Brynne stood on a curb along Main Street staring into the boutique she’d nurtured from a tiny start-up to a Steele Ridge mainstay. Interior lights blazed against darkness that came with a two a.m. phone call alerting her to a robbery.
In her store.
Two days before Christmas Eve.
“Bastards,” she said.
Beside her, her husband Reid muttered a curse of his own. As was typical, he applied the creative flair that came with years as a Green Beret. Given the chance, her husband could win any number of swearing contests.
Red swirling lights, compliments of two patrol cars, bounced off the shop’s plate glass window. Inside, crime scene techs slapped fingerprint powder over her freshly painted walls. God knew where else the fine particles landed. That would be a mess to clean. Particularly since she’d just placed a stack of white cashmere sweaters on the feature table near the door. At two hundred dollars a pop, black smudged cashmere meant a hefty loss.
Insurance. The only bright spot in this situation.
She let out a sigh. “What kind of people do this?”
Reid faced her, squaring his big shoulders in that purely alpha male way that let her know, without question, he’d help her conquer anything that came their way.
“We’ll find them.” He gestured to the Murchison building across the street where his brother Grif kept an office. “After the lost girl incident, Pretty Boy installed security cameras in this area. Between his system and yours, these assholes are toast.”
By now, Reid was well-versed in what she needed and it wasn’t an aw-honey-it’ll-be-fine.
This would never be fine. No one was allowed to violate her space. No. One.
“Oh,” Brynne said. “I’ll find them.”
They both turned and found Reid’s cousin Maggie, the county sheriff, approaching, her long legs eating up the space between them. Like Reid, Maggie had a way about her. All squared-shouldered confidence and efficient movement that conveyed a sense of control. Even in the middle of the night, Maggie was buttoned-up, her uniform devoid of a single wrinkle and her gun belt in place.
If I had a gun right now…
“Mags,” Reid said, “what have you got?”
She held up her phone. “I’m assuming you saw the video Brynne sent me. It’s a smash-n-grab. Bad guys shattered the door with a sledgehammer, ran in, grabbed whatever they could, and ran.”
The door was the least of Brynne’s worries. The items under the tree—and the one she’d tucked under the overhang of the checkout desk—were her focus.
Brynne pointed at the store. “I need to get in there and see what they took.”
“We’re almost done. Was there any money in the drawer?”
“No. I lock it in the safe or take it to the bank. I keep a bit of petty cash in the office, but it’s not much. Maybe a hundred dollars.”
She peered up at Reid, the one who’d insisted she hide a wall safe behind a framed print in her office. At the time, she thought paranoia had consumed him. Now? After a stunningly successful two-day sale, she’d been too exhausted for the short trip to the bank and had stashed over $7,000 in the safe.
“I’m sorry,” she told her husband.
He leveled his gaze on her. From the start, the killer combination of his nearly jet-black hair and stormy blue eyes had slayed her. If nothing else, she simply loved looking at him.
“For teasing you about being paranoid. For not seeing that people are sometimes jerks. I didn’t make it to the bank today, so our money is in the wall safe.”
“Babe, don’t ever apologize for seeing the good in people. Shit like this shouldn’t happen.”
God, she loved him.
Maggie tapped the phone screen and moved to stand beside Brynne while the store’s surveillance video, thanks also to Reid, cued up.
“Two people.” Maggie pointed. “Both in ski masks and jackets. One looks smaller. Could be a woman. We’ll study this further on a big screen and see what we can get. They went straight for the tree.”
Another spurt of anger roared as Brynne watched the thieves snatch the gifts under the shop’s Christmas tree. All those packages she and Reid, with his big, fumbling hands, had wrapped for his brother Jonah’s women’s shelter so the families would have gifts on Christmas morning.
Reid’s hands were legendary in Steele Ridge—mainly because they’d been on half the women in town. When it came to the female form, her husband was a magician.
Gift wrapping? Not so much.
She leaned sideways, rested her head against his shoulder and for the first time blinked back tears. “We spent all that time picking out those gifts.”
