From the Publisher
DEVEREAUX’S DIME STORE MYSTERIES
Also by Denise Swanson
Attendance at the Saturday Night Prayer Circle was at an all-time high, and despite our group’s nickname, it wasn’t because any of us had suddenly gotten religion. We met to gripe about our problems, and although an occasional Hail Mary might be muttered under our breath, no one brought rosary beads or dropped to their knees—unless they fell off their stiletto heels.
“I’m sitting right in front of you, Winnie,” I grumbled. “What’s with this roll call crap anyway?”
“You’ll see.” She smiled mysteriously. “It’s a surprise.”
I generally found Winnie Todd amusing, but for various reasons, not the least of which was my messed-up love life, I was in a bad mood tonight. I probably should have stayed home, but the chance to avoid my grandmother’s questions along with the lure of alcohol had overcome my better judgment.
The fishbowl-size margaritas and endless bottles of wine that appeared miraculously in front of us whenever our glasses came close to being empty eased a lot of our group’s woes. The prompt service could be due to the large tips we always left, but more likely it was because my best friend and fellow circle member, Poppy Kincaid, owned the joint.
Her nightclub, Gossip Central, was the most popular watering hole in Shadow Bend, Missouri—population four thousand twenty-eight. Strictly speaking, Poppy’s place wasn’t inside the city limits; it was a quarter mile across the line. Although I had never asked her about it, my guess was that she had deliberately chosen a location just outside her police chief father’s jurisdiction.
No grown woman wanted her daddy showing up every time the authorities were called to break up a fight at her bar—especially since Poppy wasn’t on speaking terms with her dad. In fact, Poppy’s issues with her father were one of the main reasons she was a member of our little underground society.
My motives for participating went by the names Deputy U.S. Marshal Jake Del Vecchio and Dr. Noah Underwood—two smoking-hot guys who claimed to be interested in me, but who tended to disappear from my life at regular intervals. True, I was having a hard time deciding which guy I really loved, and thus was seeing them both. But seriously, if either of them cared for me as much as they said they did, wouldn’t they be spending more time in my company than at their jobs? I mean, I understood long hours and hard work, but it had been weeks since I’d had a date with either man.
I mentally slapped myself. I had vowed not to think about Jake—or Noah—tonight or my dilemma in trying to figure out which one was the right man for me. Instead, I was going to enjoy being with my friends and maybe even figuring out how to keep my dime store in the black for another quarter. Besides wanting to partake in a glass or three of wine, and the chance to dodge my grandmother’s curiosity about my love life, my presence at the Saturday Night Prayer Circle was largely due to the text from Ronni Ksiazak saying that during the gathering, she planned to present an idea of how to bring tourists into Shadow Bend.
Tourists meant cash. And extra cash was something that I was sure that nearly everyone attending the evening’s meeting could use. Ronni needed to fill her huge old Italianate-style Victorian bed-and-breakfast with paying guests if she was going to repay the loan that her family had given her to buy and renovate the place. Poppy had a serious fashion addiction to support, and Winnie was continuously fund-raising for various charities that constantly had their hands out for additional donations.
Although I didn’t know the fifth woman seated across the cocktail table, I was fairly certain she wouldn’t object to making a little spare change on the side, either. Harlee Ames was thirty-seven, eight years older than I was, and had only recently returned to town after spending the last twenty years in the service. She’d moved home a few months ago and opened Forever Used, an upscale consignment shop aimed at Shadow Bend’s affluent new arrivals.
Our community’s population consisted of the locals—mostly farmers, ranchers, and factory workers who had lived in or around the town all their lives—and transplants from Kansas City who had relocated to the area for the fresh air and the cheap land. A huge chasm separated the two groups, and I worried that Harlee’s store would widen the gap between the haves and have-nots all the more. Even secondhand, the designer clothing and accessories her shop specialized in cost more than a lot of the original Shadow Benders earned in a week.
But I couldn’t put my finger on whether that was what bothered me about Harlee, or if it was something else. As I mused about my reaction to our group’s newest member, Ronni brought our gathering to order.
