Authors: Kimberly Dean
She didn’t look ready.
Zac’s protective instincts were roaring. She’d given him her trust, and he didn’t take that lightly. He waited as she locked up, and his gaze settled on the coffee shop next door. He’d wanted to get rid of that last hundred feet that had separated them, and now it was gone. She’d found a way to attach them at the hip, and she’d be hard-pressed to get rid of him until they figured this mystery out.
He touched the small of her back to guide her to his cruiser. As far as assignments went, it was the best undercover roll he’d ever been given. It would allow him to get close to her, to talk with her and touch her. Protect her.
Boyfriend he could definitely pull off.
Maxie was adrift. The only reason she ever left her shop this early was to make deliveries, but there were no flowers in her hands, and they felt empty. She curled her fingers around the strap of her purse for something to hold on to.
She’d held on to the sheriff enough for one day, but his hand was warm against her lower back. Warm and steady and male.
She concentrated on the steadiness because it was the one emotion out of millions that she wasn’t feeling. Two sisters? Identical? Her family wasn’t hers? Too much was coming at her too fast, and none of it she wanted to hear.
“Let me get that for you,” Sheriff Ford said as he opened the door of his police car.
This was not how she’d pictured riding off into the sunset with him, but she got into the cruiser anyway. He got in next to her, and the space seemed to shrink.
Inside her head, Maxie understood that, physically, she’d been closer to him. She’d lain unconscious in his lap for longer than she knew, but she was alert and back to herself now—and more self-conscious and aware of him than ever. His shoulders were so wide his arm nearly brushed against hers as he reached for the microphone on the console.
“Dispatch, this is Unit 64.”
“Unit 64, go ahead.”
“If you need me, I’ll be at 218 Wilshire.”
She looked at him in surprise. “You know my address?”
The corners of his mouth curled upwards. “It’s a small town.”
Yes, but not that small. She couldn’t spout off any of her friend’s addresses. She tangled her thumb in the metal loop on her purse. It must be a cop thing.
They pulled away from the curb, and she realized that patrons at Java Mama’s were watching the cruiser raptly. Her face flared. Oh God. What must they think with her being driven away like this? Too late to explain—or even try—she wiggled her fingers weakly at Becky, who was serving coffee to the outside tables. The happy blonde looked stunned and more than ready to gossip.
“They’ll find out what happened soon enough,” Zac said dryly.
Maxie glanced his way. But would she? Would any of this ever make sense?
She wasn’t one to create waves. Look at what had happened the one time she’d tried to make a little splash. Flummoxed, she adjusted her purse on her lap. The folder. She realized she didn’t have it. Abruptly, she straightened.
“Right here.” He tapped the dash.
She sagged back in her seat. That innocuous folder might or might not hold information that was going to change everything. She was afraid to open it. Like the funhouse she couldn’t seem to escape today, she was afraid of what might spring out at her.
Wordlessly, the sheriff’s hand covered hers. The touch warmed Maxie’s cold fingers, but it also reminded her of the crush that was unexpectedly bearing down on her without mercy.
In such a tiny space, everything about him was magnified. He was big, strong and composed, while she felt small and lost. He was so good-looking, she couldn’t look at him—if that made any sense—while she sat here feeling like she’d been stripped to the bone.
Nervous, she tugged at her dress. This wasn’t the impression she’d wanted to make when she’d stepped outside to water her flowers. She’d fainted at the man’s feet. She hoped it had been a graceful faint, all feminine and poetic, but deep inside she knew she’d gone down like a sack of potatoes. She’d never forget turning around and seeing those two women facing her. Roxie and Lexie.
Roxie and Lexie and
“We’ll figure everything out,” Zac promised as he pulled into her driveway.
Even his low voice seemed to rumble over her skin. Everything about her was too sensitive right now. She’d hoped for a hello from him today, but instead he’d seen her at her most vulnerable. He’d ventured into the back room of her shop, and now they were about to enter her house. Together. Alone. To look at
. She eyed the folder as if it were a snake.
She’d called him
He gave her hand a tight squeeze before he parked.
Maxie settled her hand in her lap. “Um. Could you pull up to the garage?”
It would put the car out of sight at least a little bit. She knew how gossip traveled in this town. She didn’t know why she was trying to slow down the grapevine, but she was. “I usually go in the back door.”
He parked and was opening her door before she could find the wherewithal to get out on her own. Once again, his hand settled on her lower back as he walked with her to the back steps. Heat coursed from that touch, tightening some muscles and relaxing others and totally scrambling her brain.
“We could do this at the station if that would make you more comfortable.”
After the scene at Java Mama’s, she didn’t want to be seen anywhere near Sheriff’s Department headquarters. “This is fine. Better, really.”
She let him into her kitchen. Other than her bedroom, this was the place in her house where she was most comfortable.
Not that she’d given any thought to taking him to her bedroom.
Good Lord, where had that notion come from?
“Can I get you anything? Coffee? Cookies?”
“I’m good.” He pulled back a kitchen chair and sat at the table. He set the folder on the tabletop in front of the empty chair beside him and waited.
Maxie didn’t want anything either. Her hands were too unsteady and her stomach felt queasy.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” he asked.
With determination, she unfolded her arms from around her waist and walked over to take the seat he’d prepared for her. Still, it was a moment before she could bring herself to open the file.
She flinched when she did so, but not because anything jumped out at her. Zac’s chair rasped against the floor as he slid closer to her, turning to get a better angle. The move put him at her side once again. His shoulder brushed hers, and she was surprised when she found the touch supportive. Stabilizing. Taking a breath that finally made it past her throat, she started going through the paperwork.
