After being attacked in her own store, Ellie Winters no longer considers her hometown a safe haven. Nor can she believe the lawman helping her recover is Johnny Rock, her former childhood friendand the boy who once threw her family into turmoil. Though she's secretly happy to see Johnny again, he's only back to stop a drug ring. Too bad the trail leads straight to Ellie's shop. Despite their rocky history, Johnny knows the pretty business owner can't possibly be guilty. Now, with Johnny as the only thing standing between Ellie and a killer, he will do anything to keep her safe and prove he's worthy of Ellie trusting him with her heart.
About the Author
Alison lives in Western New York with her husband of twenty years and their four children where the summers are gorgeous and the winters are perfect for curling up with a good book—or writing one.
For more information please visit: www.AlisonStone.com.
Read an Excerpt
Ellie dropped the paint roller and it landed with a plop-clack as the roller landed in the paint and the handle hit the edge of the plastic paint tray. Stepping back, she planted her fists on her hips, and then quickly checked her hands, relieved the bright splotches of paint on her fingers were dry. She resumed her stance and tipped her head, wondering if she should have gone more with the shade Pumpkin Spice and not Citrus Blast. But in the end, all the paint samples had begun to blend together during the height of the gift shop's remodel and, in a fit of decisiveness, she'd chosen Citrus Blast.
"Hmm, when I said our store needed a pop of color, I didn't mean" her friend and business partner, Ashley, winced and shook her head "oh I should have gone with you to the hardware store."
Ellie spun around, biting back her annoyance. Ashley was supposed to have gone with her and yet again, she had had a conflict. Ellie took in her friend's cute fall sweater and jeans, and realized Ashley hadn't stopped by to help. She'd probably fib and claim she had a scheduling conflict when in reality, she had a date.
Ashley couldn't hold back a smile. "I have a date, okay?" Ah, she actually admitted it. "I can't help it if you're all work and no play."
Ellie held up her palms to the unpacked boxes and unassembled shelving unit leaning against the adjacent wall. "Our shop is having its grand opening tomorrow." She rolled her shoulders, hating the edge to her voice. She was hungry and every muscle in her body hurt. And more than anything, she was tired. So, so, so tired.
Ashley shrugged and glanced around. "Everything looks great. Besides, we can't put the shelves up on the back wall until you finish painting." Her friend since the first day of kindergarten dragged a finger along a strand of her smooth blond hair and flipped it over her shoulder. "I told you that wall could wait, but you wanted to have everything perfect for tomorrow."
Ellie angled her head. "Don't you?"
"The shop looks great. We can shove those boxes in the back. No one will see them. Can't those teenage boys from the church help again? They're always looking for volunteer hours." Ashley tapped the cardboard box with the toe of her new boots and rubbed her palms together. "No sense us breaking our backs." Ashley laughed.
Ellie straightened, stretching the crick in her back. What did Ashley know about backbreaking work?
"Oh, you're too much of a perfectionist," Ashley continued. "You'll always find things that need improvement." Her pretty face brightened into a smile. "You need to relax. Have fun. Go on a date."
Ellie forced a laugh. Go on a date? Not likely. She wished she could be as easygoing as her longtime friend, but someone had to be the serious one, the planner. Ashley had led a charmed life where everything had been handed to her. Ellie'd had to work for absolutely everything she had and she was done letting others make decisions for her. She was finally taking the reins. Opening her gift shop as she'd always dreamed.
When the right time came, Ellie had reached out to Ashley. Ellie had the vision. Ashley had the financial resources via a trust fund. Their arrangement worked. Ellie liked control and Ashley didn't mind being more or less a silent partner, especially when she had a date or more pressing matters.
Ashley grabbed Ellie's hand and swung it playfully, nearly tugging her arm out of its socket. "Everything will be fine. I promise."
"I do tend to stress." Ellie reclaimed her hand and rubbed her shoulder.
"You're a control freak." Ashley shot her a you-know-I'm-right smile; a smile that always got Ashley exactly what she wanted. "I'm cool with that because I can be spacey sometimes."
Ellie jerked her thumb to the wall separating their shop from the bakery next door. The smells of fresh-baked bread and sweet cupcakes permeated the shop when the paint fumes didn't take over. "Are you going out with Tony again?" Nervous bubbles popped in Ellie's stomach. Tony Vino and his father owned the bakery next door. "Do you think that's a good idea? If things don't work out, you'll have to see him all the time."
