Authors: Jessica Nelson
“Crooked people everywhere.” Grant hiked a chin to the left, toward the west section of town. “Slasher’s been busy.”
“Up to no good, as usual. It’d be nice if someone just shot that dealer and saved this city some trouble.” Charlie scratched at his bristly chin.
Manatee Bay had been a fairly peaceful place until a few years ago when John Welch, AKA Slasher, started doing business near the river. One of the silliest street names Grant had ever heard, but it was accurate. Welch had a reputation for bloodying up dealers who didn’t make their quotas. Still, Grant blanched at Charlie’s implication the criminal should be killed in cold blood. Justice wasn’t so easy.
“I’d like to know who his supplier is.”
C’mon, Charlie, tell me what you know
Not that he thought Charlie was involved, but he had a duty to explore every lead, a duty to search for the truth and to defend his hometown from evil.
But Charlie only rolled his shoulders before moving past Grant to open the door. The guy didn’t possess the drive to track down criminals, but he had the instincts to smell them. He stared mournfully out the street. “Guess I’m going home to a cold bed tonight.”
“She might come back.” Grant clapped the older man on the shoulder and slid past him out the door. “I’ll be in this afternoon to relieve you.”
Grant felt a momentary surge of pride on his way out. At least he didn’t have to worry about some girl being The One. But then Rachel’s face flashed in his mind. Her pale skin, the way her cheeks colored from translucence to blush in a second. Her eyes, greener than any Floridian summer lawn.
He might be in bigger trouble than he’d thought. Just because she piqued his interest shouldn’t mean anything. But he had an uneasy feeling it did.
Opening his truck door cracked the stillness of early morning. He slid in and shut the door behind him. He’d go home, get a nap before his shift tonight and think on how he’d like his future to pan out.
And how to keep nosy Rachel McCormick out of it.
Ripples of light flashed on the river, like sapphires catching the sun and winking at Rachel. That was a stone she hadn’t added to her collection yet. Maybe a birthday present to herself…
She crossed her arms and glanced around the deserted headsprings. Crystalline waters surged upward from several large springs hidden beneath the sandy bottom of the Manatee River. The springs formed the beginning of the river, called the headwaters, and the surrounding lush foliage and year-round seventy degree water temperatures drew tourists every summer.
On weekends this area would be crowded, teeming with scantily dressed teens and relaxed parents. The man-made park would be filled with the heady scents of grilled burgers and burning charcoal. But today water drifted quietly against the grassy banks. A bird screeched somewhere, then quieted. The sudden silence made Rachel squirm.
She stepped back, bringing herself closer to the shadowed trees and away from the edge of the water. She didn’t see Mrs. Owens anywhere. Her watch read 4:40. Ten minutes past meeting time.
She fingered the key in her hand, then slid it into her pocket where proof rested on both flash drives. If Mrs. Owens didn't keep their appointment, she could come to the office later and pick up the pictures of the mayor’s infidelity along with her house key. The other flash drive was for Rachel, but she hoped Mrs. Owens might be able to help her crack the encryption if she thought it confirmed more philandering.
Rachel wasn't positive about what she’d copied on the second flash drive but a hunch told her the files proved more than just adultery.
No matter what, the sleaze would finally get what was coming to him, even if punishment only meant his name plastered on the news.
She glanced at her diamond encrusted watch, a fancy gift from a grateful client. 4:45. She couldn’t wait any longer for Mrs. Owens, despite the deep nagging to find out what hid behind the mayor’s encrypted files. She had to bundle up paperwork on a different case and get it ready to mail out before the post office closed. Clients often liked hard copies of her findings.
Pivoting, she left her spot beneath the trees. Her sandals clicked against the cobblestone path, echoing the briskness of her walk. Clouds drifted in front of the sun. With the river behind her and the trees in front, she suddenly felt hemmed in.
And scared. The scent of danger rode on the breeze that curled through her hair.
She stopped and rubbed at the goose bumps on her arms. Leaves fluttered, scraping against the path like the scuttling of insects. What was wrong with her? Bad pizza, she decided, and kept going.
Then the heel of her sandal stuck in the cobblestones. As she lurched forward, a dull pop split the air. She hit the ground hard. Her palms scraped against the rough stones and her chin smacked the cobblestones.
Trying to ignore the stinging in various parts of her body, she gaped at a twig resting inches from her nose. At least no one was around to see her sprawled like a broken puppet across the path. She stood, grimacing when her hair brushed against her stinging neck.
She hoped her heel hadn’t broken. Twisting, she saw the shoe intact on her foot. Which meant the pop had been something far different.
