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. If you love mystery and romance, come read the next chapter below!
Chapter One / Chapter Two / Chapter Three / Chapter Four / Chapter Five / Chapter Six / Chapter Seven
Sunlight streaming through the window woke Maggie. She checked the drive first thing. Cody’s car was gone. He must have left when dawn broke or perhaps he’d been called away on an emergency.
His face last night, when he’d practically begged to explain himself, had been compelling. Maybe she should hear him out. The only thing stopping her from hearing his side was she was afraid of what he was going to say. Amelia had given her the impression Cody had acted like he’d been the one whose heart had been broken and not the one breaking hearts. She wasn’t ready to find out what she had been lacking back then.
She pushed away from the window and started getting ready for her breakfast with Cassie, her best friend from high school. She’d called the day before Maggie had arrived in Whitehaven and asked Maggie to have breakfast with her at the old diner in town. It was a welcome relief. Maggie definitely needed a distraction.
She locked up the house and climbed into the old truck. Just like it had been since she got to town, it was stubborn and didn’t want to start. She turned the key again, gave it some gas, and the engine roared to life. She tuned the radio to the local Christian station and headed into town.
When she arrived at the diner, Cassie was sitting in a booth at the rear of the restaurant. When Cassie saw her, her eyes lit up. She stepped from the booth and gave Maggie a huge hug. They slid into the booth as the waitress came to take their order.
“Good morning, ladies. What can I get you to drink?”
“I’ll take a glass of orange juice.” Maggie smiled. The waitress was young, probably still in high school. Her blond hair hung down to her shoulders, the tips a light shade of purple. “I love your hair.”
“Thanks. My sister is in beauty school so guess who gets to be the guinea pig?”
“I think it looks great,” Cassie chimed from across the table.
The waitress blushed at the compliments.
“Thank you. I’ve got an orange juice for you, and what can I get for you?” The waitress turned to Cassie.
“I’ll take water with lemon.”
“Great. Are you ready to order, or do you need more time?”
“I’m ready if you are.” Cassie looked to Maggie.
Maggie looked over the menu quickly, searching for her favorite breakfast food. She found it. “I’m ready, too. I’ll have the French toast platter with extra bacon.”
The waitress jotted down the order. “And for you?”
“I’ll have the same.” Cassie handed her their menus. “Thank you.”
“I’ll go put your order in and be right back with your drinks.” The girl disappeared into the kitchen.
“So, Maggie, how’s it going?” Cassie asked after the waitress left.
She told her about the vandalism, leaving out the beanbag attack, and the stolen rings. She didn’t want to worry her friend.
“I can’t believe anyone would do that. Do you think there’s more vandalism you haven’t seen yet?”
“No. I walked around the house and looked before I went to the sheriff’s station.”
“So, you know Cody Smith is the new sheriff, then.”
“Unfortunately, I do.”
The waitress dropped off their drinks and bustled away.
“I take it that means you’ve already seen him?” Cassie pulled the lemon off the rim of the glass and squeezed the juice into her water before dropping the whole slice in.
“I have. A couple of times.”
“Are you okay with that?” Cassie took a drink.
“Not really. He wants to talk about things. I don’t. I don’t want to know what was wrong with me that drove him away.” She wadded up the straw wrapper.
“I’m going to tell you now, like I told you then, he’s an idiot. That’s what was wrong.”
“I’d like to believe that.” She gave a half-hearted smile. “How are things on the baby front?” Maggie knew Cassie and Hank were trying for a baby. Maggie hoped the change of subject would take her friend’s attention away from her and Cody.
“I’m not pregnant yet, but we’re still trying. We haven’t given up. It’s all in God’s timing. How about you? Any big plans for your birthday? Two more days and you’ll be a quarter of a century.”
Maggie had hoped no one would remember. This was a year she didn’t feel like celebrating. “No plans. I’m not really in a mood for celebrating. You know what I mean?”
“I can only imagine how you feel. I won’t press you into doing anything, but I do think you should get out of that house on your birthday. If you feel up to it, I’ll treat you to a birthday lunch.”
“Thanks. I’ll think about it.”
“How’s your writing? I keep waiting on an email saying you’ve gotten a contract.” Cassie wiggled her eyebrows.
“It’s not.” Another thing she was no good at.
“Oh, no. Which publishers have you tried?” Growing up, Maggie had told her how much she’d dreamed of a full-time writing career. In high school, Cassie would talk about graduating high school, marrying her boyfriend, and starting a family. Maggie would dream along with her, except hers would be a world full of stories and books. At one time, she’d pictured Cody by her side during all of it.
