"Mom, this is insane! What the hell makes you think Mr. Bowen killed Amy?" Tate muttered as she spat a piece of wet grass from her mouth. Damn, someone had been watering the lawn. Her white top was going to suffer big-time.
"Watch your language! And I know he did. Now keep quiet and crawl or you'll get us caught," her mom said while elbowing her way through the part of the backyard that connected her condo with Mr. Bowen's as swiftly and efficiently as if the fifty-eight-year-old woman did this for a living.
"I'm sure Mr. Bowen has everything to do with it," she continued in a whisper. "Amy hasn't come home for a week, and the police won't do anything."
The police were doing nothing? No shit!
"It's up to us."
"Up to us?" Tate all but shrieked. "There is no 'us' here, Mom. There's just you bullying me into making an ass of myself."
As her mother's back immediately went stiff, Tate winced in regret and softened her attitude, trying her damnedest to keep her voice low and her tone conciliatory. "Amy's an independent cat, Mom. She probably just took a vacation."
Away from this Florida Eternal Sun Resort insanity, she thought to herself. Living in this senior complex was like being stuck on a very demanding, never-ending, hyperactive vacation hell, with bingo nights, afternoon salsa lessons, and morning gardening. Not to mention hula classes, self-improvement workshops, feng shui instruction, writing seminars, bonsai pruning, painting lessons, yoga, meditation exercises, pet training courses, tai chi, and other activities sane people only engaged in once a year during their two-week vacation and then spent the rest of the year recuperating from. Tate had only been here for a couple of days and was already exhausted--mentally and physically. No wonder her mom was cracking up. Big-time. Still, it was one thing to understand her mom's weird "coping mechanisms," another very different matter to condone them or take part in them, even if only grudgingly.
She should at least try to make her realize all this was silly. "Let's be reasonable here. Did you see him kill her?"
"Nope," her mom answered.
"Well, did Mr. Bowen tell you he killed her?"
"No, he didn't say he killed Amy, but neither did he deny it," she explained, turning to Tate and giving her a conspiratorial look that froze her daughter in place.
Tate stared incredulously at her mother. "Did you ask him?"
"No, I didn't."
Oh God, this was even worse. "Sooo, how on earth can he deny the accusations if you don't even ask? Really, Mom, we need to find you another place to live. This one obviously isn't agreeing with you," she muttered, shaking her head.
"Good morning, ladies. Mind if I ask what you're doing crawling out there?"
Tate cringed at the sound of those words. Damn, busted.
She tilted her head up, surely sporting a monumental deer-in-the-headlights look on her face. Despite the fact that the sun was in her eyes and silhouetting the imposing figure nearby, she had no doubt it wasn't her mom's neighbor. If for nothing else than because the senior complex only accepted residents from fifty-five years old and up, and the man in front of her was in the prime of his youth--all tight muscles and broad shoulders.
Oh boy, she'd known this was a very bad idea. Furiously blushing, she hurried to stand up and then moved to help her mother, only to realize she was already on her feet and glaring at the man.
"And who might you be?" her mom asked, arms crossed over her chest, one foot tapping the grass impatiently.
Jeez, leave it to her to get caught with her hand in the proverbial cookie jar and force the other person to justify himself. Had she been born in another time, Tate had no doubt whatsoever that her mom would have made it to inquisitor general in no time.
The man chuckled, amused, obviously not that impressed. "I'm James Bowen, ma'am. My father happens to live here. And who are you? The resident SWAT team?"
"Ha-ha. Very funny, young man. No, I'm Mrs. Cooper from condo A4. Next door actually."
James kept silent, probably waiting to hear why they'd been crawling through the lawn, but she didn't offer any more explanations, and Tate knew she wouldn't.
She nervously wiped her palms on her cutoffs to clean off the blades of grass and the dirt still attached to them, and then extended her hand, offering the young man a tentative smile. "Hello, I'm Tate. Sorry for"--she searched for a word that would describe the situation, but soon gave up--"this, but my mother seems to think your father...um...uh...killed our cat," she said, mortified, her voice getting lower and lower as she reached the end of the sentence.
To the man's silence and baffled expression, Tate answered by shrugging, her smile apologetic.
"Or at the very least kidnapped her," her mom crisply added. "Or maybe that horrible saber tooth of yours has eaten her. He had her totally terrorized. Ugly, ugly beast."
