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A police cruiser tore up Main Street in Fitzgerald Bay, lights flashing.
Victoria Evans glanced back over her shoulder from the doorway of the Hennessy Law Office. Who was in trouble now? She half expected the patrol car to stop in front of the police station, but it skidded to a halt on the other side of the street, and a uniformed officer leaped out, running toward the Sugar Plum Cafe and Inn.
"My shop!" Victoria turned to face Cooper Hennessy, handing off the frosted cookies she'd walked up the street to deliver. "Paige is in there."
"You'd better check it out."
Immediately afraid for her nine-year-old daughter's safety, Victoria didn't need any urging. She leaped from the stoop and sprinted down the street, reaching her front door just as the police officer, who'd darted around the side of the building, circled back to the front.
Victoria reached for the door handle the same instant he did. Gloved fingers brushed her hands. She looked up past the broad shoulders to close-cropped brown hair. The handsome face turned toward her with eyes as blue as the Massachusetts sky. She knew those eyes too well.
"You can't go in there," he warned.
Her heart plummeted to her stomach. "But my daughter"
"She's okay. She called 911. I don't want you contaminating the crime scene. Wait here." He turned away and rushed inside, leaving Victoria on the porch.
Tumultuous emotions broke like waves inside her heart. She'd already had a crime scene at the Sugar Plum Cafe and Inn a few weeks beforean ugly break-in that had caused expensive damages. Fortunately no one had been seriously hurt.
What now? Was Paige really okay? Victoria prayed again for her daughter's safety. Having lost her own mother and father years before, Victoria had no family left besides Paige, and the little girl was dearer to her heart than anyone. She had to force herself to follow the officer's instructions not to go inside.
It didn't help who the officer was.
Of all the officers on the Fitzgerald Bay Police Department, why did Owen have to come?
"Mommy!" Blond braids bounced as Paige threw herself through the front door.
"Paige!" Victoria scooped her daughter into her arms, holding her tight for one long moment before looking her over to make sure she hadn't been hurt. "Thank God you're okay." After the horrible incidents of late, especially after that mysterious murder in January, she was relieved to find her daughter unharmed. "What happened?"
Owen's deep voice answered behind her. "A break-in and robbery. Your safe was punched."
Owen led her back through the inn to the kitchen. "Basically your perp knocked the dial off with a hammer, placed a punch over the central hub and rapped on the tumblers. The tumblers disengaged and he opened the door. A newer safe will lock up if anybody attempts to punch it, but these antiques don't have that feature." He pointed across the room to where the Sugar Plum Cafe's antique floor safe sat gaping open, empty.
"I've been robbed?" Victoria stared at the safe. "I was only gone a couple of minutes. I'd just taken a platter of cookies over to the Hennessy Law Officebarely a block away."
Owen crouched on level with Paige. "Did you see the robber?"
"Can you tell me what you saw?"
Victoria's first instinct was to shield Paige from questions. She didn't want her daughter distressed any more than she already was, and she especially didn't want her talking to Owen. He might recognize the family resemblance and realize who Paige was. But Victoria reminded herself that she couldn't let her personal history with Owen interfere with his investigation of the robbery.
Someone had stolen the entire weekend's receipts from the Sugar Plum Cafe and Inn. And since most of her customers paid for their small purchases of coffee, rolls, pastries and cookies with cash, that money would be irretrievable.
Just like her business, if things didn't turn around soon. Fewer folks had been visiting town. And fewer townsfolk venturing out. Partly because of the blustery weather, but mostly due to the ongoing investigation of the murder of Olivia Henry whose body had been found near the Fitzgerald Bay lighthouse in January. Her murder was still unsolved and her murderer still at large. Victoria prayed the case would soon be solved. Olivia deserved justice, and the people of Fitzgerald Bay deserved peace of mind. Hopefully, once the murderer was caught, business would pick up again. With the added burden of repair bills from the recent break-in, Victoria was barely meeting expenses.
The empty safe didn't help matters.
Paige faced Owen.
Victoria braced herself. Paige had never met her father. Owen didn't even know he had a daughter. She'd been putting off their reunion the whole six months she'd lived in Fitzgerald Bay, unsure how she could admit the truth to either of them. Granted, part of her reason for returning to Fitzgerald Bay was so she could clear her guilty conscience and finally do the right thing by telling Owen about Paige. But knowing what to do was easier than working up the courage to actually speak the words to the man who was so much more intimidating now, in his crisp police uniform, with his muscular shoulders and intense blue eyes.
Owen and Paige looked at each other in silence for one long momenta few seconds that stretched to eternity for Victoria as she considered all that hung in the balance between them. Would they recognize each other? Would some innate father-daughter bond speak to them, giving away her secret?
"My mom wanted me to take the cookies with her." Paige rolled her eyes as she often did when she thought Victoria was being an overprotective mother. "But I already had my pajamas on." Paige looked down at her fuzzy fleece pointedly.
"So you stayed behind?" Owen clarified. He didn't look up at Victoria, but kept his eyes riveted on Paige.
Did he know? Could he tell? Victoria tried to shake off her fears as Paige continued her story.
"I'm nine years old," she asserted defensively. "I can stay by myself for a couple of minutes." The words echoed the argument they'd had before Victoria left.
