Love at First Light
Private investigator Ethan James has had one too many brushes with death. But his newest case should be simple—it's just a birth-parents search in stunning Lost Harbor, Alaska, helping out the local police chief. But as everyone knows, strange things happen in the tiny remote town. From day one, everything seems to go wrong. The last straw? He suddenly has a sidekick he never expected—the super sexy, endlessly quirky local baker.
Nothing is more important to Sweet Harbor Bakery owner Jessica Dixon than her friends—especially her BFF, Police Chief Maya Badger. When Maya has to drop a side investigation close to her heart, Jessica is determined to prove she has her back. Of course, she knows nothing about investigating. But she has her knowledge of the area, her uncanny intuition, and of course, her trusty crystal. Oh, and the help of the ridiculously gorgeous but entirely too cynical Ethan James. What could go wrong?
When these opposites attract, Jessica may come down to Earth long enough to find love, while Ethan might learn to trust his heart instead of his head...if they make it out of the wilderness alive.
Release date: September 22, 2020
Print pages: 318
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Love at First Light
This wasn’t the first time Ethan James had found himself in trouble with the local authorities. As a private investigator, sometimes he worked with them, sometimes he got on their nerves. But they didn’t usually arrest him and toss him in jail.
Welcome to Lost Harbor, Alaska, where before last night he’d mostly been worried about bear encounters.
“We have a new police chief,” the arresting officer informed him as he fingerprinted him. “She runs a very tight ship. Sorry, man. Blame her, not me.”
“Chief Maya Badger. Yes, I know. She’s the one—“
“Nope.” The sergeant threw up a hand to stop his explanation. He was friendly enough, with a sunny smile and a fringe of white beard, like a Santa in uniform. “I’m just doing my job. Letter of the law. Following orders. Not my fault. Filling out reports. Dotting I’s and crossing T’s. Just the way she likes.”
Obviously this guy was hellbent on putting him in that cell. Ethan gave in and handed over his personal items, which didn’t amount to much—wallet, rental car keys and phone. He hadn’t even checked into the Eagle’s Nest yet. That was where he’d stayed on his previous trips to Lost Harbor; but those had been financed by clients. This trip was different.
Very different. He chuckled to himself as the sergeant steered him into the small holding cell tucked into a corner of the bullpen area of the police station. Its door had a small window, with bars in place of the glass. At the back of the cell there was another window that looked out on the inviting grove of birch trees behind the station. At least there was a view. If he had to spend a night in jail, he could do worse.
He spread his arms wide, realizing he could nearly touch both walls. “It’s a good thing Lost Harbor has such a low crime rate so I have the place to myself.”
“We’re a little cramped for space here,” the sergeant explained. “They’re building us a new station, but for now, it is what it is.”
“I’ll have to come back in a year and get arrested again,” Ethan said dryly as the cell door closed behind him. “I promise to rewrite my Yelp review.”
“Funny. Okay then, Ethan S. James. Enjoy your night.”
“It’s off to a great start, can’t lie.”
The officer snorted and shuffled off. Ethan realized he hadn’t been granted the traditional one phone call, but since it was three-thirty in the morning, he’d just suck it up until Maya Badger showed up.
She’d asked him to come here, after all. True, she hadn’t asked him to hack into the police station’s database and pull all the records related to one “Spruce Grouse,” aka S.G. But old skills never went away, and with an antiquated system like Lost Harbor’s, he could hardly be expected to ignore such a tempting opportunity to get a head start on this case.
He settled onto the bench that lined the back of the cell and stretched out his legs. His right leg was aching vaguely, with a kind of desultory whine, like a kid asking “are we there yet?” He rubbed it automatically, out of habit, even though what he really needed was a hot bath and a bed.
“You’ll have to wait, buddy,” he murmured to his leg. “Behave or I’ll switch you out for a pirate peg leg.” He’d gotten into the habit of talking to his troublesome limb when he was a kid, and had never quite shaken it.
“Eh?” shouted Sergeant Santa.
“Nothing,” he called back. “Can you keep it down? Gonna try to get some Z’s. Any chance you got some of those eye masks, like on a plane? It’s so damn light in here.”
“Teach you not to commit crimes in Alaska in the summer.”
Ethan grumbled to himself and settled his back against the wall. Was “crime” really the right word? Maya Badger, the police chief, had hired him for this case, after all. On the phone, she hadn’t set down any “rules” about “computer access.” At worst, he was just an overeager new colleague.
The light from the little window above his head cast a shadowy blue glow into the cell. From where he sat, the other window, with its aluminum bars, gave him a view of the police station’s acoustic tile ceiling. A sepia stain shaped like Florida spread across two of the tiles.
If only he could drag the bench to the front of the cell, so he could enjoy the view of the woods behind the station. Then his first night back in Lost Harbor would at least include some sightseeing. He loved this little town clinging to the edge of the Alaskan wilderness. With its magnificent setting on Misty Bay, right across from the snowcapped mountains and deeply forested slopes of Lost Souls Wilderness, it had a special mystique that had stayed with him even back in the James Agency office in humdrum West Covina, Los Angeles.
