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He nodded and gave her a little smile, and damn if she wasn’t sorry that she’d ever answered her phone.

Seventeen

Parker sat at the kitchen table with his laptop, the tabby kitten asleep on his lap and Oreo on his feet. The kitchen floor was in shambles thanks to the crazy gray wild-woman kitten who had attacked a roll of paper towels and spilled Oreo’s food and was currently batting a pen across the floor.

Parker supposed it was fitting. He had a certain brown-eyed brunette currently wreaking such havoc on his life and heart as well. The kitten was just taking after the best.

She batted the pen past the dog.

Oreo, trying to sleep, sighed for the fifth time.

Taking pity on him, Parker grabbed the little terrorist and lifted her to his face to look at her eye to eye.

She batted at his nose.

He laughed. “Nap time, Destructo.” And he dropped her next to her much quieter brother in his lap.

She immediately pounced on her brother with great glee, who opened one eye, gave a mew, and pushed her away.

Not intimidated, she plopped herself down on top of her brother again and began to knead him with her paws like she was making biscuits.

The quiet tabby tolerated the abuse and finally she fell asleep, allowing Parker to work. An hour ago he’d been alerted that the motion detector cams had caught something. He’d accessed the feeds and couldn’t believe what he was seeing.

One minute there was a Humvee and the next minute it vanished. Just disappeared into thin air. Parker rewound and slowed things down. This time he could see that the Humvee, colored to blend in, carrying what looked like four men, drove onto the ranch. It was followed by a similarly painted truck, the kind that carries livestock, large livestock, and not all that different from the one that had clipped him with Carver behind the wheel.

Parker couldn’t see much else as the rest of the daylight faded away. None of them used any lights.

He called Wyatt.

“Yo,” Wyatt said. “I’ve got two minutes before emergency surgery. A lab ate its owner’s lace thong and it’s all tangled up in his intestines. She needs to switch to edible undies.”

And Parker thought his job was interesting. “You ever hear of Cat’s Paw?”

“No, but hang on, I’m putting you on speaker. Dell,” Wyatt said, and Parker knew he was talking to the owner and head vet of Belle Haven, whom he’d met the day he’d shoveled shit for two hours. “Parker wants to know what we know about Cat’s Paw.”

“The town or ranch?” Dell asked.

“There’s a ranch called Cat’s Paw?” Parker asked.

“Yeah,” Dell said, “it’s an isolated place out at the base of Rocky Falls.”

“We don’t service it?” Wyatt asked.

“It’s not in business anymore,” Dell said. “They lost their livestock not too long after the economy took a shit and they couldn’t recover. The place is deserted.”

“As in the owners just walked away?” Parker asked.

“Supposedly. The bank took the land back, but like thousands of other properties across the country, the banks are in over their head. Most of those out-of-the-way places are on the back burner.”

“So no livestock,” Parker said.

“Not unless it’s wild and squatting on the land.”

The tabby kitten rolled over and his sister, sleepy now, mewed in protest.

“You have a furbaby?” Dell asked.

“I’ve got two kittens for next week’s adoption day.”

Wyatt laughed. “Zoe know?”

“Yeah.”

“Then you don’t have shit for adoption day. She won’t be able to let them go by then.”

After they’d disconnected, Parker stared at the feeds some more. So if there was no livestock, what the hell was in that truck? If he’d located Carver and the militia he was using to protect himself, the likely answer was that he’d possibly found the storage site for Carver’s illegal gains, his holding place before it was sold.

He got up, unintentionally disturbing the kittens, who let him know with their soft mews how unhappy he’d made them. He set them down on Oreo’s bed. “Sleep,” he commanded.

The kittens climbed all over Oreo.

Oreo gave Parker a baleful look.

“Like you don’t love them,” Parker said.

And indeed, Oreo licked each kitten from chin to forehead and then, after turning in a very careful circle—three times—plopped down. His hind end caught the gray kitten, who gave a muffled “mew!”, crawled out from beneath Oreo’s ass, and settled with her brother between Oreo’s two front paws.

Oreo smiled down at his babies.

Parker paced for a few moments, brooding over the action he was missing out on. He tried calling Sharon, but either his boss was over him or she was still pissed because she didn’t pick up.

When his phone finally buzzed, he answered immediately, thinking it was Sharon getting back to him.

It was AJ. “How are your ribs?”

“Great,” Parker said, touching them to check. Maybe great was a slight exaggeration, but it would do.

“We’re short a guy tonight for our rec league football game,” AJ said. “Wyatt says you’re the guy we need. You in?”

Parker looked around him, soaking in Zoe’s kitchen. It was a great kitchen, warm and cozy and comfortable. And in it, he was shockingly content for a guy who’d always believed he had to be on the go 24/7 to be happy.

But laying low for work was driving him straight up a wall and he had a lot of pent-up energy to burn. He’d like to burn some of that energy off with Zoe.

Naked.

But she was part of his problem. He didn’t want to sit around here and think about her, and without her, he didn’t have much to do except check the camera feeds. “Who’s on your team?” he asked.

AJ laughed shortly. “Worried?”

“I want to win.”

AJ laughed again. “Then show up. You won’t be sorry, trust me. We kick ass.”

Perfect. Just what he was in the mood for.

Several hours later, he was at the park, meeting the rest of the guys on his team. Wyatt. Dell, whom he already knew. Dell’s brothers Adam and Brady, both of whom looked very capable of kicking ass. A guy named Grif, whom Parker wouldn’t bet against. And Joe, who was filling in for someone, too. They were playing a team of first responders, which included Kel.

Kel grinned at the sight of Parker. “You here for me to wipe the floor with?”

Parker grinned back. “Try it.”

In the first huddle, Joe looked over at Parker. “You the reason she hasn’t made a decision?”

He assumed the “she” in question was Zoe. “Decision?” he asked.

“I offered Zoe an equal partnership in the FBO,” Joe said. “She said she needed to think about it for a while.” He paused. “She didn’t mention it?”

“No.”

Joe grinned. “Maybe you’re not the reason after all, then.”

Parker wondered about that, about why she wouldn’t take such an offer. Assuming the offer was good, it seemed right up her alley, having a stake in the business she loved.

He’d have thought about it some more, but the game was an immediate distraction. It was supposed to be touch football, but Parker learned in the first quarter that touch was more like tackle, and apparently there were no refs and no pussies allowed.

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