Southern Nights 3: Take Me

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Two men. One woman. And a stolen boy longing for the family who loves him.

Peyton Harrison has a secret goal when she arrives in Claywater, Texas—getting back her son, kidnapped as a newborn. The last man she expects to meet is Gabe Harrison, the guy who seduced her and walked away. Her body might want to take up where they left off, but her heart remembers Gabe’s betrayal all too well…and this time, the risk is even greater.

Gabe and Sam always knew they’d share the love of their lives, in their hearts and in their bed. Except Gabe found the perfect woman at the worst possible time. He did the honorable thing and walked away, but now an adult Peyton is in their hometown, her beautiful eyes full of tragic secrets. Sam is knee-deep in a drug investigation threatening Claywater, and Peyton’s arrival is a dangerous distraction. He and Gabe have always stood together, but this time, will the woman they both want be the one that divides them?

One twin left when she needed him most. Now both want her heart, but giving in may cost more than they realize. Anticipating their enemy’s next move is the only way to keep their son safe, but what about their hearts?

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Chapter One

Peyton Harrison’s battered old Ford pulled to a rickety stop at the curb across from Claywater Elementary School. Buses lumbered through the circular drive out front, discharging students of all sizes. Bigger kids hurried inside, while the younger ones followed a teacher’s direction into the fenced playground. Expending energy and first-day jitters before the day began, probably. If only Peyton’s nerves could so easily be dispersed.

Her heart beat a booming drumroll of desperation in her throat, the sound loud in the stifling silence of her truck. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. All she could do was watch the schoolyard across the street with greedy eyes. The child she was searching for was impossible to miss. Right in the center of the play area, a small, sturdy figure hurried up to the monkey bars and began his climb to the top. Even at six years old, he was strong, pulling himself higher and higher, outpacing his classmates until he threw one tan leg over the top rung, clamped down tight, and stopped to assess his playground domain.

King of the hill. Lord of all he surveyed. Just like his father.

The thought added to the blaze of agony threatening to drown her as it mixed with the ravenous ache of yearning clenching her belly. Just a few moments of inattention by the teachers chatting together on the park bench, some wire cutters for snipping the chain-link fence, something to keep him quiet as she ran for the safety of her truck— She pictured every step in her mind, saw how easily it could be carried out, how quickly he could become hers.

Hers.

The word throbbed in her oxygen-deprived brain, right at the forefront, taunting her. So simple, just four little letters. And yet the hundred yards dividing them screamed exactly how impossible that word was. Almost as impossible as it had been for the past six years.

He belongs to someone else; you know that. At least for now.

The ache in her fingers where they clenched the steering wheel centered her, pulling her back into reality, into now. She dragged in a gulp of hot Texas air and forced her focus back on the playground, on the child’s clear blue eyes and their steely determination. His soft, full lips displayed the last tiny shreds of remaining toddlerhood. The clothes he’d worn for the first day of school—a short-sleeved, white button-down shirt that looked too adult for such a young child, tan cargo shorts with every pocket neatly fastened, pristine white ankle socks and sneakers—now bore streaks of red clay and wrinkles, the starched collar of the shirt wilting under the onslaught of August heat and childish perspiration. What she wouldn’t give to bury her nose in the sweaty curve of his neck and inhale the wild, little-boy scent of him.

So serious. Even at such a young age, he was deep-down-to-the-bone serious. More little man than little boy. She could see it in his eyes.

Then he smiled.

It hit her like a punch to the gut, that smile. His daddy’s smile. The thought burned like tears behind her eyes, but she couldn’t look away, couldn’t stop eating up every discernible detail she possibly could. His solemn face lit up with that smile, his beautiful eyes bright under the shaggy fringe of thick reddish-blond hair across his forehead. That hair was ruffled by deep furrows, as if he ran his fingers through it frequently. The white of his baby teeth was a stark contrast to the depth of his tan, possibly from playing outside all summer. The mottling of bruises on his knees and down his shins attested to that. At least she hoped that’s where they came from. Her heart ached to know for sure. She ran through scenario after scenario in a feverish search for the one that would enable her to bring him home, to finally have him in her arms agai—

Knock, knock, knock.

