The eyes glowed from the middle of the road, two silver disks reflecting the moonlight.
Shelby’s breath caught, and fear trickled down her spine. She slammed the brakes of her father’s Jetta. The tires screamed as the car came to a violent halt. The eyes continued to stare, mocking her.
Only a deer. It scampered into the trees. Her heart thundered as it hit her how close she’d been to a serious accident, but only God knew the number of her days.
Shelby shuddered and steered the car onto the shoulder. Her fists gripped the wheel. She breathed in, then out, long and slow as she’d been taught years ago. After a few minutes, her heartbeat slowed and became regular.
Red-and-blue lights flashed in her rearview mirror. Are you kidding me? It was late, and she’d just delivered a trio of twenty-somethings to their homes after they’d imbibed too much at the pub. Her fingers closed around her mother’s diamond-embedded silver cross hanging around her throat. “Not this week, God,” she murmured under her breath.
She wiped her tears and debated reverting to her “pastor’s daughter” mask of pleasant face and voice. The handful of cops stationed in the cliffside town of Crane’s Cove, Maine, knew her, and she knew them. She’d become a designated-driver volunteer for Paddy’s Pub & Grill as soon as she turned eighteen. Her father didn’t like it, but he understood her need to do it.
The fear transformed into agitation as the police SUV pulled up behind her. She tapped her fingers on the wheel, mouth set, jaw tight, and glanced at the clock. She had to be at the diner in five hours. Just perfect. “Keep it together, Shelby. You know these guys.”
Or did she? She rolled down her window and squinted into the side mirror. The bulky shape of the approaching officer was similar to Will Donovan’s, but he had left weeks ago for FBI training. As the figure approached, his easy swagger registered and sent off alarms in her head. None of the other officers in town were in that good of shape. In fact, that particular shape almost reminded her of—
“You moved here?” Shelby spat before the officer could ask for her license and registration. “Why?”
Damon Saunders, dubbed Atlanta’s Hottest Bachelor by the Peach Gazette, stood before her in all his muscle-hugging uniformed glory. His eyes met hers and his stone-faced cop expression transformed into the most swoon-worthy, genuine grin she’d ever seen. He recognized her.
Don’t stare, don’t stare. She fought the magnetic pull and struggled to look away from the flawless light-brown skin and dark eyes illuminated by his flashlight. Resolute, she crossed her arms, tilted up her chin, and stared straight out her front windshield.
“Yes, ma’am.” His deep baritone drawl prompted a shiver. “Seemed like a nice place. You also came back after being gone, right? Why?”
“Turned out city life wasn’t for me. And please, don’t call me ‘ma’am.’” After six years of back and forth between Boston and Crane’s Cove, including a year of interning at what was supposed to be a humanitarian-focused publication, she’d toughened up and learned what she didn’t want to do with her life. She’d come home with a master of fine arts to her small town on the Acadian Coast. Now she was working part-time at the diner to supplement her freelance work while she figured out her next move.
“Seems we have something in common, then.”
“I’m sure we have nothing in common.” She didn’t want to have anything in common with him. She was back home for the summer only, to regroup and refocus, and so far, everything was going according to plan.
She didn’t have time for dating, no matter how interesting or hot the man was.
“I’ll bet we do. Music, for example. As I recall, you crashed my cousin’s wedding with the lead singer of the Harbor Lights. How’d you manage that?”
“We went to high school together. She used to sing with me at my dad’s church.” Shelby shrugged.
“See? Another thing in common. I used to sing at church, too.”
Wonderful. She sighed, rolling her eyes.
Shelby met Damon through friends when he’d been a guest at the town’s Cliff Walk Resort for his cousin Matt’s wedding a month ago. He didn’t hide that he was charmed by the small town—or that he was interested in getting to know her better. The guys crashed the bachelorette party, and, in a moment of weakness, Shelby had let her guard down and allowed him to pull her onto the dance floor. He was sweet, smooth, and smokin’ hot.
