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A s Brooke McKaslin stepped foot outside onto the porch, a full moon peered over the stand of tall evergreens bordering the neighborhood. A touch of a chill hovered in the May evening. She slipped onto the top step and drew the edges of her cardigan sweater closed, remembering too late she was missing a button.
Night settled in a peaceful way. Somewhere a frog croaked from the ditch on the other side of the trees. Two or three streets over a car engine, in obvious need of a muffler, roared to life. Other than that, the neighborhood remained quiet. Golden light on curtained windows shone from nearby trailers where folks were cozy. She shifted on the step, as restless as she always felt when she came to Bozeman to visit.
It didn't help that her life was in turmoil. She'd just lost her job in Seattle because of cutbacks, leaving her financially strapped. Her stomach knotted at the inadequate amount in her savings account. Best not to think about that now. She'd come to Montana to lend her support to the family rallying around her younger sister, Brianna. Last year Bree had been critically injured in a violent robbery. A terrible time.
God had been graciousBree had survived and recovered fully. Now she would be a key witness for the prosecution in the upcoming trial. No one should go through that experience without family. Brooke's personal problems? They paled in comparison.
She breathed in the scent of lilacs from the bushes next door, drawing in the sweet, cool air. It felt good to have a moment to herself. She loved her family, but they wanted her to move to Montana permanently; they wanted her to put aside her past and be the girl they once knew.
Truth was? She did, too. The faint drone of the TV mumbled through the walls. She'd left her half sister, Colbie, and Colbie's mom, Lil, calling out questions to Alex Trebek's answers. No doubt they were still at it. She smiled, wishing she could have a regular life. That she could be that girl her family remembered, the one who believed in the good in people, the girl who had always known freedom.
Overhead stars glimmered like dreams far out of reach. She wondered how far away heaven was through the vast mystery of space. Did God see her sitting here worrying about her sister? She hoped He had heard her prayers.
Something crackled in the fenced yard next door. Twigs snapped. Bushes rustled. A bear tromping through underbrush couldn't make that much noise. Curious, she craned her neck to see if it was man or beast, but she couldn't see a thing. Just the tall fence and blooming lilacs.
"Oscar! Come back here," a man called. "Bad dog!"
His words held no sting but a hint of laughter as something scrabbled against the wooden fence. Paws appeared over the top followed by a snout and two short, floppy ears. A dog carrying something bulky in his mouth popped over the top rail and launched into the air.
"Oscar!" A dark head of hair bobbed on the other side of the fence boards. "Don't you dare run off!"
Brooke was on her feet before the dog's four paws hit the lawn. There was no other fence to slow down the escapee, not that a six-foot one had seemed to stop him. Although this neighborhood was quiet, a major road sat on the other side of the trees. That had to be hazardous for a dog on the loose.
"Here, boy." She held out one hand, running to intercept him. "Good, Oscar."
The yellow Lab spotted her, clutching something in his mouth. His surprised eyes glinted in the glow from the streetlight as he skidded to a halt in front of her. In a bid to change directions, his hind legs churned up grass and he bolted off down the middle of the road.
"Oscar!" A man landed with a two-footed thud in the flowerbed next to her. "Wow! That was close. I'm impressed. You almost had him."
"Almost doesn't keep him safe." She glanced over her shoulder at the trailer behind her, the door firmly closed. They were definitely alone. Shyness gripped her. "He went that way."
"Thanks." The man flashed a smile, glowing white in the deepening shadows. He dashed away, a tall, muscled athlete with brown hair and battered sneakers. That was all she noticed before he was lost in the darkness, his footsteps echoing.
Should she have run after the dog, too? She stared down at her combat boots. Not exactly running shoes. She wasn't athletic, either, at least not these days. Once she'd run cross-country and loved it, but then she'd loved a lot of things in life before they had been taken away. Before she had lost everything.
How could she help Oscar? The dog obviously didn't fear roads or cars. She bowed her head where she stood, clasped her hands and reached out in prayer. Father, please let Oscar's owner catch him before any harm can come to him. Let there be a happy ending.
When she opened her eyes and raised her head, she was sure the stars twinkled more brightly.
Did she hear the faint beat of paws against pavement? She tilted her head, straining her ears. Yes, thumping paws and heavy breathing were definitely coming her way. Oscar raced down the street toward her, galloping as hard as his four paws could carry him. His jaws stilled, stretched around something bulky clamped between his teeth.
"Oscar!" She took off, her boots clomping, but no way could she catch him. "Hot dogs! Cookies! Pizza!"
Words the dog knew. The Lab skidded to a stop, eyes wildly searching for what were any canine's favorite foods. She neatly wrapped her fingers around his collar. "Good boy, Oscar."
What looked and smelled like a baked ham dropped to the pavement as he hopped in place. Her arm jerked with his movements and her biceps burned trying to hold him. His teeth glistened in the half-light and excitement sizzled in his big brown eyes as if to say, "Oh, boy! Where's the pizza?"
"Good tactic." The dog owner's pleasant tenor rumbled close and his hand clasped the collar next to hers. "I'll have to remember that next time. Thanks for pitching in."
"Sure. I didn't want something bad to happen to him." Shyness seized her again. It was impossible not to notice the stranger's impressive height and the strong plane of his chest an inch from her shoulder, so she stumbled back a few steps where it felt safer and easier to breathe.
"Something bad is going to happen when my grandmother gets a hold of him." Amusement, not anger, laced his words. "He's going to be banned from the kitchen for months. Maybe forever."
"That's not surprising." She watched the stranger clip a leash to the collar and pat the dog's head. The Lab, obviously unconcerned with his disobedient ways, panted in appreciation, tongue lolling, before snatching his prize from the ground.
