First Crush

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.

Hello Again Excerpt

Piper Daniels has one wish—to keep her little brother out of trouble—but her work schedule and a lack of activities for teens in her neighborhood complicate that mission. When she latches onto the idea of starting a community garden, it seems to answer all of her requirements. Until she realizes who owns the property she wants to use.

Reece Stone was the love of her life ten years earlier, until he left with only a phone call goodbye and no explanation. Now he’s the head of Stone Enterprises, and he’s thrilled at the chance to make amends and spend time with the woman he’s never been able to forget. He knows they can find love again, if he can melt her anger enough to give him a chance.

One

PIPER LISTENED AS the Croods avoided being squashed or eaten by a bevy of prehistoric animals. It was at least the hundredth time she had heard this scene, so she could nearly recite it as she finished polishing Jill’s teeth. The ten-year-old had been a pill throughout the appointment. Now she whined and fidgeted as Piper finished the last tooth. She could not wait for the dentist to come in for the final checkup. The x-rays looked fine to Piper, and if Dr. Dansie agreed, Jill wouldn’t be back for six months. Hallelujah!

“Piper, someone on the phone for you,” Lorna called from the front desk. “He said it’s important.”

“Just a minute.” Piper rinsed the teeth, having Jill spit back into the suction. “All done with that part,” she told the little girl when she was sure the residue was gone. “Wait here for the doctor to come talk to you, okay? After he has a chance to talk to you and your mom, we’ll get you a prize up front.” She said this brightly, like it would be a big treat to pick out a sticker or cheap spider ring. Only one more patient and she could clean up for the day. She liked kids—most of the time—but her work day began with a biter and hadn’t improved from there.

She gestured to Dr. Dansie, an easy-going forty-something, with a forehead that had been gaining ground on his hairline for the past few decades. “Jill’s ready when you are,” she said.

He nodded in acknowledgment over his other patient, midway through cracking one of his signature lame jokes.

Piper asked Lorna to let Jill’s mom know they were nearly done and to go on back, then picked up the phone. “Sorry about the wait,” Piper said, glad to see the person on the other end of the line hadn’t hung up. “This is Piper, can I help you?”

“This is Officer Belliston of the Crystal Creek Police Department. I have Spencer in my car.”

Piper closed her eyes. “What happened?” Spencer was a good brother who didn’t generally do anything that could get him into trouble, but his autism meant sometimes he had impulse control issues. At fourteen, he did better at managing impulses than he used to, but when his friends were around, sometimes he slipped.

“He and some friends thought it would be fun to break windows in an empty apartment building on Walnut Avenue. You know the one near Dequan’s Chinese place?”

She knew it well as she often walked past it. “Yes. The six-story that’s falling apart?” It had been empty for four or five years, since the city condemned it. Rumor was that the building was worth fixing, but whomever owned it hadn’t bothered.

“That’s the one,” Officer Belliston said. “I spoke with your mother on the phone but she can’t get off work and I can’t take him home without a responsible adult present.”

Piper managed not to growl, but barely. Of course her mom wanted Piper to drop everything to handle the problem. A peek into the waiting room showed her final patient of the day was already there, dashing her hopes that he would canceled so she could leave early. “I’ll figure something out and meet you there. Give me ten minutes.” It was only three or four minutes to her house, but she would have to make arrangements for someone to take her patient.

She turned to Lorna. “Anyone have the next little bit free?”

Lorna pushed back her stylish brown bob and consulted the schedule on her monitor. “Heidi has a twenty-minute window. Good luck.”

Piper frowned. She would need the luck. Heidi did not like working with children, even if Chandler was fifteen now and barely qualified as a kid anymore. Piper checked on Jill and her mom, but the doctor hadn’t gotten to her yet. Glad she had a few minutes, she slid into the employee lounge area where Heidi was sitting at the table, reading a fashion magazine. “Heidi, how are you doing? You have a break right now, don’t you?”

“I’m not covering for you.” Heidi lifted her hand to brush her raven curls over her shoulder. “I don’t do kids.”

Piper bit back a groan. “How did you know what I was going to ask?”

“I heard you saying you’d be home soon. It’s not my problem.” She wagged her finger in the air, though she didn’t look up.

“He’s fifteen, not a kid. He doesn’t bite or spit or anything. I really have to get home.”

“You say that now, but the second they sit in my chair, they start to spit and bite and stuff.” Pointedly, she licked a finger and flipped a magazine page.

“Come on, please. I’ll owe you, I know, but I have to get home to strangle my little brother.” Piper took the hard wooden chair beside Heidi.

Heidi glanced up, but she appeared only mildly curious. “If I work for you so you can kill your brother, does that make me an accessory?”

“Only if I get caught. But I’ll probably make him do extra chores instead. Dr. Dansie might frown on a child killer working in his office.”

Heidi set down the magazine, which was open to a page with models in retro 1920’s outfits. “I’ll cover the kid for you under one condition.” She paused for effect. “I want you to fill in for me on Friday afternoon. We’re going to Branson and I need to cut out of here early.”

Though Piper cherished her few hours of peace and quiet on Friday afternoons, she was desperate. “Fine. But you have to clean up after Jill’s appointment and set up for Chandler so I can go in a few minutes.”

“Done. How long?”

“Dansie’s about to go in to see Jill now. I’ll make sure her mom gets her goodie bag and let you know when I leave.” Piper didn’t wait for a response, hurrying back to the main hallway. Dr. Dansie was just preparing to go in to Jill and her mom. “Ready?” Piper asked cheerily.

“Anything I should know?” What was left of Dr. Dansie’s light brown hair was shot with gray and feathered over his ears. It was time for a haircut.

“She didn’t bite me this time.” Piper smiled manically, but was grateful Jill had behaved at least that much.

“Good, my workman’s comp was getting steep.” He flashed her a grin before entering the room and greeting Jill.

Fifteen minutes later Piper rushed out the door, sliding into her coat as she hoofed it to the parking lot. She frequently walked to work, but the sky had been spitting at Kansas City’s suburb of Crystal Creek when she left that morning, so she’d driven instead. Which was good, because while the apartment she shared with her mom and brother was in walking distance of work, she wasn’t sure how patient Officer Belliston was going to be.

