Former US Marshal Ethan Greer is still settling into the job as Wishful's new Chief of Police, but he's starting to realize it may be years before he'll ever be considered one of the locals. Fair enough. He's the first to admit that making the shift to small town policing is a big adjustment. After losing his marriage and almost his life in line of duty, the slow pace of Wishful is a change he's happy to make.
While Miranda's and Ethan interest in each other is mutual, he's not sure about taking on a serious relationship. That's just fine with her. But when Miranda is targeted in an escalating chain of threatening events, Ethan's Marshal instincts go on overdrive. Miranda's rose-colored view of Wishful is putting her in danger. She's become more than a casual fling or a job responsibility. With Ethan's training screaming at him to put her in protective custody, can he find out who's behind the threats before he pushes Miranda away?
Release date: May 30, 2018
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 318
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Can't Take My Eyes Off You: A Small Town Romantic Suspense
“Hey, hey married lady.” Miranda Campbell grinned as her best friend slid into the opposite side of the booth.
“Someday that will probably get old, but it is not this day,” Norah declared. “Sorry I’m late. Meeting ran over.”
Miranda noted her faintly mussed hair and rosy cheeks and smirked. “And did your meeting come to a satisfactory conclusion? Judging from your glow, I’m gonna guess it did.”
Norah cast a frantic look around, her just-had-a-quickie-with-my-new-hubby glow being replaced by a ferocious blush. “Keep your voice down!” she hissed.
“Hey, at least one of us is being kept satisfied. I just try not to think too hard about the fact that it’s my cousin putting that look on your face. Did you and Cam at least remember to lock the door this time?”
“That was one time.”
Miranda just arched a brow.
“Okay, maybe two.” Norah dropped her voice. “He has a thing about desks.”
Lifting a hand Miranda shook her head. “Stop right there. I don’t need to know this.” At Norah’s chagrinned expression, she added, “But it’s awesome to still see you blissfully happy. You’re practically radioactive with contentment.”
Norah unwound her scarf and shed the red wool coat, running her hands through her dark brown hair to neaten it. “I’m going to credit the happy for making me susceptible to crazy proposals.”
“Is that a euphemism for something?”
Norah laughed. “No. But somehow I find myself chairing the committee organizing the Valentine’s Dance this year. Because I have so much spare time, right?”
And then it all came suddenly clear. Bracing both hands on the table, Miranda stared her down. “You invited me to lunch to talk me onto that committee didn’t you?”
“It’ll be fun!”
Unamused, Miranda just continued to stare.
“What’s that face, Dr. Campbell?” Mama Pearl, the much-beloved heart and soul of Dinner Belles Diner, slid their customary sweet teas onto the table.
Miranda gestured across the table. “Norah here has been whacked upside the head with the love stick and thinks she’s gonna talk me onto the Valentine’s Dance committee.”
“If I had to judge by the smile she was wearin’ when she walked in here, I’d say there was definitely a love stick involved.”
Norah’s mouth fell open. “Mama Pearl, hush your mouth!”
Miranda snickered and a grin creased the older woman’s dark face.
“Yes, ma’am,” they chorused.
As soon as she shuffled off, Norah resumed her campaign. “Anyway, it’ll be the social event of the season.”
That wasn’t saying much. With a population just edging toward six thousand people, Wishful wasn’t exactly a hopping, happening place. Social gatherings down here tended more toward church potlucks, football parties, and chilling out at The Mudcat Tavern. Miranda was totally okay with that. Transforming the community center into something out of a John Hughes movie prom set for a town-wide dance was not her idea of a good time. Or maybe that was just a little sour grapes because she wouldn’t have anyone to go with.
“I already made my contribution to the Wishful social calendar for the year with my annual New Year’s Eve bash. Literally last week.”
“And that bash was awesome,” Norah conceded. “But come on. It’ll be like the old days back in college, when we were planning sorority mixers.”
“I do not have the enticement of half a dozen cute Sigma Chis doing set up for this.”
“So if I can load the setup crew with hot single men for you to ogle, you’ll do it?”
Miranda knew she’d make it happen. She also knew Norah would just keep pushing until she got what she wanted. “It is my busiest season at the clinic. Flu is horrific this year, and I’m trying to control an outbreak of strep. I cannot commit to committee meetings. But I’m available for brainstorming, and I promise to clear the decks as much as I can for actual setup. Final offer.”
