THE HEART OF A HERO

Helping people comes naturally to Zoe Hamilton—she has the advice column to prove it. All she wants this summer, though, is to lick her postdivorce wounds in peace. That’s fine by her surly-yet-handsome neighbor, ex-army captain Jake Meyers; he just wants to be left alone.

Jake might believe his emotions are frozen forever, but the pain in his glittering emerald eyes tells a different story. Zoe can’t help but reach out, but it will take all her courage to love a man so determined to keep himself closed off…

Chapter 1

Jake Meyers woke with a start, the smell of blood and sulfur still in his nostrils, his eyes searching the shadows for enemies who minutes before had been crystal clear. Kicking off his sweat-soaked covers, he focused on his heart slamming against his ribs. He willed his breathing to slow like they showed him in the hospital. Slow and easy. In. Out. Until the steady intake of air filling his lungs erased the sounds of screams.

Damn. After three and a half weeks without a nightmare, he’d thought they were behind him. No such luck.

With a ragged breath, he looked at the clock on his nightstand, ignoring the shudder triggered by the crimson glow. Five-fifteen. Well, at least this time it was close to dawn. His hip throbbed. The pain always flared more following a nightmare. If he were inclined to examine the reasons, he was sure he’d find some psychosomatic component, but in fact the reasons didn’t really matter to him. Pain was pain. He grabbed the bottle of prescription painkillers off the nightstand and knocked over the photograph propped against the lamp as he did so. Reverently he put it back in place. The darkness obscured the image, but he didn’t need light to see. He had the faces memorized. Every last one had been etched in his brain for eternity.

Hobbling into the kitchen, he saw a half pot of yesterday’s coffee remained. Too tired and still too hazy from his dreams to make a fresh pot, he poured himself a cup and, as the liquid reheated in the microwave, stared out his back window. Outside, the island hung on the edge of morning, silent and gray, the world still except for the occasional screech of a gull diving toward the waves across the street.

And, of course, his thoughts. His thoughts were never silent.

The microwave beeped. Jake grabbed his coffee and stepped onto the back step, letting the overcast dampen his skin as he breathed in the silence. Dew dripped from the pine trees dotting his backyard, their green needles sparkling. A chipmunk poked its head out from beneath a root.

His purgatory shouldn’t be so serene, he thought, not for the first time. As far as he was concerned, the world was wasting its early morning splendor on a dead man.

Give yourself time. That’s what the doctors at the VA hospital had told him. Some wounds don’t heal overnight.

They were wrong, he thought, as he raised the cup to his lips. Some wounds don’t heal at all.

***

“This hideaway of yours, does it have internet access? ”

From behind her blue-rimmed glasses, Zoe Hamilton rolled her eyes. “Naushatucket’s off the coast of Massachusetts, Caroline, not off the grid.”

“If I can’t read the label on a map, it might as well be.” There was the muffled sound of a regis- ter on the other end of the phone. Caroline was out getting her midday latte. “Couldn’t you hide out on one of the bigger islands, like Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket?”

“My family didn’t own a rental property on Martha’s Vineyard or Nantucket. Besides, isn’t re- mote a hideout requirement?”

Judging from the extended sigh on the other end, her assistant disagreed. Zoe half listened to the noise while scanning the air around her. Caroline’s check- in, though welcome, came at a bad time. “If you’re worried about my column getting in on time, I have everything I need to work from here.”

“I hope so. ‘Ask Zoe’s’ readers will be distraught if they don’t get regular posts from their favorite answer lady.” Answer fraud, more like. “Don’t worry. They’ll get their responses.” Poor trusting saps.

A flash of black caught the corner of her eye; she spun around, eyes following the trajectory.

Success. Her target had landed. The rest of the phone call would have to wait. “I hate to hang up on you, Caroline, but unless there’s anything else, I was in the middle of something when you called.”

“Fine,” Caroline replied with another dramatic sigh. “I know a brush-off when I hear one. Just prom- ise me you won’t spend all your time on that island crying your eyes out. That bastard isn’t worth the effort.”

