Who was your childhood crush?
Remi's was her older sister's high school boyfriend. Now, Colton's back in town, and very much single.
★★★★★ "Colton is a tall glass of blue collar hotness that turns my book loving crank!" - Judy Ann Loves Books
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I shivered from the chill of the early morning air. As I walked from my apartment over Java Coffee, the brick-lined sidewalks were quiet. I passed a lone jogger and a dog walker, but for the most part, I was alone.
I’d gotten up earlier than usual to prepare for the Taste of Annapolis event. The shop owners were anticipating a larger than usual crowd, and I hoped I’d reach new customers who hadn’t realized there was a juice shop in town.
My morning ritual of yoga and meditation energized me while I ran through the list of things I needed to do to prepare for the day.
Passing the new yoga studio, I wondered if I should stop in later to see if the owner would be interested in selling my juice. Humming softly, I placed the key in the lock, but the door to my store fell open.
Had someone broken in? My heart thudded in my chest as the lightness gave way to fear.
I peered inside, to see one of the refrigerated cases was broken. Shards of glass and juice covered the tiles.
Was someone still there? The thought had me stepping back. I tried to calm my breathing, but it was impossible.
Panicked, I moved farther away from my store to dial 9-1-1. I relayed what I’d discovered to the dispatcher in a voice calmer than my internal turmoil.
“I’ve got a patrol car en route. They are two minutes out,” the no-nonsense voice of the dispatcher came over the line.
The hand that held my phone shook. “Thank you.”
“Do you see anyone inside?”
I shook my head before remembering she couldn’t see me. “I didn’t. The door was ajar. I pushed it open, saw the damage, and called 9-1-1.”
“That was the right thing to do.”
A patrol car pulled to the curb in the empty spot reserved as a loading zone for local stores and restaurants. The uniformed police officer stepped out, rounded his car, and headed straight for me.
My heart fluttered in my chest, this time, not from fear but anticipation.
“He’s here,” I said to the dispatcher, before ending the call.
Stalking toward me was Colton Castle. My big sister’s ex-boyfriend. High school sweethearts, he’d been the star of many of my teenage fantasies, but the grown-up version was different from my dreams.
He stopped in front of me, all bulk and broad shoulders. “Someone broke in?”
I licked my dry lips. “That’s what it looks like.”
“You go inside?” A muscle ticked in his jaw.
I knew if I said yes, he’d be pissed, and for some reason, I’d always cared what he thought of me.
Shaking my head, I gestured toward the entryway. “As soon as I realized what happened, I called 911.”
A second patrol car rolled down the street, parking behind his. The officer got out, his hand on his service weapon.
Colton held a hand up to me, his determined gaze on mine. “We’re going to check it out. Stay here.”
The sight of the other officer drawing his weapon had me taking a step back.
Normally, I’d make a snarky comment about not talking to me like I was a dog, but there was no way I was going anywhere near my store until they’d cleared it.
“We’ll talk about your lack of security in a minute,” he said over his shoulder as he passed me, his words clipped as he drew his weapon, and nodded to the other officer.
My stomach dropped. I didn’t have a security alarm. Colton had mentioned it when he’d approached me about the graffiti on the side of my building, claiming some kids were probably up to no good. I refused to believe him. I wanted to think it was a bored child who just wanted a space to create, not someone set on destroying local businesses. Now, I wasn’t so sure.
Colton and the second officer moved inside in a series of coordinated moves they’d probably done hundreds of times. Shoulders lowered, weapons drawn, moving stealthily through the store, stepping carefully over the spilled juice bottles and broken glass.
It shouldn’t have been sexy. But it was.
My knees wobbled, and I dropped to the bench outside my store, sucking in a rasping breath.
As much as Colton’s demeanor rubbed me the wrong way, his voice, the way he looked in a uniform, made my limbs weak and heat pool in my belly. I wanted him. It didn’t matter who he’d dated, how long he’d been gone, serving in the military, or the uptight guy he’d become. Colton Castle revved me in a big way.
