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Book 2: Warrior Series
Copyright © 2013 by Laura Taylor
eBook ISBN: 978-0-9893204-1-2
All rights reserved.
No portion of this book, regardless of its format, may be duplicated or transmitted without prior written permission of the copyright holder, except where permitted by law.
Publisher’s Note: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Book Length: 249 pages (Word Document)
This novel is a Special Author’s Cut updated edition of Midnight Storm and was first published as Bantam Loveswept #576.
Copyright ©1992 by Laura Taylor
ROMANTIC TIMES BOOK REVIEWS
“Not even the destructive force of a tornado can equal the MIDNIGHT STORM in the heart of a lovely innkeeper when a handsome Marine Corps pilot comes back into her life after barely surviving a perilous mission in the Middle East…this compelling love story from Laura Taylor shines, ending on a note of luminous joy for lucky readers to savor and cherish.”
Readers Praise MIDNIGHT STORM
“It’s got everything – love, lust, action, suspense, and great characters!”
“I highly recommend Laura Taylor’s books to readers of all genres.”
“Devlin and Jessica are destined to be together – I’d love to spend a tornado like this!”
“Wow! You have to read this book!”
“Great midnight read!”
“You owe it to yourself to get Laura’s books.”
“Just lovely writing!”
“Great storyline, characters, and ending.”
“Laura Taylor writes with the power and sensuality that characterizes the best authors in the romance genre.”
For Judy & Wes Whitmore -
when I think of the Italy trip, I always smile!
JESSICA CLEARY spotted her mother’s luggage on the front veranda of Cleary House, the bed-and-breakfast inn they co-owned. Once the driver of the only Willow Springs cab eased to a stop in the driveway, she slipped out of the back seat, helped the older man unload her suitcases and ski equipment, and then tucked several bills into his gnarled hand.
“Thanks for the ride, Charlie. It looks like Mom’s ready for the return trip to the airport.”
Monica Cleary, attired in clothing suitable for a Caribbean holiday, rushed out of the house and down the front steps of the three-story Victorian style inn. Greeting her daughter with a brilliant smile and a warm embrace, she then subjected her to what could only be called a motherly inspection.
“You look wonderful, darling. Your trip obviously agreed with you.”
“And you look ready to leave.”
Jessica smiled as she walked to the front steps of the house and collected the two heavier pieces of her mother’s luggage. After placing them in the trunk, she glanced at the older woman and noticed her hesitant expression. That hesitancy, coupled with her sudden frown and the nervous glance she cast beyond her daughter, prompted Jessica to follow her mother’s gaze.
She took note of the man who stood at the end of the Cleary boat dock. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing, dear. Why do you ask?”
“You’re frowning. The prospect of a month in St. Thomas normally makes you smile until your jaw aches.”
Monica’s gaze lingered on the man on the dock.
“Did you decide to go ahead with the dock repairs we talked about before I left?” Jessica asked. “I thought we were going to wait until later in the spring. The weather’s so unpredictable this time of year. There’s really no rush, especially since we’re closed until you get home.”
Monica twisted the strap of her shoulder bag, her frown deepening.
Confused, Jessica turned to study the lean, long-legged man who gazed out at the lake. His short-cropped dark hair, the width of his shoulders beneath the leather jacket he wore, his narrow hips, and his impeccable posture brought to mind a memory of another man and another time in her life. Something stilled deep inside her as her memories came into sharper focus.
It can’t be, she thought. It isn’t, she decided as she looked back at her mother.
“We can leave anytime, Miss Monica.”
“In just a moment, Charlie.”
“You don’t want to linger, ma’am. A storm’s brewin’, and it’ll be breakin’ real soon. As it is, we’ll be two hours on the road before we get down to the Little Rock airport.”
She felt her heart lurch, her uneasiness gaining substance. “Who’s out there, Mom? What have you done?”
The older woman sighed. “It’s Devlin, dear.”
