Autumn Skies (Bluebell Inn Romance #3) - Denise Hunter

Chapter One

Secret Service Field Office

Charlotte, NC

Reading people was part of Wyatt Jennings’s job, and judging by the look on his boss’s face, the news wasn’t good. Wyatt forced himself to sit still as the special agent in charge lowered his considerable weight into the chair behind his battle-scarred desk.

In his midforties the SAIC’s bull-like build matched his no-nonsense demeanor. He intimidated the tar out of Wyatt. The fluorescent lights gleamed off his bald head and did nothing to soften his nearly black eyes. He shuffled some papers, his lips set in a firm line. Did a soft side exist beneath that stone-cold facade?

“What’s going on with you, Jennings?” Burke’s gruff voice boomed across the small space. He folded his beefy arms and propped them on the desk. “Talk to me.”

What was going on? Plenty, if Wyatt was honest. But he thought he’d done a stellar job of hiding his issues from Burke’s eagle eyes.

Wyatt cleared his throat. “Well, sir, I took a bullet in defense of Senator Edwards.”

“Bull hockey. Don’t pull that with me. You’ve worked under me four years with never a problem. First to step up, no matter the job. Work tirelessly like some kind of robot, not a word of complaint. And now this.”

“Now what, sir?” Wyatt eyed him despite the way his heart knocked against his ribs.

“I’m not blind, Jennings. You’ve been slipping the last few weeks. Ever since the incident. You’re distracted, short-tempered with your coworkers, zoned out on the job.” His boss pinned him with a look. “And I found you asleep at your desk yesterday.”

Wyatt hid a wince. That wasn’t the half of what was going on inside. He’d always been an expert at managing his emotions, but the disquiet roiling inside since the shooting had taken on a life of its own.

“I apologize, sir. It won’t happen again.”

“You’re right, it won’t. That last assignment messed you up a little. Seen it before.”

“I got shot, sir.” He didn’t know what else to say. He’d do it again, throw himself in front of a bullet to save a protectee. It was his job. His calling. And he was good at it.

“Surface wound. It’s not the physical damage I’m concerned with. You need to take some time, get yourself together. I’m talking about a leave of absence.”

White speckles danced in Wyatt’s vision, from lack of sleep and desperation. “All due respect, sir, I don’t need a leave. I have an exemplary record with the Service.”

“No question. Let’s keep it that way.”

“I’ll be fine. I just need a decent night’s sleep.”

“No doubt. Question is, why aren’t you getting that? I know you have higher aspirations, and I aim to see you reach them.”

It was true he was gunning for Presidential Protective Detail. But a leave wouldn’t get him closer to that goal. Wyatt opened his mouth, searching for some explanation for his recent behavior. Some excuse that would make Burke reverse his decision.

“I’ll leave you with this, Jennings. After your performance on the Edwards assignment, the higher-ups have you in their sights.” His gaze sharpened. “You’ll be moving up soon.”

Wyatt straightened in his chair. “To PPD, sir?”

Burke gave a sharp nod. “You don’t want anything to mess that up.”

“No, sir.”

“Four weeks,” his boss said firmly.

“Four weeks, sir!”

“For starters. Then we’ll reassess. Do a psych eval.” Burke gave him that hard-eyed stare that had earned him a nickname no one said to his face. “I suggest you use the time wisely. A little counseling wouldn’t be out of order. We got people for that.” He shuffled some papers and rolled back from his desk. “Effective immediately, Jennings.”

There was so much Wyatt wanted to say. Was desperate to say. But the Academy had trained him better. Like it or not, he was on a four-week leave. And even then he wasn’t guaranteed reentry. A psychiatric evaluation. The thought brought bile into his esophagus. But then he’d be called up. Wyatt would finally get what he’d been working so hard for.

In the meantime, where he’d go or what he’d do, Wyatt had no idea. He’d been training for the Service one way or another since he’d studied criminal justice at Northeastern. Before that even, in high school—Hargrave Military Academy.

He couldn’t even remember who Wyatt Jennings was outside of the Service.

But he was about to find out.

“You’re dismissed, Jennings.” Burke frowned at him.

He’d zoned out again. Wyatt rose to his feet with reluctance and said the only thing he could. “Yes, sir.”

The familiar road twisted and turned around the Blue Ridge