Tangled Hearts Excerpt

Book Two: The Harts of Texas Series

Chapter One

Brianna Hart looked up as he filled the doorway and her heart caught, her breath stopped. For an endless spiral down time, everything stood still.

He hadn’t changed.

Yes, he had. He appeared harder, older, tougher. He’d always been tall. Now, in the heavy winter coat, he seemed gigantic. He topped six feet by several inches. His broad shoulders still looked as if they could carry the weight of the world. Yet his size had never intimidated her. He’d always been heart-stoppingly gorgeous, with his sinfully dark hair and piercing black eyes.

In that, at least, he hadn’t changed. Neither had the stubborn jut of his jaw, or the intense manner he used to focus his full attention on someone to the exclusion of everything else.

He focused that attention on her.

His eyes were cold, harsh, and seemed to peer right into her soul. Gone was the softness she’d glimpsed once or twice long ago. Gone was the amusement that had often danced in his dark eyes. Now he regarded her as a stranger.

Are you the one who called about the break-in?” he asked, his eyes flicking quickly to Martha Benson, her neighbor, back just as quickly to her, holding her gaze as if he’d never released it.

Brianna nodded, afraid to trust her voice. She hadn’t expected Jake Morgan to respond to the police call. He was a detective, not a beat cop. Not anymore. Did he like his new job? Though she guessed it wasn’t that new by now. He’d just gotten the promotion when—

Here?” He glanced around the tidy living room, his eyes missing nothing. Coming back, they studied Brianna.

She shook her head and slowly rose. Tearing her gaze from his, she smiled politely to Martha.

Thanks for letting me wait here. I’ll let you know what they find out,” she told her neighbor.

Okay, Brianna. Come back if you don’t want to stay home alone tonight.” Martha said. She and her husband, Sam, had insisted she wait with them until the police arrived.

Brianna had found the front door to her small house broken open. A quick glimpse had been enough for her to see her living room had been trashed. Fleeing to the safety of her neighbor’s without entering her own place, she’d called the authorities.

Since no immediate danger seemed evident, the dispatcher had said she’d send someone as soon as an officer freed up. There’d been an accident on the highway and most of the officers on duty were responding to that.

Clearing her throat nervously, Brianna smiled at Martha as she passed to lead Jake to her place. Agonizingly aware of every inch of the man, she was extremely careful to refrain from even brushing lightly against him. It wasn’t easy. She longed to feast her gaze on him, drink in the very sight of him. It had been more than two years since she’d last seen him. Two long, endless, lonely years.

But who’s counting.

She kept her gaze forward and focused on the doorway leading to the cold winter night. And unexpected cold snap had blanketed the area of east Texas. A few inches of snow had even fallen.

She tilted her chin in a parody of confidence, hoping she could fake it enough to fool him. A woman had to cling to some pride when a man dumped her. Especially when she never knew why.

I live two doors down,” she said as they reached the cleared sidewalk. Snow had been piled high on the curb when the snowplows had done their jobs. The small mound bordering the walkway on the lawn side looked insignificant in comparison. Most of the row houses were dark. Part of a large complex on the outskirts of Texarkana, all were fairly new. Brianna had been thrilled when she found she could afford one of the smaller units. It was a safe neighborhood. She never expected a break-in. And not in her house. She had nothing to tempt a burglar.

Their footsteps crunched on the icy sidewalk, their breaths hung suspended before them in vapor clouds of pale white. Despite the freezing temperature, Brianna’s blood heated from proximity to the man walking so closely beside her.

When did you discover it?’ Jake asked, falling into step beside her, careful to keep a certain distance between them. His steps were measured and deliberate. He moved smoothly like a tiger on the prowl. He always had. She remembered feeling protected by it once. Now it seemed faintly threatening.

I arrived home about seven tonight. I spent Christmas with Jase and his new wife, Shannon. When I reached my front door, I could see it had been forced open, the lock broken. The door was slightly ajar, not much. It didn’t register at first. What it meant, I mean. I pushed the door and turned on the lights before I saw the mess. Then I went to Martha’s to call the police.”

Smart. Never go into a house that’s been burgled until you know it’s safe.”

He’d told her that before, when he’d cared about her, worried about her living alone. He’d told her many things to keep her safe. Only he hadn’t been able to tell her anything to keep her heart safe from the devastation and pain he’d caused when he stopped calling.

I remember,” she said softly.

