately dulled to a bare whisper. He couldn’t hear much from the ocean, either, but he could always pick a different room for sleeping.
There was always the option of leaving, going somewhere else entirely.
But Miles had already vetted this place, knew it was secure and the few neighbors were all above board. His boss had sweetened the deal by adding that the local grocer would deliver if Travis paid an extra fifty—expensive, sure, but if Travis preferred not to go into town while he was resting up, it was worth it.
Small towns made it harder for people who didn’t belong to blend in. Travis was actually pretty good at blending in when he wanted. He’d become a veritable chameleon over the past decade plus—he could look like the pretty boy rich kid plenty of people would expect, or he could look so nondescript, folks forgot him the second they saw him.
But he was fucking tired and didn’t want to put effort into anything these days.
And he liked it here.
It was beautiful.
Desolate, in a way, but beautiful.
This particular strip of land bordered a stretch of the Atlantic, and all of five houses dotted the sandy terrain. The house where Travis was staying was the farther out, perched precariously on a strip of land bordered on both the front and back by water.
The next one, home of the mini musician, was probably twenty yards away.
Plenty far enough, Travis would have thought.
Still standing at the window, he tracked his escapes routes with his eyes, the loud distraction of music no longer flooding his brain.
He had several different exits—one via land, and two more via the waterways, and that didn’t include seeming diving into the Atlantic and swimming.
He could take that route if need be, even while wounded. He wouldn’t have to swim far. He had a truck stashed nearby, along with spare clothes and cash and as long as he wasn’t wounded any further, he knew he could make it. But that was a last ditch resort. First up, the road off the small inlet and with the truck in the garage, he could take down anything short of a tank.
There were also the two boats, a newer speedboat, and then a ramshackle thing that nobody would take seriously, were excellent options. The ramshackle-looking boat pretending to be a piece of shit was actually the fastest and the one he’d go for if he had to bail and couldn’t get to the truck.
Right now, that ramshackle boat was looking damned appealing.
Granted, he hadn’t thought he’d need any of the escape routes, and definitely not because some teenaged, possibly tone-deaf kid was out in his garage tearing up a guitar while Travis was tried to sleep.
He’d had four days of blissful peace and quiet in this house, perched on the edge of a small peninsula. The air tasted of salt water. The soothing rush of the waves had lulled him to sleep each night.
Then the evening before last, just before sunset, a battered van pulled onto the street. He’d eyed it from the porch swing until the side doors opened and disgorged three kids, all of varying ages, heights and builds. three kids. Then he’d heard a baby’s strident wail split the night air.
He’d only caught a glimpse of the woman’s averted head before going inside, chased away by bright curiosity of one of the younger kids who’d seen him and shouted, “Who is that?”
Since then, he’d spent most of his time outdoors on the sprawling deck built onto the eastern side of the house. It butted right up the water’s edge but that most appealing part was that the house’s design kept the deck hidden from view unless somebody was actually out in the water.
Thanks to the security system Miles had installed—one that would do any paranoid federal agent proud—Travis didn’t have to worry about unexpected visitors, either. Motions sensors in the yard, along the fence, driveway and near his front door sent alerts to his phone whenever anybody came within spitting distance of the house.
So far, other than the late evening arrival of his closet neighbors and the grocery delivery three days ago, he hadn’t seen anybody since Miles had dropped him off.
He would have appreciated a warning about the music.
While Travis had prowled around the house the night he’d arrived, Miles had mentioned that the neighbor sometimes traveled to visit family, especially this time of year and since the van was missing, he expected Travis might not see anybody for a few days.
“They should have stayed another week or two,” he muttered now, his head pounding in time to the barely discernible drumbeat that had started accompanying the guitar.
A dull headache, the product of too much whiskey the night before, pounded at the base of his head as he left the room. Loose, heather-gray joggers clung to his hips, riding lower than they had a few months earlier. He’d lost weight in the hospital and in the week since being discharged. Who the hell ever gained weight eating in hospital food?
Since he was still healing and his body needed the nutrients, he made himself a shake, grimacing through the noise caused by the blender. The protein mix, combined with bananas and peanut butter, settled easily enough on his gut as he stood looking the large picture window in front of the house.