Almost twenty minutes after her phone call, Piper pulled into the old run-down apartment building her family had been living in since she was a senior in high school and found a parking spot. The black and white was parked in their family slot in front of the building—with Officer Belliston and Spencer still sitting in the front. At least Spencer wasn’t in the back seat.

Piper glanced at the apartments in time to see the manager, Ida, part the curtains a few inches to peer out at the police car. Perfect. Piper had been saving money for first and last month’s rent at a nicer place, but thanks to some unexpected expenses, it would take another month or so and the last thing they needed was to be kicked out over something stupid like this. But Ida sometimes evicted tenants for less.

Officer Belliston stood and Piper recognized him. He was friends with her best friend Maddie’s brother. She’d known Ben was a cop, but hadn’t put two and two together when he introduced himself on the phone. She apologized before he could say anything, “Sorry, it took longer to finish up with my patient than I expected.” He was a tall, blond, and gorgeous, the planes and angles of his face would turn many a woman’s head. Surprisingly, he didn’t act as though he was aware of his good looks.

“No problem. Your mom was afraid she’d lose her job if she left now.”

“Are you surprised? It is the plastics plant. You’d think after she’s worked there five years they could cut her some slack.” Piper pushed the red hair that had escaped from her ponytail back over her ear, then tugged on her puppy-covered scrubs, feeling self-conscious.

Spencer pushed out of the passenger’s side of the front seat. “Am I going to be grounded?” His eyes were downcast, his arms hung straight at his side and his fingers tapped nervously on the legs of his threadbare, over-sized jeans—which were just the way he liked them. His hair hung down covering his eyes at this angle. She wasn’t looking forward to nagging and badgering him into another haircut.

“Only until you’re thirty-two.”

That brought a quick smile to his lips as it was a common joke of theirs, but his fingers kept tapping and his shoulders hunched.

Piper draped an arm around his shoulder and gave him a quick squeeze. “We’ll talk about what happened when we get inside.” Her mom worked swing shift, so other than a few minutes at breakfast, she wouldn’t actually see Spencer for the next several days. This left the discussion about his behavior firmly in Piper’s hands. She looked back at Officer Belliston. “Give me the lowdown. What are we looking at damage-wise?”

He pushed back his cowboy hat a little. “We still need to talk with the property owner, but there were several windows broken.”

“We only did three of them,” Spencer said, as if he’d said it before but no one had listened. His gaze didn’t meet hers—it rarely did. “The others were already broken. We only broke three.”

“Okay.” Piper tightened her arm on his shoulder. As usual, the compression on his body seemed to help calm him. “Do you need me to sign anything?” she asked the officer.

A few minutes later she ushered Spencer into the apartment—thankful Ida hadn’t accosted them in the hallway—and sat him on the sofa. The tapping continued and he’d started humming under his breath a little, so she got out the compression vest she’d made for him and slid it over his head and onto his shoulders. It was made from a couple of old x-ray covers Dr. Dansie had been getting rid of because they were so worn. She’d sewn them together and hot-glued transformer-print fabric on the vest to brighten it up. Though Spencer was considered a high-functioning autistic, the compression therapy helped him deal with stress.

“So, you want to give me the full version of what you did since getting out of school today?” Spencer was always scrupulously honest; it was the way he was wired.

“Well, I stayed after to get help with my math homework, like you said to. It’s all done. I don’t have any homework, now,” he said as if to prove his relative innocence.

“Glad to hear it. What happened next?” Piper opened the aging fridge and pulled out the orange juice, a rare treat that was nearly gone, and two apples for a late-afternoon snack. She didn’t want to think about dinner yet but knew he’d be running out of steam.

“Then I was coming home and I ran into some guys.”

“Which guys?” Piper asked, though she could guess on her own. She set cups on the table.

“Dirt and Nails.” The words were barely understandable. Spencer was well aware of Piper’s dislike of these particular young men.

Piper closed her eyes in frustration. The boys’ real names were Dirk and Niles, so she couldn’t blame them for wanting nicknames, even if the ones they used were lame. But why did her brother hang out with them? They were nothing but trouble. “Go on.”

“At first we just hung out in that empty lot, the one by the Chinese place, and looked at the spray painting. There’s some really cool stuff there. Some people put names and others draw pictures. There were some bad words and someone painted a mushroom from Super Mario Bros, it’s really cool.”

Piper was relieved he was no longer humming, and the tapping was calmer since she hung the vest on him, but thought it prudent to bring the subject back around. “So Dirt or Nails picked up something from the ground and threw it at the empty apartment building next door. And you thought it was cool and pitched in?” Piper kept her voice as neutral as possible, but knew it wasn’t a complete success.

He smiled as the memory came back. “The windows made a cool sound.” He lifted his arms and approximated the sound of glass breaking.

“You didn’t think about the fact that you were damaging something that belonged to someone else?” She glanced over at him, wanting to gauge if their discussion was working.

His shoulders hunched again and he looked away. “Well, yeah, but Dirt said the building has been empty for like, ever. No one is going to care about a couple of windows. Some were already broken. We only broke three but there are more broken.”

“And that makes it okay? Someone will have to pay money to fix the windows.” She slid into the chair beside him and stared at him, not saying anything else, hoping he’d meet her eyes.

Spencer looked up at her quickly before his gaze skittered way again. “No, it’s not okay.”

“Then why—” Piper cut herself off, remembering clearly that sometimes as a kid she couldn’t say why she did something. That was especially true for him. If she asked, he would say he didn’t know why and then she’d get irritated and he would get even more anxious and things would spiral downward from there. She took a deep breath instead. “All right, well, there are going to be some consequences, but I’ll have to chat with Mom about them first. And if those windows have to be replaced, guess who is going to be doing chores to work it off?” It would mean waiting even longer to get into the new apartment, but it couldn’t be helped.

He sank further into his seat. “Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I know you are.” He was always sorry, but it didn’t make him think the next time Dirt and Nails mentioned some “great” idea they thought he should get involved in. She’d seen several unsavory teens hanging out near that empty lot and wished Spencer would stay away from it. Most of the time he came home from school and didn’t get into trouble, but she knew he got lonely waiting for her to come home from work. “We’ll chat more when Mom calls on her break. Eat your apple, then get the bathroom cleaned up. You missed the sink yesterday.”

Sometimes she felt more like the parent than the sister, but the plastics plant was good, steady work, even if they were inflexible in many ways. Piper had urged her mom to get a certification or something at the tech college so she could get a better job—a day job—but Trina didn’t want to go back to school. Even getting onto day-shift at the plant would have been a significant improvement, but it hadn’t happened yet.