The heat between them sizzled, and he surprised her by twisting her into a deep dip as the song faded out. As the final note played, they’d locked eyes. He’d lowered his lips for a gentle kiss before twisting her back up. Freaked out by how it had affected her, she’d bolted to the parking lot before he could ask for her number. As she sat in her car waiting for her friends, she went over all the reasons she couldn’t get to know him better and vowed—unsuccessfully—to never think about him again.
So much so, she’d insisted on working the night of the wedding to avoid him. In any other time, in any other place, she might be interested—not because he was Mr. September on the Atlanta PD’s charity calendar, but because there was more in those eyes than just pretty specks of light. She couldn’t fight the draw, and she was glad when he went home to Atlanta. Out of sight, out of mind.
But now he was here—and she didn’t know where she was going. The idyllic New England coastal town was fine for vacationers and townies who wanted to remove themselves from the ugliness of the world. Not for her. She wanted to make a difference, and she couldn’t do it here. Here, in this small town, she couldn’t make her mark on the world. Here, there were memories of her mother everywhere she went. Here, it was too painful.
“Well, get it over with,” she said through her teeth. Her jaw remained clenched, and she held her posture so rigidly that her friend Kat’s great-aunt would have been proud.
Damon rested his elbows on the open window ledge. She leaned away from him. “Get it over with? You got someplace you’re supposed to be?” Any closer and he’d be invading her personal space.
“Home. In bed.” Her cheeks heated after she spoke those last two words. She cringed. Oh, the things his easy southern drawl conjured in her mind. She swallowed. “I have to be at work early.”
Damon shifted his weight to his left arm and peered at her. “Mmhmm. Well, you were speeding pretty fast when that deer came up on you. And your center backlight is out. I suppose I should write you a ticket or give you a warning, but I already feel like I’m on your bad side.” He pressed his lips together. “I’m new in town and I want to be your friend. What do you say?”
Shelby whipped her head toward him, incredulous. “Are you bribing me? Aren’t I the one who’s supposed to try to get out of this?”
He grinned. “Did it work?”
Is he for real? Shelby let out a long breath. “Fine. Thank you. I will try to be pleasant when I see you around town.”
Damon’s grin stretched wider if that was even possible. Look away, Shelby. He’s everything you don’t want.
“Sweet! That’s all I ask.” He stood up and tapped his hand on the window ledge. “You have a good night, Shelby Porter. See ya around.”
Shelby nodded and waved half-heartedly. Her tongue turned to jelly. She couldn’t have spoken if she tried. Thank God he didn’t notice her puffy eyes or flushed checks, or if he did, that he had the decency not to mention it.
Damon pulled into the diner as the sun’s first light painted the horizon.
She wasn’t kidding. She did have to work early. Shelby’s car was parked along the side of the refurbished train car that was now the Cliffside Diner.
He wasn’t stalking her, not really. He was just hungry after his first overnight shift at his new job, and the diner was the only place open. And yeah, he was hoping to see her again.
He’d looked for her at Matt and Lanie’s wedding and was disappointed when he’d learned she was working. But then she’d strode in with Macy Wells, lead singer of the Harbor Lights, whom she’d convinced to sing the bride and groom’s song. Once Macy started singing, Shelby was gone again.
And so was he.
Damon couldn’t pinpoint what drew him to her. He was easygoing and friendly. Shelby was wound tight, cynical, and didn’t waste any words. But he knew that was just for show. He’d seen her interact with her nephew, Noah, and it was contrary to the act she presented to everyone else. He closed his eyes and imagined her regarding him with the degree of warmth she bestowed on the little boy. He wanted to know why she barricaded herself behind a series of protective walls, and how he could break through them.