“Just that first one I told you about. They sent back a long list of why they didn’t want it.” She’d cried after getting that email. There was so much wrong with the manuscript. She thought she would be able to fix it and resubmit, but every time she opened the document, she was reminded of what a failure she was.
“You should try some more. It might not have fit with that publisher, but that doesn’t mean there’s not one out there that will love it. Don’t give up.” Cassie had always been her personal cheerleader. Always encouraging her.
“Oh, I’m not… I’ve just been so busy during the school year and, well, I’m here this summer.”
Cassie’s face fell. “I know. Do you need help at your dad’s place? I could come help.”
“No. I can manage. There’s just so much to go through. I can’t decide what to keep and what to get rid of.” She wanted to keep it all. Sorting and getting rid of his stuff was so final.
The waitress came to the table and placed their food in front of them. “Bon appétit.”
“Thank you so much.” Maggie smiled at the waitress.
Their breakfast was enjoyable. Her food was mouth-watering, and the reprieve from her constant worries over the house and the threats was a much-needed break. After Maggie paid for breakfast, she gave Cassie a hug good-bye at the door, and they parted ways. Maggie’s hand had barely grabbed the door handle of the truck when a scream let out from across the parking lot.
The only other person that she remembered seeing in the parking lot was Cassie, and Maggie took off at a run in her direction. Cassie was standing next to her vehicle with her hand over her mouth. Maggie came to an abrupt halt next to her. Cassie’s normally pristine car was covered in red paint. The same shade that adorned the side of Maggie’s house. There was a message wiped in the paint on the windshield, Three for a girl.
With sweaty palms, Maggie pulled her phone from her pocket and dialed the sheriff’s office. She and Cassie decided to wait on the bench outside the diner. Cody was the first law enforcement officer to arrive, parking his cruiser in front of them.
He climbed from the cruiser and walked to them. His crisp Dale County Sheriff’s shirt was pulled taut over his torso, and his utility belt rested perfectly on his hips. He was the picture of strength. It took all she had not to run to him, throw herself into his arms, and let him be her protector.
“Hey. What happened?” He looked from her to Cassie and then back to her.
She slowly shook her head. “Someone vandalized Cassie’s car.”
“Did you see anyone around the car? Cassie, do you know anyone that would want to do that?”
“It’s not just vandalism to Cassie’s car.” Maggie stood with shaky legs. “It’s the third line.”
Cody’s eyes widened in alarm. “Where’s the car?”
She nodded toward the parking lot. “I’ll show you.”
Cody and Cassie followed her. After a few feet, the car came into view. There was so much red paint, she couldn’t tell what color the car was supposed to be. The red liquid dripped onto the concrete, creating large pools under the car.
She stopped, as did Cassie. They didn’t want to go any further. Her stomach churned at the sight in front of her.
Cody let out a heavy sigh before taking his radio from its clip on his shoulder. “Dee, call the Whitehaven police department, and have them send an officer to Earl’s Diner. Tell them they’re gonna need a tow truck and tarps. If Deputy Grainger is free, send him, too.” He clipped the radio back in its place and pulled his phone from his pocket. He circled the car taking pictures from several angles. “On top of the paint and the message, the tires have been slashed.”
After he took a few more pictures, they all walked back to the bench where she and Cassie took their seats. “Unfortunately, this happened in the city, so it’s not my jurisdiction. Dee’s going to send Whitehaven PD. They’re gonna want to ask you some questions, and they won’t be able to release the car to you, Cassie. Do you have someone who can pick you up, or do I need to arrange for a deputy to take you home?”
Cassie started to speak, but Maggie interrupted her, guilt inching its way in her conscience. “It’s my fault that this has happened. I’ll take her home, and then we can call about getting her a rental car.”
“No, it absolutely is not your fault. Don’t even think that.” Cody’s face was severe.
Cassie nodded. “He’s right. Some psycho trashing my car has nothing to do with you. I’ll take that ride when Sheriff Smith says it’s okay to leave though. Thank you, Maggie. I just wish I knew what was going on.”
She grabbed Cassie’s hand, trying to decide how to tell her best friend that her being targeted by a criminal had caused this.
“Remember when I told you that some trouble had happened since I got to town? Well, it’s actually a little more than vandalism. Someone took a shot at me the first night I was here. Whoever it was, broke in the house, stole my parents’ wedding rings, and had them delivered back to me at the house. And now your car. I didn’t want to worry you, but it appears my stalker has decided to bring you into it.”
Cassie’s mouth formed a perfect O before she placed her hand over it.
