Jack Rossi is Dare Island's new police chief. The laid-back North Carolina community is just what he needs to recover from a rocky marriage and a big-city police department. He's learned his lesson: no more high-profile women or high-pressure jobs. The last thing he wants is an unconventional alt girl rocking his world.
Grad student Lauren Patterson made headlines when she kept a bank robbery from going bad. She's fled to Dare Island to clear her head and focus on writing her story. However, sexy Jack Rossi is a distraction that's too hot to ignore, and it's igniting an affair too combustible to resist-or quit.
But when their pasts come looking for them, Jack and Lauren find themselves fighting for the future they deserve, whatever the price.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
LAUREN PATTERSON ENTRENCHED herself in the corner table of Jane’s Sweet Tea House, barricaded behind her laptop, a latte, and a Glorious Morning muffin.
Facing a blank computer screen wasn’t nearly as terrifying as confronting three masked men with guns, she told herself firmly. She hadn’t frozen then. There was absolutely no excuse for her to be paralyzed now.
The July sun pushed past the HELP WANTED sign in the window to pool like syrup on her table. Beyond the shade of live oaks and loblolly pines, beyond the shrubs and shingled rooftops of the harbor, the waters of Pamlico Sound gleamed. Vacationers seeking an air-conditioned respite from the North Carolina heat packed the eclectic bakery. A young couple, broiled pink by the sun, held hands on a sofa. A father in line lifted his little daughter onto his shoulders. All of them happy. Together.
Lauren’s muffin stuck in her throat.
Behind the counter, a pretty teenager in geek girl glasses struggled to meet the stream of orders for iced espresso drinks. Before Lauren’s fifteen minutes of fame, she’d moonlighted as a barista to make ends meet. The psych department frowned on its graduate students taking outside jobs, but her stipend had barely covered her living expenses. Not to mention all the things her little brother Noah needed that Mom couldn’t afford. Luxuries like game controllers. Athletic shoes. Meat.
Lauren swallowed hard. She couldn’t do anything that would plunge her family into that state of financial uncertainty again. The advance from her publisher was already half spent, the publication date set. Late October, so the book would be shelved in time for Christmas but not lost in a sea of cookbooks and gift books. It was already selling briskly online.
She just had to finish it.
The cheerful silver bells on the door chimed, announcing the arrival of another customer.
She looked up, seeking a more positive direction for her thoughts. Or maybe, she admitted, she was simply searching for a distraction.
A man stood silhouetted against the brightness outside. Thick, close-cut hair. Lean, muscled body. Dark mirrored sunglasses.
Her heart beat faster. A cop.
Save me, she thought.
She took a deep breath and looked away. The sudden sight of the law was never good news. A uniform at the door, blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror . . . Anybody could get sweaty palms and a dry mouth. She was not having a panic attack.
She put her hand on her belly anyway, under the cover of the table, and drew a careful breath. In through the nose . . .
He entered the shop, moving between the artfully mismatched tables and chairs with a contained authority more menacing than a swagger. Among the pink, chubby, underdressed tourists, he stuck out like an assassin in a ballroom.
He promised safety. He promised danger. An irresistible combination.
She exhaled, pushing on her stomach. Out through the mouth . . .
He nodded to the young woman behind the old-fashioned register, the one with the fat blond braid and sleepy gray eyes of a princess in a fairy tale. The blonde nodded back, never losing her rhythm or her smile.
Lauren didn’t understand why she wasn’t melting into a puddle at his feet. Okay, so he wasn’t Prince Charming. Not the kind of guy you wanted to meet at midnight, unless you intended to lose a lot more than your shoes.
But hot. Very hot. Smoldering, in fact.
Given the slightest encouragement, Lauren would have followed him home like one of the island cats that seemed to hang around the bakery’s back porch, lean and hungry and hoping for handouts. Pet me. Rescue me.
She shook the thought away. She was not turning into a police groupie on top of everything else. She could take care of herself. Without getting anybody shot in the process.
Anyway, she tended to attract guys who needed her. Sensitive souls with lousy home lives or unsatisfying jobs, with full-sleeve tattoos and pierced tongues and nipples. Not law-and-order types.
“This isn’t peppermint schnapps,” complained a thin woman at the head of the line.
“No, it’s Irish cream syrup and whipped cream,” the blonde said.
“But I ordered Irish coffee. There should be peppermint schnapps.”
Not in Irish coffee, Lauren thought. She noticed her heart rate increasing and took another deep breath.
The blonde blinked. “I’m afraid we’re not licensed to serve alcohol,” she said with doll-like calm. “But I can add a touch of mint syrup if you’d like.”
