Julian Montgomery is a shiftless gambler crisscrossing the country in pursuit of poker games and cocktail waitresses. Or so the rest of the world believes. In truth, he is a special agent for the FBI, moving from one assignment to the next. When a murderer surfaces in his small southern hometown, Julian’s assignment is to protect the one woman who is far from happy to find him back in Crystal Lake, TN.
Rowan Covington has never aspired to any life that would lead her away from the place her family has called home for generations. And if Julian thinks she is going out of her way to welcome him back, he has another thing coming! When it becomes apparent she is the target of a killer driven by revenge, Rowan learns the truth about the one man who holds her heart, and how far he is willing to go to save her.
“The plot of this story was powerful, and progressed really well that I couldn’t for one second put the book down. As for the dialogue, it was great in showcasing the love-hate relationship Rowan had for Julian because he was the one that left her. Both the main characters as well as the secondary characters were well-developed, adding their own impact to the story to keep this reader interested. The sex scenes were hot, and illustrated just how much Julian and Rowan still wanted each other after so much time apart. What I liked about the hero was that he didn’t allow Rowan’s attitude towards him to turn him away from protecting her while with the heroine, I liked her strong and feisty attitude and how determined she was to not need anybody even though in the end it was evident that she did.
Returning to Love was a great book by this author whose work I’ve read for the first time. Yet now I can’t wait to read more of her stuff because for sure the secondary characters of this story are destined to have their own tales told.“
Julian Montgomery believed in hedging his bets until a sure thing presented a chance to do otherwise.
The potbellied banker from Baton Rouge didn’t have squat. And the tech geek nervously blotting his sweaty brow with a cocktail napkin might as well have a sign that read, I’M IN OVER MY HEAD dangling from his neck. He thought because he banked a nice stash playing online in his dorm room, he’d find a backroom game and see how his run held. Apparently Lady Luck was locked and loaded, preparing to blow him right back to using his folks’ credit card.
It was the pro to Julian’s left who kept him from wandering out onto Bourbon Street in pursuit of anything even remotely entertaining. Trucker’s cap, sunglasses, a toothpick clenched between his teeth, he was the whole package. He made a nice living prowling the circuit, and then rallied his earnings into a house in the suburbs complete with wife and kids. It was the sweaty scent of his anticipation spurring the smile curling the corners of Julian’s lips.
“Welcome to New Orleans, gentlemen.” Julian sailed three aces down, tossing back whiskey as he raked the pot across the table. Neatly folding the thick stash of cash, he tucked it into the back pocket of his worn jeans as he stood. The potbelly muttered curses under his breath, the kid slumped back in his chair seemingly relieved, and the pro spit the toothpick from his lips.
Julian had been playing in smoky backrooms long enough to know after scoring a pot that hefty, it was best to make a hasty retreat.
Sauntering out into the noisy bar, he winced as the first mournful notes of the blues band on the stage rattled the rafters. Rounding couples swaying on the crowded dance floor, he tucked a bill into the bartender’s jar, and passed another off to the pretty little waitress who plied him with drinks all evening. The sultry smile she flashed made him wonder if calling it an early night was really the way to go. Deciding that was the whiskey whispering in his ear, he let his tawny gaze roam over her regretfully as he stepped out into the warm night.
Slicking a hand through his dark hair, he lifted his face to the billowing breeze as he strolled the French Quarter. The flood of shock and misery had washed away, but he could still smell the suffering and survival that rebuilt the city that would not yield. Music poured from doorways of bars as tourists scoured shops while locals catered to them with gracious smiles. He turned another corner to disappear into the upscale hotel. Staff in neatly pressed uniforms busily scurried around as he made his way to the front desk.
“Good evening, Mr. Montgomery,” the desk clerk greeted cheerily.
“How’s it going, Bruce?” Julian ignored the huffy old broad checking in eyeing him disdainfully.
