Third-grade teacher Maddie McCormick was thrilled when her dream of a greenhouse classroom actually came to fruition. She hadn’t expected to anger the local street thugs, or that their threats would make it more difficult to use the new structure.

Police officer Ben Belliston hadn’t planned on fatherhood—ever—but gaining custody of his orphaned niece had him rearranging all of his priorities. His niece, Felicia, and Maddie, her new teacher, bonded right away, so he was happy to provide a little off-duty security in the greenhouse—it was more than a fair exchange for the way Maddie helped his niece emerge from her shell. He hadn’t expected to begin seeing his best friend’s little sister in a new light, or the way Maddie would make him question all of his future plans.

One

“I’M THINKING PINK and blue for your colors. We could do a June wedding with pink roses and delphiniums for the flowers,” Maddie said when she met Piper on the street outside of Dansie’s Dental office, where Piper worked. She’d been thinking about this on and off for a couple of days. Piper was the first one of her close friends to get engaged and she knew Piper would feel overwhelmed. It was practically her duty to help plan the wedding, right?

“Pink and blue?” Skepticism hovered in Piper’s blue eyes. She was bundled in a thick green coat that set off her red hair and peaches and cream complexion. “I don’t think they have pink roses in a shade that will work with that dark blue delphinium.”

“Delphiniums come in paler blue and even white,” Maddie insisted. “And it would be perfect for an early summer wedding.”

“Except that we’re not getting married until September or maybe October. November isn’t out of the question, either.” They continued down the street toward the community garden. Or at least what would be the community garden when spring came around and they could plow and plant the space. Now the February cold blew across their faces and down the necks of their coats. The barren winter landscape didn’t help the day feel warmer, but at least the snow had melted and they still had another hour or two of sunlight.

Maddie could hardly believe it was all coming together. When Piper had brought up the idea the previous fall, Maddie had known she wanted to be part of it. It hadn’t been easy for Piper to acquire the land, even though it had been abandoned for years. Reece’s company had owned the property, and he had jumped right in to help Piper get approval. Maddie suspected it had more to do with spending time with Piper than the garden, at least in the beginning. That was just as well, since it was doubtful they could have gotten to this point without his help.

Maddie pulled her coat tighter against the scarf she had wound around her neck before leaving the school across the street where she taught. It had been an unusually cold and snowy winter. The extended forecast said somewhat milder weather was on the way, though, and any minute a delivery truck would pull up with the greenhouse that had been financed by several generous donors in the community.

“I guess September is okay,” she conceded after a moment, “but I know how much you like spring flowers.”

“I like summer and fall ones too. I know I have exquisite taste, but I can’t believe you’re that excited to wear a bridesmaid’s dress.” Piper grinned, as she always did when she talked about the forthcoming nuptials. It hadn’t been easy for her and Reece to get past the bumps and bruises of their past, but they had made it.

“I do so love taffeta.” Maddie had been very vocal with her friends about a puce gown in that fabric she’d worn for a cousin’s wedding a couple of years earlier.

“Darn it, I was thinking no taffeta. What do you think of gingham check?” Piper’s lips twitched.

Maddie’s right cheek twitched at the thought. Gingham was on her never-wear list. She wasn’t a pioneer and, so as far as she was concerned, there was no reason for her to have any contact with gingham. “You don’t mind if I pick out the bridesmaid dresses for you, do you? Give me a color and theme. It’s one part of the planning that I’m more than happy to take off your hands.”

Piper laughed. “Don’t worry, you and Adelyn will get plenty of say in the final choice. Just because it’s my wedding doesn’t mean you have to look terrible.”

“You are an angel among bridezillas.”

“I have a mother-of-the-groom-zilla, so one of us has to be reasonable,” Piper muttered.

“I thought things were going well with her.” They came to a stop on the sidewalk beside the empty lot. Maddie waved to Adelyn, their other best friend, who was walking in their direction from the city building. She cut right through the empty garden site on her way toward them.

“She’s been nice, most of the time, but she has it in her head that we need a huge formal wedding with like a thousand of her closest friends attending. No doubt she’ll want the bride’s and groom’s families seated separately. My family and friends will fill part of a row, and hers will fill the rest of the mausoleum of a church that she’s trying to push on us for the ceremony.”

“Do you and Reece have other places in mind? I’m sure Adelyn could make a few suggestions for smaller venues.” Adelyn knew all of the appropriate spaces in town.

