As a detective in New York, Jacob Marx had been deep under cover in a drug cartel until a bust went terribly wrong. Now posing as a good guy is proving even tougher. Since the force sent him to Brookhollow to lie low as a deputy sheriff, he's been struggling to stay detached from the townspeople. Especially Heather, the gorgeous, high-heeled bartender at the local pool hall who asks too many questions. Tempted as he is, he can't allow himself to connect with her or anyone else. His career and safety are at stake. Of course, a little flirting couldn't hurt Could it?
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"Is that the one that got away?"
Jacob Marx placed his cell phone facedown onto the bar and glanced over his shoulder where Heather, the pool hall's bartender, was so close, strands of her long, dark brown hair rested on his shoulder. The scent of peppermint filled his nose. Huh, must be a holiday thinglast month she'd smelled like pumpkin spice. Not that he paid much attention; he just remembered how it had left him craving a Starbucks pumpkin spiced latte.
"No," he said, turning his attention back to the rum and Coke he'd been nursing for an hour. He wasn't much of a drinker, but sitting at the bar beat being alone every evening, thinking about the life passing him by in New York. He'd done that enough in his first few weeks in tiny Brookhollow, New Jersey, located right between Nowhere Land and Boringsville.
Heather went around the bar and set down a tray of empty beer glasses. "Are you sure? 'Cause it would explain a lot," she said, stacking the dirty dishes in the dishwasher.
Jacob picked up the phone, and closing the photo of his sister and eight-year-old nephew, he tucked it into his pocket. "Yeah, like what?" He leaned forward on the bar. This wasn't a conversation he wanted to have, but the talkative brunette was likely to tell him what she thought anyway.
"Like why you're such a"
"Heather, we need another round on lane four." Candace, the waitress working the bowling alley side of the local hot spot, passed them carrying a food order from the kitchen.
The smell of the hot wings on the tray tempted Jacob to place an order of his own, but checking his glucose monitor, he decided not to mess with his currently stable blood sugars.
"I'll be right back," Heather said, filling a tray with beers from the mini-fridge behind the bar.
"Take your time," Jacob mumbled. He'd rather not spend his evenings at the pool hall when he wasn't on duty, but, unfortunately, in a town as small as this one, there were few options. Other than this pool hall/bowling alley/ movie theater complex, the only other bar in town was the Green Gator, a karaoke joint. And he'd rather have his eyes poked out than go there.
He watched Heather carry the drinks to the bowling lane and collect the cash from the under-forty league members. The teams were practicing for their annual holiday bowling tournament, which had been so well-advertised and talked about all over town that anyone would think it was the Super Bowl.
A holiday bowling tournament was creating an excited buzz. Man, this town couldn't possibly be more boring.
But boring, quiet, uneventful was what he'd wanted, right?
Jacob drained the contents of his glass and threw several bills onto the bar as he stood.
"Hey, where are you going? We haven't finished our discussion yet," Heather said, returning. The holiday music had stopped playing, and she reached for another CD. More Christmas tunes. Same playlist every night that week. They'd already had the argument that it was too early to be playing that crap, but he'd lost and she'd only turned the music up louder.
"We weren't having a discussion. You were just insulting me, so I think I'll head out."
"Look, I didn't mean any offense," she said, as the first few notes of "I'll Be Home with Bells On" started to play.
"Could have fooled me," he grumbled, sliding into his leather jacket.
"All I'm saying is people around here are curious about you. You've been here for four months, and no one really knows your deal." She slid the other CD back into its case and turned to lean her hip against the bar.
"My deal?" he asked, his gaze returning to hers.
"Why you're here."
"Because it's such a quaint, idyllic town isn't enough reason?"
Heather shrugged. "Fine. But just so you know, when people around here get curious about someone, they start speculating on their own. Believe me, I've heard a dozen rumors already." She turned away from him and resumed hanging a set of colored Christmas lights behind the bar.
Again, too early, but at least she hadn't asked for his help. Christmas wasn't exactly his thing. Or at least it hadn't been for the last few years.
Jacob hesitated. He didn't give a rat's behind what these local people were saying about him, but his gut tightened at being the topic of conversation. Had someone actually figured out why he was there? Small-town gossip made him nervous, and while he had confidence in Sheriff Bishop's discretion, he could never be too sure. Thirteen years on the job had made it impossible to trust anyone. Probably why he'd never gotten married. Actually, precisely why he hadn't gotten married.
Sighing, he sat back down. "Okay, let's hear them."
Heather continued singing as the song reached its chorus, ignoring him now. "Hey, Talks-a-lot!"
She turned with a wide smile that caught him off guard, and he felt the tips of his ears grow hot.
He hadn't meant to blurt out his secret name for her. The truth was he had one for almost everyone in town. Four months in sleepy, low-crime Brookhollow was driving him mad. He had to do something to entertain himself. And he didn't want to get attached to anyone or anything. Nicknames helped.
