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Removing the old playhouse from the slope behind Diane Bittner's house had been on her to-do list for ages. But she'd put it off because the ginger cat that hung out in her yard liked to sun itself on the roof. Also because her late husband, Will, had put a lot of love into planning and overseeing the construction. Whenever she looked at it, she saw him once again, grinning at their daughter's eagerness to stage her first tea party.
Now, at twelve, Brittany had outgrown the playhouse, which was succumbing to dry rot. Eventually, Diane planned to hire someone to remove it, but September had arrived already and she was busy with her fourth-grade class.
Perhaps she should have been grateful then, when one Saturday afternoon the new neighbor behind herthe man whose hammering and sawing had been making her life miserable for weeksdropped a tree on it.
But she wasn't.
First, the crash scared the stuffing out of the cat, Lucy, who leaped off her perch just seconds before the pine slammed down. With a screech of protest, Lucy sailed through the air, hit the ground running and disappeared.
Second, the crash startled Brittany into jerking a spatula out of the cake batter she was mixing. Yellow goo fanned across the kitchen table, nearly splattering Diane, who sat writing welcome notes to her students.
"What was that?" Her daughter stared through the kitchen window toward the slope. "Mom, there's a tree on my playhouse!"
Diane sat frozen, as her heart thundered inside her chest. The crash had yanked her backward two years to another boom that had erupted out of nowhere. One minute she and Will had been strolling happily through a street fair, and the next, he was crumpled on the pavement, with a bullet in his chest. Diane's childhood sweetheart and husband of nearly a dozen years had died as paramedics struggled to save him.
"Mom!" Her daughter's voice pulled her back to the present.
Shaking off her anxiety, Diane got to her feet and peered out the window. The playhouse lay crushed beneath a large tree that had tumbled over the iron fence separating her yard from the one behind.
This new neighbor was dangerously careless, Diane fumed. Why on earth had he sawed into a tree without calculating where it would land?
Noisy renovations had begun almost immediately after the man's arrival. The fellowa divorcé with a daughter, according to Diane's neighbors in the Harmony Circle developmenthadn't bothered to stop by and introduce himself, let alone apologize for the racket. People were usually more considerate in Brea, a smallish town tucked into a cozy inland corner of Orange County, California.
That must be her neighbor now, opening the gate in the fence. At last he was going to have to apologize.
As he descended the stone steps embedded on one side of the sloping perimeter, Diane reluctantly noticed the easy sway of his jeans-clad hips and the muscular expanse of his chest. The breeze ruffled the man's dark-blond hair as he surveyed the damage.
"Gee, he's kind of cute," Brittany declared. "I mean, for an older guy."
There was something familiar about him. Something that, despite his good looks, made Diane uneasy. "What's he doing?" she groused.
"I think he's looking inside, to see if anybody got hurt." Brittany started for the back door. "Aren't you coming?"
"Of course." Diane decided she could hardly blame a man for fixing up his propertyand mistakes did happen. While these weren't the best circumstances for a first encounter, at least he'd apparently come to set things right.
On the bright side, he'd no doubt offer to remove what was left of the structure, which would save Diane the expense. Private-school teachers didn't earn a lot, and her finances had been on a tight leash ever since her husband's death.
After mopping up the cake batter, she followed her daughter through the den and out the sliding glass door to the patio. Shading her gaze against the sun, Diane heard the man calling, "Hello? Anybody hurt?"
She appreciated his concern. And once again she couldn't help noticing his easy, muscular movements.
Not that she took any personal interest. Her mother and sister, who lived across the street, kept urging Diane to date. But she was nowhere near ready to seek a replacement for the gentle man who'd been her soul mate.
Then the stranger straightened and faced her. When he met her gaze, she received her second shock of the afternoon.
She knew him.
His name was Josh Lawrence or Lorenzo or something like that. Better known as Juror Number Seven at the trial of the gunman who'd shot her husband.
A minority of one on an otherwise sensible jury, he'd allowed the killer to go free.
JOSH LORENZ couldn't believe the new gardener he'd hired had made such a boneheaded miscalculation. His intention to supervise the work had been interrupted by a phone call that had sent him inside to consult a file on his computer and it had all happened so fast.
Josh took pride in hiring only the most skilled professionals, whether for himself or for the clients he served as a building contractor. Now he'd sent this new guy packing before racing over to apologize and to make amends.
Until today, he'd avoided his neighbor. Too bad the real estate agent hadn't mentioned her name until after escrow closed. Even though he'd have hated to lose the place, Josh had no desire to inflict any further pain on Diane Bittner.
Across the backyard, the rear slider scraped open and a girl about his daughter's age emerged. That must be Diane's daughter, Brittany.
Behind her, he glimpsed a woman with long golden-brown hair, whose dark eyes were rapidly widening with alarm. A hum of response swept through Josh. He felt as if he knew her intimately as a result of those weeks in the courtroom and her testimony on the witness stand.
