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Saldana was a sucker for a pretty female, and he'd proven it twice in the past hour alone: he'd agreed to help Ellie Maricci with her new pet project, and with nothing more than an innocent look from Alyssa Lassiter's big blue eyes and a soft, "Pwease, Joe," he'd committed to help her father coach Little League this summer.
Now he sat in one corner of A Cuppa Joe, his Copper Lake, Georgia, coffee shop, gazing at his neighbor across the narrow table. Natalia Porter was unusually hesitant this afternoon, a sure sign that she wanted something from him. He was determined not to help her out by asking what.
She looked up from her afternoon grande mocha caffeine fix and casually said, "I went for a bike ride today."
"Huh." There was nothing unusual about that. Soon after moving into the cottage next door to his two months ago, she'd bought a bike and accompanied him on dozens of rides.
"I went out to Copper Lake."
"Huh." The lake for which the town was named was only three miles northeast of the square, a short ride for either of them.
"I found something." She gave up pretense for intensity that rushed out her words. "Two puppies. A male and a female. They're so cute and sweet and—and so hungry. They're nothing but skin and bones, and they kind of followed me home, but Mrs. Wyndham says I can't keep them. You, on the other hand, are so responsible and so reliable and just the perfect tenant, and if you wanted to keep them, why, of course that would be another matter entirely." Natalia paused for a breath, then looked at him hopefully. "So will you?"
He studied her. She was twenty-five, she'dtold him, but with her ridiculously short brown hair and eyes that were way too big for her face, she looked about fifteen. Those eyes were green, at least for the day; she changed their color as often as she changed her contact lenses.
Very young, very innocent, very easy to say yes to.
Stubbornly, he didn't. "You know what puppies do? They pee all over everything. What they don't pee on, they chew up, and they eat like a horse. They'll tear my house apart the first time they're left alone. And in case you haven't noticed, with the hours I keep, they'd be alone a lot."
"I'll help with that," she said eagerly. "I'll take them out every two hours and I'll clean up whatever messes they make."
"I don't want pets."
"When was the last time you had one?"
"I don't have to have cancer to know I don't want it," he retorted. He was happy living by himself. He liked his shoes ungnawed on; he liked not sharing his bed. Being responsibility-free, except for the coffee shop, was his life's goal. The only thing he didn't want more than a puppy was two puppies.
Then he grinned faintly. That wasn't accurate. He didn't want to be audited by the IRS. He didn't want Starbucks to move into that empty space across the square. He didn't want global warming to be a fact, even though he believed it was.
He didn't want to ever see his brother again.
Oh, yeah, Josh trumped every other bad idea out there. Josh was the worst idea out there. Life would have been easier all around if he'd never been born.
Although how would that have affected Joe? After all, they'd come from the same egg.
And Joe had been dealing with him ever since.
"Look, Nat, I'll ask Miss Abigail—"
The bell over the door dinged and he glanced that way. For a moment, all he saw was red: a snug-fitting dress that hugged every curve it touched, from shoulder to breast to waist to hip. It was fire-engine, look-at-me red, and led to a pair of long tanned legs and high-heeled sandals, white dots on red and topped with a bow.
It was an amazing sight to a man with a fine appreciation for mile-long legs.
As the door whooshed shut and the newcomer took a few steps, curiosity raised his gaze. He'd been in Copper Lake a year and a half. How had he overlooked those legs before?
His glance slid back over those curves and skimmed across delicate features framed by sleek black curls before it clicked into one recognizable picture. All the appreciation disappeared, swallowed up whole by cold emptiness that spread instantly through him.
Slowly he got to his feet. Only dimly aware of Natalia's questioning look, he mumbled, "Yeah, okay, whatever," then crossed to the counter. He swore he felt the newcomer's gaze the instant it touched him, and he wondered in some distant part of his mind if she knew who he was, that he was Joe and not Josh.
Because last he heard, she had been Josh's.
