His smile froze a little; it was the expression of a man who didn’t know how to tell his beloved little floral designer that though he was fond of her, he didn’t trust her to run his shop.
“I can do it, Russell,” she said earnestly. “I want to do it so badly, to stay here in Lucky Harbor and make something of this place. Let me show you.”
He inhaled dramatically, then blew it out. “I don’t know. You have an awful lot going on.”
“Which is why I need this.” She paused. “Unless…you don’t trust me with your money—”
“It’s not that,” he said quickly. Too quickly. “It’s just that I’m a control freak. You know that. I can’t let anyone else run the show. It’s all me.”
“I understand.” But she didn’t, not really. Nursing the invisible wounds that only a pastry of some kind could cure, she headed next door to the bakery. The closed sign was up, but the door hadn’t been locked yet. The bakery was empty except for the big guy leaning negligently against the glass display counter dressed head to toe in his firefighter gear.
“Hey,” she said, surprised to see him, “where’s Leah?”
“Boxing up some goodies for the fire station.”
Leah came out of the back holding a pink box, looking flushed and irritated. “Next time,” she said to Jack, smacking the box up against his broad chest, “don’t show up at the last minute. Not everyone is moved by your pretty face and the way that uniform somehow manages to show off your ass.”
Jack grinned. “And that’s not even my best part.”
Leah rolled her eyes.
Jack leaned on the counter, all tough, male grace as he worked at charming Leah. “I’ll be sure to tell all the fires to put themselves out so that we don’t piss off the best pastry chef this side of the Continental Divide.”
Leah blew a stray strand of hair from her face and narrowed her eyes. “Only on this side of the Continental Divide?”
“In all the land,” he corrected.
“Hmmm,” Leah said.
Jack studied her face. “You’re still mad about the other day.”
He laughed. “Hey, you’re the one who left your computer signed into your Pinterest account. I merely pinned a pic of you from last Halloween wearing an eighties leotard and leg warmers.”
“Yes, with the tagline that read ‘“Keep On Loving You” by REO Speedwagon is the theme of my life!’” she said.
Ali snorted, but swallowed it when Leah sent her a look.
“On second thought, give me those pastries back,” Leah said to Jack. “You don’t deserve them.”
He held the box above her head and pulled out his wallet, presumably to pay, but Leah sighed, shook her head, and pushed him out the door. “Go. Get out before I do something regrettable to you with those pastries.”
“Promises, promises,” Jack said, playfully tugging on a strand of her hair as he left the shop.
Ali was grinning. Leah pointed at her. “Stop that. I don’t want to talk about it. He thinks he’s funny.”
He was. Very funny. “It was nice of you,” Ali said, “not charging him.”
Leah sighed. “All the firefighters have been fighting that bush fire out in Desolation Flats, and he’s coming off three long, hard, hot days. They need a pick-me-up.”
“Or like you said, pretty face in a hot uniform.”
“We’re just friends, have been forever. We went to high school together.”
The door opened, and the bell jingled again. Both women turned to watch Luke walk in. He was in long cargo shorts, a surf shop T-shirt, and an opened button down, the very picture of a guy on vacay—except for his watchful, alert gaze. He smiled at Leah and then gave Ali the “come here” gesture.
Ali moved toward him, brushing against him as he held the door open for her. Outside, she blinked at the bright sun. “What are you doing here?”
“Looking for you.”
She wanted to ask if this was a social or business visit, but his face gave her the answer even before he spoke.
“Talked to Sawyer,” he said. “He’s still working on getting the surveillance video from the gas station. Apparently the owner’s been on vacation, and the son—who was supposed to run the place in his absence—closed the place down and went fishing for a few days.”
Ali wasn’t surprised. This was, after all, Lucky Harbor. Lucky Harbor had its own sense of time, and it rarely ticked along with the real world. “In the meantime,” Luke said, “I’ve got something else.” He pulled out his cell phone and brought up a photo. “You recognize this?”
It was a close-up of the Silver Pine pencil pot she’d taken from Ted’s office. It’d been confiscated as evidence when the police had come to the house. “Yes,” she said, “of course.”
