We are excited to share the next installment of Glazed Suspicion by Allison Pearl, the first book in the Love and Danger in St. Claire series. Follow along with us each week for new chapters!
If you’re just joining us for this book, we recommend you start with chapter 1.
“NIKKI, WAIT.” JOSH JOGGED AFTER her into the dining room. She seemed frozen, staring out the windows. He saw through the glass that not only had Mike arrived with his St. Claire police cruiser, two sheriff’s cars had also pulled up near the entrance. Josh reached out a hand toward her shoulder but thought better of it, not wanting her to recoil from his touch. “I’ll handle them. Stay here and don’t touch anything.”
“Can I at least sit down?” Nikki motioned to the only unscathed chair, her face blank and emotionless.
“Sure.” Josh swallowed a lump in his throat. Had he lost her? Was she back behind the barricade surrounding her heart or could he soften her anger somehow? There had to be more to her story. A reason she kept everyone at a distance. He often wondered if God would let him be the one to reach her, but he’d only made things worse by not giving into temptation.
Josh pinched the skin between his brows, then turned and went outside to meet the others, hoping one day he could make her understand.
It wasn’t like it had been easy to turn her down. It had taken every bit of his strength not to let his lips collide with hers, but she didn’t share his faith. Starting a relationship with such a stark difference in beliefs would just be setting them up for failure.
Josh squeezed his hands into fists as his feet hit the asphalt. He knew he had made the right choice but he couldn’t help but feel that he’d just blown his chance at ever having the relationship with Nikki that he wanted.
Mike was charging towards him, with his brother Brandon, a sheriff’s deputy, at his back. Their eyes were scanning the scene, looking for action.
Josh held out his hands. “The building’s clear, guys.”
Mike nodded and slowed his pace. “I radioed my chief. He’s fine with you county boys taking the lead on this since y’all got here first.”
“It’s just because he knows we’re better.” Brandon nudged his brother in the side with an elbow.
Mike rolled his eyes.
“Why don’t you guys go inside and get started then. I’d start with the doors. They’ve both been damaged.”
“The sheriff’s here.” Josh turned to see Vaughn Grimes, the county’s newest deputy stationed across the street and motioning Paul Bieler from Bieler’s Amish Kitchen and Anna Duncan from Poppy’s to stay back. No doubt they and their staffs had been surprised to find law enforcement vehicles lighting up the darkness when they’d arrived to prepare for Friday morning breakfast.
Vaughn nodded to a sheriff’s department vehicle coming to a stop. Josh patted Mike on the shoulder and the brothers headed toward the broken front door.
A minute later, Sheriff Gary Thompson and his partner, Charlie, the German shepherd, exited their vehicle. Josh’s commanding officer walked his way, talking into his radio. “No, just stay put for now. I’ll call you in if I need you. Over and out.”
“Laney staying back?” Josh guessed Gary had been talking to Elaine Hicks, the deputy sheriff.
Gary nodded. “What’s the situation?”
Josh stood straighter and adjusted his utility belt. “Breaking and entering, vandalism, and maybe robbery. No sign of the perpetrator. The owner’s inside.”
Gary let Charlie lead the way inside with Josh following behind. “Is Nikki alright?”
“Yes, sir.” Josh nodded. “Just angry at the moment.” He didn’t elaborate as to why.
“Make sure she’s okay, but keep her out of the way. Let’s have a look.”
“I’m going to start in the kitchen,” Brandon was saying to his brother.
Mike gave a little nod, still focused on his finger printing kit.
“What do we have, guys?” Gary sidestepped Charlie who had stopped and dropped his nose to the ground to start sniffing.
“Well, Sheriff, it’s a bit confusing.” Mike grunted as he stood from crouching near the front door frame.
“How so?” Gary nudged one of the overturned tables with his boot and stepped toward the police officer.
“The doors have been messed up, but the locks and jams are intact. Like they damaged the doors once they were already open instead of forcing them open in an attempt to get inside.”
“What does that mean?” Nikki shifted in her chair.
“It means someone wanted it to look like they broke in when they in fact had a key.” Josh stepped close to her and laid a hand on the back of her chair.
“Does anyone besides you have a copy?” Gary pulled a notebook off of his belt and a pen from the breast pocket of his department-issued jacket.
“Just Beverly and Roger.” Nikki pointed a thumb back at the kitchen where they usually worked. “But neither of them would be capable of something like this.”
