Coming home should be simple.
For Ben Santoni, however, it's anything but straightforward. Kelly Lawson isn't the sweet girl he remembers. She's tougher now, and her icy demeanor makes it clear she hasn't forgiven him. So, fine, he'll keep his distance even though her attitude challenges his role as police chief.
But when a murderer strikes and Kelly is threatened, personal feelings can't come into play. It's Ben's duty to protect her, and that's what he'll do. As the case progresses, objectivity becomes impossible. Because suddenly, Ben wants far more than just to keep her safe .
About the Author
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Ben Santoni scowled at the television van parked outside the police station. The local media had arrived early for an afternoon press conference, the recent murders being the most excitement Sand Point had seen in years. Of course, the threatening letters sent to Mayor Stone were partly to blame. Ben's frown deepened.
Somebody had leaked information about the death threats to the newspaper. If the Gazette reporter suggested "conspiracy" one more time
"Hon, your fierce stare might put the fear of God in little ole criminals, but those two reporters out there don't care," said Vivian Cox, her voice like a rusty saw as she walked into his office.
Ben relaxed. "Which movie hero sidekick are you channeling today?"
"Hey, I'm an original, babycakes."
That was an understatementVivian was five-foot-nothing, her face wrinkled beneath thick makeup, and her hair dyed a brilliant red. According to longtime residents of Sand Point, she'd worked at the mayor's office since she was eighteen, way back when her hair was naturally that color. Mayors came and went, but Viv stayed. After just a month on duty as the town's police chief, Ben had already learned it was wise to stay on her good side.
"What's up, Viv?"
"Hizonor wants to know if you've found the author of those, and I quote, 'smutty mystery novels.'"
"You mean the mayor actually bothered to read them? " Another voice queried wryly, this one low and very feminine.
Ben's nerves tightened. It was the town's public affairs officer. Kelly James was the only person in City Hall who didn't want to talk to the media, and it was her job.
"Hasn't read them, doesn't intend to," Vivian said. "Mostly he's upset that the library is carrying so many copies. Thinks it's a waste of taxpayer money and will 'rot our young people's minds.' You know how he is on this stuff."
"That's nonsense. Besides, they were donated by the publisher, not purchased," Kelly protested. "The book-buying budget has been nonexistent the past couple of years."
"He still thinks"
"Is there a reason you're having this discussion in my office?" Ben asked. Loudly.
"You wouldn't expect us to have it in the squad room, would you, Police Chief Santoni?" Kelly didn't add "Mr. Big Shot Special Detective," but he knew that's what she meant.
He closed his eyes for a long second. When he'd accepted the position in Sand Point, Oregon, he'd never expected to find Kelly James working for City Hall.
That is, Kelly James Lawson.
He kept forgetting the "Lawson" part, having known her as the skinny, thoroughly annoying, kid next door when he'd visited his aunt and uncle in Sand Point. Well, except when they were eighteen and ceased hostilities long enough for each of them to discover how the other tasted. By then she'd become a leggy blond armful who'd gotten engaged to another man just months after their summer of hot-and-heavy dating.
Hell, he shouldn't have gotten his teenage ego in a twist over the whole thingit wasn't as if he'd asked her to wait for him. Why wouldn't she take the easy route and get married after her mother was gone? People were mostly out for themselves; the trick was guessing how far they would go to get what they wanted.
When Ben opened his eyes he saw Kelly and Viv watching him, so he plastered a noncommittal expression on his face. It was just his luck that Sand Point's police station was in the same building complex as the mayor's office, otherwise he wouldn't have so many visitors.
"Kelly, our beloved mayor thinks those books are smutty because folks are so eager to read them, and because of the provocative shadows on the dust jackets," Vivian said. "They couldn't possibly be popular because they're exciting and well written."
Kelly sat on the corner of the desk with her back to Ben. "How can shadows be provocative?"
Viv winked. "A man and a woman? They've got to be about sex. That's how Hizonor sees it."
Feeling ignored, which undoubtedly was Kelly's intention, Ben lifted his copy of Deep Water and examined the cover. Those weren't shadows; they were human figures blurred by blue water. The art was suggestive, but not in bad taste. The cover of the second novel, Deep Sea, was slightly more explicit than the first, but after what he'd seen as a Los Angeles street cop and homicide detective, it was pretty tame.
