Master Erik upped his pace and fell into step beside her. “Are you all right, ma’am? Should I walk you to your car?”
Her legs trembled, but she suddenly felt safe. Protected, even. He’d offered to see her safe, and she could kiss him for that. “Thank you. I’d be grateful.”
She tried not to stare at his scarred face. The left side looked like it had been sandpapered, then sliced with a knife. Small indentations pitted his red flesh. Kathryn’s only thought was how much pain he’d endured. No wonder he had flashbacks. Another half inch to the right, and whatever had scarred him would have taken out his eye. Instead, those gray orbs of his darkened when he stared at Farlaise.
Despite her terror last night and the unspoken threats Farlaise had made, M`aster Erik took her breath away. His long, lean physique delighted her. Hell, he could have stepped out of her best fantasy, but even in her dreams, she wouldn’t wish so many painful injuries on anybody. Those muscles she’d admired last night thrilled her. The way his bangs flopped over his forehead only added to his charms.
Something hot and sensual simmered between them, but after last night, how could she trust him again? Her heart bounded as she took a half step closer to him. “I’m glad you’re here.”
Dave Farlaise stormed off, but she knew he’d never let matters end there, not after the way he’d hounded her over the past few weeks. It was time she spoke with Sheriff Sean Mathews. Whatever Kevin Jones had done with the property developer’s money, it hadn’t gone through Smithson, Westhorpe, and Walters’s books. Convincing Farlaise of it was another matter.
When she turned to her rescuer, he too watched Farlaise hurry away. “I don’t hold with bullying anyone, least of all pretty ladies. You’re safe now, but I can’t guarantee he won’t be back.”
She breathed a sigh of relief, even if Master Erik had only given her a temporary reprieve. “Thank you. I think he’d have hurt me if you hadn’t appeared out of the blue. What were you doing back there anyway?”
He grinned, and his whole face lit up. “Hiding from the local doctor. I spoke to him about— Never mind. Anyway, I chickened out when I saw that huge house on the cliff. I’m more the beachcomber type, I guess. I don’t need anyone, least of all some rich doctor. I’ll see you to your car, but then I’m heading off somewhere new.”
Kathryn stared at Dave Farlaise as he marched off across the sand, her heart beating like a drum. That man stripped her defenses and left her cold inside. She turned to her rescuer and gave him her best smile, but she could feel that it came out wonky. When she spoke, she hated the sob in her voice. “Goodness knows what would have happened if you hadn’t been here. Thank you.”
Master Erik shrugged. “Glad to help, ma’am. I don’t think he’ll bother you again tonight, but I should still I walk you to your car.”
The scars branded on the left side of his face horrified her, but she could hug him for his kindness and his protective streak. “Yes, please. That doctor you’re hiding from. Did you mean Adam Montgomery? You should give him a chance. I went to school with his sister Abigail.”
He looked away, clearly unwilling to meet her gaze, and set off walking. Last night, he’d terrified her with his mind-fuck games and his flashback. Today, he emanated protection and strength. “Look, I don’t know if I’m out of line, but I recognize you from Masked Nights. I’m sorry I freaked out and my screams triggered your flashback. Adam probably could help you with whatever demons you hold inside.”
He hunched his shoulders, blushed, and half turned away. “Coco Starr? What are you doing here? And how come you’re apologizing when I’m the one who turned into a head case? Oh God, I swear I’m not stalking you. I’m the one that’s sorry, but it’s Luke Roberts, not Master Erik.”
She smiled. “Since you scared Farlaise away, I think we’re even.”
Clearly embarrassed, he headed back toward town. “Before last night, I hadn’t had a flashback since the start of the year. In hindsight, I should have stayed away from my old BDSM club, but I thought I could handle it. We both know how that turned out.”
She looked up at him, enjoying the way her rescuer had a good eight inches on her. “I’m Kathryn Johnson. Please don’t tell anyone apart from Adam where we met. The old ladies here thrive on rumors and gossip. I know Adam’s planning to open a PTSD clinic. Do you want me to come with you to see him? Consider it payback for getting rid of Dave Farlaise.”
Jaw clenched, Luke folded his arms across his broad chest. “I think I’ll just get in my truck and leave. All this wallowing-in-sympathy stuff isn’t me.”
