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Short Contemporary Romance

The Hero Next Door

THE HERO NEXT DOOR (Book 2, Lighthouse Lane)
Steeple Hill, 2009; ISBN 978-0-373-87541-2

When two fellow officers die in a sting operation set up by undercover cop Justin “J.C.” Clay, he heads to Nantucket Island on a leave of absence, figuring that working there as a beat cop during the summer tourist season will give him a chance to decompress and regroup. But he hadn’t counted on falling for Heather Anderson, owner of The Devon Rose tearoom. That’s a complication he doesn’t need…or want. Nor is Heather interested in the town’s newest cop—or any man. After experiencing the destructive and far-reaching effects of infidelity, she’s written off romance. But when her well-ordered world is turned upside down by family difficulties and J.C. steps in to help, she begins to believe he’s a man of integrity, honor and principle—and to wonder if he might be the exception to her rule…and a man worth loving.

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excerpt

Justin Clay had always considered June 1 to be the true beginning of summer. The day that marked the transition from cold and dark to warm and bright.

And on this June 1, as the ferry from Hyannis churned into Nantucket Harbor under cloudless blue skies, he hoped that was as true for his life as it was for the weather.

Forearms resting on the railing, he took in the view as the ferry rounded diminutive Brant Point light and the Coast Guard station. Boats of every type and size dotted the blue water below the tree-filled town, which perched on a gentle hillside in the background. The gold dome of a clock tower and a tall white steeple soared over the leafy branches, while weathered, gray clapboard buildings with white trim predominated along the waterfront.

Lifting his face to the warmth of the sun, Justin took a deep breath. He’d wanted a complete change of scene, and this qualified. The tranquil, pristine vista felt a world removed from the violent, gritty backstreets of Chicago he frequented. Perhaps here, twenty-six miles from the mainland, on this fourteen- by three-and-a-half-mile speck of land in the Atlantic Ocean, he would find release from the pain and guilt that gnawed at his soul.

As the ferry eased beside the wharf, Justin picked up his oversized duffel bag, slung his backpack over one shoulder and sent a silent prayer heavenward that when he boarded this boat again in three months to head home, he’d be leaving a lot of baggage behind.


                                                               * * *

Sliding a tray of mini scones onto the cooling rack on the stainless-steel prep table, Heather Anderson checked the clock. 1:10 p.m. In less than an hour, thirty-four customers would be arriving for a proper British high tea.

Where was Julie?

As she cast a worried glance out the window, the gate by the garage swung open to admit her assistant. Heather released a relieved breath. The Devon Rose might be a one-woman show for most of the day, but she did need help with the actual serving.

Pushing through the back door, her white blouse and black skirt immaculate even if her French braid was slightly askew, Julie sent her an apologetic look. “Sorry. I had a flat tire.”

“No problem. I’m just glad you’re here.” Heather adjusted the oven temperature, strode over to the commercial-sized refrigerator and pulled out a tray of mini quiches. “Did Todd change it for you?”

“Yes. But I hated to wake him.” Julie began arranging the scones on the second level of the three-tiered silver serving stands lined up on the counter, tucking flowers among them. “There was some kind of drug incident in the wee hours of the morning, and he was beat when he got home. But he didn’t complain about the tire.”

“And you’ve been married how long? Twenty years?” Heather shook her head as she took the lids off fifteen teapots in a variety of styles and arranged them on a long counter. “He’s one in a million, Julie. Count your blessings.”

“I do. Every day. But there are other good guys out there, too, you know.” She sent Heather a meaningful glance.

“Maybe.” Heather slid the quiches into the oven. “But they’re few and far between. And based on past experience, not likely to come calling at my door. I’d have to beat the bushes to find one.” She closed the oven door and turned to Julie. “And as far as I’m concerned, it’s not worth the effort.”


