Authors: Jessica Nelson
By Jessica Nelson
Copyright ©2013 by Jessica Nelson
Cover Art designed by Justin Fowler
Photography by Captain Jimmy Nelson
Edited by Blue Mountain Editorial
This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and events are fictitious in every regard. Any similarities to actual events and persons, living or dead, are purely coincidental. Any trademarks, service marks, product names, or named features are assumed to be the property of their respective owners, and are used only for reference. There is no implied endorsement if any of these terms are used.
All rights reserved. Except for use in review, the reproduction of this work in any format is prohibited and constitutes a copyright violation.
Dedicated to my sister Jenni. I've always admired your ability to be bold and say what you think! And yet you endeavor to speak the truth in love. You're awesome.
The Women of Manatee Bay Series
Book 1: Remember Love
Book 2: Undercover Love
Book 3: Forever Love
Other Books by Jessica Nelson
Love On The Range, published by Love Inspired Historical
Family On The Range, published by Love Inspired Historical
The Matchmaker's Match, published by Love Inspired Historical
And be ye kind one to another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ's sake hath forgiven you. ~Ephesians 4:32 KJV
If there was one thing Rachel McCormick hated more than breaking into the mayor’s house, it was getting caught.
Another faint sound came from the hallway, following the ominous click she’d heard only moments ago. Quickly, she beamed the flashlight into the mayor’s desk drawer. She might have only seconds to finish what she’d been paid to do.
Maybe breaking in wasn’t so awful. It was more of a dangerous adventure. If the sound she’d heard was any indication though, trouble loomed. She rummaged through the desk one more time, searching for the flash drive her client Mrs. Owens insisted she’d left at the back of the drawer.
Refusing Mrs. Owens' offer might have been easier if Rachel hadn’t discovered the awful truth about her older sister, Maggie. Mayor Owens had deeply wronged Maggie and Mrs. Owens’ request was Rachel’s opportunity to bring the shady mayor down. The desire to be the one to extract a roundabout justice for her big sister fueled Rachel’s search. She encountered the mayor’s flash drive just as the floorboards in the hallway creaked.
Rachel snagged her personal flash drive from the port on the hard drive before tapping the monitor’s off button. She carefully pushed the drawer closed, wincing when it smacked more loudly than expected. Both drives clutched in her fists, she dropped down and tried to squeeze beneath the enormous cherry wood desk.
Her head knocked against a corner. She grimaced, resisting the urge to rub the sore spot, and wriggled into the space.
The door opened, a quiet slither that filled the room with menace. She froze. The thought of jail time squeezed the air from her lungs. No, Mrs. Owens had given her the key. Despite Rachel’s personal need for secrecy, if caught, there would be no imprisonment. No cage.
She sucked in oxygen, relieving the burn in her chest.
The hallway light, which had been on when she’d let herself in fifteen minutes ago, washed into the room. Brightness spread across the office floor in an alarming triangle. Rachel pulled her feet closer to her body and wished for the millionth time God had made her shorter. It is what it is, Mom always said.
She frowned at the thought.
Shoes moved into her line of vision and belatedly she realized her toes peeked out from beneath the confines of the desk.
“Come out. Keep your hands where I can see them.” The man’s voice, deep with authority, sent her pulse into a tizzy. She’d recognize those deep tones anywhere. It was
She huffed, irritation flooding through her.
“Grant, it’s Rachel McCormick.” Trying to untangle her legs stole her concentration and she knocked her head on the desk again. A sharp stab of pain ricocheted across her temple.
She heard the soft sweep of his boots right before she scooted out from beneath the desk. And banged her head again. The pain rocketing through her skull made her grit her teeth. Angry at herself, at the whole situation, she rose to a standing position.
to get her pulse under control. Tightening her jaw, she put her hands on her hips and faced him. “I have a key.”
He eyed her, disbelief twisting his full lips into a scowl. “Alarm was tripped.”
“This isn’t a burglary. Or breaking and entering.” Yet. The clients were going to court next week and technically, Mrs. Owens shouldn’t have a key anymore. But Grant probably didn’t know that.
“Why are you wearing that?” Quicker than his love ‘em and leave ‘em style, he moved as if to pluck the ski mask off her head.
At the last moment he stopped. Restrictions of his job, no doubt. The man was a stickler.
