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Adrift in Retribution Bay (ebook)

Adrift in Retribution Bay (ebook)

Aussie Heroes: Retribution Bay - Book 6

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She's fighting for the security she's found. He's figuring out how to live again. Can two wounded souls be healed by helping each other?

After a lifetime in the army, Arthur 'Sherlock' Hammond has been cast adrift. Struggling to cope after being medically discharged, his friends drag him to Retribution Bay to face life, and a sister he's not seen for a decade.

Gretchen Wintie has finally found a secure job, friends she can count on and with the end of her university degree in sight, life is looking up for her and her son. Until her low-life ex walks back into her life demanding she choose between the happiness she's found, and the safety of her child. Adding to her stress is the bitter, injured ex-soldier she's forced to work with, and who thinks a smile is a major crime.

But when her ex's threats escalate, Gretchen discovers a sweet man underneath Arthur's prickly exterior. He might just be the solution to all of her problems, as long as she doesn't lose her heart to him.

When things get stormy, will their dark secrets be revealed, or will it prove their foundations are strong?

Adrift in Retribution Bay is the sixth book in the Aussie Heroes: Retribution Bay series. If you like wounded heroes, feisty heroines and odds stacked against them, you'll love Adrift in Retribution Bay.


Chapter 1 Look Inside

The steady beep drifted into Arthur Hammond’s consciousness. He pushed it away, clinging to the peace in the dark, but like an incessant mosquito buzzing around his head, the noise refused to go away. As his mind refocused, he recognised the sound. A hospital monitor, the steady beep mimicking his heart.
His eyes flashed open as memories assaulted him. The click of the improvised explosive device, the crackle of the explosion, the excruciating pain in his right leg. He shoved at the white, starchy sheets, his hands hampered by tubes running into his veins. Finally, he uncovered his leg.
Or rather his knee and stump.
It was unbandaged and the scars had lost some of their redness.
He battled through the fog of wakefulness as more images attacked. The weeks in hospital, the myriad doctors and therapists, visits from his teammates and the pity on their faces. The never-ending nerve pain that made him want to cut off the rest of his leg.
His father’s order not to return to the army.
Filling his mouth with pills, not caring whether it was too many, just wanting to stop the pain, any way he could.
He’d failed.
Even as he stared down at his missing lower leg, the pins and needles began again.
Despair smothered him and he gasped for breath. No escape. This was his life—crippled, unemployed, useless.
If only the pills had rescued him from it.
His gaze lifted to the blue curtains surrounding his cubicle. The fluorescent lighting glared above, highlighting everything in a stark, jaundiced spotlight. The hospital bed with its thin, white blanket, doing nothing to provide warmth, the table designed to slot over the bed with a plastic jug and cup on it, and finally, almost behind him, the beeping monitor and some kind of IV fluid they were pumping into him.
Outside, people spoke, discussing a patient who had come out of surgery. “He’s stable, but we won’t know the effect of the pills until he wakes.”
“Poor bastard. Do you think he did it on purpose?”
“Only he knows.”
Arthur jerked. They were talking about him. Pitying him. Hadn’t he had enough pity?
Hurried footsteps on the linoleum floor; two, maybe three people. They stopped right outside his cubicle, the scratched, dark brown Blundstone boots covered in red dust showing below the curtain. He tensed and then a female voice said, “I’m looking for Arthur Hammond.”
He glanced left and right for somewhere he could hide. Stupid. He wasn’t moving anywhere. He’d avoided this meeting for as long as he could, and now there was no escape.
Sam had promised not to tell Amy and Brandon about the accident.
Liar.
“He hasn’t woken yet. Who are you?”
“I’m his sister, Amy.”
Arthur’s throat closed over. What was she doing here? Surely she didn’t want a bar of him. Not after he’d chosen to go on a mission rather than attend her wedding to his teammate.
The curtain opened. Behind his sister stood her husband, Brandon, and Arthur’s other ex-teammate, Sam.
