He lost his mentor.
He lost his K9 partner.
He almost lost his will to live.
But when a ruthless killer targets a woman on the run, Theo and his new K9 companion will do whatever it takes to survive—and save the woman neither can live without.
Grieving the death of his partner, Theo Bosco has no room in his life for distractions. Though his instincts scream that he should avoid Juliet ‘Jules’ Jackson, he can’t seem to stay away. It doesn’t help that Theo’s new K9 companion has fallen head over paws with Jules’s rambunctious family.
Or that when he’s with her, Theo finally knows peace.
When Jules rescued her siblings, whisking them away to the safety of the beautifully rugged Colorado Rockies, she never expected to catch the eye—or the heart—of a cop. Yet as Jules struggles to fight her growing attraction to the brooding K9 officer, another threat lurks much closer to home…
And this time, there’s no escape.
The new waitress was hot. Squirrelly, but hot.
Theo always got to the diner early for the K9 unit’s breakfast and informal roll call. Those fifteen minutes before Otto and Hugh showed up usually were, if not exactly peaceful, at least a break from having to hide the mess he’d become. This morning, though, he was distracted by the way the dark-haired stranger kept trying not to stare at him. Since she didn’t seem to be bothered by anyone else in the diner, Theo assumed his uniform was making her nervous—and her nerves were putting him on edge. He’d caught himself watching her four times already, and he’d only been in the diner for five minutes.
A mug thumped on the table in front of him, and Theo turned his frown toward Megan. They had a morning ritual: He scowled. She aggressively delivered his food and coffee. Neither said a word.
This morning, as Megan was turning away, Theo was almost tempted to break the silence. He caught himself before a question about the new server popped out of his mouth. Stopping the words just in time, he snatched up his coffee and took a drink, burning his tongue in the process. He set down the mug with enough force to make the coffee almost slosh over the rim. Shit.
Before Theo could stop himself, his gaze searched out the new waitress again. She was delivering two plates of food to a table across the diner. By the look of concentration on her face and the exaggerated care she was taking, Theo assumed she was new to waiting tables. She was definitely new to Monroe, Colorado. If she’d been around, he would’ve noticed her. There was no doubt about that.
As she turned away from the table, smiling, their gazes caught for a second before she ducked her head and hurried toward the kitchen. He knew he shouldn’t take it personally. Theo had the feeling she would have had the same response to any cop.
“Who’s that?” Otto dropped onto the bench next to him.
Tearing away his gaze, Theo gave his fellow K9 officer a flat stare. “Move.”
“No.” Otto stretched out his legs until his lumberjack-sized boots bumped the opposite bench. “I always sit here.”
Just for the past two months. Theo didn’t want to say that, though. That might’ve led to talking about what had happened two months ago, and he really didn’t want to discuss it. Still, he couldn’t let it drop. “I’m not one of your wounded strays.”
Otto made a noncommittal sound that heated Theo’s simmering anger another few degrees. Before he could rip into Otto, Hugh slid into the opposite side of the booth.
“Hey.” Hugh greeted them with his standard, easygoing grin. “Who’s the new waitress?”
“You’re not going to squeeze onto this bench, too?” Theo asked with thick sarcasm.
Hugh gave Theo a too-earnest look. “Did you want me to sit with you two? Because I can. It’ll be cozy.”
Several smart-assed retorts hovered on Theo’s tongue, but he swallowed them down. All that would do was convince Hugh to move to Theo’s and Otto’s side of the table, and they’d be uncomfortable and awkward all through breakfast. Behind Hugh’s placid exterior was a mile-high wall of stubbornness.
Theo stayed silent.
With a slight smirk, Hugh settled back on his side of the table. “Anything fun and exciting happen last night?”
“Eh,” Otto said with a lift of one shoulder. “Carson Byers got picked up again.”
Hugh frowned. “That’s not fun. Or exciting. In fact, that’s something that happens almost every shift. What was it this time?”
“He was drunk and thought the Andersons’ house was his again?”
“The Daggs’ place this time.”
“Wait. Isn’t that on the other side of town?”
Only half listening, Theo let the other men’s conversation wash over him. His gaze wandered to find the new server again. She was topping off the coffee mugs of the customers sitting at the counter as she listened to something Megan was telling her.
“I ran into Sherry at the gas station last night.”
Otto’s too-casual statement jerked Theo’s attention back to their conversation.
Rubbing the back of his head, Hugh asked, “How’s she doing?”
“Not good. But what do you expect when her dad—”
“Let me out.” Theo cut off the rest of Otto’s words, glaring at him until the other man slid out of the booth. As Theo stalked from the table, there was only silence behind him—a heavy, suffocating silence. He didn’t have a destination in mind except away, but his feet carried him toward the new server as if they had a mind of their own.
The woman watched him, her blue eyes getting wider and wider, until he stopped in front of her. They stared at each other for several moments. She was even prettier and looked even more scared up close. There were dark shadows smudged beneath her eyes, and her face had a drawn, tight look. Her throat moved as she swallowed, and her eyes darted to the side. Theo tensed, his cop instincts urging him to chase her if she ran.
When she ran.
“Theo,” Megan barked as she passed, “go sit down. You’re being creepy.”
