When Taffeta Brown was viciously betrayed by her wealthy husband, she lost everything—including custody of their daughter, Sarah. Now that Taffy has moved to Mystic Creek, Oregon, to start over, she unexpectedly meets the one man who might help her get Sarah back.
Barney Sterling, a local lawman, finds himself drawn to the lovely, guarded Taffy, but he’s stunned by her proposition—that they marry immediately to improve her chances of regaining custody of her daughter. Barney takes marriage too seriously to commit himself to a woman he hardly knows. Yet soon his sympathies fall with the desperate Taffy, and pretending to be in love becomes the easiest part of the plan. But they have no idea what they’re up against, or what they’re willing to risk to make a miracle come true in Mystic Creek.
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The headlights of the county-owned crew-cab truck cut through drifting snowflakes to bathe quaint storefronts in flashes of gold as Barney Sterling circled the town center of Mystic Creek and then turned right onto East Main. Paul Kutz, better known as Pop, the proprietor of Antiquarian Books in the Mystic Creek Menagerie, had just called in a complaint about loud music keeping him and his new roommate, Ray Burke, awake. It wasn’t yet nine, but Barney guessed that people on the high side of eighty went to bed early.
Reaching across the console, he crumpled the top of a white paper bag that held what remained of his night-shift meal, fresh from the ovens at the Jake ’n’ Bake. He’d ordered three Italian panzarotti, small closed pizzas filled with tomato, mozzarella, and sausage. Now a dusting of confectioner’s sugar clung to his fingers from the warm cream horns he’d been about to devour for dessert. The interior of the cab smelled of vanilla filling, yeast bread, peppers, and cheese, with a touch of his Polo cologne underscoring the lot.
A woman’s voice came over the radio. “You gotten there yet, Barney?”
Doreen, a plump redhead and newly hired dispatcher, hadn’t memorized any police codes yet. Nearly everyone at the sheriff’s department was willing to bet that she’d still be yacking over the airwaves in plain English come next Christmas. It had become a sore point with most of the officers. Doreen used the names of individuals in town, gave details about complaints over the air, and pretty much broke all the FCC regulations in every other way as well. Barney knew that the sheriff had been in a pinch for a new dispatcher when he hired Doreen, and the man had probably anticipated that she’d apply herself to learning how to do her job, but so far she just wasn’t getting it.
In such a small town, certain informalities over the radio did occur, but Doreen carried informality to a whole new level. Anyone out there with a police scanner could listen and learn particulars about other townspeople that they had no business knowing.
“You’d better get your only bullet out of your pocket and load your weapon, Deputy,” she said with a laugh. “This might get sticky. Kutz just called again, madder than a wet hen. He says that Taffeta Brown’s music is turned up so loud that it’s vibrating his walls clear across the street and Ray is about to go ballistic.”
Barney didn’t care for Doreen, partly because she didn’t know much of anything about being a dispatcher and also because she kept a wad of bubble gum wedged between her teeth and cheek. But the biggest thing about her that ticked him off was that she wouldn’t stop razzing him with Deputy Barney Fife jokes. He’d heard enough of those by the time he was on the force for only a week.
What was her deal? Barney disliked his first name, but it was the handle his mother, Kate, had given him, and he didn’t want to hurt her feelings by changing it. Besides, it wasn’t his mom’s fault that he had gone into law enforcement and become a deputy. If he’d had any sense, he would have been Barnabas the dentist, or Barney the builder. Anything but a deputy.
Deciding to let Doreen’s wisecracks pass, Barney asked, “Is the complainant certain it’s the accused’s music?”
“The what and the what?”
Barney bit down hard on his molars. “The complainant—the individual who called in the complaint. The person being complained about is the accused.” He keyed his mike again to add, “It’s difficult for me to believe that loud music is coming from the indicated location.”
