Authors: Joleen James
"Sure, that would be great." She blew on her hands to warm them up. "You must love it here."
"I do." He took a French press from the shelf near the stove, adding coffee. "I come here as often as I can."
"It is. No neighbors, but I like that."
"You must see a ton of wildlife." She wandered over to the window, peering out.
"Bears, moose, and more birds than I can count."
"Wow." The tea kettle whistled.
Rick finished making the coffee and passed her a steaming mug.
"Are you hiding out here?" Tawney asked, wanting his story. She knew so little about his previous ten years and she had to admit she was curious.
"Hiding?" he asked, his brow furrowed. "Why would I be hiding?"
"Star told me you'd been shot. There has to be a story there. You gave up the job you always dreamed of. Ambition like yours doesn't go away. You were so focused on being a cop. Law enforcement is all you ever talked about. Something shook you to your core."
He turned away from her. Had she pushed him too hard? She remembered June telling her to be gentle with him.
He frowned. "You're full of questions today."
"Just trying to understand you."
"Why are you in Alaska?" he asked, turning the tables on her. "You're a bright star, a shining light. You admitted you loved dancing in Vegas. Something made you leave a career you loved. You don't belong in this town. This town will bury you in snow and fish guts."
She laughed. "Touché."
"I guess we both have our reasons or our secrets for being here." He gave her a pointed look.
"I guess we do." She sipped her coffee, her eyes on him.
"Should we head back?" he asked. "I know you have things to do."
"Can we stay a bit longer? It's starting to snow."
"Just a few minutes. We don't want to get stuck here. The plow doesn't make it down my driveway."
"No, definitely not."
They stood at the window drinking their coffee, watching the snow fall. Tawney let the peace fill her. She felt safe here with Rick, in the middle of nowhere. For a few minutes she wanted to hold onto to the feeling of security being with Rick offered. Fox Lassiter would never find her here. It felt good to let her guard down, even if it was just for a few minutes.
When they finished their coffee, they set out for town, but long after she was back home, getting ready for her shift at The Junebug, Tawney remembered that feeling of peaceful safety.
* * *
Tawney reset her playlist and went through her choreography for the umpteenth time. She had been up since six a.m. working on a new routine she wanted to reveal tomorrow for the dance aerobics class. She'd used the bones of a class she'd taught in Vegas combined with fresh new moves.
As she worked through the routine she jotted down notes, made adjustments. She was almost there. She had the steps down. She'd designed this routine for beginners. A second routine would work for her advanced class.
At noon she took a break for a much needed lunch. She wanted everything perfect for tomorrow. A knock sounded at her door.
Her heart beat double-time as instant fear found her. "Who is it?" she called through the door. She cast a glance at her purse, imagining the gun inside.
Rick. Not Fox. How she wished she could let go of the anxiety that had taken up residence in her psyche. Tawney glanced down at her sweat-soaked T-shirt and yoga pants. It was just Rick for crying out loud. What was wrong with her? This wasn't a date. She opened the door.
Rick held a florist box.
Flowers? "What's this?" she asked, not wanting flowers from Rick or any man. Expectations came with flowers, expectations she wasn't willing to meet.
"Not sure." He held the long box out to her. "Met the delivery man in the driveway."
Tawney noted her name on the shipping label. "So they're not from you?"
He smirked. "Nope."
Of course they weren't from him. Why would he send her flowers? But if he didn't, who had?
Rick followed her inside.
Tawney's stomach had that sick feeling, the one that told her something wasn't right. The last time she'd received flowers, they'd been from Fox. She didn't want to open the box, but she had to know.
"What's wrong?" Rick asked. "You look like you're going to be sick. Most women love to get flowers."
"I'm not like most women." She frowned. "Just wondering who would send me flowers. It's not like I know anyone here."
"One way to find out. Open them." He looked at her expectantly.
She pressed a hand to her queasy stomach. "I can't. Will you open them?"
"Sure." Rick used his pocket knife to slice the box open.
Inside were two dozen red roses. No! She spun away, her had pressed to her midsection.
