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The house stood silhouetted against a cloudless sky, the landscape frozen and still under the onslaught of one of Central Florida's infrequent cold fronts.
Just like the last time she had stepped foot on this property.
Jessica Parker drew in a deep breath and threw open the car door, stopping short of dinging the shiny red Lotus sitting next to her Bug. As she stepped into the frigid night air, she pulled her coat more tightly around her, the cold outside mirroring the chill within. Eight long years, and nothing had changed. The same huge oak shadowed most of the front yard. The same potted plant waited by the front door, hiding the key to the house. And as she made her way up the cracked cement drive, she was hit with the same lack of warmth that she had always associated with home.
She squatted to tilt the pot, then heaved a sigh. The key was gone. Priscilla was still messing with her, even from beyond the grave. She straightened and walked back to her car to grab a screwdriver. It had been years since she had picked a lock. But that wasn't a skill easily forgotten-like riding a bike.
The sliding glass door was her best bet. It had been her most frequent middle-of-the-night point of entry after her sister had locked her out. Priscilla's favorite pastime had always been thinking of ways to get her in trouble. Of course, Jessica had given her plenty to work with. But those days were over. She was a law-abiding citizen now.
She rounded the back of the house. Good, no Charley bar. A sliding glass door without it would be no match for a screwdriver in practiced hands. She squatted and slipped the flat tip under one of the doors. A twig snapped a short distance away. Her senses shot to full alert, and she eased to her feet, gripping the tool like a weapon. But all was still. Eerily so.
Of course it was. This was Harmony Grove, not Miami. At two in the morning, all its citizens would be home in bed, fast asleep. Shaking off the last of the uneasiness, she resumed her work on the locked door, then slid it back in its track. She hadn't lost her touch.
Her confident smile faded the instant she stepped into the kitchen and flipped the light switch. Every cabinet door was open. Dishes and utensils filled both sinks and covered the countertops in haphazard stacks. Pots and pans littered the floor, and the overflow occupied the four-person table. Her sister had grown up to be quite the slob. It would take days to get everything clean and back into the cabinets. Especially with no dishwasher.
Irritation surged up inside her, with guilt on its tail. She had tried to set aside her animosity toward her sister, now more than ever. But this was so typical of Priscilla. Acting with total disregard for anyone who might be affected by her selfish decisions.
A closer look, though, shattered her initial assessment. These weren't dirty dishes. In fact, there wasn't a dirty plate, glass or piece of silverware in the bunch. What was Priscilla doing? Why empty all the cabinets?
Jessica pushed a stack of pans away from the edge of the table to clear a spot for her purse, then hung her jacket over the back of a chair. When she reached the end of the counter, she stopped in the open doorway of the living room. Decorative throw pillows littered the floor, and couch cushions rested at haphazard angles, as if Priscilla had been looking for something. She moved farther into the room. A photo frame lay facedown on the end table, and she reached to stand it up. Priscilla stared back at her, sending an unexpected jolt coursing all the way to her toes.
Jessica drew in a steadying breath. She had buried the past and moved forward with her life. And she had done well. Then she got that phone call. And now she was back. It was hard to keep the past buried when she was surrounded by it, memories dogging her at every turn, a blond-haired princess accusing her with those crystal-blue eyes.
She picked up the frame for a closer look. Priscilla had grown up to be quite pretty. She had been a chubby-cheeked thirteen-year-old when Jessica left, with a lingering childishness and an angelic innocence that fooled ninety percent of the people she met. The woman in the photo looked neither childish nor innocent. Though she wore a pleasant half smile, her features held hardness, hinting at a life that had knocked her around and the barriers that had gone up as a result.
What had happened? What could be so bad that she believed she had nothing to live for? Why does anyone take their own life?
She set the frame back on the table and kicked a pillow aside. Two bedrooms waited for her down the hall, likely in the same shape as the other rooms. She stopped at the first open doorway, and dread washed over her. No, this was much worse.
It was her and Priscilla's room, frozen in time-the twin beds and their whitewashed headboards, the chest with five drawers, three of which Prissy had always managed to claim, and the mismatched vanity, which Prissy took over from day one. They had always had to share a room. And Jessica had hated every minute of it.
