We are excited to share a new book installment on Wednesdays and Saturdays, starting today! Hidden Danger by Jennifer Pierce is the first in the Small Town Guardians series. Read the next chapter below!
The driveway was marked by a lone wooden post, adorned with a beautiful hand-painted mailbox—or it had been the last time Maggie Jones had been in Whitehaven. As the taxi turned in the long driveway to the old family house, the twisted remains came into view. She had once spent hours painting and repainting that box until she’d deemed it perfect. She’d painted their last name in the center and surrounded it by intricately designed flowers. The same flowers that had grown in her mother’s garden. Her parents had been so proud of that mailbox. Now, it was nothing but a heap of metal laying crumpled on the ground. She winced at the sight of it.
“Kids.” The disgust in the taxi driver’s voice made Maggie smile. “Too much time on their hands these days.”
“I talked to my brother a couple of days ago, and he didn’t say anything about it. They must have done it after he left town.”
The taxi continued up the drive. Once past the scrubby trees, she could see the words ARE YOU READY? painted in blood red letters on the front of the house. Her heart raced. What was going on?
She agreed with the taxi driver about the mailbox. After all, there wasn’t much to do in a small rural area like Whitehaven but cause trouble. She wasn’t so sure a drunken stunt could explain the red words though.
She couldn’t tear her gaze from the front of the house. She’d done a walkthrough after her father’s funeral in March. She’d planned the repairs and to-do list down to the last minute of her stay. She’d been counting on her brother, Jacob, to help, but he’d been called away on a job for the security company he worked for, pushing back her timeline by at least a week. Honestly, it had hardly come as a surprise. In the two years since his wife had died, he’d buried himself in work, taking every job they’d give him.
Staring with dismay at the red paint, she mentally calculated the extra cleanup effort. The good news was that the house had needed to be repainted anyway. She would just need to add time for a couple coats of primer.
The driver slowed to a stop and put the car in park. Once again, she wished she could have driven to Whitehaven instead of taking the bus. She needed a new car. Hers never would have made the drive, and it would cost more to fix than to buy a new one. She had a nice down payment saved up but had decided to wait until after the summer. Instead, she would put her money into the house and recoup it after the sale.
She got out of the taxi and met the driver by the trunk. He pulled her suitcase out and set it on the ground. She handed him the fare and grabbed the handle of her suitcase, pulling it to the porch steps. She climbed the steps and hesitated at the front door. Her chest tightened with anxiety.
It had been three months since her father had died, and she missed him so much. She’d agreed to come home during summer vacation to help Jacob go through their dad’s stuff to get the house cleaned up to go on the market. But she wasn’t ready to step back into the house, to see the memories of her mother and father in every corner. Sliding the key in the door and unlocking it, she pushed it open and was greeted by the stale smell of an old, unoccupied house. She hung her keys on the nail by the front door.
Glancing around the living room was like stepping back into her childhood. It hadn’t changed in the six years since she’d left for college. At first, after the way high school had ended, coming home for visits had been hard. Gradually, the pain had eased. Now that both of her parents had passed, her ties to the town were gone and selling the house would be a relief.
She found the keys to the truck in the rolltop desk her father had kept next to the fireplace. Locking the front door behind her, she walked around the property looking for any other signs of vandalism. She didn’t find any, and, relieved, she moved toward the garage where the old truck would be.
The truck door squeaked in protest as she opened it. The beast, as she had called it when she was learning to drive, was old and beat up, but it had always purred when started. She climbed in and turned the key. Nothing. She tried again. It sputtered and then died. One more time, come on, baby. She turned the key again, and it roared to life. So much for purring. Perhaps because it hadn’t been started in a couple of months.
Twenty minutes later, she pulled into the parking lot of the sheriff’s office. She hadn’t seen a need to call an officer out to the house. The sheriff’s department was small and only had a handful of deputies. This wasn’t a life-or-death emergency.
CJ Rogers had been the sheriff as long as she could remember, and his name still emblazoned the department door. A blast of cool air washed over her when she opened it. The waiting room was empty save for one man sitting in a chair, his back to her, reading a magazine. There was no one at the desk, and she tapped the bell a couple of times to announce her presence.
“Well, if it isn’t little Magpie Jones. The prodigal daughter returns,” an unforgettable southern drawl announced from behind her. She’d know that voice anywhere. The voice that used to bring comfort now only angered her. She spun around, the last man she wanted to see occupied the waiting room seat.
“Well, if it isn’t the heartbreaking Cody Smith. I should have known I’d meet you at the sheriff’s office. It was only a matter of time before you were on the wrong side of the law.” Her words held the pent-up anger she’d thought she’d released a long time ago.
“Now, Magpie, don’t be like that.” Cody furrowed his brows.
“Don’t you Magpie me. You know how much I hate that name. My name is Maggie.” She crossed her arms over her chest.
“May I help you?” asked a small voice from the reception desk behind her. Without another word, she turned her attention to the woman.
“Yes, ma’am, I need to see the sheriff about my father’s, um, my land. Is he in?”
The woman looked at her and then sent a questioning look to Cody. She must have heard their conversation. Maggie’s face was on fire, whether it was from embarrassment or from reliving the hurt and anger Cody had caused, she wasn’t sure. Maybe it was both.
The receptionist finally responded, “He is in, but I don’t know if he’ll be able to see you.” She looked past Maggie and straight at him. “Well, Sheriff? Are you available to speak with the lady?”
