A Sign of the Season by Kelsey Browning cover

Chapter One

Grif Steele loved his hometown. Except when he hated it.

Headed toward the interstate for a winter weekend getaway, he and Carlie Beth almost made it all the way down Steele Ridge’s Main Street. Almost. Then Camille Rafferty, the owner of the Mad Batter Bakery, dashed out in front of Grif’s car and butterflied her arms overhead as if she were trying to flag down a rescue plane.

Grif’s foot hovered over his brake but didn’t press it.

Carlie Beth grabbed his arm. “You have to stop or you’ll run her over.”

“Which would dent Louise,” he grumbled.

A surprised laugh popped from his wife’s mouth. “You’re horrible, you know that?”

But he wasn’t. Not completely. Because he took a deep breath and came to a stop in the middle of Main. The bakery owner hurried to his driver’s side, all the while making frantic roll-down-the-window motions with her hands.

“Do I have to?” he asked Carlie Beth.

“It’s the holiday season. You know, goodwill and kindness and all that,” she said, pointing toward the festive “Happy Holidays!” banners his staff had recently ordered and hung. Still plenty of Christmas with the wreaths on every downtown door and green and red splashed everywhere, but Grif was committed to celebrating diversity in this town. “We have time for whatever this is.”

Not in his mind, they didn’t. Their reservation at a swanky and secluded mountain lodge began in an hour. Grif wanted to be there at three o’clock on the dot. He coveted every second of alone time he could get with his wife. Their daughters, Aubrey and Stella Grace, were thrilled to be spending their weekend with Grammy and Grampy, his parents, out at Tupelo Hill.

And he was thrilled to be spending his weekend in bed with his wife.

His very naked wife.

And right now, his hometown was damn well getting in the way of a weekend full of bare-assed debauchery and sexual shenanigans.

Still, he rolled down the window and slapped on his Steele Shark smile, the look that had both charmed reluctant clients and made more than one pro sports franchise owner pee their pants. “Hey, Carlie Beth and I were just on our way out of town. If this could wait until Monday, then—”

“It can’t,” the bakery owner hurried to say. “It absolutely can’t.”

Of course it couldn’t.

“Then why don’t you move out of the road, and I’ll park so we can talk about whatever this is.”

“Thank you.” Her puckered forehead relaxed a little, and she hurried back to the sidewalk in front of the bakery, while Grif slowly and carefully parked Louise, his beloved Maserati Quattroporte, between two empty spaces.

Carlie Beth shook her head. “Sometimes I think you love this car more than you do me.”

He cut the engine and leaned over the console toward his wife. “She might’ve been my first love, but you, Carlie Beth Steele, will be my last.” The kiss he gave her to prove his point was probably slightly more carnal than the town manager should’ve bestowed on his wife in public. Screw it. If the citizens here in Steele Ridge didn’t like it, they could fire him.

Which sounded pretty damn good today, so he made sure his wife was thoroughly out of breath when he broke their kiss. Under her thin scoopneck sweater, her nipples were hard and poking against the fabric. He lifted his hand to touch, but she said, “Don’t even think about it. If Maggie has to arrest us for public indecency, we’ll be sitting in a jail cell this weekend instead of in a hot tub.”

“Dammit.” He gave her another quick kiss and pushed open his door. “I’ll just be a second here.”

As opposed to its normal crowd of customers, the sidewalk in front of the Mad Batter was deserted except for the owner standing there shifting from foot to foot. “How can I help you?” he asked her.

“It’s gone,” she said with a flourish of her arm.

Grif forced himself to breathe through his frustration and impatience to ask, “What’s gone?”

“The sandwich sign,” she said. “When I came in this morning, it wasn’t here.”

Excellent. This wasn’t his problem. Theft was under his cousin’s—Sheriff Maggie Kingston’s—purview. He pulled out his phone and dialed her direct number. “Mags, we’ve got a situation down at the Mad Batter. The sandwich sign is missing, so I need you to get someone on it ASAP.”

What he didn’t say was that the owner was going to have a sandwich-sign-induced stroke.

