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The stack of papers on the passenger seat of her Honda CR-V toppled sideways as Liz Radonovic turned onto the street leading to her house. The two-inch pile edged precariously toward the ridiculously messy floor, which was symbolic of her life, in general. Chaotic.
She slowed at the first of the newly installed speed bumps on Canto Lane.
"Ka-thunk," she said aloud in harmony with her car's rear suspension. She hated the four-inch hurdles that C.A.N., the Canto Association of Neighbors, had recently convinced the city of Henderson, Nevada, to install. There were two in the middle of her block — pretty much bracketing her driveway. She couldn't help but take their presence personally, even though the road committee had insisted this was for the good of the children.
"If you had kids, you'd understand," Crissy Montoya, mother of two and current president of the group, had told Liz while circulating a petition to enforce curb appeal. Buoyed by her success in curtailing speeders, Crissy was now on a crusade to make the four-block radius around her home more "charming."
Liz had been abrupt when confronted with the petition and pen. Not because she didn't approve of curb appeal, but because the concept sounded like something that would cost her money.
And it had.
Crissy's project had been approved by the majority of homeowners and she'd hired a gardener, who was slowly adding plants, boulders and creativity to the otherwise boring tract houses that made up her subdivision. Nestled between Boulder Highway and the River Mountains to the east, the Canto development had sprung up when the line between Henderson and its neighbor to the north, Las Vegas, was still easily identifiable.
Liz hadn't met the man responsible for making all these decorative changes, but she'd seen him several times from a distance. Tall and lanky, he usually wore a wide-brim hat with a sort of curtain that covered the back of his neck and shoulders. Shirt, pants, hat — all tan. The color of the desert. He almost looked as though he was deliberately trying to blend in.
But he was good at what he did, she had to admit, smiling at a cascading bridal bouquet of a mature yucca. She had to respect a man who could transplant succulents and keep them from dying in this climate.
She figured her place was next, and the thought of an additional outlay of money — cash she couldn't spare — was enough to make her stomach heave.
"You need to be more proactive," her sister Alex had told Liz recently at one of their weekly roundtables. "You shouldn't let that Crissy woman boss you around. Tell her you're between jobs and can't spare the cash. She should be able to understand that, shouldn't she?"
Between jobs. Liz wished it were that simple. She had lost her physical therapist job after the administrator and several of the doctors at the private hospital where she'd been working were arrested. That had been one of the many repercussions the Radonovic family had suffered after Liz's youngest sister, Grace, blew the whistle on old family friend Charles Harmon, a lawyer and casino owner who had broken too many laws to count.
Liz had never had any trouble getting a P.T. job anywhere in the world. Until now. Either there was a glut of applicants in Vegas or her name carried some invisible black mark. Liz didn't know which and wasn't sure she cared. In a way, every closed door seemed to be a sign. She was ready for a change and knew what she wanted to do — help people stay healthy instead of trying to fix the body after something went wrong.
She was Romani and came from a long line of healers — women who knew which herbs could ease a tummy ache, help prevent arthritis and steady nerves in difficult times. During her stay in India, she'd been exposed to a different kind of healing — Ayurveda, the oldest medicine in the world. She hadn't stayed there long enough to become proficient in the practice, but the knowledge she'd garnered had fed a need in her soul.
Was there a market for herbs, teas and therapeutic oils in a city like Las Vegas? Liz was pretty sure the answer was yes. She'd recently started offering a few small-batch teas for sale and had heard only glowing reviews. The patrons at her sister Kate's restaurant, Romantique, had gone from ordering her three-mint blend from the menu to demanding tea bags to take home with them.
Could she make a living selling specialized teas? That was the real question. And how would opening a new business affect her other goal? Her most important goal — adopting Prisha.
Prisha, whose name meant God's gift, was the abandoned infant Liz had fallen in love with at the ashram where she'd volunteered in India. Underweight, with an obvious birth defect — her little feet were both turned inward — Prisha was one of the lucky ones. Her maternal family had cared enough to drop off the tiny baby at the ashram when the mother decided she couldn't care for the child.
Normally, the ashram didn't handle children with severe birth defects, simply because it wasn't set up as a nursing facility. But Liz had convinced the staff that daily, gentle therapy on Prisha's legs might be enough to correct the problem. She'd been wrong. A visiting doctor had confirmed her secret fear that Prisha was going to need more extensive care, including surgery, if she ever hoped to walk. And Liz was certain the only way that would happen would be if she adopted Prisha and brought her home to the United States.
Starting a new business and adopting a child from a foreign country at the same time probably didn't make sense, but Liz had no choice. Prisha needed her. And as long as the bank approved her application to refinance her mortgage, she'd have the money she needed to start the adoption process.
She eyed the sliding papers. Everyone was refinancing these days. Why shouldn't she? And surely her reason was valid. She wanted to make a home for a child who desperately needed one. Prisha was nearly a year and a half old. She should already have started undergoing the surgeries that would allow her to develop normally — and, eventually, to walk.
Liz shifted her gaze to the twenty-year-old house that she'd bought upon her return from India. Nothing special, really. Affordable. A good starter home, the agent who'd handled the deal had called it. Three bedrooms with a nice-sized backyard. Room for a child to romp and play.
"And if there's any money left over, I'll be able to pay for my front yard's facelift," she murmured.