Raising her drink, the B & B owner said, “Here’s to the Saturday Sisterhood. May we all make a lot of moola.” Ronni was nearly as driven and competitive as I was, so I wasn’t surprised when she added, “And may we also leave our male competitors in the dust.”
“Hear, hear!” Winnie Todd clanked her wineglass with mine. “Ronni’s idea will put my cooking school on the map. Especially since she’s arranged media coverage.”
Ah, that was why Winnie was playing teacher. She was opening a cooking school. Considering that she had come of age in the sixties, and was rumored to be growing pot in her basement, I wondered if her specialty would be “magic” brownies. Maybe the weed was for her culinary classes rather than for her personal consumption.
Certainly, Winnie’s wardrobe looked as if she were living in Haight-Ashbury. Tonight she had on a white vinyl minidress with a cutout midriff. The metal chains that fastened the bodice to the skirt rattled every time she took a deep breath. It was like sitting next to the ghost of Psychedelic Christmas Past.
“How many of you know who Kizzy Cutler is?” Ronni asked, breaking into my musings about Winnie’s fashion choice.
The name sounded familiar, but a face didn’t immediately come to my mind. Poppy was silent, and Winnie had a similarly puzzled expression, as if she, too, was trying to dredge up an elusive memory. Harlee was the only one who spoke up.
“Kizzy was in my class in high school. Why?”
“She lives in Chicago now and she owns the übersuccessful Kizzy Cutler’s Cupcakes,” Ronni explained. “She was a client of the advertising firm I used to work for and I was a part of the team that handled her account. She’s the one who first told me about Shadow Bend.” Ronni took a swallow of her martini. “Kizzy always spoke so fondly of her hometown that when I decided I’d had enough of city life, I took a look at what was available here.”
“I always wondered how you ended up in our little burg,” Poppy commented.
“Me, too,” I said, sipping my wine. I loved Shadow Bend, but was curious why someone without any friends or relatives here had chosen to relocate and open a business in our small community. Ronni didn’t seem the type to have moved for the open spaces or the air quality.
“Seems like a lot of people end up here for various reasons.” Winnie winked at me. “Like your hunky marshal.”
Grrr! I forced a smile. Winnie was harmless, and I didn’t want to snap at her a second time tonight, but I had just started to relax and now that she mentioned Jake, the conversation he and I had had that afternoon popped into my mind. I’d been so happy to see his picture on my cell phone’s screen. Contact with him when he was on the job was sporadic at best, and his current case—tracking down a serial killer in St. Louis called the Doll Maker who had kidnapped Jake’s ex-wife, Meg—was even more intense than his usual assignments. Too bad his news hadn’t been what I was hoping to hear. Instead of reporting that his team was making progress in finding Meg, Jake had said that the Doll Maker was still running him around with promises and threats.
Ronni interrupted my brooding. “Kizzy and I still keep in touch, and when she mentioned that she was starting a new themed cupcake line called the Flavors of Your Life, I suggested that she should kick it off with a contest to find the most original cupcake flavor. I recommended that because she currently distributes in the Midwest and South, the competition should be limited to those regions, and—”
“And Kizzy agreed to hold the final rounds of baking and judging here in Shadow Bend!” Winnie shouted.
Ronni shot Winnie an exasperated look, clearly unhappy that the older woman had blurted out the news before she could make the announcement. Then she gave a tiny shrug and said, “I told Kizzy I could provide accommodations for the judges and media at my B and B, and that the contestants can stay at the Cattlemen’s Motel.” Ronni consulted her notes. “We can use Winnie’s cooking school for the actual baking and I thought that Poppy could handle the evening entertainment here at Gossip Central.”
“Sure.” Poppy’s expression turned serious as she grabbed a pen from her pocket and started scribbling on a paper napkin. “How many people and what kinds of events are we talking about?”