“I won’t.” On that point, they both agreed. Thinking of Paul churned up a lot of responses these days, but tears weren’t one of them. At least, not anymore.

After making a few additional promises, including assuring Caroline she wouldn’t become a complete hermit, Zoe said goodbye and clicked off the phone. “Okay, Birdy, now it’s your turn.”

From its perch above the open sliding glass door, a swallow, her nemesis for the past half hour, stared back unflinchingly. The creature had been circling the room through her entire phone call, steadfastly ignoring the escape route Zoe had provided. Finally, the bird stopped to rest, giving Zoe her chance.

“I really don’t know why you’re being so stubborn.”

She slipped off the silk scarf she’d been using to hold back her thick dark hair. Immediately a shock of bangs flapped over her glasses. She blew them out of her field of vision and took a step closer, careful not to move too quickly.

“The door is open. All you have to do is fly out and you’ll be free.”

Her plan was to wave the scarf, using the color and motion to steer the bird off the molding and out the patio door. The swallow, however, had a different plan and, as soon as Zoe lunged forward, decided to dart straight for her. Letting out a screech, Zoe ducked. The bird flew overhead, careening off a ceiling beam before knocking into the mantel and flying up the chimney.

Zoe rolled her eyes. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

When she had first decided to hide out for the summer, buying her parents’ Naushatucket property sounded exciting, romantic even. What better place to heal a broken heart than an isolated cottage by the sea? Visions of long reflective walks along the shore and cozy nights by campfires came to mind. Instead, she discovered that her mother had let the property deteriorate since remarrying. Her childhood vacation paradise had become a sorely neglected Cape house with dusty furniture and sand-crusted windows. Screenless windows, she might add, a fact she had discovered when she tried to clear the house of stale air. Enter Birdy, who apparently had been lying in wait for someone to open one of them.

Pushing her glasses back on the bridge of her nose, she knelt down on the hearth and readied herself for round two.

“It’s not that I don’t appreciate the company and all,” she called up, “but Reynaldo and I weren’t plan- ning on sharing the house with a bird, and I’m guessing you’re not keen on sharing with us. So what do you say you fly out the nice wide door I opened for you?”

Her answer was a panicked flutter of wings against brick.

“Fine. Don’t listen to reason.” Moving on to Plan B—or C as the case might be—she grabbed the poker from the fireplace set. A loud noise ought to do the trick. Reaching up into the flue, she rattled the poker back and forth. The commotion set off more fluttering, followed by a rustling sound. Zoe looked up.

A shower of creosote, dust and feathers rained down.

Soot covered her from head to toe, clinging to her sweaty skin like iron filings on a magnet. Dust filled her nose. Her mouth tasted like the inside of an ashtray. Coughing, she backed away into the fresh air. Meanwhile, the swallow continued flapping inside the chimney.

Great. This was what she got for trying to help. Hot, sweaty and soot-on. You’d think she’d learn.

“This isn’t over, Birdy,” she muttered. She reached for the abandoned scarf to clean off her glasses.

“Excuse me.”

Zoe jumped. Either Birdy had some serious testosterone issues or she had a guest. A blur in the doorway told her the latter. Slipping her glasses back on, she saw a man standing in the doorway. Tall and lean, with ruddy, weathered skin, he wore the stan- dard island old-timer uniform—faded jeans and an equally faded long-sleeve T-shirt.

He lifted a guilty-looking dachshund to eye level.

Zoe recognized the dog immediately. “Reynaldo! You’re supposed to be sleeping in the kitchen.”

“I found him digging around my backyard.” From the look on his face, he wasn’t happy about it, either.

“Sorry about that. He normally isn’t a wanderer. Must be the new location.” She moved to retrieve the squirming pooch from the stranger’s grip before something else happened. “I’m Zoe Brodsk—I mean, Hamilton.” She had to stop using her married name. “I just bought the place. I’d shake your hand, but as you can see…”

No need finishing the explanation; the soot spoke for itself. He didn’t look like he wanted to shake her hand anyway.