“I don’t want any damn syrup,” the customer said loudly. “I want my drink. I want to speak with your manager.”
The situation was escalating. The people in line behind the woman shifted away. Lauren had seen that kind of body language before. They didn’t want to get involved. They didn’t want the drama.
Lauren, on the other hand, had already proved she was a total sucker for other people’s problems. Her faculty advisor had cautioned her about her tendency to get personally involved. Empathy is a good thing, Eleanor had said gently. No one questions your ability to connect with clients. But our emphasis here is research, not therapy. You don’t want to put your own future at risk by losing your professional focus.
Which was great advice until, say, somebody drew a gun.
The band around Lauren’s lungs tightened. Not a helpful thought. Breathe in, two, three, four . . .
“I’m Jane. The owner,” the blonde was saying. “If you’d like me to make you another drink—”
“What I’d like is a real Irish coffee,” the angry woman said. “It’s false advertising, that’s what it is.”
The blonde flushed scarlet.
Lauren’s face heated in sympathy. The hell with it. She abandoned her breathing and jumped up, grabbing her empty mug.
Hot Cop spoke. “This is a bakery, not a bar.” His deep voice raised all the little hairs along Lauren’s arms. “You want a drink at ten in the morning, you’ll have to take your business elsewhere.”
Okay, so his by-the-book attitude wasn’t going to win the bakery any patrons, Lauren acknowledged. But at least he was stepping in, defending the princess against attack.
The unhappy customer folded thin, tanned arms across her skinny bosom, and turned to give the interloper a piece of her mind. But faced with Hot Cop’s cool air of authority, she faltered. “But I’m on vacation,” she said almost plaintively.
He regarded her impassively from behind mirrored sunglasses. “Yes, ma’am. Have a nice stay.”
“Carolina sea salt caramel latte to go,” the owner, Jane, said, setting a drink with a clear-domed lid on the counter. “On the house.”
The customer pursed her lips. “Skim?”
It was important in negotiations, Lauren had learned, to give the hostage taker an opportunity to save face.
Jane nodded. “And whipped cream.”
The thin woman took the cup without thanks or payment. The door bells rattled in her wake.
Hot Cop looked at Jane. “You really want to start rewarding customers for bad behavior?”
Jane’s flush deepened.
Lauren dumped her dirty mug into the bus tray. “I’m pretty sure she just wanted to get her out of here before she made a scene.”
The sunglasses turned in her direction. “You don’t stop bullies by appeasing them.”
Memory tightened Lauren’s chest, constricted her throat. Lying flat on the bank floor, her face pressed to the cool tiles, the smell of fear rank in her nostrils . . .
She pushed the memory away. Pushed down her nausea. Helpful thoughts. She smiled. Focus on the positive. “Sometimes you do whatever it takes to survive.”
His dark brows flicked up. “Her survival isn’t in question.”
Right. Not every confrontation was a life-or-death moment. But . . . “It is if a customer decides to trash her bakery online,” Lauren pointed out.
“Thank you,” Jane said.
Hot Cop didn’t budge. “So, in your opinion, she should compromise her principles to avoid a customer lying in a bad review.”
“I think compromise is always a good idea. Especially if it gets you what you want.”
“Here’s your coffee,” Jane said, setting it on the counter. “Black. No sugar.”
“And two large to go, please.”
Jane nodded and reached for the stack of cups.
Lauren glanced from the coffee on the counter to the cop’s hard face. Humor tickled her mouth. “I guess you don’t worry about stereotypes, huh?”
For a moment she thought that he wouldn’t answer. That he didn’t get it. And then his smile flashed, white, electrifying. “I didn’t order donuts,” he pointed out.
She tilted her head, enjoying the lightening of tension, like the drop in air pressure before the rain. “You don’t like sweet things?”
He surveyed her coolly from behind his mirrored glasses. “I like them fine. I’m watching my weight.”
Was he joking? Her gaze dropped to his lean waist. He had the flat stomach and disciplined body that came from serious gym time.
After the robbery, Lauren’s faculty advisor had suggested she try exercise as a way to manage her anxiety. But every time she left her hotel room to go for a run, she started to gasp. Her shortness of breath, her rapid heartbeat, felt uncomfortably like a panic attack. She had visions of collapsing by the side of a road miles from home, followed by headlines: HOSTAGE GIRL SURRENDERS. BANK HEROINE PARALYZED BY PANIC DISORDER.
She didn’t run anymore.
“Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem,” she said dryly.
“Occupational hazard,” he agreed, straight-faced.
She was almost sure he was kidding. She smiled back uncertainly.
