Paige Galloway has built her life around one principle—being the perfect mom. When the FBI busts into the PTA meeting Paige is about to host in order to arrest her husband, she’s mortified. Fleeing to Spinning Hills, her grandmother’s hometown, Paige is determined reclaim her title as the mom with the most. That becomes much harder when her husband files for divorce . . . and she learns he’s a lying cheater. Being the perfect mom now means she has to save her ex-husband from himself. But when the agent in charge of the investigation—the man who witnessed her total humiliation—moves in next door, Paige is surprised to find herself drawn to the Fed with the suspicious frown and surprisingly sexy smile . . .
After Alex Hooke’s tough-as-nails childhood, Paige’s way of life seems shallow—at least until he gets to know her. Paige is as stubborn and smart as he is, and while his job is to find evidence against her ex-husband, he’s more tempted to investigate the attraction simmering between them. With help from Paige’s nosy family, and his own curious relatives, Alex may still get his man—but what he really wants is the woman who introduced him to love.
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A Spinning Hills Romance
By Inés Saint
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2016 Inés Saint
All rights reserved.
Four months later ...
Boyd stopped at the red light and looked around. "I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
Alex stared at the water tower and blinked a few times before finding it necessary to look away. It was painted in black-and-white spirals with the words Welcome to Spinning Hills printed in big red block letters. An instant headache. How on earth did the townspeople live with it?
The tower seemed to have the opposite effect on Boyd. His eyes widened and he stared at it without blinking. Alex snapped his fingers in front of his friend's face, and Boyd shook himself out of his daze. "Thanks. The more I look at it, the more it seems to be spiraling into the ground. It was hypnotizing. Like that spinning disc in one of those old Hitchcock films."
"Well, that house right there looks like the perfect setting for a horror flick." Alex pointed to a small cottage with stone battlements and turrets that looked to belong on a large medieval manor, not a tiny house. Unkempt ivy was running up the walls, the grass was overgrown, and a few panes on the dirty, multipaned windows were either broken or missing. From what he'd seen so far, the entire town was made up of storybook-like houses.
Boyd was looking around. "I don't know. Most of these houses look real nice. And the spooky ones kinda add to the whole enchanted vibe this town's got going on, you know?"
Alex slanted a look the other agent's way. "'Enchanted'?"
Boyd shrugged. "I got two small girls."
The sign on the white brick bungalow next to the creepy cottage read Flo's Country Yoga. The Y in Yoga was an upside-down stick figure wearing cowboy boots and a hat. Across the street and a few shops up, a steep-roofed, yellow- and green-trimmed stucco cottage had a fancy sign that read, Uncommon Scents.
"I'm gonna bring the wife here when we've wrapped things up. She and the kids'll get a kick out of it." Boyd had been promoted from a Long Island satellite office to the Cincinnati Division a year ago, while Alex had transferred out of Chicago eight months ago. The two men had become fast friends. Boyd and his family were still getting used to the Midwest, and Alex understood why. He'd grown up in Cincinnati, but had only worked in big cities since graduating from the academy. Small Midwestern towns and cities were a definite change of pace from big-city life. This one seemed more different than most.
Oaks, maples, and catalpas lined the stone-paved streets. Wood and iron benches with the words Spinning Hills scrolled onto their backrests were set between the trees. Almost every business seemed unique. Alex could imagine Alissa, Boyd's wife, taking dozens of pictures and posting them on Facebook. He'd never known anyone who took as many pictures as Alissa.
When they got to the corner of Main and Hillside, Alex pointed to a wood-burned sign that read GYPSY FORTUNE CAFÉ AND BAKERY. Paige Galloway's grandmother, Sherry Stokes, owned the place along with two women named Ruby Meriwether and Rosa Medina.
They'd raided Sherry's house, Glenn's mistress's apartment, the Galloways' home, and Glenn's parents' estate simultaneously. They'd gathered all the evidence they needed.
Only a missing laboratory journal now stood in their way, and for all the wrong reasons. Alex still couldn't believe that turn of events.
Tracking data from Paige Galloway's car had led them to the café. The technician who'd been evaluating the data hadn't passed it on, because they'd already known that Glenn, Paige, and the kids had been at Sherry's on Sunday, April twenty-sixth, and that they'd driven over in Paige's car. It was why they'd raided Sherry's house, too. But when they'd hit a dead end, Alex had sifted through everything himself and caught something the technician had missed.
Paige had held a fund-raising committee meeting at her house later that same evening. She couldn't have been anywhere near Spinning Hills during the time her car had been in the alley behind the café. Glenn must've driven back in his wife's car.
"I can't believe this is the only lead we got. McGee was not impressed."
"McGee's an ass," Alex grumbled before instructing Boyd to circle around the back. "He was parked in the alley. Let's take a quick look."
Boyd circled around twice before parking up the street in front of Amador Construction and Preservation, the last commercial building on Hillside. The alley behind the café was narrow and deserted, even though it was a Monday and the town looked busy. It looked like a place used only to store trash or to sneak out for a smoke. "I wonder where the women keep their cars." Boyd looked around. "Could be they walk to work."