                                                               * * *

Justin hoisted his backpack into a more comfortable position, pulled the Nantucket town map out of the back pocket of his jeans and perused the maze of streets. In one more block he should be at Lighthouse Lane—and the cottage he’d be calling home for the next three months.

Refolding the map, he shoved it back into his pocket, hefted his duffle bag and continued down the sidewalk. As he’d already discovered on his trek from the wharf, unlike the dirty, decaying back alleys of Chicago, Nantucket was clean and well-kept. The people he’d passed, many on bicycles, had been dressed nicely, and they’d smiled at him. A welcome change of pace from the suspicious looks he was used to, cast by questionable characters as they slunk into dark doorways.

Nantucket wasn’t crime-free, Justin knew. But he doubted he’d have to worry about double-crosses here—or mistakes that could snuff out lives.

A lump rose in his throat, and he paused at the corner of Lighthouse Lane to blink away the sudden film of moisture that blurred his vision. With the memories so fresh and raw, maybe coming to Nantucket hadn’t been such a good idea after all. Maybe he should have used the last three months of his four-month leave to veg. Rent a cabin in the woods and disappear. Or borrow a boat and hang out on Lake Michigan.

Yet prayer had led him here, back to his roots as a beat cop. He’d asked the Lord to help him find answers—and direction. To give him some quiet time to work through the issues that weighed him down. So this summer job opportunity had seemed providential.

Things would be better here.

They had to be.

Crossing the street, he turned left onto Lighthouse Lane. His landlady, Edith Shaw, had said hers was the third—and last—house on the right, and he had no trouble spotting the Federal-style home she’d described.

But far more impressive was the two-story structure on the corner. Constructed of clapboard, like the Shaw house, but painted white instead of yellow, it featured black shutters. Thanks to a Greek Revival roofline with a deep frieze—along with a small, elevated, white-pillared front porch—it had a grand, stately air. A discreet sign beside the door said The Devon Rose.

Squinting, Justin could just make out the elaborate script below the name: Serving Wednesday through Sunday. Sounded like a restaurant. And mere steps away from his new digs. Pretty convenient. Once he dropped his bags off at his cottage, he might come back here for a quick bite to tide him over until he stocked his kitchen.

His stomach growled an affirmative, and taking the cue, he picked up his pace, passing a snug, weathered clapboard cottage with sage-colored trim that was sandwiched on a shallow lot between The Devon Rose and the Shaw house. The back yards of the two larger houses must adjoin in the rear, he concluded.

Continuing to Edith Shaw’s house, he found an envelope bearing his name taped beside the doorbell. The note inside directed him through the gate in the tall privet hedge to a spacious, private backyard. From there he followed a flagstone path across the thick carpet of grass to the cottage, which was surrounded by budding hydrangea bushes. It was tucked into the back corner, separated from The Devon Rose property only by the privet hedge.

As he’d been warned, the structure was small. But that was okay; he didn’t require a lot of square footage. At six-one, however, he considered headroom important. He hoped the compact accommodations wouldn’t be too claustrophobic.

Much to his relief, when he stepped inside, he realized the outward appearance had been deceptive. Or perhaps the sense of spaciousness was due to the vaulted ceiling. A queen-sized bed stood in the far left corner of the room, while a small couch upholstered in hydrangea-print fabric stood against the wall to the left of the front door, a brass reading lamp beside it. An old chest, topped with a glass bowl of hard candy, served as a coffee table.

In the tiny kitchenette to the right, a wooden café table was flanked by matching chairs with blue-and yellow plaid seat cushions. A quick peek confirmed that the bath was behind the kitchen. No tub, but a decent-size shower, Jason noted.

Setting his luggage on the polished pine floor, he spotted a plate of what appeared to be homemade pumpkin bread in the middle of the café table.

His stomach growled again, and stripping off the plastic wrap, Justin devoured one of the slices. But it barely put a dent in his appetite. He needed real food.

Rewrapping the plate of sweet bread, he freshened up and headed back out the door to the closest restaurant.

The Devon Rose.

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