“Jack is our chief of police,” Jane put in from behind the counter.
Not just a cop. The top cop.
“I’m impressed,” Lauren said.
“Don’t be. We’re a small department.” He removed the glasses. His eyes were sharp and dark in a hard-featured face. Square jaw, strong cheekbones, bold, prominent nose. She sucked in her breath.
“Jack Rossi.” He introduced himself.
Italian. It figured with that face.
“Lauren.” No last name. To make up for her omission, she offered her hand.
His hand enveloped hers, sending a shock of warmth up her arm. Lauren swallowed, resisting the urge to tug back her hand. He did not recognize her. She’d made sure of that. Her new look bore little resemblance to the fresh-faced inset that had appeared at the bottom of the news footage or the polished, smiling image on her book jacket. Her hair was darker and longer, past her shoulders, and she flaunted her new piercings like self-inflicted battle scars.
His gaze skated over the tiny jeweled nose stud before focusing politely on her eyes. “What brings you to Dare Island, Lauren?”
“Oh, you know,” she said vaguely, waving her hand. “Work.”
“What is it that you do?”
Even after all the media interviews, she hated that question. At thirty-one, she should be able to answer with certainty, I’m a cop, I’m a baker, I’m a doctoral candidate in psychology. Anything other than, I’m famous for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She couldn’t be sorry that her presence in the bank that day had saved lives. But the whole hostage thing had changed her in ways her family couldn’t see, her friends refused to accept. After her appearance on Dr. Phil, her book Hostage Girl: My Story had spent forty-eight consecutive weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. She was as isolated by her fame as she had been by her captors.
“I’m a writer.”
Who couldn’t write. Her stomach cramped. Her follow-up book, Hostage Girl: My Life After Crisis, was scheduled to release in less than four months. Before—her agent had explained with brutal honesty—no one was interested in her anymore.
That sexy little indent at the corner of his mouth deepened. Even his smiles were cool and controlled, she thought wistfully. She was jealous. Everything in her life felt so out of control these days.
“Guess you don’t worry about stereotypes, either,” he said.
What? She followed his gaze toward her table before understanding clicked. The latte. The laptop. Her lips eased into an answering smile. “The whole coffee shop scene is kind of cliché,” she admitted.
Jane looked up. “We’re a bakery. We’re not a coffee shop.”
Jack Rossi angled his body, shifting his attention to the woman behind the counter. His smile softened, making his strong features even more attractive. “I don’t only come for the coffee, Jane.”
Oh. Oh. Lauren glanced from his hard, dark face to Jane. The baker dropped her gaze, setting two large to-go cups in a cardboard tray on the counter. Right. If he didn’t want donuts . . . and he didn’t come for the coffee . . . Lauren snuck a quick look at his left hand. No wedding band. He must be after whatever else the pretty blond baker had to offer.
Her lungs deflated. So did her ego.
Which was stupid. Her lack of a love life had never bothered her before. She didn’t date blue-collar cops with Italian-sounding last names. She didn’t date, period. None of the grad students did. They hung out. They hooked up. They devoted themselves to their research, their course work, their clinical training. Occasionally she brought someone home to crash on her couch or in her bed until he found his feet again.
It was just that since the whole hostage thing, she’d lost even that casual companionship. Her romantic prospects had dwindled to marriage proposals from online weirdos and tired come-ons from seedy sales guys in hotel bars.
Which still wouldn’t be a problem. She wasn’t her mother, for God’s sake, always needing the reassurance of another human being.
It was just that her defenses were low, her confidence shaken, her energy depleted. Was it any wonder she wanted to borrow someone else’s for a while?
Don’t overthink it, her publicist, Meg, had urged. Everything will be fine. You’ll be fine. Just move on.
It was good advice. Lauren sighed. If only she could figure out how.
* * *
IT WAS A beautiful day. Too bad his job was to ruin it for somebody.
Jack sat in his SUV blazoned with the shield of the Dare Island Police Department, running the AC and the driver’s license and registration of the seventeen-year-old who’d just blown through a stop sign on her way to the beach.
The ID checked out. The BMW belonged to her daddy. Jack could have let her off with a warning. He might have, too—he’d been young and dumb once—if so many other kids without cars didn’t walk this road.
And if she hadn’t tried so hard to flirt her way out of a ticket.
The law existed to protect everybody. The sooner Miss Teenage BMW learned the consequences of her actions, the better. He wasn’t compromising his principles or public safety for some spoiled rich kid from out of town.
A face slid into his memory, that writer, Lauren No Last Name, her sharp, dark eyes with heavy black eyeliner, the winking nose stud, the silver wire that curled like a—snake? vine?—around her ear. I think compromise is always a good idea. Especially if it gets you what you want.
