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Sheriff Carson Winters hustled down the boardwalk of Moonlight Cove, his gut clenched, the peace of his day shattered.
What kind of trouble had Heidi landed herself in now?
They'd only been in town a few weeks, and already his daughter had been called into the principal's office for talking back to her science teacher and skipping class.
Despite being grounded for both incidents, Heidi was still definitely acting out, and frankly, he was beyond worried. Being almost thirteen was difficult for almost every kid; add to that the stress Heidi had been through in the past two years and you basically had a single dad's nightmare in the form of one upset, rebellious preteen.
Squinting, he adjusted the brim of his campaign-style sheriff's hat, glad the May rain had stopped for a bit and that the sun was peeking out today. Being from Seattle, he was used to the Washington state weather, but always had had enough of the drizzle around this time of year.
The woman who'd called himsomeone he hadn't met yet named Phoebe Sellers from I Scream for Ice Cream on Main Streethad merely said she needed to talk to him about his daughter. For Heidi's sake, he hoped that whatever she'd done wasn't too serious; the last thing she needed was more difficulties heaped on top of having to deal with her mother's abandonment and her brother's death. CJ, his boy
Grief welled up, sharp and searing, taking Carson's breath away. With swift precision he shoved the agonizing memories of his son into their hole.
Instead, he focused on finding the ice cream store. He walked another half block past the planters filled with colorful flowers dotting the boardwalk, then he spotted the small storefront across the street and down a block, sandwiched in between a kite shop and an art gallery.
He headed to the next corner and crossed, then made a left. He looked around as he walked, taking in the quaint storefronts lining the boardwalk and the wooden benches placed here and there for those wanting to leisurely enjoy a treat from the bakery, candy store or ice cream parlor.
As he passed an alleyway separating two buildings, the cool, sea-scented breeze washed over him, carrying the echo of the ocean pounding a block away.
The tight muscles in his neck relaxed a bit, and a bit of his stress eased, confirming that he'd made the right decision by moving here. Moonlight Cove had just the kind of tranquility he'd craved for himself and Heidi since that awful day CJ had died and their world exploded.
As Carson drew near his destination, he tipped his hat to a group of elderly tourist couples wearing matching rain slickers coming out of the art gallery. They greeted him with smiles and respectful nods, and as always, a sense of pride filled him; he was glad he'd followed in his father's footsteps and had gone into law enforcement.
As he opened the brightly painted door of I Scream for Ice Cream and stepped inside, bells rang over his head, announcing his arrival. He immediately smelled the scent of waffle cones and his mouth watered on cue. Guess he should have had more than coffee for breakfast. His appetite just hadn't been the same since CJ died.
The parlor was decorated in shades of green and hot-pink, and had a long counter with swiveling stools along the front wall. The soda-fountain area sat behind the counter, and five or six white tables were arranged in the middle of the place. The wall to the left housed shelves that held bins filled with candy of every kind. A literal dentist's nightmare.
At the moment, the place was empty, which he was grateful for; he'd rather deal with Heidi's trouble without witnesses. Moonlight Cove was their new home, and Heidi needed a clean slate as much as he did.
Just as he hit the middle of the store, a pretty woman with long, curly blond hair stepped out from the back. She stopped in her tracks when she saw him, hesitating for a moment.
She wore a pink shirt with a lime-green apron embroidered with the name of the shop across the front and jeans that showed off her trim yet curvy figure. She looked to be a bit younger than his own age of thirty-two.
"You must be Sheriff Winters," she said, tipping her head slightly to the side.
"Yes. Carson Winters." Moving toward her, he extended his hand. "Guess the uniform gave me away."
She smiled, showing cute dimples on both cheeks, then took his hand. "Yes, the uniform definitely makes an announcement. I'm Phoebe Sellers, the owner, by the way."
He tried to ignore those fascinating dimples. "I figured that. The uniform gives you away, too." He flicked a finger at her pink shirt and lime-green apron. He noted she was tall for a womanfive-eight, at leastand she had clear blue eyes, a smooth, fair complexion and an appealing fan of freckles across her nose.
She laughed, then moved back a little. "I'm sure you're wondering why I called."
"You would be right." Unfortunately.
Phoebe stepped behind the counter and picked up a cloth, then shoved it into the pocket on her apron.