Ashley smiled. "You worry too much. Just have fun, can't you? Besides, I promised him I'd treat him to dinner for all the help he's been giving us. Can you imagine if we had to unload all those trucks ourselves?"
How quickly Ashley forgot about all the hard work of the young men from her church. And her brother. Greg had helped unload a truck or two. But now, suddenly, Tony, who seemed to do more flirting than actual work, was the hero in Ashley's eyes.
Ellie rolled her eyes, feigning annoyance. "I have to clean up here. Can you at least come in early tomorrow to help me put up the shelves and unpack the last few boxes?"
"Of course." Ashley tugged on the bottom of her sweater. "Our grand opening is going to be awesome. I have this really cute dress I'm going to wear."
Ashley's enthusiasm vibrated through Ellie. It was this passion that moved Ellie to action. Otherwise she might have still been holed up in her childhood bedroom, stewing over a deadend job and mourning the breakup with her boyfriend. She blinked slowly, knowing she had dodged a bullet on that one. One of these days, she'd have to track down the poor girl who'd sent her boyfriend romantic texts and send her a thank-you note. If Ellie hadn't casually picked up her boyfriend's dinging cell phone and seen the texts, she might never have known he'd been cheating on her. That had been the pivotal moment. The push she had needed to break up with him, move back to Williamstown and change the direction of her life.
"Okay?" Ashley's impatient tone suggested she had been trying to get Ellie's attention while she was composing a thank-you note she'd never really write.
"I'll be here at 7:00 a.m.," Ellie quickly said to cover up the fact she had been zoning.
"Fine." Ellie's tone was part amusement, part frustration. Why did she bother?
Ashley wiggled her fingers and ran out the front door and Ellie followed her to the exit. A set of bells clacked on the glass, an unnecessary setup considering the alarm system emitted a soft chime every time either the front or back door leading to the alley was opened. Ellie snapped the dead bolt into place and stared out onto quiet Main Street. The crimson-colored leaves on the trees fluttered in the wind and a few drifted to the ground. She loved this time of year.
Crisp nights. Crunchy leaves. Colorful knit sweaters.
She turned around and stepped into the center of her new gift shop. Excitement coursed through her. Finally, tomorrow was the grand opening. She closed her eyes briefly and tried to memorize the moment. Savoring this feeling for if, or more likely when, the going got tough.
Then something a stillness maybe, sent a chill skittering down her spine.
Ellie rubbed her arms. She was tired. Really tired. But a good tired. Her muscles ached from all the physical labor she had done over the past three weeks getting this place ready. All she needed to do was clean up the roller and paint tray and call it a night.
The sharp noise sounded from the storage area. The fine hairs on the back of her neck prickled to life. Holding her breath, Ellie crept toward the storage-slash-office at the back of the store. She was such a chicken.
Her pulse whooshed in her ears totally not buying the "it's nothing" theory. It didn't help that the exterior door leading to the alley was propped open. Nothing strange there. She had propped it open. She hadn't wanted the paint fumes to asphyxiate her. As it was, she had a dull headache thumping at the back of her eyes.
Her attention shifted to the floor. One of the paintings from a local artist that had been resting against the wall was now facedown on the gray concrete floor.
The wind knocked it over, that's all.
Letting out a relieved sigh she sent up a silent prayer of thanks. She picked up the painting and set it on top of a stack of boxes. Boxes she hadn't yet had a chance to sort through. She had given Ashley carte blanche to order for the store, but part of her wondered if they should have agreed on items. If they weren't careful, they'd have more inventory than they could sell. Besides everyday gift-shop wares, they had taken in local work from artists and some unique items from around the world. She'd even included a few older pieces of her own. She longed for the time to create again. Ellie's fingers itched at the thought.
Ellie glanced around the shop one last time. After a few last-minute finishing touches tomorrow, she'd host a reception. A grand opening. She was ready. She had to be. For the first time in her life, she was doing something she wanted to do that wasn't defined by her family. Or a boyfriend.
This was her dream.
She picked up the roller and paint tray, carried them into the storage room and placed them in the utility sink. She removed the broom propping open the back door and the door slammed with a satisfying thud. She turned the bolt and checked the handle again.
Back at the sink, she turned on the hot water and let it run. The water f lowed over the paint tray and roller and down into the drain in an orange spiral.
Ellie was eager to go home and get a good night's sleep.
