Serendipity of Fate

It’s been two years since Cason McPherson watched his best friend die in his arms. With shrapnel in his hip and a war behind him, he keeps focused on building a civilian life and not on what he wants most: the woman of his dreams, Savannah. If only she’d stop bringing up topics he has to keep secrets about.

Savannah Sparling has no time for baggage, and Cason McPherson brought home a matching set in scathing green—with a carry-on duffel bag full of lies. He’s the childhood friend who enlisted with her brother. He came home, and her brother didn’t.

Balancing work with demanding clients while fulfilling a personal vendetta against Cason consumes Savannah’s already full schedule—until a series of unstoppable events leads to a collision between Savannah’s work and personal lives. Her carefully structured path in the world is crushed, her own blood is spilled, and passion between her and an unlikely bedfellow ignite.

Cason and Savannah find the only the people strong enough to save them from themselves is each other. But will either one of them accept the help—and the love—that’s offered?

Releases November 11, 2016 Veteran's Day














PREFACE
Two Years Ago

He had been expecting the punch to his face. After all, Ryan had found out Cason was fantasizing about his sister. And it was a hot day, perfect for trouble.
The sun was relentless. After an insurgent attack that morning, the heat had been particularly punishing. So the afternoon quiet felt less like a reprieve and more like the windup for a pitch or, well, a punch. Something more was coming. This was but a break.
Most of the men lay sprawled, shirts off, in the red dirt of their makeshift base on the hill. The valley, with its craggy rocks and gnarled green-tipped trees, spread out wide below before tucking steeply into the V up the mountain. The very air felt parched; with the war, sun, and formidable earth, all life was being sucked from the place.
Cason had taken shelter in his sleeping bunker. In the partial darkness, he held her photo. Savannah Sparling, Savi, looked back up at him, her smile full and warm. It was shit here in this place, total shit. The sound of piping-hot fifty-caliber shells hitting the ground all around him gradually ceased its machine-gunning tattoo in his mind. The taps to his adrenaline seemed to be perpetually on, unless he was holding her photo. Then he was transported back to her, sitting in her mother’s living room, listening to her laugh and watching her watch him. He loved her, of that there was no doubt, and when he got back, he’d make his fantasy real. He’d take her on a real date. He’d ask her to marry him.
“I knew it!” Ryan’s voice interrupted Cason’s thoughts.
Cason looked up as his childhood buddy—and the extremely protective older brother of the object of his desire—straightened up from ducking through the doorway, a smile cracking his face. He was still in his desert fatigues. The black of his hair matched the wraparound shades he’d shoved up on top of his head, revealing the raccoon tan around his eyes.
“Shit,” Cason said as Ryan reached to intercept the photo on its way back under the bed. Cason wasn’t used to having to keep his daydreams a secret. Ryan was in a separate unit that had met up with them that morning for a surprise attack on the enemy the following morning.
“No way, man! Give it here. The guys tell me you’ve got one fine piece of ass and gonna tie the knot next R&R. Don’t know why you can’t tell me about it, but can I at least see her before I’m standing up there as best man?” Ryan laughed as he lunged again.
“No. Get off me!” Cason pushed him off with one hand and tucked the photo behind him. But Ryan had a long reach and determination, and soon he was shuffling backward in the tight quarters with the photo in hand.
Cason got up as Ryan put his free hand out, keeping him back. “Now, let’s get a good look the poor girl who’d let you fuck her blind.” He took his first look at the photo.
Cason went cold.
“What the…?” Ryan flipped the picture over and back again, as though the movement would shake the image into something else. “What the fuck is this?”
Cason just stood there.
“Is this some kind of joke?”
“No.” Cason flushed.
“No,” Ryan said, his cheeks going blotchy. “No, no. No! No fucking way. Not with my sister!”
And that was when Ryan coldcocked him.
Cason let the punch land and felt that it was just. The things he’d thought about doing with Savannah…He should have punched the ideas right out of his own head.
 “Not with my sister!” Ryan shouted at him again. “Not now. Not ever! Do you hear me? You stay the fuck away from her!” He jabbed Cason in the chest with his index finger for emphasis. “Don’t go near her ever again!”
Cason stumbled back and really looked at the dusty, dark-haired man who stood shaking with rage in front of him. He and Ryan had changed. They had both grown up in different directions after enlisting. He wasn’t the playboy Ryan surely remembered him as, and Ryan wasn’t the impressionable friend he’d once known. As much as Ryan had once been his best friend, they were nearly strangers now.
“Fine,” Cason said through dry lips.
“You’ll promise me,” Ryan hissed.
Cason knew the war did that to people. Every war throughout time and now in the endless Middle East wars that called for them to leave home in six-month to yearlong deployments with little to no R&R in between. The seemingly ceaseless fighting twisted small things into the unbearable. It was as if life were a glass of water, the war drinking it up until there was just one drop left, and then it took that too, leaving nothing but emotionally parched soldiers.
“Right now, promise,” Ryan said.
Cason gritted his teeth. “Fuck this.” And then he turned, shoving his way out through the bunk’s flapping doorway.
Gunshots rang out then. Dust puffed up as bullets hit the red dirt around the base. His men scrambled, and for the second time in as many days hell broke loose from her tenuous leash. The mission was a bust.

It was only later, as he lay in a cold, sterile room of the US military hospital in Germany, IV dripping into his harm, that he realized that bloody battle had claimed a life, which indelibly changed his. His life was now fate-shackled by a blood promise he had given to his best friend. A promise he never thought he’d never make and a death he wish he’d never known.

