Nicki Jackson wheeled her bulging carry-on through the carport, the rumble of the plastic wheels against the concrete breaking the silence of the dark night. The golden retriever prancing behind her had enough energy for both of them. Of course, the dog hadn’t spent the past eight hours trapped in the car, battling traffic.
Nicki sighed. The last of her single friends was now married. But at less than a year from thirty, what did she expect? In fact, she’d almost made it to the altar herself. Instead, she was free and single, and her former intended was facing a hefty jail term.
She hesitated in the glow of the Ram’s headlights to finger through her keys, then dragged her bag the final few feet to the kitchen door. Bed was only a few minutes away. Unpacking could wait till morning. So could a shower.
She raised the key and stopped short. The door wasn’t shut tightly, and the jamb was chipped and scratched.
The headlights clicked off automatically, casting her in darkness, and the hair rose on the back of her neck. Someone had broken into her house. Heart pounding in her chest, she pulled her phone from her purse and dialed 911.
“Come, Callie.” With a small tug on the leash, she moved to the truck and opened the door. The dog stared at her, a question in her big brown eyes. After a moment’s hesitation, she jumped onto the seat, and Nicki slid in after her. Uneasiness crawled along her skin, the sense someone was nearby, watching. Why hadn’t that call gone through yet?
She lowered the phone and stared at the screen. Half a bar. More like a dot. In several places on Cedar Key, her cell service was sketchy. Under her metal carport, it was nonexistent. Sitting inside the truck wasn’t helping, either.
Leaving the driver’s side door open, she moved out into the moonlight, pulling Callie with her. Two bars. It was better than nothing.
The dispatcher answered, and Nicki’s hand tightened on the phone. Perspiration coated her palms, and all the strength seemed to have left her limbs. “Someone broke into my house.” She quickly provided the address.
“Is anyone there now?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been inside.” Her gaze darted across the front of the house, and she backed toward the road, putting as much distance between herself and the house as she could. But nowhere felt safe.
A shadow fell over her, and she lifted her gaze. Clouds rolled across the sky, obscuring the three-quarter moon. Thunder rumbled in the distance, a far-off storm that might or might not reach Cedar Key.
After finishing with the dispatcher, she slid her phone back into its pouch. The police would be there soon. Meanwhile, Callie was with her. Of course, Callie was a big pussycat.
She turned to head back toward the truck, the sense of vulnerability too strong to ignore. She was used to living out of sight of the neighbors. She’d grown up in the country, at least from age nine onward. That was when she moved to Crystal River and found out what a real family was. The dozen or so foster homes before that didn’t count. Neither did the time she’d spent with her birth mother.
But now, looking at the trees shielding her house on three sides, the privacy she’d cherished when she bought the place felt more like isolation. And not in a good way.
A rustle sounded nearby and grew rapidly closer. Her heart leaped into her throat. Callie stiffened, a low growl rumbling in her chest. Something was barreling toward them through the strip of woods separating her yard from the one next door. Something large. She jerked Callie’s leash, ready to run for the truck, but Callie wasn’t budging.
A male voice cut through the noise. “Sasha, heel.”
Sasha? The breath she’d been holding spilled out in a rush. Sasha was the German shepherd next door, her neighbor Andy’s dog.
A fraction of a second later, sixty pounds of quivering excitement broke from the trees and charged across the yard toward them. Both dogs’ tails waved back and forth at a frantic pace. By the time Sasha’s human counterpart appeared, the two dogs were busy exchanging sniffs.
She watched him retrieve the leash and loop it around his hand. The other end was attached to Andy’s dog, but the man standing in her driveway wasn’t Andy. In fact, he looked sort of like… No way. She squinted in the bit of moonlight leaking through the clouds.
He hesitated for two beats. Then recognition flashed across his face. “Nicki.” He wrapped her in a hug, then held her away from him, his hands on her shoulders. “Wow, you look good.” The recognition turned to confusion. “What are you doing here?”
“I live here.” The hesitation in her tone proclaimed her own bewilderment.
Long ago, they’d been friends—close friends—until his mom got sick and moved him to Atlanta, where his aunt could care for them both. He’d been a scrawny fifteen-year-old at the time. She’d been a year younger and pretty skinny herself.
Now he was anything but. Her three-inch heels, added to her own five feet nine inches, put her almost eye to eye with him. But he outweighed her by a good seventy pounds, all of it muscle.
She shook her head, trying to clear it. “What are you doing here with Andy’s dog?”
“Andy’s my brother. I’m going to help him renovate that run-down inn he bought.”