“There are hidden cameras,” she said, defending her disguise. Mrs. Owens had wanted the venture to be a secret. Out of town until Thursday, she’d begged Rachel to grab the files today so she’d have them before the divorce was final.
Since she was caught anyway, Rachel flipped the mask off and stuffed it in a back pocket. Her hair fell over her face, a scarlet mass of frizz inherited from her mother’s side of the family. She pushed the offensive strands away and glared at him, bothered by the amusement on his face.
“I had to protect myself. Look, Grant, you’ve known me forever. I’m not a thief. How about I leave right now and we’ll forget all about this?” She shot him a persuasive smile, the one she used on uncooperative males. It generally worked. Grant, being a hot-blooded man, would surely succumb.
“Go sit down, Rachel.”
“What?” Her voice pitch shot up in a very unattractive way. Like her mom’s. She clamped her lips closed.
“We have rules. You of all people should know them. Now go sit down while I make some calls.”
“This is so ridiculous. Just let me leave.” Ignoring his scowl, she moved around the desk.
“Stop right there.”
That annoying, in-charge voice made her want to scream. How many times had she heard him use it on her in the past? Gritting her teeth and forcing herself to stop casting him the evil eye, she stopped in the hallway.
“We’re going out to the patrol car now,” he said from behind her. “You can wait in your car while I check out your story.”
The handcuff case on his belt came into view as he moved away from the desk. Reality intruded, bringing to mind the clank of a prison door. Rachel couldn’t control the shudder that shook her. She bit her lip. Hard.
“I’m walking outside now. Do we have to do this?”
“I play by the rules, Rachel. It’s time you did too.”
She played by one rule and one rule only. No dating charmers like Grant Harkness. Her jaw tightened as she whipped a glower his way. Even though he was doing his job, it still felt personal somehow. As if he was getting even for things in the past.
“Let’s go.” He gestured her toward the door of the office. She caught a glimpse of his frown in a mirror on the wall before they stepped into the hallway.
She didn’t like the trembles trying to gain control over her legs. Fear was a stranger. It never came near her. She always knew what to do, when to do it. She was in control. Always.
If she bent rules now and again, so what? She delivered. Got the job done in a way the cops couldn’t. As apparently they hadn’t been doing with the mayor. Some of the documents she’d hacked into on his computer scattered prickles down her spine. She should’ve just grabbed the flash drive and left, instead of nosing through files, saving the encrypted information to her own memory stick. Not that she’d found anything concrete. Just little inconsistencies in his bank account and his files that filled her with foreboding. Information to add to the stash she’d been compiling for over a month now.
Finding out the mayor might be shady came as no surprise, especially after how he’d treated Maggie. As convoluted as her feelings toward her sister were, she still longed to vindicate Maggie somehow. Some way.
“Are you going to read me my Miranda Rights?” she asked as they walked.
“I’m not questioning you about anything.” Grant guided her forward, down the Owens’ never-ending hallway. His hand warmed her shoulder in a gentle grip, a paradox to the longstanding enmity between them. As she remembered how much he disliked her, a fist tightened around her heart.
She shouldn't care what he thought. Deep inside, she knew that. And yet she did. Though they came from two different worlds, she'd always respected him for the most part. But he had never respected her. She forced herself to ignore the painful pressure in her chest and kept moving.
Her shoe caught in the carpet. She lunged forward, helpless. Grant caught her before she hit the floor. He hovered inches from her. Shadow covered his chin, darker than his shaggy blonde hair. The scent of Big Red cloaked him, spicy and dangerous.
She let him help her up, awareness of the emotions he jerked to the surface making it difficult to resist his help.
If Mrs. Owens told the truth and Rachel had done nothing illegal by going on the mayor's computer, then she felt sure the department would hear about this tomorrow and have a good laugh at her expense. No way would her mom’s deputy friend Charlie let her off for this mess.
She faced Grant, straightened her shoulders and tried to keep her voice from wobbling. “Thanks.”
“No problem.” He sounded stiff. Probably broke another rule just to keep her from eating carpet. “Let’s get this done.”
“Why the rush?” she asked, voice cool.
