Lauren Gallagher’s life changed almost three years ago. After her husband disappeared at sea, she was left with a failing pleasure boat company and more than a few secrets. Now, after years spent rebuilding the business and paying off the pile of debts, she finally feels in control. But when she finds her husband, actually dead, on the floor, she becomes the leading suspect in his murder investigation.
Garrett McGrath wants Lauren in his bed, not his heart. He doesn’t do emotions, but every time he sees her, holding himself back gets harder and harder. When Lauren comes under suspicion for killing her previously presumed-dead husband, he knows he has to help her, any way he can.
But as the danger becomes more intense and Garret and Lauren grow closer than either planned, they’re in danger of losing everything…including their hearts.
About the Book
by HelenKay Dimon
A Games People Play Christmas Novella
November 14, 2017
He rose from the dead.
Lauren Gallagher couldn’t come up with any other explanation. Her once-dead husband was very much alive and standing on the other side of her front door . . . and she felt nothing but numbness spreading inside her.
For a man who supposedly washed overboard in the middle of a violent storm, he looked pretty healthy. Big smile. Bright white teeth. Khaki pants and deck shoes. She’d forgotten how much she hated the deck shoes.
The wattage on his supersmile dimmed a bit as he shifted his weight from foot to foot and rubbed his hands up and down his arms. “Aren’t you going to let me in?”
Her mind went blank. The world flipped sideways on her and her stomach rolled. The whole time she could hear him talking but the words didn’t make sense. None of this made sense. She opened her mouth but nothing came out but a tiny gasping sound. That’s all she could muster as she blinked, trying to process what she was seeing.
“Lauren? Why are you just standing there? Open this door.”
An order. The sharp smack in his voice sounded far too familiar. That quickly it brought her crashing back to reality.
She really wanted to say no to his command. Not that she hadn’t mourned him. Even with the dysfunctional state of their faltering marriage at the time he disappeared, she had. She’d grieved for what could have been and the dreams that fizzled out early in their time together. She grieved for his loss as she would an old friend, not as a person she viewed as her soulmate, if there even was such a thing.
That was less than three years ago. The police had arrived and she’d dropped to her knees feeling sick and hollow at the idea of Carl gasping for breath as the water he loved so much overtook him.
Months had passed slowly after that. She’d been locked in a perpetual state of shock, topped off with a wallop of guilt because she’d visited a divorce attorney for the first time just before he disappeared. With him gone she’d found out about the lies. His hidden debts and how he’d taken their business to the brink of bankruptcy, all while showing her fake bank statements he’d manufactured. He’d gone to a lot of trouble to carry on the ruse of pretending their finances were fine.
And then things had gotten even worse. All those whispers about Maryanne, the girlfriend who seemed to be an open secret to everyone except Lauren. The one who, unlike Lauren, did not have any debts or an unpaid mortgage or a business on the verge of bankruptcy. Maryanne Lightwood, the same woman who’d mysteriously walked out on her rent and left town right as Carl’s boat disappeared.
Lauren prided herself on being practical. She was skeptical of coincidences and not stupid, so confusion had turned to fury in record time. As the cool December wind blew in the front door of the small cottage now, she realized the fury still simmered inside her.
She lived far enough from the water that the breeze wasn’t frigid, but it carried a bite. For the past few years early winter in Annapolis, Maryland, had meant an unwelcome amount of snow. This year had been mild. As someone who ran a pleasure boat and fishing tour business and depended on tourists, she thought she might get lucky this year and only have to survive a short off-season.
Apparently, her luck had just run out.
“Lauren, honey?” Carl pulled on the handle of the screen door. When it didn’t immediately open, he shook it, rattling it in the door frame. Still, it didn’t move.
She’d never been so grateful for her lock-the-door paranoia. He should be happy, too, because the thin screen might be all that was saving his sorry lying ass right now.
Under the numbness and shock lurked a layer of bubbling resentment and rage. She’d kept up the outward farce of being fine for so long that she’d started to believe it. Now the mask slipped. She wanted to throw open the door and pound on his chest and make him apologize for every wrong.
But Carl had never taken responsibility for anything in his life. Even now he had the nerve to stand there with a stupid look on his stupid face, as if she were the unreasonable one for not welcoming him home with a big hug. So, yeah, the door stayed closed for his protection because she knew once she unleashed her temper she would not stop.
“Hey, what is this?” Carl’s hand dropped to his side as he frowned at her through the mesh screen. “Honey, I’m back.”
Honey? What kind of man checked out of his life for almost three years and expected to step right back into it, no questions asked? It was as if he were empty inside, without a conscience. And he was so close to getting a kick in his junk.
“Yeah, I can see that.” She tried to swallow but couldn’t choke down the lump of anger racing up her throat. “Tell me, where have you’ve been?”
