CHAPTER ONE

 

“Do you know why I pulled you over?” The officer rested his hand on the roof of my car as he peered through the driver’s side window.

I peered back at him, sizing him up. He was short and scrawny, with thin, brown hair cropped closed to his scalp. Pink acne scars marred his chin and cheeks. I pegged him for his mid twenties—only a few years older than me, actually. His mouth was set in a hard line and brows pinched. The man was trying to look intimidating but failing miserably. It was hard to take the little shrimp seriously—he looked like a kid playing Cops and Robbers. That, and I didn’t need x-ray vision to know that behind those mirrored aviator shades he was totally staring at my rack.

I couldn’t blame him for taking a peek. After all, the girls were out in full force today, thanks to the bit of extra padding in my swimsuit top. It was sort of false advertising, but I was hoping the little boost in the chest area would score me some attention later from a certain sexy co-worker of mine at the Castle Rock staff pool party. If Officer Shrimp’s reaction was any indication, then I’d say my new Betsey Johnson black-and-white skull bikini was well worth the dent in my bank account.

“I’m not sure, Officer,” I lied. I knew I’d been speeding, but I was hoping that flashing him a little skin might get me off with a warning—and without having to turn over my license. I didn’t want Daddy to ream me out for embarrassing him in front of his men—again. I fluffed my spiky, pink hair and stuck my chest out a little farther. After giving the young officer a few more seconds to take in the view, I brought his attention back above my neckline with a little throat-clearing cough. Sure enough, he jerked his head, and a faint glow touched his cheeks. Busted!

“You were speeding,” the young cop said. His expression hardened, and he hiked his thumb toward the speed limit sign posted several yards down the street. “Sixty-eight in a forty-five.” He held out his hand, palm open. “License and registration, please.”

“Uhh, sure. One sec.” Damn. Daddy was not going to be happy that I got pulled over in his truck. I reluctantly riffled through the glove compartment and pulled out the registration, then handed it over to the officer along with my license.

As the policeman studied my ID and the paperwork, his frown deepened. “Bronwyn Sinclair,” he read aloud from my license. Then he read my father’s name off of the registration papers. “Eddie Sinclair.” The cop pushed the shades lower on his nose so that I could see his brown eyes. “This is the sergeant’s truck?”

I nodded. “Yuh-huh.”

“And that makes you…”

“The Sarge’s daughter.” My smile was sweet with a splash of smug.

The young cop stared at my pink hair, tar-black eyeliner, and the new emerald-studded nose ring in my left nostril. “I didn’t recognize you.” He looked bewildered. “There’s a family photo in his office, but, you, er—look different.”

“That picture was taken when I was thirteen.” A scowl curled across my lips as I remembered the mousy brown hair, sickly complexion, and bushy, un-tweezed eyebrows of my awkward childhood. That was before I’d accepted Urban Decay makeup as my personal Lord and Savior. “I’m twenty now,” I added.

Officer Shrimp’s eyes bulged. “Twenty?” He nearly choked. “Christ! You’re just a kid. I can’t believe I was looking at your—” He stopped short, his face turning redder than the Coke can in the drink holder beside me.

Ah, leverage. I fought the urge to shout at him that I was practically old enough to buy my own booze now, thankyouverymuch. Instead I said, “How about you let me off with a warning just this once, and I don’t tell the Sarge that you were peeping at my ta-tas?” I arched an accusing brow. “He’s very protective of his little girl, ya know.”

The man stared at me for a long moment, a scowl creasing his lips. Finally, he sighed in resignation, probably deciding that getting caught leering at the boss’s only daughter wasn’t the best career move. “I’m giving you that verbal warning,” he said in a flat voice. “You slow down now, Miss Sinclair.”

“Yessir.” I grinned. This cop must be new—there’s no way the older guys would’ve fallen for that bit. I guess being the daughter of Atlanta’s police sergeant had its occasional perks after all. A cool feeling of relief washed through me as I watched the embarrassed young officer retreat to his APD cruiser. “Glad that’s over,” I muttered, starting the truck’s engine. “And now, it’s time to party!”

***

Thirty minutes later I was relaxing poolside in Midtown. It was the last Friday in May, and my coworkers from Castle Rock were gathered together for a staff party. Tomorrow was the first night of our venue’s outdoor concert series—each Saturday, a different band would perform on the new stage out back in Castle Rock’s courtyard.

To commemorate the beginning of the summer music season, Amelia Grace and Kat Taylor, the venue’s co-owners, had closed Castle Rock that night and invited us over to Amelia’s apartment pool for some burgers and booze. Well, they’d invited me over for burgers and soda. Sigh. It was less than a year until my twenty-first birthday, but everyone still treated me like a child.

