Authors: Debra Webb,Regan Black
Normally he wouldn’t drop something like this on an agent with limited field experience, but the key to this task force came down to the ability to blend in. To be the guy next door. Raised in an orphanage, O’Brien had been melding with his community and surroundings his whole life. During his two years as a Specialist, he’d worked behind the scenes, offering physical and technical support during various operations. An agent with less field experience meant the tech experts would have less to scrub away and an easier time rebuilding the personal history. Also in his favor for this particular operation, O’Brien had proved to be a natural when it came to managing explosives.
A few more seconds of silence ticked by and then O’Brien nodded, his gaze resolute. “Count me in, sir.”
“Good.” Especially for the police chief and her town, Thomas mused. “Belclare will be finishing preparations for their annual Christmas Village when you arrive. With your experience in construction, you’ll be able to find work easily.”
“But you want me to stay on in the area after that’s over.”
“Yes. You’ll need to make yourself at home within the community. Chief Jensen will need you, whether she knows it or not. We’ll get the necessary background ready.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Thomas stood and reached across the desk to shake the agent’s hand. “Let me be the first, and quite possibly the only person, to thank you for your service.”
Belclare Police Station
Wednesday, November 30, 9:50 a.m.
Riley measured the span of the double doorway and clipped the tape measure back on his tool belt. He’d picked up work with the company in charge of transforming Belclare into a Christmas extravaganza just as the director suggested. Riley considered his assignment off to a stellar start when he was sent over to decorate the police station.
“She’s in a meeting.” The young cop working the reception desk behind him was having trouble with one of Belclare’s citizens. “May I take a message?”
“She’s a young hothead is what she is,” the irritated older man replied. “The historical society has never been handcuffed in this manner. I will not stand for it. The tourists expect...”
Riley continued tacking holiday garland around the door frame as the man droned on about tourism, children and intrusive patrols.
“Safety is our utmost priority,” the young officer said. “From our chief right down to our newest recruits.”
Preach on, kid,
Riley thought. Belclare would need every patrol if only half of the chatter about retaliation was true. Chief Jensen was in serious trouble. Via email, the director had kept him in the loop with the most direct threats to help Riley identify the locals who no doubt had to be involved. At the moment, this guy from the historical society was quickly gaining himself a spot at the top of the list.
Riley stepped down the ladder to gather up the next length of evergreen woven with velvet ribbon and colorful ornaments. This town pulled out all the stops for the holiday. He couldn’t see why the police station needed decorating, but the work put him close to the chief. At this stage, she didn’t have a clue that by doing an excellent job as chief, she’d not only protected her town, she’d also put them in more jeopardy.
Though he hadn’t yet seen more than a photo of the lady with the tough-as-nails reputation, Riley admired her efficiency.
The older man with the beef against the chief’s new security requirements was turning red in the face as he continued his protest.
Finished with the doorway, Riley decided a break in the tension was needed. “I’m taking a break for hot chocolate,” he said to no one particular. “Can I get anyone anything?”
The old man swiveled around, scowling at him. “Who are you?” He turned back to the young cop behind the desk. “Do you know
He might very well be an assassin right here in our midst. Now who isn’t being careful enough?”
“Don’t worry about me,” Riley said, laughing off the accusation. “I just follow the work. Riley O’Brien.” He stuck out his hand, but the older man refused to take it.
“Martin Filmore, president of the Belclare Historical Society,” he replied, a sour look on his weathered face.
“Pleased to meet you.” Riley gave him a big smile and hooked his thumbs into his tool belt. “Can I get you anything from that shop across the street while you wait?”
Filmore rolled his eyes. “The shop is called Sadie’s. Owned by the Garrison family, the building has been a landmark in Belclare since the town was founded.”
“Good to know.” He looked past Filmore to the kid behind the desk. Riley pegged him as early twenties and fresh out of the academy. “How about you, Officer?”
“Call me Danny.” The young cop grinned, relief stamped on his face. “I’ll take a hot chocolate.”
