Read free romance: Protecting His Heart


PROLOGUE

20 years ago


Twelve-year-old Ian McCleary peeked up at Kent Lawson as he paced the hospital exam room. His best friend’s dad was a big man but had never made Ian feel scared.


Not like his own dad.


Ian stared at the floor, cradling his right arm with his left hand. It didn’t hurt quite as bad now.

The doctor said it was broken.


Broken! He’d been beat up before, but had never broken anything…


“Ian, son…” The big man came to a halt in front of Ian, then bent at the knee so they were eye to eye. “I need to ask you a question, and I need you to answer honestly.”


He was going to ask Ian something that would be hard to answer, Ian just knew it.


“Yes sir.” He tried to make his voice sound strong but it didn’t come out that way.


Kent’s beefy hand came down on Ian’s shoulder. He spoke carefully, holding Ian’s gaze. “This isn’t the first time your father has hit you, is it?”


Ian’s eyes dropped; he thought he’d hid it well. But they had noticed.


They knew. Shame flared in his chest. But also another emotion, just as strong.


Hate.


And yet… could he betray his father?


Ian loved the Lawsons. He loved how they joked around with each other—especially how his best friend Jamie and his brothers teased their little sister, Carly. He loved how their house was always full of music and laughter. How Mrs. Lawson fussed over him at every meal. How they cheered for Ian and Jamie at their baseball games. He loved that Mr. Lawson took him fishing…


Like he was part of the family.


If only.


Ian swallowed, feeling Kent Lawson’s eyes on him but unable to meet them. He couldn’t lie to the one man he respected more than any other. “No sir.”


Kent’s hand tightened on his shoulder, but he didn’t speak.


Had he done the right thing? His answer was honest, but maybe he’d deserved it. Maybe he’d brought on Shamus McCleary’s wrath himself…


“It’s not your fault, son.” Kent’s normally loud voice was heavy and thick.


Ian was mortified to feel tears in his eyes; he’d promised himself he wouldn’t cry. No matter how bad it hurt.


But this was pain of a different kind, a kind he didn’t understand.


“The doctor’s going to put a cast on that arm, and then we’ll take you home,” Kent said.


Home?! The thought of going home filled Ian with panic. Would he be there? Would he—


Kent squeezed his shoulder, and Ian realized his whole body had tensed up. “You’re going home with us.”


CHAPTER 1

Present Day

New Year’s Eve


Ian set his glass on the high-top table. New Year’s Eve celebrations were well underway at Leo’s bar, and all he had in front of him was a Coke.


“You on duty tonight?” Leo himself leaned against the table. Ian had known Leo since his bar-hopping days as a younger man, but since Ian made the move from Minneapolis vice to small-town cop three years ago, he’d been called to Leo’s bar more times than he could count.


In fact, it felt odd to be a patron—and the way Leo hovered, Ian guessed he felt the same. If he were a bar owner, would he want the town cop to hang out in his bar on his nights off? Shoot, Leo probably hoped Ian was on duty.


Ian shook his head, chuckling inwardly at the look on Leo’s face. But then a splash of color at the other end of the bar caught his attention, and he swung his gaze that way.


Rachel was here.


And Josh was with her.


He watched as Josh and his buddies greeted each other with raucous voices. Josh bellowed out his drink request as he grabbed at Rachel’s ass, obviously well on his way to being drunk.


Rachel’s smile was tight, and Ian’s gut clenched with a familiar, deep-seated anxiety.


Yeah, there’s a reason I’m not drinking.


There were perks to being a small-town cop, but at the moment, he wished he were invisible. It would help him do what he came to do.


He realized Leo had said something to him. “What’s that?”


“Do you need another Coke?” Leo said.


He shook his head again.


“Okay.” Leo shrugged. “You know where to find the good stuff if you change your mind.”


Ian watched the man wander back behind the bar.


What he came to do.


Hell, he wasn’t even sure what that was. He knew Leo’s was a place Josh frequented when he went on his drinking binges. He knew that because he’d been keeping tabs on him since the holiday party. He’d even looked him up in the system. What he’d found didn’t make him feel any better. And then there was the shiner Rachel was sporting at the party he’d broken up last Halloween…


Across the room, Josh frowned at Rachel. Ian strained to read his lips.


Why couldn’t you wear something nice?


By the way Josh tipped his head toward another woman, then looked at Rachel as if she were a hideous monster, Ian understood Josh’s definition of “nice” to be a top so tight a woman’s breasts were nearly falling out, and a skirt so short she’d have every Tom, Dick and Harry trying to put their hands up it. Not to mention it was completely inappropriate for the minus-fourteen-degree weather in northern Minnesota.


Ian clenched his jaw. No doubt if Rachel had dressed like that, Josh would accuse her of being a slut or cheating on him. Then again, if Rachel had dressed like that, Ian would have insisted she take his jacket.


He shouldn’t even be here. His best friend and adoptive brother, Jamie, was waiting for Ian a few blocks away (along with his fiancé and a half-dozen friends). He would give it ten minutes, he told himself, and then he’d leave. He’d put Rachel out of his head and enjoy not having to be a cop on New Year’s Eve.


