Authors: Debra Webb,Regan Black
She dragged herself back to the present. Mr. Filmore deserved a thoughtful reply. “I could have the increased patrols work in their civilian clothes.”
“How is that any better?”
She knew it! It wasn’t about the official uniform presence hindering anything. His dissatisfaction was about the budget. She was done with Filmore’s whining and she had another appointment in just fifteen minutes. Abby squared her shoulders. “My officers will be out there, in uniform. End of discussion. They will not harass anyone, because I’ve given clear instructions—” based on the most recent threats that she didn’t bother explaining “—regarding what they should look for.”
Filmore made an unpleasant sound of frustration. “I suppose you expect me to be grateful.”
She smiled, remembering he was a decent guy if a bit uptight about historical accuracy. “I expect you to recognize the necessity of the situation. Together is the only way Belclare gets through this rough patch.”
His beady eyes locked on to her. “You might have thought of this ‘rough patch’ before you turned our town into a target.”
Before she could respond, he spun on his heel and marched out of her office, his spine ramrod straight.
Abby let him have the last word. Not because he deserved it, but because she refused to be late to her next appointment. She was ready for a bit of solitude in her car and the comfort of coffee and conversation with a friend who didn’t have an agenda. She shut down her computer and moved away from her desk. Adjusting the silk scarf at her throat, she slipped into her black wool overcoat.
She was debating the wisdom of ruining her look by switching from her heels to her winter boots when someone knocked on her office door. Again. She turned and the professional smile she’d forced onto her face faded at the sight of Riley O’Brien filling her doorway. “Yes?”
“Danny said I could come on back.”
She made a mental note to have a chat with Danny.
“I just wanted you to know I’d finished the lobby as well as the display out front.”
“I’m sure your boss will be thrilled with your efficiency.”
“Probably so.” He gave her a grin that reminded her of the young men she’d pulled over in the past who tried to get off with a warning. “Today’s project list filled two pages.”
“That’s...” Why did he think she cared? “Ambitious,” she finished. “If you’ll excuse me I have an appointment.”
“Oh, sure.” He stepped out of the doorway but hovered while she locked up. It was a new procedure and no reflection on her department but—
“Can’t be too careful these days,” he said, echoing her thoughts.
“Precisely.” She maneuvered around him, unable to ignore the enticing scent of evergreen and cinnamon clinging to his clothing. “The garland is scented this year? I didn’t approve that.”
“I’m not sure it’s possible to un-scent fresh pine, ma’am.”
“The ma’am thing. I don’t like it much.” It made her feel old and right now the increased pressure following the drug bust was more than enough to cope with.
“Right.” He shoved his hands deep into his pockets. “Danny mentioned that.”
She was definitely having a talk with Danny. He needed a reminder about basic security around strangers. “Enjoy your stay in Belclare, Mr. O’Brien.”
“Call me Riley.”
Abby had no intention of calling him anything at all. While it wouldn’t be a problem under normal circumstances, this wasn’t the best time to make new friends. Except when she looked up, his expression was open and there was a humor lurking in his brown eyes. Her earlier thoughts about a stress relief outlet flooded back.
“I’d like that.”
“Pardon?” In her fantasy, she’d apparently lost the thread of the conversation. Reaching into her pocket, she gripped her car keys and strode toward the back of the station. He followed her.
“I’d like to enjoy my stay. If you’re not doing anything tonight, maybe you could show me around?”
Startled, she stopped, gathered her foolishly scattered wits. “I’m the chief of police, Mr.—” she made the correction before he could “—
If you need a map or a tour guide, check with the Visitor’s Center.”
“I don’t get it.” He shook his head.
She shouldn’t ask. If she let him stall her much longer, she’d be late. “What’s the matter?”
He grinned again. “I thought we sort of, well, connected earlier.”
“You’re joking.” The idea was absurd.
“Only a little.” His eyes twinkled. “Call it instant hero worship instead of a connection. I didn’t think anything could make Mr. Filmore stop talking.”