“Did you hear about the break-in at the Beat Barn?” Derek Hayes, our new bouncer, asked no one in particular.

“No way, really?” Jody Conklin, one of Castle Rock’s bartenders, looked up from her issue of Cosmo, her blue eyes wide. “What’d they take?”

Derek held out his cell phone and showed us the hip hop venue’s Facebook page, which featured a status update about the break-in that had occurred the night before. “They’re looking for whoever did it,” he said, scanning the post. “DJ DirtyBeatz was playing a set there last night. The post says the burglar made off with one of his turntables—right in the middle of his set.”

“Poor Emily,” Amelia said, frowning. Emily Almond, an old friend of Kat and Amelia’s from college, had taken ownership of the Beat Barn a few months before. “She must be devastated.”

“I’m not surprised, with all the thugs that hang around there.” Castle Rock’s other bartender, Pete Kelly, gave a haughty shake of his head. “Just last week, Lil’ Gina’s tour bus was shot at just outside.” He sniffed. “My cousin Charlotte slings drinks over there sometimes. I told her she should start carrying a gun to work.”

“You’re such a jerk.” Jody made a face at him and rose from her lounger to stretch. She set her magazine down and adjusting the strings of her blue bikini before padding over to the pool. She then dipped her slender body into the water and paddled to the other side.

What?” Pete called after her indignantly. He looked back to find the rest of us frowning at him. “Was it something I said?”

“Hey look.” Derek pointed at the last sentence of the Beat Barn’s social media post. “They’re offering a reward to anyone that can give the owners or the police any information that might help them recover the gear. A thousand bucks.”

“Wouldn’t that be nice?” I said wistfully. A grand would go a long way towards beefing up my New Car fund. I was sick of driving the Sarge’s busted green Ford pick-up all over the city. I’d gotten the job at Castle Rock so that I could pay my bills and start saving up for a car of my own. All I wanted was something small and speedy, maybe even with a sunroof. I sighed, thinking about cruising down I-75 in a new convertible with the top down, blaring the latest Arctic Monkeys album.

“Yo, Bron.” Derek’s voice snapped me out of my daydream. He held out a cold bottle of Corona. “Can you take this over to Reese? Looks like he could use a refill.”

“Sure.” My heart skipped a happy beat as I swiped the beer from Derek’s hand. Time to see if this new bikini will work its charm. I slunk toward the far end of the patio, swaying my hips and giving my best attempt at that sexy pout that Jennifer Lawrence has down to an art. Of course, on me it probably came out looking more like the duck-face expression in all the selfies that drunk girls post on Instagram.

Reese Martin looked up from the grill as I approached. His face broke into a beautiful dimpled grin, his green eyes lighting up at the sight of me. Hey, my sexpot impression is actually working! “Where have you been all my life?” Reese asked, his voice husky and full of desire. I felt a shiver of pleasure down to my toes. Thank you, new bikini!

“Right here,” I said, matching his tone.

Reese eagerly grabbed the Corona from my hand and popped the top off, then tilted his head back and guzzled down half the bottle. “Oh, hey, Bron,” he said, as if noticing me for the first time. “Thanks. I really needed that—it’s so hot out here.”

“Yeah,” I said, trying not to sound as deflated as I felt. Ugh. What is it with men and beer? Why can’t he look at me the way he looks at that freaking bottle? The stuff doesn’t even taste good! I bit back a sigh and perched myself on the lounger closest to the grill. “How are the burgers coming?”

Reese flipped a couple of beef patties with a spatula and then turned to face me, looking irresistible in his black swim trunks and ‘Kiss the Cook’ apron. I bit the inside of my lip to keep from swooning. “The first batch’ll be ready in about ten minutes.” He ran a hand through his dirty blond curls. “The hotdogs will be ready in five. But for you—” he whipped back around and used the spatula to scoop something off of the grill. As I watched, he grabbed a plate and then rummaged around on the table beside him, his broad, shirtless back obscuring my view—not that I minded that one bit. After a minute he faced me again, holding out a plate. “One veggie burger on pita bread with lettuce, tomato, ketchup, and jack cheese. Just the way you like it.”

I beamed at him. “Aww. You remembered!”

“Of course I did. It’s your favorite.” He returned my smile. I grabbed the veggie burger and munched quietly, content to just be near him while he prepared the rest of the food.

Across the patio, Kat broke away from the group to climb up the long ladder that led to the swimming pool’s diving board. She backed up a few steps and then rushed forward, leaping into the air. “Cannonball!” she screamed, curling her long legs toward her chest and hugging her knees as she hit the water with a humongous splash. After a few seconds, Kat re-emerged above the surface. She flipped her waterlogged, light brown hair out of her face and looked around expectantly at the rest of us. “Alright, who’s next?”