CHAPTER 1

Savannah stepped from the creamy leather interior of her white pearlescent SUV and hauled out a bag of groceries for her mother. The late Thursday afternoon was like every other toward the end of a New Orleans summer: hot, humid, and downright suffocating.
Bumping the car door shut with her hip, Savannah turned toward the house. It was a single-level blue ranch that blended in with the other nondescript seventies ranch homes around it. A postage-stamp front lawn, like the neighbors’, separated it from the cul-de-sac. The various yards’ details, the only apparent means of homeowner expression, ranged from untamed wilderness to fashion gardens to bright-green lawns trimmed to within an inch of their lives with military-like precision. Her mother’s was the latter.
Savannah shoved the front door open. “Mama, I’m here,” she said with a soft New Orleans drawl. She knocked the door closed with her heeled foot. Having come straight from work, Savannah still wore her designer skirt suit in fashionable black and layered strands of sterling-silver beads.
Shoving her sunglasses up onto her head, she carried the groceries through the air-conditioned living room of her childhood home and into the kitchen. She heard her mother’s footsteps down the hall before she emerged into the kitchen, wearing her spectacles and looking down at a crossword puzzle in her hand. Savannah dropped the bag of groceries onto the counter, and the noise got her mother’s attention.
 “Oh hi, hon. I thought I heard the front door.” Helen took her spectacles down and smiled at her daughter. “Are those groceries for us?”
Us? Savannah had thought Cason would be moved out by now. Just a year, he had said; then it was another ten months, and then last month he finally had another place lined up. He can’t possibly still be here, Savannah thought.
As if on cue, she heard the bathroom door open, and the man in question step into the hallway toward the room that had once been her brother’s. Before Ryan was killed in Afghanistan, where he was serving his last tour. Whose death was in part that man’s fault. Each time she watched him walk into Ryan’s room, the one her mama had given to him, she felt the grate of angry betrayal deep in her belly.
“Actually,” Savannah said, putting her hand in the bag and pulling out a carton of milk and yanking the fridge open, “these are for you.”
Now able to see down the wood-paneled hallway, Savannah watched him pause in the bedroom doorway at the sound of her voice, his work clothes in his hand. He turned, looking over his shoulder, short sandy-brown hair still wet and spiky from his shower. His gaze went past her mother and made brief eye contact with her. As if acknowledging that, yes, he was still there, and no, he wasn’t going anywhere. She gave him a hot glare back that said that it would be talked about.
Savannah continued with her mother. “Last time I was here, it was bare bones.”
“Yes, well,” Helen said, “Cason went shopping in the interim. Now that we have double of everything, how about you stay for dinner?”
“No, Mama, you know I still have work.”
“Savannah, it’s after five. You have to eat sometime.”
“Why don’t we have dinner in the city, Mama? We can have some alone time to catch up.”
“Savannah…” her mother said, her tone disapproving. “I know you weren’t expecting Cason to stay longer,” she said, diving into the thick of it.
At the mention of his name, he came to stand in the entry to the hall, silently crossing his arms over his chest.
Hand on the top of the fridge door, Savannah gathered her calm. “Yes.” She gave her mother a soft smile and then Cason a hard look. “He said that he’d be moving out on the first. Today’s the fifth. I’m pretty sure—”
“Your mother asked me to stay.” His voice was low and deep; its masculine tone felt like an intruder in a house that had seen only women for so long. Savannah hated the way his definitiveness felt like law.
Savannah’s mom looked over her shoulder at Cason, her demeanor warming. She moved to pat his arm. “You’re home early—did you have a good day?”
The way she asked him, the way that she could just slip back to when they were all kids, when he and Ryan would come barreling in after school—it was as if Ryan hadn’t died at all.
Savannah shoved the fridge door shut.
Cason gave Helen a quiet smile. “It was fine.”
“Good,” she said and gave him another pat before turning back to Savannah. “Really, Savannah, why don’t you consider staying for dinner? Then we can all talk about this.”
“Mama,” Savannah said, taking the groceries off the green laminate counter, “both you and Cason”—now giving him a glare equal to the one he’d settled on her—“know how I feel about him staying here. He needs to move on with his life, and you need to find a hobby other than saving strays.”
Cason’s eyes narrowed.
“Savannah Rae Sparling,” Helen admonished.
“Mama, you don’t need him here. You can manage without—”
“It has little to do with my capabilities. Savannah, after Ryan’s death—”
Cason shrank back slightly, and Savannah said, “Don’t, Mama.”
“After Ryan’s death, this house was empty. I prefer to have this house filled with life, and Cason can save his money until he has enough to buy a place of his own.”
“Mama, you don’t need companionship. You have me. I can come by more,” Savannah said. “Wouldn’t that be nice? And Cason can get on with his life. Meet a girl, get her knocked up, and start a family.”
Cason’s gaze went back to being icy. It was their preferred way—distant frost. Her mama could mother him, but he and Savannah sought a far more hostile interaction. They could accomplish that simply by standing quietly in the same room.
Helen smiled at her daughter. “Having you come by more would be nice, Savannah. How about we start to—”
Savannah’s phone rang then. “Hold that thought,” she said, putting up a finger to her mother. She let the grocery bag rest back on the counter and went to the wide front window. “This is Savannah,” she said into the phone.