“Very well, sir.” The clerk slid an envelope across the counter. “No other messages this evening.”
Julian tucked the envelope into the pocket of his threadbare chambray shirt. “Thanks.”
“My pleasure, Mr. Montgomery,” Bruce said with a nod.
Julian crossed the lobby, punching the button of the elevator as his gut twisted into a slippery, jerking knot. He rode six floors with a couple groping each other like horny teenagers before finally letting himself into the lavish suite he called home for three months. It was the longest he’d been in one place in nearly eight years.
Going to the bar, he poured another whiskey, and took it out onto the balcony overlooking the swarm still buzzing Bourbon Street. He watched them, tourists and locals going on about their merry way on another thrilling night in the Big Easy. Taking the last sip of the whiskey, he strummed his fingers over his pocket, and fished the envelope out. Setting the glass on the wrought iron table in a corner of the balcony, he slowly tore it open, and pulled out the single sheet of paper.
It’s time. Come home.
The page fluttered on the wind as he closed his eyes, spinning down until the paper landed in the muddy mouth of the gutter below. Julian drew a deep breath, lifting his gaze to the waxing moon as it hissed out between his clenched teeth. The grief was hideous, gripping his heart and squeezing until his next breath was almost impossible to endure.
He wouldn’t remember stumbling through the suite, out into the hallway, onto the elevator. Shoving past a group gathered in the lobby, he raced out into the street. Dodging others wandering into his path, he ducked into an alley, and sprinted out into the darkness. He stopped in a wooded glen more than a mile later, his breath coming in angry pants. He welcomed it, the pitch black shrouding him as he felt the sharp, jagged edge of agony splice through him.
All he knew to do was run.
But, he would not be able to run fast enough or far enough, a lesson learned long ago. When the clouds rolled back once more, pearly moonlight lit the clearing where he lie sprawled on the ground, clawing at the muddy earth as his body was wracked by choked sobs.
The cool, clear nights of early autumn finally graced the rolling hills and sprawling valleys of East Tennessee. The last whispers of summer still lingered in the brilliant burst of afternoon sunlight, but as night fell over the foothills of the Smoky Mountains the chill coloring the hills with fall’s fiery glow would settle over the picturesque countryside. The National Park was twenty miles to the south, the banks of the Tennessee River about the same distance the other way. In between were counties crisscrossing in a patchwork of rural splendor.
Julian turned off the highway that would twist and turn all the way through the mountains, the battered pickup chugging down the winding two-lane he could drive with his eyes closed. There was occasionally a charming farmhouse or rustic log home, but mostly pastures, meadows and thickets of trees flanked the blacktop. Another ten miles, and he made the left turn that brought him right back where he started thirty years ago.
Crystal Lake was just far enough off the beaten path for the stunning views of wooded hills and the sparkling water of its namesake not to be marred by rows of blinking signs, and close enough to catch the overflow of tourists looking for a more serene escape. It was the sort of place that defined small southern town. The historic downtown square was hemmed in by the courthouse, post office, a few small shops touting everything from fresh flowers to gourmet coffee, and a couple of other old buildings that had been renovated into office space. The town was founded by folks looking to keep life as quiet as possible. Turned out the tourist trade feeding many of the big cities and small towns across the state was a necessary evil. So, locals went on about their quiet lives, extending as much southern hospitality as they could muster to the tourists plumping the local economy.
Julian stopped the truck at the curb of the square, sliding a pair of sunglasses over his eyes as he got out. Cobblestone paths ran in circles, beds of flowers and ferns spilling over onto them. Park benches and huge stones kids could scale were shaded by weeping cherry trees and maples just about to explode into burnished glory. The air cooled as he stepped out of the sunshine, mockingbirds swooping and squawking over his head as he stopped at the center of the square.
It was his earliest memory, sitting on a bench in this square with his father at his side, telling him how it was their ancestor who founded the place their bloodline called home for generations. There was such pride in his voice and in his tawny eyes as they roamed over the only place Aiden Montgomery ever wanted to be. For Julian there was always wondering what lie beyond the county line.