She stopped near the cash register, where only two feet of marble separated them. She looked as cool as the stone between them, and elegant, too. Funny. Elegant had never been Josh's type.
But Josh had had no doubt that Elizabeth Dalton was exactly his type.
"Elizabeth." He drawled out all four syllables.
"I prefer Liz."
He'd heard those words before, the first time they'd met. Josh had introduced her as Beth, but she hadn't seemed at all like a Beth to him. She'd stated her preference that day, as now, but Josh had ignored her, and Joe… He hadn't called her anything. He'd been too busy keeping his tongue from hitting the floor.
"What brings you to Copper Lake?" Then the obvious answer to the question hit him and his gaze jerked toward the plate glass windows and the street beyond, searching for a glimpse of his brother. It would be just like him to send someone else in to smooth the way before he showed his face.
"I'm looking for Josh," Liz replied in that unruffled way of hers, and Joe's attention jerked again, back to her.
He couldn't decide which was more incredible—that his worthless brother had run out on a woman like Liz Dalton, that she thought he was worth tracking down, or that she thought he'd come to Joe. Even though they were identical twins, they'd been going their separate ways since they were about five years old. They hadn't been particularly close even before what had happened two years ago.
He picked up a spray bottle and a handful of towels, circled the counter to the nearest table, then started the task of scrubbing the top clean. "You're looking in the wrong town. This is the last place Josh would go if he's in trouble."
Liz followed him. "Then doesn't that make it the first place I should check?"
He wiped that table to a shine, then moved on to the next. Natalia, two tables away, wasn't even pretending that she wasn't listening to every word. "I haven't seen him in two years. I'm not sure I want to see him in the next twenty either."
"Has he called you?"
"Why would he do that?"
His laughter was more of a snort.
She shrugged, a silent acknowledgment that her suggestion was unlikely, then offered a better one. "To ask for money or help."
He rounded on her, moving closer, lowering his voice so Natalia would have to strain to hear. "Last time he asked me for anything, I damn near died. Do you really think he'd try again? Because if he did, I don't know whether I'd beat him to a pulp or let the people who tried to kill me do it instead."
Liz's eyes darkened a shade, and for a moment shock flashed there. He half expected her to chide, You don't mean that, but although her lips parted as if to speak, she remained silent.
Once more the bell above the door sounded, and he automatically looked that way as a group of girls wearing the tan-and-blue uniforms of the local middle school came in. There would be more behind them, followed in fifteen minutes by kids from the high school. As good an excuse as any to end this conversation.
"I've got customers. If you find Josh, tell him I said to go to hell and try not to take anyone with him." Stepping around her, he returned to the counter, washed his hands, forced a smile and went back to work.
"That went well," Liz murmured on the rush of a sigh. The words were meant just for her, but it was clear the girl at the nearest table heard them. Her startlingly emerald gaze met Liz's for an instant before she guiltily looked away.
Okay, so she hadn't expected Joe Saldana to be happy to see her or eager to discuss Josh. She'd just hoped he'd make her job easier. That he'd say, "Yeah, Josh is at the house. Go pick him up," or would at least know where he was or how to reach him.
Not that there'd been anything easy about Josh Saldana from the beginning.
She left the coffee shop, heading for her car parked around the corner. As she settled behind the wheel, she watched through the shop's side window while Joe joked with the girls lined up for drinks. He was old enough—just barely—to be their father, but that didn't stop at least three of them from gazing at him adoringly.
Granted, there was plenty to adore, on the outside, at least. He was over six feet tall, blond-haired and blue-eyed, tanned and lean. Liz could practically hear a Beach Boys' surfer tune playing in the background when she looked at him. He had a strong jaw, a straight nose, enough crook to his smile to give him a boyish look and enough sex appeal to give her a girlish tingle.
It had been there the first time they'd met—that sizzle— even though Josh had been standing between them, one arm draped possessively over her shoulder. She and Joe had exchanged looks and greetings, and something had sparked. And it had never fizzled out.
