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T here's no holiday I like better than Valentine's Day," Rachel Hollister said. She smiled as she straightened the rack of new cards and admired the predominance of red hearts and white lace. "Except maybe for Christmas and Easter and St. Patrick's Day and…"
Eloise McCafferty, the elderly founder of the shop, chuckled. "You love greeting cards, period, Rachel. That's one of the reasons why I decided to turn this operation over to you. My dear Delbert would be rolling over in his grave if he could see how far in debt we are." She suddenly got an impish grin on her round, full face and her eyes twinkled. "Will you have to fire me to cut corners?"
"Of course not." Rachel's blue-eyed gaze met the older woman's and she realized Eloise had been teasing, although there was an element of truth to the supposition.
"Whew! That's a relief."
Sobering, Rachel patted her mentor's shoulder. "I still wish you'd let me buy an interest the way I offered to. I have a little money saved and…"
"No. You're like a daughter to me. Just don't bury yourself in this place 24/7 and miss out on the rest of life." She winked. "Like maybe marriage."
Rachel gave a nervous tug on the hem of her embroidered T-shirt and smoothed it over her jeans. "Believe me, I discovered a long time ago that I don't need a man in my life to make it whole."
"Maybe not a snob like Lance Beech or the guys you dated before he came along, but there must be a perfect husband for you somewhere."
"In a little town like Serenity? I can't see any good prospects. Besides, I prefer to stand on my own two feet."
She purposely changed the subject. "So, are you ready to tackle the last of the shipment that came in yesterday or do you want me to do it?"
"You're the boss. You tell me to jump and all I'll ask is how high."
Thoroughly enjoying the banter, Rachel nodded and pointed. "Okay, Miss Froggy. You go in the back room and check packing slips while I rearrange these drawers. There's a lot of old stock in here that I need to weed out and I wouldn't want you to feel bad having to watch."
"I don't mind as long as we donate the rejects to charity the way we planned."
Rachel pulled an empty cardboard box closer and went to work as soon as the older woman left the room. It was a tedious chore, one that muted her senses and lulled her usually quick mind into a daydreaming state.
Valentine's Day. What a lovely occasion, she mused. Except that I rarely receive any of the sweet, sentimental cards we sell.
Perhaps that should have bothered her but it didn't. After her recent, messy breakup with Lance and the way some of their mutual friends had started practically shunning her, even at church, Rachel was far from ready to open her heart to another man, let alone anyone local.
She was just rising and getting ready to drag the half-full cardboard box to the next drawer when she heard a muffled, squeaky noise coming from the back room.
No one answered. "Eloise? Are you all right?"
Waiting quietly for an answer and hearing nothing, Rachel frowned. That was strange. Unless Mrs. McCafferty's hearing aid battery was going dead, she should have replied.
"Eloise? Answer me."
Instead of a spoken response, Rachel heard a piercing scream! She gasped. Her feet felt rooted to the carpet. In the few seconds it took for her to force herself to move, the wordless screeching was repeated so many times she lost count.
Jace Morgan was cruising Main Street, just passing the grocery store, when the call came over his radio. He was still learning his way around the area and might have had trouble locating a residence on one of the many unmarked, outlying, dirt roads, but the commercial district was easy to navigate, especially since the sheriff's office was right across the square.
He radioed that he was on scene as he parked his black-and-white patrol car in front of the group of stores. Leaving the light bar flashing, he stepped out of the vehicle.
An icy wind chilled him through his brown bomber jacket and he shivered, reminded that he was no longer in Southern California. The streets seemed awfully quiet for a Friday morning. Then again, what did he know? Maybe for Serenity, this was bustling activity.
One thing was certain. He was a lot less likely to get shot at again while he was working this beat. The wound in his shoulder had healed nicely. The trauma of watching his partner fall remained. He still ducked when he heard loud sounds, as if facing mortal danger.
That was one of the reasons he'd left Los Angeles and had accepted an enormous cut in pay to work here. His doctors had warned him to either make some changes or risk burning out. Being a cop was in his blood. He'd never willingly stop standing for what was right in a world where so much was wrong, so he'd accepted the first job offer he'd received and here he was—in the Arkansas Ozarks—freezing to death and hoping for an early spring.
