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Branded Sanctuary

Joey W. Hill

Page 1

  Chapter One

  With a wrenching scream, Chloe bolted out of her second bad dream of the night. She stopped, swaying in the middle of the room, fists clenched in defense, body cringing in anticipation of pain. Blinking, she stared around her and slowly remembered that shed left candles burning on the dresser so she wouldnt wake into the clutches of darkness. The small floating votives, shaped like lotuses, were still burning in their rose glass bowl, which told her shed had the nightmare soon after her head hit the pillow.

  Settling on the edge of the bed, her legs shaking, she scraped her hands through her hair and rocked herself for self-comfort. She needed to go to the bathroom, but the narrow doorway was a tunnel of darkness, and the mirror in there reflected the shadows from the flickering candle flame.

  Goddess, her heart wouldnt stop its racing, sending alarming sharp pains through her chest.

  Twenty-four was a little young for a heart attack, considering she was in pretty good shape and had no history of heart disease. A panic attack was far more likely, since she was plagued by nightmares of a man trying to beat her to death while enjoying the hell out of it. Kicking her body, punching her face, overwhelming her and teaching her what being helpless really meant.

  A lesson shed give anything to forget.

  Up until it had happened, shed been a firm believer that all things happened for a reason. To teach lessons, increase wisdom, allow a karma exchange for all parties involved. But when something truly horrible happened, all that wonderful spiritualism sounded like New A ge bullshit peddled by celebrities. She vacillated between anger, fear and something in between that kept her from doing anything to change it. That was the worst thing of all.

  Help me. Help me, please. She didnt even realize she was saying it until the whisper grated on her ears. For the first time she wished she lived in town, not in the rural area outside Tampa, in a rundown rented two-bedroom farmhouse nestled in a tangle of trees, shrubs and flowering vines.

  A t this second, shed give up her tiny garden and natural sanctuary for the comforting sounds of apartment neighbors watching late-night television or walking down the hallway from a nightshift job.

  She was so tired. Marguerite, her boss, would see the shadows. It was one of the reasons Chloe called her M for short, because she was like the savvy head of MI-6. Once dawn cameand please, let it come soonmaybe she should pull a flighty Chloe routine, call in and say she was staying home to hug trees all day to balance her chakras. Marguerite was way too smart for that as well. Chloe didnt ditch work. She loved being at Tea Leaves as much as she loved being at her own home. Or used to.

  That was the crux of it, wasnt it? She was afraid of everything, enjoying nothing. But she was being stupid. She could get through this.

  Thump. Thump.

  She scrambled over the bed with a startled cry, knocking over the side table, the lamp and the cell phone on it. When she landed in the debris, the night table jabbed into her hip as she rolled over it. Snatching up the lamp in nerveless fingers, she scooted back into the corner, her intestines coiled in painful knots. No, no, no.

  When the thump came again, her scattered mind struggled to place it. Gradually, over the momentous pounding of her heart, she realized it was the maple she hadnt cut back. It held one of her bird feeders. The wind was up and the feeder, as well as the branch holding it, were striking the backyard shed. A noise shed heard a hundred times.

  She couldnt take it anymore. Her chest constricted as if it was being crushed, her breath strangling in her throat. This was a panic attack. Full blown, and while one part of her mind rationalized it, the rest of her was freaking out. A s she let the lamp fall to her side and pushed the side table off her legs, her hand brushed a slip of paper that had fluttered to the floor when she knocked over the table. Glancing down, she saw the folded note that shed slid under the lamp base almost a year ago.

  No, she couldnt. She really couldnt. She didnt even know him, for heavens sake. Theyd met at Marguerites wedding. Yeah, theyd hit it off, and shed meant to call him. Shed kept the dang note by her bed, after all. Of course, she and Gen had really had their hands full, running Tea Leaves while Marguerite had been on her honeymoon. But when that had passed and hed tried to reach her a couple times, through Marguerite, shed given this and that bogus excuse not to get in touch. Every time she thought about calling, she felt hesitant. For the first time in her life.

  A t one time, shed been tremendously confident, buoyant with energy. Shed reach out to anyone, sure that shed find something worthwhile in the contact. A gorgeous guy whod seemed interested in her? Hell, she would have been on the phone to him the next day, practically before he had his morning coffee.

  Her mental argument against calling now didnt seem to matter. Her errant fingers had already flipped open her phone and were dialing. On the fourth ring, her good sense caught up. Oh Goddess. She was calling him at three in the morning.

  He answered before she could jerk the phone from her ear and snap it closed.


  She cleared her throat. Hed been asleep. Obviously. She should just hang up. Brendan?

  Yeah? Then a pause. Chloe? Is this Chloe?

  You recognize my voice?

