Alrighty folks. I’m busy prepping for Dark Hope’s release and planning for my daughter’s college graduation so here’s the last sneak peak of my Christmas book.
Egypt, thank God I didn’t miss you.” Helen Weaver, nee O’Connell, stood on Egypt’s apartment stoop. Her very swollen belly pointed directly at Egypt, blocking the route to the almost-forgotten wedding dress.
“Hello, Helen.” Egypt’s sneakers squealed to a halt. Jingling keys dangled from her fingertips. Her heart slowed to a normal beat. “What brings you here?”
“This. It’s a wedding scrapbook.” She giggled and shoved the gaily wrapped box off her belly and towards Egypt. “I’ve made thirteen of them so far. Well, fourteen, if you count my own. Your sister admired mine so much I made her one.”
Blue ribbon crawled over the silver wrapping paper. A bell tinkled. Egypt balanced the gift on her fingertips. “I’m certain she’ll love it.”
“You are planning on attending the wedding, aren’t you?” Helen waddled closer; her gaze swept up Egypt’s blue jeans and stopped on the embroidered sweater.
She resisted the urge to squirm. Helen had always been the fashion plate. Even now, every hair lay neatly against her head and her clothes emphasized her trim legs while hugging her ripe belly. Egypt swallowed her inadequacies, tucked the gift under her arm and rammed her key into her lock. “Of course, I’m going to the wedding. Paris is my sister.”
“And Darrell is your ex-boyfriend, just like Adam.”
Disappointment gripped Egypt’s lungs. She forced air in and out despite the constriction. Today’s reminders were the humidity before the thunderstorm. Once she was in Dragoon’s Springs, they would be faster than water in a cloudburst. “I attended your wedding to Adam and then Brad’s to Marie and Zach’s to—”
“My, you’ve certainly introduced many of us girls to our husbands.” Helen giggled, backing up a step. Her gaze fell on the steps before she looked back at Egypt.
Fourteen girls, to be exact. And her heart had broken every time.
“Maybe you should start your own matchmaking service.” Helen’s laugh was forced, the notes dropping like stones on asphalt.
Egypt strode across her apartment, shoved up the sleeves of her sweater. A studio. One room. Large enough for one person. A hovel compared to Helen’s four-bedroom Arts and Crafts home in Dragoon’s Springs.
Plastic crinkled as she tossed the wedding dress over her shoulder. “I really need to get on the road.”
“Oh, is someone waiting for you?” Hope flashed on Helen’s round face before fear drew the shutters on her expression. “My sister Karen asked if you were bringing a boyfriend. She just graduated from high school, you know.”
Egypt shooed her old friend outside and faced the door. Karen had been a skinny, scraped-kneed teenager when Egypt left Dragoon’s Springs for college. Now the brat was a young woman prowling for a husband.
“No, I didn’t know.” She hadn’t wanted to put names and relationships to those females awaiting her return. No, not her return home but the arrival of an escort, ripe for the picking. “And no, no one’s waiting for me. I’m fresh out of broken-in boyfriends who make perfect husbands for someone else.”
She turned around in time to see the tears well up in Helen’s eyes. A dainty handkerchief dabbed at her pink nose. Guilt lashed Egypt. Great, now she’d made a pregnant woman cry. Where were the puppies she was supposed to kick? “Helen, I’m sorry. I—”
“Don’t worry about it.” She sniffed, waving the white cloth. “Stupid hormones. Adam comes home and finds me bawling over Hallmark commercials.”
“Still, even an idiot like me could see you two belong together.”
She nodded. “Adam would not have made you a good husband, Egypt. He’s so practical and you’re…” She cleared her throat and tucked her sodden handkerchief in her purse. “You’re so…”
“Whimsical.” Helen’s perfectly manicured hand slipped around Egypt’s and squeezed gently. “You always used to create the most elaborate fairy tales for our Barbies. I guess you were pairing up people even then.”
Egypt fidgeted in her skin. Fairy tales. Those words had crept up once too often today. “I’ll give Paris your present.”
“I know you will but that’s not really why I’m here.”