Now that she had a closer view, she realized her neighbor was younger than her initial impression im- plied. Hair she’d mistaken for silver was really sun- bleached blond. And what she thought was aged rud- diness was really a series of pale scars, several small ones running across the bridge of his nose and one along the curve of his cheekbone. The most promi- nent was a deep mark that cut from his left temple to the center of his left brow, stopping just above a pair of hard, emerald eyes. Eyes whose intense gaze currently had her rooted to the spot.

Reynaldo squirmed in her arms, sniffing and trying to lick at her ash-covered cheeks. Since adding dog drool to her already filthy face wasn’t on her to-do list, Zoe set him down. In a flash, the dachshund ran to the fireplace and began barking. His dancing around reminded her how she’d gotten soot-covered to begin with.

Turning back to her neighbor, she asked, “You don’t know anything about capturing birds, do you?”

“Why, you got one of those that escaped while you weren’t watching, too?”

“No.” For the sake of neighborliness, she decided to ignore the comment. “I’ve got one stuck in my fireplace that needs rescuing.”

He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets, a pos- ture that accentuated a pair of long muscular arms. “How do you know?”

“That I have a bird in the chimney? I saw it fly up there.” No need to add that she was the reason why. “No, I mean how do you know it needs rescuing?”
“Because he’s stuck. I can hear his wings flapping against the brick.”

“Doesn’t mean he wants your help.”

Was this guy serious? “How else is he going to get free?”

“How about on his own?”

“You’re assuming he’s capable of freeing himself.”

“You’re assuming he isn’t.”

Zoe brushed at her bangs, more to prevent herself rolling her eyes than anything. Who cared what she was assuming? The poor bird needed her help. She wasn’t getting into some pointless argument with a man who couldn’t be bothered to introduce himself.

“Either way, I need to help this bird out,” she said, dismissing the man. Hey, she was from the city; she could be as abrupt and unsocial as the next person. “Thank you for bringing Reynaldo home. I’ll make sure he stays out of your backyard.”

“Good.”

Good. Not thank you, but good. Somebody needed to work on his people skills. Her “neighbor’s” dearth of social graces, however, would have to wait. She had more important tasks to focus on. Assuming their conversation had ended, she returned her attention to the fireplace.

“Leave the room.”

“Excuse me?” She frowned at the man from over her shoulder.

“Noise will keep the bird riled up,” he replied. “Especially the barking. The two of you should leave. Once the room settles down, the bird will come out.”

“What if it doesn’t?” From the way the bird was flapping, it might beat itself to death before calming down. “What then?”

“Then I guess you’ll find out the first time you light a fire.”

Zoe’s mouth dropped open. She whirled around to protest, but the stranger had already slipped out the door. So much for the friendly neighborhood wel- come wagon. First time you light a fire, indeed.

“No way I’m waiting until the thing burns up in a fire to know if he escaped,” she told Reynaldo. “He needs our help now.”

With that, she grabbed the poker and readied for another round. “Time to come out, Birdy!” She clanged the poker around the chimney a second time. Then a third.

A loud rustling sound replied, followed by several high-pitched whistles. There was a rush of noise and the swallow came bombing out.

“Ha!” Triumphant, she wiped away the fresh

batch of soot with the back of her hand. The bird had needed her help. She watched as it circled the room once, then twice, before heading for the open patio door.

Where it promptly landed on the door-frame molding. In the exact place this rescue mission had begun.

***

Jake stomped across the yard, up his steps and straight to his refrigerator for a cold beer. Who cared if it was before noon? The day was already shaping up to be a damn lousy one, and that was before he found the dachshund digging around his yard.

He’d come to Naushatucket for solitude. Which was why living next to a rental property suited him just fine. Temporary vacationers seldom offered more than a wave and a nod, too busy cramming their visits with summer fun to attempt conversation. He didn’t need a neighbor moving in with her pet and her cheery smile. Hopefully, she’d only stay the summer.

The letter he’d been reading was on the counter where he’d dropped it, the opening paragraph still visible.