The town was definitely walkable. The north part of the downtown area was flat and laid out in a grid pattern. The south was winding and sloping, but there were sidewalks everywhere.
Alex glanced at the dossiers they'd been given and reread the women's ages. "Could be they're not even allowed to drive anymore."
Boyd took the reports away from him. "We've already agreed on how much to reveal to gain their cooperation, so leave the talking to me, all right? You don't seem to do so well with older ladies."
Alex repositioned his sunglasses. His eyes still hurt from looking at the water tower. "What are you talking about? The only older women you've ever seen me talking to are my grandmother and great-aunt."
Alex shook his head. "Let's hope these women land somewhere in that 'normal' range you're used to, then."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"They're women, and they're seniors, two things that in and of themselves command a younger man's respect. When senior women don't fall somewhere within a normal range and they start driving you nuts, your options for how to deal with them are limited. Trust me on that."
Boyd climbed out of the vehicle, dismissing him. "We're trained to deal with all sorts of people, including older women and grandmothers."
"Right. But we rarely deal with respectable, law-abiding older women and grandmothers."
"Then let's hope they're either normal, or not too respectable."
Alex smiled at that.
Moments later, when they noted there were no customers inside, they entered the Gypsy Fortune Café and Bakery.
Alex pulled his sunglasses off and took a good look around. The place had pink and green stools, armchairs, and sofas. A few gilded mirrors, old ceiling joists, a huge chandelier that looked more like it belonged in an old, fancy hotel than in a small town coffeehouse, and exposed brick walls finished off the welcoming environment.
Probably the smell of baked goods helped. Baked goods he couldn't eat because he was allergic to gluten. It should've been the last thing on his mind, but even after eighteen years, it still made him bitter to whiff the good stuff he couldn't have.
He took a step forward, and a woman who looked to be of Hispanic descent glanced up from the cash register and tossed a disapproving look his way. Alex almost took a step back, wondering if he'd imagined it. When Boyd actually did take a step back, he knew he hadn't. From what he'd read, this was Rosa Medina. She was wearing six-inch stilettos and was dressed in head-to-toe red.
Another woman backed out of the kitchen holding two trays full of cupcakes. She had long silver hair and was wearing a black dress with little silver moons embroidered all over it. Ruby Meriwether, he guessed. When she turned to put the cupcakes on the counter, she noticed them. "We were wondering when you'd finally decide to come in."
"Oh. Are they finally here?" a muffled voice asked from behind the counter that lined the far wall. A moment later, a short woman with blond spiky hair popped up. Sherry Stokes — the person they were there to see.
He wasn't surprised they'd seen them circling around and had guessed who they were. Their big black SUV, suits and ties, and sunglasses weren't very discreet, which was actually done on purpose. Subtle intimidation could work wonders on regular folk. And elderly women in a small town probably had nothing better to do than to take note of every single new car that rolled into town. His own grandmother and great-aunt knew more about their neighbors' business than the neighbors did, even though they never even talked to them.
Alex took another step forward while reaching for the badge in his inner suit pocket, but Rosa Medina put one hand up to stop him. "No need. We know who you are. You're not very discreet. No wonder your investigation is going nowhere. And after you tore poor Sherry's house apart," she said, motioning over to Sherry Stokes.
Alex and Boyd exchanged quick, nearly imperceptible glances. Boyd lifted his head as if to say, "Let them think they're calling the shots." But when Ruby Meriwether walked to the door, locked it, and flipped the Open sign to Closed, Alex knew exactly who'd be calling the shots, no matter what Boyd thought.
Like the women who'd raised him, the women in front of them now were definitely not within the blessed "normal" range Boyd was used to. They'd obviously used the time before the men had entered the café to come up with a strategy on how to deal with them.
Sherry Stokes sat on a stool and watched them, not saying a thing. Instinct told him the gleam in her pale green eyes was more worrisome than Ruby Merriweather's knowing smirk and Rosa Medina's disapproving look combined.
Boyd relaxed his posture. "So you're on to us," he said, trying to sound amused and nonthreatening. It was meant to get the ladies to make the first move.
Except they didn't. They simply continued to study them. Rosa's perusal was coldly assessing, Sherry looked entertained, while Ruby's eyes were fixed on Alex's arms and shoulders. It felt like a Mexican standoff, and Alex knew the end result would be the same no matter how they played this. He and Boyd would leave this place wanting to pull their hair out.
Alex flashed his badge, even though they'd stopped him from doing so earlier. "I'm Agent Hooke, and this here is Agent Boyd. We're —"
"So you're only agents? Not special agents?" Ruby interrupted before turning to Sherry. "They've sent in the lesser agents. You've been worrying over nothing."
Boyd's eyes twinkled. He was enjoying them. Alex stifled a sigh. This would be a long morning. "We're all special agents, ma'am. We just don't introduce ourselves that way in real life. There are no 'lesser agents.'"
"Which one of you is higher up on the food chain?" Rosa asked.