Josh pictured the pair bustling around the shop. Roger would wave at him from the kitchen when he checked out and Josh couldn’t help but laugh when Beverly would squint through the thick glasses perched on the tip of her nose and say, “You need to eat fewer sweets, Mr. Bennet.” He didn’t think that either were capable of this destruction, but Josh couldn’t squelch a feeling that the vandal was someone Nikki knew and her employees did have keys.
“We’ll still need to get alibis from them,” Josh said.
“I’m not going to let you interrogate them, Josh. They’re good people.” She looked daggers at him like she was implying that, unlike Beverly and Roger, Josh was not “good people.”
“Fortunately, honey, that’s not something you have a say in.” Josh winked, knowing it would get a rise out of her. Her hands were still shaking and her fair skin was a ghostly white but Josh knew how to put the red back in her cheeks.
“Don’t call me honey. I’m not your waitress. This is my shop. This happened to me.” She pointed her finger at him.
“And it was a crime. Solving those is my job.” Getting her riled up like this was a dangerous gamble, but yelling was better than silence. Josh wanted Nikki to be anything but indifferent toward him.
Nikki wrapped her palm around the handle of the basket and began to stand for the fight but Gary raised a commanding hand. “You two just calm down and take a minute. We’re investigating here.”
“Sorry.” Nikki sunk back down in the seat.
Tail wagging, the hound trotted her way. Her body looked rigid and her arms were tight around the basket of kittens.
“Hey, Charlie.” She smiled. It was her first since she’d seen him this morning. Josh was drawn to it and wondered if her lips would’ve felt as soft as they looked. His hand clenched the back of her chair as he pushed the thought away. It was time to focus.
Charlie’s ears perked to attention, and his wet nose went wild, sniffing all around the basket on her lap. Three pairs of eyes instantly disappeared from the gap underneath the lid. “You’re okay. Charlie’s just happy to see you,” Nikki whispered.
“Sorry, buddy.” She patted Charlie on his head. “Guess they’re a bit shy of strangers.”
Just like you were. He remembered how jittery she’d been when she arrived in town with just a backpack. She wouldn’t even make eye contact with him back then, but hundreds of mornings spent eating at her shop had loosened her. Was he back to where he started?
“Don’t worry about him.” Gary leaned down and shooed Charlie away. “It’s you that needs our concern right now.”
“Thanks, Sheriff, but I’m okay. I just can’t believe someone would do this. I’m not sure it’s sunk in yet.” She lifted the basket and inspected the floor for a clean spot to put her new pets but returned them to her lap with a sigh when she couldn’t find one.
“I struck out as far as witnesses.” Vaughn tiptoed over bits of wood and glass as he joined them inside. “I’ll continue to canvas later but it’s looking like no one was here that early. And they all denied being the caller.”
“Got it. Start photographing the scene.” Gary clicked his pen. “Have you had any trouble with folks lately? Any threats or anything?”
“No, of course not.” She answered quickly but then paused, her brow crinkling as she seemed to remember something. “Well…”
“What is it?” A rush of adrenaline coursed through Josh’s veins. A lead. He stepped even closer, looking down at her.
“It’s nothing.” She shook her head.
“This isn’t the time to protect people.”
“I said it’s nothing, Josh.” Nikki glowered up at him.
Gary’s gruff voice sounded above their argument. “Why don’t you let me decide that?”
Josh glanced at his commander’s raised eyebrow and took a step back, letting go of the chair.
“You’re right.” Nikki’s cheeks flushed and she fiddled with the wicker braids of the basket. “I’m sorry.”
“No need for an apology. Just the truth.” Gary returned the tip of his ballpoint to the paper.
She let out a long, heavy breath. “It was last week. On Tuesday, I think. Andy Trumple and some friends were here after school. They like to get off the bus at the shop and hangout until I close at 4:00. I was back in the kitchen cleaning up when I heard a bit of a ruckus. And when I came out, I found Andy and the others teasing Jedidiah, one of the Amish kids from nearby.”
“Jed Yoder?” Gary asked.
Josh scratched at the stubble on his chin. This information wasn’t surprising. Andy Trumple and his group of friends always seemed to be getting in trouble and Josh had had more than one run in with them. Most times, he had gone easy on the kid because Andy’s dad was rough and Josh suspected things weren’t great at home.
