Ghost of the Past
Baker City: Hearts and Haunts #4
by Josie Malone
Former Marine, Durango Hawke never thought he’d spend years trekking through the jungles of South America looking for his missing brother, or that duty to his family would cost him the love of his life.
Heather McElroy grew up dreaming of a country music career but followed her childhood sweetheart into the military instead. Now, back in civilian life, it’s finally time to put herself first.
When Durango leaves on his latest rescue mission, he assumes she’ll be waiting when he returns.
Will chasing her dreams cost Heather the love of her life?
Release Date: December 6, 2022
Genre: Paranormal (Ghost) | Military Romance
A Pink Satin Romance
Baker City, Washington ~ August 2014
“I’m done coming second in your life, Durango Hawke.”
“Say again, babe. I didn’t get that.”
“You heard me.” Heather McElroy shifted on the corral rail where she’d perched so he could snap her photo with his new camera, the one she’d given him for his birthday back in March. She eyed the tawny-haired man twenty feet away. Six foot six in his socks, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, he carried himself like the Marine he’d been for six years before he became a soldier of fortune. She’d followed him far too long.
“Let me spell it out for you, Hawke. I love you, but it’s my turn now. I’ve been offered a great job and a recording contract. I’m going to Nashville in time for the Labor Day show.”
“We’ve talked about this. It’ll have to wait. I need you here to run Hawke Construction when I’m on a mission for Nighthawke.”
“Not my circus, not my monkeys.” She took a deep breath, longing to slug him when he didn’t listen to her. But I’m an adult, so I won’t even if I hate it when he mocks me. “I’m not doing it, not anymore. My life has been on hold long enough. I told you I didn’t agree with rescuing the company when your father ran it into the ground while we were in Afghanistan, but you had to save the day one more time instead of letting it go into bankruptcy.”
“The people who’ve worked there all these years didn’t deserve to lose their retirement when it went down in flames, and I was the only one that could borrow money from the extended family in Texas.”
He didn’t get it.
“You did what you had to do because you always have to be the hero, but that’s not my deal. I’ve always dreamed of being a country singer and now I have a shot. I’m going to Nashville in two weeks.”
She watched the storm build in his navy eyes. Irritation made his rugged, handsome features harder for her to resist. Blue jeans, boots, and a faded, sleeveless chambray shirt increased his resemblance to a Madison Avenue cowboy. But there was nothing plastic about her man!
At 28, almost 29, I have three combat tours behind me. I’ve been working part-time as a horse trainer while I rebuild my career as a country singer in the local bars. We were supposed to move to Nashville as soon as he found a manager for Hawke Construction, but the damned jarhead didn’t even look for one. He’s too freaking busy hunting for his brother, the family favorite. It’s not like Durango doesn’t know how much I love music. It’s my turn, damn it!
She shook her head, long copper strands floating in the warm breeze. “I’m through nursing you after your stupid adventures, and I’m definitely done picking up the slack at Hawke Construction when you’re off in South America. You wouldn’t hire a manager, so I did.”
“Thanks for the support.” Sarcasm laced his bass rumble.
Deliberately, she focused on his bandaged left shoulder as he adjusted the camera. Any lower and the bullet would have hit his heart. As cantankerous as he was, though, she hadn’t asked but knew he’d taken out the attacker. She wouldn’t let Durango see how he affected her when he lowered the Nikon and strode toward her.
“I mean it.” She raised her chin. “No more system support, Hawke, when you return to Colombia on one more suicide mission. I’m going to Nashville. Someone else will have to patch you up. Just remember, doctors are required to report gunshot wounds, and all cops aren’t stupid. One might not believe you were hit in a drive-by shooting at a construction site.”
“Don’t threaten me.” He stepped closer. “I’ve never taken your crap. It’s why we’ve stayed together this long.”
“I won’t be here when you return this time.”
Her ultimatum didn’t appear to faze him. His face was expressionless, a mask that hid any and all emotion. She reached for the emerald engagement ring on her left hand, began to slide it off. “I mean it. I’m done waiting on the sidelines.”
“Watch it, Heather Marie. You don’t want to piss me off.”