“Shame on you for sneaking into town like this, Julian. Now we won’t have time to arrange a parade, or proclaim a national day of celebration.”
The corners of Julian’s lips twitched. He turned, sliding the sunglasses from his face. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. But, it isn’t like you didn’t know I was coming.”
The sheriff came closer. To anyone giving them a passing glance, it would be no surprise to find out a mere eight minutes separated them. Their father always said find Julian, and Ryan would be right behind him. They weren’t identical twins, but shared the same long, lean frame with just enough muscle to keep them from being lanky and the same jet-black hair. Where Julian avoided a barber enough for his to wave down past his collar, his twin sported the closely-cropped military cut preferred by lawmen.
Ryan slipped the Aviators from the bridge of his nose. It was the eyes that made the difference. Clear, deep blue eyes that crinkled at the corners as his brother smiled. Their mother’s eyes their father always said in the hushed, mournful tone haunting his voice whenever he spoke of the woman his sons couldn’t remember.
Dropping the glasses into the pocket of the tan shirt bearing the patch of his authority, Ryan extended a hand. “Welcome home, brother.”
Julian slid his palm over his twin’s, pulling him into a tight hug. He was indeed home. Slapping a hand to Ryan’s back, he pushed him away to study him closely. “You look like hell.”
“Good to see you too,” Ryan snorted. Bracing his hands on his lean hips, he heaved out a sigh. “I haven’t been sleeping much lately.”
Julian felt his knees turn to water as he fell back onto one of the benches. Furrowing both hands through his hair, he avoided his brother’s gaze. “I’m sorry, Ryan. I should have been here. I knew when I saw him at Christmas he was getting worse every day.”
“The old man is fine, considering the last round of chemo damn near killed him,” Ryan said casually as he sat down by his twin.
Julian stared at him for a long moment, his heart pumping like a jackhammer against his chest. “He’s not..?
“Nope.” Ryan shook his head. “I’m not sure he’ll see another Christmas, but when I left the house this morning he was bitching at Gran about runny eggs.”
The sweet relief flooding through him turned to a whip of fury sprinting through his blood. “You sorry…” Julian gritted out. His brother was up on his feet before he could knock him from the bench.
“Looks like somebody has gotten slow and soft while earning a living playing games and swilling whiskey,” Ryan chuckled. He landed sprawled on his back as Julian tackled him at the knees. He grunted when a hard jab to his belly emptied the air from his lungs.
They rolled, throwing punches and trading insults, all around the charming square. When Julian tried to struggle up onto his feet, Ryan lifted a foot to hurl him back into a clump of ferns. He dodged the right hook he’d been evading since they were toddlers as he thrust a knee into Ryan’s gut.
“What do you two idiots think you are doing?”
Julian was hauled up onto his feet by the collar of his shirt. When Ryan scrambled after him, a polished wingtip landed center of his chest, knocking him back into a cluster of wildflowers. Julian smiled, spinning on a heel to face his captor. “Hey, little brother. How’s it going?”
Logan thrust him down onto the bench, his dark eyes spanning the square. He wore a neatly pressed, ivory button down shirt with a navy tie that matched the pinstripe in his trousers. Taller and even broader in the shoulders than his older brothers, good fortune assured he did not share their quick tempers. But, the dark hair, the same angular jaw and ready smile assured he was a Montgomery through and through.
“For God’s sake,” Logan gritted out, reaching down to grab Ryan to pull him up onto his feet. “The whole town can see y’all acting like a couple of kids on the playground.” He dusted leaves and mulch off his brother’s back.
“Get off me,” Ryan growled, jerking a shoulder.
Logan’s eyes pinned Julian again. “You’re back, what? Five minutes before y’all are brawling?”
“Something like that.” Julian spit blood into a bed of lilies, running his tongue over his teeth to make sure none were missing.
