Love Him or Leave Him
A Small Towns, Big Dreams Novel by Sara Daniel
Connor O’Malley and Becca Sanders were once high school sweethearts, ripped apart by rumors in the small town of Kortville, Illinois. Connor left to join the military, and Becca stayed, waiting for her younger brother to graduate so she could live her dreams of traveling the world. But now that Connor’s back as the town sheriff, Becca finds herself struggling to resist the too-handsome man who once broke her heart.
Connor loves Kortville—its quaintness keeps at bay the painful memories of Afghanistan he’s sure make him unworthy of any woman, particularly the beautiful brunette he’s always secretly dreamed of a future with. But when a scandal rocks the town, suddenly Connor and Becca must trust in each other if they want to weather this storm…and come out on the other side of it together.
Praise for Love Him or Leave Him:
“Sweet, funny, and something to get completely lost in for a couple of hours.” –Cocktails and Books blog on Construction Beauty Queen
© 2013 Sara Daniels
Becca Sanders had spent two years studiously ignoring Connor O’Malley’s return to Kortville, Illinois. No small feat considering he was the police chief of their town of two thousand and she had to ring him through the grocery lane twice a week. Too furious to disregard him any longer, she tightened her no-nonsense ponytail and marched across the street and six houses down the block, rapping on his front door hard enough to make her knuckles sting.
He didn’t answer immediately, but the squad car parked in the driveway assured her of his presence.
Finally the door opened. He stood before her, shirtless, with wet hair, as if he were in the middle of shooting a testosterone commercial. “Is this an emergency?”
“Not a police emergency.” Dang, just looking at him could give a woman a hormonal emergency.
“Then it can wait until I’m dressed.” He tried to close the door on her.
Having deflected her obstinate brother Toby’s similar attempts many times over the years, Becca slapped her palm on the door and wedged her foot by the door jamb. “What I have to say can’t wait, not as long as you’re interfering with my family and my brother’s future.”
“Excuse me?” Connor looked so confused she briefly wondered if Toby had told her the wrong name.
No, she knew Connor had been mentoring Toby since the high school’s at-risk program began four months ago. She could name every single other townsperson who’d chosen to volunteer and correctly match them with each kid who was enrolled. The grocery store checkout line had no regard for privacy. People who wanted a confidential life lived somewhere else, not in Kortville. “You’ve been mentoring my brother.”
“Yes.” His expression relaxed, dissolving the tick in his jaw as he almost cracked a smile. “Toby’s been really receptive. Seeing these kids make better choices is encouraging.”
Becca had been doing everything she could to help her brother. She checked in with the school every morning to make sure he’d arrived, instead of skipping like he’d tried last year. She fixed meals for the two of them to eat together each night and stressed the importance of good grades to get into a good college.
Only to have the highest authority figure in the town—an adult male he looked up to—undermine her.
“So, did you tell my brother staying in town after graduation was a better choice than going away to college?”
Connor scratched his head, as if trying to remember. The gesture tousled his uncombed hair even more and sent a shower of water onto the thin red scar across his shoulder, then cascaded into the small circular indentation on his bicep. Interestingly, the town gossip had never mentioned whether he’d acquired the scars in the military or on the Chicago police force.
“Well, yeah, I guess,” he finally answered. “Toby said something about wanting to stay in town and work, and I thought it sounded like a good idea.”
“A good idea not to get a higher education? Are you insane?” She would not let some lousy ex-boyfriend of hers mess up Toby’s life.
“He never mentioned college to me. I didn’t get the impression he was considering it.”
“Of course he’s considering it. What’s the alternative?” Her throat swelled around a sudden lump. She knew the alternative. She was living it. Toby deserved to have better options for his future.
“He likes his job working for Matt.” A single water droplet slid from the center of Connor’s chest down his rock hard abs as he spoke.
Mesmerized, she leaned forward. No! Focus, Becca. As a fitness enthusiast, she ought to be able to objectively appreciate a well-toned physique, instead of lusting over one like a schoolgirl.
“That’s an after-school job,” she explained, keeping her gaze on his clean-shaven face. “He needs to consider choices that are stepping stones to launching a successful career. He’s met the conditional admission to a state school. He needs to pull up his grades to continue to meet their requirements.”
At one time—more than a decade ago—she thought she’d known Connor better than anyone. She hadn’t, of course, not well enough to get through to him when it mattered, but she should still be able to connect well enough for him to see her point of view.
“So I’m supposed to advise him to go to a college he’d likely flunk out of because he doesn’t want to be there in the first place?” Connor’s eyebrows rose incredulously. “I’m not going to tell him something I don’t agree with.”