It took a second for the meaning to register. When it did, her skin prickled. She dropped down. A silencer. She’d heard that sound years before in a gun safety training course. Or maybe it had been in a movie?
. She wasn’t staying to find out what the sound was.
She dove into the woods. Branches gouged her palms, dug into her knees. Quietly, she kneeled behind a tree and carefully picked her way through the crowded underbrush. Her lungs hitched painfully as she struggled to breathe in slow, calm breaths, rather than frantic gulps. Sweat trickled down her neck. The musky scent of dirt filled her senses, punctuated by the occasional high-pitched call of a coot.
Time blurred for her. Every few seconds she’d stop, hear nothing, and then keep going. Eventually she reached the edge of the parking lot and realized she’d paralleled the path.
She surveyed the paved area. Empty. Just her Escalade, sitting there like a beacon, screaming her presence. She sat back on her heels. Took a slow, shuddering breath.
Nothing moved behind her. It was probably safe to go to her car. But her limbs were paralyzed. Heavy and shaking.
She patted her hips and groaned. She’d left her cell in the car. She always kept her iPhone in her pocket but she’d planned on just dashing over to meet Mrs. Owens. Besides, her capris only had shallow pockets. No room for a cell phone. The one time she needed it…
Rachel smoothed hair back from her face and tried to pray.
“Jesus, I need help here.” It came out a quivery whisper. She didn’t hear any kind of whisper in return but a measure of peace filled her. She stood, brushing leaves from her bottom, and cringed at the pain radiating through her arms. Her legs wobbled so badly she could barely walk but somehow she made it to the car. She slid in, locked the doors. Gunned the engine and got out of there.
It didn’t take long to get to the police station. Not that it was much of one. Just a small building on the edge of Manatee Bay, plopped between the library and Al’s Garage.
She screeched into the parking lot. Jerking to a stop, she turned off the car and rushed into the station.
It took a moment for her eyes to adjust to the difference in light. Bulbs couldn’t compare to the summer sun. First face that came into view was Charlie’s. His glasses caught the glare from the lights and hid his eyes. His lips stretched into a familiar broad grin.
“Well howdy, Miss Rachel.” He slapped his cowboy hat on his head and stood. “I heard about your shenanigans the other night.”
Rachel ignored him and moved further into the station, letting the door slam behind her. The gray walls, the bland carpeting; for once they comforted rather than annoyed.
“I need to talk to Chief Weathers.” She tried to say it firm, strong, but frowned when her voice came out little more than a croak. She cleared her throat.
Charlie’s thick brows pulled together. His grin melted. “You alright? What’s on your neck?”
To Rachel’s right a door squeaked open. She turned and met Grant’s mocking gaze head-on.
“Come to say hello?” His eyes twinkled, belying the sarcasm in his voice.
Rachel swallowed, alarmed when her legs wouldn’t stop shaking. “Is the chief here?”
Grant’s face changed. The smile faded. He strode forward, grabbed her shoulders. “You’re bleeding.”
“What?” She tried to jerk from his grasp, didn’t succeed. He had a firm grip. “I’m not.”
He touched her neck. She flinched as hot pain zigzagged through her.
“Charlie, get me the First Aid kit.” Grant guided her to a chair, sat her down. Rachel blinked. His hands were still on her shoulders, warm and comforting. He smelled like Big Red gum. Her grandpa had always kept a pack in his shirt pocket.
She blinked when something pricked her eyes. Oh, no. Not now. Her shoulders snapped back. No crying in front of Grant. This couldn’t be happening again. She never, ever cried. When he turned to take the first aid kit from Charlie, she swiped the back of her hand against her eyes.
Not a good idea. The grime on her hand made her eyes water more. She sniffed. At least she’d have an excuse now if they had the gall to say something. Charlie huddled with Grant over the kit, poking through it. The sound of wrinkling plastic mingled with the harsh gasps of the air conditioner.
No, wait. The gasps were coming from her. A sob caught in her throat. She clamped her lips closed, shifted and made the chair creak a little to cover.
But she couldn’t ignore the truth barreling through her with all the strength of an elephant on steroids. Crushing her lungs beneath its terrible weight.
“Someone shot at me.” Her fingers inched up to touch her neck. The panic must have been showing on her face because Grant turned, took one look at her, and knelt down in front of her.
He took her hands, holding them tight. His eyes were gentle. He looked much nicer when he was worried.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said in a low voice. He kept his gaze steady on her, massaging her hands so the warmth would come back. “We’re gonna clean you up and then find out who did this.”