He shot her a frown, but most of his attention was still on the new server. “What’s your name?”
She swallowed again and tried to force a smile, but it quickly fell away. “Jules. Um…for Julie.” Even in those few words, her Southern drawl was obvious.
“Uh…Jackson.” Her gaze jumped toward the door.
“Where are you from?” He couldn’t stop asking questions. It was partly his ingrained curiosity, and partly a personal interest he couldn’t seem to smother.
Theo called bullshit on that. While she’d said her last name too slowly, this had come too fast, like he’d asked her a quiz question that she’d studied for. He could see the tension vibrating through her, her body projecting the urge to flee. What was she running from? An abusive husband? The consequences of a crime she’d committed? “What brings you to Colorado?”
“It’s…a nice state?” Her eyes squeezed closed for a second, as if she was mentally reprimanding herself.
Every glance at the door, every stifled flinch, every half-assed response just made Theo more suspicious. “You move here by yourself?”
“I…um…” Her hunted gaze fixed on Megan’s back, but the other server was occupied helping a little boy get ketchup out of a recalcitrant bottle and didn’t see her silent plea. “I should get back to work.”
“Wait.” Without thinking, he reached for her arm.
“Theo.” Hugh stood right behind him, and Theo’s jaw tightened as his hand dropped to his side. Why did they feel a need to watch him like he was an unstable bomb? “Food’ll be here soon.”
Theo didn’t want to return to the table, didn’t want to eat, didn’t want to talk about Sherry or anything else. What he did want was to find out more about the new, pretty, squirrelly waitress whose name may—but more likely may not—be Julie Jackson.
He was tempted to send Hugh back to the table without him, but what was the point? All she would do was keep lying…badly. Later, in the squad car, he’d run her name, although “Julie Jackson” from Arkansas would produce enough hits to keep him busy for months.
He’d give it time. They were at the diner every morning. He’d have plenty of opportunities to try to get information.
Assuming she didn’t skip town first.
Ignoring his screaming instincts—his curiosity—his interest—he gave a short, reluctant nod and returned to the table. He could wait.
Still, it was hard not looking back.
One Week Earlier
“Mr. Espina…” Jules’s voice cracked on the last syllable. Clearing her throat, she forced her fist to release the crumpled handful of skirt and tried again. “Mr. Espina, I need your help.”
Mateo Espina didn’t say a word. In fact, he didn’t even twitch a muscle. It was a struggle not to stare at him. He was just so different than his brother that it was hard to believe the two were related. For over three years, Jules had worked for Luis Espina, and she’d never, ever been this nervous. Luis was a chatterbox who wore a constant, beaming, contagious smile on his round face. His brother, on the other hand, was all hard lines and angles, glaring eyes, and stubble. Even the tattoos peeking from his shirt collar and rolled-up cuffs looked angry.
Jules realized she’d been silent for much too long, and she had to hide her cringe. It had been almost impossible to set up this meeting with Mr. Espina, and she was crashing and burning not even five minutes and ten words in. As she opened her mouth to say who knew what, a bored voice interrupted.
“What can I get you two?”
Although Mr. Espina ordered a beer from the server, Jules stuck to water. The meeting would be hard enough with all of her wits about her. Besides, the sad fact was that she was broke. Drinks were the last thing on her stuff-I-need-to-buy list. Lawyers were number one. Good lawyers. Miracle-working lawyers.
“I was hoping,” she said, “that you could give me a reference.”
There was a reaction to that. It wasn’t much of one—just the slightest lift of his eyebrow and twitch of a small muscle in his cheek.
“Although I wasn’t charged with anything, I lost my CPA license and all my clients when Luis was investigated.” The remembered terror and humiliation of being questioned by the FBI made her hands shake, and she clutched them together to keep them still. “I didn’t give them any information about Luis’s finances, though, even after they told me I’d be able to keep my license and my business if I did. My clients’ confidentiality is sacred.”
Instead of looking pleased by that, Mr. Espina’s entire face drew tight, stiffening into a hard mask. His voice was smooth, deep, and as cold as ice. “Are you threatening me, Ms. Young?”
Horror flushed through her, turning her blood cold and then hot enough to burn. “No! No, God, no! I’m not an idiot! I mean, it was probably dumb of me to work as Luis’s accountant when I knew he wasn’t great at…well, coloring inside the lines, but I’m not trying to threaten you! I just wanted…”
The sheer futility of what she was attempting flooded her, and she started to stand. “Never mind. I’m sorry to have wasted your time. I’ll figure something out.”
“Sit.” Something about his clipped tone made her obey before she realized what she was doing. “What do you want?”
“A job.” Once again, the command in his voice had her answering before she considered whether it was wise to be so blunt. “I know Luis would give me a reference and, well, new employer contact information, if he wasn’t…” She paused, trying to think of a polite term. “Dealing with more serious concerns right now.”
Those dark, dark eyes regarded her over his raised beer for a long time. Jules let him stare, determined not to break again. “You want me to hire you?” he finally asked.
“Oh, not you!” she blurted, and then cringed. “Sorry. That came out wrong. I’d be happy to work with you, of course. It’s just…I have expenses, so I need to have more than one client—unless I find a single client with extensive accounting needs. I was thinking I could work for some of Luis’s colleagues, since they’d probably not care about the whole FBI thing, as long as I know what I’m doing and can keep my mouth shut.”