Helen turned and looked up at Cason as Savannah talked on her phone. “I’d believe she’d spend more time with me if she got rid of that thing,” she said.
Cason gave her a reassuring smile, “Mrs. S., she’d more likely spend more time with you if I weren’t here.”
“Nonsense. We’ve talked about this. You two were good friends when Ryan was alive—”
At the mention of Ryan, Cason looked away.
“She needs to remember that. And you need to lighten up some.” She nodded as if that decided that.
“Yes, ma’am.”
Cason watched as Mrs. S. looked over at her daughter, whose back was turned. Mrs. S. sighed. He knew what she was thinking; she’d said it more than once. Savannah was so successful: a nice condo downtown, a fancy car, crisp suits—though those were a little too tight and her heels a little too high. She was a highly respected and sought-after interior designer. Too successful, maybe—barely had enough time for her own mother. Savannah, he could almost hear her mother say, was like her late father in the unladylike aggressive nature she had in business dealings. Helen sighed again. And Cason allowed himself to look at Savannah, from her straight brown hair, cropped at an angle to the tip of her chin, to the tight knee-length skirt. She was indeed all business.
“Slow down,” he heard Savannah say to the person on the phone. “No, the damask was what was agreed upon…No, that will be the fourth change to the order; he must pay for this one. We’re purchasing the bolts. Tell Charlot I’ll not accept another change order—those bolts aren’t cheap. I’ll swing by and smooth things out. Give me ten minutes.” Savannah hung up and turned back to her mother. “I have to go, sorry, Mama. Can we continue this conversation later?”
Savannah wasn’t asking, though. She was down the porch steps before the door slammed shut behind her.
Helen shook her head. “This is what I mean.” She gestured at the bag of groceries on the counter where Savannah had left them.
“I got it.” Cason went to the bag and started to unload it.
“Why don’t we wait on that, Cason. Just put the cold things away. I’ll call her tomorrow to come pick it up at her lunch break. If I know my daughter like I do, she needs these in her cupboards more than we do—might as well use it for an excuse to have lunch with her.” Helen added, “I noticed that hitch in your leg has gotten a little worse. You all right, hon? Maybe I can make a call to the VA to see if we can’t get you in tomorrow.”
He turned back to face her. “I’m all right, Mrs. S. I’ll let you know when it gets worse.”
“Okay,” she said, and as she looked back to the newspaper crossword in her hand, she caught sight of her watch. “Oh my, it’s well past five! You must be starved! I’ve been so distracted by this silly puzzler today.” She dropped the crossword and her spectacles on the counter. “Why don’t you do your physical therapy routine, and I’ll call you when supper is ready.”
“I can make supper if you have things to do, Mrs. S.”
“No, no. You have your PT to do. Now, shoo. Let me get to work.”


