An icy wind ruffled Noelle Logan’s hair as goose bumps rose on the nape of her neck.
Something about this place didn’t feel right.
It was too quiet. Like a ghost town.
Her boots crunched over gravel in the parking lot. Samson’s Nursery was a plant store located on the outskirts of town on an old country lane that dead-ended into the place. The air was scented with a mix of flowers and mulch. Pretty strands of white lights dangled from post to post, chasing away the deeper shadows created by the encroaching nightfall. No one was at the front counter.
Noelle fought against the desire to hop back into her SUV and leave. She’d been driving for the last ten hours from Memphis to spend the holiday with her grandmother. Exhaustion seeped into her muscles. She wanted a hot meal, a shower, and a warm bed. In that order. But she’d promised to stop and pick up a Christmas tree for her grandmother. Sheila Logan was pushing eighty-five, and while the older woman was spry and active, she couldn’t manage hauling an evergreen into the house alone. She had a neighbor to help unload the tree, provided Noelle could pick it up on the way. The flower shop/Christmas tree farm was a simple twenty-minute detour.
It was a small favor. One Noelle was happy to do.
Except… except this place was sending off all kinds of strange vibes. Noelle couldn’t quite pinpoint what was wrong, but something just felt off.
“Hello?” Noelle called out. A small building enclosed on only three sides served as a checkout station. It was decorated with a garland wreath and bright red bows. She rang the bell sitting on the front counter several times, the noise ringing out across the nursery.
No one appeared.
The sense of unease buried low in the pit of her stomach grew. Another frigid wind whipped across the open space, sending leaves and pine needles scattering across the gravel. The cold bit into Noelle and her shoulders rose up instinctively. This wasn’t how she wanted to start her first vacation in years. The rapid pace of her career with the FBI had eaten away at every aspect of her life. She didn’t have any friends outside of the agency, and dating was a distant memory. She was lonely and questioning her life choices. Some rest, hot chocolate, and stress-free holiday fun with her grandmother were exactly what she needed to reset.
This didn’t feel very stress-free though. Noelle was exhausted and getting hungrier by the minute.
“Hello? Anyone back there?” She checked her watch and then the posted times on the counter. The place should be open. The register was sitting on the counter, change still in the tip jar.
There were more Christmas trees farther into the store. Maybe the owner was helping another customer back there. Her SUV was the only vehicle in the lot, besides a beat-up truck with the letters Samson’s Nursery etched across it. But what other explanation could there be? Whoever was in charge hadn’t been abducted by aliens.
Her cell phone rang. Noelle fished the device out of the pocket of her wool overcoat, glanced at the caller ID, and answered. “Hello, Granny.”
“Hi, dear.” Sheila's voice was cheerful. “I called to see how Operation Christmas Tree was going. Make sure you pick one of the short, fluffy ones. The ceiling in my living room isn’t very high.”
“I remember.” Noelle backed away from the front counter and headed down the main aisle, deeper into the nursery. The sound of a mixer whirling came over the line. “What are you making?”
“Mashed potatoes. I prepared your favorite for dinner.”
Her mouth watered automatically. “Meatloaf.”
“Yep, with green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, and my famous biscuits. We’ve also got chocolate pie for dessert.” Happiness filled Sheila’s voice. “It’s not every day my only granddaughter comes to spend Christmas with me. I intended to spoil you rotten.”
Noelle’s heart lightened. No one made her feel more special than Granny. It had been a long time since she’d spent the holidays with her grandmother. Far too long since she’d even visited. Growing up, and well into her teens, she’d spent every summer in Cutler, Texas. Since graduating from college and joining the FBI, Noelle hadn’t been back. Her job was grueling, and vacation days were reserved for brief visits to see her parents in Nashville.
Granny normally traveled to Nashville too, but this year, Noelle’s parents were trekking around Europe for the holidays. Her brother was buried in snow and legal briefs in New York. That left Noelle and her grandmother to spend Christmas together. It would be a quiet but wonderful holiday. She was truly looking forward to it.
But first, a Christmas tree.Noelle switched the cell phone to her other ear and paused in front of an aisle of evergreens. She fingered one of the branches. “I’ll be there soon, Granny. You have a neighbor that will help us unload the tree, right?”
“Oh, yes, dear. I also invited him for dinner. David Carpenter. You remember him, don’t you?”
Noelle smiled, thinking of her first love. “David? I haven’t seen him in ages.”
They’d become friends during Noelle’s visits to town. The summer between their junior and senior year of high school had shifted that friendship into a sweet teenage crush. But life and opportunity had separated them. Different colleges. Divergent careers. They’d drifted apart as a result. Still, Noelle had nothing but fond memories of the teenage boy who she’d shared her first kiss with.
“He’s a police officer now,” Sheila continued. “When I told him you were coming for the holidays, he was excited about the prospect of reconnecting. I hope you don’t mind. In my opinion, it’s always good to have a connection with people who knew you when you were young.”
“I don’t mind. I’d love to see David again and catch up on what he’s been doing.” Thunder rumbled in the distance. Noelle glanced up at the sky. Clouds blocked the stars and moon. “I’d better let you go, Granny. I’ll be there soon. Can’t wait to see you.”
“Okay, dear. Drive safe.”
Noelle promised she would and hung up, craning her neck to see if the store clerk was tucked away in the Christmas trees with another customer. No one was visible, but the faint murmur of voices carried.
Noelle adjusted the scarf around her neck to ward off the chill as a drop of rain peppered her head. Thunder rumbled in the distance. She’d better select a tree quickly before the storm unleashed.
A crack of lightning blazed across the sky. She picked up her pace, going deeper into the aisle lined with Christmas trees. “Hello? Anyone back here? I could use some help—”
Something whispered behind her. Noelle whirled just as a man-sized shadow burst from the collection of trees on her right. The attacker tackled her, sending Noelle careening into the opposite aisle of fragrant firs. The branches and needles jabbed her skin. She struggled to free herself. Adrenaline shot through her veins.
The attacker pounced, dragging her to the ground. Noelle punched out. He grunted as her fist made contact with his shoulder. She didn’t stop. With a fury, she struck again. Her concealed handgun was holstered at the small of her back under her shirt and jacket. Utterly useless, since she couldn’t reach it. Heart pounding, she relied on hand-to-hand combat training, but her position was weak. She was facedown on the ground. The attacker was on her back, squeezing the air from her body.
Stars danced across her vision. With increasing horror, Noelle realized she was about to pass out. Then he tangled his fingers in her hair. With a yank, he pulled her head back.
The cold metal of a knife touched her throat.