“There are ten finalists, three judges, and the Dessert Channel has said they’d be interested in covering the contest, so we’d need to include whatever crew they send. Plus Kizzy, her partner, and her executive assistant.” Ronni ticked the attendees off on her fingers. “And if we get the buzz we hope for, there should be lots of day-trippers here to join in the fun, so we want to keep it family-friendly.”
“Isn’t this the coolest thing you’ve ever heard of?” Winnie did a little go-go dance in her white patent leather knee-high boots. “I just wish my facility was larger. I can accommodate the ten bakers and the television crew, but there won’t be room for observers.” She frowned, then brightened. “Oh, well. The universe must have a reason, which will be revealed at the proper time.”
Ronni turned to me. “Because of the cooking school’s limitations, we need your place, Dev. Kizzy is willing to rent the area above Devereaux’s Dime Store and pay to have it cleaned and decorated so we can display the cupcakes and do the two rounds of judging there.”
“I see,” I said, wondering how intrusive the competition would be on my regulars. The contest people would have to march through the store to get to the flight of stairs leading to the second story. “I’m not sure my top floor will work for what you have in mind. It’s three offices with tiny reception areas—not one big room.” I hadn’t been able to figure out a good retail use of the space, so I’d kept it intact, hoping I could rent it out to an insurance agent or Realtor. So far, there hadn’t been any takers.
“Hmm. We can look into removing the walls.” Ronni took her iPad from her tote bag, brushed her finger over the screen, then said, “Or we could use the offices for the judging and maybe a lounge area. And we could have the big reception and award ceremony in your actual store on Sunday since you’re closed that day anyway.”
“That might work,” I agreed, visions of rent money and new shoppers running through my head. “Removing a couple of the walls would be okay with me, too.” With that area cleared, I could put merchandise up there. Maybe stock a whole new kind of product.
“Good. If we make the second-story space larger, you’ll be able to extend your store’s hours and open up on Sunday to take advantage of last-minute customers.” Ronni turned to Harlee and said, “Since the majority of people interested in a cupcake contest will probably be women, we thought one of the additional activities could be a fashion show. Would you be up for that?”
“Definitely.” Harlee pursed her lips. “I’ll need to find models, but that shouldn’t be too tough. I can put an ad in the local paper.”
“When will the contest take place?” I asked. It was already the beginning of June and I wondered if this would be a fall or winter event.
“The July Fourth weekend.” Ronni didn’t look up from her iPad.
“But that’s not even a month away!” I yelped, then checked my math. Yep. Less than four weeks. “How are we going to be ready in time?”
“No problem.” Ronni grinned. “I’ve got the workers lined up to start on your second floor whenever you give them the go-ahead. The PR campaign is ready, and the preliminary rounds of the competition have already started.”
Ronni tossed a contract into my lap, and as I flipped through the multipage document, I heard a strident voice from the stairs yell, “Devereaux Sinclair, don’t tell me you’re alone on a Saturday night.”
Gossip Central had started out life as a cattle barn, and when Poppy remodeled the building, she’d decorated it to reflect its origins. The center area contained the stage, dance floor, and bar, and off to the sides, the stalls formed secluded lounges, each with its own individually themed decor. We were in the Hayloft, the second-story space reserved for private parties, but this didn’t stop my archenemy, Gwen Bourne, from marching uninvited up the steps and zeroing her malevolent gaze on me.
Gwen had quite a crush on Noah, and that he preferred to date me, someone she considered inferior in both looks and social status, drove Gwen bat-shit crazy. I could have told her that even if I was out of the picture, she wouldn’t have a chance in hell with the handsome doctor. The problem wasn’t that she was a few years older than he was; it was that she was too much like his mother—a high-maintenance snob.
“I’m hardly alone.” I swept my arm around the group. “Oh, that’s right. You don’t consider other women people, do you? To you they’re just rivals.”
“Gwen.” Poppy slid from her stool and took the intruder’s arm. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to go back down to the bar. You know the Hayloft is a restricted area.”
“What’s the big secret?” Gwen narrowed her color-contact-lens-enhanced blue eyes. “Are you witches stirring up trouble in your cauldron?”