The urge to laugh startled her and she smothered it quickly. “That was more luck than skill.” A distaste for Filmore’s voice was a connection shared by 90 percent of Belclare’s population. “I really need to go.”
“Okay.” He pushed open the door and held it for her. “If you change your mind or need anything decorated, I’ll be around.”
His slow smile and the warmth of his body as she brushed by him created a stir low in her belly. Simple lust. A tempting distraction she couldn’t risk at the moment, no matter how genuine he seemed or how efficiently he tacked up decorations. The cold air slipped around her legs and up her knee-length skirt. She was rather grateful for the assist from Mother Nature as parts of her had turned inappropriately warm during this bizarre conversation. “You’ll be around? For the month?”
“Longer, I think. I like the views,” he added, his gaze holding hers. “Better get going before you catch a chill.”
Right. If only her feet weren’t rooted to the spot.
As he pulled the door closed, she brought out her key to lock it. “Don’t worry. I’ll get it from this side. Danny told me all doors had to be locked at all times.”
She clamped her lips together. No sense hollering at the new guy for the mistakes of the rookie cop at the desk. “Thank you,” she murmured when the door latch clicked. She counted to ten, then tugged the handle, pleased when the lock held.
She hurried to her car. At least the new guy in town kept his word about the little things. Even that small assurance immediately put her in a better frame of mind as she drove out to her meeting with Belclare’s most reluctant celebrity, Deke Maynard.
Quiet, reserved and a gifted artist, Deke had become a true friend. Aside from his assistant, she was probably the only person in town he trusted. She appreciated that and after all the recent criticism, she valued the few people like Deke who supported her. Keeping to their weekly routine of coffee and conversation in his elegant home gave her hope things would soon return to normal in Belclare and made her feel like more than just the chief.
Nothing wrong with wanting to feel like a woman now and again. Didn’t have to mean anything. She thought of the handsome new stranger in town and shook her head. The dead last thing she needed was another complication in her life.
Maybe she’d better stick with just being the chief.
Standing at the wall of windows on the east side of the room he’d converted into a painting studio, Deke Maynard stared out over the sleepy town of Belclare. Three years ago he’d visited during their annual Christmas Village and declared himself enamored with the charm, views and people.
He’d purchased this house and established himself as a recluse during the remodeling. Oh, he wandered out occasionally and spoke with people, but it was all he could do not to laugh in the eager faces of the ignorant citizens of Belclare as they gladly accommodated his every whim and eccentricity.
He should have asked for hazard pay when he’d agreed to create his base of operations here. The day-to-day tedium of Belclare might kill him. Yet there were certain perks, he admitted to himself as the police chief’s car turned into his long driveway.
The woman was beautiful and intelligent. If he bothered with regrets, he might have second thoughts about the things he’d set in motion. As it was, he scolded himself for entertaining the idea of keeping her as a trophy. It was a risk the operation could not afford.
“Chief Jensen has arrived, sir,” his assistant reported after a quick rap on the studio door.
“Thank you,” he said, as though he wasn’t watching her approach.
The reports from town annoyed him. She’d doubled patrols everywhere. Quite a feat considering the limits of her staff, but if nothing else, they were a determined and loyal flock of sheep.
He was reluctantly impressed that she’d managed to make the drug bust at all. That had been pure police work. There had been no leaks in the chain of information. When he’d arrived and become acquainted with her, he’d considered her more of a decorative figurehead than a real cop. He’d mistakenly assumed she’d been named police chief out of some misguided attempt to appeal to those who clamored for equality.
Looking back, he was grateful he’d been diligent about his manufactured background or today’s meeting might be taking an entirely different and unpleasant turn.
The doorbell rang and Deke smiled to himself. His assistant would manage the door and get her settled with coffee. Then Deke could make his entrance as the eccentric artist she expected.
Appreciating her strengths didn’t change the fact that Chief Jensen had become enemy number one. As the town dressed itself for their penultimate tourist season, Deke had been making his own preparations. He weighed the pros and cons of his limited choices.