“I’m not scared of you.” She shrugged, but stopped toying with the ring. She’d wait. “Save the macho act for the bunch of mercenaries you run with or one of your cousins. Don’t try to placate me or act like you think I’m cute when I’m angry. I’m serious.”
She didn’t want to know how many soldiers of fortune died in the South American jungles. It was bad enough knowing he might.
He was pretty annoyed with her. She could tell by the edge in his deep voice and the tight line of his strong jaw. He moved nearer, boots soft on the summer grass. Did he think he could intimidate her into silence?
No way! Too bad, too sad! After all those tours as a combat nurse in Iraq and Afghanistan, does he honestly think his tantrums frighten me?
He stopped in front of her. The shirt left unbuttoned and open because of the injured shoulder revealed his neck and tanned, muscular chest. Her gaze narrowed on part of the bright red scar that she could see, one that she knew slashed from his right shoulder in a diagonal six-inch line toward his left nipple.
The injury two years ago had been her introduction to his illegal, dangerous hunt for his younger brother. Granted, Durango was morally right when he tried to save the day and his bro, but damn it, she wanted him home, safe with her in Tennessee—not getting himself killed, pursuing a dream and a man who was most likely dead.
She pointed to the healed wound. “Remember when I stitched that with an upholstery needle and dental floss? I cleaned it with alcohol first. You yelled like a stuck pig. Without anesthesia, I know everything I did must have hurt like hell. You fainted from the pain.”
“Yeah, I passed out. Your nursing hurt worse than being stabbed. Your point?”
“You didn’t learn anything, not from the cause or the cure. You still think you can change clothes in a phone booth. I’m not Lois Laneto your Superman.” She trembled when he moved suddenly and gripped the fence, resting large hands on either side of her. “I’m right, damn it.”
“You always tell me so.” He leaned nearer, brushed a kiss over her lips. “It’s why we fight so much. You’re all spit and vinegar. It makes me horny as hell when you start issuing edicts, Empress. You’re my pretty little tyrant.”
She tried to turn her head, but he caught her chin in calloused fingers. “Don’t. I’m not in the mood, especially when you make fun of me.”
Of course, it’s all too easy for him to get me in the mood.
“I won’t force you.” He chuckled. “I don’t have to, and we both know it. This is your pride talking. It’s why you’ve slept on the couch for the past three weeks. It’s cold comfort at night, isn’t it? I’ve missed you hogging the covers.”
“As if you really cared. If I believed that, you’ve got oceanfront property in Arizona like the song says.” Heather trembled when he feathered his thumb over her lips. Of course, he didn’t have a clue that she wasn’t actually sleeping in the living room. She sat up nights, drinking vodka while she watched insipid late night movies. Enough booze and she wouldn’t dream about dying kids who should be anywhere but in the military trying to survive in a war zone.
“You’ve ignored everything I said,” she went on. “You won’t admit how wrong you are. And you didn’t say a word when I moved out of the bedroom until I took away the television. Then, you bitched because you missed laughing at Walker, Texas Ranger, and your war movies.”
“I’m not stupid. If I said I needed you every minute of every day, you’d figure you won. And did you think I wouldn’t find the small flat-screen on the kitchen table? You weren’t even watching it. You just stole it for spite.”
The mockery in his voice grated. She’d fallen in love with him before she knew what the word meant. She trailed behind him as a child, adored him as a teen, and followed him to war as a woman. She didn’t make a secret of her feelings, unlike him. He’d never said he loved her, not once in all these years.
“Come on, babe. Don’t be this way. You know how bad I want you.” The warmth in the dark blue eyes left no doubt of the way he wanted her. “I like having you in that big, brass bed or anywhere else I can take you.”
She glared up at him. “Want in one hand, Marine, and crap in the other. See which fills up first.”
“Wow, can you talk dirty, Empress. Is this when I make you beg for me or later?”
She pushed him away, jumped off the fence. “You son of a—!” She stopped, aware of how he felt about name-calling. “You’re damned right about one thing. I’m too good for you. I’ll find a real man, one not afraid to stick and stay with me when I get to Nashville.”