His eyes focused on the small woman at the front. His chest squeezed. So much like their mother. Same frizzy blonde hair, same height, same green eyes.
“You’re awake,” Amy stated.
A male nurse hurried in behind them, pushed his glasses up on his nose and smiled. “Nice to meet you, Arthur. I’m Michael and I’ll be your nurse today. How are you feeling?” He checked the monitor.
What was Arthur supposed to say? “I’m alive.”
“Yes, you are,” Michael agreed. “Do you know where you are? Have you any blurry vision? Pain?”
Arthur ignored the first question and stared at his visitors. Sam and Brandon both crossed their arms and stood legs apart, decidedly unimpressed. The same look they gave senior officers when a mission had gone to shit through no fault of their own. “I can see fine. Leg hurts.”
“Your vitals are good. How much does your leg hurt on a scale from one to ten?” Michael asked and Arthur drew his attention back to him.
“Six.” He’d been through the questions a million times. Six was his base level every single day.
Michael screwed up his face in sympathy. “I’ll check with a doctor to see if we can give you anything for the pain. We’ll move you to a ward as soon as we can. I’ll leave you with your visitors.” He strode out.
Arthur clenched his jaw to stop from calling him back so he wouldn’t be alone with them.
Coward. He’d brought this on himself.
Amy moved cautiously towards the bed.
“Ames.” Her nickname fell from his lips like he’d seen her yesterday instead of a decade ago.
She flung her arms around him and squeezed.
Shock pierced him more painfully than the tingles in his legs, and his arms encircled her, inhaling deeply, trying to get any breath back into his lungs. She even smelled like his mother, the same sweet floral scent.
Amy drew away and stared at him. “Are you all right?”
He nodded, though it wasn’t true.
“Good. I’m glad.” She took a deep breath. “What the hell were you thinking?” Her voice rose, and the abrupt change from caring to anger left him reeling. “How dare you swear Sam to silence? How dare you not tell me you were injured?” Her hands clenched. “And then to overdose…” Her voice broke. “Like Mum—”
She might as well have stabbed him in the heart. He hadn’t allowed himself to think about their mother in years.
Had she been in this amount of pain after her car accident? Did she just want it to all go away too?
He fought back the tears. Emotions made him weak, vulnerable to attack.
He looked past her to Sam. The man who had visited him every damned day after the accident. Had reminded him of everything he had lost. Had made him feel like a charity case on some days, but gave him hope on others. Hope—a subtle poison that destroyed from within.
“When you’re discharged, you’re coming to Retribution Bay,” Sam stated. “No arguments this time.”
Brandon nodded but stayed silent, his gaze focused but non-judgemental.
The attention was too much. No one should be here. They were better off without him. He moved his gaze to the side and stared at the blue curtains.
“Oh no, you don’t.” Sam shifted so he was in Arthur’s line of sight. “We did it your way the last time around. This time we’re doing it our way. You’re not alone. You’ve got support, you’ve got people who love you, and who want to help.”
Damn him. All this talk made hope raise her poisonous head. Couldn’t Sam see he was nothing now? He was worse than useless. He was a burden. A disappointment.
“Why do you hate me so much?” Amy’s quiet question whipped his head around.
“What?” She was the one who must hate him.
“I know we grew apart as you got older and didn’t want a pesky younger sister hanging around,” she continued, as if he hadn’t spoken. “But I can’t think of a thing I did to make you treat me this way.”
“It’s got nothing to do with you.”
She raised her eyebrows. “You barely spoke to me at Mum’s funeral, you didn’t come to my wedding, you’d rather kill yourself than accept my help.”
Arthur glanced at Sam and Brandon, hoping they would offer some suggestions on what to say. Their impassive stares told him he was getting no help from them.
He’d never been great with words.
And even if he had been, there was no way to justify what he’d done. No way she’d understand. Looking back, he didn’t really comprehend it himself. “It’s complicated.”
“You’ll have plenty of time to explain at the Ridge,” Brandon said.
Amy glanced at her husband and then back at Arthur. “Brandon and Sam both say you’re a good man and I trust their judgement. But I won’t stick around for you to break my heart a third time.” She strode out.