She nodded. “They were giving him a hassle about his buggy and not being able to drive a car. Jed was trying to keep on a brave face but it was clear he was scared. I mean, there were four of them and only one of him. Anyway, I gave the guys a good scolding and told them they weren’t allowed to come to Apple’s if that’s how they were going to treat my customers. His friends took it as well as can be expected and even looked ashamed, but Andy was pretty defiant and even made some comments about how ‘girls should think twice before telling a man what to do.’ He didn’t leave until I threatened to call you guys.”
“Is that right?” Josh’s stomach churned. Maybe he should’ve been harder on the young man.
“Yes, but I’m sure he was just putting on a big show for his friends.” Nikki reached out her hand like she could stop Gary from writing all this down.
She’s so forgiving of others, yet she seems to be punishing herself with solitude.
“That may be, but I think we best have a talk with Andy regardless,” Gary said.
“I can drive out to his mom and dad’s and see what I can find out.” Josh patted his pocket for his keys.
“We’ll talk about that a little later.” Gary turned and started walking the scene.
White light flashed as Vaughn snapped a couple more pictures with the department camera and then pushed through the door back to the dining room. Josh pulled on his ear lobe. He should be busy with them.
“Do we think the perp was after the money?” Gary stepped up to the counter.
“If he was, he missed some.” Mike strode across the room and gestured to the register on the floor. “There’s still cash in there.”
Nikki cocked her head. “Why wouldn’t they have taken it?”
Gary crouched and lifted some crumpled bills with his pen. “Because maybe it wasn’t money they were after.”
“I don’t have anything else. Unless they wanted a lot of flour, oil, and powdered sugar, but they didn’t take that either.”
Nikki’s sarcastic exclamation went unaddressed as Gary left for the kitchen. Nikki set the kittens up on the counter and followed, with Josh close behind.
Brandon stood beside the overturned fryer.
“Got anything back here?” Gary asked.
“Take a look for yourself.” Brandon gestured to the wall. “Be careful of the oil though. I almost went down myself and spoiled the whole scene.”
Josh craned his neck to look over Nikki’s shoulder at the dented heap of metal.
A perfect square had been cut out of the dry wall. The wooden beams behind formed a box. It was an elaborate hiding place and Josh knew that anyone who’d needed to hide something so well was probably up to no good.
“Did you know about this?” Gary looked back over his shoulder at Nikki.
“No.” She shook her head. “That hole wasn’t there when I had the fryer installed, I promise. I suppose someone could have put it in after the fact… but that fryer has an oil capacity of a hundred pounds and the fryer itself weighs a ton, too. It would not have been easy to move it.”
“Well, I think it’s safe to say that whoever broke in found what there were looking for. The question is: What was it that they got?” Brandon hooked a thumb through a loop on his utility belt.
Josh’s mind went to things like money and weapons but, before he could say it out loud, Charlie jumped over the containers and bowls spraying everyone with flour as he launched himself toward the hole, barking and dancing around.
Josh’s heart sank. Will this ever end?
Nikki’s hands went to her ears. “What’s wrong with him? Is he okay?”
Josh laid a hand on her shoulder and stepped up beside her. “He’s doing his job. Indicating the presence of drugs.”
Coming home from his tour was supposed to be a safer place than the desert he’d left behind. He’d never expected to return in the midst of an opioid epidemic. Since his return, he had watched his church family being torn apart by addiction. When would St. Claire return to being the quiet and idyllic home town he’d always known?
“Drugs?” Nikki covered her mouth as she thought of all the hours she’d stood at the fryer never suspecting what might have been hidden behind it. “I don’t understand.”
“It means that someone has been storing drugs here in your kitchen.” Josh’s gaze was suddenly serious.
Nikki’s stomach roiled. This can’t be happening.
For some reason, it had always been easy for her to doubt the talk that St. Claire had a drug problem. Drug dealers only lived in the big cities, like the one from which she’d fled. But now, the proof had literally invaded her life. Apple’s Fritters was supposed to be a place of peace and escape for the people in town but now her bright picture of the town was harsh and blurred. Was she right back where she started? Was living a safe life just a pipe dream? Had she brought this trouble with her? Dizziness made her spin and suddenly her legs turned to jelly. There was no stopping her faint. Her knees buckled and a gust of air tickled her arms as she went down.
But it wasn’t the floor she hit. When she landed, heat and a surface that was somehow as soft as it was strong shook her back to life and simultaneously gave her peace.
