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For the first time in three and a half years, Aunt Liz was late. Roxy Marcoli checked her watch for the third time in the past five minutes and tried not to panic.
The older woman had never been late delivering the baked goods that were offered each day to the customers of the Dollhouse. She always arrived at six-thirty, a half hour before Roxy turned the closed sign to Open, signaling the beginning of another day at the restaurant.
It was now quarter till seven and still no sign of Aunt Liz. Roxy had already called her aunt's house twice, and there had been no answer. She'd also tried Liz's cell phone, but it had gone directly to voice mail.
"Maybe she's held up in traffic," Josephine Landers, Roxy's manager, said as she checked the quiches that baked in the oven.
"Yeah, because traffic jams are such an issue in Wolf Creek, Pennsylvania," Roxy replied drily. She couldn't remember the last time she'd heard of a traffic snarl in the relatively small tourist town twenty miles up the mountain from the bigger city of Hershey.
"You know she'd never answer her cell phone if she was driving. She'll probably be walking in here any minute now," Josie said, obviously unconcerned about Liz Marcoli's punctuality or lack thereof.
What worried Roxy was that her aunt Liz was the one person in the entire world she'd always depended on, the one person who had always been there for her. She checked her watch once again. Almost seven. This was so out of character for Aunt Liz.
A thousand scenarios played out in Roxy's head, one worse than the other. Maybe she'd slipped and fallen in the shower. Or she'd been in a car accident and was at the hospital. Half the time she forgot to carry her purse with her, so if she was in an accident and rendered unconscious, it was possible that nobody would know her identity.
Stop it, Roxy commanded herself. Stop thinking so negatively. She'd been told often enough by both of her sisters and her aunt that she was prone to always seeing the bad side of any situation.
Maybe for once in her life, Aunt Liz had simply overslept. But then why hadn't she heard the phone ring? "Maybe I'll just give Marlene a call and have her run over and check in at Aunt Liz's," she said, more to herself than to Josie.
"Whatever you're going to do, you'd better do it fast because our first customers should be coming in any minute." Josie pulled the tray of homemade quiches from the oven.
Roxy grabbed her cell phone from her apron pocket and punched in her middle sister's number. Marlene picked up on the third ring, her voice groggy with sleep.
"You'd better be profusely bleeding or on fire," she said to Roxy.
"Neither, and I'm sorry to bother you so early, but I can't find Aunt Liz," Roxy replied. She leaned one hip against the large butcher-block island in the center of the kitchen.
"What do you mean you can't find Aunt Liz?"
Roxy could hear the rustle of bedsheets and could easily imagine her blond-haired, beautiful sister sitting up in her bed in her tiny walk-up apartment bedroom. "She didn't come this morning with the baked goods, and I've tried to call the house and her cell phone, but I get no answer." Roxy tried to keep the worry from her voice, but it was obvious Marlene heard it.
"You want me to go over there and check things out?"
"Would you mind? I'm just about to open my doors, and I can't imagine what's held her up this morning. This has never happened before."
"It will take me a few minutes to pull myself together and get over there, but I'll call you back as soon as I know something."
Roxy released a small sigh of relief. "Thanks, Marlene. And if she shows up here in the meantime, I'll give you a call back."
Roxy hung up at the same time she heard a rapid knock come from the front door of the three-story Victorian home she'd turned into a restaurant.
For the past year, the first three customers at the door every Monday, Wednesday and Friday were three of Hershey's finest who, before beginning their shifts as detectives, started their day with a hearty Doll-house breakfast.
As Roxy left the kitchen to open the front door, pride of ownership filled her heart. The restaurant consisted of three seating rooms, the large kitchen and a small storage area that had once served as a mudroom.
She was open six days a week, from seven in the morning until five in the evening. She'd initially envisioned the intimate restaurant to be popular with small women's groups and lunching ladies. She'd never expected the men who showed up for breakfast, and as a result, her morning offerings had become bigger in size, heartier than the lunch menu.
When she reached the front door, she was unsurprised to see the three familiar men standing on the porch. Jim Carmani, Frank Delaney and Steven Kin-caid were all detectives with the Wolf Creek police force. As she opened the door to let them in, her stomach twisted into a small knot of tension.
She busied herself turning the sign from Closed to Open in the glass pane of the front door, and the three men seated themselves where they always did, at the round table nearest the front window.
Knowing they would want coffee all around, she hurried to the kitchen to grab a serving pot of the fresh-brewed drink and then returned to their table and placed the silver pot in the center.
Jim and Frank both murmured a good morning. Steve eyed her with bright blue eyes and a sexy smile that should be considered illegal. "Foxy Roxy, you're looking stunning this morning as usual."
This was the man who twisted the knot in her stomach. Half the time after serving them, she wasn't sure if she wanted to pull out his shaggy surfer blond hair or her own black curly strands.
"Don't call me Foxy Roxy," she snapped.
"Why not?" he asked. A light of amusement shone in his ocean-blue eyes as his gaze perused her from head to toe.
"Because I told you not to," she said and then smiled at Jimmy and Frank. Both of them were dressed in black slacks, white shirts and lightweight suit jackets, while Steve was clad in a pair of slacks and a blue dress shirt that emphasized the color of his eyes and the shoulder holster that held his gun.
"What can I get for you this morning?" she asked Jimmy. "I'm afraid I don't have any cinnamon rolls or muffins. They haven't been delivered yet." She tamped down a new burst of worry about her aunt. Where could she be?
"I'll take your breakfast special, scrambled eggs with bacon and white toast," Jimmy said.
