Lauren Patterson entrenched herself in the corner table of Jane's Sweet Tea House, barricaded behind her laptop, a latte, and a Glorious Morning muffin.
Facing a blank computer screen wasn't nearly as terrifying as confronting three masked men with guns, she told herself firmly. She hadn't frozen then. There was absolutely no excuse for her to be paralyzed now.
The July sun pushed past the HELP WANTED sign in the window to pool like syrup on her table. Beyond the shade of live oaks and loblolly pines, beyond the shrubs and shingled rooftops of the harbor, the waters of Pamlico Sound gleamed. Vacationers seeking an air-conditioned respite from the North Carolina heat packed the eclectic bakery. A young couple, broiled pink by the sun, held hands on a sofa. A father lifted his little daughter onto his shoulders in line. All of them happy. Together.
Lauren's muffin stuck in her throat.
Behind the counter, a pretty teenager in geek girl glasses struggled to meet the stream of orders for iced espresso drinks. Before Lauren's fifteen minutes of fame, she'd moonlighted as a barista to make ends meet. The psych department frowned on its graduate students taking outside jobs, but her stipend had barely covered her living expenses. Not to mention all the things her little brother Noah needed that Mom couldn't afford. Luxuries like game controllers. Athletic shoes. Meat.
Lauren swallowed hard. She couldn't do anything that would plunge her family into that state of financial uncertainty again. The advance from her publisher was already half spent, the publication date set. Late October, so the book would be shelved in time for Christmas but not lost in a sea of cookbooks and gift books. It was already selling briskly online.
She just had to finish it.
The cheerful silver bells on the door chimed, announcing the arrival of another customer.
She looked up, seeking a more positive direction for her thoughts. Or maybe, she admitted, she was simply searching for a distraction.
A man stood silhouetted against the brightness outside. Thick, close-cut hair. Lean, muscled body. Dark mirrored sunglasses.
Her heart beat faster. A cop.
Save me, she thought.
She took a deep breath and looked away. The sudden sight of the law was never good news. A uniform at the door, blue lights flashing in the rearview mirror . . . Anybody could get sweaty palms and a dry mouth. She was not having a panic attack.
She put her hand on her belly anyway, under the cover of the table, and drew a careful breath. In through the nose . . .
He entered the shop, moving between the artfully mismatched tables and chairs with a contained authority more menacing than a swagger. Among the pink, chubby, underdressed tourists, he stuck out like an assassin in a ballroom.
He promised safety. He promised danger. An irresistible combination.
She exhaled, pushing on her stomach. Out through the mouth . . .
He nodded to the young woman behind the old-fashioned register, the one with the fat blond braid and sleepy gray eyes of a princess in a fairy tale. The blonde nodded back, never losing her rhythm or her smile.
Lauren didn't understand why she wasn't melting into a puddle at his feet. Okay, so he wasn't Prince Charming. Not the kind of guy you wanted to meet at midnight, unless you intended to lose a lot more than your shoes.
But hot. Very hot. Smoldering, in fact.
Given the slightest encouragement, Lauren would have followed him home like one of the island cats that seemed to hang around the bakery's back porch, lean and hungry and hoping for handouts. Pet me. Rescue me.
She shook the thought away. She was not turning into a police groupie on top of everything else. She could take care of herself. Without getting anybody shot in the process.
Anyway, she tended to attract guys who needed her. Sensitive souls with lousy home lives or unsatisfying jobs, with full-sleeve tattoos and pierced tongues and nipples. Not law-and-order types.
"This isn't peppermint schnapps," complained a thin woman at the head of the line.
"No, it's Irish cream syrup and whipped cream," the blonde said.
"But I ordered Irish coffee. There should be peppermint schnapps."
Not in Irish coffee, Lauren thought. She noticed her heart rate increasing and took another deep breath.
The blonde blinked. "I'm afraid we're not licensed to serve alcohol," she said with doll-like calm. "But I can add a touch of mint syrup if you'd like."
"I don't want any damn syrup," the customer said loudly. "I want my drink. I want to speak with your manager."
The situation was escalating. The people in line behind the woman shifted away. Lauren had seen that kind of body language before. They didn't want to get involved. They didn't want the drama.
Lauren, on the other hand, had already proved she was a total sucker for other people's problems. Her faculty advisor had cautioned her about her tendency to get personally involved. Empathy is a good thing, Eleanor had said gently. No one questions your ability to connect with clients. But our emphasis here is research, not therapy. You don't want to put your own future at risk by losing your professional focus.
Which was great advice until, say, somebody drew a gun.
