After wrestling with the coffeemaker for the past ten minutes, I’m not any closer to a cup of much-needed caffeine when my phone starts ringing. It’s not even seven o’clock yet.
“Grayson.” I hit the speaker button and answer with a sigh.
“Hey, buddy.” My partner greets me from the other end of the line as I bend down to examine the machine again. “What’s up?”
“You sound entirely too chipper this morning,” I grunt.
Smitty laughs. “That’s because I actually slept last night. I have a feeling you can’t say the same.”
I mumble a half-assed response under my breath and double check the cord, switching it to another outlet. Smitty knows I don’t sleep well. Even the long hours on the force haven’t cured that issue. I’m always exhausted, but somehow, a good night of shut-eye still manages to evade me.
“You don’t see me enough at work?” I ask in the typical smartass fashion. “What’s the reason for the early call?”
“I have a favor to ask,” he says.
Deeming the coffeepot a lost cause, I opt for the sink and a splash of cold water to my face instead. “What is it?”
“Something came up with my brother,” Smitty explains. “I have to jet down to Florida for a couple of weeks to help him out.”
“Everything alright?” I ask.
“Yeah, it’s all good. He just needs some help around the house. Problem is, I already had a meeting set up this morning, and it’s too late to cancel.”
I snag the phone from the counter and wander down the hall to my bedroom, pulling my uniform from the closet. “What meeting?”
“The one for the charity event.”
“You’re kidding me,” I groan. “You want me to go to the meeting for the charity bachelor auction?”
“That would be the one.” He chuckles. “And there might be a few more after that, that I’ll need you to cover.”
I slide my pants on and zip them up while I attempt to conjure up another solution. But there isn’t one. Smitty called me because he knows he can count on me. All the guys down at the station are exhausted during tourist season, and I’m not going to be the asshole who adds to their burden.
“You owe me big time.” I button my shirt and tuck it into the waistband of my pants.
“Yeah, yeah,” he murmurs. “Next meal is on me.”
“Nice try. It’s your turn to pay anyway.”
“Well, you could always take me up on my offer to have dinner with my wife’s friend,” Smitty muses. “I promise you won’t regret it.”
“Yeah.” I snort. “That’s not going to happen anytime soon.”
I can almost see Smitty shaking his head in disapproval. “I don’t get you, man. You have practically every single lady in town throwing themselves your way, and you never even acknowledge it. You know it wouldn’t kill you to have a little fun outside of work.”
My eyebrows pinch together as I recall what my life was like before I got serious and joined the force. I’ve already had my share of fun, and I have no desire to go down that road again. I’m happy to work on my career and focus on the important things in life. I have my family and my brothers on the force, and that’s enough for me. Besides, no women in this town turn my head. Not for the past few years, anyway. I know everyone here well enough to know that I should stay far away from them.
“It’s awfully kind for you to be so worried about my love life,” I tell Smitty as I dig through my sock drawer. “But I can assure you I’m just fine.”
He snickers, and I hear some murmuring in the background that sounds like he’s already down at the station. “Just looking out for ya, buddy. But hey, I gotta jet. Thanks for attending that meeting this morning. It’s on the calendar here if you need any details.”
“Got it.” I nod. “Catch ya later.”
We hang up, and I brush my teeth and set about preparing for my workday. While I’m not the sort of guy to fawn over myself in the mirror, maintaining a clean image is important on the force. But it doesn’t mean that I don’t cringe every time I face myself in the mirror. Smitty wasn’t exaggerating when he said I have my pick of women in this town. They all like what they see on the outside. Once upon a time, I thought that meant something.
Growing up on the cape and keeping up with the Joneses isn’t just an expression; it’s a way of life. I was just another sheep who followed the path that had been carved out for him. Star Lacrosse player. Perfect grades. Invites to every party and an endless list of girls to date. I had a reputation to keep, and it was the life I thought I wanted. Looking back now, it’s almost laughable to see how much my life has changed since then.
I comb through my hair and check my jaw for any signs of stray stubble after slapping on some aftershave. Every day, I perform this ritual. It used to be because that was just how I was raised. But now, I represent the local police department, and that means a great deal more to me than anyone else’s opinion. The idea of auctioning off the department’s eligible bachelors at a fundraiser in two weeks is already grating on my nerves, and if it wasn’t for charity, I wouldn’t be doing it all.
The drive to work does nothing to ease my irritation. Smitty is lucky I love my job because the last thing I care to do with my time is discuss frivolous things like catering menus or decorations. I can only imagine the airhead they’re sending to meet me. Probably one of the Kelly twins. I can’t tell them apart, but they don’t care. They’ve both made me multiple offers, each trying to one-up the other.
There isn’t enough coffee in the world to deal with this shit. Which reminds me I still haven’t had any. So after I park my truck, I cruise around the corner to the local café where I can grab an extra-large cup of joe to get my day started.
Being that it’s the summer season and the town is full of tourists, the place is already bumping, and the line’s almost to the door. But none of that matters when I walk in and Misty the barista catches sight of me. Her face lights up, and she waves excitedly as she calls out for me.
“Denver! Come right up. I’ll make you the usual.”
The other customers throw glances back and forth between us. I consider just walking out, but it’s either this or the coffee back at the station. And five minutes of googly eyes from Misty is always a better alternative than the sludge on tap there.
I stroll up to the counter and nod in her direction. “Thanks, I appreciate it.”
“Anytime.” She tosses me a flirty smile over her shoulder and sashays to the coffee machine.
Out of habit, my eyes roam over the space while I wait, checking for anything out of the ordinary. It doesn’t matter where I am; I like to be aware of my surroundings.
Everything looks the same as it always does. A jam-packed café full of strangers and a few familiar faces. Another ordinary day on the cape in the summertime. At least, that’s what I think until my eyes land on the strawberry blonde in the corner, and I almost choke.
My spine goes rigid, and the room closes in on me as I try to convince myself it’s not her. There’s no way. That woman sitting there with her face turned down as she studies a file in front of her is not who I think it is. But when she reaches for her drink and accidentally knocks it over, fumbling hurriedly to clean it up while her cheeks flush with pink, there’s no doubt left in my mind.
Charlotte Cross has come home.