Barney had good reason to wonder if the information was accurate. Paul Kutz was deaf as a post, and Ms. Brown had never struck Barney as being the loud or rowdy type. In fact, he reflected, the woman hadn’t made much of an impression at all. Ms. Brown had opened a health store on East Main nearly a year ago, and on the few occasions that Barney had gone in there, she’d defined the word mousy, both in demeanor and appearance. Not that Barney visited her shop often enough to have a clear memory of what she looked like. A vague image of drab clothing, dark hair, blue eyes, and an unremarkable face entered his mind. Maybe at night her wild side came out.
Doreen snapped her gum. The sound grated on his nerves like a fingernail scraping a blackboard. Enunciating carefully around the sticky mass, Doreen informed him, “Paul says he can see Taffeta Brown dancing in her apartment over the shop. So far as I know, his eyesight’s still fine.”
“You’re not supposed to reveal too much information over the air, such as people’s names or what they’re doing.”
“Well, how will you know who’s doing what, then?”
Barney sighed. As far as he was concerned, Doreen’s lack of knowledge about appropriate dispatching exchanges was the sheriff’s problem to rectify. He wasn’t about to spend his whole shift trying to teach her how to properly convey information over the radio.
On occasions like this, Barney wondered why he’d given up being a state policeman to become a small-town cop. His hometown was mostly crime free, and unless he maintained a keen sense of humor, keeping the peace could get downright boring. There were occasional incidents of domestic violence to keep him on his toes, and barroom brawls occurred once in a blue moon. Sometimes a group of teenagers would get up to no good, and they’d had a few burglaries last year. But overall, Barney spent more time climbing trees to rescue cats than he did enforcing the law.
Yesterday afternoon while cruising the streets, he had been over on Elderberry Lane trying to settle a quarrel between Christopher Doyle and Edna Slash, both older than Methuselah. The garbage company had just picked up the trash, and the two geriatrics had been nose-to-nose over their empty aluminum cans, arguing about whose was whose. When Barney pointed out that both containers were exactly alike, they’d started berating him.
He eased the county truck up to the curb in front of Paul Kutz’s upstairs apartment. The old man had sold his house after his wife passed away and now lived above Creative Jewelry Designs, run by a young woman named Marjorie Brogan. Barney suspected Kutz’s move had been prompted, at least in part, by the apartment’s proximity to several local eateries. Paul wasn’t exactly handy in the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you just tell Pop to turn off his hearing aids?” Barney winced at the slip. Doreen could blab people’s identities to the world if she wanted, but he didn’t like doing it. Then he decided to hell with using codes since the damage was already done. “That’d be an instant fix, and I wouldn’t have to slosh around in the snow for no good reason.”
“Cranky, cranky. You there yet? Old Man Kutz is calling again. He probably hasn’t had this much excitement since the last Veterans Day Parade.”
“Tell him to keep his shirt on. I’m here. Ten-four clear.” Barney cut the truck engine and licked the sugar from his fingertips before reaching for his dark brown Stetson, which rode shotgun on the passenger seat beside him. Because of his height, he couldn’t wear it inside the vehicle without crushing the crown. The smell of the cream horns still tickled his nose and titillated his taste buds. Warm vanilla filling. He would have loved to sink his teeth into the pastries before they grew cold. Fat chance of that. Communicating with Paul Kutz took forever because he could barely hear a word that was said to him.
A loud popping sound came over the radio as he pushed open the driver’s door. He realized that the dispatcher was still on the channel. He grabbed the mike and clicked it several times to cause burps of static at her end so she would get her finger off the microphone button. “Dammit, Doreen. You can chew gum on the job and get away with it, but blowing bubbles over the airways may get you fired.”
“Oops! Sorry,” she said in a tone from which regret was successfully banished. “I thought you’d signed off. And I’m not blowing bubbles. That takes no skill at all. You have no clue how long I practiced before I learned how to snap my gum.”
And he wanted to remain blissfully ignorant. “Ten-four clear. That means I’m finished talking, in case you don’t know. And one other thing, Doreen. If you have your mike on, how in Hades do you think I can radio in if there’s an emergency?”
“You said you were finished talking.”
Barney squeezed his eyes shut and took a fortifying breath of icy air. “Never mind that. How is anyone supposed to radio in if you’re attempting to eavesdrop?”