“Lauren, Jesus. It’s freezing out here. Let me in.” He pulled on the handle again as if he expected a different result than last time. The door made a thumping sound as it hit the frame. “What’s wrong with you? Snap out of it.”
He kept up that tone. Short, dismissive, demanding. The only time he hadn’t been obnoxious was during the years when she thought he was dead. Even then . . .
That’s all it took. Something inside her snapped and wave after wave of uncontrolled, boiling-hot rage raced through her. He wasn’t the only one who could throw his attitude and his I’m-done tone around. “Where the hell have you been, Carl? You don’t contact me at all and then you just stroll up to my door. You ripped my life, my work—my everything—apart and now act as if you’ve only been gone for an afternoon. What is wrong with you? What happened?”
“I was left for dead.” His surfer-boy good looks faded a bit as his eyes narrowed. “Thanks in part to you.” Wherever he’d been he must have forgotten how locks worked because he rattled the door one more time. “Now open this.”
He was blaming her. Of course he was. She was likely at fault for the fact his hair wasn’t the same sunny blond it once was and for the few wrinkles at the corners of his eyes. He was forty-one, having celebrated two birthdays while he was gone. She doubted he was taking the transition out of his thirties all that well.
She’d been thirty-three and inching very close to thirty-four when he went missing and even back then he’d mentioned “hip spread” more than once. Hers, of course. Not his. She’d expected him to battle aging as fiercely as he’d fought to be the only one in charge of handling the bills. Now she knew why . . . because he hadn’t bothered to actually pay any debt with her name on it.
“You disappeared.” Right there, in that moment, she kind of wished he’d do it again and had to push back the wave of guilt that came with that realization. She’d had no idea how much hate had festered inside her until he popped up again. The frowning, his ridiculous summer shoes in winter, that voice—it all worked on her nerves and it had been less than ten minutes.
“A wave hit the boat. It tipped and I went overboard.” He shrugged. “Are you satisfied now?”
Not even close. A hundred questions filled her head. “Who could be satisfied with that? What’s the rest of the story?”
His body language and easy dismissal of how his terrible choices impacted her life only made her more determined to understand what his days looked like during the last few years. Then maybe she’d let him in, but probably not.
He waved her off. “None of that matters now.”
“It does to me.” His short nonanswers ticked her off even more, and she wouldn’t have said that was possible. “I deserve an explanation. A real one. All of the facts, not just pieces.”
He leaned in closer as his jaw tightened. “I said later.”
Wariness surged through her. She wasn’t afraid. No, scared wasn’t the right word. Carl had never been violent, never raised a hand or threatened her. But near the end he’d been distant and that had turned into flashes of meanness. Snide comments about how he’d married a woman but got stuck with a fisherman. Sudden outbursts of blaming her for the fact that they weren’t making more money in the boating business.
So much confusion swirled around him and his stories and all that deception. She’d convinced herself he ran off with his girlfriend. Not that she ever admitted that to anyone or said the words out loud. No, there had been too much at risk.
To save her house and business she’d needed the life insurance and a final judgment from the court about Carl’s fate. A confirmation that he was legally dead. She had to pretend to believe it. It had taken her almost two years to persuade the court and wrestle the business and house away from the legal no-man’s-land it had wound up in when he disappeared. The life insurance company had refused to pay on the claim. That meant she’d had to salvage what she could with him gone.
Now he was back, and as much as she hated it, they needed to talk. She tried, even as her brain screamed for her to slam the door. “I think we should—”
“I can’t believe you’re being a pain in the ass.”
Her head snapped back at the fury lacing his voice. “Me?”
“Jake warned me you’d gone from grieving to stone cold in a matter of months.” Carl shook his head. “I didn’t believe it. Not after everything we’d been through.”
She lost the thread of the conversation as soon as Carl mentioned his brother. “Jake?”
“That’s where I’ll be. At his house.” Carl started to shift away from the door. “But get your act together and do it fast, Lauren. I plan on being in this house and back at work by Christmas.”
“That’s two weeks away.”
“I’ll be back tomorrow.” He made a face that suggested he was sick of her again already. “Be over your shock and ready to talk by then.”
Lauren watched Carl walk back down the path to the car parked on the street. She recognized the dark sedan. It belonged to Carl’s brother, which meant Carl had gone there first.
Her mind spun with questions about where he’d been and why he was back. She had no idea how he planned to explain and argue his way out of this . . . or why he thought he could walk back into her life now without any real explanation or sign of remorse.
A gust of cold air got her moving. She slammed the front door closed and rested her palm on it. Tried to breathe in, to think.
Her usual calm detachment abandoned her. Jumbled thoughts crashed into her brain. Panic rose in her chest, threatening to swamp her. Finding a lost husband should be a good thing. For her, it amounted to a nightmare. Everything was upside down and all she wanted was to right it again.