She reminded him of the college girls he used to watch walking down the street, always on their way somewhere, class or the library or some fucking foreign film festival. Smart girls, quirky girls who went to Bryn Mawr, who read poetry and smoked pot, who knew things a guy like him would never know.
After eleven months, Jack recognized most of the island’s residents. Lauren No Last Name wasn’t from around here any more than he was. Still, she looked familiar. Something about the shape of those eyes or the tilt of her jaw. His body tightened. She interested him, and not just as a member of law enforcement keeping tabs on his beat.
He shook his head, disgusted with the direction of his thoughts. Obviously, his dick hadn’t learned the lessons of the past year.
He didn’t do interesting women anymore.
DARE ISLAND’S ENTIRE police force—three officers, if Jack counted himself, which he damn well did, since he worked more hours than anybody—were rarely all together in the same place at the same time. Only in the case of fires, natural disasters, and Thursday morning staff meetings.
On this particular Thursday morning, Jack walked into the police station to find Luke Fletcher, his new hire, on the phone. Hank, the part-time reserve officer, occupied the other desk.
Henry Lee Clark was gray-haired, rangy, and raw-boned, his face as deeply grooved as a tractor tire. His feet were propped on the desk, his collar unbuttoned against the heat. A thirty-year veteran of the county sheriff’s department, he’d been the town’s first choice to become the new police chief. Lucky for Jack, he’d turned the job down.
He was also Jane’s father.
Lowering his newspaper, he regarded Jack over the top of his reading glasses. “You’ve been to Jane’s.”
Luke covered the mouthpiece of the phone and grinned. “Great detective work, Hank. How’d you guess?”
Jack set the cardboard tray on the corner of Hank’s desk, the logo cups a dead giveaway. “I bought coffee.”
“You should have brought donuts,” Hank said.
Jack thought of that girl, Lauren Somebody, with her dark, aware eyes and three-cornered smile. I guess you don’t worry about stereotypes, huh?
He shook the memory away. “Next time.”
Hank grunted. “How is she?”
She was a pain in the ass. Somehow she’d gotten under his skin, into his head. Jack frowned. He was sure he’d seen that face before.
Hank was still watching, waiting for an answer.
Realization hit Jack like a slap. Hank was asking about Jane. His daughter. Hardworking, softhearted Jane, with her abundant blond hair and generous rack that set off a low-level hum of masculine appreciation every time Jack saw her.
He hadn’t felt a hum around Lauren Whatever-her-name-was. More like a shock.
“She’s fine,” he said.
Jane was more than fine. She was perfect for Jack, for his new life. She’d grown up on the island. A young single mother, a natural-born homemaker, she was warm and nurturing and succulent as a muffin fresh out of the oven, the exact opposite of Jack’s ex-wife in every way.
So why was he dragging his heels?
Hank set down his cup. “Coffee’s cold.”
Jack wasn’t going to excuse himself by explaining the traffic stop. “It’s still better than that sludge Luke makes.”
Luke hung up the phone and leaned back in his swivel chair. He was a Marine vet, like Jack. An islander, like Hank. A real hometown hero, a genuinely good guy who’d come through hell with all his shiny principles intact. Not like Jack. He wore his brand-new police uniform with military precision, his pants sharply creased, his shoes polished. “You can take over the coffee-making duties anytime, Chief.”
Jack smiled without answering.
“You need a woman,” Hank said.
Jack met his gaze impassively, hoping Hank couldn’t spot the heat crawling in his cheeks. That was part of his long-range plan. Find somebody supportive and sane to pick out a couch and curtains with, to raise kids and plan vacations with. Maybe Jane. But she lived with her father and her six-and-a-half-year-old son. Two good reasons for taking things slow.
Jack wasn’t dumb enough to blame every woman for the wreck of his marriage. Hell, he didn’t even entirely blame his ex-wife. But he’d been a cop long enough to know you don’t shit where you eat. If they got serious and things didn’t work out, Jane would have to cope with the reactions at home. And Jack would have to deal with the fallout at work.
Luke grinned. “I’ve got one, thanks. You’re both invited to the wedding, by the way. Monday after next.”
“Looking forward to it,” Jack said.
“It’s the middle of tourist season,” Hank said.
Luke shrugged. “At least we’ll miss the weekend turnover. The restaurant was free. And the priest is willing.”
Renee had insisted on a big white wedding, six bridesmaids and Jack’s nephew in a ring bearer’s suit. Half the cops in Philly had packed the church, like an officer’s funeral. The only thing missing was the bagpipes.
