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"Don't move or I'll kill her."
Deputy Sheriff Eric Butler did as he was told, since the mustached stranger standing about five feet away had the new waitress at the Courthouse Café held against her will and a revolver pointed at her head.
"We're all cool here," Eric said, nodding toward all the other customers and the three or four employees who had just minutes before been laughing and talking.
"Nobody wants to get hurt today." He silently prayed, asking God to keep everyone safe.
"That's good," the dark-haired, sweating man said, his head bobbing up and down. Then he slanted his gaze around the room where he had ordered the kitchen staff to gather with the customers. In the kitchen, unattended food sizzled and burned on the griddle. "Everybody here, listen to the officer."
Acting on instinct, Eric held his hands away from his body and stared down the shaking man, wondering what kind of idiot would try to rob a restaurant right across from the courthouse in the tiny East-Texas town of Wildflower. Any number of cops and sheriff's deputies ate here every day, and any smart criminal would have scoped the place out in advance to save both himself and everyone else grief.
Of course, desperate people did desperate things, and this man seemed very near the brink. Eric took in the scene and tried to decide how best to handle the situation.
Cat Murphy, the petite, no-nonsense owner of Cat's Courthouse Café, stood just to the left of the man holding waitress Julia Daniels near a wall that gave the culprit a bird's-eye view of both the entrance door and the kitchen. Cat's expression showed shock, but her eyes held a kind of resolve that didn't bode well for thegrungy-looking man who'd disrupted the last minutes of the lunch hour. Cat had been married to a police officer who was killed in the line of duty. And given that Julia Daniels was related to Cat and had moved here about five months ago at Cat's request, Cat sure wasn't going to stand by and let anything bad happen to her. That made her not only dangerous but impulsive, too, Eric reasoned.
But right now he was more worried about Julia. He liked her a lot, had even thought about asking her out on a date. So that made him just a tad dangerous, too. Not impulsive like motherly Cat, yet dangerous just the same. But he had to protect Julia and everybody else in here, somehow. Help me, Lord.
The other diners had stopped eating to stare with fright at the man and woman in the corner of the room. And Eric's buddy and fellow deputy Adam Dupont was sitting across from Eric, his trigger finger itching from the way the pulse was pounding in his jawline.
"Steady," Eric whispered to Adam. "He looks real serious about using that gun."
"Shut up!" The robber's fidgety, shifting gaze moved from Eric to Adam. "I mean it, man. You two need to take out your guns and slide them across the floor."
Eric glanced at his friend, sending Adam a silent message. Then he nodded. Best not to argue with the man holding the gun to the blonde's head. Besides, she looked as pale as a ghost, her big gold-green eyes widening each time the gun was pressed harder against her temple.
Carefully, with one hand in the air, both deputies took out their weapons. "Okay," Eric said. "I'm gonna send them both your way."
The robber nodded, then waited, watching intently as Eric did as he'd promised. The only sound in the tiny café was that of weapons hitting linoleum and fat hitting the grill as the guns flew across the black-and-white-patterned floor.
"What do you want?" Julia managed to ask the man, her tone shaky.
The man holding Julia glanced around, hesitant at first, sweat popping out on his forehead. He eyed the back of Julia's head so close to his own, then glanced around the restaurant as if he were looking for something or someone. Then his gaze skittered to the counter near the kitchen.
"I need some cash," the burly man replied, lifting his chin toward the back of the restaurant. "All of it."
Cat nodded. "I'll have to go behind the cash register. Don't hurt Julia, okay. You can have the money, but you don't need to hurt anyone."
"Shut up and get it." Then he pressed the gun closer to Julia's tousled hair a little harder. "And let me worry about Julia."
The robber shifted around, facing Cat as she slowly moved toward the counter in the far corner of the room, forcing Julia to turn. "And if anybody tries anything, I'll kill her."