Mr. Espina didn’t hurry to answer her. Instead, he eyed her for another painfully long time before finally speaking. “Anyone specific in mind?”
“The Blanchetts?” she suggested tentatively. Most of Luis’s business associates had been names on a computer screen to her. At best, she’d met a few in passing. “Maybe the Jovanovics?”
He choked—actually choked—on his beer when she said the second name. Carefully placing the bottle on the table, he sat back and closed his eyes for several seconds.
“So that’s a no on the Jovanovics?” Disappointment flooded her. They’d been her best prospect. With their hands in what seemed like every not-quite-legal pie, their empire was huge. She’d imagined that the Jovanovics needed a good accountant—and a discreet one.
“It’s a no. On the Blanchetts, too.”
“Oh.” Her disappointment was quickly heading toward despair. “Is there anyone you could recommend?”
That single bald word made Jules’s eyes burn with threatening tears. She wasn’t a crier. Even as a little girl, she’d rarely cried. It was just that Mr. Espina had been her only hope of getting the kind of job she needed to afford the kind of lawyers she needed. Her tough, sixteen-year-old brother had actually cried on the phone with her the night before—cried and begged to live with her. If Sam was breaking, God only knew how bad it was getting for him and the younger kids. This had been her one clear chance to get the money she needed to help them. Staring at Mr. Espina’s expressionless face, she felt the last of her dwindling optimism being sucked out of her, leaving Jules hopeless and planless and heartbroken.
She bit the inside of her cheek hard enough to shock herself out of self-pity. This wasn’t the end of her dream. This couldn’t be the end. She’d keep fighting for her brothers and her sister until the youngest, Dee, turned eighteen. Even if Jules was broke and lawyerless, she’d still do whatever it took to get her siblings out of that house.
Jules stood as well as she could on shaking legs and said, “Okay. Thank you, Mr. Espina.”
This time, she managed to resist the compulsion to obey and moved until she was standing next to the table. Digging in her purse, she pulled out a crumpled ten and laid it next to her untouched water. Even though Mr. Espina hadn’t been much—or any—help, he had met with her. Also, he hadn’t killed her. The least she could do was buy his beer.
“Thank you for your help, but I need to go now.” She tried and failed to force a smile. “Job hunting to do.” She turned to leave.
“Ms. Young.” Automatic courtesy made her stop and look over her shoulder. “No matter what lawyer you hire, you will never get legal custody of your brothers and sister.”
Her entire body jerked as if he’d stabbed her. It wasn’t only the shock of realizing that Mr. Espina—a stranger, and a terrifying one at that—was aware of her family’s situation. She’d never allowed herself to consider that she might fail to get custody. Hearing the words out loud was more horrible than she’d ever imagined.
“How did you… What?” she wheezed, her hand pressed to her chest.
Mr. Espina gestured toward her recently vacated seat, and she managed the few steps back to the table and plopped down on the bench. Her knees had gone even more wobbly, and she knew she had to sit before she fell.
“As you said, you could’ve made it worse for my brother. I appreciate that you didn’t.”
Her stunned brain didn’t register the words for a minute. Confused, Jules stared at him. “Then why aren’t you helping me?”
“I am helping you.” He pulled out his cell phone and tapped at his screen. Even the way he did that screamed aggression. Jules’s cell chirped from her purse. Instead of checking the text, she kept her gaze fixed on Mr. Espina. “Call Dennis Lee. I just sent you his number. He’ll get you what you need to take your family…elsewhere.”
“Take?” she repeated, knowing she sounded dazed. The conversation felt surreal.
“Ms. Young.” His gaze sharpened as he leaned forward slightly. It was the most engagement he’d shown for the entire meeting, and she mimicked his posture before she realized what she was doing. “Your father’s Alzheimer’s is getting worse. Your stepmother is not a good person. Your brothers and sister are in a bad situation. You need to get them out.”
“But…” Her voice lowered until barely any sound escaped. “Kidnapping?”
“Sometimes you have to trust what you feel in your gut to be right, even if others are telling you it’s wrong.”
The idea was overwhelming, terrifying, and wonderful, all at the same time. For years, through countless frustrating, futile, expensive custody battles, Jules had followed the rules. It had gotten her nowhere. Her siblings were still stuck in hell, and Jules was broke and desperate enough to work for criminals. Maybe it was time to change the rules. Maybe, if she started playing dirty, her family could win for once.
Maybe instead of working for criminals, she should become one.
“It’d never work.” The tempting dream of just stealing her brothers and sister away crumbled. “There’d be an Amber Alert. Their pictures—my picture—would be everywhere. We wouldn’t even make it out of the state before someone would recognize us. My stepmother would paint me as a monster. No one would believe that she…” Jules couldn’t finish the thought. It was too awful. “I’d go to prison, and the kids would lose their last hope of escape.”
Mr. Espina didn’t look bothered. “I’ll have a talk with your father’s wife. After that, she won’t report the children’s disappearance.”
“Uh…what kind of talk?”
“Nothing violent.” He seemed amused by her wary tone. “I’ll just make her aware that I have information she won’t want getting out.”