But the mess made the room almost unrecognizable. Every dresser drawer had been pulled out, clothes scattered from one end of the room to the other. The contents of the closet contributed to the disarray. Cloth-covered hangers, even a pair of crutches, jutted up from the chaos at odd angles. This wasn't Priscilla's doing. Someone had ransacked the house.
She backed into the hall, ready to call the police. But she didn't make it far. As she reached the living room, a muffled squeak sounded in the kitchen. Like the rubber sole of a tennis shoe against the vinyl-tile floor.
Apprehension sifted over her, raising the fine hairs on the back of her neck. She stood frozen, ears cocked for any sign that she wasn't alone, mind ticking through her options. Her phone was in the kitchen with her purse. So was anything she could use as a weapon. If she had to defend herself, it would be through hand-to-hand combat.
A face appeared around the wall separating the kitchen from the living room, then disappeared a nanosecond later. Her heart began to pound and her muscles tensed as adrenaline pumped through her body. Someone was in the house. And not knowing whether he was armed or had brought buddies, she decided that standing her ground and fighting was a last resort.
She bolted toward the front door. Heavy footsteps sounded behind her. She would never get the door open before he reached her. Her best weapon was the element of surprise. At five foot three and a hundred twenty pounds, no one expected her to pack a hard punch.
Or a devastating kick.
She spun to face him, disconcerted at how much ground he had covered in such a short time. She had less than a second to respond. She raised a knee and thrust outward with a boot-clad foot. It contacted with a thud and a whoosh of forcefully exhaled air. The impact sent him flying backward onto his rear. But he didn't stay there. In fact, he didn't really land there, just used the whole experience as a launch into a backward somersault that brought him effortlessly to his feet.
At least he wasn't armed. Not that she could see anyway. She couldn't vouch for what might be hiding under that black leather jacket.
Whatever it was, she wasn't going to give him a chance to reach for it. She charged forward, feet flying. A well-placed kick to the gut doubled him over, but he managed to turn and deflect the majority of the follow-up punch to the face. A steely hand clamped around her wrist, thrusting her forward and flinging her to the floor in front of the entertainment center. He hurled himself toward her, but before he could pin her, she was back on her feet, ready with a kick to the chest.
His body slammed backward into the coffee table with the crack of splintering wood and the crash of shattering glass. One more kick should put him down for the count. But she never got the opportunity. In one smooth motion, his hand swept inside his jacket and emerged with a pistol. It was pointed at her chest.
"Sit. Over there. On the couch."
His voice was husky. She liked to think it was from the blows she had delivered. For several moments she stood unmoving, except for the rapid rise and fall of her chest. Her heart pounded and her mind churned. A low crescent kick would probably send the gun flying. It could also get her killed. Not worth taking a chance.
But she wasn't ready to back down. If he intended to shoot her, he would have done it already. "Who are you?"
He raised himself to a seated position, eyeing her cautiously. "How about if you talk first, considering I am the one with the gun." He flashed her a smile that would have appeared amicable without said gun. "Tell me what you're doing sneaking in here in the middle of the night."
She stared down at him, trying to size him up. She had never seen him before. If she had, she would have remembered him. If not the sandy blond hair that fell around his face and neck with careless abandon, then those warm green eyes with their golden flecks. Or his perfect white teeth.
He was exactly the type she would have gone for a few years ago-wild and carefree, with just enough bad boy to keep things exciting. But she had learned her lessons. And she wasn't going there again, well-fitting dress jeans and black leather jacket aside.
"So are you going to answer me?"
His eyes held hers a moment longer. Then she threw back her head and laughed. She had known that the town of Harmony Grove wouldn't roll out the welcome mat for her. But she hadn't expected to be greeted like this, either.
Shane Dalton eased onto one hip and shook his head. The woman was certifiably nuts. But she had some wicked kicks. He was just going to restrain her until he could find out who she was and what she was doing there. But those boots. They seemed to come out of nowhere. And he was hard-pressed to accomplish what he needed without striking back.
