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The trouble with fairy godmothers was they never hung around long enough to see how their magic turned out, twenty-seven-year-old Rowena Brown thought, racing up the steps to the Whitewater Sheriff's office. Now, Cinderellashe'd gotten the lowdown about the coach turning back into a pumpkin come midnight. And in Sleeping Beautyeven the Disney versionMaleficent blabbed to the whole kingdom about the princess's pricking-her-finger-on-a-spindle clause.
But when great-auntie Maeve MacKinnon from County Meath had predicted Rowena would meet her soul mate in this quaint Illinois town, the ninety-year-old Irishwoman had failed to mention that three weeks after Rowena moved in, her personal bad boy would end up in the slammer for breaking and entering. God knew how much it was going to cost her to bail him out.
Rowena shook wisps of waist-long curls the color of daffodils out of her eyes and hugged her beloved red and gold tapestry bag tight against her in an effort to calm the butterflies rioting in her middle. Her sisters had claimed that Rowena could hide a kindergartener in the purse made out of a salvageable piece of antique Oriental rug she'd gotten at an art fair. Unfortunately at the moment, she was about as likely to find bail money inside the thing as she was a gap-toothed five-year-old.
Every cent Rowena had she'd invested in spiffing up her newshop on Main Street: nailing on a roof that didn't leak, buying bright chrome cages to line the walls and putting in a "get acquainted" room designed to tempt even the most retiring wall-flower to play. But if Clancy had already gotten himself in this much trouble, there was obviously one more accessory she neededto invest in. Stronger locks.
In a swirl of purple peasant skirt and jangling bracelets she shoved open the door to the drab brick building and rushed up to the desk labeled Information. Rowena couldn't help doing a double-take. The officer/receptionist who presided over the gateway to the room beyond looked disturbingly like one of those guys in the shako hats who guarded the Wicked Witch's castle in The Wizard of Oz.
He seemed as taken aback by Rowena's appearance as she was with his. She should be used to it by now. But then, ever since she'd set foot in Whitewater, the whole town had been gaping at her as if she'd just dropped in from another planet. Maybe she had. Chicago, with its bustling streets and delicious diversity, seemed a galaxy away.
"I've come about Clancy Brown," Rowena told the receptionist as she tried to shake the image that kept popping into her mindthe pot-bellied deputy chatting it up with one of those creepy flying monkeys.
"Brown, Brown " the man mumbled to himself as he scanned the register in front of him. "I'm sorry, ma'am. There's no one here by that name."
Panic buzzed in Rowena's veins. "Clancy has to be here! My neighbor said one of your deputies picked him up about an hour ago."
The deputy grabbed a mug that said Kiss My Bass. "Your neighbor must have been mistaken."
"That's impossible. The deputy gave her this card when he hauled Clancy off in his squad car."
Smiththat was the name on the officer's plastic name tagslugged down a gulp of coffee as Rowena dug through her purse in search of the cardboard rectangle she'd plucked from Miss Marigold Pettigrew's frantically gesticulating hands twenty minutes ago. The sharp corner of the card jammed under Rowena's thumbnail. Breath hissed between her teeth at the sting, but she dragged the card out, triumphant.
"Here it is," Rowena said, resisting the temptation to pop her thumb in her mouth to cool the pain. Instead she squinted at the embossed lettering. "Deputy Cash Lawless, Whitewater Sheriff's Office."
"Cash? Holy sh" Smith choked, coffee threatening to spray the papers on his desk. He thumped his chest in an obvious effort to clear his windpipe. He struggled to sober himself, but his eyes were actually watering with the effort it took. "Excuse me, ma'am," he said, clearing his throat. "I didn't realize that Deputy Lawless was the arresting officer in your case. The perpetrator you're looking forMr., um, Brownis currently awaiting transport to"
"Death row if Cash has anything to say about it," a rangy guy with a nose roughly the size of the Sears Tower called out, the room erupting in laughter.
