THE LAWMAN'S PROMISE (Heroes of Dunbar Mountain Book 1)
by Alexis Morgan
Publisher: Harlequin Heartwarming
May 23, 2023
* THE LAWMAN'S PROMISE is also featured in Harlequin Heartwarming June 2023 Box Set.
He's the perfect catch…
But for how long?
Museum curator Shelby Michaels seems to be the only woman in Dunbar not chasing after the new police chief, Cade Peters. When a stranger lays claim to the town's famous gold nugget, Shelby helps Cade find the truth. Because if the town loses this precious connection to its past, Cade's job here is done. Can Shelby stop herself from falling for a man who may not stick around?
"THERE HE GOES."
"There who goes?"
Although Shelby Michaels already knew. The new chief of police was nothing if not predictable. At precisely ten o'clock every morning, he walked down to the coffee shop to pick up a latte and a pastry. She set aside the book she was about to shelve and joined her friend at the window. "We shouldn't stare."
Elizabeth laughed. "Are you serious? There isn't a woman in town who'd miss out on a chance to watch Chief Peters' daily prowl down the street."
That had Shelby leaning in closer to the window to get a better look. "Seriously, you think he prowls?"
Despite being on the near side of menopause, Elizabeth fanned herself and sighed. "Yes, Shelby, he prowls. If I wasn't married…well, let's just say there's just something about the way that man moves that reminds me of my hubby. Back in the day, Jimmy could really turn heads with the best of them. Still does in the right crowd."
Really? Shelby tried to think past Jimmy Glines's slight paunch and receding hairline to the hot guy he used to be but couldn't quite bring the picture into focus. Still, it was nice that Elizabeth saw her husband in that light. Maybe that was one reason the couple had stayed happily married for over twenty years.
The police chief was out of sight for now, so Shelby went back to shelving the books the library driver had dropped off earlier. Dunbar was too small of a town to merit its own library. Instead, weather permitting, the bookmobile came through every other Thursday morning. It parked in the lot behind city hall so the locals could browse the available selections. At the same time, the driver left any books that someone in town had requested with Shelby. She kept them on a shelf in the post office until that person stopped by to pick them up. There was also a bin there for books people wanted to return the next time the bookmobile came through.
Elizabeth wandered over to watch her work. She leafed through a mystery by a popular author and then handed it back to Shelby. "Speaking of Chief Peters, did you hear that a couple of the ladies in town are organizing an official sign-up sheet to provide meals for him?"
Okay, that was ridiculous. "Why? I'm sure the man can cook for himself."
Shrugging, Elizabeth said, "I don't think they care. The problem is that there have been a couple of unfortunate instances when two or more of them have shown up at the same time, casseroles in hand. The last time it happened, things turned ugly. I won't mention names, but somehow Lady One's elk stew was 'accidentally' knocked off his desk onto the floor. She retaliated by flipping Lady Two's best taco casserole upside down into the wastebasket."
By that point, Elizabeth was laughing. "I really wish I'd been there. Rumor has it that Chief Peters threatened to lock them up for disorderly conduct. Probably would have if he'd had two cells in the jail instead of just the one. It would've been a bloodbath if they'd had to share. Instead, he banned them from his office indefinitely."
She patted Shelby on the shoulder. "I can tell you who has the sign-up sheet posted in her office if you want to get in on the action."
"No thanks. I'm not interested."
That statement earned her an undignified snort from her friend. "You might be able to convince yourself of that, but I'm not buying it. You're a young, healthy woman in the prime of life. There is also a sad lack of available men your age in town, so you'd be a fool not to at least consider testing the waters with him. A man like Cade Peters won't stay single long if the women around here have anything to say about it."
Elizabeth checked the time on the grandfather clock in the corner. "Oops, I've got to finish my errands. Jimmy is scheduled to guide a couple of fly fishermen later this afternoon and needs the truck."
Shelby followed her to the door. "By the way, ask your kids when they want to do another pizza and movie night at my place. It's their turn to choose the toppings, but I get to pick the movie."
Her friend's face lit up. "They've been asking when you'd have them over again. They love spending time with Aunt Shelby."
They weren't actually related by blood, but that didn't matter. Shelby loved Elizabeth's brood. Money was often tight, and offering to entertain the kids gave Elizabeth and her husband an evening to themselves without needing a babysitter.
Elizabeth gave her a quick hug. "Jimmy will be thrilled when I tell him."
With that, she was out the door and gone, leaving Shelby alone to ponder the puzzle that was Cade Peters. She might not admit it to her friend, but she'd definitely noticed the man and more than just the way he moved. It was also the tight fit of his uniform across his broad shoulders and the thick lashes that framed his dark eyes, which she thought best described as the color of bittersweet chocolate. That didn't mean she wanted to join the endless parade of women finding every excuse they could to visit the city jail.
