Authors: Nancy Naigle
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #United States, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary Fiction, #Mystery & Suspense, #Suspense, #Series
ver since she’d made the visit to the farm on Nickel Creek Road, Brooke seemed to be right in Mike’s path. It seemed funny that she’d never laid eyes on him until that farm visit and now it was like every time she turned around—there he was.
The next day she’d bumped into him at the post office when she picked up her mail, then he showed up at the grand opening of
Yesterday he was picking up bear claws at Mac’s Bakery when she arrived to get the order for the office, and this afternoon on her way home he was in the Piggly Wiggly.
All three times he’d stopped and chatted her up. He hadn’t mentioned dinner again, and she finally had let her guard down deciding he’d just been being polite that day they’d met. Which was a relief.
They’d talked so long in the parking lot that her frozen goods had all but thawed. Maybe her heart had too since, when he brought up his dinner offer out of the blue, she’d let him pin her down to go together to the local Ruritan Club steak dinner Friday after next.
At least they wouldn’t be alone. Everyone in town would be there.
For someone who was almost divorced and sworn off men, she’d had zero willpower when it came to saying no to Mike.
She left in a hurry, worried about what else she’d agree to if she stuck around. As she pulled into her driveway she was relieved to just be home and be able to put him out of her mind for a while. At least until Friday after next at that dinner.
As soon as Brooke stepped out of her car, the summer heat sucked the air-conditioned chill from her skin, but that didn’t keep goose bumps from crawling up her arms. She shifted her purse and the grocery bag up on her hip.
The dense line of red-tip Photinia had been a selling point when she’d bought this house, but now the long row of hedges just looked like a convenient place for someone to lurk.
Moving here was supposed to have eliminated these feelings, and Keith was nearly a two-hour drive away. Even if he had figured out where she’d moved, it wasn’t likely he’d be riding by her house all the time like he’d been doing when they lived just miles from each other. That had just become unsettling. Out of sight would be out of mind…she could only hope.
I’m safe here in Adams Grove.
When the thought didn’t do anything to relax her, she tried to convince herself by humming the song that had been playing on the radio.
Her heels clicked against the pavers. Just feet from the front porch, she stopped midstride.
“I know I left that light on this morning.”
Great. Now I’m talking to myself
. She distinctly remembered going through the motions to leave the porch light on this morning because she thought she wouldn’t be home until late tonight. Thank goodness the summer days were long and she’d left the office early for a change, so it wasn’t dark out, but…
Maybe the bulb burned out—or not.
Recent incidents clicked off in her mind—missing items that magically reappeared days later, gas siphoned from her car, and the phone line pulled from its clip on the house.
How often does that ever happen?
Both times the police had come, they’d written it off as harmless pranks by kids with too much time on their hands.
Brooke positioned a key between each finger like spikes. She’d seen that in an action adventure film once, and that girl had kicked ass. Armed and ready as she’d ever be, Brooke headed for the front porch.
Why am I acting all ninja girl? It’s broad daylight.
She pulled out her cell to dial the police, then stopped.
What am I going to say?
Hello, 911, my porch light is off?
That wouldn’t fly. Sheriff Calvin had been really nice about it, but with no evidence there wasn’t much he could do. Still, she hadn’t liked the way that deputy with the Northern accent talked to her in that tone they use on crazies.
The hairs on her arms tingled as the adrenaline built. A sense of prying eyes, someone watching, forced her to run up the steps where at least she could lock the door behind her.
Brooke lunged toward the front door, twisted the key in the lock, and rushed inside to safety. She slid her purse and grocery bag off her shoulder to the sideboard table, kicked the door closed, and twisted the newly installed dead bolt.
She exhaled the breath she hadn’t realized she was holding, then flipped the light switch and peeked out the side-light window next to the front door. The front porch light worked fine.
A chill crept the length of her limbs. Was it possible that Keith was picking up right where he left off? Maybe ninety miles wasn’t far enough after all.