She nodded, too afraid to speak in case she started sobbing. Charlie handed Grant some antiseptic wipes. Grant’s eyebrows pulled together as he brought his hands to her neck. “This’ll hurt,” he said.
Rachel closed her eyes and tilted her head so he could clean the wound. She felt the coldness of the wipes first. Then the burn. She sucked in a quick breath. It stung more than she’d expected.
She kept her eyes squeezed tight as Grant spread gauze over her neck. Dry and rough at the edges, cool in the middle where antibiotic ointment lay against the pain.
Someone patted her shoulder and she opened her eyes. Grant still knelt in front of her, his mouth drawn in a solemn line. “Looks like it’s just a graze, but you should see a doctor anyway.”
Rachel shook her head. “I’ll be fine.” She reached up and gingerly touched the bandages.
Charlie squatted next to Grant. He twirled his hat in large, rough hands. “You call 911?"
"No, I should have." She hadn't thought of it. Not once.
"We need a statement. Starting with where this happened.”
“At the headsprings.”
Grant eyed her clothes. “You weren’t there to swim, I take it?”
“No.” Rachel grimaced. This would be the annoying part. She hadn’t intended on letting the whole world know about the mayor’s weakness quite yet. Not when she planned on exposing his devious self later on. But getting shot at changed things and she’d come here almost as if on autopilot. She should have thought things through before driving this way.
Grant stood. Rachel looked away, a little disconcerted by the hand he held out to her. Grant being charming was nothing new. Grant being charming to her . . . Well, she guessed there was a first time for everything. She looked at his hand, tanned and callused. A strong man’s hand. She took it and let him help her up. His fingers, warm and firm, curled around her palm. Suddenly her vision blurred and she swayed. Grant steadied her until the dizziness passed.
“Sorry, I just need to eat.” She pulled away and reached into her pocket for the flash drive. Glancing down, she confirmed that the drive was completely white, lacking the mark she’d put on the drive with the S file. She managed a shaky smile as she handed the device to Grant.
The concern in his eyes unnerved her. It made her feel warm and fuzzy. It made her feel like doing something incredibly stupid.
Something like falling in love again.
“What’s this for?” Grant pinched the flash drive and held it up.
Looking perplexed, Grant glanced at the stick before placing it in an already dated evidence bag. He scribbled information on it then set it on his desk.
Hopefully, Mrs. Owens would understand the breach of confidentiality. Rachel sighed. At least she’d convinced Mrs. Owens to sign the standard agreement about privacy, which included a clause regarding illegal activities. Technically, adultery was still illegal, which meant she could disclose the mayor’s activities to the police station.
Rachel met Charlie’s gaze. His bushy eyebrows formed a vee over his nose. She forced her smile to stop quivering. She straightened her shoulders and reached over to pat Charlie on his grizzled cheek. His chin prickled her palm. “Let’s get started, Uncle Charlie.”
The vee between his eyebrows smoothed. “Well now, girl, haven’t heard you call me that in a long while.”
“I don’t like generic titles.”
“Generic nothing. I’m like family to you. My shift’s over, darlin’. Grant’ll take your statement. Grant, you want me to head out to the headsprings and take a look around before I go home?”
“Just radio it in, if you would. I think the chief is out that way.”
Rachel didn’t see Grant move from her side, but she felt the loss.
“Generic titles,” Charlie muttered, planting his hat back on the mop of gray that passed for hair.
“Gotta agree with her about titles being useless, Charlie.” Papers rustled as Grant messed around at a desk.
“If you’d grown up with a normal family, you’d see terms of endearment are as natural as breathing.” Charlie gave a little laugh and pulled Rachel to him in a hug. “This girl’s just weird. Went to the city and got herself some fancy degree. Now she won’t call me Uncle no more.”
She grimaced. Moisture seeped from Charlie’s shirt to her hands. She hugged him quickly then moved away from his cloying embrace. The degree didn’t have anything to do with what she called him. The fact was, Charlie wasn’t her uncle, just an old family friend. And she almost always referred to him as Charlie. Ever since her eighth birthday. But he hadn’t noticed until she’d come back from the University of Florida five years ago.
She didn’t want to hurt his feelings by pointing it out. And in rare cases of vulnerability she sometimes slipped and called him Uncle. Didn’t want to point that out, either.
So she smiled and swung her gaze to Grant. “Your family’s strange too?”
The warmth in his eyes disappeared. It was as though a curtain fell across his features, shadowing his thoughts.
“Foster care.” He turned away from her and pulled out a chair from one of the two desks in the tiny room. He placed it in front of the desk beside him.
