Is his crush sweet as sugar or sinister as sin?
After escaping a life marred by crime, Nicole Appleton flees to small town Saint Claire and starts a business of her own. She still craves forgiveness and maybe a family, but could anyone love her once they discover she sugar-coated her past?
When sheriff’s deputy, Josh Bennet, arrives on the scene of a break-in at the local doughnut shop, he finds evidence incriminating his not-so-secret-crush. Is the fair beauty being framed or is she the mastermind trafficking drugs through his hometown? When things turn deadly, Josh must discover who the real villain is before it’s too late. And he’s praying that it’s not her.
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Lord, please don’t let her be there.
Deputy Josh Bennet always drove fast when responding to a burglary-in-progress call, but on this trip, his heart seemed to out-pace the tires of his Nadine County Sheriff’s Department patrol car. Gripping the steering wheel, Josh watched his whitened knuckles turn from red to blue and back again with the flashing of his lights as he struggled to hear the blaring siren over the pounding of his heart.
The ready-to-be-harvested corn fields shook in the periphery of his high beams, zipping by his window along the winding dirt roads that he’d been patrolling throughout the night. Fallen leaves blew across his windshield as he sped toward Apple’s Fritters—St. Claire, Pennsylvania’s beloved doughnut shop in the small but bustling center of town.
The dashboard clock read 3:45. Just five minutes earlier, Mike Whitaker, one of only two city police officers, had radioed for an assist during what had been just another boring, Friday morning graveyard shift. Mike had been out in the hills when dispatch alerted him to a 911 call by an unnamed woman saying one sentence before hanging up: They’re robbing the doughnut shop.
Josh didn’t know how early Nikki Appleton, the shop’s owner, arrived to start her day but, if she showed up in the middle of a robbery, more important things than locks might be broken. And there was no way Josh would let that happen.
Especially not to the mysterious beauty who had yet to accept a date from him.
Who could possibly want to break in? The question haunted him as he pressed the gas pedal even harder.
The tires slid as Josh skidded around a sharp turn, leaving the gravel behind for the smooth pavement of Main Street. Speeding around the gentle curve of the roundabout in the town’s center, Josh looked for the little barn-shaped storefront that was Nikki’s pride and joy.
He turned off his siren as he approached so he would be able to hear any sounds of a disturbance. The shop was dark and the panes of glass embedded in the front door were intact. Even the chalkboard sign scrawled with a graceful ‘closed’ was hanging in its place.
Was this a prank call? Or maybe a mistake? What if the caller meant a different building?
Josh’s eyes darted to Quilting Dee’s yarn and fabric store and then to Poppy’s Pies and Tarts, but they looked dark as well. The only light came from the street lamps, but their peaceful golden hue didn’t reassure him as he squeezed the vehicle into the alley that led to a small customer parking lot behind Apple’s. He knew from his military days that things weren’t always how they looked and it was too soon to get an accurate read on the situation.
The trash cans were upright and pushed against the siding where they should be, but a sudden knot of concern twisted in Josh’s chest when he saw Nikki’s old red truck parked in one of the spaces.
Was she inside? Was the burglar in there with her? The 911 caller had said they. She’d said, “They’re robbing the doughnut shop.” What if there were more than one of them? Josh knew how precious Nikki’s doughnut shop was to her. What if she tried to stop them by herself?
After whipping into a parking spot, Josh threw his shifter into park and then opened his door with one hand while the other moved to the gun at his hip. No way was he waiting for back-up. He was going in now.
Josh jumped out of the driver’s seat and marched toward the door. As he passed the truck he caught a glimpse of the dark outline of a figure and then Nikki’s face appeared, lit up by the flashing lights from his car. The knot of dread loosened. She was outside. Now he needed to make her stay outside.
Nikki blinked in confusion and then smiled when she recognized him. She stepped down out of her truck and strolled his way, tugging her black locks through the neck strap of her checkered apron.
“I know cops really like their doughnuts, but I haven’t even gotten through the door yet. I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a bit for your French cruller and black coffee. I may get here at 4:00 every morning but the doughnuts don’t go out until 6:00.” She pulled the apron strings around her waist.
“Get back in your truck.” Josh waved her back with a hand as he scanned the area.
“What is it? What’s going on?”
“Just get back behind the wheel and drive away.”
“You’re scaring me, Josh.”
He turned back when her voice faltered and got caught in her deep blue eyes. Frightening her was not part of his plan, but he couldn’t worry about her feelings until he no longer had to worry about her safety.
“I’m not going anywhere until you tell me what’s happened.” She put her hands on her hips.
Why did she always have to be so stubborn? She seemed determined to do everything alone. Nikki was one of the kindest people he’d ever met, and yet, he could practically see the wall around her heart, keeping everyone out. Could anything get through it? Or anyone? Josh had taken a chance once, but she’d turned him down. If the small-town-gossip was right, she turned everyone down.