Miranda looked up to find her administrative assistant hovering at the edge of the table. She braced herself. “Please tell me Shelby didn’t send you to fetch me for an emergency at the clinic.” She desperately needed this hour to check out with her best gal pal and breathe something that wasn’t disinfectant fumes and illness.
Delaney laughed. “Nope. Here to pick up takeout for me and Keisha. Did I hear y’all talking about the Valentine’s Dance?”
“Oh girl, you have made a grave error,” Miranda told her. “Run, run now, before you get sucked in.”
Norah beamed a bright smile Delaney’s way. “You sure did. Are you interested in joining the committee?
“Um, I don’t know. What would it entail?”
Miranda just shook her head as Norah cheerfully and skillfully herded Delaney right where she wanted her. Which was what Norah Burke Crawford did. Nobody ever saw it coming. At her high-powered marketing firm in Chicago, that talent had earned her the moniker The Closer. It was a skill Miranda both abhorred and admired. Since Norah used it to the benefit of the town these days, Miranda was hardly in a position to complain. At least until Norah turned those skills on her. Thankfully, long familiarity gave her some measure of immunity.
Amused, she watched Norah go in for the kill.
“It’s a great way to give back to the community.”
Delaney grinned. “Sounds great. Sign me up.”
“Wonderful! We’ll see you on Tuesday for our first meeting.”
“Okay then. Bye, Miranda.”
“See you back at the clinic.”
She and Norah both watched as the younger woman headed for the counter to pick up her order.
“Never even saw what hit her.”
“How’s she working out for you?” Norah asked. “You’ve had her—what?—three months now?”
“Really well. We had a few hiccups that first week, but she’s a quick learner and a hard worker. Shelby’s ecstatic to have help running the office. Especially somebody to take over the onerous management of the computer system. You know how Shelby hates that thing.”
“—just can’t believe she has the nerve to walk around with her head held high after what she did.”
Miranda didn’t even have to scan the busy diner for the speaker. Clarice Hopper Morris was a bitch on wheels and had been since elementary school. If there was something cruel to be said about someone, she or her sister had no compunction in saying it. At the counter, Delaney’s shoulders tensed and rounded, as if she could make herself a smaller target. Miranda’s temper bubbled and snapped on the girl’s behalf as Clarice and her companion just kept right on talking.
“I’m surprised they didn’t run her out of town on a rail after it happened.”
“Didn’t she get arrested or somethin’?”
“Well, you know she did. It was all over the paper. Don’t know what she’s doing back in Wishful.”
Miranda’s fists clenched as Delaney paid for her lunch, took the takeout bag, and all but ran out of the diner.
Mama Pearl shook her head as she slid two plates onto the table and looked after Delaney. She shot a fulminating look at the gossipers and announced in a voice they couldn’t fail to hear, “Anybody can change.”
Clarice didn’t pay any attention to Mama Pearl. “I can’t imagine what she’s doing for work. I mean, who on earth would hire her after everything she did?”
Temper bubbling, Miranda shoved out of the booth and marched across the diner. “That would be me, and I’ll thank you to stop spreading malicious gossip about my employee.”
Clarice and her companion, Karen Alberson, looked up in shock.
“Why Miranda Campbell. I didn’t realize your charity work ran to your employees, too. How…magnanimous of you.”
Steam was most certainly coming out of her ears. Miranda itched to plow her bunched fist into Clarice’s face. “I suppose you would think it magnanimous to recognize that sometimes people make mistakes and deserve a second chance. The fact of the matter is, she’s a smart girl and a hard worker, and she deserves better than to be maligned by the likes of you.”
“It’s a free country. There’s no law against talking.”
“Sadly, no, there’s no law against being hateful. If there were, you and your sister would both have rap sheets taller than either of you.” Disgusted, Miranda shook her head. “Are your lives so bad, you feel the need to talk down about everybody around? Tearing down good people and perpetuating rumors and half-truths about the mistakes they may have made to make yourselves feel better?”
“I hardly think our topics of conversation are any of your business.”
“I think you know you’re making it everyone’s business by talking loud enough for the whole diner to hear you, just to get attention. Grow up, Clarice. And maybe you could find a scrap of humanity while you’re at it.” Miranda swung around to go back to the booth for the lunch she no longer wanted and plowed straight into a brick wall.
The wall gripped her elbows and drawled, “Steady there.”
Startled, she looked up…and up, into the clearest gray eyes she’d ever seen.