Jamie.


He was happy for Jamie, he really was. Jamie had been through a rough patch, but he had Kira now, and he was about to leave to follow his dream of being a professional baseball umpire. Ian was thrilled for him, but he couldn’t help the increasingly frequent stabs of jealousy, the insidious thoughts about whether he was doing what he was meant to do.


He thought his time in vice had prepared him for anything, but being a cop in the small town he’d grown up in was stressful in a whole different way. Still, he wouldn’t trade it. After eight years in the big city, it had felt right to come back to Nash—and the family who’d taken him in as their own and raised him to be the responsible adult he was now.


Rachel tugged at Josh’s arm. Ian couldn’t hear what she said to him, but he heard Josh’s reply.


“It’s New Year’s Eve. Everybody’s drinking! If you’re gonna be a nag, then go home!”


Ian’s body tightened. Insults, name-calling, and public put-downs were all weapons of abuse designed to erode self-esteem and make a person feel powerless. If Josh told Rachel she was worthless often enough, she would start believing it.


That thought, as much as Josh’s behavior, had Ian standing and moving toward her the moment he saw Josh step outside.


*************************


“Rachel.” The touch on her shoulder was light, but she still flinched before she realized it wasn’t Josh.


She turned to find the amber eyes she couldn’t seem to forget since the bachelorette party last summer. She’d never talked that easily with a man. He was so nice


And wow, Ian McCleary looked even better in a tight t-shirt and jeans that hugged his hips than he did in his police uniform. His auburn hair, usually gelled into place, was unfettered tonight, the longer strands on top falling over his forehead. Combined with the tightly cropped beard (also auburn)—and the ever-present serious expression—he looked every inch the Irishman he was.


“How are you?” His eyes searched hers, leaving her feeling strangely exposed.


The last time she’d seen him—Halloween—she’d had a black eye. Embarrassment made her drop her gaze. “I’m fine.”


“And things with…?”


“Josh.” Her eyes darted toward the door. Oh God, what would Josh think if he saw her talking to the town cop? He’d only gone out for a nip of the stronger stuff…


“How are they?” Ian said.


“Fine. Good.”


“I’ve been worried about you since I saw you at that party,” Ian said.


“Oh that?” she said. “That was nothing, just… the door. At the restaurant.”


He nodded solemnly. “So you said.”


“Ian, you can’t… we can’t…” Her eyes darted to the door again. “You shouldn’t even talk to me.”


Something flashed in Ian’s eyes. “Why?”


“Because… just… please.”


“Because Josh might get mad?” He tipped his head and stared at her.


Hell, yes, Josh would be livid. And one of them would pay the price…


But she couldn’t tell Ian that.


A movement behind Ian made her eyes widen, but before she could utter any sort of warning, Josh had grabbed Ian by the shoulder and spun him around. “I thought I made it clear I don’t want you sniffin’ around my woman,” Josh growled. He drew back his arm and swung at Ian, but he was sloppy from alcohol, and Ian easily ducked it.


An odd expression came over Ian’s face. “She’s not a piece of property,” he said. “You can’t tell her what to do.”


“She listens to me, asshole, not you,” Josh said.


Fury. That’s what she saw in Ian’s expression. It struck her that Ian probably rarely let anyone see that emotion. “Josh, forget it,” she said, her voice shaking. “Come on. Let’s go somewhere else.” She tried to push Josh along, but he didn’t budge.


“Let me say this slowly so you don’t miss it.” Ian’s voice dropped low. “You don’t deserve her.”


Josh growled and swung again, and this time his punch connected with the side of Ian’s face.

Rachel swallowed her scream as Ian reared back from the blow. But then his fist shot out and caught Josh in the side of the head.


Josh bellowed and rushed Ian, grabbing him around the middle.


Ian didn’t go down, so Josh let go and let his fists fly.


Ian seemed to put up with this for a few seconds, but then he put one fist—hard—into Josh’s stomach.


Josh went down, his mouth making weird sucking motions.


A uniformed policeman stepped between the two men. “Break it up!” he barked.


“Get up, you piece of shit!” Ian looked like he was going to go after Josh again, but the cop got an arm around his chest.


“McCleary? What the hell?”


Ian shrugged the cop’s arm off. “He took the first swing,” he said. The crowd standing around murmured their agreement. The cop looked at Josh on his hands and knees, holding his stomach. Then he bent over and yanked him up. “Pretty lit up too,” he said. “Reckon we need to give him a little time out.”


Ian nodded, but his gaze was focused on Rachel.


Hands tugged at her, and Rachel let herself be pulled away as Josh swore a blue streak. She looked on in shock as the officer handcuffed Josh and led him away.


Scanning the bar, she saw Leo push Ian through the kitchen door.


*************************


“Son of a bitch,” Ian muttered as he took the ice pack Leo held out to him.


“You’d better sit your ass on that stool.” Leo nodded toward the corner.


Ian didn’t argue; Josh had hit harder than he’d expected. He sat down and pressed the ice pack to his jaw. The pain in his face was worth it; that asshole would spend the night in jail…


The back door slammed open, and Ian jumped.


Jamie and Kira.