The drumroll in her chest became crashing thunder. A curse made it to her lips and froze there, held back by the wall of chest that blocked her sight of the playground. The material stretching across that wide expanse of solid muscle was dark blue, crisp and clean, with the title “Claywater Police Department” clearly emblazoned on the patch to one side.

A cop, right outside her window. Tall and broad and intimidating. Her breath stuttered across suddenly dry lips.

“Ma’am?” The cop rapped the back of his knuckles against the glass again. “Roll down your window please.”

The man’s voice tickled something in the back of her fear-frozen mind, something that drew her gaze against her will. Up the precisely buttoned shirtfront. Past the small triangle of skin at his collar, the neatly trimmed red-gold stubble. Lips. Nose. Eyes.

Blue eyes. Familiar blue eyes.

Peyton stared, certain she was caught up in some crazy nightmare. The devil taunting her. Because she knew those eyes intimately. Knew this man—except he wasn’t a cop. Or at least, he hadn’t been when she knew him.

“Ma’am?”

That deep, commanding tone again. It washed over her like molasses, trapping her in memories buried for so long. With hands shaking and tongue tied, Peyton slowly rolled down the window.

“Gabe?” she choked out. Please don’t let this be happening. Despite the all too real rush of air brushing her face, she prayed someone, somewhere, would hear her plea and make it true.

One of Gabe’s hands rested casually against the side of her truck. A relaxed pose belied by his laser-sharp gaze and the fingers toying with the catch on his holster. She forced her eyes away from the gun and back to his. A flinch shook her as their eyes met.

“License and registration, please, ma’am.”

“Gabriel?” It was all she could get out. She glanced at the name tag, prominently displayed on the left side of his solid chest. Williams. “God, I can’t believe it’s you.” She didn’t want to believe it, not now, when secrecy was paramount. When her heart was already torn to pieces.

He shouldn’t look the same, not after all these years. But he did. He shouldn’t be here in Claywater, but he was. Standing outside her window. His big body was tense, ready for anything—he looked every inch the wolf he was. Cornflower-blue irises gleamed with impatience in his ruggedly handsome face. Too handsome, she’d always said. And empty. Not a hint of recognition.

Gabe didn’t shift, didn’t back down, just narrowed his eyes. “Ma’am, your license and registration. Now.”

The comply-or-face-the-consequences tone got through when nothing else could. She’d never forget that tone, no matter how many years it had been—every cop and prison guard used it daily. Her hand was halfway to the glove box before she even realized it. Registration in hand, she retrieved her license from her purse, nerves jittering in her stomach like a thousand butterflies. In a surreal haze she passed her paperwork through the window. The breath in her lungs stuttered as she watched his strong, calloused hand come closer, closer—the hand that had introduced her to the joys of sexual pleasure, the fingers that had ensured her readiness before he took her virginity. She waited for a touch she’d both longed for and cursed for seven excruciating years. And when that touch came, when his fingers brushed the backs of hers as he grasped the papers and pulled them away, she looked into his eyes once more, searching, fearing.

And saw absolutely nothing. Not recognition. Not curiosity. Disdain. Nothing.

“And you are?” he asked.

She stared, certain he had to be kidding. “Peyton.”

He waited.

“Harrison?” she said. It came out a question, as if she didn’t know her own name. He didn’t, apparently.

“Is there a reason you stopped here, Ms. Harrison?”

Relief coursed through her confusion. A question she was actually prepared for. “I’m lost.”

And she dared anyone to prove otherwise. A glance over her shoulder would plainly show a map of Claywater and a notebook detailing properties in the area. She was, after all, looking for a site for her new restaurant. Had already chosen one, in fact, but he didn’t need to know that.

“Oh? New in town?”

His tone wasn’t interested, and his gaze didn’t drop to her license, the one that had the same date as her move into her bland new apartment over by the highway. She didn’t trust herself to answer.

Her silence drew only one reaction: “How long?”

“Not long.”

He continued to watch her, unsmiling. His eyes hid everything he felt—or didn’t. And then he turned without a word and walked back to his patrol car, her license and registration in hand.

Even the walk was the same. A harsh laugh escaped as she watched him in the rearview mirror. His hair was longer, spiky instead of the buzz cut he’d worn when she knew him, the face harder and yes, now that she thought about it, older, but there was no doubt this was Gabe. Her Gabe. The Gabe that had ruined her life.