"Death row?" Rowena's stomach whirled as the Brown family's hamster had the time her younger sister Ariel bounced Nibbles down the basement stairs in one of those clear plastic balls. "You can't mean that!"
"Potter, you're a real comedian." Smith shot a quelling glare into the cluster of desks and uniformed officers. "Can't you see the lady is upset? Hey, Cash?" he bellowed, angling his gaze in another direction. "The lady here needs to see you about that burglary you just busted up." Shuffling, scuffling sounds came from all over the office as everyone craned to see the scene unfolding.
Applause broke out as a man stood up from the desk in the far right corner of the room, his back to Rowena and the chorus of gibes ringing out from his coworkers.
"My hero "
" deserves a medal for courage under fire "
But Rowena barely heard the teasing. The business card fluttered, unheeded, from her numb fingers as she focused on the rear view of the dark-haired man who was the focus of the whole room's attention. If Deputy Smith had reminded her of an evil castle guard, this Lawless seemed more like a general about to institute a Scorched Earth campaign and enjoy every minute of it.
Stiff shoulders stretched the back of a khaki shirt with sharp creases still ironed into the sleeves as he hung up the phone he was talking on. Dark hair cropped with almost military precision didn't come close to reaching his collar. His well-tailored pants skimmed an ass a jeans model would envy, muscular legs seeming almost too long to be real.And clean? Her mom could do surgery on that desk of his. Rowena figured there wasn't a speck of lint or dog hair in the world rash enough to cling to the man's clothing. Although women would probably stand in line to take them off.
She smoothed one hand down the crinkled fabric of her peasant skirt, reminding herself she'd rumpled it on purpose as Lawless turned around to face her. Every nerve in Rowena's body flashed an all-points bulletin: Warningsubject armed and dangerous. Do not approach.
The deputy even had warning flares of a sort emblazoned on his broad chest, Rowena gauged, his starched shirtfront splotched with vivid orange and yellow stains.
His features were harder to make out, half obscured as they were by the blue beanbag-shaped thing he clutched to the left side of his face. But she glimpsed a belligerent chin, a hawklike nose and a vein beating a very dangerous rhythm in his right temple.
"Head right on back there, Ms. Brown." Deputy Smith gestured with his coffee cup. "Deputy Lawless will see you now."
Rowena thanked him and started toward the far more intimidating man. Her heart raced. Deputy Lawless looked for all the world as if he was itching to shoot the place up. That is, if someone could shoot up a crowded sheriff's office with only one working eye.
And that was all Deputy Lawless had at the moment, from what Rowena could tell. The thing on his face was an icepack. His other eye, a penetrating whiskey brown, glowered at Rowena as if she'd just ripped off the collection box for the sheriff department's Widows and Orphans Christmas Fund.
Oh, God, Rowena thought as the man lowered the cold pack. His eye was almost swollen shut. This was not good. Clancy had really ticked this guy off. Was it possible that her Clancy had given him that shiner? No way, Rowena reassured herself quickly. Clancy might be completely out of control, but he would never hurt a flea.
Deputy Lawless crossed to a sink by a coffee station and dumped the icepack, then homed in on Rowena, his face un-yielding as stone.
"Deputy Lawless." She started to offer him her hand, then thought better of it, winding her fingers in the strap of her bag instead. "I'm Rowena Brown. I own the new pet shop in town."
The deputy's disapproving gaze swept from the lingerie-inspired camisole clinging to her shoulders by thin spaghetti straps to the scuffed toes of the Frye boots one of her mother's friends had broken in at a protest march in the seventies. "I know who you are."
He didn't say "everybody in town does," but Rowena could hear what he was thinking. You're the crazy lady who claims she can read animals' minds.