Eric watched as Julia pivoted around with the man, her willowy frame shaking, her shoulder-length golden hair swishing over her black-and-white uniform. The woman was terrified, but she was cooperating. That showed she had common sense at least. He just prayed she wouldn't try anything crazy, like fighting this man. He stared at her, willing her to let Adam and him do their jobs.
Her gaze met Eric's and held. She seemed to be silently screaming a message at him. He could see the plea in her eyes, could almost feel exactly what she was thinking: What about my little girl? What will happen to her if I die?
He knew from hearing Julia and Cat chattering away as they worked that Julia was Cat's cousin and she was a widow with an eight-year-old daughter named Moria. And he also knew that she was a devoted mother. He'd seen both mother and child in church last Sunday.
He wanted to see both of them there again next Sunday, too. So he held her gaze, hoping he could relay a sense of calm to her. He sat silently, his mind screaming for her to hold on. I won't let anything happen to you, I promise. He inclined his head just an inch, but it seemed to be enough to give her courage. She lifted her chin a notch in response.
Eric tore his gaze away, then tilted his head toward Adam. They'd worked together for the past seven years, to the point where they could almost read each other's minds. He hoped Adam was doing that very thing right now. They needed a distraction.
But they also needed to be very, very careful so no one in here would end up dead.
Especially the pretty blonde who'd only lived in Wildflower for a few months. Julia might be new to the area and new to the café, but she was already a favorite among the lunch crowd.
Eric liked Julia, even though he didn't know that much about her. He surely wasn't going to sit by and witness something horrible happening to a hardworking, quiet, pretty woman who didn't bother anyone. No, sir. That wasn't gonna happen. Not today, at least. And not before he'd had some of Cat's famous hamburger steak and mashed potatoes.
Be still and know that I am God. That verse played through Julia's head, so she stood still and decided to keep her eyes on the deputy sheriff. There was something about Eric Butler that made her feel safe. Maybe it was his quiet, controlled nature, or the way he tried to put everyone he encountered at ease. He had always been polite to Julia, in spite of his friend Adam's jokes and flirtatious nature. Eric didn't flirt. He just made small talk and asked her about Moria, his chocolate-colored eyes full of life and contentment. Eric had a secure, sure masculine presence that could fill a room. That presence, that security, such a contrast to her late husband's passive personality, was the only thing keeping Julia sane right now. She said a prayer, silently and quickly. Please, God, help us. She hadn't turned to God very much throughout the ordeal of her husband's death. But she sure needed Him here today. Because of Moria.
Julia kept telling herself to stay calm, to do as the skittish robber holding her body in front of his as a shield had said, to not move. But it wasn't so easy. She was worried about Moria. Her daughter was safe at school. She had to keep repeating that phrase inside her head, her heart pounding in cadence with the rapid breaths of the man holding her. Moria was safe; she had to be. Isn't that why she'd taken Cat's advice and left San Antonio to come to this nice, quiet little town all the way across Texas, near the Louisiana border? Moria is safe. Please, Lord, keep her safe.
Safe. Julia had brought her daughter here after her husband Alfonso had been murdered while he was working late one night. Murdered at his fancy desk in the high-rise De La Noche building in downtown San Antonio. And Moria had been there with him, hidden in the ladies' lounge down the hall, dialing Julia's number on her father's cell phone even as the murder had taken place, from what the authorities could piece together.
"Tell Mommy to come right now," Moria had repeated to Julia and the police after they'd found her sitting in a chair in the lounge, her doll Rosa clutched in one hand and the phone in the other. "Daddy said we were playing a game, like hide-and-seek. He said to talk to you and tell you to come and find me. Where's my daddy?"
Julia hadn't been able right then to tell the little girl that her daddy was dead. That had taken all of Julia's courage a few hours later at home.
Julia and the therapists still weren't sure what Moria had seen or heard that night. The little girl didn't talk about it much and the therapists couldn't agree on the validity of repressed memories. But her nightmares told the tale of horror Moria had gone through, sitting there all alone, waiting for her parents that night at the De La Noche complex.