Jules clenched her hands into fists. “That won’t work. She won’t care. I’ve been trying to get people to believe me for years, but Courtney has the perfect-mother act down.”
His unruffled expression did not waver. “It will work. I have video.”
“Video?” Her stomach lurched. “You can’t make that public. Sam…”
He raised a hand, and her objection trailed off. “The threat will be enough. She won’t go to the police.”
Jules studied his face as she chewed the inside of her lip. “She won’t just let them go. She’ll hire private investigators if she has to.”
“If that happens, you’ll deal with it.”
“I… Yes.” His calm certainty brought a trickle of optimism. She could deal with a PI, just one person searching for them, rather than every member of law enforcement, every concerned person who saw their pictures on TV or the Internet. Mr. Espina’s threat just made kidnapping—as crazy as it seemed—a viable possibility.
“Ms. Young.” She was jerked out of her thoughts as Mr. Espina pushed a laptop case across the table toward her. Jules’s gaze bounced from the bag to his face and back again as she tried to figure out what he was doing. “In thanks for what you did for Luis. He’s a pain in the ass, but he’s my brother, and I love him.”
“Consider it a bonus that Luis never got around to giving you.” After dropping a few bills on the table, Mr. Espina picked up her crumpled ten and held it out to Jules. With numb fingers, she automatically accepted it. He slid from his seat and moved toward the exit. Jules stared at his back, too bewildered by the entire meeting to call after him. Instead, she watched as he walked out the door.
Refocusing on the laptop bag, she cautiously pulled it to her. It was lighter than she’d expected, and she lowered it to her lap before tugging open the heavy zipper. Inside was a bulky envelope.
Her teeth closing on the sore spot where she’d bitten the inside of her cheek earlier, Jules unfastened the clasp without taking the envelope out of the bag. The unsealed flap opened easily, and she tilted the envelope so she could see inside.
Catching a glimpse of the contents, she restrained a gasp that would’ve carried through the bar and down the street. Instead, she made a small sound, part squeak and part sigh, touching the stacks of twenty-dollar bills with a disbelieving brush of her fingers.
Her heart was racing as thoughts ran through her mind, too quickly for her to make sense of any of them. The first thing she was able to grab hold of was the idea that she’d just been given a whole lot of money—most likely dirty money. Jules thought she’d accepted her decision to dive into a life of crime, but the sight of all that cash shocked her.
I can’t keep the money, one part of her brain kept telling her. She barely knew Mr. Espina. For goodness’ sake, she still called him Mr. Espina. Who handed off stacks of cash like that to a near stranger?
Apparently, Mr. Espina did. She supposed that was one more thing she knew about Mr. Espina, then.
A hysterical giggle bubbled into her throat, threatening to escape. She swallowed, holding down the laughter that would only draw curious stares. Jules did not want any stares, curious or otherwise—not when she was toting a bag full of dirty money.
Should she keep it? Could she keep it?
For her family? Yes. Yes, she could.
Mr. Espina’s words rang in her brain, cementing her resolve. She’d wasted enough time, left her siblings in that hellhole for too long. It was time to do what she had to, no matter how badly it scared her.
She resealed the clasp and zipped the bag with hands that trembled even more than before. Jules was surprised her entire body wasn’t vibrating with nerves. Gathering the precious bag and her purse, Jules stood and hurried for the door as fast as she could without looking like she was rushing to leave the bar with a bagful of money.
Once she was in her elderly Camry with the air conditioner running, the windows up, and the doors locked, she called the number Mr. Espina had texted her. Dennis Lee. Jules knew that if she didn’t contact him immediately, she might talk herself out of it.
As the line rang, Jules tapped a still-shaking finger against the steering wheel.
“This is Dennis.”
The smooth tone took her off guard. Maybe she’d been watching too many movies, but she’d expected a “disappearance expert” to answer the phone with a barked “What?!” or even just a surly grunt. Dennis sounded like a college professor answering calls in his office.
Jules jumped. “Oh. Sorry. Yes. I…um. I got your number from Mr. Espina. He thought you might be able to help me…plan a trip.” She winced. Her attempt at code made her sound like an idiot.
“Plan a trip?” Apparently, Dennis agreed with her; his words carried more than a hint of amusement. “I’m a travel agent now?”
“Well, I…” She trailed off, flustered. Did he really want her to tell him flat out what she needed? Shouldn’t they be on a secure line or something? Although Jules wasn’t positive what a secure line entailed, she was fairly sure it didn’t involve cell phones in a parking lot at five thirty in the evening. “Could we meet somewhere to talk about this?”
He was silent for a long, long time. As she waited for him to respond, she felt a trickle of sweat follow the line of her spine until it met the waistband of her skirt.
“Let’s take a walk,” he finally said, and her head fell back against the seat in relief. “Are you familiar with Collins Park?”
“Yes.” Glancing at the digital clock, she did some mental math. Taking the rush-hour traffic into account, she’d be able to make it there in about an hour.
“I’ll meet you by the dinosaurs at six.”
“Oh, but…” Her protests fell into empty air. He’d already ended the call. Jules let out a puff of breath and tossed her phone into the passenger’s seat. Reversing out of the parking spot, she set her jaw.