“If we don’t get something reserved soon, it’ll end up being held at city hall.”

Adelyn chuckled a little as she joined them. “You must be talking about your wedding plans. I saw Reece’s mom at the Women in Business meeting today. She had this idea of white on white with a horse and carriage to deliver you to the church, Cinderella style.” When Maddie shot her a disbelieving look, Adelyn crossed her chest with her finger tip. “I’m not exaggerating.”

“And you smiled and nodded, of course, because you never rock the boat,” Piper said.

“No, I didn’t smile and nod this time. I mentioned that I didn’t think that was really your style, and that whatever you chose, it wouldn’t fit the image she had in mind. Then I said that if she trusted you and Reece, she might be surprised by the tasteful, lovely wedding you plan. So please don’t contradict me by coming to the city to have it performed. Seriously, your mother-in-law would never trust any of us again.”

“So true. Don’t worry, on my list of favorite places to be married, city hall is somewhat lower than the cathedral.” Piper glanced up as a big rig pulled into the one empty spot by the sidewalk. Ben and Jason walked over from the opposite direction where they had parked in the city lot.

“Looks like most of us are here.”

“No one said Ben was coming,” Maddie muttered under her breath. Ben was her brother Jason’s best friend—had been for as long as Maddie could remember. Sure, he had movie-star good looks, a face as chiseled as a young Brad Pitt and the most perfect honey-blond hair imaginable—that didn’t mean she had to like him. At least that’s what she told herself when seeing him like this made the breath catch in her throat. The fact that she’d had a totally unrequited crush on him since second grade didn’t help her convince herself that she disliked him.

Adelyn shot her a knowing look, but said nothing, a forbearance that Maddie deeply appreciated.

Maddie didn’t dislike Ben, she disliked the fact that she felt invisible when he was around. Even with as much time as they spent around each other, he’d never even glanced at her in a romantic way. Was she not good enough to draw a nice guy’s attention? Her ex-boyfriend, Chaz, had twisted the knife a little more when he’d walked out, saying she was too boring to waste his time with. Her, boring?  What he really meant was that he hadn’t liked that her social life had been more than watching lame reruns with him every night after work. She had needed to get out and living a little.

Piper looked back at the street, which was getting busier now that rush hour was approaching. “You have to expect Ben to come if he’s not at work and Jason is involved. When have they ever been separated? Where is Reece, anyway? He was supposed to be here by now.”

Adelyn, as always, had the sensible answer. “He probably got caught up in a phone call. You know how the board of directors can be.”

Piper frowned distractedly. “It’s picking someone new for the board that’s the issue. You wouldn’t believe what a hassle it’s been.”

“I have a delivery,” the freight driver said, getting out of his truck. “One of you Piper Daniels?”

“That’s me. You’ve found the right place.” Piper accepted the papers and looked at them, making sure they sent the correct item while the driver opened the back of his truck to unload the boxed greenhouse parts.

A car honked as it drove past and Maddie glanced over to see Reece pull into the alley between the future garden and Dequan’s Chinese Restaurant next door. The wall beyond him had been painted the previous fall by the owners of the Chinese place, so it no longer had gang markers all over it, but Maddie didn’t expect that to last for much longer. As soon as the temperatures rose above the teens during the day, the kids would be out in force again. Unless they could head off the graffiti before it started. She wasn’t sure how to do that, though.

The guys all converged in time to help the delivery man unload the boxes of panels, poles, hinges, and whatever else made up a great greenhouse. Maddie’s fingers itched to start putting it together. The parts were stacked in front of the empty apartment building next door, except for the bottom rails, which they would lay down first.

The weather warmed as they worked, attaching the base to the bolts that had been cemented into the foundation. Ben had to drill a hole in one of the rails where the bolt’s placement hadn’t been as precise as they would have liked, but otherwise, everything fit perfectly. They were soon able to get to work on the walls. Maddie tried not to show how utterly freezing she was as they assembled pieces in the failing light. She reminded herself that her kids were excited about the greenhouse, and they were going to have a terrific spring quarter learning in it.

“I hear you have big plans for the greenhouse,” Ben said to Maddie when she handed him a window panel.

“My class is already chomping at the bit to get out here and dig in the dirt.” Maddie had been talking it up to her third-grade class since before Christmas as they discussed how the carbon cycle and photosynthesis worked. The seedlings they planted right after Christmas break were nearly ready for transplanting.

