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Hearing a ruckus in the backyard, Steph leaped from the kitchen chair and darted to the patio door. She slid it open with a thud and stepped outside. "Fred. Stop."
The yips and barks split the air while Fred wagged his tail and leaped along the fence with a shaggy gray mop of a dog on the other side.
Steph's gaze shifted to a man leaning against the fence, her new neighbor she presumed. An amiable grin curved his full lips, and he gazed at her with twinkling saddle-brown eyes.
"Fred. Come." She clapped her hands to get her border collie's attention. He twisted his neck, and she could see his struggle to respond to her call or to stay with his nose against the chain-link fence while his shaggy friend mesmerized him. Finally Fred bounded toward her.
Steph approached the stranger, who lifted his hand in welcome and then ran his fingers through his dark brown, wavy hair. It looked tousled and made him seem playful. As she studied his classic good looks, Fred tangled around her feet, and she nearly tripped. So did her pulse.
The stranger gestured toward Fred. "It's nice to see another dog in the neighborhood and right next door."
Steph chuckled. "Not everyone feels like that." She'd forced the levity, startled by the sensation she'd felt when she looked in his eyes. She lowered her gaze to his ring finger. Bare.
What was she thinking? Steph released a puff of air and managed to meet his gaze again.
He grinned. "I'm getting a kick out of the dogs."
"I noticed." His warm smile heated her face.
He grasped the fence rail and tilted back on his heels. She watched as he lowered his body to the fence again, as if thinking of what to say next. She forced her focus away from his arms.
He straightened. "I hope I didn't disturb you."
"You didn't disturb me at all." Not true. His beautiful eyes disturbed her. "But Fred and his furry friend did." Furry friend? She cringed listening to herself. She sounded like an idiot.
"My furry friend is Suzette."
Happy to have another place to focus, she looked at the slate-gray dog, its eyes nearly covered by long silky bangs. "Nice to meet you, Suzette." Managing to get her wits under control, Steph lifted her head. "And nice to meet you, too." She extended her hand. "Stephanie Wright. Steph to my friends."
"A pleasure." He gave her fingers an easy squeeze. "Nick Davis." He smiled and tilted his head toward the dogs. "They seem to like each other. It's too bad people can't make friends that easily."
She eyed the dogs, grinning at their wagging tails and their snouts sniffing against the chain links. "You mean, as easily as rubbing our noses together?"
His grin broadened. "Sure, if we were Eskimos." He winked.
Why had she said "our" noses? Noses would have been bad enough. Feeling the heat reach her cheeks, she averted her eyes. While she grappled with her discomfort, she watched the dogs' antics. Fred appeared smitten.
When her cheeks cooled, Steph decided the dogs were safer conversation. "Your dog looks like a big rag mop. What breed is she?"
Nick's dark eyes twinkled. "A Bouvier."
"Bouvier. So that's what they look like."
He glanced over his shoulder, appearing to look for an intruder, then leaned closer as if sharing a secret. His breath whispered against her cheek. "If you ask my brother her breed, he'd tell you Suzette is a Bouvier des Flandres. She's actually Martin's dog." He drew back, giving her a crooked grin. "Martin thinks it sounds classier."
"Well, la-di-da." La-di-da? Get a grip. She had to stop herself from rolling her eyes. "Fred's just a border collie from Michigan." Steph hoped she sounded sane.
"But a very nice one, I'm sure."
He'd ignored her lunacy or else didn't notice. That made her feel better.
"Martin's pitiful with his pretentiousness at times. I don't know where he gets it."
Steph appreciated the distraction. "I'd like to strangle my brother once in a while." More often than she wanted to remember. He'd upset her much too often. "My parents were thrilled to finally have a son to carry on the family name, and Hal knew it. He seemed to think he'd been born with a crown, and he expected us to bow to his every need."
She peered at Fred, his tail slapping against the grass.
"Fred usually doesn't carry on like that. He's used to being around other dogs."
"Suzette's a flirt." Nick flashed Steph a grin, then crouched down and put his finger through the chain link. "Is she playing with your heart, old man?"
Fred gave his finger a sniff and then swiped it with his tongue.
Suzette had no intention of being outdone. She wiggled between Fred and Nick, then nuzzled her nose against the links. Nick petted her, then looked up at Steph. "If you're not familiar with a Bouvier, feel her coat."
Steph leaned over the fence and drew her hand across the dog's fur. "She's not a rag mop at all. She feels like chenille."