He shouldered through the front door of the card shop, fully expecting to be greeted. No one came forward. He called, "Sheriff," and paused, wary.
At the rear of the store, he heard what sounded like an argument. Releasing the safety strap on his holster, he placed his palm on the butt of his gun and waited, straining to listen.
"You did what?" came a woman's voice that sounded more than a little peeved. "What did you do that for?"
Jace couldn't hear the soft reply but since no one was screaming or cursing or hollering threats, he figured he'd be able to handle the situation with calming words and a logical approach.
Heading toward the origin of the conversation, he soon found himself face-to-face with two women. One was familiar because he'd introduced himself to many of the shopkeepers when he'd first been hired by Sheriff Allgood.
The other, much younger woman was new to him, and was undoubtedly the prettiest girl he'd seen in ages, with long, light brown, wavy hair and just enough freckles to make her look sun-kissed. She didn't look a bit pleased by his arrival, though. Her blue eyes narrowed and her lips pressed into a thin line. If anyone else had stared at him that way, he'd have been worried. On her, however, everything was attractive, even a frown.
Jace touched the brim of his cap and nodded politely. "One of you ladies reported a disturbance?"
"I did," the sixtyish, shorter woman answered. "I thought somebody should and Rachel wasn't about to do it."
He looked to Rachel. "Pleased to meet you, miss. How can I be of service?"
"This really isn't necessary," she argued. "Somebody is just playing a bad joke."
"Maybe you should let me decide that," Jace said. He could tell by the way she kept stepping between him and an open carton on the floor that she didn't want him to look at it. "The problem is in that box, right?"
Deftly angling around her, he nudged the box with the toe of his boot. Bits of Styrofoam packing material were scattered across the bare floor and he could see the top of what looked like a bedraggled flower arrangement peeking through the snowy drifts left in the carton.
Scowling, Jace looked back at the women. "That bouquet must have been in transit a long time—long enough to wilt and die. That's hardly a police matter."
"I know," Rachel replied tersely. "That's what I told Eloise— Mrs. McCafferty. But she phoned the sheriff's office anyway."
He did his best to keep from sounding judgmental as he cautioned them. "Next time, I suggest you call your freight company or whoever delivered that in the first place."
"What an excellent idea," Rachel said.
Jace could tell she was mocking him but he let it slide. He needed to make friends here, not alienate the very folks he'd sworn to serve and defend.
"We can't," the older woman piped up. "That's what I've been trying to explain. Nobody's listening."
"There's no shipping label on this box. Not even a return address. I don't know how it got back here but it didn't come in any of the usual ways."
"Are you sure?" Jace could tell by the surprised expression on the younger woman's face that this was the first she'd heard of the discrepancy. He watched her bend over, pluck a crumpled piece of paper from the carton and smooth it so she could read what was written on it.
Her eyes widened.
Jace relieved her of the note, taking care to handle it by pinching only one corner. The scrawled message made his heartbeat jump. It said,
Like my favorite girl. Once beautiful, now dead.
* * *
Rachel knew it wasn't logical to be frightened by such a silly threat but it was still upsetting. "I'm going to have nightmares for weeks," she muttered. "I know I am."
Her brow knit as she addressed the deputy. "Something else just occurred to me. If that horrible thing wasn't delivered in the regular way, how did it get into our storeroom?"
"Do you keep the back door locked?"
"We will from now on."
"How about an alarm system? Do you have one of those?"
"No." She smiled at Mrs. McCafferty. "And we can't afford to install one. We'll be fortunate to keep our doors open if we don't start to generate more sales. Which reminds me…" She briefly glanced over the officer's shoulder, then concentrated on him. "More than one of my regular customers has peered in the window since you got here. Would you mind moving that car and shutting off your flashing lights? You're bad for business."
"Will you be okay if I leave long enough to do that?"
"Of course. Why wouldn't we be?"
"Just didn't want to be accused of dereliction of duty."
