Today's Reading

Chapter 1

Every single terra-cotta pot was smashed.

Laurel Stone blinked quickly, annoyed at the sting at the back of her eyes as she stared at the mess. She was angry. Furious. Most people would rant or turn red in the face. But not Laurel. When she got mad, she angry-cried. And right now she was so infuriated that she could barely see through the hot tears.

She'd come in early to do some watering and deadheading before starting the weekly stock order, but discovered the gate hanging limply from its hinges, its lock busted. She immediately took out her cell and called the cops, working extra hard to keep her voice from shaking. Falling apart was not an option. She'd made it through a lot of life changes lately and had kept it together. This time was no different.

Now, as she waited for the police, she swiped at her face and bit down on her lip. It was only six thirty in the morning and she hadn't even had her first coffee yet. The brew sat cooling, forgotten in her ladybug print travel mug. Normally she hummed away to herself, unwinding the hose in the cool morning air. Not today.
Today she had to deal with the fact that crime actually happened in quiet, idyllic Darling, Vermont.

And that left her shaken.

The Ladybug Garden Center was her pride and joy, her foray into building a new life for herself. There'd been little incidents in her first few weeks of opening, but she hadn't thought much of them. The parking lot had been messed up a bit where someone had pulled doughnuts with their car. Two lilac bushes from the bed by the store sign had been stolen. She'd sighed at the inconvenience, but chalked it up to simple mischief.

This time the intent was obvious. Deliberate. And it felt personal.

All the pottery was in shards on the floor. Six-packs of annuals had been pushed off their tables, spilling dirt and crushed blossoms. Hanging baskets had been carelessly dropped, so that the planters cracked and split. Tomato and pepper plants were strewn everywhere, broken and wilting. The lock on the little safe had been smashed, and they'd taken the small amount of money set aside for a float.

Laurel was sweeping shards of pottery into a dustpan when she heard the gritty crunch of tires on gravel. She stood up and braced her hand on her hip as the cruiser crept slowly up the drive and into the parking lot. Might as well get the report over with, and then get on with the cleanup and the call to the insurance agent.

The cruiser door opened.

Damn, damn, damn.

She'd forgotten, though she wasn't quite sure how she could have since Darling was such a small town. Aiden Gallagher. One of Darling's finest, complete with a crisp navy uniform, black shoes, and a belt on his hip that lent him a certain gravity and sexiness she wished she didn't appreciate.

The last time she'd seen Aiden, she'd been home from school, barely twenty-one, and he'd flashed her a cocky take-a-good-look grin, all the while parading around the Suds and Spuds pub with some girl on his arm. Not that she'd expected any other sort of behavior from him. But still. Ugh.

Aiden approached the gate and she took a deep breath. He was a cop answering a call. Nothing more. And that was how she'd treat him. She definitely wouldn't acknowledge that they'd known each other since they were five years old. Or that he'd once had her half-naked in the back-seat of his car.

"Laurel," he greeted, sliding through the gap in the fence. "Looks like you've had some trouble."

She would do this. She would not cry again, especially not in front of Aiden. She had too much pride.

"A break-in last night." She opened the gate a bit wider so he could get through. He passed close by her, his scent wafting in his wake. She swallowed. After all these years, he still wore the same cologne, and nostalgia hit her right in the solar plexus. He took off his cap and she saw his hair was still the same burnished copper, only shorter and without the natural waves, and his skin showed signs of freckles, but nowhere near as pronounced as they'd been. He wasn't a boy any longer; he was a man.

He looked over his shoulder, his gray-blue eyes meeting hers.

Definitely a man.
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