CHAPTER 2


Savannah pulled into the semicircle driveway that was ubiquitous in that section of town. Large trees lined the road; the stoic old homes set back from the street looked right out of colonial times. The home of Savannah’s client, Phillip Nigel, was two-story brick with cream trim and navy shutters framing the eight front-facing windows. The old crushed-quartz gravel drive would soon be paved over with concrete, and the landscaping already bore no resemblance to its neighbors. No shrubbery, simply vivid green golf-course-short grass. At the apex of the circular driveway was a single-story fountain, a tower of cherubs sitting and climbing on one other with water shooting from their mouths. From a short distance away, when you couldn’t make out the individual cherubs, the fountain looked like a giant phallus. The meticulously clean driveway, save for stacks of lumber and a portable potty, held no other cars.
Savannah dug out her phone and called Charlot, the head designer assigned to her team, whom she’d put in charge that day.
“Savannah!” Charlot exclaimed, answering after only the first ring.
“Where are you? I told your intern I’d be right over.”
“Yes, she told me. But it’s a lost cause. We’ll go back tomorrow. There’s nothing you can do.”
“Nothing I can do? Is this about the fabric?”
“The guy—”
“The client, Mr. Nigel.”
“Yes—he threatened me, and when I said not to use all that negative energy with me, he said, ‘I refuse to pay some filthy hippie to work in my home. This is a Nigel home!’” Charlot did do an excellent Phillip Nigel impression. “And then he started waving his hands around and saying everyone needed to leave. So I told everyone to leave.”
“Okay…It’s after five. It’s all right that everyone left, but why—”
“Oh no. That was at three.”
Savannah bit her lip to keep from sighing. “You left early and had everyone leave too?”
“Absolutely. Savannah, he seriously almost hit me.”  
“And your intern?”
“She left with me. I don’t know why she’d tell you to go there…”
Savannah knew why. The intern was one of the sharper tools in the tool shed. Charlot, however…How had she made it at Knight for so long? Her design skills alone, clearly. They were superb, that was true, but her other ‘talents’ seemed to be louder, competing with her design skills.
“Okay,” Savannah said. “I’m here now, so I’ll take the lead back on this project and talk with him.”
“No, Savannah, I really think you should just let him blow off steam, and I’ll go back tomorrow and talk with him. I’m sure all that negative energy will have dissipated by then.”
“Charlot,” Savannah said and then stopped, unsure how to explain that the economics of the situation overrode the energy of a client who had a lofty budget and expectations: fulfilling those expectations on time and not violating their own timeline were connected to payments that in turn helped pay for all their salaries. “Let me see if a fresh face can’t fix this.”
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I had to go home and realign my chakras, he set me so far off balance.”
Savannah sighed as she hung up. Then hoped Charlot didn’t bill the Nigel project for her chakra time and made a mental note to check. She stepped out of her SUV into the warm late afternoon air and headed to Phillip Nigel’s front door.
She clanged the brass knocker and waited, looking back at the loudly splashing fountain behind her. Savannah squinted. It seemed even larger than when she’d come to the house for the budgetary estimate meeting. The pile of cherubs seemed to hold strained expressions and grasp at each other in awkward, frenzied, sexual ways.
Savannah turned back as the door swung open and the home’s AC sent out a welcome wintery breeze.
“Can I help you?” Phillip Nigel asked coolly, rubbing his hands together as if he’d just put lotion on them, carrying with it the smell of astringent.
Savannah noticed the older man’s particular care with color, contrast, and coordination. Sandy chinos, a sky-blue button-down, and a nicely contrasting salmon long-sleeve that he had tied over his shoulders. He carried a slight paunch and had a reddened nose, but his tanned skin and nails were immaculate. Some would confuse his clothes, boutique leather shoes, and jeweled pinky ring with class, but Savannah had worked in the industry long enough to know that class was more than nice clothes and a big house.
She dug deep for her sugar and prayed she could pave the road straight. “Mr. Nigel, I’m Savannah Sparling with Knight Interiors. You might remember me from earlier in the project at the initial budgetary meeting. I’m here to help sort out the problem we seem to have.” She smiled like Miss America.
“Well, that was quick. No doubt that dirty hippie you have working for you took offense at my high standards. So, are you here to tell me that I too need to just accept what fate has devised for my home renovations?”
Savannah tried to not let it show that she thought Charlot probably did say something like that, simply saying, “Why don’t I come in, and you can you can tell me what happened.”
His muddy brown eyes just stared back at her.
Negative energy, she heard Charlot say.
 “Ms. Sparling, it has been a trying day. I’m not interested in talking with any more incompetent people. Come back later, when I’m feeling up to par.”
Savannah kept her smile up. “Mr. Nigel, I assure you Knight doesn’t send me out to watch paint dry. When I show up on your doorstep, it means that we’re about to move the moon and stars for you. Let’s chat, shall we?”
His eyebrows arched slightly. “Fine,” he said and opened the door wider. “Do come in.”
“Thank you very much.”
She stepped into the foyer and reached down for disposable booties, slipping them on over her heels. Savannah took a quick glance around, feeling Phillip Nigel’s eyes watching her every move.
The construction was going well; all surfaces were either covered fully or protected with cardboard. Rooms not under construction were sealed off with plastic zipper doors. The opulent hardwood staircase sweeping up to the second story was protected with cushioned cloth and cardboard. The open balcony had been zippered, and the high-ceilinged foyer held most of the scaffolding, tools, and drop cloths. It and the sitting room to the far left of the cavernous room were being repapered, and the built-ins were being replaced.
Savannah’s heels hit quietly on the protected hardwoods as she moved to set her case down on the massive front work table that spanned the width of the room. Other designs, documents, and the purchased bolts of fabric took up one end.
“Ms. Sparling. Let me dive in. This has all been a horrible experience for me.” Phillip Nigel pointed to the thousands of dollars of fabric bolts that he had yet to pay for. “Knight assured me that I’d be getting top service, but I’ve been dealt nothing but idiots for the last three weeks. Frankly, you are the first person to put on those protective shoe coverings, and I’ve had enough of all the dust. I’m angry that it’s taken so much time for someone of your caliber to take notice. I went into this believing that I’d be respected, not treated like a commoner. The Nigel name still means something in this town.”
 Savannah had in fact checked on that very point after their design meeting, hoping to have caught a big fish with family connections. The Nigels had arrived from Texas within the last ten years and had no family to speak of in the area. His name meant nothing in this town.
Savannah answered, “Agreed, Mr. Nigel. I’ll reinforce the bootie policy. And can you show me where the dust is getting in?”
“It’s everywhere.”
“Behind the zipper doors?”
“No!” He said heatedly. “Look around you!”
Savannah took a moment to look around the active construction zone and formulate her argument against insanity. “I see.”
“This is intolerable.”
“Mr. Nigel. This area is the active construction zone. There is a level of dust that will accumulate while they work. I will advise the crew, however, to clean thoroughly at the end of each day so that the dust doesn’t travel any farther than this room.”
“That will hardly help.”
Savannah tried an understanding smile. “Mr. Nigel, I know living through a remodel can be quite difficult. We will be here for just a few more weeks; then you will have your home back, better than new. Is there somewhere you can—”
Mr. Nigel scoffed and crossed his arms, “Better than new? Not with these fabric choices.”
For the next few minutes, Savannah went through each bolt, applauding the choice, and Mr. Nigel responded to each, telling her why it was the worst.
 “Fine,” he eventually said. “Do the damn damask. It is better than the rest, but the filth you have working for you brought in these other options,” he said, contradicting himself.
“Excellent choice,” she said, ignoring the filth comment one more time. “I’ll have the crew back in here in the morning. Do you have somewhere else you might like to stay? It might ease the stress of living in a construction zo—”
“And have those people rob me blind? No, I’ll stay here and monitor the progress.” He then added, “And I’m not paying for these.” He gestured at the bolts.
Savannah smiled blandly. “Those will be removed first thing in the morning.“
“Good.”
Savannah gathered her things and handed him a card from her silver card case. “Call me if anything else comes up, Mr. Nigel.” As she spoke, she had a sinking feeling that she would deeply regret offering that.
He took her card. “I will.”
“And remember, Mr. Nigel, this project will be over soon, and your house back to normal.”
“I thought you said better than new.”
“Exactly.”

Outside in her SUV, Savannah phoned Charlot and the lead contractor for the job and debriefed them. She reiterated the bootie policy and that they needed to press forward. If Mr. Nigel got in the way, they were to either call her or have him call her. They were not to deal with him at all. She added that first thing in the morning the bolts of fabric they weren’t using were to be picked up.
“How does his energy feel?” Charlot asked.
“Enlightened.”