She was going to do this. All her efforts to follow the rules had gotten her nowhere. She’d never get legal custody, and her brothers and sister needed to get out of that house. If she had to become a kidnapper to make that happen, so be it.
This is it. Jules, former lifelong rule follower, was jumping across the line into felon-hood.
As she flew out of the parking lot, Jules was a bit disappointed that her tires didn’t squeal.
The cop was back.
Jules fumbled with the sugar packets she was refilling as she tried to watch without him noticing. She had to admit that he was gorgeous. In her old life—her other life—she might have flirted with him. Now, she looked at the uniform and all she could see was the prison time it represented. She wanted to hide—almost enough to duck into the walk-in cooler in back and not come out until he was gone. Jules’s fear of the cooler, however—with its heavy, safe-like door and exterior light switch and horribly claustrophobic feel—was just slightly greater than her fear of facing the hot police officer.
“Seriously?” Megan muttered, making Jules jump and scatter sugar packets across the counter. “He’s here again? Why can’t he just keep his cranky ass at home and stop ruining everyone else’s day?”
Her laugh came out as more of a gasp, drawing a sharp look from Megan.
“You all right? Don’t you let him bother you, okay? He’s surly to everyone, so it’s nothing you did. He didn’t used to be this bad, at least not until… Well, let’s not talk about that. Want to do rock-paper-scissors to see who has to take table four?”
Jules’s laugh came easier that time. She was relieved that Megan thought Jules’s nerves were because of Theo’s crabbiness, rather than the fact that he was a cop. The last thing she needed was for Megan to be suspicious of her too. “Sure.”
Under the cover of the counter, they held their fists out and chanted quietly, “One, two, three!”
Jules sighed at her smothered rock. “Shoot. Well, thanks for the offer.”
“If I were a nice person, I’d take the pissy cop’s table anyway.” When Jules looked at her hopefully, Megan smirked. “I said ‘if.’ I’m truly not a nice person.”
Jules watched Megan walk toward one of her tables. Her shoulders lifting and dropping again in a sigh, Jules stiffened her spine. She just needed to be confident. She also needed to not let the cop’s air of authority—as well as his muscled forearms and pretty dark-brown eyes—reduce her to the babbling idiot she’d become the last time he’d been at the diner. For goodness’ sake, she’d messed up her name. Her name. If she wanted to survive in her new life, she needed to step up her game. Firming her jaw, she picked up a coffeepot and headed to Theo’s table.
He watched her, his frown deepening with each step, and she fought the urge to slow or, better yet, turn tail and run.
“Morning.” She turned the mug in front of him right side up with shaky fingers. His wary eyes—almost black and alarmingly perceptive—took in everything, including, she was sure, her obvious unease. “Did you need a menu?”
Jules caught herself before he could respond.
“Sorry.” Her flush prickled her chest and moved up to her face to warm her cheeks. “Of course you don’t need a menu. You probably know everything on there by now. Well, I’m guessing you do. I’ve only seen you here once, but Megan mentioned you’re a regular.”
Abruptly, Jules stopped talking. More of the nervous babble pressed on her lungs, wanting out. Afraid to open her mouth again in case she started talking and wasn’t able to stop until she told this man—this police officer!—everything he shouldn’t know, she forced a smile and stayed quiet. She was turning out to be a terrible felon.
“Number three,” he said after another pause just long enough to make her uncomfortable. “Scrambled.”
“Got it.” Jules scribbled down the order, relieved to have something to focus on other than his too-intense gaze. He looked at her like he could see everything about her, and there were so many things she wanted to keep hidden. When she glanced up, she kept her eyes away from his, focusing on his left earlobe instead. “That’ll be right out.”
After picking up the coffeepot again, she began to turn around, relieved. A sound behind her, something halfway between a masculine grunt and a throat clearing, made her stop reluctantly. Jules focused on his other earlobe this time, trying not to show her renewed panic. “Was there something else you needed?”
“Where are you staying?” He bit off each word, making him sound like he was angry he had to speak to her.
The mild, unfocused fear blossomed into terror. Why was he asking? Was he investigating her? His frown deepened when she took a beat too long to answer, and she rushed out her response. “Um…in Monroe.”
Her paranoia was feeding her panic, and she gave a vague wave toward the north. “On the edge of town.”
If he narrowed his eyes any more, he’d be squinting. “The blue house off of Orchard Street?”
“No.” Her feet moved of their own volition, and she took a step toward the door. This job was too important for her to run out on her second day, but the cop’s questioning was pushing her to the point where she just wanted to escape, paycheck or no paycheck.
“The old Garmitt place, then.” It was a statement instead of a question, and the accuracy of the guess made her eyes widen despite herself. Jules knew fear and guilt must be plastered all over her face. “Heard someone had moved in there.”
“Uh…” Her mind raced as she scrambled to think of the best way to respond, to save this conversation from the quickly approaching crash and burn heading her way. “I’m not sure.” She barely caught herself before closing her eyes in exasperation. That was her clever save?
“Your address is Thirty-Two Blank Hill Lane.” Again, he said what should’ve been a question with such certainty that it came out as a statement of fact. “Did you buy it?”