He ran his fingers through her coat, too, their hands brushing against each other's, and when he rose, they stood eye to eye.
Something happened. Her stomach flipped, and she felt out of control. Steph motioned toward the patio door. "It's been nice, but I need to get inside. This is housework day for me."
His lips curved to a teasing frown. "That doesn't sound like fun." He shoved his hand into his pocket. "It's been nice talking with you, Steph." His brow arched. "I hope it's okay to call you that."
"Consider yourself a friend."
"I'd like that." He took a step backward. "Maybe we could walk the dogs one day. They seem to get along well."
Her stomach shot to her chest, and her response followed at the same speed. "We have a park nearby." She swung her hand in that direction. "That would be fun."
He stepped back. "Great. I'll talk with you again." He backed away, then pivoted and headed toward the house with Suzette bouncing beside him.
Fred let out a whimper and so did Steph.
She made her way to the patio and through the door, then caved into the same kitchen chair she'd been sitting on before the distraction. She'd flirted with the man. Flirting wasn't her style, and on top of it, she'd talked about rubbing noses. Where did that come from?
Steph rolled her eyes as she got up and opened the refrigerator. She pulled out a soft drink, snapped the tab and took a swallow before leaning against the kitchen counter. She'd been a widow four years, and as time passed, she'd decided relationships were too difficult. Before he'd died, Doug had drifted from her like bubbles on the wind. She reached out to grasp him, and he vanished. Her life became dark, but these past years, she'd finally found the light. Artificial light sometimes, but she'd learned to keep her eyes wide-open. Today she'd squinted and look what happened.
Steph pulled her spine from the counter and grasped the dust cloth and lemony spray. Back to work and forget the few moments of backyard fantasy. Reality made more sense.
Nick stood inside the house and gazed through the window at Steph as she strode toward her patio door. Her straight blond hair whisked against her shoulders. The woman put a grin on his face. She loved that dog. Fred. The name gave him a chuckle. The border collie seemed well behaved and friendly. So did Steph. His mouth pulled to a grin again.
He rested his hand on the windowsill as he watched Fred trot beside her. Steph's large blue eyes, canopied by long lashes, reminded him of a summer sky. He'd been drawn to her blunt comments, especially the witty ones that made him smile. And she'd flirted, but in a nice way. She'd even flushed. His pulse heightened, picturing her playfulness.
The garage door rumbled and dragged him from his thoughts. Nick heard a car door slam. Then the garage door closed and he listened for his brother's footsteps.
Martin came through the doorway with a puzzled look. "What are you doing here?
"Want me to leave?" Nick didn't wait for an answer. He opened the refrigerator and gazed inside.
"You can't afford your own food with that business of yours?"
Nick's back stiffened. When it came to his business, Martin's humor grated on his nerves. He forced himself to let it go, then faced his brother. "You asked me to drop by to walk your dog and feed her because you're too busy. Now you begrudge me a drink?" He pulled out a cola and popped the tab. "I stopped by to offer my service."
"Service?" Distrust grew on Martin's face.
Nick motioned toward the boxes. "Thought I'd help you unpack."
His chin raised as he eyed Nick. "Unpack? Why?"
"Why not? If you tell me where you want things, I'll unpack some of the cartons or they'll be there forever."
A questioning look filled Martin's face. "You're not looking for a handout?"
"No handouts." The reference stabbed Nick in the gut. He'd never asked Martin for anything, and he never would.
"You really want to unpack boxes? Are you sure?"
The response relaxed Martin's expression. He tilted his head toward the largest stack of cartons. "I guess you can start over there."
Nick had stretched the truth a bit. Not that he hadn't planned to help, but his offer was the way to a means. He needed to work it into the conversation without making a big deal out of it although it was to him. He could ask point-blank, but he preferred to ease it in. Martin enjoyed pointing out his guilt.
He hoisted a heavy box onto the table and flipped open the lid. "By the way, I met your neighbor."
"She's very nice."
"She?" Martin arched an eyebrow.
Nick nodded. "Good sense of humor. Attractive."
"What does that mean?" Martin's voice left no question that he was aggravated.
Nick swiveled. "It means she's a pretty woman." Pretty wasn't the half of it. She was great looking. "And she likes dogs."
A dark frown filled Martin's face. "I hope you're not matchmaking."
"You're kidding? I wouldn't put a lovely woman through that." Nick had tried to sound lighthearted.
"Glad to hear it."