* * *
Chief of Police Ethan Greer had dealt with a lot of angry people in his lifetime. It wasn’t generally an attractive state, often involving red faces and flying spittle—or fists. But Miranda Campbell, in full temper, facing off with a couple of women he’d already learned were bitchy gossips even in his short three months on the job, was one of the most unaccountably sexy things he’d ever beheld. Ethan had no idea who she was defending, but those changeable hazel eyes still flashed with a righteous indignation as she looked up at him. Stunning.
As they stood there, the indignation faded and something else pulsed between them. It had been so damned long, Ethan barely recognized it for what it was. Mutual attraction. And wasn’t that interesting?
“Excuse me, Chief.”
Her eyes widened slightly at that. Yeah, he knew who she was, even if they’d barely spoken before. At 5’10”, with a fall of thick, honey blonde hair a man could lose his hands in, she was a hard woman not to notice. And he’d done plenty of noticing in the ambulance bay of the hospital the first time he’d seen her. She’d been in a fine temper then, too.
Ethan released her, edging back so she could get by him. He shifted his attention to the gossips, leveling them with the flat cop stare that tended to make hardened criminals break. The sidekick’s cheeks reddened, and she looked down at the table. The ash blonde with the pinched face, who’d been doing most of the talking, just lifted a brow. Supercilious bitch. He knew the type. For the sake of whoever she’d been maligning, he wished he did have something he could arrest her for. She needed to be knocked down a few pegs.
“Hey Chief. Are you meeting somebody or sitting at the counter today?”
He found a smile for the fresh-faced waitress, who’d arrived in Wishful not long after he had. “Mornin’, Hannah. I’m meetin’ Clay.”
“There’s a booth right over here.” She led him to the opposite side of the diner from Miranda. “I’ll just get your tea.”
As he sat, studying the menu, conversation started up again. That whole confrontation was gonna be all over town by dinner. Probably faster. He’d learned that viral social media had nothing on the gossip network in Wishful. Especially when it started here, at Mama Pearl’s place. If you wanted to know anything, Dinner Belles was the first place you started.
Clay wandered in and worked his way toward the table, pausing in time-honored, small-town tradition to greet everyone he knew. Given Wishful was his hometown, that was most of them. The delay was fine with Ethan. It gave him a chance to surreptitiously watch the good doctor as she conversed with City Planner Norah Crawford.
Clay slid into the other side of the booth. “See somethin’ you like?”
Or maybe not so surreptitiously. “Hello to you, too.”
Hannah came back with his tea. “Hey Clay.”
“Miss Hannah Wheeler. And how are you this fine day?”
Ethan wondered if there was a woman between twelve and eighty in this town that his best friend didn’t know by name.
“Doing fine. Caught your show last weekend. Nice to know the rumors are true. You’re good.”
He grinned. “Glad you enjoyed it. You know, I used to be a part of a duo.”
Her brown eyes brightened with interest. “Yeah? What happened?”
Clay turned a bland stare on Ethan. “My partner went off and joined law enforcement.”
“And you became a high school math teacher,” Ethan shot back.
Hannah stared. “You, Chief? Really?”
Shifting in the booth, Ethan shrugged. “It was a long time ago.”
“Well, that is a thing I’d like to see.” She lifted her order pad. “What can I get you?”
“What can you do about a bacon cheeseburger?” Clay shot her the twenty-four carat smile that girls had been fawning over since he was a cocky nineteen-year-old. It hadn’t lost its potency.
Hannah blushed and batted her eyes in his direction. “I’ll get Omar right on that. You want onion straws on it like your usual?”
“That’d be great. And a Coke.”
She made a note on her order pad. “How ’bout you, Chief?”
Mentally adding an extra mile to tomorrow’s morning run, Ethan stuck the menu back between the napkin dispenser and the ketchup. “I’ll have the same.”
“You got it.”
As soon as she’d wandered away, Clay started in. “So when am I gonna get you back up on stage?”
Here we go again.
“I’ve been trying to get settled into this new job, establishing myself in the community. I need people to see me as Chief of Police before they see me on stage.”
“It’s been three months, man. You’re in it, you’re settled, and I promise you everybody knows exactly who you are.”
“Yeah, the new guy.” The new guy who was still in a probationary period for another nine months. Despite the fact that his transition had gone pretty smoothly, Ethan was sure the jury was still out for a lot of people. He was an outsider here.
From the corner of his eye, Ethan noted the gossips packing up and heading out. His eyes slid to Miranda. She scowled after the pair, muttering something under her breath and stabbing at her lunch with more savagery than necessary.
“Getting your ass back on stage and showing folks you can be approachable would go a long way toward being something other than the new guy.”