Help. She never asked anyone for help. Not ever. She’d learned long ago that needing someone, depending on them, led to heartache and disappointment. But Garrett McGrath’s face kept flashing in her mind. Sarcastic, charming, sinfully handsome Garrett. They’d met in the summer and he’d asked her out for two months. Hanging around, texting, insisting he’d wait for her to be ready to date again.
The guy had honed his tall-dark-and-smoldering look and for some reason he’d decided to aim it full force at her. Probably had something to do with the thrill of the chase. That was the only answer she could come up with. Because once he knew her, really knew her, he’d back off. Any sane person would.
But right now, as the walls closed in and she struggled to hold on to a coherent thought, all she could do was think of his face. The dark brown hair and those big green eyes. That firm chin . . . and his uncanny ability to solve complex problems while making a joke and without breaking a sweat.
She glanced around her cottage. It had a beachy vibe with weathered white beadboard walls and overstuffed blue furniture. It consisted of two small bedrooms, a bathroom and a joint living and eating area. Her refuge. The place she’d rented when she lost everything else. The same place Carl for some reason thought he had a right to live in.
She grabbed her cell off the couch and dialed the number Garrett had put in there when they first met. The phone rang and his deep voice came on the line. Voice mail.
She waited a few moments. Gave herself a bit of a pep talk and mentally insisted she could handle this, just like she handled everything else.
Instead of leaving a message she texted him. She tried to think of the right thing to say. She went with the only words that made sense to her . . . You were right. Carl is not dead.
Garrett stared at the text message. It had come in a half hour ago. He’d missed it while he was parking his car in the airport lot. His flight to San Francisco left in an hour. He would have enough time to maneuver his way through security, grab a coffee and get to the gate, and even that was pushing it. Now this.
He’d been trying to win Lauren’s trust for months. With Christmas coming and her refusing to commit to seeing him, Garrett had booked a last-minute flight to visit with the only family he had left. His aunt and cousin, Lotti. The goal was to see his aunt before she left on a cruise then annoy Lotti for a few days before taking off on his own. That was about all the family time he could muster for this holiday.
His parents had died in a car crash exactly one month after he turned nineteen. Christmas Eve almost twelve years ago. He’d been in college and orphaned in a matter of minutes. Too much alcohol had accompanied what many suspected was a fight that had started at his dad’s work party and continued into the car . . . and then they were gone.
The devastation had lingered for so much longer than Garrett had expected. He was an adult when it happened, or almost. He knew he’d grieve but he’d thought that would end and then he’d move on. Being alone wouldn’t matter because he wasn’t a kid. He would be fine. But his aunt had known better and explained that type of mourning was a forever process. She’d wrapped him in a blanket of love and given him an extended family, and his cousin had become the little sister he never had.
They were expecting him. He’d promised to come out for a week before the holidays and maybe again after. They didn’t want him to be alone on the anniversary of his parents’ death, but he’d long ago learned that he operated better on his own that day. Quiet and still, wondering what could have been if his father had just called a cab.
For once December had rolled around and he wasn’t thinking only of his parents. He hadn’t buried himself in work to battle back the memories. That had been the plan, but now he had Lauren’s text.
You were right. Carl is not dead.
The clipped sentences fit Lauren. She wasn’t the flowery type. She was practical and beautiful and smart. She never volunteered information, except to insist their more than five-year age difference mattered. When he refused to accept that as an excuse for not going out with him because it was ridiculous, she informed him that she was a mess and that he could do better.
If she’d said she wasn’t interested, he would have walked away disappointed, but he would have gone. Not having dinner because of some perceived failing she had about herself? That part he couldn’t agree to.
For the first time since he’d met Lauren, she needed him. He hated the idea of her being targeted by a con man ex, but he loved that he was the one she had on speed dial for anything.
Yeah, his family trip could wait. They’d understand because that’s what they did. They were bone-deep decent. They gave him room and reeled him in now and then when he failed to call often enough. Lotti would give him shit for picking a woman over them, so he decided to keep that information quiet for now. He’d call this a work problem. He could almost see Lotti rolling her eyes at that one.
He dialed his aunt as he turned around and headed back to his car. A shot of anxiety surged through him, making him speed up the pace with each step. He had the sudden need to race to Annapolis.
Carl Gallagher’s being alive made Garrett want to kill him.
About Helenkay Dimon
HelenKay Dimon spent the years before becoming a romance author as a…divorce attorney. Not the usual transition, she knows. Good news is she now writes full time and is much happier. She has sold over thirty novels, novellas and shorts to numerous publishers, including HarperCollins, Kensington, Harlequin, Penguin, Samhain and Carina Press. Her nationally bestselling and award-winning books have been showcased in numerous venues and her books have twice been named “Red-Hot Reads” and excerpted in Cosmopolitan magazine. She is on the Board of Directors of the Romance Writers of America and teaches fiction writing at UC San Diego and MiraCosta College.