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Day 1: Thursday evening, two days before Halloween
The chatter and laughter of trick-or-treaters drifted in through the open windows. A mild autumn breeze lifted the gauzy curtains bracketing the windows. It was a perfect evening for late October, and the kiddos took advantage of the nice weather to beg for their wares. Juniper was holding its trick-or-treat night early this year so parents of the high school football players could watch their boys play in the district playoffs. Eckardt County stood a chance to go far in their division.
Sheriff Elizabeth Benoit, one day post-emergency appendectomy surgery, was stationed near the bay window that afforded her a better view of her visitors. She shifted in her recliner and pulled the Army Strong fleece throw up to her shoulders as she watched a pair of Marvel superheroines march past the glowing jack-o’-lanterns lining the porch steps.
“Trick or treat,” their voices singsonged to the man perched on the porch swing.
“Well, it’s Ms. Marvel and Captain Marvel,” Undersheriff Raphael “Rafe” Fontaine said. “Out saving the world one candy bar at a time.”
The girls giggled and held up their Marvel-themed buckets. Rafe tossed in a few fun-sized chocolate bars. From somewhere in the yard, Elizabeth heard a mother holler, “What do you say?”
“Thank you,” the girls chimed as one. Together they skipped down the steps and disappeared from sight.
Elizabeth sighed, wincing when her tender abdomen twinged. As advanced as surgery had become, needing only three tiny incisions to remove a festering, dying organ, it still left the patient in pain and fatigued. A warm, wet nose nudged her hand. She slid her palm up and along her faithful companion’s head and rubbed the silky ears. Bentley, Elizabeth’s red border collie, huffed in contentment, laying her muzzle on Elizabeth’s lap.
Darkness pressed down on the vestiges of daylight, bringing to life the streetlamps lining the sidewalks. In a month’s time, the homes along her block and stretching all the way to the town square would be decked out in their best Christmas lights. But for now, Elizabeth’s neighbors’ yards were a cascade of spooky to goofy.
Just two doors down, The Watering Hole, Marnie’s bar, was a kaleidoscope of green, white, blue, and orange from the strobe lights she turned on for the kids to stop and get their candy. When tonight’s citywide trick or treat ended, Elizabeth’s sister would resume her duties as bartender and owner with her usual crowd. Her annual All Hallows Eve party would happen Saturday night. Elizabeth doubted she’d make it.
Such a shame. She’d been looking forward to it this year. In a weird turn of events, Elizabeth had managed to convince Rafe to do a couples costume—despite the fact they were not a couple—and go as two of her favorite characters in Craig Johnson’s mystery series. But alas, that pairing would have to wait until next year.
A family of five tromped onto the porch, the youngest crawling up the steps dressed as a ladybug with her momma right behind. The older kids declared their intents, Rafe paid reparations, and Elizabeth’s home was saved once more from tricks. One of the older girls spotted Elizabeth through the window and waved her sparkly wand. Elizabeth waved back.
Rafe rose from his post and came into the house. He held up the empty bowl. “We’re out.”
“That was the last of the candy.”
“Looks like we’re done for the night.” He turned off the porch light and took the bowl into the kitchen. “Do you want anything?”
Elizabeth waited for him to circle back around the counter partition. He leaned a shoulder into the wall and crossed his arms. Her undersheriff made quite the picture standing like that, giving her drugged up, hurting body a little thrill. The mutual attraction burned between them, yet they’d never acted on it. Elizabeth was reaching the point where her give a damn was busted and she didn’t care what anyone thought about the two of them together. With the narcotic leaving her giddy, she just might take the plunge. Except her surgeon had warned her—no extraneous activities for a few weeks.
Alas, any thoughts of doing more than kissing Rafe would have to be tabled for now.
Sitting here and staring out the window was driving her batty. She clumsily—man, these drugs are a doozy—shoved the fleece blanket aside. “I want to sit outside for a bit.”
Bentley danced aside, ears perked at the prospect of getting to run outside and greet lagging treaters as they passed the house.
Rafe strode across the hardwood floor in a few steps and caught Elizabeth’s elbow as she attempted to stand. “Hold on there, High Speed. Let me help.”
The nickname was a familiar, untimely reminder of her ex-husband and Rafe’s older brother. It was a vernacular she’d picked up from Joel, who’d heard it for more than a decade as a soldier in the army and as a Delta Force operative. He used it to describe Elizabeth because of her tendency to want to be the one to do it herself, lightning fast. Rafe had picked up on the moniker.
She wagged her hand, a smile playing at the corners of her mouth at her appendage flapping like a rag in the wind. “I got it.”
Rafe took a firm hold of her. “No, you don’t.”
Her protests died once they reached her dried-out mouth. Argh, another icky side effect of the narcotic. “Water.”
“I’ll get you a glass once we’re outside.”
With measured steps, keeping her back ramrod straight because it eased the pressure on her abdomen and the surgical points, she and Rafe shuffled outside. Once she was seated on the porch swing, she sagged into the plush cushions. Bentley gave a nose tap to her hand, received an assuring pet that all was okay, and the border collie scuttled off the porch to have run of the yard. Rafe stepped inside and was back shortly with a lidded travel cup, ice clinking against the sides.
Elizabeth took a drink, relishing the cooling sensation it had on her body. Man, that brief walk out here had caused her to break out in a sweat. Or was this menopause setting in? Couldn’t be—she was too young for that, right? Had to be the narcotics. It was a known side effect, this extra warmth.
