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.
“THANKS, ROGER. WE’LL SEE YOU soon.” Josh hung up his phone and glanced at Nikki. “He’s home.”
She tapped her finger on the armrest. “I really don’t see how talking to Beverly and Roger is going to help us. The thing with the girl is weird but it’s obvious that Ryan is the one behind all this somehow.”
Josh took the exit off the roundabout. “The person that vandalized your shop had a key. And they staged the scene like someone with a key had tried to make it look like a break-in, knowing the cops would look at you. They had to have the key to do it, and you say only three of those exist. I want to know if one’s been compromised. The more suspects we eliminate, the closer we get to the guilty party.”
“Mine could have been copied, I guess.” She touched the outside of her pocket, feeling for it. “I can’t give it to you, though. I must’ve left it at home.”
Josh turned to her. “I grabbed it when we left so I could compare it with the others.”
Was he thinking one key wouldn’t match? “Okay. Well, while I’m at work, I keep it on a lanyard around my neck, but at home, it just hangs on the key ring by my front door. I’d like to believe that I’d know if someone broke into my house, but considering money is mysteriously showing up in my cabinets, I’d be wrong. If someone can do that, they could have made a copy of my key or any of the others for that matter.”
Josh nudged her knee with his fist. “Well, let’s check Roger off our list.”
But his hope of eliminating Roger’s key as an access point was dashed within minutes of meeting the middle-aged man. While he was a nice guy, and confused as to why someone would want to hurt Nikki or her shop, he was not particularly vigilant about guarding his key. While Josh’s gut told him Roger wasn’t the bad guy, he needed more proof than that.
Fifteen minutes later, he and Nikki were on their way to Beverly’s house. What if this was a wild goose chase? Maybe. But he couldn’t rest until he’d explored every angle.
It was dark when they pulled into Beverly’s neighborhood. Josh saw her lights on when he parked in the driveway.
Nikki knocked on the door. After a moment, it opened a few inches.
The elderly woman’s jaw dropped. “Nikki? Josh?”
Josh eyed the fidgeting woman. “Hello, Miss Beverly. We were just hoping to take a look at your keys to Apple’s Fritters. We’re looking into the vandalism that happened.”
“M-my keys?” She shuddered. “Why do you need my keys for that?”
Nikki stepped up to the threshold. “I just want to make sure they’re all accounted for.”
Beverly raised a hand to her heart. “I already talked to the sheriff. He said I was okay and everything was fine.”
Whatever that meant. “Well, I’m investigating a couple different leads than the sheriff, so it would still be helpful to see them myself.”
“O-okay.” She pushed back the door and ushered them into the entryway. Her hands shook as she dug through a ceramic bowl on a console table next to the door. The keys inside dinged against the glass. After a tense couple of seconds, she produced a single key on a spiral rubber holder and handed it to Josh.
He was inspecting the key for any sign of clay residue from a key-mold device for making copies when Nikki looked over his shoulder. “Miss Beverly, I don’t think that’s my key.”
“Of course it is, dear.” The lady quickly averted her eyes, but her wrinkled and delicate hands shook.
Nikki wound a lock of her hair around her fingers. “I’m sorry, but I know what the key to my shop looks like and that isn’t it.”
The older woman’s face scrunched up and then she let out a sob. “I’m sorry. I really am but I told the sheriff and he said everything was fine and that I shouldn’t say anything.”
“What did you tell the sheriff?” There had been a little more force in his voice than he’d intended and the woman shrank back.
Nikki wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t cry. Everything is okay. Whatever happened to the key doesn’t matter. I just need you to tell us.”
After a moment, she stopped sniffling. “I don’t know what happened to it. When I got to the shop yesterday, you were already gone. One of the deputies—I-I don’t remember his name—asked me for it, but I told him I don’t bring it unless I’m opening the store on your off days. He said that was okay, but asked if I could bring it to the sheriff’s department so they could examine it. I came straight home to get it, but when I got here, it was gone.” Beverly held her cheek, shaking her head. “I was so worried you’d be mad. I have no idea what happened. My key ring was gone. I went straight down to the sheriff’s department and found Gary. He told me that he would look into it and that I shouldn’t say anything. He said I probably just misplaced it and it was nothing. I was just so scared I would get in trouble.”
