Hot August sun streamed through the display window of Willow Pond Interiors, but Sarita Santos stood frozen, chills running through her as the voice of the small town Ohio police chief reverberated from her cell phone.
"Ramone got parole. He was released this morning."
Icy fear prickled her scalp, surging through her with a sudden trickle of sweat down her back, all the way to the tips of her frigid toes.
"His attorney appealed to get him out early. I don't know how or why, but he won." Chief Hunter heaved a sigh. "We'll do all we can to protect you, Sarita. Stay away from Riverside and his old haunts."
Shivering, she dabbed perspiration from her brow. Her stomach pitched with the rush of heat and cold, nausea churning as if she’d just contracted the flu.
Ramone Valdez had murdered her best friend. When Sarita refused to abort his child, he tried to kill her too. Then she testified against him, and he swore revenge. After he went to prison, she'd moved to nearby Crystal Falls, cut all connections to her sordid past, and started a new life. But Riverside was only twenty-five miles away.
He'd track her down.
"Don't go near anyone connected to him," the chief warned.
Sarita sucked in a jagged breath. "What if he finds my mother? She watches Gracia." Scenes of horror flashed through her mind: Ramone busting through the door, yanking Gracia from her mother's arms, torturing her screaming child.
"Don't panic. Where does your mom live?"
"Here in Crystal Falls. In the apartment above the music shop." Her voice shook as bile burned her throat.
"Stay here in town. Your phone's unlisted, right? And your mother's?"
"Yes." Her voice cracked. "We only use cell phones."
"Good. Lie low for a while. Watch for anything suspicious and let us know. I'll ask the department in Riverside to keep an eye out for him. We'll do the same here."
"I'll be checking in with you. Keep your daughter close and be safe."
Trembling, Sarita fumbled the phone into the pocket of her dress. Only then did she feel the bristles across the palm of her other hand. The woody stem of a sunflower crushed in her fist. Its fresh green scent filled her nostrils and oily sap covered her hand.
She dropped the broken flower as if it were razor wire.
Would Ramone hunt her down? Had prison deterred his promise of revenge, or hardened his heart even more?
She swallowed the acid taste and wiped her hand on a dust cloth. With a desperate prayer on her lips, she dialed her mother's number.
"Hello, mama?" she stammered.
"Sarita, what's wrong?"
"Mama, where's Gracia?"
"She's napping." An edge of irritation tainted her mother’s voice as the opening music of her favorite soap opera played in the background.
"Will you check on her, please?”
“Why? What’s wrong?”
“Quickly, Mama, please. Then lock all the windows and doors -- especially the balcony over the back alley.”
“Ramone's been released from prison."
"No -- " Maria Santos gasped and the phone clamored as she dropped it. Rushed footsteps scuffled away and a door creaked shut. Muted sounds assured Sarita she was locking the windows. More rushed footsteps, the click of a deadbolt, and heavy breathing coursed through the phone line.
"She's safe." Her mother sounded more rattled than confident.
"Thank you, Mama. Please stay home and keep your eyes open. Don't let Gracia outside. The police will be watching the area."
"Okay." Maria heaved a breath. "Whew. It's hot in here already. Is it really necessary to lock the windows on the second floor?"
"I'm sorry, Mama. We can’t take any chances. I wish you had air conditioning."
"Yeah. It's usually not this hot up here."
Northern Ohio summers rarely required more than an open window and a fan to circulate the breeze. A native Puerto Rican, her mother spent her youth in tropical heat without air conditioning. But she was older now, overweight, and acclimated to the cooler climate.
"We'll have to figure this out. Please just be careful and I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Okay, honey. Try not to worry."
"I will. Thanks, Mama. Please pray."
Ramone would need more than a day to find her. After four years in the slammer, his first order of business would be booze and sex. He would likely return to Riverside and hole up with one of his drunken floozies.
While Sarita had worked her tail off to support them, he'd cheated plenty. Furious when she got pregnant, he could no longer rely on his star stripper to bring in the cash. He insisted on an abortion. When she refused, he orchestrated an 'accident' by cutting the brake lines on her car.
Injured and close to miscarriage, she got out of the hospital in time to testify against him. In prison by the time Gracia was born, he might not know she that survived.
Sarita couldn’t stop shaking. Even in small town Crystal Falls, her precious daughter could be in danger.
Her stomach roiled. She needed food but the last thing she wanted to do was eat. Sipping her chocolate espresso to settle her stomach, she resolved to keep busy. No customers wandered about for the moment.
As turmoil churned her mind, she struggled with an arrangement of sunflowers in the front window of the store. The warm sun, once welcome, now felt garish as she massaged her forehead to fend off a migraine. Taking deep breaths, she scanned the quaint main street of Willow Pond, checking pillared corners and brick alleys for any sign of Ramone.
A well-dressed man passed the window and caught her eye. After initial surprise, he grinned. Men gawked at her looks without a care for the person inside. Much less what she was going through this minute.
As he opened the door, Sarita groaned inwardly. Drained and terrified, she just wanted to be left alone. She needed to focus on a way to hide from Ramone without leaving her job and everything she’d worked for.
The handsome man smiled as he approached her. “You look as sunny as those flowers.”
“Thank you.” She felt like a wreck after that phone call. She climbed from the display window, careful not to hike up her slim yellow dress. Ah -- he must have meant her yellow dress and dark hair matched the sunflowers.
Wobbly on spiked heels, she righted herself on the slick tile floor.
He stuck out a hand and she braced herself for the onslaught of emotion his touch could bring. Handsome men still held power over her.