Victoria tensed, watching Owen's face for any sign that he recognized the significance of Paige's age. His jaw tensed. His eyes narrowed slightly. Had he made the connection between Paige's age and their long-ago relationship and realized the truth? Or was he too focused on his investigation? Much as Victoria knew she needed to tell Owen the truth, this was not the way she wanted him to find out he had a daughter.
To her relief, Owen seemed focused on being a good cop. "Everyone in town needs to be a little more careful these days," he reminded her gently.
Paige blinked, and Victoria felt a shudder ripple up through her as the little girl leaned more solidly into her arms at Owen's subtle reference to the murderer at large.
Besides being relieved that Owen hadn't jumped at the mention of Paige's age, Victoria was impressed with Owen's perception. She also wanted to set the record straight. "She wasn't home alone. Charlotte is here, somewhere." She looked around the kitchen as though expecting the Sugar Plum Cafe's hostess to appear any moment. Now where had she gone?
This time Paige didn't roll her eyes. "I came downstairs because my mom told me she left a cookie for me." They all looked to the smooth stainless steel countertop, where a cookie sat undisturbed next to a glass of milk. Victoria had written I Love You Paige in frosting across the heart-shaped pastry, accenting it with silver drageesPaige's favorite.
"That was nice of your mom," Owen murmured.
Victoria felt him looking at her. She kept her eyes on the top of Paige's blond head. She couldn't meet his eyeshadn't met them in almost ten years, afraid he'd see the truth that was screaming to get out.
"I came down the back stairs." Paige pointed to the service stairway that opened into the kitchen just behind them. "I heard someone at the back door. That was weird, because Mom went out the front door, and I could hear Charlotte laughing in the dining room under my room, so I didn't know who would be at the back door. It kinda freaked me out and I stopped."
"Smart girl." Victoria planted a kiss on top of her daughter's head, relieved that Paige hadn't walked in on their robber. What would have happened then?
"I tiptoed down the stairs. I thought it had to be somebody I knew. But then I remembered about Olivia." Paige's voice caught. Olivia Henry's death had shocked their close-knit town, and obviously made an impression on Paige, too.
Olivia had come to Fitzgerald Bay from Ireland three months before her murder, not really knowing anyone in town. Since Olivia had stayed a few weeks at the inn, Paige and Victoria, being fairly new to town themselves, had quickly formed a friendship with Olivia that had lasted even when the young woman had gone to work as a nanny for Charles Fitzgerald, Owen's older brother, who was a medical doctor in town.
Now a lot of folks in town thought maybe Charles Fitzgerald had murdered Olivia. Whether he'd done it or someone else, no one had been charged with the crime, which meant Olivia's murderer was still at large, probably living among them, possibly plotting to strike again. The very thought sent a chill through Victoria as Paige continued to tell the story of her encounter with the robber.
"I stood up on the third step." Paige darted from her mother's arms to the back steps that led up to their private apartment adjoining the inn. Her stocking-clad feet perched on the step as she demonstrated how she'd stayed out of sight. "I peeked around the corner."
"Oh, Paige." Victoria imagined how close her daughter must have come to being seen.
"It's okay, Mom. He was messing with the safe. He wasn't looking at me."
Owen had followed Paige to the doorway and now looked her in the eye as she teetered on the step. "Did you get a good look at him?"
"It was dark. He had his back to me."
"But it was a man?"
"Yes. He was a big guy. He looked like that man" Paige looked up at her mom "the one we've seen."
"Outside the windows?" Victoria finished Paige's sentence in a fear-filled whisper.
Though her words were almost too quiet to hear, they sure got Owen's attention in a hurry. "Wait a minute. You've seen this guy hanging around outside your windows? And you didn't call the police?"
Victoria rushed to explain. "It's only been a few times. At first it was a fleeting shadowwe thought maybe it was a trick of the light in the blowing snow. Then we saw him on the porch. But the Sugar Plum Cafe and Inn is open to the public. People take their coffee out on the porch all the time."
"No." Victoria began to earnestly wish she had called the police. "But I don't want to chase off customers. He might have been meeting a friend for dinner. It could have been anything. He didn't seem dangerous."
Owen stabbed a glance at the gaping safe. "From here on out, let's assume he's dangerous." His expression softened when he turned back to Paige. "Did you notice anything else about him that would help us identify him?"
"He was humming."
"Humming?" Owen repeated.
"What was he humming? Did you recognize it?" Victoria had been taking Paige to voice lessons for years, first where they'd lived in New York, then here in Fitzgerald Bay. For a nine-year-old, she had an ear for music and could usually pick up a tune after hearing it only a couple of times.
Paige tipped her head a little to the side. "It was kind of hmm-hmm." She tried a couple of notes and shook her head, obviously not satisfied that she'd gotten it right. "It reminded me of the Irish ballads I've been singing with Mrs. Murphy. Kind of like one of those, but not anything I've learned yet."
"Maybe it will come to you later." Owen pressed on. "What else can you tell us about him? What was he wearing?"
Paige made her thinking face. "A dark jacket and gloves. He broke the safe and took the bag. And then" her expression twisted and Victoria realized her daughter might be about to cry "he broke the cookies."