Josie Ellis wasn’t completely convinced this was her life. It was so far from the foster homes she remembered. The little girl who’d drawn images in the dust on the floors and dirt in the yard would never believe she could be this happy. This complete.
Nico Rivera held her hand as they walked along the shore of beautiful Midnight Lake, Vermont.
That girl had never dreamed of life outside of California and now she’d found a home in a state that came with all four seasons and so much peace it filled her up.
They walked in companionable silence until they reached the next dock. Like the others they’d already checked out, the dock indicated the presence of a cabin.
This time, a larger clearing opened up around the south end of the cabin. Tansy would never have chosen this one for where she conducted her experiments because it was so open, but it was exactly what Josie had been hoping for.
Beside her Nico laughed and squeezed her hand. “You haven’t even seen inside of it yet and you’ve decided?”
That made her laugh. Another thing that little girl would never have believed. She’d found a man who loved her exactly as she was. A man who understood her so well, she didn’t have to say what she was thinking half the time. A man she loved more than she’d ever thought possible.
The emotion of it all clogged her throat and brought tears to her eyes.
With a warm chuckle, Nico stopped and pulled her in for one of his full-body hugs that made everything better. He kissed her hair and swayed with her. “This is the one you’ve been looking for?”
That made her chuckle back. “Yes, you are.”
He leaned back to study her, a smile on his face and in his eyes. “You’re the one I’ve been looking for my whole life too.”
A tear slipped over and Nico brushed it away with his thumb. “You okay?”
She nodded and swallowed hard. “More than okay. Wonderful. I was just thinking about how I never even knew this level of happiness was possible. How I was so focused on surviving, I didn’t dream big enough. Now I have you.”
Nico’s eyes brightened with her words and then his mouth crashed down on hers with the intensity she loved.
The kiss was edging into nuclear territory when a dog’s bark had them breaking apart reluctantly. Nico grinned down at her. “One of the few very drawbacks of living with our entire group.”
That had her laughing. There were ten of them living full time in the lodge now. Joe was part time and Tansy probably had more plans they knew nothing about. Josie was pretty sure her friend was collecting lost and broken souls and showing them life could be so much more.
Willow and Spike broke into the clearing, barking with joy at finding two of their humans in the woods. Nico took Josie’s hand again and they moved toward the cabin with the dogs bouncing around them.
Nico pointed at the cabin’s window. “If I remember correctly, you bought the house in Sacramento because of its windows. Big, south-facing windows.” He looked up at the sun and then shrugged. “I’m going to guess this is a south-facing window and that’s why you want this one.”
She bounced as she walked, reminding herself of the excited dogs. “You remembered. And you’re right. With the clearing so open here, the light in that room is going to be amazing.”
The cabin would need some work. Like the others on the property, it had been built over a century before. There wasn’t any electricity or plumbing yet, but they’d get solar panels installed and that would help.
Aisling and Graham entered the clearing from another side. The dogs barked their joy and raced back to them, then back to Josie and Nico. Josie reached down to pet the lab. “I see them, Willow. Did you bring them with you because you knew I’d like this cabin?”
Willow panted her agreement.
Nico leaned back on the edge of the windowsill and watched as Aisling and Graham helped Josie go through the entire cabin. Aisling was an amazing carpenter who had restored a lot of older buildings before moving here to work on the lodge for Tansy. The woman had fallen in love with the sawmill, the lodge, and one of Nico’s friends. Graham was an electrician as well as a mechanic and an integral part of their Midnight Security business.
Between Josie’s vision and the technical skills of the other two, he figured Josie’s work space would be finished by the end of summer. As with everything else that happened here at Midnight Lake, the entire team would dive in to help as their own jobs and projects allowed.
It was a place where work was fun and where these hard-working people gave their best to all endeavours. A hell of a good place to live.
His phone buzzed with a call and he looked down to see his mom’s number. Smiling he waved to the others and moved outside to take the call. “Hey Mom. What’s up?”
His mom’s laugh preceded her words. “I was making breakfast burritos and that made me think of you and the boys so I thought I’d check in.”
The boys. Sam and Joe. Because once you were a foster kid in the Riveras, you were theirs for life. “Now I’m hungry again. All is good up here. Josie’s picking out a cabin for her workshop. I taught my first solo class on profiling yesterday.”
