With his stalker behind bars, former boy band singer CJ Taylor is starting a new life. He’s bought a house in a small Vermont town, and taken back the name he was born with. Two years have passed since he was last in the public eye and as Cody Brennan, he’s finally feeling safe. Desperate to find some peace, all he wants is to connect to the music in his head, write new lyrics and forget the tragedy in his past.
What he doesn’t count on is meeting Megan. From her amber eyes to her tempting smile, she is everything he thought he could do without, the very thing he promised himself to avoid. But he’s thrown into her family and her life, and suddenly he’s found a place he wants to stay.
Megan’s first instinct is to tame the powerful attraction she has to this stranger, but very soon desire becomes something more. Between them can they find the words to make things right? And can they stay safe long enough to fall in love?
Megan Campbell stepped away from the cash register of Notes & Roses and leaned against the back counter. She put her right hand in her jeans pocket and, as carefully and unobtrusively as possible, she removed her cell phone and scrolled to Justin’s name. What should she send to her brother? Help sounded like a good start. Or possibly, there’s a man in my shop and I think he’s drunk or stoned.
Yep, send something like that to Justin, and he would come in, all guns blazing. Then he’d pin the weird guy to the floor and read him his rights. And the man currently staring at a wall didn’t look dangerous, just lost, homeless maybe?
Something more considered then, like, there is a vagrant in here, and he needs help, what should I do? The man moved a little. Away from her side of the store, the ‘roses’ part of the setup, and over to the ‘notes’ side. He was peering at the shelves; a collection of stationery and household bits and pieces like cushions and local crafts. He stumbled a little, turned to the side and looked up at the display of posters on the far wall. Landscapes of Vermont; rivers, small towns and red high-sided barns with gently rolling hills of emerald green.
“Sorry?” Megan asked, but he didn’t reply.
He’s talking to the wall now. Should she add that to the text as well? This was going to end up being one hell of a lot of typing to explain what he was doing. Despite how odd it all looked, the visitor wasn’t threatening her. Also, Rachel would be back soon, maybe between them they could sort this out?
He hadn’t even spoken to her, but something wasn’t right. Maybe it was the way he’d been standing; his hands in fists at his sides, staring now at the new Valentine wall display of flowers and hearts. Maybe it was the way he was dressed; dark jeans caked in mud, heavy boots that had tracked in the same mud. Not to mention the black hoodie with the hood partially hiding his face from her view.
Or maybe it was the despair in his hunched shoulders, the utter defeat in the way he had to support himself to stand.
Whatever it was, Megan was faced with two options. Talk to the strange man in her shop while she was alone in here, or call in reinforcements in case things went south.
Her visitor moved, not his feet, but his fists, unclenching and bringing his hands up to knuckle his eyes and then cover them. Megan’s cop brother liked to explain these things to her, but she didn’t need his help to recognize when despair in someone turned to anger.
She sent the standard 911 text, startled when she looked up and saw the stranger had stepped closer to her while she’d been distracted.
“Where am I?” he asked, his voice very soft.
He shook his head. “I need the music. Someone took it, and I need it.”
Okay, this was so not going the way she wanted it to go. He was incoherent. Maybe he was homeless and just needed a place to get out of the persistent snow that had plagued Stanford Creek the last few days. He’d evidently been somewhere slushy and muddy if his clothes were anything to go by.
“I don’t understand, sir; what music do you need?” she asked, and waited for him to acknowledge her question. Instead, he took another, shaky, step forward, and covered his eyes again. “Hello? Can I help you?” she repeated when he didn’t look at her.
That finally got his attention, and his hands came down, and she got her first clear look at his eyes and face. What she saw had her reaching to send another text. He had blood on him smeared down from his temple into his wild beard, and his blue eyes were bright with something. Drugs maybe? Long dark hair hid some of his features, and he looked like he was about to keel over.
“Where’s the music?” he mumbled, his voice low and urgent. He gripped his temples hard and stumbled back, knocking a display of greeting cards to the floor. The sound was a loud clatter in the otherwise quiet room. “Shit… I didn’t…”
“Sir?” This time, she was within reaching distance as he rounded on her, his lips pulled back in a snarl—or a grimace of pain, she couldn’t be entirely sure. Whatever, it wasn’t the look of someone who wanted to be spoken to. Time to leave. She glanced at the front door, then the fire exit. He was between her and the only possible ways out, and she was trapped. When she focused back on him, all she saw was a situation that could get out of hand. He was a good six inches taller than her five-nine, broad and built, with tattoos curling around his wrist, disappearing up under the sleeve of the hoodie.