“No more drugs,” she muttered.
Beside her, Rafe chuckled. “You’ll regret that declaration the instant the pain really hits.”
“I feel like I’m tripping. I don’t like it.”
“You’re not going to like hurting more. Give it another day to heal, and then you can just take regular pain meds.”
She took another long swallow. “How are things at the fort?”
“Fine. You need to stop worrying about it. I’ve … we’ve got everything handled.”
“We? As in you and Lila?”
“As in all of us.” He took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. “Been at this long enough we’ve got the routine down pat. Don’t forget, most of us have been in law enforcement far longer than you. Just focus on getting better.”
Elizabeth let it be. Rafe knew what he was doing, had been chosen as her undersheriff for a reason. She twined her fingers with his and laid her head on his broad, capable shoulder. They sat there watching the candles in her jack-o’-lanterns flicker while Bentley zoomed around the yard, greeting the kids who walked past with joyous barks.
A while later, a midsized sedan crawled along the street and pulled into the drive. Rafe tensed under her.
Elizabeth lifted her head. “Who is that?”
“I don’t know,” he answered softly.
Bentley changed course and ran to the bottom of the porch steps. She sat; her shoulders hunched as she lowered her head. The border collie was usually friendly to all save one person, but she had been extra protective of Elizabeth since her surgery.
Rafe stood, slipping free of her hold, and moved to the top of the steps. Elizabeth noticed his hand twitching toward his sidearm. Bentley wasn’t the only one in protector mode.
After a moment, the car’s owner stepped out. Even with Rafe blocking part of her view, Elizabeth recognized her visitor.
“Seraphina? Is that you?”
Seraphina Russell, a long-ago friend of Marnie’s, closed the sedan door and strolled up the drive. “It is. Hey there, Rafe. Is that a costume, or are you really a sheriff?”
“Deputy. Undersheriff actually.” His hand fell away from his weapon.
All five-feet-eleven inches of lithe woman came to a stop before Bentley. Seraphina looked down at the dog. “Will she let me pass?”
The collie chirped at Seraphina, then hightailed it up the steps and scuttled down to her dog bed beside the door.
“Guess she approves.” Seraphina tossed a long, strawberry-blonde braid over her shoulder as she joined them on the porch.
“She does,” Elizabeth said.
Seraphina patted Rafe’s arm. “Lookin’ good there, Raphael.”
He grunted his response and remained standing at the end of the swing.
“Mom mentioned you had come home a few years back.” Seraphina took a seat on the porch railing across from Elizabeth. “Said you and Joel divorced.”
Seraphine smiled. “Hard to believe. Joel Fontaine and Elizabeth Benoit were high school sweethearts destined for greatness. Didn’t think the two of you would ever split.”
“Not every relationship can survive on sweetness alone.” Elizabeth listed to her left to ease the ache on her right side.
“Mom also told me you were the sheriff now.”
“I am. Two years next month. I see your mom every now and again. How is she doing?”
“Okay, all things considering. I wish she’d move closer to me, but she refuses to leave that old house and the memories. Even the prospect of a nice, assisted living facility that gives her access to disability services isn’t enough to make her move.”
Caroline Russell had been paralyzed in an accident that had taken her husband’s life, Seraphina’s father, when Seraphina was a girl. For a decade, it had been a hard slog as Caroline coped with the loss of not only her husband and his steady income but her inability to care for her two young children. About the time things were looking up for Caroline, tragedy struck again.
“What brings you to Juniper, Sera?” Elizabeth asked.
The other woman hugged the porch support and leaned into it. “I had vacation time the company told me to take. Oh, the glamorous life of a pharmacist. Decided I should spend it with Mom. Maybe, finally, I could convince her to come with me.”
“Does Marnie know you’re here?”
“Not yet. I drove past her bar and noticed it was hopping with kids. You allow kids to trick-or-treat at a bar?”
Elizabeth chuckled. “She has the bar part shut down while it’s going on. She’s usually outside passing out the candy. Believe me, I’ve gotten an earful from some of our religious community on allowing it. But it was a tradition started before I ever took office, and no one seems to want to cross swords with the man who okayed it in the first place.”
The growing shadows covered part of Seraphina’s face. Elizabeth noticed a shift in the atmosphere.
Rafe’s radio crackled with a report from Alexis. It broke the odd mood.
“You look like you’re recovering from something,” Seraphina mentioned.
Elizabeth placed a hand on her tender abdomen. “Emergency appendectomy. Not fun all around. In fact, it kinda sucks.”
“I bet. Well.” Seraphina slid off the railing. “I should let you get some rest.”
“It was nice of you to stop.”
She smiled, lifting a shoulder. “Thought I’d say hi, let you know I was in town.”
“How long you here for?” Rafe asked, his gruff voice rumbling through the dark.
“Oh, for a few days I ’spect.” Seraphina skipped down the steps, turned back, and waved at them. “Later, you two.”
Rafe lingered at the edge of the porch. Once her sedan had disappeared down the street, he resumed his seat beside Elizabeth.
“You should probably go back inside and sleep,” he said.
She sighed and rested her head on his shoulder once more. “Five more minutes. Then you can boss me around.”
Before she took more narcotics to ease her into sleep, she needed a clear head to mull over why Seraphina Russell was back other than the reasons she’d given. Elizabeth wasn’t the only one to mark this anniversary.
End of Excerpt