Not that she could, exactly. It was more like being a sort of matchmaker. Sensing when a certain person and a certain pet were destined for each other. And once that instinct kicked in, she had no peace until she'd settled them together. Another supposed "gift" from Auntie Maeve, inspired by the old tin-whistle tucked in the desk drawer at the pet shop.
Wouldn't that be big fun to explain to the stone-faced man standing before her? A smear of red on the left side of his corded throat snagged her gaze. Blood? Her lungs squeezed shut. Better to get down to the crisis at hand.
"There's been a terrible misunderstanding." She couldn't stop staring at his neck, terrified she'd find broken skin.
Aware of the direction of Rowena's gaze, Lawless swiped one hand against the spot on his neck, then glanced down at his stained fingers. A muscle in his jaw knotted as he grabbed a tissue and scrubbed the color away. Thank God, Rowena thought. His skin was smooth, tannedfar too luscious looking for anybody as tightly wound as he was.
"Miss Marigold ran over to my shop the instant I got back and told me she'd called you," Rowena continued. "I'm so sorry for the inconvenience. She's flighty as a hummingbird trapped in a mason jar."
Lawless gave the best Medusa impression Rowena had ever seenthe guy should have been able to turn her into stone with a look like that. The last thing Rowena needed was to get this man's back up any more than it already was.
Rowena's hand fluttered as if to sweep her too-colorful description of Marigold Pettigrew away. "What I mean to say is that Miss Marigold is very excitable."
Lawless's scowl chilled even further. "Most people tend to get a little upset when they hear an intruder bashing around on the first floor of their house. Even in small towns bad things can happen to women who live alone."
Guilt elbowed Rowena as she imagined her neighbor terrified. "You're right, of course. I'm so sorry she was upset."
She was getting frostbite here. Lawless folded his arms over his chest. The stains on his shirt seemed as foreign to him as blacked-out teeth on Cary Grant. It looked to Rowena as if the deputy had tried to scrub out the spots peeking over those tautly muscled arms, but had given up. "By the time I got to Miss Marigold's place, her shop was in shambles," he said. "God knows how long it will take her to clean it up."
Chastened, Rowena swallowed hard. "I'm sure Clancy didn't mean to cause trouble."
"Clancy?" The deputy's gaze narrowed. He winced as the bruised skin around his eye tugged. "Who's Clancy?"
At Lawless' blank look, Rowena rushed to explain. "My dog. He's about this high." She held her hand mid-waist. "Black, with a white patch on his chest."
Lawless' lip curled, his voice rough around the edges as if he smoked a pack a day. Funny, he didn't smell of tobacco. "There's no Clancy here, Ms. Brown."
Rowena cocked her head to one side, confused. "But Miss Marigold said that my dog"
"The dog that broke into the tea shop is named Destroyer."
Alarm bells jangled Rowena's nerves. Was it possible this Lawless man knew She scrambled for a quick feint, settling on wide-eyed innocence. "No, Deputy. You're mistaken. My Clancy"
Lawless cut her off. "Destroyer has a rap sheet of prior offenses three pages long. Most of which I had to file, since he has a rotten habit of popping up on my shift like Cujo out of a closet."
Rats. Rats. Double rats, Rowena thought, struggling to keep her voice calm. "First of all, Cujo was a Saint Bernard and Clancy is a Newfoundland. Second, Stephen King writes fiction, Deputy Lawless. The dog in that novel was no more real than the crazed Chevy he wrote about in Christine."
"The King book this case reminds me of is Pet Sematary, where animals keep coming back from the dead. Three weeks ago, I delivered this very dog to Animal Control clear across the county and they swore I'd never see him again."
Outrage flared in Rowena's chest, drowning caution. "Animal Control?" She sputtered. "Don't you know how many animals they have to put down?"
"As a matter of fact, I do." Deputy Lawless planted his fists on his narrow hips. "They don't have any choice when an animal is out of control and a danger to others."
"Clancy's not a danger to anyone!" Rowena protested.
"You're mixing him up withwith some other dog. It's a case of mistaken identity."