"Agent Boyd is my supervisory special agent." Alex nodded toward Boyd and used the formal term for field supervisor, since the word special seemed so important to the women.
"Then why do I get the feeling that you know what you're doing, and he doesn't?" Sherry asked next.
Alex looked at Boyd, who finally wiped the amused look from his face and got down to business. "All right, ladies. As you're all aware, we're investigating Glenn Galloway for intellectual property theft and money laundering. We're here to ask a few questions and beg your permission to take a look around." He looked at Sherry. "Your cooperation is in your granddaughter's best interest."
"If you don't have a search warrant, you won't be allowed to take anything you don't see in plain sight." Rosa swept a hand around the café. "So if whatever you're looking for is in the priest hole, you won't be allowed to use it as evidence. Of course, you'd never find the priest hole without our help."
"'Priest hole'?" Boyd repeated before indulging them with his fatherly smile again, as if he was charmed that they were trying to pull his leg. "There are no priest holes this side of the Atlantic, ma'am. Now, may we have your permission and assistance in conducting a search?" Boyd tried again.
"You've never heard of Agecroft Hall?" Ruby asked.
Before either of them could steer the women back to the question at hand, Ruby began talking. "It's an actual English manor house in Richmond, Virginia. The heirs couldn't keep up with the taxes and maintenance issues, so T.C. Williams bought it and had parts of it disassembled and shipped from Lancashire to the banks of the James River, where he rebuilt it."
"That's interesting. Thank you," Boyd said. His smile was fraying at the corners.
"It's interesting because Agecroft Hall has a priest hole," Rosa explained.
"So you see, they do exist this side of the Atlantic," Ruby finished. "In small town cafés and beautiful mansions alike."
"We own a mansion, too," Sherry pointed out. "But it doesn't have a priest hole. It was converted into four apartments, and it's where Paige is living now, as I'm sure you already know."
Alex was reminded of an old Russian proverb his reserved, plain-speaking grandmother and great-aunt often repeated to him: An old dog barks not in vain. So, while a squirming Boyd breathed in and out and the women took turns explaining how their town had been founded by gypsies, and how its history, niche businesses, walk-ability, and access to kayaking and biking made the mansion they'd bought on the third most haunted street in Ohio perfect for Airbnb rentals, Alex listened carefully to see if there was anything useful hidden in their speech.
There wasn't. But they weren't barking in vain. They were going on and on while assessing the two of them by their reactions. It was all Boyd's fault. He'd fumbled the ball, and the three women now had complete control of it, passing it back and forth with ease. Medina had a quick mind. She was probably the quarterback of the team.
The moment there was a pause, Alex politely, but forcefully, intercepted their next pass. "Ladies, may we ask you a few questions and take a look around? Yes or no answer, please."
"Do not engage with them," Ruby said to the other two women. "If we say yes to a search, they'll bring a dog in, pretend they're only letting him sniff, but then they'll yank his chain real hard" — she paused to make a yanking motion so forceful, Sherry winced — "and make the poor creature yelp in pain so that they can pretend the dog sniffed something. They'll use that fake sniff as 'evidence' to officially be allowed to turn this place inside out. And they won't pay for the damages. It'll look worse than your house did, Sherry."
"We don't have a dog, Ms. Meriwether," Alex said in a monotone. He noted how Sherry was now acting threatened and allowing the other two to take over. He didn't buy it. These players obviously changed positions often. Right now, Sherry Stokes was the wide receiver, and Ruby Meriwether was the tight end.
Ruby's eyes narrowed. "You know who I am? I don't like being at a disadvantage. Why exactly do you have information on me?"
"We know who you are because you're valuable to our investigation. It's always the people we interview who really end up solving our cases. We just ask the right questions and then put the pieces together." Boyd played that beautifully. Alex was impressed.
The three women looked at each other in turn before facing them. Rosa was the one to speak for them all. "Gentlemen, this is the way it's going to go down. You will tell us exactly how our cooperation will benefit Paige, and you will sign a document stating you will leave this place exactly as you found it. If we are convinced it is in Paige's best interest to help you, and if you sign our document, we will give you our permission and our help in searching the premises for the smoking gun."
"'Smoking gun'?" Boyd repeated, ready to smile again.
"The conclusive evidence you must obviously be needing." Sherry paused and scrunched up her nose. "Or is it more of a coup de grâce you're after?"
Ruby shrugged. "I think all they're going to find is a coup de foudre."
All three ladies laughed at that. Boyd sent Alex a look, but Alex didn't know what that meant, either. So he ignored the jabs, pulled up a chair, and sat down in front of them.
Rosa apparently approved. "Yes. Good move. You look less menacing that way."
It took all of Alex's self-control not to grit his teeth. "Ladies, we understand you all want what's best for Paige Galloway and her children," he began. "And you're right. We're looking for evidence." It wasn't the whole truth, but it was true, and it made the three women quiet down and pay attention. Finally. "If you'll please let us explain a few things, I'm sure we can come to an understanding."
Excerpted from Perfect Paige by Inés Saint. Copyright © 2016 Inés Saint. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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