Jessica paled, the usual pink in her cheeks, enhanced courtesy of a month of skiing near Vail, fading as a wave of disbelief rolled over her. “Devlin Mackenzie?”
Monica nodded as she edged in the direction of the open door of Charlie’s cab.
Jessica mentally sidestepped her shock and found the control she needed to sound reasonably calm. “I thought we had a no guests policy during the off-season.”
“He’s not a guest, Jessica. He’s family.”
“You’re wrong. Dev is not family. I didn’t marry the man ten years ago, so he’s definitely not family.”
Jessica felt Charlie’s curious gaze on her and sensed his surprise. He had the busiest mouth around, and she loathed the idea of becoming grist for his personal gossip mill during his early morning sessions at the only coffee shop in town. Striving for a less strident tone, she quietly asked, “What’s going on?”
Monica ducked into Charlie’s cab, closed the door, and lowered the window. “I’ll miss my flight if I don’t leave now.”
“Why is he here?”
“He needed a quiet place.”
“Cleary House certainly wasn’t his only option.”
“It was his choice. Given what he’s been through, I didn’t have the heart to say no.”
Confused by her comment, Jessica leaned down. “What he’s been through? I don’t understand.”
Sensing her mother’s escalating distress, and all too aware that even the slightest upset could disturb her delicate emotional balance, Jessica felt a stab of guilt. She reminded herself that this was no way to send her mother off on a much deserved vacation, but coming home to find Devlin Mackenzie standing on their boat dock wasn’t exactly reassuring, either.
“He was in an aircraft mishap of some kind in the Middle East. The Marine Corps has him on convalescent leave.”
“Then he should be with his family.”
Monica shook her head. “He needed privacy, darling. His parents are terribly worried about him.”
“This is awkward for me, Mom.”
“I know, but try to remember that Dev isn’t here to upset you. He simply needed a private place away from the media. Our families have a shared history, a history I will never forget.”
Monica’s faded blue eyes brimmed with tears, and Jessica knew exactly what her mother was thinking. She didn’t need to be told that her thoughts were on another military pilot, the man she’d married, the man who’d fathered Jessica Kathleen Cleary, the man who’d served his country during his daughter’s childhood as a combat pilot, and the same man eventually declared dead on the heels of being listed as missing after he and his aircraft had fallen off the radar and disappeared into the Persian Gulf during a classified night-time mission on the wrong side of the globe.
It had been Dev’s father who’d led the search and rescue efforts to locate her father. It had been Dev’s father, as the squadron’s commanding officer, who’d finally been the one to deliver the news that her father was presumed dead. And it had been Dev’s parents who’d come to Jessica’s rescue more times than she cared to count during her mother’s emotional decline.
Jessica sighed. When her mother reached out and squeezed her hand, she found little comfort in the gesture.
“I simply couldn’t say no to Devlin, not when I heard the despair in his voice.”
She blinked in surprise. “Despair? That doesn’t sound like Dev.”
“He’s not the man you remember.”
The man she remembered had been filled with laughter and passion and an insatiable desire to test the limits of his abilities in the jets he flew. The man she remembered was never sad, never reflective, and never willing to accept the fact that Jessica Cleary wasn’t cut out to be a military pilot’s wife.
The Devlin Mackenzie she remembered had worked hard and played even harder. He was a typical jet jockey and a dedicated Marine Corps officer, and he’d expected the woman he loved to wholeheartedly embrace his lifestyle. She’d refused. And, in the end, she’d walked away from the only man she had ever loved. Jessica shivered as her mother settled back in her seat.
“I know this isn’t the homecoming you expected, but I couldn’t turn Devlin away,” Monica finally said. “I do apologize for that, because hurting you wasn’t my intent. You’re old enough, Jessica, and wise enough to know that you can’t keep running from the past.”
She stiffened, stung by the loyalty her mother obviously felt to the eldest son of longtime friends. “I’ll deal with it.”
I always do. I know how, because I’ve been dealing with unpleasant realities for most of my life.