Nick avoided looking in Martin's direction. His brother would see the truth in his eyes. He'd been drawn to Steph from the moment he watched her march across the grass, and the more he thought about it, an unsettled feeling rocked in his stomach. Nick dug deeper into the box.
The rustle of packing material quieted, and their conversation ended until Martin blurted into the silence. "What makes you think this woman likes dogs?"
"She owns a border collie."
"Seems like everyone owns some kind of mutt." Irritation weighted Martin's voice.
"Attitude. Attitude, bro. Suzette's not the only dog in the world." Steph's spoiled brother had nothing on the Bouvier. Suzette also wore a crown in Martin's eyes. Nick pulled out more packing material from the box. "He might not be as classy, but he's a well-trained dog. That's more than I can say about Suzette."
Martin spun around to face him, but Nick refused to back off. "The border collie's friendly. Give him a chance. I know how you are."
"I don't want him getting friendly with Suzette. She's purebred."
Despite his provocation, Nick tried to cover his grin, thinking of Steph's "la-di-da" comment.
Rather than start a quarrel, Nick didn't respond. "Where do you want the china dinnerware?"
Martin didn't speak but motioned to a cabinet.
Nick opened the door, then lifted an octagonal plate with a bamboo shaped edge and slid it onto a shelf. Expensive he could tell. He grabbed another and flipped it over. Royal Signet China. Nick never heard of it, but he knew Martin's taste.
His own taste raised in question. What had happened to him? He'd never cared about fancy china or expensive crystal. Women often fussed about that, he remembered. What kind of tableware did Steph own? What difference did it make? He'd never see it.
He emptied the box, then slapped the lid closed. He'd already experienced one fiancée who tossed her ring in his face just before the wedding. Why would he allow himself to even daydream about another?
The memory triggered a new question. He paused until he got Martin's attention. "Have you ever thought about dating again?"
Martin's head drew back. "Me?"
"You're the only other person in the room." Nick stood with his hand on the box lid. Martin's social life ended after his failed marriage. He'd never been one to hang out with friends, and Nick didn't recall Martin dating anyone other than the woman he'd married.
"Why would I date?"
"You have a good life. You have a new home that's too big for even one person."
"One person and a dog."
"Okay, and a dog." A stream of air burst from his nose. "I just wondered. You're still young enough. You've been divorced for—"
"Don't bring that up."
Nick drew in a breath. "You have lots of things going for you, but for some reason, you aren't happy."
"I'm happy." Martin spun around, pointing his index finger at him. "And what about you? I don't see you with a social life to brag about."
His brother had nailed him. But Nick had an excuse. The business took a lot of time and money. Nick faltered. That was an excuse. He'd avoided commitment since his failed engagement. Maybe dating would work without marriage as an option. He wondered about Steph's situation. She was single, he assumed. He'd noticed she didn't wear a ring, and she'd even flirted a little. But that didn't mean much in today's society.
Nick opened another carton and removed layers of Bubble Wrap. When he looked inside, he caught his breath. He grasped a crystal plate as memories flooded back. He drew out a faceted crystal bowl, and beside it, he recognized other pieces from his youth. "These were Mother's." Sadness washed over him, picturing his mom since the stroke.
Martin glanced up and nodded. "You took some of her dishes, didn't you?"
"A few things."
Tension grew on his brother's face.
"I'm not challenging the pieces you have, Martin. You use them more than I would."
His brother gave a shrug and lifted another box from the floor.
The door had been opened to his true purpose for dropping by. Feeling the weight of his question, Nick managed to form the words. "Have you talked with her?"
"By her, you mean Mom?"
The question was moot. Nick didn't answer.
"I've talked to her. She can't utter a thing that makes sense." He turned from the carton and leaned against the counter, his eyes piercing Nick's. "You're avoiding her."
The words lashed Nick like a whip. "I'm not avoiding her. It kills me to see her so helpless."
"You don't think it kills me? Ignoring her doesn't help. Do you think I don't have to force myself to visit her in that condition and fill the time with one-sided conversation? You can't shun her. She's still your mother."
"I know. I know." Nick blocked his ears from Martin's accusations. "I visit."
"When was the last time?"
Like a punch in the stomach, Martin's question knocked the wind out of Nick. "I'll go. I just wondered if there's any improvement."
"Not much. She tries to talk, but it's nearly impossible to understand her. The nurses do a better job than I do."
Knots twisted in Nick's chest. His mother was a good woman, and the horrible stroke had taken away her identity. She couldn't do much for herself. She lay there being fed and diapered like a baby. The image tore at him.
"I'll go this week. I promise."