That left Piper filling in around the house and taking care of Spencer, who was thirteen years younger than herself. He was a generally good kid and was doing better in school, but obviously they needed to do something different. If his only after-school option was to sit home alone on his ancient Sony game system or to hang out with Dirt and Nails, there would be more trouble in the future.

IT WAS AFTER SIX when Trina called home during her work break. “Honey, what’s going on? Spencer was breaking windows?”

“Sounds like it.” Piper stirred the boiling penne pasta and checked the clock to see how much time was left. “He admitted that they broke three windows. I told him I’d have to talk with you before he’d find out what his punishment was.” Not that Piper expected her mom to take a stand, but she could always hope.

“I would say he’s grounded, but I’m not going to be around to enforce it. It’s all I can do to keep up with the laundry and my job.”

The laundry that Piper had taken down to the machines half an hour ago? Yeah. Piper noticed her mom managed to clean up the living room and finish the dishes before going to the plastics plant that afternoon, but she never quite seemed to get through the chores before her shift started. The fact that she worked swings and was never home at night to be with Spencer was the reason Piper was still living at home, despite the fact that she was twenty-seven. Spencer was pretty independent, but he still needed more direction than their mom could give him right now. Getting stuck with extra chores was not Piper’s idea of fun, though. “So you want me to set the punishment?”

“Set something you can actually enforce. It does no good to say he’s grounded without being able to follow through,” Trina said.

“True enough.” Though not unexpected. Piper considered the options. “He’ll be grounded for two weeks and we’ll go clean up the broken glass outside the building.” She thought of the trade she’d had to make with Heidi and grimaced. “Saturday, I guess. If the windows have to be paid for, we’ll work something out so he earns at least half the money for it.” She would cover the rest. He’d probably be working around the house to pay for the repairs, so she’d end up paying for all of it, but at least he would have to deal with some of the responsibility. She knew enough about Dirk and Niles’ family situations to be sure they would get away with zero consequences from their own parents.

“Thank you, honey,” Trina said. “I don’t know what I would do without you! I have to get back to work; my break ends in a couple of minutes. I’ll talk to you when I get home tonight. Bye, hon.”

“Goodbye, Mom.” Piper hung up with a sigh. She knew Trina had to stash the phone in her locker and be on the floor before her break time ended—the lady in charge used a time chart to make sure no one went over on their breaks. Anyone coming back even a minute late got written up. To think working conditions were actually better since the previous owner died almost a year earlier.

Piper hated that place, and that was only partly because of the working conditions. The fact that it was owned by the Stone family was plenty of reason all by itself. She spooned up a piece of pasta and blew on it to cool it.

“Two weeks?” Spencer asked from the doorway.

Though her hand bobbled in surprise, Piper managed not to drop the pasta back in the pan. “Plus cleanup and possible restitution.”

He slouched against the door jamb. “The other guys probably won’t have to do anything.”

“The other guys’ parents ought to take more interest in how their kids are turning out.” She bit her lip rather than continue. Criticizing his friends’ parents wasn’t going to make the situation better. Plus he might innocently repeat what she said, which would cause hard feelings. “Saturday we’ll clean up the glass you broke.”

“Why? There’s so much junk there.”

“I’ll go with you and help.” She loved when his punishments became her punishments too.

“No one uses that space, it’s sitting there empty. No one cares. People dump stuff there all the time.”

“All the more reason not to add to the problem.” Piper tested the pasta and found it was perfectly cooked. She turned off the heat and took the pan to the sink to drain the water. “We’ll eat in a few minutes. Set the table, please.”

Spencer did as he was asked, but moped through the work and dinner.

If this was a sign of how things were going to be for the next two weeks, Piper wasn’t looking forward to it.

 

Two

“I WISH YOU DIDN’T have to leave.” Layla Jennings reached up to fiddle with the lapels of Reece Stone’s suit jacket, even though he knew the jacket looked fine. Her hands smoothed the fabric and came to rest on his chest. She shifted closer so their faces were only inches apart.

Reece took her hands off his chest and gave them a friendly squeeze. “Sorry, I have to leave early tomorrow for Houston. Thanks for dinner. It was a nice night.”

He knew she was hoping for more, but despite the fact that this was their third date—sort of—and that she was beautiful, he wasn’t even a little interested in kissing her. Layla was bright and blonde, blue-eyed and bronzed. She’d mentioned to the other women at the small dinner party that she owned a tanning bed so she could maintain her perfect coloring year round. Which was fine as far as it went, but in the next breath she was talking about how much time and money she spent to keep her skin looking young. Somehow there seemed to be a disconnect in her head between cause and effect. That was one of the many reasons he couldn’t get as excited about her as his mom thought he should be.

She wasn’t the least bit shy about showing off the all-over tan as her low neckline and tiny skirt could attest. The other two men in the room had let their eyes wander away from their dates and to her enhanced silhouette several times during the dinner. If Reece had really been interested, he would have been irritated that they couldn’t keep their eyes on their own women. Instead, he was glad the evening was ending. Layla was nice enough, smart in a general sense, aware of what was on the news and going on in the world, but he found her too self-absorbed for his taste. There was no spark between them. At least not on his side, though she seemed to believe differently. Or maybe it was his corporate assets that she found terribly attractive.

He walked back out to his car, grateful for the excuse of the early flight tomorrow so he could leave the dinner party early. The last thing he wanted was to be stuck behind after the others left, trying to extricate himself. Next time he would tell her no thanks.

Better no dates than dates with the wrong woman. He’d known she was the wrong person by the middle of date two, but her father was on the board of directors for his family company, Stone Enterprises, and he didn’t have a ready excuse to turn down the dinner party she was throwing. Not when her father was standing by, looking so pleased.

Reece clicked the unlock button for his BMW 640i convertible and ran a few fingers over the deep sea blue exterior on his way to the driver’s seat. The weather had been cloudy when he went inside, so he’d put the top up, but the sky was clear now. He took it back down and breathed in the fall air. It was growing cool; there wouldn’t be many more starry, top-down evening drives. As he drove down the quiet roads, leaves crunched and swirled around his tires and a ghoul glared at him through a store window.

You gotta love Halloween—and there was still more than two weeks to go.

