In the small town of Cougar, struggling single mother and veterinary assistant Teresa Lansing is still bruised from a failed relationship when Frank McAllister sweeps her off her feet.
Frank is a big-city SWAT officer who moved to Cougar only four months ago. He's handsome, charming, forceful, very sexy, and a bit mysterious. He had his eye on Teresa even before they met and is pushing for a serious relationship right away.
Teresa finds his intense courtship flattering, and the sex is fabulous, but she doesn't want her deaf six-year-old son to be hurt again. Her former fiancé cheated on her when he got drunk after being unjustly fired, but he loves her and her son, and the whirlwind romance is complicated by his efforts to win Teresa back.
And then there's the matter of the bodies buried at Big Devil Creek…
|Publisher:||Wild Rose Press|
|Product dimensions:||5.00(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.46(d)|
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Apple orchards stretched from end to end in Cougar Valley, but the soft earth along Big Devil Creek was where the bodies were buried. The creek — swollen to the size of a river since the Killwater Dam failed — was the boundary between the tiny town of Cougar and the unincorporated area beyond, and a lot of interested observers were gathered behind the yellow crime-scene tape on that crisp early fall morning.
The contingent was made up of five men in two official cars — two Powell City cops, Cougar's resident sheriff's deputy Hal Knight, a uniformed corrections officer, the prisoner in shackles — and a leashed German Shepherd trained as a cadaver dog. Everybody knew the story — Wade Linedecker had been convicted of the murders of two young women, but the bodies had never been found. Linedecker had refused to divulge their whereabouts on the grounds that it would amount to self-incrimination. Only when his first parole hearing was imminent had he decided to grant the victims' families the closure they longed for and lead authorities to the remains.
The back windows of the Rosey Lane Veterinary Clinic looked out over the creek, and the barking of two dogs boarding overnight alerted the staff to the presence of a strange canine in the vicinity. Dr. Veronica Saltzman and her assistant Teresa Lansing were among those who couldn't help gawking as the prisoner shuffled up and down the bank and pointed to several places. After a lengthy discussion, Linedecker pointed again before he was escorted back to one of the police cars. Deputy Knight began to dig in the first location, but the younger of the Powell City cops soon joined him. In spite of the cool weather, it was hot work, and both men took off their jackets.
Knight was in his forties and a little out of shape. The other one was younger, perhaps early thirties, and very fit. His hair was short and dark, which was about all they could tell from a distance. His eyes were hidden behind dark glasses, but the muscles were unmistakable. "He's hot," Dr. Saltzman said.
"You're married," Teresa reminded her.
"I can still look." They watched as the digging was suspended while the other Powell City officer squatted and sifted through the earth they had turned up. The prison guard joined the others, and their intense interest and discussion made it clear they had found something, although the dog was sniffing around a spot farther down the bank. The bell above the clinic door chimed as a customer entered. Veronica sighed. "Back to work," she said.
By the time they were finished with the diagnosis and treatment of a cocker spaniel's ear infection, the law enforcement group had filled what could only be a body bag and were digging in a second location. Cougar's local newspaper editor, John Trevor, had joined them, so full details would be in the next day's Independent.
As it turned out, Teresa would learn a little more of the story before the day was out.
* * *
The Cougar Bar & Grill was more than usually busy for a Thursday night, filled with the buzz of conversation and the inviting smells of sizzling meat and hot coffee, when Teresa came in with her six-year-old son Aiden. It was a regular event for them, a break in cooking routine for her and a treat for the boy. Alix English, the grill's proprietor, called out from behind the bar, "Oh, my God, here she comes! It's the terror of George Orwell High! And who is this handsome young man?"
"Hi, Alix," Teresa said. Aiden didn't respond, but he gave Alix the shy smile she could always win from him. Her seven-year-old daughter Sasha had better luck. She ran up and took his hand and led him to a booth in the corner, where they were soon busy with coloring books, Sasha chattering freely and occasionally using her limited American Sign Language vocabulary. Teresa didn't think he understood half of what she said, but it worked for them.
Teresa put in her order. Alix didn't need to ask what Aiden wanted; it was always the same. For him hot dogs and macaroni and cheese were the whole point of this exercise.
Alix nodded toward a table near the window. "VIPs," she said. Teresa turned her head just as one of the Powell City cops looked up. It was the younger, dark-haired one, and he gave her a look of undisguised interest. The correctional officer was not there — presumably he had returned Wade Linedecker to prison — but Deputy Knight was. The older city cop was flirting shamelessly with pretty blonde waitress Lacey Norman.
The dark-haired cop showed no interest in Lacey. He didn't look bored or contemptuous, just not interested. He got up and approached the counter, where Teresa was still talking to Alix. "Your better half's not with you tonight?" he asked. He had a pleasant baritone voice.
"What?" she said stupidly and then, recovering, "I'm not married."
"Oh, I thought you were," he said apologetically and smiled at her. He was disturbingly good-looking without his sunglasses, with penetrating brown eyes and just a trace of five o'clock shadow. He was tall, broad-shouldered, and very masculine, impressive if not intimidating. She liked his strong jaw line, and he had a nice smile, with just a hint of a dimple.