I’d never let him know, though. Not only could it not go anywhere because he’d dated my sister, but he wasn’t my type. Grumpy and growly, uptight, and a rule follower. He represented everything I steered clear of. Lightness, positivity, and happiness drew me. I liked to move with the flow, not adhere to a strict set of standards or goals.
Focusing on the breathwork I’d done in yoga earlier that morning, I took a few deep breaths, reducing my climbing stress with each inhale. By the time Colton stood in front of me, his service weapon holstered, I felt slightly better.
“Whoever it was is gone.”
I breathed out a, “Thank you.”
I stood, wobbling slightly. As Colton grabbed my elbow, steadying me, a tingle shot through my elbow, up my arm, and straight to my heart, which clenched.
“I thought we talked about getting an alarm system after the last incident.” His words were clipped.
“You mentioned it, but I didn’t think it was necessary.” I couldn’t bring myself to put any punch to my words. I felt too out of sorts.
“You think it’s necessary now?” He widened his stance, crossing his arms over his chest, which only pulled my eyes to his bulging biceps.
I swallowed over the lump in my throat. “Possibly.”
He drew himself up to his full height, well over six feet. “You’re here early and stay working late. It’s not safe.”
It wasn’t safe standing this close to Colton. My body was sending confusing signals—lingering fear and shock from the break-in, and a desire to step into Colton’s personal space to rest a hand on the stiff starch of his uniform shirt. But I resisted. Barely.
“You think it’s related to the break-in at Max’s?”
He nodded, relaxing his stance. “Possibly. That’s what we’ll investigate.”
“What do you need from me?”
His eyes widened, and his nostrils flared. “I need you to be careful.” He paused, scrutinizing me. “I’d feel better if you had an alarm system. If you’d had one, it would have been triggered when the door opened, and we could have been here sooner. Even a sign indicating you have a security system can deter most criminals.”
Looking away from his hard stare, I couldn’t argue with his logic. I didn’t want to walk into a volatile situation again. “I agree.”
His shoulders lowered slightly. “We’ll see if we can get some prints. Most likely, whoever it was was smart enough to wear gloves, but you never know. We’ll increase patrols in this area, both with vehicles and on foot.”
“Does that mean I’ll be seeing more of you?” I held my breath, unsure what I wanted his answer to be. Running into him was a roller coaster of emotions, desire, and longing for what I shouldn’t want and couldn’t have.
“Until we figure out who’s responsible, you’ll be seeing a police presence. I want to see an alarm system installed the next time I stop by.”
“You got it, officer.” I mock-saluted him, unable to resist teasing him a little. Now that the danger had passed, I was feeling more relaxed.
His stern expression slipped from his face. “That was sloppy.”
Stepping into his space, I peered up at him and lowered my voice. “Are you going to teach me how to do it right?”
He opened his mouth as if to respond, but the other officer called out his name. Colton shot me a look that said it wasn’t over.
I loved a good challenge. It was too bad any hope of Colton and me ended the minute he asked out my sister. I might have been too young for him back then, but that didn’t stop me from crushing on him. Watching them date for two years had been painful. He’d spent a lot of time at our house, but he wasn’t mine then and he never would be.
More backup arrived soon, and the officers moved around the store, gathering evidence. When they were done, Colton approached me where I stood just inside the door, surveying the damage.
“You’ll need to call your insurance company.”
I nodded absentmindedly. The list of things I needed to do overwhelmed me. I’d called my friends, who’d offered to help, but almost all of them had their own businesses to open that morning.
“You have someone to help?”
“Mmmm.” Thankfully, I’d scheduled my part-time employee, Kayla, to work. “I’ll sweep this up, move the juice to the fridges that weren’t broken, and we’ll be good as new.”
“You need someone to take the broken fridge to the dumpster out back?”
I’d need to talk to the insurance company. I wanted to expand my business, sell my juices to local stores, fitness centers, and hotels, and the break-in wasn’t good publicity for my business. It could completely derail my plans.
“It’s on wheels. I can probably push it to the back.” I walked over to the counter, stepping around pieces of broken glass, and grabbed a garbage bag to throw the broken bottles inside. I’d need to grab a mop from the back. I was already opening later than I’d hoped and was missing out on catching the early festivalgoers. I didn’t want to lose any more business.