"And those Belgian waffles are calling to me, the ones smothered with bananas and caramel topping," Frank added.
Roxy nodded and turned to Steve. He grinned at her, and the knot in her stomach twisted a little bit tighter. "I'd like a plate of your long gorgeous legs and a hint of your pretty smile."
"Vegetable quiche," she said as she wrote on her pad, knowing few men ordered the delicate dish.
"No, wait!" Steve released a low rumble of laughter. "Give me the same as Frank."
"That's what I thought you said," she said drily and then twirled on her heels and left the table. "That man," she exclaimed as she entered the kitchen where Josie and Gregory Stillwell, another employee, were manning the oven.
"Let me guess," Josie said as she took the order sheet from Roxy. "Detective Steve Kincaid?" She didn't wait for Roxy's answer, but instead pointed Gregory to the waffle maker while she got eggs from the fridge. "I don't know why you let him get under your skin. Every woman in town thinks he's hot and sexy and would love to get a little of his flirtation and a taste of his lush lips, but we all know he's not really the serious type."
"He looks like some surfer dude who wandered in from a beach instead of a detective on the police force."
Josie grinned at her. "And you look like a hot, take-me-to-bed-right-now kind of woman instead of the man-hater you really are."
"I'm not a man-hater," Roxy grumbled. "I just refuse to buy into anything any of them are trying to sell."
Josie looked down at the wedding ring that had adorned her finger for the past three months. "Sometimes they're just selling you love," she replied, her voice gooey with sentiment.
The honeymoon stage, that's all it was, Roxy thought. Josie had married her high school sweetheart three months ago. Sooner or later the honeymoon would pass and real life would intrudeand that's when everything went to hell.
Roxy knew . She'd lived it with her mother for the first seven years of her life. Men had led her mother to utter destruction, and Roxy wasn't about to make those same kinds of mistakes. She was good by herself, thank you very much.
It took only minutes for the three meals to be prepared and served, and by that time other diners had entered to get breakfast and enjoy the ambiance of the cozy eatery.
The three dining areas were named by the wallpaper and color theme in each room. The main area was the blue room, papered in a rich blue satin paper with antique glassware and trinkets on display on various shelves. The second biggest room was mauve, also decorated with a variety of antiques, old hats and framed news articles that chronicled the history of Wolf Creek.
The final dining area was the green room, which hinted of an outdoor eating experience with lush plants and the requisite antiques used to flavor the room.
For years this had been Roxy's dream. She'd worked two jobs since the age of eighteen in order to have a healthy down payment on a place.
The Dollhouse only used the best and freshest ingredients, utilizing local farmers and the nearby Amish community to assure quality in every dish they prepared.
She'd been open less than four years, and already she was functioning firmly in the black. This place wasn't just her dream; it, along with spending time with her two younger sisters and her aunt, was her very life.
For another half an hour she took orders and served customers. Allie Jenkins, one of her part-time waitresses, worked the crowd, as well.
Roxy was standing in the kitchen doorway waiting for an order to be ready for delivery when her cell phone rang. It was Marlene.
"Roxy, she's not here. The door was unlocked. I've gone through the entire house and she isn't here, but her car is in the driveway and her purse and all the baked goods are on the counter ready to transport."
A thrum of thick anxiety shot off in the pit of Roxy's stomach. "But she has to be there someplace if her car is there."
"Roxy, I've checked every room in the house. I even went down to the basement, and there's no sign of her." Marlene's voice rang with a touch of the anxiety that grew bigger and bigger inside Roxy. "What do you want me to do?"
"Have you called Sheri?" she asked, referring to their youngest sister.
"I did, and she hasn't heard from Aunt Liz since around two o'clock yesterday afternoon."
The simmer of anxiety moved into full chest-crunching alarm. "Go home and try not to worry," Roxy told her sister. "I'm sure there's a logical explanation. I'll take care of things." That's what Roxy didshe took care of things when her aunt wasn't available.
And why wasn't she available? Had Roxy's mother, Ramona, showed up after all these years and asked Liz to go someplace with her? Or had Ramona called and Liz gone running with no thought of anything else?
That could only mean bad news. Where Ramona went, chaos followed.
Liz had a soft and forgiving heart for everyone, and despite everything Ramona had done over the years, Liz would easily want to believe the best of her much younger sister. Liz would definitely drop everything if Ramona had called.
It had now been an hour and a half since she'd expected Liz to show up, and the alarm inside Roxy could no longer be ignored. There was only one thing she knew to do.
With stiff shoulders and the feeling that the world was suddenly all wrong, she went back into the blue room, where the three detectives were just finishing up their breakfasts.
"I need your help," she said without preamble. "We can't find my aunt. She's missing, and I need you all to go to her house and see if you can find out what's happened to her."
Jimmy, a handsome Italian, frowned. "How long has she been missing?"
"Almost two hours," Roxy replied. "My sister has been over to her house and can't find her anywhere. Aunt Liz's car is there, but she isn't. Something is wrong."
"Roxy, we can't check out someone who has only been missing for a couple of hours," Frank said kindly. "She's an adult. She's allowed to be missing if she wants to be."
"I'll go." Steve drained his coffee cup and then stood and looked at Roxy expectantly.
Both of his partners looked at him in surprise, and a sinking feeling swept through Roxy.
Of the three men at the table, the last one she wanted to have anything to do with was Detective Steve Kincaid. But at the moment her concern for her aunt overweighed her disgust at having to deal with the handsome devil.