Although the sun barely streaked the sky with orange, Grace Donnelly’s morning had already thundered downhill with the speed of a Japanese bullet train. As much as it galled her to come crawling, she needed Nick Jackson’s help, she needed it now, and she refused to leave without it.
In her opinion he owed her. Big time.
Once she reached her destination Grace stopped walking. Set alight by the rising sun, Nick’s house glowed amber in its setting of faux-Victorian seaside homes. Four months ago she’d have unlocked the door and dashed inside for some chocolate breakfast pastries, a triple espresso, and a little early morning delight. Not necessarily in that order. Today she wished she was doing anything else – like cleaning toilets perhaps, or undergoing root canal surgery.
In case Nick was watching she smiled with a serene, I’ve-got-it-all-together confidence she was far from feeling.
A cascade of excited yaps jolted her back to reality. She tightened her grip on the schnauzer’s leash and made soothing noises. Undeterred, Murphy strained toward familiar turf.
“Behave, Murphy. We are so, so over Nick,” she said, more to convince herself than to calm the dog. She gave his wiry head an affectionate scratch as she studied the house. “We don’t need an overbearing chauvinist to make us feel fulfilled.”
Murphy gave a mighty tug.
She let him pull her across the street, along the walkway, and up onto the front veranda. As she’d foreseen, the vine she’d planted last spring had climbed the trellis to provide dappled shade. She could hear Coldplay belting out the alternative rock Nick loved. Based on the gurgle of water gushing through pipes he was in the shower.
Suppressing a twinge of conscience she jabbed the doorbell. Bad luck for him, but the first forty-eight hours were critical in crimes of this nature. As Security Director of the gated community where they lived, he controlled access to the surveillance system. The security video was her best bet for identifying the crook who’d broken into her house last night and turned her world upside down.
The chimes faded, leaving only the thump of rock music and Murphy’s enthusiastic panting. Overhead a bird tootled its greeting. She took it as a sign of encouragement and punched the doorbell again.
The music stopped in mid-sentence. Behind the house, clearly audible in the morning stillness, waves sighed against the Jersey Shore.
Grace withdrew to the patch of landscaping stones out front to toss a pebble at the second-floor bathroom window. She smoothed a palm over hip-hugging jeans, guaranteed, according to the label, to diminish butt and thighs. A crimson tank top maximized the cleavage Nick adored.
The window swung open, releasing a cloud of steam, a billow of curtains, and a muttered curse. Murphy yipped his adoration. She shaded her eyes against the sun’s dazzle to squint at the dripping figure. Her platform sandals, selected for the height boost, wobbled on the uneven ground and spoiled the cool, collected image she wanted to project.
A familiar bourbon and cream voice said, “For crying out loud, it’s way too early for …” Nick’s gaze locked onto hers. His mouth flattened into a thin line. Streaky brown hair, sable now with dampness, spiked against his forehead.
She beamed an airy, carefree smile in his direction.
Predatory grey eyes were cold as the North Atlantic in January. “Well, well, well,” he drawled. “If it isn’t Grace Donnelly, girl crusader.”
He leaned out a little more, providing a breathtaking view of powerful shoulders and a manly expanse of torso. From the way his face creased into a sardonic smile she knew he hadn’t forgiven her.
Not that there was anything to forgive.
Although her heart galloped in her chest, she met his gaze with queenly calm. No way would she let him glimpse how much she’d missed him during the four months since their romance had crashed and burned. “My goodness,” she chirped, going for the light approach, “don’t tell me you’re still calling grown women ‘girls’.”
He took a corner of the towel and dabbed his neck. “Still the same fire-breathing feminist I see.”
Gah! “That’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said,” she replied, hoping her unruffled expression hadn’t congealed into a grimace.
His eyes scanned her face. “I barely recognized you with dark hair.”
The return to her natural color was a small but meaningful step toward reclaiming her power. With a jaunty flip of her hand she said, “I needed a change.”
