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Kane Lennox's bare feet sank into the new spring grass, his toes disappearing between the thick green blades like shy mice. He'd slept on mattresses that cost as much as a small sedan, walked on carpet that had been hand loomed in the Orient, and worn shoes made to order specifically for his feet by a cobbler in Italy. But those experiences paled in comparison to this one. Comfort slid through his veins, washing over him in a wave, lapping at the stress that normally constricted his heart, easing the emotion's death grip on his arteries.
He halted midstep, tossing the conundrum around in his mind. How could something so simple, so basic, as walking barefoot on grass, feel so wonderful? "What on earth do you think you're doing?" Kane whirled around at the sound of the woman's voice. Tall and thin, her blond hair hanging in a long straight curtain to her waist, she stood with tight fists propped on her hips. Her features were delicate, classic, with wide green eyes and lush dark pink lips, but right now her face had been transformed by a mask of confusion and annoyance. In one hand she held a cell phone, her thumb over the send button, 9-1-1 just a push away.
Not that he could blame her. Even he had to admit what he was doing looked odd. Out of place. Kane put up both hands. The "See, I'm okay, not carrying any lethal weapons" posture. "There's a perfectly logical explanation for my behavior," he said. "And my presence."
She raised a dubious brow, but looked a bit worried, even apprehensive. "A total stranger. Barefoot. On my sister's lawn. In the middle of the day. Uh-huh. I'm sure there's a logical explanation for that." She turned, casting a hand over her eyes, shading them from the sun. "Either there's some cameraman waiting to jump out of the shrubbery with a 'Surprise, you're on Candid Camera' announcement, or you're here on some loony-bin field trip."
He laughed. "I assure you, I'm not crazy."
Though the last few weeks had driven him nearly to insanity. Which had pushed him to this point. To the small town of Chapel Ridge, in the middle of Indiana. To
Being barefoot on, as she had said, her sister's lawn in the middle of a bright April day. Okay, so it was mildly crazy.
"That leaves the Candid Camera option, which I'm definitely not in the mood for, or trespassing." She held up the phone like a barrier against a vampire. "Either way, I'm calling the cops."
"Wait." He took a step forward, thought better of it and backed up. As his gaze swept over her a second time, he realized she looked familiar, and now knew why. "You must be " He racked his brain. Usually he was so good at names. But this time, he couldn't come up with hers. "The sister of the bride. Jackie's sister."
"I get it. You're a detective who does his best thinking in his bare feet, is that it?" She gave him a sardonic grin. "Must have been tough, putting all the puzzle pieces together, what with the Congratulations Jackie and Paul sign out front, the paper wedding bells hanging on the mailbox. Oh, and the happiness emanating from the house like cheap perfume." She paused midtirade. "Wait. How do you know who I am?"
Kane gave her an assessing glance, avoiding the question. "What's made you so disagreeable?"
She sighed and lowered the phone. "I've had a rough day. A rough life and" She cut herself off again. "How do you do that? I'mnot telling you a single thing about me."
"Listen, I'll just get out of here and leave you to your day. I've clearly come at a bad time." He bent over, picked up his designer Italian leather dress shoes and started to leave.
"Wait." She let out a gust.
He turned back and for a second, Kane swore he heard a spark of himselfof the last few months, the days that had driven him to this town, to this crazy ideain that sound. Then, just as quickly, it was gone, and the spark of distrust had returned.
"You still haven't told me why you're barefoot on the lawn in the middle of the day."
Kane's jaw hardened. "We're back to that again?"
"When did we ever leave that topic?" She parked her fists back on her hips, the cell phone dangling between two fingers.
Telling her why he was here, and what he was doing, involved getting into far too many personal details. If he started opening up about his problems, he'd have all of Chapel Ridgeall 4,910 residents, as it wereknowing his identity, and there'd go his plan to enjoy some much-needed R & R.
He had no intentions of telling anyone anything. Particularly Jackie's sister.
Susannah Wilson. That was her name. Suzie-Q, Paul called her, like the packaged dessert.
