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Claws and Feathers by Jennifer Hartmann


 

Overview: Orphaned at sixteen. Estranged from her only sibling. Betrayed by the one man she's ever loved.
When Abigail Stone moves to the small town of Crow's Peak, she is expecting to leave her ghosts behind and create a new life for herself. A fresh start.

She is not expecting to be abducted and held captive by a madman.
When small town cop, Cooper McAllister, is forced to work at his father's bar one night, he is intrigued by the mysterious new girl with violet eyes. Haunted eyes. He wonders if she's had a bad day, or if she's had a bad life.
He finds out sooner than he expects when she goes missing that same night.
Finding Abby is just the beginning. The only way to truly save her is to unravel her secrets – a task that proves to be more challenging than he could ever anticipate.
But nothing is more challenging than fighting the growing feelings that begin to form as Cooper is forced to get close to the enigmatic Abigail Stone.
Her life is on the line – and so are their hearts.

 

Claws and Feathers by Jennifer Hartmann Book Chapter One

 

 It was May in The Crow.

Well, it was May everywhere. But May in The Crow was something special. Cooper McAllister had firsthand knowledge of this fact, considering he’d spent his whole life surviving the long, brutal winters of Crow’s Peak – a small, dreary town in northern Wisconsin. May was a reprieve. It was a temporary pardon from the icy chill that lingered in the air for far too many months. It was a sigh of relief.

For Cooper, it was a brief sigh. It came and went quicker than his epic mistake of a marriage to Maya Lowry. It lasted just long enough for Cooper to forget that his entire life was one seemingly eternal winter.

Saturday night was also supposed to be a reprieve. A day off. A goddamn break. Instead, Cooper was slinging bourbon and beer at his father’s bar because Henry had decided to call in sick. He wasn’t sick, though. No – he was out on the lake with Cooper’s ex-wife.

Idiot.

Cooper filled the cold glass with tap beer and set it down in front of a withered-looking man he had never seen before. Cooper recognized most of the patrons that stumbled in and out of his father’s bar. The Crow Bar was the place to be on a Saturday night, after all. It was a prime location for social gatherings, drunken shenanigans, and DUIs that Cooper was well-accustomed to handing out. More importantly, it was his father’s pride and joy, and the only reason Cooper had agreed to play bartender for the evening.

“How did Dad manage to twist your arm?”

Cooper hadn’t noticed his sister slide up beside him. She was reaching under the counter for clean glasses, a pitying smile tugging at her lips. He scowled. “He reminded me that I’d have the pleasure of working with you all night, sis.”

Kate McAllister rolled her chestnut eyes at him. “Charming and an impeccable liar. Remind me how you’re still single?”

“It could have something to do with the fact that I’ve given almost every female in this town some kind of ticket or traffic violation,” Cooper shrugged.

“A few arrests, even,” Kate added in jest.

“The cop thing sounded a lot sexier in my head seven years ago.”

She chuckled as she whipped up two Lemon Drops, tucking a wisp of amber hair behind her ear. Her eyes drifted across the room and landed on two females chatting at a high-top table. “What about Daphne’s friend? She’s new in town. She doesn’t know how incorrigible you are yet.”

“Incorrigible?” Cooper’s brow arched with amusement, then he followed her gaze. Daphne Vaughn was moving her hands in an animated fashion as the blonde across from her listened with a half-hearted smile. Said blonde glanced up at him, and Cooper quickly averted his eyes. “If she’s anything like Daphne, I’ll pass.”

“She doesn’t look quite as…” Kate cocked her head, planting her hands on her slender waist. “Vapid.”

“I’m enjoying the newfound vocabulary, Dickinson.” Cooper grinned at his sister, then returned his attention to the not-vapid blonde. She was dunking a partially eaten French fry into her ketchup cup. There was a distance in her eyes – a disconnect. Cooper recognized that look. He saw it every time he looked in a mirror. Shaking his head, he wiped down the counter with a clean rag and collected the empty glasses that were accumulating.

Cooper watched as she left the counter and carried the drinks over to Daphne’s table. The two women clinked their glasses together with a smile. The smile did not quite reach the blonde’s eyes, and Cooper idly wondered if she’d simply had a bad day or if she’d had a bad life. Maybe she’d seen things. Awful, gruesome things. Things of nightmares. He wondered what kind of secrets were hiding behind her haunted, blue eyes.

“Another.”

The Withered Man startled Cooper by slamming his depleted glass of beer onto the counter. He sat hunched over on his arms, eyeing Cooper for another round. Cooper obliged.

“Looks like rain,” the man bristled, his hardened eyes pinned at the front window.

Cooper followed the man’s gaze as he set a second beer down in front of him. Then Cooper shifted his sights when he noticed Daphne and her mysterious friend rise from their seats. They sauntered over to the opposite end of the bar and perched themselves on two vacant stools. Cooper decided to approach. He was marginally intrigued by Daphne’s new friend, but mostly, his father was paying him to do so.