Logan glanced around again, nodding at an old couple rounding the square. “I realize any sense of decorum is wasted on you two, but I would rather my boss not look out his office window to find my idiot brothers tumbling around in flowerbeds, trying to beat the hell out of each other.”
“He looked like hell before I laid a hand on him,” Julian insisted, cocking his head at his twin.
Logan turned to Ryan. “You’re the sheriff now. What kind of example does this set?” Before his brother could reply, he spun back to Julian. “I have worked myself closer to an early grave to become the youngest Assistant District Attorney in the state. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let dumb and dumber humiliate me in front of the whole town.”
“Give me a break,” Julian drawled, leaning back on the bench. “It isn’t like folks don’t know who your daddy is.”
“You sorry…” Logan ripped off his pricey watch, hurled it at Ryan, and jerked Julian from the bench.
Ryan winced as Logan landed a driving fist into his twin’s gut. “His brother being sheriff might have a little something to do with it too,” he muttered. When Logan reeled backwards from the punch to his jaw, he pushed him back into Julian. He slid the watch onto his wrist, holding it out to inspect it. Julian toppled into him, so he shoved him back toward Logan. “This is nice.” He examined the watch closer. When his twin landed at his feet and bloody drool smeared all over his boot, he jerked his foot away. “Hey, man! That’s gross.” Logan staggered as Julian swept out a leg to make contact with his ankle. Ryan’s gaze darted to the parking spaces at the curb. “Uh, oh.” He reached down to jerk his twin onto his feet as Logan rose up onto his with a groan.
She came at them with the expression they learned to dread before they were out of diapers. Her silver hair was clipped into a chic bob skimming her clenched jaw, her piercing green eyes spitting fire. She wore a pair of black silk pants, a vibrant red blouse cinched at her waist with a silver link belt, and black alligator skin pumps that clicked along the cobblestone with her determined steps. She was a petite thing, still slim and fit at nearly seventy-five years old.
And Miranda Montgomery was by far the toughest Montgomery of all.
“What have I told you boys?” she hissed as her hands slapped to her hips. “You want to settle something by wailing on each other, fine by me. But, you will not do it in public. I am tired of going to fundraisers and book club meetings to hear how my boys are entertaining all of Crystal Lake with your own little fight club.” She drew a fast, furious breath. “Ryan, get that mulch off your butt, Logan you have ruined another shirt, and Julian give me a hug before I bang all your heads together.”
Julian moved into her embrace, dropping his head to place a kiss on her forehead. Her warmth, her scent, the loving way she held him was tangled with every cherished memory he had. She rushed in when their mother lost her battle with breast cancer shortly after Logan’s first birthday, and hadn’t so much as missed a step since. Gran was many things to a lot of people, but she made no bones about what came first in her life. She loved her boys. Sometimes being loved by her could be terrifying.
She skimmed a hand over Julian cheek. “He’ll be thrilled to see you.”
He forced a weak smile as he stepped back, sliding the sunglasses over his eyes. “I’m not sure how long I’ll be able to stay.”
“Yeah, because there might be a horse race in Kentucky, or an all night poker game in Atlanta,” Ryan drawled.
Gran lifted a brow as her eyes flicked to him. “You want to start something with me now?”
“No, ma’am,” Ryan replied quickly.
“I’ve got to get back to the house. Your daddy will want a snack. He’s mean as a snake when he’s hungry.” Gran dusted a hand over Ryan’s back, and mulch flurried out around him. “Julian, you will be home for supper. You too, counselor,” she added with a kiss on Logan’s cheek. She turned, clicking her way back toward the Lincoln parked at the curb. “No more brawling, boys.” Waving a hand sporting a diamond the size of a walnut, she slipped into the car.
“Well,” Julian sighed. “She’s still the toughest cookie this side of the Mason Dixon Line.”
