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Kelsey Moore balanced a tray of croissants and gooey pastries on one arm and counted how many she had left for the end-of-the-morning rush. Ten in the morning was too early to break out the sandwich menu, which meant she had to make the breakfast offerings last for another hour. Hard to do if another round of the fanny pack and matching T-shirt crowd descended.
Not that she was complaining. The summer season had finally hit full swing in Annapolis, Maryland, as the increased number of buses and lack of on-street parking spaces showed. Tourists poured in to visit the quaint shops, check out that Naval Academy a few blocks over and wander down to the City Dock, also known as Ego Alley thanks to the expensive yachts that pulled up there.
Her coffee shop, Decadent Brew, sat in a prime location on Main Street, midway between the waterfront and the Maryland State House. She'd love to take credit for having the foresight to buy the two-story slim town house, but that honor went to her aunt, who ran it as a coffee and knitting shop for years.
Kelsey dropped the yarn part when she inherited it because she could barely sew on a button let alone figure out how to knit or purl. She had added a lunch menu, local art to walls, bookcases and sofas. In a rough economy, the small changes allowed her to survive and build a loyal following over the coffee chains. Not thrive, but pay the bills usually.
Using tongs, she loaded up the display case with the last two doughnuts and the rest of the chocolate croissants. About half the tables were full, many with patrons more intent on typing on their laptops than actually eating anything. Still, silverware clanked, and the low rumble of conversation mixed with the piped-in music.
The steady beat and cheerful mood suited her. She liked to be busy, liked to see the seats filled, but never lost focus. After two years in business she knew how to keep one eye on the college kid making the lattesthis year his name was Mikeand the other on Lindy, the cute new high school senior who spent more time flirting and tugging on her short skirt than cleaning off the tables.
If Kelsey had a third eye she'd keep it locked on the front door because it was time. He came around this time every day, or he had for the past two weeks.
He'd walk in, his gaze searching for her. The corner of his mouth would lift in that breath-stealing smile and her stomach would do the stupid bouncing thing that made her feel younger than Lindy. Certainly more like fifteen than twenty-six, which she was.
As if thinking about him could conjure him up, the bell above the door chimed. Kelsey glanced up to see him holding the door for a family heading outside. He stood a bit over six feet with the kind of broad shoulders that made women look and then turn and look again. Dirty blond hair and eyes she knew from past encounters edged the border between brown and green.
Between the faded jeans and the trim gray T-shirt, she could easily call up a mental image of his bare stomach without ever having seen it. Something she'd done a little more often than she wanted to admit.
He nodded a welcome to a table of sixty-something women, who rotated between staring at him and whispering to each other. But he saved the wave and that killer smile for Kelsey.
Her hand tightened on the tray to keep from dropping it. "Hey there."
"Good morning," he said when he stopped across the counter from her.
"So far. How are you?"
The couple off to his left ran through the exact makeup of a caramel macchiato with Mike, which gave her an extra minute with Paxton. An unusual name but she'd remember his even if it were something easily forgettable, like Bob. A long line a few days ago gave her the excuse to ask his name. Owning the place did have its benefits.
"Not to scare you, but there's one of those walking tours a few blocks away and headed in this direction."
She enjoyed the flirting, but she didn't ignore business. "Let's hope they're thirsty."
"In that case I'm happy I'm here first, before it's standing room only in here." He leaned against the counter, because that's what he always did.
The combination of the slight limp and short hair made her think military, possibly returning from an overseas tour. Living in a navy area tended to take a person's mind in that direction. Still, he had the muscular build, complete with bulging biceps and a vine tattoo peeking out from under his sleeve. Military or not, it amounted to a pretty lethal punch to her usual common-sense theory of not mixing business with pleasure.
She tried to think of something clever to say. When nothing came to her, she winced over her complete lack of smoothness and set the tray down. "You want the usual?"
He pointed at the display case. "Add in whatever you have extra of or might have trouble selling today."
As if she didn't already have a crush on the guy.
She went to the tap at the coffee-of-the-day dispenser as the bell above the door dinged again. One look around the counter and she realized she'd need a trip to the stockroom because there was only one to-go cup left after the one for Paxton.
A group of kids came in, all shouting as their gazes stayed fixed on their phones. She turned to face the front of the store again to send a quiet-down gaze and spied the two guys hovering behind the noisy kids.
Black suits, dark scowls and a laserlike focus on well, her. She immediately thought politicians, but the Maryland General Assembly wasn't in session. That left lawyers or government types. Either way, something about their intensity had her squirming.
Paxton cleared his throat. "You okay?"
Her gaze went back to him. She read concern in his narrowed eyes, heard it in the sudden roughness of his deep voice, and forced a smile to her lips. She hoped it rose to the level of sunny. "Absolutely."
She snapped the lid on his coffee and snuck a few more peeks at the suited patrons while she scrambled to get Paxton a bear claw. She pretended not to notice as the suit-wearers closed in a step at a time, never saying a word to each other and not bothering to look at the menu board over her head.
She put the plate down on the counter harder than expected in front of Paxton. The smack of ceramic against glass had both Mike and Paxton staring at her. Before she could babble out some excuse, Paxton put a hand over hers. Warmth seeped into her skin.
"Maybe you should sit down."
"I'm fine." And by that she meant spooked. The two guys hadn't done or said anything, yet their presence had her swallowing and shifting her weight around.
"We could go out front for second."
"Really. It's okay." She said the words because she wanted the men out, and the only way to have that was to wait on them. They now stood right behind Paxton's impressive shoulder, and for some reason she wanted them away from him, too.