It had been that way since Cade first arrived in Dunbar two months ago to take over as the new chief of police. So far, he was doing a great job, but she had to wonder how long he'd stick around. From what she'd heard, he'd spent a lot of years in the military police. If true, that kind of experience should have qualified him for a job anywhere in law enforcement. Why would he settle for one in a town that was barely a wide spot in the road?
Not that she personally would want to move anywhere else. She'd lived in Dunbar with its population of six hundred hardy souls her entire life. Located on the western slopes of the Cascades in Washington State, the town had originally sprouted up to serve several small mines in the area. Even though the gold had mostly run out ages ago, the town had managed to survive—barely. These days its citizens primarily depended on the tourist trade to eke out a living.
It was hard to believe a man like Chief Peters, who likely had lived all over the world, would be happy for long in Dunbar. If he wasn't going to stay, she wasn't interested in testing those waters Elizabeth had mentioned.
The bell over the door in the museum chimed, drawing Shelby's attention to the other half of her little corner of the world. She managed the entire two-story building that had been subdivided to serve different purposes. The area where she currently stood was both the local post office and the library, such as it was. The other half of the first floor and the entire second floor housed the town's pride and joy—the Dunbar Historical Museum.
A deep voice called out, "Hello? Is the museum open?"
The docent scheduled to work that morning had called earlier to say she would be in after her doctor appointment, which left Shelby to cover for her. "I'll be right there."
She dusted off her hands, locked the post office door and put the sign out that let people know to come to the museum if they needed her. Hurrying through the door that separated the two halves of her domain, she prepared to greet the visitor, who turned out to be a bit of a surprise. Their usual patrons tended to be mostly older tourists doing some sightseeing after a meal at the café down the street. This guy was much closer to her own age. He might not be as tall and muscular as Cade Peters, but he was definitely attractive in his own way with curly blond hair and a friendly smile.
It almost made her wish she could quickly sneak into the ladies' room to put on some lipstick. Too late now. She offered him a bright smile and handed him a map of the museum.
"Sorry if I kept you waiting, but welcome to the Dunbar Historical Museum. I'm Shelby Michaels, the curator here. Our displays are self-explanatory, but please feel free to ask me any questions you might have."
He gave the map a quick glance. "Thank you. I'll just wander around for a little while if that's okay. I picked up a flyer about this place at the hotel where I stayed last night and thought I'd come check it out. I love museums of all kinds, and sometimes they provide the most unexpected inspiration."
That was a new one. "May I ask inspiration for what?"
His smile turned shy. "I'm a freelance writer. I mostly do articles for travel and history magazines as well as for newspapers looking for local interest stories."
He fished a business card out of his wallet and held it out to her. "My name is Maxim Volkov."
"Well, it's not every day I get to meet a writer." She studied the card. "I hope you find that the trip was worth your time."
His smile faded a little. "I'm sure it will be."
Then he shoved several bills into the donation box and started slowly making his way around the exhibits. Shelby picked up some paperwork that needed to be filed in the museum office since it was likely he'd be heading upstairs next. She'd barely reached the second floor when she heard the familiar creak of the third step up from the first floor. Mr. Volkov was already on his way up.
She hustled across the room to her desk, wanting to look busy when he finally appeared. Although she couldn't quite put her finger on why, there was something about him that seemed odd. He wasn't giving off any kind of scary vibe, but she'd bet anything that he had an agenda that didn't include looking for inspiration for a story. Otherwise, wouldn't he spend more time studying the displays and maybe taking some notes? As it was, he just barely glanced at most of them before moving on to the next.
Of course, maybe her imagination was running wild, and their museum really had appealed to a writer's innate curiosity. Besides, he wouldn't be the first person who'd driven miles out of his way simply to get a peek at the town's prize possession-the Trillium Nugget. It wasn't the largest chunk of gold ever found in the state, but it was definitely impressive. Considering the price of gold, it was no wonder the town had ponied up to pay for an expensive security system to protect the nugget and the rest of the museum.
She watched as the writer circled ever closer to the nugget. So far, he hadn't so much as glanced in its direction, but she'd bet her last dime that he was almost painfully aware of it. Finally, after completing a second circuit, he approached the case that held pride of place in the center of the room. He got within touching distance of the glass and froze, staring at the three-lobed piece of gold. It was that shape which had given the nugget its name. Trillium, a plant native to the area, had green leaves and a white flower with three large, pointed petals.
"It's impressive, isn't it?"
Mr. Volkov jumped and glanced back over his shoulder at her, frowning as if he'd forgotten Shelby was even there. "Yes, it is."
Next, he used his phone to snap several pictures in rapid succession. After shoving the phone in his pocket, he took a step back. "Do you know if there's a book about the nugget?"
