CAMERON WINTERS stared at the shambles of his store, Charisma and Couture. Expensive vintage clothes and costumes lay scattered on the floor amid broken glass and upended displays. Bright red epithets stained the wall behind the counter, and red paint colored his inventory. The fall window display that had taken him an entire weekend to set up was unrecognizable. Shards of ceramic pumpkins and orange-and-black streamers mingled with pieces of costumes on the floor of the window. Tears gathered at the corners of his eyes, and he struggled to keep them back.
He took two steps in, his feet crunching on the broken glass from the front door. Though he didn’t hear anything, that didn’t mean someone wasn’t still there, although his instincts told him otherwise. And he’d learned very young to trust his instincts. His early years had taught him that lesson well. Not everyone was as accepting of his lifestyle as his family had been.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Cameron.” Albert Shenk from the deli next door stopped on his way to his shop, as he did every morning. He saw the shambles, his eyes widening in shock, his normally ruddy face going pale. “Gott im Himmel! Are you all right?”
Cameron turned to him, his mind on who had trashed his store. “What? Oh. Yes. I’m fine.”
Albert pulled a cell phone from his pocket and punched 911. “Hello? Dis is ein emergency. Ve need die politzei—ach—the police at Twenty-seven South Oak Street. There has been a break-in at the clothing store.” He listened a moment. “Ja, the owner ist here. He ist okay. Send the police.”
He cut the connection and wrapped a beefy arm around Cameron’s shoulders. If Cam hadn’t been so angry, he’d have smiled at the older man. Albert spoke excellent, though accented, English—except when he was upset or trying to put someone on, as he often did in their little tourist town.
“Come, you should not be in here until the police have seen. Come.”
Cam reluctantly allowed Albert to lead him out of his shop and next door where Albert’s partner, Levi, was opening the door to their deli. Cameron wanted to go back and check out the store, but knew he shouldn’t. He had some training with the FBI, but not in this kind of investigation. He was a forensic accountant, not a crime-scene person. His kind of work involved spreadsheets not violence. His dad had always told him to let the experts handle things, and this was one of those times when he had to trust someone else. He was a storeowner now, not a member of a team and especially not an investigator. His life had changed when he’d found out his boyfriend was cheating on him. Then his mother got sick and he had to move back home. He’d left his investigator life behind in DC. Well, mostly. He thought about the flash drive he had hidden in his office. Cold cases he was looking into for his former bosses. Had the thief been after that? Had it been taken?
Cam really wanted to check and make sure the file was still there but couldn’t without making a scene. He clenched his jaw and let his gentle neighbor lead him away. The bell above the shop door rang as they entered the aromatic place.
“Ah, there you are, Albert. I was wondering….” Levi’s voice trailed off. “What happened?”
“Cameron’s store has been broken into. I’ve called the police.”
“No! Is he all right?”
“He is in shock, I think.”
The older couple bustled Cameron into their deli. Any other time he’d savor the aroma of fresh strudel and bitter German chocolate, but now all he could think about was his store and who had done this and why. The analytical side of his brain started making lists. Albert pulled a chair out for him at one of the little café tables next to the front window while Levi poured him a heavy mug of cocoa. He’d often enjoyed sharing a cup with the elderly couple, discussing business and the latest gossip of their little town of Maple Grove. But not now. Now the mug was something solid to hold on to—something to do while he waited. Was this how other people felt when they’d been violated? This sense of wanting to lash out but not having anyone to direct the anger at? As a “cubicle person,” he’d never met the victims of the various crimes his team had investigated, but now he understood their anguish.
Cameron wrapped his hands around the mug and stared at the dark liquid. “Who would do this? Why?”
He asked the questions, not really expecting an answer. Levi patted his arm but kept silent. A few minutes later, Cameron saw the flashing lights of the town patrol car as it arrived. He knew the driver, Will Carson, quite well.
He’d grown up with Will as his closest neighbor. They’d shared cookies and milk and comic books. Though still friends, they’d grown apart over the years like some friends do. Cameron didn’t recognize the man with him. The hunk was tall, probably an inch or two over six feet, and powerfully built with broad shoulders and a narrow waist. His sable hair was cut military short, and the shadow of a beard stained his jaw. He probably had dark eyes, too, Cam guessed. What drew his notice was the limp as he favored his left leg. He’d been hurt. But the bigger question was: who was he? And why was he with Will?
Albert stood at his door and motioned the men in. “Herr Cameron ist in here.”
