Friday, December 10, 2021

FREE! Courage to Celebrate: Finale: The Man in the Arena Series by Taylor Lee



The sole survivor of a hideous mission gone bad, the gravely injured Col. Luke Lang came back to his Northern Minnesota town determined to drink himself to death. A fate his family, especially his cousin Detective Nate Stryker, refused to allow him to do. But it was the shy, accomplished East Indian doctor, Ava Patel, that challenged Luke at his core. Somehow, they survived challenges no couple could or should have to face. Now five years later after the birth of their son they are preparing to welcome their daughter, a special Christmas gift.

As if their world refuses to let them by easily, a serial rape and brutal death of first one, then another, young Native girl, confirms the challenging matrix of their lives. This last book in the series is a nail biter. Not only because of the constant danger but because Luke and Ava face their biggest challenge yet. In the past they found the courage to dare, the courage to love and the courage to triumph. Now they have to decide if they have the Courage to Celebrate. 


Chapter 1



Luke lay quietly enjoying the luxury of a few more moments lying next to Ava.  He smiled to himself. Given she was securely wrapped in his arms, her head resting against his chest, constituted a heck of a lot more than lying next to her.  But it was how he spent most of his nights.  Every once in a while he allowed himself to remember what his life had been like before he and Ava gave into the fact that they were deeply in love. In his kinder moments, Luke could almost forgive himself for the pain he’d caused, not only to her but himself.

Wrapping her more tightly in his arms, he looked at the clock marveling that he’d slept more than five hours straight.  Time was when twenty minutes of uninterrupted sleep was a gift. A gift from a god he’d long ago refused to believe existed. For a moment he allowed himself to remember those hideous nights lurching from one shocking nightmare to another.  It had taken nearly five years and the undying support of Nate and his family and, of course, Ava, to make it possible for him to put the hideous attack in Afghanistan in some kind of perspective. Hard to do in that the mission he’d led resulted in the fiery death of all six of his team members.  Only he, the commander of the fated operation, had survived.  If one could call the physical and mental agony he endured surviving.

Forcing his thoughts away from the horrendous past, Luke pulled Ava closer to him. Determined to focus on the way his life had changed, he rubbed his hand gently over Ava’s distended stomach.  The knowledge that his child was residing inside of this beautiful woman gave him the courage to dispel the long ago nightmares to the subterranean levels of his subconscious.  A level where they’d always be, but at least now somewhat contained by what Luke admitted with a grateful sigh was his extraordinary life. As his cousin and best friend Nate Stryker had admonished him, he’d gotten his fucking head out of his ass and married the gorgeous woman.  Hell, he’d even been courageous enough to see them both through the birth of their son.

Jaidev Sakima, the astonishing child, who along with Ava, had finally convinced Luke that even as physically and emotionally scarred as he was, that love and good fortune were as much his birthright as pain, shame and guilt. According to all observers, the dark haired little hellion with his slate gray eyes was a spitting image of his father. Only his warm skin tone testifyed to his mother’s East Indian beauty, departed somewhat from Luke’s patronage. If his looks were straight out of Luke’s playbook so was his personality.  As strong-willed as Luke’s mother insisted Luke had been, Jaidev ruled his small dominion with his engaging laughter and frequent temper tantrums.  He made it clear at three years old that the youngest Lang intended to make his mark on the world much as his military hero father and now sheriff of the county did.

Luke pressed his fingers against his lips warning the small version of himself padding into the room that his mother was sleeping, then gave up when Jaidev hurled himself up onto the bed.  Grasping Ava’s shoulders the determined moppet shook her announcing his arrival.

“Wake up, Momma.  Jaidy’s here.”

Laughing aloud at his outrageous progeny, Luke wrapped a protective arm around Ava to ensure that the clambering child not hurt his now awakened mother. Ava’s muffled laugh confirmed that her sleep was a thing of the past but Luke came to her rescue.  Unwinding himself from Ava’s body, he reached for the toddler.  “Uh, uh, Jaidev.  Momma needs to sleep or at least wake up on her own schedule.”

Ignoring Jaidev’s outraged insistence that he wanted his momma, Luke hauled the squirming child into his arms then lifted him up high onto his shoulders gratified when Jaidev’s outrage quickly became excitement. “Higher, Daddy, higher.  Make Jaidy fly!”

Joining Ava’s delighted laughter at the antics of their beloved child Luke secured the youngster with one strong arm then leaned down to kiss Ava.  “Good morning, beautiful woman.  Sorry that you got so rudely awakened.” He grinned at her.  “It’s my fault, princess. I intended to get up and let you sleep in, but this little scamp had other ideas.  And I have to admit, lying beside you marveling in your glorious body made me forget that I also intended to bring you breakfast in bed.”  With a rueful sigh, he glanced up at the unruly child who was crowing for him to lift him higher, then conceded, “However, it would appear that as usual this little tyrant seems determined to set the agenda.”