CHAPTER 3


The next morning Savannah’s coffee hadn’t even had a chance to cool in its to-go cup before she stood next to an angry Phillip Nigel, looking at a bolt of rich blue damask, the fabric he’d settled on the evening before.
“Ms. Sparling, you have underestimated me, and I have lost any trust in you with your obvious plot to deceive me in this banal case of bait and switch. I’ll not be paying for this.”
It was only 8:00 a.m., and she was already making a mental list of things she’d rather be doing than standing where she was. Tightrope walking without a safety net, getting into a knife fight with pirates, driving her car off the levee…Just over twelve hours prior, she had been confirming that very bolt of fabric with Phillip Nigel.
The wallpaper crew stood behind her while the other craftsmen kept their heads down, swiftly moving about their tasks.
“Why is that, Mr. Nigel?”
“Simply look at it—this isn’t what I agreed to yesterday.”
“It’s a fine fabric. Original to many homes in the area and your first choice—”
“It’s unnecessary to repeat yourself, Ms. Sparling. Your faux shock at my decision this morning makes me steadfast in my resolve. I know which fabric I chose yesterday, and this is not it.”
Savannah made an acquiescing noise in the back of her throat and then added, “Mr. Nigel, this is the exact fabric you agreed to yesterday afternoon.”
“No. It is obvious what you are trying to do, Ms. Sparling. The fabric yesterday was more opulent. I know what I saw, and this isn’t it. Your people switched it out when they took the bolts an hour ago. They assumed I wouldn’t notice, but I have, and what you’ve tried to pass off as antique damask is abominable. I am a Nigel, Ms. Sparling; I know quality.”
“I see…So, to clarify, you feel that we have taken the original $100,000 roll of silk fabric that was here when you woke this morning, had a cheap knockoff made, and then switched them in a matter of moments while you weren’t looking?”
Phillip Nigel’s appearance was ruddy that morning and his sweater was missing from his shoulders, as if he’d hastily dressed or done it drunk. He pointed at Savannah—ringed pinky finger also raised. “Don’t play games with me, Ms. Sparling. Remember who’s paying you.”
Savannah took a sip of her coffee to keep her mouth busy. Its darkly bitter warmth infused her with caffeinated patience. Charlot stood to the side, chewing her nail.
Savannah said, “Mr. Nigel. I’m trying to be clear in order to prevent more miscommunication. I’m not trying to trick you, just trying to understand where you’re coming from.”
“This is the wrong fabric.”

Several hours later, Savannah left to attend to another client, the Matherses. Savannah had only dealt with Mrs. Mathers up to then, but she was happy and she assured Savannah that her husband was too. The hour appointment at their home soothed her nerves after her interaction with Phillip Nigel.
As she slid into the driver’s seat afterward, her phone rang. She punched the answer button on her console. It was Knight, her boss. The company would purchase only one more bolt of fabric for the Nigel project, and then there would have to be a come-to-Jesus meeting with the man. His current bill was still unpaid, and Knight Interiors didn’t run a charity.
His behavior now made a little sense. Clients that couldn’t pay often played elaborate games to cover that fact. Or Phillip Nigel was a cat with a vast fortune, and the only thing he knew how to do with it was pay people to enter his home so he could bat them around like mice.
As soon as she hung up with work, her phone rang again.
“Savannah, hon! I’m glad I caught you.”
“Hi, Mama.” Savannah turned the ignition switch.
“Remember those groceries from yesterday?”
“Ah, yes. I’ll come get them after work. Or can you use them?”
“No, dear. They’ll go bad before I get to them. Want to come by for lunch and pick them up?”
Savannah’s stomach growled as if on cue. It was noon, and the only thing she’d put in her stomach all day was a twenty-ounce cup of coffee. “Yes, but I can’t stay long.”