“I just wanted to listen for a minute. Maybe it’ll get exciting!” she said with an eager chirp in her tone.
“You can’t hear anything at my end until I turn my mike on.”
I’m dealing with an imbecile, he thought, wondering if Sheriff Adams had hired Doreen when he was drunk. Nah. Blake seldom imbibed and never while on duty. Well, not normally, anyway.
Barney exited the vehicle and pushed the door closed with his hip. A few lights illuminated second-story living quarters along the street. The faint smell of fried chicken wafted to him on the breeze. The smell failed to entice him, partly because it was probably the main dish of a frozen dinner, which he hated, and also because he’d already eaten. All he wanted now was his dessert.
To his surprise, music did indeed thrum in the air, and when he glanced up, he saw a shadow dance playing out on Taffeta Brown’s window curtains. He froze and then found he couldn’t look away. His eyes widened. The sleek yet curvaceous silhouette of a woman gyrating her pelvis to the lively beat of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” was an unexpected highlight of his evening. Watching slender hands slide provocatively over ample breasts and rotating hips might have given him an instant hard-on if snow hadn’t been pelting him in the face. Come to think about it, the snow stinging his cheeks wasn’t offering much competition to the tingling sensation that he felt in another location.
Shit. Barney clamped the Stetson on his head and strode across the icy street to reach the opposite parking curb where a glowing light post stood sentinel in a swirl of breeze-tossed snowflakes. No wonder Paul and Ray were in such a dither. What man this side of heaven could sleep when a performance like that was going on?
As Barney gained the sidewalk, he searched his memory again for a clear image of Taffeta, wondering if his male radar had malfunctioned the few times that he’d entered her shop. Normally when he came across a sexy woman, he at least noticed her. About all he really recalled about the Brown woman was that she seemed to blend into the woodwork.
He decided the oversight might be due to his habit of ignoring single local women. When Sheriff Adams retired, Barney intended to run for the office. He wouldn’t get many men to vote for him if he hit on their female relatives.
Barney drew a flashlight from his belt and flicked it on. The beam reflected off the display window of Healthful Possibilities. He had to step close to see inside. His gaze landed first on a bottle of berries sporting a label that read Lose Weight Fast. A sign over a collection of boxed items promised Five Supplements to Cure Erectile Dysfunction. Barney blinked and read the advertisement again. He couldn’t imagine any male in Mystic Creek, no matter how desperate, walking into Taffeta Brown’s shop and having the nerve to take one of those boxes up to the cash register.
Darting his light beyond the pills, Barney peered into the bowels of the shop, which was closed for the night. With her music turned up so loud, Ms. Brown with the mind-blowing dance movements wouldn’t hear him knock. She probably wouldn’t hear him if he attacked her door with a chain saw.
Sighing, he left the window to play his light over the clapboard siding near the door. When he saw a buzzer button, he pressed it with his thumb, hoping the sound would peal through the upstairs flat and get the lady’s attention. If not, he could try pounding on the door, and if that failed, he carried a master key to all the businesses along Main in case of an emergency. Somehow he didn’t think a woman dancing in the privacy of her own home qualified—unless her sexy shadow play sent Paul Kutz or his roommate into cardiac arrest. Barney grinned. It might. Men that old probably hadn’t seen anything to equal this in over sixty years.
Actually, he realized, he had seldom seen anything to equal this, either, and he didn’t exactly live like a monk. Being a small-town deputy complicated his love life. Gossip traveled through Mystic Creek faster than beer down a parched throat. Barney drove to nearby Crystal Falls when he got a hankering for female company. In civilian clothes, he could blend in with the crowd, have fun, and not worry about tarnishing his reputation. Or, God help him, having to endure scathing sidelong glances and a pungent comment or two from his mother if she ever heard of his exploits. Kate Sterling wasn’t very broad-minded when it came to sex outside of marriage.
