Tessa, the youngest Spencer sister--and the most impulsive--rushes into the Mount Ridge crisis center bent on saving her brother-in-law. She's ready to handle Brent's abductor, with or without help. What she's not ready to handle is the effect policeman, Colin Phillips, has on her. Romance is the last thing on Tessa's mind. She longs for the adventure and fast-pace of New York City, not being tied to Mount Ridge and a man who insists she shouldn't be so impetuous. After all "independent spirit" is what Tessa does best! Colin transferred from the police force in Atlanta in order to find closure after the brutal murder of his younger sister. He wants a nice, safe future, not one filled with caring and worrying about another impulsive woman. His sister was naïve and unpredictable, and while Colin is drawn to Tessa's spunk and vitality, her willingness to rush into danger scares him. No way could he cope with another devastating loss. His heart must remain closed where Tessa is concerned. But God has His own plans...and His own way of changing hearts and cultivating love.
*Part of the Sweet Treats Bakery series
Tessa glanced up from the lemony batter she scraped from the edges of a mixing bowl to gaze out the Sweet Treats display window. The stark flash of red and blue cruiser lights signaled trouble down the boulevard. Sirens wailed in the distance. Tessa nestled the mixing bowl on her hip and sidled up to the window, scanning the length of the oil-black street. Darkness made it difficult to see. A thunderstorm brewed, turning the sky to an angry, restless monster.
Her breath fogged the glass as she leaned in for a better view.
Her heart caught. “Mattie, come quick!”
Mattie skidded through the doorway. “What’s wrong?”
Tessa tapped the window with a manicured fingernail. “There’s trouble at the crisis center. Look at all the emergency lights headed that way.”
Her sister leaned in beside her. Her dark hair was woven into a long braid that snaked the length of her back, and her cheeks were dusted with flour. The scent of cinnamon clung to her skin. “Brent’s working there tonight. That new women’s self-defense program started this evening, and he stayed late to make sure everything went smoothly.”
Tessa checked the clock above the shop door. “But that ended an hour ago. He should be home by now.”
Mattie shook her head. “I just spoke with Grace, and she said he’s running late—finishing up some paperwork.”
“Are you sure?” Tessa thought of her brother-in-law, Grace’s husband, alone at the center. A siren’s shriek shattered the stillness as another cruiser screamed down the boulevard. Tessa’s heart raced as Mattie pushed back from the glass.
“Yes.” Mattie was already striding toward the door. “I’ll go check it out. Wait here.”
“No way.” Tessa dropped the bowl onto the nearest table. The clatter of metal against the wrought iron echoed off the walls. “Hold up a minute!” Tessa raced after her sister. “I’m coming, too.”
Mattie didn’t argue. She pushed the entrance door wide and the bell above jangled as she practically flew through the opening. Tessa stayed close on her eldest sister’s heels.
Tessa’s sandals clicked along the cobblestone as she overtook Mattie. Her toes numbed in the autumn darkness and her hair dampened in the misty air, but she forced discomfort back as she trained her gaze on the flashing cruiser lights. Five police cars flanked the center—the full fleet for Mount Ridge’s Police Department. But it was the ambulance poised like a sentinel off to the side that made her gasp.
“Mattie, look.” Tessa tossed a glance over her shoulder as Mattie rushed up behind her. Mattie was older—and slower, but her rubber-soled shoes gave her an edge on the cobblestone. Tessa knew from the distress in Mattie’s onyx-black eyes that they were both thinking the same thing—Brent was in trouble.
A crowd gathered along the street in front of the center as rain began to spit. Suddenly the cruiser sirens stopped shrieking, unveiling the crowd’s chatter like a swarm of distressed bees in a damaged hive. Emergency lights continued to bathe the lawn surrounding the crisis center in flashing light. Max, the veteran police officer who had issued Tessa her fair share of speeding tickets over the past few years, motioned people back as a younger officer—tall and built like a star lineman with short-cropped hair and an edge to his dark gaze—ran neon-yellow caution tape along portable barriers.
Light cascaded from a second story window—Brent’s office. A shadow hovered as a man—taller than Brent and heavyset from the look of his silhouette—paced the room. Tessa gasped as he paused in front of the window and scratched his T-shirt-covered chest.
“Mattie—Jason Sloane’s up there with Brent.” Tessa stepped forward and dipped beneath the caution tape. “Remember the threats Jason made last week when Brent tried to help his wife?”
“Yes.” Mattie paused as she approached the caution tape. Blue and red light washed over her. “But, Tessa, wait! You can’t just go in there.”
Undaunted, Tessa wiggled from Mattie’s grasp and pressed forward. Her heart pounded, and she shivered as the wind picked up and the spill of rain grew from a spit to a shower. The caution tape fluttered and danced in cadence to her nerves. Jason Sloane had fumed when Brent offered Jason’s wife the childcare job at the center, had said he wanted her home with their kids, not raising someone else’s. If Jason Sloane was up there, Brent was in danger. She couldn’t just stand there and wait for something to happen—for someone to help him. “Of course I can go in there…and I will.”