Ethan dragged his attention back to Clay. “Yeah, I remember how people treated me when we performed back in college. That’s not the kind of approachable I want to be.”
Clay laid a hand over his heart. “Those were the days. But unlike you, I’ve been performing all the years in between, and it’s been at least a few months since anybody threw their underwear on the stage.” At Ethan’s cop stare, he sobered. “Seriously though, Wishful isn’t a college town, so people aren’t gonna behave like they did in Austin. The Mudcat is the kind of small, intimate venue you used to love to play.”
Back when it had been entirely about the music. Yeah, Ethan couldn’t deny that had some appeal. He still played for himself and had occasionally stepped out for open mic nights in Dallas, but it had been years since he and Clay had performed together. He’d be lying if he didn’t admit he missed it. Hadn’t he taken this job so he’d have the chance for more of a life outside work? Part of that life ought to include taking back up hobbies that didn’t involve honing his skills with a gun or attending training seminars.
“All right. I’ll think about it. We can at least set up some rehearsals.”
Clay smirked. “Think you remember how?”
“Smartass. I may not have been on stage in ages, but I can still keep up with you.”
“Great! How about you prove it Saturday?”
“Can’t. I’m running a bowhunter’s safety course Saturday. Maybe Sunday afternoon?”
As Hannah slid their burgers onto the table, Clay nodded, satisfied. “I can work with that.”
Across the diner, Miranda and Norah rose, shrugging into coats.
“Getting back into music isn’t the only thing you’ve been avoiding.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Dating, my friend. You haven’t done any of it since the divorce.”
Yeah, he’d been busy trying not to die, then changing his entire life. Women hadn’t exactly factored into the equation. And Ethan had been fine with that. Nobody had sparked his interest anyway.
Miranda’s laugh rang out, rich and unabashed. The sound rolled over him like warm molasses.
Ethan jerked his attention back to Clay. “Who?”
“Miranda. I assume you weren’t eyeing the new Mrs. Crawford.”
“I’m not eying anybody.” But he couldn’t stop himself from glancing back as the two women got to the door.
Clay continued as if he hadn’t even spoken. “She’s a lot of fun. Helluva dancer.”
Something in the casual tone had Ethan’s hackles rising. Still, he kept his expression bland and reached for the ketchup. “And you’d know that why?”
“We dated a while.”
The bottle jerked in his hand, making his fries look like the victim of a particularly gruesome homicide. Stupid. He’d exchanged all of five sentences with the woman, and two of those were today. He certainly had no claim on Miranda Campbell, and he sure as shit had no right to be aggravated that she’d gone out with his best friend. “I expect you’ve dated damn near every single woman who’s breathing in Wishful at one point or other.”
“My streak isn’t near as wide as you seem to think.”
Ethan just lifted a brow at him.
“Not since I came home, anyway,” Clay amended, grinning. “Anyway, it wasn’t recent. We had some fun together, but we just didn’t click.”
Ethan didn’t want to think about what kind of fun that might’ve been. “Doesn’t matter one way or the other.”
“So you think being Chief of Police means you don’t get a love life either? Man, why did you move here again?”
“You know why.”
“Yeah, and I remember something in there about having a life while you still had one. You’re falling down on that, brother.”
Ethan scowled at his friend. “I’m easing in at my own pace.”
“Yeah, the Geriatric 500.” Clay leaned closer, lowering his voice. “Look, I know Becca did a number on you. But it’s time to get back out there.”
The flash of honey gold hair had Ethan looking up.
As if summoned by Clay’s words, Miranda stood there, those hazel eyes snapping, her long, surgeon’s fingers balled to fists. “Chief Greer, I’m really sorry to interrupt your lunch, but I need to report a crime.”
* * *
As Wishful’s not-quite-brand-new police chief turned those clear gray eyes to hers, Miranda couldn’t help but hear Clay’s words repeated in her head.
It’s time to get back out there.
For the barest instant, she forgot what she’d come here to talk to him about because her long neglected lady parts were busy standing up and waving. I volunteer as tribute!
Those three little syllables pulled Miranda out of her nanosecond’s fantasy about what those big, warm hands that had steadied her earlier would feel like somewhere more interesting than her elbows. She didn’t have time for tributes or fantasies.
“My car’s been vandalized.”
He didn’t look annoyed, didn’t even look at his food. He just slid from the booth. “Show me.”
The position put him inside her personal bubble again, and Miranda took an instinctive step back, glancing at Clay. “Sorry to borrow him.”
Clay waved that off. “Nature of the job.”