Dear Captain Meyers,
As you may have read in the local paper, the Flag Day Committee is honoring our area heroes….

He crumpled the paper in his fist. Heroes, huh?

Then they didn’t need him.

***

Dear Zoe,
I’m in love with a man I work with. He’s wonderful. Handsome, funny, smart. Problem is, no matter what I do, I can’t get him to see me as anything more than the woman in the next office. I know if I can just get his attention, he’ll see what a terrific match we would make. He’s not dating anyone. In fact, I’ve overheard him complaining he can’t find the right woman. What can I do to make him see the right woman is me?
Invisible

Dear Invisible,
What can I say? Guys are blind idiots. They can’t see a good woman even if she’s under their noses. And when they do meet the right girl, they’ll treat her like dirt and dump her for the first blonde with big breasts that crosses the fairway. Might as well learn this now and save yourself the heartache. If you want love, get a pet.
Zoe

Zoe stared at the answer she just typed. Probably not the answer Invisible wanted to hear. After all, she was Zoe of ‘Ask Zoe,’ the woman with all the answers on love and life. If only they knew. What was that old saying? Those who can’t, write advice columns? She pressed Delete, erasing her bitter words from the screen if not from her heart.

Normally she didn’t have a problem coming up with the kind of advice her readers wanted to hear, but tonight the answers wouldn’t come.

Who was she kidding? The answers hadn’t come for weeks. Not since Paul made a mockery out of every answer she ever gave.

Reynaldo barked. Zoe gave a smile and scooped him onto the sofa. “Good old Reynaldo. You’ll always want me, right? We’ll muddle through, you, me and the occasional stray bird.”

It had taken thirty minutes, but the swallow finally flew the coop, disappearing while she was busy relo- cating Reynaldo to an upstairs bedroom. She swore the creature timed its exit specifically to spite her.

Now clean and tired, she lay wrapped in a fleece throw trying to keep the evening chill at bay. She’d forgotten how chilly island nights could be during the late spring. Come next month, heat and humid- ity would make the sea breeze a welcome visitor, but tonight the chill clung to the last of the crisp air with typical New England stubbornness. There was a fireplace, but her neighbor’s comment had left her reluctant to build one. Bad enough she’d imagined his “told you so” when the bird flew away. She didn’t need to prove him right with a chimney fire, too. Until she had the chimney cleaned, the fleece and Reynaldo would have to do. She pulled the blanket a little higher.

Meanwhile her secondary heating source was having trouble settling down, insisting instead on walking up and down the length of her body like a stubby-legged cat. The restlessness meant one of two things—either food or a bathroom break—and since he’d emptied his food dish twenty minutes ago…

She groaned. “All right, let’s go.”

Outside, the night was gray but for the porch light next door. Zoe stood under her own burnt-out light and watched the moths flitting toward the beam. Despite being the only source of light, there was a somberness to her neighbor’s house. Maybe it was the lack of color on its gray, weathered shingles or the memory of its owner’s unsmiling face. The memory of bright emerald eyes came floating back.

At the bottom of the steps, Reynaldo sniffed the grass uninterestedly before trotting to the fence divid- ing the properties.

“That’s far enough,” she said, calling the dachs- hund back. After three years together, she liked to believe her little rescue dog would respond to her voice. Wishful thinking, but she liked deluding her- self. Why not? She excelled at it, didn’t she?

“We said we’d stay in our own yard, remember? How about we try and keep our promise?”

Suddenly the sound of a back door opening breached the quiet. Zoe’s insides stilled. Through a gap in the posts, she spied a crop of sun-bleached hair and a somber profile. Funny, only a moment before she’d been thinking his yard dark. Illuminated by the white cone of his porch light, he looked brighter than bright in the gray. Zoe swore she could see the flash of his green eyes as he stared out into the night. In his hand, he held an amber bottle.

Curious, Zoe watched as he drank his beer and studied whatever it was he saw in his backyard. Or was he searching? Though really too far away for her to truly see, he seemed to be focused on a point far past his property line.

