Excerpt: FALLING FOR THE WINGMAN by Crista McHugh

 

Chapter One

 

Sometimes four hundred and fifty horsepower wasn’t enough.

Caleb Kelly rammed the clutch and shifted gears. The engine of his classic Baldwin Motion Camaro growled in response and accelerated along the two-lane highway in rural Alabama, but it still wasn’t fast enough. He was already too late as it was, and every second that crept by felt like an eternity.

Kourtney had left him, and now he was chasing his last chance to win her back.

The ringing of his phone interrupted the Metallica blasting through the radio, and he clicked on the Bluetooth. “What?”

“I just got your message,” Adam, the eldest brother in the family, said. “What happened?”

“I’m asking myself the same goddamn thing.” The speedometer teetered on seventy, but he felt like he was crawling. “I came home expecting to find Kourtney there, and all I found was a note.”

“She left you while you were deployed?”

“Yep.” A beat-up Ford Taurus pulled out in front of him. Caleb slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting the car, but his heart kept pace with the RPMs of his engine.

“Did she give you any warning?”

“Nothing.” He paused and recounted all the emails she’d sent him while he was gone. None of them seemed to indicate she was unhappy. Yes, they mentioned that she missed him, and some of the later ones indicated she was bored living in Ft. Walton without him, but none of them prepared him for the dust-covered letter that was waiting on his pillow when he came back from Afghanistan. “Until I walked through the door this afternoon, I expected her to be waiting for me.”

Of course, his first warning should’ve been when he didn’t spot her with the other families at the airfield.

“When did you last hear from her?”

“About a month ago. She didn’t answer my last few emails, but I always wonder how much the DOD lets go through.”

“What did her note say?”

Caleb tightened his jaw and drummed on the steering wheel. The driver in front of him seemed oblivious to his haste, cruising along the highway as part of a leisurely Sunday drive. “She said she wasn’t cut out to be an Air Force girlfriend.”

“She knew what she was getting into when she started dating you.” A heavy sigh came from the other end. “Are you sure you want her back?”

Caleb ran his hand over the small metal bulge in his pocket. It was a small figurine of an angel made out of watch parts and other pieces of scrap metal. The halo was purposely crooked, and the wings appeared to be made from an antique Army Air Corps pilot badge. Kourtney had given it to him before he deployed, joking that it was a good luck charm. He’d carried it with him on every mission, and more than once, he’d escaped some tense situations without a scratch.

But it was more than the good luck charm. He’d been crazy about her before he left—as hot as she was, what man wouldn’t be—but while he was away, he’d discovered a new side to her. Her emails revealed a woman of strength, patience, and hope that endeared her to his heart. When he was alone and cold and worried if he’d come out of the next mission alive, she’d always say something that would set his soul at ease. As his deployment came to closer to the end, so did his resolution to marry her.

“I doubt you’d understand, Adam.”

“Try me. After all, I’m the first one of us getting married.”

“If Ben doesn’t beat you to it.” The ribbing soothed some of Caleb’s frustration, and a grin tugged at the corners of his mouth. Both of his older brothers had found women they couldn’t live without. Now it was his turn. “Remember how I told you she was special before I left?”

“Yeah.”

“Well, she’s more than that. She kept me alive over there with her letters, and now I want to spend the rest of my life with her.”

His brother gave him a low whistle. “That serious, huh?”

“As a heart attack. I even bought her a ring.”

“Wow.” The line fell silent for a few seconds. “Does Mom know about this?”

“No way. She hated Kourtney.”

“And knowing that, you’re still determined to marry her?”

“Mom just needs to see her for who she truly is.” The Taurus in front of him turned down a side road, and Caleb floored the accelerator. “I’ve got to go, Adam. I’ll let you know how it turns out.”

****

Alex Leadbetter’s heart jumped when she heard a car approach her mother’s house. A 450-horsepower, seven-liter V8 semi-hemi that purred like a kitten when idle and roared like a lion when fully revved up. The perfect engine for a classic muscle car like a 1970 Phase III-SS 454 Camaro. And she knew only one person who drove a car like that.

Caleb Kelly.

She excused herself from the tedious conversation revolving around the seating at Kourtney’s wedding reception and went to the front door. A peek out the window confirmed what she already knew, and her gut tightened. At the very far of the driveway sat the midnight blue Camaro with white striping, and its owner was stomping up the walkway like a man on a mission.

Shit!

She should’ve known he’d come chasing after her older sister. Every idiot of a man did. She just hoped Caleb would’ve been different.

Or that he would’ve at least gotten the hint from the last few emails she’d sent him while posing as her sister. She’d purposely tried to prepare him for an empty apartment by hinting that “Kourtney” was getting bored in Ft. Walton and wanted to leave.

She slipped out the front door to intercept him before he banged on the door and blew a gasket in front of Kourtney and her sister’s future in-laws. “Caleb,” she said, pouring every ounce of Southern sweetness into her drawl, “what brings you here?”

He yanked off his aviator sunglasses, his blue eyes dark with fury, but her pulse fluttered like a giddy teenager’s in front of her crush. Sweet Jesus, even while scowling, he made her head fuzzy. He was tall and lean, but his biceps bulged underneath his fitted T-shirt. His brown hair pushed at the limits of regulation length, the ends curling ever so slightly in the late April humidity. The man was walking, breathing temptation on two legs, and her self-absorbed sister definitely didn’t deserve him.

“Where is she?”

So much for pleasantries. “Where’s who?”

“Cut the crap, Alex. I know she’s in there.”

He tried to get past her, but she wedged her arms between the columns on the front porch of her mother’s plantation-style home and blocked him. “What makes you think that?”

