Start reading this book:
Rhett Colton reached for the worn handle with every intention of opening the door. He gripped the black iron knob tightly, took one deep breath, and then another before letting go. The cabin that brought happy memories hadn’t changed over the years. Large, peeled logs, turned dark golden brown with age were still solid, holding the little cabin together precisely the way his grandfather had built it. The green metal roof had faded over time, along with the screen door painted to match. Rhett imagined restoring both to their original deep hunter green. The floorboards under his feet were solid, and the willow rocking chairs his grandpa built were still lined up on the porch in front of the large living room window. Ten pristine acres surrounded the cabin. The centerpiece of the property was a large pond, ringed with cattails and a small cluster of indigo bush at one end. In the evening, the pond’s occupants put on a show, leaping out of the water to catch the skeeter bugs and mosquitos that also called the body of water home. A bright blue kingfisher with a brown band across his belly usually joined the fray, swooping in, competing with the fish to fill its belly with insects for dinner. The evening activity assured Rhett that the pond was still fully stocked, and its occupants had been left to their own devices for far too long. He looked at the empty fishing pole rack and wondered if the vintage fishing reels that his grandpa prized were stored somewhere inside. Everything, the pond, the cabin, and its contents, were all his now. It would be up to Rhett to make sure the rods were put back in their proper place.
He bowed his head. This wasn’t the reward he expected or wanted for what he did.
“You shouldn’t have done it,” Rhett muttered, backing away from the front door, fingering the hair tie he kept on his wrist, snapping it. The slight sting wasn’t enough to distract him from the more significant pain he felt at the loss of his grandfather.
The agency had wanted him to cut his hair before he went on his assignment, but he’d refused. It was one piece of himself he wasn’t willing to give up.
His best friend, the only loyal friend he’d had for the last couple of years, whined and pressed himself against Rhett’s leg, bringing him out of his musings and back to the present.
He glanced down at his watch. Somehow, he’d lost over an hour standing in front of his grandpa’s cabin.
“Not today, Rebel,” Rhett said.
He’d been saying that just about every day for months now. An invisible wall of regret and guilt kept Rhett from opening the door and claiming what was rightfully his. Rhett’s grandpa left him everything he owned. He knew what his grandpa was trying to do with his gift. It was his way of saying he was sorry.
Pictures flashed through his mind like flipping through pages of a photo album while Rhett walked down to the pond. He sat down on the large cypress log at the water’s edge. How many hours had he spent here sitting next to his grandpa with a pole in the water?
Rhett’s father would comment on how he and his grandpa were like peas in a pod. Rhett shared a bond with him that was unbreakable. They understood each other. Of all his cousins, he was the one his grandpa spent the most time with. He hadn’t always led a good life, but when George Colton took his last breath, he left this earth having done everything he could to make amends and be worthy of his family and friends.
Rhett wanted to make sure his grandpa’s legacy would be one of honor. But that meant destroying his reputation. His parents no longer looked at him with parental pride. Now his father looked at him with pity and sorrow in his eyes. It was almost worse than the anger and disappointment.
“I’ve got to go away for a while,” Rhett said, digging his fingers into Rebel’s soft fur. I’ve got a little more business to do and then we can get back to normal, whatever that is.” Now that his assignment with the FBI was over, all Rhett wanted was to rebuild the life he had before. Only that wasn’t turning out to be as easy as he thought it would be. Rebel nudged his hand in a not so subtle reminder for Rhett to keep petting him. He knelt down and gently stroked the fur around the digs muzzle. “You’re going to stay with Jasmine Owens. Jacob says Dr. Owens is a good person, and she’s a vet, so I know she’ll take good care of you. We have to trust people again at some point, don’t we? She’s doing us a big favor, so be on your best behavior, okay?” Rebel gave him a wet kiss. “It’s just a couple of weeks while I go to Washington, DC. We can do this.”
Rebel rested his paw on Rhett’s knee. He needed Rebel’s reassurance more than the dog needed him. Rebel was the one thing that kept him from losing his humanity, his hope. He’d saved Rebel, but it turned out that Rebel had saved him.