They chatted easily for a few minutes as he wandered down to the dock. His mom had always had impeccable timing and he wanted to chat with her. His left hand went into his pocket and he rubbed his grandmother’s ring. “I’ve got a plan and I want to make sure it’s okay with you before I implement it.”
“Sounds intriguing. What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking I need to get a new touchstone.”
Lisa let out a small gasp. “You didn’t lose your grandmother’s ring, did you? It’s always been an important piece for you.”
When he didn’t reply, his mom drew in a sharp breath. “You big tease. You’re going to need a new one because you’re going to give this one to Josie. Oh, Nico. That’s perfect. She’ll treasure it just like she treasures you. I couldn’t be happier.”
Shaking his head, Nico chuckled. He knew where he got his ability to understand people. “I didn’t say a word, but you’re exactly right. I’m glad you’re okay with me using it.”
“It’ll make her cry, and it’ll be perfect. She’ll be even more connected to family. To us. To you. When?”
“It almost happened about an hour ago, but we were interrupted. Soon, though.”
After he hung up, he watched the lake for a few minutes. Everything in him had settled since they’d moved here just over a week ago. He loved the work and the people and the place. And he loved Josie more than them all combined.
His phone buzzed again, this time with a reminder that he had a flight to catch in a few hours.
Soon wasn’t going to be today after all.
Josie’s back ached. Actually, her entire body ached. But it was a good ache. For the past few days, she’d spent almost every minute she had out at the cabin she’d chosen.
Nico had spent as many as he could spare before he’d had to head out. Their friends had helped with everything. She was surrounded by people who loved to chip in with projects.
The cabin was mostly one big room with a kitchen along one wall. There was a tiny room off the back of the main space that was possibly an old storage room. It probably wasn’t wide enough for a decent-sized mattress, but shoving one in there would be handy for days she lost track of time.
The solar panels were up and Tansy had hooked her into the property’s grid. Graham had installed all new wiring. Insulation and new drywall had been added too. And Josie had just finished the second coat of soft-white paint on the walls.
She’d learned a ton about home maintenance and repair over the past few days. She was glad for the new knowledge but she was mostly looking forward to when she could dive into her art out here.
Jetson rose from where he’d been snoozing in a sunbeam and barked happily as her phone buzzed with a text from Nico. Incoming.
Joy lit her up. He was back. He’d had to fly back to Sacramento to testify in a trial from a case he’d worked on a few months back. He’d only been gone a couple of days, but Josie missed him intensely. She’d become very used to being held in his arms throughout the night. And to being woken up with a sexy man kissing his way down her body. She no longer liked sleeping alone.
Josie walked outside to wait for him. Because the team deliberately avoided making trails through the woods, she couldn’t run to meet him. She chugged some water from her insulated mug and watched the trees then she looked at the dog. “Do you know where he is?” But Jetson was looking out to the water.
A sharp whistle brought her attention that way and she immediately grabbed her phone from her pocket. The danger they’d been living with was over but the residual fear remained. To be alone at the cabin, she’d had to promise everyone she’d keep her phone in hand and lock herself in the small back room at the first sign of trouble. She’d also brought the German Shepherd along.
Jetson barked again and this time she followed his lead and looked to the water. With a smile, she shoved her phone back in her pocket. Nico was paddling a canoe up to the dock and there were some boxes stacked in the vessel with him.
Down at the dock, she helped Nico tie up the canoe and take out the boxes. Her curiosity of what was in them didn’t stand a chance against her need to hold her man. Hers. In every way that counted.
When Nico hopped up to the dock, he swooped her into a hug and just held on. She breathed in his scent, leaned into his body, and trusted in her future just a little bit more.
“Missed you.” Nico’s growly voice had her smiling.
“Missed you, too.”
Then he loosened his hold enough to lean back and smile at her. When he kissed her, it was soft and sweet. Almost reverent. He tasted like home.
For long minutes, they stood on the dock, kissing and reconnecting. Then Nico hoisted her into his arms. She wrapped her legs around his waist and pressed into his erection while he palmed her butt. “Anyone out here with you?”
“Jetson, but no humans.”
He laughed and headed off the dock toward the cabin. “I don’t think Jetson will mind.”