He turned onto Mediterranean Terrace and glanced over at the run-down, four-story walk-up squeezed between the pawn shop and liquor store, and felt a wistful pang of nostalgia. He had thought he’d set that part of his life entirely behind him, but after a tedious date like tonight, he longed for the uncomplicated romance of his college days, and the sweet, very complicated woman. Or maybe it had been their circumstances that were complex. She had been easy to fall for, impossible to forget.

He wondered what Piper was up to now.

A few turns later and he pulled into his neighborhood, coming to a stop in the garage of the two-story rambler he’d bought shortly after moving back to Crystal Creek early that year. It was dark and empty—a fitting metaphor for his life at the moment.

Reece pulled his phone out of his pocket as he went inside and turned the ringer back on, pausing to double-check his schedule for the next morning. He set his keys on the marble counter tops and padded over to the fridge for a glass of juice. The carton was nearly empty—an indication that he’d been spending far too many hours in the office lately instead of at home. Then again, his home was nice but he always felt a little alone there, despite the fact that he’d done his best to make it comfortable.

He selected a voice mail from his mother. “Reece, dear, I know you said you were going to be out of town for a few days but when you get a chance, can you call me back? I have a question about the quarterly reports. Hope you get a chance to relax in the middle of all that work. Love you!”

There was a beep and Reece deleted the message. It was too late to call her back tonight, but he made a note in his calendar to call her when he reached Houston the next day. His mom always had trouble reading the quarterly reports, but she was making an effort to keep up with what was going on in the company, which was more than he could say for her in the years that his father had been alive. Reece chose to believe that was because she’d been blind-sided by the questions that had been thrown at her before her son took over, and not because she didn’t fully trust him.

The silence echoed around him and Reece wondered, not for the first time, if he should have stayed with his mom instead of getting his own place. He was hardly ever here. But he’d felt like he was suffocating, living in the family home. His father may have died, but his presence was everywhere and Reece hadn’t been able to escape his influence until he’d moved. Even in death, his father’s disapproval seemed to hang in the air.

Reece wasn’t sure whether suffocation or loneliness was worse. He opened his computer to check out the reports from the office that day. It wasn’t company, but it was better than nothing.

TO read more of Hello Again, purchase it at your favorite retailer.

Read an excerpt from SEALed with Love

Sage Parker is happy to move to Juniper Ridge to escape her stalker—and having her gorgeous security guard, Joel Watts, go with her seems like a recipe for perfect happiness. That is until the stalker starts to contact her again in her new home. Joel realizes they’ll have to get rid of the threat once and for all.

Chapter One

Sage threaded in and out of the streaming LA throngs and wished she’d didn’t have to leave for work at peak commute time. She liked people, SEALed with Love, book two of the DiCarlo Brides series, by Heather Tullisbut fighting through them wasn’t exactly her idea of a party. And it was all too easy to hide in a crowd—which would be more of an advantage if she knew who she should be hiding from. He didn’t have that problem.

She scanned the mass of humanity, looking for a familiar face, anyone she might have seen before, then checked her watch again. If she missed this train, she would be late. She had been distracted by her father’s email, which was chatty and full of news about the resort he was preparing to open that fall. He put on a good front of all-is-well, but she had known something was wrong—known it as only she could, despite his denials. The fact that he hadn’t come for his regular visit reiterated that. She’d have to use her break this afternoon to meditate and see if she could figure it out, since he wasn’t giving anything away.

A small boy weaved through the jungle of legs, followed by a man who called for him to stop. Sage shifted to the side so the boy ran into her, then she grabbed his shoulders, and stopped him from falling backward as he bounced off of her. She glanced up into the round face of a frazzled man. “I believe this one belongs to you.”

He hefted the tow-headed toddler into his arms. “Yes, sorry about that. He’s as slippery as an eel sometimes.”

Sage smiled in relief when the child giggled as if it had been a good game. The boy was comfortable with the man. “No problem.”

The man pivoted to the right, heading toward a store.

Feeling someone watching her, Sage adjusted her hemp macramé bag over one shoulder and glanced around again. Her eyes stopped on a tall man with a shaved head, mirrored sunglasses and a light brown goatee. He oozed dark alertness, an aura of control, and he was looking in her direction. Her heart sped up, her breath caught and she turned back toward the subway.

It wasn’t the first time she’d seen him, or even the third or fourth. In the past few days he seemed to pop up behind her all over town. There was no explanation for his repeated presence except that he was following her. Sage’s hands grew sweaty as she darted farther into the crowd.  If he was the one who had been stalking her, she had to get away. There was a tough wariness about him, a hardened edge that said he went after whatever he wanted, and he never gave up.  She hadn’t felt his presence until that week, though the stalker had been contacting her for a couple of months, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dangerous.

If he was the one, there may be no safe place to hide in LA.

Just before the train pulled out, she managed to slide through the doors and find a corner to hide in while the panic attack took over. Standing on the far end of the car, she grasped a handle until her knuckles turned white. She put her back to the wall so she could see everyone and checked for the man several times, making sure no one else was paying attention to her while she dealt with the light-headedness and nausea that often accompanied her racing heart and difficulty breathing.

Maybe she should take her father up on the job offer in his Colorado resort. She couldn’t keep living like this.

***

While she provided reflexology treatments to the day spa’s elite clientele, Sage fought the implacable image of the man in her mind. She had been at work for nearly two hours and was finally starting to feel the inner peace her job usually provided when she opened the door to leave her treatment room. Standing on the other side, his fist raised to knock, was the Goliath of a man she’d seen in the street.

Her breathing stopped as terror filled her all over again. She tried to shut the door, but his hand shot out, blocking it open. “Go away.” She’d meant the words to be calm and forceful, but they’d come out tight and whispery as her panic grew. What would she do? What could she do against someone his size?

“Hey, I’m sorry I scared you.” His voice was a low rumble. He pulled off his mirrored sunglasses and hung them by one stem in the neck of his tight white T-shirt. He lifted his free hand as if to reassure her that he didn’t have a gun or a knife, but she seriously doubted someone that buff needed a weapon to maim or kill. “My name is Joel Watts,” he said, “and your dad sent me.” He handed her a business card which was printed with the name of a private security firm.

Though she wouldn’t take the card at face value, her throat unclogged a little so she could suck in some air. “My dad?” No one knew who her dad was—or almost no one. Her father had been surprisingly adept at keeping their connection a secret despite his high profile and his hundreds of phone calls and visits through the years.