There were two other third-grade teachers who planned to use the greenhouse for classes as well. They had been working to put together discussions on nutrition, the scientific method, writing assignments, and myriad other topics to go with the greenhouse—some of which they would co-teach, but most they would teach independently.

“Sounds like fun, but what about the rest of your subjects?” Ben seemed skeptical.

“You’d be surprised how willing the kids are to learn when you combine gardening with it.” The voice came from behind them and Maddie looked up to see Comfrey standing in what you could now tell would be the doorway. Her blond hair held streaks of blue and pink, her wool coat was hand-spun and crafted of multi-colored threads, and her warm, woolen scarf was rich and warm looking. Her gray eyes were so huge they seemed to fill the remaining space on her face.

A smooth grin slid onto Ben’s perfect mouth. “I’m sure you’re right. I don’t think we’ve met, though I saw you on cleanup day.” Ben extended a hand to Comfrey, who smiled and accepted the handshake.

Her lips quirked a little in admiration. “Call me Comfrey. You’re Officer Belliston, right?” When he looked surprised, she explained, “I asked around.”

Maddie tried not to let the flirting bother her even as her jaw clenched. She had absolutely no claim on the man, and she couldn’t blame Comfrey for enjoying the sight of him.

“Call me Ben, at least when I’m here.”

“Ben.” The flirty lilt in Comfrey’s smile dialed up a notch. “It’s good to officially meet you.”

Maddie turned away to pick up another window panel for Ben to slide into the metal wall studs. She would not be jealous. There was no reason for jealousy. They had never gone out, and it wasn’t like she was in love with him or anything. It was just a crush. Still, she found herself feeling a little resentful that it was so easy for Comfrey, and that Ben practically forgot about Maddie’s existence when the other woman appeared.

How stupid was she for even thinking about it?

Comfrey was a lot of help, and not at all afraid to get dirty. By the time the sun slid behind Dequan’s Chinese Restaurant, they had finished installing the SIP walls and the roof joists, though there would still be a few hours of work to do the next day. The website said it would go together quickly, but she hadn’t expected it to be so fast.

Maddie was pleased with their work, even if she was heartily sick of listening to Comfrey laugh at Ben’s comments—as if he were the most interesting person around.

So what if his jokes were actually funny and the way he popped off in conversation often made her laugh. She didn’t care that he’d put all of his attention on Comfrey. It hardly bothered her. Why would it?

“So, meet back here tomorrow morning?” Maddie asked when they had finished stowing the rest of the supplies in the abandoned apartment building next door. It was helpful that Reece knew practically everyone and was able to get permission.

“I’m in,” Reece said as he put the key back in his pocket.

“Me too,” Jason agreed.

“I have the day off, so count on me. I’ll call dispatch now and have them send extra patrols past here tonight to keep an eye on everything to ward off vandalism,” Ben said.

“That’s a good idea. Half-finished buildings do draw a lot of curious people,” Comfrey said. “This site will generate a lot of interest in the community. Wait and see.”

“Thanks, I’d appreciate it,” Maddie said to everyone. The garden was Piper’s big dream and she’d been working most closely with Comfrey to set up the main plans, but the greenhouse was for the school, so it had been mostly up to Maddie and the other third-grade teachers. She’d conferred with the gardening board—which was basically everyone in attendance at the moment—on the location and made plans. She and the other teachers had applied for a grant and raised extra cash to cover the difference, and now it was coming together. “A couple of the teachers will join us tomorrow morning. It’s supposed to be a little warmer, so hopefully we won’t all freeze.”

“Hot cocoa and coffee for those who want it at my house. I’ll order in some pizza,” Reece said.

There was a cheer of “Yes,” and “Count me in” from the group.

“I have a class,” Comfrey said wistfully.

Maddie tried not to feel pleasure at that but gave up after a few seconds.

I really need to get a life.

 

Two

Nearly two hours later, Ben walked into the three-bedroom fixer-upper Jason had talked him into buying a couple months before. He had started with pulling up old carpet and patching holes in the walls in the living room and two of the bedrooms. One bedroom was nearly ready for paint and carpet. He glanced at the paint chips on the living room wall. Yep, the darker blue looked better in every light. He’d have to pick some up tomorrow. He dropped his keys on the somewhat battered end table he’d scrounged from a street corner on garbage day and toed off his shoes.