Hands on hips, she stopped and squared up to him. “I’m offering friendship, not tea and sympathy. The only thing you’re wallowing in is self-pity.”
God, where did that come from? One minute I’m gazing at him like teenager drooling over One Direction. The next I’m clawing at him like an outraged cat.
He blinked and stared at her as stunned as if she’d slapped him. Everyone had bent over backward to accommodate him after the IED took out his team. This woman felt like a breath of fresh air. “Wait up. I’ll see Adam Montgomery if you talk to the sheriff. In fact, I’ll come with you. Afterward, since I’m a grown-up and not some child who needs his hand held, I’ll go see your doctor friend. Not that I’m promising anything.”
She turned, looking him in the eye as she offered her hand. “Deal.”
His grin came out lopsided as the scars to the left of his lips made his cheek pucker. “Deal.”
They kept a brisk pace, making it back to the main road just as Dave Farlaise raced past in his cherry-red sports car.
“Nice car.” Luke nodded toward it. “Terrible driver. He’ll blow his motor if he keeps driving like that. So, where do we find the sheriff’s office?”
Kathryn shook her head. “I don’t want to file a report with his deputies. They’re still wet behind the ears. Judging by the time, Sean will have finished his shift and be in the coffee-and-cake shop his wife, Jazz, opened a month ago. Since everyone loves her baking, I’m surprised she can keep up with demand. She’s planning to open a café up on Adam’s estate too. It’s no secret that I’m helping her get the planning consents to change the old estate offices into artisan shops.”
Luke never broke stride as he stepped inside and headed for a display of cakes. Kathryn smiled, thinking he must have a sweet tooth. Glad to see Sean sitting at the counter chatting up Jazz, Kathryn followed Luke inside.
Jazz had fashioned her new store like an English tearoom, with displays of delicious treats lining the walls. Dainty china teacups lined the shelves, and white cloths topped the tables. She stood by the counter, chatting with her husband.
Kathryn settled alongside them. “You got a minute, Sean? It’s business, not pleasure. If I’m out of order, I’ll come back in the morning.”
He turned professional in an instant. “Sure. Shall we move into the table by the back wall? It’s more private.”
Twenty minutes later, Kathryn had given Sean all the information she could. As she talked, she fidgeted with the corner of the tablecloth.
He frowned. “You could press assault charges against Farlaise, but all he really did was touch your shoulder. I’ll see if I can have Judge Harris subpoena Farlaise Construction’s books and have a forensic accountant go through them. Maybe we can locate the missing money that way. I don’t have the manpower to assign you twenty-four-hour protection, and I’m not sure I could justify it anyway. I will have a chat with Farlaise Development and see if I can quiet things down a bit.”
Suddenly aware of the tablecloth in her fingers, Kathryn stared at the wadded-up, creased fabric. A blush heated her cheeks as she realized what she’d done. “Thanks, Sean, I appreciate it.”
The sheriff grinned across at Jazz as she held up the last piece of chocolate cake, smiled, and put it away for him. He gave her a thumbs-up, then turned his attention back to Kathryn and her friend. “Mr. Roberts, I’m sure glad you were on the beach. Now, I need to slip back to the office and get things in motion.”
Luke stood and shook the sheriff’s hand. “So am I. If you’ll both excuse me, I have an appointment to keep. I hope Adam Montgomery doesn’t mind me being over three hours late.”
Kathryn looked at her watch and shook her head. Her mother would go on like a drama queen. Again. Kathryn hated the recriminations, but at twenty-six years old, she had a right to a life. She left with Luke, then shook his hand and reminded him, “No changing your mind at the last minute. You promised, remember? Don’t worry about me. I only live around the corner. Thanks anyway.”
She hurried through the streets, then stopped and said a silent farewell to the house she’d grown up in. Recently it felt more like a burden than the happy family home of her childhood. For a moment, she wished she were eight years old again, playing on the swing her dad had built. Her only worry then had been if she could make it go high enough to go over the frame.
Now, her mother and her little sister depended on her, but neither appreciated the contribution Kathryn made to the family finances. Shoulders back, spine straight, she took a deep breath, then stepped inside to confront her mother with the harsh financial truth.