We are excited to share a book installment on Wednesdays and Saturdays! Hidden Danger by Jennifer Pierce is the first in the Small Town Guardians series. Read the next chapter below!
Maggie’s face had lost all color. Cody got a glimpse of a small, black box before she dropped it and ran from the room.
“Maggie? What is it?”
He crossed to the island and picked up the box. Nestled inside were two ornate wedding rings.
He furrowed his brows. When he had talked to Maggie last night about her life she hadn’t mentioned a husband, past or present. Was Maggie married? Did she have a boyfriend who had asked her to marry him?
A loud thump came from the second floor followed by a muffled cry. Dropping the box, Cody ran toward the stairs. As he climbed the steps, he cautiously unholstered his service weapon.
“Maggie?” He listened for any sound. Hearing a quiet sniffle come from the right, he tiptoed in the direction of the room, keeping a vigilant eye of his surroundings. He’d been in the Jones’ house enough times to know that the crying was coming from Maggie’s parents’ room. He stopped at the door and slowly peeked around the doorframe.
The room was pristine except the contents of several jewelry boxes dumped on the floral bedspread. Maggie sat on the floor in front of the bed, her head in her hands.
He holstered his weapon and knelt in front of her. “Maggie? What’s going on?”
She lifted her head and looked at him. Tears ran down her cheeks. She grabbed a small, wooden jewelry box and showed it to him. “After my mom died, dad bought this box and kept her ring in it. He would come to the room and just look at the ring. When he died, we took his wedding ring and put it in the box with mom’s.”
He reached out and wiped away a tear rolling down her cheek.
“I’m missing something. Are the rings in that box downstairs from a boyfriend? Is there something you want to talk about?” His heart constricted at the thought of Maggie marrying someone else. But, even as he asked his questions, he logically dismissed them. A set of wedding rings from a boyfriend shouldn’t upset her the way these had. Not unless they maybe came from an aggressive ex or something. But how would that connect to her parents? It didn’t make sense.
His mind lingered on the rings. He’d once hoped that he would be the one to give her a wedding ring. He shook the thought off. He’d ended his chances for a happily ever after with her years ago.
“No, Cody. Look.” She handed him an empty little wooden box. “The rings in the box downstairs are my parents’ rings. I knew it as soon as I saw them. This note was in their box up here.”
She handed Cody a folded piece of paper. Two for joy. That sense of déjà vu from last night returned. It was almost like the first case he had handled as sheriff. Another woman taunted with notes.
Iris’s case still haunted him. It probably would for the rest of his life. He’d need to talk to Grainger and give him the option to recuse himself. If this was the same guy now as it was before, then Grainger was too close to this. Maggie took a shuddering breath, reclaiming his attention.
“Are you gonna be okay?” Her eyes met his, and he could tell she wanted to say no. She blinked away the moisture that threatened to escape and stood up.
Reaching out and placing a hand on her shoulder, he said, “Maggie, however the rings got into that box downstairs, I will figure it out.”
Her shoulder tensed under his hand, almost like she was repulsed by his touch. He pulled his hand back. He knew he had hurt her, but he hadn’t thought it would leave such a resounding effect six years later. He wanted to gather her in his arms and explain himself. To tell her how much he’d loved her then and how much he still did. Now was not the time. He needed to focus on finding out who was targeting Maggie and why. He couldn’t let his feelings interfere with his job.
He followed her downstairs and into the kitchen. She pulled a pair of latex gloves from underneath the sink and handed them to Cody. “I’m sure you’ll want these. Amelia said the box was on the porch when she showed up this morning about eight forty-five.”
He took the gloves and put them on. He picked up the lid and looked for a postmark or anything indicating that the package was delivered by a packaging service. There wasn’t one. Someone had put the package on Maggie’s porch. And there was a good chance that whoever had left the package may still be watching the house.
When the scene had finally been cleared at two this morning, he’d stationed Deputy McKinley at the house until his shift was over at seven. That left an hour and forty-five minutes for the perp to have deposited the box without witnesses. Cody’s stomach churned at the thought of what could have happened to Maggie.