Like a gentleman, his firm handshake steadied her without letting on as she regained her balance. Too upset for his touch to cause the anticipated effect, she felt an odd comfort instead. She pulled back with cool grace and mentally shored up the talented interior designer she’d trained to be.
“Welcome to Willow Pond Interiors. I’m Sarita.”
“Nice to meet you, Sarita. I’m Max Carter. I believe we’ve met before. I’m a friend of Chad and Vanessa James. Weren’t you in their wedding?”
His sandy hair and trim frame looked familiar. She met his gaze. With a jolt of surprise, she remembered him. He’d caught her eye at the wedding two summers ago, and Vanessa hinted hard that he was interested. But after all Sarita had been through, she’d sworn off men.
She had her hands full raising a three year old and building a career. Now she had Ramone to worry about.
Besides, Max Carter, millionaire tycoon, lived a few notches above anyone who’d be interested in an ex-stripper with a toddler in tow.
“I’m surprised you remember.” Her raw emotions precluded flattery.
“How could I forget?” Heat radiated from him in waves of spicy cologne and overheated male, threatening to melt her resolve like the chocolate stashed in her purse. Lord, give me strength.
“It was a beautiful wedding.” She tried not to stammer, determined to be professional and get to business. “It's nice to see you again. So how can I help you today?”
His expression registered disappointment, but he let the conversation shift.
“Vanessa recommended you to redecorate my great room. I have a large stone fireplace and cathedral ceilings. I’d like to make the big room feel more intimate.” He cleared his throat as if fortifying his businesslike manner. “Cozy, that is.” Avoiding eye contact, he glanced around the store.
“All right." She ignored the double meaning of his words. "We need to find your style. Let me show you around.” Still shaken, she led him toward a grouping of sofas and chairs on teetering heels. She put on her professional face and fought an inclination to touch his arm for support. “Point out anything that strikes you, without concern whether it fits the room. I need to get a feel for your taste.”
That was all she needed a feel for. His kindhearted gaze made her want to lean into him for a hug. How she needed one right now. But her weakness for affectionate comfort had betrayed her time and time again. Irresistible men had gotten her into this mess.
With this one, she’d have to be ultra careful to subdue her natural tendency toward physical contact. Any association with a client not only undermined professionalism, it could prove detrimental to her priority of protecting her daughter.
At least his presence distracted her from that looming threat. Pushing Ramone from her mind, she strived to focus.
They wandered through the store, perusing various styles and woods and colors. Max stopped to rest his hand on the back of a bold-shaped couch in a banana color much like her dress.
“I like this.” He studied the sofa, and then looked toward a chair upholstered in a mango print. “That's interesting.” He eyed bamboo tables and lamps. “I like the whole grouping.”
“Do you like a tropical style?” Having grown up in Puerto Rico, Sarita gravitated toward Caribbean colors and forms.
“It reminds me of the beach, of carefree vacations.” His smile reflected fond memories.
“What if we mix it up a bit?” She tossed lime and turquoise throw pillows onto the couch and chair. “Too much?”
Without batting an eye, his face broke into a childlike grin. “It’s wild, but I like it.” He scrubbed the sandy stubble on his chin. “I don’t know how it’d go with my stone fireplace, though.” He pulled snapshots from the pocket of his creamy linen shirt.
Excited to decorate in the style she adored, Sarita took the photos. Careful not to graze his fingers, she noted his tanned arms and lack of a wedding band. She glanced at the photos.
“How do you feel about plants?” she asked.
“Love them. Gardening is my hobby.”
“Perfect!” She brightened. “Garden rooms and bringing the outdoors inside is my specialty. We could create a tropical oasis in your living room.”
“Sounds great.” With hesitant enthusiasm, he added, “But what about the rustic fireplace?”
“I’m sure we could make it work.”
He smiled over a pause. “Yes, I’m sure we could.” His alluring tone implied much more than decorating.
Barely able to breathe, she handed back the pictures with shaking hands. She needed air, needed space from this man and his tantalizing scent. She’d settle for a chair with a large table between them.
“Let’s sit down and formulate a plan.” The words came from some autopilot in her brain.
Max glanced at his watch. “Can we discuss it over lunch? There’s a wonderful little bistro on Main Street and I’d be honored to buy you lunch.”
If only she could lie and say she’d already eaten. Given the frightening call from Chief Hunter, she had no appetite whatsoever. As her mind darted for an excuse, the elderly store owner ambled to her rescue.
“Mrs. Kentosh,” Sarita said gratefully. “This is Max Carter. He’s redecorating his great room.”
Reaching arthritic fingers toward Max, Mrs. Kentosh shook his hand with more gusto than a woman her age had a right to.
“Sarita, dear,” she said. “Why don’t you show Max our gallery.” With a wink, she nodded toward the private conference room.
Relief swept over Sarita as she continued toward the room. Her elderly boss seemed to read her mind.
“Actually,” Max addressed Mrs. Kentosh, “I wondered if I might take Ms. Santos to lunch while we discuss her ideas. I’d be happy to see the gallery later.”
“How sweet of you!” the older woman gushed. “After that disturbing phone call, dear Sarita could certainly use a nice lunch out with a handsome young man.”
How did she know about the phone call? Practically deaf, she had to be telepathic.
Sarita stared at Mrs. Kentosh. Read this: I don’t want to go.
Mrs. Kentosh clasped Sarita’s hand in hers. “Go have a nice lunch. And take your time, honey.”
Max grinned from ear to ear.
She had no way out now.