“Another round, ladies?” Cooper asked, leaning forward on his hands.

The friend locked eyes with him. She swept her ash blonde hair over to one side as she twirled the shot glass between her fingers. She was about to speak when Daphne interrupted.

“Two more Lemon Drops. Service was shit over there,” Daphne said, raising one of her micro-bladed eyebrows. “Short staffed or just Kate being Kate?”

Cooper prickled at the insult toward his sister. A snarky jab was on the tip of his tongue, but he decided to stay neutral. “Henry called in.”

Daphne smiled knowingly. “That rascal.”

Cooper dismissed the innuendo and concocted another round of Lemon Drops. He glanced up at the friend, who had yet to speak. “Passing through?”

Thunder cracked in the distance, making her flinch. She blinked at him, then shifted her gaze. “Um… no, actually. I just moved here a week ago.”

Cooper paused to regard her before sliding the shots across the counter. “I’m Cooper,” he introduced.

Daphne puckered her crimson lips. “Her name is ‘Not Interested’,” she said pointedly, tipping her head back and swallowing the shot.

Cooper sighed. Kate had burned her bridges with Daphne Vaughn the moment Henry had chosen his sister over the feisty redhead. The romance had only lasted one summer, and it was five long years ago, but the damage had been done. Daphne held tightly to that grudge, and Cooper was guilty by association.

The friend fidgeted on her bar stool and cleared her throat. “Thanks, Daph. You know I love your unsolicited interference.” She downed her own shot and met Cooper’s eyes. “I’m Abby. I moved here from Illinois. I grew up near Chicago.”

Abby.

Cooper reached for another rag to busy himself – and to mask his curiosity. Abby was staring at him intently, her blue eyes looking almost violet against her periwinkle romper. “A city girl, huh?” He tossed the empty shot glasses into a bin of dirty dishes. “Crow’s Peak is quite the change of pace.”

“I needed a change,” she told him. She adjusted the strap of her romper after it dipped off her shoulder. “I’m staying with Daphne until I can find a place. Real estate doesn’t seem to be a hot commodity around here.”

“People are born in The Crow and they die in The Crow,” Cooper said with a wry chuckle. “It’s not really the land of opportunity.”

“Small town vibes. I get it,” she smiled.

Daphne leaned into Abby and waggled her eyebrows. “Small towns have stories. They have ghosts.” She nudged her shoulder with a giggle.

“People have stories. People have ghosts,” Abby corrected. “Small towns just give them less ground to travel.”

Cooper studied her as he mixed a cocktail. She was peculiar, in a compelling sort of way. She had a distinctive beauty about her with see-through eyes, rosebud lips, and a smile that curved slightly more on one side. He turned to an adjacent patron and nodded his thanks, trading the Tequila Sunrise for a wad of cash. Kate breezed up behind the counter mumbling something about college kids and getting stiffed.

Daphne’s ears seemed to perk up. “I tip based on good service. Just saying,” she said snidely.

Awesome. Let the cat fight commence. Cooper took a step back, removing himself from the insinuating battle.

Sure enough, Kate whipped around, her honey hair following in a similar fashion. She tossed her empty serving tray onto the counter with a resounding clatter. “Excuse me? I provide exceptional service.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “If you catch my drift.”

Daphne’s eyes flashed. “Then how come you couldn’t keep him longer than a pathetic summer?”

Cooper reached for his sister’s arm before she could do something regrettable. “Let it go, sis.”

“Let it go?” Kate pulled her arm back in one sharp motion, then redirected her eyes to Daphne. “You and Melancholy Barbie need to get out of my bar.”

Abby’s head shot up. She had previously been doing her best to ignore the shit storm moving in and manifesting itself into a hormonal hurricane. “What the hell does that mean?”

“Okay, enough. All of you.” Cooper felt like he was scolding a group of children. He silently cursed his father for begging him to work tonight. The last thing he wanted to do was get in the middle of a five-year-long rivalry spiraling to a peak. He noticed Abby hurl a death glare in his direction.

“I’m sorry, but your sister is being a bitch,” Abby said.

Daphne snorted.

Cooper narrowed his eyes, feeling an obligation to defend his sister. “Careful.”

“Are you going to arrest us, Officer?” Daphne asked, her tone laced with mock saccharine sweetness.

Abby stood from her bar stool, clutching her purse strap in a firm hand. Her eyes lingered on Cooper before she headed toward the bathrooms. “Thanks for the warm welcome.”

Cooper watched her go, her hips swaying brazenly as she stormed away. Great. He’d successfully pissed off the pretty new girl in town. Daphne shot him a dirty look, then raced to catch up to her friend.