Jack cleared his throat. “I’ll call the sheriff’s department.”
“It’s a small wedding. Mostly family,” Luke said. “Not much need for traffic control.”
“We still need somebody to cover our calls.”
“Which is why you ought to hire a girl to answer the phones,” Hank said. “Make coffee.”
Luke raised his eyebrows.
Right. Making coffee wasn’t only a woman’s job. But Jack understood where Hank was coming from. There wasn’t much difference between rural North Carolina and the blue-collar suburbs of Philadelphia when it came to gender equality. Law enforcement was still largely a good ol’ boys club, despite the fact that Jack had known competent women who could and did kick ass.
Women like his ex-wife.
Renee used to complain about sexism on the force, back in the days when she still talked to him about anything besides whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher or take out the trash. Jack had sympathized.
Renee never let her sex or anything else stand in her way. But the truth was Jack had never really gotten over worrying about her. Sometimes an officer had to depend on sheer size to control a situation. Making a traffic stop on a dark road. Walking into a bar full of drunken rowdies. Jack still occasionally tangled with some asshole who figured he could take him.
“I requested a dispatcher in the new budget. We’ll see what the town council says.” Jack looked at Luke. “Speaking of calls . . .”
“Dora Abrams,” Luke said, referring to the call that had just come in. “She heard a noise under her house.”
“What kind of noise?” Jack asked.
“Like a banging. Water pipes maybe.”
“Or a possum,” Hank said.
“Or she just wants somebody out there to change her air filter again,” Jack said.
“I’ll go take a look,” Luke said.
In Jack’s old job, he would have suggested eighty-three-year-old Dora call a plumber. Or animal control. But small-town policing didn’t work like that.
The islanders were an independent lot. When they had a problem, they were more inclined to take matters into their own hands than to call the police. As the new police chief, Jack had to earn their trust.
Even if it meant crawling under Dora’s house again.
“I’ve got it,” Jack said.
“Let me know if you need backup,” Luke said. “Or a trap.”
“You have a possum trap,” Jack said.
“Sure,” Hank said, his drawl thickening. “Possum’s good eating. Mostly we just scoop ’em off the road with a shovel, but—”
Jack’s expression must have betrayed some reaction, because Hank wheezed with laughter.
“It’s a humane animal trap,” Luke said, grinning. “Kate bought it to catch Taylor’s cat.”
Taylor was Luke’s daughter, the unexpected legacy of a high school girlfriend. Nice kid. She’d had a rough time before coming to live with the Fletchers a year ago.
“How’s she doing?” Jack asked. “Taylor.”
“She’s good. Well, she’s pissed at me right now because I won’t let her play Grand Theft Auto, but I told her that didn’t have anything to do with my being a cop.”
“At least you’re home now,” Jack said.
“Until you start working overtime,” Hank said. “And holidays.”
Luke shrugged. “Beats being deployed. Plus, she’s pretty happy about Kate coming to live with us.”
“Wait until she gets older,” Hank said. “That’s when the real trouble starts.”
“I’ve already told her she’s not allowed to drink, date, or drive until she’s twenty-one.”
Hank grunted. “Better make it thirty-five.”
Jane was twenty-nine. Jack didn’t know much about their relationship except that Hank had raised his daughter alone and took her back in when her husband took off.
Luke grinned. “I’ll keep that in mind.”
He’d missed this, Jack realized. The camaraderie of a station house, the dumb-ass jokes, the bullshit. He missed Frank.
His right hand curled reflexively into a fist. His knuckles tingled with remembered pain.
Slowly, he loosened his fingers. Shook his head.
And went off to deal with somebody else’s problems.
* * *
AT THE END of another unproductive day, Lauren let herself in the front door of the Pirates’ Rest, a gorgeous two-and-a-half-story Craftsman built above the bay around the turn of the century. The Fletcher family had renovated the old house into a gracious bed-and-breakfast. The leaded glass transom threw bars of colored light on the faded William Morris carpet.
Each of the eight guest rooms was decorated in the Arts and Crafts style and named after a pirate of the North Carolina coast. Lauren was staying in the William Kidd Room on the second floor, with a view of the water and easy access to the coffee-and-tea service set up in a converted wardrobe on the sunlit landing. Maybe she’d curl up in the window seat with her laptop after dinner and try to get something done.
E-mail. Free Cell. Candy Crush.
The kitchen door swung open. Lauren stopped with one foot on the stairs as Meg Fletcher emerged carrying a plate of cookies.
Lauren’s publicist was casually dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that cost more than Lauren’s entire graduate student wardrobe. Her dark hair was cropped in a short, chic cut that revealed her strong jaw and big diamond earrings. She sported another massive rock on her left hand that hadn’t been there when Lauren had hired her nine months ago.