So did she. "I'm good with that. Been called worse. Okay, so here's what I've heard." She lowered her voice. "Blink once if it's true, twice if it's not."
She huffed. "Fine. Well, one story is that you shot a fellow cop in New York and you felt so guilty about it, you needed to get away."
"I have shot a fellow cop before. Don't feel the least bit guilty." The rookie officer had caught a bullet in his left butt cheek in a liquor store robbery shoot-out, after ignoring protocol and advancing on the perpetrator. He'd been lucky it was only his butt; if Jacob hadn't fired when he had, the guy may not have walked away at all. "What else you got?"
Her eyes widened for a quick moment, then she said, "Another theory is that you were fired, and no other big-city department would hire you."
That was a little closer. "Fired for what?"
"The thoughts on that are varied. Some people say it was for withholding narcotics, others for killing an innocent bystander in a shootout. One person was kinder and said it was because you'd gotten strung out and went a little crazy."
That was kinder? "That all you got?"
"Pretty much the others are too ridiculous to be true."
These people knew nothing. Reassured and relieved, he stood again and reached for his gloves. "Well, sorry to say they are all wrong. I'm just here for a change of scenery."
"No one's buying that story, JakeI mean, Sheriff Matthews," she said.
Jake. Sheriff Matthews. Man, the worst part about this whole thing was not even being allowed to keep his own name. He hated when people called him Jake, but at least he answered to it. Better than getting used to something totally different, and he wasn't about to argue any of the conditions of his placement. Originally, they'd wanted to send him with his sister and nephew to some remote location, indefinitely, under the federal witness protection program. He'd been lucky to convince the department to let him stay close to New York and take on this mundane sheriff position instead. He'd claimed he wanted to stay nearby for when and if the drug case went to court and they needed him to testify, but the truth was he was still on the undercover case just not officially.
"I'm not asking anyone to buy it," he said, heading toward the door. He just needed them to mind their own business. "Have a good night."
Heather cradled her cell phone against her shoulder as she carried the heavy garbage bag through the back door of the pool hall. She set the trash down on the icy ground next to the already heaping bin, making a mental note to call the disposal company in the morning to come empty it. When she'd taken over running the bar from Melody Myers eleven months ago she a) hadn't expected it to be so hard and b) hadn't expected to be running it longer than six months.
"You still there?" her older sister said on the other end of the line.
"Barely," she mumbled, glancing at the seconds ticking away on her phone. Cameron had left her on hold for almost nine minutes.
"Sorry I'm working, you know," she said distractedly.
Heather shivered in the late November air as she made her way back inside. "So am I."
"Yeah, at some crappy pool hall in the middle of nowhere. Heather, you have an MBA."
"I know," she said, tugging the heavy metal door closed behind her and locking it. She hadn't forgotten how hard she'd worked for the life and career she'd once had in New York; she was just struggling to figure out how to get back there, to all of that. "That's why I'm asking you for this favor."
"Heather, this is Highstone Acquisitions in Manhattan. Not some rinky-dink firm."
She sighed, suppressing the urge to remind her sister that she had worked at Clarke and Johnston for over ten years. They weren't a rinky-dink firm, either. "That's why I want to apply for a job there."
"Heather, you know I love you and I want nothing more than to have you back here in the city, but this is Rob's employer. Asking him to stick his neck on the line for you is "
Heather gaped. Sticking his neck on the line? Seriously? "Thanks for the vote of confidence, Cam," she said. "You know what?
Never mind." She'd look up the firm herself and apply for the acquisitions agent position without Rob's help. It would be the fourth one she'd applied for in a year. She'd yet to even be called for an interview. And it baffled her. Her résumé was solid. She had the MBA Cameron had just mentioned. It was as though her previous employer had blackballed her somehow, she thought bitterly.
Calling in the favor to her sister's husband had meant swallowing her pride, but she was getting desperate. She had exactly five hundred and seventy-two dollars left in her bank account, after depleting her savings for the past year while she searched for a job.
"I'm sorry," Cameron said, sounding sincere. "That's not what I meant." She sighed. "Okay, Rob's direct boss is Mike Ainsley. He owns the company. His phone number "
Going to the register behind the bar, Heather ripped off a piece of receipt paper. "Can't I just email him?"
"He'll probably want you to email a résumé, but Rob always says he likes to have a chat with potential candidates first."
That made sense, and she wasn't opposed to calling him, she was just hoping for more time to prepare for a discussion with the man. She wanted to make sure she got a shot at this position. "How old is he?"
"Old. Anyway, it doesn't matter. You're looking for a new employer this time, not a potential boyfriend, remember?"