“No.” Running was beginning to sound better and better. Jules was willing to do pretty much anything to get away from this man, this cop, who knew too much already.
“You rent then?” At her nod, he studied her. She stared back, determined not to say more. Every line in his body was held tightly, from the hard line of his mouth to his forearms to his erect spine. “What brings you to town?” he finally asked.
Her mouth opened, but nothing emerged as her thoughts bounced against each other in a chaotic mess. “This job?” Her voice was pitched too high, and the end of her sentence rose, turning it into a question. Jules resisted the urge to smack herself. Between her twitchy behavior and asinine answers, she knew that, even if he hadn’t been suspicious before, he would know for sure now that something wasn’t right. Her shoulders curled in as she wished for the power of invisibility. Either that or better acting skills—or any acting skills.
“What the hell, Theo?” Megan appeared out of nowhere, grasping Jules’s elbow and tugging. Although she jumped initially, Jules relaxed and allowed herself to be pulled a few steps away from the extremely awkward conversation—or interrogation? “I finally find an employee who can do basic math and doesn’t spit on people’s eggs, and she’s the one you inflict yourself on? Drink your coffee and be all broody, like you normally are. Quietly broody.”
The tiny muscle in Theo’s jaw pulsed with tension. Jules didn’t breathe as she waited for him to react. There was strained silence for several seconds before Theo spoke.
“Which one spits?”
“You missed my point.” Whatever else Megan was going to say was interrupted by the thump of the front entrance as it closed behind some new customers. “Be right with you!” Her gaze never left Theo’s face. In turn, he never looked away or flinched. The non-panicked corner of Jules’s brain was impressed with both of them.
“What’s up?” Another cop came to a stop next to the booth, reaching to gently bump Theo’s shoulder with his fist. Although the newcomer was wearing a congenial smile, there was a coiled tension to him. The way he placed his body almost, but not quite, between them and Theo said a lot. It was protective in a got-your-back kind of way, but it also showed that Theo had the lead, that the new guy wasn’t taking over the situation.
“Theo’s scaring my new waitress.” Megan’s glare shot toward the new arrival. “The one who can do math.”
“And doesn’t spit.” Theo’s deadpan delivery made Jules start, and an unbidden smile curled her mouth. Their gazes met, and the cop’s eyes seemed to soften for the shortest of moments. Even before Jules was certain she saw it, it was gone.
“Are those your only hiring qualifications? Adding, subtracting, and saliva control? T, maybe we need to look for a new place for our breakfast meetings.” There was humor in the cop’s voice, although his gaze was ready and watchful, moving from Theo to Megan to Jules.
Turning toward the kitchen while keeping a firm grip on Jules’s arm, Megan said over her shoulder, “Your food is safe, Hugh.”
His snort followed them out of the dining area.
“Sorry it took me so long to rescue you,” Megan apologized under her breath as she slammed through the kitchen door. Vicki glanced up from the grill, startled, but the cooking bacon quickly demanded her attention again. “I’d forgotten how weird everyone in this town gets with strangers. After you’ve been here a while, the newness will wear off, and things will go back to normal. And for Theo, normal is being all moody in his corner, muttering and glaring.”
Jules’s laugh sounded stilted, even to her own ears, and Megan gave her a concerned look.
“He didn’t say anything offensive to you, did he?”
“Oh no.” Waving a hand to dismiss the earlier conversation, Jules tried to force some sincerity into her reassuring smile. “He was just curious, I think. I’m just…awkward with strangers.” Especially strange police officers asking probing questions.
Megan eyed her doubtfully. “So you’re okay? You’re not going to quit and leave me?”
Now that Jules’s heart had a chance to slow down, her fear seemed a little extreme for the basic questions the cop had been asking. She reran their conversation in her mind and felt a little sheepish. There’d been nothing strange about his questions, considering she was new to town. Theo’s manner had been abrupt, but from what Megan had said, that was his standard behavior. He doesn’t know, she tried to reassure herself. He doesn’t know, or you’d already be in handcuffs in the back of his car.
“Jules?” Megan’s voice rose. “Are you staying?”
Yanking herself out of her warring paranoia and common sense, she sent her boss a smile. “No. I mean, yes, I’m staying, and no, I’m not quitting. Shouldn’t we get back to the front now?”
“Yes,” Vicki’s testy voice answered from the grill. “Get out of my kitchen before I chop up your bony asses and add you to today’s chowder.”
Megan widened her eyes at Jules in a mock-terrified way, and Jules had to smother a laugh.
“We’re going,” Megan said, shooing Jules toward the front and following close behind. “Sorry, Vicki!” There was an only slightly mollified grunt behind them.
As soon as they emerged into the dining area, Jules shot a nervous glance toward Theo’s table and swallowed a groan. Now there were three cops waiting for her. Her shoulders drooped for a second before she stiffened her spine. There were five more occupied tables in her section, and Jules needed to get to work. Giving Megan a final tiny wave, Jules headed toward the new customers, grabbing a fresh coffeepot on the way.
Deciding to get the scariest table over with first, Jules forced herself not to slow as she approached the cops. “Morning.” She busied herself pouring coffee into the two new guys’ mugs. “What can I get you?” Proud that her voice had wobbled only slightly, she topped off Theo’s cup and then dared to look at the men.