At the house, Savannah dropped her purse on the couch and jabbed her thumb back over her shoulder. “Is Ms. Daria getting a new driveway? Didn’t she just get one?”
Helen came around the corner in the kitchen. “Hello hon, yes. You know Myrna—she wants to support the troops as much as possible, even if that means getting her driveway redone every year.” Savannah heard her mother go back to what she was doing before she arrived. The telltale sounds of mixing emanated from the kitchen in a clank and scrap of a metal spoon against a glass bowl. 
Savannah went to the front windows to inspect the crew working at Myrna’s. Up the suburban cul-de-sac, two houses down and across the street, were the white work trucks of Miner’s Concrete. The crew—made up mostly of military veterans—was currently jackhammering the so-called old driveway and hauling large slabs of it in wheelbarrows to a construction Dumpster. Savannah let her mind wander away from the demands of her design projects and over the sweaty, muscular physiques. No machines were required with that work crew. It was the company that the loathsome Cason worked for, but luckily his team only worked the big jobs.
“Mama,” Savannah called, her mind succumbing to her day’s tasks anyway, “do you know anything about the Nigels?”
“Hmmm,” her mother responded, from the other side of the kitchen/dining pass through as she scooped tuna from cans and into a mixing bowl, “they’re Myrna’s favorite topic of gossip. They hire a lot of people but don’t keep folks around. I think it’s only the son now, though. I heard that early on, when they first moved here, the son ran out all the nurses who were watching his sick mother. She died of bone cancer, I hear, but some folks will tell you the son poisoned her. Not sure how much value I’d put on those opinions, but the bottom line is that they aren’t nice folks. Boastful.”
The way her mother said boastful, especially after talking about more serious issues like poor working conditions and murder, showed that if there was anything in Helen’s community that you didn’t want to get known as, it was boastful. It was ungentlemanly and unladylike. The Nigels could consider themselves out of favor.
“Boastful, huh?” Savannah felt that was also the least of the issues she was running up against with Phillip Nigel.
Her mother tapped the spoon clean on the edge of the mixing bowl. “Why do you ask?”
“He’s a client of ours, and I’m having difficulty working with him. I thought if I knew some unconfirmed information about him, then I’d be able to work another angle. He is boastful, but there’s something else that I can’t put my finger on.”
“I’d be careful with that one. I’m not inclined to believe the rumors, but Myrna tells several.”
Savannah looked over her shoulder back towards her mother. “More than poisoning?”
“Her housekeeper’s sister used to work for the Nigels when they first moved to town, and she said that the son threatened to beat her with the mop handle if the floors didn’t shine.”
Savannah shook her head. “That’s terrible. Did she quit?”
“Yes, a week later. Myrna’s housekeeper swore she saw bruises on her sister, but she never said anything.”
Savannah’s gut twisted, remembering his seemingly innocent hand waving. Savannah had thought he was an old grouch who came off as threatening but was actually a big chicken. She worried now that he might not be all that innocent.
She refocused on the workmen down the street. By now most of the men had taken off their shirts; the midday Louisiana sun was working its magic to slicken their bodies. Savannah’s eye caught on one of the men, the lifter. Wheelbarrows came to him, and he hefted massive concrete chunks out of the driveway rubble with gloved hands and dropped them systematically into the wheelbarrows. The chunks were then hauled off and unloaded into the Dumpster as another wheelbarrow rolled in to take its place. All the men moved at their own jobs, jackhammering, tossing concrete, and disposing, like one giant, well-oiled machine.
“You would think,” Savannah murmured at the windowpane, “that hauling concrete chunks shirtless would tear up your skin.”
“Mmmm,” her mother said, “I guess they don’t care.”
“Yeah, I’m gathering as much.”
Savannah watched the flex and bow of the lifter’s back; his was a well-made example of sinewy muscle forming ropey ridges down his spine and over his shoulders. He stood again and, with an aggressive pitch of the broken slab of concrete, made his target, the waiting wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow’s minder, though, left to assist the man who was jackhammering. Savannah watched as her concrete tosser moved to take the wheelbarrow pusher’s place. He turned in her direction and maneuvered over and around broken pieces. Her eyes hadn’t left his torso; she drank in his private power play, enjoying the way he pulled and pressed the wheelbarrow across the torn-up ground.
“Exquisite,” Savannah whispered as her eyes trailed from the sand-colored work boots and cargo pants to the black nylon belt to the man’s taught abdomen. It was only when he was on the smooth, level road in front of the Dumpster that she realized he had a hitch in his step. Her eyes flew to his face in recognition. “Son of a bit—”
“Savannah Rae Sparling!” her mother admonished.
Savannah turned from the window in disgust. “I just realized the man I was admiring is Cason.”
Helen’s admonishment slid into a low laugh from the kitchen.
“Mama, that’s not funny.”
“You’re right, dear, it’s not funny. It’s very funny. I’ve told you time and time again that he’s a good man. Mind, I think you could learn more about him from that old adage that it’s not what you say but what you do that’s important.”
“Mama, I’m not even sure what that means regarding him—”
“Then perhaps you just needed to appreciate certain particular qualities before seeing his other ones.”
“You mean I need to admire his half-naked body doing hard labor so that I can find it in me somewhere to forgive him for his follies? I think you’ve misplaced your lady’s sensibilities.” Savannah joined her in the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. 
“I’ve already got the pickles,” her mother said.
“Oh.” Closing the fridge, Savannah noticed the third plate on the counter. Then realized the trap. “Mama, why is there a third plate? Cason isn’t joining us, is he?”
“I’m not sure if he’s joining us; I set it out just in case, since he’s working so close…” Helen said, avoiding eye contact with her daughter. “Please bring the bowl of potato chips to the table.”
Savannah sighed and sent up a small prayer that her day wasn’t going to get worse. She put the old turquoise glass bowl down on the dining room table as her mother opened the refrigerator and pulled out a pitcher of iced tea.
“Would you like a glass?”
“Yes,” Savannah said as the front door opened and a shirtless Cason walked in. She felt her grip on the back of the dining chair tighten.

Cason had just crossed the threshold when he started to put his shirt on, but he paused when he sensed someone looking at him. He looked up and met Savannah’s glare. Her high-waisted, knee-length tight black skirt, white long-sleeve shirt, and heels made her look like something out of the movies. A horror movie, since her eyes were like chilly black pools.
“Savannah.”
She made a point to rake her eyes slowly over his upper body. He grew even warmer and finished pulling on his shirt.
“What a pity.” Savannah turned and walked into the kitchen, returning with a plate. She dropped the third plate with a loud thud on the oval oak dining table.
“Savannah…” Helen said as a warning to her daughter and then said to Cason, “What a great treat having you both with me for lunch!” It was as if she couldn’t feel the blizzard brewing between them.
Cason undid his boots and toed them off. “Mrs. Sparling, I’ve got work dust on me. I’ll take my lunch in the kitchen, if you don’t mind.” He moved to the table and reached past Savannah—inches from her body—to pick up the plate she dropped.
Savannah’s head tilted to the side; his body heat and sweat were clearly not going unnoticed. Instead of stepping back, she whispered, “That’s a great idea, Cason.”
He could feel her chastising breath on his jaw, cooling the sweat that still lingered there. Starving and not enjoying the increasingly sharp pain his shrapnel hip was giving him, he turned his head to look her dead in the eye, close enough to see the gold flecks around her pupils. “I’m glad you think so, Savannah, but now that you mention it, it’d be rude to leave your mother alone at the table. I’ll take my lunch here.”
“I had no designs on helping you eat your sandwich in the kitchen.”
“Neither did I. But about halfway through lunch, your phone will ring, and you’ll leave. So, how about you save Mrs. S. the heartache and you eat in the kitchen.”
Savannah’s face flushed, and her wide mouth compressed into a thin line.
Helen spoke up. “Now, you two, nobody is eating in the kitchen. Let’s sit down and enjoy the sandwiches before they get soggy.”
Eyes still on Savannah, watching hers get to an even deeper black, the gold flecks vanishing, he stepped back and slid onto the wooden chair next to where she stood. There was a perverse sense of joy in him because of their banter. She would think of a comeback, no doubt, and he’d be there waiting for it.