“I’m so sorry, Cassie.”
“Maggie, please don’t blame yourself,” Cody repeated. “This is not your fault.”
Cassie squeezed Maggie’s hand. “Cody is absolutely right. But I don’t understand why whoever it was would vandalize my car to get at you.”
“He’s using lines from an old nursery rhyme every time he threatens me. Three for a girl was wiped in the paint on your car. I guess he decided to take advantage of our breakfast.” Maggie stared off into the distance, trying to understand what was going on. Cody had said the next line after three would be “Four for a boy.” Would that mean an act of terror would be inflicted on a male close to her?
She knew Jacob was out of town on work, so she didn’t think it could be aimed at him. The only other male she was even remotely close to was Cody. She inhaled suddenly and glanced at him.
“What is it Maggie?” He had been watching her the whole time.
“Um, I guess it’s leftover adrenaline from all of this.” She would talk with him later.
A Whitehaven police cruiser, followed by another Dale County Sheriff’s vehicle, pulled up behind Cody’s cruiser. She recognized Deputy Grainger as he stepped from the Dale County cruiser.
Cody met the officers out of earshot. She couldn’t hear what they were saying as she sat there, taking in his six-foot frame. He’d added another couple inches and some bulk to that frame since the time they’d been together. She thought it suited him well.
She was still staring when Cody turned and looked straight at her. He smiled a knowing smile. She abruptly looked away, feeling her face flush at being caught gawking at him. Cody would be able to tell she was embarrassed; her pale skin had always betrayed her.
She turned to Cassie. “I’m so sorry for this. I had no idea this would happen, or I would have canceled our breakfast.” Tears pooled in her eyes.
“Maggie, don’t you dare apologize. You are not at fault. It’s only a car. Hank hated that thing anyway. He’ll be happy it’s gone for a while. I’ll call my insurance company and get everything taken care of.” Cassie wrapped her arms around Maggie and squeezed so tight, Maggie was afraid she’d pass out.
“Maggie. Cassie. I think you two can go for now.” Cody strode back up to their bench. “I’m going to stay here. If we need anything else, I’ll call. Maggie, where will I be able to find you later? I really don’t think you should be home alone.”
Maggie didn’t want to go home alone either, but she wasn’t going to let Cody know she needed him. She was about to make something up when Cassie spoke. “Maggie will be at my house the rest of the day.”
“Cassie, I don’t know if I should. I mean, I’ve already caused you trouble. What if my being at your house brings this person to you?”
“Nonsense. I won’t take no for an answer. Besides, it’s Hank’s seventy-two hour off shift. Unless there is some kind of fiery catastrophe, he’ll be home.” Cassie squeezed Maggie’s hand.
“Good. I’ll see you at Cassie’s when we’re done wrapping things up here.” Cody nodded before turning his attention to a third cruiser pulling up to the diner.
Cassie made idle chitchat as Maggie drove them straight to Cassie’s house. She knew Cassie was trying to keep her mind occupied by telling her about her new decorating business. Two years ago, Cassie’s parents had moved to Florida and sold their house to her and Hank. When they’d arrived at the house, she insisted that Maggie take a look around and see all the work she’d done. She’d chatted cheerfully throughout the tour.
They had barely sat down with their sodas at Cassie’s kitchen table when someone rang the doorbell. “Hank’s in the living room, he’ll get it,” Cassie assured her.
Maggie heard Cody’s unmistakable voice drift in from the living room. Moments later, his figure filled the doorway.
“Cassie. Maggie.” He nodded at each of them. “Cassie, I filled Hank in on the status of your car. The incident report should be ready tomorrow afternoon and then you can turn it over to your insurance company.”
He turned his attention in Maggie’s direction, and she could feel the butterflies start making waves in her stomach. How could he still affect her this way?
“Maggie, if you’re ready, I have some questions.”
Maggie nodded. She stood, put her cup in the sink, and gave Cassie a hug. She said good-bye to Hank and followed Cody out of the house and down the drive to where their vehicles were parked. Maggie was looking down, watching where she was walking and thinking about the events that had filled the last couple days, when she ran into something hard. She looked up into Cody’s handsome face, not realizing he had stopped to turn around.
He reached up and placed his hands on her upper arms to steady her. The heat from his touch radiated straight to her stomach and brought the butterflies from earlier to full flutter.
“Maggie, what do you say we stop for something to eat? I don’t know about you, but I didn’t get lunch, and I’d like to discuss today’s incident.”
She looked up into his eyes and nodded, unable to speak.