Heather cringed. Her sister would throw that in her face again. "Believe me, I've learned my lesson about that," she mumbled. Three years in a relationship with her boss at Clarke and Johnston, only to lose him as both employer and boyfriend, had taught her to diversify.
Workplace relationships were not an option anymore.
"Good. So, just put away your sarcasm and resist every urge to be funny, and get through a short telephone call. We really do want you back here in the city."
She wanted to get back to her old life, too. She'd been away and out of the game long enough. Her career as an acquisitions agent, buying out smaller companies on behalf of million-dollar clientsusually box stores and hotel chainshad come to a halt after she'd been fired and dumped in the same week. She'd hightailed it to Brookhollow for her friend Victoria's wedding and a mini-vacation. She hadn't planned to stay for two years. The reminder of her friend momentarily gave her pause. "Look, Cam, I'll be there as soon as I can, but Victoria is depending on me now, too." Victoria ran a B and B in town. Her business partner and best friend had died months before in a car accident, and Heather had stepped in to help as much as possible. Days at the Brookhollow Inn's front desk and evenings at the pool hall were starting to take their toll, but leaving both her friend and the bar shorthanded made her feel guilty.
Yet every time she checked her bank account, she was reminded of how much she needed to get a job and get back to the city. She was volunteering her time at the B and B in exchange for a room, and the bar paid minimum wage and was never busy enough for her to make much in tips. "Victoria never expected you stay, and she's a good friendshe'll understand your decision. Just like you supported hers to move back to Brookview."
"Sure, whatever. Call Mike Ainsley and secure this position before Christmas. We really want you to spend the holidays with us this year. Last year wasn't the same without you."
Guilt washed over her. Without their parents, she and her sister had always spent the holidays together, but the year before she'd decided to stay in Brookhollow, knowing that Christmas in the cityher first one single and alonemight be too depressing. But the holiday hadn't been the same for her, either. And the truth was, she wasn't happy in the small town anymore. It was time to move on. "I'll call him in the morning."
Jacob unlocked the back door of the three-story house on Pine Street where he was renting the attic-turned-bachelor-suite from Mrs. Kelly, a retired schoolteacher. Despite the late hour, all of the lights were on. He suspected she waited up for him every evening, and he sighed when he heard the sound of her slippers shuffling down the hallway.
"Jake, that you?" she called.
So much for sneaking upstairs unnoticed.
"Yeah, Mrs. Kelly, it's just me."
"Hi, dear," she said as she entered the back porch off of the kitchen. "I was hoping you'd be home sooner."
Home? Hardly. Home was a two-bedroom apartment in the city that he hadn't seen in three years, first living undercover in a dive motel in Brooklyn, where he slept with his clothes on and his gun under his pillow, and then hiding out here in Brookhollow, where the only dangerfor nowwas this woman's nosiness.
Home was such a distant memory, he wasn't sure he'd recognize it even if he ever did see it again.
He sighed. "Why? What did you need help with?" In addition to paying three hundred dollars in rent for the twenty by twenty, six-foot high space that had given him a permanent neck cramp from stooping, he'd also become her jar opener, her sidewalk clearer and, most recently, her plumber.
"Well, I wanted to start my holiday decorating."
"Isn't it a little soon?" Heather could argue that businesses needed to get an early push on the season, but individuals? Was that really necessary?
Mrs. Kelly's expression revealed that she thought he was crazy for even making the suggestion. "Of course not."
"Right. Okay, so what do you need?" Because he knew that's where this was headed.
"Well, my nephew used to come and help me get my things out of the storage space but he's away at the police academy in Boston."
That's right, her nephew was Cody Kelly, the young man who'd been counting on the sheriff's position here in Brookhollow once he graduated in a few weeks. Well, the kid could have it as soon as Jacob didn't need it anymore.
"He'll be here during the holidays of course, so don't worry, you'll get a chance to meet him."
He wasn't worrying, and he seriously doubted he'd be attending the family's holiday festivities. The young man probably wasn't thrilled that Jacob had taken his position and wouldn't be excited about meeting him, either.
"But in the meantime."
"You'd like me to get your decorations out for you."
She smiled. "You are such a sweet boy."
"First thing in the morning, I'll get everything out before I go to work," he said, turning the corner and starting to climb the stairs.
She hurried after him. "I was kinda hoping to get started tonight."
Jacob poked his head around the corner, checking the time on the microwave. "It's eleven-thirty. You want to start decorating now?"
She nodded. "I'm a bit of a night owl."
He stifled a yawn. "Mrs. Kelly " How did he tell the woman that, just because he was renting space in her home, she couldn't expect him to be there to help her with every project? That he preferred his privacy and space. He should never have ignored his gut, which had told him moving into her attic apartment would be a mistake. The price had been right, and at the time, he'd hoped he wouldn't need the place for more than a few weeks, a month at most. But a few weeks had quickly turned into four months and counting.