Brandon glared at him. “Time’s up, Sherlock. Get your shit together, because if you hurt Amy again, you’ll be dealing with me.” He followed his wife out of the cubicle and into the corridor. Brandon murmured, “Don’t cry, Ames. It will be all right.”
Arthur flinched. Why was she crying over him? He wasn’t worth it. He looked at Sam and his question must have been written on his face.
“Ames is tough. She’s been through a lot, and it took some convincing for her to agree to even speak to you the first time. It was enough to make her hope to reconnect and you’ve hurt her again.”
“I didn’t ask you to be here.”
Sam smiled, bemused, with a hint of irritation. “No, but we were on a plane within an hour of discovering what happened. Now, what does that tell you?”
He didn’t want to think about it. “You should all just leave me be.”
“We can’t do that, Sherlock. Like it or not, we care for you. You’re like a brother to me and Brandon, and we don’t give up on family.”
Family. A curse word if ever he heard one. He’d spent a lifetime trying to live up to his father’s expectations, to earn his love, and it had amounted to nothing.
Sam stepped closer. “This is how it’s going to be. I’m going to talk to your doctors and find out exactly what you need. Then I’ll arrange you that help. You can choose to stay at the Ridge with Brandon and Amy, or you can stay in town with me. If you stay with me, you’ll be my deckhand, and if you stay with Brandon, you’ll help on the station.”
Arthur scowled. “Haven’t you forgotten something?” He threw back the blankets to reveal his ugly stump.
“You don’t need a leg to chop a salad or cook sausages,” Sam said. “And you were always a damned strong swimmer. We’ll make it work.”
It was more of his positive vibe bullshit. The stuff Arthur wanted so desperately to believe, but couldn’t. Hoping and failing would destroy him.
He’d never even been good enough when he’d been whole.
He had no chance of pleasing anyone now.
***
Gretchen Wintie suppressed her impatience with her ten-year-old son. “Jordan, we need to leave right now. I’m going to be late for work.”
He wandered out in his yellow and brown school uniform, dragging his backpack and his feet. “Can’t I go later? I hate hanging around by myself, waiting for my friends to arrive.”
“No.” She grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the front door, ignoring the stab of guilt. “We discussed this, and you’re not old enough.”
“But Cody walks to school every day.”
“Cody walks with his sisters,” she corrected. And unlike Jordan, they didn’t have a psycho father threatening to make them disappear on their way home. Goosebumps prickled her skin as she locked the door and then scanned the neighbourhood, looking for anyone who shouldn’t be there. Lindsay from the grocery store walked her dog, and Mitchell from Parks and Wildlife jogged past, raising a hand in greeting. She waved back.
Quiet. Normal.
“Then can’t you drop me at his place instead?”
She could appreciate Jordan was intelligent enough to form reasonable arguments in his favour, but right now, it wasn’t helping. She relied on Cody’s parents far too much as it was. “Not today.” She drove the short distance to school. “Miss Simpson tells me she appreciates your help in the morning.”
He folded his arms across his chest and pouted. “This sucks.”
He was right. Before the threat, the year twelve student across the road walked Jordan every morning. But she had finished school and was studying for exams now. Gretchen had been considering letting Jordan walk on his own before Kurt’s threats. But she couldn’t even tell Jordan that. He had no idea Kurt had been in town and it was better he stayed in the dark. He didn’t know the terrible things his father was involved in, had been too young and innocent to recognise the smell of alcohol and marijuana which often permeated his father’s skin. Jordan only remembered the three or four good times when Kurt had spent more than a few minutes with them and that had been because Kurt had used them as cover for one of his illegal activities.
Gretchen suspected the only reason Kurt had wanted a child was so he could control her. She’d begun to have doubts about their relationship, had become suspicious about exactly what kind of work he did for her parents. She’d been planning to leave until she’d got pregnant.
It wasn’t until she’d had a falling out with her parents that Kurt had decided she wasn’t worth his time either. Broke, scared and with a baby to care for, she couldn’t afford to leave.
Then Kurt had started manipulating Jordan in order to control her.
