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Enjoy this week’s #SaturdaySuspense editor’s choice.
Dunked in Trouble (Love and Danger in St. Claire Book 2)
Nicole Appleton’s life is finally perfect. With a sweet shop all her own and a handsome fiancé ready to walk her down the aisle, she couldn’t be happier. At least until she discovers that not only was she orphaned by a criminal legend, but the silent mastermind running the vast network has tracked her down. What could he want from her? And one of his associates may be closer than she thinks. Could he even be the man she’s supposed to marry?
Sheriff’s deputy, Josh Bennet, can’t wait to say ‘I do’ but the stranger stalking his bride-to-be has other plans. Josh has always depended on his strength and intelligence, but he’s failed to see the skeletons buried in his hometown or to keep the women he loves from slipping through his fingers. After all, Josh lost his first wife to illness. Will he lose his fiancée to murder now that she’s pushed him away? What will he have to give up to make her believe he’s the good guy? He wants to be writing his vows not planning an escape, but if they can’t find out the truth, it won’t just be their wedding plans getting cut short. It will be their lives.
The only thing I want this Christmas is a wedding. But how will Nikki feel if her dress isn’t the only white in our pictures?
Sheriff’s deputy, Josh Bennet, stared out the doughnut shop’s front windows at the peace that had been resurrected after the nightmare of the previous weeks. He’d worried the widespread destruction that had nearly cost him and his new fiancée their lives would permanently scar his hometown. But country folks were nothing if not resilient. A few generous helpings of love and hard work had made St. Claire, Pennsylvania better than ever.
The street lamps flickered on as the sun continued to disappear behind the bare trees covering the rolling hills on the edge of town. The days were growing shorter now.
The grassy isle at the heart of the roundabout looked like his fiancée’s chai doughnuts. Dusted with cinnamon from the autumn colors that had erased the last bits of green.
Josh ran a knuckle down the sparkling new panes of cold glass. A few loose shingles on the gazebo in the town center flapped in the wind.
When his gaze shifted to the surrounding bustling stores, he saw Alice Turner struggling against a gust to close the door to Quilting Dee’s. A canvas bag spilling over with yarn was in her arms. Josh doubted there was a single person in town who didn’t have one of Alice’s afghans draped across their sofas. Her long, gray hair whipped over her face as she threw a hip into the stubborn door. She pushed back the strands and pulled her jacket tight as she hurried down the street.
The past few weeks had been unseasonably warm, but today, the weather had grown colder as the hours drew to a close. Would they have snow by morning?
“You giving up on me?”
Josh turned around to find Nikki Appleton smirking at him. She padded across the dining room, the full skirt of her yellow dress brushing the chair rungs as she weaved through the tables.
Look at that beauty. Josh smiled and propped the broom he’d been holding against the seat of a nearby ladder-backed chair. “Never. Just wearing down a bit. I’ll get back to it in just a minute.”
“Thanks for pitching in so the others could go home. They worked so hard, and they all have to come back tomorrow. Beverly and Roger may be used to the work schedule from before, but they’ve fallen out of the habit, and Andy’s still in school. It was sweet of you to help me close up.” Nikki reached a hand behind her head, and a second later, her long, black hair cascaded over her shoulders.
He swallowed and raised a hand to the sudden tightness in his chest. My, she is stunning.
“Maybe I just wanted you all to myself.” He stepped closer and pushed a wavy lock behind her ear.
Her eyes fluttered close at his touch. “Mmmm. And why’s that?”
With the side of his finger, Josh traced the curve of her jaw. “Because it would be the perfect end to the perfect day.”
Nikki tilted her head to the side. “Perfect but exhausting. I could fill a silo with all the doughnuts I made today.”
His eyes fell to a white dusting just above her collar bone. “I can tell. You’ve got some powdered sugar on you.” He dropped his head and swiftly kissed the smudge away. Her breath caught in his ear, and a surge of electricity ran through him.
At last, they were alone. He’d been waiting for this moment since that morning when the grand reopening of Apple’s Fritters had been ushered in with one of the greatest words ever spoken. Yes. She was going to marry him.
The whole town had been there for the ribbon cutting ceremony after so many had helped out with the repairs. But when Josh had proposed, they’d all had something else to celebrate. Her eyes remained closed as she let out a sigh, and his fell to her lips. He was going to kiss those lips every day for the rest of his life. Starting now…
But Nikki turned away until she was leaning back against him. He wrapped his arms around her, and her head fell back against his shoulder. “I just love it in here. I know it’s different from the other shops given that most of those buildings have been there for over a hundred years, but I still can’t believe it’s mine.”