In a matter of weeks, Chief Jensen had single-handedly wrecked a strategy years in the making. If he didn’t act swiftly to rectify the situation, his reputation would be ruined beyond repair.
He examined the landscape on the canvas in front of him. His raw artistic talent would never carry him as far as his other skills. Skills powerful men and organizations paid handsomely for.
Wiping the paint from his hands, he checked his appearance in the mirror at the top of the stairs before he descended to meet the police chief. This would be one of his most critical performances to date. And with all good performances, it would be better for tapping into the truth.
Her drug bust might have cut off a vital money supply line, but that didn’t change his base, physical attraction to her. It would be that truth he monopolized today for the greater good of his real career.
Pausing at the landing, he took one last deep breath before rushing the rest of the way down the stairs. “Ah, Abby, hello,” he said as he entered the sitting room just off the foyer. “Forgive me for keeping you waiting.”
Chief Jensen smiled brightly as she stood to greet him. “You could’ve rescheduled if you’re working.”
“Nonsense. Coffee with you is the highlight of my week.” That put a rosy glow in her cheeks. He stepped back to admire her. “You are looking as lovely as ever.”
He motioned for her to resume her seat, then he poured a cup of coffee for himself. “So how are the preparations going? From my vantage point it seems everything is on schedule.”
“You should come down and take a look for yourself,” she suggested, a soft smile on her lips.
He was filled once more with the urge to keep her. He deserved a reward for the nonsense he tolerated day in and day out. “Right now I’d only be in the way. I’ll come down after the crush of opening weekend is over.”
“I’ll look forward to it.” She raised the china cup to her full lips and he had to look away. “The mayor came by the station yesterday.”
“Oh?” he queried.
“Yes. He wanted me to thank you for the sketches you donated to the silent auction.”
“Of course he had you bring me the message.” Deke snorted derisively and adjusted his rolled-back sleeves, pleased to see her watching him so closely. “He knew I wouldn’t let him past the driveway after the way he spoke to you.”
“Probably,” she allowed. “Thanks again for defending me.”
“You’re a hero,” he said. “And you’re a dear friend,” he added quietly. He checked the time, wondering how far he could push her today.
“To be fair, I might have shown a little restraint at the press conference.” She held up her hand, thumb and finger close together. “Maybe a smidge less gloating.”
“That drug bust was important.” Deke leaned forward and laid a hand on her knee. It wasn’t the first time he’d touched her, but this time he wanted her to understand it was a romantic advance. “You’re a passionate woman.” Her eyes widened and he knew he had her on the hook. “Belclare is fortunate that you’re putting fear and doubt into the minds of criminals looking to abuse our resources.”
He sat back once more, his hand trailing away slowly, giving her the impression that the next move was hers. He’d long ago learned how to manipulate and guide while maintaining the illusion of free will.
She cleared her throat. “I was surprised to see you at the emergency council meeting.”
“Should I have stayed home?”
“No.” Her brow furrowed for a moment before her expression cleared. “Your defense meant the world to me. Frankly, after the mayor’s reprimand, I didn’t expect anyone to admit I existed. Your example reminds me I do have allies.”
She’s made her decision.
He could sense victory on the horizon. That moment, when she was his, would be so sweet. His body responded, anticipating the pleasure of using her before he publicly humiliated and destroyed her. In a few days’ time her world would come crashing down around her. He glanced at the clock on the mantel. “Then I’m even happier to have made the effort.”
“You’ve been an asset to the entire community.” Whatever she intended to say next was cut short by the hum of her phone. “Excuse me, it’s the station.”
“Of course,” he said with a nonchalance he didn’t feel. This might be the very call that signaled the beginning of his vengeance.
He refilled his coffee and waited while she took the call in the foyer. He didn’t hear much beyond her greeting before his own phone rang. The timing couldn’t be worse, but he answered anyway. “Yes?”
“This is a mistake,” the caller said with a quaking voice.
“The only mistake is questioning me.”
“I was told I had the authority—”
“Enough.” Deke checked to be sure Chief Jensen remained distracted. “When you exhibit good judgment your authority will be restored. Are you reneging on our solution?”