“Try the world,” Logan muttered, straightening his tie. He looked at Ryan. “You give him the details yet?”
“What details?” Julian’s gaze shifted back and forth between them.
“I haven’t had time.” Ryan tucked his shirt back into his khaki pants.
“Oh, that’s right,” Logan said with a nod as his long stride ate up the cobblestone path. “Y’all had to get the obligatory beating out of the way first.”
“What details?” Julian demanded. He was hot on Logan’s heels as Ryan brought up the rear.
Logan looked back and forth as they all hurried across the street, up the steep steps of the courthouse. Julian thankfully breathed in the cool air swirling around the old place as the boards of the wooden floor creaked under his feet. He waded through many stopping to welcome him home as he followed his brothers into Ryan’s office.
Kicking the door closed behind them, Ryan skirted his cluttered desk to jerk on the cord at the bottom of a map. The map spun up to reveal a series of gruesome photographs held to corkboard with multicolored pushpins.
“Sweet Jesus,” Julian whispered as he moved closer to the stomach-churning display. Ripping the sunglasses from his eyes, he studied the glossy photos. They were all shots of women, their bodies slashed and bloody, and their lifeless eyes staring into the camera. The resemblance was striking, the same long, dark hair and dark eyes. He drew a shaky breath, turning to face his brothers. “What the hell?”
Ryan sat down in the chair behind his desk. “Three murders in two months. According to the coroner, probably the same weapon every time. Most likely a hunting knife, but we’d need the weapon to be sure.” His brother stabbed a forefinger and thumb into his eyes as he leaned back in his chair. “He was sloppy the first time. He left a partial bloody print, but not enough for us to get any sort of ID from databanks if he’s in there. Since then he’s become much more proficient. The victims apparently knew him. No sign of forced entry or struggle.”
Logan perched on the edge of the desk as his dark eyes scanned the photos. “They were locals. All of them.”
Julian’s stomach rolled again as bile rushed up into his throat. He swallowed hard against it as he lifted a shaky hand to swipe his chin. Turning back to the photos, he drew another deep breath. “That sort of resemblance isn’t accidental, is it?” His voice was rough, sounding as bitter as the words tasted in his mouth.
“Doesn’t seem so.” Ryan looked at his younger brother. “He definitely has a type.”
“Profile says he’s not likely to stop unless he’s caught, but there is a chance if we get too close he’ll move on to other territory,” Logan reported.
“Unless these victims are just practice and the ultimate victim is here in Crystal Lake,” Ryan added.
Julian’s knees finally gave. He fell down into a chair, his fingers curling tightly around the arms. “Have you talked to her? Have you warned her?” He stared at the photos, praying that sort of similarity was nothing more than a cruel coincidence.
Ryan shook his head. “We thought you would rather be the one to do that.”
“Julian,” Logan said as his brother stood. “There’s one more thing.” He averted his eyes. “He leaves a calling card. White tulips were found at each crime scene.”
Julian swayed on his feet as another wave of panic slammed into him. Without warning, he fisted his hands in the front of his twin’s shirt, dragging him up until they were eye to eye. “You ever even suspect she might be in danger and keep it from me again, I will be eating your liver for breakfast,” he snarled. Thrusting Ryan back down into the chair, he strode across the office. The door slammed closed behind him as he stepped out into the hallway.
“So much for wondering if he still cares,” Logan muttered as he stared at the pictures of the horror that had come to haunt their small, quiet town.
She knew he was coming.
Just as she knew when they were in the first grade the bad cold he had was more than a cold. She had her mother mix up an old herbal remedy to pass off to Gran to keep the pneumonia from taking any tighter hold of his little body. Just as she knew when they were eighteen, he shouldn’t be in the back of Zane Miller’s daddy’s pickup out on the highway after a night of drinking beer and making up tales with his buddies down at the lake. She broke up that little shindig hours earlier than they would have on their own by marching out of the woods with a camera, swearing if they didn’t hightail it home she had some interesting shots to share with their fathers. The car crossing the center line on the highway later that night didn’t have a pickup to slam into, so the driver walked away with nothing more than scrapes and bruises after running off the road into a ditch.
