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Annie McCoy could accept the flat tire. The car was old and the tires should have been replaced last spring. She could also understand that little Cody had eaten dirt on the playground, then thrown up on her favorite skirt. She wouldn't complain about the notice she'd gotten from the electric company pointing out, ever so politely, that she was overdue—again—and that they would be raising her rates. It was that all of it had happened on the same day. Couldn't the universe give her a sixteenth of a break?
She stood in front of her sagging front porch and flipped through the rest of the mail. No other bills, unless that official-looking letter from UCLA was actually a tuition bill. The good news was that her cousin Julie was in her first year at the prestigious college. The bad news was paying for it. Even living at home, the costs were enormous and Annie was doing her best to help.
"A problem for another time," she told herself as she walked to the front door and opened it.
Once inside, she put her purse on the small table by the door and dropped the mail into the macaroni-and-gold-spray-paint-covered in-box her kindergarten class had made for her last year. Then she went into the kitchen to check out the dry-erase bulletin board hanging from the wall.
It was Wednesday. Julie had a night class. Jenny, Julie's twin, was working her usual evening job at a restaurant in Westwood. Kami, the exchange student from Guam, had gone to the mall with friends. Annie had the house to herself… at least for the next couple of hours. Talk about heaven.
She walked to the refrigerator and got out the box of white wine. After pouring a glass, she kicked off her shoes and walked barefoot to the backyard.
The grass was cool under her feet. All around the fence, lush plants grew and flowered. It was L.A. Growing anything was pretty easy, as long as you didn't mind paying the water bill. Annie did mind, but she loved the plants more. They reminded her of her mom, who had always been an avid gardener.
She'd barely settled on the old, creaky wooden swing by the bougainvillea when she heard the doorbell ring. She thought about ignoring whoever was there, but couldn't bring herself to do it. She went back inside, opened the door and stared at the man standing on her porch.
He was tall and powerfully built. The well-tailored suit didn't disguise the muscles in his arms and chest. He looked like he could have picked up money on the side working as a bouncer. He had dark hair and the coldest gray eyes she'd ever seen. And he looked seriously annoyed.
"Who are you?" he demanded by way of greeting. "The girlfriend? Is Tim here?"
Annie started to hold up her hands in a shape of a T. Talk about needing a time-out. Fortunately she remembered she was holding a wineglass and managed to keep from spilling.
"Hi," she said, wishing she'd thought to actually take a sip before answering the door. "I'm sure that's how you meant to start."
"By saying 'hello.'"
The man's expression darkened. "I don't have time for small talk. Is Tim McCoy here?"
The tone wasn't friendly and the words didn't make her feel any better. She set her glass on the tiny table by the door and braced herself for the worst.
"Tim is my brother. Who are you?"
That couldn't be good, she thought, stepping back to invite the man in. Tim hadn't said much about his relatively new job and Annie had been afraid to ask.
Tim was…flaky. No, that wasn't right. He could be really sweet and caring but he had a streak of the devil in him.
The man entered and looked around the living room. It was small and a little shabby, but homey, she thought. At least that's what she told herself. There were a few paper turkeys on the wall, and a pair of pilgrim candlesticks on the coffee table. They would come down this weekend when she got serious about her Christmas decorating.
"I'm Annie McCoy," she said, holding out her hand. "Tim's sister."
They shook hands. Annie tried not to wince as his large fingers engulfed hers. Fortunately the man didn't squeeze. From the looks of things, he could have crushed her bones to dust.
"Or ground them for bread," she murmured.
"Oh, sorry. Nothing. Fairy-tale flashback. The witch in Hansel and Gretel. Doesn't she want to grind their bones to make her bread? No, that's the giants. I can't remember. Now I'll have to look that up."
Duncan frowned at her and stepped back.
She couldn't help chuckling. "Don't worry. It's not contagious. I think weird things from time to time. You won't catch it by being in the room." She stopped babbling and cleared her throat. "As to my brother, he doesn't live here."
Duncan frowned. "But this is his house."
Was it just her or was Duncan not the brightest bulb? "He doesn't live here," she repeated, speaking more slowly. Maybe it was all the muscles. Too much blood in the biceps and not enough in the brain.
"I got that, Ms. McCoy. Does he own the house? He told me he did."
Annie didn't like the sound of that. She crossed to the club chair by the door and grabbed hold of the back. "No. This is my house." She felt more than a little panicked and slightly sick to her stomach. "Why are you asking?"
"Do you know where your brother is?"
"Not at the moment."
This was bad, she thought frantically. She could tell it was really bad. Duncan Patrick didn't look like the kind of man who dropped by on a whim. Which meant Tim had done something especially stupid this time.
"Just tell me," she said quickly. "What did he do?"
"He embezzled from my company."
The room tilted slightly. Annie's stomach lurched and she wondered if she was going to join little Cody in throwing up on her skirt.
Tim had stolen from his employer. She wanted to ask how that was possible, but she already knew the answer. Tim had a problem. He loved to gamble. Loved it way too much. Living only a five-hour drive from Las Vegas made the problem even more complicated.
"How much?" she asked in a whisper.
"Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars."
Her breath caught. It might as well be a million. Or ten. That was too much money. An impossible amount to pay back. He was ruined forever.
"I can see by the look on your face, you didn't know about his activities."