After a minute, he raised the bottle one last time and turned back inside. With the flick of a switch, the light disappeared, leaving Zoe and Reynaldo alone in the darkness.

She definitely had to clean the chimney. Waking up to a foggy, gray morning, it took Zoe less than a second to make the decision. Granted, she’d probably only need the fireplace for a week or so, until the summer heat arrived, but that was one week too long to do without. Shivering under the covers in flannel pj’s and a sweatshirt was not how she wanted to spend her nights. Especially since Reynaldo insisted on making a predawn bathroom trip every morning.

“I swear, you have a bladder the size of a pea,” she said to him.

Palming her coffee mug, she returned to her list. Charles and her mother weren’t kidding when they said they’d ignored the property the past couple years. Since Rey had her awake, she decided to make a list of home repairs she needed to tackle. Clearly, Rey needed a dog run, if for no other reason than to keep him out of their green-eyed neighbor’s yard. The memory of his laser-sharp gaze sent a tremor down her spine, where it pooled in uncomfortable warmth at the base.

Definitely, a dog run. And a new light for the back door so she wouldn’t have to stand in the dark while Rey relieved himself. Those repairs she could do her- self. But the chimney… Sadly, chimney sweeping was out of her purview.

“Guess that means I need to find a handyman, Rey. Think this island has one?” Pitcher’s Hole was more a fishing hole than a town, though she had noticed a small hardware store near where the ferry docked. “I imagine that’s as good a place as any to start asking around. If nothing else, maybe we can find a portable heater for the bedroom.” If the dated electrical system could handle the extra voltage.

Getting dressed had never been a big production for her. Less so now that she had no one to impress. A quick brush of her hair, a splash of water on her face and she was done. As she adjusted her glasses, she stared at the reflection in the mirror. Unimpressive blue eyes and hair badly needing a trim stared back. No wonder Paul had only wanted her money. Maybe if she’d spent a little more time, worn a little lipstick…

Zoe shook the thought from her head. She could play what-if ’til the cows came home—Paul would still be out of her life.

Besides, this summer was supposed to be about healing, not bemoaning her new—and no doubt permanent—single status. Better to focus on tasks at hand.

The kitchen was conspicuously empty when she came downstairs. “Rey?”

Barking sounded from outside. Looking to the screen door, she saw the latch had failed to catch. Another item for the to-do list, along with the dog run.

“The size of a pea,” she said, stepping outside. “I swear, Rey, the size of a pea.”

Reynaldo didn’t respond. In fact, much to her dismay, he was nowhere in sight.

Oh, please let him be sniffing around the side bushes and not exploring next door. It was way too early in the morning to face those laser beam eyes.

“You again!”

Zoe groaned. No such luck.

There wasn’t a trace of a smile on her neighbor’s face as he held up a very contrite Reynaldo.

Zoe was pretty sure her own face mirrored the dog’s. “Sorry. He snuck out while I was in the other room.”

“Seems to happen a lot.”

Twice. It had happened twice. “He doesn’t usually wander far from home. For some reason he has an affinity to your backyard.” She forced a smile. “Must be something over there he finds appealing.”

Though for the life of her, she didn’t know what.

Without so much as cracking a glimmer of a smile, her neighbor—whose name she still didn’t know— thrust Reynaldo in her direction. “There’s an invention called a leash. I suggest you buy one.”

I suggest you buy one. Zoe fought the urge to smirk. At least one of them should try to act civilly. “I’m installing a dog run today.”

If he appreciated the gesture, it didn’t show on his face. He simply grunted what sounded like an acknowledgment before turning away.

Distracted by the bird and other things yester- day, she’d missed it, but her neighbor had a limp. He clearly favored his right leg. Between this and the scars… Whatever had happened to him, was it the reason for the prickliness? she wondered. Because so far the man had been a six-foot roll of barbed wire, sharp and impossible to approach. With any luck once she installed the dog run and had Reynaldo back in check, she wouldn’t have to cross his thorny path again.

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