Nickie Grace moved to Parkersburg to rehab an old house and forget a disastrous marriage, but a prowler threatens her newfound peace. The vandalism gets more personal and creepier with every instance. It's a small town, and the investigating deputy, Hank Crossman, is everywhere. Nickie's not ready to get involved but she can't resist the hunk's seductive moves -- or the adorable stray dog he adopted. A summer affair might be fun, not to mention that with a sheriff's deputy guarding her body, how much safer could she be?
Then Nickie almost loses her life, and Hank discovers that everything that's been happening is because of his past. He wants to bolt, get out of her life, but this time he just might come home to stay.
"Oh my God, someone's outside my house!"
"What's your name and address, ma'am?"
"It's…unh…one-zero-zero-nine Larkin Road," Nickie Grace whispered into her cell phone. "Hurry!"
"Units in vicinity of one-zero-zero-nine Larkin Road, respond. Woman reports prowler. Copy?"
"Are you still there?" Nickie asked the police dispatcher.
"Yes, ma'am. Is anyone else there with you?"
"No. I'm alone." Her fingers ached, she held the phone so tightly. In the silence of her kitchen, she could hear the crackling sounds of the police response.
"…Unit five-seven…in progress…one-zero-zero-nine Larkin."
"When will they get here?"
"Unit five-seven, what's your ETA?"
"Three min…Molly, wh…name?" It was a man's voice.
"Ma'am, the deputies will be there in three minutes. What's your name?"
"Nickie Grace. Please, tell them to hurry!" she entreated from her crouched position in the corner of the kitchen. She'd taken refuge there, out of sight of the back door and the window over the sink.
"Nickie, my name is Molly. Is someone getting into the house?"
"No, I don't think so. Stay on the line with me."
"I will. Unit five-seven, the name is Nickie Grace. Nickie, the deputies will be there in a minute."
"Okay…" Calm down…where the hell are the cops? They said three minutes…I don't hear any sirens. "Molly?"
"I'm here, Nickie."
"I heard a sound outside. I just felt creepy like someone was watching me…you know…like little prickles on your neck," she babbled on, but she knew Molly was still on the other end of the line. "I'm from Chicago. It so noisy there all the time. It's so quiet here, so any little noise is magnified, you know? Where the hell are they?"
"Don't you hear sirens yet, Nickie?"
She did. Finally past the thumping in her head of her heartbeat. It was pitch black outside at ten o'clock, and she could see nothing inside either since she'd flipped off the kitchen light before calling 911. Back home, sodium vapor streetlamps and fluorescent lights from high rise office buildings would have lit the night. In the city, the sometimes explosive sounds of traffic—car horns, motorcycles, buses—were constant. Now all she could hear in the country were crickets and the swooshing of twisting leaves in the stormy wind. There had been a prowler a few minutes ago. She'd heard…something.
The shriek of sirens got louder, stopped. Tires crunched on the gravel drive, then footsteps pounded on the wooden floorboards of the front porch.
"Nickie, are you all right? The deputies are there, aren't they?"
Knock, knock. "Marion County Sheriff's Department. Are you there, Ms. Grace?"
Relief. She closed her eyes a moment and shakily pushed herself to her feet.
"Nickie?" Molly repeated.
"Yes, I'm here." Her voice quavered. Don't fall apart now. The cops're here.
Knock, knock. "Ms. Grace! It's Deputies Rayne and Crossman of Marion County. Open the door, please."
Creeping toward the front door, she eyed the bulky shadows shifting outside the tall frosted art glass panes on either side of the door. "Molly, what are the names of the deputies?" she whispered even though she knew the men outside couldn't hear.
"Deputies Crossman and Rayne. You're all right, Nickie, if they're there. It's okay to let them in."
"Thank you. I just wanted to be sure." Punching OFF, she forced her trembling muscles to move and made it to the front door to retrieve the baseball bat leaning against the wall. Maybe it was overkill. Maybe not, but she felt a little safer with the bat perched on her shoulder. Ready to swing, she flipped the front hall light on, turned the lock, and drew open the door.
Holy freakin' cow.
Two wide-shouldered giants in khaki uniforms and black gun belts filled the doorway. For a moment, she forgot about the bat. Faced with the men, she forgot she only wore panties under her horrible, shapeless, dingy robe, and even forgot why she'd called 911 in the first place.
And men they were. Long-legged hunks of masculinity. They were the good guys but looked wickedly intimidating with those huge, thick, black belts full of equipment slung around their middles.