Helen took a deep breath and caressed her belly. “We were going to name the baby after you but then Adam noticed there are already five girls in Dragoon’s Springs with your name and so we were hoping you’d be her godmother instead.” She released her belly to grab Egypt’s hand. “Will you? I mean, she wouldn’t even be here if you hadn’t brought Adam home that Fourth of July.”
That Fourth of July. Egypt’s first summer after college. She couldn’t wait to show off her cosmopolitan air, not to mention her handsome new boyfriend. She literally ran into Helen at the grocery store, and Adam had ignored his stumbling girlfriend in favor of his future wife. It had taken Egypt twenty minutes to realize she was the third wheel at the fireworks display and not her grade-school friend. Loneliness threatened to drown her. She missed her friend.
“I’d be honored to be her godmother.”
“Thanks. Egypt. You’re such a sweet person. Be sure to stop by my mom’s house before you leave Dragoon’s Springs—I have something for you.”
“You don’t have to give me anything.”
“It’s just Auntie Jane’s old mirror. We converted the guest bedroom into a nursery and were going to get rid of it when I remembered that summer when we were five and you pretended to be Alice and that mirror was our entrance into Wonderland. Do you remember?”
“Yes. You always wanted to be the Cheshire Cat instead of the White Rabbit.”
“I like cats.” Helen frowned at Egypt. “You’re not taking that jacket, are you? Really, Egypt, you’ve lived in the desert too long. The mountains get cold, even in Arizona.”
She shrugged. The weatherman had predicted clear skies and above-normal temperatures for the next week. If it got too cold she would borrow something from her mother or sister. “It’s the only one I have.”
“What about the blue one from our senior trip? You loved that jacket. The whole class was taking bets whether or not you’d sleep in it.”
Egypt strolled to her car and balanced the gift on the pile in the backseat. “That’s about how long it’s been since I last wore it.”
“You should find it. Honestly, Egypt, you’re going to need something warmer.”
“I’ll be fine. Really.”
Helen squeezed between Egypt and the door and tapped her foot against the pavement.
“Look, the jacket’s probably still at my mother’s.”
“Nope. I checked. She said she gave it to you when you were up there last Christmas.”
Last Christmas. The day she’d introduced Paris to Darrell. A pinpoint of clarity amidst the haze of memory. Egypt shook off the thoughts. “You checked?”
“I needed an excuse to see you, all right? I know you haven’t quite forgiven me for stealing Adam. I haven’t forgiven myself for hurting you and…”
“That’s why you haven’t talked to me?” Egypt’s spirits lifted. “I thought you weren’t speaking to me because of what we did to your car?”
“My car? What did you do to my car?” Helen searched the parking lot before her gaze rested on a tan Volvo.
“Uh, I think my jacket is still in the trunk.” Egypt quickly shut the door and walked to the front of the Volkswagen. Either Helen had forgotten about the flat tires on the car or she never found out Egypt had been responsible. Who was she to enlighten her?
With a twist of her wrist, the trunk sprang open. The turquoise jacket lay folded across two smashed boxes. Her mother would kill her if she found out Egypt had been carting around boxes for a whole year.
“It even has the lift ticket.” Helen tugged out a purple scarf from the inside and looped it around Egypt’s shoulders. “Now you’re ready for cold weather.”
Egypt ripped off the ticket and shoved it in the pocket. “I better be off. I’ve deviated thirty-three minutes from The Plan.”
“Oh, no! The dreaded Plan. I swear that was the first four-letter word I learned. Plan.” Helen shuddered.
Egypt felt herself smile. “You have no idea how many times they’ve had to revise it.” She tossed her jacket onto the passenger seat. Her cat rose from his perch and sauntered over.
“Hey, is that Nutz?”
“Yep.” Nutz sniffed the air before strolling closer.
“Hey, Nutz. Do you remember me? I can’t believe you’re taking him. He absolutely hates the snow.” Helen stroked the cat once before he walked away to lie on the coat. “Wouldn’t go outside for anything. And he couldn’t stay inside because of Adam’s allergies. He looks good.”
