Since Know Me Well releases TOMORROW, I thought it would be good to give y’all a sneak peek introduction to my shero, Riley. She’s one of those heroines who turned out completely different from how I originally envisioned her. Mule stubborn wasn’t on her initial character profile, but as things got rolling, that’s exactly how she turned out. She gives ex-Marine Liam Montgomery a real run for his money!
Riley Gower hadn’t planned on spending her anniversary surrounded by boxes of stock and empty shelves. From a business standpoint, the empty shelves were a good thing. It meant people were actually buying the products she carried, in addition to the medications kept behind the counter. In the year since she’d bought out her boss’s share in Wishful Discount Drugs, that had often meant the difference between keeping the lights on and having to rob Peter to pay Paul. She was in the black—barely—and that merited celebration, albeit more of a chips and queso and margaritas at Los Pantalones variety than champagne and caviar.
Instead of celebrating, she was camped out filling shelves, well after the late summer sun had faded, because Ruby Fellowes, her cashier/stocker/order-taker/general-Jill-of-all-trades, who’d worked at the pharmacy since God was a boy, had taken off all week to help prepare for her niece’s wedding. At her current rate, Riley would be lucky to eek out a half-assed celebration with the emergency bar of Toblerone in the vegetable drawer of her refrigerator before she fell into bed and passed out from sheer exhaustion.
“Happy businiversary to me,” she muttered.
The butt busting was worth it, even if owning her own business felt a little more like prison than freedom at the moment. It meant she’d succeeded on her own terms, without a handout or a hand up from some man. Her success and its consequent stresses were hers and hers alone, and she couldn’t put a price on the value of that.
As her phone rang out with the tones of “Crazy Train.” all pleasure in her accomplishment bled away. She could ignore it, let the call go to voice mail. It might be nothing.
But long experience had her instincts tightening with dread. She knew it wasn’t nothing. Bracing herself, Riley answered. “Hi Mom.”
“Hey, baby.” Sharilyn sounded tired, with that forced edge of cheer that made Riley’s stomach curdle.
“Wrong? Why should anything be wrong? Can’t I call my only child to say hello?” She was talking too fast, too breezy, so Riley said nothing, just waited. At length, Sharilyn hiccuped and burst into tears. “Hal left me.”
Riley repressed a curse and tried to find some sympathy. “I’m sorry, Mom.”
Sharilyn launched into a diatribe about everything that had gone wrong on the multi-month cross-country RV trip she’d taken with her most recent beau. By the time her mother finally wound down and got the tears under control, a tension headache had sunk claws deep into Riley’s scalp.
“I really am sorry.” And some part of her was. Because her mother had truly believed Hal, like all his predecessors, was The One, and she’d given herself whole-heartedly to the relationship.
“It will be all right.”
The note of determination creeping into Sharilyn’s voice made Riley wonder whether she already had some other guy in mind to save her this time. Or was it to be Riley herself in the role of knight to her mother’s damsel in distress? Riley’s own armor was pretty damned battered after all these years.
“I need a favor, sweetie.”
Wary, she asked, “What?”
“I’m out here all on my own and Hal didn’t leave me with anything.”
Don’t say it, Riley thought. Don’t you dare say it.
“I need you to loan me some money.”
She said it.
Riley pinched the bridge of her nose. Why was she even calling it a loan? It wasn’t like she’d paid back any of the other loans Riley had made her over the years when the boyfriend or husband du jour turned out to be a shit and not interested in dealing long-term with the damsel in distress routine her mom had perfected. Christ, Riley had taken over the bill management in junior high school, started paying the mortgage her freshman year of college.
“Just enough to get me home,” Sharilyn continued.
“Mom, did you forget you sold the house?”
“Of course I didn’t. But Wishful is still home.”
How could it still be home when she had nowhere to live here anymore?
“I thought I could stay with you for a while.”
Oh God. Riley could actually feel the blood vessels behind her eyes threatening to burst.
“There’s no room at my place, Mom. I don’t even have a guest room.”
“I could sleep on the couch. It’d just be for a little while. Until I get back on my feet.”
Until she found another sugar daddy with a savior complex. A thump sounded from above, pulling her attention.
“Hang on a sec.” Straining, Riley listened harder, expecting scratching or other signs that squirrels or raccoons had taken up residence in the empty second floor of the building. But what she heard were clear footsteps. Person-sized footsteps.
“Mom, I need to go.”
“But what about—”
“I’ll wire you money for a bus ticket home.” Never mind that it was her last $300. She couldn’t leave her mother stranded in Timbuktu. “Text me where you are.” Riley hung up before Sharilyn could say anything else. Striding across to the light switch, she flipped it off so she could see the street outside. The empty street.