Pushing herself up on one arm, Ava smiled up at them both then shook her head.  “It’s okay, Luke, I needed to wake up.”  She laughed. “Although being jumped on by a three-foot tyrant is not exactly the way I expected to come out of a luscious early morning cuddle.”  She winked at Luke as she lifted herself up onto the pillows. “Hmm, I wonder if that is a learned behavior or something in his DNA.” At Luke’s pretend ignorance, she said, “Or is that what we women can expect from our menfolk, no matter how old or young they are?”

Luke raised a brow and then conceded with a cocky grin, “If you are referring to the way that both your husband and your son seem determined to get your attention, you’re just going to have to admit that we are insatiable, at least when it comes to you.  And while I admit that it does seem to be in the genes, it’s also your fault, Ava.”  At her questioning frown, he explained, “If you weren’t so darned beautiful and if you didn’t smell so good, maybe the two of us wouldn’t be hounding you like misbehaving puppy dogs.”

Ava laughed aloud.  Nodding at the squirming child on Luke’s shoulders, she agreed. “Now that one definitely qualifies as a spoiled puppy dog.  But no one, Sheriff Lang, including  your smitten lover, would ever think of you as a puppy dog.” She shrugged, “No, a big dog, or perhaps a stalking panther is more your aura.”

“As it should be, woman.”  Luke winked at her as he headed out the door, his captive secured on his shoulders. “You got by easy last night, Ava. It’s what happens when I get home so late you are already asleep. But remember the problem with us stalking panthers when we get a whiff of our woman, nothing satisfies us except the real thing. Which means, my gorgeous lover, that you and I have some catching up to do tonight, after we get this hoodlum securely ensconced in his own bed.” He shot her a salacious glance, then said in a pseudo-threatening tone, “Count on it, woman.”

 Her tinkling laughter confirmed that even though she was a six weeks away from delivering their baby, she looked forward to their rapacious love-making as much as he did. Her shining eyes confirmed that their erotic life was as sensational as ever.  In fact, as her body had changed, they’d simply found new ways of experiencing what had been, and apparently always would be, a voracious hunger for one another.  Luke shook his head as he settled Jaidev in front of the television with his oatmeal and orange juice preparing to make Ava’s breakfast.  He was grateful  that he’d convinced her to cut her busy schedule by a third which meant she was only spending six hours a day on her busy medical practice instead of her customary nine or ten hours. Now if he should just convince her to eat at least a couple of meals a day instead of subsisting on a diet he maintained couldn’t keep a bird healthy.  Especially a seven plus month pregnant woman. 

 Ava was almost as renowned in their Northern Minnesota community as he was. Being sheriff of the county was a big deal but so was being the only doctor in the region who practiced what she called “alternative” medicine.  Trained in Mumbai by her renowned parents, both of whom were medical doctors, Ava had what Luke had come to admit were healing hands.  As extensive as her medical training had been, Ava’s claim to fame was her intuitive ability to get to the root of her patient’s pain simply by feeling her way across their tortured bodies. Using modalities like acupuncture, massage and other natural palliatives, Ava had managed to build a thriving practice in the conservative county overcoming the initial skepticism, make that downright hostility, from its suspicious residents.

No one had been more dismissive of the East Indian doctor’s unusual methodologies than Luke.  Crippled with pain from his horrendous injuries, and having tried everything Western medicine had to offer, his family had tried to convince him to see the unusual doctor.  Randy womanizer that he was, Luke was more than attracted by the warm-skinned beauty.  It was her body he was after, certainly not her medical treatments that he scathingly labeled Ayurvedic quackery. He much preferred getting what relief he could from alcohol and drugs, the stronger the better and as much of it as possible. 

As he reached on the top shelf for the platter, Luke marveled that the simple gesture that would have been debilitatingly painful didn’t elicit as much as a twinge from his once battered body.  It was now hard to remember that for months after shoving his way out of his wheelchair that pain was the driving force in his life.  Even the significant amount of booze that he drank and the myriad pills he popped couldn’t make a dent in the pain shattering his grievously injured body. When he’d finally given into Ava’s modalities, he crucified himself for being such an ignorant asshole.  Within months of accepting her treatments, he was able to walk without a cane.  Most miraculous was that no longer plagued by his hideous nightmares and gnawing pain he was able to sleep through the night.  Hell, he thought with a grin, he’d even become a poster-boy of sorts in the alternative health community.  After all, if massage and Ayurveda could help to heal the six foot four inch, lean-muscled county sheriff, maybe it could help Western medical skeptics.