Well, maybe for him it had, she admitted as she started the engine. The last time she'd seen him, he was lying in an intensive-care bed, white as the sheet beneath him, hooked up to machines and IVs. His mother had quietly prayed and his father had wept, while Josh had been typically Josh. Nothing was ever his fault; he was always the innocent victim.
Liz had had her fill of victims like him.
The April afternoon was warm, but she opted for rolling the windows down instead of turning on the air conditioner. The breeze blew through her curls, and she drove with one hand on the wheel, the other holding them back from her face. Her destination was a mile or so away along quiet streets bordered by neatly kept houses, its drive marked by a small plaque: Wyndham Hall.
The house was old, not overly large, but it gave the impression of size and endurance, rather like its owner, Abigail Went-worth Wyndham. Somewhere between sixty and a hundred and sixty, Mrs. Wyndham was stout and energetic, and had been more than happy to rent one of her cottages to a friend of Joe's.
Okay, so Liz had lied a little. It was all for a good cause, right?
Fifty feet in, the gravel driveway split. The left branch snaked around to the rear of three of the six cottages; the right headed straight to the back of the other three. Each was swathed in soothing pastels, hers the palest peach. The neighbors on the left and right, granddaughters of Mrs. Wyndham, were away at college. A woman named Natalia Porter lived in the pink cottage across the way, and Pete Petrovski, a Copper Lake police officer, lived in the blue one. That meant the middle, lightest lavender cottage, its porch facing Liz's, was Joe's.
If ever a man could handle lavender, it was him.
She parked next to the house and climbed four steps to the porch. Opening the door, she stopped just inside, getting a feel for the place. Unlike her condo in Dallas, it was amazingly quiet. No traffic on nearby streets, no people hustling along crowded sidewalks, no jets roaring overhead on their way to or from the airport. When the refrigerator cycled on, she startled, then expelled the breath she'd subconsciously held.
This was going to take some getting used to.
The place was mostly empty; a wicker sofa and coffee table that had come from Mrs. Wyndham's porch, an assortment of pans and dishes and a borrowed air bed made up with borrowed sheets were all that surrounded her. Just till you get some stuff of your own, the landlady had said with a pat on Liz's arm.
Liz had no clue how long she'd be staying, but whether it was a week or a month, she would be fine with what was in the cottage now. She preferred take-out over cooking; the couch was comfortable; the coffee table could double as a desk; and the twin-sized air bed was no worse than the motel beds she slept in as often as her own.
A shout from out front drew her back through the house to watch a tan blur streak wildly around the stretch of grass that separated the two rows of cottages. A larger yellow blur followed, panting happily, and the girl from the coffee shop watched, her expression somewhere between scolding and laughing. Behind her, a bicycle was parked in front of the pink cottage, and beyond, the front door stood open, with the screen door shoved back so far that it hadn't closed again. Escape of the puppies, Liz surmised as she opened her own screen door and went outside to the front steps.
Immediately the dogs came racing in her direction, the tan one sleek and wiry, the yellow one larger, fuzzy—a Lab mix having a very bad hair day. Their wannabe mistress, who she guessed was Natalia Porter, turned her way, too, and all hint of pleasure disappeared from the girl's face. She looked at Liz's car and at the open door behind her, then scowled. "What are you doing here?"
"I'm your new neighbor. Liz Dalton." Instead of offering her hand, she crouched to scratch the puppies. They were too exuberant by half to be indoor dogs. For a moment they lolled and grunted appreciatively, then something caught their attention and they were off again.
"Joe wasn't happy to see you. Does he know you've moved in here?"
"He'll find out soon enough."
"He's not going to like it."
Because she couldn't disagree, Liz shrugged, then leaned one hip against the stair railing and studied Natalia. She was older than first glance suggested, although with her bottom lip edged out, she still resembled a pouty adolescent. Joe had been sitting with her when Liz walked into the coffee shop; they lived next door to each other. Just friends? Or more?
Judging from Natalia's animosity, Liz would guess very good friends, or the girl wanted a whole lot more.