"That's odd," Rick said. "There's no card."
Because no card was needed. She knew Fox had sent the roses. He'd found her. Panic filled her chest. She glanced around wildly, not sure what to do first. She'd been so careful. How had he found her?
"What's wrong?" Rick touched her arm. "Tawney?"
She yanked her arm away from him, unable to bear his touch. "I have to go."
"Why?" he asked, the word one giant question. "Where?"
"Anywhere but here." Her breath came in short gasps. God, she couldn't think.
"What the hell is going on?" Rick asked, his tone sharp now. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
"He found me," she said.
"Who found you?" When she didn't reply, Rick asked, "Who? Tell me what's going on."
Tawney sat on the sofa, her head in her hands. What good would it do to hide the truth from him? Wouldn't it be better to tell him something at this point? She didn't trust him to keep her heart safe, but she did trust him as a cop, a friend.
"I had a stalker in Vegas. A powerful man. He invaded my life in every way possible. Red roses were his thing. He's found me."
Rick's jaw tightened. "So you are hiding from someone."
She met his stare. "I had to get a restraining order against him. He didn't care. He had me followed. He left gifts at my place of business and even inside my apartment. I can't fight him, Rick. He's too powerful."
"Tawney." Rick sat beside her. "It's okay. You're not alone here. You have your family. You have me. I don't know how they do things in Vegas, but in Alaska we take care of our own."
The way he said those last words caused hope to beat within her. He took her hands in his. "I need you to tell me everything. I can help you. You can't let a man like him win. You are giving him way too much power. Men like him thrive on your fear."
God, she wanted to believe him. She wasn't alone here, but how did she bring Fox Lassiter's brand of danger here, to her family, and still sleep at night?
"I don't know what to do," she admitted.
"I want you to give me his name," Rick said. "I have connections. I'll find out what I can about him. I'll find out if he sent the flowers."
"Of course he sent them," Tawney said. "There's no one else. And you'll never be able to prove it. I'm sure one of his goons paid with a stolen credit card. He is too smart to connect himself to the flowers."
Rick smiled. "Honey, there's a town full of men here who'd send you flowers if they thought they had a chance with a woman like you."
"I wish it were that simple." She reached for Rick's hand. "I'm scared, I'll admit it."
"That's why you're jumpy, why you carry a gun," Rick said, his words soft with understanding. His fingers tightened around hers. "It's why you don’t have a phone. You don't want him to trace the phone to you. I should have connected the dots. I'm a cop, or I was a cop. I can keep you safe. You'll have to trust me. I know it won't be easy for you."
"I don't have anyone else," she said. "I can't drag my sisters into my problems. If anything happened to them I'd never forgive myself. Coming here was a mistake."
"Tell me the guy's name," Rick said his voice calm and filled with authority. "I'll make some calls and we can talk tonight."
"Fox Lassiter," she said the words in a whisper.
"Fox?" Rick repeated, recognition in the way he said the name.
"You've heard of him?" Tawney asked.
"Yes." He glanced away from her, then back. "Okay. I'm on it. Get cleaned up. I'll be back to walk you to work. Lock your door. Call me if you have any problems."
"Can you get rid of the roses, please?" She met his stare.
"Sure thing." He scooped up the box. "Lock the door."
Tawney did as he asked, turning the deadbolt.
Fox had found her. Her stomach rolled. Tawney raced for the bathroom, throwing up her lunch.
* * *
Rick powered up his laptop while at the same time placing a call to the Seattle Police Department.
"Hey," he said when his former partner Phil picked up the call. "It's Rick and I need a favor."
"Rick, how are you, man?" Phil asked. "Still working at that bar or are you ready to come back where you belong?"
"Still at the bar," Rick said. "And you know I can't come back there. Look, Phil, a friend of mine is being stalked by Fox Lassiter."
"No shit?" Phil said. "What can I do?"
"Can you send me anything the department has on Lassiter, including his whereabouts right now. If he's in Alaska I want to know about it."
"Anything to help," Phil said. "Give me a couple of hours."