“Yeah, that’s not going to happen,” Maggie said, her voice full of cheer that wasn’t holiday-induced. “We’re operating with a light crew right now. Most of my people are in Charlotte for some advanced interview and interrogation training. I can’t spare anyone for something that small.”

“All you have to do is take the police report. You don’t even have to…” He trailed off when the bakery owner’s eyes narrowed. Yeah, he’d been about to say Maggie didn’t even really have to follow up. That wasn’t the attitude of a caring and effective city manager. And dammit, he did care.

Right now, he just cared a little more about getting laid.

“Why don’t you take care of it?” Maggie asked him. “Someone probably just stowed it in the wrong storage closet.”

“Carlie Beth and I are on our way out of town.”

“Only takes ten minutes to check,” Maggie said mildly. “How about I throw in a little incentive? I’ll deputize you right here on the phone.”

Oh no. She was not about to patronize him. He turned his back on the bakery owner and lowered his voice to say to his cousin, “This is the first weekend Carlie Beth and I have had completely alone since Stella Grace was born. Do you have any idea all the things I plan to do with and to my wife? Every minute is critical here, Mags.”

She snorted a laugh. “Buck up, buddy. There are plenty of orgasms available in two days.”

“One less every ten minutes,” he said.

“Wow, you’re an ambitious man, I’ll give you that,” Maggie said. “All you have to do is find the sign. Then you can have as much wild monkey sex as you can in the other forty-seven hours and fifty minutes.”

“I’ll remember this,” he warned. “As Jay’s sports agent, I can book him so many endorsement gigs that you’ll never see him.”

At his mention of her pro football boyfriend, Maggie just laughed. “You can try, but he can refuse. Which I will insist that he do.”

Damn her for being right. He disconnected and turned to the bakery owner. “How about we take a look around inside? I bet someone simply misplaced the sign.”

“I’ve already checked everywhere. Besides, Jeanine said she accidentally left it outside yesterday when she closed up. Anyone could’ve taken it.”

Not the best time of year for the baker’s assistant to be careless like that. Steele Ridge was a small North Carolina mountain town, but they still had some crime now and again. And this was just the kind of prank that would appeal to high-schoolers or the college kids who were home on winter holiday break. If that were the case, that sandwich sign was now propped in some teenager’s bedroom like a trophy.

It was a goner.

Which actually made Grif’s life a little easier. He reached for his wallet. “Then it’s probably long gone by now. Why don’t I just buy the bakery a replacement?”

Her mouth dropped open, and she bug-eyed him. “Absolutely not. That sign was special made just for the Mad Batter. It’s the only one we’ve ever used. It’s the only one Jeanine can or will write her messages on.”

Yeah, the baker’s assistant was actually pretty famous for her sometimes pithy, always insightful, prophecies. But it was just a damn sign. “I’ll go in and talk with Jeanine. She’ll understand.”

“You can’t. She was so upset that I had to send her home.” She hooked a thumb back toward the bakery windows. “Which hasn’t been a problem today since we’ve only had about ten percent of our normal foot traffic.”

Damn. The empty sidewalk outside hadn’t been a fluke. Normally at this time of year, the Mad Batter was filled with both locals and tourists clamoring for their holiday treats like Christmas monkey bread and gingerbread cake. “And you think the lack of customers has something to do with the missing sign?” If so, she had every right to be upset.

“I know it does. Please, Grif, I need this sign back.”

He sighed. He’d always told the town’s business owners that he had their backs. His ideas and incentives had brought back—and would hopefully continue to bring—business to Steele Ridge. He couldn’t abandon them just because he wanted hot sex with his wife. He glanced at his watch. “I can help for a couple of hours. If we don’t find it by then, we’ll pick up the search on Monday.”

She threw her arms around him and squeezed him like a hungry anaconda. “I have faith you’ll find it.”

And Grif had faith he would have his wife under him this afternoon.

He turned toward his car where Carlie Beth was waiting and waved for her to get out.

She stepped out. “What’s going on?”

Speedbump. That’s all. He tried to smile at his wife, but it felt more like a grimace on his face. “Apparently, if we want to have sex, we have to first find a missing sandwich sign.”

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