Just Keep Sweet (Compound Series #3)
by Melissa Brown
Release Date: June 21, 2016
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So many obstacles. Nothing but obstacles.
Months ago, I agreed to help Aspen Black take down the Prophet of the FLDS—to prevent her daughter from being married at an early age, and to save innocent lives from systemic abuse on the compound.
The obstacles in this case are mounting, as are my feelings for Aspen. The tension between us is palpable and I know there’s more to our connection than the increasingly difficult case at hand. But, she’s not only married to the Prophet’s brother, she’s equally devoted to her faith. Two obstacles that just may be insurmountable.
But, no matter what happens, I will close this case.
Even if it kills me.
After receiving a text the following morning from Aspen, I hauled myself to the station at the ass crack of dawn, the adrenaline of anticipation overpowering the pull of grogginess and the desire to stay in bed a couple more hours.
"Seriously?" asked Megan, the receptionist, looking at me over her reading glasses. She let out a yawn behind her hand as she waited for my response.
I froze. "What?"
"You've never been here this early ... like ever." She laughed, holding up the hot pink clock from behind her desk.
"And how would you know that?" I flirted, waving the clock away until she placed it back behind her desk. "You've only worked here for five minutes."
Megan had moved to Arizona a month before and was still adjusting to the area. She was originally from Chicago and had a serious accent—like those guys in the "Da Bears" skit on SNL.
God, I'm old.
"You know it." I winked, and she blushed. She'd had a crush on me since the first day we met when I winked at her casually and her cheeks turned a deep red. Since then I was guilty of manipulating that crush for my own gain.
I'm an asshole sometimes.
Leaning in, I lowered my voice and pretended to look down her shirt for a brief second. Her cheeks grew darker. "Listen, um ..." I looked around the office. "The case I'm working on is highly sensitive and the girl coming in is from the local FLDS compound—"
Her mouth dropped open. "Oh my God, seriously? I haven't seen one yet."
I cringed at her phrasing, which was new for me. Just months ago, I wouldn't have flinched—hell, I said things like it—referring to the members of the FLDS as if they were animals at the zoo, a spectacle to be observed. Aspen changed all that. They were people. People who needed my help.
"Yeah, well, don't stare, okay? Just direct her to my office as quickly as you can. The sergeant isn't exactly a fan, if you know what I mean."
"Got it." She nodded, aiming to please me.
"Thanks." I offered one more empty wink and strolled to my office, leaving the door open in anticipation of Aspen's arrival. Before I had the chance to log my password into my laptop, I heard the alluring tone of her voice.
Within seconds, I'd hopped to my feet and crossed the room, wrapping my arms around her and pulling her tight. She tensed at my touch which, although it hurt my ego slightly, reminded me that our relationship was supposed to be a professional one. I released her from my grasp, stepping back and holding my hands in the air.
"Sorry, I just—it's just so good to see you."
The corners of her lips turned up, and her normally pale cheeks turned a deep shade of pink. "No, no, it's all right. It's wonderful to see you, too, you have no idea ... I'm just ... Well, I've never been one for hugs. My mother used to tease me about it all the time."
"So in other words, it's not me, it's you?" I asked with a nervous laugh.
"Something like that." She smiled, showing her teeth. Something she didn't do often. They were bright white and straight, especially for someone who couldn't possibly have had braces growing up.
Am I really falling over myself because of an impressive set of teeth? What the hell is wrong with you, Cooke? Get your shit together.
For the briefest of moments, I studied her ... this young woman standing in my office, trying to figure out what it was that made me feel this way in her presence. I certainly didn't the first time we met. I couldn't quite put my finger on when she started to creep into my subconscious. Her hair was a generic shade of brown, pulled back into a long braid that hung to her waist. She was wearing the traditional FLDS thick cotton dress that covered every inch of her body. And her feet were covered with worn sneakers. From a distance, there was nothing remarkable about Aspen at all, really.
But there was more to her, and I knew it. Her eyes were a deep aquamarine, so brilliant in color that I would have thought they were colored contacts if I didn't know better. Her strong eyebrows only served to pronounce those eyes further. Her skin was clear and pale, like that of a porcelain doll and her lips were, despite never being covered with makeup, a dusty shade of pink. They were full and plump, waiting to be kissed. More than her beautiful face was everything that made her Aspen. Aspen was stubborn, clever, and determined ... everything Elizabeth called me on a daily basis. Cut from the same cloth. Perhaps that, ultimately, was the reason I was so drawn to her. Or maybe I simply wanted to protect her.
Nope, couldn't be it. I protected women every day on the job; it was more than that. It had to be. It was her.
Shaking off my mounting attraction, I got down to business. I wasn't doing either of us any favors by acting like a stupid-ass teenager in her presence.
"Did you bring the note? Is there anything we can use?"
Aspen reached into her bag, nodding. "Yes, but I'm not sure. I'll leave that to the expert."
I studied the note, rage building in my gut with each sentence. So much condescension and entitlement in one little piece of paper. When I reached the part about myself, I could feel my neck grow hot. There was no way he could know of my attachment to Aspen, but I felt as if he could read my mind. It creeped the shit out of me.
Aspen could read my face. "There's nothing, is there?"
I shook my head, feeling defeated despite the anger flaring in my gut. "I've spent some time on our database, and it looks as though a few of the prophet's customers in the ledger have quite the record."
"Record?" she asked, following me to my desk. I pulled a chair around for her and gestured for her to take a seat as I finished logging into my laptop.
"Criminal record ... some were busted for drugs, one was arrested for indecent exposure."
Aspen knitted her brow. "What is that?"
"It's when you show your naked body to someone unsolicited and in public."
Aspen recoiled as if she'd tasted a sour lemon. "Who would do that?"
"Who would pay to spend time in the prophet's room of horrors? We're dealing with some fucked-up characters, Aspen."
"Sorry about the language."
She shook her head and grinned. "I don't even notice it anymore."
I gritted my teeth. "That might not be such a good thing, Little House."
"Hm." She bit her bottom lip and looked down at the floor.
"When you first called me that, I despised you for it. You were making fun of me and I knew it. It was infuriating. But now ..."
I swallowed hard, looking into her eyes, overwhelmed by their subtle intensity. "Yeah?"
"You have no idea how nice it was to hear it again, to be here with you. I feel safe again, even though I know I'm not." She shook her head. "Not in the slightest."
"You will be," I said with determination. "I'll make sure of it."
Aspen tilted her head to the side, studying my eyes as she narrowed her own. "I believe you."
A knock at the door startled us both. Aspen jumped in her seat, and I clutched the arm of my chair as I looked up, hoping I wouldn't see Sergeant Ross beneath the doorframe. Instead, I saw another member of the FLDS, a woman I'd never seen before.
"Holly?" Aspen said, confusion in her voice.
The young woman, not much older than Aspen, had deep blond hair and dark eyes. Her presence was meek, unassuming, like most of the women I'd encountered from the compound. Her mouth was dropped open as she stared at us.
"Aspen?" she asked, looking as confused as Aspen sounded. "What are you doing here?
Melissa Brown was born and raised in the suburbs of Chicago. She attended the University of Illinois and is the mother of two fantastic kids. She's an avid reader who enjoys making handmade gifts for her family and friends, as well as baking and painting. Melissa has an unhealthy obsession with pop culture. She speaks fluent movie quotes from the 1980s (John Hughes = genius), reads celebrity gossip magazines and never misses an episode of Scandal. She enjoys writing contemporary romance, romantic suspense and young adult novels.
All of Melissa's books are currently available exclusively through Amazon.com and are part of the Kindle Unlimited Program.