Josh kissed her hair as his eyes wandered around the room. It was true that the shop had changed. The fire had destroyed nearly everything, and they’d had to start over from scratch, but to Josh, her original vision was timeless. Even the folksy flare had returned in the form of the quirky local artists’ paintings of doughnuts with cups of coffee that filled the white shiplap walls. “St. Claire is an old town, and I treasure it, but it’s kind of nice to have something new.”
She lifted her left hand into his view, letting her fingers dance so the diamond twinkled in the soft lighting. “The shop isn’t the only thing new.”
Seeing that ring on her finger was a dream come true. Did she feel the same? “Do you like it? I wondered if I should let you pick it out yourself, but I wanted to surprise you.”
With her other hand, Nikki reached back and touched his cheek. Her delicate finger tips sent thrills down his spine as she continued to gaze at the ring that bonded them together. “It’s better than I could’ve ever imagined.”
Josh swept his lips down her neck. “I love you.” He slid a hand up her arm and spun her around before taking her face into his hands. Her eyes closed, and she drew in a breath as he leaned in for the kiss he’d been waiting for all day, but the front door bell jingled. Her eyes popped open, and she twisted away again.
Not another customer.
Pasting a smile on his face, Josh looked up, and his heart stopped as he recognized the newcomer. “What are you doing here?” The marshal should still be in Pittsburgh. Could the investigation be all wrapped up? What about all those unanswered questions?
Nikki smacked Josh on the chest. “Is that anyway to greet a friend?” She stepped out of his embrace and walked over to US Marshal, Perry Cole, arms open for a hug.
The marshal leaned down to give her a squeeze, his bright red hair practically glowing next to Nikki’s inky mane. “I hear congratulations are in order.”
Nikki took a step back and splayed out her hand in front of him. “I know. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Perry pressed his lips together and adjusted the strap of a leather bag on his shoulder. “Yeah. It’s… uh awesome.”
Josh narrowed his gaze, and the hairs on his neck stood on end. That didn’t sound sincere. Was something up?
“Are you hungry?” Nikki gestured to the kitchen door. “I don’t have anything out here, but there’s still plenty of doughnuts left in the back. Can I get you something?”
Perry shrugged. “I wouldn’t say no to an éclair.”
“I’ll have it in a jiffy.”
Josh waited until he heard the subtle whoosh sound of the swinging kitchen door and then raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised to see you here.”
Perry’s eyes darted around the room. “Well, you know, it’s a big day for you guys and we’ve grown pretty close recently.” He reached out a hand to tap on the back of one of the dining chairs.
Josh tilted his head. “We have grown close. Close enough for me to sense that you aren’t just here to congratulate us.”
Perry folded his arms over his chest. A tinge of redness showed under the freckles on his cheeks. “Maybe you should take a seat.”
Josh clenched his jaw as he pulled out the chair at a nearby table. “What is it?”
Perry chewed his lip and then took a seat, letting his bag drop to the floor beside him. “I don’t think you two can get married right now.”
This isn’t happening. “And why’s that, marshal?”
“Because I’ve been looking into your former coworker. You know, trying to tie up loose ends. I don’t like gaps in my cases.”
They still didn’t know where the car that tried to run Nikki down had come from, and the rogue deputy hadn’t been working alone.
Blood coursed through him. His knee started bouncing under the table. “And?”
Perry pinched the bridge of his nose. “And… I don’t think you two are out of danger, my friend.”
Josh swallowed. He knew the marshal well enough by now to know when he was scared. “Tell me.”
Perry reached a hand into his bag. “I think you’d better take a look at something.”
Nikki laid a custard-filled éclair on one of the mint green dessert plates Lizzy had bought at an antique store in Pittsburgh. Not only was she about to have a husband, she was also getting a sister. She twirled the ring around her finger. There was no end to her smiling. God’s blessings felt endless. For the first time in her life, things were working out. And given how chaotic her life up till now had been, having a place where she belonged felt like a miracle. Nikki glanced through the porthole window in the kitchen door at Josh and Perry sitting at one of the tables. Blood rushed to her face. Would she always swoon at the sight of Josh’s broad shoulders and firm body? She pictured her fiancé holding her. The dark skin of his hand wrapped around her pale wrist as he pulls her to him. Her black curls in stark contrast with his thick, golden head of hair.
He’d started the day in his thick, slate sweater, and she’d run her fingers across the high collar the first chance she got, but somewhere in the middle of the thousands of doughnuts and pots of coffee, he’d pulled it off, revealing a black T-shirt that fit snugly against his chest.
Nikki bit at her bottom lip as her eyes moved up the muscles in his arms to his face. But something was wrong. His brow was crinkled, and his fingers drummed the tabletop. Were he and Perry fighting about something?
