SECOND CHANCE DEPUTY (Heroes of Dunbar Mountain Book 3)
by Alexis Morgan
Publisher: Harlequin Heartwarming
December 26, 2023
* Second Chance Deputy is also featured in Harlequin Heartwarming January 2024 Box Set.
She loved him once…
But can she trust him now?
When Officer Moira Fraser returns to her hometown, she's shocked to run into the man who broke her heart ten years ago! The last she saw of Titus Kondrat, he was being shoved into the back of a police car. Now he's a respectable café owner, and old feelings are threatening to resurface. But how can she trust him when everything she knew about him was a lie?
IT HAD BEEN an uneventful shift so far, especially for a Saturday night. Knowing that could change at any moment, Moira Fraser savored the quiet while it lasted. For now, she slowly steered her cruiser through the heart of town toward the church where Cade Peters, her boss and the chief of police, had just married Shelby Michaels. While Cade was relatively new to the area, Shelby and Moira had both grown up in the small town.
The difference was that Shelby had never left while Moira had only recently moved back after spending fourteen years living in Seattle. The city was only about one hundred and thirty miles from Dunbar, but it was a world away in size and intensity. She'd moved there to go to college, where her mother had expected her to get a teaching certificate and then hustle right back home. In a rare show of rebellion, Moira had majored in criminal justice, put on a police uniform and launched her career in law enforcement.
She'd loved her job in the big city and had been told she stood a good shot at moving up the ranks. While Moira had sometimes missed life in a small town, career opportunities in law enforcement in a place the size of Dunbar were extremely limited. Besides, the prior chief of police in town had been old-school, with no interest in hiring a female officer.
When she'd had to move back to town because her family needed her help, Moira had no idea what kind of job she'd be able to find. Fortunately, Cade Peters didn't share his predecessor's prejudices and immediately hired her, something she'd always be grateful for. To everyone's surprise—including hers—he'd also put her in charge of the small police force for the three weeks he would be away on his honeymoon. She'd heard rumblings that some members of the city council hadn't approved of his decision, but Cade had stood his ground.
One way or the other, she would justify his faith in her. She'd told him that one last time when she'd put in a brief appearance at the reception before resuming her patrol.
The church was now in sight, and she'd timed her arrival perfectly. The wedding guests stood clustered around the front steps as the bride and groom prepared to make their escape. Cade and Shelby held hands and laughed as they ran for the waiting limousine, passing by their friends and relatives, who stood on both sides waving colorful flags.
As the happy couple sped away to start their life together, Moira wondered if anyone had been able to find out where they would be spending their honeymoon. There had been a betting pool about the possible destinations. The suggestions ran the full gamut from the ridiculous to the sublime. Moira had five dollars riding on a Caribbean cruise, but she didn't care if she won. She just wanted her boss and his bride to have a solid three weeks of fun and relaxation without interference from anyone. It was still hard to believe that the city council had actually tried to order the newlyweds to go no farther away than nearby Seattle in case they needed Cade to come back early. She could only imagine how well that had gone over with him.
The crowd was rapidly dispersing, which meant it was time for her to get back to work. She resumed patrolling, taking her time as she circled the center of town again before gradually making her way to the outlying areas. Watching over her friends and neighbors was her favorite part of the job. She liked to think they slept better knowing someone was keeping an eye on things.Still, she couldn't help but regret that she hadn't been able to spend more time at the reception. Since moving back to town two months ago, she had been
working hard to reconnect with old friends, and Shelby had been one of the first to reach out to her. Unsurprisingly, Shelby had been too busy to spend a lot of time with any one guest at the reception. Even so, she and Cade made a valiant effort to personally greet everyone, especially those who'd come to town on such short notice. However, there were a few other people that Moira would've enjoyed hanging out with for longer than the half hour she'd been there.
Interestingly, there had been one person she'd expected to see but who had been missing in action—Titus Kondrat, the owner of the only café in Dunbar. Considering he'd been responsible for much of the excellent dessert buffet at the reception, it seemed odd that the man himself had been nowhere to be found. Not that she'd wanted to actually talk to him, but she made a habit of keeping a wary eye on him from a distance whenever she had the chance.