Josh sucked in a breath and looked skyward. “St. Claire police got a call about an ongoing burglary at your shop. Mike radioed for help because he was pretty far out.”
Her gaze turned towards her shop. Dread filled her eyes. “I’m definitely not leaving now. That’s my place. I had almost nothing when I got here, but I still gave it all for this. Everything in there is a part of me. Even the chair you sit at every morning. I’m. Not. Leaving.”
“I’m not going to put you in danger.” He gritted his teeth. “I can handle this. Now get back in the truck.”
Still, she wouldn’t back down. “Are you really going to waste time fighting with me while someone could be inside destroying all I have in the world or can we just get moving?”
It didn’t have to be all she had. But that was a conversation for a different day, because right now, he had a perp to catch. And time was of the essence.
Josh undid the snap holding his pistol in its holster and pulled out the weapon. “Stay behind me.”
Gentle footsteps synced up with his own. “Thank you,” Nikki whispered.
“Can we get in through the back door?” Josh motioned at the large forest green door with the barrel of his gun. Nothing looked out of place.
“No. It locks from the inside. We’ll have to go around front. Like I always do.” The tapping of her feet quickened.
Josh crept around the building, staying flat against the side as he listened in case the intruder tried to escape from the back. All was silent until Josh’s boot landed on something uneven that made a crackling sound. He raised his foot and found a pile of broken glass. Lifting his head, he saw that a small ventilation window just above them was shattered. The burglary call was no mistake.
Nikki gasped and he twisted around, gesturing with his hand to keep moving. When they got to the single rustic-styled front door, Josh reached out a hand to press on the wood, but even though he’d been gentle, the door fell open with a bang and hung precariously on one hinge. It had been forced open and then propped back up to mask the damage. Nikki whimpered behind him but he couldn’t comfort her yet. He had to focus.
Blackness obscured anything beyond the frame and so Josh pulled the small flashlight off his belt and positioned it on top of the sliding mechanism of his gun, illuminating their way. Instantly, the beam spotlighted one of the dining chairs, knocked over, its spindles broken and reduced to splinters.
Josh’s heart sank when he got a look at the damage. He couldn’t fathom what Nikki must be thinking. The hand-painted tables she’d spent hours perfecting were overturned. The delicate teacups and saucers that had matched the pastel colors of the sign out front were now just bits of porcelain scattered across the refinished hardwood floors. And to top it off, the locally painted art was now dirt-smudged canvas strips strewn about the dining area. Nikki had worked hard to make this eatery everyone’s home away from home and now here it was, sacked to ruins.
Josh kept his beam up and swiveled in slow motion trying to spot any sign of movement, but the only thing he found was the swing of the old bronze chandelier Nikki had restored herself. The intricate piece swayed above their heads in a tangled, misshapen mess.
“They’ve destroyed it,” Nikki moaned.
Bits of dishes crunched under his big soles as he made his way behind the counter. On the floor lay the old-fashioned cash register, the cash drawer pried open. “Do you keep a lot of money in there overnight?” He glanced through the store’s front windows. Where were Mike and the other deputies? He couldn’t have been the only one to respond.
“No. Most of the day’s earnings get deposited in the bank on my way home in the evening. All that would have been in there was enough cash to make change.” Her voice sounded detached and weak. Lord, please don’t let her go into shock.
His light moved to the entrance to the kitchen. The dining room was clear, but the vandal could still be in there. Josh lowered his voice, “I want you to stay right here while I check it out.”
Her hand wrapped around his arm. “Josh.”
He shook it off. “I’m not kidding. Stay. Here.”
At the crash of metal on metal, Josh bolted through the swinging door to the interior of the kitchen. “County Sheriff’s Department! Don’t move!”
He was met with tiny, blinding flashes as his light hit the curved sides of metal mixing bowls tossed carelessly all over the tile floor. Blinking away the spots in front of his eyes, he scanned the area for an intruder.
The destruction from the dining area was echoed in here. Shelves had been cleared of their neatly stacked containers of ingredients and the fryer was on its side after having been pulled away from the wall. Josh spied a gaping hole in the drywall. The drain trays had fallen out and the frying baskets were thrown into a growing pool of oil.
No one else was there, but what had made the noise? A cool breeze drew Josh’s gaze to a window high up on a wall to his right. It must be the broken window he’d seen outside. Did someone just climb through it? No. Josh had sprinted in here. They wouldn’t have had time.
Motionless but alert, he methodically swept the scene with his flashlight. There. A rustling noise. Josh tiptoed towards the sound, his steps muffled by the soft bed of flour that now blanketed the floor.
All he found was an overturned tub tucked into a corner. The container quivered, the edge popping up and then dropping again and again on the mishmash of baking ingredients covering the small, ceramic squares. Josh hooked the corner with a foot, and then, in one swift motion, flipped it.
Instead of a raccoon or a rat, he found a trio of kittens lapping at a river of spilled milk.
“You think those guys are my vandals?” The kitchen lights flickered to life.