He had enjoyed spending the afternoon helping to set up the greenhouse. It was spacious and he could already imagine the kids lining up to put seeds into the garden beds, their hands covered in compost, and smiles on their faces. Talking about it had definitely put a smile on Maddie’s face.

He unloaded his pockets, removing his wallet, a gum wrapper, and the paper with Comfrey’s phone number. He set the wallet beside the keys for easy retrieval the next day. The phone number was another issue. He hadn’t asked her for it, and she hadn’t said anything specific, simply pressed it into his hand before she took off and he went with the rest of the group to Reece’s house.

She was cute, though a little eccentric. Not the kind of woman he usually dated, but maybe it was time he expanded his dating pool. Who knew, maybe she would surprise him. If nothing else, it would be an interesting change to his regular stuck-in-a-rut life. He tossed the number in the garbage. Now was not the time to start dating someone new.

Ben rubbed his face. It was nearly eleven, but he didn’t need to be anywhere until they met up to work on the greenhouse again in the morning.

His phone rang and he thought about ignoring it, but glanced at the screen instead. The number belonged to the State of Kansas, so he picked up. It had to be work. “Hello, this is Officer Ben Belliston.”

“Hello, Mr. Belliston, my name is Amy Glider and I’m a caseworker with Child Protective Services. I’m in Lansing with your niece, Felicia.”

He leaned back against the counter, wondering what was going on. “Yeah, is she okay?”

“She’s fine, but her mom, well, she’s not fine. Felicia needs somewhere else to stay. She said her dad is your brother?’

“Yeah, he’s in prison, and will be for a while yet. Are you calling to place her with me?” That thought was more than a little terrifying. What would he do with a little girl? “Did you check with Melissa’s parents?”

Amy’s voice stayed perfectly even. “I do need someone for Felicia to live with. You are single, right, no roommates?”

“That’s right. What about Melissa’s parents or—” He cut himself off.

“They don’t feel like they can take Felicia at this time. If you can’t either, I can put her in shelter care tonight while we find another placement. Perhaps with your parents?”

Not my parents,” he said a little too fast. Realizing he’d been a bit abrupt, he added, “Dad is an alcoholic, and not a nice one. I, geesh…” He ran his hand through his hair. Raise a kid? What did he know about that? “Bring her here. We’ll figure something out.”

Ben felt something twist in his chest as he retraced his steps. “What happened to Melissa?”

“We’ll discuss it when I get there. I should be about half an hour.”

“Great.” He gave her his home address and ended the call, and then looked at the mess around him. Not that it was dirty, just cluttered with tools and building supplies. The front part of the house was nearly finished and he could give Felicia the room that was done—or almost done. He could have it ready to go in a few days.

He felt completely out of sorts and uncertain about where to start first, but after a moment decided to pick up the tools and get some sleeping arrangements in order.

He wasn’t about to risk losing his niece to the system. It had been bad enough knowing she was living with her druggie mom without being able to prove what was going on.

His younger brother, Brandon, had been in prison for two years and wouldn’t see a chance of parole for quite a few more. Meanwhile, Felicia had been living with her mom, who had limited the visits with Brandon’s family since her husband was sentenced. It had been nearly a year since Ben had seen her. She had to be what, seven, eight?

As he cleared away the tools, stashing them in the third bedroom, which held his weight set, Ben wondered how traumatized Felicia would be. What had happened to Melissa, and how could he calm and support his niece?

It was nearly forty-five minutes before he heard a knock at his door. Ben hurried over, opening it to find a young woman, maybe twenty-three or twenty-four, holding a black garbage bag in one hand and Felicia’s hand in the other. Cold air blew in as he ushered them through the door. A strong odor of cigarette smoke and mustiness came with them—no doubt from the bag the woman carried.

“Hey there, sweet pea,” he greeted Felicia. “I’ve missed you.”

She threw herself at his legs, sobbing. He picked her up—when did she get so big?—holding her close. “Uncle Ben, my mommy is dead. She’s never coming back.”

Whoa, that was unexpected. He’d assumed that she’d been arrested. “I’m so sorry to hear that. I can see it makes you sad.” He rubbed her hair and snuggled her against his chest, at a loss for what to say or do.

The brunette, who must have been Amy Glider, set down the bag, which he presumed held Felicia’s personal affects. “Maybe we should get her settled in for the night.”