“George DiCarlo,” he confirmed. “He’s concerned about your stalker and sent me to look out for you. Look, I’m sorry I scared you earlier today. I didn’t mean to. Call him if you need to verify my story.”

“Why have you been following me?” Her voice was returning to normal, though her senses were still on alert. This man was lethal; she knew it down to her core. Why would her dad send him to follow her without warning her first?

“He didn’t want me to introduce myself yet. We hoped I might be able to spot the stalker if I wasn’t too close to you. The letters you turned over to the police were pretty freaky.” Despite the otherwise intimidating exterior, when Joel said this, his jaw softened slightly, making him seem not quite as scary.

How did her father always know what was going on in her life, even when she didn’t tell him? She decided to take this hulk of a man up on his offer to check his identity. “Give me a minute, then.” When he removed his hand from the door, she shut and locked it, then fished her cell phone from her shoulder bag.

On the first try, the call rang several times, then went to voice mail. She hung up and called again—their agreed-upon signal that the conversation was urgent. If there was any possible way he could answer the second call, he would.

After three rings he picked up the phone.  “Hey, honey, is everything all right?”

“There’s a man standing outside my door. Joel Watts.” Enormous, imposing, dark. “He said you paid him to follow me.”

“Excuse me for a moment,” he said to someone else. There was the sound of movement in the background, like her father was standing and moving away from a desk or table. “I’m sorry, sweetie. He was supposed to stay in the background for now. I didn’t want him to interfere or worry you.”

Sage felt her pulse begin to calm and the terror gripping her softened, though experience said it would take several more minutes to entirely dissipate—if she was lucky. “Dad, you didn’t have to hire someone.”

“Yes, I did. I was worried about you when I got a report about what was going on, and you never told me about it. You can trust Joel with anything, I promise. Look, I’m sorry, I’m in a meeting right now, but I don’t want to brush you off.”

She smiled, knowing he’d make everyone wait for her if she needed it. “No, that was the only urgent issue. I get off at five; call me this evening when you get a chance.”

“I will, and you’re in good hands. I promise.”

“I love you, Dad.”

“I love you too, sweetheart.”

Sage closed her flip phone and held it in her hand. So Joel really was working for her father. She gave herself a few more minutes for the panic attack to subside before she turned to the door, unlocked and opened it. “Come in.” She gestured for him to take a seat and stepped out to verify the time of her next appointment before shutting herself in the room with him.

“How tall are you, exactly?” Sage asked as she leaned back against the door, studying him.

“Six-four.”

Making her feel even shorter than she had before at only five-three. “And you’re a body builder?”

“Former Navy SEAL, actually.” An unhurried smile spread on his face, transforming it completely. “Staying in shape is part of the job.”

“Of course.” Her dad would never settle for less than the best. Taking a deep breath, she offered him her hand. “Maybe we should start over again. I’m Sage Parker.”

His hand dwarfed hers, surrounding it in hard warmth. “Joel Watts, I’m here to keep you safe.”

For the first time in months, she thought she might be able to relax again.

 

Chapter 2

Joel was relieved that Sage was smart enough to check in with her father, and then relaxed with him—at least a little. He glanced at the comfortable-looking treatment chair and then back at Sage. “Aren’t you supposed to be like a masseuse or something? Can you do massage on one of those?” It seemed like an odd shape—didn’t they usually use padded tables?

Sage chuckled. “I specialize in reflexology.” He must have looked as clueless as he felt because her lips quirked and she brushed back her unruly brown curls. “I focus on whole-body wellness through the feet.”

That had him looking down. She wore sandals, had her toe nails painted bright pink and sported silver toe rings. He never knew feet could be so sexy, but they fit the package from her pixie proportions, to her wild brown curls and haunting gypsy eyes. “If you say so.” Time to focus back on the reason he was there, though he’d been dying to get a closer look at her since her father had sent him her picture nearly a week earlier. “Your dad wanted me to stay incognito for a while longer, but I decided it would be best if I spoke with you after you spotted me. Again.” She always seemed to know when he was nearby. He could usually blend into the background when he tried—especially in a crowd that size—her ability intrigued him.

He continued. “I know you’ve been receiving notes and emails, but without more information, the chances of me catching him are minimal. The police reports only had a few details. What do you know about this guy?”

“Not much, but I’ve kept all of the notes that I didn’t turn over to the police—and I got another one last night. Most of them are signed by your future husband.” Sage folded her arms over her chest and kept her distance from him in the small room. “So how did my dad find out, anyway? I didn’t tell him.”

“The police report, though how he knew there was one, I couldn’t tell you.”

She checked her watch, something he noticed she did often, though he’d been following her for several days and she didn’t seem to run late. “Only ten minutes until my next appointment, and I have the feeling you’ve got more questions than there’s time to answer right now.”

Joel smiled. “I’d say that was a safe bet. How about if I meet you after you get off work? We’ll eat and you can fill me in.”

Sage smiled back, making something turn over in his chest. “I know just the place.”

***

 Sage watched the dismay on Joel’s face as he got a look at the offerings at her favorite restaurant—a vegetarian deli a couple of blocks from the spa where she worked. Though she didn’t adhere strictly to her vegan upraising, she preferred a whole-foods approach to eating and rarely ate meat. Joel apparently had a different idea of what constituted a real meal.

She ordered a garden salad, he chose an egg salad sandwich—the only thing in the deli that qualified as meat in any form—and they found a table in the corner. She noticed he studied the room before sitting down, and took a seat with his back to the wall so he looked out over everything. His eyes tracked around the space and flicked back to the door every time it opened. She relaxed, knowing he was watching out for her. “You’re a former SEAL? How long did you do that?” she asked.

“I was in the Navy for twelve years, a SEAL for ten.” He lifted the edge of his rye bread and looked at the egg filling, and though his expression was doubtful, he lifted the sandwich for a bite.

“That’s quite a while. Why’d you get out?” Sage speared a tomato and popped it into her mouth, studying his face. She felt better about Joel, knowing her father had sent him—her dad was no fool and would have checked his background extensively—but there was still something dark and dangerous about him.

“I got injured on a mission, messed up my ACL. I’ve been through surgery, and am doing great, but I’ll never be at a hundred percent again.” His face was calm, expressionless, but his dark brown eyes revealed his regret.