She blew out a frustrated breath. “After all these years, you still won’t listen to reason.”
“Reason?” he echoed. “You know, Becca, if your advice worked so well, I expect Toby wouldn’t have been placed in the at-risk program to begin with.”
She didn’t want there to be an ounce of truth to his words. She’d busted her butt and cried countless tears trying to figure out how to do everything right for Toby. But even though she’d put her future on hold to take care of him, she’d still failed. She turned away fast enough her ponytail slapped across her cheek before Connor could see more tears gathering in her eyes.
“Just because his future goals are different from yours doesn’t make them wrong,” he called after her. “Not everyone counts success by how far away from town they can get.”
Cured of any hormonal interest in the insufferable man, she marched down the front walk without looking back. Risking the revival of humiliating gossip by storming down the street in plain view of every single nosy neighbor had been a mistake.
What was so wrong about wanting to be more than a grocery store cashier? She dreamed of seeing the world—or at least the world beyond her view of Main Street’s single stop sign, seen through a store window that was taped over with ads for ground chuck and soda pop.
Nothing ever changed here. Twelve years after their high school breakup, Connor still jumped on the first opportunity to believe the worst about her.
Connor backed his squad car into the parking space at the corner of Pauline’s crowded, well-lit diner, radioing dispatch with his dinner break location. Matt and Veronica Shaw, Wilbur and Agatha Hollister, and Mrs. Parker already sat at the long table in the middle of the room, ready to welcome him.
He needed their relaxing conversation to take the edge off the restlessness and frustration from Becca pounding on his front door this afternoon. Considering he’d been wearing only a towel, she’d put him at a distinct disadvantage. His half-naked appearance hadn’t even given him the satisfaction of flustering her.
He opened the cruiser door just as Becca herself sauntered around the other side of the building, her shiny brown ponytail swaying as she entered the diner and headed straight for the middle table. Darn. With their unspoken rule of pretending the other didn’t exist, he’d normally pick up carryout at the counter and eat it in his car.
Not this time. Not after she’d stormed over to his house, breaking the two-year façade he’d maintained because she’d preferred it to hashing out the past. A group setting would be the perfect place to begin a rational discussion, where he could admit she’d caught him off-balance earlier and he didn’t really blame her for Toby’s at-risk tendencies.
He marched across the parking lot and pushed open the door as Becca seated herself at the table with their mutual friends.
“Toby apparently had better plans for his Friday night than having dinner with his sister,” she announced to the group with a sigh.
“Don’t feel bad,” Matt, the owner of the town construction company, replied. “Jenny had better things to do than hang out with Veronica and me, too, and she’s only nine.”
Everyone laughed, but Becca’s smile died on her lips as she locked eyes with him.
Connor strode toward the table, despite her less-than-welcoming expression. He wouldn’t let her make him feel awkward and out-of-place in his own town, a community she didn’t even want to be a part of.
“O’Malley, I trust everything is safe out there,” Wilbur called. The elderly mayor wore a headache-inducing orange and green striped shirt that would have been outlawed in any other town.
“Shaping up to be a quiet night,” Connor assured him, pulling out the final empty seat, which happened to be across from Becca.
She immediately turned to Veronica, seated on her right. “So, where is Jenny?”
“She’s spending the night at a friend’s house,” Veronica said of Matt’s niece, whom they were raising together.
“Hot date night for the Shaws,” Connor teased Veronica. He grinned as Becca’s fist clenched. Yep, his days of fading unobtrusively away to appease her were over.
“You bet. No place we’d rather be.” Veronica winked at Matt on her other side. She’d arrived in town a year ago, giving up her ritzy city life for construction work, winning over the town while taking down Matt and his preconceived notions about rich girls.
Becca scowled at Connor. The expression scrunched up her small, straight nose and furrowed her high forehead, normally smooth and flawless with her brown hair pulled back from her face in an ever-present ponytail. Connor never realized how endearing frustration could be.
“Okay, everyone, before we get into today’s special, I assume you saw the poster outside the front door.” Pauline stopped in front of their table, order pad tucked away in her apron.
“Poster?” Matt asked.
“How could you miss the giant hot cocoa mug?” Veronica teased.
“I was mesmerized by you, dear.” He bestowed a smacking kiss on her lips.
Connor glanced away from them at the same time Becca did, and their gazes collided. Although they’d never achieved such easy familiar affection, as a teen, he’d treasured every moment he’d held her in his arms and touched his mouth to hers.