Pressing her back, Nikki guided her under a nearby arch that led to a parlor. “I would never have been mad about something like that. You don’t open for me that often, so it’s not like you’re carrying it with you every day. I’m sure the sheriff is right and it just got lost.”
Josh wasn’t so sure. Gary was hiding details from him and maybe even the other deputies. Details that looked a lot like new leads that might prove Nikki’s innocence. He’d hidden her past with a drug dealer, the warrant, that Ryan had escaped, and now a missing key to the shop. What else was he hiding?
“I thought that, too, at first.” Beverly walked to a side table next to a sofa and pulled a tissue from a box, wiping tears from her cheek as she sank down on a cushion. “But I’ve been looking everywhere since yesterday, and I can’t find it anywhere. I’ve torn the house apart and looked through the station wagon, too, and nothing.”
Nikki sat down beside her and patted Beverly’s knee.
Josh took a tentative step towards the women, then sat in a chair facing her. “Mrs. Peterson, can you tell me when you last remember having the key?”
She pressed her lips into a line. “I know I had it Thursday morning because I opened the shop by myself.”
Josh looked to Nikki for confirmation.
She glanced up at him. “I had a doctor’s appointment and came in late.”
“Do you remember seeing it after you opened the shop?” Josh hunched over to meet her eyes.
Beverly shrugged. “No. Nikki closed that day and I honestly don’t remember it at all.”
Nikki set a hand on Beverly’s shoulder. “Did you go anywhere else that day where you may have dropped it?”
“I don’t think so. I came right home after work but…” She hesitated. “Oh wait, I did go somewhere.”
At the same moment Josh did, Nikki exclaimed, “Where?”
“I delivered an order to the sheriff’s department.”
Josh’s heart caught in his throat. What had he stumbled onto?
A bit later, he and Nikki were back in his truck, heading toward the town center. The faces of his colleagues ran through his mind. Which one of them had gone dirty?
“You’re driving really fast, Josh.”
He turned to see her clutching the truck door. “Sorry.” He glanced down at the speedometer. “I was distracted.”
She let go of the handle when he pressed on the brakes. “Are you angry?”
“Yes.” His fingers curled around the wheel.
“Are you really sure you should be? All you have are suspicions. There’s no way to know if Beverly’s key disappeared at the sheriff’s department. She’s elderly. There are probably hundreds of places she could have dropped them. They may well be sitting in a corner at the shop for all we know.”
“I know. That’s why we’re going there now.”
He heard her swallow. “Are we even allowed to go there? Isn’t it still a crime scene?”
“Right now, I don’t even care.” He growled. “I was so concerned about you yesterday that I didn’t get the chance to really study the scene myself. I want to see if there’s anything they missed or—considering what we just heard—anything they failed to mention or even… covered up.” He flashed back to Friday morning’s scene. The broken and replaced doors, the cash register still full of money, the busted fryer. He should have paid more attention.
She touched his shoulder. “Who at the sheriff’s department would even do that? It’s hate that makes people scheme and kill, and the only person who has reason to hate me is Ryan. I know what he’s like. He would have been livid that I never went to see him in prison. In his mind, he owned me and my running away would have seemed like a betrayal. But I have no idea how he’s found me here. I asked the attendant at the bus station to sell me a ticket to a place with a lot of grass and not a lot of people and St. Claire is what she gave me.”
Thank You, God, for leading her here. “I understand, but sabotaging your truck seems like a pretty impersonal move from such a possessive boyfriend. The way you describe him makes it seem like he’d want a direct confrontation with you–not do something sneaky like steal a key and fake a break-in.”
“Maybe that’s all part of his plans. The accident didn’t kill me after all. Maybe the drugs in the wall and the planted evidence in my house are his way of tormenting and discrediting me before he makes his final move.” She took in a slow breath, and Josh wondered how many times Ryan had played those kind of cruel games.
“There won’t be any final move as long as I’m around.”
The truck slowed to a stop in front of Apple’s and his heart sank. Nikki gasped.