Damn.” His voice was so low she wasn’t sure he really spoke.

Are you back on patrol?” Brianna asked as she hesitated before the open door of her town house. She hated to go inside and see the damage that had been done. She’d been so proud of her home. From what she’d glimpsed earlier, it was now utter chaos. Stalling wouldn’t change anything but maybe it would help her cope a bit better. And she needed help if she had to deal with seeing Jake again, as well.

No. I was on my way home when the call came in. I heard about the accident on the highway so I swung by just to check—on the off chance the guy might still be here. The regular patrol should be here in a minute or two.” Jake pushed past her to examine the destruction in the living room.

He stood still and let his eyes roam around the room. She knew he recognized some of the furniture from the apartment she’d lived in when he’d known her. Other things were obviously new. He studied them for a long moment. Everything was tumbled or tipped over, but the rampant destruction so common with vandals was not evident.

How long were you gone?” he asked, walking farther into the room, throwing a quick glance at her, then looking away. He didn’t want to look at her. He didn’t want to see how pretty she looked in her burgundy sweater, her long, slender legs encased in black wool pants. Didn’t want to notice how her honey blond hair gleamed in the bright overhead light, longer now than when he’d known her.

He especially didn’t want to look into her sky blue eyes. He’d been lost once before in those eyes. Never again!

He didn’t want to be within a mile of her, if the truth be known. He clenched his teeth. The sooner the patrol showed, the better. This was strictly business. What had passed between them was best left in the past.

I was gone six days,” she said, her eyes wide as she stared blankly at the mess.

So this could have happened at any time over the past week.”

He moved on to the kitchen. It hadn’t been touched. The short hall to the left led to a bedroom and bath. The bedroom had been tossed, as well. He paused in the doorway, trying to assess the damage without touching anything. The large bed was new. He quickly moved his gaze. The room was full of feminine clutter that seemed so foreign in his very male world.

My guess is it wasn’t vandals but someone looking for money,” Jake said as he reentered the living room. Brianna hadn’t moved. She stood near the door, her expression bleak as she surveyed the scattered books, the jagged screen of her computer and the overturned tables and chairs.

Looks like vandals to me. They smashed my computer.”

After we dust for prints, you can check the place out to see if anything is missing—”

Hey, Morgan, slumming? I didn’t hear there was a need for the big boys here. Thought this was just a routine B and E.” A tall man in uniform stood in the doorway, smiling.

Brianna turned suddenly at the new voice. Relaxing slightly, she watched as the patrol cop entered and introduced himself as Don Winston.

I was on my way home and heard the call. Thought maybe the perp might be nearby, but this could have happened as long as a week ago.” Jake moved easily toward the door, his manner undergoing an immediate change.

Brianna watched intrigued as he relaxed, the friendship with his co-worker evident. It was a sharp contrast to the cool remoteness with which he treated her.

What happened?” Don asked, looking around.

I don’t have much. Brianna Hart is the victim. Came home from a trip and found it like this.” Jake shrugged, his gaze surveying the room once more, pausing only briefly on Brianna’s face.

I’ll take over now, thanks. We’ll see you at the New Year’s Eve shindig, won’t we? You bringing Diane?” Officer Winston drew a leather-covered notebook from his pocket.

Brianna’s gaze swung sharply to Jake.

He nodded as he headed for the door. “Yeah. Save us a seat if you and Heather get there first. See you.” Without another word or another glance at Brianna, he left.

Brianna watched him leave, her heart beating heavily in her chest. Her breathing was still erratic. She tried to blame it on the disruption to her life by the break-in.

Diane.

She closed her eyes briefly, wondering if the pain would always be with her. He was seeing someone else.

Should she have been surprised? He was the most decidedly male individual she’d ever known. And she’d known plenty. Raised on a ranch not too far from Texarkana, she’d been surrounded by macho cowboys and wranglers from birth. Her two older brothers were both strong, virile men. But in her eyes Jake had them beat six ways to Sunday.

He’d probably been dating all along, ever since he’d last called her. But it hurt. She’d loved the man, adored him, thought he walked on water. She’d even started to believe he cared for her.

Then presto, one day he didn’t call. And never had since. No explanation, no easing down. Nothing.

Sorry you have to go over everything again, Miss Hart, but if you could fill me in on what happened, we’ll see what we can do.” The police officer held a pen poised over a small notebook.