"You don't wear Smokey the Bear hats." She choked at the first words out of her mouth, appalled at her inanity.
"We're county, ma'am, not state." That was from the blond one.
"State police wear those," he said, his lips quirked in amusement. "We're county deputies. You're out just beyond Parkersburg city limits, so you're in county territory."
"You reported a prowler?" the dark-haired deputy deadpanned, joining the conversation. "Can we come in? We need to look around. I can take the bat now."
"Okay." She handed it over readily enough. Riightt. The prowler. That's why they're here. Pulling the robe's sash tighter around her waist, she stood to the side and silently motioned the deputies in.
They stomped past her, leather gun belts creaking, boots clomping on the hardwood floors. Everything about them shouted huge, especially their massive guns.
Now, in the light of the living room, she got a good look at the dark-haired deputy, all strong jawed and sculpted lips. Heavy eyebrows, night black like his hair, hovered over melting, deep brown eyes. A bump on the bridge of his nose only added the slightest bit of an interesting imperfection. She shifted her gaze when he caught her staring.
Long-buried hungers seeped from her hidden heart, and nerve endings that hadn't tingled in quite some time screamed for attention. She tamped all those feelings down. This was not the time or place for physical desire to rear its ugly head.
"I'm Pete Rayne." The blond one cocked his head toward his partner. "And he's Hank Crossman."
"Um…okay. Hi." Heat flashed over her skin and roiled up her neck onto her cheeks like little pinpricks. Pull your wits together. You're acting like a ninny. "Was anyone out there?" She finally remembered why she'd called for help. "Did you see anything…uh…Deputy…?"
"Pete Rayne," he reminded her.
"Nickie Grace." She drew her fingers along her throat as if that would relieve the tightness.
"Ms. Grace," Deputy Rayne said. "Are you all right? Did anyone get in?"
Her stomach wrenched. "No, no one got in."
"Why don't you sit down in the kitchen. I'd like to ask some questions." The voice of the dark-haired one rumbled low and seductive even saying the most ordinary things.
Crossman. He's Crossman. She acquiesced, and Pete Rayne urged her into the kitchen, his hand resting protectively on the small of her back. He was handsome, too, but his looks didn't sizzle through her body like the other one's did.
Seated at the kitchen table, she watched the dark-haired deputy flip open a small notebook, click open a pen, and poise his hand over the paper. So NYPD Blue.
Her heart raced. He already knew her name. She'd just told them, but this all had to be done professionally. They did this every day. But she didn't. "Nicole Grace."
He dutifully wrote. "G-R-A…?"
"C-E," she finished. "Nickie."
"Nickie," he repeated. "This your house?"
"Yes. Well, my great-aunt's."
"She died six months ago."
His detachment oddly calmed her. A little. "Thanks." Maybe that was his purpose.
"How long have you lived here?"
"I moved out here two weeks ago from Chicago. I'm rehabbing the house."
He finally glanced at her then. "By yourself?"
His question was unusually intense. Pete stood back, hands resting on the heavy equipment belt at his waist. He was doing no investigating, just watching, his head switching back and forth between them. That pissed her off. She addressed them both. "Can you ask me this stuff later and look around outside now? The prowler will get away."
"If someone was there, he's long gone by now," Crossman said.
"What do you mean if? You don't believe me?" Now she really was full-blown angry. "I'm not in the habit of imagining things like that."
"I'll go check out back," Pete offered.
As soon as Pete banged out the back screen door, Deputy Crossman continued his interrogation as if he'd never been interrupted. "Married?"
She paused. "No, but that doesn't have anything to do with this."
His chocolate gaze heated her. She forced herself not to lick her lips. Cute didn't begin to describe him. Rugged, movie star, masculine hunk described him. Feeling slightly flustered, she qualified, "Well, not anymore." This is none of his business.
"You're from Chicago? What do you do there?" He asked questions but hadn't written anything down since he'd asked her name.
"Aren't you even taking notes?"
He tapped his temple. "Memory, ma'am."
"So, what do you do in Chicago?" Now he rested his hands on his hips and dropped all pretense of official questions, his voice going from bland to interested.
"Not that it has anything to do with any of this, but I do architectural rehab. Painting, moldings, floor finishing."
"How so?" She frowned.
"That you do that, and your aunt's house…"
"What does that mean?"
"How long have you been divorced?"