The confusion cleared. Andy’s kid brother. The soldier. Andy and his wife Joan had told her he was coming and had given her a bit of his history, how two years ago, he’d been finishing his third tour in Afghanistan and had come under attack during a recon mission and how he almost didn’t make it out alive. Andy had just failed to mention his kid brother was Tyler Brant.
“He told me you were coming, but I didn’t make the connection.” With different fathers, they didn’t have the same last name. And during the two years she and Tyler had hung out, Andy was already out of the house and married.
“I just arrived this afternoon, and we had a lot of catching up to do. Since I’d kept them up way past their bedtime, I told Andy I’d take Sasha out. I didn’t realize she was going to bolt as soon as I stepped out the door, or I’d have kept a death grip on the leash.”
The teasing grin he flashed her carried her back fifteen years. When she was a cranky adolescent, he’d had a knack for sending the dark clouds scurrying with his quirky sense of humor. Of course, she’d done her share of warding off his storms, too.
She returned his smile. “Sasha probably picked up Callie’s scent. They’re best buds.”
He nodded down at the golden retriever. “She must like late night walks, too.”
“Actually, I’m just getting home.”
He had the late part right. It was three hours later than she’d planned. After the Saturday wedding in Miami, she’d stayed a second night and enjoyed a long lunch with friends. The northerly drive from Miami to the Gulf town of Cedar Key wasn’t a lot of fun anytime. Independence Day weekend, it was the pits. The truck that had overturned and strewn produce all over the turnpike hadn’t helped, either.
Sirens sounded in the distance and moved closer. When the glow of red-and-blue lights shone from the end of the road, Tyler raised his brows. “I’ve only been here a few hours, but when I used to come here as a kid, it was a pretty quiet place. I wonder what’s going on.”
“That would be me. Someone broke into my house while I was gone.”
He frowned, the concern on his face obvious in the light of the moon, which had once again made an appearance. “Is anything missing?”
“I haven’t been inside yet.” But considering the creep had had all weekend to clean her out, the possibilities weren’t looking good.
“That’s probably smart. I hope it isn’t too bad.”
“Yeah, me too.”
A cruiser pulled into the driveway, and the siren stopped midsqueal. The door swung open, and Amber Kingston stepped out. Amber was the newest member of the Cedar Key Police Department and among the group of people who’d taken Nicki under their wings from the moment she’d arrived in town.
“You had a break-in?”
Nicki nodded. “I left midafternoon on Friday and just got home, so no one’s been here all weekend.” Andy had agreed to collect Saturday’s mail, and her friends Allison and Blake had kept Callie. She hadn’t seen a need to have anyone keep an eye on the house.
Amber’s attention shifted to Tyler. “And you are?”
“Tyler Brant.” He jammed a thumb toward the house next door. “Andy’s brother.”
Amber gave a sharp nod before moving up the drive. “Let’s see what we have inside.”
Nicki started to follow, but Tyler’s hand on her shoulder stopped her.
“Are you okay? I can go in with you if you’d like.”
She hesitated, then shook her head. She didn’t need anyone to prop her up. She was just overtired. She’d made the harrowing drive home on too little sleep.
But all the excuses in the world couldn’t stave off the sense of vulnerability that had swept over her the instant she realized someone had come into her house. There were things inside those four walls that couldn’t be replaced at any price, because they’d belonged to the two people she’d cared for more than anyone in the world. Two people who’d taken a foster kid with a chip on her shoulder the size of Texas and shown her a love that wouldn’t quit.
She squared her shoulders and forced a smile. If there was one thing life had taught her to do well, it was to stand on her own two feet. “Thanks, but I’m sure I’ll be fine.”
He opened his mouth as if ready to argue, then reached up to jam his fingers through his hair. No longer in the military buzz cut she would have expected, it rested in soft layers, light brown or dark blond—it was hard to tell in the moonlight. “Let me know if you need anything.”
She watched him lead the dog toward the road, a sudden sense of nostalgia sweeping over her. She had friends, close ones, but Tyler knew things about her no one else did. There’d been no pretense for either of them. Could they pick up where they left off and renew the friendship they’d had so many years ago? She wasn’t the same person she was then, and after the horrors he’d lived through, he probably wasn’t, either.
She turned and, with Callie trotting beside her, led Amber toward the carport. She might as well get it over with.
“This is where he got in.” She pointed at the door. “Looks like I’m going to need some work done on the doorjamb.”
Amber removed her pistol from its holster. “I’m going to go in and clear the place, make sure no one’s hiding inside. You might want to wait in the truck.”
Nicki coaxed Callie up into the seat for the third time that evening. A few minutes later, Amber stepped back into the carport, her expression somber.
“You’ve got a little bit of a mess.” She held up a hand. “Nothing major.”