The witch reference was Gwen’s favorite metaphor when attacking me—although generally, she pronounced the b instead of the w—so going along with her theme, I said, “Yes, we are. We’re brewing up love potions, and from what I hear about your lack of beaux, perhaps you’d like to put in an order.”
“You little—” Gwen interrupted herself, then smiled spitefully. “But of course you really aren’t little, are you? Have you gone up a size . . . or two since the last time I saw you? Not that you were ever exactly slim. What did my cousin tell me they use to call you in high school? Stay Puft Marshmallow Girl, wasn’t it?”
Her cruel words took me back thirteen years to the end of my sophomore year. I’d always been a size 12—and sometimes a 14—in a size 2 world, but until my family went from prosperous and respected to poor and humble, that hadn’t bothered me and no one had teased me about my weight. However, once my family’s circumstances changed, the mean girls had sensed weakness and descended on me like vampires on the last bag of plasma in the blood bank. That was one of the problems with living in the same town you had grown up in—there was no hiding from your past.
Coming back to the present, I gathered my wits and retorted, “You’re right, Gwen.” I ran my hands down my hips. “I’ve always been on the curvy side. Then again, the men in this town seem to prefer rounded to scrawny.” I put a suggestive purr into my voice. “At least Jake and Noah seem to.”
Gwen’s plastic-surgery-smoothed face turned an unbecoming shade of magenta. It was always dangerous to stand up to someone like her, someone who thought she was better than the rest of us. She’d never been one to be able to handle what she dished out, and even as she snatched a half-full bottle of wine from the table and swung it at my head, I knew she was plotting an even worse retaliation.
As I tried to scramble out of Gwen’s reach, Harlee leaped from the couch, and before I could blink, she had the Botoxed brunette flat on the floor. I’d never seen anyone move so fast—at least outside of an action movie.
How on earth had Harlee done that? She’d been a blur. To top it off, not a hair of her calico-colored spikes was out of place and there wasn’t a drop of perspiration on her impassive face. Still waters may run deep, but clearly, consignment shopkeepers ran even deeper. What exactly had she done in the service? Were women allowed in the Special Forces? Maybe she’d been a Green Beret.
I glanced down at Gwen, who was threatening to have Harlee arrested for assault, and I shivered, remembering that Noah’s previous girlfriend had been murdered. It seemed that a lot of women wanted to be Mrs. Dr. Underwood, and didn’t hesitate to get violent in pursuit of the position.
At that moment, Gwen glared at me with such venom that I wondered if I might become the next victim in the battle to walk down the aisle with Noah. Which would really suck since I hadn’t even decided if I wanted to marry him yet.
A loud thump from overhead rattled the glasses lined up on the shelf behind the soda fountain. I cringed, then smiled apologetically at the two older ladies who were seated on stools in front of me. They were trying to enjoy their hot fudge sundaes, but the transformation of my second story for the cupcake contest was interfering with their Tuesday afternoon treat.
Slightly more than three weeks had passed since I’d agreed to the remodeling, and the noise level seemed to increase with every passing day, as did my worry that I had made a bad decision. The deposit that Kizzy Cutler’s Cupcakes had given me for the rent was substantial, and the terms of their leasing contract were generous, but I didn’t want to lose my regulars.
That morning, both the Quilting Queens and the Scrapbooking Scalawags had cut their weekly meetings short, complaining about the racket. I had an agreement with several of the local craft groups that in exchange for my providing them with a meeting space, they bought the materials for their projects from me and contracted for refreshments. As a bonus, the members often also picked up other bits and pieces that caught their eye while walking through the shop to get to their alcove. Upsetting valuable customers like my hobbyists was not a smart business move.
Ronni had promised me that the renovations were almost finished, and I hoped she was right. I couldn’t afford to have any of the clubs that met at my store decide to find a new location.