“Sorry.” Kate’s shoulders sagged in defeat as she pulled her ticket order out of her apron pocket. “I didn’t mean to sabotage your chances with –”

“Melancholy Barbie?” He cocked an eyebrow at her, and she lowered her head sheepishly. “Real cute.”

“Hey, I said I was sorry,” she argued. “You know me. My foot and mouth go together like beer and cheese fries. Sounds great at the time, but always ends in regret.”

Cooper sighed. His eyes remained fixed on where Abby had disappeared into the restroom. He wondered what a girl like that was doing with the likes of Daphne Vaughn. Part of him wanted to know more about her, but the logical part – the part that always won out – knew there was no point in finding out. Cooper was too busy. He was too wrapped up in crime scenes, warrants, and restraining orders.

In fact, he was so wrapped up in everything but tending to the bar, he’d been completely oblivious to the customer who’d just skipped out on his bill.

Kate nudged him in the rib cage with her elbow as she piled her tray with appetizers. “Creepy dude at three o’clock just skedaddled.”

“Shit.” Cooper lifted his head in time to see a rickety, white van pulling out of a parking space. He squinted his eyes, trying to read the license plate, as if he’d planned on hunting down The Withered Man and collecting his hard-earned ten dollars like some kind of beer vigilante.

“And there’s our new friend looking like she wants to stab me with these antipasto skewers at nine o’clock,” Kate added, lifting her tray into the air.

“Left and right works just as well,” he chuckled. Cooper made eye contact with Abby as the two girls exited the bathroom. Her haunted eyes had turned fiery, and his skin prickled with warmth in response. To his surprise, instead of leaving the bar, they disappeared to the corner of the room to play darts with the Gleason brothers.

Cooper ran a hand through his unruly, brown hair. It was going to be a long night.

A picture containing whisk, kitchenware, drawing  Description automatically generated

 

 

Abby had not intended on trading insults over cocktails with the McAllister siblings that evening. In fact, she hadn’t intended on going out at all. There was a mess of unpacked boxes in Daphne’s small guest room that needed tending to.

“Let’s go to the bar tonight,” Daphne had said. She had popped a ruffled potato chip into her mouth as her 1950s swing dress kissed her knees.

The bar – not a bar. Crow’s Peak had an assortment of dive bars and hole-in-the-wall pubs, but there was only one place worth going to, according to Daphne: The Crow Bar. A clever name to say the least. It was where most of the locals gathered, along with residents of the larger nearby town of Ashland.

Abby had shrugged. She wasn’t opposed to a little socialization. It would certainly give her a legitimate reason to procrastinate from unpacking – other than ‘this sucks’. So, she had agreed.

And now she regretted it.

Another burst of thunder roared outside, followed by the sound of a torrential rainfall pelting the roof. Abby shuddered, glancing up at the ceiling. She hated thunderstorms. They put her on edge. They made her anxious.

Abby wrapped an arm around herself and sipped on her Gin and Tonic, her eyes occasionally wandering over to the bartender across the room. Daphne had warned her about Cooper and Kate McAllister. There had been a tiff between the women ever since Daphne had graduated college five years ago and moved up to the quiet town of Crow’s Peak – aptly called ‘The Crow’. It had involved a boy. Big surprise.

Cooper was a cop, his sister was a waitress, and their father, Earl McAllister, owned The Crow Bar. Their family was well-known throughout the town of less than one-thousand residents.

Crow’s Peak had become her home the moment Nana Cecily passed away and left Abby with a house she didn’t want and memories she desperately needed to escape. Abby could appreciate the town’s appeal, considering she had been born and raised in the bustling north shore suburbs of Chicago. For what her hometown lacked in charm, it made up for in entitlement, deadlines, and an obscene amount of traffic. She really didn’t miss the traffic. She also didn’t miss the ghosts she’d left behind. Or her high school sweetheart who’d broken her heart.

And she’d stopped missing her brother long before now.

“Stop ogling.”

Abby lowered her drink and turned to face Daphne, who’s nose was glued to her cell phone. “What?”

“You and your eyeballs. Stop,” Daphne barked.

“My eyeballs are none of your concern. And I’m not ogling.”

Daphne slipped her phone into her purse and crossed her arms over her partially exposed cleavage. “I love you, Abs, but the McAllisters and me have a very sordid history. I can’t sit back and watch you make eyes at Kate’s asshole brother.”

Sordid. Abby couldn’t help but laugh so hard she snorted gin out her nose. “I wouldn’t exactly call a post-college love triangle sordid.” Her laughter ebbed and she took another sip of her drink. “And I’m not making eyes at anybody. I’m observing the crowd.”

Daphne scoffed at her as one of the Gleason brothers – Tom? – approached with three darts in hand. Daphne accepted them and stood from her chair. “I saw that look he gave you. I’m not blind.”