“I don’t want the mayor to make a stink with the department when he finds out about this. He’s got enough problems on his plate.” His eyes, bluer than a Florida sky in autumn, settled on her. “You’ve got some nerve, Rachel, coming in here and expecting special treatment. If you’ve broken a law— and we’ll find out soon enough—you might need a lawyer.” Derision coated his words, a heavy blanket that suffocated the indignation flaring up in her.
Her shoulders sagged. This was how he always talked to her. Even when they hung out with Katrina and Alec. All those dinners and he never smiled at her the way he smiled at others. He didn’t hold the chair out for her like he did for Katrina. He treated her as though she was despicable. A horrible human being.
And maybe she was?
No one could get under her skin like he did. No one hurt her the way he did with just a tone.
“I don’t expect anything,” she said quietly. “Call Mrs. Owens and she’ll explain the situation.” She looked away from his probing gaze.
God, help me
, she prayed.
Take these feelings away. Please, I don’t want them.
“Are you saying Mrs. Owens is a client?”
“How do you think I got in?” His question annoyed her, stiffened her backbone. Which was a relief. Debilitating emotion wasn’t her style.
"You were wearing a mask..." He stood close to her in the poorly lit hallway. She could practically hear the thoughts snapping through him, the internal debate. Finally he stepped back, planting his feet apart and crossing his arms. “So Mrs. Owens knows you’re here?”
“Isn’t that what I just said?” It came out more snide than she meant it to.
The light in the hallway cast a dim glow, its source a fancy lamp sitting on a mahogany wall table. Grant rubbed his chin. “I’m calling Gerta Owens. You can wait in the back of my car.”
Gritting her teeth, Rachel trudged out to the squad car. He opened the door for her. Casting him the blackest scowl she could muster, she slid in. When he shut the door, leaving her trapped with the odors of previous occupants, she swallowed hard.
The floor secreted liquor and cigarettes. Who knew what was on the seats? Feeling squeamish, she peered out the window, straining to see past the streaks which were probably a mix of saliva and sweat.
Normally cops cleaned out their cars at the end of every shift. Grant didn’t have to put her back here, yet he did. An electrifying flash of anger zipped through her belly.
She glared at him as he paced on the Mayor’s porch, phone to his ear. For a second his long-legged stride captured her attention. So distinctive. So confident.
He pulled the phone from his ear and clipped it to his belt, his gaze piercing through the night. She looked away, knowing he couldn’t see her yet feeling scrutinized anyway. Seconds later the door opened. She scuttled out of the car, heart ricocheting against the confines of her ribcage.
“You can go now,” he said.
“It’s about time,” she snapped, thankful for the hot anger that rushed through her. She embraced the familiar heat, welcomed it. She pivoted, ready to march away, but Grant cleared his throat.
Reluctantly she turned back to him. “What?”
“A word of warning: stay away from the mayor’s ex.”
Rachel couldn’t contain the frustration of the last half hour; she poked Grant in the chest. “She’s not his ex yet.”
Grant’s gaze narrowed. “You better watch how you treat an officer of the law, Miss McCormick.” The words were quietly spoken, a threat if Rachel had ever heard one. “Now listen here, you’ve been bending the rules lately. I’ve noticed. Others have too.”
The reprieve she felt at being able to leave, the righteous satisfaction that had driven her to poke him, faded. “What are you talking about?”
Grant looked past her then brought his lips close. His quick breaths whispered behind her ear. “We know you’ve done some computer hacking for your clients. Some trespassing.”
She shivered as he pulled away. This changed things. What good was a private detective if she couldn’t keep things private? She squinted at Grant. “Do you have proof?”
She looked away from him, doing rapid calculations in her head. Until recently, there’d only been a few cases where she’d hacked into a husband’s bank account. And she hadn’t told anyone. Not a soul.
So how could Grant know? She rubbed her wrists, thinking. And came to the conclusion that he couldn’t. She swung him a triumphant grin. “You’re bluffing.”
Grant motioned her away from the house toward the grass. “Think what you want. But I know you.”
Rachel halted, her neck kinking. She folded her arms against her ribs. Sure, it wasn’t his fault she’d developed this unfortunate feeling for him. Wasn’t his problem that she noticed when he gave the waitress a huge tip. That she saw his loyalty to his friends and co-workers and admired him for it. Or that her fingers itched to twirl through his thick blonde hair, just to see if the strands felt as soft as they looked.