Still, he hesitated. He balanced his coffee and his wallet. "If you're sure."
"Absolutely. And today is on me." She pushed the plate closer. Before Paxton could argue, she glanced at her unwanted guests. "What can I get the two of you?"
For a second they held on to their silence. Finally, the taller one on the left blinked. "Black coffee to go."
"Two?" When he frowned at her, she tried again. "I mean, do you each want one?"
Paxton held his position at the counter, and the men didn't try to shove around him. They didn't look at him, either, but he stared at them as if he had them under some sort of visual scan.
"One cup only," the taller man said.
Unusual but not scary. She repeated that mantra as she turned back to the coffeepot and the blank space where the last cup sat a second ago. Another look and she watched Mike top off a latte with foam in the cup she wanted.
She could send him on a restocking run, but with the way her chest tightened she suddenly needed to gulp in as much air as possible. Better to do that away from the patrons. She held up a finger. "I'll be back in one second."
Before the men could argue, she took off. She shuffled around and pushed open the door to the narrow hall behind the main dining area marked Private. She kept moving as she passed the door to her office on the right and the stockroom on the left and finally hit the back entry.
Two slams against the safety bar and she had it open. The humid air rolled in, giving her the sensation of standing in front of a low-watt hair dryer.
With her eyes closed she counted to ten and tried to calm her overreaction. This is what happened to her now. Ever since her brother stopped communicating, her mind played vivid and scary games with the benign truth around her. Last night a guy stood on the sidewalk outside her upstairs apartment too long and she immediately assumed he was casing the place. It was as if her life had become a strange action movie.
When she reached ten in her silent countdown, she let out one final dramatic breath. Time to get back to work.
Fearing the air-conditioning would never stop running and her electric bill would soar if she kept the door open, she yanked on it, hearing it creak and moan as she tried to slam it shut. The thing weighed a ton, but she wrestled it closed every single day. Not that she had a choice now. Another minute away from the counter and Mike might sit down with his own laptop and play on the internet instead of work.
She smiled at the idea as she glanced over her shoulder toward the front of the shop. At the end of the hall stood one of the tall unwanted visitors. Seeing him there, in the small space between her and the freedom of the front room wiped out any amusement she'd felt.
She forgot about locking the door and turned to face the unwanted stranger. She said the first thingthe only thingthat popped into her mind. "You can't be here."
He closed the distance between them in a few steps. If he reached out he could touch her, but his hands remained at his back. "We'll be leaving by the door behind you."
We? Yeah, no way. "Wrong."
"I'm not playing." His arm dropped to his side.
She blinked at the gun in his hand and a paralyzing fear streaked through her nerves. "I'll scream."
"And put everyone out front in danger? I don't think so."
She turned to race out the back door and it burst open, bouncing with a crash and pinning her against the hallway wall. Unwanted visitor number two filled the entrance. She opened her mouth to let out the scream rumbling around in her chest when the man behind her grabbed her and clamped a hand over her mouth.
She kicked and threw her elbows. Even tried bending forward in the hope of breaking the guy's hold.
He snapped her back into him, almost lifting her off the floor. "One word and we shoot everyone in the shop."
When the attacker's hot breath blew over her cheek, she choked back the bile rising in her throat. Her mind raced as she mentally flipped through her options for saving herself and everyone in her shop.
Yell, run, fight. The most important thing was to not let these guys drag her away. She knew that much from the safety class she'd taken through the police station. But she had to get somewhere other than a claustrophobic back hallway.
To stall, she nodded. Instead of easing, the attacker's arm wrapped tighter against her neck. Muscle pressed against her windpipe. She clawed against his forearm in a futile attempt to keep him from crushing out her air supply.
The taller one pointed at the back door. "Let's get her out of here before that kid realizes she's gone and tries to play hero."
Her brain flashed to images of all of them. To all the innocent people on the other side of the wall. Then her attackers started moving. She dragged her feet and grabbed for a hold in the chipped wall. Fingernails scraped against old paint, but she couldn't halt his progress.
Inhaling deep and gathering all her strength, she lifted her foot and nailed her attacker in the shin. At the thud of heel on bone, they slammed to a stop. The guy swore as he threw her body against the wall and held her there with his weight against her back.
Her head hit plaster and the world around her tilted. She gasped, trying to drag enough air into her lungs and brain to keep thinking.
The crunch of her nose against the wall sent pain spiraling through her. She turned her head and blinked when the crushing ache of her cheek against the wall threatened to be too much. Her body felt as if it were being ripped apart and smashed into a small ball at the same time.
In the next second, all the pressure vanished. The sudden change had her dazed and sliding to the floor. As her body fell, she saw a flash of gray.
Limp seemingly gone, Paxton moved in a blur. His body honed and aimed like a weapon, he came in the back door fighting. He jammed an elbow into the smaller attacker's head and knocked him into the wall. The guy went down in a motionless whoosh.
Something whizzed in front of her. She glanced over and saw Paxton standing with his arm out and his furious glare aimed at the taller attacker. She followed the line of Paxton's body and watched the other attacker scramble, his shoes scuffing against the floor, before he dropped. A red blotch spread on his stomach a second later as his gun dropped and spun across the floor.
Her first look at the knife was of the way it stuck out of the attacker's body. Even with his eyes closed and his body slumped to the side, he scared the crap out of her.
It all happened so fast and with less sound than if she had been moving boxes around back there. The pulsing tension seeped out of the hallway, but she couldn't take it all in. Sounds muffled, but she thought she heard someone talking. With her head tilted back, she saw Paxton grab the abandoned gun and point it at the bleeding man before hitting him with the end of it.