“I hope so. I’ve given Devlin the cottage at the edge of the lake, so he won’t bother you. If you decide to keep your distance, you aren’t obligated in any way to invite him into the inn.” Monica hesitated. “You’ve both changed, Jessica. Try not to forget that, if you do decide to speak to him.”
Ignore Devlin Mackenzie? Pretend he wasn’t sleeping in a small cottage that was within shouting distance of her bedroom? Make believe that they could co-exist on twelve acres of Arkansas lakefront property? Not possible. Totally impossible. But she’d have to make it possible until he decided to leave, since throwing him off the property wasn’t an option.
Jessica stepped back from the cab. “Have a good vacation, Mom.”
The older woman smiled. “I’ll send lots of postcards.”
She stood in the driveway, waving until Charlie’s cab disappeared from sight. Lowering her arm, Jessica’s smile faded. Her shoulders sagged, the weight of ten years of endless days and nights of denial and soul-deep regret bearing down on her all at once.
A gust of cold wind rearranged her shoulder-length hair and brought the sting of tears to her eyes. A shiver sent a tremor through her slender body. Another one followed soon after.
Anger and frustration coursed through her as she realized how unsuccessful she’d been in her attempts to banish Dev from her heart and her mind. She turned on her heel, abruptly crashing into what felt like a wall of solid muscle.
She felt hard, capable hands on her upper arms, instantly recognized the secure grip that steadied her, and jerked free. She stumbled backward, stunned at being touched by Devlin Mackenzie for the first time in ten years.
“Do you need any help with your luggage?”
She didn’t respond to his question. She simply stared at him, taking in the strength of his masculine features, matured now by the passage of time and life experiences she would never know anything about, and the grimly ironic expression reflected in his dark eyes. She glanced down, registering the white-knuckled grip of his closed fists before the tension emanating from his entire body reached her.
“Jessica? Can I help you with your things?”
His voice, so deep and so familiar, sounded oddly raw. It caught her attention, because the sound was wrong. Really wrong. She reached out, the instinctive desire to offer him comfort momentarily eclipsing all of her self-protective instincts. A split second later she snatched back her hands and pressed her palms to her sides.
Jessica took a steadying breath. “It’s been a long time, Dev.”
He nodded, his expression guarded. “Would you like some help?”
“It’s kind of you to offer.”
He gave her a speculative look, one dark brow arching slightly. She assumed that he disliked her formal tone. She told herself she didn’t care, but she lied. She did care – and far too much.
Once more Jessica studied his features, aware that his uncertain demeanor was at odds with the self-confident man she remembered. Bending down to collect her ski gear, she cautioned herself against caring enough to ask how or why he’d changed so much. Their shoulders brushed, and their hands met as they both reached for the same piece of luggage. Jessica stepped back.
Dev grimaced. “Sorry.” Ruddy color stained his cheeks as he collected her largest suitcase and the canvas carryall that held her skis, poles, and boots.
Jessica followed him as he silently made his way to the side door of the inn. Her gaze skimmed down the length of his tall body, measuring yet again the width of his broad shoulders, the narrow hips, and the powerful flex and flow of the muscles of his thighs and calves beneath well-worn jeans that embraced his anatomy with lover-like familiarity.
A mental image of their naked bodies entwined in passion came out of nowhere, startling her and robbing her of her composure. She felt a sudden tingling sensation engulf her entire body. Flushing, Jessica nearly moaned aloud when she realized that she had retained the sensory memory of what it had felt like to be in his arms, to feel his muscular, hair-roughened chest, washboard-flat belly, powerful hips and sturdy thighs melded to her own body. She stumbled, but managed to regain her footing without drawing his attention.
Hurrying to join Dev at the side door of the inn, Jessica refused to make eye contact as she reached past him and pushed open the door. They warily faced each other a few moments later in the warmth of the inn’s spacious kitchen.
