We are excited to share the final installment of Hidden Danger by Jennifer Pierce, the first book in the Small-Town Guardians series. If you have been following along with us each week, come read the final chapter below! If you’re just discovering this blog series, consider starting with Chapter 1 from the links below.
Chapter 1 / Chapter 2 / Chapter 3 / Chapter 4 / Chapter 5 / Chapter 6 / Chapter 7 / Chapter 8 / Chapter 9 / Chapter 10 / Chapter 11 / Chapter 12 / Chapter 13 / Chapter 14/Chapter 15/Chapter 16/Chapter 17/Chapter 18/Chapter 19/Chapter 20/Chapter 21/Chapter 22/Chapter 23/Chapter 24/Chapter 25/Chapter 26/Chapter 27/Chapter 28
Maggie woke up and stretched the kinks from her back. It had been a week since her ordeal with Grainger. He’d taken them to his parents’ place in the middle of the woods on the outskirts of town.
When the authorities showed up, Grainger and Cody had been taken to the hospital for treatment. She’d answered thousands of questions from different deputies before being allowed to join Cody. His wound was through and through and would heal nicely.
She’d been checked out since she’d taken two hits to the head in a short time. The doctors had confirmed a minor concussion but had given her an all clear. She had whiplash, bruises, and cuts from the ordeal. It would all heal.
Grainger had been patched up and taken to jail where he confessed to stalking her and killing Dee. He had lied when he told Cody he had disposed of Iris’s prescriptions. Apparently, his original intention had been to kill Maggie by an overdose, like Iris. But he hadn’t planned on Dee having second thoughts, so he’d had to readjust his plans.
Maggie had spent the last few days recuperating from the wreck and subsequent kidnapping. Amelia had dropped off three different meals and Jacob had been by her side most of the time. Babying her. Now she knew how he’d felt after his attack. They had agreed to take a week before starting the work on the house.
Today was the day they planned to start. He should be here before long. She slipped her feet into her duck slippers and headed down the stairs for her morning soda. She needed a jolt of caffeine before he got here.
Voices and laughter filtered in from outside. She looked out the kitchen window and saw several teenagers in a huddle. She walked out of the house and around to where they had been standing. Amelia was in the middle of the huddle doling out instructions.
“Amelia, what on earth are you doing here?” Maggie asked as she gave her friend a tight squeeze.
“Well, a little birdy told me you needed some help today, and since that awful deputy is behind bars, I thought it was safe for the kids to come out here now. We’ve got the primer, paint, and paint supplies. I’m going to have them start on the house.”
“Would this little bird happen to be yea tall,” Maggie held her hand above her head about four inches, “and wear a badge?”
“I’ve been sworn to secrecy.” Amelia winked. “But if I’m not mistaken, that would be the birdy pulling up in the drive now.”
Maggie turned to see Jacob’s truck pulling into the drive. At the sight of the truck, she deflated. She’d really hoped to see Cody. They hadn’t had a chance to talk since he was released from the hospital two days ago. He had been busy wrapping up the details of the case against Grainger, so she had given him space.
Jacob got out of the truck and walked to where she and Amelia stood. “Hey, sis. Where do you want me?”
“Um. See Amelia. She seems to have a pretty good handle on barking instructions.” She chuckled and gestured over her shoulder to where Amelia had wondered off to show a teen the proper way to paint.
“Look, Magpie.” He rubbed his hand across the back of his neck, a sign that he was nervous. “Can we talk?”
He led the way to the porch steps and gestured for her to sit next to him. “I didn’t come alone. Cody’s in the truck. He insisted that he sit down and talk with me before I came out here.”
The passenger’s side door of Jacob’s truck opened, and Cody got out. The sight of him sent her heart galloping. He pulled a pair of crutches from the bed of the truck and positioned them under his arms. He leaned against the truck and lifted a hand in greeting while he waited for Jacob to finish.
She waved back. “What did you two talk about?”
“He told me everything. About how he’d been the one you were seeing. You know, when I talked to him that day, I’d never entertained the idea that he would be the one you were in love with. But looking back on it now, I can see it. I was being a macho big brother. If I had known, I would have beaten the crap out of him and then given him my blessing with the warning that if he hurt you the next beating would be ten times worse. But I didn’t know it was him. And, obviously, I screwed things up for you both.”