Before she could question him further, he headed over to his little blue rental car, a cheap American model, light-years away from the silver convertible Bentley Azure he usually drove. The rental was nondescript, plain. Like something anyone else in the world would be driving. And perfect.
Susannah followed him. Not one to give up easily, that was clear. "You still didn't answer my question. Who are you? And why are you here?"
"That's two questions. And I don't have to tell you anything, either. It's a free country."
He could almost hear her internal scream of frustration. Oh, this was going to be fun.
She scowled. "Trespassing is a crime, you know."
He grinned. When he'd booked this trip, he'd had no idea there'd be a fringe benefit of this little fireball. "Only if you're not invited. And I was invited." He paused a beat, watching her eyes widen in surprise at the word invited, waiting to deliver the last punch of surprise. "I'm the best man, after all."
"You have the worst taste in friends."
Paul Hurst, Jackie's fiancé, laughed. "Suzie-Q, you need to give Kane the benefit of the doubt. He's not so bad. And he had his reasons for what he was doing, I'm sure."
"Where did you meet him anyway? Prison?"
"College. He had the room next door to mine, and we had a few classes together. And he's" Paul cut himself off. "He's a good guy. Just trust me on that."
Susannah got to her feet, gathering the mess of dishes on the coffee table. The collection of plates and glasses had grown over the day, multiplying like bunnies in her absence. Jackie and Paul didn't move from their positions in the living room of the old Victorian-style house. Paul had his feet up on the scarred maple coffee tablea garage sale find of Susannah's from last summerand Jackie was curled up beside him, the remote control in her hands. Across the room, a detective show played on the big-screen TV, an early wedding gift from Susannah and the bridesmaids, who had chipped in on the electronic extravagance. "The last time I trusted you, you stole my sister's heart."
Paul laughed. He wrapped an arm around Jackie and drew her to him. The leather sofa, a replacement for the plaid one that had sat in this room for nearly twenty years, creaked beneath his weight. "Just think of it as gaining a brother."
Jackie leaned into the brown-haired man she had dated for the better part of three years and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "A very handsome brother."
Susannah grinned. "Santa must not have heard me when I said I wanted a pony."
She headed out of the room, the dishes in her hands, and loaded them into the sink. She ran hot water over them, added dish soap, then started washing. She had stood at this sink for nearly all her life, looked out this same window at the same yard, washing dishes ever since she'd been old enough to stand on the small wooden stepstool and reach into the deep-bottomed stainless steel sink. Back then, she'd washed while her mother dried, the two of them falling into a natural rhythm, working along with the radio in the background, and the sunny yellow kitchen seemed to beam back the sunshine in her mother's voice.
But those days were gone, the radio had broken years ago, and the kitchen's paint had faded. And now the dishes had become a chore.
"You don't have to do that," Jackie said. She leaned against the refrigerator, filing her nails with an emery board.
"If you let them sit"
"They won't break," Jackie cut in. "Leave the dishes for later. Or even better, don't do them at all."
If Susannah didn't do them, they'd never get done. Neither Jackie nor Paul was much for housework, despite their protests to the contrary. In exchange for living with the two of them for a nominal rent to help pay down the mortgage, Susannah had agreed to do the majority of the housework and even though the deal had worked out so that she ended up doing all the chores, most days the arrangement suited her just fine. It helped her save money, which went to her ultimate goal.
One week. Just one more week, and she'd be out of here. Out of this house. Out of this town. On her way to the life she had dreamed of for so long it seemed like she had been born with the dream. Susannah's gaze drifted to the stained-glass Eiffel Tower hanging in the kitchen window. Gold and orange glints bounced off the countertops as the sun's afternoon's rays streamed through the tiny glass shards.
I've never been here, her mother had said, that last Christmas when she'd given Susannah the small reproduction of Paris's famous landmark, but I hope someday you can go, sweet Susannah. See the world I never got to see.
Susannah would. No matter what it took.
"I'll just get these few before I go to work," Susannah said.
"But you just got home. I thought you were done for the day."
"I had a couple late appointments. Every appointment is another dollar, you know." She gave Jackie a smile.
"You work too hard." Jackie held her hands out, checked all ten fingers, deemed them perfect and tucked the file into her back pocket.