That was a mistake.
They were all staring at her. Only the one Megan had called Hugh was smiling, but all three were watching her with assessing gazes. Jules gripped the handle of the coffeepot tighter. Don’t run, don’t run, don’t run, she repeated in her head. They don’t know you. They don’t know what you’ve done. Quit acting like an idiot.
She couldn’t help it. Panic was rising, threatening to blow off the top of her head. If her fingers squeezed the handle any harder, it was going to crumble to dust in her fist. “Sorry!” she blurted, knowing she was talking too fast but unable to stop. “Let me run and see if anyone else needs coffee, and then I’ll put the pot back. I need two hands for my notebook and pen, since I’m still writing down orders. I’m sure I’ll be memorizing them soon, and I’ll know what you guys get without having to ask, but everything is new right now, since this is only my second day working here, so if you could just give me a minute…”
Sucking in a quick breath when she finally managed to pause, she took advantage of the cops’ startled reactions and darted toward her next table.
“Wait!” Hugh called after her, but she pretended not to hear as she smiled at the man sitting three booths down.
She started to raise the coffeepot to fill his mug, but she hesitated when she saw how hard her hand was shaking. As she tried to calm her wild nerves, she focused on the man at the table. The best word to describe him was “nondescript.” Jules got the feeling that she could stare at him for hours, but even then she’d only be able to give the vaguest description of his features. Average height, average weight, washed-out hair and eyes that weren’t really any color at all, even features, and bland clothes. Forgettable. A study in beige. Looking at the man was almost soothing after the dramatic smack in the face that was Theo, with his flashing dark eyes, demanding questions, and muscular form. Shaking off the urge to peek over her shoulder, she forced a smile for the bland man. “Coffee?”
“Yes, please.” He gave his mug a small nudge in her direction. The beige stranger had a voice as unremarkable as the rest of him. “I’m Norman Rounds.”
“Jules,” she replied automatically as she poured his coffee. Although she hadn’t blurted out her last name, she still mentally reprimanded herself. Julie Jackson. Julie Jackson. Julie Jackson. Juliet Young was no more, and her family’s safety depended on her remembering that.
Norman’s voice brought her out of her head. “You’re new.”
“Yes.” She felt so noticed. Maybe Dennis should’ve sent them to a bigger city, where they could’ve blended into the crowd.
“Where’re you from?”
“Arkansas.” The lie rolled off her tongue, and she resisted the urge to smile proudly. That was better. Now she just had to learn to do that when faced with a cute cop.
“Really?” Norman’s tone barely changed, but the faintest note of skepticism made Jules’s inner alarm began to chirp. Why would he question that? He leaned toward her, and his expressionless face suddenly seemed unnerving rather than bland. “You running from something?”
Barely resisting the urge to lurch back a step, Jules frantically reran their conversation in her head. There was nothing she’d said that had given her away, so why had he jumped to that conclusion unless he knew something? Even the nosy, hot cop hadn’t guessed, and she’d been a lot calmer—normal, even—with Norman Rounds. Did he know? She stared at him, as if her gaze could strip off his overly normal exterior and reveal his true intentions. Had her stepmother hired him? Was he a private investigator? He couldn’t be—right?
Norman leaned even closer, and this time, Jules couldn’t stop herself from taking a step back. She could barely keep herself from racing out of the diner, from grabbing the kids and running out of this whole town. As if sensing that Jules was about to flee, Norman froze, his unnerving gaze locked on her.
He doesn’t know. If he did, he’d be dragging me out of the diner himself, or calling for the cops a few booths away to arrest me. With a huge effort of will, Jules stood still, clutching the coffeepot, trying to calm her racing mind and think of how to answer, what to say to keep him from being even more suspicious.
Norman shifted ever so slightly, his body tensing as the mild mask slipped even more. He knows. Although she tried to tell herself she was being paranoid again, that he was just a harmless, oblivious guy—albeit a strange one—it didn’t work. Her instincts were shouting at her that she and the kids were in danger.
She opened her mouth, still unsure of the best way to reply, when a growly voice interrupted. “What’s going on here?”
Her head whipped around. Theo was standing right next to her, so close that his arm was almost touching hers. This time, however, Theo’s glare wasn’t directed at her. Instead, all of his angry attention was focused on Norman.
“Are you bothering this woman?” Theo demanded, shifting so he was ever so slightly in front of Jules, as if shielding her from harm.
A rush of relief and gratitude hit her. Theo’s take-charge manner was exponentially more attractive when he was defending her.
Norman’s bland expression had returned, which upped Jules’s suspicions even more. A normal person would at least flinch. As she knew from firsthand experience, Theo was hugely intimidating. “Of course not. Jules and I were just getting to know each other.”
With Theo’s back to her, Jules couldn’t see his expression, but there was disbelief in the tight lines of his shoulders. His very broad shoulders. Jules quickly shook the thought out of her head. Now was not the time. In fact, there was never a good time for her to be attracted to a cop.
“Why don’t you just let her do her job, Rounds?” Theo’s voice was even and calm, but there was a menace to him that would’ve left her shaking if it had been directed at her.