The words were dim in the street lights but they’d be plain as day when the sun came up tomorrow. In blood red paint across her store front window, someone had scrawled in giant letters, Drug Dealer.
As soon as Josh parked in the alley next to her building, Nikki threw open the truck door and staggered around the building to the front door. She just stood, staring at the vicious label. She’d grown to love the people in this town, and just hours ago, she’d been chatting with them and resting peaceful on a town center bench. They lived in a paradise of peace. How could someone be so cruel? Her limbs began to shake but then a hand gently ran up her back to her shoulder. Josh. Turning into his chest, she fell against him, resting her head in the crook of his neck. His arms wrapped around her. The feel of his body was growing familiar. How could she give this up?
“I’m so sorry, Nikki.” His lips brushed against her ear.
She sniffled. “I can’t blame them. I look guilty.”
“Honey, someone vandalized your already vandalized shop. They’ve labeled you as a criminal when you are not, and on top of all that, someone is trying to kill you. You’re allowed to be angry.”
“Are you saying I should just be mad and vengeful?” She lifted her head to look into his eyes.
He smiled. “No. Revenge is always wrong and never satisfying. I’m just wondering how it can be so easy for you to forgive others, yet you can’t understand how God could forgive you.”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged in his hold. “Things are just never that easy. At least… not for me. Look at my life right now. It’s a mess.”
Her favorite deputy rubbed his hands up and down her arms like he was trying to quell a chill. She wasn’t shivering or anything but it was what she needed. “We’re going to figure this out.” He pushed her back and looked into her eyes. “I promise.”
We? That sounded good, but how many times had Ryan promised her something that turned out to be a lie? She forced a smile.
Josh squeezed her arm. “Come on. I’ve got the key. Let’s get in there and find the lead that’s going to get us back on track. We’ll just keep the lights off while we check it out. Maybe better to not announce our presence to everyone.”
On the morning of the break-in, Nikki’d had plenty of time to see the wreck her place had become, but it hit her all over again when they walked through the front door. Someone had repaired the latch enough to secure the building, but the rest remained a disaster. Shadows cast by the street lamps covered everything like dark moss. The remnants of tables and chairs looked like monsters ready to pounce.
Things could be cleaned and fixed. But would her place ever really be the same again? After all, her business was the bright, unblinking light that made life worth living and now everything would be a little dimmer. Would it ever be enough for her again? Would her current emptiness ever be filled? Was Josh right that she needed to let someone in? And if he was, was she strong enough to let go of her fear and let Josh—and maybe even a faith like his—take its place?
Nikki shook her head and followed the beam of Josh’s flashlight as he made his way to the counter, his head turning one direction and then the other like he was trying to memorize every detail. She didn’t want to think about their relationship now. She had to concentrate on finding out who was trying to kill her. There would be plenty of time to figure out her feelings later.
Josh pushed his way into the kitchen, still swinging the light. It illuminated every detail as he crept over to the hole in the wall where drugs had allegedly been stored.
What was he hoping to find? “Everything looks the same as when—”
A bang like crashing thunder echoed behind her as the doors they’d come through slammed closed. Josh swung around, ready for battle. With a shout, he tossed the flashlight onto the island and bolted past her back to the dining room entrance and tried to push the doors open. What on earth? Nikki held a hand over her pounding heart.
Josh was the strongest man Nikki knew, and yet they barely gave a centimeter under the force of his hands.
“Josh?” Her voice was as shaky as her suddenly weak limbs.
With pained eyes shining in the arc of the small light, he looked back at her. “It’s stuck. I think someone just barricaded it.” He slammed his fists against the smooth, stainless steel surface.
“Who would do this?” Had someone followed them here? What if they were in the room with them?
Josh grabbed her hand and pulled her toward the back door. “It doesn’t matter. We need to get out of here.”
Josh pushed on the horizontal silver bar across the door, but it didn’t budge. The last time either of them had been here, it had been hanging off its hinges. Now, it was like solid brick. The damage had been somehow repaired. Nikki’s heart sank. During construction, she’d chosen the door because of how strong it was. She’d wanted her kitchen to be a safe place but not a cage. There was no way Josh was getting through.
Her heart raced. The moment couldn’t get any worse.
Then, she smelled the smoke.
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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