3d Place - 2002 ERA Awards
2002 National Readers Choice Finalist
3rd Annual Orange Rose Finalist
by Catherine Snodgrass and Bryndis Rubin
Military Romance - Contemporary
Amber Quill Press www.amberquill.com
When Staff Sergeant Rowan McKinley is charged with murder, she wants the best defense counsel the Marine Corps has to offer-Captain Phillip Stuart. Phillip swore he'd never have anything to do with the one woman who broke his heart, yet he doesn't hesitate to answer her plea for help. The love and passion each thought gone sparks to life, only now it is forbidden by military law. Knowing the rules and adhering to them are very different matters. But who should make the sacrifice when both are destined to soar to the tops of their ranks? The choice might just be taken from their hands, for there is a killer with just as much to lose. This is a man who will stop at nothing to protect his identity, even if that means threatening the one link between Phillip and Rowan-a son Phillip never knew she bore him.
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What Reviewers Are Saying About ALWAYS FAITHFUL
ALWAYS FAITHFUL is a fast-moving, emotionally charged mystery that takes off like a jet plane. Rowan's toughness is a shell she's built to protect her heart from what she feels is Phillip's betrayal, while Phillip has devoted the past nine years to forgetting Rowan, becoming the best military lawyer he can be, and not letting anyone into his heart again. With nail-biting suspense and palpable sexual tension, ALWAYS FAITHFUL is an entertaining tale. Although the villain is fairly apparent from first introduction, there are some heart-stopping scenes at the climax. Great characters, a fresh plot, and a poignant love story make ALWAYS FAITHFUL a terrific way to spend an evening. ~ Romance Reviews Today, Jani Brooks
Very highly recommended!! Always Faithful is a melodrama of the finest kind - full of likeable characters and a plot that keeps twisting and changing, so you never know what will happen next! Rowan and Phillip are wonderful characters, and you find yourself rooting for them throughout the book. And carrying the book along is the ever-present murder mystery, a solid, 'who-dunnit?' that pulls the reader in and keeps you turning pages to find out what happens. The love story isn't bad either! Read 'Always Faithful', you won't be disappointed. ~Jennifer Macaire, Word Weaving
Intriguing romantic suspense--Highly recommended!!! Authors Catherine Snodgrass and Bryndis Rubin pen an intriguing romantic suspense in ALWAYS FAITHFUL. Rowan and Phillip's ethical dilemmas maintain the tension between them even as they fight to control their old attraction. Phillip's reaction to learning of his son is commendable in the way he immediately immerses himself in fatherhood even while he deeply resents Rowan's secret keeping. Current conspiracies soon come to mirror conspiracies of the past as they discover previous manipulations. A strong romantic suspense with the dazzling characterizations readers expect, ALWAYS FAITHFUL comes highly recommended. ~Cindy Penn, Word Weaving
FOUR STARS!!! ALWAYS FAITHFUL begins like a scene right out of CBS's JAG...plunges two strong characters into a fight for their love as well as for their lives. Readers of romantic suspense will enjoy this intriguing story. ~ Diane Burton, Scribesworld.
FIVE ANGELS!!! A wonderful tale of second chance at love. [The authors] get your attention and keep it there throughout until the ending....tale never drops to a boring part but filled with exciting words and a great plot. Definitely, this romantic suspense is recommended for r eaders of romantic suspense and for those looking for an author worth keeping her books to treasure. ~ Melinda, Fallen Angels Reviews
From Charlie’s battered old truck, Staff Sergeant Rowan McKinley studied the steel warehouse building from every angle she could see. Not an easy task with all the security lights out. There wasn’t another person around or any sign of another vehicle. No activity whatsoever. Everyone and everything was tucked away for the night, as it should be at midnight.
She glanced at the man beside her. Night kept her from seeing his face clearly, but she knew it would be lit with excitement. For lack of a better term, she could almost smell the testosterone in the air. Or was that beer? She’d swear he’d been drinking, even if she didn’t want to admit that to herself.