“All right. Marshmallows or whipped cream? Cinnamon on top?”
“Sounds like you’ve been to Sadie’s before,” Danny said knowingly.
Riley shrugged into his down vest. “A man who doesn’t cook has priorities.”
The cop’s expression brightened more, making him look even younger. Riley was grateful to gain an ally in town, even a young one. Since getting hired on, he’d learned that people here were a bit edgy around strangers. The guys on the crew who’d worked previous seasons said it wasn’t normal for Belclare, but they all agreed the folks had good reason. The national news headlining drug bust marked the first serious crime in their community and they were worried that more would follow.
“I take marshmallows,” Danny said. “No cinnamon.”
“Good choice,” Riley smiled. “How about you?” he asked the older man again. “Last chance.”
“No,” Filmore snapped. “Thank you. I am capable of fetching my own coffee.”
Riley paused, one hand on the door. “The girl at the counter said they were doing some sugar-cookie thing this afternoon. What’s that about?”
Danny sighed wistfully. “I asked for the time off but didn’t get it.”
Filmore glared at the kid. “You cannot convince me the police department puts safety first when our officers are more concerned with a sugar-cookie party.”
“It’s a big deal,” Danny defended himself.
Filmore launched right into another snobby rant, complaints and insults flying like fists.
Riley was about to intervene with another dumb new-guy-in-town question when a harsh, earsplitting whistle silenced the argument.
All three men in the lobby turned to the woman in the doorway that led back to the bull pen.
The woman of the hour, Riley decided, soaking up his first live view of Police Chief Jensen. Her blond hair was pulled back from her heart-shaped face and her blue eyes were sharp as lasers as she studied each of them.
Unlike the other officers he’d seen coming and going today, she wasn’t wearing the dark blue uniform. No, she wore a deep green suit with an ivory shirt, tailored perfectly to her curves. Was it some attempt at a civilian disguise or didn’t she lead by example? He took in her slender legs and the high heels and decided he appreciated the view too much to criticize her choice or rationale. Were police chiefs supposed to wear skirts? He knew the formal uniforms for women were that way, but on an average day? He’d seen her on television, had researched the decorated career that led to her current post. None of it accurately portrayed the size of her personal presence. She might be a petite little thing, but without saying a word she had full command of the room.
Her hard gaze moved deliberately from Danny to Filmore to him. He felt it like a touch. After a moment, she settled that tough blue gaze back on Filmore.
“Mr. Filmore, what is the problem here?”
“I need a moment of your time,” he began. “The new precautions are an impediment—”
She held up a hand and he stopped talking. Riley put that skill right up there with a superpower. One fact had been immediately clear: the president of the historical society loved the sound of his own voice.
Her cool gaze landed on Riley again, raked him from head to toe and back up. “You are?”
“Not a part of this,” he said, holding up his hands. “I’m just on garland detail.” He pointed to the ladder.
She eyed the ladder and then stepped forward, holding out a hand. “Name and identification, please.”
He hoped this was a stunt for the crotchety Filmore. “Was I hanging garland too fast, ma’am?”
She glared at him.
“I checked his credentials when he came in, Chief,” Danny piped up. “He’s with the design team.”
“Your name,” she insisted.
Riley gave her his friendliest lopsided grin. “Riley O’Brien.” The grin didn’t appear to be any more effective on the police chief than when he’d used it on his teachers in private school.
“That’s what my parents tell me.” According to his new background courtesy of the Specialists’ technology wizards, he was first-generation American, born of Irish immigrants. As he’d memorized his manufactured past it was as if the techs had somehow tapped the childhood fantasy that carried him through his long years at the orphanage.
“What brings you to Belclare?”
“Steady work,” he replied as she returned his Maryland driver’s license and the work permit.
“And you’ll be leaving when?”
“Actually, I’m thinking I’ll stay.” He looked over to Danny. “Maybe you can point me to a place to rent?”
“The personnel don’t typically stay on after the work is done,” the chief countered before Danny could reply.
