Breathe (Colorado Mountain #4) by Kristen Ashley

Chapter One

Never to Be His

“Talk to me.”

Chace Keaton was whispering to no one, sitting alone in the very early morning February cold of Harker’s Wood.

The place where his wife was shot to death.

Harker’s Wood was an unusual spread of trees in the Colorado Mountains. Unusual because it wasn’t simply conifer and aspen. For some reason that was likely akin to the reasons Old Man Harker did all the crazy shit he did, he had cleared that space seventy years ago and planted hundreds of shoots of twenty different varieties of trees. Trees that shouldn’t take root in the Colorado Mountains. Trees that, by some miracle, not only took root but grew tall and remained strong.

It was late night. The snow was thick and deep. It was freezing cold. There were a few clouds but the full moon shone bright through the trees, gilding them silver.

Chace didn’t see the trees or the moon. He didn’t feel the cold seeping through his jeans that were resting on the snow covered log which his ass was on.

He saw nothing.

He heard nothing.

He waited for the wood to talk.

It wasn’t talking.

He’d been up there countless times since Misty was shot there. Her death was purposefully not investigated by strict, detailed police protocol.

Not by the Carnal Police Department.

Not then.

Not when it was infested.

Now it was no longer infested.

But that didn’t mean Chace didn’t come up there alone, without a tail and instigate his own detailed examination of the area.

He found nothing.

And the wood never talked to him. Not back then. Not now.

Misty’s blood had long since washed away or mingled with the dirt. Now that dirt was covered in snow.

But Chace saw in his mind’s eye the footprints.

And, Christ, the knee prints.

Two sets. A man’s, a woman’s. Both of them walking up the well-tended trail to the wood. Only the man’s walking back.

Misty was wearing high heels. She always wore high heels. Chace liked women in heels. That said, the ones his wife wore made her look like a whore.

He’d noted several times in the footprints that marked her enforced walk, after being beaten badly, probably at gunpoint, definitely scared out of her mind, where she’d stumbled. Other times where she’d fallen.

But he’d done her on her knees.

Chace closed his eyes.

Very few people knew that they’d found se**n on her chin and in her stomach. He knew because he was a cop in that town and her husband.

And he knew that before she was shot to death, she’d been forced to her knees in order to give her killer a blowjob.

The bile rushed up his throat and in the months since his wife had been beaten, violated and murdered that had happened countless times too.

Kiss me, Chace.

Her voice came at him in a memory, brutalizing his brain as it had every day, so many fu**ing times a day, he couldn’t count.

Her last words to him.

She’d been begging.

Kiss me, Chace.

He hadn’t kissed her. They’d been married for years and except the kiss he had to give her at their wedding, he hadn’t kissed her once.

Not once.

Instead, he’d felt his lip curl, something he didn’t hide from her, and he’d walked away.

As he swallowed the bile down, his eyes flew open when he heard someone approaching.

Then he heard a stumble and a female hiss the bizarre word, “Frak.”

He came to his feet silently, instantly alert, and his gaze swung to the trail where the noise was coming from. His hand went to the gun in the holster clipped to the side of his belt. It was his service weapon. He wasn’t on duty but he always wore it. His mountain town of Carnal, Colorado might have recently emerged out from under a small town tyrant’s thumb but that didn’t mean it was safe.

He blinked when she came into view, her head down, the top of her hair covered in a knit cap the color he couldn’t tell in the moonlight. Her eyes were to her feet as she stomped through the snow to get to the clearing.

As if sensing him, her head shot up and when she saw him, she stopped so abruptly, her body rocked.

Chace stared at her.

He knew her.

Jesus fu**ing Christ. What the fuck?

He said not one word. It was fu**ing two in the fu**ing morning in the freezing cold in the middle of nowhere that just happened to be the scene of an ugly, bloody murder. And she was there. He didn’t know what to say because he didn’t know whether to be pissed or seriously fu**ing pissed.

She said not one word either. Then again, she was known for being quiet and not just because it was an occupational hazard, seeing as she was the town’s librarian.