Her lips had been soft and supple. Now they shone with a light gloss, parted slightly. Her tongue darted out to touch them, and he wrenched his eyes away. If she even guessed he envisioned kissing her now, she would slap him so hard his face would sting for days.
“I’m discontinuing the espresso taste tests because I’m looking into using them in a new business venture. So, I’m teaming up with the grocery store to create a unique hot cocoa drink in their place,” Pauline enthused. “Only instead of me making up the flavor, anyone can vie for the honor through a four-week competition. The winner will have his or her cocoa flavor become a permanent item on the diner’s menu. What do you think of my new marketing plan?”
“Uh—” Matt began, only to be cut off as Veronica nudged her elbow in his ribs.
“Absolutely. Sign us up,” she said.
Connor had to bite his cheek to keep from laughing at the look of horror on Matt’s face. Thankfully, he didn’t have to worry about a woman sweet-talking or strong-arming him into anything he didn’t want to do.
“Excellent. I knew I could count on my financial adviser,” Pauline said. “Wilbur and Agatha, what do you say?”
“Of course. We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Wilbur said without missing a beat.
“Sounds like the most fun this town has had since the grand opening of the community center,” Agatha added, as Pauline beamed at them.
“I don’t think you can beat the community center opening,” Becca murmured. “Matt gave Veronica the best marriage proposal of all time.”
The door to the diner opened with another loud jingle before anyone could reply, and the collective attention shifted to the man and woman in the doorway.
“Larry.” Wilbur’s shocked gasp reflected Connor’s internal one. The former police chief and his wife had retired two years ago to Florida, prompting Connor to leave the city force in order to take over his job. Now they’d returned, apparently without a word to anyone.
“Harriet!” both Agatha and Mrs. Parker chorused, jumping to their feet in surprisingly spry movements, considering their advanced age and normal tottering walks.
“Mayor.” Larry walked toward them, shaking Wilbur’s hand, long and steady.
Connor stood slowly and shook hands in respect for the chief who’d preceded him. Chaos reigned for a couple of minutes as introductions were made to Veronica, another table was pushed over to accommodate the newcomers, and people settled into their seats.
“Retirement bored me stiff,” Larry announced to the group. “We missed Kortville like you wouldn’t believe. Man, all I could think, Wilbur, was you told me if I ever changed my mind and returned home, the job would be mine again.”
“So, you’re staying.” Pauline beamed at the new set of easy victims, explaining her cocoa contest all over again.
Connor sank into his seat, then lifted his eyes and found Becca watching him. He turned away from her sympathetic expression. His job wasn’t in jeopardy. Since he’d taken over, he’d made his name synonymous with law and order. He took care of this community now. He kept the residents safe and ensured the town stayed a sanctuary from the evils of the outside world. And he would keep doing it.
He wasn’t going anywhere. Ever.
Becca averted her gaze, wishing she hadn’t made eye contact, wishing she hadn’t come to the diner at all this evening after Toby had blown off her attempt at a family meal. Despite her anger over Connor’s advice to her brother, she understood having big dreams for her life and then suddenly finding them ripped from under her. She didn’t wish that on anyone.
The bell over the diner entrance jingled once again, and Jake Barney, owner of the convenience store, stumbled in, breathing heavily. “Officer.” He heaved himself over to their table and leaned on the end of it to catch his breath. The surface tipped toward him.
Connor grasped the table to steady it while Becca touched the stuttering pulse on the big man’s wrist. “Jake, what’s wrong?”
“Fetch,” he gasped, breathing too hard to choke out more words.
“Your dog? Is he sick? Hurt?”
“Got loose. Ran off. Tried to catch him. But. Can’t. Run.” The table quivered under Jake’s pressure.
“Sit here.” Becca stood and nudged him toward her chair, genuinely concerned for the man’s health but also relieved for the distraction.
“Which direction did he go? I’ll track him down.” Connor rose to his feet, bringing him shoulder-to-shoulder with her.
She resisted the instinct to step back and let him nudge her out of the conversation. If being this close didn’t bother him, she sure wouldn’t let on that her heart thundered like she’d gone through a double DVD of strength and cardio with a kettle ball.
“Toward the corn field on the edge of town. But you know how he likes to run down the middle of the road and play chicken with the cars.” Even gasping, Jake sounded stricken. “I’ll come with you.”
“You rest,” Connor said firmly. “I’ll look for him, and everyone in here will spread the word, so people driving on the road will have their eye out, too. We’ll find him.”
Jake shook his head in refusal, clearly wanting to join the search.