He leveled his gaze at her. “That’s not exactly the change I was hoping for, darlin’.” All traces of moonlight and magnolias vanished from his voice. “I was thinking more along the lines of a big old attitude shift.”
“My attitude’s peachy. Let me in. I need to talk to you.” He’d managed to get under her skin already, dammit. Remembering her objective she added a belated and heartfelt, “Please.”
“You’ve had all summer to talk to me.” He paused long enough to make her fidget before continuing, “Seeing as how you hung up on me three times, I figured you were happy with the way our little arrangement ended.”
She lifted her chin a notch. Sure, he’d called. And each time, he’d refused to listen to her explanation. Did he seriously expect her to roll over and apologize? Her temper spiked, simmering close to the surface. She reined herself in enough to say, “Can we discuss this inside – like two adults?”
His silent scrutiny made her want to squirm. After an eternity he said, “Only if you’re here to admit you’ve developed common sense and prudence over the summer.”
How dare he think for one moment he had the right to lecture her? She enunciated her next words with precision. “I don’t want to have this conversation through a bathroom window. Let me in.”
“Not until you admit that what you did on our last date was dead wrong.”
She reviewed the events of that fateful date. Okay, so her actions might have been a tad risky – okay, make that downright dangerous – but how could she have ignored someone who needed help? She’d only been protecting her elderly neighbor from a robbery. Surely Nick knew another heart attack would have killed poor old Elvira.
She drew in a calming breath. “I did what needed doing.”
“You risked your life.”
“I had no choice. If I hadn’t – ”
“You nearly got yourself killed. I hate it when my dates do that.”
“The bullet missed by a mile.”
“The bullet missed by a hair. You might not be so lucky next time.”
“But you saved me. No harm, no foul.”
Nick’s throaty growl left no doubt about his agitation. With visible effort he collected himself. “You’re a loose cannon, darlin’,” he drawled. “Keeping you alive and out of trouble takes too much out of a man.”
His icy tone jolted her back to her senses. “Wait,” she said, remembering she needed to watch the security video. “You’re the Security Director of Saltwater Estates. I’m here on official business.”
The air sizzled between them. When he spoke, his tone was curt. “In that case, Ms. Donnelly, I suggest you phone to schedule an appointment.” He pulled his head inside and started to close the window.
She forced her tongue around the next words. “Please, Nick. I need your help.”
The window halted its inward swing. His face reappeared.
A white knight couldn’t resist the call of a damsel in distress. That was the upside of dealing with a male chauvinist. Concentrating on looking needy, which wasn’t too difficult all things considered, she added, “It’s an emergency.”
He merely grunted, but she noted his eyes brightened with interest. She dangled one final carrot. “It’s life-and-death. I’ll explain everything once you let me inside.”
She let out her breath and was preparing to admit defeat when he ground out the words she needed to hear. “You’ve got exactly five minutes.” His head disappeared.
The front door swung open in record time. A stained glass fanlight projected rainbow colors onto the foyer tiles. Grace swept inside, her gaze fixed on Murphy, who was hell-bent on tripping her in his excitement at reuniting with his favorite alpha male.
Concentrating on keeping her balance, she noted the bare feet attached to sinewy legs. Murphy gave the feet an enthusiastic lick. Grace allowed herself an upwards glance. A shiver of awareness ran through her. She had to hand it to Nick. He pulled off half-naked with flair. It wasn’t fair how good he looked, especially dripping wet and wearing only a towel and a scowl.
Taking the initiative, she thrust out her hand. “Nice to see you again, Nick.”
All of you.
The warm, rich scent of skin-warmed sandalwood soap mingled with bacon and coffee. As he gripped her hand, his towel parted to reveal a sliver of tanned thigh dusted with fine hair. She yanked her hand away, but not before heat rose in her cheeks.
“It’s a little late in the game for blushes, don’t you think?” he drawled, pin-pointing the direction her thoughts had taken.