They barely made it inside before she shoved his t-shirt up and over his head. No spiffy suit jacket to slip off his shoulders this time. He leaned her back against the door and ground into her, making her head drop back.
“Did I mention I love your dresses?” His hands slipped beneath her skirt and under her panties. His lips trailed kisses along her neck and the edge of her dress.
It didn’t take long for her body to start spiralling into an orgasm and Nico kept his fingers moving, sending her into a kaleidoscope of colors and joy.
When she fluttered back to awareness, his wolfish grin was the first thing she saw.
“Damn, you’re gorgeous. Ready for more?”
She could only nod and then gasp as he slid into her and filled her, body and soul. Their movements were frantic and more than a little bit wild.
Perfect. Absolutely perfect.
When she went flying again, she heard him grind out her name and follow her over the edge.
Nico lay flat on his back, dragging air into his lungs, hand linked with Josie beside him. Sex with her was always powerful, always amazing. She was an artist in many ways.
Even a few days without her at his side was too many. He knew he’d always feel the same.
Groaning, he rolled to his side and rested his head on his hand, looking down at her. Eyes closed with a sated smile on her face. The pretty, flowy dress decorated the floor beside the door but her naked body was the prettiest thing of all.
He ran his fingers over her lips, making her smile broaden.
“I think we need to get a bed into this cabin as soon as humanly possible.”
Josie’s eyelashes lifted to show her sparkling eyes. “I’m going to have bruises but it was worth it.”
He was going to have a few bruises of his own, but he didn’t want anything to mar her gorgeous skin. “We’ll measure the back room and get the biggest mattress we can to fit in there.”
She laughed. “Deal. Not sure how we’ll get it out here, but we’ll figure it out.”
True. They were surrounded by smart people.
Josie lifted her hand to brush his hair off his face. “I’m glad you’re back. Did everything go okay?”
He nodded. “Got the bastard locked up for the rest of his life. Exactly where he should be.” This wasn’t the bastard who’d terrorized Josie, but when his trial came, Nico was confident the result would be the same. One less monster running free.
But he didn’t want to think about monsters or trials. He wanted to focus on this gorgeous woman at his side. He leaned over and kissed her softly.
Nico hopped to his feet and then pulled her up for another hug. “I think I can think about something other than you and sex now.”
Her laugh had him grinning. “Me too. For a little while anyway.”
Once they were cleaned up and dressed, he looked around the cabin. “You’ve got so much done in the past few days.”
She nodded. “Electricity and water. I just finished the last coat of paint.”
“And now you get to fill it with your art.”
She bounced on her toes then twirled with her arms out wide. “I can’t wait.”
When Josie spun near him, Nico snagged her hand and spun with her for a moment. Then he danced them outside, making her laugh. He led her down to the dock where he’d stacked the boxes he’d brought with him.
“What’s in the boxes?”
He passed her one that was small and light. “Let’s get them up to the cabin and you can open them.”
The boxes varied in size and a couple were stamped with the logo from Shane and Ang’s gallery. “Did you go shopping at N20?”
Nico shrugged. “I wouldn’t call it shopping.”
Josie’s curiosity was piqued but she waited until they had the boxes on the floor of the cabin.
Nico gestured with a flourish. “Largest to smallest.”
She grinned. “I get to open them all?”
He lifted her hand to his mouth and kissed. “You do. Have at it.”
Laughing, Josie opened the biggest box. This one held the gallery logo. Inside she found four large frames. Sleek and polished nickel. A sticky-note on one held Shane’s handwriting. For your new space. I expect pictures once you’re set up.
The next box held four smaller frames. Ang’s hand-writing this time. We’re also expecting new material ASAP.
She held up the third box with a grin. “Smaller frames?”
Nico grinned and shrugged.
Of course it was exactly what she’d expected and her eyes filled with tears. She’d worried that moving away would weaken her connection to her favorite gallery owners. And that they wouldn’t want her work any more.
This was proof she was wrong.
Nico kissed her on the hair then he moved the frames to various spots around the room. The frames echoed the theme of the N20 gallery. Exclusive. Elite. Beautiful. Which meant her friends trusted Josie to do the same with her own space.
With her hands clasped under her chin, she watched Nico move the frames and imagined them filled with sketches and water colors and oils.