He pressed a finger to his left nostril, trying to stem the trickle of blood that grew worse the longer he was upright.
He needed a wet rag. An ice pack wouldn't hurt, either. His head throbbed, with most of the pain concentrated on his nose. If he hadn't turned when he did, she would have broken it. The woman's punches were as deadly as her kicks.
He pushed himself to his feet, determined not to wince. He was so going to pay for this tomorrow. And judging from her satisfied smirk, she knew exactly how much of a beating she had dished out.
"Well?" he prodded.
Except for two brief times when her gaze flicked to his weapon, her eyes never left his. Now that he was standing, at least as straight as his protesting body would allow, she was forced to look up, even with those killer platform boots.
"This is my house."
He cocked a disbelieving brow. "And do you regularly enter your house at two a.m. via a screwdriver?"
"When I don't have a key."
He took several steps back and, once out of reach of those lethal feet, lowered his weapon and leaned against the wall. He was starting to ache all over. "And I assume the Harmony Grove Police would confirm that?"
She raised her chin a little higher. His implied threat to call the police hadn't rattled her in the slightest. Her eyes held a challenge, delivered with a confidence that bordered on cockiness. Her dark hair was cut in a bob, short and sassy, and a burgundy sweater and black jeans molded themselves to a body that was lithe and athletic. Of course, he had already experienced some of that athleticism firsthand.
"Tell me your name."
"Jess Parker. Like I told you, this is my house. At least, it's my family's house."
"Yes, and the Harmony Grove Police would confirm that." She lifted one foot to rest on the only piece of the coffee table frame that was still vertical, wedging its point in the arch of her boot. "And who are you?"
"Shane Dalton, your new neighbor."
She gave him the same look he had given her earlier, full of skepticism. "And you regularly follow single women into their homes in the middle of the night and accost them?"
"If they look suspicious enough."
Her gaze narrowed further. "If we're neighbors, where do you live?"
"Right over there." He pointed out the front window to a building that sat kitty-corner. "That's Yesteryear Antiques."
"I know. There's an apartment over the store. I just moved in today."
"And the Harmony Grove Police would confirm that?"
He restrained the urge to laugh. She was a master at turning the tables. "I don't know about the Harmony Grove Police. But I'm sure the Harrisons would, since they're the ones who collected my rent."
She dropped her foot to the floor and planted both hands on her hips. "That still doesn't explain what you were doing here in the middle of the night. Armed, I might add."
He gave her a half smile. "You're not very trusting, are you?"
"Let's just say I haven't met many people who are deserving of trust. So answer my question."
"I couldn't sleep. I was looking out the window, saw you pull up and start looking for a way into the house. I figured I'd better check you out." It was the truth. Just not the whole truth. "Not knowing your intentions, I decided to grab my gun. Turns out, I needed it."
She lowered her fists from her hips, but gave no indication that she believed him. "Moving into a new neighborhood and accosting its women is a good way to get yourself killed." Her tone was scolding.
"Somehow Harmony Grove doesn't strike me as a dangerous kind of place. Besides, I didn't accost you. If you'll notice, you hardly have a hair out of place, while I'm the one trying to keep from bleeding all over my fancy leather jacket."
One side of her mouth slid upward into a crooked grin, and she brushed past him on her way to the kitchen. "Come on, let's get you cleaned up. Are you bleeding anywhere else?"
"I haven't taken inventory, but I think this is it. The rest is internal."
"I'm sure you'll live." She lifted a towel from a folded stack on the counter and held it under a stream of cold water. "And the table? You didn't get cut?"
"My jacket kept most of the glass out of my back." He removed the item to inspect it. The leather had fared well. Other than a couple of small nicks, it had come through the ordeal unscathed. The glass was probably tempered.
Once he had hung the jacket on the back of one of the kitchen chairs, she pulled the chair out and pushed him onto it.
"Hold still," she commanded, and began wiping the blood from his nose and lip. Her touch was amazingly gentle, considering she had used him as a punching bag only moments earlier.
"Where did you learn to fight like that?"
"Six years of tae kwon do. I'm a second-degree black belt."
"I see." That would have been nice to know ahead of time.