The Eleventh Hour (Poppy McGuire Mysteries #1)

The first book in the Poppy McGuire Mystery Series, The Eleventh Hour introduces readers to Poppy McGuire and her partner in solving crime, Alex Montero. It is now available as a paperback as well as an eBook!

Poppy McGuire has always been a curious soul, but it’s her life that’s usually the topic of conversation in the small town of Sunset Ridge. But now one of the town’s most important citizens has been found murdered, and everyone’s life is suspect.

What begins as a friendly wager with her old friend Officer Derek Hampton soon becomes far more for Poppy, and she turns to Alex Montero for help, but the enigmatic former Baltimore cop’s quiet way hides as many secrets as each suspect they encounter.

Everyone in Sunset Ridge has something to hide, but Poppy and Alex are determined to uncover the identity of the murderer. They just have to watch they don’t become the next victims.

READ AN EXCERPT

I inhaled the delicious smell of my favorite coffee. The man certainly knew how to come bearing gifts first thing in the morning. But then it dawned on me. We’d never had coffee together, so how did he know this was my favorite? Lucky guess?

Taking it from him, I asked, “How did you know how to get it?”

Alexander gave me a sly smile that somehow made him even more attractive. “I’m a detective. It’s my job to know things like that.”

Oh, he was entirely too confident.

I offered him a seat at my kitchen table and took a drink of the dark roast coffee made exactly as I liked it—two sugars, three creamers, and ice. In fact, the temperature told me he’d gotten the number of ice cubes right too. Three. But how?

“So Mr. I’m a Detective, how did you know to get it just the right temperature and exactly the way I take it? I’m a pretty particular coffee drinker.”

Another smile, but this one was slow to spread across his face and so charming I almost looked away, worried I might blush at any moment. Almost. I didn’t look away, though, because I wanted the answer to my question.

“I pay attention to what goes on around me. I was sitting in The Grounds one morning when you came in and ordered that very particular cup of coffee. It stayed with me from that day.”

Still quite shocked at his even being there in my kitchen, I leveled my gaze on him and tried to determine if he was telling the truth or just trying to charm me. “So you’re telling me that you remembered the exact way I take my coffee, even though you didn’t know me from a can of paint…when did you hear this anyway?”

“A week or so ago.”

“From a week ago, when I was a perfect stranger to you and simply some person ordering a coffee, you remembered that this morning and got me my coffee just like I like it?”

He chuckled. “Yes, and the girl behind the counter knew how you took your coffee when I told her it was for you. I’d forgotten how many ice cubes, if we’re being honest.”

I took another sip of coffee and couldn’t help but smile. He probably charmed the pants off Jennie. And he probably didn’t have to remember anything about how I took my coffee because he just told her it was for me.

Detective indeed.

“So what are you doing here, Alexander?”

The smile slowly faded, and after taking a drink from his cup, he lowered his head slightly and looked me directly in the eyes. “I came to apologize for what happened last night.”

This guy had the most delicious brown eyes I’d ever seen. Brown like expensive milk chocolate, and at that moment, I felt myself getting lost in those eyes.

Snap out of it, Poppy! This isn’t some high school date. If he’s willing to make peace, maybe you can get his help on the case, so get your head out of the clouds and say something!

I turned away to break our shared gaze and then looked back at him. “I guess I should apologize too. I should have handled that differently. I’m sorry.”

“I am too. I shouldn’t have pulled my gun on you, and for that, I’m truly sorry. I have no excuse.”

Something in those eyes of his told me he did have an excuse but he wasn’t going to tell me. All the better because I sensed hurt lay behind how he acted.

Extending my hand, I offered my own olive branch. “No harm, no foul. Maybe if we pretend like we’re meeting for the first time we can put those other times behind us. Hi, I’m Poppy. Nice to meet you.”

That slow smile returned, and he took my hand in his to shake it. “Hi, Poppy. I’m Alexander, but my friends call me Alex.”

“Hi, Alex.”

And with those two words, everything between us changed. I didn’t know why or how, but suddenly I had a feeling that he would become one of the most important people in my life. At the same time, I felt like I’d known him my entire life, even though I’d just met him days before and this was the first time we’d ever spoken more than a handful of civil words to each other.

Strangely, our conversation came to an abrupt halt after reintroducing ourselves to one another. He seemed content to sit there next to me and drink his coffee in silence, so I took the opportunity to study him as he seemed to have studied me already.

He was definitely a good looking man. I didn’t need to spend much time studying him to see that. Dark, thick hair and those delicious brown eyes that told anyone who looked into them that there was a story in his past gave him an exotic feel. With the last name Montero, he was likely Italian or maybe Greek. Sunset Ridge didn’t have many citizens with those ethnic backgrounds, which made him stand out even more.