“You miss it.” She didn’t know much about SEALs except that they were the Navy elite with advanced combat skills. She wondered if his experiences were what made him dangerous, or if the inner predator had already existed and the training merely enhanced it.

“Yeah, I miss it.” There was a flicker of loss in his eyes, though his face didn’t show it.

“I could never fight in a war. Violence makes my stomach turn. I’ve never even held a gun.” She didn’t know how she ended up in a situation where she needed a bodyguard.

“Good thing we’re allowed to have different jobs, then, isn’t it?” He took a sip of his water and turned the conversation back to her. “Tell me about this stalker.”

She washed down her salad with a drink of her tea and plunged ahead. “It started in late January. At first it was just emails, then I started getting letters to my home, and deliveries of gifts to home and work. They’re coming more regularly now. He seems to think we have a relationship already, but I have no idea who it is. I was a little wigged but didn’t really freak out until he started talking about things I’d done, places I’d been—things he couldn’t have known unless he was watching me.” The thought of some stranger obsessing about her made her shiver with revulsion. “That’s why I went to the police.”

“And why your dad hired me.” When Joel’s eyes switched from cool to frigid, she was glad he was on her side.

 

For more of SEALed with Love, purchase it at your favorite retailer!

Divine pumpkin dump cake–for the crock pot

Oh yes, you heard that right. I saw this recipe on Pinterest and couldn’t help myself–I had to try it! I love pumpkin and pretty much everything you can do with it, so I’m always on the lookout for new recipes. The best part about this recipe–it’s so easy, you could have your six-year-old make it. I wish I had taken photos (I need to remember that next time–I’ll add some if I remember next time I make it!) This is the recipe Comfrey makes in Last Chance (I know, it’s not out yet–you’ll have to console yourself with delicious pumpkin cake in the meantime.)

Slow Cooker Pumpkin Dump Cake

Slow Cooker Pumpkin Dump Cake

Ingredients

  • 1 box yellow or white cake mix (spice would also be delicious!)
  • 1 box of 4-serving instant vanilla pudding
  • 1-15 oz can of pumpkin puree
  • 1 1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) melted butter
  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup chocolate chips (my addition, because pumpkin and chocolate. Need I say more?)

Instructions

Line your slow cooker with a liner or parchment paper to ease cleanup if you like, then layer each of the ingredients in order, and stir them together–I imagine it helps them mix better if they are layered in evenly before you start. It only took a minute or so with my spatula to mix it all up. Put the lid on, turn the slow cooker to low and walk away for three to four hours. You’ll want the cake to still be moist in the middle when you turn it off, and since there are no eggs in this recipe, no need to worry about it being too wet.

Dawn also drizzles the finished product with caramel sauce and tops it with whipped topping, both of which sound terrific, but I haven’t tried it that way yet.

Original recipe located on Cutefetti.

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I found out one of my heating elements has gone bad on my Crockpot thanks to this recipe–it’s not a problem when I’m making soup, but cake is a whole different story, so next time I’ll turn the crock 180 degrees so it’ll bake more evenly.

A new Echo Ridge Anthology and late-summer sweets

small Kisses Between the Lines Cover Echo Ridge Box Set

Hi, don’t you love the fall? The air gets cooler, the leaves start to turn bright colors and love is in the air–well, it is in this book. The newest Echo Ridge Anthology is now available in print, ebook, and audio. It all surrounds a library fundraiser with five deliciously sweet romances, and five delicious recipes. While the summer heat may still be upon us, cool down with this fun read.

Click here to buy it now, or read on to learn about about it.

Oh, and we’re giving away an Amazon gift card–in case you need something extra to get excited about. Continue to the end of the post to check it out, plus my super simple and totally delicious recipe for fresh peach pie.

In these five novellas, readers will experience the power a book has to change a life, make dreams come true, and bring two hearts together as the characters work to fill the classic section of the library. Filled with charm, wit, secrets, and hope, each story is a sweet romance with a promise to keep you turning pages into the night. We hope you enjoy this book and the kisses between the lines.

Much Ado About a Kiss by Heather Tullis

Fay’s life is just fine, thank you. Running the café she’d practically been raised in: Check. Her artwork in a gallery: Check. Volunteering on the library board: Check. The one thing she doesn’t need right now is a guy in her life—especially her brother’s irritating best friend from high school, so when the two men announce that they are moving home to start a ski and mountain bike shop in town, she isn’t pleased. If only she could completely forget that one kiss she and Austin shared in high school, and the way it made her heart flutter when she thought about it. Why does he have to upset her just-fine world? Not this time. Not if she can help it. But can she?

The Kiss Thief by Rachelle J. Christensen

As the head librarian of the Echo Ridge Library, Britta Klein thrives on order and categorization. Unfortunately, the old church-turned-library is in desperate need of a renovation. The Harvest Hurrah fundraiser seems to be the answer, but plans keep going awry. With help from Milo Geissler, accomplished musician, piano tuner, and kiss thief, each catastrophe is narrowly avoided. Britta’s heart refuses to be swayed by his help, personal attention, or his irresistible dimpled smile. When Milo goes to great lengths to help Britta find a key classic book, she begins to wonder if there is more to life than books and order. Can she allow this man who speaks the language of music to tune her heart to a new song?

The Lion, The Witch, & The Library by Lucy McConnell

Jennifer Solomon’s birthday wish is for the one thing she’s been too shy to go after: Kirke Staples, Echo Ridge’s resident playwright, an avid mountain biker, and her best friend. Friend, as in don’t kiss, don’t covet, and don’t under any circumstances fall in love with the man. But it’s too late—she’s already fallen in love. Hoping for a birthday kiss that will change everything, she arranges an “accidental” meeting with the handsomest man on the library board. Her carefully laid plans are thrown off track when the beautiful Bay Barington sweeps into town and casts a spell over Kirke. In her efforts to win Kirke’s heart, Jennifer is forced to take a look at her inner self and decide what type of woman she wants to be, a lion or witch.

The Last of the Gentlemen by Cami Checketts

Despite the hardships she’s faced, Emma Turner, is determined to make a good life for her three children. Working nights and struggling through life doesn’t leave much time for romance, which is just fine as far as Emma is concerned. But when her son’s good-looking lacrosse coach takes an interest in her children, Emma has to fight off the smolder in her stomach and banish her daydreams. This school-girl crush needs to end before she embarrasses her son and herself. If only she could tell that to her heart.