The night seemed endless. The questions were easy, but she knew very little. Once the fingerprinting had been taken care of, she was permitted to set her things to rights. While doing so, she tried to determine what, if anything, was missing.

But her concentration faltered. She could not focus on the task. It centered squarely on Jake Morgan. As she had endless times before, she wondered what had happened to end their relationship. She’d been crazy about the man and had thought, in his own way, he’d been crazy about her.

Granted, he’d never been as demonstrative as she. In his line of work, trust and frivolity came rarely. He’d seen things she’d never even dreamed about. But there’d been a spark between them, a growing closeness that she’d cherished.

Where had it gone wrong?

Nothing appears to be missing from here,” Brianna said as she put the last pillow in place on her bed.

The police officer dogged her footsteps through every inch of her place, asked her again to verify nothing had been taken.

Nothing?” He sounded baffled.

I can’t find my backup diskettes, but nothing else is missing. Not that I can see. And the only things really damaged were my computer and the two books where the spines were broken.” It could have been so much worse.

Hello?” A male voice called from the front door.

Brianna followed the policeman to the living room, peering around him. For a second, she thought Jake had returned. Instead, a locksmith stood in the open door.

I got a call that you needed emergency repairs tonight,” he said genially, his hand already running down the damaged door near the broken lock.

Yes, I do, as you can see. Who called?” Brianna rubbed her forehead. She would have to get the lock fixed before she’d feel safe again. Thank goodness the man was already here.

Some cop called.” The man shrugged, examining the splintered wood where the lock had given way. “I can fix this right up for you. Won’t take more than half an hour.” With that he set to work.

That’s it for me, then, Miss Hart,” Officer Winston told her some time later. “I’ll call you if I find out anything or have any more questions. If you discover anything else missing, let me know.”

Thank you.” Brianna sank down on the sofa while she waited for the locksmith to repair her door. The policeman had checked all the other doors and windows for her; nothing else had been tampered with.

She felt violated. Her home, her sanctuary had been invaded. It would be a long time before she would feel comfortable here, knowing some stranger had been through her things. Knowing the lock on the door could so easily be broken. She’d never had to worry about such a thing on the ranch. The door was left unlocked so no need to break in. But with cowboys and cattle dogs and all the activity, a burglar would have a hard time breaching that house.

When the door had been repaired and the locksmith left, Brianna continued to ramble around her place. She hated to turn out the lights—which was stupid. The house was secured, and whoever had trashed her place was long gone with no reason to return. All the damage had been done.

The phone rang, sounding unnaturally loud in the stillness of the night.

Hello,” she said, snatching it up. Anything to postpone going to bed.

You all right?” The familiar voice seeped through her like fine whiskey, deep and dark and a bit rough. How many other nights had he called late, when he’d gotten off a shift and wanted to talk? She closed her eyes and let the bittersweet memories flow through her.

She swallowed, old longings rising fast and hot.

Yes. Thank you for checking,” she said politely.

The locksmith finish?”

Are you the one who called him?” A warmth flooded through her at his thoughtfulness, even as tears pricked behind her lids.

No big deal. You have a lot on your mind with this, I’m sure. It’s not your normal welcome home.”

No. Thank you. I wouldn’t have thought about it until I was ready to lock up. This way, the police officer was still here when he arrived so I had someone with me the whole time until the door was secure again.”

Anything missing?”

No.” She couldn’t let it end there. In only seconds he’d hang up. And it would probably be at least another two years before she saw him again or talked to him. Or maybe there’d never be a next time.

I didn’t expect to see you tonight,” she said, longing to keep the lines of communication open if only for a few moments longer. She wanted to lap up his deep voice, to relish the shimmers of excitement from hearing it. If nothing else, it chased away some of the fear.

I didn’t know you moved. Last I knew, you still lived over on Sheridan Avenue.”

I moved about eighteen months ago.”

Had he known, would he have ignored the call? Let the other cop be the first on the scene? She was afraid to ask him, afraid of his answer. “Are you still at the same place?”

Yeah. Listen, I’m glad your door got fixed. Chances are the guy broke in the first night you were away and has been long gone since then. You’ll be fine.” His tone became more impersonal, more distant.

Yes.” He was reassuring them both she’d be safe, then he’d pull away like before. And she still didn’t know why.

Call 9-1-1 if you hear anything or get scared.”

Yes. I—” There was nothing else to say. “Goodbye, Jake. Thanks for calling.”