Only one way to find out. Nikki grabbed the edge of the plate off the counter and tiptoed through the door.
Their voices were low and indecipherable. What were they saying? She squinted at the rushed movements of their mouths, but she was no lip reader. Her eyes fell to the table as she approached. Glossy papers covered it. Pictures. Pictures of her. Her getting into her old truck that had been totaled in the crash. Going into her front door. Buying groceries. Walking down the sidewalk in front of Poppy’s Pies and Tarts. Image after image. Why?
“W-Who took those?”
Josh jumped and his gaze swept up to her. “I uh, didn’t hear you come back out, babe.”
Her stomach churned, and her eyes went back to the chilling images. None of them showed her looking at the photographer meaning… What did that mean?”
“Who took them?” Her bones started to quiver.
Perry reached out and cupped his hands under the plate in her hand. “How about I take this so your new dish doesn’t get broken?”
The warmth of the glass slid across the tips of her fingers, and she sank down onto the last chair at the little round table.
Perry drug a finger over the chocolate glaze and popped it in his mouth as he stared down at the table. “Since this whole mess started in Pittsburgh, that’s where I’ve been focusing my efforts. When you shake a tree, there’s usually more than one bad apple that hits the dirt. I figured maybe I’d get lucky and find the mysterious monster you were told about. So, I had a friend of mine in the FBI do some snooping at that Pittsburgh station. He’s a bit of an acquired taste, but he’s a good agent. Anyway, he looked for friends, colleagues, numbers from old phone records.” Perry bit into his éclair and started to chew.
He couldn’t wait to eat it until after he gave her some answers?
Perry swallowed. “And, well, it wasn’t long until he found that a police officer where our perp used to work went AWOL right after the arrest. It seemed suspicious to me, so I checked out his apartment with my buddy, and these…” He motioned to the snapshots. “These were taped to the wall.”
Nikki shuddered in her chair. Josh rested a reassuring hand on her shoulder.
“What do they mean?” Nikki asked Perry as he took another bite.
He shrugged as he chewed and then swallowed, taking a moment to lick his lips before continuing. “I’m not really sure. But I do know your kidnapper wasn’t a lone wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was part of something bigger. I just can’t see how the pieces go together. But…if someone else was watching you, it means you’re still dangerous to someone. Nikki…I think you should come into the Marshal’s custody and let us hide you until we have more information.” The last bit of doughnut disappeared into his mouth.
Josh laced his fingers together on the table, his forearms covering parts of the photos. “How fast can you get her in?”
How fast can you get her in? He was planning to ship her off already?
Grabbing a napkin from the silver holder, Perry wiped his mouth as he finished. “Say the word, and I can take her right now.”
Were they serious? “Are either of you planning on asking me what I want to do?”
Perry glanced at Josh.
Josh picked up one of the pictures, holding it up for her to see. “What possible reason would there be for you to stay?”
Nikki folded her arms. “How about the fact that I just got my life back? How about I have a business to run? And—oh yeah—I just got engaged.”
Josh shook the picture. “None of those things are going to go away just because you’re gone for a while.”
Easy for him to say. He hadn’t been bounced around foster homes his whole life. How many times had a social worker driven her to a new home and promised she would be safe and that, if she liked it, she could stay, but if it was bad, she could leave? How many times had those words turned into a lie?
Was it about to happen again? One time, she’d been dragged screaming from a respite home that she’d loved. Would she now be ripped from the best life she’d ever had? I was finally home.
“I’m not disappearing into some place where everyone is a stranger and I can’t even tell people my name.” At least not voluntarily.
Perry laid a hand on her arm. “I understand what you are saying.”
She shook him off. “No you don’t. Neither of you do.”
Josh puffed out a breath. “Nikki, this is for the best.”
Nikki trusted that he meant what he said, but how could he know that? He hasn’t seen what I’ve seen. He was never dropped off at a home packed with sad eyed children he didn’t know with all his belongings in a trash bag. He hadn’t had to start a new school every few months or sleep in his clothes at night so none of the other kids would steal them. Josh didn’t understand all the terrible things that could happen when someone came into your life and said you have to leave everything behind.
“I’m not going.”
Josh groaned. “I can’t believe we are even talking about this. You’re going. Of course, you’re going.”
Chair legs creaked on the hardwood floors as Perry got to his feet. “I think I’ll… uh go wait outside while you two discuss this.”
Nikki grabbed the marshal’s wrist. “There’s no need to wait. There isn’t going to be a discussion.”
Josh smacked his hand on the table. “Nik—”
“I’ve made my decision. You don’t get to make this choice for me, Josh. And if any part of you thinks you can, we’re not ready to walk down any aisles.”
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