Josh spun around to see Nikki standing in the doorway, arms folded over her chest and a scowl on her face.
“I thought I told you to stay out.” Josh flicked off the flashlight now dwarfed by the overhead halogens and clipped it back on his utility belt with a snap.
Nikki couldn’t believe the current condition of her shop. How long would it take to get things back up and running? She couldn’t afford the loss in sales. Yet, could she even afford to fix what had been broken? Apple’s Fritters was everything to her. Her work gave her purpose and her success had made it possible to buy her little farmhouse—the first real home she’d ever had. How was she going to pay her mortgage if she was forced to close? Who would even want to do this to her?
She forced the thought away. No. He’s gone forever.
She didn’t want to cry anymore or feel scared. She wanted to be mad, even if she was aiming that anger at someone who didn’t deserve it: the county’s cutest sheriff’s deputy, Josh Bennet.
“I wasn’t just going to leave you and I wasn’t going to let whoever did this get away.”
“I’m a cop, Nikki.” He groaned. “You aren’t. And to answer your question: no, I don’t think these are our vandals.”
She looked at the little pack of intruders. Her life might be a mess but theirs didn’t have to be. “Poor little guys.” She grabbed the one tea towel not thrown on the ground and a wicker picnic basket that used to hold napkins stamped with the shop’s name and tiptoed through the mess. “I guess you guys will just have to come home with me.”
Their little bodies vibrated against her palm as they purred. One by one, she placed them in the basket, happy she could protect them even if she couldn’t protect herself.
“I wonder how the kittens got in. The broken window is too high for them to climb through so this door must’ve been open at some point.” Josh moved to the back door, placing his gun back in its holster as he stepped over debris. He pushed the long silver bar across it to check the lock and the whole thing rattled and fell open, letting in a cool morning breeze. It had been damaged and then replaced in the frame just like the front door.
Nikki stood to her feet, the basket in her arms.
She couldn’t avoid it any longer. She let her eyes wander, surveying the damage.
“Look at this mess.” Her head was spinning. She clutched the basket tighter, suddenly scared she might drop it. “Look at what they did.”
The tears weren’t going to be thwarted and came out in rebellious streams down her cheeks. Between sobs, she placed the kittens down on the icing table and covered her face with her hands.
A moment later, a comforting hand was on her back and then strong arms around her. The deputy pulled her into his chest.
She’d hate herself later for letting Josh see her so vulnerable but, for now, Nikki reached out her fingers, clutching the fabric of his uniform in her trembling fists. She raised her head to gaze into his eyes. They weren’t empty looking, like gray eyes could sometimes be, but intense, full, and inviting. Just like his lips. And in that moment, Nikki wanted nothing more. For a year, she’d been keeping him at a distance because she knew she wasn’t right for him, but suddenly, she didn’t have the strength to push him away. Still in his embrace, she raised herself up onto her toes, her body sliding against his, her mouth parting slightly in anticipation of finding out what he would taste like.
Her heart pounded in her ears. Her breath hitched. She needed this. Needed him.
But just as she was about to close the last bit of distance between them, Josh pulled away, releasing her.
“Why?” The word came out louder and more desperate than she meant it too. I just need you to fix things for a moment. For just one moment.
“I want to.” He rubbed a hand over his face. “You know that I do. It’s just that you’re upset right now and probably aren’t thinking clearly. If I kissed you, I’d feel like I was taking advantage.”
“And here I thought I was the one trying to kiss you.” Her face was on fire and she wanted to hide under a table. His rejection was a blow to the stomach. I finally put myself out there and he pushes me away?
“Well, I couldn’t let you.”
“Let me?” She stepped back from his embrace and narrowed her gaze. Was Josh just another man that wanted to control her? Was she wrong about him being one of the good ones? Would he hurt her just like everyone else?
The deputy drew in a slow breath and let it out in a quick puff. “Nikki, I’m not going to fight with you. I’m just trying to do the right thing by you.”
“Well, I don’t need you to do anything by me.”
Josh took a step forward, trying to close the space she had just put between them, but was stopped at the sound of approaching sirens. “That will be the backup.”
“Good.” Nikki blew past him back out to the dining room calling out over her shoulder. “Maybe one of them can figure out who just ruined my life.”
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.
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Lizzy Bennet loves life as a lawyer in the city. And not just because of the miles it puts between her and her ex. However, when she’s attacked on the street just hours after learning her identity was stolen, she tries to call home for help and ends up with the last person she expects: the very same high school boyfriend who broke her heart. He says he’s there to help, but she’s not so sure, and now, all the endless questions and regrets are clouding her judgment and preventing her from seeing the dangerous saboteur closing in.
Small-town auto mechanic, Koby Knightly, is looking forward to seeing a car show in the city. But when an unexpected call from his old girlfriend disconnects suddenly, he rushes to her aid. Throwing his plans out the window, Koby makes it his mission to protect her and discover the identity of the person trying to frame her. Will he also be able to figure out what went wrong between them back in high school or will a killer get to her first?