Movement in the water caught his eyes and he squinted against the rays, a smile slowly appearing. Harbor seals. Distant memories of trips to Cape Cod, trips out on the water with his parents, swam up from the back of his mind. He’d made a pointed efforted to block out as much of the time he’d spent on the east coast when he’d been younger.
Thinking about Cape Cod, Provincetown and his trips out east had always led to thinking about Isabel, and that just added to ache in his chest, tore open whatever scabs had formed over wounds that would never heal.
Now, though, he remembered a day spent out on the water, the sound of his baby brother who’d only been learning to walk as his mother pointed the silly looking seals out to all of them. Even Zane, the oldest of them who already started losing interest in little kid shit, had been entranced.
It’s called bottling, Travis. They’re relaxing. Harbor seals love two things most of all—eating and sleeping. If you seem them bobbing around like that in the water with just their noses poking up, they’re laying back and taking it easy.
Sebastien’s squeal of laughter had been cut off as a right whale came up from the water just then, making the large yacht they’d taken out with friends rock back and forth. Denise Barnes had just laughed and pointed out the whale’s tail as he fluked just a few dozen yards away.
Sunlight reflected on something to the left and he craned his head, grinning as he realized a couple of seals had pulled themselves onto one of the large, flat rocks across the narrow strip of road in front of him, not even fifty or sixty feet away.
He was outside on the porch in seconds, tossing only a quick glance around to make sure none of the neighbor kids or their parents were close by.
The air had a bite, even though it was still late summer. He didn’t mind. The threadbare t-shirt and joggers he’d pulled on before collapsing into bed didn’t provide much warmth, but the damp air felt cool and clean against his skin, in his lungs as he dragged in a breath.
One of the seals lifted his head as a loud shout came from down the road, but then lowered it, clearly unimpressed by the humans in the area.
“Me, neither, pal,” Travis muttered. He’d spent so much time in the muck, dealing with the worst mankind had to offer, he wasn’t sure there was much of anything mankind could offer that would undo all the shit he’d seen.
Another shout, this one higher, angry, and maybe a little scared, caught his ears and he scowled, but turned his head to look anyway.
He could only see one person.
But his ears picked up several others—and the lack of ear-destroying guitar.
“…a girl needs,” a taunting, mean voice said.
He locked his jaw, disgust swimming inside as he jogged down the steps and started in the direction of that voice, not even stopping to ask why he was doing it.
Another comment had Travis narrowing his eyes, especially once he saw the speaker—bean-pole skinny, in the gawky stage of puberty that came a few months before the rest of the body started to catch up with the height. A fucking teenager telling some girl what she needed?
Those words were coming from a kid—somebody need to have a talk with that kid, and the parents.
“I’m not a girl, shithead.”
Travis glanced at the other kid—slighter than the first teen, probably a head shorter, with a voice full of rage.
That came from one of the kids he’d seen that night a whole gang of them piled out of the van before disappearing into the house. This kid was pint-sized, barely came up to the other guy’s waist, dainty as a fairy, dressed in one of those play costumes kids her age liked. It was poufy and pink and added to the fairy impression. Her mouth was set in a mutinous line as she gave the bully a dark look.
The taller of the three, the punk with the bad attitude, reached out, like he was going to shove the little girl. Travis swore, cursing the injury that had him moving slower than he liked.
But the smaller teenager shifted position and in a move that had Travis smiling in approval, he joined his hands together, swiveled his hips and swung, using his double fists like a bat and striking the little asshole right in the chin.
The blow sent the punk stumbling back.
Before he could catch his balance, Travis was there.
“Is there a problem?”
The smaller teenager whipped his head around.
Big, doe-brown eyes met his, hardening with a glare.
Travis scanned the kid’s features, replayed the bits of conversation he’d heard and thought he might know what was going on. It didn’t make him like the little asshole any more, either.
“Brant used Aaron’s deadname,” the little girl piped up, her bright blue eyes all but dominating the small oval of her face. She tucked her hand into Aaron’s and snuggled closer, beaming up at Travis before looking at the other kid—the little asshole.
Travis bit back a smile as the little she-devil stuck her tongue out at Brant.