As for herself, it was all Rowan could do to keep from shaking. What in the world had she been thinking to come here? She was a legal specialist, not an MP, not CID, and certainly not NCIS. Her stubborn determination to prove herself right had gotten her into this mess. A dangerous mess at that. And if Charlie had been drinking, she was even more stupid to get into a vehicle with him.
Rowan wiped her sweaty palms on her camouflage trousers. Her heart pounded so loud she’d swear he could hear it. Where were her priorities? She had a child to think about. Why should she care if someone was stealing government property? She reported her suspicions to anyone and everyone who would listen. Why in the world couldn’t she leave it at that? She’d done her duty.
But, no. Like a modern-day Don Quixote, she had to go tilting at windmills. All things considered, her sanity was just as questionable as that foolish old coot.
She studied the hulking building once more. No security lights. No guards walking their posts. It looked quiet enough, safe. It should have put her at ease, but it only set her nerves on edge.
"Charlie, I don’t like this. It doesn’t seem right. I think we should leave."
He laughed softly and gave her a playful slug in the arm. "You’re being silly." Drawing his pistol, he slid from the truck and silently made his way to the building.
Easy to be brave when you’re a walking giant.
Rowan frowned. The door wasn’t even locked. Now that was odd. Too easy. A trap? Possibly. And Charlie was too gung-ho or too inebriated to notice, or maybe he embraced the challenge, the danger, the rush.
Rowan glanced around. Here she was a sitting target.
She searched the floorboard for something to use as a weapon. Nothing, not even a floor mat. For one brief second she considered cranking the engine and getting out of there. Rowan dismissed the cowardly plan. She would not leave Charlie. They were safer together.
Curling her fingers around the doorknob, she shoved her shoulder against the truck door. It groaned as it opened, announcing her presence to anyone who might have doubted it before.
Crouching low, Rowan ran to the building and ducked inside. Darkness enveloped her. Pitch black. Smothering. Her heartbeat thudded in her ears. Panic clutched at her stomach. In vain she fought the claustrophobia, the overwhelming fear, the need to battle her way free, and the urge to scream out her frustration.
Arms wrapped around her midsection, she stood frozen and lost. She heard scuffling off to her right. There was a blur, a sense rather than sight of movement. Then pain shattered through her head.
Always faithful. Semper Fi. Captain Phillip Stuart shook his head at the term. Faithful didn’t include forcing yourself on young girls, or stealing cash out of your platoon buddies’ lockers when they’re out at sea on a training mission.
What had the Marine Corps come to? Thieves, murderers, and rapists. The lot of them should be taken out and shot.
Of course, doing so would put military lawyers out of a job. Heaven forbid the little slime balls didn’t get a fair trial. Phillip was eternally grateful he no longer dealt with defense cases.
Shifting slightly on the hard courtroom chair, he straightened his papers and listened to the continuing drone of the defense attorney’s voice as she pled her client’s case. He didn’t know why she bothered; the look on the jurors’ faces indicated they had already found him guilty. It didn’t matter what extenuating or mitigating matters she threw out, her client would go to jail for a very long time. He shifted again and let the squeaking wooden chair broadcast his annoyance.
Laura Cushing shot him a glare from where she stood before the members. Good…he’d broken her concentration. Not easy to do. She was a tough opponent. But this long, drawn out trial stretched all their nerves to the breaking point.
After a few closing words, Laura sat down, looking satisfied with herself. She was good; he was better.
Phillip stretched to his full six-four and flexed his shoulders. With all the stealth of a jaguar stalking its prey, he approached the center of the courtroom.
Intimidate the witness. Impress the members. That was half the battle. A deep breath, a casual glance toward his opponent’s table, and then…he attacked, going straight to the heart of the case.