Patricia Brown, Lauren’s agent, had not approved of her choice. So she went to Harvard. Big deal, Patricia had said. She doesn’t have any experience.
She was a vice president of marketing, Lauren had pointed out.
Patricia sniffed. At an insurance company. For God’s sake, darling, when I said you needed help, I meant a psychiatrist or life coach or someone who understands the business. Meg Fletcher doesn’t know the first thing about publishing.
But Meg had learned.
And Lauren had felt comfortable with her from the start. Meg was as cool, brisk, and bracing as a breeze from the sea. When Lauren hit the wall last month, unable to leave her hotel room, Meg had flown to her rescue. Within hours, she’d reorganized Lauren’s schedule, cutting back on her speaking engagements and offering her parents’ inn as a refuge.
“Lauren.” Meg flashed a smile, setting the cookies on the table in the hall. “How’d it go today?”
It. The writing? Or the panic attacks?
Lauren made an effort to breathe. To smile. “Oh, you know. It’s going. Sort of. Nowhere.”
“Well, you just got here. You need to give yourself some time.” Meg’s tone was encouraging, but her eyes were worried. “It’ll take a while for you to find your rhythm.”
As if a change of pace or place would fix what was wrong with her.
“I’m sorry,” Lauren said humbly. “I’m screwing things up for you, too. Did you hear back from that writers’ group in Maryland?”
“Don’t you worry about that,” Meg said. “I’m handling your schedule. You concentrate on your writing. No pressure.”
Lauren pressed her lips together to stop a hysterical bubble of laughter from escaping. No pressure. Except she was letting everybody down. Not just Meg and her editor and agent. Everybody. Including herself.
For the last twelve years, ever since her dad died, Lauren had been the responsible one, the one Mom and Noah could count on. Dad’s life insurance hadn’t even paid off the mortgage on the house. And with Noah applying to colleges . . . And the other obligations she’d taken on . . .
Lauren felt her chest tighten, smothered by the press of obligations. She was dying inside.
“Oh, I almost forgot,” Meg said. “You got a letter.”
Lauren froze. A letter. Not a bill. She paid those online. Reader mail went to a PO box, almost everything else to her mother’s house. Thirty-one years old, and my permanent address is the house I grew up in. The only person she knew who wouldn’t contact her by e-mail was . . .
Meg emerged from the office alcove, waving a thin white envelope with the Illinois Department of Corrections prisoner number printed neatly in one corner. “Here you go.”
Lauren swallowed and took the envelope.
Meg continued to watch her with those too-perceptive, too-sympathetic eyes. “Everything all right?”
Lauren forced herself to smile. “Fine.”
If anything was wrong, Ben would have called. He had her number. She was on his approved list of contacts. She took a slow, deep breath.
“Want a cookie?” Meg asked.
She shook her head mutely.
Lauren’s breath sputtered out on a laugh. “I’m fine.”
“How about a glass of wine?”
Alcohol, the drug of choice for self-medicated clients everywhere. The traditional antidote for writer’s block.
She had a sudden vision of Jack Rossi’s strong, dark face, his flat Philly accent. Guess you don’t worry about stereotypes, either.
Her smile this time came more easily. “Sure,” she said. “Why not?”
The letter would keep. Ben wasn’t going anywhere. He wouldn’t be out of prison for at least another six years. She winced.
“Right this way,” Meg said.
Lauren followed her down the cozy paneled hallway toward the kitchen. The inn guests took breakfast in the dining room. She hadn’t visited the family quarters before.
“Wow.” She stopped, taking in the sleek granite counters and warm oak cabinets, the stainless steel appliances and wide-planked wooden floor. Herbs bloomed in pots on the windowsill. Peaches shared a bowl with the mail on the long farm table. “This is really nice. Homey.”
Meg pulled down two wineglasses. “Well, it’s not your average hotel.”
“You’re telling me,” Lauren said with feeling. “When I was on my book tour, I was grateful for peanuts in the minibar.”
Especially on those days when she couldn’t summon the courage to leave her room.
She pressed her hand under her rib cage. Breathe in, two, three, four . . .
Her mother wanted her to live at home again. As if being together under one roof would magically return them all to the time when her father was alive, when their family was safe and secure and whole. If Mom had her way, Lauren would never go back to school, never run another errand, never go anyplace where armed men could take her hostage ever again. Barbara Patterson needed to believe that it was over. She wanted to pretend that everything was all right. But her anxious looks every time Lauren left the house pressed on her heart like a bruise.