Once she did, she forgot to be nervous around him.
The file was detailed. Whomever Roxie had hired, the man had been painstakingly thorough. The first few pages focused on the other woman’s background, which helped Maxie ease into the situation. Whoever Roxie Cannon was, she’d grown up in the foster-care system. The PI had started there, learning what he could about her, before branching out. There were files from social services, school records from countless grade schools, and even medical records. Maxie didn’t know how she would have felt opening up her own records to others like this, but when she turned to the following page, her breath caught—and she realized both why Roxie had shared and why the two women who had visited her today believed there was a third sister.
Maxie stared at her crossed-out name. An old medical record was detailing Roxie’s height and weight, only whoever had taken the measurements had first written down the wrong name. Her heartbeat slowed to a dull thud, and she traced the strike-through line. Maxine wasn’t a common name, not in this day and age. She remembered asking her grandmother how her parents had come up with it, but the only answer she’d gotten was that they’d liked her nickname.
She did, too, but now it took on such a different cast. Roxie, Lexie, Maxie…
“It’s only one piece of a big puzzle,” Zac said. “And there’s no surname.”
She tapped her finger against the piece of paper. He was right. Going from a crossed-out name to identical triplets was a leap, and there was a lot more information to go through.
Only the more she looked, the more she understood why these two strangers had sought her out.
Once the investigator had a name—and a unique one at that—he’d broadened his search. Knowing Roxie and Lexie’s birth date, he’d combed records for another little girl and had found the birthday greeting her parents had put in the Indigo Falls newspaper on her fifth birthday. Maxie stared down at her younger version’s smiling face. It had been posted for the world to see, and its similarity to a photograph of Lexie Underhill on the same day was undeniable.
“Oh my God.” She picked up the photograph by its edges. It was taken in a house she didn’t recognize. There were delicate vases in the background and heavy silverware around formal plates on a long dining room table. There were adults she didn’t know and a small towheaded boy lunging at the cake, unable to wait. It was Lexie Underhill’s family, but if nobody had told her, she would have thought the photograph was of herself.
“I’ll be damned,” Zac swore, peeking at the page underneath the photograph. “That son of a bitch even got your blood type.”
“Hmm?” Maxie was surprised to find the sheriff angry. His blue eyes were flinty, and his jaw seemed downright hard.
He pointed to a school flyer for a blood drive.
What’s your type?
the tagline asked saucily.
, Maxie Miller had signed with a flourish, along with a dozen other students.
“Don’t tell me,” she whispered.
“Yup, they told the truth on that one. They’re both A negative too.” He tossed the medical records onto the table. “I don’t like how close this guy got to you without you knowing about it.”
Maxie didn’t like it either. For a summer day, she felt awfully cold inside. It wasn’t only the investigation that had been done behind her back; it was how so much of the information lined her up with the two women who’d appeared at her door this morning.
Could they possibly be right?
“Could this have been faked?” she asked.
“Anything can be faked these days,” Zac said.
He glanced at her, and she remembered that, even now, they were faking being a couple. The tightness in her belly slid lower, and she once again became aware of how close they were sitting. She tried to ease away, but there wasn’t far she could go with their chairs placed so near.
He cleared his throat. “Do you remember that newspaper greeting? Or this flyer when you were in—what was that?—the tenth grade?”
“They’re both real. My grandmother has that newspaper clipping in one of her scrapbooks, and I helped design that flyer.”
“Well then, I need to concentrate on the twins’ side of the story. Make sure that those papers are legit.”
“You can do that?”
“If it can be found once, it can be found twice.”
Maxie nibbled on her lower lip. He’d already done so much for her today. She fingered the folder. It was thick. “It’s a lot of work. I don’t mean to put you out.”
“It’s for a good cause.” He waited an indefinable moment. “Don’t you want to know the truth?”
She wasn’t sure.
Did she want to know that her whole life had been a lie? Or at best, that such an important piece of information had been kept from her? Did she want to know that she was part of a set of girls that had been broken up at too tender an age? Did she want to know that her parents weren’t hers? Would it make a difference?
No, she knew the answer to that already. Nothing would change the way she felt about the mother, father and grandmother who’d raised her. It didn’t matter what she learned, her feelings for them wouldn’t change.
But the rest of it?
“I don’t know if I want to, but I have to.” Ignorance wasn’t bliss, and the two women waiting to have dinner with them wouldn’t allow her to bury her head in the sand.
Zac closed the file and settled his arm along the back of her chair. “There are a few more things we need to discuss.”
She let out a long breath. Honestly, she didn’t know how much more she could take. “Like what?”
Leaning back in his chair, he stretched his long legs out in front of him. “Like are we serious or are we in it for the hot, kinky sex?”
Maxie spun towards him so fast, it was a wonder she didn’t give herself whiplash. “
“If our cover story is going to fly tonight, we’ve got to be on the same page.” He tugged on a strand of her hair. “I’m thinking we’re hot and heavy, but it’s starting to lead somewhere. What do you think?”
The tightness that had slid down her body gave a delicious squeeze, and Maxie’s thighs trembled. He
wickedly smart—and flat-out wicked. “I think you’re crazy.”
He smiled. “You’re the one who came up with the plan, Beauty.”
She wasn’t going to forget that anytime soon. Agitated, she traced the edge of the table. “Why do you keep calling me that?”