Jessica dropped her purse on the counter and shed her jacket. “Thank you for your help.”
“You look good, Jessie. Actually, you’re beautiful.”
Jessie. Don’t call me that, she thought. That’s what you called me when we made love.
Dev shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. The material, already snug, tightened across his sex and emphasized his potency as a lover.
She tried to keep her eyes from drifting below his waist, but she failed. As heat rushed through the lower regions of her body, she jerked her gaze back up to his face. She struggled to control her response to his blatant sensuality and to the mingling scents of leather, musky after-shave, and the cinnamon candies he apparently still favored. “Thank you.”
He cleared his throat. “I’m not here to bother you. I needed a time-out from everything, especially the media. They won’t cut me any slack.”
“So Monica said.”
“You didn’t believe her?”
Hurt flashed in his eyes, but she refused to be swayed by the fact that she might have offended him. “I don’t know what to believe or to think, Dev.”
He swung around to leave, but he paused and glanced back at her. “You won’t even know I’m here.”
Moistening her lips before she spoke, she suggested, “It might be a good idea if we give each other a lot of space.”
His jaw hardened. “Welcome home, Jessica. Ground rules won’t be necessary. I already know my place in your life. Or should I say, I know that I have no place in your life. Never really did, and never will.”
Unable to stop herself, she followed him as he exited the kitchen. She caught the door before it slammed shut in her face. “Why, Dev?”
He stood with his back to her, the rigidity of his posture the only hint of his unsettled emotions. The wind ruffled his short dark hair and tugged at the hem of his unzipped jacket. “Why did I come here?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
He shrugged as he flipped up the collar of his jacket. “It’s not important.”
“Unless you’ve had a personality transplant, you’re not in the habit of doing anything without a good reason.”
“Don’t push me, Jessica.”
She felt unnerved by the fact that his voice reminded her of glass shards. Potentially lethal shards. “I’ve learned that there are times when a person has to push, Dev, and I do it very well when it’s necessary.”
“As I said, the reason’s not important. I just needed some privacy.”
“That’s not good enough.”
He slowly turned to face her. Stricken by the sadness in his eyes and by the bitter twist marring the shape of his sensual lips, she pressed her hand against the door frame.
“We share a past, Jessica, but that doesn’t give you the right to pry.”
“I’m concerned, the same way any friend is concerned when someone they care about, or once cared about, appears to have a problem.”
“I’m not sure I want your friendship. I know what you’re capable of, so friendship with you isn’t real high on my priority list.”
She gripped the door frame until her knuckles went white. “Well, I’m not into adoption, and I’m definitely not looking for a lover.”
“What are you looking for?” The gusting breeze almost tore the words from his lips.
“We’re not talking about me.”
“We are now.”
“Conversation’s over, Dev. Have a nice day.”
Jessica stepped back into the kitchen and let the door slam shut. She filled a mug with water, dropped a tea bag into it, and placed it in the microwave. Closing her eyes, she massaged her temples as she leaned against the counter. And as she stood there, she allowed her thoughts to drift back to the past – her past – the past she’d shared with Devlin Mackenzie.
Large hands settled on her shoulders a few moments later with no warning whatsoever. Jessica tensed, but only briefly. She recognized the strength of the warm fingers kneading her shoulders and neck, recognized the man who now tried to ease her inner tension. She didn’t resist when he tugged her back against his chest, but she kept her eyes closed.
She felt supremely vulnerable. And for the first time in too many years to count, she also felt safe and protected. No other man had ever made her feel that way. Only Dev.
“Dev.” She sighed his name when she felt his hands snake around her waist, steal beneath the hem of her sweater, and slowly drift up her rib cage. His hands – God help her – they were roughened by life, like the man, and yet capable of such tenderness. Heart-shattering tenderness.
On some level, she’d expected him to put his hands on her. His touch was ingrained in her soul, where it would remain an inviolate memory until she drew her last breath.
“I need you, Jessie.”
