When a big black pickup truck zoomed up and parked in the fire zone in front of Silent Circle Farm’s educational center, Rachel Hill got to her feet. Latecomers to the silent auction and boutique who feared the downpour threatening to break free of the clouds had been parking in the fire zone all evening. “I’ve got it this time,” she said.
Jess heard her despite the auctioneer’s risqué banter and the audience’s laughter, and nodded. Rachel swiftly bagged a customer’s purchases—produce, baked goods, four felted potholders, and a jar of the farm’s honey—then left Jess alone at the cashier’s table. She ducked under the edge of the tent, heading toward the truck.
“Excuse me,” she called when the driver’s door opened. “You can’t park there.”
A big, booted foot landed on the gravel as if she hadn’t spoken. Thunder rumbled, ominous and slow, through the cool, dark night. When it faded, she raised her voice, because perhaps he hadn’t heard her. “Sir. You can’t park there.”
Without a word the man slid from the driver’s seat and strode toward her. Lightning from the late spring electrical storm split the sky, sound and fury signifying nothing, as her father used to say. In the midday bright moment, Rachel took in details as he strode across the parking lot. Broad shoulders and long legs. Black lace-up boots. Navy cargo pants. A navy polo stretched over broad shoulders and muscled arms. White circular embroidery on his left pectoral. Gun on his right hip.
Even to Rachel, who’d had exactly zero encounters with police officers or sheriff’s deputies, the details signaled law enforcement.
White teeth flashed in his tanned face as he tapped a badge on his left hip. “Sure I can,” he said when the louder clap of thunder died away.
He glanced into the large, brightly lit tent taking up so much of the parking lot, and then back at her. His gaze skimmed the Silent Circle Farm logo on her shirt.
“You working this party?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes.”
A large crowd had gathered for the Fleeces, Greens, and Bees Organic Boutique and Bachelor Auction benefitting the Gulf Coast Harvest Co-op. The tent held two dozen tables filled with people, eating barbeque made with pork from the Tumbled Stones Farm down the road. Tables along the side wall held baskets brimming with fresh-picked produce. Only the spectacle of the bachelor auction slowed the transfer of produce and goods from the tables to the reusable grocery sacks that held little thank-you gifts for the guests, who’d paid fifty dollars a head to attend the fundraiser.
It was a party. Rachel wondered if she’d ever find a place where she didn’t feel totally alone in a crowd of people.
“The auctioneer?” Surprised, Rachel pointed her out, still standing in the spotlight set up to show off the bachelors. “Is there trouble?”
“Depends on how you define trouble. I’m her next piece of meat,” he said.
Rachel blinked. That glinting, edgy smile flashed on, off, then he set one hand on the gun holstered at his waist and shouldered into the crowd, the white block letters spelling POLICE clearly visible on the back of his shirt. Women eddied away from him, like the prow of a ship splitting the ocean, then clustered together to whisper in his wake.
At the sight of him in motion, heat smoldered deep in her belly. Drawn back into the light, she followed him into the tent and took up her place behind the cashier’s table. Jess, her roommate in the farm’s bunkhouse, rang up another customer’s purchases and Rachel carefully bagged them, though now her attention was divided. The police officer spoke to Leanne’s assistant, then joined the line of bachelors. He stood straight and tall, legs braced, arms folded across his chest.
“Why would any self-respecting woman buy a date?” Jess said between customers. “That’s the question of the night.”
Rachel could think of lots of reasons. “Are you going to bid?”
“I might,” Jess replied, her gaze fixed on the line.
The auctioneer swiped at her phone, then looked around the crowded tent. “Next up, folks, we have Rob Strong, owner of Silent Circle Farm. He provided the location, and the alcohol.”
That got a whoop and a round of applause from the crowd. Rob made his way into the circle of hay bales marking out the stage. Clean-shaven, with his normally shaggy blond hair somewhat tamed, he wore slacks and a button-down shirt, his belt and shoes a gleaming shade of walnut. He looked fundamentally different, something Rachel attributed to the clothes until she realized George the border collie was missing from his side.
“He’s been active in organic and community farming for the last ten years, but don’t worry. He’s not going to put you to work on your date.” The auctioneer paused. “Unless you want him to.”
Another laugh. Jess leaned forward in her seat. Rachel followed her stare and found Rob—who was watching her, not Jess. He winked. Caught off guard, she blinked and then smiled before he returned his attention to the auctioneer. Then her gaze landed on the police officer waiting his turn just outside the ring of bales.
To find him watching her as well. And unlike the little visual game of tag she, Rob, and Jess had just played, he didn’t look away when their gazes met. Rachel’s heart thudded hard against her breastbone, and heat rose in her face. His thick brown hair was closely cropped around his forehead and ears. His eyes, fringed with dark lashes and glinting a brilliant blue in the tent’s bright lights, held an awareness of her as a woman that was similar to the way Rob looked at her . . . yet somehow completely different. More masculine. Rough, with a hint of carelessness in it.
No man had ever looked at her like that, and the intensity of her reaction made her look away first.
When she dared another glance, he’d transferred that searing gaze to the auctioneer, who was in the process of opening bids on Rob. “Mr. Strong’s offering a night out in Houston that includes dinner and box seats at an Astros game. Who wants to start the bidding?”
“Five hundred,” came a voice from the back of the tent, but that figure disappeared in a flurry of bidding. Jess was in the thick of it, until the amount shot into four figures. Then she sat back in her chair and brushed dirt from her jeans as the winner pushed through the crowd to claim her prize, an exultant, victorious smile on her face. There was a whisper of bitterness in Jess’s gaze as it skimmed over the heels, the flirty sundress, the sleek hair and nails, but she congratulated the winner when Rob escorted her back to the cashier’s table.
“All right, ladies, the final bachelor of the night was supposed to be Brian Rogers, brother of our first bachelor, the Lazy R’s owner, Troy. But Brian is a member of the Galveston Police Department, and he had to work tonight so Officer Ben Harris has graciously agreed to stand in for him.”
The audience offered a round of applause that managed to be both appreciative and flirtatious at the same time. Harris walked into the circle of bales and gave the audience that flashing smile and a short nod. Rachel noted the increase in chatter, the energy spiking in the room. The object of this speculation stood in the center of the spotlight, arms folded across his chest, gaze flicking from face to face as he took in the scene.
Then that smile flicked off and on again. Rachel followed his gaze to the back of the crowd, where a dark-haired woman who’d already purchased one bachelor stood, a bottle of hard lemonade held languidly by her shoulder. A feline smile tugged at the corner of her mouth as she considered Officer Harris. Rachel looked back at the cop and saw the merest shadow of a wink flicker in his eyelid.
Rachel leaned over to Jess. “What do you think?” she asked.
Jess matched Rachel’s low tone. “I recognize him. He works security at No Limits, a bar in Galveston, and when he’s not breaking up fights in the parking lot, he’s using the uniform to get laid. Plus he’s got an honest-to-God cleft in his chin,” she said. “He’s bad news.”