Rachel swallowed, feeling awkward and not knowing what to do about it. She’d assumed Charlie was over-exaggerating, maybe making fun of Grant’s family a bit. She should’ve given in to the urge to research Grant months ago instead of curbing her normal impulses due to some misplaced sense of honor.
Stifling natural, God-given curiosity was always a bad idea.
Charlie covered the silence with a gruff cough. “Grant’s got himself a cat for family.”
Rachel felt her eyebrows shoot up. Somehow she couldn’t picture testosterone-filled Grant with a feline. “Really?”
“Nope.” Grant shook his head. “The thing ran off the other night.”
“Thing?” Rachel walked slowly to the chair, trying hard to not show how shaky she still felt. “I knew it sounded strange for you to have affection for something other than a female.”
She saw Grant’s shoulders loosen, lowering in a relaxed way. He rounded the desk, sat opposite her and chuckled. “Helga’s the most annoying female I’ve ever met. Needs more attention than a woman, that’s for sure.”
Rachel sucked back her own laugh. What an awful name. She sat down in the chair. The animosity between Grant and her made outings with Alec and Katrina stressful. His present kindness unsettled her. Made her feel sympathetic towards him.
He owned a cat. Her fingernails tapped the arm of her chair. And the cat was missing. She frowned.
His situation reminded her of how she’d felt years ago when Scooter died. The feeling gave her a kinship with Grant. The tenderness that invaded her chest earlier resurfaced and set off an internal alarm.
So what if he had a cat? It didn’t make him a nice person. It didn’t make him someone she could trust.
“You ready to get my statement now?” she asked coolly, shifting so her body faced the door. Grant was trained to read body language. Maybe he’d read hers and get this statement done quickly. She wanted out.
Charlie clomped to the door. “Well, I gotta get. Angel’s grilling ribeyes tonight. You oughta come over sometime, Rachel.”
“Angel came back quick,” Grant remarked.
Charlie sent them a wide, yellow-toothed grin. “I’m irresistible.”
Swallowing her snort, Rachel smiled at him. “Tell Angel I said hello.” If the two-week girlfriend even remembered who she was.
“That I will.” He looked at Grant. “Last night was quiet. Hope tonight is too.”
Grant studied the paperwork on his desk. “Pete should be here any minute. I have another officer coming in at midnight. My shift ends at three am.” He glanced up. “Enjoy those steaks.”
“Sure will.” Charlie let himself out.
Rachel checked the clock beside the doorway. Five thirty. She sighed. Looked like dinner would have to wait.
“Okay.” Grant’s chair squeaked as he swiveled to face the computer that rested diagonal to Rachel. Unfortunately, from where she sat, she couldn’t see the screen. “Let’s check out this flash drive and then I’ll get a statement from you.”
“Can we do the statement first?”
Grant faced her. His blond hair was getting long. It curled over his ears and diverted her attention for a moment, making him look innocent and not the danger her heart insisted he could be.
“Why?” He tapped his pen on the desk.
She didn’t want to be alone with him, but she couldn’t say that. Her stomach rumbled, lunch’s pizza calories long since burned away. “I’m hungry.”
Grant’s mouth tightened, obviously not believing her answer. He leaned back in his chair. “Is there evidence of crimes on this drive? How’d you get it, Rachel?”
He was using that tone again. The bossy, deep-with-authority one. “Adultery is the only evidence on there, but it’s criminal enough. I’ll give you my statement first.”
“Fine.” He thumbed through the papers on the desk. “I’m willing to bet you’ve broken some laws to get this.”
Her jaw clenched.
Grant’s gaze met hers. “Am I right?”
The accusation in his tone grated, especially after the other night. He’d let her go, ignored the way she’d poked him, despite his annoyance. Warned her to be more law-abiding. Now here she was, feeling vulnerable enough to confess to taking something from the mayor’s home.
Drawing in a deep breath, she leaned forward. “Not really.” She heard his barely-concealed snort, but kept her temper in check. “I retrieved the files for Mrs. Owens as a favor.”
“Thought she paid you to break in.”
“To go into her own home? That’s not breaking in. Legally, the house still belongs to both of them.”
Grant rolled his eyes.
Rachel gritted her teeth and sucked in a deep, calming breath before exhaling in a loud rush. “She paid me to see if her husband cheated on her. The files were to help with the divorce case.” Rachel shrugged. “I knew alimony would be difficult with a man like him. That she’d probably need proof of his infidelity.”
Grant’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“He has money and he’s a philanderer. Men like him don’t let others call the shots.”
“Interesting viewpoint. Don’t you think that comes off a bit judgmental?”