She shook her head. “Ten years, Dev. That’s a lot of water over the dam. I’m a different woman now.”
Tears slipped from her closed eyes, wetting her lashes before they slid down her cheeks. She choked back a sob of regret.
He spoke her name, his voice a soothing whisper, a plea for understanding. A heartbeat later Dev fitted his hands over her silk-covered breasts, gently cupping the ripe mounds, tenderly plucking at nipples already taut with desire.
She felt his fingers tremble, just as she felt the press of his thick arousal. She knew his body as well as she knew her own. Once upon a time, it had been hers to delight and torment, hers to tease and then satisfy. A wail of pure loneliness echoed in her soul even as her own anatomy throbbed with the accumulated need of ten long years. She knew she possessed the ability to deny her need. She’d been denying it for a long time now, hadn’t she?
His lips whispered along the sensitive skin of her neck as he released the catch at the front of her bra. Cupping her full breasts with warm hands, he plied his own unique brand of magic until her resistance began to shatter.
Her emotions in disarray, she instinctively angled her face in the direction of his low voice. When he leaned down and his lips settled over hers, she moaned into his mouth. She was grateful that he started slowly with her, nibbling gently at her lips, teasing her with playful stabs of his tongue, but she was even more grateful when his desire got the best of him.
Dev fed on her lips and mouth like a starving man. Jessica responded to him with equal hunger. Heat swirled inside her, awakening her senses, robbing her of her pride, and then crippling both her resistance and her common sense.
“I … need … you, Jessie.”
She ducked her head, lips swollen and tender, cheeks flushed, and nerves in a state of near riot. Her entire body throbbed and ached with need.
“Don’t make me beg.”
“I can’t, Dev.” Her voice splintered, and she took a steadying breath. “I just can’t risk it. I wouldn’t recover.”
He said nothing. He simply lowered his shaking hands and tried to smooth her sweater back into place. Although he moved away from her, Jessica continued to feel the sensory imprint of his strong, hard body. She knew she would retain the memory until her life ended.
She sighed, the sound resonant with regret as she listened to his receding footsteps. When she heard the kitchen door being eased closed, she let herself sag against the counter. Other than during the aftermath of their broken engagement, she couldn’t recall a time in her life when she’d felt more alone.
Jessica finally opened her eyes. She still loved Devlin Mackenzie, but she knew, just as she’d known ten years ago, that she could not have him. The price for both of them was simply too high.
JESSICA SPENT the next forty-eight hours trying to ignore Dev. She didn’t allow herself an idle moment as she launched into a frenzy of household tasks that included washing clothes, cleaning floors, scrubbing the oven, doing a thorough inventory of the pantry, and polishing the silver.
Despite her best efforts, her thoughts repeatedly strayed to Dev. She decided to shift to more cerebral pursuits, hoping against hope that she would find a respite from her escalating desire to see him. She devoted an entire afternoon to balancing the accounts. She wound up making such a mess of the inn’s books, she became frustrated with herself and set them aside before she could do any further damage.
By the third morning she grew desperate for an escape from the memories of the sensual encounters she and Dev had shared during their courtship. Donning a heavy jacket, Jessica fled the inn and made her way down to the edge of the lake.
She strolled along the shoreline for more than an hour, only vaguely aware of the natural beauty of her environment. Finally pausing, she gazed out across the lake. Jessica discovered that not even the glasslike perfection of the water, the pale winter sun piercing the clouds overhead, or the invigorating scent of pine and oak trees possessed the power to soothe her troubled emotions.
A branch snapped, jerking her back to the present. She spotted Dev standing several yards away. Saddened by his guarded expression, she couldn’t help but recall the humor that had once sparkled in his dark eyes.
Noting his rigid posture as she approached him, she realized that, regardless of the risk to her own emotions, ignoring Dev wasn’t the way to deal with his presence at Cleary House. They’d once been best friends and lovers, and they’d planned a life together. As much as she resisted the reality of her feelings, she still cared deeply about him. She also sensed that reaching out to him in friendship was her sole means of coming to terms with him and with the emotional conflict he inspired within her.