“Hold up there.” The cop holding back the line of spectators planted himself like a gigantic boulder, shoulders back, palms clasped tight at his waist. “Move back.” He thrust his head toward the tape. “Get behind it.”
“No.” Tessa sidestepped to dart around him, but, despite his size, he was just as agile and blocked her path. His gaze speared her as she crossed her arms and stretched to her full height. The rain made it difficult to see, and she wiped moisture from her eyes with the back of her hand. “Let me through.”
A flash of shock brightened his eyes as his jaw clenched. A burst of light revealed a shadow of stubble that covered his chin, and Tessa imagined he couldn’t be much older than she was. His hand clasp tightened and his shoulders flexed. The outline of a bulletproof vest beneath his navy blue shirt made Tessa’s heart stutter. For a fleeting moment, she felt as if she’d been swept up into the movie set of the latest blockbuster thriller. Things like this—cruisers on the lawn of the town square, cops in bulletproof vests—just didn’t happen in Mount Ridge.
“No one’s going into that center until we have the perimeter secured—not even me.” The cop took one giant step toward her, his gaze like daggers, and lifted the caution tape as he herded her toward it. “Now move back.”
A shout from the building echoed across the lawn, and Tessa’s head snapped up to see Jason Sloane leaning from the window of Brent’s office. He shouted into the storm, his voice slurred. She gasped.
Mattie’s shoulder brushed Tessa’s. “Tessa, do as he says.”
“Brent’s in trouble and Grace is sure to find out soon, if she doesn’t already know what’s going on. I can’t stand the thought of her so worried.” Tessa spun to face her sister. The dank odor of rain and decaying leaves filled her nose, and a rivulet of water drizzled down her back. “You can just stand around out here if you want, but I’m going to help him.”
“You’re not going anywhere but there.” The officer jabbed a finger toward the crowd. “Now move back and let me do my job.”
Tessa held her ground. “But my brother-in-law’s in the center.” She pointed toward the shadowed window. “Brent needs my help.”
“Your brother-in-law?” That dropped the guy back a step. His jaw went slack. “What can you tell me about him?”
“I can tell you Jason Sloane’s in the room with him, most likely mad as a hornet. He threatened Brent a few days ago.”
“Jason Sloane?” The guy pulled his hat from his head, ran one hand through short-cropped brown hair, then replaced the hat and took a few chomps on his gum. “The guy who runs the lumber yard?”
“Who used to run the lumber yard,” Tessa corrected. “He lost his job when he showed up late for work one too many times.”
His gaze narrowed. “What else do you know, Tessa?”
“Obviously more than you,” she leaned toward him and tapped his badge, “Sergeant Colin Phillips. So let me by. Brent needs my help.”
“We’re giving him all the help he needs.”
“Yeah, I can see that.” Tessa propped her hands on her hips and huffed. Rain seeped between her toes, and the sandals sloshed with each step. “That’s why he’s still up there, in danger, instead of home with my sister, Grace—his wife.”
“The only one in danger right now is you.” Colin took another step forward, forcing her back so the tape brushed her thighs. “Now, listen to your friend, here. Move behind the tape.”
“Mattie’s my sister.” Tessa brought her chin up. With a quick spin she darted past Colin. Her sandals scraped the pavement as she rushed toward the center steps, struggling to keep her balance on the slippery heels. She made it as far as the first landing before Colin grabbed her around the waist and hauled her back. “Let go!” She stomped his foot as tears stung her eyes. “I have to help Brent.”
“Take one more step, and I’ll have no choice but to arrest you, too.” Colin held Tessa tight with one hand as he reached for the handcuffs on his belt with the other. The vest he wore felt like a brick wall against her back. “But you won’t do your brother-in-law much good from inside a jail cell.”
“Stop, please!” Mattie rushed toward them, breathless. She turned to Colin. “If you’ll just tell us what’s going on.”
His gaze wavered from Tessa and his grip slackened. “Fair enough.” He set Tessa back on her feet. “If she’ll stay put.”
“Oh, she will.” Mattie’s voice held the warning tone Tessa was all too familiar with. Her shoulders slumped. Even Tessa knew when it was time to stop pushing her sister. “Right, Tessa?”
Tessa shrugged and fought the urge to stomp Colin’s other foot with the spike on her heel. The scent of his soap—clean cedar and pine—clung to his skin as he held her in a vice grip. She smelled his spearmint gum. “Against my better judgment.”
The grip eased a bit as he took a deep breath. “An hour ago the officer leading the women’s self-defense class heard shouting from a second story office—presumably your brother-in-law’s. Upon further investigation he realized…” Colin hesitated only a moment before he nodded slightly and released Tessa. “We have…a hostage situation.”