The band around Lauren's lungs tightened. Not a helpful thought. Breathe in, two, three, four . . .
"I'm Jane. The owner," the blonde was saying. "If you'd like me to make you another drink - "
"What I'd like is a real Irish coffee," the angry woman said. "It's false advertising, that's what it is."
The blonde flushed scarlet.
Lauren's face heated in sympathy. The hell with it. She abandoned her breathing and jumped up, grabbing her empty mug.
Hot Cop spoke. "This is a bakery, not a bar." His deep voice raised all the little hairs along Lauren's arms. "You want a drink at ten in the morning, you'll have to take your business elsewhere."
Okay, so his by-the-book attitude wasn't going to win the bakery any patrons, Lauren acknowledged. But at least he was stepping in, defending the princess against attack.
The unhappy customer folded thin, tanned arms across her skinny bosom, and turned to give the interloper a piece of her mind. But faced with Hot Cop's cool air of authority, she faltered. "But I'm on vacation," she said almost plaintively.
He regarded her impassively from behind mirrored sunglasses. "Yes, ma'am. Have a nice stay."
"Carolina sea salt caramel latte to go," the owner, Jane, said, setting a drink with a clear-domed lid on the counter. "On the house."
The customer pursed her lips. "Skim?"
It was important in negotiations, Lauren had learned, to give the hostage taker an opportunity to save face.
Jane nodded. "And whipped cream."
The thin woman took the cup without thanks or payment. The door bells rattled in her wake.
Hot Cop looked at Jane. "You really want to start rewarding customers for bad behavior?"
Jane's flush deepened.
Lauren dumped her dirty mug into the bus tray. "I'm pretty sure she just wanted to get her out of here before she made a scene."
The sunglasses turned in her direction. "You don't stop bullies by appeasing them."
Memory tightened Lauren's chest, constricted her throat. Lying flat on the bank floor, her face pressed to the cool tiles, the smell of fear rank in her nostrils . . .
She pushed the memory away. Pushed down her nausea. Helpful thoughts. She smiled. Focus on the positive. "Sometimes you do whatever it takes to survive."
His dark brows flicked up. "Her survival isn't in question."
Right. Not every confrontation was a life-or-death moment. But . . . "It is if a customer decides to trash her bakery online," Lauren pointed out.
"Thank you," Jane said.
Hot Cop didn't budge. "So, in your opinion, she should compromise her principles to avoid a customer lying in a bad review."
"I think compromise is always a good idea. Especially if it gets you what you want."
"Here's your coffee," Jane said, setting it on the counter. "Black. No sugar."
"And two large to go, please."
Jane nodded and reached for the stack of cups.
Lauren glanced from the coffee on the counter to the cop's hard face. Humor tickled her mouth. "I guess you don't worry about stereotypes, huh?"
For a moment she thought that he wouldn't answer. That he didn't get it. And then his smile flashed, white, electrifying. "I didn't order donuts," he pointed out.
She tilted her head, enjoying the lightening of tension, like the drop in air pressure before the rain. "You don't like sweet things?"
He surveyed her coolly from behind his mirrored glasses. "I like them fine. I'm watching my weight."
Was he joking? Her gaze dropped to his lean waist. He had the flat stomach and disciplined body that came from serious gym time.
After the robbery, Lauren's faculty advisor had suggested she try exercise as a way to manage her anxiety. But every time she left her hotel room to go for a run, she started to gasp. Her shortness of breath, her rapid heartbeat, felt uncomfortably like a panic attack. She had visions of collapsing by the side of a road miles from home, followed by headlines: HOSTAGE GIRL SURRENDERS. BANK HEROINE PARALYZED BY PANIC DISORDER.
She didn't run anymore.
"Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem," she said dryly.
"Occupational hazard," he agreed, straight-faced.
She was almost sure he was kidding. She smiled back uncertainly.
"Jack is our chief of police," Jane put in from behind the counter.
Not just a cop. The top cop.
"I'm impressed," Lauren said.
"Don't be. We're a small department." He removed the glasses. His eyes were sharp and dark in a hard-featured face. Square jaw, strong cheekbones, bold, prominent nose. She sucked in her breath.
"Jack Rossi." He introduced himself.
Italian. It figured with that face.
"Lauren." No last name. To make up for her omission, she offered her hand.
His hand enveloped hers, sending a shock of warmth up her arm. Lauren swallowed, resisting the urge to tug back her hand. He did not recognize her. She'd made sure of that. Her new look bore little resemblance to the fresh-faced inset that had appeared at the bottom of the news footage or the polished, smiling image on her book jacket. Her hair was darker and longer, past her shoulders, and she flaunted her new piercings like self-inflicted battle scars.
