Shattered Illusions by Lisa Alexander-Griffin
lightly erotic romantic suspense
novella (14,000 words)
Cover Art by Winterheart Design
Winner of the Rekindled contest held in conjunction with Avoid Writer's Hell
After a ten year stint in prison for a crime he didn't commit, a changed Cage Sinclair returns to his hometown. Hell-bent on clearing his name, trust is nonexistent--especially with the woman who had loved, and betrayed, him in the same breath. The woman who now lived in his deceased father's house.
Morgan still yearns for the love of her life to return, even though her own fear helped railroad him into prison. She has kept her silence to protect her son. But now Cage is back.
Inconceivable danger lurks in the shadows, but behind closed doors embers ignite and old passions flame. Amidst betrayal, deceit and shattered illusions, will the truth tear them apart or bind them together forever?
Cage Sinclair cut the pickup’s engine and stepped onto ground he’d never thought to see again. He breathed deeply, his lungs filling with fresh mountain air and the scent of pungent pine. The amber glow of a full moon illuminated the old homestead and surrounding landscape. Anticipation rushed through his veins.
Bittersweet memories flooded his mind. He’d left wearing leg irons and cuffs. For ten years, he had longed for the open fields and rolling hills he’d explored as a child, the security and tranquility they had offered. He’d found love here, but had lost it, too.
A warm yellow glow spilled from the front windows of what should have been an empty house, lighting his path. Tense and his body on full alert, Cage eased toward the front steps.
Tiny hairs prickled on his neck. Hesitant, he stepped to the porch. The rickety plank flooring groaned under his weight. A coyote howled in the distance, a lonely sound echoing through the trees. With the house key in his hand, he pulled open the screen door. Barely attached by one hinge to the frame, it creaked loudly.
Who the hell—
A twig snapped. Trepidation slithered up his spine. He spun around to find a twelve-gauge shotgun leveled at his chest. The blood chilled in his veins, his heart skipping a beat—not from the dangerous glint of blue steel—but from the woman who wielded the weapon.
“Morgan O’Riley,” he croaked through a throat gone dry. “Is that you?”
“Step down off that porch, mister, if you know what’s good for you.”
Cage held up his hands and with calculated caution, acquiesced. Until she recognized him, he presented danger, and the determined gleam in her eyes warned him she’d fire if given a reason. Damn it, Morgan hadn’t changed a bit, but he had. His stint at Castle on the Cumberland, Kentucky’s nefarious prison, had been a far cry from a stay at the Ritz Carlton. Any man who had to constantly watch his back, weathered and aged, but the woman before him had remained the same.
Her whiskey-colored hair, still long, shone ebony in the moonlight. He couldn’t see her eyes but remembered all too well their sky-blue hue. Mesmerized, he feasted his gaze on her body, about which he’d fantasized on many a lonely night.
“What are you doing here, Morgan?”
“How do you know my name?” She took a hesitant step forward, squinted up at him.
Raspy laughter pushed from his throat. “Don’t tell me I’m that easy to forget. Hell, I may have changed, and it’s been an eternity since I held you, but how could you ever forget what we shared?”
Her body stiffened. “Cage?”
The muscles in his shoulders relaxed and he smiled. “Yep. One and the same.” He nodded toward the shotgun. “You had me worried for a moment. And I can’t say I appreciate that pointed at my chest, no matter who wields it.”
She stepped back, lowering the weapon.
“It’s really good to see you.” He moved closer and raised a hesitant hand.
“Why did you come back?” she whispered.
He dropped his hand to his side. “To right a wrong. I was innocent then. Still am.”
Morgan’s delicate features hardened. “Sheriff Blakely testified otherwise.”
“And I’ll prove he lied.” Craving to touch her, he stroked his mustache with his other hand and waited for his erratic pulse to calm. “You never answered my question. What are you doing here?”
“Your father invited me to stay.”
“Why would he do that?” Taken aback by her revelation, Cage shrugged off a sudden sense of betrayal and shored his resolve to unearth the truth.
A guarded look flitted over her face. “He had his reasons.”
Anger shot to his core at the quiver in her voice. Hell, she couldn’t be afraid of him. “Do I need an invite to enter my own home?” He chuckled in an attempt to ease the growing tension.
“Of course not, but be quiet. Trent’s asleep.”
Cage paused mid-step, jealousy knotting his stomach. How could she bring someone else here, into his own home, after what they’d shared? The ache in his heart intensified. Jaw clenched, emotions masked, he trailed after her into the house, turning to face her. For the first time in ten years, he savored having her close enough to touch. She’d only grown more beautiful with time.
Unsure where he stood with her, or what she thought, he followed her into the kitchen. With each sway of her hips, his groin throbbed in memory. Merciful God. He clenched and unclenched his hands. No way would he ever forget the satin of her skin, the way she’d moved beneath him, or her soft moans of pleasure.
Morgan set the coffeemaker to brew, then leaned against the counter, and with a contemplative stare, crossed her arms. “It’ll be ready in a sec.”
“Thanks, I been on the road a while. Made one pit-stop for gas and that’s it. I could use a caffeine boost.” Uncomfortable in his own skin, he settled in at the kitchen table, investigating his surroundings. Cracked and worn, the linoleum needed replacing and the cabinets repainting. Red floral curtains draped the windows, brightening the otherwise drab room. He traced his finger over a deep gouge in the tabletop, thoughts of the past surfacing in his mind. The house hankered for some TLC, but so did he, and it had fared better than he had.
Morgan tucked a loose strand of hair behind her ear, sighed, and retrieved cups from the cabinet.
“Did you not expect me to come back after I’d done my time?” His voice rang bitter in the silent room.
“Yes…eventually.” With an unsteady hand, she poured steaming hot coffee. “You still take yours black?”
“Same as always. I haven’t changed, just aged. I’m still the person you knew ten years ago. The same man you claimed to love. The same man you turned your back on.”
Anger flashed in her eyes. She strode to the table, set the cup in front of him and flattened her palms on the tabletop. “I had no choice. Sheriff Blakely proved you guilty to a jury of your peers. What should I have done?”
He inspected her face, noting the tiny twitch in her cheek he remembered all too well. “Trusted me. Believed in me. I’d never hurt you. And I never raped that girl either.”
“To think you had…broke my heart.” Tears filled her eyes, along with years of hurt and betrayal. She averted her focus and righted herself. “I’ll pack and be gone by morning. I won’t cause you more trouble. Not when you finally have your life back.”
Cage’s fingers circled her wrist in a vise grip. “Don’t go, Morgan. Please.” He stood, and with one swift tug, pulled her to his chest. Unable to resist, he buried his nose into her hair. She smelled of all things good and pure and right. In her arms, he could forget.
“If it’s the last thing I do, I’ll prove I’m innocent,” he murmured, his lips grazing her ear.