His eyes roamed over the old chrome-and-maroon railroad car that had been converted into a diner and reflected on the difference in working overnight in Crane’s Cove versus the graveyard shift in Atlanta. Here, he’d sat by the side of the road for most of the night. Every hour or so, he cruised around town, checking the neighborhoods and familiarizing himself with the streets and layout. In Atlanta, he often went an entire shift without a break. He’d stocked his car with protein bars and a cooler of bottled water, and then he’d gone straight home and collapsed at the end of his shift if he wasn’t required to put in overtime.
Damon shuddered thinking about his last job. He was so proud when he made detective. Despite five years on the force and seeing the worst of humanity, he couldn’t have imagined the degree of cruelty he would come across while digging into the crimes he was assigned to.
That last bust was his breaking point. His boss granted him time to process the trauma, and he’d cashed in his vacation time to fly up to Crane’s Cove to visit his grandmother. Meemaw was enjoying her summer away from the heat of Savannah, as well as helping to plan Matt and Lanie’s wedding. He got to know some of the locals and began to think he could fit in here. Dread had consumed him each time he thought about going home to Atlanta and his job.
That was a month ago. Meemaw had sensed he wasn’t in any rush to return, and when she learned that the police force in the little town was down a man, she’d suggested he apply. On a whim, he did, and he was surprised when he received the call requesting an interview. He’d flown back up last week and was already at work. Now he just needed to find an apartment. The extended-stay hotel in Winter Harbor was nice, but he couldn’t live there forever.
He jogged up the steps to the diner and opened the door. “Hey, Ms. Sadie,” he called out to the matronly woman filling sugar containers behind the counter.
“Look at you!” she clucked. Sadie set the sugar down and lifted the countertop at the end so she could approach him. She reached out and straightened the flap on his collar. “Yes, sir, you will fill my Will’s shoes just perfectly. I’m so glad you took the job. Here, have a seat anywhere you like.” She gestured to the empty restaurant. “How was your first night?”
“Mostly uneventful.” He took a seat on a stool at the bar, trying not to be obvious as his eyes scanned for Shelby. Sadie went back around to her side of the counter. In less than a minute, he was staring into a hot cup of coffee with a menu beside it. “Night and day from Atlanta.”
“I’d imagine so. I’m happy to end up here after life’s adventures,” Sadie said. “Did your Meemaw tell you that I was with the FBI?”
Damon’s eyes widened. “No. Makes sense though. You must be crazy proud of Will.”
She beamed. “I am. He’s working hard, but it’s no picnic. I’m glad he was able to take his girlfriend on vacation between jobs. He won’t get another one for a while.” Sadie leaned in. “I’m retired, but I assisted when your cousin’s wife was abducted.” She shifted her gaze toward the windows in the swinging doors that led to the kitchen. “If you’re waiting for the muffins, they should be out any minute.” She lowered her voice. “I worked some cases that rattled me to the core. The worst ones were the children.” She shook her head. “You can’t imagine how creative some people can get when it comes to making babies suffer.”
“I can. I have nightmares about it.” He raised his eyes to hers. An understanding passed between them. “I don’t mind the night shift. It’s easier for me to sleep during the day.”
The door to the kitchen opened. Shelby stopped dead in her tracks as she caught his gaze. The tray of muffins shifted in her hands as she steadied herself.
“Mornin’, Shelby!” Damon sipped his coffee and winked.
Shelby avoided his eyes and set the tray on the counter. “Good morning, tough guy.” She opened the clear glass cabinet and loaded the muffins into it.
Sadie glanced between the two of them. “Seems you two already know each other. Wonderful! Shelby, be a dear and grab his order for me? I’ll finish up the baking.”
Damon fixed his eyes on her as she slowly arranged the muffins on paper doilies in the cabinet. He moved his head around to catch her eyes, but she kept them down.
When she finished, she took a spiral pad out of her apron pocket and finally looked up. His heart thundered in his chest as Shelby flipped her long bangs to one side. Her almost-black hair was highlighted in lighter tones and pulled back from her face in a long slick ponytail that trailed over her shoulder, accentuating her high cheekbones and tanned skin.