Abby chugged the rest of her beverage, her alcohol buzz increasing with each gulp. Daphne was imagining things. There was no look. Abby shifted her gaze to the bar once more and watched as Cooper handed out drinks like he’d been doing it his whole life.

He was attractive – she couldn’t lie. Well-muscled, slightly rugged, brown hair and hazel eyes. The epitome of tall, dark, and handsome. Sure, he was good-looking. But Abby wasn’t interested. Cooper McAllister was rude. His sister was rude.

And Abby was not keen on getting involved with any man – no, not yet.

Jordan had ruined her.

As the thought trickled through her mind, Cooper glanced up and caught her stare.

Her ogling.

Dammit. Abby smoothed out the fabric of her romper and decided to approach the bar. “Be right back,” she muttered to Daphne, not waiting for a response. Daphne was too wrapped up in flirting with the Gleasons to notice Abby slip away.

Abby stepped over to where Cooper was imputing drink orders on his register. His eyes found hers for a brief moment before refocusing on the transaction.

“What can I get you?” he asked, his fingers tapping away at the keys.

She placed her hands against the counter and leaned forward, enjoying the satisfying buzz that had settled in. “An apology,” she said boldly.

Cooper hesitated. Abby could have sworn she saw a smile pull at his lips, but he replaced it with a look of indifference.

“No,” he replied.

Abby balked at him. “Why not?”

“You called my sister a bitch.” Cooper handed a receipt to a customer with a nod and continued to busy himself around the bar.

“Well, she was.”

“Well, I’m not sorry.”

A standoff. Abby gnawed at her bottom lip, contemplating her next move. The gin was making her frisky. Cooper’s resistance was making her angry.

The look in his eyes was making her curious.

“Fine,” she relented. “A Gin and Tonic.”

The ghost of a smile reappeared on his mouth. “You got it.”

Abby tapped her unpainted fingernails against the countertop. She watched him make the drink, her gaze shifting from his hands to his face. His chiseled jawline was shadowed in dark stubble. He looked jaded – like he’d seen one too many horrors.

A jaded cop. A jaded city girl.

It could never work.

Cooper set the drink down in front of her. Abby reached for her purse to fetch her wallet, but he stopped her. “It’s on the house.”

An apology drink. She couldn’t help but grin at her small victory. “Thanks,” she said. Abby was about to walk away and rejoin Daphne in their uninspiring game of darts when Cooper interrupted her swift exit.

“Hey.”

His gaze traveled over her, igniting an odd sensation in the pit of her stomach. It’s just the gin. It’s just the gin, her mind proposed. He wasn’t leering. No, there was nothing salacious or offensive in his scrutiny.

There was something else.

“Welcome to The Crow.”

Abby faltered, her fingers tightening around the strap of her baguette purse. Her other hand clutched the cold glass of her tonic, squeezing it like a security blanket. She nodded. She had planned on replying, responding, saying something, but Cooper had already disappeared to the opposite end of the bar.

“Abby!”

Abby jolted in place, turning to the sound of Daphne’s shrill voice. Her friend was waving her arms at her, beckoning her back to the group. She sighed, sipping on the tiny, plastic straw as she made her way to the far corner of the room.

Welcome to The Crow, indeed.

A picture containing whisk, kitchenware, drawing  Description automatically generated

 

 

Cooper ambled through the station the next day, yawning as he nodded a greeting to his office clerk, Faye. It was a little after four P.M. and Cooper had slept most of the afternoon. He didn’t work the bar often, but when he did, he was always off his game the following day. The noise, the drunken patrons, the cigarette smoke he could still smell on his skin despite a long, hot shower – it got to him.

“McAllister.”

Cooper discovered his partner, James Walker, leaning against the front of his desk. “Hey.” Cooper made a quick stop at the Keurig before getting to work. “Anything on the Fisher case?” he wondered, perusing the coffee flavors with his back turned.

“No. There’s something else, though.”

Cooper selected a breakfast blend. “Hit me.”

James joined him over by the coffee station, holding a flyer in his hand. He ran his fingers over the dark five o’clock shadow along his jawline, pursing his lips together. “This just came through. A missing girl."

“Shit. We haven’t had one of those since those seniors got lost near the bay.” Cooper fiddled with the Keurig machine. “Elderly?”

“No, actually. Twenty-eight. Daphne Vaughn just called it in.”

This grabbed Cooper’s attention and his head shot up, a whisper of dread creeping into his skin. “What?”

James slapped the flyer down onto the table and folded his arms across his barreling chest. “She was last seen leaving your father’s bar last night.”

Cooper’s blood ran cold when he looked down at the missing person’s flyer. He picked it up, scanning the familiar face. Violet eyes peered back at him. Haunted eyes.

Abigail Stone.

Abby.

 
 

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