Surprisingly, she broke their stare but she did it mumbling, “Uh…”

At that sound, Chace decided to be seriously fu**ing pissed.

“What the fuck?” he asked.

“Um… uh, Detective Keaton,” she replied then said not another word but her eyes were locked to him. Her long, sleek hair flowing out from under her cap was a midnight shadow against her light, puffy vest and the scarf wound around her neck. Her face was pale in the moonlight.

And, f*ck him, he liked her voice. He’d heard it before, not often but he’d heard it. And he’d liked it the other times too. Quiet, melodious, like a fu**ing song.

Yeah, he liked it. A f*ck of a lot.

Just not right then even if it was the first time she’d uttered his name. Or one of his names. The name he’d prefer she say was his first and he’d like to hear her say it when she was on her back, her rounded body under his, his c**k inside her and he’d just made her come.

Something he’d never have.

This reminded him he was seriously fu**ing pissed.

So he repeated, “What the fuck?”

“I… uh –”

“Spit it out, Miz Goodknight. What the f*ck are you doin’ in Harker’s Wood, at the scene of a murder at two in the fu**ing morning?”

“Well, uh…” Her head tipped to the side and her eyes remained on him. “What are you doing here?”

“My wife was murdered here,” he replied instantly, tersely and with obvious anger and immediately wished he didn’t. This was because he watched her face flinch at the same time she took a step back.

It took her a moment to call it up but she did. She straightened her spine and whispered, “I’m sorry,” he watched her swallow, “I’m so sorry about Misty, Detective Keaton.”

“No one’s sorry about Misty,” he returned.

For some reason he was unable to stop himself from being an as**ole and he watched as she scrunched her nose, another flinch. This one cute.

Really cute.

Fuck him.

But he was right. No one in town was sorry his wife was dead. Not even, if he dug down deep, Chace. He wouldn’t have wanted that for her, not that. Not even if they just filled her with holes rather than beating her and debasing her before they did it.

That didn’t mean he didn’t want her way the f*ck out of his life. In another state. Fuck, in another fu**ing country.

He did want that.

He’d even prayed for it, that was how much he wanted it.

And now she was very, very much out of his life.

“That isn’t true.” Her whispered words came at him and he focused on her again. “I mean, you know, she wasn’t, uh… Miss Popularity but what was done to her –”

Chace cut her off, “Let’s get to why you’re here, Miz Goodknight.”

He saw her moon-shadowed teeth bite her bottom lip and she looked around. He’d been a cop for a while. Because of this, he knew she was buying time to come up with a plausible lie.

So he prompted impatiently, “Miz Goodknight.”

She looked back at him and said in her quiet, appealing voice, “Faye.”

“What?”

He heard her clear her throat and she said, louder this time, “Faye. My name is Faye.”

“I know that,” he informed her, his tone no less short, maybe even more so.

“Well, you can, uh… you know, call me that,” she invited.

“Great,” he bit off. “Now you wanna answer my question?”

“No, actually, uh… not really.” she replied and Chace stared.

He did this because he was surprised.

She was pretty, fuck, unbelievably pretty. Thick, straight, long, dark auburn hair with natural red highlights. Hair that shined so much it fu**ing gleamed. A body she didn’t show off by any stretch of the imagination but that didn’t mean a man couldn’t see she had curves in all the right places and hers were attractively ample. She wasn’t tall, she wasn’t short. Tall enough she could wear heels and he’d still have to bend his neck to take her mouth. And she had a pretty mouth with full lips that were so pink it looked like they would taste like bubblegum. She also had high, rounded, extraordinary cheekbones that gave testimony to a fact everyone in town knew, she had Native American blood in her ancestry.

And her eyes. Clear light blue. Absolute. Not gray-blue. Blue. He’d never seen a blue so perfect, so pure, so beautiful and sure as f*ck not the color of someone’s eyes.

But she was quiet. She was shy. It wasn’t like she was a hermit or invisible. She went to work. She had lunch at the diner. She went to the grocery store, post office, the Italian place, La-La Land for her coffees. She had friends. She had a huge-ass family and she was close to them.