It was enough of a wake-up call to realise she couldn’t afford to stay.
Not if she wanted to prevent Jordan from growing up in the same manipulative environment as she had.
She’d found a wad of cash in Kurt’s office and left, travelling from place to place, wherever she could find work and a babysitter. Kurt hadn’t tried to find her. Neither had her parents. She’d thought she’d made a clean break from them all.
She’d been wrong.
Jordan flung the car door open as she pulled up in front of the school.
“Have a good day,” she called.
“Later.” He slammed the door and Gretchen sighed. Maybe she should tell Jordan about his father’s threats, but she wasn’t certain he would believe her. He rarely asked about his father these days, but she’d once overheard him tell Cody he was a cop. Perhaps he remembered talks of drugs and raids, and figured Kurt was one of the good guys, instead of the bad.
She hadn’t had the heart to correct him.
She waited until Jordan went inside the brick building before continuing to the marina. The tour bus pulled into the street behind her and she accelerated. She was supposed to be already on the boat and have the gear ready, morning tea prepared.
Hopefully, Rob would understand. She’d have to make sure she had things sorted with Jordan before her new boss, Sam, returned from the city.
She grabbed her backpack and jogged across the carpark and through the gate to the pens. The Oceanid was tied in place, and she spotted both Rob and Sam on the back deck.
Damn. She hadn’t known Sam was back.
She walked on board and headed for the cabin. “Morning! Sorry I’m late. I’ll be right there.” She waved and was two steps inside the cabin when she noticed the man. Large was the first word that came to mind. Unhappy was the second. He scowled, not dissimilar to Jordan’s expression as he’d jumped out of the car. The man sat ramrod straight at the table, chopping fruit for morning tea. His hair was a tight mass of brown curls cropped close to his skull, and his eyes were sharp and judging.
Her smile faded as she placed her backpack in a cupboard. “Hi, I’m Gretchen. You must be Arthur.” Her friend, Penelope had mentioned Sam was bringing his army mate back to Retribution Bay with him.
A short nod.
“Thanks for starting morning tea. I’ll come and help in a second.”
“I don’t need help.” Though the words were defiant, the timbre of his voice was warm, almost soothing. An odd contrast.
Gretchen didn’t comment as she went out on the deck to speak with Sam. “Do you need help out here?”
The passengers had disembarked from the bus and were heading down the jetty.
“We’re all good. You met Sherlock?” Sam asked.
She frowned. “Isn’t his name Arthur?”
Sam nodded. “Sherlock’s his nickname. He’s going to be coming out with us for a while.”
“Great!” Maybe he’d smile when the customers were on board. “I’m sure an extra pair of hands will be useful. I’m sorry for being late. Jordan was slow starting this morning.”
“Don’t sweat it,” Sam replied.
The customers arrived and Gretchen got to work passing out stinger suits, and masks and snorkels. It was two weeks until the end of the season and Gretchen still hadn’t found work for the off-season. Her final practicum for her occupational therapy degree was next month, as was her final exam, but she still had to find someone to look after Jordan. And what were the chances she could actually get a job as an OT in Retribution Bay?
She sighed and tuned in to Sam as he did his spiel about what the day would entail. When he was done, he steered the boat out of the marina and into the gulf.
Gretchen made the rounds, chatting to the passengers on board. One man grabbed her arm as she walked past. “Is it dangerous?”
She smiled, used to the last-minute nerves from some. “Any interaction with wild animals has an element of danger,” she said. “We can’t choose how the humpbacks will react to us.” The man paled. “However, we follow the guidelines which reduce the risk. We never swim near a mother and her calf or get into the water when the whales are feeling playful. We keep a set distance from them and the boat is always nearby.”
“Don’t be such a worry-wart, honey,” the older woman beside him said. “They wouldn’t be allowed to do it if the risk was high.”
The man fiddled with his mask.
“You don’t have to swim if you’re uncomfortable,” Gretchen assured him. “We’ll stop soon for a snorkel and then when we find the whales, you can assess the situation yourself.”
He nodded. “All right.”