Pride & Persuasion by Connie E. Sokol

Lindy Marchant has left heartbreak and downtown L.A. to help her cousin kickstart an antique shop in sleepy Echo Ridge. That is, until she’s roped into the library fundraiser to become an assistant for Armand D. Beaumont, the French bestselling detective writer. The two have met before, and Lindy hasn’t forgotten the disastrous outcome.  Now Armand’s celebrity quirks threaten to upset her life yet again. Or, is there a deeper reason for his unpredictable choices? While Armand inadvertently assists Lindy with the shop, she uncovers his painful truth and an inconvenient growing attraction. As Lindy’s L.A. past catches up with her, decisions must be made. Can Armand let go of his pride and face his fears? And can Lindy be persuaded to take the untried road, even together?

I know, great stories, right? Buy it here!

Fay’s Fresh Peach Pie

Fay’s Fresh Peach Pie

Ingredients

    Pie crust:
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3/4 cup shortening
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 2 Tbsn white vinegar
  • Filling:
  • 4 cups fresh peaches
  • ½ cup sugar
  • 3 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1 pinch salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Crust: Mix the flour and salt. Using a pastry blender, cut the shortening into the flour until it is uniform. Mix the egg and vinegar in a cup and blend into the flour mixture. Pie crust tip: once you add the liquids, you want to handle the crust as little as possible, but before adding the liquids, you can mix it as much as you like.

Split the dough into two balls and roll them out. Line the bottom of the pie pan with the first crust and prick the sides and bottom with a fork. Then spread in the peaches. Sprinkle the other ingredients evenly across the top. Top with a second crust and crimp the edges and bake for about an hour, or until crust starts to turn golden.

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a Rafflecopter giveaway

First Crush–2nd book from the In The Garden series

First-Crush

It is out! I am so excited to announce that the book is now available on all ebook retailers and the paperback should be available to order in a few days.

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.

 

Buy it now on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iTunes!

Next up in the series–Not in the Plans, coming summer 2016!

Christmas Kisses

Christmas Kisses

Christmas Kisses is a collection from five bestselling and award-winning authors. Set in the snowy town of Echo Ridge in upstate New York, these inspirational romances are sure to delight while you sip cocoa by the fire and listen to Christmas carols.

One Winter Night by Heather Tullis Amazon bestselling author
Jonah Owens thought moving to Echo Ridge to open his art gallery would solve all of his problems. The need to sell his grandma’s house adds an unexpected complication. It would be easier if his neighbor didn’t have all those farm animals.

Kaya Feidler’s family has owned their land for nearly a hundred years–long before the neighbors were there. There’s no way she’s giving up the animal therapy business she’s been struggling to make profitable. She gets a temp job helping Jonah in the gallery. Spending time together is a recipe for romance, but can they overcome their own hangups to be more than friends?

http:s//heathertullis.com/ * https://www.facebook.com/HeatherTullisBooks

Christmas Makeover by Cami Checketts Amazon bestselling author
Chelsea Jamison has been infatuated with Drew Stirling longer than she’s loved playing basketball, high-top sneakers, and the Knicks. Unfortunately, all Drew sees is the kid who kicked his trash in the high school free throw contest and not the girl whose heart breaks into a fast dribble when he’s near.

Drew makes an unexpected visit home to Echo Ridge and their friendship picks up where they left off as they scheme to make a teenaged boy’s Christmas dreams come true. When Chelsea realizes she’s fallen for her best friend, she wonders if there is any hope of a relationship with Drew or if she’s stuck in buddy-status for life.

http://www.camichecketts.com/ * https://www.facebook.com/CamiCheckettsAuthor

The Candy Counter Heiress by Lucy McConnell Amazon bestselling & award-winning author
Someday Reese Gates will own The Candy Counter at Kenworth’s; but someday can’t come fast enough when the manager threatens to bring in a national candy provider. Reese secretly takes matters into her own hands hoping to save her parents from additional worry and prove herself capable of running the company. Her deception deepens as she ropes computer guru Andy Edwards into helping her expand the business. Reese wanted to shake things up, but she wasn’t planning on her heart getting caught in the mix by Andy’s stolen kisses. If she can hold it together until after Christmas, then she can reveal her successful online company and her feelings for Andy. Unfortunately for Reese, even the best laid plans can melt like chocolate.

https://lucymcconnell.wordpress.com/ * https://www.facebook.com/ChristinaDymock

Soda Fountain Christmas by Connie E. Sokol Amazon bestselling author
Keira Kenworth has one focus this holiday season: save her father’s old-time department store from bankruptcy. She is not focused on Tayton Wells, the tall, dark, and genius marketing guru from downtown New York, hired to make it happen. He is as doubtful that her nostalgic connect-the-town ideas will succeed as she is about his numbers-first plan. However, it’s not just their different approaches that cause sparks to fly. Working together on a fast deadline to save the store before Christmas, the unspoken connection between them grows. But will the tough decisions they face drive them back to their separate worlds, or will they lead to the beginning of love?

http://www.conniesokol.com/ * https://www.facebook.com/8basics?_rdr=p

Hope for Christmas by Rachelle J. Christensen Amazon bestselling & award-winning author
Anika Fletcher hates Christmas–its promises of good tidings and hope for the future are as tinseled as the ornaments on Kenworth’s Hope Tree. Despite her feelings, Anika wants to maintain her daughter’s faith in the magic of the season and gladly accepts a second job working with the handsome Carlos Rodriguez to restore Kenworth’s old fashioned soda fountain. Carlos is no stranger to hard times and slowly shares his life of light and joy with Anika as they work together. Just as her fragile soul begins to feel hope again, an ill-timed act of charity changes everything. Anika isn’t sure who she can trust or if hope is worth nurturing–especially at Christmas when it’s easy to enjoy a kiss and believe love can last longer than the season.

http://rachellechristensen.com/ * https://www.facebook.com/rachellechristensenauthor

Links: Amazon * Barnes and Noble * Kobo * iTunes * Smashwords
Add it to Goodreads

Cover reveal for my next book!