This was his third trip to Lost Harbor. He’d met Maya on his first trip, when he’d worked with her to protect Padric Jeffers, the rock star, from death threats. He respected her, but they certainly weren’t close friends.
This last time, the Alaska phone number had flashed on his phone in the middle of an argument with Charley.
His new fiancée.
Who wanted him to quit being a private investigator.
“You don’t have a real schedule.” She’d been ticking off her complaints on her fingers. “Your life is so unpredictable it’s impossible to make plans. And what about all the people who apparently want to kill you?”
“But they keep missing the mark,” he pointed out.
“You’re not taking this seriously. Are you forgetting that I’m a life coach? This is exactly the kind of thing I advise people about.”
“I’m not your client. And I enjoy my work.”
“Oh, so you enjoy nearly drowning?” “No, that was a low point. Gotta admit.”
“Okay, what do you enjoy about it? How does it serve you?”
Ohh, that life-coach talk really got under his skin. How could he explain that it made him feel more alive than the computer work he used to do? He liked throwing his body into things. It was his body. Not the surgeon’s or the oncologist’s. His, to risk as he wanted.
She tried another approach. “You don’t want me to worry, do you? Some things have to change when you get married. You have to accept that.” Just then, Maya’s call had come in. He’d listened to her outline the situation. Spruce Grouse, known as S.G., was a mysterious runaway girl who’d been raised in Lost Souls Wilderness by a trapper who had found her as a baby. She’d recently become eager to find out her true origins, and had asked Maya to help her. With Maya’s recent promotion to police chief, she didn’t have enough spare time to investigate the mystery of a teenage runaway’s origins.
He said ‘yes’ before they so much as discussed terms.
Before Charley could scold him, he took her hand. Cool to the touch, neutral nail polish. His future bride. Was this how her hand had felt in his vision? He couldn’t remember.
“One last job,” he told her softly. “It’s in Lost Harbor, Alaska, and it won’t involve any vengeful husbands or crazed Lexus drivers. It’s a cold case, really. We’ll be trying to figure out the true identity of a fifteen-year-old kid. I’ve been to Lost Harbor before, and it’s a tiny little fishing town with a low crime rate. I’ll be facing no danger. Should be back in a week.”
“Just one week?”
“Do you promise that it’ll be your last job?” He nodded, though it took everything in him to do so. If he was going to marry her, he should try to make her happy. “Last one. You can even come with me. It’s a magical place.”
“My schedule is beyond booked, you know that. Besides, Alaska…” She shivered. “No thanks.”
One last job.
He’d never imagined that it would land him in jail on his very first night back in Lost Harbor. But whatever. It was just a few hours. As soon as Maya Badger came into the station, she’d spring him out of here.
Another thing he’d learned long ago was how to sleep in uncomfortable places and positions. He managed to doze off despite the sporadic sounds of phones ringing and voices and metal chairs screeching against the floor.
What woke him up was a smell.
Not just any smell. A divine fragrance wafting through the bars of his cell door like Tinkerbell riding an air current—if Tinkerbell was bringing him spiced coffee cake. Ever since his near-drowning, he’d been acutely sensitive to smells. It was weird, and it hadn’t faded in the months since the incident.
Light footfalls sounded on the floor outside the holding cell.
“Hello?” a female voice called. “Is anyone here? Maya?”
Ethan stiffly pushed himself off the bench to stand up. He wobbled there for a moment, gaining his balance. Come on, buddy. Don’t let me down.
“Hello? I’m here. Hungry as a horse.”
The footfalls paused. “Who said that?”
“Over here. In the corner. Behind the bars. Don’t worry, I’m not dangerous, though a little breakfast might help with that. ‘Hangry’ is a real thing, you know.”
“Oh, I know, believe me. I see it firsthand every morning, as soon as the bakery doors open.” Her voice came closer, and a few seconds later she was peering through the bars at him. Rich auburn hair backlit by the office fluorescents. Curious amber eyes, a merry smile. “Who the heck are you? I don’t believe I know you.”
“Ethan S. James. Nice to meet you.” He gave her a little salute, like a military officer. “And you are?”
“Not about to introduce myself to a prisoner.”
“Good policy in general. But I’m not supposed to be in jail. It’s a mistake, and as soon as Maya realizes it she’s going to be furious and full of apologies.”
Her forehead crinkled. “That doesn’t sound like Maya. She ruined my suede jacket in a snowstorm once and she still hasn’t apologized.”
Was this girl for real? He was in jail and she was ranting about a suede jacket? Talk about frivolous. She was pretty; maybe too pretty, the kind of girl who got by on her looks. The opposite of his sister and his fiancée. He liked brains in a woman.
But clearly she knew Maya, and maybe that meant she could help him out. “Sounds like you’re pretty close to her.”
“Besties since third grade. Except for sixth grade, half of sophomore year, and part of our early twenties. Long story. Several long stories, come to think of it. I can tell you if you’re interested, since you seem to have plenty of time. You’re literally a captive audience. Our sixth grade fight was the worst, it started when she was sitting in front of me and I pulled her braid to get her attention. I only intended to offer her some Juicy Fruit but she thought I wanted to mess with her about the half-assed job her mom had done on her hair and—"
Oh my God. Was this story going anywhere? Was it worth listening just to pry some information out of her?