His gaze skated over the tiny jeweled nose stud before focusing politely on her eyes. "What brings you to Dare Island, Lauren?"
"Oh, you know," she said vaguely, waving her hand. "Work."
"What is it that you do?"
Even after all the media interviews, she hated that question. At thirty-one, she should be able to answer with certainty, I'm a cop, I'm a baker, I'm a doctoral candidate in psychology. Anything other than, I'm famous for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
She couldn't be sorry that her presence in the bank that day had saved lives. But the whole hostage thing had changed her in ways her family couldn't see, her friends refused to accept. After her appearance on Dr. Phil, her book Hostage Girl: My Story had spent forty-eight consecutive weeks on The New York Times bestseller list. She was as isolated by her fame as she had been by her captors. "I'm a writer."
Who couldn't write. Her stomach cramped. Her follow-up book, Hostage Girl: My Life After Crisis, was scheduled to release in less than four months. Before - her agent had explained with brutal honesty - no one was interested in her anymore.
That sexy little indent at the corner of his mouth deepened. Even his smiles were cool and controlled, she thought wistfully. She was jealous. Everything in her life felt so out of control these days.
"Guess you don't worry about stereotypes, either," he said.
What? She followed his gaze toward her table before understanding clicked. The latte. The laptop. Her lips eased into an answering smile. "The whole coffee shop scene is kind of cliche," she admitted.
Jane looked up. "We're a bakery. We're not a coffee shop."
Jack Rossi angled his body, shifting his attention to the woman behind the counter. His smile softened, making his strong features even more attractive. "I don't only come for the coffee, Jane."
Oh. Oh. Lauren glanced from his hard, dark face to Jane. The baker dropped her gaze, setting two large to-go cups in a cardboard tray on the counter. Right. If he didn't want donuts . . . and he didn't come for the coffee . . . Lauren snuck a quick look at his left hand. No wedding band. He must be after whatever else the pretty blond baker had to offer.
Her lungs deflated. So did her ego.
Which was stupid. Her lack of a love life had never bothered her before. She didn't date blue-collar cops with Italian-sounding last names. She didn't date, period. None of the grad students did. They hung out. They hooked up. They devoted themselves to their research, their coursework, their clinical training. Occasionally she brought someone home to crash on her couch or in her bed until he found his feet again.
It was just that since the whole hostage thing, she'd lost even that casual companionship. Her romantic prospects had dwindled to marriage proposals from online weirdos and tired come-ons from seedy sales guys in hotel bars.
Which still wouldn't be a problem. She wasn't her mother, for God's sake, always needing the reassurance of another human being.
It was just that her defenses were low, her confidence shaken, her energy depleted. Was it any wonder she wanted to borrow someone else's for a while?
Don't overthink it, her publicist, Meg, had urged. Everything will be fine. You'll be fine. Just move on.
It was good advice. Lauren sighed. If only she could figure out how.
It was a beautiful day. Too bad his job was to ruin it for somebody.
Jack sat in his SUV blazoned with the shield of the Dare Island Police Department, running the AC and the driver's license and registration of the seventeen-year-old who'd just blown through a stop sign on her way to the beach.
The ID checked out. The BMW belonged to her daddy. Jack could have let her off with a warning. He might have, too - he'd been young and dumb once - if so many other kids without cars didn't walk this road.
And if she hadn't tried so hard to flirt her way out of a ticket.
The law existed to protect everybody. The sooner Miss Teenage BMW learned the consequences of her actions, the better. He wasn't compromising his principles or public safety for some spoiled rich kid from out of town.
A face slid into his memory, that writer, Lauren No Last Name, her sharp, dark eyes with heavy black eyeliner, the winking nose stud, the silver wire that curled like a - snake? vine? - around her ear. I think compromise is always a good idea. Especially if it gets you what you want.
She reminded him of the college girls he used to watch walking down the street, always on their way somewhere, class or the library or some fucking foreign film festival. Smart girls, quirky girls who went to Bryn Mawr, who read poetry and smoked pot, who knew things a guy like him would never know.
After eleven months, Jack recognized most of the island's residents. Lauren No Last Name wasn't from around here any more than he was. Still, she looked familiar. Something about the shape of those eyes or the tilt of her jaw. His body tightened. She interested him, and not just as a member of law enforcement keeping tabs on his beat.
He shook his head, disgusted with the direction of his thoughts. Obviously, his dick hadn't learned the lessons of the past year.
He didn't do interesting women anymore.