Recalling his appreciation for straightforward, country-style food, a result of growing up the son of die-hard Texans, she asked, “How about beef stew, fresh biscuits, corn on the cob, and a tossed salad for supper tonight?”
He cracked a tentative smile, obviously surprised by her question. “Am I eating in, or are you offering me a take-out meal?”
“My dining room. Seven this evening. Casual attire.”
His smile broadened. “I’ll be there.”
She nodded and headed back to the inn, amazed by her own impulsiveness and intensely aware that his gaze followed her progress until she stepped into the inn’s kitchen and closed the door.
Much later that day, as she folded napkins with trembling fingers and placed them atop their dinner plates, she questioned her own sanity. Jessica reminded herself yet again that Dev obviously needed a friend, but she still feared that her vulnerability to him might prompt her to offer him more than friendship. She didn’t want to become his personal port in the proverbial storm.
She would have to be vigilant against behaving irresponsibly. She knew that her response to Dev in the past had been neither moderate nor thoughtful. Unwilling then to admit to herself or to Dev that she’d feared becoming a second generation facsimile of her mother if they’d married, she’d ridden a roller coaster of self-indulgent emotion during their time together.
Dev had been her sole refuge from the reality of her father’s death and of her mother’s emotional devastation and subsequent dependence upon her only child. In the end she’d allowed her anxiety about the person she might eventually become to triumph over their love for each other when she’d called off their wedding.
Ten years older now and far wiser than she’d ever wished to become about the human condition, let alone the complexity of relationships, Jessica silently vowed to be less impulsive and more circumspect about both her emotions and her actions. Monica Cleary still needed and depended upon her daughter’s strengths, and Jessica Cleary still resisted the entire notion of ever becoming a warrior’s woman. That role had nearly destroyed her mother, and she didn’t intend to repeat Monica’s experience.
She heard his knock at the door as she walked back into the kitchen. Tugging off her apron, she dropped it across the back of a chair. Then she crossed the room, pressing her hands over her stomach where butterflies dive-bombed like kamikaze pilots. She tried to calm herself before she opened the kitchen door.
“Welcome,” she managed to say a trifle breathlessly, her senses going into instant overload at the sight of Dev. As he stepped inside, he brought with him a gust of cold, damp air and the scent of leather. “You’re right on time, but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised.”
He half-smiled. “My growling stomach’s a dead giveaway, huh?”
“You’re the most punctual man I’ve ever known. It used to drive me crazy. I had to set my clock fifteen minutes ahead in order to be ready whenever we had a …” Jessica stuttered to a stop and her smile faded.
“For our dates?” Dev supplied in a mild tone.
“Relax, Jess. I’m not going to assume you want me in your bed just because you made an innocent remark about the past.”
“I didn’t think you would.” The brittle sound of her voice provoked a flash of surprise in his eyes.
When he reached out and gently stroked the side of her face with his fingertips, Jessica froze and held her breath. She longed to flatten her palms against his broad chest so that she could feel the steady cadence of his heartbeat, but she managed to control herself.
Wide-eyed, uncertain, craving what she knew she couldn’t have, and determined to keep from turning her face into his palm and pressing her lips to his skin, she held very still. Then, she waited. And she watched. Only after he lowered his hand did she start to breathe again.
Jessica moved aside, watching as Dev shed his leather jacket and draped it over the back of one of the chairs at the kitchen table. The mauve-colored sweater, black trousers, and cowboy boots he wore emphasized both his angular, weather-roughened face and rugged build. She felt repeated surges of response burst to life inside her body, and she sensed within herself an inability to fight forever the sensual awareness that streaked through her veins like flaming comets.
“Thanks for the invitation to dinner.” He glanced past Jessica, inhaling deeply of the scent coming from a baking dish cooling atop the counter. “Something smells great.”