The frigid night air had already chilled Barney’s hands, and as he tapped his knuckles against the wooden door, pain shot from the impact points to his elbow. The music upstairs continued to reverberate off the winter landscape. It wasn’t over-the-top loud, but in the quiet of Mystic Creek on a weeknight, every note seemed invasive. Paul definitely had a legitimate noise complaint. Barney decided that he was down to his last resort, the master key.
He drew the large ring from his belt and fanned the pieces of metal. An instant later, he was inside the store. He used his flashlight to avoid tripping over obstacles. When he reached the old wooden stairs, he tromped up the risers, hoping Ms. Brown might finally hear him. He didn’t want to scare the woman half to death.
No such luck. Now, instead of fried chicken, he smelled tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, which once again spurred his memory of his canceled date with warm cream horns. It was a curse to have such a sensitive nose. His whole family teased him about his overdeveloped smeller, saying he could detect food at five hundred feet. Once on the creaky landing, he saw a glimmer of gold seeping out beneath the door. He hoped the sudden noise wouldn’t frighten Ms. Brown when he knocked. Assuming she heard him at all, that is.
Taffeta was in the middle of a waking dream starring the handsome Mystic Creek deputy, Barney Sterling, as her male lead and dance partner. As silly as it was when she analyzed it, she had developed a huge crush on him the instant she first saw him. But it was an attraction she’d never act on. A relationship with a man, no matter how good-looking, wasn’t on her present agenda.
She jumped with a start when a loud knock jolted her back to reality. She clamped a hand over her heart. No way could she answer the door looking like this. It would blow her cover. And who was it, anyway, a polite burglar? Trying to twist her hair back into a knot and feeling as if she’d grown ten extra fingers, she started toward her bedroom to get her robe. Then she switched directions and hurried into the kitchen to find a skillet she could use to defend herself. Her shop was locked up tight. Whoever stood on her landing must have broken in.
Pulse pounding, she approached the door with the frying pan held high. “Who is it?” she called shakily.
A deep, masculine voice replied, “Deputy Sterling.”
Taffeta blinked. Once. Twice. Coincidences like this didn’t happen in real life. “Who?” she asked again.
“Ma’am, can you please turn your music down and open the door?”
It was him. She recognized the voice, an unforgettable, honeyed baritone that she’d heard only a few times. Taffeta ran over to the stereo and hit the off button. Panic buffeted her. Oh God. She was wearing makeup and very little else, only a dark blue satin chemise that ended well above her knees. Letting go of the skillet for a second, she twisted her hair into a tighter knot at the back of her head. The chain guard on the door was engaged. She could look out at him through the crack without him seeing anything but her face. Just in case it wasn’t Barney Sterling, she snatched up the skillet. If whoever it was tried to shoulder his way in, she’d bean him.
Giving the knob a twist, she opened the door and angled her body to peer out. The beam of a flashlight got her right in the eyes, and for a second, she went as blind as Helen Keller.
“Oops, sorry,” he said. “It’s pitch-dark out here.”
Blinking away big white spots, Taffeta saw the beam go out, which left him standing in blackness except for the elongated rectangle of illumination coming from her apartment. She glimpsed a brown bomber jacket, a V of khaki shirt, part of a star-shaped badge, and a holstered gun riding his hip. Definitely it was the deputy. Only what had she done to bring a cop to her door? A shudder ripped through her body. According to the law, she’d already done plenty.
“Can you open up, Ms. Brown, and turn on the landing light so you can see me properly?”
Taffeta was far more concerned about him seeing her. “No! I’m not dressed for company.”
“Can you grab a robe?”
Taffeta had a fleece robe in the bedroom, but in order to fetch it she’d have to cross the living area where he’d be able to see her. “Uh . . . no. Well, only if you turn your head.”
She thought she heard him chuckle. “No problem.”
She sprinted to the bedroom door, dived into the room, and pulled on her robe, tying the sash before she emerged. Then, trying her best to look calm and collected, she retraced her steps. Why is he here? Did he run a background check on me?
