|Your cart is currently empty|
Detective Brad Thornton is called to the scene of a break-in and destruction of a local store in the little town of Clearwater where he has just moved to take on a position with the local police department. The owner of Joyful Wonders is a sassy, spirited little firecracker by the name of Ashley Morrissey. Ashley has something of a reputation in the town for solving crimes before the police can get around to it, and Brad is determined that he will be the one to discover who is trying to ruin Ashley’s business before the holiday season starts.
Ashley is not impressed when the handsome detective threatens to spank her! She was subjected to that sort of punishment when growing up in her old-fashioned grandparents’ home, and she is determined not to fall in love with a man who believes in spanking. Brad’s answer to that is to tell her that is precisely the kind of man she needs, and he is determined to prove to the pretty lady that he is the man for her—even if it takes a spanking or two to convince her. While Brad seems more interested in dealing with the feisty redhead, she is determined to find the person responsible for the damage in her store, and in her home! She wants to give him what for, no matter who it is.
Ashley looked at the destruction of her little shop and was furious. Black Friday was in a few days and she was going to need to work day and night to repair the damage, and what of the things that were broken? She certainly couldn’t sell them now. She would need to call some of the artisans she depended upon for stock to sell, and see if they could help her replenish her stock before the Christmas shopping season officially started. All of this destruction made her feel helpless, and Ashley did not like feeling helpless. Those days were long past. Unfortunately, she wouldn’t know how much was ruined until the police were through poking around.
“Miss Morrissey, do you have any idea of who would do this?”
“If I did, I would be giving them what for, yes, I would!” Ashley snapped. “Besides, isn’t it your job to figure out who did this?”
“It is my job,” the detective agreed. “But, I need any help you can give me. Have you argued with anyone?”
“I argue with people all the time, Detective.”
“What?” He shook his head. “I’m not sure I heard you correctly.”
“I love to argue. Life is boring without a good disagreement now and then.” She gave him a look and then answered his question in a less shocking manner. “I haven’t had any arguments that would prompt someone to wreck my shop in this manner.” She tapped her toe and put her hands on her hips to look up at him. “I do expect you to find the person responsible, Detective. I want to know who had the nerve to do something so unforgivable.”
“Could it be the person was looking for something in particular?”
“If I knew the answer to that, then I could give you a name and you could make an arrest, and before you make an even bigger fool of yourself, Detective, I am not involved in criminal activity of any sort.”
“Don’t be so prickly, Miss Morrissey. I am not your enemy, just a poor policeman who is trying to help, and you are making it very difficult.”
“I can see where this is going. I am not solving your crime for you, so you are planning to leave me high and dry and call it case closed.”
“Do you behave like this all the time?” he asked, clearly exasperated with the redhead.
“I am who I am, Detective. Now then, where do you intend to start? I hope you are planning to run a few fingerprints?”
“In a shop like this there must be a million of prints all over everything.”
“So, you can eliminate them, can’t you?”
“It wouldn’t be conclusive, Miss Morrissey. Now then, are there any old boyfriends looking to get back at you?”
If looks could kill, he would be dead. The little redhead did not like the question. “No, there is no old boyfriend, or no, none who would try to get back at you?”
“There is no old boyfriend, if you must know!” she snapped.
“Well, it’s not my fault the men in this town are blind.” She gave him another sassy look, and he grinned. “I think you should take the rest of the day off. Stay close so I can call you if I come up with any questions.”
“I can’t take today off. I have to clean up this mess and see how much damage there is so I can put rush orders on more stock. I need to decorate and restock the shelves. Black Friday is this weekend, and I must be ready to open the shop and sell to the public. My bottom line depends upon it.”
“The state of your bottom depends on you obeying me, Miss Morrissey. I am well aware of your reputation for sticking your nose in where it does not belong, and you are not going to meddle in this investigation. I do not want you in here working by yourself today. I want to check out a few things, and I want you to be safe. I won’t take no for an answer; head on home.”
“I believe you actually threatened me! You made a comment about my bottom, didn’t you?” she demanded, and her toe was tapping again, but this time only one hand rested on her hip, the other was shaking a finger at him.
“Yes, you feisty, sassy little redhead, I did.” He leaned down to look into her flashing green eyes. “You might scare off some men with that temper of yours, but I have just the answer to dealing with you, and I think you know exactly what I mean. And what’s more, I think you are just plain looking for a man who will stand up to you and take you in hand.”
“That’s very old-fashioned thinking,” she argued.
“I am a very old-fashioned kind of guy,” he said with a smile. “Go on home now.”