“I’m not going to lie to you, Jacob. What happened between Cody and I was very painful.” She looked to where Cody stood. “I blamed myself for what happened. I thought there was something wrong with me. It wasn’t until this past month, when he explained about your conversation with him that day, that I realized that wasn’t the case.”
“I’m sorry, Magpie. I never meant to hurt you. Or him for that matter. I promise never to meddle in your love life again.”
She laughed and gave him a hug. “I forgive you. What kind of big brother would you be if you didn’t try to protect me?”
“Good. Now go see that man. Don’t make him wait any longer.” He pointed at Cody.
“You’re meddling already.” She bumped him with her shoulder affectionately and sent him off to work before walking toward Cody. “You don’t need to be here. You should be home propping up that leg,” she scolded, a smile teasing her lips.
“Yeah, well, I wanted to talk to you, and since Jake and I had breakfast this morning and he told me he was coming this way, I thought I’d hitch a ride. Can we go inside?”
She nodded. Once inside, she sat on the couch. He sat next to her and took her hands in his. His hands were warm, and hers tingled at his touch. Using his thumb, he traced a line across the back of her hand.
“Maggie, I wanted to ask if we could try again. I know I messed up when I let you go but—”
She put her finger to his lips, stopping him in mid-sentence. “I know you thought you were doing was what was best for me. I want to try again; I really do, but you hurt me. I need to know that going forward you will let me decide what is best for me.”
“Yes, absolutely.” He leaned over and pulled a small box from his pocket. “I was going to give this to you that night. It was a promise ring. It was my promise to wait for you.” He opened the box revealing the sapphire ring nestled in black velvet. “Maggie, I want to spend the rest of my life with you. I know that it may be too soon, so this is my promise now. I know that you’ve built a life for yourself in Houston. I promise to wait for you. I’ll give you as much time as you need. I’ll resign as sheriff, and I will move to Houston.”
“I don’t need any more time, Cody. I loved you then, and I love you now.”
“In that case.” He dropped carefully to one knee in front of her. He pulled the ring from the box and took her left hand in his. “Maggie. I knew from the first time I kissed you that I wanted to grow old with you. Then I foolishly made a decision without you. I promise to never do that again. I want to marry you. I want to place this ring on your finger and claim you as mine. Maggie, will you marry me?”
“Yes.” A tear slid down her cheek. He slid the ring on her finger. She leaned forward and planted a tender kiss on his lips. “I love you, Cody Smith.”
“And I love you, honey. I’m the luckiest man alive thanks to you, my Magpie.”
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THE HAIR ON THE BACK OF Kate’s neck stood on end, and the feeling of being watched crawled along her skin in goose bumps. She was supposed to be at home, savoring the last month of her pregnancy. Getting the nursery ready, stocking the closet with tiny outfits of pink or blue, sitting in the glider laughing at her husband struggling to put up the crib. Instead, her husband was buried in a cold, dark grave, and she was running for her life.
Months on the run taught her not to act hastily and always be aware of her surroundings. But now, stupidly, she’d let her guard down in this tiny shop, thinking of the life growing inside her and the things she still needed to collect. She kept looking at the little onesies hanging on tiny hangers.
At the next rack, she picked up a little pink dress, held it up, and pretended to admire the design. Her gaze roamed the store and fell on a man that stood out. He was tall, had to be in his early forties with salt-and-pepper hair. There were two more couples in the store shopping for baby clothes. Salt-and-Pepper seemed to be alone. He wasn’t looking at her, but she knew he was the one watching her.
She chose a simple white onesie with Mommy’s Angel in beautiful script across the chest. Whether her child was a boy or a girl, it was definitely her miracle child.
Keeping Salt-and-Pepper in her peripheral vision, she placed her purchase on the counter. “Perfect choice. Babies are a gift from God,” the cashier cooed. “When are you due? Boy or girl?”
Kate had to keep from rolling her eyes at being thrust into idle chitchat about her pregnancy. She didn’t like it normally and especially not now. Not when she was in a hurry to get out of the store. “I’m in the home stretch, and the gender is a surprise.” Kate took her shopping bag from the clerk.
After exiting the store, she turned to the left and walked down the row of shops. She stopped at a street vendor’s cart and ordered a hot dog and water, using the shiny metal surface of the cart to confirm her suspicion. Salt-and-Pepper was following her. She paid for her meal and continued walking down the row.