“Don’t go there.” His fingers gripped her shoulders. “You belong to me. You have since the day you were born. You’ll always be mine.”
“Kiss my butt.” She wrenched free, stalked across the yard. She’d collect her purse and jacket, then hitch a ride into Baker City. From there, she could find a friend to take her back to their place in Lake Maynard.
The scent of flowers drifted from the overgrown rose garden in front of the old Victorian house where her grandparents had lived. The four hundred–plus acre farm waited for her uncle to return. Fenian McElroy had disappeared on a covert Army mission back in 2011 with Durango’s brother, Waco.
There was little hope her uncle would come home to claim his inheritance. After all, the US wouldn’t even admit they had troops in South America fighting the drug lords. The American government knew how to fight secret wars. The blood of its soldiers was currency to politicians, and too much attention was taken up with the war in the Middle East. Durango might not have learned the lesson, but she had long before her uncle and his younger brother died.
“You don’t get it, Hawke. These trips of yours scare me half to death and they won’t do any good.”
“Nothing frightens you.” He caught up with her. He didn’t sound quite so amused when he trailed one finger down her neck to the gold chain she always wore along with the special four-leaf clover he’d given her as a gift on her sixteenth birthday. “I won’t let you leave me.”
She glared up at him. “In the past, you were everything to me. I have dreams and I’m going to follow them. I told you already. I’m done waiting.”
“You want me.” He nipped her ear, kissed the spot below it. “You’re too damned proud to admit it when you’re in one of your snot-slinging, foot-stomping hissy fits. You figure if you don’t let me make love to you, I’ll kowtow to your demands.”
“I’m not that manipulative. Even if I were, you’d deserve it. You walked into the house leaking blood like a saturated surgical sponge and terrified me.”
“You didn’t show it. You fixed me up.” He pressed another kiss to her neck. “You’re one in a million and way too good for me.”
“At least we agree on something, jarhead.” She stepped away from him, headed toward the blanket she’d spread on the grass. “Let’s go home. Your idea of a picnic on the old McElroy homestead was just another try to get me in the sack.”
“We haven’t eaten yet and I still want to take some pictures of you with my birthday camera.” He followed her.
“I’m not in the mood,” she repeated, her back to him. “I’d have more luck talking to a rock. No wonder your mother claims, ‘Bigger is dumber’ and acts like you’re a monster because you’re not a scrawny little runt. For once, she’s right.”
“Funny. You never say that in bed,” he shot back. “You always beg for more.”
She whirled to confront him. He was right behind her. Surprised, she fell back a step, the blanket beneath her shoe. “I won’t sleep with you until you’re home for good.”
He grinned down at her. “Wanna bet?” He hooked a hand around her neck. “I haven’t given you a birthday present yet.”
“My birthday isn’t until next week. You’d better be here and packing to go with me to Nashville.” When he didn’t answer, she stiffened. “I said no.”
“I heard you.” He brushed her lips with his. “I fully intend to get started on your present today.”
“Oh, really? What do you plan to give me?”
“What do you think?” He lowered his head. “The same thing I’ve given you for the past eight years, multiple orgasms. I’m going for a new record, twenty-nine of them, one for each year.”
She shuddered, trying to ignore the heat in her face. “It’s physically impossible. I’ll die of exhaustion.”
“You haven’t yet.” He laughed. “Let’s check it out.”
She hesitated. She wanted him as badly as he wanted her. She’d ached for his touch, longed to go to him, but forced herself to maintain a safe distance. Would surrender work any better? Could she entice him to stay home with her?
It was worth a try. At five foot eight, it wasn’t much of a stretch to tiptoe up and tease his mouth with hers. “Want me?”
“You know it.” He pulled her tight against him. “I’ve missed you.”
“Not enough to come out to the living room and charm me.”
“It wouldn’t have worked until you stopped ranting and raving.”
“I don’t have tantrums.”
“When I got home, you tipped a table full of food on me. Laredo hit the door a-running.”
“That was the plan,” she said in her sweetest voice. “I couldn’t let your youngest brother see you were a bloody mess. If I had, we wouldn’t be arguing. You’d be in a hospital, then jail. You got off easy.”