He dropped his hands from her arms, and the sudden lack of heat sent a shiver through her body. “Why don’t we go to Sally’s Corner Kitchen? It’s a nice, quiet restaurant on the edge of town. It’s been open about a year or so.”
Maggie followed Cody to a small restaurant situated in the corner of an L-shaped shopping complex. She hadn’t been able to think of much other than Cassie’s car and what the public vandalism implied. The person doing this was serious. Today’s incident proved that he didn’t care what he had to do to get to Maggie. Maggie had put her friend in danger. Granted, it was only a vandalized car, but the person had been bold enough to do it in broad daylight. What if it turned into more? The next line in the rhyme was regarding a boy. She couldn’t bear it if something happened to Cody.
Sure, she wanted to hate him for hurting her like he had, but she couldn’t. It didn’t matter what he’d had done to her in the past, he did not deserve to be attacked.
Once inside, Cody led the way to a booth in the back corner where he sat with his back to the wall, facing the door. His gaze wandered around the entire restaurant, taking everything in. Just like she had read in her novels about police officers always wanting to keep an eye on their surroundings, she mused
The waitress took their drink orders and left them to peruse the menus.
“Sally’s specialty is the chicken breast salad. She marinates a chicken breast in something, I’ve yet to figure out what, grills it to perfection, and places it on a bed of romaine lettuce. She will put anything on it you’d like. I take mine with carrot shavings, bell peppers, purple onions, and a boiled egg.”
He hadn’t even opened his menu. It sounded like he had already made up his mind. Maggie didn’t know if she could eat. Guilt still gnawed at her stomach. “I’m not really hungry.”
“You need to eat. It won’t do for you to go without food.”
He reached across the table and took her hand. She loved the feel of his holding hers, strong and steady. She was safe as long as he was there. Warmth slowly crept up her arm straight to her heart. She knew Cody would never have hurt her if he hadn’t had a good reason. Maybe she should let him explain. In retrospect, she was more upset about the fact that he hadn’t thought, whatever his reason was, that she should have a say in a decision that involved them both.
She gently pulled her hand away and looked down at it, placing the other one where Cody’s had been in an attempt to capture the heat for as long as she could. When she spoke, it was barely above a whisper. “I know I need to eat. I think I’ll try that salad.”
Using his index finger, he raised her chin until she was looking at him, “Maggie, can we talk about that night?”
His features were soft and compassionate, his square jaw covered in stubble and his blue eyes dark with emotion. Before he could continue, the waitress delivered their sweet teas, took their order, and bustled back to the kitchen.
Her stomach clenched. She didn’t want to hear about her shortcomings, especially in public. She changed the subject instead. “Cody. You said that the next couple lines in the rhyme were ‘three for a girl’ and ‘four for a boy’. We now know that he chose to go after a close girl friend of mine. I’m afraid the boy will have something to do with you.” Realizing he might read more into her statement than she wanted him to, she quickly added, “You’re the only guy I know more than an acquaintance in town. I’d think it would possibly have something to do with Jacob, but he’s away on business, so I figure he’s safe.”
“Maggie, before I got the call about Cassie’s vandalized car, I talked to Alpha Security. Jake’s job ended a couple days ago. They didn’t need him as long as they thought, and they sent him home. I’ve called and left a couple of messages, and he hasn’t returned any of them.”
“That’s what he does when he comes off a job, especially if it’s high profile. He likes to spend a day or two decompressing and coming off the adrenaline high. I figured that would be something you knew already.”
“Actually, we haven’t talked much in the last six years.”
“Oh,” was all she could say. They had been inseparable in their teens. She’d assumed they’d stayed in touch.
“Maggie, the truth is, I couldn’t face Jake after that night. I knew if I did, he would figure out I was the one you were dating and had broken your heart.”
They hadn’t told Jacob about their relationship. At first it had been weird, dating his best friend and keeping it a secret. She’d been afraid Jacob would be upset. He was fiercely protective of her, and Cody hadn’t exactly been the upstanding teenager Jacob would’ve wanted her to date. He couldn’t see the man Cody was becoming. It had been easy not to tell him. Being away at basic training and then stationed a hundred miles away, Jacob was hardly ever home.
Cody’s truck pulled up the drive. After killing the engine, he stared fixedly out the windshield, straight at her sitting on the porch step.
Something was wrong, his jaw was tense. She walked to the truck. He watched her, never bothering to get out. His eyes were hard and intense. She knocked on the window. He seemed to come out of whatever trance he’d been. His features softened, and the storm in his eyes dissipated. He gave her a weak smile. He must have had another fight with his mom.