Colton stood nearby as if he were reluctant to leave. “Let me know if you have trouble. I’ll stop by to help.”
“Really?” I paused, a bottle in one hand and the bag in the other.
He nodded. “We’re friends.”
“Right. Friends.” My sister’s ex. He was off-limits to me. Right now, he was probably thinking of me like a little sister who needed his help. “Don’t worry about me. I’ll get this cleaned up in no time.”
I infused a chipper note into my voice. The customers wouldn’t even know what had happened. Not if I could help it.
He tipped his head to the side. “You always this positive?”
“You know I am.” My older sister had done all the worrying when we lived with my biological parents and afterward as we moved from foster home to foster home. I quickly learned it was easier to think good thoughts than dwell on the what-ifs. And everything had turned out fine in the end. We ended up with good foster parents who adopted us. Though, even if the tilt-a-whirl slowed, the threat of being thrown off never ended.
“I’ve seen more bad than good. Whoever did this stole the money from your register. If they think you’re an easy mark, they’ll be back. And next time, they might be bolder.”
I barely repressed a full-body shiver I experienced at his words. Would they be so bold as to attack me walking down the street? I talked a good talk, but I didn’t like walking alone at night to my car.
“You take deposits to the bank?”
“After closing. I just keep a few bills in the register in case someone comes by early or after hours.” Whoever broke in only got a handful of dollars.
“I don’t like you walking with cash by yourself.”
I bristled. “I’m not yours to worry about.”
“What time do you make your run?” he persisted.
“I close at six.”
“If you feel unsafe, call. I can stop by or send someone to accompany you.”
I tipped my head to the side, considering him. “Isn’t that beyond the scope of your department’s duties?”
“I feel responsible for you.” His shoulders were squared, his gaze steady.
His sentence was punctuated by a sharp clink as I pitched a bottle into my garbage bag, resuming my cleanup. A fake smile curved over my lips. “That makes me feel all warm and gooey inside, Officer Castle.”
Sarcasm wasn’t something I used often, but I was tired of him acting like I was his responsibility. His ex’s little sister. Someone to watch out for. Protect. It would feel good if it were because he was interested in me, rather than some misguided desire to take care of me as if I were his responsibility. Irritation prickled my neck.
“You need to be careful.” His voice was gruff.
I tied off the now-full garbage bag, setting it to the side to carry to the dumpster later when Colton was out of my space. “And why is that?”
He tapped the badge over his heart. “I’ve seen things.”
“You said that. I get that you see the worst in people, but I like to look for the good.”
“You’re too trusting. It makes you vulnerable.”
That word speared my heart, hitting a deep part of me, one I’d worked hard to cover over the years. “I’m not weak.”
You couldn’t have gone through what my sister and I had, and not come out stronger because of it.
He nodded, his voice filled with respect. “I admire the hell out of you and Delilah.”
Would every conversation with Colton always revolve around my sister, even though they’d been apart for years, and she’d moved to Virginia to work as a veterinarian? “Then you know I can handle myself.”
His lips pursed, but he didn’t argue with me. “I’d feel better if I knew you were safe.”
I rested my hands on my hips. “Why? Because you dated my sister ten years ago?”
He shifted on his feet, then looked away from me. “Yes. No. Maybe.”
“I’m all grown up. I don’t need you to look after me, and I certainly don’t need your protection.” Not unless he was interested in me.
His gaze scanned me from head to toe, leisurely assessing. “I know.”
Heat followed the weight of his gaze.
My irritation faded away to something far more dangerous: desire.
“Call if you have any more trouble. You have my number.”
I hadn’t used it in years. I’d called him a couple of times to pick me up from parties when I was young and wild. Back then, I’d wanted his attention. It was childish and immature. I knew even then that nothing could happen. Being interested in your sister’s boyfriend was wrong. But I couldn’t help pushing his buttons. Because where he was straitlaced and black and white, I was wild and in color. We didn’t make sense together on any level. No matter how much my heart wanted him to notice me.
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