She watched with interest as his dark brows drew together in a frown that would send most women running for the hills. Grace held her ground, noting the way his fingers danced over the scar under his left ear before gripping the knotted towel, as if to hold it securely closed. Even the good ol’ boy act he could summon up as a disguise revealed a healthy case of nerves. The man was as jittery as a mouse in a litter box.
The hint of vulnerability perked her up. He wasn’t as indifferent as he wanted her to believe. She said, “Thanks for offering to listen.”
“You mentioned a life-and-death situation.”
Terrycloth stripes drew her gaze south. Nick might not look pleased to see her but apparently Mr. Happy had a mind of his own. For one fleeting moment, she stared at the nicely-tented towel. A warm ache started in the pit of her stomach, circled her belly, and lodged with humiliating precision in her girl-parts.
She dragged her gaze upwards to focus on his mouth. “Yeah, about that. I find I’m in need of … ah … your services.”
One eyebrow shot up.
Oh, dear. He thought she was coming on to him. “To help solve a crime,” she elaborated.
His gaze sharpened. “So you’re in a whole heap of trouble.” The word ‘again’ hovered, unspoken, between them.
She gave him the full impact of her baby blues. “It wasn’t my fault,” she said. “And you’re the only person who can help.”
He expelled a sigh. “I reckon you’re chomping at the bit to tell me what’s going on.”
She lowered her eyelashes to hide a glint of triumph, and said, “Last night, someone kidnapped Miss Coco Chanel.” She glanced up to assess his reaction.
Nick’s eyes narrowed dangerously. “You mean to tell me you interrupted my shower over the disappearance of some fancy French fashion designer?”
In his agitation he let the towel slip an inch. To her regret he tightened the knot.
“Nope.” Grace fixed her gaze on his face, and infused her voice with amused tolerance. “That Miss Coco died decades ago. I’m talking about a poodle. Last year’s Fur Ball winner.”
“Your life-and-death crisis is a missing dog?” He shook his head. “I can’t believe I’m standing around half-naked and dripping, listening to nonsense about a poodle emergency.” His muscles bunched as he took a step toward the door.
Determined to make him see reason, she moved between him and the door. “Hear me out. Ruby-Pearl Baumgartner – she’s my client, and she’s pushing ninety if she’s a day – asked me to mind her poodle so she could visit her brother in Minneapolis while he recovers from surgery. Ruby-Pearl never goes anywhere without her pet, but her brother’s allergic. I’m the first person she’s ever trusted enough to mind Miss Coco.”
At his impatient sigh she talked faster, running the words together. “But I digress. Who knew a tiny dog could make so much noise? Then again, she probably missed her mommy. Anyway, last night I locked Miss Coco in the kitchen, stuffed in earplugs, and got my first decent night’s sleep in two weeks. Too bad Auntie Beth forgot to lock the back door after a night out with her cronies. Someone snuck in and stole the poodle.”
To Grace’s relief, Nick appeared to forget he’d been about to kick her out. Amusement lightened his eyes to silver. “Ah. Our party girl strikes again.”
Grace nodded. “Auntie Beth never outgrew the Swinging Sixties.” She saw no need to enlighten Nick on the fact that her aunt had confessed to enjoying a few joints of Acapulco Gold with her buddies before rolling home too wasted to do anything but crash.
“The dog made a break for freedom,” he said with certainty.
“Miss Coco didn’t run away. Someone stole her along with her leash, doggy dish, and chew toy.”
“I’m sure your aging flower child simply misplaced them.”
Although Grace didn’t blame him for the assumption, she bristled. “Not this time.”
Nick’s gusty sigh caused his chest to rise and fall. “Did you call the police?”
“Naturally. The cops don’t give a damn. I overheard them snickering about the great poodle heist.”
Nick’s lips gave a telltale twitch, but he refrained from commenting. Wise man.
Thinking of Ruby-Pearl’s devastation if she learned she’d never see her precious ball of fluff again, Grace got to the point. “I need you to bend the rules and let me watch last night’s security video. It’s motion-activated, right? It’ll show who entered and left Saltwater Estates between midnight and morning.”