Rowan always knew.
Because she knew his restless heart as well as her own, she waited. Sometimes patiently, sometimes with nothing more than the hope she’d finally summon the willpower to close her eyes and not know or feel ever again. She watched him walk away so many times she hated the thrill of knowing he was about to walk right back into her life. But, history had a way of repeating itself. Especially where Julian Montgomery was concerned.
Stepping back from the bouquet of roses, orchids and lilies, she eyed her work closely. Yet one more reason every bride in the county had The White Tulip at the top of her list.
She had been turning out bridal bouquets, funeral wreaths, elegant centerpieces to grace the tables of local dignitaries, and roses to ease a man out of the doghouse since she was ten years old. Her mother swore she had her grandmother’s eye, the ability to take even the saddest clump of wildflowers, and yield a masterpiece that took folks’ breath away. Rowan’s entire life had been filled with flowers, herbs, gardens and the pride of knowing she carried on a business her great, great grandmother started when horses and wagons traversed the rutty, dirt roads of Crystal Lake.
For Rowan, The White Tulip was one of the most cherished aspects of the only place she ever intended to call home. She was content to spend her days creating something beautiful that spoke of love, respect, well wishes and even grief for a community where she knew most on a first name basis. Every night she watched the moon rise over the mountains, marveled at the stars falling in a rumpled drape over the hills that had been the backdrop of her whole life, and wondered why anyone wouldn’t want to be right where she was at that moment.
And she long ago had to accept the life she loved and the man she loved might forever be at odds.
Hearing the bell on the front door jangle, she stepped out of the large backroom lined with coolers, supplies and long tables filled with arrangements. The front of the shop was crowded with floral gifts, potted herbs, and displays of everything from potpourri and scented oils to lotions and herbal teas. Untying the bibbed apron from around her waist, she smiled at the teenage boy hovering across the long counter.
“How did it go today, Alex?” The kid blushed every time she spoke to him. He had only been working for them for a few months, making deliveries part-time after school. She hoped after he got to know her better, he wouldn’t shuffle on his feet and mumbled under his breath each time they spoke.
“Fine, Ms. Covington.” He shook his head so his long, chestnut-colored bangs floated out of his big blue eyes. “I didn’t get lost today.” He set a clipboard with delivery tickets on the counter.
“Good,” Rowan replied with a broad smile. “You’re new around here.” She pulled the tickets from the board. “It won’t be long before you know the twisting back roads like the back of your hand.”
“I hope so, ma’am.”
He was as polite and respectful as he was quiet, so though Rowan had yet to meet the grandmother who raised him, she already liked her. They rented one of the charming little shotgun houses on the edge of town. Alex never spoke of what brought them to Crystal Lake, but she had a feeling his part-time job was more than just his grandmother’s way of instilling a good work ethic. Because he was dependable, trustworthy and always willing to work over if she asked, she had given him two raises in three months. The fact she figured out finances were tight at home may have had a little something to do with it as well.
“Is there anything else I can do today, Ms. Covington?” he asked, glancing out the display windows at the uniformed officer loitering on the corner.
“No, thank you, Alex.” She tried to keep the annoyance out of her tone as she watched the officer scan the downtown square. “I’ll be locking up in a few minutes. You get on home. I don’t want your grandmother to have to wait supper for you.”
“All right, ma’am,” he said with a respectful nod. “See you tomorrow afternoon.”
“Have a good evening.” She followed him to the door, flipping the sign hanging on it over to closed. He waved as he headed for the beat up Ford parked in the lot across the street. She waved back, though her eyes were still fixed on the officer. “I don’t know what you think you’re looking for, Deputy Davis,” she muttered under her breath as she flipped the lock.
But, she did know why.