“You’re a doucheface, Brant.” The little girl once more tucked herself close to Aaron. “Stop calling Aaron by his deadname. He’s a boy.”
“Brooklyn,” Aaron said, a smile softening his hard expression as he looked down at his fierce defender. “You go inside, okay? And hush with the names. She’ll get us both if she hears you calling somebody that.”
“I wanna stay with you.” Brooklyn still clung to Aaron’s hand. “Brant’s the one who should leave.” Her big eyes, framed with incredibly thick lashes, narrowed on the other kid. “Brant, go away. This isn’t your home.”
“It’s not your home, either, you little twerp,” Brant said, scowling at the little girl. “Your parents don’t love you enough so the court took you away.”
“That’s enough.” Travis stepped in before the other two could respond. Putting his body between them and the gangly asshole, he crossed his arms over his chest. “Maybe you should leave.”
The boy’s eyes met his, then jerked away, his show of false confidence lost as he faced an adult.
It was over. His body language made that clear even before he turned away and started to slink off.
Then Aaron spoke. In a mockingly cold voice, he said, “That’s right, little man. Run along home now that a real man is here. Isn’t that kind of what you said to me the other day?”
Brant spun around and rushed forward, fist upraised.
Travis caught it. Pain twisted inside as his injured side protested the movement, but he didn’t let it show.
The older kids both gasped and Aaron whispered a stunned, “Fuck.”
The little girl was much, much louder.
“WOW!” Her shriek echoed in a way that didn’t seem possible and jacked up the pain in Travis’s skull.
“If you want people to think you’re a man,” Travis said, his tone level. “You might want to try working on that temper of yours. And maybe stop trying to pick fights with people half your size.”
“What the fuck are you doing to my kid?”
Travis had seen the man approaching.
While he was disappointed the asshole seemed to think his kid was the one being wronged, he wasn’t surprised. It had been his experience that asshole kids usually happened because they had asshole parents.
“Don’t even try to touch either of those kids,” he said in warning before letting Brant’s fist go.
The boy stumbled back, his face still pale but harsh flags of color stained his cheekbones, a sign of both humiliation and anger.
“What is this shit?”
A larger, more heavily muscled version of Brant pushed into Travis’s personal space, the man’s lantern-jawed face twisted with an angry sneer.
“Who do you think you are, laying hands on my kid?”
“I’m the guy who stopped him from punching somebody half his size.” Travis watched the man’s eyes flick over to his kid, and then toward Aaron.
“If that kid wants to pretend to be a boy, she’s need to figure something out,” Brant’s father said, his tone derisive. “Boys their age get into fights. She don’t like it? Then be a fucking girl.”
“I don’t think the kid’s gender is any of your business—or that of your kid’s,” Travis said, lifting a hand when the kid behind him sucked in his breath to respond. “And I don’t know about you, but back when I was a teenaged boy, guys who tried to pick fights with kids half their size where generally considered assholes and bullies.”
The bigger man shoved even closer to Travis, one big hand coming up to grip the front of his shirt.
Looking down at that hand, Travis debated his options on how to handle this. “Since his father clearly didn’t teach him how to control his temper, I figured I might as well step in. You really should take your hand off me. Now.”
“Yeah?” The man gave him a sneering excuse of a smile and pushed him. “Or what?”
When he went to push him again, Travis caught his wrist and twisted, spinning into the movement as he yanked the bigger guy off balance and sent him smashing facedown into the sandy, gravel-ridden dirt.
Distantly, the pain in his side flared, a red-hot warning.
On the nearby rocks, one of the lounging seals barked. Travis tried to decide if it was mockery, reproach or approval as he wrenched at the man’s wrist. He stopped trying to twist out of the hold and whined in in pain. Travis put his bare foot on the guy’s shoulder. “Stop moving. You’re making it worse.”
“Get the fuck off my dad!” Brant rushed toward him.
Travis brought his hand up so that the heel of his palm came into quick contact with the kid’s chest—it wasn’t a blow, barely counted as a block as the kid was running at him full force and he checked his strength so the teen was just stunned. Even though it was a purely defensive action, he didn’t like using any of the skills he’d learned over the years on a kid. Brant stumbled back, his own momentum turned against him. He ended up tripping over his own feet and fell on his ass.
