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Soft clawing on the back patio door made Lincoln Ivy put the steaming pan of cheesy chicken casserole down. Turning from the stove, he saw Madeline's paw lift for another series of attention-getting noises. Tap, tap, tap. Toy hamburger in mouth, tail wagging, nose smudging the glass and breath fogging the early-autumn air, her sweet brown eyes zeroed in on him with unabashed excitement. Chuckling, Lincoln walked to the door. She was a beautiful Labrador retriever. Show quality.
"Hey, there, girl," he said in greeting after he opened the door. The dog began squeaking her toy and bounding all around him. She squeaked a tune using her jaws, her eyes playful and looking up at him.
He got in a pat on her head before she trotted over to the pantry and sat, her white tail thumping the floor, whites of her eyes flashing in an upturned plea and cheeks wrinkled around the burger.
"Yeah, you're adorable." He went to her and got a biscuit from the pantry.
Madeline dropped the stuffed burger and chomped for the treat.
"Be nice," he admonished. "Don't be such a pig."
The tip of her tail wiggled faster.
"Nice." He slowly brought the treat closer.
Madeline's eyes blinked as though communicating her deep gratitude as she gently took the biscuit. Then she hungrily crunched away. It was devoured in seconds.
The gate next door was broken, and Madeline could open the latch on his. Over the past couple months, her visits had been sporadic. But this past week they had become an everyday occurrence. She wasn't his dog. She belonged to the mean lady next door.
Well, he used to think she was mean. A few things had changed recently.
He crouched in front of the still-sitting dog. "You know, for having such a troublemaker for an owner, you sure are a good girl."
Madeline gave him one of her white paws and stretched her head to lick him. He moved just in time to avoid a wet kiss on his mouth.
"Thanks, but you're taken. I don't cheat."
He scratched her ears as his doorbell rang. Right on schedule. Remy Lang was here to get her dog. Sighing, he stood and went to the door, Madeline trotting beside him.
He opened the door. A siren of a redhead stood there with a humble face framed by long, wavy hair. Beautiful face. He wasn't sure if it was just him or if everyone couldn't stop staring at her whenever she came into view. She was in light blue jeans and a Stanford University sweatshirt. No makeup, but her striking green eyes didn't need any. "Uh is Maddie here?"
She shifted from one foot to the other, stuffing her hands in her pockets. Awkward. She'd been a bitch when he'd first met her. He'd gone over to her house after he heard her fighting with a man. The man had hit her. Lincoln had beaten him for it, and she'd been angry at Lincoln. Ever since then, she'd been uncomfortable in her own skin around him. She never could get away fast enough. But he always sensed her desire to blurt out an excuse for her behavior. And every time something stopped her. Fear.
What was she so afraid of? He found himself wondering more and more.
"Uh," she stammered again, this time leaning to see around him.
Madeline had gone into the kitchen and sat by the pantry again.
He swung the door open wider. "Sorry. Why don't you come in for a while?" Maybe this time he'd get some information out of her.
"Maddie," Remy called, stepping inside.
The dog stayed there, tail thumping, panting happily.
"Her name tag says Madeline." This was the first time he'd heard her call the dog by name. Until now, she'd only referred to Maddie as "my dog," and all she ever said were things like "sorry to have bothered you" to him, or "come on" to her dog. Whenever he tried to talk to her, she always said she "had to get going. Bye." Awkward and embarrassed. Why had she been angry with him for beating up the guy who'd hit her? She was afraid of that man, of course, but Lincoln wanted to know the reason.
"I call her Maddie most of the time." She bent and patted her thigh, a long, lean thigh. "Come on, Maddie."
"Do you want me to fix your gate?" he asked.
"No. Maddie!" she snapped, in a hurry to get away.
The dog's ears slumped, and her eyes drooped. Getting Maddie out of his house worked better when Remy waited on the front porch and he brought the dog to her.
"Come here, girl," Lincoln coaxed.
Maddie's ears perked, and the smile returned to her face as she trotted over to him.
Remy gaped at him with the hint of a smile. "What have you done to my dog?"
Seeing her begin to relax, he patted Maddie. "She's a great dog."