Ashley didn’t know what to think. The handsome detective reminded her of Gramps, and she loved Gramps; she wasn’t sure she liked the detective, however. She knew what that thinly veiled threat meant, and she certainly did not want to get involved with a man who believed in spanking. She would forever have a sore bum with the way she behaved most of the time. She’d had enough of those growing up in her grandparents’ home, and she wasn’t going down that path again. It was time for a strategic retreat before she pushed the very, very handsome detective too far and she ended up with a sore bottom! Today she would make telephone calls from home, get in touch with the insurance company, and do her pile of laundry while she could. And, she decided with a toss of her red curls, she would not think of Detective What’s His Name.
Ashley grabbed her laptop and stuffed it inside her oversized bag when no one was watching her. It contained all of the information she would need, and it was just too bad if the detective wanted to examine its gleaming silver surface. Ashley didn’t let anyone touch her laptop, and that included the very handsome detective. She gave him a tart reminder to lock up when he was finished, and then let herself out the back door onto the alley. She started walking, recalling the shock of arriving at her business that morning to find the back door kicked open, and her shop one big shambles of a mess! She wanted to cry but quickly blinked away her tears. She’d worked hard to take the small store and build it into something to be proud of, and she would do so again, once she got the detective out of her way. She would simply go and check on their progress later, and if they were done, she would get back to work. She would also figure out who dared to do this to her, and woe unto anyone who made the attack as a personal retaliation for something she couldn’t think of in the moment.
Her mind was so busy trying to come up with a reason for the break-in that she was soon standing on the sidewalk in front of her house without recalling the walk that brought her to her home. She opened the gate to the white picket fence surrounding her cozy little bungalow, and made her way to the front door. She felt the hair on the back of her neck prickle a warning, and suddenly realized that someone was inside her house. Hoping to catch the perpetrator who had ransacked her store, she hurried inside. In the next instant, her head exploded in pain, and the world went black.
* * *
“Detective, we found cigarette butts and a book of matches in the alley outside the back door.”
“Does Miss Morrissey smoke?”
“I don’t know, sir.”
“Collect them as evidence, and I’ll go and ask her about smoking.” Detective Brad Thornton knew he wouldn’t find the little redhead nearly as cute if he learned she was a smoker. He’d recently lost his eldest brother to lung cancer, and it was because David smoked and refused to quit no matter how many times his family begged him to think of them, and how they would suffer if they lost him. David always laughed and said he wasn’t going anywhere, and then he got sick. A year later he left behind a wife, two kids, his parents, four siblings, assorted nieces and nephews, and aunts and uncles and cousins by the dozens. No, Brad wouldn’t be at all happy if he learned the cigarettes belonged to Ashley Morrissey.
He was already enamored of her before he met her; her reputation for helping the police solve crimes was one of the things that drew him to her, but once he set eyes on her, he was hooked. Ashley was pretty as could be; beautiful, long, curly red hair, green eyes that flashed with irritation when she was angry and humor when she was amused, and a cute little body that was adorable in the knitted dress she was wearing that day. She was feisty, too, and Brad loved a spirited woman who wasn’t afraid to stand up for herself.
“I want you to finish up here, Peters, and take everything to the lab yourself. Tell them to put a rush on everything. Just once the police department in this town should solve a crime before the lovely Miss Morrissey does.”
“She figured out who murdered the mayor before the lieutenant was finished writing his notes on the investigation. That’s why the town council suggested it was time he retire, and they brought in a couple of new detectives, yourself included,” Officer Peters commented. “Do you have any ideas, sir?” he asked.
“One, and that is that Miss Morrissey knows something she isn’t telling us.”
“Ashley wouldn’t have called us if she had any idea who did it, unless she needed us to write out a report for the insurance company so she could get reimbursed for all the damage done in here.”
“How long have you known her?” Brad asked, willing to learn as much about her as he could.
“I’m a bit older than she is, but we were in school together. She lived with her grandparents. Her dad lit out on his own before she was born, and got himself killed in a bar fight a couple years later. Her mom just plain gave up on living when they got word, and her gramps and gramma raised her. You don’t think Ashley did this to her own place, do you?”
Brad could see the other man was ready to defend the redhead, and he didn’t want tension in the workplace. “No, not at all. I’m just trying to figure out the best way to question her again about what has been happening in her life lately so that we can figure out who turned this place.”
Justin Peters openly snorted and then grinned. “There is no good way to question Ashley. She’s prickly when it comes to her personal business. Even if she suspected someone of doing this, the odds are good that she wouldn’t tell us until she had a chance at them first.”
“As tiny as she is?” Brad choked out, suddenly afraid for Ashley.
“She doesn’t care about that. Ashley is used to backing down people twice her size. She held the mayor’s murderer at bay with just her index finger until we arrived to take him in custody. The chief gave her a right proper scold and even told her she could be very glad she wasn’t his daughter, but she merely laughed and said there was no need to thank her for doing his job. I thought he was going to swear, he was so mad.”