"All for the ultimate goal, sis. All for the ultimate goal."
"A discreet way of saying you hate living with us." Jackie laughed, showing Susannah no offense was taken, then gave her sister a quick hug. "Oh, when you go out, do you mind doing me a favor?"
"Can you stop by and pick up the centerpieces? I have a fitting tonight and then "
The bachelorette party. The same one that Susannah had planned, as maid of honor, but wasn't attending. She'd never known Jackie's friends very well, and as the date had approached, felt herself less and less inclined to spend the evening with the other bridesmaids. Women who had always been Jackie's friends and included Susannah only as an afterthought, like adding one more fern to an already perfect floral arrangement.
"You can still come. You are one of the bridesmaids, after all. The bachelorette party is one of the perks." Jackie grinned.
"I'm cool, Jackie. Really." She ran the sponge over a plate, scrubbing at the center until the stoneware gleamed. "I'm not much for parties anyway."
"You're just avoiding, like you always do."
"No, I'm not. I have to work."
Jackie sighed but let the subject drop. She placed a hand on Susannah's shoulder. "I appreciate you picking the centerpieces up. You're really saving me. Again."
Not that Susannah had the time. She had three dogs to bathe tonight, and a million errands of her own. "What about Paul?"
"Nothing against my future husband, but I don't think he'd know a centerpiece from a centrifuge." She laughed.
Susannah increased the water temperature, filling a casserole dish that had been used for nachos or cheese dip, or something equally hardened and stubborn about giving up its baked-on grip. "When were you planning on assembling them?"
"Assembling them?" Jackie paused, then smacked her temples. "Damn. I totally forgot about that part. Maybe tomorrow afternoon." She thought a second. "No, wait. That's the meeting with the minister to go over the rest of the ceremony details. Umm tomorrow night? No, not then, either. Paul and I have plans with the Fitzgeralds. Remember them? They used to be Mom and Dad's friends. I don't know how long we'll be at their house. You know how they can talk. And then on Thursday night we have the reh"
"Basically, you have a million other things to do," Susannah finished.
As usual. Jackie's list was filled with social engagements and outings and very few responsibilities. At twenty-six, Susannah was four years older than Jackie and had always run her life down the opposite track. She bit back a breath of annoyance. Soon Jackie would be married, and she'd have to be responsible. Because Susannah wouldn't be here anymore to carry the load.
"It's a wonder I have time to go to work with all that, huh?" Jackie said, laughing. "Believe me, if Paul and I didn't need the money, I'd be calling in sick every day. Gosh, how on earth am I ever going to find time to do everything for the wedding? It's like the clock is running out. Jerry said we could set up early at the hotel, because they have nothing else scheduled there this weekend, but I don't even have time to "
Her voice trailed off and then that hopeful smile took over her face. The one Susannah knew as well as she knew every square inch of this house. Jackie leaned against the counter and met Susannah's gaze. "Hey, what are you doing tonight, sis?"
Susannah pulled the drain on the sink. "No way, Jackie. I've got"
"Please, Suzie-Q. Please?" Jackie put her hands together, and gave Susannah a pleading-puppy-dog look. "Just this one more favor, and then, I swear, I'll never ask for another. I swear."
And Susannah said yes. Just like always.
Kane could run a multi-billion-dollar, fourth-generation, international gem import company. Negotiate million-dollar deals. Understand the most complicated of financial reports. Surely he could do something as simple as light a fire. The flame on the match met the log, sputtered briefly, then poof, disappeared.
He'd rented the cabin on the outskirts of town, ordered a quarter-cord of wood, picked up some matches at the store downtown, and thought the whole process would be as simple as striking a match to a box, then holding it against a stick.
Uh not exactly.
Kane let out a curse as his sixth attempt fizzled and died, then stalked outside. He drew in several deep breaths of fresh, country air. An hour ago, he'd been loving the whole experience. Now he was ready to call his chauffeur, have him hurry the hell out here with the limo and drive him straight to the private Lennox Gem Corporation jet.
No. He'd do this. He needed to do this.