Toys for children, pretty outfits and jewelry for women who’d had a man’s hands on her in all the wrong ways. Brynne and Reid had made a night of it by walking around the shop picking out clothes in various sizes and then setting up a table and wrapping everything.
Three hours of the two of them laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Now the memory was ruined by some low-life thieves.
She went back to the video where the smaller thief stuffed two cashmere sweaters in a duffel bag.
Brynne pointed. “I bet you’re right about that one being a woman. She just stole four hundred dollars in sweaters.”
From there, the thief ran to the checkout counter, rifled through the drawers, and came up empty. The thief turned to leave, paused, and then glanced down at the desk. At the gold box with the red ribbon.
Reid’s Christmas gift. The handmade one she’d finished by stealing bits of time at the shop. In a town like this, where everyone knew everyone’s business, it was a near miracle she’d been able to hide out long enough to finish the gift.
This gift would never be topped.
And Brynne wanted it back.
Reid marched into Maggie’s office at 7:30 sharp and found his cousin already at her desk. Not a shocker since Maggie’s work ethic bordered on obsessive.
Without bothering to wait for an invitation, he settled into one of her guest chairs and took in the office.
Typical Mags. Everything neat and tidy. Not one errant file folder or scattered pens or pencils. Nope. All she had on that desk was a phone, her computer monitor, and the yellow legal pad she’d been writing on when he walked in.
“Sure,” she said, “have a seat.”
He gave her a smart-ass grin. “Don’t mind if I do. What’ve you got?”
“You mean in the”—she checked the clock on her wall—“four hours since I last saw you? God’s sakes, Reid, the lab guys barely have the prints loaded. Plus, we don’t have Brynne’s employees’ prints yet so we can eliminate them. They’re coming down here this morning.”
Maybe she had a point on the whole timing thing, but his Brynnie, tired and hell-bent on stringing up the craptastic assholes who’d robbed the store, was on a tear this morning. Dog-tired himself, he’d talked her into getting some sleep, nearly shoving her into their bed. Hell, he’d contemplated strapping her in—an idea he’d definitely be proposing for more playful reasons—before convincing her she’d be sharper, more ready for battle after some shut-eye.
For two hours, he lay beside her with his body begging for rest while his mind buzzed. He occupied himself by listening to the adorable soft snores he loved more than his next breath.
Maggie nudged her chin at the door. “Where’s Brynne?”
“Seriously? How’d you pull that off?”
He shrugged. “I used logic. Then I snuck out.”
Maggie smiled. “Brave man.”
No kidding. Apparently, he wasn’t the only one who’d noticed his wife’s mood swings lately. He’d contemplated mentioning it, but wised up when he remembered the last time he’d brought up her menstrual cycle. She’d torn him more than a few new ones that day and he wasn’t about to risk that again.
He waved a hand. “Hoping you have some intel for me so we can get this squared away. She wants her stuff back.”
“I don’t blame her. It’s a personal violation. But, my dear cousin, it’s only been a few hours. You have to give us time.”
Time, according to Brynne, they didn’t have. “Not with Brynne going batshit crazy I don’t.”
Maggie gave him a fuck-off look and before she moved into the argument sure to come, he put up his hand. “Save it. Give me something to do. Anything. Because, shit on a shingle, my wife is obsessed and if this keeps up, I’ll lose my mind. If I help, maybe we’ll catch these a-holes and we’ll all get back to what should have been a fun Christmas.”
That’s all he’d wanted. He and Brynne waking up on Christmas morning in the cabin they’d turned into a three-bedroom home just down the road from the Steele Ridge Training Center—aka his office. For weeks he’d fantasized about bringing in their first Christmas as husband and wife with a bang.
A really huge one.
Now? That plan was at risk of being shot to hell.
Unless they got Brynne’s stuff back.
“That’s not a bad idea.” Maggie pointed at her computer. “We’re collecting surveillance video from all the area merchants. You can help review it all.”