“Someone needs to take that little termagant in hand for her own good!”
“The chief called her gramps, but he was sick in bed with a cold and her gramma wouldn’t let the chief talk to him.” Justin suddenly turned red. “Sir, it doesn’t feel right to be gossiping about Ashley this way.”
“You weren’t gossiping, Officer. You were bringing me up to speed, and I appreciate it. I want to make sure Miss Morrissey is protected, and I can’t do that if I let her distract me and bait me. You helped, and you needn’t worry that I’ll repeat anything you told me. This is all in the line of duty.”
Justin Peters nodded, obviously relieved, and Brad felt respect for the other man. He would remember that when it was time to make his report. “I’ll leave this to you to wrap up, Officer, while I go and speak to Miss Morrissey again. “Thanks for your help this morning.”
“Sure thing, Detective.” Peters turned his attention to bagging the butts while Brad checked Ashley’s address and was surprised to learn she lived just a few blocks from her store. He got in his car and was there in just a couple of minutes.
The front door was ajar, and Brad shook his head. Surely she had to realize it wasn’t safe for her to leave her front door open where anyone could walk inside? He had a scolding all prepared by the time he reached her porch, but pushed it aside when he saw her prone body lying on the floor just inside the door. He called quickly for the paramedics and then knelt beside her to check her injuries. At a glance he could see she had walked in on someone trashing her home. The strap of her bag was still over her shoulder, and he was careful as he removed it.
Brad suddenly realized that the perp could still be inside the house. He drew his gun and was methodical and careful as he searched. The person was long gone, however, and Brad heard the sirens telling him that help was on the way. He went to where the redhead was lying on the floor, and soon he had help in tending to her. When Ashley started to wake up, he took her hands in his when she started smacking at the EMTs tending to her injuries.
“Calm down, Ashley. You’re safe. Just relax. Let the EMTs check your injuries. Can you tell them where it hurts?” he coaxed in a gentle voice, and one of the men gave him a thumbs up and nodded for him to continue talking since his voice caused her to stop struggling. “Did they hit you?”
“Yes,” she whimpered. “I have a terrible headache. Please let me get up off the floor.”
“In just a moment. The EMTs are making sure your spine isn’t injured,” Brad explained what they were doing.
“It isn’t. I can move. It’s just my head. They hit me with something really hard, and I literally saw stars for a second before I blacked out. Please, Brad, help me up off the floor,” she pleaded, using his given name for the very first time.
“Sure, Ashley,” he replied, melting inside for some reason he couldn’t explain. He motioned for the two men to back up, and then he lifted her in his arms and carried her to the sofa and sat her down. “Is this better?”
“Yes, thank you,” she replied. “Oh, ouch! My head really hurts!”
“Ashley, I think you should let us take you to the hospital and run a few tests. You could have a concussion.”
“I know you are concerned, Walter, but I just have a headache. I’ve had worse milking cows with Gramps.”
“Let me look into your eyes, Ash, and then we’ll make the decision that is best for you.”
“I don’t have any money for hospital bills, Walter. Don’t be stubborn.”
“You are the one being stubborn, girlfriend. Now settle and open those pretty eyes for me,” Walter said, and then started giggling when she crossed her eyes and stuck out her tongue at him. “Little girl, you need a spankin’. Now settle down or I’ll call your gramps and have him deal with you.”
“Please don’t call them, Walter. I don’t want them to worry, especially Gramma. She has a bad heart.”
“Then let me look. Follow my finger.” To Brad’s surprise, the little redhead obeyed and let Walter look. “You seem to be fine, Ash. I want you to take it easy and rest today, and if your headache gets worse, or you start seeing double, or getting dizzy, call me right away and I’ll take you to the hospital. I don’t want you to try and drive yourself, so call me and I’ll come. Promise?”
“I promise, Walter, but I will be just fine. Thank you for coming.”
“Always. I can’t believe someone was hiding in here. Didn’t you have your door locked?”
“Yes, I did. I realized someone was in here, and I was sure it was the same person who tore apart my store, and I was mad clean through. I came inside, prepared to give them all kinds of grief, and whoever it was hit me over the head, and I didn’t see them, or get one word out of my mouth. I am mad as hell, and now they are in big trouble! I am going to find this jerk or jerkess, and give them what for in a big way! They’ll be darn lucky if I don’t take a whip to them!” she threatened.
“Do you mean to tell me you knew they were in here and you came inside anyway?” Brad demanded, his voice rising until he was yelling at her.
“I just said I did, didn’t I?” she replied tartly.
“This is where we leave,” Walter interrupted them to say. “You behave, girlfriend,” he told Ashley, and then he and his partner picked up their gear and left.