He changed the subject again and to something not at all pertinent. Where was that other guy? "You know, I want to put some clothes on." She flushed hot, feeling perspiration pop out on her upper lip, under her breasts. Being almost naked under this robe was becoming more and more uncomfortable by the minute. His questions were too personal, and he asked them for no earthly reason than…well, she didn't know why. "I'm going upstairs."
"Better not. The prowler might be up there."
"Well, you don't seem concerned enough about it to quit asking me nonsensical questions and check for yourself, so I'm not going to worry about it either." She took the stairs to the second floor two at a time.
Ripping open the closet door in her bedroom, she grabbed a pair of jeans and struggled into them hopping first on one foot then the other. A T-shirt that she'd taken off earlier lay on the bed. She started to pull it over her head. A bra. The robe was bad enough; she couldn't go back down without a bra.
Hands shaking and in a rush, she hooked the snap between her breasts, jiggling a little to settle herself in the cups. She rubbed at the burning prickles on the back of her neck. Crossman. It was Crossman. She knew it was him before she turned around.
He stared at her from the darkened hallway, his rapt gaze heating her skin. She crossed her arms over her breasts. To give the devil his due, he drew his gaze up to her face. She wondered if he was married, because the way he looked at her made her hope he wasn't. She didn't want to get involved in any complication like that again.
Suddenly, he was gone.
Whoa, back up there, girl. Prowler. Remember? The whole reason for all this. A couple of good looking cops have ridden to your rescue, and you're vulnerable right now. Yes, she was vulnerable physically and emotionally. She yanked the T-shirt on and headed out the door. How had things gotten so out of hand?
A foot shuffling sound caught her attention. There he was at the end of the hall, leaning his behind on the window sill. She couldn't see his expression for the dark shadows, thankfully. His eyes were dark enough in the full light.
She shivered at his deep-voiced apology.
"The door was open. I was just checking on you."
He sounded sincere. "Okay," she managed to respond grudgingly before she headed for the stairs. She still had the prowler situation to deal with and another deputy in the house.
Back in the kitchen, said deputy swung open the back door and stepped inside. "Someone was out there."
"Whoa!" She collapsed onto a dining chair, leaned her elbow on the table, rubbed her forehead.
"There were footprints and broken twigs on the bushes below the kitchen window. I checked the shed and garage. They're clear. The woods are another matter." Pete gestured with his big flashlight. "We'd need more people and daylight. The day shift can do a look-see tomorrow."
She glanced at Hank Crossman, his expression unprofessional and blatantly sensual. She tried to blink him away, but the sight of him was such an enjoyable distraction. With him around, nothing could harm her. His dark-haired forearms were as muscled as his shoulders and biceps. He'd hooked his thumbs into his gun belt like an old western gunfighter and pumped his chest out aggressively. Khaki uniform pants clung closely to his hips and long legs. He was immensely drool-worthy.
"Ma'am, do you have anyone in town to stay with tonight?" Pete said. "There is evidence that someone was out there. He's probably gone by now, but you shouldn't be alone."
"No, I don't want to leave the house. I'm sure I'll be all right. The person would be crazy to come back now. I'll just lock the doors and put a chair against the doorknob of my bedroom. And I do have my bat." From their expressions, it was easy to see they didn't think too much of her plan. Well, that's their problem. "Will someone come out in the morning?"
"Yes, ma'am," Pete assured her. "I'm going back to the station, Hank. I'll write a report. See you later?"
"Yeah," Hank responded absently to Pete's retreating back before turning again to her. "You're sure you'll be all right, Nickie?"
His deep voice rumbled through long dormant nerves. It had been a long time since she'd slept with a man—not that this one had even asked her, at least not in words.
"I am sorry about…upstairs," he muttered.
He sounded rusty, apologies probably something he didn't do much. His presence was overwhelming. She didn't know what to make of it.
Reviews for Home to Stay
5 Angels and Recommended Read from Fallen Angel Reviews - "GET THIS BOOK!!!!! I’m not sure I have words to describe this book and do it justice. Home To Stay is so engaging; it’s a deep emotional read that pulls at all of you."
Joyfully Recommended from Joyfully Reviewed - "Home To Stay is an intriguing mystery romance story that’s sweet, humorous, and sizzling hot."
5 Thistles from My Book Cravings - "Anyone who likes a well written contemporary romance will appreciate this intriguing tale of love and suspense. I can’t say enough good things about this book…so buy and enjoy. I know I did."