With that decision made, she got out of the truck, into the sweltering day, and walked over to the flower shop. The old Victorian building had long ago been divided into three storefronts: the flower shop, Leah’s grandmother’s bakery, and an old bookstore that had been closed all year.
Most of the other downtown buildings had been renovated in the past decade, but not this one. It needed a major overhaul, but Ali loved it. The place had quirks and its own charm and character in spades. The flower shop was on the left, painted pastel yellow with white trim. The wood floors creaked and the lights always flickered, but to Ali, those things gave the place personality. It felt like her home away from home.
If she had a home…
Russell wasn’t here, and as she moved through the front room, she inhaled the familiar scent of flora and tried to relax. She went through the available rentals again, lowering her expectations, trying to find something that would work. There were two, but one was subletting a room in some guy’s house, and that felt a little sketchy for a woman. The other was on the outskirts of the county, far more remote and isolated than even the beach house. Not ideal…
She looked around Russell’s office, which held a tiny desk, two filing cabinets filled to overflowing, and enough room to stand.
Nowhere to sleep.
Knowing she’d stalled as long as she could, she got up to go and opened the top desk drawer to grab her paycheck. But Russell hadn’t written it, and one glance at the balance scrawled in his checkbook told her why. He was short again. He’d left her an envelope with half of what he owed her in cash, and a note that he’d get her the rest by the end of the week. Oh boy.
Things were going to be okay.
But she didn’t know how. She moved to the office window and looked out. She could see the pier from here. The Ferris wheel was turning. The trees lining the street were swaying. She knew if she opened the window, the breeze would be scented with an intoxicating combo of sea salt, pine trees, and hope.
She craved that. The fact was Lucky Harbor gave off a quiet serenity and strength, and she craved that too. She’d grown up in smoky, noisy, colorful lounges and bars. Mimi Winters had a long work history, from waitress to “dancer,” and then back to waitressing when it got too hard on her body. She might not have been all that good with money, but she was good with love. Some would argue too good, as she’d rarely met a man she didn’t fall for. But when there’d been trouble—and there had been trouble—Mimi had always come through for her girls, and together they’d handled whatever had come up.
Ali had gotten good at handling things, real good. This was just another of those times. Needing to connect to someone who loved her, she pulled out her cell phone and texted both her mom and sister with: Missing you, how’s things?
Harper replied right away. Got a hot date with Lenny. Remember Lenny? He’s hot as ever and running his dad’s plumbing business now.
Mimi’s response was just as fast. Ali-gator! Miss your pretty face! Gotta run, caught some OT to help cover rent. Oh and I’m taking an online business class that’s gonna change everything, you’ll see.
In Mimi’s world, there was always something that was going to change everything. And the thing was, Mimi honestly believed it. Optimism was one of her most endearing qualities, but it also left Ali as the only realistic one in the family. She looked in her envelope again and worked some fancy math before texting her mom back. Got some extra this month. I’ll send.
Mimi’s response was immediate: You’re an angel. What would I do without you?
Exactly what Ali worried about.
Luke woke up with a start, heart thundering in his chest, the vision of a drowned Isabel Reyes crystal clear in his head. Her hair had been floating behind her in a terrible parody of beauty, eyes open in permanent terror, skin so pale as to be translucent.
He’d been there when they’d pulled her body from the water, but he’d seen plenty of dead bodies before. It wasn’t the image haunting him now so much as the failure to save her.
It was pitch black in the room, but he didn’t need a light to remember where he was. In hell. He sat straight up. It was dark outside. He’d slept all day.
Scrubbing his hands over his face, he let his wits catch up with him. He would’ve rolled over and closed his eyes to take the rest of the sleep he still needed, but his stomach rumbled in protest. Damn. He reached for his phone and saw he had messages. No big surprise there.
His commander, wanting him to get his ass back to San Francisco in one week, not the three Luke had asked for, because “vacation time was for pussies”—not to mention that it left him dealing with the “media shitstorm” on his own. His mom, reminding him that sometimes things happened for a reason. His dad, telling him to work through it and stay strong. Last was Jack’s message, suggesting that Luke not read the news or turn on the TV.
So of course Luke went straight to the browser app on his phone and brought up the news. Yep, the media storm was still raging, with people blaming the DA and the entire SFPD.
