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The Lawman Next Door
Piper McKinney's got her hands full. Busy saving her farm from developers, and her family from trouble, she has no time for love. Not even for the handsome state trooper who becomes her new neighbor. But Zach Harrison can't ignore the girl next door. Even though he gave up the farming life years ago, Piper intrigues him, and her plight calls out to the protector in him. Piper may not want a man, especially one with a ...
The Lawman Next Door
Piper McKinney's got her hands full. Busy saving her farm from developers, and her family from trouble, she has no time for love. Not even for the handsome state trooper who becomes her new neighbor. But Zach Harrison can't ignore the girl next door. Even though he gave up the farming life years ago, Piper intrigues him, and her plight calls out to the protector in him. Piper may not want a man, especially one with a badge, but Zach will show her that he's here to serve and protect and love.
Kirkwood Lake: A town full of heart and hope.
"For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under the heavens."
Raised in the pews of a sweet country church, New York State Trooper Zach Harrison embraced the poetic lines of Ecclesiastes one hundred percent.
But it couldn't and shouldn't apply to constantly crowing roosters.
He refused to look at the dashboard temperature readout as he climbed out of his car. The trickle of sweat along his neck proved the meteorologists correct. Low nineties by noon, even here in the hills of Western New York.
He shut the driver's door and ignored the initial blast of mid-July heat. The best thing about working nights to help cover summer vacations was the cooler temperatures. The worst? Trying to sleep in the middle of the day in a new house, with his father pacing in the next room, the sun beating on the roof, no central air and the neighbor's rooster crowing on the quarter hour.
He couldn't change anything too major about the house. Not yet, anyway. The down payment, closing costs and lumber to replace the rotting backyard deck put a serious dent in his savings.
Three weeks ago his summer had stretched before him, filled with work on the force and his new home. One phone call had changed all that.
"Are you a real policeman?"
Zach turned, surprised, and a small part of his heart went soft in the space of a beat.
Two identical girls peered up at him from behind an aged catalpa tree. The twins were petite perfection, mirror images of each other. Pink and purple pigtail ribbons danced in the July wind, a breeze that did nothing to soften the hot, humid conditions. "Yes." He stooped low, knowing his size could intimidate, captivated by this unexpected pair of miniature greeters at the nearby farm. "I'm Trooper Zach."
"I'm Dorrie." The first girl beamed him a smile, open and broad, tiny white teeth a contrast to her latte skin beneath the purple pigtail ties. "And this is my sister, Sonya. We're five."
"Nice to meet you." Zach put out his hand and fought a wince as a rooster crowed again, the loud reason behind his late-morning call on his new neighbor. New chicken dishes filled his brain. Maybe something deep-fried for the bird that aggravated his father and interrupted Zach's midday attempts to sleep.
"Are you getting ice cream?" Dorrie wondered. She pointed to the line at the window of a converted barn. "Aunt Piper has the best ice cream anywhere."
"Grandma helps," interjected Sonya, obviously determined to give credit where due. She looked like her more assertive sister, but one finger twirled the pink ribbon tied around her left pigtail, the anxious action speaking louder than words.
"But not Uncle Chas," Dorrie added, determined to keep the record straight. "He hates this place. So does our mom. Uncle Colin, too."
"Doralia! Sonya! Where are you?"
Zach straightened, remembering his task, and it wasn't to fall in love with two kids who would cause their father plenty of worry once they turned into teenagers. "They're here."
A robust woman of similar coloring strode his way. She nodded thanks to him, then gave the girls an earful in a mix of English and Spanish with a hint of what might have been Native American thrown in for good measure. The girls dropped their chins, pretending penitence, but Zach knew they'd disappear again in an instant, given the chance.
That was the one thing he'd loved about being raised on a farm in Central New York. Freedom, once his work was done. Time to roam. Study nature. Hunt white-tailed deer come fall. Find birds of all sorts, tucked into nature's God-given homes. But it was the only thing he'd liked. The endless hours of farm work, day after day, dawn to dusk, confronting the weather, market prices and wind-borne disease?
Not so much. He liked his steady law enforcement paycheck, a promised pension, clear expectations and visible rewards. Bad guys got put away. Good guys stayed safe. It was a tangible world with measurable results, which suited him.
The girls hustled into the country-themed barn. Zach followed. His eyes took a moment to adjust to the change in lighting, but when they did, he was surprised.
