Sneak Peak: The Way Home. Center City Series Book Two.

Hey everyone,

I’m hoping to have the book published by the end of the month but I really wanted to share this first. Enjoy!

The Way Home

Chapter ONE.

The destruction was nearly complete, reminiscent of images that Susan had seen on the news countless times after a natural disaster or war. On screen, they were easy to forget about or ignore but it wasn’t so easy when the damage was right in front of your face. Majority of the buildings in the town square were burned down to rubble, ruined cars lined almost every street. The residential areas showed more fire damage, one home burned while another was left untouched.“Jesus,” Houdini spoke softly from next to her.

“I’m pretty sure Jesus had nothing to do with this,” Susan replied as she turned away from the wreckage of what had been New to You. Deacon and Vera were in the midst of the rubble, trying to see if anything could be saved. Her heart broke for both of them. They’d both lost so much.

“We should go and check your place,” he suggested.

“There’s nothing. The landlord auctioned whatever I left after the eviction, it was right in the lease. I knew that it would happen.” Susan turned away from the building. She didn’t want to think about how easy it had been to leave everything behind and what that said about her.

The ride from Wyoming had given her nothing but time to think, all of them crammed into one SUV loaded down with whatever they could carry as far as weapons and supplies because they couldn’t count on finding anything here.

It had been a good call, at least half of the stores on Main Street were now nothing more than piles of rubble. They’d seen at least a dozen homes in the same state. They’d seen at least a dozen more families packing whatever they could into vehicles, desperate to get the hell out of dodge. Some residents had remained, Susan recognized a few of them. They’d gathered at the edge of the New to You parking lot, watching Deacon and Vera and waiting. What were they waiting for?

“Let’s take a walk,” Houdini reached out and slipped his hand into hers. “See if the warehouse is still standing.”

Susan looked down at their now joined hands. She was not the hand holding type, not even a little bit. “We should stay here.” As casually as she could manage, she pulled her hand away from Houdini’s and stuck it in the pocket of her sweatshirt. “And we don’t have to lay it on so thick for Shepard and Lina’s sake, they’re not really even paying attention to us.”

“That wasn’t laying it on thick, or for anyone’s benefit.” He took a step closer to her. “I took your hand because I wanted to hold your hand. I didn’t mean to make you uncomfortable. I should have known better.”

Susan wasn’t surprised that he turned and walked away, she hadn’t missed the edge to his voice when he spoke. Unfortunately, this was an old argument between them. It was necessary to keep up appearances and appear mated when any other Stray was around; the thing was that Houdini didn’t see why it had to be just keeping up appearances. He wanted it to be real. She didn’t know what she wanted.

Relationships were complicated for her, even friendships. Trust wasn’t something she gave readily and even once she did, there was still a part of herself that she held back. Past experience had taught her that when you truly let your guard down and trusted was just about the time you got a knife to the chest. It was better to hold back, save yourself from the pain.

Susan turned as she heard a vehicle approaching. “Fuck us.” It was clearly a police car and clearly Will Brothers behind the wheel. She let out a whistle, a signal they’d developed in Wyoming, to let it be known there was trouble. Instinctively she put herself between New to You and Will as he got out of the car.

“This has nothing to do with you, Susan. Step aside,” Will tried to sound official and dismiss her. She wasn’t impressed. He’d never impressed her, he’d tried a time or two until she made herself clear. It wasn’t that he wasn’t an attractive man, he was, unfortunately his attitude made him nothing more than an asshole.

“I don’t know how you freaks managed this, but it isn’t over.” Will stepped forward, he was about four inches taller than Susan and had at least twenty pounds on her. “And you’re all going down, thought with a mouth like that you’re probably used to it.”

Susan knew he was trying to bait her, looking for a reaction. She’d be damned if she gave him one. Instead, she smiled sweetly, a trick learned during her intern years. “Don’t you have anything better to do than harass us especially when the town is in shambles? How did you let this happen? Aren’t you supposed to be the law?”

“Shut your mouth,” Will’s face was inches from hers now.

“Will!” Deacon’s voice made him jerk back, turn towards the ruins of the store. “Why don’t you pick on someone your own size?”

Susan turned to see Vera trying to hold Deacon back. She was stronger than she looked but it wasn’t hard for him to move past her. Will headed for him like a missile to a target.

The two men collided, fists flying in what could only be described as a vicious battle. There was blood, the sound of flesh striking flesh filled the air. Bones would be broken. The doctor in Susan knew everything that could go wrong, knew that she should step forward and stop the altercation but she didn’t step forward. The friend in her knew that Deacon needed this for so many reasons.

It was finally Shepard who stepped forward, Susan hadn’t even noticed him and Lina returning. He pulled them apart with what looked like minimal effort. Both men were bleeding, breathing hard but seemed perfectly willing to keep going. “Enough!” Shepard roared.

“You’re under arrest, Deacon. Assaulting an officer, that’s a charge I can make stick.” Will wiped a hand across his face, blood splattered off and continued to spurt from his nose.

