Sample Sunday: “Grace Rises to Nick’s Bait” FUR BALL FEVER

……  Nick found himself staring at Gracie’s back in disbelief. She was blowing him off. He lengthened his stride until he paced beside her again. Seriously worried, he raised his voice. “Wait one cotton pickin’ minute.” A pedestrian turned and stared at him with interest so he reduced the volume. “You can’t go in alone. They could be dangerous.”

“Goodness, how you love to exaggerate. We’re talking about our neighbors. Suburbia. The American dream. Nothing will happen to me.” While marching, she managed to rummage in her purse with one hand and dig out a canister. “But on the off chance anything goes wrong, my pepper spray goes everywhere I go.” She waved it at him.

His patience snapped. “Put that damned thing away before you blast me in the face.”

Her scowl warned of an imminent explosion. “Stop treating me like a moron. I’m not one of your usual Twinkies.”

Big tactical error. He had to redeem himself. In the past, a touch of humor had always helped bring women around, so he smiled and said, “I know what the problem is, darlin’. You don’t trust yourself around me. Sometimes I don’t even trust myself around me.”

She sped up. “In your dreams, Nick.”

Right. Gracie wasn’t like other women. Keeping pace, he tried a less humiliating approach. “You’ll never get a foot inside the Lombardis’ door. Krissi hates you for clobbering her with your purse. And even if you manage the impossible, you can’t go and confront her with dog theft. If she’s guilty, who knows how she’ll react?”

She hit him with a glare. “I’ve given this plenty of thought. I’m going to tell Krissi I’m making amends to everyone I’ve harmed as part of my new 12-step program.”

“I had no idea you had an addiction problem.”

She huffed out a sigh. “I don’t. It’s only a cover story. I’ll apologize then suggest a nice girls’ night out at a casino.”

He frowned as he studied her earnest expression. She was dead serious. Truth be told, if she managed to hold onto her temper, it was a brilliant strategy for getting inside without any fuss. There was only one tiny problem. “A casino, huh?” he said. “In that case, I assume your new 12-step program has nothing to do with drinking or gambling.”

She gave him a superior smile. “Overeaters Anonymous. Krissi always calls me fat, so she’ll believe it’s true.”

“You’re not fat,” he interjected with conviction.

“Nice save,” she said. “To sweeten the deal I’ll give Krissi this twenty dollar gift certificate for Harrah’s Casino.” Gracie dug into her purse again and pulled out an envelope. “ Do you believe they sell these things online?” She stuffed the envelope back.

Her forethought was impressive, but Nick wasn’t ready to give up. There was another flaw with her plan, and he felt compelled to point it out. “Even if you pull this off, how will you know if Miss Coco is there?”

“I have my sniffer dog.”

Murphy chose that moment to strain toward a fire hydrant. She stopped to let him sniff.

Nick watched the dog stake his claim. “Yeah. I can see how he’ll be invaluable.”

She ignored his sarcasm. “Murphy hates Miss Coco’s guts. If she’s on the Lombardis’ property, he’ll let me know.”

Nick thought longingly of the caveman approach. He wanted to drag her home by the hair and lock her safely inside. To hide his frustration, he bent over and scratched Murphy behind the ears. Once he’d arranged his face into a neutral expression, he straightened and said, “Heaven help you if you fly off the handle the way you did with Oliver.”

“I most certainly did not fly off the handle with Oliver. I took a calculated risk.”

He folded his arms across his chest. “I won’t let you do this alone.”

She looked as if she wanted to stomp her foot but managed to pull herself together. “You’ve conducted one too many security gigs,” she said with remarkable calm. “Nothing bad will happen to me. I have my cover story, I have my pepper spray, and I have ten times more brainpower than you credit me with. It’s not like I’m going in, guns blazing, to accuse the Lombardis of stealing dogs. I merely want to assess them as potential candidates.”

Damn, but she was serious. Didn’t she realize that if the Lombardis had stolen the dogs, she might be in real danger? A sliver of alarm scraped over his nerves, and then he relaxed as he hit on the perfect solution, indeed, the only possible solution. Manipulation and trickery.

With a supercilious grin fixed firmly in place, Nick employed his most reasonable tone. “Look at you. You’re flying off the handle already.”

She made a strangled noise in the back of her throat.

He shook his head in mock resignation. “See what I mean?”

Through clenched teeth, she said, “I can be non-confrontational with the best of them. In fact, I can be the soul of discretion and charm.”

“I bet you can’t hold it together for more than thirty seconds.”

“Thirty seconds?” Her voice tightened. “Why, you condescending, chauvinistic—”

“You’re proving my point.”

He watched how her jaw tightened and those kissable lips thinned to a fine, white line. Finally she blew out a long breath. “I can do better than thirty seconds. I’ll hold it together the whole time we question the Lombardis.”

Her use of the word “we didn’t escape him. He pretended to ponder her claim before making a sly offer, one he hoped would ensure his presence. In his most officious manner, he drawled, “Listen up, darlin’. Let me explain how it’ll go down. As long as you stay calm I’ll pretend I’m invisible. But when you lose your cool, and I guarantee you will, I’ll step in and do damage control.”

She started to sputter.

Nick interjected, “Of course if you feel you can’t control yourself, you can chicken out. I’ll understand.” He held his breath.

There was anger in her eyes, and determination. “I can’t wait to prove you wrong.”

Nick breathed out a sigh of relief.

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