After another thunderous bang from above, the elderly women abandoned their remaining ice cream and nearly ran out the front door. Sighing, I cleaned up the soda fountain and headed over to the old kitchen table I used as a workbench. It was located in the space behind the register, and from that vantage point, I could see the entrance. Not that I was expecting any shoppers. The hours after lunch were usually slow. Often, I didn’t see a single customer from one to three, which made it the perfect time to work on my sideline—custom-made, personalized gift baskets.
When I bought the dime store, I’d known I would need something besides the sale of merchandise in order to stay profitable, so I’d added the baskets. That part of my enterprise was extremely lucrative since I was selling my creativity more than the actual items included in the basket, and I wished I had even more time to devote to promoting it.
I had one steady customer, Oakley Panigrahi, who bought upwards of twenty thank-you gifts a month. Noah had introduced me to the Kansas City real estate tycoon a few months ago and I’d been providing him with premium baskets ever since. Oakley sold luxury properties and was a demanding client, but he paid top dollar, and I wanted to complete his contract before the cupcake contest started.
I also had a request for one of my special creations that I needed to finish before the late-afternoon crowd showed up. I usually made that kind of basket before the store opened, but this client hadn’t placed his order until nine that morning and was paying extra to have it ready for him to pick up at six p.m.
Swallowing the last bite of my lunch—a ham and cheese sandwich on Gran’s homemade bread—I put the final touch on the basket in front of me. Each design included my trademark—the perfect book for both the occasion and the person receiving the gift. This thank-you present was intended for a municipal judge, and I carefully positioned a beautiful copy of To Kill a Mockingbird in the exact center of the basket. Months ago, I had found a first book club edition at an estate sale for fifty dollars, and I’d been saving it for just the right recipient.
I took a quick picture of the finished product for my store’s Web site and Facebook page, then moved on to the anniversary basket, which was my next project. The guy who had ordered the rush job had forgotten that he and his bride had walked down the aisle five years ago today. And when his wife had handed him a beautiful package at breakfast, he’d panicked and said her gift was a big surprise that she’d receive that evening. His problem was that his wife was the kind of person who went out and bought something if she wanted it, so he was stumped as to what to get her.
Looking over his questionnaire—half of which he’d been in too much of a hurry to complete—I frowned. He was fortunate that I had an extensive stock of items that would please any woman or he’d be out of luck, because he hadn’t left me any time to order additional products.
As I gathered the supplies, “Torn Between Two Lovers” started to play from somewhere beneath the mountain of stuff on my worktable. I dug hastily through the piles until I located my cell phone. Then I touched the speaker icon and said, “Hello.”
“Are you busy?” Jake’s sensual baritone sent a delightful shiver down my spine.
“Nope.” I could picture his deep blue eyes smiling into mine, his silky black hair against my fingertips, and the feel of his muscled arms holding me close.
The chemistry between Jake and me was so strong that I could feel the pull through the telephone. Which should have been enough to make me choose him as the man I wanted in my life. But Noah was more the steady good guy that I could depend on to be home every night rather than off chasing criminals. In short, Noah was someone I could actually see myself marrying, while it was difficult to picture Jake waiting for me as I walked toward him in a wedding dress.
The irony was that before Jake had entered my life and Noah had reentered it, I’d seldom dated, and the thought of settling down rarely crossed my mind. Now it was always lurking in the back of my head. Which guy could I visualize in a tuxedo at the front of the church waiting for me?
“I have some news,” Jake said, breaking into my inner debate.
“You’re coming home?” Technically Shadow Bend wasn’t Jake’s home. He had an apartment in St. Louis. But I hoped his permanent residence was about to change, because just before his ex-wife was abducted, he’d submitted his resignation to the marshal service and taken his great-uncle’s offer to manage the family cattle ranch just outside of town.
“Not yet.” Jake sighed. “However, we finally have a lead on the Doll Maker.”
“That’s great,” I said, my breath catching at the discouragement I heard in his voice.
I couldn’t blame him for feeling disheartened. More than six weeks had passed since his ex-wife was kidnapped, and as hard as it was for any of us to acknowledge, odds were she was dead. I knew how horrible this whole situation was for Jake. While Meg had divorced him when he was injured in the line of duty, Jake was the kind of guy who would never turn his back on someone who needed him.