“Tell you what,” Becca said. “Connor will go ahead and start looking. You and I will sit here and order a carryout of the meatloaf special. Then we’ll follow in my car. If Connor hasn’t corralled him by then, the food will coax him to return.”
Connor’s arm brushed her shoulder as he shifted his stance. “Thanks, Becca.”
She met his gaze, and something familiar called to her, something she hadn’t seen since high school. She focused on taking Jake’s pulse again. She’d concocted the plan for him, not Connor.
Ten minutes later, Jake had his breath back and their food order, and they set out for her car. As he sank into the passenger seat, a loud ripping sound filled the air. “Oh no.” He reached his hand back, and his pudgy face flushed with embarrassment. “I just ripped my pants wide open.”
“At least it’s dark out,” Becca said, trying to play it off cheerfully so as not to humiliate him further. He’d been working hard to change what he considered a loser image, and with her reinforcement over the past few months had convinced everyone to call him by his first name instead of the last name of “Barney,” as he’d been known for years. “No one will notice.”
He shook his head. “I’m too damn fat. I got so tired of needing to buy another size up I stopped buying clothes. What am I thinking? My pants aren’t to blame for how big I’ve gotten.”
She opened her mouth to deny his weight problem, but by anyone’s standards she’d be lying. She considered Jake a friend, and she didn’t sugarcoat the truth for her friends. “So, are you going to order the bigger size you need, or are you going to exercise and improve your diet so you can fit into the sizes you’ve outgrown?” she asked as she began driving.
“I’m beyond being able to exercise,” he said in defeat. “I can’t even keep up with my dog. This is the most I’ve exerted myself in a decade, and I almost had a heart attack doing it. Drop me off at my house so I can change. Text me if you find Fetch, and I’ll meet up with you.”
She so wanted to help Jake with a weight loss regimen. She lived and breathed exercise, looking forward to it the way most people looked forward to the treat they could indulge in as a reward for suffering through exercising. She’d even found a way to incorporate the hobby into her major for her online college degree.
She knew she should start off slowly, not jump into the complete lifestyle overhaul Jake needed to improve his health. “You know, I have an exercise blog, which will give you a starting point if you’re looking for diet and exercise tips.”
He grunted in reply.
She bit her lip. She’d offended him. Years of conversing with customers at the grocery store should have taught her most people simply wanted her to commiserate, not try to change their habits.
After leaving Jake, she drove to the edge of town, where Connor’s squad car idled on the side of the road. She parked behind him and got out. When she’d offered to help, she hardly expected to find herself alone on a dark roadside with him. Sure, she was physically safer with him than with anyone else. But with the reminder of his finely sculpted naked chest still etched in her brain, her nerves sprang to life.
She wouldn’t give him any reason to notice she felt the slightest discomfort. Grabbing the carryout dish, she stepped out of the car, pitching her voice with a breezy tone. “Did you find Fetch?”
Connor scowled. “He slunk into this field and refuses to come out. Where’s Jake?”
“He’s coming in a minute in his own car.” She shot off the promised text, then pocketed her phone and opened the Styrofoam container. As she walked down the steep slope of the ditch, she couldn’t help remembering that they were next to the very same field entrance where they had shared their first kiss twelve years and several lifetimes ago.
The kiss had been magical.
The rest of the evening, not so much.
Connor’s car had sunk into the mud. Both their fathers had come to dig them out and escort them home, resulting in a scorching lecture for her about abstinence and making sure she didn’t end up stuck in town because of a baby. She’d taken those precautions to heart, but the unplanned pregnancy she feared would sideline her dreams never materialized, leaving the job instead to an obstacle she’d never imagined.
Now the intensity of Connor’s gaze as he watched her slog through the mushy ground to the field of knee-high corn brought back the sixteen-year-old girl who had a world of possibilities in front of her just waiting to be explored.
And she would explore them, she reminded herself. Just not with Connor. The dream of being with him had died even before she’d had to give up her plan to leave town.
Connor offered to take the food from Becca, but she ignored him. He didn’t think anything could frustrate him more than Larry showing up and expecting to take over his role as police chief, but Becca brushing him aside to take on the task of glorified dogcatcher ran a close second.
He felt damn near useless as she called, “Fetch, here boy.” She stood with the container, then lifted her feet high as she stepped over some trampled brush at the edge of the field. “I brought some meat for you.”
The wind ruffled her shoulder-length brown hair, and she shivered slightly, probably regretting she hadn’t worn a coat. The day had been warm, but with the sun now completely below the landscape, the chill of the April evening had set in.