"You'd think the mayor would be more worried about the murders and getting hate mail than some books," Ben interjected.
"He's worried," Vivian admitted grudgingly. "Just covering it up. This is an election year. He wants to project the image of a strong moral leader."
"Speaking of which," Kelly said, "I think you should run for office, Viv. A lot of people would vote for you. I even heard someone discussing it at lunch the other day."
Viv looked appalled. "I'm not an idiot. I like being a public servantfull benefits and I don't have to reapply every four years."
Ben hid a grin.
Viv was smart, the mayor self-righteous and Kelly the curvaceous pain-in-the-ass widow of a local hero. God, he'd heard enough about Mitchell Lawson's heroism to last a lifetime. There was even a plaque honoring the man in front of City Hall, lauding him to the skies. Lawson may have been a nice enough guy and a brave fireman who died in the line of duty, but nobody was that pure of heart and mind.
Ben tossed Deep Water onto a nearby shelf. Tonight he'd have to read more than the first chapter and flyleaf. The death threats against Mayor Stone had referenced the bookssomething the Sand Point Gazette had focused on the past few days. The paper was trying to connect the dots between the real murders and the fictional ones since the elusive, bestselling author claimed to be from the local area and there were some similarities to the crimes. Ben just wished that they'd stop making people paranoid by talking about it.
Unfortunatelyhe checked the scene outside his officethe mayor wasn't the only one who couldn't resist the lure of temporary fame. Even fame on a small scale. His squad room was filled with employees primping every ten minutes in case they were interviewed and made the nightly news.
The men were the worst.
He had never seen a sorrier group of starched and pressed officers. If the crease on Detective Lasko's collar got any sharper he'd cut his throat.
"You're taking the press conference, right?" he asked Kelly. "Press conference" sounded grander than it really wasa few reporters, a photographer and a camera-manbut the mayor loved making it seem important.
She sent a careless glance over her shoulder. "Sorry, I won't be there. Mayor Stone wants his stalwart new police chief at his side, assuring the public that the guilty party or parties will be caught. Isn't it lucky you have all of those big-city crime-solving skills?"
Kelly knew he preferred city life. Okay, so he'd been less than tactful about the town a few weeks ago when talking to his uncle, the former Sand Point police chief. How could he have known she was in the kitchen, visiting his aunt? You'd have thought he'd spit on the flag the way she'd blown up at him.
"Give it a rest," Ben growled.
"Give what a rest? I was simply extolling your credentials as police chief," she said, ice glinting in her eyes. Making peace was a smart idea under the circumstances, but it would clearly take a while.
"Fine. Whatever. Any special mayoral guidance for handling the press?" he asked.
"As usual, he doesn't want you to bring up Deep Water or Deep Sea, but if they bring it up the mayor's response will be 'no comment,'" Kelly said. "He wants you to be as brief as possible and downplay any resemblance between the books and the dock murders."
"Why? Because he thinks they're smutty?"
Kelly shrugged. "He feels connecting the novels and the murders sensationalizes everything even more, which is bad for tourism. Tourist dollars are important to the Sand Point economy."
"Especially in an election year," Ben snapped. "Your mayor is being irresponsible. He doesn't care about solving the murders, just about the publicity. For all I know, he's the one who leaked the story about receiving death threats so he could get the attention."
"Phillip Stone is your mayor, too, Police Chief Santoni. You're either a member of our community, or you aren't."
Ben cursed silently.
When would he learn to be quiet?
Uncle Henry had said the same thing, in a different way. It blew Ben's mind that Henry Jefferson could have gone from being a Europe-based CIA bureau chief to a police chief in a small coastal town in Oregon. Purely by choice, tooUncle Henry and Aunt Gina had never had kids, so he hadn't needed to worry about raising a son in the city as a single father, with the unpredictable hours of a homicide detective.
"You and Viv don't like Mayor Stone any more than I do."
"We may not have voted for him, but we did vote."
"In Los Angeles. How's your mayor doing down there?"
He sighed. "I have a better questionhow long will it be before I'm accepted in Sand Point? I have a job to do, and I want to do it well. Despite what you heard me saying, I'm willing to give the place a chance."
Kelly put her hands on the desk and leaned forward, and Ben was reminded that her eyes had always done something to him. Big, blue, wistful.they'd confused the hell out of his younger self. Now they made him wary. What was going on behind the surface?