“Not gonna happen.” Derek crossed his dark arms over his chest and stepped behind Amelia. He met my gaze from across the pool. “How about you, half-pint?” he called.

“Don’t call me that,” I yelled back, scowling. I hated when people pointed out my short, five-foot-three stature. I may be tiny, but I was a force to be reckoned with…just not when it came to daredevil stunts like jumping off that sky-high diving board.

Reese cast a glance over his shoulder at me. “Come on. Go for it,” he said, giving me an encouraging smile.

 

I gulped, nearly choking on a bite of half-chewed veggie burger. Why did Derek have to call me out like that with Reese here? I took another bite and chewed slowly to buy myself some time. I didn’t want to look like a chicken in front of Reese. I’d been trying to shake his ‘kid sister’ perception of me for months. Still, it wouldn’t matter if he finally saw me as a woman if I was splattered all over like pavement. Ew. My stomach lurched at the thought, and I set the down the plate of food.

Amelia came to my rescue. “I’ll go,” she said before I could speak up. She shrugged out of her flowery purple bathing suit cover. Amelia met my gaze as she made her way toward the diving board ladder, and I gave her a grateful smile.

“Break a leg, Ame!” I joked. I pronounced the nickname like the word ‘aim’. It was something Kat had called her since they were kids, and the name had caught on among the staff of Castle Rock.

Amelia Grace is probably the closest thing I have to an older sister. Kat’s pretty cool, too, but Ame has seen me through some pretty scary stuff. Like the time she saved me from nearly getting murdered by a lunatic in Castle Rock’s rear tower. She also recently promoted me from being a part-time intern at the venue to having my first salaried job as Castle Rock’s marketing assistant. The new full-time gig had me working more closely with Reese, who had also been promoted to assistant general manager. Thanks to Ame, I was getting paid to hang out with the sexiest man in Atlanta for forty hours a week. Yep, I owed her big time.

We all watched as Ame climbed the ladder and stood near the back edge of the diving board, preparing to take a running leap. Her straight, auburn hair fluttered in the gentle breeze as she adjusted the straps of her green bikini and squared her shoulders.

 

Ame took a two more steps back, poised to rush forward.  “Here goes nothing,” she called.     

I admired Amelia Grace for a lot of reasons. She was smart, funny, confident, and fiercely loyal to the people she cared about. Unfortunately, despite her last name, there was one thing Amelia wasn’t--graceful.

As Ame ran across the diving board, her left ankle buckled and rolled. Her face twisted in pain and she toppled sideways, arms flailing at her sides as she tried to regain balance. Terror clawed through my gut. Kat, Jody, and I shrieked as Ame hurtled toward the pavement. Derek rushed forward, trying to reach her before she hit the ground. Reese tore off his apron and did the same. With a scream, Ame plunged into the water, missing the pool’s edge by mere inches.

“Oh my God!” Kat cried, sprinting to the side of the pool. Jody climbed out of the shallow end, and we joined her. We peered fearfully down into the deep end as Reese dove in to rescue our friend. His muscular body sliced through water and shot toward the bottom of the pool, where Ame was crumpled. He hooked his arms underneath her and then kicked off the floor with one foot, sending them both rising quickly to the surface.

Ame choked and sputtered, spitting out a mouthful of water and struggling to suck in air. Her wet auburn hair was matted to the sides of her face and neck, and her complexion had gone a sickly white. “Owww,” she moaned as Reese gently laid her on the pavement.

“How bad are you hurt?” Reese asked. He hauled himself out of the water and crouched beside Amelia, checking her arms and legs for any serious injuries. I followed his gaze as he examined her left ankle, which was visibly swelling. “Do you think you can walk on it?” he asked.

“Only one way to find out.” Amelia gritted her teeth and allowed Derek and Reese to slide underneath her arms, helping lift her to a standing position. She cried out as soon as her left foot hit the ground. “I think I need to go to the ER,” she said, pain making her voice tight.

“I parked Dad’s truck right by the patio entrance,” I piped up. Despite being the late to the party because of my little traffic blunder, I’d still landed a primo spot. “I’ll take you.”

“I’ll go with you,” Reese said. He scooped Ame off the ground and carried her toward the parking lot.

Kat met my gaze, her blue eyes full of concern. “I’ll meet you guys there,” she said. She turned to Pete, Jody, and Derek. “Sorry guys, looks like the party’s over.”

 

To find out what happens next, grab your copy of Caper at Castle Rock!

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© Anne Marie Stoddard 2017