Lauren got it. Mom had already lost Dad. She didn’t want to lose Lauren, too.
But Lauren couldn’t live at home. She couldn’t write. She couldn’t breathe. She felt her world gradually shrinking to the walls of her bedroom, still decorated with the wallpaper border she’d picked out at thirteen, frozen forever on the cusp of adolescence. Swaddled by familiar surroundings, it was too easy for her to give in to her mother’s fears, to sink into the stultifying comfort of childhood. To crawl under the covers and never come out again.
She’d thought that things would get better once she was back at school. That she would be better. But she’d found, to her shame, that she couldn’t handle living alone, either. She had trouble focusing on her dissertation, difficulty sleeping in her tiny apartment. Every creak and car horn sent her bolt upright, gasping for breath.
Her faculty advisor suggested counseling and then a leave of absence. Her fellow graduate students were sympathetic and then impatient.
The last time a total stranger had approached Lauren on the street, her friend Brandon had rolled his eyes. No offense, he’d said, which was what someone always said when they wanted to say something offensive. But we’ve all heard it before. Not everybody wants to relive your fifteen minutes of fame over and over.
Her life had been divided in two, Before and After the robbery, and it felt sometimes as if everyone she loved was on the other side of an unbridgeable chasm with the girl she used to be.
Lauren watched Meg dig in a drawer. At home, she took care of her mother and Noah. At school, she took care of herself. She still wasn’t used to being waited on. “I don’t want to put you out.”
Meg dug in a drawer for a corkscrew. “You’re not.”
“It’s not your job to look after guests.” Or me, Lauren thought. She paid Meg to be her publicist, not her babysitter.
“Not usually. I’m helping out today while Mom runs wedding errands with Kate and Taylor.”
Lauren had met Meg’s eleven-year-old niece Taylor. But . . . “Kate?”
Meg glanced over from opening the wine. “My brother’s fiancée. They’re getting married in two weeks.”
Meg had two brothers, Lauren remembered.
Before the robbery, she’d always imagined she was a good listener. A useful skill for a clinician. Even more useful for a crisis negotiator. Anyway, it had kept her and seven other people alive. But she realized she knew next to nothing about Meg’s personal life. Maybe she was a little intimidated by Meg’s easy assurance.
And maybe she was becoming as self-absorbed as Brandon accused her of being.
“Is that your brother the fisherman?” Lauren asked.
“No, that’s Matt. Luke’s the cop.”
Meg lowered the wine bottle. “Should I have mentioned it before? Do you have issues?”
“Issues,” Lauren repeated blankly.
“With cops. Because of . . . You know. The bank thing. The shooting.”
Lauren flushed. “Oh. No.” She tried to make a joke. “I’m anxious, not paranoid.”
Meg’s brow creased in concern.
Lauren sighed. “The police have a job to do,” she said and tried to shut down the memory of Ben’s face as they’d swarmed over him on the floor, jerking his arms, cuffing his hands behind him. The smells of flop sweat, urine, and blood.
She cleared her throat. “It’s natural for them to see things in black and white. Us versus Them. Me or Him.”
“And that’s not how you see it,” Meg said.
Lauren smiled crookedly. “I must. I mean, I’m here, aren’t I? I’m alive.” She took a gulp of wine, swallowing the taste of betrayal. “Anyway, I’m grateful to the cops for doing their job that day. That doesn’t mean I’d sleep with one.”
Meg’s eyes widened.
“No offense to your brother. I didn’t mean him,” Lauren added hastily. Crap, that came out wrong. “Not that I’d sleep with your brother, either.”
“I’m sure that’s a relief to his fiancée,” said a flat, deep voice behind her. Jack Rossi’s voice.
Lauren’s stomach sank. Her cheeks burned.
She turned and there he was, Jack Rossi in uniform and in the flesh, dark and lean and oozing pheromones on the other side of the screen door, having obviously heard every word.
* * *
JACK GRINNED, ENJOYING her blush. My point, sweetheart, he thought.
And then wondered why he was keeping score.
He wasn’t interested in playing games anymore. He was thirty-eight years old. Ready to settle or at least to settle down. He wanted calm, companionship, stability. Kids. Not some Goth wannabe with painful piercings and her whole life ahead of her.
She was . . . interesting-looking, though. Not deliberately sexy like the girls from his neighborhood, with their fake nails and fake hair and breasts served up like apples on a plate. Her plain black tank top showed off her arms and the delicate bones at her throat. Her eyes were smudged, her lips bare, like a woman after a night of sex.
She caught him looking and smiled back crookedly, her eyes dark with rueful awareness. His dick shifted from neutral to first. Yeah, definite spark of awareness there.