He dissected Laura’s case point by point, pulling the pieces apart with the precision of a surgeon. He let his words drift into the minds of those military members seated as jury. Then with the same lack of speed, he resumed his seat. The chair groaned under his weight.
Phillip sliced a glance at the defense table. The accused sat there, a fresh-faced young man all of nineteen. His big hands were clasped on the table before him as if in prayer. It set Phillip’s teeth on edge. What right did he have to pray? Had those young girls prayed before he forced himself on them?
Laura snapped to her feet and marched forward to take his place. It was no use. All the golden words she summoned could not save her client. Phillip knew it, and she knew it. And, after fifteen minutes of deliberation, the members of the jury and the rest of the courtroom realized it too.
Phillip listened to the sentence with smug satisfaction. Twenty-five years at Leavenworth. That’s what he called justice, although castration might not be a bad idea either.
In the back of the courtroom, one set of parents cried, while the others, those of the victims, sighed with relief. The accused…the guilty let his head drop. It was the only display of emotion he showed. No tears. No regrets. He didn’t flinch. Phillip fought the urge to demand if the man felt any remorse for anyone but himself.
Once the judge left the courtroom, the prisoner escort came in. The young Marine started bawling. Yeah, he had regrets—that he’d been caught. His father refused to look his way while his mother rushed to his side. She wrapped her arms around him in a hug he refused to return.
Rather than watch the guy be hauled away in shackles, Phillip celebrated his victory with a cigar on the back steps of the military justice building. How many times had he reflected on past and future glories in such a way? Lately, though, the battles more often than not left his stomach sour.
There wasn’t much he hadn’t heard over his career. Most of it sickened rather than shocked him. Now, prosecuting the rabble of the Marine Corps tired him. Time to climb the next rung on the ladder. After graduating law school, he’d thought the way shone clear, focused, his career path set. He shook his head. Of course, his goals had been regimented at the time. They were all he had. A means to forget.
Unfortunately, they were still all he had. And Phillip wasn’t sure he wanted those same goals anymore.
The door opened behind him. A rush of cool air brushed over his shoulders and back then stopped when the door closed. Phillip knew without looking that it was Laura. He could smell her perfume—that elusive scent which evoked memories of a long-ago time and someone he wished he could forget.
She dusted off the step and eased down beside him, careful not to snag her hose on the concrete steps. Resting forearms on knees, she stared ahead.
"Congratulations. Another victory for the great and powerful Phillip Stuart."
He chewed on his cigar and absorbed the view of the gray mountains surrounding Camp Pendleton.
"Sarcasm, Laura? How unlike you."
"Cut the crap. That boy didn’t deserve twenty-five years in prison, and you know it."
"Please save me the ‘she asked for it’ speech. You didn’t have to listen to the sobs each and every time those girls told their story. Don’t tell me it was faked every time. I know better."
She tilted her head his way. "Come on, Phillip. He’s only nineteen—still a teenager himself. It was consensual. Daddy caught them, and she cried rape. If that girl shed tears, it was only because she got caught. This has been nothing but a witch hunt. With an excellent cast of performers. The girl’s past conduct showed that."
"Irrelevant. And the forensics evidence proved their story."
"It proved they had sex. There was no evidence to support assault of any kind."
"We’re not talking about one girl here. We’re talking about six. There’s no way you’re ever going to convince anyone all six of them are lying. Get your bleeding-heart head out of the sand, Laura. We’ve had this discussion before. It’s over. Case closed."
"Obviously, but have you asked yourself this? When you were nineteen, can you honestly say you could resist the charms of a willing sixteen-year-old?"
He leveled a frosty stare her way.
Laura gave an exaggerated wince. "What was I thinking? How dare I suggest you would be less than perfect? Let me tell you something, Phillip, although I’m sure you’re more than aware of it. You are the most handsome man I’ve ever met. Mister Perfect. Aristocratic features. Golden hair. Poster Marine all the way. But you’re dead inside. You have no feeling, no compassion. Your eyes are the coldest gray I’ve ever seen—like a frozen pond in the dead of winter. I pity the woman who winds up with you."