But everyone knew she lived in a book. She didn’t date. She didn’t go to Bubba’s bar and tie one on. Chace saw her in La-La Land drinking a coffee and eating one of Shambles’s cakes, her nose in a book or her hand wrapped around one of those eReaders. Chace saw her at the diner, same pose. Christ, more than once in his years in that town, he’d seen her wandering down a grocery store aisle, walking out of the post office, out of the library, her head bent, eyes trained to a book.

Him catching her for whatever reason she was in Harker’s Wood at two in the morning, he would not expect she’d have the courage to do anything but answer his questions. Maybe haltingly. But she’d do it.

He would never expect she’d refuse.

“I’m afraid that answer’s unacceptable, Miz Goodknight,” he informed her.

“Faye,” she corrected quietly.

“Whatever the fuck,” he clipped. “Now, again, what are you doing here?”

For several long moments she studied him before she took half a step toward him but stopped abruptly and asked softly, “Do you come here a lot?”

“Not sure that’s your business,” he answered.

“But you are sure it’s your business to know why I come here?” she returned, not testy or sharp, just careful.

“It’s a crime scene, Miz Goodknight.”

“Faye.”

He leaned in and bit out a curt, “Faye,” and again wished he didn’t because her nose scrunched again. Another flinch. The cute kind. He buried his reaction to learning that the town’s pretty, curvy, probably virgin librarian, who he once marked as the women he wanted to make his before his life turned to shit, could be cute. Then he pressed on, “This is a crime scene.”

“The tape’s down,” she reminded him. “It’s been down months.”

“It’s still a crime scene.”

She took another step and again her spine went straight. “Mr. Harker gave this wood to the city of Carnal ten years ago, Detective Keaton. It’s a park. Public property. I have every right to be here.”

There it was. The backbone again and even having seen it before, he was still surprised.

“City ordinance states all parks close to the public at ten o’clock unless they’re a campsite,” Chace shot back and through the moonlight, he watched her press her lips together.

Then she unpressed them and whispered, “Oh.”

And that one syllable was melodious and cute too, f*ck him.

She went on, “I didn’t know that.”

“Now you do.”

“Maybe I should be leaving,” she suggested.

“No maybe about it, Miz Goodknight,” he returned.

“Faye,” she whispered, her eyes locked to his.

Chace didn’t reply.

Faye Goodknight didn’t leave.

Instead, she took two more steps toward him before she stopped only three feet away.

When she did, she asked softly, “Are you okay?”

He should have lied and said yes. Or maybe not answered and reminded her she was leaving.

He didn’t do either of these.

“Miz Goodknight, it’s two in the morning and I’m in the cold in the wood where my wife was murdered. Do you think I’m okay?”

Instantly, still soft, she replied, “No.”

He remembered himself then he reminded her, “You were leaving.”

She didn’t leave. She took another step forward, tipped her ear toward her shoulder but jutted her face slightly toward him and peered up at him, examining his features.

This, too, was cute.

While he was dealing with that, her soft voice came at him. “Did you love her?”

“You know the answer to that,” he returned immediately and she did. Everyone did. Chace Keaton made it abundantly clear how he felt about his wife and not only just to his wife.

She righted her head on her shoulders and advised, “Maybe you should talk to someone about, uh… what you’re feeling.”

“You volunteering for that?” Chace asked and his tone was cutting.

She didn’t even blink before she offered, “If you like.”

“No offense, Faye, but the person I pick to lay the fu**ed up shit in my head on is not gonna be a woman who breathes and eats and works but lives in a fantasy world. You can’t handle your own life, which is a good life, far’s I can see, without escaping. No fuckin’ way you can handle the shit I got in my head.”

It was an as**ole remark but it worked. Her shoulders slumped slightly and she took a step back.

“I’m just trying to be nice,” she pointed out the obvious.

“What would be nice is if you’d haul your ass back up the trail and leave me be.”

She didn’t move. Not for long moments.

Then she leaned slightly into him and said gently, “I don’t think you should be left be. I think you’re dealing with something heavy, you’re obviously doing it alone.” She threw a mitten-covered hand out to indicate the area, “You need to unload it, Chace.”

Christ.