"I can't believe him." The tall guy shook his head. "He's not even sorry."
"Doesn't look like it since he's now eating the ham." She wrapped her arms around her middle, battling shyness. She was way out of practice when it came to guys. She'd worked in a women's halfway house for the past year. After what she'd been through, it seemed a good fit.
Men? They hadn't even been on her radar, not since her last boyfriend ruined her life nine long years ago. But something about this man drew her. Maybe it was his kindness as he gently wrestled the chunk of meat from the dog's mouth using not a single harsh or impatient word.
Definitely a nice guy. The faint glow from the streetlight gave an impression of high cheekbones, a straight nose and an unyielding line of a square jaw. He was gorgeous. Really gorgeous. That made her uncomfortable, too.
The neighbor's porch light came on and Mrs. Jones threw open her screen door.
"Did you catch that dog?" the elderly lady called out. "What about my ham?"
"I don't think you want it back, Gram." He held up the slobbery, half-eaten chunk. "It's a lost cause."
"I knew as much but I had to hold out hope." Mrs. Jones shook her head, clearly disapproving. "That was a good ham. I planned for the leftovers to last all week."
"I'll replace it."
"I told you that dog was more trouble than he was worth." A good-natured tone went along with those words. "You should take him back to that shelter. Make them return your money."
"Someone had to save him."
"It didn't have to be you." The door banged closed.
"Yes, it did." The handsome man trained his attention back to Brooke. "I decided my life was too boring so I visited the pound and took on a new adventure."
"It's good to see you're getting plenty of that. And exercise, fresh air and a larger grocery bill." She willed her feet to move but they didn't. They remained stuck firmly to the ground and she had to wonder why.
Maybe it was simple curiosity. She wanted to see his smile in full light. The streetlamp overhead tried to illuminate him, casting a glow over his substantial height and broad shoulders and adding highlights to his brown hair. But his smile? It remained elusive in the shadows.
Why on earth was she wondering about some man? It was a total mystery.
"This is proof. You really have to beware what you pray for," he quipped, tucking the slobbery, half-devoured remains of the ham beneath his arm like a football. "I don't want you to get the wrong idea. I've only had Oscar two days. We're still getting to know each other and I'm finally figuring out the dog can't be trained."
"Sure he can." Brooke went down on both knees. As a farm girl, she was an animal lover from way back. "I've trained more than a few dogs in my day, so I know a great dog when I see one. You are it, Oscar."
At the sound of his name, the Lab leaped at her, licked her chin and danced in place. Probably remembering her earlier promises of cookies, hot dogs and pizza. "There's nothing wrong with his memory. I wish I had a cookie on me."
Both dog ears perked up. Brown eyes sparkled merrily as if to say, "Cookie? Where?"
"Oops, maybe I shouldn't have said that." She didn't have to search her pockets to know there wasn't anything she could offer in its place.
"It's okay. I have dog biscuits in my truck. C'mon, troublemaker." A few paces brought him to a big blue pickup sidled up close to Mrs. Jones's fence. The Lab's tail whipped back and forth as he bounded behind his owner. The truck door whispered open and after a little digging a bone-shaped treat appeared. The Lab lunged, clamped his teeth around the treat and crunched happily, crumbs raining from his mouth. His owner faced her. "You must be one of Colbie's sisters. You look a lot like her."
"I'm Brooke. I'm technically her older half sister."
"I'm Liam. I haven't seen you around before. I would have noticed."
She blushed. Had he just paid her a compliment? "Oh, I'm largely forgettable."
"I doubt that. Do you live around here?"
"Just visiting." She took a step backward, afraid her tongue would tangle any minute. A smart girl would escape while she could. When he gazed at her with piercing blue intensity, she felt smaller, aware of the past that haunted her. The past that would always stand between her and a normal life. She lost who she'd been and she didn't know how to get that woman back. "How about you, Liam? Do you visit your grandmother often?"
"Whenever she can tempt me with good cooking." He had eyes the color of the sky at first light. The truest shade of blue she had ever seen. Dimples bracketed what was a picture-perfect smile. "How long will you be staying in town?"
"A couple of weeks, then it's back to Seattle."
His gaze brushed over her and her heart skipped a beat. The synapses in her brain ceased firing. Her feet lost contact with the pavement beneath her. Strange. Very strange.
"Oh, the trial. Of course." He snapped his free hand, the one not holding on tightly to the Lab's leash. The dog leaped up and down and pulled at his tether, scenting the air. "Oscar's looking for the ham. He's incorrigible."
"You're going to keep him, aren't you?" She inched close enough to stroke her fingers across the animal's soft head. She thought of the shelter, of caged doors and win-dowless walls, and shivered. She thought of no hope, no escape, no freedom. "You're not going to take him back to the pound?"
"No way. Gram was just joking. I hope." He patted his dog on the back. "Oscar's just a little excited, and I'm not exactly sure, but I don't think he's ever been left alone with a ham before. He lost his head and grabbed it before I could stop him. Next time he'll know better."
"Or run faster."
"A possibility." He chuckled. "Oscar catches on pretty quick. He likes you."
"Something tells me he likes everybody." A lock of dark hair tumbled across her face like a curtain, but it couldn't mask her beauty. She had a delicate heart-shaped face, deep violet-blue eyes and fragile features. She was petite, lost in the size-too-large sweater and jeans she wore. Brooke McKaslin reminded him of a spring dawn, so still a man might miss it entirely unless he really took the time to look.
When he did, nothing before had ever seemed as beautiful.