ONLY THREE DAYS TILL EYE OF DANGER!!!
I’m so excited!! Here’s chapter 1 for your reading pleasure:
Life tip 101: When anybody says to you: “We need to talk” …
Run for the hills.
(Unless you’re already in the hills. Then run for the valleys. Or the beach. Just … run.)
# # #
We were at the opening of the newly dedicated Dr. Linda Parrish and John Luke Arnold Museum of Pirate History when my uncle pulled me aside and said four terrifying words:
“We need to talk.”
“Nothing good ever started with those four words,” I said, my spirits plummeting. “Who died?”
“Nobody died,” Uncle Mike said, his face shadowed. “It’s your father.”
My father had abandoned me— abandoned all of us—when my mother died.
“What about him?”
“He’s on his way back to town, and he says he’s in trouble.”
Jack—my friendly neighborhood private investigator, and maybe something more—tightened his hand around mine. “We’ll handle it together. After witches, leprechauns, gators, and the Fae, how bad could it be?”
I’d heard some of those gators had never been caught. Still …
“You know what you should never, ever say? ‘How bad could it be?'”
Here we go again.
“I need donuts.”
# # #
“Is there anything better than a sunny morning at Dead End’s best pawnshop?” Eleanor practically sang out the words when I walked into work the next morning, worries about my long-lost father still hamster-wheeling around my brain.
I raised an eyebrow. “Last I knew, we were Dead End’s only pawnshop. Or is there something you want to tell me?”
She shrugged. “Only. Best. Most awesome. All are true. And guess who brought in seven new items in pawn and rang up almost $500 in sales so far today?”
“Nice! You are my favorite employee.” I grinned at her while I walked over to put my bag in the drawer behind the counter. “Definitely my favorite employee.”
“I’m your only employee.”
“Only. Best. Most awesome. All true.”
She laughed and went back to filling out paperwork on the new intakes, and I took a moment to look around at what truly was the most awesome pawnshop in the world, at least in my somewhat biased opinion. Sparkling clean and neatly arranged, from the aisle of electronics to the magical potions counter, I loved every inch of it, even the walls, now that I’d finally sold the dreamcatcher that had an authentic nightmare trapped in its woven threads. It was a good business, and I got to meet interesting people and occasionally discover interesting artifacts, and it was even modestly profitable.
And it was all mine.
I’d never wanted to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a captain of industry. For a brief time, before the onset of my unique ability changed my life, I’d thought about studying art history. Maybe traveling the world to study ancient artwork in some kind of artist-meets-Indiana Jones job that probably only existed in my imagination. Instead, I’d become the manager, and then owner, of my very own pawnshop, in the same town where I’d been born and lived my entire life.
And, I had to admit, I loved every minute of it. Well, except for the two times people had dumped dead bodies on my back porch, but I had to hope that would never happen again.
“Seven items, huh? Does that include this? Again?” I eyed the stuffed Jackalope on the counter—a jackrabbit with antelope horns attached, taxidermied to look as if the creature had actually existed—and could feel my lips curl back. It wasn’t even cute, and I had no idea why anybody would want to keep making the things.
Then I blinked. Given the world we lived in today, with vampires and shifters and witches and Fae all walking around, right out of the pages of fairytales and into our neighborhoods and towns, maybe Jackalopes did exist.
I took a closer look.
Nah. That had to be glue around the base of the horns. Anyway, we had to draw the line somewhere. I glanced up and noticed that Eleanor was pointedly not meeting my gaze.
“I see Mr. Oliver was in again. How many times is he going to pawn this guy? Also, and not that I don’t appreciate the business, but the man has a very successful plumbing company. Why does he need that fifty bucks so much every month? Does he have a deep, dark, gambling problem that nobody knows about?”
Eleanor’s pale cheeks—”a Southern lady always wears a hat to protect her skin, Tess”—turned pink, clashing with the pristine red Dead End Pawn polo shirt she wore with white capri pants and red sandals. “I’m sure that Bill, I mean, Mr. Oliver, has no such thing. He just, ah, I think, um, he …”
The light finally dawned in my apparently clueless brain. “He keeps coming in here to see you, doesn’t he?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about, Tess.” She grabbed the paperwork and clutched it to her chest. “I’m going in the back and finishing this up, away from any distractions.”
I started laughing. “I’d think Bill would be more of a distraction than I am. Good for you, you man magnet, you.”
She shot me a Look, but her cheeks, flaming red by now, told me I’d been right. I just grinned but didn’t tease her anymore. She was in her early sixties, and she’d been alone for a long time since her husband died. If she found romance with Mr. Oliver, who was a very nice man, then good for her. I was still smiling when I put the Jackalope back up on the shelf next to Fluffy, the ancient taxidermied alligator who served as our shop mascot.