He pointed to the red BMW 335i in the driveway. “I know her car. Now let me in.” He pried her arms down, sending a little shock through her that stunned her enough to let him by.

Then she regained her senses. She ran and plastered herself against the front door to keep him from barging inside. Part of her wanted him to go in and learn the truth about her sister. The other part wanted to spare him the pain. “Caleb, you really don’t want to go in there.”

“Why not?” He crossed his arms and continued to scowl at her.

Time to see how much he knew. “Have you been following Kourtney on Facebook?”

“No, I wasn’t allowed access to it while I was deployed.” His jaw tightened, and a look of panic crossed his face. “What are you hiding from me? She’s not pregnant or something, is she?”

If she were, you certainly wouldn’t be the baby daddy. Her sister had moved back to Jackson Grove within a week of Caleb’s departure to Afghanistan and immediately hooked up with Ryan McClure, heir to the McClure family timber fortune. Within three months, she’d gotten him to propose and started planning the biggest wedding this county had seen in over a decade. “No, she’s not pregnant.”

As far as I know. It would be like her sister to get knocked up just so she’d have some leverage over her fiancé.

“Then why won’t you let me inside, Alex?”

She took a deep breath and offered a silent prayer, hoping he’d leave as soon as he learned the truth. “Because Kourtney’s in there with her future in-laws finalizing the details for her wedding next weekend.”

Caleb stumbled back like a man who’d just been punched in the gut. “She’s getting married?”

His face paled, and when she touched his cheek, it was cool and clammy, despite the eighty-degree heat. “I’m sorry you had to find out this way—”

He silenced her by pushing her hand away and bolting for the door. “Kourtney?” he called into the house.

“Damn it, Caleb!” Alex spun around and chased after him, running into his back when stopped suddenly at the entrance to the front parlor.

Now it was Kourtney’s turn to go pale. Or at least as pale as she could go under the layers of orange-glow spray tan. Her brown eyes widened, and she rose unsteadily to her feet like she’d just seen a ghost. “Caleb, what are you doing here?”

“I could ask you the same thing.” He glared at Ryan and curled his hands into fists. “I thought you were going to wait for me to come back from Afghanistan.”

Kourtney swallowed, and her cool queen bee exterior fell back into place. “Didn’t you get my note?”

“Yes.”

“Then you know why I left,” she said as though it was all his fault.

Ryan stood and wrapped his arm possessively around Kourtney’s waist, his eyes narrowing in challenge as he stared at Caleb. “Besides, she’s moved on to better things.”

Caleb’s fists flexed, and Alex’s heart did a double-time skip. If this situation didn’t get diffused soon, the groom would be sporting a black eye for the wedding, and Caleb would be spending more than one night in jail, especially since Ryan’s father played golf with Judge Ramsey.

She moved between them and pushed Caleb back into the hallway. “Please don’t make a scene,” she whispered.

“I’m not leaving until I have answers.”

“But this is not the proper time nor place.”

“I need to talk to her.”

“And you will, but let me try to smooth things over first.”

Behind them, Ryan’s father grumbled something about calling the police, and she pressed all her weight against Caleb’s chest, shoving him a few inches closer to the door. “Do you remember the Iron Line bar in town?” she asked.

His attention finally flickered from Kourtney and Ryan to her. “Yes.”

“Head over there and have a beer. Tell Earl to put it on my tab. I’ll meet you as soon as I can get away from this mess.”

He glanced over her shoulder to the crowd of people gathering around her overly distressed sister. Then he leveled those piercing blue eyes on her and said, “Fine, but if you’re not there in an hour, I’ll be back.”

The look on his face showed he wouldn’t leave so easily next time.

Alex exhaled a sigh of relief. With any luck, she wouldn’t have to call J.T. to keep Caleb out of jail. “I’ll be there faster than a swarm of ants on a picnic.”

He took a few more steps back, his normally luscious mouth pressed in an unrelenting line, before turning around and letting himself out the front door. The Camaro roared to life like an angry jaguar, followed by the squeal of tires.

Don’t you dare get pulled over being an ass. She might be best friends with the police chief’s son, but friendship wouldn’t protect Caleb from stupidity.

Alex turned around just as her mother strutted from the front parlor. Her uptight walk could’ve been blamed on the fitted pencil skirt that clung to the former beauty queen’s still-shapely legs, but the pursed-lip frown warned Alex it was time for her to leave, too.

“What was he doing here?” her mother demanded in an angry whisper.

“No idea.” Alex tried to brush past her mother, but the pissed-off matriarch grabbed her by the arm and hauled her back.

“Don’t give me any sass, Alexandra. What did he say to you?”

Alex rolled her eyes. “Just what you’d expect him to say after coming home and finding Kourtney gone. He was here for answers.”

“He embarrassed us in front of the McClures.”

“If Kourtney had handled breaking up with him like a grown-up, this wouldn’t have happened.”

“Why didn’t you try to stop him? Do you have any idea how much he upset your sister?” Her mother donned the same wounded Southern belle simper Kourtney had worn minutes before.

Alex massaged her temples. She had to get out of this crazy house before she said something she regretted. Or worse, before Caleb came charging back in. “Let me handle him, Mama. You go back to the McClures, and I’ll make sure he doesn’t make another scene.”

She grabbed her keys off the hook by the front door and ran to her rebuilt ’57 Chevy pickup. When her engine started, it was a low, barrel-chested growl. Solid and reassuring, not predatory. But she liked it that way.

Sweat coated her palms as she drove into town. She needed to know the real reason Caleb was in town, and prayed to God it wasn’t because of her emails.

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