Heart beating frantically in her chest, she wanted to throw everything down and run; however, at eight months pregnant she wouldn’t be able to stay ahead of him. She made a point to look like she was window-shopping and used every available reflective surface to keep an eye on Salt-and-Pepper. She took a small bite of the hot dog and forced herself to swallow past the growing lump of fear in her throat. Act normal. Don’t let him know you’re onto him.
A chill raced down her spine, and goose bumps covered her arms despite the summer heat. It was time she packed everything up and moved on to the next town. There wasn’t much to pack since she wasn’t going to be taking the furniture. It wouldn’t take long to condense her meager belongings. She couldn’t do anything until she lost her tail, though, and she saw her opportunity up ahead. The pounding in her ears ebbed away as her heart rate calmed.
The sheriff’s department was situated at the end of the row of stores. She’d go into the sheriff’s station and wait Salt-and-Pepper out. She stopped at the crosswalk and looked both ways. Someone grabbed her arm in a steely grip as she placed her foot out onto the road. She jumped and tried to wrestle her arm free.
The grip tightened as hot, sticky breath washed over her ear. “We’re going to cross the other street and make our way to my car parked behind those buildings. Understand?” Something hard pushed into the side of her stomach.
She looked down at the gun pointed at her baby. Pressure built in her chest as tears stung her eyes. A scream was starting to bubble up from her lungs. Going with him would most definitely end their lives. Could she risk making a run for it? They’d survived one gunshot wound already—could they survive another?
“Come on. We don’t have all day,” he bellowed in her ear.
She jerked her elbow from his grip and flung it back, hitting him in the gut, and screamed simultaneously while bending over her burgeoning belly. Her scream caught the attention of several bystanders. While Salt-and-Pepper was momentarily stunned, she removed the lid from her water and poured it down the front of her pants. She started doing the Lamaze breathing she had learned from the parenting videos she’d been watching online.
As people gathered around her, Salt-and-Pepper dissolved into the crowd. She kept up the charade, moaning as she breathed in and out.
“Ma’am, are you okay?” A wrinkled hand grasped her arm, allowing Kate to lean on her. An older woman to her left was shooing people away from them. “Give the lady some breathing room.”
She slowed her breathing and stood up straight. “I think so. I’ve been having Braxton-Hicks contractions for the last week. That’s probably all this is.”
“My name is Sophia, and this” —the woman on the right gestured to the older woman on Kate’s left— “is my mother, Delores. We’ll walk you over to the sheriff’s station, and they can call paramedics to take you to the hospital.”
“Thank you so much, but I don’t think I need paramedics. Do you think they would mind if I sat in there for a bit?”
Kate didn’t know whether Salt-and-Pepper was still around, watching her. While she didn’t trust the police all that much, she and the baby might be safer if they were in the sheriff’s station. It would also give her time to cool down. Once the panic had melted away and the nice ladies had flocked to her side, the chill bumps were replaced with beads of sweat.
“It might be more than just Braxton-Hicks. It looks like your water may have broken.” The lady pointed to Kate’s wet pants. “Once the water is broken, it won’t be long until there’s a baby.”
“Oh, no. My water didn’t break. I mean, it did. My water bottle spilled when I bent over.” Kate tried to act embarrassed. She didn’t like being deceitful like this, but she had to protect her baby. She would let them lead her to the sheriff’s station, sit in the cool office, and then quietly slip out and walk back to her apartment to pack.
She allowed the ladies to help her cross the street. As they got to the entrance of the sheriff’s station, Delores opened the door and yelled for help. Kate cringed. So much for not causing a scene and being able to quietly slip away.
Almost instantly, a man met them at the door and started assessing Delores for injuries. “Ma’am, what is it? Are you okay?”
She laughed. “I don’t need any help, handsome, but this lovely young lady does.” The man’s attention was directed to her.
The stranger was definitely handsome. She’d credit the older lady with good eyesight. A smile lit up his whole face, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. The handsome man’s gaze traveled down to where her left hand was rubbing her taut bump.
“Are you—” He stopped midsentence and stared.
She looked away, hoping to break his concentration. Did he recognize her?
“She might need an ambulance,” Delores announced loud enough for everyone in the building to hear. The mention of an ambulance tore the man’s attention from her and back to Delores.
“I don’t need an ambulance,” she snapped more abruptly than she intended. She gave Delores’s hand a gentle squeeze and lightened her tone. “I told you it’s probably Braxton-Hicks. I need to sit and rest for a few minutes, and then I’ll be fine, and I can go home.”
“Nuh-uh, honey. Your water broke. There’s a baby coming.”