As Savannah sat, she turned, ignoring Cason, and put a smile on her face for her mother. “Mama, are you familiar with the new plastic surgeon in town, Dr. Mathers?”
Her mother had worked as a medical assistant to one of the town’s pediatricians, Savannah’s in fact, for years, but she was retired and out of that community—what Savannah really knew was her mother enjoyed a good bit of gossip. Gained and given.
Grateful for a diversion, Helen dove in. “Yes! Nice folks, from what I hear.”
“They’ve hired Knight Interiors to redo their entire bottom floor. It’s a historic four-thousand-square-foot home, and they’re ready to take that lower floor down to the studs.”
“Wonderful! Will you be working on it?”
“As a matter of fact, I was just there.” Savannah spoke casually, but her insides were on fire from Cason’s accusation that she would leave lunch early. The bastard, she thought. Her job was demanding and her mama knew that.
“Excellent! I can’t wait to tell the Devereux—they’re neighbors to them, you know.”
“Devereux?” Savannah asked. Why was her mother talking to her finicky socialite acquaintances again?
“You know Lucille and Theodore.”
“Yes, Mama, I just didn’t know you and Lucille were friendly right now.”
Helen looked suitably aghast. “Lucille is attending my brunch tomorrow. She’s bringing Theodore. You remember Theodore, don’t you, Cason?”
Cason paused, sandwich midway to his mouth. “What?”
“Theodore, Lucille’s son, you remember him?”
Savannah looked from her mother to Cason and smiled on the inside at seeing Cason on the defensive. “Yes, Cason, you remember Theodore, fantastic eye for men’s fashion, gets hundred-dollar manicures, and starches his underpants. You remember him?”
“I remember him,” Cason said, giving her a warning glance.
“Oh, excellent,” Helen said. “I’ve invited the Devereux family to brunch tomorrow. I’d like both of you there.”
Savannah nearly laughed at the request. Was she a child with nothing else on her plate but to be at her mother’s call? “Mama, your society meetings start at sunup and end at sundown. I won’t be able to make it. I’ve got three clients I need to finalize proposals for. I need the weekend to do that.”
 “Brunch is at ten, Savannah, and you only need to come by for a moment,” Helen said. “I’d like you to be there, and you too, Cason. I think you and Theodore will hit it off. He could use a down-to-earth friend like you.”
Savannah admired her mother’s not-so-subtle social-elbow-rubbing setup. Cason looked askance at Helen. Theodore was tall and slim and wore linen suits with matching paisley ascots and managed his family’s investments. Savannah had known Cason since childhood and never in that time had she seen him wear a suit, much less a ruffled piece of silk about his neck, ever.
Savannah felt like a wolf when she smiled then. “Mama, did you just call Cason down-to-earth? You mean, salt of the earth or a down-and-dirty sort of man? I can see Theodore enjoying that immensely.”
“Now, Savannah, I’m implying no such thing. Theodore and Cason need to make friends outside of their circles of friends, and this will be a good opportunity for them to branch out.”
Cason’s brows rose even higher.
Savannah nearly clapped with glee.
“Pardon me, Mrs. S.,” Cason said, coming to life, “but I’ve come to like the friends I’ve got. I’m not sure how Theodore will—”
“I know you go to the bars with your military friends, but Theodore comes from a different view of the world. It’ll be good for the both of you to hang out, as it were.”
“Fantastic. Glad that’s solved,” Savannah said, mock toasting Cason with her iced tea. “Looks like you’ll be Theodore’s new best friend tomorrow.”
Across the table, Cason’s eyes slid back to hers, his face impassive. “I don’t think your mom’s done.”
“Savannah, hon. As I said, I’d like you to be there. For just a bit. It’s been a very long while since Lucille has seen you.”
Savannah’s smile faded. “Mama, you can pass on my hellos for me.”
Cason cut in, “How hard is it to drive here, get out of your car, say hi, eat, and then leave? Come on, Sparling, even you can manage that.”
Savannah’s lip curled into a sneer as Cason spoke. “Sorry? Did you say something directly to me?” She turned to look at her mother, managing a small smile. “Mama, I know you’d like me to be here, but for me your brunches do last all day because I end up sauced on mimosas and talking with Myrna about turning her garage into a photo studio for male nude portraiture. I’m sorry I won’t be able to go.”
“Savannah, I’ve promised Lucille you’ll be there—”
“Mama…why’d you promise her something like that?”
“What good is all that money you make if you can’t spend time with your mom?” Cason said.
“What did you just say?” Savannah let the chill of her gaze settle back on Cason.
Helen interjected, “Now, Cason, I’m not saying—”
“You get promoted to veep status at Knight, and yet you—”
“I wasn’t asking you to explain. I was hoping you’d hear the words you were saying and would think again about speaking to me. I realize, though, that for someone like you, it’d be hard to comprehend the virtues of financial stability.”
“Savannah Rae—”
Cason cut in, “I’m clarifying for you that you’re putting money before family. And yeah, I don’t know how to do that, you’re right.” He stood.
“How dare you,” Savannah said.
“Now, you two—”
Cason grabbed his plate. “Thanks, Mrs. S. I’ve got to get back to work now.”
Savannah snatched her plate, feeling her hunger vanish, and followed him into the kitchen. “You have no right. I work my ass off—”
“Doesn’t change that you put making money over seeing your mom.”
She tossed her plate on the counter as he rinsed his. “As an interloper in this house, you have no right to say—”
“Actually, I fought for the right to say what I just did. What have you done? Made buckets of money?”
Savannah laughed caustically. “You fought for American free speech? Is that what you were doing in Afghanistan?” She watched his countenance change, which she’d aimed her words to cause. He knocked the tap off as she added, “I didn’t realize that your allegiance was that blind. Though—”
He got in her face. “Say what you want about me. I fought for my country, gladly would have given my life for it. Unlike you, who have a life worth living, and you’re ditching it for the almighty dollar.”
“Get the hell out of my mama’s house.”
“Show up tomorrow. Your mom deserves better.”
“I’ll not have you manipulate me into—”
“Then show up.” His green eyes had gone satisfactorily dark.
“I think not, especially not now, at your beck and call.”
“Fine. I’d hate for Lucille Devereux to hear your happy news secondhand, though.”
Savannah narrowed her eyes dangerously. “My happy news?”
Cason cocked his head. “What else? Your pregnancy.”
“That’s ridiculous. Gossip mongering at its finest.” Savannah folded her arms over her chest. “You’re so childish, Cason. I’ve not gone out with a man, much less been seen with one, in a year. You’ll have to be cleverer.”
“I’m sorry. Did I say it was your happy news? I meant it was mine. So glad you’ll let me tell everyone you’re pregnant with my kid.” He saluted her then and stalked from kitchen and out the front door.
As his words hit home, an angry heat blossomed in Savannah’s chest and bloomed up her neck. Her mind went blank with rage.
Helen came around the corner with her half-eaten sandwich. “It’s a good thing I’m not hungry today—I’d be eating alone now!”
Savannah was still fuming. “I’ll be right back.”
Cason was halfway down the street by the time she was out the front door. She marched smartly past her car and into the street. Ahead, the concrete crew had taken a break for lunch, sitting on broken concrete pieces in Ms. Daria’s drive. The heat of the sun and the humidity warmed her skin and moistened the air she breathed. With the fury she was feeling inside toward Cason, she was nearly at overload.
Cason paused up the street and reached his hand over his head, pulling off his shirt. He tucked it into his back pocket and stood still, naked back to her, as Savannah’s heels clipped a pointed staccato up the street.
She barely registered that some of Cason’s crew stopped to watch her progress; she was wholly focused on the shirtless man in front of her.
He turned and slid his hands into his front pockets; the effect—that pointed attention to the flat planes of his chest—would have been heart-stopping for any other hot-blooded female. However, Savannah didn’t care.
Cason waited as she closed the distance, his face impassive, eyes focused on the horizon.
“Cason,” she said crisply.
“Ma’am,” he replied as she stepped up to him.
“Don’t ma’am me—”
“You wouldn’t like the other word I was going to use.”
Her eyes narrowed; she barely noticed the sheen that his skin was starting to take on in the heat. Her blood got even hotter. “I don’t care what you call me, but it’d be best if you and I agreed right now that threatening to tell lies to the Devereux family tomorrow to manipulate me into being there will land you in a world of hurt.”
His lips twitched. He took a step closer and slid his angry gaze to hers. “A world of hurt, huh?” he said, letting those words fall between them. “How will I ever survive it?”
They stood staring at each other, both thinking of real survival. As it always happened, Ryan, his death, the insurgent attack in that crimson valley came between them. The real ripping apart of their worlds.
Ryan had been more than Savannah’s only sibling. He’d taken care of her as both a father and a brother after the death of their own father when they were kids. Cason had killed two men at once when he dared Ryan to join the army with him, then in Afghanistan, he left him there to die. Those were Cason’s own words. Pity was something she couldn’t spare him.
The twist the conversation took was far from the Devereux family by the time she spoke again. Savannah met the battle-green eyes in front of her. “I’ll personally ensure that it’s a new level of hell you feel.”
“I doubt you know the level of hell that that would take.”
“Really? You might want to rethink creating a personal vendetta from Ryan Sparling’s sister. Especially since I hear your mama’s been off the sauce for a while and is looking for you. I hear she’s wanting some time with her baby boy.”
“Don’t.”
“Trust me, Cason, when I say I know how deep that dagger is in your chest, and I have no problem shoving it deeper and twisting. I’m not an idle-threat maker, and I’m not in a position to have the man who led my brother to his death manipulate me into societal game playing. Do we understand each other?”
“I don’t know how many times I have to tell you, Savannah, that I’m sorry Ryan died. And getting more pissed at me doesn’t change the fact that he’s never coming back.”
“Says the man who stepped over his dying body to escape when a little shrapnel nicked his skin. He wouldn’t have been in that godforsaken place if it hadn’t been for you—so yeah, it’ll take a whole lot more than just ‘sorry’ to erase those wounds. And as of the first of next month, you’ll be out of my mama’s house, or so help me god, I’ll come for you like a hellhound seeking vengeance. That sandbox you left will look like a vacation.”
He leaned in. “You don’t get it, do you? It already does.”
“Then go back.” Savannah turned and slid her sunglasses on and started walking away.
Cason raised his voice. “Your brother died a damn hero, Savannah, and the sooner you realize that, the better.”
She looked at him over her shoulder. The power of the man was undeniable, but he was a devil in combat boots. “And what are you—the pedestal his memory is supposed to sit on?”
His jaw clenched. “Fuck you.”
“Fuck you too, McPherson.” She turned and stalked back to her car.