"Well, a few years back one of the museum's docents wrote a book on the local history of the area that we sell downstairs in the gift shop. It might have something."
"I'll take two copies."
He charged back down the steps, which left her no option but to follow. He was already thumbing through one of the books by the time she joined him at the checkout counter. Besides the second copy of the book, he'd added several postcards and a map of the area that marked places where people could still prospect for gold.
She rang up his purchases and gave him his change. "Thank you again for stopping in, Mr. Volkov."
He took the bag from her and mustered up a smile that wasn't quite as warm as the one he'd offered her when he'd first arrived. She couldn't imagine what she'd said or done that would've offended him in some way, but he definitely wasn't as friendly on his way out as he had been on the way in.
Most of the time visitors came and went without leaving much of an impression, but she wouldn't be forgetting Maxim Volkov anytime soon. Rather than worry about it, she decided to take an early lunch. If anyone needed her, they'd know they could find her at the café down the street. After locking up, she grabbed her purse and hustled out the door.
Titus would run out of her favorite comfort food if she took her usual one o'clock lunch break. After all, like time, chicken and dumplings waited for no one.
CADE PETERS STEPPED through the door of the only café in town. While it would've been nice to have more choice in restaurants, he couldn't complain about the quality of food Titus, the owner-slash-cook, offered to his customers. Thursday was always the busiest day of the week, thanks in no little part to the day's special of chicken and dumplings. Cade was far from the only person who looked forward to gorging on tender chicken, savory vegetables and fluffy dumplings.
Unfortunately, every table was taken. Most folks wouldn't mind Cade joining them if they had a spare seat, but he'd learned to be careful about his choice of companions. Some men might be flattered by so much feminine attention, but he wasn't one of them. He preferred to eat a meal without having to fend off invitations to dinner seasoned with hints about a special dessert for two. He never asked for details and did his best to refuse without offending.
Glancing around the room, he immediately zeroed in on the one woman he wouldn't mind sharing his meal with. Thanks to her dark red hair and quiet beauty, Shelby Michaels would stand out in any crowd. With luck, she wasn't saving the empty chair at her table for anyone else and wouldn't mind sharing it with him. He made his way through the cluttered café toward where she sat near the back wall. His timing was perfect because the waitress was approaching Shelby's table from the other direction. If he hurried a little, he would get there just in time to place his order.
"Hi, Shelby. Do you mind if I join you? I forgot how hard it was to find a place to sit on Thursdays."
Okay, that was a lie, but she'd probably believe him because he hadn't been living in Dunbar all that long. "Of course, Chief Peters."
Cade pulled out the chair and sat down. "I thought we'd agreed that there was no need to be formal. It's Cade, not Chief Peters, especially when we're both about to pig out on Titus's chicken and dumplings."
Her fair skin flushed rosy. "Sorry, I forgot."
The waitress finally arrived. "Shelby, Chief. What can I get you to drink? I'm assuming you'll both be wanting today's special."
Shelby smiled at her. "You would be right about that. I'll have iced tea."
"Make it two." Cade handed back the menus neither of them had needed. With that taken care of, he tried to think of a topic of conversation. He settled on asking about the one thing he knew Shelby was passionate about. "How are things at the museum today?"
She sighed. "Slow. I only had one visitor stop in this morning. A man who said he was a freelance writer looking for inspiration. He claimed to write articles for magazines and local interest pieces for newspapers."
Interesting. Whether or not she realized it, the slight emphasis she put on the word "claimed" spoke volumes. "Do you have any reason to think he was lying about that?"
She looked startled by his question. "No, not really. He seemed nice enough, especially when he first came in. He even gave me his business card. I suppose it could be fake, but I don't really think so."
"But something bothered you."
She toyed with her napkin for several seconds before answering, looking more perplexed than concerned. "Nothing specific I can put my finger on. He said he found out about the museum through a flyer that the town stocks in a lot of the hotels in the area, so he knew about the nugget. He wouldn't be the first person who came to Dunbar just to see it. After taking a few pictures, he bought two copies of a book on our local history and left. I doubt we'll ever see Maxim Volkov again."
Cade saw no reason not to take Shelby at her word about the situation. She had a reputation for being levelheaded and a good judge of character. That said, he felt compelled to offer her one piece of advice. Fancy security system aside, that chunk of gold she babysat every day was worth more than enough to tempt someone into making a grab for it.
"If anybody ever does make you uncomfortable at all, promise you'll call me. Even if it turns out to be a false alarm, it's better to be safe than sorry."
When she didn't immediately say anything, he added, "Promise?"
Finally, she nodded. "Fine, Cade. I promise."
Their waitress was back with two plates heaped high with deliciousness. They ate in silence not for lack of anything to say, but out of respect for Titus's culinary magic.
* THE LAWMAN'S PROMISE is also featured in Harlequin Heartwarming June 2023 Box Set.