She sensed it a millisecond before she felt it.
Something hard slammed into her. Her knees buckled. A tiny yelp escaped as icy dread swirled in her gut. A prayer floated to mind as automatically as her next breath filled her lungs.
Dear Lord, help me.
A hand clamped over her mouth, jamming her lips against her teeth. A firm arm steadied her, pressing her back against his torso. Heat radiated off his body. Panic and adrenaline surged through her veins. Pushing off the cement floor, she pressed against her attacker, but his rock-hard body forced the solid edge of the utility sink into her belly, making it impossible to move.
Every inch of her scalp prickled with a kind of fear she had never known. The fear humans must experience right before something very, very bad was about to happen.
"Don't," she mumbled against his hand.
He pulled her tighter to him. Something sharp on his jacket dug into her back.
"Please don't " she repeated, unable to see his face.
His warm, uneven breath rasped across her cheek. "Where's the package?" he grunted before a sense of urgency exploded in her. She wrapped her fingers around the handle of the paint roller and brought it up hard and fast. She slugged him in the head with the wet end of the roller.
He backed off with an oomph and folded over, his black hood concealing his features.
Ellie bolted toward the entrance to the shop. She tripped over his foot, but regained her balance by grabbing the doorjamb. She swung into the shop.
Muttered curses sounded behind her. Terror charged every possible nerve ending. She ran forward, knees weak, as if she was caught in one of those nightmares where the ground swallowed each foot.
Steps sounded fast behind her.
This was no nightmare. This was real.
Ellie lurched forward and slapped her hand against the panic button on the alarm control next to the front door, a feature her brother had insisted she install. A feature she had thought silly in sleepy little Williamstown, New York, where the biggest crime involved kids and graffiti and a hundred-year-old mill and angry parents who footed the bill for cleanup so junior wouldn't have a police record.
An ear-piercing, strident alarm sounded in the small space. She yanked open the front door. The redundant bells whacked the glass. She tripped over the lip in the doorway. She held out her hands to protect her face from the advancing concrete when two strong hands grabbed her forearms, steadying her.
A scream ripped from her throat.
On the sidewalk in front of Gifts and More, Special Agent Johnny Rock grabbed Ellie Winters and steadied her. Holding her thin, trembling arms, he tilted his head to look into her eyes, but she was squirming, looking frantically behind her.
An ear-piercing alarm split his eardrums.
"Easy there. What's going on? You okay?" He tore his eyes away from her delicate features and scanned the empty shop behind her, his senses heightened.
Her eyes darted around wildly. "Yes, yes, I'm fine." She yanked away from him, fear rolling off her in tense waves.
"I'm not going to hurt you," he reassured her. "What happened?"
Her eyes landed on his and narrowed, something flickering in their depths. She seemed to shake herself. "Someone was hiding in my back room. He attacked me." She lifted her hand absentmindedly to the back of her head. "He he was chasing me and I "
"Tripped?" Johnny raised his eyebrows.
"Yes, I tripped over the door frame." Her forehead furrowed as if the blaring alarm was scraping across her nerves. Orange paint splotched the right shoulder of her T-shirt and more was spattered on her face. She pointed toward the back of the shop. "Someone's in there."
"Stay here. I'll check things out." He gently took her forearms and placed her against the brick front between the gift shop's door and the entrance to the bakery. "Don't move."
She reached out, her fingers brushing featherlight against the back of his hand. "No, I don't think you should. Wait for the police." She winced against the harsh sound. "The alarm is tied directly into the police station. They'll be here soon. I hit the panic button."
"I'll be fine." In the chaos, she probably didn't recognize him and realize he was in law enforcement. Last time he had stepped foot in her childhood home more than ten years ago, he had been a friend of her brother's. A friendship that had been doomed from the start because it had been built on false pretenses. Johnny hadn't really been a seventeen-year-old transfer student. Johnny had been a twenty-two-year-old rookie cop undercover as a narcotics officer about to rock the tranquil town of Williamstown.
A slam sounded from deep in the shop.
"Stay here," Johnny repeated. "I can't let him get away." If he hasn't already. This might be the break in the case he'd been patiently waiting for.
"I really don't think"
Johnny held up his hand. "Stay here." She flinched at his command. He hadn't meant to snap at her.
He stepped into the shop. Ellie had done a lot of unpacking since the last time he had casually strolled by to check on his target.
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