“Excuse me, sir.” A uniformed sheriff’s deputy pushed past him, taking control of the situation. She noticed the man that had originally come to their aid was in plain clothes. He walked back to the desk, letting the uniformed officer help them.
“You need an ambulance,” Delores continued to insist. “Your water broke. That baby is coming whether you’re ready or not.”
“I told you my water didn’t break. Well, it did, but not that water. When I bent over, I spilled my water. See? The lid wasn’t on all the way.” She held up her empty bottle. “I need to sit for a minute, and then I can go home and relax.”
“Okay, ladies. Thank you for assisting her into the building. I think we can handle it from here.” The deputy shooed the ladies away. “I’m Deputy Craigson. Do you need an ambulance, or is there someone we can call for you?”
“No, really, I’m fine. I just need to rest a few minutes, and then I can head on my way. There’s no need to call an ambulance.” I’d be even better if everyone would just leave me alone.
“Okay. If you need anything, just let the deputy at the information desk know.”
“I will. Thank you.” She walked to chairs lining the wall of the sheriff’s station waiting room. The man who had first offered aid had gone back to the information desk. He was busy talking to the deputy on the other side of the desk. He cast a look over his shoulder and caught her staring. He gave a smile and turned back to the deputy.
She took a seat in one of the chairs, leaned her head against the wall, and closed her eyes. Focusing on her breathing, she mentally calculated what she could take with her when she left. Obviously, she couldn’t take any furniture. She had a medium-sized suitcase and a duffel bag. She’d fill them with as much as she could.
“Excuse me, miss.”
She sat straight up, balling her fists, preparing to fight. After taking in her surroundings, assuring herself that she wasn’t in danger, she relaxed and saw the man standing in front of her. “Yes?”
“I heard you say you spilled your water. So I got you another. You should stay hydrated. I also got crackers.” He offered her the water and crackers.
She studied him suspiciously. He wasn’t wearing a uniform, and she didn’t immediately see a badge. It didn’t appear that he was there as part of his job. What could his motive be for helping her? She cautiously accepted. “Thank you.”
He took the seat two over from hers. She was guessing he was trying to keep from making her uncomfortable. “How are you feeling? Any more contractions?” His green eyes studied her.
She took a drink from the bottle and shook her head. “No, I told those sweet women I was fine.” She paused. “Do you have the time?”
“Are you having another contraction?” He checked his watch. “It’s been about ten minutes since they helped you in. The contractions are still far enough apart to not warrant a ride to the hospital.”
“No, no more contractions. Thank you for the water and crackers. It was very kind of you.” Based on his appearance and the way he carried himself, she’d guess he was law enforcement or military. His blond hair was short, and his biceps were straining through the sleeves of his T-shirt. He kept himself in shape. Even if he was military or law enforcement, it wouldn’t automatically make him trustworthy. Everyone could be bought.
Even those nice ladies. Were they outside now with Salt-and-Pepper? Was he trying to get information from them? Or were they the backup plan? Knowing she’d try to escape, were they there to ease her nerves, get her into a car, and take off? She didn’t trust anyone. She had to protect herself and the baby.
If Handsome was right, she’d been in the sheriff’s station for ten minutes, fifteen at the most. She could go to the bathroom and waste another five or ten minutes. She would eventually need to leave before someone became suspicious. Would that be enough time for Salt-and-Pepper to give up and move on?
“That’s good.” Handsome leaned forward and rested his forearms on his equally muscular legs. “If they get three to five minutes apart, you should seriously consider going in to be checked.”
He must have either medical training or kids of his own to know that. Hopefully, it wasn’t the latter. What was she thinking? She shouldn’t be looking for another man. The men in her life have proven to be unreliable. She had to think about the baby—that was all that mattered.
“Ma’am?” Handsome touched her forearm.
She jerked her arm away from his light touch. It wasn’t like when Salt-and-Pepper had manhandled her earlier. It was gentle. He must have said something to her while she zoned out. “Oh, um. What?” She focused on his face.
His brows knit in concern over green eyes. “Is everything all right? You seem distracted. Do you need an ambulance after all?”
“No, no. I’m fine really. Just lost in thought.” She waved her hand in mock frivolity. Nerves rolled in her stomach. Salt-and-Pepper wouldn’t try anything while she sat in the sheriff’s station, but that didn’t mean she was completely safe.
“Is there someone I can call for you? A friend? The baby’s father?”