"Great," Rick said. "I owe you—again."
"The hell you do," Phil said, his tone serious. "Let's not even go there."
Rick's throat tightened. He didn't want to talk about that night. His emotions were still too raw. The memories too fresh.
"Rick? You still there?"
"Yeah," Rick said, his voice hoarse with emotion. "Thanks for your help, Phil." Rick ended the call.
He took a deep breath. He didn't want to think about his own problems. Tawney had to come first right now. Fox Lassiter was a dangerous man. Tawney was right; the guy had the law in his pocket. It would be almost impossible to charge him with anything, and even if he could charge him with a crime, Fox had the best attorneys money could buy.
Rick paced to the window, looking over at Tawney's.
Somehow she'd gotten under his skin. In his own way he'd been stalking her, watching out for her, keeping an eye on her place. Were he and Fox really so different?
Yes, of course they were. He would never hurt Tawney or use her own fear against her. He only wanted to protect her, keep her safe.
Rick sat down at his computer and did a search on Fox Lassiter. He intended to read up on the gangster and learn everything he could about the man before his shift at The Junebug.
Tawney did her job, delivering three draft beers and a screwdriver to a table of men. One of the men eyed her, and as she passed he grabbed her arm.
"Now how am I going to wait tables when you have a hold of my arm?" she asked, meeting his watery gray eyes.
"What's your name?" the man asked.
He had at least three days' worth of beard, but he looked harmless enough, like he was looking for a good time. Any other night she could have placated him with a smile, but after receiving the roses early that day her nerves jumped. Anyone in this bar could be working for Fox. Anyone.
"Tawney," she said, trying to soften her request for him to let go. She smiled. She was overreacting. "Did you need something else?"
"Let go of her," Rick said, coming up behind her.
The man released her arm, then held his hands up in surrender. "No harm done, just introducing myself to the lady. I'm Jack."
"Nice to meet you, Jack." Tawney smiled again. She took Rick's arm. "Come on."
"You okay?" Rick asked.
"Yes. No. I don't know. I keep expecting to turn around and see Fox or one of his goons. For all I know, that guy Jack could work for Fox. I suspect everyone, and I hate that."
Rick led her back behind the bar. He gave her a bottle of water. "Drink," he said. "Breathe. Those guys don't work for Fox. They've been in here a million times."
She nodded, drinking the water.
Rick's phone rang. "Hello? What? You're sure?" Then, "Okay, thanks, Phil. Appreciate it." Rick smiled.
"What?" Tawney asked.
"The flowers weren't sent by Fox. Mel sent them."
"One tooth Mel?" Tawney asked, needing clarification.
"Yeah, one tooth Mel."
Relief washed through her. "Oh, thank God." She launched herself at Rick, hugging him. "I'm so relieved."
Rick's arms came around her, and she let him hold her. He smelled good, like fabric softener, and his back was so solid under her palms. He made her feel safe, protected. She never wanted to let him go. She was so sick of being afraid all the time.
"Get a room," someone at the bar called out.
They broke apart. Tawney's cheeks heated. "Sorry," she said. "I'm just so glad I don't have to leave town."
He said the words softly, those two words holding an intimacy that made her stomach drop.
Unsettled, Tawney went back to work. Around nine, Mel came in, taking his usual seat at the bar. Tawney exchanged a look with Rick. She wasn't sure how to react to Mel now. The man was obviously interested in her, an interest she didn't welcome.
"How you doing tonight, Mel?" she asked.
"Doing good, how about you?" Mel replied, his dark eyes burning imaginary holes in her clothes.
"Okay." She fetched him his usual drink. "Menu?"
"Don't need one." He smiled. "I'll have the special."
"Great." She took his order and moved on. He didn't mention the flowers and for that she was grateful. For some reason, he wanted to remain anonymous, and that was fine with her. Saved her the trouble of telling him she wasn't interested.
Throughout the remainder of her shift, she felt Mel's eyes on her—this she was used to. At three a.m. when they locked up, she'd never been happier to go home.