He snorted. “Says the woman into payback. Vengeance is always yours. You do enjoy trying to make me suffer.”
“I’m not that petty.”
“You’ll go to hell for lying.” Durango kissed her brows. “You threw your engagement ring at me for a week straight. I kept putting it back on your finger.”
She tipped back her head and met his gaze. “I didn’t ask for it. I offered to bring you a jar of petroleum jelly so you could shove it where the sun doesn’t shine.”
Another laugh before he dropped a kiss on her nose. “You make me glad to be alive, except when all you give me to eat is potato soup.”
“It was good for you.”
“I hate the stuff. Then you made peanut butter cookies for dessert.” He stroked her hair. “How many times have I told you that peanut butter makes me gag? And you refused to make me chocolate chip ones, no matter how many times I asked.”
“Making you miserable was the least I could do after you scared the hell out of me.”
“You went for two and a half weeks without speaking to me, even when you were changing my bandages. Must have been a new record.” He rested his chin on top of her head. “You’re an ornery woman, Heather Marie McElroy. My ornery woman.”
“As if you’d want any other kind.” She closed her eyes and leaned against him, relishing the hard, solid feel of his body. Did he realize how close he’d come to dying? Tears burned her eyes. She blinked them away, determined not to reveal the weakness. He couldn’t handle it when she cried. She’d learned that eons ago. “You’re mine.”
“I always have been.” His mouth claimed hers. “Ever since we were kids.”
When the kiss ended, he lifted his lips a few inches from hers. Before he spoke, she slowly slid his shirt down the muscled arms, letting it fall onto the grass. “I’ve given you all of me.” Deliberately, she reminded him of the 4-H pledge they’d exchanged as teen sweethearts. “Head, heart, health, and hands. I want all of you.”
“You have me. We’ll get married as soon as I bring Waco home.”
“He’s gone. We have to let him and Fenn go.”
“I don’t believe that. I’ll keep looking for the two of them.”
“All right, lover. You think what you need to think.” She stopped him with a kiss, then said, “I wish there were another O’Leary who talks to the dead in Baker City, someone who could find Waco and Fenn for you, but there isn’t, and your brother means more to you than—” She paused. His little brother was the family favorite and no matter what Durango did, his parents still wouldn’t love him, but he didn’t need to hear it again. “No, I won’t say that. I won’t spoil this moment, but I agree we’ll both do what we have to do.”
* * *
As soon as he parked the rental car in the driveway, he knew she was gone. October leaves covered the unmown lawn and weeds shared space with the bright marigolds in the flowerbeds. Rolled-up newspapers littered the front porch. Envelopes overflowed from the small mailbox beside the screen door. Proof of her departure from his life as if he hadn’t gotten a clue when she didn’t come to the airport to meet him.
“I don’t need this crap, Heather Marie,” Durango muttered aloud.
He left the bouquet of yellow roses, the box of her favorite chocolate-covered macadamia nuts, and the small sack from the jewelry store on the passenger seat. He’d expected her to be angry. She always got mad when he left on a trip to South America, but this tantrum was ridiculous for a twenty-nine-year-old woman. She’d bitch that she was done waiting for his selfish, lazy ass and she wanted her dreams too. But, why couldn’t she understand he didn’t have a choice either?
Then again, maybe she really hadn’t left the state.
He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and flipped to the last picture he’d taken of her. Vibrant red hair cascaded to her narrow waist. High cheekbones, a pointed chin, and huge green eyes. The regal glare made him think of an absolute ruler, but there was nothing tame about his Heather. She was wild, feral, and downright vicious at times. My kind of woman, long on guts, short on self-preservation, my pretty tyrant. She’d charge hell with a bucket of water.
It was the low, rich taunting voice he always missed most. She might tear strips off him with her words, but that voice was saturated with sex. He wanted to fall into the photo, grab her and hold her forever. He’d just hold those curves against him. She was the perfect size for him, heart-high. In the picture, she leaned against the corral rail, the summer wind ruffling her hair.