The chill in Lawless' tone snapped. "Lady, I could pick Destroyer out of any lineup you could name," he growled. "That dog has been a pain in my behind for almost a year. He's a public nuisance, running at large. And this time he added assaulting an officer to the mix."
"Assault?" Rowena's heart hit the floor. "Did he bite you?"
A barely stifled laugh came from somewhere in the room, the other officers enjoying the show. A muscle in the deputy's jaw jumped in irritation. "He slammed one of Ms. Marigold's swinging doors into my face." Color darkened Lawless' high-set cheekbones. "When I identified myself as law enforcement, the dog lunged through the swinging doors between the kitchen and the tea room and"
"That was an accident," Rowena objected, imagining Clancy's joyful response to a human voice. "He was just trying to greet you."
"That dog couldn't have landed that blow any squarer if he'd aimed it!" Lawless challenged, his good eye blazing.
"You were probably in danger of being licked to death!" Rowena scoffed. "He loves people."
"Yeah. That dog adores me. About as much as I like him."
"If Clancy caused trouble, I'm the one to blame." Rowena thumped her chest with her flattened palm.
"If he caused trouble?" Lawless pointed to his injured eye.
Rowena swallowed hard. That was a really impressive shade of purple the deputy had going there. "What I'm trying to say is that Clancy's behavior is my responsibility."
"Then you should be damned glad it's my eye that's turning black and blue. If that little old lady had been walking into the dining room with those scones she'd just baked you'd have a hell of a lawsuit on your hands."
"Scones?" Rowena gasped. "Oh, God. That must've been what he was after." When she had researched the Newfie's history, she'd cried over the report about how badly his first owner had neglected him. Clancy still went a little postal when his dinner was late.
She'd love to get her hands on the monster that had left him to starve. "Deputy Lawless, if you only knew about what Clancy went through before I got him"
"I'm more worried about what almost happened at that tea shop," Lawless cut in, judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one. "If that dog had bowled Miss Marigold over, he would have shattered her into a million pieces."
Rowena paled at the image the deputy painted in her mind. Her hand clenched around the strap of the tapestry bag. "But he didn't."
"This time," Lawless asserted grimly. "Now I don't care how many aliases you and those bleeding heart animal lovers at the shelter give this monster. He's a menace. And it's my duty to make damned sure he doesn't get another chance to break someone's hip."
"But you don't have any legal recourse," Rowena said with an edge of desperation. "He didn't bite anybody. Besides, it's his first offense."
Lawless rolled his good eye. "And Charles Manson just crashed a few parties. Like I told you, Ms. Brown, Destroyer"
"That's what I'm trying to tell you. This is just a case of mistaken identity. The dog in question isn't this Destroyer maniac you keep running on about. The dog you picked up is my dog, Clancy. He's had all his shots. All his registration stuff is filed. I'll pay for whatever damage he did to Miss Marigold's tea shop."
"You sure will. You're legally liable," Lawless said. "Once you take a look and add up the cost of what Destroyer's done you'll probably be begging me to take the dog back to the shelter. Any sane person would."
"And I'm not sane, is that what you're implying? Because I think an animal's life is worth more thanthan a bunch of old china teapots?" Rowena craned up on tiptoe, peering around the room in an effort to find her dog. "I'll buy the woman new ones."
"She doesn't want new ones. Some of those had been in Ms. Marigold's family since the Revolutionary War. If you had seen that poor old woman picking up all those bits of broken china, crying her heart out "
Rowena fretted her bottom lip at the picture Lawless painted, but a long, mournful howl from somewhere nearby drove back anything but fear for the animal in such danger. She edged around the deputy and tried to make a break toward the sound. But his hand closed around her arm, stopping her in her tracks. Rowena started at the feel of his callused palm against her bare skin, his fingers imbued with a more powerful authority than even the badge pinned on his shirt-pocket gave him.