Oddly enough, from what she could tell, the police chief and Titus had become pretty good friends since Cade had moved to Dunbar. The two men seemed an odd match considering Cade was a by-the-book cop and Titus was…well, that was an interesting question to ponder as she drove through the darkness. No one knew much about him since the man was amazingly closemouthed about his past.
Granted, people were entitled to their privacy, but for some reason that man set off Moira's Spidey-senses. They'd never actually spoken, but there was something familiar about him, most likely because he reminded her of a few criminals she'd helped put behind bars. The image of one guy in particular being led away in cuffs leaped to mind, but she refused to think about him right now.
After nearly ten years, the memory still hurt.
She couldn't picture Cade being best buddies with someone who might have flirted with the wrong side of the law, but there was just something about Titus that didn't add up quite right. That was a mystery to mull over another day, though. For now, she'd make another loop through town and then stop in at the office to check on a few things. Cade had told her to leave all the paperwork for him to deal with upon his return. Even so, she planned to make sure that she and the other officers kept on top of everything so the boss didn't return to a huge backlog of work. It would be easy to let things slide, but that wasn't happening on her watch.
As she turned back toward the police station, her phone rang. One look at the name on the screen and she couldn't help but sigh. No matter how many times Moira told her mother not to call when she was on duty unless it was an emergency, the message never got through. She could be calling because there was a real problem, but it was just as likely that she wanted Moira to pick up milk on her way home. She hoped that wasn't the case. There wasn't a store in Dunbar that stayed open past nine, and she didn't want to drive the twenty miles to the nearest gas station with a mini-mart.
She put the call on speakerphone so she could keep both hands on the wheel. "What's up, Mom?"
"I'm sorry, hon, but Gram slipped away again. I'm heading out to search for her, but I might need your help getting her back home."
"I'm on my way. I'll drive by her house first."
"Sorry. I know you don't like to be bothered at work."
"Don't worry about it, Mom. Besides, it's part of the job—I'd do the same for anyone. I'll text or call as soon as I have news."
"I appreciate it."
Her poor mother sounded exhausted, mainly because she probably was. Taking care of Moira's elderly grandmother 24/7 wasn't easy. It was the reason Moira had moved back home, but there was a limited amount of support she could offer her mom. Between her time on the job and the need to sleep occasionally, there weren't many hours left over to spend standing watch over her grandmother.
Two blocks later, she turned down the street where her grandmother had lived for most of her life. More and more Gram's mind got tangled up in the past. When that happened, she forgot that she now lived with her daughter and granddaughter, and would try to go back home. At least the old place was currently vacant, so she wouldn't be bothering anyone when she started knocking on the door trying to get in.
Moira could only hope that was where her grandmother had gone this time. Otherwise, they could be in for a long night of driving up and down every street in town looking for her. Thankfully, most folks in Dunbar knew Gram. If she was spotted, whoever found her would do their best to contain Gram until either Moira or her mother came to take her back home.
Ten minutes later, her phone rang again. She answered without looking at the number. "Mom? Did you find her?"
A rusty laugh was followed by "I'm pretty sure I'm the wrong gender to be your mom, Officer Fraser."
Next time she vowed to check the caller ID before answering. Besides, why on earth would Titus Kondrat be calling her? "Sorry about that, Mr. Kondrat. How may I help you?"
"I'm at the café. I believe I have your grandmother sitting in my kitchen drinking a cup of tea and eating a piece of cherry pie."
Could this get any worse? Of all people to find Gram, it had to be him. Not that she wasn't grateful. "I'll be right there."
"No rush. She's not a problem. Come around back, and I'll let you in."
The phone went dead before she could even thank him. Instead, she called her mom. "I've found her."
"Is she all right?"
"Yeah, she's fine. I'll tell you more when I find out how she ended up where she is."
"Thanks, hon. Again, I'm sorry you got dragged into this."
Moira was, too, but family had to come first. "Go on home, Mom, and relax. I'm not sure how long this will take, so enjoy the quiet while you can."
That her mother didn't argue was telling. "See you soon."
It took less than five minutes to reach the café. The dining area in front was mostly dark, with only a dim light shining through from the kitchen in back. She'd heard that Titus often worked well past closing time prepping for the next day's meals. Come to think of it, that might explain why he'd left the reception early.