Rachel noticed he looked sincerely curious. He brought his hands up behind his head and regarded her soberly. He’d just become a Christian. Maybe he really cared. She considered his question for a moment before answering.
She thought of her father, of the way he’d flirt with every woman in a room despite his family’s presence. Then there was Scott. She'd never seen him flirt with anyone and yet...
She rubbed her temples. “I think players have little respect for others or their feelings. Being judgmental doesn’t have anything to do with it.”
Grant seemed to process her words for a moment. Then he nodded. “Guess it depends on where you’re sitting.”
“I guess so,” she shot back, annoyed by his cavalier tone. But what did she expect? He was a womanizer. She couldn’t ever afford to forget it. No dating charmers. It was the one rule she followed diligently and she wouldn’t let his effect on her change that.
Nope. These feelings had to go. If it meant dodging Grant every day for the rest of her life, she’d do it. The important thing was to focus on this case. To get home and check out the other flash drive, the encrypted one. The files were shady. She felt it in her gut.
This was her city, people she’d grown up with, people she loved.
She’d catch that rat of a mayor and no one would slow her down.
Least of all Grant Harkness.
“Birthdays are overrated.”
Katrina’s laugh busted through the phone. “Stop being a grouch.”
After leaving the police station, Rachel had called her friend but she didn’t tell her about the shooting. “It’s ridiculous that you and Alec are planning some kind of party for a thirty-year old. At least do it on a big birthday. Preferably my eightieth.” After parking outside her apartment, Rachel fumbled for the handle of her SUV’s door.
“Don’t worry.” Katrina sounded amused. “We’ll plan parties often so you don’t feel neglected.”
“Like I care,” Rachel muttered, slamming the door closed and striding up to her apartment.
“You’re not throwing a fit because of what happened in second grade, are you?”
“Charlie forgot where I was. He left me in a trunk!”
“Fine, yes, the experience left a bad taste in my mouth. Bad things happen at birthday parties.”
“Well, you’re getting one this year and it’s going to be wonderful.” A stubborn note crept into Katrina’s voice.
“Just stay in New York or Italy or wherever you’re playing this month.”
“You don’t miss me at all?”
“Of course I do.” She twisted the key and let herself in. After locking the door behind her, she beelined for the kitchen. “I’ve just been busy. Some major cases are sapping all my energy.” Like that stinkin’ mayor. Ever since Mrs. Owens had contacted her, she’d known something foul was happening. Add in Maggie's situation, and Rachel smelled trouble with a capital T. She didn’t have time to worry about birthday parties and other childish things.
Flicking the kitchen light on, she studied her cupboards for some kind of food while Katrina launched into a description of her and Big Buck Alec’s travel schedule.
. One last package of Little Debbie Swiss Cake rolls. Pressing the phone between her shoulder and cheek, she snagged the junk food and started chowing down. It would have to do until she downloaded the files from her flash drive to her laptop. She’d come straight home from the police station for that reason alone.
“You’re going to Greece?” Rachel stopped chewing long enough to gape as Katrina's conversation registered.
“Do you want to come?” Katrina rushed on, breathless. “I’d really love to have someone with me while Alec is in meetings.”
Aquamarine waters. Luscious scents. For a moment, Rachel allowed herself to daydream.
“You can do all your snooping online, right? Come with us. Get a tan and take a break.”
She snapped out of her daydream and swallowed the last bit of chocolate. “I don’t snoop, I sleuth. If I could do it all online, I’d be in the Keys right now. As it is, I’m behind.” Only with the mayor, and only because she was tiptoeing around bossy Grant Harkness. “Why doesn’t Alec take his buddy Grant?”
With him off her hands, she’d have a lot more leeway. Uncle Charlie, bless his forgetful heart, didn’t have the same bias against her the rest of the department did. Just because she’d discovered the truth rather than letting an innocent kid go to jail.
Brushing her hands over the sink, she frowned. “My life would be a lot easier without Grant around.”
There was a small hesitation at the other end while the faucet ran. Rachel turned the water off and dried her hands on a towel.
“I know Grant can be difficult—”
“Not difficult. A
.” Rachel put emphasis on the consonants so Katrina would get the point. “He’ll never forget that I showed the department up. Seriously, he’s getting in my way. Get Alec to do something about it. He’s rich enough.”
“Grant cares about Manatee Bay. He’s just loyal.”
“Then he should’ve been loyal to Barb’s son, who by law was innocent until proven guilty.” She tossed the Swiss cake roll wrapper in the trash and zipped over to her computer to jiggle the mouse.