"Do I know you?" she asked. "I thought you were one of the Powell City officers."
"I am," he agreed, "but I live here. This is extra duty — they thought I could act as sort of a liaison. So the tall guy with the glasses — looks like a schoolteacher ...?"
"Which he is," she said. "Or was, before he got fired. No, we were just dating."
"Fired?" he queried. "Why? Was he molesting little girls or something?"
"No, nothing like that, or at least I don't think so. He didn't want to talk about it."
"Want me to find out?" he asked.
"What?" He was in cop mode, but why? "No. I'm finished with him."
"I assume you dumped him," he said. "It couldn't have been the other way around."
She shrugged, even as she wondered why she was discussing her romantic history with this stranger, who hadn't even offered his name. "It might as well be," she said. "When men cheat, isn't that one of the reasons? To end a relationship they want out of?"
"Is it? It sounds pretty cowardly. In your case, downright criminal. So you broke up recently? I don't want to seem too forward, but is it too soon for you to date?"
"I guess it depends on how you define date," she said.
"Well, could we maybe get together sometime?" he asked. "Dinner, someplace nice?"
"I don't even know you," she protested.
"Oh, I'm sorry. I'm Frank McAllister." He offered his hand, and Teresa, still bemused, took it. He had a firm handshake, a decent manicure, and no wedding ring.
"I realize I'm a complete stranger to you, Teresa, but I feel like I know you. I've had my eye on you for a while, but I thought you were married. I'm glad I was wrong." He smiled again, looking into her eyes with flattering intensity. "He is your son, though, right?" He gestured toward the corner booth. His gaze lingered on Sasha and Aiden as the boy taught his friend a new sign. Frank McAllister didn't stop smiling, but a little line appeared between his eyes. He didn't say any of the usual things, which she appreciated.
"Yes, that's Aiden," she said neutrally.
Sasha's voice was clearly audible, and Frank said, "Little kids' voices sound like a joke, you know? Like a comic fooling around with falsetto."
"You don't have children," she deduced.
"No, and I guess I haven't been around them enough. So, what do you think? Could I ... call you, or ..." He had seemed pretty confident, but now a shade of doubt crept in. Teresa was still deciding what she should say when he said, "He's here."
"The guy you're not married to." He nodded toward the door, and Teresa turned to see Brett Devlin just coming in. She looked away before he could spot her, but she felt a certain satisfaction in thinking he might notice she was with an attractive man. She gave McAllister her phone number. She could always brush him off later. When she looked around again, Brett was gone — scared off? He knew she would be at the grill — she always was on Thursday evenings.
Aiden came back and tugged at her hand. He didn't look at McAllister, perhaps didn't even notice him. He signed quickly, "Mama, I need bathroom."
"Didn't I tell you to go before we left?" she asked, speaking and signing simultaneously. She didn't wait for an answer and took his hand. He was old enough to go into the grill's small men's room by himself, but she still insisted on checking to see if it was empty first. When she was satisfied, she returned to the counter and kept an eye on the door.
"He doesn't speak?" Frank McAllister asked.
"Yes, he does. He goes to speech therapy, but he's such a little perfectionist he rarely uses his voice in public."
"Have you thought about a cochlear implant?"
"I've thought about how expensive they are," she said. "It's about sixty thousand, maybe more, including the surgery and rehab, and my insurance won't cover it."
"What about his father? Is he in the picture?"
"No, not really. So you live in Cougar? I don't think I've seen you before."
"I've been here four months. I'm in the city so much, working, that it doesn't feel like home yet, but I like it. It seems like a nice place to settle down. Unusual name, Cougar. Has anybody seen one around here?"
"Yes, we've had sightings, and a farmer shot one last year. I haven't seen any, but you can guess what the high school football team is called."
"The Cougars. And why were you the terror of Orwell High?"
"You heard that? It's just a silly nickname Alix gave me — Teresa, Terror. I was a good girl!"
"I bet you were," he said. The tone of admiration in his voice was unmistakable, his smile very warm. "Were you a cheerleader?"
"Far from it." Was he for real? She wasn't remarkable in any way, so why this interest? He had thought she was married, after all. He seemed to be unaware of the charms of teen-aged Lacey Norman, which included big blue eyes and knockers to match. She always displayed them to their best advantage too, with lots of makeup and daringly low-cut blouses. Teresa was slender, twenty-eight, and dressed in jeans and a T-shirt that revealed nothing. "How long have you been a police officer?" she asked.
"Twelve years. I'm on the SWAT team, so this isn't my usual gig."
"SWAT? Wow! Aiden would be impressed. So you just came to help dig up bodies?"
"Mostly bones, actually — they'd been dead a long time. Thing is — it will be public knowledge tomorrow, so I might as well tell you — Linedecker confessed to the two murders he was convicted of, but we found three bodies."
"Wow!" she said again. Just then Lacey sashayed past with Aiden's hot dogs and macaroni and cheese in one hand and Teresa's quesadillas in the other, trailing a mix of cheap scent and hot spices. Teresa said, "Well ..." and gestured toward the table where the boy now sat alone. Sasha had gone into the kitchen "to get in the way," as Alix would have it.