  Of course, he said, as if it was the most normal thing in the world to wake out of a dead sleep and recognize the voice of someone hed only met once before. I was hoping youd call. In facta throaty chuckle, sensuous and warmI think I was dreaming about you.

  IIm sorry about the time. I didnt realize it was so late. God, didnt that sound lame? Calling at ten oclock at nightthat was a mistake. Calling at the freaking dawn-of-the-dead hour, she had to be a vampire not to know what time it was. Or a mental case. Shed really liked this guy, and he was going to consider her completely nuts. But oh, his voice sounded good, all sleepy and sexy.

  You okay?

  Yeah. Im fine. Im just A sob caught in her throat. I cantI cant breathe, Brendan. I had a nightmare, and Im so sorry, I couldnt call Marguerite or Gen, I didnt want them to worry. Her words tumbled over one another, making her incoherent even to herself. Maybe that was good. Your numbers been on my side table, and I just found it and

  What did that say about her desperation, keeping his number by her bed? Of course, she didnt typically play coy with guys. So why was she worried about it now? It wasnt like he was ever going to want to hear from Marguerites crazy employee again. Im sorry for waking you. I needed to hear another voice, and Ive done that, so


  She stopped at the one word statement. A gentle poke into the flashing spokes of the running wheel of her mouth. Y-yeah?

  Okay. What would you like to talk about?

  She blinked at the dark opening to the bathroom that seemed to be watching her. Can youcan you just talk?

  Sure. Ill be happy to do that. Just like that, he started talking. You know, I was still hoping youd call, even though Id decided you werent as interested in me as I was in you.

  She stood up, made it two steps toward the bathroom. A s she drew in some deep, calming breaths, she remembered the way hed looked at the wedding. Beautiful in his tuxedo, his dark hair brushed back but too silky and fine to prevent several tempting strands from tumbling over his forehead. A childhood friend of Marguerites, hed walked Chloes boss down the aisle to Tyler, then had taken a seat in the front pew next to Komal and Mr. Reynolds, more of Marguerites eclectic assortment of chosen family. The front row of chairs had been close enough to the altar that the tips of Brendans polished shoes had nearly been under the hem of Chloes dress as she stood up to do her part as bridesmaid.

  Shed noticed he had a lean swimmers body. Marguerite said he swam every day and that he taught drama at the com
munity college. She remembered the shades of gray, green and gold of his hazel eyes. She visualized them now as she took another step. She really needed to go to the bathroom.

  No. I was interested. A m. Can youkeep going?

  But then, he continued, I thought, well, she and Gen are taking care of the tea room while Marguerites on her honeymoon, so maybe its that.

  Maybe shell still call. So here you are. She could hear the smile in his voice as he tactfully avoided all the months where Marguerites honeymoon wouldnt have been an excuse. Im so glad you did. Ive been thinking a lot about you. You made a big impression.

  She stopped again. One small step from the bathroom, she stared at it. Maybe she could hold it until daylight. Too many shadows. A bigger impression than Im making now?

  If I could have picked one person in the whole world to call me at three in the morning, it would have been you.

  Why? She imagined him lying on his back in his bed. He slept shirtless, she was sure, and maybe hed have one muscular arm propped behind his head, the other holding the phone. How delighted those sheets must be, sliding along that lean, bare body. Maybe he slept naked.

  Okay, that was more like herself. She was at the threshold. Quickly, she groped around the corner and snapped on the light. She let out a short scream.

  Chloe? The instant, urgent concern in his voice jerked her back.

  Its okay, she gasped. Just clotheshanging in the shower. Looked scary.

  Oh. She heard him draw a steadying breath as well. Well, cotton blends can be menacing. Im convinced my shoes come out of the closet at night and form a ring around my mattress, stare at me through their eyelets, like spiders waiting to pounce.

  It startled a giggle out of her. You do not think that. Youre trying to make me feel better about being a big chicken.

  On the contrary. Youre a petite, cute chicken.

  Ugh. She wrinkled her nose. People always call me cute.

  Try being a guy born with the innocent expression of Beaver Cleaver. I thought the longer hair and a bit of stubble would help, but all the hair does is make women want to pet me like a golden retriever. The stubble itched.

  I didnt think that at all. When I saw you, I thought you were a handsome guy.

  Yeah, but if a bunch of terrorists had crashed the party, you all would have flocked behind Tyler and that other guy, Mac.

  Thats because Tyler is ex-CIA or some other freaky secret agency thing, and Mac is a homicide cop.

  A nd because they look manly and heroic.

  She smiled. Youre being very manly and heroic right now. But I know what you mean. Just for once, Id like a guys first impression to be how sexy I am.

  I thought that. I would have jumped you at the wedding if you hadnt been on crutches. It didnt seem very sporting.