“Did you get Grif’s?”
She nodded. “At three this morning.”
Huh. Clearly, his brother had been notified about the break-in. “Who called him?”
“I have no idea. All I know is I got a text telling me video was on the way.”
Good ol’ Grif. Big brother might bitch and moan, but he always came through.
Reid pushed out of his chair. “Set me up with a laptop somewhere. Let’s get this done.”
“Well, lookie here.”
Reid winced at the familiar voice. Shit.
He turned back, spotted Brynne in the doorway, her long, dark hair pulled into a ponytail. She wore workout tights with a long shirt and thermal jacket. Her added glare should have fried him.
He pasted a smile on. “Hey, sugar.”
“Shove it with the sugar nonsense.” She poked her finger. “I should skin you.”
As much as Brynne loved her husband, his hero complex had the ability to make her insane—leave it to him to go behind her back. As if she couldn’t handle stress.
He should know better.
And it irritated her.
“Brynne,” Maggie said in her direct, I’m-the-sheriff voice, “good morning.”
“Hi, Maggie. I’m sorry for being rude.”
She shot her husband a glare and he let out a grunt. If he said one word, she’d be on him. Just pummel that all-too-handsome face.
Maggie came around the desk. “Don’t worry about it. I’ve heard worse. Believe me. I’ll give you two a few minutes while I set up a laptop in the conference room.”
On her way out the door, she patted Brynne on the shoulder. “Go easy on him. You know he means well.”
Grrr… Another one on his side. What should she expect? Particularly from Maggie who’d been Reid’s ally growing up and was still one of his go-to folks when he needed advice.
Despite Maggie’s sometimes-annoying allegiance to Reid, Brynne had to smile. Her husband’s supporters never failed him. These people understood loyalty and she took comfort in it.
Still, she had a point to make. “Mags, you know as well as I do his meaning well doesn’t make it right.”
Maggie laughed. “Don’t I know it.”
Before Brynne got a word in, Reid hopped from the chair and threw his hands up. “Please don’t tear into me. You were tired. I wanted you to rest and figured I’d get an update from Mags.”
Ah, the old best defense is a good offense trick. Nice try. She stepped into the office and squared off with her six-feet-three-inches of a hunky husband. “I told you to wake me up if something happened and then you left. You knew I wouldn’t like that or you wouldn’t have slithered out.”
Silence met her accusation. Good. In their time together, her husband continued to learn that sometimes it served him to A.) apologize or B.) shut up.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You’re right.”
The man knew exactly how to make her happy. Good for him. And maybe, just maybe, she might be overreacting to him sneaking out, but when Reid got focused on a task, he completed that task. With her luck, he’d find the thieves, retrieve all the stolen goods, and peek at his gift.
Which couldn’t happen. At least not the peeking at his gift part. There was no way he’d be able to resist opening that box.
Which meant sticking by his side—hard—and ensuring he didn’t get an opportunity to ruin her surprise.
She waved him off. “You’re forgiven. Bigger fish to fry. Now, what are you up to?”
For the added drama, he swiped his hand across his brow. “Phew. Dodged one there.”
“Don’t push it.”
“Right. Sorry. Anyway, there’s nothing from the lab yet. Maggie got video from the pretty boy, though, so I volunteered to go through it. See if we can speed this thing up.”
Poor Grif, otherwise known as the pretty boy, constantly dealt with harassment from his brothers regarding his meticulous grooming.
“All right. I’ll help with that.”
She eyed him, squinting just enough to put some mean in it. “And don’t tell me you’ll do it alone.”
“You didn’t sleep much last night.”
“Neither did you.”
He let out a sigh. “I don’t want to fight with you.”
Well, then maybe he shouldn’t have done the exact opposite of what she’d asked. Men. Still, she loved him for wanting to constantly save the day.
Her own personal superhero.
“I don’t want to fight with you either. All I’m saying is we’re a team. That means working together.” She pointed down the hall. “Now, let’s get to the conference room and see what we can find.”