“No. There’s no need for you to call anyone.” There’s not anyone to call anyway. She needed to leave. The longer she stayed, the more attention she would draw. And that’s not something she wanted. They would want her name. If they did their job, they would find out who she really was, and then she’d be back at square one.
Before he could continue the conversation he was trying to start, his cell phone rang. She watched him retrieve it from his pocket, right next to a gun holster. So he was law enforcement.
“Excuse me. I need to take this.” He swiped the screen. “Hey, Maggie. How are you and the baby?”
She deflated. That solved the mystery of the pregnancy knowledge. Now that he was distracted, it would be a good time for her to excuse herself to the restroom and then to make a break for her little run-down apartment. She stood and waddled to the restroom. Waddled. That’s all she did anymore. She was like a giant penguin with an overstuffed ball under her shirt.
She stepped into the restroom and surveyed her appearance in the mirror. While her cheeks were rosy and her eyes bright, obviously the pregnancy glow, her blonde hair was mussed from the attempted kidnapping, and she looked like she had wet herself. That shouldn’t be embarrassing to walk home.
She used the restroom and washed her hands. The sheriff’s station offered hand dryers. Careful not to allow too much heat to the baby bump, she tried to dry her pants. At eight months pregnant, her belly was everywhere, and her balance was not good. Determining that was the best it was going to get, she headed back to the lobby.
To her surprise, Handsome was still sitting in the chair he had occupied before his phone call. When he looked up and saw her, he stood and strode in her direction. Just great.
“I’m sorry. I don’t think I introduced myself. My name is Jacob Jones. You can call me Jake.” He held out his hand.
“Kate.” She purposely left out a last name. She shook his hand, and a bolt of electricity shot up her arm at his touch. “Thanks again for the water and crackers. I should be getting home. How much do I owe you?”
Warmth from his hand being placed on her forearm to keep her from rummaging through her purse for change radiated through her. “No repayment necessary. Let me walk you to your car.”
Handsome sure was persistent about taking care of her. What would it be like to be taken care of by him? Whoa, get a hold of those pregnancy hormones, Katherine.
“That’s really not necessary. Thank you again for your kindness.” She hitched her purse onto her shoulder and turned to the exit.
“My mother didn’t raise me to be impolite. Where did you park?” He held the door open for her, and she stepped back out into the bright afternoon.
Her gaze traveled to the corner where Salt-and-Pepper had tried to force her to go with him, and she studied every face within view of the steps of the sheriff’s station. Satisfied that Salt-and-Pepper wasn’t out there, in the open anyway, she took a few steps to the sidewalk and turned back to Handsome. “Thank you again. I’ll be on my way.” She held her hand out for him to shake.
His hand engulfed hers and gave her a gentle but firm handshake. She pulled her hand from his and turned quickly, then walked in the direction of her apartment. It was only a couple of blocks from the sheriff’s station. The diner she worked in was a couple of blocks in the other direction. She liked keeping her residence and place of employment near because she was living on her real name, saving the newest identity given to her by the program for her next run. The less it was out there, the less likely Kazakov’s goons could find her.
When Kazakov had found her the last time, she’d allowed the program to give her a new identity and set her up in another cookie-cutter house with a cookie-cutter backstory. Knowing someone inside the program had to be feeding Kazakov information, she’d packed a small bag, taken her newest identity, as well as the money she had been saving since entering the program and the diamond engagement ring Graham had given her, and hopped on a bus out of town.
She stopped at the corner and looked in both directions before daring to step out onto the crosswalk. Handsome stopped next to her, obviously not taking “No, thanks” for an answer.
“Look. It’s really generous of you to walk me to my car, but I really don’t want you to.” She tried to be forceful, not rude.
“It’s no big deal. Which one is yours?” He pointed to the cars parallel parked along the road as they crossed the street.
How was she going to get rid of him? It’s not like she could actually get into one of these cars. If by some miracle one of them was unlocked, he’d probably stand there waiting on her to drive away, and when she didn’t, he’d arrest her for breaking and entering. He couldn’t arrest her for grand theft auto, could he?
“Well?” He stood patiently on the sidewalk, waiting for her to answer.
“I don’t have a car. I live a couple blocks over. So you wasted your time following me.”
“In that case, allow me to walk you home.”
Her breath hitched as adrenaline rushed through her body.
Get your copy of EXPECTING DANGER
And don’t miss DEADLY CONNECTION, a standalone romantic suspense also by Jennifer Pierce
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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