Rachel huffed and peered at his name tag. "Look, Deputy Morgan, I can take care of myself and Eloise just fine. We didn't need you here in the first place."
The moment she spoke she was penitent. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to sound so harsh. I know you're only doing your job."
"You don't care much for police officers, do you? May I ask why?"
"Well, not because I'm a crook, if that's what you're thinking," Rachel replied. "Actually, my father is a cop. Or he was, until he retired recently."
"I take it you and he don't see eye to eye." Jace's brows arched.
She laughed wryly. "That, Deputy, has to be the understatement of the century."
Jace wasn't too concerned about the strange package at the card store. After all, it hadn't been physically damaging, nor did it show much imagination. Anybody could send dead flowers as a sick joke. Considering the kinds of heinous criminal acts he'd faced in L.A., this one was little more than a nuisance.
His thoughts carried him back to the look on Rachel's face when she'd read that cryptic note. There had been an unguarded moment of fear before she'd carefully schooled her features to appear less concerned.
What was she hiding? And why? Surely she couldn't be involved in anything serious. According to Sheriff Allgood, there was little crime in Serenity and what there was, was quickly dealt with. There had only been one murder in the past three years and that crime had been solved, which told Jace that the town was about as peaceful as anyone could hope for.
He shivered. Images of his last gun battle, the one that had changed his life, flashed into his mind. He and his partner, Roy, had been patrolling an alley behind a hotel when Roy had informed him that he was going to marry the woman Jace had courted for nearly a year. Shocked and saddened, Jace had not been at his best when shots had whistled over their heads moments later.
"Duck!" Roy had shouted, grabbing his arm and dragging him behind a trash bin.
Jace crouched instinctively and drew his gun. "Where did that come from?"
"I don't know. Second story, I think. Keep your head down and cover me. I'll go around and come in the back."
Nodding, Jace tightened his grip on his pistol. His head was spinning. All he could think about was Sandra. With Roy. As a couple. And he was left out in the cold.
More shots echoed between the tall buildings. Jace tensed, looking for the source and preparing to return fire. There. Third window from the corner. He raise his arm and aimed.
Just then, another shooter entered the scene. Roy fell. And Jace froze, incredulous, for what seemed like an eternity. It was long enough for him to be wounded, too.
Later, when his shoulder had been bandaged and his partner had regained consciousness in the hospital, with Sandra holding his hand and weeping over him, Roy had assured Jace that there was nothing Jace could have done to prevent their injuries.
Jace hadn't been sure then and he was no more positive now. Still, the incident had served a purpose. It had demonstrated without a doubt that Sandra loved Roy. And it had given Jace a reason to change jobs, to simplify his life as well as move across the country to escape constant reminders of his lost love.
He paused in the street and glanced back at the card shop. If he were looking for a new relationship, he'd certainly be interested in getting to know Rachel better.
Good thing for him he was cured of any romantic tendencies, he thought cynically as he turned away, because that was one attractive lady.
The last thing Rachel wanted to do was report more problems to the sheriff. Unfortunately, it looked as if she was going to have to do exactly that. When she went to hang up her jacket and check the security of her back door the next morning, she found pry marks on the frame, the lock sprung and the door sagging open on damaged hinges.
"This is getting disgusting," she muttered, grabbing her cell phone.
A male voice answered, "Sheriff's office. What's your emergency?"
"This is Rachel Hollister. The back door of my store has been forced open."
"Where are you now?"
"Standing here, looking at it. Why?"
"Don't go inside. Whoever's responsible may still be there."
That had not occurred to her. "Too late. I'm already inside."
"Well get out. Now. We'll send a man right over. And stay on the line with me if you can. Are you on a cell or a landline?"
The command to remain connected hardly registered. She ended the call automatically as she gaped at the damaged door. Suddenly, the atmosphere in the storeroom seemed ice-cold in spite of the fact that she had worn a short-sleeve sweater to work instead of a blouse or T-shirt.
"That's because it's only thirty degrees outside and that broken door is open," she assured herself, rubbing her prickling forearms.