Observant out of habit, he noticed she wore no wedding ring.
"There's really no way of sugarcoating this " she said.
Carson nodded curtly, preparing for the worst. "No need to." As a lawman, he was used to handling the ugly truth. Although hearing about his own daughter's trouble well, not much prepared a father for that.
"Okay," Phoebe said. "The truth is, I caught your daughter shoplifting earlier today."
His stomach pitched. Theft. "Oh, no." No small thing; technically, Phoebe could press charges against Heidi, and things would go downhill from there, fast.
He looked up at the ceiling and dragged in a huge breath, then settled his steady gaze on Phoebe. "What happened?" he asked with deceptive calm, knowing that Heidi had ditched Mrs. Philpot.
"She came in with a few friends and hung around over there by the candy. I thought I spotted her swipe something, so when they left without paying or ordering, I politely asked her to show me the contents of her coat pocket." Phoebe nodded to a pile of candy on the counter. "That's the contraband over there."
He looked to where she'd pointed. Saltwater taffy. Heidi didn't even like the stuff. Said it was gross and stuck in her teeth.
Phoebe continued on. "I got her to give me your name and number, and I told her I'd be calling you. I also suggested she might want to head home right away."
"Thank you." He pulled out his cell phone. "Let me call the babysitter and be sure Heidi's back home."
He called and Mrs. Philpot answered. Carson told her what Heidi had done, and an obviously stunned Mrs. Philpot told him, yes, Heidi was there, and, no, she wasn't aware Heidi had left.
Carson breathed a sigh of relief that his daughter was safe and sound, which was tinged by exasperation at what she'd done. Before they hung up, Mrs. Philpot apologized profusely for letting Heidi slip outand back inunder the radar. Carson eased her mind, telling her that a devious preteen bent on sneaking out could dodge just about anyone.
He said goodbye and disconnected, then turned his attention back to Phoebe, who'd busied herself scooping ice cream for a family of four who'd come in while he'd been on the phone.
"I am so sorry," he said to Phoebe when the customers had left. "Heidi well, she's been acting out a bit lately, doing dumb stuff."
Phoebe regarded him steadily for a moment. "You guys are new in town, right?"
"Yep. We arrived a few weeks ago."
"Heidi said her friends dared her to steal something, and I got the notion that she was trying to impress them."
"I'm sure she was." He shook his head, his jaw tight. "But that's no excuse for shoplifting, and I've raised her to know the difference between right and wrong."
Carson paused and then forced himself to say, "Do you want to press charges?" He reached into his utility belt and pulled out his pen and notepad. "You have every right to." And that didn't bode well for Heidi. Great.
Phoebe pulled in her chin. "Oh, goodness, no," she said, shaking her head. "That's not why I called you."
Relief wound its way through Carson and his shoulders relaxed a bit. "What would you like to do?"
"I'm willing to cut Heidi some slack because I actually felt a bit sorry for her."
Carson's hackles raised. How much did Phoebe know about him and Heidi, anyway? Had the whole town been talking about their history? How his son had been killed and how Carson's wife had cut out? The thought of being the subject of rampant gossip really rubbed him the wrong way. That's one of the reasons he'd he'd wanted a fresh start in Moonlight Cove.
Despite his thoughts, he managed to give Phoebe the benefit of the doubt. "Because?" he asked in what he hoped was a mildly inquisitive rather than defensive tone.
"It's just I think it must be hard to be the new kid on the block," she explained. "Especially in a small town where a lot of kids have grown up together."
Carson breathed a sigh of relief; it was good to know Phoebe wasn't feeling sorry for Heidi because they'd been fodder for idle town gossip. He also had to admit he was thankful she wasn't going to grill him about what had brought them to town. Talking about CJ's death and Susan's desertion not happening right now.
He studied Phoebe's pretty blue eyes again, but found no hint of pity. "The move has been hard on Heidi," he replied. Especially following on the heels of so many other traumatic events. She'd had to handle more than any twelve-year-old should in her short life. But wrong was wrong. Period. No excuses.
Shifting so that the heavy leather of his belt and holster creaked, he nodded toward the pile of taffy. "While I appreciate your compassion, what she did was wrong, and I insist she pay you back somehow," Carson said.