Despite Meg’s callous treatment of him when it looked as if he’d never walk again, Jake would feel as though it was his duty to save her from the Doll Maker’s ghastly clutches. Which meant that Jake was pretty much trapped in St. Louis at the beck and call of a madman, because every three or four days, the Doll Maker demanded that unless Jake showed up at a specific spot, he’d receive pieces of Meg in the next mail delivery.
Nope. I couldn’t blame Jake for trying to rescue her. He was a true hero. Someone who did what had to be done regardless of the consequences to himself. But it was his sense of duty that made me question whether he and I could ever have a life together in Shadow Bend. The kind of life that I could have with Noah.
“Yeah,” Jake agreed, bringing me back to the conversation. “He’s been communicating with me via burner phones, but our forensic team thinks they’ve figured out the general area where he’s been buying them. We’ve got eyes on the three most likely stores where we think he’ll get the next one.”
“So you just have to wait.” I tried to keep the impatience out of my tone. “Any idea when he’ll get in touch with you again?”
“If he keeps true to his pattern, it’ll be tomorrow or the next day.” Jake blew out a frustrated breath. “He never goes more than five days between calls and always seems to know exactly where I am and how long it will take me to get to his chosen location.”
“Do you think he’s watching you?” I wanted to tell him to be careful, but that was just plain silly. I knew he’d be as careful as he could, but if it came to giving his life to save that of an innocent bystander, he’d sacrifice his own. That was what a U.S. Marshal did, and nothing I said would change his instinct to serve and protect. So I bit my tongue and tried to inject encouragement into my tone as I said, “I’m sure you guys will nail him.”
“So, what’s happening in Shadow Bend?” Jake said, ignoring both my question and my attempt to play cheerleader. “How are the cupcake contest preparations going?”
Before I could answer, a deafening boom came from upstairs. Startled, I knocked the phone off the table. As I searched the cluttered tabletop for my cell, the string of curses cascading down from above made me glad there weren’t any kids sitting at the soda fountain.
By the time I retrieved my phone, there was a thread of anxiety running through Jake’s voice when he demanded, “What happened?”
“The crew working on my second floor must have dropped something,” I said. “Either that or the ceiling is about to fall down on my head.”
“Are you sorry you agreed to the remodeling and rental?” Jake asked.
“I guess not.” I continued to work on the basket, placing a tube of strawberry-flavored Skin Honey against the folds of a red satin kimono. According to the package, the gel was an edible personal lubricant that would soften your skin and liven up your libido. The instructions said to smooth it on wherever you wanted to be kissed. Picturing Jake next to me, I could think of several locations where his lips would be welcome.
“So you’re not having second thoughts?” Jake asked, clearly detecting the hesitation in my tone. “It must be distracting having the construction guys there.”
“A little.” I kept working on my special order. In twenty minutes, when summer school was dismissed for the day, a swarm of starving teenagers would take over the store, and I wouldn’t have time to do anything but serve them ice cream, candy, and sodas. “But with the construction crew removing several walls, I now have a nice open area where I can put shelves and display cases. And they left one office suite intact so I can still rent it to someone.”
“Then you’re good?” Jake didn’t sound convinced.
“Ronni says they’ll be done today, tomorrow at the latest.” That didn’t exactly answer his question, but it was as close as I was willing to admit that I might have made a bad decision. “Kizzy and her entourage arrive Thursday afternoon and the contest activities start bright and early Friday morning.”
“That means a lot of strangers are about to pour into Shadow Bend,” Jake said. “Did the cupcake company hire any security?”
“I doubt it.” Chuckling, I added, “Seriously, what do you think will happen? A food fight?”
“Just be careful,” Jake ordered. “Make sure you aren’t alone with anyone you don’t know.”
“Okay.” I stretched the word out. Why was Jake being so paranoid? Oh. Yeah. He was a marshal. Most law enforcement officers tended to think that in any given situation, the worst would happen.
After a long pause, Jake asked, “How’s your father adjusting?”