Riley shrugged. “So far, I like what I see.”
She examined his progress with the decorations. “Why aren’t you done?”
“I was taking my required break, but that got interrupted.”
“Well, we won’t waste any more of your time.”
“Thank you.” He returned his wallet to his back pocket and zipped up his vest halfway. With a wave to Danny, he headed out to Sadie’s while the chief addressed Mr. Filmore.
The sky was heavy and he smelled snow on the air. Riley didn’t need a weather forecast to tell him Belclare’s annual Christmas Village would benefit from an idyllic blanket of fluffy white snow for the opening weekend. The most profitable weekend according to the background reports. All he had to do was make sure no one ruined it for them by assassinating their beloved chief of police.
Sadie’s was quiet and the hot chocolate orders were ready sooner than he’d hoped. He needed to keep an eye on the chief, but he also wanted a few minutes of distance to gather his thoughts. Whatever he’d expected, she’d been...more. Sure, she was beautiful and she clearly had her finger on the pulse of this town. He didn’t like how that made him feel. Uneasy. Turned-on. A potential lifelong assignment out here suddenly took on a new element of risk. And a potential unexpected angle.
What if he asked her out? It would be a valid way to stay close, especially in these early days. He headed back over to the police station, planning how best to get a few details about her out of Danny. Riley knew how to ask questions without giving away his real motives.
Work, he reminded himself. That was his real motive. This wasn’t the time to get distracted.
“You simply must relax the police presence on Main,” Mr. Filmore said, not for the first time.
Too bad Abby didn’t have any evidence tying him to any illegal activity. Not even a whiff of mental instability or aggression in his background.
As much as Filmore tested her patience, she refused to give in to the temptation to play favorites. All the citizens of Belclare deserved her best effort as their police chief. It was a shame she didn’t trust them equally anymore.
Despite the press conference that had gone viral thanks to national news and social media, in recent days her confident speech felt more like a publicity stunt. She knew the value of perception as well as caution. The mail and email that flooded the department and website in the days following the drug bust was mostly positive, but the threats, in an increasing number, had to be assessed and cleared or sent up to the feds, who claimed she was in trouble. They’d even suggested she employ a protective detail, but they hadn’t given her the personnel. Besides, with everyone in town watching for her next mistake, she had enough eyes on her already.
The threats monopolized her time, taking her away from other important daily endeavors, though Homeland Security would disagree with that assessment. They were sure she was dealing with a sleeper cell and their insistence, while absurd, had her looking at everyone in town with suspicion. She knew these people. Cared about them—even the hardheaded one glaring at her right now.
Of course, Martin didn’t care that she’d drawn that line with his safety in mind. Aesthetics and historical accuracy mattered more than anything else to him. Thankfully, the men and women on the police force agreed with the aggressive line she’d drawn.
“I will not relax the patrols on Main or anywhere else, Mr. Filmore.”
“But the problem was out at the docks. Isn’t it a better use of resources to keep your patrols focused in that area?”
He wanted her to save resources in the hope that he could divert any funds she didn’t spend into his budget at the next council meeting. She knew the tactic far too well. She’d taken this job despite the politics that went with it. Abby felt the tension mounting. Her shoulders were tight, her legs were ready to spring and her toes were cramping in these stupid pumps. She reminded herself she couldn’t throw a tantrum. There were better outlets than the bloodcurdling scream of frustration trapped in her throat.
A soft tap-tap-tap of a hammer and squeak of boots on the metal ladder told her O’Brien was back to work in the lobby. Talk about an outlet. Wow. Riley O’Brien would certainly qualify as an effective distraction. He was handsome and built. If only she could be sure he wasn’t also a threat in contractor’s clothing. Had she really just thought that? She gave herself a mental shake. This had to be some universal female fantasy involving a thermal shirt, faded jeans and a tool belt that sparked sudden, inexplicable lust in a stranger under present circumstances.
“Well?” Filmore demanded.