They would contrast beautifully with the shelves Tansy had suggested she take from the lodge’s basement and the sawmill. Aisling was fixing them up but keeping the rustic appearance of them all.
“It’s going to be perfect. A perfect space to create.”
Nico nodded at her whisper and surveyed the room as well. “It will be. Check that last box.”
She’d forgotten about it. This was more a shoebox size and too light to hold anything of any weight at all. She opened it to find about a pile of envelopes, all addressed to her. “What are these?”
Nico sat on the floor and patted the space beside him. She sat and he tucked his arm over her shoulder. “Shane and Ang have received a ton of mail about your exhibit. Some has been electronic of course. I think Shane sent you those.”
She nodded and he continued. “These were either mailed or dropped off after your exhibit showcasing those women. They’re from people who loved your work and wanted to share that with you.”
Tears filled her eyes and she tried to blink them back. She was turning into a regular cry baby.
“You and your work have touched a lot of people, Josie. Seems like you’re going to have to get used to fan mail.”
An unbelievable concept. And something that little girl would never have thought possible.
Nico wished he could capture all of the emotions running through Josie in some kind of art. But his stick figure ability didn’t cut it. Neither did his is that a hippo or a tractor? sculptures. Even a photo wouldn’t do the moment justice.
Instead of trying to capture the moment, Nico simply enjoyed it. Josie would likely be able to do it justice without any reminders from him.
She opened each letter and read them at least twice before passing them along to Nico. Tears streamed down her face but her smile was soft and happy.
The words had Nico’s heart filling with pride for this amazing woman.
You touched my heart…
My girl will live on…
Such a celebration of life…
Looking forward to more…
I feel seen for the first time…
Powerful words for a powerful artist.
The final envelope was a business envelope from N20. Josie wiped her face with a smile. “At least this one won’t make me cry.”
He suspected otherwise. Ang had confided they’d sold out of every single piece of Josie’s artwork. And fans were clamouring for more.
She laughed at the sticky note covering the cheque. More pieces. NOW!
Then she pulled off the note and looked at the cheque. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, making Nico wish he’d been ready with the camera.
She stared at the cheque, looked at Nico, and back to the cheque. “This is so much more than I’ve ever made at one time. It’s bigger than six months of mortgage payments back in Sacramento.”
Nico knew that she’d scraped and saved to be able to afford her tiny house back in California. Now she had the money she’d made selling it along with this cheque. He wasn’t surprised when more tears flowed.
Nico lifted her into his lap and hugged her tightly. “I’m so damn proud of you. You deserve every last penny of that cheque and you’re going to have many more just like it. With your talent and your heart, there’s no doubt in my mind that only brighter things are going to come for you.”
She squeezed him tightly then leaned back to smile up at him. “All because you asked me to help you with a case. I love you so much, Nico. I’d give it all away if it meant I could be with you.”
And that seemed like perfect timing.
Nico shifted her on his lap and then pulled his grandmother’s ring out of his pocket. “This seems like the perfect time to ask. I’ve known for a while, but I didn’t want to push you too fast. I hope this isn’t too fast. I love you, Josie and I want to spend my whole life with you, watching you grow and sparkle and shine. Will you marry me?”
Her smile broadened throughout his speech and she cupped his jaw with her hand. “I’ll marry you in a heartbeat Nico. I’ve known for a long while now that I want to spend my life with you, watching you grow and stretch to be even more than the brilliant man behind the spiffy suits. Although I do love a good spiffy suit.”
He laughed and kissed her then took her hand to slide on the ring.
Josie gasped. “Your grandmother’s ring? I can’t take that. It’s your touchstone, Nico. You need that.”
Now his own eyes sparkled. “You’re my touchstone, Josie. Without you, I’m lost. Even when we were thousands of miles apart, you were with me. Your smile, your laugh, your heart. I don’t need anything other than you to keep me grounded.”
Once again, tears flowed freely as she launched herself at him, tumbling down to the hard floor again.
They were going to have a few more bruises.
But she was right. It was totally worth it.
Thank you so much for reading! I hope you enjoyed this bonus scene to the Small Town Heroes (Midnight Security) Romantic Suspense series!
The next book in the series, Built Of Steel, spotlights Joe and Lia.