He blew a puff of smoke into the air. "I take it, then, that you’re saying it’s really over between us?"
She gave a small, bitter laugh. "Don’t flatter yourself. And don’t play that game with me. It’s been over for quite some time now. It was never anything more than an occasional dinner with a friend as far as I’m concerned."
But the remorse in her eyes told a different story. He had regrets too. He wanted her to be the one to erase the memory of another. To make him love and care and see goodness in the world once more. In the end she, like the few other women he’d dated the last nine years, fell short of that need. She had been a stand-in, nothing more. Comparing Laura to…
No. Don’t go there. It hurt too much. It always did. If he lived to be a hundred, he doubted the pain and bitterness would ever die.
Phillip looked away to give her some shred of dignity. Or was it to hide the remorse seeping to the surface like a festering wound?
Laura pushed to her feet and slipped quietly inside the building.
He ground out his cigar on the cement steps and returned to his office. Victory no longer tasted sweet. Behind his gray metal desk, some stability returned.
His gaze drifted around his office, taking in the mementos of his career with the Marine Corps. His Amphibious Warfare School awards, the jump school medals in their rosewood frame, a souvenir shirt commemorating his time served in the Mediterranean aboard the USS Boxer. If there was an opportunity, he took it. Anything to further his career. Somehow it still wasn’t enough. Even though his career flourished, he felt an emptiness he could not define.
The small picture of his family shoved into the corner of his desk caught his eye. The four Stuarts stood together at his graduation from Naval Justice School, looking uncomfortable. His father exuding aristocratic disapproval. His mother and sister Claudia smiling uncertainly as the camera caught them in such an atypical family moment.
They never understood why he had to do it. Why he turned his back on the Stuart fortune. And Phillip hadn’t bothered to explain. The year before, Claudia came to the same realizations as he. Like her brother, it had taken a broken heart to open her eyes.
He turned the picture face down. On second thought, he shoved it in his drawer under a pile of paperwork. With everything else going through his mind, the last thing he needed to resurrect was his relationship with his family—particularly his father.
"Excuse me, sir?" His clerk stuck his head in through the office door. "There’s a package for you. It just arrived from the Commanding General at Twentynine Palms. Must be important because they made sure I signed for it."
Phillip tore his gaze from the closed drawer. "Thanks, Corporal."
He closed his mind to his family and accepted the bulky envelope. Once the door closed, he rummaged through his desk for his platinum letter opener, a concession from his father upon graduation from law school. Phillip kept hoping someone would steal it.
Then why keep the damn thing. The answer came too quick. It was a trophy. A reminder of what his father was and what Phillip prayed he would never be.
With a flick of his wrist, he sliced open the envelope. The contents slid out onto the desktop, bold type near the middle of the page leaped out at him.
…the accused, Staff Sergeant Rowan A. McKinley, requests your presence as independent military counsel…
Rowan! Phillip’s face drained of color. His gut twisted. Breathing was out of the question.
Odd, when he had been thinking of her only minutes before. But then, when didn’t he think of her?
Beautiful, talented Rowan McKinley, the one woman he held up against the others. The one who hadn’t bothered to return his heart before she walked out of his life.
What the hell was she doing in the Marine Corps? More importantly, what had she done to need the services of a Marine defense attorney?
Time stopped as he grappled for the stack of papers, or maybe it took a giant step back. In either event, Phillip couldn’t put two coherent thoughts together. Before he could read on, the door to his office flew open. The tanned, inquiring face of his best friend and fellow attorney, Captain Zachary Taylor, poked around the doorjamb.
"I got a call from a friend of mine at the base in Twentynine Palms. There’s been a murder involving a staff sergeant, some woman by the name of—"
"McKinley," Phillip muttered.
Afraid Zach would see the true depth of his feelings, he kept his gaze locked on the papers. "The case has been offered to me."