By mutual consent, both Brad and Ashley were quiet until the ambulance pulled away from the house, and then Brad leveled his angry brown eyes on Ashley. “Coming into this house when you knew someone was inside here that shouldn’t be is the most foolish thing I have ever heard in my entire life!” he scolded in a loud voice that made her head hurt even more. “Didn’t it occur to you that you could be hurt?”
“It occurred to me that I wanted to find out who was stupid enough to make an enemy out of me!” she retorted.
“You never go into a building when you know someone is inside who shouldn’t be! You should have called me, little girl! It’s a miracle that someone didn’t do more than hit you over your fool head!”
“Detective, I think you are crossing a line and speaking very rudely to a citizen who has experienced a crime and is a victim. You would be in a lot of trouble if I were a vindictive person, but you came and helped me when I needed help, so I will be magnanimous and forgive you for scolding me. Why did you want to see me?” she asked with a pleasant smile.
“I know what you are trying to do and it won’t work. We are not through discussing this matter, young lady.” Brad was having trouble controlling the urge to pick her up and turn her over his knee and smack her backside until she couldn’t sit for a month! He took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then asked, “Do you smoke, Miss Morrissey?” He shook a finger at her and said, “I hope the answer to that is a resounding no.”
“The answer is a resounding no,” she answered, shivering in spite of the fact that she wasn’t cold. “I have never smoked. Gramma was a smoker when she was younger, and now she suffers from COPD,” she confided, and her green eyes filled with tears.
“I am sorry to hear that, Ashley,” he told her, meaning the words. “I lost my oldest brother to lung cancer from smoking. It was so needless and it hurts so much. We lost him on Christmas Eve last year.”
Ashley reached for his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I am so sorry for your family’s loss, Brad. How terrible for you all.”
He nodded, and then said, “I am very relieved to hear you don’t smoke.”
“Gramps was really upset when he learned Gramma was smoking at work. He put a stop to it, and promised me a larruping if I ever touched a cigarette. He meant the promise and I did not test him. My friends all made fun of me when they were experimenting with cigarettes and beer and I said no and refused to join in. Now, they are the ones who are struggling to quit, and telling me how lucky I am that I never started smoking in the first place.” She looked up at him. “Why are you asking me about that?”
“We found cigarette butts and a book of matches behind your store, like someone was smoking and waiting for you to leave, or they were taking breaks while they were looking for something.”
“I can’t imagine what they were looking for.”
“It could be hidden inside something you purchased elsewhere, Ashley. I want you to think hard about this, and perhaps between the two of us we can come up with an idea.”
Ashley nodded, and then said, “We know the person is a smoker, and that eliminates a lot of people here in town.”
“It does, but it could be someone from outside this little town and from a nearby city.”
“But, who could know that I have shipments coming?”
“It could be a one-time thing. Perhaps someone was being followed, and rather than be picked up with drugs on their person, they stuffed them into something that was sent here before it could be retrieved. The main thing is that you take some precautions to remain safe.”
“I will,” she promised, but her mind was already racing ahead to figuring out the name of the one who destroyed her peace of mind.
“Why do I find that so hard to believe?”
“I don’t know, why?” Ashley did her best to look innocent.
“Why? Because you are the same girl who thought it was a good idea to race ahead and go into your house when you knew someone was inside. If I don’t take stern measures with you right now, you will stick your nose out there and get it chopped off.”
“I can take care—”
“No you can’t,” he rudely cut her off, shaking his finger at her. “If you could take care of yourself, you would have called me the very second you realized someone was inside this house. Instead, you got yourself clobbered on the head and knocked unconscious. I am of a mind to smack your backside properly for doing something so damned stupid. If you were mine, that is exactly what I would do!”
“I do not belong to you!” she reminded him. “I don’t want a man who believes in spanking a grown woman. I grew up with that kind of man, and I got the spankings to prove it! Gramps is a firm man. I don’t need that kind of man in my grown up life!”
“I think you do.”
“No, I do not! I am free to do as I please, and maybe it wasn’t smart to try and catch the man who wrecked my store, but I am kind of known for solving crimes, and I will catch this man, too. If you are done questioning me, Detective, I want you to leave so I can clean up the mess in here and then get to work fixing my store before Friday arrives and I have nothing to offer shoppers.”
“You heard Walter; you are to rest today. He was adamant on the subject, and I am not going anywhere until I am sure it is safe to leave you here alone. The perp could be hiding and watching for me to leave you here all alone so he or she can come back and hurt you to find out where the hidden object is placed.”
“He wouldn’t dare!” she declared, her temper flaring.
“That is my point, Ashley. He, or she,” he added, just in case it turned out to be a woman, “could very well come back, and it is my job to protect you. I’m putting you in protective custody!”