I’m excited to reveal the cover for my first In The Garden romance, coming early next month. Piper, Maddie and Adelyn have been talking to me for over a year, but the thing that brought the stories all together was the garden. In case you don’t know, I love to garden. I love fresh tomatoes warm from the sun when I pick them on my daily trip out to my rain gauge. I love to see flowers brightening up my yard and the birds and insect that they draw in. And the fact that my husband and I were drafted onto the board of directors for our local community garden last winter doesn’t hurt! I hope you all enjoy reading this book as much as I liked writing it!

Hello Again cover

Piper Daniels has carved a life for herself and her autistic brother, but is barely hanging on financially. After her brother is caught vandalizing, Piper is desperate to find anything affordable that will redirect his energy. Excited by the idea of putting together a community garden, she throws herself into the planning full force until she realizes who owns the property: Reece Stone, the guy who broke her heart ten years before. She needs his permission to use the land, but how can she face the one man she’s never forgotten and give him the chance to reject her again?

Reece Stone is stunned when Piper’s name comes across his desk. He’s always regretted how things ended between them and is curious to see where life has taken her. He agrees to meet and consider her garden proposal for his property. Once he realizes her brother is the reason behind the community garden, though, he is determined to help. Only, the more time he spends with her, the more his buried feelings for her surface. Will the garden project give him a chance to explain why he broke her heart? Or will she be the heartbreaker this time around?

The DiCarlo Brides

When George DiCarlo’s two daughters walk into the reading of his will, they find a big surprise–they have four sisters they never knew about–all by different mothers. The will stipulates that they work together to get his latest hotel/resort up and running and that they share a home for the first year that it’s running–he’s determined that they will all get to be good friends.

If that’s not enough, he’s picked out the perfect man for each of them, ensuring that they’ll get in each other’s way. Obviously love is bound to ensue. The daughters and their intended grooms, however, are not so amenable to his plans and where possible, fight his continued interference in their lives–which he manages to do, even from the grave.

 

A Perfect Fit

Cami DiCarlo doesn’t agree with her father that her life has been stuck in a rut, so she is not happy when he forces her hand into heading up guest services at his newest five-star hotel. The fact that he unveils the existence of four half-sisters at the same time, and insists that they live together while they launch the new resort, only makes things worse.

When she meets Vince Talmadge, the sweet, sexy landscaper her father would never have approved of, Cami can’t say no. If only she could be sure she is on the right track—and that they will be able to stop the person who is trying to destroy everything she and her sisters are working to build.

Read an excerpt.

SEALed with Love

It isn’t Sage Parker’s fault that she mistakes former Navy SEAL Joel Watts as the stalker who had been sending her disturbing letters–he shows up every time she turns around. Too bad her father doesn’t tell her he sent Joel to protect her. When the stalker tracks Sage from LA to her new job in Colorado, she’s glad to have Joel on her side. She didn’t plan to falling in love with him though—now if he would see her as more than just a client.

Joel takes his job as head of resort security seriously, but Sage is his number one priority, and the one woman he can’t get out of his mind. He isn’t sure if he believes in her precognition, or some of her other hokey beliefs, but he soon finds he can’t live without her. He just has to catch the stalker before he or Sage end up dead.

Read an excerpt.

Reclaiming his Bride

Secrets rule Lana’s life. Her father’s death brought some out into the open, but she has a few of her own: 1) she’s been married to Blake for nearly a year—and trying to get a divorce for most of that time. 2) A moment of emotional weakness and too much champagne ended with her in her husband’s arms—and now she’s pregnant.

Blake hasn’t thought of another woman since they first met, though she believes otherwise. When Lana’s hotel-magnate father offers him the job of regional manager—and an office in the hotel Lana would be managing, Blake jumps at it. Keeping her attention when it’s split between her sisters, the ins and outs of running a resort, and the ‘ghost’ who’s been haunting the building isn’t easy. Learning about the baby convinces him to redouble his efforts though—he isn’t going to give up without a fight, and when someone comes after Lana, the stakes are raised again.

Read an excerpt.

 

Family Matters

Rosemary Keogh considers herself pretty adaptable—she dealt with her father’s death-bed edict that she move across the country to work at his latest hotel with five half-sisters, (most of whom she hadn’t known existed) hadn’t she? She settled into the routine, even grew to like most of them, but when tragedy leaves her birth daughter parentless—and she is named as the guardian—her world spins again.

Trying to raise a nine-year-old who shares her spunk and determination isn’t always an easy thing. When Rosemary starts having mysterious ‘accidents,’ though, her worries shift from being a bad mother to leaving her daughter an orphan yet again.

Adding to the confusion, Harrison Forest, head of the resort’s human resources department, decides it’s time to shift their relationship from semi-adversarial to something a whole lot more interesting. Can they get past the roadblocks she’s been throwing in their way to make things work? More importantly, will she survive that long?

Read an excerpt.

 

Wild Hearts

Delphi Gifford has nearly given up on finding someone she could love as much as her dead husband, Fallon, who had died while they were still in college. Certainly local photographer Jeremy Litster wasn’t at the top of her list, egomaniac that he is–even if he did drive the hottest racing motorbike she’d ever touched.

Jeremy knew George DiCarlo had hand-picked him to marry Delphi, but hadn’t counted on her not being in the loop. After working together for six months, though, he seriously regrets his misstep and begins a careful campaign to win her over. When someone tries to take the two of them out, he has to figure out what they did or saw that put them both in danger.

Read an excerpt.

 

The Last Bride

Confirmed bachelor Gage Matthews had no intention of marrying George DiCarlo’s daughter–even if she was incredibly hot, fun, athletic, and great to be around. His two friends might have caved, but he wasn’t about to do so. Staying away from her, though became harder as the months passed, and though she never seemed to intentionally be in his path, Jonquil was everywhere he turned. When he realizes she’s the one woman he has to have, will she be willing to look past their troubles to make things work.

Read an excerpt.

 

Getting Her Groom

Angela Chestnut can’t wait to move to New York City to fulfill her dream on the stages of Broadway, but first she has to finish her senior project. Unfortunately, someone wants the community center she is supporting with the show to fail, and they are going after her project.

Since meeting Angela at her sister’s place the previous summer, Alex Checketts has had an unhealthy interest (in his opinion) in her, despite their twelve years age difference. Roped into accompanying the musical, he gets caught up in the mystery behind who is trying to shut down the community center.

Whether they’ll be able to make it work after she moves to New York worries them both, but first they have to survive to put on Angela’s show and save The Center.

Read an excerpt.

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