Zach lunged for the papers, snatching them out of Phillip’s grasp. "Well, aren’t you Mr. Popularity. Let’s have a look-see."
He scanned the request form, eyes widening appreciatively. "Why you, Phillip? You’re not a defense counsel. This staff sergeant could have any military attorney at that base, or even a civilian lawyer…providing she could afford it."
Zach glanced up before Phillip could mask his feelings. The teasing stopped as Zach’s deep brown eyes narrowed with suspicion. He knew Phillip too well. A definite downfall in having a best friend.
"What is she to you?"
"What was she, you mean." Phillip met Zach’s steady gaze with one of his own. "She was once the most important person in my life." His mouth twisted and he whispered, "The bitch."
Zach tossed the papers back to the desk. "That’s funny. I’ve known you for over eight years, and you’ve never mentioned her."
He dropped into the chair across from Phillip, resting his feet on the edge of the desk. "Why the big secret? What’s the story?"
Phillip sighed and copied his friend’s position. Zach’s ability to focus upon and unearth information was uncanny, and Phillip recognized the signs of those relentless abilities focusing in his direction. He forced a deep breath and began sketching out his turbulent history with Rowan McKinley.
* * *
Rowan drew her knees up against her chest and wrapped her arms tightly around them in an effort to control her shaking. Nine hours of confinement in this tiny cell, and she still hadn’t been allowed to speak with or see anyone. Not that they would listen to her anyway.
She took pride in her work. Her record reflected that. Legal administration might not be the blood and guts of the Corps but it was important. Every separation, every investigative report which crossed her desk was dissected until nothing was left in question. So why would her word be doubted when she suspected foul play in the Lava training area?
Imagining things. That’s what Rowan had been told over and over again despite the five seemingly unrelated incidents that had come across her desk this last month. Only Charlie would listen. And now he was dead.
She was sure the command would see she was right. But the finger of guilt was now shoved in her direction.
Rowan rested her head upon her knees, then winced as the bruised and swollen side of her face protested at the contact. Rocking back and forth on the metal-framed cot, she tried to quell the panic that threatened to overwhelm her. It was so small in the holding cell, and she was so alone…
"Stop it!" she whispered through clenched teeth. "This isn’t going to help you at all!"
Her gaze flicked to the camera mounted in the corner of the room on the other side of the cell partition. Its baleful eye watched her every motion, allowing her no privacy. This portion of the room was small, too small. The cell’s dimensions barely spanned ten feet across. Even the dim light in the hallway didn’t help.
Rowan closed her eyes. Breathe. Take deep breaths. No hyperventilating.
Phillip was her only chance at getting out of this. She had to be strong—strong enough to endure the claustrophobia closing in, strong enough to face him again after all these years.
Phillip. She had forgotten nothing about him. How could she when she lived with his image every day? The way the sun gleamed off his golden head, the ready smile, and his eyes.
God, those eyes! They could burn like quicksilver when his temper flared, or glow a soft, satiny gray when he made love.
She was probably a fool for contacting him after all these years. But there was no doubt she needed his help, and she would accept whatever consequences resulted from having him back in her life. Only Phillip could save her now. That is, if he accepted her request for his services.
The hallway door opened. The roar of the evaporative coolers lessened. A military policeman walked in and glared at her through the bars. "Your request for counsel has been expedited. They’re waiting for the captain to either accept or decline the case."
"How long will that take?" Rowan fought in vain to keep the quiver from her voice. "And when will I be able to contact my family?"
"You work in legal. You tell me." He lowered his voice. "Frankly, I hope you get what you deserve. He was a friend of mine, murderer."
He slammed the door on his exit, putting pressure back on the cooler. The roar this time was nothing compared to the pulse of blood in her ears.
"Yeah…he was mine, too," Rowan softly replied.
She tucked into the farthest corner of the cot, her despair as smothering as the walls surrounding her.
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