Phoebe smiled. "It's just candy, and I got it all back. Payment isn't necessary."
Setting his jaw, he said, "I think it is." He looked around. "Maybe she could do some chores around here for the next week or so."
"I don't know "
"I insist," he said, holding up a hand. "Really. It's not a good idea to let this behavior slide by. She did the crime, she needs to do the time."
Phoebe inclined her head to the side in obvious capitulation. "Okay, then have her come by one day this week after school and I'm sure I can find something for her to do."
"I will. And I'd appreciate it if you could give her some kind of less-than-pleasant chore, like dishes or cleaning bathrooms."
"Spoken like a true parent," Phoebe said, showing those dimples again.
"You've got that right," he replied. Although sometimes, when Heidi rolled her eyes at him, he felt like the most clueless dad alive. "She needs to learn that choices have consequences. She hates any kind of cleaning, so that makes the most sense in my mind."
"And feel free to make her sentence last awhile. I really want her to know she messed up royally." Despite what Heidi had been through, it was important his daughter grow up with boundaries.
"I'll keep that in mind," Phoebe said. "Why don't we say she'll work for me starting this week, and maybe on Saturday, too. All right?"
"Sounds good," Carson said, really liking the way Phoebe had approached the situation. She was obviously a softhearted, sensible woman. "I'll stop by with her after school tomorrow so you two can meet under better circumstances, then she can start on Wednesday." And he'd be sure Heidi apologized. Profusely. After the fact was better than never, in his book.
"Okay. I'll be here all day."
He adjusted his hat. "Thank you for calling me about this."
"You're welcome," she replied with a smile. "I'm not a parent, but if I were, I'd want to know if my kid tried to steal something."
"I do want to know. Being a parent is about the good, the bad and the ugly." Too bad he and Heidi had more than their share of ugly lately.
"Well, it sounds like you're doing all the right things," Phoebe said.
He wasn't so sure; he felt as if he had been thrust into a pitch-black room with no flashlight, only to be told he had to put a complicated puzzle together. Being a single dad was daunting. "Thanks," he said. "And again, thanks for calling me."
Bells over the door jingled, and a customer walked in, interrupting their conversation.
Phoebe looked to the front of the store. "Hey, Molly," she said, waving.
Carson turned and saw a petite redhead heading toward them.
The newcomer waved. "Hey, Phoebs."
As Molly drew closer, her gaze ping-ponged between him and Phoebe. Then Molly's mouth curved into what looked like a sneaky smile. He had to be imagining that devious grin.
For Heidi's sake, Carson hoped Phoebe would keep mum about what his daughter had done.
Phoebe narrowed her eyes and stared at Molly for just a second. "I'm talking to Sheriff Winters here." She looked at him. "Have you met Molly Kent yet?"
"Nope, sure haven't."
"Sheriff Winters, Molly Kent," Phoebe said. "Molly owns Bow Wow Boutique down the street." He shook hands with Molly.
"He stopped by for some ice cream," Phoebe said casually, turning her attention to him. "What'll it be, Sheriff?"
Grateful for Phoebe's discretion, and feeling remarkably hungry now that the waffle-cone smell had done a number on him, he said, "How about a scoop of Rocky Road? It's my favorite."
Phoebe nodded, smacking her lips. "Mine, too. Good choice."
She went behind the counter, grabbed a cone and then started scooping.
"So, you're replacing Sheriff Billings, right?" Molly asked.
"That's right." Gerard Billings, an old friend of Carson's dad, had been sheriff here in Moonlight Cove for over thirty years and had taken his pension and retired to Arizona just a month ago.
Molly sat on one of the swiveling stools by the counter. "The town was sad to see him go after so long."
"I know. I have some big shoes to fill."
"What made you want to come to Moonlight Cove?" Molly asked.
Thank goodness he had a decent cover story. Just as long as people didn't ask too many whys. "My cousin, Lily Rogers, lives here, and I liked the thought of being near family." Although anywhere that wasn't Seattle probably would have been fine with him. Too many heartbreaking memories there.
"Oh, I hadn't heard you were related to Lily. I know her from the local church's singles' group, which I attended before I got engaged," Molly said. Her gaze made a trip to his ring finger. "Maybe you should go sometime, meet a few other singles.?"