Nicki followed her into the house, her insides settling into a cold, hard lump. She reached to unhook the leash from Callie’s collar, then changed her mind.
“I’d better close her up.” Her house had become a crime scene. She didn’t need the dog traipsing through and destroying evidence.
She opened the door leading into the laundry room, then filled a bowl with dry food. Callie dove in right away. That would keep her occupied for a few minutes. After a couple of pats on the dog’s back, Nicki pulled the door shut and stepped into the kitchen.
It was the same as she’d left it two days earlier. The living room, too, appeared untouched. Two curios held thousands of dollars of figurines—Swarovski, Lenox and Armani—all undisturbed. A sliver of the tension eased. The intruder apparently wasn’t interested in electronics, either, because the big screen TV and pieces of accompanying equipment still occupied their cubbyholes in the entertainment center.
Which meant the mess Amber had referred to was in her bedrooms. The guest room she’d chosen for her own, leaving the large master bedroom to function as a combination hobby room and office.
As soon as she stepped into the hall, she gasped. The open door at the end revealed her wooden work table covered with papers and files. She closed the distance at a half run.
All of her tools and materials for making stained glass were where she’d left them, but both file drawers were all the way open, the majority of the contents removed and strewn across her work area. Her bulletin board hung above the table, her to-do list pinned in the center. The first three items were crossed through. The remaining four, she’d assigned time frames for completion. Organization in the midst of chaos. But the sense of control it usually gave her had evaporated the moment she stepped into the room.
She reached for one of the files on the table. Amber’s voice stopped her.
“Don’t touch anything. I’m going to try to lift prints.”
Nicki let her hand fall to her side but scanned the items. Lots of papers lay on top, pulled from their folders. One stack was the paperwork from the sale of the Crystal River house, an hour from Cedar Key. It had belonged to her parents. Seven months ago, they’d taken early retirement to see the country and reward themselves for all the years of hard work.
Some reward. They’d been headed toward a picturesque small town in North Carolina when a tired trucker crossed the center line. And she’d been left with a three-bedroom house on five acres and a great big hole in her heart.
Next to the Crystal River sale documents was the paperwork from the purchase of the Cedar Key house. And beside that was the file from opening her account at Drummond Community Bank upon first moving to Cedar Key. Her income tax forms were also there, along with some credit card statements.
All of her personal information was right out in the open—her name, address, Social Security number, date of birth—everything needed to steal her identity.
“You’d better file fraud alerts with the credit reporting agencies.” Amber’s voice was soft but filled with worry.
She nodded and followed Amber from the room, an emptiness weaving through her. She’d come to Cedar Key to regain her footing after life had kicked out one too many of her foundation blocks. The quaint town’s peace and tranquility had gone a long way toward mending the tattered pieces of her soul. And she wasn’t going to let this break-in take that away.
She squared her shoulders and started down the hall. Before she’d gotten very far, Amber stopped her with a raised hand.
“The intruder did some damage in this room, too. I’m hoping you can shed some light on what’s going on.”
During her mad rush to her work room, she’d hurried right past her bedroom without even looking inside. Now something in Amber’s tone sent dread showering down on her. Could anything be worse than what she’d already witnessed?
Amber stepped aside and Nicki closed the remaining distance to her room.
Then froze in the open doorway. Her old plush rabbit was hanging from the ceiling fan with a noose around its neck. Stuffing protruded from a slash that ran from throat to tail and littered the carpet beneath.
Her knees started to buckle, and she gripped the doorjamb for support. Lavender wasn’t just an old, scruffy stuffed animal. She was her childhood friend who’d gotten her through nights of terror while her mother was being beaten by her men in the next room. She’d been Nicki’s constant companion through one foster home after another when the parents couldn’t cope anymore with a disturbed, destructive child, and through weeks of uncertainty as she waited for her adoptive family to give up and throw in the towel. Lavender had been hugged and kissed and cried on. And had been there for a lonely, terrified little girl when no one else had.
Why Lavender? Houses got burglarized all the time. Maybe not in Cedar Key, but plenty of other places. Even going through her paperwork made sense. But why destroy a stuffed toy?
Nicki dragged her gaze from the rabbit to take in the rest of the room. Several dresser drawers were open, the contents hanging over the sides. The closet doors were open, too. Other than that, and the empty spot on the shelf Lavender had occupied, it looked undisturbed.
A soft hand on her shoulder reminded her she wasn’t alone. Nicki dropped her hand from the jamb and faced Amber. “I’m guessing the intruder was ticked about not finding any money and figured he’d do a little vandalism before he left.”
Amber shook her head, eyes now back on the stuffed rabbit. “That doesn’t look like vandalism to me. It looks like a threat.”