“Uh, yeah. I don’t have an extra bed, so she’ll sleep on the sofa tonight. We’ll see about a bed tomorrow.” Ben carried Felicia to the sofa and calmed her, rocking her back and forth, back and forth for several minutes while Felicia got the tears out of her system—at least for the moment.

“What…” He didn’t know what to ask, not wanting to upset Felicia further. He decided to ask her directly for information instead of talking over her. “Hey, sweet pea, tell me what happened?” He’d taken seminars on how to talk to kids, so he’d use his police training and hope he didn’t screw it up too much.

Felicia wiped at her face. “I came home from school and she was sleeping, so I played for a while, ate dinner, and then I watched TV. I fell asleep. When I woke up, she was still laying there—she hadn’t moved at all. Sometimes she sleeps weird hours.”

“Yeah, sometimes people do. What happened next?”

“I started to worry, so I tried to wake her up. I tried and tried, but she wouldn’t, so I called 911. I remember you teaching me how.” Her eyes were red-rimmed and swollen from crying and her nose was running.

Ugh, no tissues in sight.

He gave her a squeeze. “Good job, I’m so glad you remembered.”

“But it was too late. They couldn’t help her.”

“Miss Glider, could you grab a tissue from the bathroom there?” He pointed it out and the caseworker headed over.

Ben wondered how long Melissa had been dead. Had she already been gone when Felicia came home, or if she had called 911 hours earlier, would they have been able to do something for her mom? That was a question he couldn’t ask while she was in the room. The case worker may not know anyway. He’d have to check into it after the autopsy. “How did they know how to find me?”

“They asked about my grandma and grandpa, so I told them some stuff, but I couldn’t remember their names. I told them you were a cop, so they made some calls and got your number.”

Ben took the tissue with thanks and passed it to Felicia, who cleaned up her face with it. “That was very smart of you. You did exactly the right thing.” He pressed the hair back from her face. “You look tired. Do you want to settle down here for some sleep? Do you have some pajamas?”

“In my bag.”

They found some pajamas, and she headed to the bathroom to change.

Ben was glad for a few minutes to talk to the case worker alone. “Did they estimate a time of death while you were there?”

“She was already getting stiff, but considering Felicia got home four or five hours ago, that’s hardly surprising. We’ll have to wait for official word. I talked to Melissa’s parents, briefly. They haven’t been involved in their daughter’s life for a few years, at least, and don’t want custody. You sounded kind of iffy about keeping Felicia. Is there someone else in the family, or should we start checking into open spots in foster homes?”

It had been a while since Ben had heard anything about Melissa’s family. “I think Melissa has a sister, but I don’t know anything about her, and as far as I know, they haven’t been in contact for years.” He sucked in a breath, knowing this decision would change his life. “I don’t want Felicia in foster care.”

Amy’s brows lifted. “That means you’ll be keeping her, at least until your brother is out of prison.”

That was enough to make any man kneel down and beg for mercy, but since it would make no difference, Ben nodded. He would make it work, somehow. “Give me a day or two to figure out how to juggle things. If we talk on Monday, that will give me time to make some kind of arrangements for daycare. We’ll see how things go.”

She half chuckled. “You’d need more like a month to figure that out. But the weekend works for me. I’ll get you paperwork so you can change her to the local school. I’ll have to do an official home study and run the background check, but since you get them regularly for your job, a call to your police chief should suffice for the short term.”

Amy stood as Felicia emerged from the bathroom wearing a Little Mermaid nightgown that was at least a size too small for her.

“Looks like we have a shopping trip ahead of us,” Ben said, wondering what the heck that was going to be like.

Felicia smiled a little. “I get new clothes?”

“We’ll see how many. Come on to bed, munchkin.” Ben caught her up in another hug, and settled her in with a stuffed bear he’d won at the fair that summer. She’d forgotten her own stuffed animals at the apartment. After saying goodbye to Amy, he carried the rest of her clothes into the laundry room. They might be clean already, but the stench of smoke and who knew what else hit him when he opened the bag, so he sorted it all out and started a load of laundry.

Thank heavens he didn’t work in the morning.

He walked back through the house on the way to his room and saw Felicia lying on the sofa, fast asleep.

The thought of being fully responsible for her was freaky enough to give anyone nightmares.

Once again he wondered what he would do with a little girl.

To continue reading First Crush, purchase it at your favorite retailer.