He inhaled carefully.
That doesn’t mean I’d sleep with one.
“Jack. Come in.” Meg gave him her public relations smile, friendly and sharp. “What can I do for you?”
“Meg.” He shut the screen door behind him. Nodded to both women. “Luke told me you had an animal trap.”
“If we do, it’s in his cottage.” Meg tilted her head. “Do you have a problem?”
“Not me.” The island grapevine operated just fine without any input from him. If Dora Abrams wanted to tell the neighbors she had possums or intruders or even ghosts under her house, Jack figured that was her business. But since he was asking Meg for a favor, he owed her some kind of explanation. “I didn’t want to bother Taylor. In case she was home alone.”
Meg’s smile warmed. “She’s shopping today with my mother and Kate. But I’m sure I can find it for you.”
“Thanks. If you want to tell me where to look—”
“No, I’ll get it. Have you met Lauren?”
“Lauren . . .” He let the word drag out.
“My client, Lauren Patterson. She’s staying at the inn.”
So now he had her last name. He smiled. “Nice to see you again, Ms. Patterson.”
“You, too, Chief Rossi.” Her tone was wry. Aware.
There was that jolt again, like a shock from a live wire. It had been a long time since he’d felt that kind of gut-level response to any woman other than Renee. Except for his time in the service, they’d been together since high school. One woman in twenty years. Like he was imprinted on her, the way he’d read baby ducks attached themselves to the first thing they saw coming out of the egg.
“Great,” Meg said briskly. If she caught the vibe in the room, she didn’t let on. “Well, I’ll let you two chat while I dig up the trap. Can I get you anything? Cookie? Wine?”
“I’m good, thanks,” Jack said.
He didn’t drink on duty. Not anymore.
He stood there, not saying anything, while Meg bustled out. He’d always found the silent routine worked pretty well in getting other people to talk. Suspects. Women.
Lauren Patterson. He’d heard that name before. Where had he heard that name?
It wasn’t like he was interested in her personally, he told himself. He was the chief of police. It was his job to know what was going on.
She regarded him over her glass of wine. She had pretty hands. Short, dark painted nails. Twists of silver curled around three fingers and the thumb of her left hand. To match the ear cuff?
When the silence stretched on too long, he asked, “So how long are you staying?”
“I don’t know yet. I just got here a couple days ago.”
“Nobody waiting for you at home?”
Lauren shook her head.
“Kids? Family?” he persisted. Husband? Boyfriend?
“A mother and a younger brother. Noah’s a high school senior this fall.” She leaned back against the counter, which did nice things for her breasts under the thin ribbed tank top. “You?”
He’d supported Renee when she said she wanted to wait. I am not your mother. Or your fucking sister-in-law, pumping out a kid every two years. I have things I want to do with my life.
Turned out one of the things she wanted to do was his partner, Frank.
Lauren was still watching him, still waiting, doing her own version of the silent routine. Where had she learned that?
“Two parents,” he offered. “Two brothers, one sister.”
“And you’re the oldest.”
She shrugged. “Not really. You have that whole overdeveloped sense of responsibility thing going on. Plus you don’t cut yourself any slack.”
She sounded like one of those talking heads yapping on The View. And yeah, he had definitely seen too many hours of daytime TV during his months on leave.
“You don’t know me well enough to judge,” he said.
“I know you’re chief of police. That’s a responsible job. And you turned down a glass of wine because you were on duty.”
Point to her, he decided. “What about you?”
“What about me?” she asked, turning the question back on him.
That was a cop’s trick. Or a shrink’s. Jack had seen one of those, too, during his leave. “You have a younger brother. Does that make you the responsible one in your family?”
“Yes,” she said. No explanation, no excuses.
He could respect that. The silence stretched. He shifted his weight. She studied her glass.
Okay, this wasn’t an interrogation. Once upon a time, he used to be good at talking to women. Say something, dickhead.
She beat him to the punch, looking up from her wine. “So, Jack Rossi, where are you from?”
She gave him that three-cornered smile. “Like Rocky.”
He suppressed a sigh. It was the accent. Or the fact that for the past twelve months he’d been taking out his aggressions on a heavy bag and it showed. His chest and arms were heavy with muscle. He was down a belt size, too. He wanted to tell her there was more to him than that, that he used to read books and listen to blue-eyed soul. But maybe that part of him was gone, along with his marriage and his collection of Hall and Oates CDs. Maybe she got off on muscle-bound guys in wife-beater T-shirts. So he told her what she expected to hear.
Excerpted from "Carolina Blues"
Copyright © 2014 Virginia Kantra.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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