Everything about him looked wrong. He didn’t move again, or even acknowledge her; all he did was stare with bright sapphire eyes, focused on a point behind her. Scary and intense and so damned fixated with his expression in that scowl.
“What happened?” he groaned and covered his eyes again. “Call… Zee…”
She texted without looking, only glancing at the screen briefly to make sure she was sending another text to her brother and not some random person on her list. 911. Again. The standard sibling instruction for help me right the hell now, reserved for having one of her brothers rescue her from one of her many dreadful first dates. Garrett wasn’t even in town, so there was little point texting him, and Justin may not even be in the sheriff’s office. She hoped to hell he was, though, and had read her message. She’d know soon enough because the small sheriff’s office was close.
And still the stranger stood there, staring at her. At least, he hadn’t moved any closer.
He closed his eyes and wiped at the blood that was trickling down his face, looking down at his hand and staring at the red that streaked his skin. She thought she heard a sob, but couldn’t be sure. Compassion welled inside her. Vagrant or not, dressed in soiled clothes and with the hood up, he didn’t have to be a criminal.
“Sir? Do you need help?” She held out her hand, but he stepped closer to her and damn it, she may have had self-defense training, but she wasn’t stupid. If the man was hopped up on drugs, she had to stay out of reach. The door opened, and Justin stepped in, all uniform and pissed-off attitude.
“Two 911’s? This had better be good, Megs.”
Megan inclined her head to the man who Justin evidently hadn’t seen in his dramatic entrance. Justin could handle himself, and he had a gun, he’d know what to do.
“What the hell?” Justin said as he assessed the situation, his hand automatically resting on his holstered weapon.
“I think it’s drugs,” she said loud enough for Justin to hear. The man looked at Justin and then to her, before shaking his head a little.
“No.” The voice was raspy, little more than a growl. “Not those.” He appeared to be struggling to talk, and he pressed his hands to each side of his head. “Just the music; Zee will know,” he added, but his voice slurred, and he coughed and doubled over.
Justin pulled his weapon and held it to one side, his other hand held in front of him as he stepped closer. “Sir? Are you hurt?”
Megan saw her brother’s hand on the sidearm, the other placating and suggesting and warning at the same time. She’d seen him stand like this when he broke up the fight at the drugstore. Not that he’d drawn his weapon then; he’d dealt with it by intimidation alone, because everyone involved lived in the town and no one messed with the sheriff. Megan looked at her brother, who teased her, who’d hidden her dolls and pulled her pigtails as a kid, but who was now in a situation that was serious. He was all business.
“What’s your name, sir?” Justin asked.
The stranger stepped back from him, straight into a pile of notebooks this time. The shelf shuddered and some of the display tilted. The movement translated into Justin grabbing the man’s hoodie to stop him falling as he flailed and attempted to stay upright.
He took a swing at Justin, who ducked and swerved. The attempted hit missed Justin by a mile, and the man followed the momentum he had begun, smacked his fist against a shelf edge, and collapsed in a heap on the floor. Then he didn’t move, was absolutely still. Justin holstered his weapon and crouched next to the prone form of the hooded man, checking for a pulse and then talking into his radio.
“Dispatch, 390D, medical assistance required at Notes & Roses.”
Megan didn’t hear the response; she came out from behind the counter and stood next to her brother. The adrenaline that had flooded her to deal with this was beginning to ebb, and she went down in the same crouch. The hood had fallen back and exposed his hair. The stranger was young; maybe the same age as her, and a long cut on his temple oozed fresh blood. Thinking on her feet, she located a clean tea towel from the small kitchen in the back and as an afterthought grabbed the first aid box. There was nothing more than band aids and small bandages in it, but there may be something in there to press against the wound, something sterile.
Justin took the box and the towel and pressed the cloth against the man’s temple.
“Who is he?” Justin asked.
Megan frowned at the unconscious man. “I have no idea.”
“What was he doing in the shop?”
Megan glanced at her brother and resisted the urge to give him a sarcastic sister-type comeback. She needed to be professional.
“He came in and stood in the ‘notes’ side, staring at the wall.”
“And he didn’t say anything?”
“Something about wanting music and the letter Z. And when I asked him if he needed help, he turned and stared at me like he didn’t know where he was.”
“What the hell, Megan? You talked to him?”
“Well, what was I supposed to do? He was a customer, and looked like he needed help.”