As instructed, she drove around back of the café. The door opened and Titus stepped outside as soon as she parked the SUV behind a huge motorcycle. "She's doing fine, Officer Fraser. She and Ned have struck up quite the friendship and are enjoying each other's company."
Now that was a surprise. Gram rarely talked to anyone she hadn't known for years. Moira didn't know everyone in town, but she couldn't remember anyone by that name. "Is this Ned new to town?"
Titus looked amused. "That's right. You probably haven't met him. He's a stray who decided to move in with me a few months back. Best guess is he's a German-shepherd, golden-retriever mix, but don't let Ned's size scare you. He's not the friendliest dog in town, but he has a soft spot for children and childlike souls."
That last category was a surprisingly accurate description of her grandmother these days. "If you don't mind me asking, where did you find Gram? She doesn't usually head in this direction."
"Actually, it was Ned who found her. He pitched a fit and all but dragged me a couple of blocks down toward Fourth Street. Between the two of us, we managed to coax her to come back here with us."
Moira would have loved to have seen that. Gram might be confused, but that didn't mean she couldn't be stubborn as a mule. "How did you know to call me?"
Titus shrugged. "Not many secrets in this town."
True enough. "Well, I'll get her out of your way. Thanks for calling me, Mr. Kondrat. My mom was pretty frantic when she realized Gram was missing."
"Actually, I don't think she's quite ready to leave. She had trouble deciding which flavor of pie she wanted. Right now, she's on her second mini pie and asked for a third." He glanced back inside and then opened the door. "Why don't you come in and have some with her? Maybe a cup of tea, too."
The notion was surprisingly tempting. "I shouldn't. I'm on patrol and could get a call any minute."
But as soon as she stepped inside the café, she knew she wasn't going to rush her grandmother out of there. Gram looked so happy sitting at a small table in the corner, eating pie with one hand while she gently stroked Ned's head with the other.
Without glancing at their host, Moira slowly approached the table and sat down. At least Gram had left home wearing a blouse and slacks instead of her nightgown, like the last time. She was also sporting what had to be one of their host's flannel shirts with the sleeves rolled up several times to accommodate her much shorter arms. Evidently, the dog wasn't the only one with a soft spot for those with childlike souls.
It took a couple of minutes before Gram acknowledged her presence. "I like this dog. Ned looks scary, but he's a marshmallow inside."
"I can see that."
Moira snapped a picture of her grandmother and texted it to her mother, adding a brief note that they'd be home after Gram finished her pie. She'd just hit Send when Titus set a pot of hot water, along with a cup and saucer, in front of her. A second later, he was back with a third mini pie for Gram and a piece of chocolate-cream pie for Moira. Eyeing all that chocolaty goodness, she knew it would take a lot more willpower that she could currently muster to resist the temptation to dig in.
Titus had put a tea bag, two packets of sugar and a lemon wedge on the saucer next to the tea. She picked up the tea bag and stared at the label in confusion. How had he known she liked her tea with two sugars and a squeeze of lemon, or that Earl Grey was her favorite flavor?
"I have other flavors of tea if you don't like Earl Grey."
His deep voice startled her. "No, this is great. It's actually my favorite."
Titus went back to chopping vegetables on a nearby counter. "It's the most popular flavor I carry."
So that explained it. She scooped up a forkful of her pie and closed her eyes in appreciation. "The pie is delicious."
He grunted an acknowledgment of the compliment and kept working. From that point, no one did any talking. Her grandmother happily finished off her last pie while she continued to pet Ned. Other than thanking Titus again for rescuing her grandmother, Moira couldn't think of a single thing to say to the man.
That didn't keep her from wishing she was on the other side of the table, where she could study him without being obvious about it. Gram had an unobstructed view of their host, but seemed totally oblivious to his presence. It was probably better that way. Something told Moira that Titus was the kind of man who was always hyperaware of his surroundings, and the last thing she wanted was for him to pick up on her interest in him. It was strictly professional, of course, but he wouldn't know that. Maybe it was the way he moved that seemed familiar, but she was almost sure they'd never met before she returned to the town.
He wasn't the kind of guy a woman would easily forget.