            Pulling out the chair then settling Ava onto it, Luke reached for the plate he’d put next to her. At her insistence that there was too much food, she could never eat it all, Luke disagreed.  “Oh no you don’t, Princess.  I didn’t spend the last twenty minutes slaving over a hot stove for you to turn up your nose at the fruits of my labor.”

Ava laughed then protested.  “Good grief, Luke, isn’t it bad enough that I’ve already gained nearly twenty pounds?  I’m already fatter than I was when Jaidev was born and he weighed eight pounds. If I’m not careful I might deliver a budding sumo wrestler, instead of that sweet little girl you’re hoping this little bundle will be.”

“A couple of things, Princess.  First, the only thing that could be better about your gorgeous body is more of it.  So, no more protests.  You’re going to need every bit of strength you have when we have two little scamps fighting me for your attention. And that doesn’t say anything about all of your greedy patients demanding your attention. Second, I wouldn’t care if we do have a sumo wrestler as long as he or she also takes up MMA like her daddy.  And, yeah, I guess I gave myself away with that last comment. As crazy as I am about that hoodlum of ours, I admit that one of those “pretty in pink” creatures would be a kick.”

He pulled up a chair beside her then pushed her plate in front of her and ignoring her rolling eyes, handed her a fork. Luke knew that he was beating a dead horse when he complained about the toll her busy schedule took on her.  It was useless given how dedicated she was to her practice.  The most he could do was to ensure that at least she ate a decent breakfast and got a reasonable amount of sleep.  And even he knew how disingenuous it was for him to complain about her busy schedule given that his work took up most of the day and more often than not, much of the night. He begrudgingly admitted that they both were committed to their demanding careers which only made the moments they carved out for themselves critically important. 

As if on cue, his phone vibrated.  He excused himself and walked across the room to answer it. “What’s up Charlie?  Don’t tell me that Oscar Ojakangas is insisting that we start serving decent food or he’s not going to come to the drunk tank every night demanding a bed.”

Luke’s humor died a premature death at his lieutenant’s response. Not wanting to hear the answer, nevertheless Luke persisted. “How old?”  Breathing out a hard sigh, he added, “I’ll be there in ten.  Meantime, don’t touch anything, not even the body until I get there.  Oh and Charlie, don’t bother to call Detective Stryker. I’ll let Nate know where to meet us.”

Turning to Ava, whose face had paled, he nodded then glanced at Jaidev who fortunately was engaged with the cadre of plastic army men he was lining up in neat rows on the floor.  Lowering his voice for Ava’s ears only, he reached for his Glock and clipped his badge on his belt.  “Sorry, darling.  I need to go.”  Responding to her unspoken questions he blew out a hard sigh. “It’s bad, sweetheart. A young girl, likely no more than fifteen or sixteen.”

Ava sucked in an audible breath.  “Was she….”

Knowing her unasked question, Luke grimaced and lowered his voice further.  “Yeah, she was badly beaten and likely also sexually assaulted, raped.”

“Oh God, Luke.  Is she….”

Luke was terse. “Likely.”

Visibly swallowing then pressing her fingers against her lips as if to keep from saying the words, Ava asked tentatively, “Where…where did they find her?”

“Right next to the rez. And yes, according to Charlie, she’s a Native girl.”

Paling further, Ava rose unsteadily. Luke reached for her arm. In that Ava’s practice was situated primarily at the tribal hospital the likelihood of her knowing the girl or at least the family was a given. Luke pulled her up next to him forcing her to meet his gaze. “Listen, sweetheart, as soon as I know anything I will call you. But please, I know you planned to go to the Center this morning.  Please, do that, Ava. Erin is expecting you and Jaidev is dying to play with his cousin.  And you know how much he enjoys tormenting Destiny.” 

When she leaned into him for a long moment then nodded in agreement, Luke tipped up her chin. “Hang in there, sweetheart. I promise I will call you as soon as I know what happened and who it is.” Patting her stomach he murmured, “Meantime you need to take care of ‘her’ and him.” Pointing to Jaidev who was noisily creating his own war, he pulled Ava closer to him.  “Most of all, Ava, you need to take care of you.  Do you hear me, Princess? I’m counting on you.”

At her agreeing nod, he kissed her cheek.  Reaching for an unsuspecting Jaidev, he tossed the squealing child in the air then plunking him down beside Ava, he admonished him, “Remember big guy, when daddy is gone, I depend on you to take care of your momma. You got that, tiger?”

At the little boy’s mock tiger growl, Luke forced a laugh then after hugging Ava once more, he strode to the door.  Closing it behind him as he headed for his truck, he assumed the protective armor he’d no doubt need to perform the arduous tasks expected of the leading lawman of the county.


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