Good thing Charley was nothing like this. They might disagree about things like the dangers of PI work, but she was a practical, sensible person just like he was. That was why people trusted her life coaching skills. “Are you sure Maya wants you spilling all her secrets like this?” he interrupted at the first possible moment.
“Oh, none of it’s a secret. We had an epic fistfight right there in class. Hair pulling, eye gouging, the whole thing.”
“Attempted eye gouging,” she corrected with a shrug. “It was the class right before lunch and like you said, ‘hangry’ is a real thing. So is it appropriate for me to ask why you’re in jail?”
He was pretty sure “appropriate” wasn’t something that concerned her too much. “
Happy to tell you if you hand over one of those muffins.”
“Do you mean these freshly baked, Rainier cherry buckwheat scones with lemon-cardamom icing?”
She lifted a cardboard bakery container to the bars to give him a look. The aroma made his head spin. Spice and citrus and sugar.
“Please God, yes,” he said fervently. “Those.”
“Perhaps you’d like some coffee with them too?” A metal thermos appeared on the other side of her face. Her sunny smile, combined with the promise of breakfast, made his mood lighten for the first time since the sergeant had knocked on his rental car window.
“You have no idea.” His mouth was watering so much he could barely get the words out. “I have some money in my wallet. It’s somewhere out there, wherever they put personal items. You know what would be even better? If you could find the key and let me out. That way I can get some cash for you. And Maya won’t be quite so angry when she discovers that I’m in jail.”
She pursed her lips and looked up at the ceiling, as if thinking over his proposal. “So let me get this straight. You want me to feed you breakfast, let you out of jail, and piss off my best friend by giving away her coffee?”
He snorted. Maybe she wasn’t quite as flaky as he’d imagined. “Is that a no?”
“I’ll think about it.” She winked at him. “What’s in it for me?”
“I’ll tell you all about the dire acts that put me behind bars.”
“Or…just spitballing…I could wait for Maya to show up and she could tell me.”
“Yes, but you know how police blotters are, they’re very dry and boring. I can tell you the inside story. All the juicy gory details.”
“Gory? Is there blood involved? I’m not good with blood. That’s why I picked baking instead of—”
“Fishing.” She frowned at him. “Okay, how about this? Maya never eats more than half a scone anyway because she gets so busy. I’ll give you a nice big chunk of this scone if you tell me what a well-dressed, probably good-looking-when-not-so-tired stranger is doing in our humble little jail.”
Probably good-looking. Not the most flattering description, but at least she was still talking.
“Throw in a sip of coffee and you have a deal.”
“I can do better than that.” She disappeared, taking her scones and coffee with her. He wanted to cry like a baby, watching them go.
In a minute, she came back with a paper cup of extremely dark coffee. She passed it through the bars to him. He took a whiff and made a face. “This is what’s in that thermos?”
“Oh no, this is the station coffee, they must have made it last night.”
“Good God.” He sloshed it in the cup, where it left a poisonous-looking residue on the sides.
“Yeah. That’s why I bring Maya my coffee when I want to butter her up.” She flaunted the thermos at him, and he choked back a tormented growl. “But jailbirds can’t be choosers. Here.” She broke off a piece of scone and passed it through the bars. “This’ll help it go down.”
He set the coffee aside and devoured the scone in two bites. It was the best thing he’d ever tasted, hands down.
“Well?” She waited expectantly. “Juicy details please. As agreed.”
“All right. I hacked into the police department computer system to find out more about the case Maya hired me for. Sergeant Santa got pinged that someone was on the network and decided I should contemplate my evil deeds during a quiet night in lockup.”
She frowned. “That’s it? Hacking? Not even the axe kind of hacking?”
“Not juicy enough for you? Sorry.” The incredible cherry buckwheat concoction had hit his bloodstream, making him feel much more like a regular human. “I completely agree. They should only arrest people for more exciting crimes. So maybe you could find the keys to this place and—"
“What was the case?”
“The case Maya hired you for?”
“I probably shouldn’t talk about that. Maybe it’s supposed to be confidential.”
“Is it about S.G.? Spruce Grouse?” He looked at her with surprise. Either it was already common knowledge or she wasn’t a bad detective herself.
“I can see by your eyebrows that it is.”
He forced his eyebrows back down to their normal position. “No comment.”
She tapped her fingers on the thermos, barely paying attention to him anymore. “If she hired you to help with that case, something must be wrong, because she’s been knee deep in that one for a while. What kind of help does she need? Who are you, anyway?”
“Okay, you can stop with the interrogation shit, Jess.” The bakery girl’s face disappeared, replaced by Maya Badger’s. She frowned at him, the light sliding off her rich dark skin. “Ethan James? What the hell are you doing in there?”
“That’s exactly what I’ve been wondering all night. Just so you know, I charge overtime for jail time.”
A frown dented her forehead. “Did I say this was a paid job? You hung up before we got a chance to discuss it.”
He sighed. Perfect end to a perfect night.
At least he’d gotten half of a perfect scone out of it.
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