"I see," James said, unsuccessfully stifling a laugh. "And what were you doing? Engaging in a covert operation behind enemy lines hoping to make an extraction, dead or alive?"
Tate had avoided staring straight into his face, partly because the sun was blinding her and partly because she was too embarrassed to make eye contact after her mom's wacky stunt, but his obvious amusement at their expense and his flippant remarks had her gaze darting up, her lips pursed in a tight line. With the sun right behind him, she still couldn't see him clearly, so she shaded her eyes with her hand and faced the jerk.
The jerk was gorgeous.
Tall. Imposing. His dark blond hair was short but on the shaggy side, honey waves framing a devilishly handsome face with sharp masculine features. He took his shades off, his hazel eyes sparkling with amusement. My. Beautifully thick, blond lashes. He looked rugged and sexy. Sinfully yummy with his five o'clock shadow and that cocky smirk on his lips.
"Don't get smart with me, young man." The elder woman scowled at him. "Just give us Amy or tell us where she is, and we'll be on our way."
For a second, he looked startled and turned toward Tate. "Amy?"
She threw her hands up in defeat and sighed. "The cat."
"That's right, the cat," he repeated, barely holding his laughter.
"Your father never liked her crossing over his lawn...even made a couple of nasty remarks. She's missing, so either your father killed her or he's keeping her prisoner."
James's stance was relaxed, playful even, with his bulging arms crossed over his broad, hard chest. "I just came this morning and haven't been debriefed yet about the status of our latest prisoners. As a matter of fact, I'd barely stepped inside," he explained, a hint of mockery in his tone. "I guess you understand I'll have to talk to my CO before pardoning anyone. Dad?" he called toward the patio doors, his eyes never leaving Tate and her mom, his crooked smile showing off his sparkling white teeth. Or maybe they seemed so white because the man had that glorious suntan, the one Tate never got. Exposed to the sun, she always went from paper white to crispy red, no intermediaries.
It was a pity her mother wasn't as impressed with him and wasn't willing to wait outside; she narrowed her eyes on him defiantly and then darted inside the house through the open patio door.
"Mom, please..." Tate mumbled as she tried without much success to stop the determined lady. She threw a pleading glance at James and, letting out a harsh groan of annoyance, followed her mother. Thank God he was finding the whole situation amusing enough not to call the cops--so far.
This was so not happening. Not fair. Her life was shitty enough as it was; she had enough trouble with Rosita's crumbling down on her and her own private stalker e-mailing her to death. Her peace of mind couldn't afford her mom going bonkers on top of that. They'd all gone through enough, dammit; she didn't need any more crap right now.
After stepping into the house, a shorter and older version of James intercepted them.
"What do you want now, Ann?" the man asked, his tone resigned. As he glanced at his son, a huge smile broke across his face. "Hello, Jimmy boy, you came early!"
"Just in time to intercept the invasion, it seems."
"Ha! I knew it," Ann said, ignoring everyone else and lunging for the kitchen, where a faint meow could be heard.
"I've done nothing to your cat," Mr. Bowen said, trying to placate her.
When Tate reached the kitchen, she saw Amy in a cardboard box, curled around what looked to be five or six of the ugliest kittens she'd ever seen. Nothing like the aristocratic, full-blooded, cream-colored, short-nosed Persian Amy was. The kittens, despite being just days old, had pointed ears, already too-long noses, and were three or four different shades of badly mismatching colors.
Her mom was so going to freak. She'd been saving Amy's reproductive capabilities for last year's European champion. Pity the sheltered pussycat had had other arrangements in mind and gone swinging.
Her mother shrieked.
"Now, Ann, don't be upset. She just started popping them out under my kitchen table. What was I supposed to do? I warned you she was not just getting fat. You just didn't want to hear it."
Yeah, that pretty much sounded like her mom, self-denial until the very end.
That was too much. Tate turned around and, dragging her feet, went to sit on the wooden deck of the patio. She didn't need to be ringside to witness her mother's meltdown. No, thank you very much, the backyard would be quite close enough.