And Luke, of course.
That was okay. Luke blamed Luke too.
He was starving. He slid off the bed and staggered up the creaky stairs and into the kitchen. He could drive into town, but he’d have to get dressed, and plus, he had no idea where he’d left his keys. He rarely did. Without turning on the light, he pulled open the refrigerator door.
He had no idea what he was expecting. He hadn’t yet stocked any food. He hadn’t thought that far ahead. Hadn’t thought of anything other than getting away to hear himself think.
Or better yet, not think.
But there was bottled water, milk, eggs, cheese, luncheon meats, apples, oranges, and—hitting the jackpot—beer. A plate on the middle shelf had a colorful note stuck right on the top of it, from Ali.
He’d nearly forgotten about her.
Curious, he pulled out the plate. An omelet. He’d have preferred pie, but this looked good.
Hell, who was he kidding? Anything he didn’t have to cook would have looked good to him. He nuked the plate, and then wolfed down the omelet where he stood. He was moving to the sink when he heard a whisper of a sound.
Luke reached for his gun before remembering he was unarmed and in his boxers. Christ, he needed more sleep.
“Hands where I can see them, dick breath,” a female said, and then the overhead light was slapped on.
Turning slowly, Luke came face to face with Ali standing in the kitchen entryway with an umbrella in one hand—aimed in his direction like a sword—and the other hand still on the light switch.
Clearly, she’d been in bed sleeping. Her hair was wild, like an explosion in a mattress factory. Her eyes were huge in her pale face. She wore a thin, white wife-beater tank top and sweatpants that were so big they were slipping off.
She lowered the umbrella and hitched up the sweats. “I thought we had an intruder.”
“We do,” he said. “You.” To distract himself from the fact that she was very braless, he eyed her stance. She wasn’t new at protecting herself. “Dick breath?”
“Sorry, I was trying to sound tough.” She shoved a hand through that crazy hair, looking a little bit wild and a lot off her game, and yet, he thought, there she stood ready to defend his house.
The first person on his side in a good long time.
Firmly ignoring the odd feeling in his gut, he shook his head. “Bad idea, coming up on a pissed-off, hungry, exhausted cop like that.”
“I didn’t know it was you,” she said. “And you’re not a cop right now. You’re on leave.”
He could have told her he was always a cop. “What if I’d shot you?”
“Would have ruined my whole day,” she said in a tone that told him her day had been shitty. Then her gaze ran over him, and he knew the exact second she registered that all he wore was boxers because her breath caught audibly.
She was aware of him as a man. Ted might have dented her heart but he hadn’t broken it.
“Is that a gun in your shorts,” she asked softly. “Or are you just happy to see me?”
Ali worked at not swallowing her tongue, as Luke—after a speculative, edgy look—turned and vanished down the hall without responding to her question.
Good Lord, the man wore nothing but boxers like no one else. She’d known he was good looking, but she hadn’t known he had acres of hard sinew that bunched and flexed with his every move.
And she had no idea what she’d been doing baiting him like that. She certainly hadn’t expected to feel scorched by heat just from looking at him. The man was drop-dead sexy, that was for sure.
Equally for sure was relief that he hadn’t responded to her. It’d been a rhetorical question anyway, one uttered only because her brain had clicked off at the realization that he was half naked. But before she could reboot, he was back, wearing low-slung Levi’s, shrugging into a shirt that he didn’t bother to button. He had that whole dangerous, brooding air going on, spilling testosterone and bad boy vibes all over the place.
It did something very unwelcome in the pit of her belly. And lower. She cleared her throat. “I found two possible rentals today.”
He didn’t speak.
Good to know where she stood. Probably he was so thrilled and overjoyed that he couldn’t speak.
He went to the fridge.
“One’s on the outer edge of the county,” she said. “In the Highlands. The other’s a room from the guy who owns the hardwood store. Anderson something.”
“No,” he said.
“The Highlands is a bad neighborhood. And you’re not renting a room from Anderson. Hell no.”
She stared at him, but he was head first in the fridge. “You still hungry?” she asked. “I can make you something.” She moved over there just as he turned to her. She tried to nudge him out of her way, her palms settling on his chest, absorbing the heated, hard strength of him.
He didn’t budge.