“Do you have a signature for your pottery, something that identifies it as yours?”
“I carve my initials into each piece.”
“And then you add a star to the glaze?”
“A star? No,” she said, confused. “Why? What’s going on?”
“Sawyer let me take a look at the evidence. Professional courtesy.” He zoomed in on the little pot. “See that?” he asked. “You’ve got a crack on the inside.”
“Well, I made that pot months ago. It’s been manhandled and—”
“I’m not questioning the quality of the pot, Ali. Look closer.” He zoomed in even further. “See it?”
“Yeah, there’s something in the crack…” She squinted. It was a sliver of something blue with a tiny white star on it. “Huh.”
“Yeah,” she said. “Very. What’s a nail tip doing stuck in the crack of my ceramic pot?”
Luke stared at her. “Nail tip?”
“Looks like the tip of an acrylic fingernail to me. But I don’t have fake nails, and I never use fingernail polish because it chips so easily with the work I do.”
Luke shook his head, and then shocked the hell out of her by leaning in and giving her a quick, hard kiss on the mouth. “Hot and smart.”
She felt the glow from her toes to the roots of her hair, and in some very interesting spots in between. “You think whoever this nail tip belongs to was the one who put the bill wrapper in the jar?”
“I think it’s possible.”
“I don’t know anyone with blue fingernails with white stars,” she said.
“How many people live in this town?”
She shrugged. “We’ve grown to five thousand-ish, I think.”
“And half of them are female…”
“There’s only one beauty salon in town,” Ali said. “And it’s just two buildings down.” She went still. “Melissa runs it.”
He nodded. “But her nails are green-and-white stripes right now.”
She didn’t want to know how he knew that. Okay, so she did. She totally wanted to know. In fact, her immediate reaction was nearly to blurt out, “How do you know this?” but her brain reminded her that they weren’t “involved.” Which meant she had no business in his business, even though he had just kissed her in public outside the bakery. And given that she’d thought she and Teddy had been a thing when they obviously hadn’t been, she clearly wasn’t all that up on the rules of Defining Relationships 101. “Can you text me this pic?” she finally asked. “I want to send it to Zach.”
“I’ll send it to him.”
“Okay, but I still want it.” She wanted to go see Melissa herself.
Evening was coming. Dusk at the base of the Olympic Mountains was fickle as hell. Though the day had been warm, with the drop of the sun came a drop in temperature, and Ali wrapped her arms around herself.
Luke pulled off his outer shirt and held it out for her. She gratefully slid her arms into the soft cotton and hugged it close to hold in his lingering body heat.
“I’ll send you the pic,” Luke said quietly, “but I don’t want you showing it around.” He met her gaze, his own very serious. “I want you to trust me to do it.”
“Look, I know that this is your life, and you like to handle things yourself. I get that. I respect that,” he said. “But say that you’re sleeping with a bunch of women who don’t know about each other. And then one of those women discovers that you’re also sticking it to half the town. What do you do?”
Ali stared at him. “Sneak into his office and take back a gift?” she joked weakly. But her humor faded fast. “Or…steal the cash in his possession to make him look really bad.” She sighed shakily. “Damn. I really walked right into this.”
“You got in the middle of someone’s plan,” Luke agreed. “And that someone has fifty big ones under their mattress and is feeling pretty damn safe right now—at least until you start stirring shit up, shifting the blame from you to them.” He met her gaze, his own very serious. “I’m going to let Sawyer know that the star isn’t your signature and the fingernail should be run through forensics with the other evidence. And you…”
“You want me to be careful,” she said softly.
He leaned in and gave her a kiss, right there on the sidewalk. “Very careful.”
She nodded and then smiled because she could see the fierce determination in his eyes. To get to the bottom of this mess. To protect her. And seeing it, she felt her own fierce determination too. Along with something new.
Normally, Luke’s favorite time of day was the opposite of what his grandma’s had been—dawn’s first light. But not on the days after he stayed up until two in the morning to catch the two knuckleheads closing up their uncle’s bowling alley and skimming from the top of the day’s take.