Remy crouched, and Maddie went to her, sitting before her with that tiny wiggle of her tail and going in for a few licks. Remy sank her fingers into the fur of her chest.
"Yeah, she is." The soft smile that shaped her lips captivated Lincoln.
When she looked up from Maddie's love-drunk eyes, she caught him staring at her. As her gaze took in his chest and arms and then returned to his eyes, he burned.
"Ah " She stood. "I should probably get going."
Lincoln was a little disconcerted over his reaction, as well. A familiar, old pain overtook him for a few seconds before he could control it, hide it away where he always did, safely out of mind.
Remy didn't move for the door. She seemed on the verge of saying something that was hard for her to say. "I've I've been meaning to apologize for the way we met."
Finally. He waited for her to go on.
"Wade. That whole.thing."
"Is he your boyfriend?" he asked. "No!" she answered instantly and adamantly. "He's sort of a friend."
She waved her hands and then let them hang at her sides. "I thought he was a friend when I first met him. He turned out to be something else."
Lincoln nodded. "Why did he hit you?"
"It's complicated," she said. "I don't expect you to understand."
How could he when she wasn't telling him anything? Did she have something to hide? Or was she just embarrassed? The man wasn't her boyfriend. "Who is he?"
She waved her hands again, a poor disguise for her inner turmoil. "Nobody. I just wanted to apologize, and also to thank you for what you did. Even though it didn't seem like I was appreciative, I was, okay?"
"Okay." Had fear compelled her to retaliate against Lincoln that day? She may have been afraid of what the man would have done had she not taken his side. "If there's anything I can do to help, just let me know. I'm right next door."
She smiled. "Yeah. I know." She met his gaze awhile longer.
This was a lot different than the first time they'd met. And the most they'd ever spoken.
An uncomfortable silence passed. She glanced down his body, checking him out, and then grew serious.
Maddie nudged Lincoln's hand, and he pet her head.
"Your leg is better," Remy said.
The first time he'd met her he'd been on crutches.
"Did you break it?"
She hadn't taken the time to ask before. She hadn't taken the time to make conversation at all. "No." He hesitated, wondering if he should say. "Actually, I was shot."
She went a little still and then asked, "How? Why?"
He contemplated not telling her. But he wondered if he told her, would she open up to him about the man named Wade? "A friend of mine got into some trouble, and I got in the way." He grinned. "I can't seem to stay away from trouble."
She caught his meaning, that he'd gotten into her trouble. "Must be some trouble."
"At the risk of sounding like I played a role in an action movie, my friend came to me for help, and things fell apart. My sister was here at the time, and an arms dealer tried to kidnap her to use against my friend. I was shot, and my friend saved my sister. The dealer's in prison now." He didn't get into the rest of the story, how Braden McCrae and Arizona had unraveled the mystery, which had included the kidnapping of Braden's sister and stepsister and attempts to steal weapons technology from the company where Braden worked.
"An arms dealer, huh? What are you, some kind of Homeland Security agent?"
"No. I teach martial arts." He left out the other detail that he was also a bail enforcement agent. He didn't know why. It was just a feeling. It was also something he didn't really share with many people.
"I have a tough guy for a neighbor," she teased, but he could tell she liked it. He wasn't a cop, but he wasn't afraid of bad guys. He enjoyed solving the mystery of tracking the fugitives and, even more, the satisfaction of bringing them in.
"And who do I have for a neighbor?" he deliberately asked.
Between them, Maddie sat patiently, her head moving from one to the other as they spoke.
"I just got a job at a microchip corporation. I'm an HR assistant."
A human-resources assistant? He'd recently learned the house next door was a rental. Where had she gotten the money to afford it? This wasn't the most expensive neighborhood in Denver, but it was pushing the milliondollar mark. She may have gotten a deal on hers since it was in need of renovation, but still. How much did an HR assistant make? It couldn't be that much. Plus she had a loaded Audi Q5 Prestige in her garage. Pricey for an HR assistant.
His curiosity grew. "Where did you move from?"
A flicker of reluctance crossed her pretty eyes. "California. Near L.A."