"I'll let you go," McAllister said. "I'll call you." He went back to his fellow officers.
"We-ell!" Alix said. "He works fast."
"It must be my sexy outfit."
Alix laughed. "What do you think?" she asked.
"Charming, but kind of cocky."
"Very high testosterone level. Look out, kiddo."
"You know me — Miss Cautious. He probably won't call anyway — he'll look around and find something better. Or easier," she added, with a glance at Lacey. She gave Alix a quick wave and hurried to join her son.
When she sat down in the booth, he signed, "Who that man?"
"Policeman," she said and signed, adding S-W-A-T in fingerspelling.
His eyes widened. "True?"
"Yes, really. Eat your salad."
"Too much green," he complained.
"Green is good for you."
"It just is. You want to grow up big and strong, don't you?"
Aiden's gaze went immediately to the table where the police officers were getting up to leave. She shouldn't have told him about SWAT — he was a little too prone to hero worship, and if McAllister was going to be around, it was best for him not to get attached too soon. It was one of the lessons she had learned with Brett.
* * *
Frank McAllister called the next morning. She didn't recognize the number and didn't answer until he started to leave a voicemail. "Sorry," she said briskly, "I'm at work and wasn't expecting —"
"I won't keep you," he said apologetically. "Where do you work?"
"The vet clinic — right above where you were digging."
"Oh, yeah — small white building with a blue roof? I don't want to take you away from your patients, but I wondered if we could have dinner tonight?"
"Oh, I don't think I can get a babysitter on such short notice." Not to mention that it was rude of him to assume she wouldn't be otherwise engaged.
"I'm sorry — I know I'm going a little bit fast here. Tomorrow, then?"
"Weekends are always tricky — teenagers have plans." Had she decided to brush him off or not? She didn't need to complicate her life any more right now, and he seemed like trouble — why, exactly? That was the point of a first date, wasn't it? To get to know each other well enough to judge whether it might be worth the trouble?
"Next week? If a weekday is better —"
"I couldn't stay out late," she hedged.
"Just dinner," he agreed.
She took a deep breath. "Monday would be okay, but I work until seven on Mondays."
"Do you know the perfect place?"
"What — you want me to choose?"
He laughed. "No, I mean that's what it's called: the Perfect Place. It's a nice restaurant in Powell City, very good food, and obviously the management isn't at all modest. It won't be busy Monday evenings, so — eight? I'd pick you up at seven-thirty?"
"I guess it would be all right," she said cautiously.
"Great! I'll make a reservation. Sorry about calling you at work."
"It's okay." She gave him the address.
"See you Monday." He hung up, and Teresa resumed cleaning and dressing the wounds of a battle-scarred tomcat. She tried not to think about what she might have gotten herself into.
At lunchtime, she called Alix and asked if she knew anything about a restaurant called the Perfect Place. "The perfect place for what is the question," her friend replied. She promptly Googled it, but found only a coffee shop in South Africa and a restaurant in Italy. "My advice is to dress up, but be a little standoffish. I'll call you with a 'babysitting emergency' at eight-thirty — you should know by then how it's going."
"What would I do without you?" Teresa asked.CHAPTER 2
Teresa wished Alix was there Monday evening when she was trying to decide what to wear. Alix believed in dressing to dazzle, but she didn't want to be overdressed if the Perfect Place turned out to be casual. Frank had said "nice" — did he mean upscale, or just pleasant? If she wore something fancy, he would be disappointed when she later proved to be a T-shirt and jeans girl — but he had already seen her that way.
She chose her best outfit — a cream silk dress with long sleeves and a moderately low neckline. She added a silver locket and the silver-and-pearl earrings Brett had given her for Christmas. She put her hair up, with a few stray locks over her ears so it wouldn't look too severe. While she was fussing with it, Aiden brought her a handful of beads from one of his craft projects. "Pretty in your hair," he signed and for emphasis said, "Pretty," with a slight roll of the r.
"Thank you, sweetie," she said and kissed him as a reward for the good speech effort. She took a few of the beads and threaded them into her hair to humor him. She fully intended to take them out as soon as Alix and Sasha picked him up for the sleepover, but they actually looked very appropriate. He had even chosen the right colors — silver, white, black, and red.
The first thing Alix said was, "Oh, I like the beads."
Teresa patted Aiden's back. "My son is a fashion guru."
"That was your idea?" Alix asked him. "Smart as well as handsome!" She turned back to Teresa. "You look great," she said. "I hope he's worthy of it."
Aiden had been too excited about the sleepover to ask much about Teresa's plans, but now he inquired, "Mama go party?"
"No, just dinner. If you decide you don't want to stay with Sasha, tell Alix to call me and I'll pick you up. I won't stay out late."
"I won't call," he signed indignantly. "I not baby!"
"I know, I know, you're —"
"Six!" He said it aloud, nailing the tricky x sound.
She bent swiftly to kiss his forehead. "He doesn't let me get away with anything," she complained.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Rebound Effect"
Copyright © 2019 Linda Griffin.
Excerpted by permission of The Wild Rose Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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