Her words came out in one breath. “Today’s special is a French crepe with pears, walnuts, spinach, and brie, with or without eggs. Comes with the diner’s famous fried potatoes and your choice of toast, cheese roll, or English muffin. Add a side of bacon, sausage, or ham for two dollars more.” She blinked at him three times and then held his gaze.
Damon hadn’t heard a word she’d said. “Sure, I’ll try that.” He handed her his menu.
She blinked again. “Toast, cheese roll, or English muffin?”
He pointed to the muffins in the case. “One of those, please.”
“And did you want to add a side?”
“Of what?” He knew he was staring. He couldn’t help it.
She sighed. “Bacon, sausage, or ham?”
“Egg or no egg?”
“Egg whites, please.”
Shelby raised a brow, made a notation on her notepad, and disappeared into the kitchen. She returned with a small plate that held a muffin and a pat of butter. Her shoulders relaxed. “This one is fresh out of the oven. It’s still warm. And it’s on me. Thank you for not citing me last night.”
“Aw. Well now, if that ain’t sweeter than Meemaw’s peach pudding!”
Shelby held up a hand. “Save your Southernisms. Enjoy the muffin.”
She disappeared again into the kitchen. Damon set about making his coffee drinkable. A heaping spoonful of sugar and a handful of flavored creamers usually did the trick. He wondered if he could order tea here without being laughed at. Speaking of tea . . . did they even have sweet tea in Maine? Probably not. Maybe he could suggest it.
The bell above the door rang, signaling new customers. Damon turned his head and raised a hand in greeting to a trio of middle-aged men who took seats at the other end of the counter. “Howdy! Nice mornin’, right?”
The men narrowed their eyes and nodded at him.
Sadie pushed through the kitchen doors and set out three mugs in front of the men. “Damon, meet some of the regulars. George, Al, and Simon are lobstermen. Guys, meet Damon Saunders.”
George nodded at Damon. “Morning.” He turned to Sadie. “They hire him to replace Will? Where’s he from?”
“Yep. Damon was a detective in Atlanta.”
Al gave him an appraising look. “How did they convince you to move here?” He turned to Simon on his other side. “He might rethink that move come winter.”
Simon snorted. “Maybe. Nice to have some new blood in town, though.”
Damon flinched. The men were talking about him instead of to him. “I heard ’bout the opening last month while I was here for my cousin’s wedding. Sounded like a nice change of pace.”
“I’m sure it is,” George said. “Biggest excitement you might get is moose holding up traffic.”
Sadie shot him a look of warning. “Not funny, George.”
“Oh, right. Yeah.” George looked chagrined.
Damon chuckled. “Sounds more exciting than a gator.”
The men blinked at him. Ba dum bum. Sadie noticed the awkward moment and smiled, but he was sure it was just to be kind. Different sense of humor here.
“Let me get you guys some breakfast,” she said. “Your usuals?”
The men nodded, and Sadie shot Damon an apologetic smile.
He stared at the kitchen door, willing Shelby to come out.
A moment later, she did. “Hey, guys. I see you’ve met my friend, Damon.” She glanced at him with a small smile. “Now don’t go giving him any trouble.”
Simon grinned. “Aw, Shelby. You’re no fun.”
“Ain’t that the truth.” She set three ramekins of butter on the counter, one in front of each man. “I’m serious. He’s new in town, and you best make him feel welcome—or don’t expect any of the extras you’re accustomed to from me.” She lifted her eyebrows to reinforce her words and disappeared back into the kitchen.
Damon grinned. He wondered how he could get her to treat him like an old friend, or more, without coming on too strong.
Sadie breezed out a few minutes later with Damon’s breakfast and cheese rolls for the lobstermen. “Top you off?” she asked, glancing at his mug. “No, thanks.” He inhaled deeply and met her eyes. “So how does one go about getting a singing gig at Pastor Porter’s church?”