Nutz preened under the attention.
“I’m taking good care of him.”
“That’s why I agreed to give him to you. Take care, Egypt.” After a brief, awkward hug Helen walked toward her Volvo. “I’ll see you at your parents’ New Year’s Eve party if this baby ever decides to come.”
“Take care, Helen.” The VW rocked as Egypt shut the door. That hadn’t been too bad. Perhaps her luck had finally changed.
* * *
Cade slammed the deadbolt home and rested his head against the door. Safe. At last. His heart slowed to a normal rhythm. Two of the Blue Coats had almost caught him behind the King house. Almost but not quite. Only longtime residents knew about the break in the hedges. The break that opened onto the alley that cut behind his house.
He shifted his weight to his right leg. Cold metal stung his finger as he separated a few slats of the blinds. They were still there, circling his house like buzzards over a lost desert wanderer. A third joined the set. Damn women. He’d have to run the gauntlet to get his dog. He ripped off his baseball cap and raked his fingers through his hair. He would have to call his mother, make sure Pete could stay the night.
The hair on the back of his neck stood up. Awareness pricked along his skin just as perfume teased his nose.
Someone was in his house.
“Alone at last.”
He spun on his heel and stepped back. His head collided with the door; stars exploded inside his skull. Good God. They were invading his house.
“You are a hard man to get alone, Cade Dugan.”
“I–I am.” She stalked towards him. Her hips undulated suggestively. Cade blinked. There was something wrong with her clothes.
“Yes, indeed.” Long crimson nails raked the back of his sofa as her green-eyed gaze traveled up and down his body. “But definitely worth waiting for.”
“I feel at a disadvantage.” The doorknob ground into his back. He never should have left Pete at his parents. No one would have broken into his house with a wolf-dog hybrid on duty.
“I’m Maybelle, Maybelle Collins.” She extended her hand. Blue and purple paint stained her palm.
Cade’s heart raced. She wouldn’t. He scrutinized her clothes. Good Lord, the woman had painted on her clothes. If anyone ever found out he had entertained a naked woman in his house…
A shudder scrambled his thoughts. “What brings you here, Maybelle?” More importantly, how can I get you to leave?
“I thought playing hard-to-get was a woman’s prerogative.”
“That’s okay. I thought choosing whom to court was a man’s.” Cade sidled away from her. Ridding himself of Blue Coats was becoming trickier. He couldn’t toss her naked butt out his front door. This would require more finesse.
“I was tired of waiting at the hotel.” She pouted. “And I missed you at the bakery.”
“I doubt many men missed you looking like that.” Cade reached the kitchen, turned and faced her. She was still there, following him in a stable orbit. Maybe he could shove her out the back door. First, he’d have to find her clothes.
“Do you like it?” Her hands slipped over her blue hips.
A groan slipped past his lips. He had a pulse, didn’t he? Cade shook the insanity from his skull. He couldn’t encourage her. She wasn’t who she wanted to be, even if her curves got him hotter than a NASCAR driver the second before the flag dropped.
“It shows a definite artistic bent.” The uniqueness of the canvas was definitely bent. God save him. Where were her clothes? His gaze swept the living room. Nothing. “Did you use my paint?”
She nodded, trailing her hand along the countertop. “I thought this might help me stand out, make you notice who I am.”
Great, the nuts grew nuttier just to be noticed. And they were touching his stuff. Even his mother knew better than to touch his stuff. Everything was where it was supposed to be, and she had to go and touch it. No one went into his studio unless he was with them, and she had just sashayed into his house. He tramped down the rising anger.
She had to go.
“It worked,” he stated, although not in the way she had wanted.
“You don’t think I’m her, do you?” Her gaze flew around the room, alighted briefly on each breakable item before coming to rest on the glass near her hand.
Great. She was a smasher. His house wouldn’t be able to withstand her wrath. He had to get her out before she inflicted too much damage. “I’d say you were the closest one yet.”
“Do you mean it?”