He'd told her to say cheese. She hadn’t, of course. She’d never followed his directions in her entire life. She’d looked him straight in the face, smiled dangerously, and purred, “But babe. I don’t want cheese. I want you.”
His hands shook when he snapped the photo. It was pure luck, not skill it’d come out this good. He’d assumed their wild lovemaking meant everything was great between them. She’d stopped calling the hunt for his brother the definition of insanity. She’d even driven him to the airport, kissed him goodbye like they were going to jump back into the sack, not like they’d just left it.
How was he supposed to know she really intended to leave him?
He flung open the car door, stalked to the trunk, and removed his duffel bag, a leftover from his stint in the Marines. He slung the carrying strap over his shoulder, slammed the trunk, and went around the house to the back door.
The kitchen was dark. Daylight filtered through the door behind him. Some came through the window above the farmhouse sink.
What happened to the curtains? He flipped the light switch by the door. Nothing. Had the bulb in the overhead fixture burned out? He turned, saw the note taped neatly to the outside of the breaker box.
Durango—Call to have the utilities turned on when you want them. That includes the landline. You never phone me, so I won’t worry.
He tore down the note, wadded it into a ball, and looked for the wastebasket.
Gone. He walked farther into the room. The table and chairs were missing too. So were all the appliances, the electric range, fridge, washer, dryer, and dishwasher. No microwave. He grimaced, grateful they’d furnished the rental on their own. At least he wouldn’t have to listen to the landlord pitching a major fit.
The cupboards were bare. Another note lay where the dishes used to be. I gave away the groceries. You had more important things to do than be here for me or the meals I cooked for you.
“You little witch.” He shook his head. He was cracking up. Imagine arguing with a piece of paper.
He stormed through the house, searching the rest of the rooms. She’d stripped the place. The furniture was gone, everything they’d bought together. A manila envelope was taped to the bedroom door, obviously where she’d left her engagement ring. Another note fluttered beside it.
I got rid of the bed. I didn’t want you to share it with someone else. Your clothes are at the cleaners down the street. You can pay them to do laundry for you. I’m outta here. I’m going to Tennessee. So long, lover!
He dropped the duffel on the floor. He ripped the paper off the door, took down the envelope, tore open one end, and shook out the emerald engagement ring, shoving it into his shirt pocket. He’d save the note inside for later, make her read it to him.
“I’ll find you, Heather Marie McElroy,” he shouted, his voice echoing in the empty house. “When I do, I’m taking you to bed. Then we’re getting married. Enough is damn well enough! I’m done putting up with your tantrums.”
He collected the other snotty notes on his way to the back door. He slammed it behind him, pausing to lock the vacant house. A quick stop at the detached garage revealed it was empty. “Where the hell is my truck?”
She’d better not have sold the classic ’57 Chevy four-by-four. If she had, there’d be another nastygram, but he didn’t see one. Okay, so he’d track her down. After all this time, I know where she likes to party, even if she calls it “singing for her supper,” and it won’t be the first time I’ve dragged her out of a bar.
Three taverns later, he’d heard the same story from all the bartenders. She hadn’t been around since September. Did her folks know her address in Nashville? If they did, would they tell him when he called or would they chew him out for standing in the way of her dreams again? He eyed the CD the last bar manager gave him, then slid it into the player.
The twang of guitars, beat of drums, and finally, organ music slid into a melody. It was an old Dottie West song. “Lesson in Leavin’” was one of Heather’s favorites. Why hadn’t he realized she was giving him a warning when she sang it before he left two months ago on a vain hunt for his brother?
Okay, so he hadn’t found him this time, Durango thought, but he’d keep looking. Heather’s husky voice sent chills down his spine. The words echoed through him as a wronged woman sought vengeance for heartache.
* * *
Lake Maynard, Washington ~ May 5th, 2015
He’d spent the day on the construction site, too busy working on a new strip mall to check for his messages. Finally, back in his office, he crossed to the desk, picked up the landline, and called the automatic answering service.
Her mocking voice filled his ears. “Durango, sorry I missed you. Happy birthday, lover.”
He froze, pressed the button to repeat the message. It’s not my birthday. She knows better than anyone that’s in March. What the hell is going on? What game is she playing now?