“Chief Brothers, if I were you, I’d walk away now without another word.” Shepard told him. “It’s the smart move, the easy way out. Take it.”

“Put your hands on me and I’ll arrest you too.” Susan cringed when Will spoke, Shepard’s reputation was one of a man not afraid to commit violence. In fact, most of the stories she’d heard strongly suggested that he took great pleasure in the violence.

“How much longer do you think you’ll be in the position to arrest anyone, Chief Brothers?” Lina spoke up. “That badge won’t be yours much longer. It seems someone leaked copies of your bank records to a number of online sites, records showing the fifty thousand dollar deposit that The Grievers made to your account two hours before the rampage started. And your emails telling your officers that they should stand down while The Grievers attacked.”

“You fucking bitch. You’re all going down, every last one of you.” Will took a step back from Shepard, looked at Lina as if she was dirt under his feet. “Just wait and see. You’re all going to pay. Filthy fucking animals.”

Deacon had mentioned that Will knew the secret but Susan was surprised that he’d bring it up in such a public setting. She glanced at the gathering crowd, none of them looked shocked. Could it be that Will wasn’t the only one who knew?

“I think it’s best that you leave, Will. Right now, go on with that hateful talk before I call your Grandmother and break her heart.” Rose, the owner of the best, and only, restaurant in town, spoke up from the crowd. “She’d be ashamed to call you her family if she heard that talk. Best not forget where and who you come from, Will.”

Susan wasn’t the only one shocked when Will simply turned and walked back to his car. “Thank you, Rose.” Deacon spoke up.

“I don’t want your thanks. It was the right thing to do but I got to ask Deacon, what are you going to do to make this right? The Vikings were supposed to protect us, not leave when we needed them the most.”

“You can thank Will for that. Will and whoever set me up for the murders. But I’m back now, I can’t say that things are going to go back to normal. I think we’re past that. Things will get better. We’ll rebuild, make the town right.”

“We’re going to hold you to that.” Rose informed him. She looked over the group. “All of you look like you’ve been rode hard and put away wet. I know that your place is gone, I got a rental house over on Maple. It’s not the Ritz but there’s beds, a roof and a shower.” She reached into her pocket, pulled out a set of keys and tossed them to Deacon.

“She’s always been good people,” Houdini’s voice right in her ear startled Susan. “Makes the best damn pie I’ve ever tasted.”

“When did you get back?” With all the commotion she hadn’t even noticed his return.

“Right after Shepard and Lina,” he laid his arm over her shoulder, pulled her closer to him. “I’d have liked to break his neck myself for getting in your face.”

“I could have handled myself.”

“That’s not the point.” He said, frustration obvious in his voice. Susan had nothing to say in response to that, stayed quiet as he leaned his head against hers and held her close. He was really good at holding her, making her feel safe even if made her uncomfortable at the same time.

<#<#<#<

Susan was asleep, deep asleep and wrapped in a dream where she was luxuriating on a beautiful, warm sandy beach. She could feel the sun, smell the sea air coming off of the waves. It was a beautiful paradise and she was happy to be there. Nothing was confusing. Everything was just absolutely lovely. The sense of peace was as powerful as any drug could ever hope to be. And then the peace was gone, the sky went dark and all she could smell was something rotten. The warmth turned to cold. The water began to surge, rushing over her feet and finally knocking her off of them. She was drowning, trying desperately not to open her mouth to the water but she couldn’t breathe.

“Susan!” Houdini’s voice came from nowhere and everywhere. She wasn’t drowning anymore; she wasn’t even on a beach anymore. Instead, she was in his arms. It took a second to realize they were in a tiny bedroom at Rose’s house. “You scared the shit out of me. That must have been one hell of a dream.”

“I don’t remember.” Susan lied without hesitation as she shifted so that she wasn’t pressed against him. She sat up, the cool air of the room rushed over her. It helped calm her some, made her more alert. The farther she got away from sleep, the less the dream pressed down on her. “You should go back to sleep. I’m sorry I woke you.”

He sat up next to her, covers falling down to his waist to reveal that once again he’d stripped off the shirt he’d come to bed in. He reached out and ran his hand over her back. “You don’t need to be sorry. I wasn’t sleeping anyway.”

Susan looked over her shoulder at him. She was the one with the sleep issues, he always slept like the dead. “Why not?”

He shrugged. “Just couldn’t. Too much shit in my head. You looked like you were sleeping well, until the nightmare. That’s good, you needed it.”

Susan shut her eyes as his fingers slid underneath her tee shirt. His finger tips were calloused, just a little rough against her skin. A feeling of pleasure shot through her, from the tips of her toes and fingers straight to her core. She jolted as his fingers slid lower and then around to her hip. She felt him shift on the bed next to her so that he was sitting up as well.