Ethan followed her out of the diner and halfway down the block to where she’d parked. He didn’t make casual small talk. Miranda had no idea what to say, so she said nothing at all, just pointed him to her driver’s side door where Nosy Bitch had been scratched into the paint. He still didn’t speak, just slowly circled the vehicle snapping pictures and, presumably, looking for more damage.
Eventually, he brought that laser focus back to her. “Do you have any idea who might do this?”
Why did his attention make her want to shiver?
“I know exactly who did it. You walked in on the tail end of our argument earlier. Clarice Morris.”
“The blonde in the diner?”
“That’d be her.”
“What was the argument about?”
The temper that had dropped to a simmer cranked back up to boil. “She was maligning one of my employees. I called her out on it.”
“Is this your first run-in with Ms. Morris?”
Miranda snorted. “Hardly.”
Ethan’s eyes sharpened at that. “You have history?”
“Going all the way back to first grade.”
A flicker of surprise cracked the serious cop mask. “First grade?”
“Not an exaggeration, actually. It’s a small town. Most of us go back a long way. In this case, Clarice and her sister, Amber, have a history of tearing people down. I abhor bullies, so I have, over the years, intervened to defend people. And before you ask, no, it’s never led to any kind of physical blows or retaliation in this particular fashion.”
“So why do you think it was her this time?”
Miranda frowned at him. “Because I literally just dressed her down in public. She left first, and I come out to find this. Two and two equals four.”
He glanced back at the door. “She only had a couple minutes’ lead on you. A message like this would take a little while to carve in. I’m not sure she had enough time to do it. Is there anybody else who might have a grudge against you?”
“Contrary to the evidence of the moment, I don’t make it a habit to fight with people. I don’t have enemies.”
That focus came back to her, feeling almost like a physical touch. When Ethan Greer looked at her, he really looked at her. No glancing at her shoulder or the bridge of her nose. He made full, unabashed eye contact. It was both disconcerting and strangely intimate.
“Everybody has enemies, even if they don’t know it.”
“That’s a pretty cynical point of view.”
“What you call cynicism, I consider realism. Realistically, unless somebody happened to be driving by, or walking on the green and glanced over at the right moment, nobody actually saw this happen. There are no businesses with security cameras along this stretch. There’s not really any way to prove who did this. You can believe down deep in your gut that this woman was behind it, but without any corroborating evidence, I can’t charge her with anything.”
“You’re not even going to talk to her?”
“Oh, I’ll talk to her. But unless she spontaneously confesses, I don’t really have anything else to go on.”
“So basically I dragged you away and let your lunch go cold for nothing.” Scooping a hand through her hair, Miranda felt stupid. Of course there was nothing he could do about this. It was minor vandalism. He probably had more important things to be worrying about.
“Not nothing. I’ll write up a report to document it. If you plan to file a claim on your insurance, you’ll need that.”
She blew out a breath and looked at her Jeep. Having the door repainted wouldn’t eat up her deductible for the year, and reporting it would probably just make her rates go up. With the burden of her mortgage, student loans from med school, and the business loan on her practice, that was the last thing she needed.
It’s an inconvenience. An irritant. Clarice just wanted to get to you, and you’re giving her exactly what she wants.
With effort, Miranda tamped her temper down. She had patients to get back to, and she needed to be calm when she saw them. “Thank you.”
“I’ll need your number.”
She blinked at him. Had he just asked her out?
“To let you know when the report is finished. The forms are all in my patrol car.”
“Right.” Idiot. He’s just doing his job.
He punched the number into his phone. “It should be ready for pick up in a day or two, after I’ve had a chance to talk to Ms. Morris.”
Not, I’ll call you.
“I appreciate it, Chief Greer. And I apologize again for dragging you away from your lunch.”
He angled his head and started to lift his hand before stopping himself, as if he was accustomed to having a hat to tip at a lady. “No problem. You have a good day now, Doc.”
Miranda climbed into the driver’s seat and watched him go.
Maybe she’d completely misread that frisson of attraction when they’d bumped into each other in the diner earlier. She’d been out of the dating game entirely since she came home to Wishful, and her last relationship had left her singed enough to be okay with that state of affairs. But Ethan Greer made her wonder. Worse, he made her want things she hadn’t wanted in a very long time.
Doesn’t matter. He’s not interested, and you don’t have time for a guy anyway.
But as she drove past the diner on her way back to the clinic, she couldn’t stop herself from taking one more glance at the way those broad shoulders filled out his uniform shirt.
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