I let my gaze drift over him as he sat there silently and couldn’t help notice his hands. Strong looking, they were bigger than even my father’s working class hands and had long fingers. I’d noted that he wasn’t married the first time we’d met because of the lack of a wedding band, but now that I sat right next to him, I could see the lighter skin where it had sat on his ring finger until recently.

So where was Mrs. Montero? Was she the woman I’d read about in the obituary from nearly five years ago? Possibly, but if that was the case, why was the mark where the wedding band had been still so clear? Five years was a long time to wear a wedding band for a wife who’d died.

I wanted to ask about his wife, if only to say I was sorry because it seemed like I should and if that wedding band mark was any indication, he still hurt. But I didn’t. Alex and I were practically strangers, and strangers didn’t pry like that.

At least this stranger didn’t.

If he was sitting with one of those committee ladies and they had any inkling of a wife in his past, the poor man would now be dodging questions left and right about her. Those Founders’ Day ladies were nothing if not nosy.

 The thought of Alex stuck in a room with those four made me smile, and I looked up from staring at his hands to see he had seen where I was looking. Quickly, I turned away to avoid his gaze, feeling oddly embarrassed.

“You have a nice house here. Very cozy.”

I turned back to see him scanning my kitchen, as if he were studying it like I’d been studying him. “Thank you. I like it.”

“It’s a big house for just one person.”

I wanted to ask how he was so sure I lived alone, but he didn’t even have to be a half-way decent detective to know that. A few minutes with my father the other night at the bar and he likely had my entire life story.

“I guess,” I mumbled, sort of hating how awkward things had gotten between us already.

He didn’t continue the conversation, but that seemed to be the type of person he was. Talk about opposites. I was what my father had always called a Chatty Cathy, but Alex parsed out words like they cost him money every time one came out of his mouth.

Sitting quietly for a few more minutes, the question that had been on my mind earlier before I got lost in those eyes of his and the idea that his past was some kind of tragedy came back to me.

Why was he here?

Breaking the uncomfortable silence, I asked, “Alex, why did you come here today? I mean, you could have just apologized and then left or simply called me to say you were sorry. Instead you come here and say you’re sorry and then say little else. What are you doing here?”

I cringed at how blunt that sounded. I never meant to phrase things so succinctly. They just came out that way. Before I could apologize, though, he nodded and began to speak again.

“I like how forthright you are, Poppy. That kind of frankness is refreshing, so I’ll return the favor. I’ve heard a number of things about you, and all of them point to someone who’s smart. You’re different than everyone else I’ve met in this town. I also know this is the first time you’re working with Derek on one of his cases. To be honest, I know why he likes to have you around, but I have to believe you want to work with him on this Geneva Woodward case because you’re a detective in your heart and not because you have some secret love for the brother of our police chief.”

A mixture of stunned disbelief at how much Alex knew about me and amusement at the thought of my having any romantic feelings for Derek washed over me. My brain felt like it short-circuited, and not knowing what to say, I let out a laugh as the thought of Derek and me settled into my mind.

“Did I say something funny?” Alex asked, his gaze intently focused on me now.

“No. I guess I just got sidetracked by the idea of Derek and me together since, to be honest, I felt a little exposed by the rest of what you said.”

“So no secret romance between you and him?” he asked with a smile that told me he was trying to make things less uncomfortable.

I shook my head and screwed my face into an expression that was meant to show my distaste for anything like that with Derek Hampton. “No. He’s nice, but he’s not my type.”

“I had a feeling. As for the other things I said, I didn’t mean to make you feel like I’ve been prying into your personal life. Your father loves you a great deal and he likes to brag about you. I will admit I checked into what he said and found he wasn’t exaggerating. Your job at The Bottom Line might be beneath you, but you’re good at it. See? You are a detective in your heart.”

The reality of how little progress I’d made in finding out who’d murdered Geneva or even proving that it wasn’t a robbery gone wrong like Derek thought made my shoulders sag, and I lowered my head to admit the truth. “I’m not a very good detective, it seems. I haven’t gotten very far with this case.”

“You came out to my house to ask me a few questions last night before I ran you off like some criminal, so I have a proposition to make you. I’d like to help you with the Geneva Woodward case, if you’ll take my assistance.”

Once again, Alex Montero had surprised me. “Why would you want to help me instead of helping Derek? He’s the actual policeman. I’m just an amateur investigator with wild ideas. Or at least that’s what Derek thinks.”

Leaning back against the chair, Alex smiled. “From what I heard that day in the office, he’s got what happened to that woman all figured out. He wouldn’t be interested in my help.”

“You’re a real detective, and you want to work with me? Why?” I asked, still in disbelief he’d want to partner up with me.

“Because you have good instincts, and I agree with you. This wasn’t a robbery gone south. Someone murdered that woman, and I’m guessing it was a crime of passion. Or maybe it was premeditated, but whatever happened, it wasn’t some stranger caught at the wrong place at the wrong time like Derek wants to believe.”

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