“It’s okay,” A voice murmured, filling her ears. “You’re okay.”
She blinked. What happened? Her fingers clutched soft fabric. And what was that prickling sensation on her cheek? Oh. Her nose was buried in the crook of Josh’s stubbly neck and his arms were tight around her once again. She hadn’t fallen to the ground; she’d fallen into him.
Heat climbed up her face as she stretched out her fingers on his chest and pushed herself backward. But the former shakiness hadn’t quite faded and she wobbled.
“Easy there.” Josh kept a hand firmly on her arm.
“I-I’m so sorry. I can’t believe I just did that. I’ve never fainted before.” She reached for the edge of the stainless steel island.
“Don’t be sorry, Nikki. You’ve had a massive scare. And now, this. You’re not a robot or something. Just take a breath.” Josh’s fingers gripped her elbow.
She obeyed, letting out a long exhale. “I just don’t understand how anyone could get drugs in here.” It couldn’t have been him, right? That was impossible.
“That’s the real question.” The sheriff scratched Charlie behind the ears and then pulled a treat from his pocket. The pup gobbled it up as the sheriff looked down at the floor, his face appearing distracted.
“What happens now?” Would she be arrested? Brought in for questioning? Forced to take a drug test?
“Vaughn, Mike, and I still have a lot to do here.” Brandon waved his latex glove covered hands over the space.
“The only thing you need to worry about is going home,” Josh said.
“What?” Nikki arched an eyebrow. “I’m not going anywhere.”
“There’s no reason for you to be here and you’re obviously having a harder time with this than you want to admit. You need to rest.” Josh covered her hand braced on the island with his own. His skin was warm and sent her heart fluttering. How easy would it be to just melt into him and forget everything? His gaze held her with an intensity that made her wish they were the only people in the room. Her life was in shambles. She didn’t want to keep it together anymore. She wanted to fall apart into him. But she wasn’t the girl for Josh. He didn’t know the evils buried in her past.
“This building is my reason to be here. This is my shop, and I’m not leaving until I find out what happened.” Sliding her hand out of Josh’s hold, she reached down and grabbed a mixing bowl, dusting off the flour.
“Now, Nikki,” the sheriff warned. “Finding the truth is our job, not yours, dear.”
Her eyes fell to the floor. “I’m sorry, Sheriff. I know that. It’s just that… this place is everything I have.” Shutting down for a few days could break her. Weekends were her busiest days. Every second she stayed closed would put her deeper in the hole. All the money she had was wrapped up in this shop and her little house.
The middle-aged gentlemen laid a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “And I’m going to do everything I can to see that justice is done.”
“Thank you.” Nikki squeezed his fingers. “But look at this mess. Can I at least stay and start cleaning it up? I can’t call my insurance agent until business hours anyway.”
The sheriff raised an eyebrow. “Do you have a big policy coming?”
She shook her head. “Not really. It’s pretty basic. I really couldn’t afford anything better.”
“I see. Well, we’re not quite finished here.” He tilted his head towards Mike.
Obviously, he was right. “I’m sorry. I hadn’t thought of that.”
“The best thing you can do right now is listen to Josh and let him take you home to rest.”
“That isn’t necessary at all. I’m perfectly capable of driving myself.”
“Then just do it to make this old man feel good.”
How was she supposed to argue with that caring look in his eyes? It stirred her longing for a family. “Fine.” She shrugged and turned to Josh, making sure to roll her eyes when she caught his grin. “Let’s go.”
He clearly relished his victory. “Lead the way.” He motioned to the broken back door and the alley lot where his cruiser was parked.
“I have to get the kittens.” Nikki stepped around the fryer.
“I got them for you.” Vaughn backed through the swinging kitchen door, holding the basket in his hands.
“Thanks.” Nikki hugged the basket to her chest. “I guess I’m ready then.”
“Ladies first.” Josh flipped his hand toward the gap in the open door.
“Hang back a minute, Josh. I want to talk to you before you leave.” The sheriff tucked his pen behind his ear.
Josh wrinkled his nose. “Wait for me by my cruiser. I’ll be right out.”
“Whatever.” Nikki peered over the basket to look for safe places to step.