The floor fell out from under her. She took deep breaths, trying to process what the woman said. On her second inhale, Cody’s favorite woodsy cologne filled her nostrils. In her shock, she hadn’t heard him walk over to stand behind her.
Memories of their summer together crashed around her. Long walks hand in hand. Talking until the wee hours of the morning.
“Are you okay?” Concern filled his eyes.
“You’re the sheriff?” Her voice squeaked. “But the door still says CJ Rogers.”
“Here’s the thing, Magpie—I’m sorry, Maggie—there weren’t a lot of extra funds to change it until recently. We’re getting it done next week actually.”
For a moment, the pain of his rejection was pushed aside by those happy memories. Suddenly, all she wanted was a comforting hug, someone to lean on. When her mother had died, he had been her rock. She needed that now. That need almost outweighed the hurt he had caused years ago.
Once upon a time, he had been her rock. But now? The idea of coming to Cody for any kind of help was intolerable. She didn’t want to stand there, to be near him. “I can’t do this. I shouldn’t have come here anyway. Forget it. Thank you, Ms.—” She turned back to the receptionist.
“Dee, my name is Dee.”
“Thank you, Dee. I’m sorry to have bothered you.” She turned around and strode out the door.
“Maggie, wait!” he called from behind her. She kept walking to the truck. She wanted to put as much distance between the two of them as quickly as she could.
“Maggie, come on. Stop and talk to me.”
She turned around and threw her hand in the air to stop him from coming any closer. “Don’t. Just don’t.”
She turned back and continued her march to the old beat up truck. She climbed in and slammed the door, praying it would start because she couldn’t let him see the moisture welling up in her eyes.
She drove back to the house with tears blurring her vision. Coming in contact with Cody, having to talk to him, had unsettled her and only added to the thoughts and emotions she had going on. How could one person be the cause of so much joy and so much pain simultaneously?
Seeing the red painted words again added to her current dismal mood. What had she done to deserve this? Whitehaven was the last place she wanted to be. She’d only come back to help Jacob with the house, and within hours of returning, she’d come face to face with the reason she had run six years ago.
Once she was inside, she grabbed the newest novel she had gotten in the mail and headed straight for the bathroom. She hadn’t had dinner, but she was in no mood to eat. Maybe a long soak in a hot bath would ease some of the pain that she was revisiting.
The house phone rang, interrupting her before she could make it up the stairs. She quickly turned around and grabbed the cordless phone from the end table.
“Maggie, this is—”
Instantly recognizing the voice on the other end, she said, “I know who it is. What do you want?”
“Maggie, I know you came to the office today for some sort of problem with the land. Please talk to me about what’s going on.”
“There is nothing to talk about with you. I’ll figure it out on my own.” She hung up before he had a chance to speak.
The phone rang again. Persistent, isn’t he? She let it keep ringing and climbed the stairs to her childhood room. The ringing stopped, and the answering machine picked up. Her father had refused to embrace the twenty-first century. She gathered her robe and toiletries and headed for the bathroom. She turned on some music on her cell phone.
She stayed in the bath until the water turned cold, taking advantage of the only free time she’d have before the end of summer. Tomorrow, she’d start work. She climbed from the tub completely relaxed and toweled off in her bedroom. The phone rang again while she dressed in her favorite rubber ducky pajamas and matching slippers. She rolled her eyes and descended the stairs to the kitchen. She needed a hot cup of tea.
She glanced at the blinking light on the answering machine as she placed a cup of water in the microwave. Two messages. Maybe Sheriff Heartbreaker did get the hint. Pushing the play button, she steeled herself for whatever he had to say.
“Maggie, it’s Cody. Please answer the phone.” There was a pause. If he had expected her to pick up the call, he had been sadly mistaken. “I’m heading out your way. See you in a few.”
The next message clicked on. “Maggie, you definitely need to report the vandalism. Even if it is just kids screwing around, the message is threatening… I know you’re home. I knocked. I guess you’re ignoring me… Listen, if you won’t talk to me, will you at least talk to one of the deputies? I’ll send Deputy Grainger out tomorrow morning. Believe it or not, I just want to help.” He paused again. “I’m here for you.”
Sure, he’d be there for her. He’d said that six years ago too. But then he’d left her standing alone in a cloud of dust as he drove away. Cody was the last person she wanted to talk to or get help from.
She pictured her father’s vandalized mailbox and the words splashed on the house. Much as she wanted someone to look into it, she would not be asking him for help. She’d find help some other way, if she really needed it. Maggie deleted the messages and started to walk back to the kitchen table when the phone rang again. She exhaled a huff of annoyance and answered impatiently. “Hello?”
Heavy breathing filled the speaker. Had Cody pocket dialed her? “Are you ready to play a game?” The sound of the digitized voice sent chills racing up her spine. “Let’s start with your boyfriend in the driveway. One for sorrow.” A dial tone quickly replaced the dead air.
A sense of dread filled her. Who was that, and what was he talking about? A boyfriend in her driveway? She walked over to the window and cautiously peered out into the dusky yard. There was someone out there in a cruiser, all right. Cody. She hadn’t thought he would still be sitting in her driveway.
Running to the front door, she yanked it open and shouted his name.
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About Jennifer Pierce
Jennifer Pierce currently lives in Arkansas with her husband and two children. She is a member of American Christian Fiction Writers and River Valley Writers, where she serves as secretary.
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