James dropped his duffel on the floor of the kitchen and, leaving his father to deal with the kitten situation, followed that sexy piece of ass currently wiggling its way out of the condo. All and all, the sexiest commando chick he'd ever had the pleasure to intercept. She was nicely curvy where it mattered, her cutoffs riding low on her hips, hugging her cute behind, the huge, crazy knot of hair at the back of her head bouncing with each step, threatening to unravel at any second, especially as she was shaking her head vigorously. He was about to yell for her to wait when he realized she wasn't running away. The girl harrumphed in exasperation, sat at the far edge of the wooden deck, bent her knees up, propped her elbows on them, lowered her head, and placed her palms on the nape of her neck. She was muttering something much resembling a blue streak any sailor would be proud of in between clenched teeth.
James grinned. Nice new neighbors--a bit weird, but nice. And they were new, he was sure of it; such a luscious behind wouldn't have passed unnoticed. Not that he was on the make. He wasn't, especially not here, but this place was always crawling with visiting granddaughters, daughters, and nieces, and he was, in one way or another, acquainted with all of them. Not personally or by choice, but old folks loved to play at matchmaking, and introducing all the eligible women in their families under thirty-five to him seemed to be the number one sport around here. He tried to dodge as many as he could without insulting anyone, but apparently decent sons-in-law were scarce. Or so he'd heard repeatedly since his father had moved down here.
He sat beside her. She smelled nice. Sweet and fresh. Like rain. Like pine and grass. Maybe all the wet grass smeared on her arms and stuck to her chest had something to do with it. For a while he sat just there, hearing her swearing under her breath, until curiosity got the better of him.
"Upset about the kittens?"
She stopped muttering, looked up at him, and smiled, her whole face lighting up with that small gesture. Whoa. He almost choked on the breath he was taking. She was even prettier than he'd thought: huge eyes the color of a Siberian husky's, soft pink mouth, dark hair, mischief in her smile, a deep sadness in her gaze.
"No, those are some ugly kittens all right, but I couldn't care less about their pedigree or lack thereof. I gather your saber tooth is multicolored, right?"
James nodded. "It's not ours though; he just drops by quite often."
She shook her head and chuckled silently. "Fantastic, an alley cat. Getting better and better."
Ann's words interrupted his daughter's as they carried from the kitchen. "Oh, but I can and I will! I'm blaming this on you, mister; after all, you're the one who was always--"
"You know," Tate said, turning to James, cutting into the voices coming from the house. "I blame myself. I should've insisted on her moving to a residential complex for seniors in Alaska, not in Florida."
Her pale blue eyes were so mesmerizing and her sweet voice so captivating that for a moment they blocked the whole world. His dad and Ann could be torching the place, and James wouldn't have given a fuck. And that was weird because she wasn't his type--at all. He tended to gravitate toward another kind of beauty--the more overt, sexually wicked one. Lots of makeup, in-your-face women. Exuberant, sophisticated, glamorous, a bit artificial too. Aggressive, sexually and otherwise. Real-looking women seemed to fly below his radar. Not this one, though. He'd noticed her right away; she was adorable with those huge, beautiful, husky's eyes and her chocolate hair trying to escape the confinement of the twist it had at some point been pulled into. No makeup on her, none that he could notice anyway. And no strong, expensive cologne searing his nostrils, which was usually the case with his dates. When he used to date, back in the Stone Age.
He saw her lips moving but couldn't catch a word. "Come again?" James asked, confused. All his blood supply was en route somewhere much farther south than his head; it made him a bit distracted. And twitchy.
"I said this heat is melting my mom's brains. A complete neurological meltdown. I take full responsibility."
He chuckled. "Nah, she's just new here, and this place is quite overwhelming at the beginning. Take it from me. My dad's been here for five years, and I still get intimidated every time I come to visit."
She smiled at him, and for some reason he felt that smile all the way down to his toes.
"Sorry for this scene," Tate said, gesturing toward the house. "And for almost breaking and entering. I'm sure by the time she was forcing your lock with her credit card, I'd have found a way to get her to see the light. Even if it doesn't look that way, we are good people. Normal. Neighborly."
"Are you telling me that apart from crawling guerrilla-style, your mom also busts locks with credit cards? Whoa, I'm going to have to watch out for her. Too much of a bad influence for my father."
She fought it for a couple of seconds but then burst into laughter. An earthy and unrestrained laugh that had her shaking uncontrollably while all the tension seemed to seep out of her body.
Jesus, she was beautiful. And sweet. And she was making him hot, here on his dad's patio, just by laughing. Go figure. Spontaneity was something else he wasn't accustomed to. His dates were always more restrained in their emotions. Uncontrolled outbursts of any kind, besides lust, weren't first on their to-do list.
