When the Dead Speak
Book Two in The Southern Spirits Series
Sheriff Laine Stenley's Story
The only way to stay alive is to listen when the dead speak…
Sheriff Laine Stenley thinks he might just be losing his mind. Ever since he’d encountered the spirit of his friend’s deceased mother, strange things have been happening. His Sheriff’s tin star keeps popping off, his Stetson tends to fly off his head at the most inconvenient times—and then there are the subtle caresses that remind him of a lover’s touch… something Laine has been without for years, since the violent murder of his partner, and figures to be without well into the future, if he wants to retain his position as the Sheriff in the small town of McKinton, Texas. Laine doesn’t want to risk his career or his heart ever again, but he may not have a choice, not if he wants to stay alive.
A man who listens to spirits, Severo has come to McKinton to deliver a message of danger; one look at the sexy Sheriff, and Severo finds himself in a different sort of danger. He’s not ready to find a man who can claim him heart, soul, and body—but ready or not, the attraction that simmers between them is undeniable—and irresistible. Together, they will race against time, because something evil is coming to McKinton. Severo and Laine must learn to trust each other—and themselves— and listen when the dead speak.
“I’m losing my goddamned mind.” Sheriff Laine Stenley ran his fingers through his hair, tugging at the dark strands until his scalp tingled with pain. A frustrated sigh slipped from his lips as he stared at the spinning tin star that denoted his position of Sheriff, lying on the sidewalk where it had once again popped off. He released the grip on his hair and slapped the Stetson back on his head. Laine bent and picked up the star, grumbling as he pinned it back on, again. If he had one more run in with the dead, he might just pop an artery.
The voice came from behind him and nearly gave Laine a heart attack. That would be one way to be done with this mess. He managed not to jump—barely—but he just knew the man behind him had to be able to hear his heart slamming against his ribs. And it was all that particular man’s fault!
Laine turned slowly and glared at Ezekiel Mathers. If Mathers hadn’t unwittingly given Laine his introduction into the paranormal… But that wasn’t fair, and Laine knew it. It wasn’t Zeke’s fault his mama had decided to… hang around, so to speak, after she died. Not really.
Zeke’s lips were tipped up in a smirk, and that just made Laine scowl even more. Beside Zeke, Brendon was giving Laine a scowl of his own. Brendon’s soft brown eyes were usually alight with laughter, and a softer emotion would gleam in them when he looked at his lover. The man was easy going and kind, for the most part, but he never hesitated to call Laine—
“Don’t be a dumbass, Laine.” Brendon rolled his eyes and bumped his shoulder against his lover’s. “Zeke didn’t mean to startle you. It isn’t his fault you were daydreaming and didn’t hear us walking up behind you.”
Zeke’s lips spread into a shit-eating grin and he arched one brow at Laine. Laine pushed down the urge to snarl at the man; he was pretty sure that’s what Zeke wanted. Not that he and Zeke hated each other or anything, they just had a competitive friendship… that often seemed to border on combative. Laine wasn’t in the mood to trade insults today, though, so he just shook his head and glanced away from the teasing he saw in Zeke’s green eyes. He felt too old, too worn out and aching inside, to play their usual games right now.
“Morning.” Laine mumbled it, not glancing at Zeke or Brendon as he stepped into the street to walk around them. He might be screwed up in the head, but he still was aware of the fact that Zeke was recovering from an attempt on his life. The cane the man had to use was another weight on Laine’s shoulders, a reminder that Laine hadn’t acted quick enough, hadn’t been smart enough, to keep Zeke safe. It was a burden that Laine felt shoving him down beneath the surface every time he tried to catch his breath.
As he walked back towards his office, Laine couldn’t help but wonder how much more he could take before he broke. God willing, he wouldn’t ever get an answer to that.
Brendon watched the Sheriff walk off, studying the defeated droop of his shoulders. Laine might seem fine to everyone else, but there were little tells, small nuances that one had to know to look for. Beside him, a low growl slipped from Zeke’s lips. Brendon, turned on and irritated at the same time, started to set his lover straight but stopped himself when he saw the teasing grin on Zeke’s face. He wasn’t quite able to bring himself to smile back, instead darting another worried glance at Laine’s retreating figure.
“Something’s wrong with him.” Brendon pushed at the small of his lover’s back.
“I’ve been saying that since we met him, babe, but you refused to see it.” Zeke tossed in a look that all but said ‘Duh!’
Brendon fought against a smile; he was not going to encourage Zeke. Not for this, anyway. He applied a little more pressure to Zeke’s back and looked up at him through his lashes. Sometimes that worked. “Go talk to him, please?”
Zeke snorted and shook his head. “I know that look, and I don’t want to go talk to Stenley. What the hell am I gonna say to him? Let’s have an Oprah moment?”
Brendon tried to cover his chuckle with a cough, not that he thought his lover was buying it. Time to try a different tact. “Then I guess I can go talk to him and you can hang around at the cafe or something so he doesn’t feel like we’re ganging up on him. Hopefully it won’t take long.”