The other buildings showed wear and tear no doubt caused by lack of money or time. Probably both. The Southern Tier of Western New York had fallen on hard times over a generation ago. Businesses closed, factories shut down, employment dropped to all-time lows.
But this barn glistened. Bright white coolers were located to his right, their glass doors immaculate despite the throng of people and busy hands. Inside the coolers, glass bottles formed military-straight lines. He moved closer, intrigued. Intrigue gave way to surprise as he read the labels. Whole milk 2 percent milk skimmed milk eggnog
Eggnog? In midsummer? Either these folks lived by a different calendar or they were way ahead of the game prepping for Christmas.
The rooster crowed again, the pitch and length of his practiced voice taunting Zach. Clearly the bird didn't realize Zach packed heat in the form of a lightweight Glock.
The twins buzzed past him, back toward the door, dragging a small brown-and-white goat between them. The creature needed a haircut, which reminded Zach he could use one himself. But the sight of them bound for fun touched a wistfulness inside him. Their presence instilled a warmth he didn't know existed five minutes ago.
"May I help you?"
His heart melted. It was an absurd reaction because he'd met a lot of pretty girls in his life, but the one watching him now with more than a hint of question and a bite of sass in her gaze, could have been cast in a country music video. Her trim T-shirt read Yes, I'm the Farmer. How Can I Help You? A faded Kirkwood Lake Central School ball cap was pulled down properly on her forehead, while a long reddish-brown ponytail swung from the hat's opening. Thin jeans, faded and worn, said she wasn't afraid to work for a living, and farm boots gave testament to the shirt's claim. A pair of work gloves poked haphazardly from her right hip pocket. Right-handed, then, most likely.
"Zach Harrison. I live "
"Piper McKinney." She stuck out her hand, then paused and withdrew it. "Oops, forgot. Cops don't like to shake hands. My bad."
She was right, but how did she know that? Some cops were fanatic about not shaking hands for various reasons. Zach wasn't one of them. He'd been on the force for eleven years and he'd defused many situations with a simple handshake. In this case? Shaking this particular hand couldn't be called a hardship.
He extended his hand. She waited two breaths, maybe three, then inhaled and touched her fingers to his. He gripped them gently, noting the work-worn surface of her skin.
"Piper?" A voice, ripe with question, interrupted the moment.
She withdrew her hand and turned. "Lucia. This is Trooper Harrison. He lives ?" She raised a brow again and made a face. "I have no idea where he lives because I never gave him the chance to say so. Sorry, Officer. This is my stepmother, Lucia McKinney."
Zach nodded politely. A hint of distrust marked the older woman's eyes. She swept his uniform a furtive glance, as if she'd had less-than-happy run-ins with police before. That would be something to think about later. "Nice to meet you, Mrs. McKinney."
"Lucia is fine," she told him. Her voice, a touch gruff, sounded work-worn. Zach understood that. Farms were life-draining occupations. He'd seen that firsthand, hence the pledge to work somewhere else. A pledge he'd kept from the day he graduated from the academy.
Lucia turned her attention toward Piper. She jutted her chin toward the back. "Chas is grumbling about the new pasteurizer."
"Of course he is." Piper offered a bright smile that stopped short of her eyes. The resignation in her gaze made Zach want to have a word or two with Chas . Whoever he was.
Her expression called to the protector in him. And while this woman's straight-on gaze said she needed little protection, something in her stature said otherwise.
Piper shifted her focus to Lucia. "Are the girls still in the back room or did they escape again?"
Zach waved toward the door. "That way. With a goat."
"Ach, those girls!" Lucia flapped her apron in Zach's general direction, as if it was his fault the two miscreants had performed another vanishing act. The college-age girl behind the counter took care of the next milk customer while Zach shifted his attention back to Piper.
Her expression defined the current chaos as normal. Zach wasn't sure if that was good or bad, especially where kids were involved, but he remembered some early escapades from his youth on the family farm. And he'd survived.
"Are you here on a case?" Piper interrupted his musings.
"Have we done something wrong? Maybe you need milk. Or eggs. Unless you're waiting for Ada Sammler's daily baking of bread? It should be arriving any minute."
He had no idea who Ada Sammler was, and while fresh bread sounded great, he wasn't about to store bread that would only go moldy in days because his busy schedule meant he wasn't around often enough to eat it. Even with his father there. Dad wasn't eating all that much. Another source of concern.