She’d imagined this moment since the tender age of seventeen, imagined what she would do if she ever came face-to-face with him again. She’d never considered that he wouldn’t even remember the moment that changed her forever. But his blank stare had told her the truth. No memories of that hot, sweaty night and drenching desire lurked there. Not even a hint of recognition for someone he’d seen daily for weeks, no matter how long ago.

Just a quick, easy lay, that was her. Forgettable. Replaceable. She didn’t have to wonder about that anymore. What she did have to wonder was how the hell her first lover and her son had ended up in the same rural Texas town. Had Gabe been involved all along?

But no, he’d definitely recognize her then. If he didn’t remember her, he didn’t know about Micah. And she was determined to keep it that way.

Gabe returned with the same unhurried pace as before, tapping her license against his thigh. When he came to stand outside her door, dark sunglasses hid his eyes. She felt the loss even though she shouldn’t, a fact that sent anger pounding through her heart. She breathed it away. She couldn’t risk slipping up and doing anything that would endanger her plans. For her sake—and her son’s—she had to stay under the radar. Assaulting an officer would make her a big ol’ unignorable blip. No clawing his eyes out, then.

Squaring her shoulders, Peyton ignored the strain of her nerves as she focused on the tap, tap, tap of the edge of her license against hard muscle. She could outwait him. She just wished she could figure out what she was waiting for.

“And where did you say you moved here from?”

She almost—almost—rolled her eyes. The raised eyebrow, she couldn’t stop. “Memphis.”

He nodded, ignoring the brow. “Your apartment is across town, Ms. Harrison. What address are you looking for?”

Do you call all your ex-lover’s by their last name? “I’m not looking for an address; I’m familiarizing myself with the town. If I plan to open a business here—and I do—then it’s in my best interest to get to know the area.” She was proud of how smoothly the words came out, ringing with pleasant—and quite false—emotion. “It’s a beautiful, friendly town.”

Okay, that hadn’t been as neutral as she would like. But once again he didn’t respond to any perceived insult. “Yes, it is. We’re small but growing, and we keep an eye on each other. You can see why we would be uncomfortable with strangers parked outside our schoolyards, correct?”

Fear mixed with her anger, making her nauseous. She dared a glance at the playground as if just noticing it. “Of course, Officer Williams,” she said. She kept her eyes wide open and innocent. A whisper of copper traced across her tongue as she bit down, holding back any further words.

Tap, tap, tap. “What kind of business are you planning?”

“A restaurant.”

“In Claywater?” He said it like she wasn’t too bright.

“Of course. This is a beautiful area—and growing, as you mentioned. It’s perfect.” She forced a smile, small but sweet. “You should come by sometime once I find the right location. Hoolihan’s. Coffee on the house.” She watched closely but didn’t catch even a glimmer of recognition. Coffee had always been on the house for Gabe when he visited Mike and Shelly’s place in Memphis. He’d always bragged about her coffee being the best in the world. Now even the name of the restaurant didn’t jog his memory.

“I’ll do that, ma’am.” He tipped his hat before handing back her license and registration. “You have a good day now.”

Right, I’ll just do that. Swallowing tightly, she dragged words from an uncooperative throat. “You too.”

Gabe walked back to the patrol car parked behind her, his head swiveling as if watching for threats. It wasn’t until he got in and closed the door that she was able to release her breath and allow oxygen into her anxious brain. Movement across the street drew her eye. The kids on the playground were lining up, heading in to begin their day of learning and growing. She had things to do too, but she couldn’t resist one last, long look at her little boy. The desire to throw caution to the wind, to snatch him up and take him home despite the teachers, other children, and even cops in the vicinity almost overwhelmed her. Who knew—maybe Gabe would understand if he realized who that little boy was.

Or, considering the way he’d left her in Memphis, alone and pregnant, maybe not.

But watching that amazing little face, she knew it was too soon to take him, no matter how much the knowledge broke her already damaged heart. She couldn’t risk rocking the boat without more information. She had no idea if he was in a home with people who loved him, who cared what happened to him—who might come after him if he disappeared. Taking him now could risk him hating her forever.

No. No matter how the need for him clawed at her gut and made each day unbearable, she couldn’t risk scaring him, alienating him. Hurting him.

Because he was her son. Their son. And she’d protect him with her life, even from herself.