Vague. "What brought you here?"
The reluctance he'd seen was gone now, and in its place was a brick wall. She shrugged. "I don't have any family. It was time for a change. I've always liked it here."
"No family?" Not even a sister or an aunt?
"No." Her head lowered. "My mother raised me, and I never knew my dad. My mother died in a car accident a few years ago."
"I'm sorry to hear that. You must have had a tough time."
"I learned to take care of myself. Mom had life insurance. That helped. I used some of it to go to college."
College? Her eyes flashed to his when she realized her slip. She hadn't meant to tell him that. "I have an English degree. What can you do with that, right?" She half laughed.
Although she quipped, he could see she was lying.
"When did you graduate?" He kept a light tone. People relaxed more when all they were doing was answering harmless questions.
"Six years ago. You?"
"I didn't go to college."
"Just martial arts school, huh?"
"Yes. And I love to read."
A firecracker of a smile burst on her face. "Me, too. Biographies, mostly."
Something in common. "Mysteries for me. Some nonfiction."
"Do you have a family?"
She must know he did. She'd seen his mother stop by. The way she asked said it was important to her. Family.
"I have a huge family," he stated hesitantly. "There are eight of us, and our parents live in California. Most of the time."
"I see a limo drive up every once in a while."
"That's my mom. Dad sometimes comes with her." He watched her process that. His parents had money.
"Ivy." She nodded. "I didn't piece it together until now." She glanced around his house. "You live modestly for someone who has such wealthy and well-known parents."
She was completely guileless as she made the observation. Nothing changed other than the wonder of discovery. She didn't become flirtatious as most women did, thinking they'd struck gold. He could recognize the shift immediately. Flirting went into overdrive. Efforts to impress, to latch on to him became nauseating. But not with this woman.
"What's it like being the son of a famous movie producer?"
"I'm not the one who's famous, so most of the time it's like being part of any other normal family." And he preferred it that way. "The press can get annoying."
"I can't imagine." A moment passed, and they shared a look. "Well. We should get going." She looked down at Maddie, who still sat patiently. "You're never this good with me. What's gotten into you?"
Maddie lifted her paw and rested it on her leg.
Remy laughed and shook her head. "I hope you don't mind her coming over here all the time. I haven't been able to get someone over to fix my gate."
"Like I said, I could fix it for you, except then I wouldn't get visits from Maddie." He pet the dog's head, and she stood to come closer for more attention.
Still smiling, Remy moved toward the door and patted her leg. "Come on, Maddie. Ready for dinner?"
The promise of dinner brought Maddie following her out the door.
His curiosity grew over his new neighbor. She didn't have any visitors and kept to herself. Lincoln was social with all the neighbors. They all loved having him nearby and frequently invited him to barbecues and dinners and holiday parties. Remy had too much to hide. At least it appeared that way.
Remy Lang realized she was still smiling after she went back to her house to feed Maddie. Drat. That wasn't in the plan. She had too much to lose to risk engaging in a relationship with a martial arts instructor. Her neighbor. Her big, strong neighbor who'd come to her rescue. She had to admit, having a man like that next door had made her feel safe. But it was foolish to feel that way. She couldn't share her past-particularly Wade Nelson's role in it-with anyone. Her survival depended on it.
Wade was not what she'd expected. When this all had started, she'd thought she could depend on him to help her, but she could not. Since then, she had taken matters into her own hands. She was close to resolving everything. Soon, she'd have her life back. If Wade didn't ruin it for her first. He'd caught on to what she was doing, and now he was angry. That was why he'd hit her. And Lincoln had seen it. That scared her more than anything. What would Wade do? He knew too much about her. She'd trusted the wrong man. And now Lincoln had gotten involved.
Sitting on her off-white Broyhill sofa, she turned on the big-screen television. Maddie came into the room, licking her mouth and hopping up onto the sofa beside her, smelling like dog food. Remy loved that.
The dog curled up beside her and lifted her head to gaze up at her. Talk about a heartbreaker.
"Oh, yeah, Maddie girl, you're my dog again. Your new boyfriend isn't here, and now I'm all you've got."