She went onto the bow as they neared the mooring and readied the hook to snag it. The satisfaction of looping the rope first go and pulling it over the deck, tying it in place, never faded. When she was done, she caught Arthur watching her through the window. She smiled and waved, but he simply stared at her.
Intense, bordering on creepy, if she hadn’t known what he’d been through. Losing part of his leg as well as his job would be difficult to deal with, and it sounded as if he was dealing with depression and chronic pain as well. Amy had called a few days ago to ask if Gretchen could help him with therapy when he came up, and while she was happy to help, she couldn’t do it in any official capacity until she passed her degree.
She headed into the cabin and stripped out of her polo shirt and shorts, before slipping on her own stinger suit and grabbing her gear out of her backpack. “Are you snorkelling?” she asked Arthur.
“No.”
“We’ve got floatation devices if you need a hand.”
“I can swim.”
“You should jump in,” Sam said, walking into the room.
“You want me to scare away your customers?” Arthur demanded.
“You’re not that ugly,” Sam joked.
Arthur grunted. “You know what I mean.”
Sam glanced at Gretchen and she got the hint to get out of there. She slipped by him and joined the group waiting to get into the water. It was her turn to monitor the snorkellers and figure out who was a decent swimmer. They kept the stronger swimmers together so they didn’t have anyone falling behind when they reached the whales.
The water was cool, but not crisp, and the visibility was about ten metres. She swam amongst the guests, pointing out things of interest as she spotted them: a stingray gliding along the bottom, a turtle feeding near a clump of coral, and the brightly coloured clown fish were always popular. The man who had expressed his concern about the danger swam confidently next to his wife. At least that was one less concern. In fact, no one struggled with swimming at all today.
It made her job easier.
At the signal from Sam on the boat, she shepherded the passengers back. Morning tea had been laid out on the table and people were already enjoying the fresh fruit and hot drinks by the time she got out. All except Arthur, who was still sitting in the cabin in the same place. Maybe he needed help to move. She towelled herself dry, wrapping it around her waist, and then climbed the ladder to the top deck to talk to Sam. “Jasmine found us anything yet?”
“Yeah, there’s a pod heading into the gulf now.” He pointed north and in the sky in the distance she spotted Jasmine’s microlight plane.
They were alone up here, but still she moved closer so she didn’t have to shout. “Does Arthur need help moving?”
Sam grimaced and shook his head. “No, he can use the prosthesis just fine. He has an aversion to people pitying him and thinks if he goes out there, he’ll ruin everyone’s day.”
How sad.
“He’s struggling, and he wasn’t the best conversationalist to start with. Don’t be offended by him.”
“I won’t.” She couldn’t help but want to make him feel better. She returned to the lower deck and went into the cabin to throw her polo shirt back on. Arthur stared out the window and didn’t so much as glance at her. He had a bottle of water next to him. “Can I get you anything to eat?”
A hesitation, but no response.
“You should taste some of your hard work.” Still nothing. “Unless you filled up while you were cutting the fruit.”
That got his attention. “I didn’t eat while I worked.” His eyes widened as if she was accusing him of theft.
She’d offended him. She smiled. “Well, you’re stronger than I am. I wouldn’t have been able to resist. Do you want anything now?” She gestured outside to where the passengers had all filled their plates and were sitting around the boat eating.
His eyes flitted outside and then down to his leg, and back to her. “Yes,” he replied. “Please.”
She grinned. “Have you got a favourite?”
“Oranges.”
Interesting. Most people went for the watermelon or strawberries. “Be right back.”
She filled two plates with fruit and cake and then delivered his plate to him. “I’d love to sit and chat, but I’ve got to make the rounds. Do you want to join me?”
He slid the plate closer to him. “No.”
She waited a beat for him to say something else, but when he didn’t, she headed back outside.
“Thank you.” The words were soft, maybe even forced, but they were there. Progress.
Gretchen didn’t turn around, but she lifted a hand in acknowledgement. “Any time.”
Maybe she could get through to the injured soldier somehow.

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