My father had recently been released from a long prison sentence. Although he had committed the crime of which he’d been convicted, it wasn’t his fault. At the time, someone who had been attempting to frame him for embezzlement roofied him. Only recently had that person admitted to having drugged my father. After the other guy’s confession, Dad had been paroled rather than pardoned, because despite the fact that he hadn’t willingly taken the Rohypnol, he had run over and accidently killed a woman while under the drug’s influence. He might have been able to get the conviction overturned, but taking parole had been cheaper and quicker than a new trial.
“It’s hard to say.” I considered adding a pair of Turn Me On vibrating panties to the basket, but since I didn’t know what size the guy’s wife wore, I reluctantly put them aside. It was a shame since the bikinis contained a secret pocket that held a wireless vibrating bullet operated by remote control—an item I thought might be just the right anniversary gift for the woman who had everything.
“Oh?” Jake’s voice broke into my thoughts. “Haven’t you two been talking?”
“Of course we talk.” Since I couldn’t include the panties, I nestled a pink Lipstick Vibe next to a Good Girl Bad Girl blindfold. “Dad decided against taking back his old position at the bank, but he does have a job.”
“Here.” I stepped back to admire my creation and chewed my thumbnail. Something was missing. “He’s taking Xylia’s shifts.” I’d recently lost my weekend clerk and hadn’t had a chance to hire a permanent replacement.
“How’s that working out?” Jake’s tone was wary.
“I’m treading delicately.” I rummaged through my “naughty” box and found the perfect touch for the anniversary basket, a pink-and-black feather spanker. One end was adorned with marabou and the other with a small leather paddle. I briefly wondered which spouse would be wielding the plaything and I suspected it wouldn’t be the husband. “It’s not as if I can give my dad orders or yell at him if he does something wrong, so I have to be a lot more diplomatic than I prefer to be in an employer/employee relationship.”
Jake’s husky laugh made me reconsider giving the sex toy away. Maybe I had a better use for it. Before I could ask Jake’s opinion of the matter, I heard a phone ring on his end and he put me on hold. While I waited for him to return, I completed the basket with a copy of Sylvia Day’s naughty novel Bared to You, the first in her popular Crossfire series.
When Jake got back on the line a few seconds later, his voice was tense as he said, “That was the Doll Maker. He gave me ten minutes to make it to Busch Stadium and I’m at least nine minutes away. I’ll call when I have a chance.”
He hung up as I struggled for something to say, and I stared at my cell, wondering if I would ever get used to dating a man with such a dangerous and all-consuming occupation. I’d never know if our “so long” was really “good-bye forever.” With his job always coming first, he’d never be completely mine.
Jake and Noah had agreed I could date them both until I decided which one I loved. But Jake had been gone almost since the instant that arrangement went into effect. Of course, Noah hadn’t been around much, either. His mother’s fake illnesses were keeping him occupied, and any of his time that she didn’t claim, his medical practice did. The whole situation with both guys was as messed up as a pile of clothes hangers. Maybe I needed to forget about Jake and Noah and find someone with a nine-to-five job and a less complicated life.
Thursday morning, I savored the silence of a completely empty building. No hammering. No swearing. And best of all, no boots stomping back and forth over my head. For the next few hours, Devereaux’s Dime Store was back to being mine and mine alone.
As promised, the workmen had finished up Tuesday night and the decorator had descended with her team on Wednesday to perform their magic. Both crews had done a good job. Removing the partition between two of the office suites had produced a large, open area that would be perfect for viewing and judging the cupcakes that the finalists produced at Winnie’s cooking school.
The interior designer had chosen a soft teal for the walls with brown curlicue accents stenciled near the ceiling. A raised dais in the front of the room contained two metal stands to exhibit the cupcakes—a five-foot-tall pink Ferris wheel and an equally large yellow roller coaster. Wrought-iron bistro tables and chairs were scattered around the rest of the space.