She threw her phone in the top of her purse and pulled out a small spiral notebook to jot down the disturbance. Collecting data was like breathing. Of course, it had to align with her gut and those lucky signs that she lived by too. She tossed the notes back into her purse.
“Stitches? Where’s Mama’s girl?” The little dog’s hearing was going, but she’d usually have wandered out to greet her by now. Brooke clapped and called for the fourteen-year-old dog again.
Brooke took in a deep cleansing breath, the kind Jenny always swore by, even before they started doing yoga. She let out the breath to the count of five as she stepped out of her shoes. Silently, she recited the self-affirmations she’d been practicing.
I am fine.
I am fearless.
I am in control.
I am independent.
I am strong.
Then, like every other time she’d tried that self-affirmation thing, her mind wandered into a chorus of “I Am Woman” by Helen Reddy. The memory of her mom singing that song so off-key that dogs whimpered and whales fled for deeper waters made her laugh. So it wasn’t exactly how the whole affirmation thing was supposed to work—it was still empowering.
Her hand froze, hovering in midair over the sideboard. The one blemish on the otherwise perfect surface was in clear view. Alarm slid through her. The wooden bowl she’d positioned to hide the scratch was about two inches out of place.
Even though she’d spent hours in a dingy warehouse auction to buy the old piece of furniture, it had been a liberating first step in putting her broken marriage behind her and starting fresh. It was a style Keith hated. That in itself was worth the price she’d paid.
Unclenching her fingers, she dropped her keys into the bowl, and nudged it back into place over the scratch with her index finger. That’s when she noticed the familiar spicy scent. Dad had worn it. Keith wore it. Half the men in America had splashed it on at one time or another, and their commercials were making a comeback, but why was it in her house now?
Keith, you know where I am, don’t you?
A noise came from the kitchen. She drew her fists to her chest as if she were ready to take on the intruder, but realization struck just as quickly.
Brooke dropped her hands. Doing battle with the icemaker would be overkill, but it was still clear that someone had been in the house and that was unsettling.
She’d rather look overcautious than stupid, so she called the police. The dispatcher told her to wait on the front porch. She prayed the same deputy wouldn’t show up. It was getting embarrassing. This would be the third time in as many weeks, but even changing the locks hadn’t made a difference.
“Where’s my sweet girl dog?” Brooke wasn’t about to leave Stitches inside while she waited out front.
When Stitches still didn’t appear, Brooke propped the front door open and went down the hall to her bedroom to look for the dog. But after searching every room, there was no sign of Stitches, and that just didn’t make sense.
She ran out the French doors, searching the backyard, hoping for a spot of white amid the colorful landscaping.
“Stitches, are you out here, girl?” She clapped her hands and called out again. It was highly unlikely she would have left Stitches out all day in this kind of heat. Helplessness consumed her.
Where was that cardinal that usually darted through the trees and tangled shrubs?
Not seeing the lucky bird only heightened her apprehension.
A high-pitched yelp came from the far side of the deck.
Brooke took off in that direction. She cleared the three steps to the gazebo in one long leap toward the hot tub. Sickness rolled in her stomach when she spotted the hot tub cover folded back.
Stitches’s tiny eyes bulged and her black nose stretched just above the water in a desperate doggy paddle in the center of the hot tub. Brooke plunged across the side into the bubbling water to scoop Stitches to safety.
“It’s okay. I’m here.” Brooke climbed out of the water and grabbed a towel from the trunk next to the hot tub.
Stitches continued paddling the air, still in a panic for survival.
She wrapped Stitches in a terry-cloth cocoon and pulled her close. They both trembled. The tiny dog’s heart pounded like a hummingbird on a caffeine overload.
“Thank god, you’re all right.” Brooke rocked Stitches as water dripped from her soaked jacket to the deck. She grabbed another towel and headed inside. She raced through the French doors to the kitchen, then dropped the towel and stood on it, still dripping, as she grabbed the magnet from the side of the refrigerator. She dialed the veterinarian’s office. Even though she and Stitches had only been there once, they agreed to wait for her when they heard what had happened.