Remembering the first time he saw the scared German shepherd mix still made his stomach clench and his heart race. Rebel was just a puppy and about to be thrown into a dogfighting ring as bait. Rhett almost blew his cover before his assignment had gotten off the ground. He had to think quickly when he snatched the small ball of fur from his cousin’s arms and yelled for him to stop. Thinking quickly, he came up with a story about how he needed a guard dog and threw in a hundred dollars. Money, he said. He was going to bet on the fight to keep him. He clutched the shivering body covered in tan and black fur close to his chest. The puppy looked up at him with enormous amber eyes and then peed all over him. Everyone in the room wanted to know what he was going to name him. He had to pick something suitable for the person he was pretending to be, so he chose Rebel.
“It’s almost over, two more weeks. We can do that, can’t we, boy?” he said, stroking Rebel’s back.
He received a wet kiss for his reassurance.
Fourteen days would be easy compared to the two years he spent undercover with a white supremacist group. He’d be on leave when he came back from Washington. Three months, time to decide if he wanted to continue with the FBI or forge an alternative path. The only problem was he couldn’t figure out what that would be.
A flash of dark gray caught his eye, and he looked over at the gray pickup truck pulling up to the cabin with dread. He took in the scenery around him one more time before he slowly got up. His future looked like the murky blue waters of the pond when he turned and walked away.
Jacob Winters, the man who had been his handler while he was undercover, leaned against the hood of his truck emblazoned with Winters Hardware on the driver’s side door in cream against the gray paint.
Jacob came to Colton for the assignment and stayed for love and the community that embraced him.
“Thanks for doing this,” Rhett said, shaking Jacob’s hand.
“It’s the least I can do.”
“Let me just grab my pack and Rebel’s stuff from the porch, and we can go.”
He held his hand up, and Rebel sat down while he jogged back to the cabin and grabbed his stuff.
Jacob looked down at Rebel. “He could have served as an MPC with my unit with the Schutzhund training you’ve given him.”
Rhett had used the training method for police dogs, emphasizing tracking, obedience, and protection skills. He’d done it in part to keep up the story that he wanted a guard dog and in part to protect both of them. Rebel would defend Rhett with his life, and Rhett would do the same for him. They were a team, and he wasn’t sure if he could function without his best friend at his side.
“Thanks.” He reached down and scratched Rebel between the ears. “I thought about going overseas when this is all over, but they wouldn’t take Rebel as a multi-purpose canine since I’m not a certified trainer. He’d be fine if he was with me, but—” Rhett pressed his lips together, shaking his head.
“The Army won’t guarantee that,” Jacob finished.
Rebel had already given him so much comfort he couldn’t ask his best friend to risk his life as well.
With the truck loaded, Rhett took one last look at the cabin as they drove away. The closer he got to town, the more uncomfortable Rhett became. He was thankful Jacob didn’t attempt too much small talk on the drive. Jacob Winters had served him well as his handler, and Rhett was grateful that he let him do his job without a lot of interference. They were alike in a lot of ways. They observed before they acted and didn’t waste words. But Jacob had softened in the last year. He had a lightness… happiness around him that Rhett envied. His marriage and his son’s birth transformed him. Rhett wondered what it would take for him to find the happiness Jacob had.
It had become a habit to hunch his shoulders and duck his head when he was in town. He bowed his head, letting his hair fall forward to hide his face. Even then, people stopped and some pointed when they drove by.
Rhett felt split in two. Half the folks in Colton saw him as a hero who helped save the mayor when the group he imbedded with hatched a plan to kidnap her. The other half had a hard time believing he wasn’t really what he’d been pretending to be. It had been easier to avoid both groups and keep to himself since his real identity was revealed. In a strange way, it was fitting. Colton was a town of halves. Half-White, half-Black, the citizens that lived in the Mississippi Delta town reflected two sides of history, descendants of the enslaved and descendants of their owners. Rhett looked at the gazebo, the centerpiece of Colton’s town square, a witness to history for over six generations, and wondered if he would ever find the peace and happiness that folklore promised would come to any couple that married under its canopy.
It had worked for Jacob. His former handler was happier than he’d ever known him to be.
Jacob pulled up to the new vet clinic that had just opened up a few weeks ago. Originally built as a cigar factory in the early 1900s, the brick two-story building became a dental office and then was abandoned for many years. Now, the building sat newly restored, with Colton Animal Clinic written on the window with a vintage script in a bright emerald green outlined in white and silver.
He glanced at Rebel sitting next to him. “What do you think, boy, can you hang out here for a little while?”
“I’ve known Jasmine Owens since she was in high school,” Jacob said. “The Owens family are good people. I promise Jasmine will take good care of Rebel.”