Moira had some personal experience with that sort of man. Ryan Donovan hadn't been easy to forget, either. They'd met nearly ten years ago, when she'd been fresh out of the academy. Over the course of two months, she'd fallen fast and hard for him. Looking back, she should have known that he was too good to be true. He'd been charming, handsome and sophisticated; she'd had a hard time believing a man like him would be interested in a small-town girl like her. It had taken her way too long to realize that he'd also been careful to avoid letting her snap any pictures of him. That alone should have raised suspicion.
Then came the horrific night Moira had been part of the local backup on a major drug bust, when she'd seen the DEA agents take Ryan into custody along with the rest of his associates. She'd heard a rumor that he'd worked a plea bargain for a reduced sentence. All she knew for sure was that she'd never seen him again nor had she wanted to. It had been ages since she'd thought about Ryan at all, and she was fine with that.
With no photos to refresh her memory, Ryan's image had faded over the ten years since she'd last seen him. The real question was why the man behind standing her had suddenly stirred up those memories. Ryan had been tall like Titus, but not nearly as muscular. His hair had been a much lighter color, and his eyes were blue, not brown. Still, there was an uncanny resemblance between the two men. Was it possible they were related somehow? Cousins, maybe, although Ryan had never mentioned his family that she could remember. Another warning sign she'd missed.
Clearly, the woman she'd been back then hadn't asked enough questions. As a result, the woman she was now would never trust any man so easily again, especially one as deliciously mysterious as Titus Kondrat. Before she could pursue that thought any further, her grandmother spoke up. "I'm tired, Moira."
"Then we'll go home, Gram. Mom will want to hear all about your adventure."
Her grandmother frowned as she looked around at the stainless-steel counters and the hodgepodge of pots and pans hanging from the ceiling on racks. "Why did you bring me here?"
Rather than point out that Gram had found her own way to the café, Moira settled for a white lie. "You had a hankering for some pie."
Gram studied the array of empty ramekins in front of her. "I ate all of those."
It wasn't a question, but Moira answered, anyway. "Mr. Kondrat said you couldn't make up your mind which flavor you wanted, so he served you three of the little ones instead of a great big piece like he gave me. You also wanted to pet Ned there."
Gram looked down at the patient dog and blinked several times as if actually seeing him for the first time. "He's a handsome fellow, isn't he?"
Then she winked at Moira and added, "And so is his dog."
Moira's cheeks flushed hot. "We should be going, Gram. Mr. Kondrat has work to do, and Mom will be concerned."
Gram rolled her eyes. "Your mother is a worrywart, so we shouldn't keep her waiting. The longer I'm gone, the longer her lecture will be. Besides, it's quite a walk back to the house."
Moira wasn't sure which house her grandmother was thinking about, but she was right in both cases. "We don't have to walk, Gram. I have my police cruiser parked right outside."
"Why would you be driving a police car, Moira? Won't they be upset that you borrowed it?"
It was far from the first time Moira had to remind her grandmother about her job and the fact that she was all grown up. "It's my job, Gram, and I'm on duty. I need to get you back home to Mom so I can finish my shift."
To get them both moving in the right direction, she stood up and reached for her wallet. "Mr. Kondrat, how much do I owe you for…?"
One look at their host's face had her putting away her wallet. "Sorry, I meant no insult."
He wiped his hands on a towel and tossed it aside. Then, in a surprising show of gallantry, he offered his arm to her grandmother. "Mrs. Healy, let me escort you to the car."
It was hard not to laugh a little about how her grandmother preened as she set her hand on Titus's outstretched arm. Both dog and man carefully escorted Gram out to the cruiser, waiting patiently for Moira to unlock the doors. Rather than let her diminutive grandmother try to climb up by herself, Titus swept her up in his arms and gently settled her in the passenger seat.
Gram's mind must have cycled back to the present again. Sitting up straighter, she reached out to pat Titus on the cheek. "Thank you for the pie, young man. Please give Ned an extra treat for keeping me company. I didn't mean to be a bother."
"I will, Mrs. Healy, and you weren't any bother at all."
"I'll bring your shirt back." As she spoke, Moira couldn't help but noticed that Titus looked everywhere except directly at her. "And thanks again for everything."
He nodded and stepped back to close the door. Then he and the dog disappeared into the building without a single backward glance. And although she wasn't sure why, Moira found that disappointing.
* Second Chance Deputy is also featured in Harlequin Heartwarming January 2024 Box Set.