She shook her head. "The last I heard, he loved his job."
"A little too much," Duncan said drily. "Is this the first time he's embezzled?"
She hesitated. "He's, um, had some problems before."
"He mentioned it when I spoke with him earlier today. He also told me that he owned a house and that the value exceeded the amount he'd stolen."
Her eyes widened. "No way. He didn't."
"I'm afraid he did, Ms. McCoy. Is this the house he meant?"
Now she really was going to be sick. Tim had offered the house? Her house? It was all she had.
When their mother had died, she'd left them the house and an insurance policy to split. Annie had used her half of the insurance money to buy Tim out of the house. He was supposed to use the money to pay off his college loans and put money down on a place of his own. Instead he'd gone to Vegas. That had been nearly five years ago.
"This is my house," she said firmly. "Mine is the only name on the deed."
Nothing about Duncan's cold expression changed. "Does your brother own other property?"
She shook her head.
"Thank you for your time." He turned to leave.
"Wait." She threw herself in front of the door. Tim might be a total screw-up but he was her brother. "What happens now?"
"Your brother goes to jail."
"He needs help, not prison. Doesn't your company have a medical plan? Can't you get him into a program of some kind?"
"I could have, before he took the money. If he can't pay me back, I'll turn him over to the police. Two hundred and fifty thousand dollars is a lot of money, Ms. McCoy."
"Annie," she said absently. It was more money than he knew. "Can't Tim pay you back over time?"
"No." He glanced around at her living room again. "But if you'd be willing to mortgage your house, I would consider dropping the charges."
Mortgage her… "Give up where I live? This is all I have in the world. I can't risk it."
"Not even for your brother?"
Talk about playing dirty.
"You wouldn't lose your house if you made regular payments to the bank," he said. "Or do you have a gambling problem, too?"
The contempt in his voice was really annoying, she thought as she glared at him. She took in the perfectly fitted suit, the shiny gold watch that probably cost more than she made in three months and had a feeling that if she looked out front, she would see a pretty, new, fancy, foreign car. With good tires.
It was too much. She was tired, hungry and this was the last problem she could deal with right now.
She grabbed the electric bill from the in-box and waved it in front of him.
"Do you know what this is?"
"It's a bill. One I'm late on. Do you know why?"
"Answer the question," she yelled. "Do you know why?"
He looked more amused than afraid, which really pissed her off. "No. Why?"
"Because I'm currently helping to support my two cousins. They're both in college and have partial scholarships, and their mom, my aunt, is a hairdresser and has her own issues to deal with. Have you seen what college-age girls eat? I don't know how they get it all down and stay skinny, but they do. Follow me."
She walked into the kitchen. Surprisingly Duncan came after her. She pointed at the dry-erase board. "You see that? Our family schedule. Kami is an exchange student. Well, not really. She was in high school. She's from Guam. Now she goes to college here. She's friends with my cousins and can't afford her own place. So she lives here, too. And while they all help as much as they can, it isn't much."
She drew in a breath. "I'm feeding three college-age girls, paying about half their tuition, for most of their books and keeping a roof over their heads. I also have an aging car, a house in constant need of repair and plenty of student loans from my own education. I do all of this on a kindergarten teacher's salary. So no. Taking out a loan on my house, the only asset I have in the world, is not an option."
She stared at the tall, muscled man in her kitchen and prayed she'd gotten through to him.
"While this is all interesting," he said, "it doesn't get me my two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. If you know where your brother is, I suggest you tell him to turn himself in. It will go better for him that way than if he's found and arrested."
The weight of the world seemed to press down on her shoulders. "No. You can't. I'll make payments. A hundred dollars a month. Two hundred. I can do that, I swear." Maybe she could get a second job. "It's less than four weeks until Christmas. You can't throw Tim in jail now. He needs help. He needs to get this fixed. Sending him to prison won't change anything. It's not like you need the money."
The ice returned to his cool, gray eyes. "And that makes it all right to steal?"
She winced. "Of course not. It's just, please. I'll work with you. This is my family you're talking about."
"Then mortgage your house, Ms. McCoy."
There was a finality to his tone. A promise that he meant what he said about throwing Tim in jail.
How was she supposed to decide? The house or Tim's freedom. The problem was she didn't trust her brother to do any better if she mortgaged the house, but how could she let him be locked away?
"It's impossible," she said.
"Actually, it's very easy."
"For you," she snapped. "What are you? The meanest man on the planet? Give me a second here."
He stiffened slightly. If she hadn't been staring at him, she wouldn't have noticed the sudden tension in his shoulders or the narrowing of his eyes.
"What did you say?" he asked, his voice low and controlled.
"I said give me a minute. Maybe there's another choice. A compromise. I'm good at negotiating." What she really wanted to say was she was good at negotiating with unreasonable children, but doubted Duncan would appreciate the comparison.
"Are you married, Ms. McCoy?"
"What?" She glanced around warily. "No. But my neighbors all know me and if I yell, they'll come running."
The amusement returned. "I'm not here to threaten you."
"Lucky me. You're here to threaten my brother. Practically the same thing."
"You teach kindergarten you said. For how long?"
"This is my fifth year." She named the school. "Why?"
"You like children?"
"Any drug use? Alcohol problems? Other addictions?"