He opened the door and stepped out. She threw her arms around his neck, leaned up, and planted a small kiss on his lips. He responded by wrapping his arms around her and drawing her closer. He ran his hand up her back and tangled his fingers in her hair. He kissed her like he’d never kissed her before, like he was on the verge of dehydration and she was his lifesaving water.
Her lungs burned, and she pulled back, gulping for air.
“Whoa,” she whispered, then looked around, hoping her dad and Jacob hadn’t seen that. Cody had never kissed her in view of the house. And that had been way more passionate than they would have liked, she was sure. Not exactly the best way to tell her family about their relationship.
He leaned his forehead on hers. “Can we go for a walk before we go in?”
Still breathless, all she could do was nod. He reluctantly let her go and grabbed her hand.
Finally finding her words, she said, “We can’t be too long, or they’ll know something is up.”
They walked to her mother’s flower garden and took a seat on the stone bench. The muscles in his jaw constricted again. That hard look from before was back, making her uneasy.
“Is something wrong?”
“No. Yes.” He let go of her hand and stood abruptly. His face was a mixture of pain and grief. He ran his fingers through his hair before shoving his hand in his already full pocket. What did he have in there?
Just for a second, she saw a fleeting glimmer of hope in his eyes. It disappeared as quickly as it came. Her heart sped up. He was beginning to scare her. “What is it?” She reached out to grab his free hand. He jumped back out of her reach. Her heart beat against her rib cage.
“I can’t do this.”
He was scared, that was all. Her pulse slowed, and she smiled. “Relax. They’re not going to kill you. Maim you maybe.”
She stood and took a step closer. He took a step back in response. “No. Not just that.”
She didn’t understand what he was talking about. “Then what can’t you do?”
He looked down at his feet and back to her. Using his hand, he gestured between them. “This. I can’t do this anymore.”
He was breaking up with her. He couldn’t be. There was no way this was happening. They were supposed to eat dinner with her dad and Jacob. They were going to finally tell them. “You said you loved me.”
His face was hard, and his eyes were empty of emotion. “I lied.”
Roaring filled her ears, and her heart exploded in her chest. She started gasping for air. No matter how much she gulped, she couldn’t stop the burning in her lungs. She shook her head, denying the unthinkable.
“I love you!” Tears streamed down her cheeks. She didn’t bother to wipe them away.
“Good-bye, Magpie.” He turned around and marched to his truck, never looking back.
She numbly followed, hoping it was all a dream. His truck speeding down the drive, leaving her in a cloud of dust, broken and alone, proved it wasn’t.
“Earth to Maggie?”
Cody had obviously been saying something to her, but she was lost in the memory of that night. “I’m sorry. I was thinking about something.”
Cody’s square jaw tensed. After a brief moment, he opened his mouth like he was about to say something but luckily, Maggie was saved by the waitress again. She placed their salads in front of them. Maggie made herself busy pouring the ranch dressing, hoping Cody wouldn’t continue with whatever it was he was about to say.
“Shall I say grace?” Cody asked.
She nodded, glad that in the six years since she’d been away Cody hadn’t lost his faith. Cody blessed the food and asked for continued protection and guidance in the coming days.
They ate in silence. The whole meal was awkward. There wasn’t the normal friendly banter that had once graced their mealtimes. She missed those moments. She missed Cody.
“Maggie, I really don’t think you should go home tonight.”
“Why not? I’ve changed all the locks and added alarms to the windows.” She turned her hands up in a questioning gesture.
“I’m glad that you did all those things, but what if he comes back? You’re out there all alone. It’ll be fifteen to twenty minutes before help could get to you.”
“I have dad’s old gun. I could take care of the immediate threat and then call the authorities. I want to go home. I have so much work to do, and I’m not going to get it done if I’m not there.”
“I can’t make you leave the house, can I?” She shook her head in response. “I’ll come check things out then.”
“You know it’s not really necessary for you to see me home. I’m sure it’s out of your way. It’s a twenty-minute drive from town.”
He reached across the table and grabbed her hand. His gaze met hers. His eyes were hypnotizing. “I would really feel better if I could.”
She knew that Cody’s stubborn streak was exactly like hers, a mile wide. If she were truthful, she was slightly afraid of going to the house alone. If she could make it one more night, the security company would be out tomorrow to install the security system. “Okay.”
Letting go of her hand, Cody picked up the check the waitress had left and then threw a five-dollar bill on the table for a tip. “Dinner is on me tonight.”
“You don’t have to do that,” she protested.
“I know I don’t have to. I want to.” He led the way to the register.
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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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