“Think again, darlin’. I can’t violate regulations.” His voice had taken on a new wariness.
She studied him intently. Rules had never figured prominently in Nick’s life. Hadn’t she joined him in the security kiosk one memorable Friday evening? Between bouts of lovemaking, they’d entertained themselves by watching video images of cars entering and leaving the gate.
“When did you start obeying rules?” she asked. “Remember the time we – ”
His growl cut her off in mid-sentence. “That was an error in judgment. I should have known better.”
“I have only six days to find Miss Coco before Ruby-Pearl comes home. She’s entered Miss Coco in the Fur Ball.”
He reached for the door handle. “Don’t get all riled up, darlin’,” he said in a soothing tone, the same tone parents used to calm a cranky child. “You’ll find the dog.”
“You don’t understand. Ruby-Pearl never married. Miss Coco’s like the child she never had. If I don’t find the dog, she’ll be devastated.”
Gripping his towel in one hand, he used the other to twist the door handle. “Sorry darlin’. You don’t seriously expect me to buy that ridiculous excuse. Miss Coco’s a poodle, not a child.” As the door swung open, he fixed her with an assessing stare. “I’ve got it. You’re worried about yourself. That’s what all the fuss is about.”
“Myself? What do you mean? This has nothing to do with me.”
“Really? Who in their right mind will trust a pet spa owner who loses dogs?”
It took several seconds for Grace to process Nick’s words. When the meaning hit home, her knees weakened, and not in a good way. “Oh, my God,” she said, trying to breathe around the constriction in her chest. “You’re right. I was so focused on poor Ruby-Pearl’s reaction, I didn’t even consider the impact on my business. If I don’t find Miss Coco, Pawsitive Energy Pet Spa will fold, I’ll have to declare bankruptcy, and the bank will re-possess everything I own.”
“I rest my case,” he said, though he looked somewhat less sure of himself. “But as usual, you exaggerate. I bet Miss Coco is waiting for you at home.” He jabbed a thumb toward the open door. “Bye now.”
She ignored his gesture. “This is terrible. Don’t you see? The worst part is my father will never let me forget he was right. I’ll never make a success of myself.”
She was dimly aware of Nick peering into her face. Heaving a sigh, he took his hand off the door handle. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but if it makes you feel any better, I believe you when you say your first concern was about Ruby-Pearl’s welfare.”
“Gee, thanks,” she muttered. While her head continued to spin, Murphy did a snappy schnauzer dance around her legs. He made throaty little whines and sniffed the bacon-scented air. Drool darkened his adorable salt-and-pepper beard.
“Please hear me out,” she said, hopping on one foot. She shook her leg trying to disengage her ankle from the leash. She gave it one last shot, both for Ruby-Pearl and now herself. “There’s more to this than meets the eye. Miss Coco is just the tip of the iceberg.”
She missed Nick’s response because Murphy chose that moment to strain forward, pulling her with him. For a small dog, he had the strength of a bull moose in rutting season.
On her way past, she flashed Nick an apologetic glance. “Must be the bacon.”
“Murphy,” Nick yelled at the dog.
To Grace’s astonishment, Murphy obeyed, executing a lightning-fast turn to lunge for his hero.
Nick bit out a warning. “Watch out, Gracie. You’re going to – ”
Momentum carried her forward. Murphy’s leash tightened around her left ankle. Teetering on one foot, she released the dog. A hard hand snagged her above the elbow too late to save her. As she started to execute a half-gainer, her brain fired off a frantic warning.
Grab something. Anything. Break the fall.
She groped blindly. Terrycloth parted. In desperation she grabbed hold of solid flesh and held on for dear life.
His muffled howl joined her yelp in a syncopated duet.
At the back of her mind Grace noted that what she gripped was warm and thick and hard. Oh, my! Her last thought in the millisecond before they toppled to the floor in a tangle of arms, legs, and towel, was that for once she was right.
Nick was definitely happy to see her.