“What did I tell you about drug addicts?” Justin snapped.
“The same as attackers, drunks, and anyone else who got anywhere near me, call you. I did that.”
The man on the floor moved, his eyes flickering open and staring up at Justin and Megan. “I don’t feel…” He never finished the sentence, his eyes closing again.
All Megan could think was, whoever he was, he had pretty eyes, the kind of blue that jumped out at you and screamed gorgeous. She couldn’t see much of his face, covered as it was with a bushy beard and blood.
“Should we find his ID or something?”
“SOP is not to go searching in drug addicts’ pockets,” Justin said with exaggerated patience.
“You think he’s a drug addict?”
The door chimed again, but it wasn’t the paramedic yet. Instead her business partner and cousin, Rachel, stood in the door, her jaw dropped and the cold of the rain blustering in behind her.
“Shut the door,” Justin and Megan said at the same time. Rachel closed the door with exaggerated care, and her expression didn’t change.
“Why is there a man lying on the floor of our shop?” she managed. Then she stepped closer, staring down at John Doe, and her eyebrows climbed before she paled and grabbed hold of the nearest display. “Shit, there’s so much blood. Is he dead?” Like he’d heard her speak, the man coughed and curled in on himself on one side, muttering something, and she stumbled backward with a yelp.
“He’s clearly not dead,” Justin said. “Drugs, head wound, we don’t know yet.” Then he spoke into his radio. “Dispatch, do we have an ETA on the paramedics?”
“Is he bleeding out?” Rachel asked, her hand on her chest and her skin pale. Megan frowned; they really should get Rachel out of here. She’d never liked blood, not since the incident where she’d broken her arm in kindergarten and the bone had pierced the skin.
“Not enough blood for that,” Justin said.
“Do we know who he is?” Rachel asked. “Should we check his wallet or something? He could be here with someone?” She glanced out the shop window as if expecting the man’s friends or family to be searching for him.
“I can’t look for his wallet yet,” Justin explained. “SOP with suspected addicts.”
“SOP?” Rachel half whispered as an aside.
“Standard operating procedure,” Megan whispered back. “The guy could have needles on him.”
“What about the recovery position?” Rachel pointed out. “Should we, at least, move him?”
Justin indicated the unconscious man with a wave of his hand. “Think he already did it himself.”
Then in silence they stood and waited for the paramedics to arrive, and all that time Megan stared down at the stranger, memorizing every bump and scratch on his face. What a waste. He could be so handsome, almost pretty, with those stunning sky eyes and the plump lips. He’d be a killer if he smiled, she thought.
“He doesn’t smell,” Rachel commented, even though she wrinkled her nose. She gestured at him. “And those jeans? They’re an expensive brand you know. So he’s probably not homeless.”
Megan didn’t feel much like discussing the unconscious man. She just wanted the help to get here soon.
The paramedics arrived and in a flurry of motion, they asked rapid questions of Megan, which she couldn’t answer in full. ‘Did he have a fit? Did he choke?’ She answered as best she could and hoped that was enough for them to have some idea what had happened. They checked John Doe’s vitals, hefted him onto a gurney, and left, all without the man regaining consciousness. Justin followed soon after, giving Megan a quick hug and extracting a promise from her to stay safe, and then it was Rachel and Megan alone in the shop.
Rachel looked anywhere except at the blood and Megan knew she had to get her out of the shop. “You go up to Carter’s and get some fresh coffee.”
“You need help,” Rachel began. She looked torn as she gestured at the floor.
“I’ll clear this up. Go.”
“What if someone else comes in?”
“Another vagrant covered in blood?” Megan smiled as she said it. She hoped she’d had her full quota of vagrants for this year.
“You never know,” Rachel said, frowning.
Rachel looked at the door and back at Megan, as if she were expecting another strange man to come in while she was out and was worried about leaving her. Megan went back to the small storage room at the back of the store. She pulled out the mop and bucket and the cleaning supplies and by the time she came back out Rachel had gone. She wasn’t surprised. Evidently alongside her phobia about blood, Rachel had analyzed the situation with her rational, logical approach and had decided Megan could manage another strange man collapsing on their floor if she had to. She cleaned up the smears of scarlet, the tracked in mud, and realigned all the notebooks and stationery on the knocked shelf. While she worked, all she could think was despite the shock and drama of what had happened, the man with the beautiful sapphire eyes hadn’t seemed dangerous to her.
Confused, high or drunk, desperate, traumatized, wet, and muddy, maybe. But certainly not dangerous.