His final sight of her had come after the judge had dismissed the hopelessly hung jury. As she stood in a corridor of the Orange County Superior Courthouse surrounded by the eleven jurors who disagreed with him, Josh had slipped by, certain that he'd done his conscientious best.
All the same, he wished he hadn't been the one to bring further distress into her life.
Since then, the scenario had often replayed itself in his mind. Hector Fry, a nineteen-year-old ex-gang member, claimed he'd fired out a window by accident while snatching away his mother's loaded gun from a five-year-old relative. The prosecution, seeking a conviction for second-degree murder, contended that Hector had remained loyal to his gang and was aiming at rival gang members attending a street fair.
Based on court testimony and documents admitted into evidence, Josh had formed a reasonable doubt about the young man's guilt. It had seemed so at the time, anyway, although the anguish evident on Diane Bittner's gentle face when the foreman read the verdict haunted his dreams for months afterward.
Well, that was water under the bridge. Or a smashed playhouse under a pine tree, in this case.
She reached the foot of the slope. Even on a warm Saturday, when most of the women in Brea would have tossed on shorts and a tank top, Diane Bittner had dressed in a crisp print blouse and tailored slacks. An elegant woman with a generous mouth and understated femininity, she made Josh keenly aware of his stained T-shirt and all the calluses he'd developed over the years of construction work.
"Mrs. Bittner," he said politely.
Lawrence?" Tension strained her voice.
"Lorenz. First name's Josh." He considered extending a hand and then decided against it. For one thing, the lady might not welcome the gesture. For another, his hands were far from clean. "I'm really sorry about the mess. I'll fix the damage, of course."
Her daughter broke what threatened to become an awkward silence. "I'm Brittany." She smiled at Josh, all sweetness and innocence in a flowered apron that his daughter, Carly, wouldn't have worn for a million bucks. Josh's rebellious off-spring refused to put on anything that wasn't black or purple, although underneath that prickly exterior there remained a young girl who still had the power to melt his heart.
"Pleased to meet you." He was glad Will Bittner's only child hadn't attended the trial. Nobody deserved to lose a parent that way, or to hear the painful details dragged out in court.
"My mom's name is Diane," the young girl volunteered.
"I'm pleased to meet her, too." In truth, they hadn't met, despite sitting a dozen feet apart throughout the trial.
Diane pressed her lips together. Apparently, this meeting distressed her beyond words.
Josh felt bad all over again. But a little irked, as well. He'd done his best to be fair. Jurors were just ordinary people trying to sift through the evidence as best they could.
"We were going to tear down the playhouse anyway," Brittany told him. In her apron pocket, a cell phone rang.
He couldn't remember the last time Carly had said, "Excuse me." Once when he'd reminded her of her manners, she'd joked, "What is this, Buckingham Palace?"
Okay, so his daughter was a smart aleck. She'd had plenty of sarcastic things to say about moving here from nearby La Habra and about the private school in which he'd enrolled her. But the move marked an important step toward Josh's goal of ensuring them both stability and self-sufficiency.
She'd be all right once she made some friends.
The two adults were standing there awkwardly when Brittany clicked off. "Mom, I forgot I promised to help Suzy with her math. She's home babysitting her brother. May I go?"
Carly would have muttered, "See ya," and whisked out the door while Josh was pumping her for details. Still, she generally behaved well around other adults.
"Of course, honey," Diane said.
"My best friend lives down the block," Brittany explained. To her mother, she said, "I'll put the batter in the fridge. Don't try to bake the cake yourself, okay? I'm going to make layers with filling. And please don't use the butter for anything else. I need it all for the icing."
Josh hadn't realized girls this age ever ventured into a kitchen except to grab a snack. "That sounds delicious."
Brittany grinned. "I'll save you a piece. I love people who aren't on diets. Nice to meet you."
She kissed her mother on the cheek and departed. Diane's expression softened as she watched the girl sweep into the house.
When she returned her attention to him, a pucker formed between browsas shapely as the rest of her. Although there was nothing blatant about this woman, her delicate features and air of restrained sensuality tantalized Josh.
His tastes, which had once run to glamour girls, must finally be maturing. Not that the change would do him any good. Diane Bittner probably rated him somewhat lower than pond scum.
Returning to the business at hand, he indicated the fallen tree. "I can cut that up for firewood." All the houses in this neighborhood came with fireplaces, regardless of southern California's famous good weather. "And remove the playhouse, if that suits you. What were you planning to replace it with? I'd be happy to grade the soil for you, too. Looks like the perfect spot for a gazebo."
Her gaze shifted to the damaged structure. "I hadn't thought about what I'd put there. Doesn't grading require special equipment?"
"No problem. I'm a building contractor." Josh patted his pockets, finding keys but no business card. "I should write down my phone number. Also, I'll need yours." Seeing her hesitation, he added, "To check with you before I intrude on your property. I'm afraid I haven't brought any paper, though."
She frowned. "I'd rather not
Oh, never mind. We might as well be civil, since we are neighbors. But that's as far as it goes." Diane turned and walked back to the house, her honey-brown hair swinging with an easy rhythm.
