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Four cartons of crayons, a ream of construction paper, ten glue sticks and a dozen boxes of tissues. Portia Perez smiled to herself as she pulled up in front of the discount store.
Her best friend Layla West would think it was pathetic that Portia's shopping list didn't include a pair of three-inch red heels and something skimpy and sparkly, but Layla had never spent eight hours a day entertaining twelve little kids.
As the owner and operator of Portia's Playpen, a day-care facility, Portia would much rather have enough crayons and glue sticks than shiny high heels any day.
As she got out of her car, the hot, early-morning August air felt like a slap in her face. There were times she didn't think the sun shone any brighter in any other town on earth than it did in August in Black Rock, Kansas.
The concrete pavement beneath her sandals already radiated with heat and she reminded herself to add a couple of tubes of sunscreen to her shopping list.
She was almost to the store when she saw the first flyer. It hung on a light pole and as she glanced at it she froze. Her own face stared back at her.
"What the heck?" She moved closer to read it and as she did her heart banged hard in her chest and all her breath whooshed out of her body. Portia Perez—Baby Beater and Child Abuser. If You Love Your Kids, Don't Use Her Day Care. The words swam before her eyes, for a moment making her nauseated.
She yanked it from the pole and then looked down Main Street, stunned to see more flyers on other poles. Shopping forgotten, she hurried down the street, taking down the flyers as she fought against the angry tears that threatened to erupt.
Who would do this to her? Who would be so cruel? This wasn't just cruel; it was criminal. Somebody was trying to destroy her business, her very livelihood.
It took her fifteen minutes to take down all the flyers she saw in the immediate area. She held them in a trembling hand and stared across the street at the sheriff's office.
She needed to report this. It was slander at its worst. Surely Sheriff Tom Grayson would do something, find the person responsible.
Who could be behind this? Her head whirled as she marched across the street and into the sheriff's office. The minute she opened the door and stepped inside the tension that already coiled tightly in her stomach increased as she saw who sat behind one of the desks.
Deputy Caleb Grayson.
For almost ten years of her life Portia had gone out of her way to avoid any real interaction with the man. In a town the size of Black Rock they'd had occasions to run into each other, but any conversation had been polite and impersonal.
It amazed her that after all these years just the sight of him created a faint twinge in her heart. But she couldn't think about that now. She had more important things on her mind than an old heartbreak.
"Portia," he said in obvious surprise and stood from the desk.
"Is Tom in?" she asked.
"No, it's his day off. What's up?" He stepped closer to her, close enough that she could smell the scent of his cologne, a familiar scent that would always remind her of high school prom and things she'd never wanted to think about again.
"This is what's up…up all over town." She handed him one of the flyers.
He frowned as he read it aloud. "Portia Perez neglects and abuses your children that you put in her care. Portia's Playpen is a place of pain for little ones without a voice. Don't let this woman watch your kids." He whistled low beneath his breath and looked at her once again. "You've apparently made somebody very mad."
"You have to do something," she exclaimed. "They're everywhere, each one more slanderous than the next."
"Did you see who posted them?" he asked.
"No, but it's…it's all lies." Once again she felt the pressure of tears welling up, but the last person in the world she would cry in front of was Caleb Grayson. "I want whoever did this arrested."
"Unfortunately this is more of a civil matter than a criminal one," he replied. "I'll ask around, see if anyone saw somebody putting them up, but there's really nothing more I can do."
It wasn't what she wanted to hear. In fact his apparent lackadaisical attitude about the whole thing irritated her. She wanted him outraged on her behalf. She wanted him out beating the streets to find the guilty and she wanted that person lynched at high noon in the hot sun.
More than anything she wished Caleb wasn't so darned handsome. She wished that his shirt didn't stretch so neatly over his broad shoulders, that his slacks didn't hug the length of his long legs and that that lock of his dark brown hair on his forehead didn't look as if it were begging for female fingers to gently push it back into place.
"You'll call me if you find out who did this?" she asked curtly.
"Yeah, but I wouldn't wait by the phone if I were you. These were probably put up sometime in the middle of the night and I doubt that anyone saw who hung them."
"So that's it?" she asked, not attempting to mask her anger.
Caleb shrugged. "Sorry, there's not much else I can give you."
Portia whirled around on her heel and left the office without another word. Still stunned by the flyers, irritated that she had to have any dealings with Caleb Grayson, she stalked across the street and down the block to Black Rock Realty.
Even though it was early, Layla would be in and Portia needed to talk to somebody who would be properly outraged and lend support. Her best friend since childhood would do just that.
As she entered the office Layla looked up from her desk with a smile. "Hey, girl, what are you doing in town so early? Most Saturdays you aren't even dressed until noon."
"I came to pick up some supplies. Take a look at these." Portia threw the flyers on the desk then flopped down in the chair facing her friend.
Layla scanned a flyer then looked up at Portia, her green eyes wide. "Where did you get these?"
"They were taped to light poles around the discount store."
Layla looked back at the piece of paper in her hand. "But who would do something like this? Have you had a fight with any of the kids' parents?"