Instead of looking worried, Norman seemed almost amused. “Of course. Carry on, Jules. We can talk later.”
“No,” Theo snapped. “No talking later. Just eat your breakfast peacefully and then leave.”
There was a tense silence before Norman said, “Sure.”
After a long moment, Theo turned to face Jules, and she was startled by his proximity. It wasn’t nearly as scary as it had been earlier, when Megan had saved her from him. Now Theo had turned into her hero…and the oddness of that made her smile. Theo’s gaze lowered to her mouth, pausing there for a moment before he abruptly turned and headed back to his booth.
Jules watched him join the other two cops. Looking up, Hugh caught Jules’s gaze. His expression changed before she could get a bead on what he was thinking, and he widened his eyes in an exaggerated pleading expression. “Can we order now? Please? We’re so hungry it’s possible we might die if we’re not fed soon.”
Residual relief made her want to laugh. The third cop whose name she didn’t know looked amused, but Theo’s scowl had returned, even more ferocious than before.
“Be right there,” she called, her voice only slightly shaky. Turning back to Norman, she gave him a quick, insincere smile. “I’ll be back in a minute to take your order.” Before he could respond, she darted away toward the counter.
She returned the coffeepot to its warming station and pulled her notebook and pen from her pocket. As she hurried over to take the cops’ orders, she marveled that she was actually relieved to be at Theo’s table when, just five minutes earlier, she’d been anxious to leave it.
Now that she was away from Norman’s odd and too-knowing gaze, Jules began doubting her reaction. He was a strange guy, sure, but it was highly unlikely he was an investigator or that he knew anything about her except that she didn’t sound like she came from Arkansas. She had to keep her guard up, though. In this new life of hers, pretty much anyone could be a threat. She tried not to glance at Norman three booths over as she smiled at the three cops—including her crabby, reluctant hero. “Sorry about the wait. What can I get you?”
It was all a matter of what—or who—was the biggest threat.
The Belgian Malinois huddled in a forlorn heap on the far side of his kennel. He didn’t even turn his head at the command. As Theo stared at the dog, guilt and grief churning inside him, chewing away at his carefully constructed wall of numbness, he resisted the urge to punch the concrete wall dividing the enclosures. Damn you, Don.
“Can’t really blame him.”
Hands fisting, Theo whirled to face Hugh.
“Just saying,” Hugh continued in his calm voice. “He’s lost Don. It’ll be hard for him to trust that you won’t leave him, too.”
Although Hugh pretended to be talking about Viggy, Theo knew the words were directed toward him, were about him. The well-meant but heavy-handed platitude made Theo want to punch Hugh in the throat. Theo should be used to that urge, since he’d been feeling it pretty much constantly—about everyone with whom he came into contact—for almost two months. Closing his eyes, Theo drew in an audible breath through his nose, grasping for calm. It wasn’t in him anymore, though. There was no serenity, no peace. All he had to offer was guilt and rage and grief and barely leashed violence. He took a second breath, determined to control it.
“I know.” That sounded almost calm, although the way Hugh’s mouth tucked in at one corner showed that his friend knew Theo was faking it. Giving up on convincing Hugh that he wasn’t a raging mess, Theo turned back to the dog.
“Viggy.” There wasn’t even a twitch of an ear. “Here.”
“Calling him isn’t working. You need to go get him, or he’ll just keep ignoring your commands.”
Although Hugh’s tone was even and not judgmental at all, another surge of anger flashed through Theo. He knew too well how Viggy felt, the bone-deep sadness that made it impossible for anything else to matter. If he went and forced Viggy out of his corner, it wouldn’t help. It wouldn’t bring Don back. It wouldn’t make Viggy accept that Theo was his partner now.
“No,” he snapped. It sounded harsh, so Theo tried again, attempting to moderate his tone for the second time in as many minutes. “Thanks for the advice, but there’s no point.”
“The point is that you have to figure out a way to get through to him, or you’ll never be partners.”
Partners. His insides flinched. Partners died, leaving Theo and Viggy behind to try to scrape together what remained of their battered souls. Partnerships were overrated. It’d be better—safer—to continue to walk a solitary path. He glanced at the huddled dog, the very picture of misery. Viggy had already figured that out. Why was Theo even trying to bond with the dog? He could never replace Don, especially now that Theo was a hollowed-out, useless shell.
Unable to say anything or even look at Hugh, Theo turned and stalked out of the kennel. Alone.
Make sure you check out Katie's novella for free, After The End!
For fans of sexy, brooding ice divers
Motorcycle Club bad boys turned firefighters
Tall, dark, and silent wilderness guides
And cops with hearts of gold…
The end is just the beginning.
What happens after happily ever after? Now that the murderer has been caught and the arsonist is behind bars, the town of Simpson, Colorado has returned to its sleepy, picturesque former glory. Yet for the heroes of Search & Rescue, work is never done…
…especially not if the extraordinary women if their lives have anything to say about it.
Told in alternating chapters focusing on four unforgettable romances, this slice-of-life novella catches up with fan favorites from Katie Ruggle’s Search & Rescue series—proving once and for all that the end is just the beginning.
After the End is the fun and heart-warming epilogue novella to the exciting Search & Rescue series by Katie Ruggle.