Will entered and came immediately to Cam’s table, followed closely by the stranger. The man removed his glasses and studied Cam as intensely as Cam had studied him. He’d been wrong about his eyes. They were the deepest shade of sapphire blue framed by long lashes. He had a tiny scar across his right eyebrow that gave him a permanently sardonic look, and it appeared as if his nose had been broken a time or two. He’d never win any beauty contests, but his face had character, and Cam’s heart sped up, something that hadn’t happened in a long time. Too long. He tamped the desire down. Now was not the time or the place. And after his last failed relationship, maybe not ever again.
“Cameron? You okay?” Will asked.
Cameron noticed Will was wearing the leather gloves Cam had gotten him when he’d made chief of police. They’d set Cam back a bit at the time, but Will was an old friend and had helped him and his mother so much when his dad died that the expense seemed worth it. They were a little worse for the wear. And those awful shoes. Will seriously needed some help in the style department. He always had. But the uniform…. Now that was solid, in more ways than one. It was a shame he and Will had never clicked in the romance department. Truth be told, Cam wasn’t even sure Will was gay. Bi maybe. But definitely in the closet, thanks to his parents. His father had been a fire-and-brimstone preacher who often told Cam and Cam’s parents that he was going straight to hell for his wicked ways.
Fortunately Cam’s parents hadn’t felt that way. But he’d still learned to be careful about being out.
The guy with Will didn’t need any dressing tips. He filled out the short-sleeved shirt and tight jeans with muscle, and not a bit of flab. What Cam wouldn’t give to run his hands over those pecs and tight ass. With great difficulty, Cam brought his focus back to the matter of his store. “Yes. I wish everyone would quit asking that. It’s my store….” His hands shook, and he let go of the mug and clenched them under the table, his anger threatening to overwhelm him.
Will was still talking to him. “Let us make sure it’s safe, then we’ll talk. Were you at your mom’s or your place when it happened?”
Cameron bit his lip. His new apartment was above the store, and Will knew it. He also knew Cam wasn’t living there most nights, electing to stay at his mom’s, cleaning the house and contents up for the auction. Everything would be sold, including the land. It wasn’t easy to see it all go, but he didn’t have the time to put into the repairs the old place would need. Still even if someone had broken into his apartment, almost everything was still in boxes. And he had nothing to steal. “No. I was at Mom’s last night. The auction ended late, and it was easier to camp out there.” Six months after his mom’s death and he was still dealing with her stuff. According to friends of his in the city, it could take years to settle everything. Something he did not look forward to. At least she’d left him the store free and clear. They’d actually taken care of that before she got sick, even though she’d been the one running it while he lived in DC.
“Oh. I’m sorry,” Will said. “I know I said I’d be there, but Eli called in sick, so I had to take his shift.”
“That’s okay. We had plenty of help. Nothing serious for Eli, I hope?”
“Nah. Just bad burritos. You stayed over there all night?”
“Yeah. Closing is next week, and the new owner takes immediate possession, so I’m just getting the last of the stuff moved out.”
Will frowned. “That seems awfully fast.”
Cam nodded. “That was part of the stipulation. Plus, they had the money up front, so the lawyers are pushing it through. Besides, there’s nothing left there for me anyway. Not much point in hanging on to it.”
“Who bought it? Someone you know?”
Cameron shook his head. “That’s the oddest thing. The bidder was an agent who refused to give the buyer’s name. He bought the house and some of the furnishings for well over the appraised price.”
“Well, at least you won’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Will jotted the information in a notebook he pulled from his shirt pocket. “Let me have your keys. We’ll check the apartment too.”
He turned to the second man, then back to Cameron. “Oh, I almost forgot. Cameron, I’d like you to meet Pete Minchelli. Pete’s an old friend from the academy visiting here on leave.”
Cameron nodded at the man, discomfited by his steady gaze. Pete touched his temple in a mock salute, turned, and headed for the door, followed by Will. Cam watched them, wondering how they’d become friends. Even if they’d gone to the academy together, the new man didn’t seem like the type of person Will would pal around with. He looked hard. Dangerous. Not at all the type to play small-town cop. Like a loner, someone who didn’t play nice with anyone. He reminded Cam of the Bruce Willis character in the Die Hard movies. Or Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. Or…. Cam stopped before the spit in his mouth turned into drool. His one weakness, besides vintage clothing, was old action/adventure movies with hard bodies.
He wondered what Pete would think of Maple Grove. Small-town living wasn’t for everyone. This was a place where neighbors helped neighbors, even when they didn’t know each other that well. You got to know your mailman and the delivery guy by their first names. People still sat on the front porch or strolled around town. This guy didn’t look like someone who would be into that kind of life. He looked like he belonged… somewhere bigger. Cameron recognized the type. He’d known enough of them from his former job. The ones who were larger than life. The ones who looked down on guys like him when they noticed him at all.