“Stay down,” Travis advised. Since he didn’t necessarily trust the kid to listen, he shifted his stance so he could keep a closer eye on him.
To the struggling adult, he asked, “What’s your name?”
“No wonder you’re so pissed off at the world. If my mama named me that, I’d be angry, too.” Behind him, the other two kids snickered. “Come on. Name? It’s awkward having a serious conversation with anybody when you don’t know their names.”
“It’s Lloyd,” the older kid from behind me said. “Lloyd Brimley.”
“Thanks, kid. Okay, Lloyd, I’m going let you up in a minute here. You’re going to take your kid and walk on back to your place, then have a talk with him about picking fights with kids half his size. You should probably tell him that it’s a dick move, trying to push around a little girl who probably isn’t any older than five or six. Personally, if it was me, I’d talk to him about being a bigoted brat, too, but he probably learned it from you so I’m not going to hold my breath there.”
Lloyd started to struggle under again, only to stop and swear in a pained voice as Travis added more pressure to his hold. “You keep that up, my friend, and you’ll dislocate your shoulder. I can tell you from personal experience that it hurts like a son of a bitch.”
“Let me go, you stupid fuck, and don’t tell me what to do with my own kid.”
Travis blew out a breath. “Guess we’re not going to be able to solve this politely. Alright, Lloyd. I’m going to let you up but if you come at me again, you’re going to piss me off.”
The sound of a car’s engine approaching came to him but he kept his attention on Lloyd. “You understand, pal?”
“I’m not your pal, fucker. But, yeah. I understand.”
Travis let go. He promptly moved back, taking care to nudge the two kids who’d been behind him farther away, clear from danger in case Lloyd decided he hadn’t understood after all.
Lloyd shoved upright, his face a furious shade caught between red and purple. A vein throbbed in his temple as he glared at Travis before looking around, gaze finally landing on Brant. The kid was rubbing his chest and he was a sickly shade of white, eyes darting away from both Travis and his dad.
“Did you touch my kid?” Lloyd snarled.
“Yeah. He tried to rush me. It wouldn’t have been smart, so I discouraged it, but he’s not hurt. And it’s all been recorded—just like the incident here.” The car he’d heard went quiet. Judging by how close it was, he suspected Aaron and Brooklyn’s mother had arrived.
Travis huffed out a breath just as Aaron groaned. “Fuck, we’re so busted.”
Lloyd still glared at Travis. “I ought to sue your ass. I’m calling the fucking cops and having you arrested for assaulting a minor.”
“I am gonna call the fucking cops because you are a d-hole!” Brooklyn announced, planting herself at Travis’s side.
“Ah…Brooklyn, I’ll take care of this,” he said, stroking a hand down soft, silky hair that was a soft ash brown with streaks of paler gold. He could feel her looking up at him but he didn’t take his eyes off Lloyd.
“Stay out of this,” Lloyd snapped, glaring at the girl. “And if you don’t want Brant bugging you, stay away from him, kid. And stop cussing so much.”
“You can’t tell me what to do!” She rushed forward, quicker than Travis could react—in his defense, he just wasn’t expecting her to be a miniature Valkyrie. In what world did little girls decide to take on grown-ass men who acted like schoolyard bullies? She kicked Lloyd in the ankle.
And that was when Travis saw that she had topped off her pretty princess dress with a pair of princess shoes that a pointy-toe. Not quite high-heel adult pointy-toe, but still, pointy enough that if a kid managed to kick a bony prominence, like an ankle, in just the right place, it would smart.
He almost choked on his laughter as Lloyd’s face went red, a blistered stream of cursing erupting from him as Brooklyn went to dart back behind Travis.
Lloyd shot out a hand and encountered Travis.
“You don’t want to touch that girl. You don’t want to bother either of these kids. Neither does that boy of yours,” he advised softly. “Go on home. Make your call to the cops. Have fun with it. But…keep in mind, that boy came swinging at me. All I did was defend myself. The laws allow an adult to defend themselves against a minor when the minor attacks. And your boy doesn’t have a mark on him. And…like I said…this entire fiasco, including your boy’s attempt to swing at a child, was caught on the video set-up at my house. All of it will turned over to any authorities.”