Although I typically wasn’t happy when the store was deserted, today I knew it was the lull before the storm and I was thrilled to have the place to myself while I got ready for the baking competition. During the chaos of renovation, I hadn’t been able to concentrate, so now, hoping for impulse buys, I arranged cupcake-themed merchandise on all the end-cap displays and on the shelves near the cash register. While I fussed with the layout, I thought about the coming weekend.
Anticipating big crowds, I had arranged for my part-time clerk, Hannah Freeman, and my father to work all three days of the contest. Hannah’s previous schedule—a part of her vocational ed program at the high school—had been four mornings and one afternoon a week. However, she’d graduated last month and was leaving for college in the fall, so I needed to start interviewing for her position.
I also had to find out if my father planned to continue working weekends for me or if I should be looking for two new employees instead of one. How to put the question to him tactfully, so he didn’t feel I was pushing him away, was the tricky part. Like my mother, who had run off to California the minute Dad was sentenced, I hadn’t trusted his innocence when he was falsely accused of embezzlement. And during the twelve years he was in jail, I’d gone to see him only once.
I had no excuse for the former, and my reason for the latter wasn’t much better since he probably didn’t truly believe that I had developed a sort of claustrophobia after my first trip to the prison. Strangely enough, the phobia was because I had loved him so much, not because I didn’t care about him. I’d always been a daddy’s girl, and when he’d been convicted, I was shattered by both what I perceived as his betrayal of our family and his absence from my life. I missed him like crazy, but seeing him handcuffed and behind a steel-reinforced window made me feel as if I couldn’t breathe. I had actually fainted the one and only time I’d visited.
Now that he was out of jail, I had a chance to try to make up for my lack of faith and, worse, my lack of visits. But I hadn’t quite figured out how yet. Shoving that problem out of my mind, I continued to fuss with a display that contained flip-flops, rubber clogs, slippers, and tennis shoes—all imprinted with brightly colored cupcakes. As I was finishing up, I heard the sound of sleigh bells jingling. I hurriedly shoved the last pink sneaker into place and glanced toward the front of the store.
Noah was standing in the entrance, scanning the shop. When he spotted me, he waved and let the door close behind him. I waved back and hurried toward him. It had been several weeks since we were able to coordinate our schedules to spend more than a few minutes together, and at least ten days since we’d been face-to-face. I had missed him and my heart sped up at the sight of him.
As I got closer, I saw that he looked exhausted. Although his dark blond hair was flawlessly styled, I noticed that instead of tapering neatly to the collar of his crisp Dolce & Gabbana dress shirt, it curled over the starched white cotton. He’d obviously had to skip his biweekly trim. The deep lines of fatigue bracketing his mouth and the dark circles under his gray eyes gave the impression of too little sleep and too much responsibility.
“Hi.” Noah drew me into his arms and rested his forehead against mine. “I have an hour between appointments and figure this might be the last time this weekend you have a minute to call your own.”
“You’re probably right about that.” As I caressed his cheek, a sense of peace I felt with no one else stole over me. “Any luck finding your mother a home health aide that she’ll accept?”
“Cross your fingers.” Noah took my hand and stroked his thumb against my palm. “I finally took your advice, and on Monday, I hired a young, attractive male aide.” Noah wrinkled his brow. “I should have done it when you first suggested it, but the idea was so unnerving that I couldn’t make myself consider it.”
“I told you that he’d just be eye candy.” I tapped Noah’s perfect nose. “You know darn well Nadine wouldn’t dream of having an affair with the hired help, but with the right guy, she’ll enjoy some harmless flirtation and keep him around for the attention.”
“So far, so good.” Noah smiled ruefully. “It’s been three days and she hasn’t fired him yet. The previous record was twelve hours.”
“That sounds hopeful.” I slipped my arms around his neck, enjoying the strength of his embrace. “Maybe Monday, once this cupcake contest is over, we can actually spend some time together.”
“I wish I could, but . . .” He trailed off, refusing to meet my eyes.
“But what?” Stepping back from him, I tilted my head. “I thought you texted me that Dr. Rodriguez was starting full-time this week.”