A few minutes later, she shivered as she walked the lot looking for the kittens’ mama. Tears filled her eyes when she found nothing and realized that, like her, they’d lost their family. She made her way back to Josh’s car and leaned her hip heavily against the hood. Nikki squeezed her eyes open and shut to force away the tension headache the still-flashing police lights were doing nothing to improve. She considered getting her jacket from her truck when Josh appeared. Even in the dark and from a distance, she could see something about him had changed. His brow was hard and stern, and he clenched his jaw. It was plain as day. Something had made Josh mad. And considering how rude she’d been, the anger was likely aimed at her.
She had overreacted when he hadn’t kissed her, but how else was she supposed to handle that? She’d totally put herself out there and he’d rejected her. Yes, he was probably right about it not being a good idea. After all, she’d been shaken over the vicious damage and he was on the clock. His hug had probably crossed a line as it was.
He also hadn’t been wrong about the fact that she was vulnerable, but it still hurt. She’d kept herself so guarded with him since she’d moved here, careful not to reveal her feelings when she knew she couldn’t act on them. Josh was just so goodhearted. When he wasn’t helping people at work, he volunteered with his church. Nikki had seen his church’s generosity firsthand when he and some other members had helped her with the painting before she’d opened Apple’s. Josh had even gotten some of the deputies to help move in the bigger items.
But Nikki would never be the girl for him. Even if he ever asked her out again, she’d have to say no. A guy like that would never want to be with her. Not a girl with her past.
Josh stormed towards her, running a hand through his hair and mussing up his golden locks. Opening his cruiser’s passenger door, he motioned for her to get in.
Silently, she followed his cue.
A second later his door slammed as he got behind the wheel. He must have heard her chattering teeth because he took the jacket off the back of his seat and tossed it onto the basket in her lap. She opened her mouth to thank him, but the car lurched forward and they were off.
“Look, Josh.” She’d pulled the jacket on, gotten resettled, and waited until they were back among the farms that surrounded the center of town but couldn’t hold back anymore. “I know I was unfair to you but you don’t need to punish me for it.”
He glanced at her, his lips pursed. “What are you talking about?”
“You’re slamming doors, driving fast, and your eyes are shooting Mad Bullets.”
“Mad Bullets?” He laughed.
“Yes. Mad Bullets. And I don’t have a shield, so can you just stop being angry?”
“I’m not angry.” He chewed on his bottom lip before replying. “Well… I am, but not at you.”
“I-I thought maybe because of how I reacted in the kitchen when you… when I tried to… you know.” She lifted the basket lid to check on the purring babies so she could avert her eyes.
“You have nothing to apologize for. You needed something from me and I failed you. I just hope you can understand why I had to stop things before they went any further.”
“I do. Sort of, anyways. But if it’s not me, then who are you mad at? Did you get in trouble with the sheriff or something? Is that why he made you stay back?”
He shrugged. “Well, he did tell me that I should’ve waited for back up before going inside and was pretty peeved that I let you follow me in, but he was right about all that. I guess I’m just mad because of something he’s asking me to do.”
“What’s he asking you to do?”
The deputy didn’t say anything for a minute, eyes locked on the road. His shoulders drooped as he let out a long breath. “He doesn’t want me to leave your side.”
“Punishment indeed.” She rolled her eyes.
He chuckled as he turned off the main road and onto the little dirt road that led to her house.
“Why doesn’t he want you to leave my side? Does he think that the robbery was personally motivated? Like someone is doing this to me on purpose?” The wicker creaked as she squeezed the basket tight. Maybe she should pack up and run. She loved her shop and her house. She loved St. Claire. But maybe she’d never be able to put down roots. Maybe she was destined to wander.
“I think that is a possibility but, no, that’s not the reason.” His hands twisted on the steering wheel.
“Then why does he want you to stay with me?” If he wasn’t meant to protect her, what was he meant to do?
Josh slowed to a stop, parallel to her front porch, and ran a hand through his hair. “Because he thinks you have something to hide. As if you’re—”
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And don’t miss SPRINKLED WITH SABOTAGE, the latest book by Allison Pearl
About Allison Pearl
Allison Pearl is a small-town girl who’s lived just about everywhere. She loves books,tea, chocolate, and watching old movies with her husband and black lab, Sal. To keep in touch and get updates on new releases follow her Facebook page ‘Books by Pearl’ at http://www.facebook.com/allisonnicolepearl/ or follow her on Twitter at @AllisonPearl5 andInstagram at @allisonnicolepearl