Cason’s blood was on fire as he watched her leave. She knew just where jab at him, knew where the opening was to crawl under his skin and turn him into a human inferno. It was hard to believe that there had been a time when he thought she walked on water, a time when all the world stood still when she entered a room. She had never known it; he was grateful to the world for such small mercies.
Cason turned back toward his work crew, pulled his gloves from his back pocket, and shoved them on. He realized then that they all were staring at him, crooked grins on their faces.
One whistled low. “McPherson, you never told us you were datin’ Mrs. S.’s daughter.”
He smiled halfheartedly. Here we go, he thought.
Another said, “Datin’? Shoot, no. Makin’ babies in the middle of the street, more like.”
Cason chucked a piece of cement into the wheelbarrow. “If that’s how you think babies are made, Alexander, that explains why you haven’t been laid.”
There was a low whistle and a hoot of laughter. “Hoo, Xander, he’s got your number.”
“Just sayin’, a fine-looking woman like that putting her body up against me in the street? Shoot—she’s not lookin’ for a fight. She lookin’ for some love.”
Cason just shook his head and went back to work. There was no need to explain any of what had just happened; his crew knew who Ryan Sparling was to Cason. Knew of that valley of death, each of them having his own version of a similar story.

Pouring concrete might not be as complicated as the tasks he undertook as Sergeant McPherson, but having a purpose and the brotherhood of his crew helped ease his transition back to civilian life. And in moments like that they helped to keep him grounded. 

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