Zeke studied Brendon, looking for something Brendon had assured his lover before that he wouldn’t find. Brendon was not attracted to Laine, or Laine to him. They were friends, plain and simple, and he’d really like for his lover and his friend to get along. Somehow, Brendon doubted that Laine had many close friends.
He knew the second Zeke gave in by the way his brilliant green eyes seemed to turn a darker shade—and the resigned sigh that pushed from his lover’s lungs was a dead giveaway, too. “All right, I’ll go talk to the man, but why you think he’d tell me anything… “ Zeke shook his head and gave Brendon’s hand a quick squeeze. “I’m only doing this because I love you.”
Brendon wanted nothing more than to throw his arms around Zeke and kiss him until they were both breathless, but the small town of McKinton, Texas was not that tolerant. At least, he didn’t think the folks here were, and wasn’t willing to bet their lives on it. He settled for letting his hand trail down Zeke’s arm, brushing the hand on the cane with his fingertips.
“Thank you. I love you too.” Then Brendon couldn’t help himself; he leaned over and whispered into his lover’s ear. “But you know you’re worried about him, too.”
Zeke opened his mouth for what Brendon assumed was a denial. He didn’t know which of them were more stunned with what actually came out.
“Yeah, I am.” Zeke snapped his mouth shut and turned to follow Laine.
Zeke managed to get the door open without bobbling his cane, something he seemed to have trouble doing for some reason. He glanced up at Doreen’s excited squeal, the sound nearly puncturing his eardrums. Doreen never squealed, not that he’d ever heard before. It wasn’t a pleasant sound, even if it did warm his insides. He was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that not everyone in this small town hated him.
“Ezekiel Mathers! It’s about time you stopped in to say hi!” Doreen was up and had an arm around his waist before Zeke could protest that he didn’t need the help. When her other arm came around him and Zeke realized that Doreen was hugging him rather than trying to help him limp along, he was glad he hadn’t snapped at her.
“I’m so glad to see you!” Doreen leaned back as Zeke patted her awkwardly on the back. “You look pretty good, Zeke.” She grinned and waggled her eyebrows at him and Zeke thought he’d stepped into an alternate universe. Doreen was a lot of things—tough, determined, female—but he surely couldn’t remember her being this much of a flirt. Then again, hadn’t he learned that he didn’t know the people of this small town as well as he thought he did?
“You’re looking good yourself.” Zeke winked at her and immediately felt himself blushing. He cleared his throat and took a steadying breath. “Is Sheriff Stenley busy?” Suddenly, the idea of talking to Laine didn’t seem as intimidating as staying out here with Doreen.
Doreen laughed and released him, mostly. She held on to his free hand and tugged him along behind her. “Sure, Sheriff Stenley is free. He’s probably not doing anything other than sitting in his office brooding.” Doreen glanced back at him, a troubled look on her face as she stopped walking. “You know,” she shot a glance at the Sheriff’s closed door, her voice dropping to a whisper. “He feels responsible for what happened to you. I think it’s been eating at him.”
Zeke felt sucker punched, and not a little confused. He’d had no idea that Laine felt that way. “Why should he feel responsible? He wasn’t driving that car. For that matter, if I’d filed charges on Evelyn sooner, she wouldn’t have been out on the loose and I wouldn’t be standing here holding a cane.” That was a truth he had to live with, his own bundle of anger and guilt that Brendon refused to let him get bogged down in. But who did Laine have to help him?
Shaking her head, Doreen clucked her tongue. “It wasn’t neither of you boys’ fault.” Zeke wasn’t even going to protest being called a boy. Doreen would ream him a new one if he did. “The only one at fault was that sister of yours. Not to offend, but Evelyn was never quite right in the head, Zeke.”
Considering she’d tried to have him murdered, had poisoned a good chunk of his cattle, threatened his lover, and then run Zeke down with her car and nearly killed him—and that was the abbreviated list of what she’d done, Zeke had to agree. He realized Doreen was looking at him, waiting for something. A light clicked on in his head.
“I’ll make sure he knows I don’t hold him responsible. Neither does Brendon.” Zeke felt his skin growing warm when he mentioned his lover. He was still very cautious, wary about how people would react, having been a victim of hate crimes more than once. But Doreen knew, and she hadn’t judged. Her smile was toothy but genuine and it eased a knot of tension coiled inside Zeke.
“I’d appreciate it, Zeke. He’s a good man, and so are you.” Doreen turned and hurried to Stenley’s door, tapping firmly on the wooden frame. She opened it and poked her head in when Laine called out. “Got a visitor.”
Zeke stepped up behind her and grinned. The fact that Laine didn’t groan, didn’t glare or make any cutting remark, joking or otherwise, wiped the grin away. Brendon was right, and maybe Doreen was, too, but that flat gray stare Laine gave Zeke told him that there was more going on than Laine feeling guilty. It told Zeke that Laine was balanced on an edge, and close to tipping over the side. Zeke stepped into the room, murmuring his thanks to Doreen before she skittered off, and locked the door behind him.