Surely anyone with legitimate business up there would be parked out front. And what legitimate business could there be? The upstairs had been vacant forever.
She dialed 911.
“911, what is your emergency?” Riley blessed the interconnected nature of small towns as she recognized the voice of the dispatcher.
“Janette, it’s Riley Gower. I’m at the pharmacy after hours and there’s an intruder upstairs.”
“Are you alone?”
“Yes, I’ve been stocking.”
“Are the doors locked?”
“Okay you stay put. I’m sending somebody as soon as I can, but it might take a little bit. There’s a pretty big domestic disturbance going on across town.”
Assured someone was coming, Riley hung up and called Molly Montgomery. Her old boss still owned the building, so whatever was going on up there affected her. From behind the counter, she listened to the phone ring and watched the front windows, waiting to see one of the police cruisers along Pitts Street or a shadowy figure coming out of the alley. Nobody picked up. Riley opted not to leave a message until there was something more definitive to report. No reason to worry her unless something was really wrong.
In the silence, the ticking of the wall clock sounded almost as loud as the intermittent footsteps over her head. The intruder wasn’t making any efforts to be quiet. There were no sounds of stuff being moved. Of course, there might not be any stuff to be moved.
Five minutes dragged into ten that seemed more like weeks. Still no police.
Riley was tired and edgy, and all she really wanted was to head home. But she couldn’t just go with somebody up there. Somebody who was evidently in no particular hurry to leave.
Oh for heaven’s sake. This was Wishful, not the big city. Anybody looking for drugs would try to rob the pharmacy directly. It was probably kids, looking for…who knew what. Maybe some kind of love nest or a place to smoke. They’d be more scared of her than she was of them.
Riley swiped the counting spatula from behind the counter. It didn’t have an edge and might have had more in common with a pie server than a knife, but in the dark, it sure as hell looked like a blade and it was better than nothing. Taking a deep breath, she stepped outside and circled around to the side of the building. Slipping cautiously through the access door, she noted that no light shone in the stairwell, but a faint glow spilled out from the partially open door at the top.
Hardly daring to breathe, Riley climbed the stairs, thanking God that the treads were concrete, instead of wood or metal that could creak. At the landing she hesitated, peering inside.
In all the years she’d worked for Molly, she’d never been up here. Hadn’t ever had reason to. Like many of the buildings downtown, the second floor of the pharmacy was an apartment. Or at least it had been at some point in the distant past. In the narrow entryway, wallpaper peeled off in strips. She couldn’t see past the wall to the room beyond. Everything was silent now. No footsteps. No sound of teenagers necking.
Was there another exit? Had whoever broken in managed to get out before she came upstairs?
Ignoring the voice in the back of her mind telling her to turn back around and wait for Wishful PD, Riley clutched her counting spatula tight and eased inside.
No one was in what passed for the living room, which boasted two of the four street-facing windows. A hall branched off at the rear of the room. The only light shone out from a single open door on the wall opposite the windows. Moving as quietly as possible, Riley sneaked over to the door and looked into the room.
A hand clamped down on her shoulder.
Riley shrieked. The spatula fell to the floor as she reached across her body to grip his wrist, acting on long ago training as she tugged her assailant forward, jamming her elbow back into his ribcage, as she ducked and pivoted to twist his arm behind his back. Except that he countered, moving with her, doing something to shift the balance, until it was her arm twisting, her body crumpling.
Terror whitewashed her mind. She lashed out, no finesse, no technique, striking whatever she could reach. Her assailant let out an ooph and wrapped her in a bear hug, pinning her arms. She couldn’t suck in enough breath to scream again.
“Hey, hey! It’s okay! Riley, stop. It’s okay. It’s me! It’s Liam.”
Liam Montgomery. Her one time savior.
Because he meant safety, she let out a sob of relief.
His arms loosened, shifting her to face him, and she couldn’t fight because her legs had turned to noodles and every atom in her body wanted to turn into him and hang on.
“It’s okay. I’ve gotcha.”
Except he didn’t. He hadn’t. Not for twelve years.
She stood on her own now.
Straightening, Riley pushed at the wall of his chest. “Let me go.”
“Just take a minute to catch your breath.”
How the hell was she supposed to catch her breath when he was right there, in all of his big, badass Marine glory? Her heart renewed its frenetic thumping for entirely different, wholly unwelcome reasons. She shoved at him again before she could do something really stupid, like fist her hands in his shirt and drag his mouth to hers to put all this adrenaline to better use.
“Let me go, Liam.”