Houdini drew her close to him, moved her hair to one side so he could lean his face against hers. “You think you can go back to sleep?” Susan knew that it could be that simple between them. They could just lie back down, tangled up in each other and sleep. Sleep for hours and for her it was the only way that she could sleep more than a few hours at a stretch.

“Maybe,” she let her eyes shut and allowed him to shift them so they were laying back down. He pulled the covers up and over them. “Do you think you can sleep?”

“I guess we’ll find out,” he slid one hand onto her thigh. “Go on and try to sleep. I’m good just like this.”

“I am too.” Susan admitted. The warmth of his body against hers was comforting. His hand on her thigh had a tingle rushing through her body. Most nights, this was the point where she’d shut her eyes and will herself to fall asleep quickly. Right now though, she didn’t want to do that. It was a shock for her to realize that she wanted more than just his hand on her thigh.

Susan shifted, suddenly restless and there was no mistaking Houdini was enjoying their current situation as she felt his hard length against her back. Oh fuck. Of course, this wasn’t the first time he’d had a physical reaction to their closeness. He must have realized what she felt because he went to move away like he had every other time. “Don’t.” Susan spoke without even realizing it. She felt him go perfectly still behind her and then the warmth of his body returned to hers. His erection was against her ass, his hand moving towards the front of her thigh.

“This okay?” He stroked his fingers up and down her thigh.

“Yes,” Susan shut her eyes, leaned back against his chest. “I like it.” She’d never told him that before. They’d never really talked about it before which she knew was because of her and her need for emotional distance.

Houdini trailed his hand up from her thigh, over her side and back under her shirt. “Where’s this scar from?” He traced his fingers over the raised mark on her hip.

“I got cut on some coral, snorkeling on vacation.” The memory surged back to her. She’d been with Rick, he’d been concerned she needed stitches but the next morning the wound had been almost healed. It had been the first time he’d looked at her strangely, as if there were something not right about her.

“Snorkeling? I never pegged you for the water type. I prefer diving with a tank myself.”

“You scuba dive?”

“I used to,” he admitted, “back in… back home.”

“Where is that?” Susan had never pressed the issue of his past or family. She understood the need to keep things out of mind, talking about old wounds only kept them festering. It probably wasn’t emotionally healthy but hell, everyone had issues.

“Florida.” His voice was gruff but his touch was still soft against her skin, surprisingly soft because of his sheer size. “You ever tried it?”

“A few times, I liked it but vacations were few and far between back then. I was finishing med school, starting my internship so there weren’t enough hours in the day. It was hell.”

“Was it worth it?” His hand moved higher up her stomach.

Susan inhaled a deep breath, a few more inches and he’d be touching her breast. She felt her nipples harden at the mere thought. “I guess it was worth it. I love what I do.”

“Maybe you can get your old job back,” he suggested.

“I doubt it, hospitals tend not to hire back doctors who just call in and quit one day. It’s customary to give notice, lots of notice.” And it was likely the reason she’d found herself working at a pain management clinic specializing in volume in Wyoming. She hadn’t given them notice either. “I’ll figure something out.”

“Why don’t you just open a practice?”

“It’s expensive, Houdini. Really expensive. Can we talk about something else?” Susan shifted against him, arched her back slightly and hoped to convey the message that she’d rather not talk at all. There were so many more things that they could be doing but she had no idea how to say that.

“Your skin is really soft, I love touching it, touching you.” He pressed his lips to her shoulder and his hand slid up a little more. Susan let out a moan, she couldn’t quite stop herself, when the tips of his fingers brushed against the underside of her breast. His fingers traced random patterns on her skin which sent heat rushing through her. There was something so erotic about the way he touched her, even when they were in public it always felt exceptionally intimate. Susan arched her back, pressing her body against him the best she could. “Houdini.”

“I’ll stop, you say the word and I’ll stop.” His voice had a desperate quality to it, one that she understood very well. It was how she felt, suddenly desperate for more, for him.

Susan turned to face him. Her eyes met his. “Don’t.” She’d often wondered what it would be like to kiss him, really kiss him and not just what they did when there were others around. For it to be about them, not about the lie or anyone else.

It was what she’d imagined and more. Heat uncoiled low in her belly and she realized that she’d never felt anything quite like this before. She’d never wanted anyone like this before, not even Rick. The thought of him gave her pause, made her pull back from the kiss.

“Susan?” Houdini cupped her face. “We good?”

“I’m sorry,” she pulled back from him.

“Got a little intense, huh?” He didn’t pull back, he remained where he was. “I’m not going to push you to do anything, Susan. I’m not that kind of guy. I need to grab a shower, a cold one. Want me to grab you something from the kitchen?”

“No, I’m not hungry.” Susan turned onto her side and he pulled the covers up over her the way that she liked. She shut her eyes as he ran his hand over her hair. He left the room a moment later, Susan opened her eyes and stared at the wall until she heard the sound of him returning. She closed her eyes then, faked being asleep as he got back under the covers. It was long after his breathing had gone deep and even that she finally was able to actually fall asleep.

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