Thinking of romance made me think of other things, though, like dates, which made me think of a certain hot tiger shifter whose detective agency’s office shared the building with my pawnshop. As if my thoughts had called to him, the connecting door he’d requested be built between our two establishments opened, and six feet, four inches of bronze-haired, hard-muscled deliciousness sauntered in, his summer-grass-green eyes sparkling in his gorgeous, tanned face.
“Eleanor has a suitor?” Jack grinned at me. “I can almost feel sorry for the man. She’ll have him wrapped around her finger just like she does with the customers who come in here. And if he gets out of line, she can always shoot him.”
“Hey! That was one time!”
Eleanor was my secret weapon. She loved people and adored bargaining and negotiated great deals that made everyone happy. Repeat business is the heart and soul of a pawnshop’s business, especially in a small town, and she was a great part of our team.
I rolled my eyes. “Just because you have superior tiger hearing, that doesn’t mean you need to weigh in on every conversation you eavesdrop on.”
“Hey, I came over to invite you to lunch. The eavesdropping was just a bonus.”
I glanced across at the antique cherrywood grandfather clock. “It’s ten a.m.”
“You told me you ate a dozen donuts on the way to the opening!”
“Exactly.” He patted his unfairly flat abdomen. “I’m wasting away.”
“Maybe later. Like at noon. Eleanor has granola bars in the back, if you’re dying.”
He grimaced. “I’d rather eat tree bark.”
I threw up my hands. “Then turn into a kitty and go catch some furry snacks. I have a business to run here.”
The man who turned into a quarter-ton Bengal tiger raised an eyebrow. “A kitty?”
He glanced pointedly around my empty shop. “And, yes. I can see how you’re swamped.”
“Don’t you have crimes to solve? More lost pets to find?”
“Are you going to add the Jackalope to your mascot shelf with Fluffy?”
I pinned him with my most commanding stare, and he blinked.
“Tess, are you in pain?”
“No. Argh. That was my commanding—never mind. Tell me, shifter boy, are Jackalopes real?”
“Shifter boy?” His eyes lit up with wicked glee. “I’ll be happy to demonstrate that I’m actually shifter man, if you like.”
“Right here?” I may have squeaked out the words, but I was proud that I didn’t retreat when he took a step toward me. “No! I mean, whatever, just tell me about Jackalopes.”
He laughed but then shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. I rode through a place out west once that had a giant statue of one in the middle of town. So, maybe?”
I frowned at it. “I think I’ll continue to believe that they’re not, because it would be awful if they’re a rare species, and the only known example is dead, stuffed, and playing matchmaking go-between in my pawnshop.”
Jack made a face. “Just promise me that you’ll never take any stuffed tigers. That would run a little too close to home.”
“I can definitely promise you that.” My heart gave a painful twinge at the idea of an animal as magnificent as a tiger stuffed and on display in a shop. “And this conversation just took a dark turn. Go away. I have work to do, counters to polish, money to count, world domination to plan. Go investigate something.”
“I might investigate if Mellie has anymore donuts.”
My stomach said yes, yes, but my jeans’ tight waistband said no, no. I settled for moderation. “Save me one. Um, maybe two. But not the cream-filled.”
See? I can be reasonable. Practically a deprivation diet.
He leaned on the counter and flashed a slow, sexy, smile at me. “My calendar is clear. So after I get donuts, I think I’ll spend the day planning our date. Which day did you decide on?”
I swallowed, hard, and grabbed for my phone, opening the calendar app and pretending to study it to buy myself time. “Um.”
“Tess.” He sighed and gently took the phone out of my hands, his smile fading. “You’ve obviously changed your mind, and that’s okay. I’d never pressure you. Let’s just forget about it.”
The flash of hurt in his eyes was there and gone so fast that I almost didn’t see it.
Could have lied to myself that I didn’t see it.
I try really hard not to lie to myself, though.
“This Saturday,” I blurted out. “Let’s do it this Saturday.”
His grin made me realize what I’d said, and I could feel the heat rush up my face. “Do it as in go out. On the date. Not do it, do it. I mean—”
He put his hand on mine. “I get it. No doing it involved or expected. Just a simple date.”
I blew out a breath. “Nothing with you is ever simple. Now go away, so I can get to work.”
Before he could answer, the door to the back room smashed open, and Eleanor staggered out, her face drained of all color, holding her phone out toward us. “Dave. Dave. Help me! Jack …”
Jack took one look at her and snapped into action, leaping toward her and catching her in one strong arm as she collapsed, taking the phone out of her hand and putting it to his ear. “Jack Shepherd here. What’s happening?”
As he listened, an expressionless mask snapped down onto his face, reminding me that this same man who teased me and joked with me had spent ten years as a rebel leader and soldier, fighting in the most dangerous situations possible.
“Understood,” he said. “On our way.” He ended the call and speared me with a look. “We need to take Eleanor to the hospital. Can you close the shop?”
I grabbed my purse. “Of course. What is it? What’s wrong?”
Eleanor’s eyes popped open, and she cried out; a terrible, hoarse sound I never wanted to hear again. “It’s Dave. My son. Dave’s been shot.”