Soaking wet, Brooke stripped down to her panties right there in the kitchen before she remembered the front door was propped open. She picked Stitches back up and sprinted across the living room down the hall to quickly change into dry clothes.
Stitches lay trembling on the bed where Brooke had set her down. She dressed as fast as she could, then swept the scared dog back into her arms.
As she stepped out on the front porch, the sheriff’s car pulled into the driveway. That same deputy, the one who talked to her like she was a nut job and said that until she came along this had been a quiet neighborhood, stepped out of the car.
She didn’t break stride as she headed to her car.
The deputy walked toward her like he was in no hurry at all. “Are you okay, ma’am?”
She swept past him. “I told you my ex-husband was up to no good. He almost drowned Stitches.”
He followed her to the car. “Slow down. What happened?”
“I can’t. I just rescued my dog from the hot tub. Maybe I can’t prove it was Keith, but I know. I told you something was going to happen.” She stabbed a finger in the air in his direction. “This is
fault for not listening to me.” She opened the passenger door and set the dog inside. “I’ve got to get her to the vet. I can’t deal with this or you right now.”
He handed her a card. “That’s fine. Give me a call when you get back. I’ll come back out and see what we can do. Doesn’t matter what time it is.”
Oh, yeah. Like you’ve been so much help before?
She snatched the card, her voice still shaking but quieter. “Thank you. I’m upset.”
“I can see that. Go on. Doc Brady’ll take care of her. He’s a good guy.”
She nodded and jumped in the car, trying not to speed out of the neighborhood right in front of the very guy who could give her a ticket. That would just really top things off.
fter eight long years, Frank “Goto” Gotorow knew to the hour how long he’d been a free man. He made parole seventy-one days and seven hours ago.
How the hell did they expect him to lead a normal life on the outside? He could barely afford to take care of himself. In seventy-one days and seven hours the best job he could land was at that damn pizza shop with a bunch of college-aged kids.
He’d been a hell of a mechanic at one time. He’d never realized how the oil and grime had married with his skin until the oil began leaching out for months on the white prison sheets. It had taken a long time for his nails and skin to get clean and now that they were, when he said he had years of mechanic experience, one glance at his hands and folks thought he was a liar. No mechanic had hands that clean.
He’d pounded the pavement looking for decent work. The dealerships wouldn’t hire him because of his record, and even the small garages wouldn’t hire him when they found out he didn’t have his own tools. His old lady had sold all of his tools at a garage sale, and split with the cash when she realized what he’d done to that woman. Just imagine how mad she’d have been if she knew about the others.
“Bitch,” he seethed. “It’s not like I ever did anything to her,” he muttered to the Jesus air freshener swinging from the rearview mirror. His buddy, Rabbit, had turned him on to Wheelie. Wheelie was already on the outside and he was the guy who’d hooked him up with the car
It had taken nearly all the money he had to his name, but he had to have wheels. Wheelie had thrown in the Jesus air freshener and a “Support Your Local Police” bumper sticker, swearing it would keep the cops off his ass.
It had been a pretty sweet deal, but it didn’t leave him much to live on. He’d given up his weekly rental hotel room, and bought a ten-dollar blanket and a five-dollar pillow so he could save some money by sleeping in his car. He spent the rest of a twenty-dollar bill on canned Vienna sausages and Beanie Weenies at Kmart. His car had served double duty, bedroom and dining room, until he’d worked out the barter with the yoga chick to do those murals. He’d worked out a crash-and-cash deal with her and he’d liked staying in the big old building by himself, but now that she’d opened, that luxury was a thing of the past.
Probably a good thing too, because he’d been worried when he met her friend that she’d recognize him as the guy who delivered pizza to her. That wouldn’t have been good. Especially since he’d used a fake name with her friend. He knew her name though. Brooke Justice. She was hard to forget.
The money he’d earned had helped him stay on track with his internal deadline though. He still hadn’t figured out exactly what that plan was going to be, but getting justice was going to be sweet and Mike Hartman would never see it coming. Goto scrunched down in the seat as the front door of the house opened.