Lloyd’s mouth tightened.
“Miss Bella is here!”
The name Bella struck a knife into his heart. An old, beloved nickname for a beloved person who no longer loved him. Bella-mine.
He shoved the painful thoughts away as Brooklyn caught Travis’s hand and tugged on it several times, her excited squeal helping to separate the then from the now a little quicker, and with a bit less pain.
“Lloyd.” The woman’s voice was warm and husky, catching Travis’s attention immediately. “If that kid of yours is harassing Aaron again, I’m calling the police.”
Travis might have looked over at the woman just then—she sounded kind of familiar. But his blood was roaring in his ears by now, his still recovering body telling him to sit the fuck down. Now.
“This ain’t about Brant harassing anybody. This fucker here was knocking him around!” Lloyd snapped, finally looking away from Travis.
“You liar!” Brooklyn shouted. She shoved between Lloyd and Travis, moving in a way that made Travis think she did everything at top speed. She half-tripped over the hem of her fluffy pink gown and wobbled before smashing her thin shoulder into Lloyd’s groin as she tried to steady herself.
This time, at least, it was an accident.
Lloyd went red, eyes crossing in pain. His hand shot out toward the little girl and Travis reacted. Pure instinct guided him again as he caught the man’s wrist and twisted him into an arm hold that soon had Lloyd bent over, his arm in an unnatural angle to relieve the painful pressure Travis was exerting the limb.
“I told you not to put your hands on that kid,” he said, teeth clenched as the wound in his side protested—and tore. Something hot oozed down his side. Fuck. Perfect. Just perfect. He’d gone and busted open the staples, or at least a couple of them.
Over the scent of the sea and the overpowering scent of the man’s cologne, Travis caught the hint of something warm and feminine. It tugged at an elusive memory, but between the warm, wet body fluid trickling down his side to dampen the waistband of his loose, gray sweat pants and the asshole who kept pushing kids around, he had his hands full.
He sucked in a breath, held it, then blew it out, willing his head to clear.
Some piece of shit asshole wasn’t going to put him on his ass. He didn't care if he was just a few days out of the hospital, still recovering from a miserable infection that had been hours short of going septic.
His thoughts cleared, some.
“My patience is about pretty much gone, so somebody needs to start talking.”
This time, the memory wasn’t so elusive. A face came to him. He blinked, gave a sharp shake of his head. Nah. Couldn’t be.
But when he looked to reassure himself, he found a pair of green eyes slanting his way at just that moment.
For a minute, she stared blankly at him, her gaze showing no sign of recognition.
Then her lips parted on a soft inhalation.
As for Travis, he felt leveled, like he’d been hit sideways with a metal baseball bat. The impact was so intense, he let his grip on the asshole go slack.
Lloyd tried to jerk away and Travis automatically tightened his hold, taking the heavier guy’s leg out from under him at the same time.
He did it all, takedown and order, without looking away from Isabel.
Mouth dry and mind racing, he tried to find something to say.
He managed an abbreviate version of her name.
The thick fringe of her lashes temporarily hid the rich green of her eyes. Soft color flushed her cheeks. But once she opened her eyes and focused on him, it was a smooth, blank mask.
She said his name with such icy precision, he wouldn’t have been surprised to look down and discover he had frostbite.
“Why did you put my neighbor on the ground?”
Travis blinked, a full second passing before the rather sensible question actually made sense. Following the direction of her gaze, he looked at the back of the grown-ass man who’d had no problem mocking a skinny kid, side by side with his punk-ass brat.
“He was being an asshole,” Travis said, his disgust strong enough to clear his head. “Was about ready to grab your little fairy princess.” He paused, then added, “The princess did kick him, and kinda accidentally racked him. But she barely reaches his hip.”
“Lying puke,” Lloyd mumbled, his cheek pressed in the dirt and face lobster red with anger or humiliation. Probably both.
“Bet the security cameras will disagree, shithead.” Travis didn’t spare him another look.
“Shithead,” Brooklyn said agreeably, delight in her voice. “D-hole shithead.”