A whine sounded from far out in the field, followed by the rustle of leaves and the snapping of stalks. It sounded like a commander had signaled the order to strike. No, that belonged to another continent, another life. Here in Kortville, the same sounds signaled something much more mundane. The dog, smelling the food, eagerly chose to return to civilization.
Becca backed up toward the edge of the field. The small pile of brush she’d stepped over a moment before lay at ankle height. Not looking at her feet, she tripped over a branch.
Too far away to reach her, Connor watched her fall happen in slow motion. One minute Kevin laughed at his own joke. Then a blast shot him up into the air, throwing him backward on the ground. Enemy fire whizzed by Connor as he ran to his fallen comrade. “Man down at three o’clock.”
Still ten feet away, a second attack sent him rolling for cover. A massive black canine dashed between the cornstalks straight toward them, its gaze fixated on the Styrofoam projectile. The animal’s paws slammed against the fallen man’s chest, knocking him onto his back. Using Kevin’s chest as a springboard, the monster jumped the final distance over his head to tear apart the container.
“Kevin!” Connor scrambled over and knelt next to his comrade. The scene didn’t usually unfold this way, and he couldn’t identify the dog as friend or foe. Then again, enemy grenades and landmines packed enough punch to dismember a body.
“Catch Fetch before he runs off again.”
Connor blinked his suddenly blurry vision at the incongruous female voice. Kevin had never had a chance to say another word. He’d died before he hit the ground.
Becca lay in front of him, and they were both in a bucolic town that landmines had never touched. He wiped his hand over his face, dripping with sweat, just like when he awoke in the night.
Becca had tripped. He’d seen it happen right before she’d morphed into Kevin through a trick of his mind. He despised the moment of mental weakness. Not even evil attack dogs threatened the people of Kortville. “Are you—are you okay?”
That he could relate to. Every time he approached her, unfortunately. He slid his hands around her head feeling for blood or bumps, reassured by her intact skull. Before he could utter a word of thanks, he noticed the round circle of blood staining her chest. Sweet Jesus, not a chest wound. Desperate to get to the source and apply pressure, he grasped her shirt and ripped.
“What are you doing?” She struggled beneath his hands.
“You’re bleeding. Don’t move.” He willed himself not to panic as he recalled his first aid training.
“I don’t feel anything. I’m fine.”
She couldn’t feel where she’d been hit, which meant her system had gone into shock. Damn it, he would not fail Becca too.
She lifted her head. “Honestly, Fetch just gave me a couple tiny scratches. A little antiseptic cream, and I’ll be fine. You’re making a big fuss over nothing.” She struggled to sit up beneath his grasp.
Connor stared at her chest. Just above the edge of her bra cup, the scrapes on her left breast barely broke the skin. But blood covered her shirt. He turned over the ripped garment and touched the wet, gooey substance.
Raising his hand, he analyzed it in the glow of his car headlights. Brown, not red. Not blood. Simply a fat, muddy paw print.
The final apparitions from his years as a soldier fighting in Afghanistan evaporated, leaving only a delusional, humiliated police officer and an innocent woman whose shirt he had a ripped open. Her pale breasts rose with each breath, shimmering in the faint light.
“I—I’m sorry. I overreacted,” he admitted.
“You think? Just a little bit?” She smiled, taking any edge out of her words.
His hands shook, brushing her lacy bra as he tried to cover her chest with her tattered shirt, which would have come through the ordeal no worse for the wear if he hadn’t shredded it in his haste to save her.
The weight of her breast and the smoothness of her skin tempted him with a need as powerful and strangling as any of his dreams. He battled it back, determined to keep a firm hold on reality this time. “Hey, you saw my chest earlier,” he tried to joke. “Seems only fair, doesn’t it?”
She didn’t laugh. “If we were still in high school trading touches, maybe.”
He yanked his hand away, as the memory assaulted him. Being granted permission to caress those breasts had once been his holy grail. She had let him once when they’d pushed the boundary of kissing. Her moans of pleasure had let him know she’d loved his hands on her every bit as much as he had.
But unlike him, she’d also been clearheaded enough to realize if they continued they wouldn’t stop, and eventually pleasure and desire would convince them to go all the way. She’d had the strength to set boundaries. He’d been a teenager with raging hormones convinced he was going to spend the rest of his life with her.
Presented with her naked flesh, he felt like that naïve kid again, as if the intervening years hadn’t changed him a bit. However, the war memories that caused him to rip her clothes aside proved he’d changed so much, no vestige of his childhood innocence remained.