He simply wanted peace and quiet. The sooner the better. "It's the rooster," he said again. "Roosters," he repeated, stressing the plural.
She frowned, not understanding, and waved to a young family as they strode through the doors, then again to an aging couple. "Albert, don't think for a minute I'm letting you haul jugs of milk to the car on your own," she scolded, but her grin took the sting out of the reprimand. "You hang on to Edna so we don't have another broken hip on the prayer roster and we'll handle the bags, okay?"
The old man smiled, and the peaceful look on his aged face made Zach wish that kind of contentment for his father. But they'd have to find a way to redistribute a wagon-load of Marty Harrison's anger, and Zach had no clue how to do that. You there, God? I'm open to suggestions these days. Not nearly as stubborn as I used to be. If you've got any bits of wisdom to throw my way, I'm ready for them.
Piper pulled her attention back to him, and smiled as if what he had to say mattered. The smile almost made him forget his request, she was that engaging. Bright green eyes sparkled beneath thick brows, and her classic athletic look said she stayed in shape to do her job, not just to look good in a dress. Though Zach was pretty sure she'd look great in a dress.
Another rooster crow brought him back on track. "Him. Them." Zach waved a hand to the right. "I bought the house around the corner on Watkins Ridge, and I need the roosters to quiet down during the day when I'm sleeping."
She stared at him, then tried to hide a grin by coughing into her hand. "You want quiet roosters? There's a novelty."
"I've been working nights "
"Close your windows."
Brilliant idea, except for the extreme summer temperatures. "Too hot," he shot back.
"Get a fan. Install air-conditioning."
"A room air conditioner blocks sound. That's not safe.
And I've got hot-water baseboard heat, so installing central air would be crazy expensive."
She tapped a finger to her jaw, contemplating him. "Let me get this straight. You want the roosters to be quiet because you can hear them, but you don't want to install a room air conditioner to block the noise of the roosters because then you can't hear things. Right?"
Okay, it sounded preposterous put that way, but essentially, yes. He wanted to be able to hear a home invader, so the idea of a noisy air cooling unit wasn't on his list. But he didn't want to hear annoying birds that refused to respect his backward sleeping habits. "Kind of."
She threw him a bright smile that said "conversation over" and started to back away. "I've got a cutting of hay to bale and get pulled in before this afternoon's possible thunderstorm, so Zach—" she raised her index finger to her cap and tipped the brim in a gesture of respect "—I'm going to take what you said seriously right after I get in acres of forage, oversee the afternoon milking and pray this drought doesn't ruin an entire year's corn crop or I'll be feeding cows with nonexistent funds. I'll be doing that while keeping two little girls alive although they seem determined to tempt fate, running a busy dairy store, and keeping a neat and tidy farmhouse. I may or may not be lying about that last one." She turned and strode away, but not without one more parting shot. "Sleep well."
Grudging respect rivaled frustration for his sleep-deprived emotions. He had sounded somewhat absurd, and she wasn't afraid to call him on it. And the teasing grin she sent over her shoulder as she walked away was a look that said she'd be looking forward to "round two."
That was enough to make him eager, too. Right until the roosters let loose again, reminding him that in nine short hours he'd be back at work. He'd really like to spend half a dozen of that sleeping.
Piper dragged herself into the house just before nine that night. Lucia rose from a side chair as Piper slipped through the back screen door. She bustled to the kitchen, a fast-moving woman despite her wide girth. "You go wash. I'll warm supper."
"I can handle it, Luce. Sit down. Relax. You work every bit as hard as I do. I don't need you to wait on me."
"I'm older and bossier," the middle-aged woman shot back. "Therefore I give orders in the house. You give them on the farm." She lifted her shoulders in a gesture of agreement. "And we share bossing people in the store and the dairy. It works, no?"
Piper climbed the creaky stairs. The thought of fresh-smelling cotton pajamas called to her, but first she peeked at the girls.
Dorrie and Sonya shared one bed despite efforts to separate them. With no father in their lives, and their mother's abandonment nearly three years ago, the girls clung to each other. They would enter kindergarten this fall, in separate classrooms, and Piper and Lucia had wrestled with that decision for weeks.
Was it right to split them up? Would it instigate more trauma? Could they handle being apart?