He'd bet this girl wouldn't do restrained in any form. The twist at the back of her head had all but given out, and James realized she had tons of hair, spilling in an unruly fashion all over her shoulders, swallowing her, falling over her face as she doubled over laughing. Nothing like Faith, his last on-and-off-sex-without-strings partner, with her platinum blonde, straight, chin-length hair. Faith had kept her hair back and out of her face, even used a fixing gel for it. Restrained, sexually aggressive, and artificial. Tate was anything but artificial. She was damn spontaneous. The sweet, what-you-see-is-what-you-get girl next door. That white-picket-fence, happily ever after sort of woman he normally avoided like the plague.
Holding her stomach, she drew a deep breath and tried to stop laughing. It took a while before she succeeded. "Sorry...this is hysterical laughing... Can't help it. I'm just worried sick."
He remained silent, curiously observing her. Her snug, white tank top was covered in green stains and pieces of grass. He felt like dusting them away. Sure, like groping her tits on his dad's patio was going to go over well with her, even if his intentions weren't all that sleazy; he was neat to a fault, and the blades of grass and those smears on her top were badly messing with his conception of the world. To avoid giving in to temptation and getting his ass kicked, James shrugged off his jacket. As long as his hands were busy, they wouldn't dart toward Sweet Tits here and start feeling her up. And he was sweating. From having her so close by or from the Florida heat, he wasn't sure. Probably the former, not that he was ready to admit to anything.
The second he took his jacket off, she lifted her eyes to the tattoo on his arm, wrinkled her nose, and flinched in distaste. Her smile froze on her face. Man, spectacular shut down. She wasn't sweet and relaxed anymore. Stiff as a board was more like it.
"Nice," she said, pointing at the visible part of his dragon under his short sleeve. If her expression was anything to go by, then in her world, nice double-teamed with repugnant and disgusting. He looked at his arm, half expecting to find God only knew what there that would explain her reaction, but no, it was just his tattoo, nothing more.
There was a story there, but he was so not getting into that; too early in the morning. He ignored her reaction and plunged forward.
She peeled her eyes from his tattoo and nodded.
"Are you down here visiting your mother? I haven't seen you around before."
"Yeah." She sighed and looked up into the open sky. "She moved here five months ago. This is my first visit. I've been busy at home."
"No shit! We're also from the greater Boston area. From Alden, a thirty-minute drive from the city. What a coincidence."
She shrugged a bit uncomfortably. "Actually it isn't. A coincidence, I mean."
His eyes narrowed on her. "Not only intrusive tendencies, but stalking ones too?"
She sighed again, her eyes still fixed on the sky. "Not exactly. When my mom moved here, there were several condos free in the area assigned for her age group. I asked if there was anybody from Boston or the greater Boston area, and your dad's name came up. The Nicholsons too, but there was no available condo near them. So you got us."
Tate grimaced. "Yeah, lucky you. I thought she wouldn't feel so disconnected from home this way. Needless to say, I didn't foresee her behaving like a...lunatic. She's been going through a rough patch, and she's developed some freaky tendencies."
He'd seen that. Maybe it would be in everyone's best interest to help her adapt before her "tendencies" escalated into full-blown, trigger-happy ones and the whole Eternal Sun Resort ended up on the five o'clock news. "Listen, why don't you come to the common area tonight? Country music and line dancing exhibition."
"Line dancing? Country music?" She shook her head. "I don't think so. Not my thing."
"Come on. It'll be fun. It's pretty simple stuff. As you might've noticed, the average age here is sixty-five, not an age to go swinging too much or doing risky steps. Bring your mother; it'll take her mind off other matters."
Someone stomped out to the patio, and they turned around.
"Help me with this," Ann said while juggling the box with the cats in her arms. "We're taking Amy and the little ones home. Hopefully those kittens will grow lots of fur to hide behind. We'll keep them until somehow they improve and we can give them away, or until they grow into us, whichever comes first. And we're so having a word with that vet and the damn birth-control shots he was giving her. And you," she continued, now staring at Mr. Bowen, "you better keep that misfit of a cat away from us. There's no joint custody here."
Tate choked on the breath she was drawing in and turned to James, a grimace on her face. "On the other hand, I think we'll take you up on your offer. Socializing and going out for a while might be a good idea."