She disengaged the chain and opened the door for him. Then she flipped on the landing light. Barney Sterling had been in her shop three times and each occasion was indelibly etched into her gray matter. He had come once to get vitamins for his mom, another time to buy ibuprofen for himself, and during the last visit, he’d purchased protein shake powder. Watching him stride up and down the aisles had given her a pleasant buzz, but being the sole focus of his attention now was downright unnerving, especially in a bathrobe. He was tall and slender, with shoulders as wide as a gladiator’s.
His chiseled face, burnished from the sun, reminded her of carved and seasoned oak. He had tawny hair, mostly covered by his Stetson, but a shank swept over his forehead to gleam beneath the brim. His hazel eyes had gold flecks in them, making them shimmer like sun-shot tequila. No wonder she fantasized about dancing with him—and more sometimes. It got her through the long, lonely nights when she missed her little girl so badly that she ached.
She found the presence of mind to ask, “What do you want? Have I done something wrong?”
He inclined his head at her stereo. “Your music was loud. Paul Kutz, across the street, called in a complaint.”
Relief flooded through Taffeta. Nothing serious. He still knew very little about her. As long as he didn’t recognize her from the pictures that had been splashed all over the front pages of every newspaper in the state nearly two years ago, she was home free. “I’m sorry. I didn’t think I had the volume up that far.”
His firm lips tipped into a grin that showed off his strong white teeth. “Well, it was loud, but not really that loud. I think Mr. Kutz—or possibly his roommate, Ray Burke—was more disturbed by your dance performance. With the light behind you, your silhouette showed through the curtains.”
Silhouette? Taffeta stared at him, her cheeks on fire with embarrassment. If Paul Kutz had seen her dancing, then so had Deputy Sterling. She wasn’t an exhibitionist, and making a public spectacle of herself was humiliating. About a month ago, the relentless loneliness of her life had gotten to her, and she’d decided to allow herself one night a week to wear makeup, shake her hair loose from its clip, and dress sexy. She saw no harm in doing that in the privacy of her own apartment. Only apparently it wasn’t all that private.
Just then the hastily secured knot in her hair came loose, and her heavy tresses spilled down over her shoulders. Crap. Since moving to Mystic Creek and starting her business, she had tried so hard never to draw attention to herself. Now she’d entertained two old men across the street and this lawman with a dirty dancing performance. What must he think? Hopefully he’d just pegged her as being a little nuts.
He glanced at the skillet that she’d dropped on the mauve carpet. His eyebrow quirked. “Were you planning to hit me with that?” Another grin touched his mouth, and he didn’t wait for her answer. “I’m glad I knocked.”
“My shop was locked. I thought you might be a polite burglar.”
“I pounded on the street door and leaned on the buzzer.”
“The buzzer is broken.”
“Oh. Well, anyway, you didn’t hear me, so I used the master key to get inside.”
“A key that fits all the shop doors along East and West Main,” he expounded. “In emergencies, we can use it to get inside.”
Until now, Taffeta had felt safe behind her locked doors. It was unsettling to know that the deputies of Mystic Creek could get in whenever they wanted. She hugged her waist before forcing herself to formulate a response.
“In the future, I’ll keep my music turned down,” she assured him. “And I’ll also order a window blind for under my curtains.”
“Good idea.” He flipped his flashlight back on but kept it directed at the floor this time. “Have a great evening. I’ll lock the shop door as I leave. There’s no need for you to follow me down.”
Taffeta grasped the doorknob but remained in the opening to watch him descend the stairs. For such a large, muscular man, he moved with catlike grace. When she heard the shop door close behind him, she retreated into her apartment and leaned her back against the wall. She wished that he—oh, she didn’t know what she wished. Barney Sterling had made a fabulous imaginary boyfriend. In her fantasies, he said what she wanted to hear and made all the right moves. But in the flesh, he was a whole different kettle of fish. Her weekly dance night was over. She’d had enough of Barney Sterling to last her for another month, possibly even longer.
She looked down at her discarded frying pan, thankful that she hadn’t brained him with it. She was already on probation. If she added assaulting a police officer to her record, she’d be in big trouble.