Rhett dipped his head in agreement. Everyone in town was happy to welcome the sheriff Isiah Owens’s sister and another new business to the town’s restoration efforts.
The new sheriff made a good impression, and Rhett liked and respected him. Sheriff Owens was doing a good job bringing order back to the area after years of the town being run by a corrupt sheriff and town council. Colton, Mississippi, had a brighter future now with new leadership, including the mayor, Jacob’s wife, Mae. Rhett closed his eyes and tried to breathe in the air that was suddenly difficult to find. His undercover work ended the night the group he was with kidnapped Mae. Rhett kept any harm from coming to her, but for those horrible hours on the Fourth of July, while everyone else was celebrating the nation’s birthday, he was in the middle of a fight, trying to keep Colton’s mayor from being killed.
“Rhett!” Jacob gave him a gentle shake. “You okay?”
He opened his eyes. How long had he had them closed?
“Yeah, I’m fine I was just—”
“That night haunts us all,” Jacob said quietly.
“How is Mae doing? Is she still having nightmares?”
“She’s doing well. She hasn’t had a nightmare in a few weeks now.”
Rhett shook his head. “She shouldn’t have had them in the first place.”
“It’s not your fault, Rhett, you’ve got to lay that burden down.”
“I could have stopped the kidnapping before it happened.”
“You were trying to make sure you had a bulletproof case against those assholes. You wanted to have as much evidence as possible. I signed off on it, too. This isn’t all on you, Rhett.”
It was easier to nod in agreement than keep arguing, even though Jacob was wrong. Rhett was the one undercover. It was his assignment and his fault things went too far. Rhett opened the door, and Rebel jumped out behind him.
“Come on, let me introduce you to Jasmine,” Jacob said.
Rhett crouched down and held Rebel’s face. “You be a good boy for Ms. Owens, ya hear? You show her you know how to mind your manners.”
Rebel flicked his ears forward and cocked his head.
Rhett swallowed, trying to get past the lump that formed in his throat. Rebel was his best friend and confidant, and they hadn’t spent time apart since the day he held him.
He took a deep breath and walked into the clinic. Rhett almost tripped over his own feet when he walked in and laid eyes on Dr. Owens for the first time. Her dark, tightly curled hair was pulled up on top of her head in a twisty knot. She looked up at him with a wide-open smile that was reflected in her dark eyes. The oversized scrubs she wore must have been at least two sizes too big for her. They disguised her body, but he could see her well-toned warm brown arms under the short sleeves of her top. She had to be strong working with animals all day.
She came toward him with her hand outstretched, and when it slid into his, it was a key that slid into a lock, opening his heart for the first time in a very long time. She must have felt the spark that arced between them, too, because her eyes widened for a fraction of a second before he let her hand go.
He could see her lips moving, but he didn’t register what she was saying right away. His breath caught. His first instinct was to turn around and leave, to get as far away from Dr. Owens’s kind eyes and inviting smile as possible. She was the first person who didn’t look at him with pity in their eyes since his assignment ended.
“Can you repeat that?” he murmured when he realized she was looking at him expectantly.
“I was asking how long you’ve had Rebel?”
“Two years, ma’am. I mean, Doctor.”
She smiled. “Just call me Jasmine.”
“I appreciate you doing this for me. I hope having Rebel won’t be an added burden with your work.”
Jasmine reached down and scratched Rebel between the ears. “Not at all. It will be nice to have a roommate for a while. I have an apartment above the clinic, so it will be easy to check on him throughout the day.”
“I promise he won’t chew up the furniture or anything like that.”
“I’m sure he won’t. We’re going to get along just fine.”
Rebel looked up at Jasmine, already smitten with his new friend. Rhett couldn’t blame him. Jasmine Owens was someone he already knew he wanted to get to know better. Romance and a life undercover didn’t mesh. The sudden desire to get to know this woman standing before him took him by surprise. If life were different, if he was any other man, he would have asked her out, but that wasn’t possible. Rhett couldn’t ask that from anyone, and especially not this woman. What woman would want him with his scars, especially a Black woman?
She was smiling at him. The light had shifted, and he noticed the flecks of green and gold in her brown eyes. They were kind eyes, but there was just a tinge of something in them that let him know that she’d experienced sorrow on some level. It made him want to miss his flight, stay, and talk to her. It had been a long time since he wanted to talk to anyone. He was wrong for her, but that didn’t stop him from returning her smile and wondering, What if?
End of Excerpt