“I—” Blue flashed in the foliage outside his dining room window. God save him. More were arriving. Arriving. An idea sparked in his head. He had to try, although it might not be effective on a woman who strolled around a complete stranger’s house in nothing but paint and skin. Still, he hadn’t come up with anything else. “Good grief, my parents.”
“Your parents?” she squeaked. Her hands and arms shifted to cover strategic parts of her anatomy.
“Yes.” Relief. He should have known such a crazy idea would work. “They’re here. You have to get dressed.” He inched towards her. No touching, absolutely no touching. He swept the air in front of him, shooing her backwards.
“Dressed?” Her eyes widened in her chalky face.
“You certainly don’t want to meet my folks dressed like that, do you?”
“No. No, I don’t.” She snatched a towel off the counter and held it in front of her.
“Quickly. Where are your clothes?”
“I–I–They’re in there.” She pointed to the bathroom then glanced at her blue-and-purple palms. “Perhaps I should take a shower.”
“Shower.” Cade exaggerated his grimace and added a shudder for good measure. “No. Definitely not. My parents are very old-fashioned. They once thought my high school sweetheart was fast because we kissed after a month of dating.”
“A month?” She streaked across the room, slipped into the bathroom. Fabric rustled. Grunting drifted out.
Cade fixed his gaze on the landscape above the fireplace. “Thirty-six days, to be exact.”
“Yes, but we’re meant to be together. I’m sure— ”
“To this day they cross the street when they see her walking towards them.”
“Oh, dear. I can’t find my shoes.” Flesh slapped tile.
Cade shook his head. No excuses. Shoes or no, she had to go. He wouldn’t mind cleaning up after her. With a smile, he pressed his point. “I could probably explain why you are here without a chaperone. I mean, I know first impressions are so important. I even think Mom’ll forgive you in a couple years.”
The activity picked up. Her panic was palpable. Now all he had to do is spur her to dress more quickly, or she’d grow suspicious when his parents failed to materialize. “Of course, that might make those first years of living with them a bit awkward.”
She poked her head out the door. The rest of her followed.
“We’re going to live with your parents?”
“Oh, yes. We can’t leave Mom to push Dad’s wheelchair about in the snow. You’re young and healthy. I don’t want you to worry, I’m certain you can learn how to place the leeches just so. I mean, no one wants Dad’s leg to putrefy again. The bathrooms still smells…”
“You know, maybe I should wait on the porch.” She stuffed her feet into her shoes and scooted across the carpet.
“Yes, yes.” Her laces slapped the wood floor. Her hands jammed into her jacket. “I wouldn’t want to get off on the wrong foot.”
“No need to worry about that—Dad only has the one.” Her jaw hung open. Cade smacked his forehead. “Oh, you mean figuratively.” He moved toward her. She held up her hand.
“Perhaps you’re right. Mom always said women know best. And Mom is never wrong. I’m sure she’ll like you,” He frowned at her. “Given time.”
“I–I’ll be outside.” Metal rattled as she tried to open the door with the deadbolt in place. “Just give me a few minutes then I’ll knock.”
“Yes, I’ll knock.” She sobbed, twisted the knob and retracted the bolt. “Don’t come looking for me, okay? That way, your mother won’t suspect I’ve been here.”
“Oh, you’re smart. Mom said I should marry a smart one. She’ll be so glad when we walk down the aisle. She has the wedding all planned—she even decorated our new room. I don’t get to live there until after the wedding. Mom insisted.”
“Okay.” She wrenched open the door
“You like blue, don’t you?” Cade stepped after her. She was so frantic to leave she might leave the door open for other Blue Coats. “Of course, you do, you painted yourself with that very color.”
“I’m going to leave now.”
“Yes, like we planned. I’ll go and…” She stepped onto the porch, pivoted about and faced him. “And this is very important. You stay here until I come back.”
“Right. I forgot.” Cade leaned against the doorjamb. His hand rested on the knob, in case anyone else thought to enter his house. “I’ll be sure to act surprised when you come back.”
“Bye, Maybelle.” He waited until she had cleared his driveway before he shut the door. Laughter bounced off the rafters, buoyed his spirit. Who knew revenge could be this satisfying?