As Barney walked back across the street to speak with Paul Kutz and hopefully settle him down, he kept glancing over his shoulder at Taffeta’s window. She’d dimmed her lights, and her shadow had vanished. Hot damn. The drab gray mouse could transform herself into one of the most striking women he’d ever clapped eyes on. He remembered something his mother had once said about still waters.
Barney’s chat with Pop and Ray Burke started off badly.
“Ms. Brown has turned her stereo down,” Barney said. “You fellows should have no trouble sleeping now.”
“Come again?” Ray inclined his ear toward Barney. Rumor had it that he and Paul had once been college buddies, and after losing his spouse, Ray had moved here to help Paul in the bookstore. “I’m a little hard of hearing.”
“He’s deaf, son,” Paul inserted, clearly suffering from the same complaint himself, since he hadn’t heard Ray just explain that.
Barney stifled a sigh, increased his volume, and repeated himself, thinking that the two old men looked like mismatched bookends, Paul tall and thin, Ray short and plump.
“What do you mean, she turned me down?” Ray asked. “I barely know the woman, and I sure as sand never asked her to sleep with me.” The old boy actually winked at Barney. “She interested, young fella?”
By the time Barney got back to the department truck, he was stifling laughter. Those old guys probably hadn’t had this much excitement in ages. Removing his Stetson, Barney slid behind the steering wheel and closed the driver door. Ah well, maybe it will put a bounce back in their steps for the next few days.
Doreen’s energetic masticating crackled over the airway when Barney called in to report back. “What happened?” she asked
Staring through the windshield at Ms. Brown’s now dark window, Barney shook his head, still feeling incredulous. “The music was a little loud, but it definitely wasn’t enough to vibrate walls or wake snakes in five counties. The accused was very cooperative about rectifying the situation and apologized. I got the complainants settled down. Now I’m heading back out to cruise the roads.”
“That’ll be exciting with all the hardened criminals out there bent on committing murder and mayhem. You might even find a homicidal squirrel.”
Barney decided that Doreen might start to grow on him in time. At least she had a sense of humor, offbeat though it might be. “I’ll call in for backup if I encounter anything I can’t handle alone.”
She replied, “Be safe, Matt.”
Barney frowned. Who was Matt? Oh yeah, Matt Dillon in Gunsmoke. Kitty, the saloon owner, used to say that to him before he left on a dangerous mission. “I’ve got your number now, Doreen. You’re an old television series buff.”
She laughed. “Yep. Be safe, cowboy.”
“Ten-four clear,” Barney said with a smile.
When the radio went silent, he resumed his study of Ms. Brown’s window while he wolfed down the cold cream horns. He couldn’t help wondering about the secret life of the quiet shopkeeper. During the day, she was so colorless and unassuming. It just didn’t tabulate for him that a gal would hide all those sexy curves under bulky sweaters and loose slacks. The women he knew wanted to show them off, not pretend they didn’t exist.
What else was she hiding, and why?
Barney shoved the last half of a congealed cream horn into his mouth and chewed vigorously. Turn loose of it, he admonished himself. The lawman in him was coming out, and he was smelling trouble where there wasn’t any. What people did behind closed doors was none of his business as long as it harmed no one else. Granted, Taffeta might have caused one of those old men to have a heart attack, but that hadn’t happened. It was time for him to get on with his shift.
Barney pulled away from the curb and drove west. He passed an oncoming Cadillac that went so slow the driver could have jumped out and had time to watch the car slide off the road. Must be slick. He decided to drive out to Seven Curves Road. It was a hot spot for wrecks when the asphalt got icy. As a teenager, Barney had wrapped his first pickup around a tree out that way. Those turns were so sharp a car could kiss its own back bumper as it rounded a curve.
An image of Taffeta Brown’s mouth, shimmery with kissable gloss, flitted through his mind while he drove. She intrigued him. She was new to Mystic Creek and had no family here so far as he knew. That meant he could ask her out without any backlash.
Only something told Barney that she might be a lot more complicated than she seemed.
Excerpted from "New Leaf"
Copyright © 2016 Catherine Anderson.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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