Jamie’s eyes honed in on Ian immediately. “What happened?” he said.


“Mister lawman here got in a fight,” Leo volunteered.


“No way,” Jamie said.


“The cops just left,” Leo said. “The other cops, that is.”


Jamie looked more closely at Ian. “You drunk?”


“It is New Year’s Eve,” Ian said.


“He ain’t drunk,” Leo said. “He’s been nursing a Coke all night.”


Jamie stared at Ian. “What’s this all about?”


When Ian didn’t answer, Leo spoke up again. “A girl.”


“Really?” Jamie said.


“Rachel?” Kira said.


Ian’s shoulders tensed. He was saved from answering by the bar door banging against the wall.


What were you thinking?”


*************************


Rachel focused on the figure sitting on a stool. How dare he get her boyfriend arrested! Hadn’t she told Ian to leave her alone?


Blood. Ian was hurt. A cut on his lip…


Her resolve faltered; why this ridiculous urge to go to him?


Ian’s chin came up defiantly. “It’s one night he won’t be able to hurt you.”


Her mouth dropped open. How could he know?


He couldn’t know!


Rachel’s eyes flew to the woman who stood next to Ian. She recognized Kira from the bachelorette party last August. And her boyfriend, whose name she didn’t recall. Both looked as shocked as she by Ian’s comment.


Before she could get words of denial out of her mouth, the waitress bustled in, a shot glass in her hand. “Here, honey, this will take the edge off. On the house.” The waitress glanced at Rachel, then turned her attention back to Ian.


“Rachel!” She heard her friend Kathy’s voice from somewhere behind the door.


This was a bad idea.


She started to backpedal.


Kathy burst into the kitchen. “What are you doing in here?”


Leo muttered something about too many people in his goddamn kitchen.


“We didn’t know where you’d gone.” Kathy took Rachel by the elbow. “You poor thing. Come on, let’s get out of here.” Rachel allowed herself to be pulled out of the kitchen. But she couldn’t escape those eyes.


Ian knew.


*************************


Ian watched Rachel go as Leo griped about “having a bar to run.” God, he hated that he’d been right about her boyfriend. Didn’t she know she deserved to be treated like a queen, not like… like a punching bag?


Relative silence descended in the kitchen.


“I’ll take you home,” Jamie said.


“I can get myself home,” Ian growled. “Don’t need my jaw to drive.” Even those few words spread pain through his face.


“Hey,” Jamie said. “You’re there for my shit, I’m there for yours. Right?”


Ian’s scowl softened, and after a few moments, he muttered, “Yeah, yeah. All right.”


Thirteen minutes later, Jamie pulled into the long drive that led to Ian’s house. “You going to tell me what’s going on?” he said.


Ian sighed. “Her boyfriend’s got three priors for domestic assault.”


A pause. “When did you find that out?”


“I looked him up after the holiday party,” Ian said.


“Any of them ever stick?”


Ian shook his head.


Jamie’s breath blew out. “So you think…”


“Guys like that, they don’t change,” Ian ground out.


“But Ian—”


“They don’t!” Ian smacked his hand on the dashboard. “So I’m just supposed to sit by when I know—I know in my gut—that he’s hurting her?”


“Is that why you took the hit?”


Ian didn’t answer.


“Ah hell,” Jamie said. Everyone knew Ian was especially sensitive to domestic violence cases, but only Jamie and a few others knew why.


Ian stared at the wisps coming out of the chimney, proof that the heat was running in his house.


“You gotta do what you gotta do,” Jamie said. “I’ll back you up. Always. You know that.”


“Yeah.” Ian sucked in a breath. “I know.”


But they both knew it wouldn’t be the same, now that Jamie was leaving for umpire school.


CHAPTER 2


Ian turned up the heat in his pickup truck, then checked his gas tank indicator. January in Minnesota was no time to run out of gas. This would be so much easier in the summer, when the trees would cover his truck, and he could have the window down to hear better.


He tipped the coffee cup to his lips, but it was empty. How long had he been here? Two, three hours?


The light in the second-floor, third window from the left still shone brightly.


What the hell was he doing here anyway? This was no official stake-out, that was certain. It wasn’t even any of his business. Except…


Protect and serve.


It was what he did. It had always been a job, pure and simple. It felt good and it helped him sleep at night.


Except when it didn’t.


Like tonight.


A night when his mind conjured up long-ago images of a man hitting a woman. Of a young boy, barely five, putting his own tiny body between the two…


It didn’t help that he’d picked up his younger adoptive brother, Ben, from the detox center that morning. Didn’t people realize how wicked alcohol could be? In his line of work, he saw the effects of alcohol addiction every day: lives wasted, destroyed, even lost.


Ian shook his head. What was it with this woman? He hardly knew Rachel, really. Why did she put all his protective instincts on alert?


So much so that this wasn’t the first time he’d parked across from her apartment building. Wasn’t the first time he’d followed her boyfriend from his job at the mine to her apartment. What if someone recognized Ian’s truck? Would the town cop become known as a stalker?

He huffed out a breath. Half-hour. He’d give it thirty minutes—just to be sure—and then he’d go home.


To his empty house.


And the memories.