"You'll be accepted when you decide to be," she said softly. "That won't happen until you realize Sand Point is more than a good environment to raise Toby, and that people are usually better than their selfish side. Some are genuine heroes."
"Like your husband?" Ben winced as soon as the words left his mouth. He might believe she'd married Mitch Lawson for the financial security he offered, but she appeared devoted to his memory.
Kelly straightened, her lips in a taut line. "Mitch was a wonderful man. Finer than you'll ever know."
"That's what everyone keeps telling me. But what's wrong with leaving the city for the sake of my son?"
"Nothing. Only how is Toby going to adjust if you don't like it here?"
Ben took his time before answering. He hadn't told anyone that his ex-wife had hooked a wealthy husband with no interest in a ready-made family. Now Dawn didn't want anything to do with her own child in case it jeopardized her cushy new life. Moving to Oregon would protect Toby from that knowledge for a while. As for adjusting, Toby was doing great with Gina and Henry doting on him. He had a few separation issues to work through, but it wasn't serious.
"My son is none of your business, and I've got two homicides to solve," he said finally. "Not to mention I'm doing your job by taking that press conference."
"That isn't how the mayor sees things."
"Probably because you talked him into seeing it that way."
Kelly's level gaze didn't change. "Or maybe he agrees that Sand Point needs to see you and be assured their new police chief can keep them safe." Without another word she walked from the office. Viv hesitated, looking both curious and puzzled, then left, as well.
Ben's gut churned.
Kelly was right. He'd done a few interviews with the press when he was a detective, though he'd avoided them whenever possible. Now people were scared and needed reassurance. Like it or not, that was his job as the police chief. At least this way he could deal with their questions about his qualifications directly, rather than letting the mayor do it. Mayor Stone sounded supportive, but there was something in the way he answered those inquiries that bothered Ben.
A muscle ticked in his jaw as he focused on the latest status report from his detectives. He needed answers about the homicides. They didn't make sense. Two murders within days of each other, in a place as quiet as Sand Point? He'd moved here because it was free of gang problems and had a low crime rate.
Then something else occurred to Ben, temporarily pushing aside more pressing concerns. Kelly had talked about Toby as if she knew him, but he hadn't brought his son to the station yet. Maybe she'd met him at Uncle Henry's
All at once he let out a resigned laugh.
His aunt and uncle had been taking Toby to church, and Toby was crazy about his Sunday school teacher Miss Kelly. Ben had assumed Kelly was a last name, but he'd bet serious money that "Miss Kelly" was Kelly Lawson.
Kelly fumed as she headed back to her office. To think she'd promised Gina to try being more open-minded when it came to her nephew. But Ben's sardonic tone whenever he mentioned her husband was too much. He always thought the worst of people. She shouldn't let it get to her, but it seemed so unfair that Ben Santoni was alive when Mitch wasn't.
She plopped down on her chair and regrouped.
Nobody knew better than she did that life wasn't fair, and it wasn't that she wished Ben dead. She just wished things had turned out better for everyone.
Kelly swallowed, trying to ease the hollow sensation
in her stomach. She'd been a widow for three years. It added up to a lot of lonely days and nights and a lot of tears. Things were different when Mitch had been there, loving her, having faith in their life together. But doubts crept in when she was alone and the nights got long. She couldn't help thinking about her mother, a hard-living, unmarried cocktail waitress with poor taste in clothing and worse taste in men. There were so many "uncles" growing up that Kelly could never keep them straight.
And yet Shanna's last thoughts before the accident were about her daughter making a better life. Kelly had clung to that memory when she had nothing else.
"Goodness," said Viv from the door. "You and the new chief sure don't like each other. How come? The rumor mill says you used to be an item."
"A long time ago for about five minutes." Kelly saw that she'd been doodling on a notepad and shoved it away. "We were kidsit was the blinding influence of hormones overcoming good sense."
"Yeah, I remember what it was like to be young instead of a cranky, old lady."
"You aren't old."
"I'm old," Vivian said, sounding far from her usual wisecracking self. "And I got nobody, same as that poor bum who died. Folks are more upset about Harvey's murder than a homeless guy getting himself killed, but I can't stop thinking about it. He died alone, and no relations have come forward to claim his body."
Kelly shivered; she'd been haunted by the same thing. "I guess it's closer to home with Harvey a businessman with a family. You can put yourself in his shoes easier than with someone living on the streets."