"No, nothing like that. I can't think of anyone who would have a reason to put them up."
"What are you going to do about it?"
"I already did it. I marched myself into the sheriff's office."
"What did Tom say?" Layla twisted a strand of her long blond hair between two fingers.
Portia frowned. "Tom wasn't in. I had to talk to Caleb."
Layla raised a perfectly formed blond eyebrow. "And how did that go?"
"He told me it was a civil matter, not a criminal one. I think he just didn't want to be bothered with the whole thing. He probably couldn't work my crime into his busy schedule."
Layla smiled at her knowingly. "Now that wouldn't be a little ancient history aggression coming into play, would it? "
"Don't be ridiculous, I don't harbor any ill will toward Caleb. What happened between us happened a long time ago. I've certainly moved on since then."
"Yeah, right, and I'm going to be six feet tall when I wake up in the morning," Layla replied dryly. "Admit it, you've carried a torch for Caleb Grayson ever since high school."
"That's the most outrageous thing you've ever said," Portia exclaimed.
"Really?" Layla dropped the strand of hair she'd been twisting. "You think it was more outrageous than that time I told you I had sex with Ralph Davidson in the front of his pickup and my hip bumped the shift knob so we ended up in his pond?"
Portia laughed, which she knew had been Layla's intention all along. "You're crazy," she said.
"And that's why you love me." Layla leaned forward and covered one of Portia's hands with hers. "Don't worry about the flyer nonsense. Everyone in town knows those kids at your day care are your life and you'd never do anything bad to any of them."
"I hope you're right," Portia said.
Layla grinned. "Of course I'm right. I'm always right. Now get out of here. Go buy your supplies. I have a client due to arrive any minute and I'm hoping to schmooze him into buying the old Miller property."
"That old dump?" Portia said as she stood.
Layla grinned. "By the time I finish with my sales pitch my client will think it's Buckingham Palace."
Portia was still smiling as she left the realty. Layla was always good for cheering her up no matter what the circumstances.
Of course, that whole thing about Caleb and a torch was utterly ridiculous. If she had a torch and Caleb came too close to her, he'd definitely get burned. She'd given him not one, but two chances years ago, and he'd blown them both.
"Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," she muttered as she headed to the store to pick up her supplies.
Caleb Grayson was as much a part of her past as teenage blemishes and pep rallies. She'd outgrown all of them, most of all the very hot, handsome Deputy Caleb Grayson.
He dreamed about her Sunday night. A wild, hot dream that combined part past and part fantasy and woke him with a yearning he hadn't felt in years.
Caleb Grayson pulled himself out of bed Monday morning, irritated that Portia Perez had invaded his sleep in any way, shape or form. Minutes later, as he stepped into his shower, he tried to shove thoughts of her out of his head, but they kept coming.
She'd been his first love and he'd never loved like that again. A year ago he'd thought he'd finally found love with Laura Kincaid, but that had ended so badly he still felt a burn of anger when he thought of her. A swell of grief threatened to sweep over him, but he consciously shoved it away and instead focused back on Portia and her current problem.
The flyers had been a nasty piece of business, but he'd spent most of the morning on Saturday asking around to see if anyone had seen who'd posted them and as he'd suspected, nobody had a clue who might be responsible. There wasn't much else he could do about the situation.
Stop thinking about her, he commanded himself as he got dressed in his khaki uniform. Besides, all the Grayson men had more important things on their minds than ugly flyers hung around town.
Their sister, Brittany, had been missing for almost five weeks. Caleb strapped on his gun and grabbed his keys from the kitchen table and tried to still the thundering in his chest that began whenever he thought of his younger sister.
She'd disappeared the week of the sixth anniversary of their parents' death and for the first two weeks or so Caleb and his brothers Tom, Benjamin and Jacob had just assumed she'd gone off alone to get through the difficult anniversary. But too much time had gone by without any of them hearing from her.
His brother Tom, the sheriff of Black Rock, had been doing what he could to find some answers. He'd issued a BOLO alert on her vehicle and was monitoring her bank account and credit cards. There had been no sign of her car anywhere but what was more troubling was that her accounts hadn't been touched since the day of her disappearance.
This wasn't the first time Brittany had disappeared, but before it had always been only for a few days, a week at the most, then she'd turn up with explanations and apologies.
Caleb knew all his brothers felt the same as he did, that they didn't care about apologies or explanations; they just wanted to know that she was okay.
He got into his car and headed for the office. Caleb lived in a small rental house in the heart of the small town of Black Rock. He'd moved there seven years ago from the family ranch when he'd gotten the job as deputy when he turned twenty-one.
Law enforcement in Black Rock was definitely a family affair. Tom was the sheriff, and Caleb, his brother Benjamin and his sister, Brittany, were deputies. His brother Jacob had been an FBI agent, but had returned home almost two months ago and shut himself up in a small cottage on the ranch property.
He refused to talk about what had brought him home and didn't want anyone except family to know he was there. It was bad enough when Caleb just had Jacob to worry about, but now he had Brittany, as well.
No wonder he couldn't get Portia out of his head.