Josh hurried after her, grateful for even a modest truce.At the sliding door, he stepped out of his battered loafers and entered, immediately responding to the soothing scent of vanilla.
Then his eyes came to rest on a large image of a beaming, tuxedo-clad William Bittner on his wedding day, one arm encircling his radiant bride. Among various informal shots surrounding it was one the prosecutor had displayed in the courtroom, of the new father gazing lovingly at a baby in his arms.
A good man. Certainly a much more solid member of society than the confused kid who'd shot him.
Josh pulled his eyes away to survey the adjacent kitchen. The cabinets showed wear, the linoleum needed replacing and the dishwasher, oven and stovetop were all at least fifteen years old.Yet the cheerful wallpaper and flowered curtains spoke of a real home in a way that no decorator model could match.
Diane wrote her phone number on a slip of paper and Josh followed suit. As they stood side by side, the top of her head just reached his jawline. He registered the appealing fragrance of rose-scented shampoo.
The overhead lighting flickered. "Those fluorescent tubes should be replaced," he observed.
"I just replaced them. It didn't help," she replied impatiently.
He understood her frustration. He had the same fixtures in his house, at least until he got around to replacing them. "The ballastthe transformersmust be shot. I could take care of that."
She stiffened. "I'd rather hire someone. Thanks all the same."
Josh didn't see the point in paying top dollar for such a minor job. Besides, he enjoyed helping people. "Are you sure?"
"Frankly, I'd prefer that we have as little
" Diane took another glance outside and then stopped talking, open-mouthed.
It was a common reaction to his eleven-year-old daughter, Josh reflected as he spotted Carly. Apparently considering the unlatched gate to be an invitation, she was clumping down the stone steps with a camera slung over her shoulder.
She'd tied back her untidy pink-and-purple-streaked hair, leaving random bits sticking out. The hem of her black skirt dragged on the grass and there was a rip beneath the arm of her purple jersey. As a finishing touch, she was wearing a pair of granny boots.
Carly had purchased the outfit, along with most of her other clothes, at a thrift store in their former hometown, sniffing at Josh's offers to take her to the mall here in Brea. She'd also chosen bright-green braces for her teeth instead of the traditional silver, and her fingernails were painted a shade of purple so dark that it was almost black.
"That one's mine," he admitted. "She and Brittany must be about the same age."
"I expect so, since they're both in sixth grade."
Josh gave a start. He'd forgotten that Diane taught at Brea Academy, which accepted students from kindergarten through eighth grade. "She's in your class?"
"No. I teach fourth grade. But she does stand out. She's usually alone, even at lunch." Momentarily, Diane seemed to forget her dislike of him as she watched the girl photograph the ruined playhouse from several angles. He admired her for allowing her instincts as a teacher and mother come to the fore. "She always carries that camera. It puts a wall between her and other people, doesn't it?"
He'd never considered his child's hobby in that light. "That wasn't the idea when I bought it. Quite the opposite." Pleased when Carly had expressed interest in a hobby, he'd splurged on the camera last Christmas. To him, photography had seemed a means of engaging the world, not keeping it at bay.
"She's so isolated," Diane continued thoughtfully. "Any particular reason for that?"
Although she was prying, Josh didn't mind. He was glad she'd set her resentment aside. More importantly, on the subject of his daughter, he needed all the help he could get.
"Her mother left when she was seven, and her stepfather isn't crazy about kids," he explained. "Tiffany pops in and out of Carly's life when it suits her. That plays havoc with her emotions."
Diane nodded. "She should get to know Brittany and Suzy. She'll adjust more easily if she has friends outside school."
She'd allow his daughter to hang out with hers? That was quite a generous concession.
"I appreciate that. Brittany seems amazingly well-adjusted, considering
" Josh halted, mortified.
Diane's shoulders were absolutely rigid. Darn, did he always have to put his foot in his mouth? "She's very kind. And that was generous, offering me a slice of cake," he added quickly.
She avoided his gaze. "Please don't encourage her. She latches onto father figures much too easily. Her grandmother and aunt live across the street, but that doesn't seem to help all that much."
"I'm not sure I know how to discourage her," Josh admitted. "I'd hate to hurt her feelings."
"Well, figure out a way, or she'll be showering you with baked goods. I don't want to have to tell her who you
What you did."
The thought troubled Josh. "I'm truly sorry my position upset you, but I had a reasonable doubt. I still do."
"And I have reasonable doubt about your sanity." Anger flashed across Diane's face.
The pain of her loss was obviously still raw, even after two years. Josh appreciated what a terrific husband and father Will Bittner must have been. If he could restore the man to life, he'd do it. But sacrificing the confused, good-hearted kid who'd shot him wouldn't have accomplished that.
Outside, his daughter chose that uncomfortable moment to start toward the Bittners'house. Josh hoped she hadn't noticed them arguing. And wondered how he was going to explain it, if she had.
For his daughter's sake, he'd hate to see this issue come out in the open.