Even more important than when the person left the box was how had he gotten the rings in the first place? Had he been in the house before Maggie returned to Whitehaven, or had he been able to sneak in sometime during the night?
He took a side-glance at Maggie. Her eyes were closed as she leaned against the cabinet and the fingers of her right hand clung to the cross hanging from her neck. He considered walking over to comfort her, but the thought of her recoiling from his hand stopped him.
Standing in her drive that evening, lying to her, telling her she didn’t mean anything to him had almost ripped his heart from his chest. He’d always imagined that, though the pain he had inflicted upon on himself had lingered, she would have moved past the hurt to a happier and healthier life. Based on her behavior now though, he realized he was probably wrong. How many times had she clung to that cross in the days after he’d let her go?
He shook his head to clear his thoughts.
Revisiting their past wouldn’t help the current situation. He needed to focus on how the perp had gotten into the house. The night before, he had personally walked the outside perimeter of the house and hadn’t seen any broken windows or doors. Deputy McKinley had checked the interior and hadn’t reported anything amiss.
“Maggie, how do you think someone got into the house? Were any of the doors or windows broken when you arrived?”
She didn’t move, just continued sitting there, clinging to the cross. He was about to ask again when she opened her eyes. “No, nothing was open or broken. Jacob said he made sure the house was locked up tight after the funeral.”
If all the doors had been locked and there weren’t any broken windows, the perp was either an expert lock picker or had a key. He couldn’t imagine Mr. Jones or Jake giving a key to anyone.
“Does anyone else have a key to the house? Could your dad have given one to someone and not tell you?”
Maggie stood there thinking, her auburn hair cascading over her shoulders.
“I suppose he could have, but surely he would have told me.” Her eyes widened in surprise, like she thought of something. “Remember when we were kids? We always had a spare key hidden in a toolbox in the garage. Mom was always afraid she would lock herself out.”
How could he forget about that key? The Joneses had gone out of town on a vacation one summer and had asked Cody to house sit. After locking himself out, he’d had to call them. Mrs. Jones had laughed and told him about the key. She’d said she’d had to use it a couple times.
“I’m going to go check and see if it’s still there. In case it is, can you find me a sandwich bag to put the key in? It’s a long shot, but if the perp used it maybe he left his prints.”
Sandwich bag in hand, he walked to the garage. The tools and boxes in the garage were covered with a thick layer of dust. All but one toolbox. The one that held the spare key had four perfectly clean stripes on the lid. A perfect fit for fingers. Pulling his multipurpose tool from his pocket, he used the corkscrew to pick up the key through the key hole. He placed it in the bag and sealed it before returning to Maggie in the kitchen.
He waved the bag as he walked in. “That’s it. That’s how our guy got in. Everything in the garage was covered in dust, but someone had been in the toolbox recently.” Placing the key on the counter next to the box, Cody faced Maggie. “I need to take the toolbox, key, and rings in for processing. I’d really like for you to find somewhere else to stay until we can find the guy who is doing this.”
“Cody, I have nothing. My mother is gone, my father is gone, and Jacob is God knows where. All I have left of the people I love is this house. The house is going on the market soon and these are probably the last few weeks I will ever have here.” Her voice cracked on the last sentence. “I will not let anyone take that from me. Gary called this morning and said my exterior paint is in. I’ll go into town and talk to him about a home security system and new locks, too.”
She pulled a trash bag from the supply closet, handed it to him, and nodded toward the evidence sitting on the counter. She picked up her list of supplies, grabbed her purse from the counter, and walked out of the kitchen. Still wearing the latex gloves, Cody placed the box and the key in the trash bag. He’d have to let forensics know that Maggie and Amelia had handled the box. He followed Maggie out.
All I have left of the people I love is this house. He wanted to tell her he was still here. She had loved him once, even though he hadn’t thought he was worthy of her love. On that warm summer night, he had known she deserved a man a hundred times better than he was, and he had let her go.
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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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SMALL TOWN GUARDIANS SERIES