Between making and trying to market her herbal teas, plus doing side jobs like helping at Alex's child-care center, there hadn't been time for landscaping.
As she slowed in preparation of the left turn into her driveway, she made a detour around the primer-gray pickup truck parked in front of Crissy's place, which as luck would have it was right next door to Liz's house.
She looked around but didn't see the owner. The tailgate was down, though, and an obviously homemade ramp was angled against it. She took the turn extra wide, to be safe.
The rear tires of her compact SUV bounced over the curb, lifting the car cockeyed, which made her papers slide to the floor.
She jammed her foot on the brake and leaned over sideways to collect the collated homework assignment in which the bank had asked for her life history, projected income till death and purchasing habits. She returned to an upright position and checked to see if anything besides dust had attached itself to her pristine pages.
Rap, rap, rap.
The aggressive sound of knuckles on glass made her jump. Her heart rate spiked. Adrenaline poured through her veins, bringing with it memories she could normally suppress. War sounds. Cries of pain. The harsh, acrid taste of blood and sweat and fear. Her armpits tingled. A sharp pain twisted across her brow.
"Hey, open up. Don't you know how to drive? You just killed my four-year-old Echinocereus triglochidiatus."
As her panic receded, Liz forced air into her lungs. Her vision cleared. She wasn't in Bosnia. She was in her car, in Nevada. She was home.
And some stranger — a very angry man with green eyes and an artificially black mustache was pounding on the window. His words were muffled, but she wasn't about to open the window while he had a hoe in his hand. "What do you want?" she yelled.
He gestured toward the road. "You ran over a hedgehog cactus."
"A hedgehog?" she asked, turning to look where he was pointing. "We have hedgehogs in Nevada?"
The idea made tears rush to her eyes. She wasn't exactly sure what a hedgehog was, but she pictured a little animal. Brown and furry. Maybe some relation to the groundhog?
The man made a sound of pure disgust and stormed away. Liz watched him march to the rattletrap truck and toss his hoe in the back. He paused a moment and pulled a navy cotton handkerchief out of the back pocket of his one-piece jumpsuit and used it to mop the sweat from his neck and brow.
"You're too young to wear jumpsuits," she wanted to say. But she didn't. As her sisters would attest, Liz was no arbiter of fashion. If clothes fit and were clean, she was happy. But still, the guy was in his early forties or late thirties. He was tall, lean and — from the parts she could see, namely his arms — well muscled.
And he was also still worked up. She could tell by his body language, which, odd as it seemed, intrigued her. He was a living, breathing contradiction. She couldn't see his hair because of the hat, but his skin coloring belied the dark mustache. Liz was of Romani, or Gypsy, descent. She was surrounded by swarthy men with Mediterranean complexions. This guy's mustache didn't go with the rest of him. Nor did his eye color work for her. The green was too green.
Liz loved puzzles.
After stacking her papers neatly on the seat, she picked up her cell phone and got out of the car. She kept her thumb poised to call for help if he tried anything, but daylight and the peace of her neighborhood gave her the courage to approach him — from a distance.
"Hey. What was that all about? What did I do?"
He ignored her.
"Excuse me, sir, but didn't anyone ever tell you it's ridiculously impolite to pound on a woman's window then stalk off without any explanation."
"I told you."
His voice was deep. Liz didn't think she'd ever heard that rich a bass before. The lush tone drew her closer.
"Well, I was too freakin'scared to understand the words. I thought you were attacking me."
He made another sound of irritation and stuffed his hanky back in his pocket. "Just forget it. You wouldn't understand."
Now that was one charge Liz didn't take lightly. In her family, Liz was considered the empathic one. The person most likely to give a damn. Didn't two tours to Bosnia count for anything? Hadn't she opened her home to Lydia and Reezira, the two young Romanian prostitutes who'd been caught in an immigration nightmare after their "sponsor," the deceitful snake, Charles Harmon, was arrested?
"You're wrong. You don't know me, and you sure as hell don't have any right to condemn me without giving me a chance to defend myself. Where's the justice in that?"
"Justice." The mocking tone came through his laugh.
"There's no such thing as justice."
He hesitated a moment then pivoted and started toward her. Liz tightened her grip on her phone. It wasn't much of a defense, but it was more than she'd had the last time a man attacked her.
When he was a foot away, he stopped. Without a car window separating them, Liz had a better look at his face. And it confused her. Mustache aside, the rest of the pieces were quite ordinary. Masculine nose — not too big, not too small. Nicely shaped eyes with pronounced crinkles that were tanned from his job, she guessed. A good-sized mouth and really excellent teeth. He was a decent-looking man, but, again, she had a sense that all of the features were slightly off. As if she were looking at one of those children's books in which the reader turns a section of the page to change the facial features and create a different character.
He gestured toward the street, impatiently. She looked where he was pointing.
"There. Do you see that flattened lump of muck? A minute ago that squished piece of debris was a living thing. A cactus. The word triglochidiatus defines it as a three-barbed variety. Its common name is the hedgehog cactus because early Europeans thought it resembled the little animal they remembered from home. Others call it a claretcup cactus because of the beautiful ruby-red flowers that this one will never bear."
She studied the triangle-shaped planter at the corner of her driveway and the communal sidewalk. It hadn't been there when she left the house that morning. Two other plants — neither of which she could name — had survived, but bits of shredded bark and some greenish splotch led straight to her tire. Proof of her vicious, although unintentional, assault.