Alfonso had worked for the Gardonez family since high school, only to end up dead.
Of the night. The La Flor De La Noche, or the flower of the night, was what had started the Gardonez family dynasty over one hundred years ago in Mexico. Night-blooming jasmine, moonflowers and the beautiful but deadly angel trumpet, started from seeds, and one woman's determination, had created a legend within the floral industry. Now the Gardonez family not only grew beautiful flowers but also farmed and marketed vegetables and fruit, too. And they had worldwide distribution, with a trucking and shipping company that was the industry standard.
But someone within their ranks, or someone who wanted to do the company harm, apparently had a secret that had killed her husband. Did her child also know that secret?
Now, as Julia stood here in the bruising grip of an armed man, she had to wonder if that secret had followed her all the way across Texas. She didn't know anything for sure; she only wanted to protect her daughter. But she did know that something had been bothering Alfonso before his death. Something that had him up at night and brooding all day long. Something that had told Julia not to let him pick up Moria from school that day. It was as if he'd also known something bad might happen to him. As if he'd known he'd have to take some sort of secret to his grave.
What if this man wanted that secret? What if this man hadn't come here just to rob the café? What if he'd come for her, instead?
Eric sensed the war behind those pretty golden-green eyes. He knew that look. Julia was weighing her options. He'd seen that kind of confused, centered gaze before in the eyes of men who'd made the wrong choices and regretted them. He'd also seen it in the eyes of other victims, haunted and frightened, wondering and waiting. She was afraid, but she held her head up with a determination that caused him to admire her. The woman had so much to live for. She had a child. He only hoped that spark of spunk shining inside her eyes wouldn't get her killed.
And he hoped this nagging feeling inside his gut would just go away, that it wasn't a sign of things to come. He didn't like this at all. The man had come in through the door and zoomed right in on Julia instead of the cash register. Now, why was that? Eric wondered.
"What now?" Adam asked as he watched Cat fumbling with the cash register.
"We wait," Eric replied under his breath.
Cat started walking slowly back toward Julia and the man, her ever-present red cowboy boots clicking against the linoleum, her eyes slanting toward Eric and Adam. She knew they would stop this. She had to know. Cat trusted them, as did everyone else in this sleepy little town. Eric gave Cat a reassuring look, holding his breath as she neared the gunman.
The robber clutched at Julia and said the words no lawman ever wanted to hear. "I'm gonna have to take her with me. Just until I get down the road." He pushed at Julia. "Hold the money."
Adam shot Eric a look. The chances of Julia surviving this once the strung-out man took her to another location were slim to none. There was no apparent reason for this man to take a hostage. Well, except maybe that he knew the two deputy sheriffs staring him down would surely come after him. They had to do something before the culprit got Julia away from the premises, or this could go from bad to worse.
Cat shook her head, obviously thinking the same thing, her usually down-to-earth candor breaking. "You've got the money. Please let her go."
But the man wasn't listening. He kept pushing at Julia. "Take it, so we can get out of here!"
And then everything happened at once.
One minute Cat was stretching her hand out, pressing a wad of cash toward Julia, her gaze meeting Julia's in a silent communication. Then Cat went into action, and instead of handing Julia the money, she dropped it just out of Julia's reach, all around the robber's feet. Adam took over, scraping his chair back with just enough abrasiveness to cause the robber to tear his eyes away from the fluttering money falling to the floor. The robber turned, yanking Julia around as Adam skidded his chair again, this time knocking it over and slamming his body behind it for protection.
Eric yelled, "Get down! Everyone get down!"
The frantic robber shook his gun in the air, giving Julia a split second to kick Eric's gun back toward him. Watching the gun slide across the floor, the robber grabbed at Julia, holding her tightly as he spun around to shoot at Adam and Eric. Adam ducked low, while Eric slid his body across the floor in a drop and roll, diving for the gun Julia had sent his way. It landed right on his trigger finger.