“They’re your plants.”
Hmm? What did hmm mean?
“Your yard’s a mess,” she noted casually. “You’ve got smooth douglasia and piper’s bellflower out there, and they’re being choked to death by the red willow-herb. And the Indian paintbrush…do you have any idea how hard it is to grow that?”
“I’m not looking for a gardener. Or a tenant,” he said, seeing where this was going. He rubbed the ache between his brows. “I’m not looking for anything or anyone, just some peace and quiet.” Which wasn’t to say that he didn’t want a woman. He wouldn’t mind that, though it’d be fourth on his list after sleep, food, and more sleep, but yeah, he’d absolutely take a warm, sexy, naked woman under him. Over him.
However she desired…
But not this woman, no matter how attractive he found her. Because this woman had a set of eyes that had so much life and emotion in them, he’d drown in her.
The house phone rang, and they both looked at it. “Is that your personal line?” he asked. “Or Marshall’s?”
“Well, it started out Teddy’s,” she said. “But I use it too.”
He gestured for her to go ahead and answer it then, since it couldn’t be for him. Few if any knew he was here. Certainly not his commander, who was still pissed off that Luke had taken time off in the middle of the media shitstorm. And not his parents or his sister, Sara.
The only people who might know—his two closest friends, Jack and Ben—were working. Jack, right here in Lucky Harbor as a firefighter, and Ben, off saving the world. Somewhere.
Ben, who’d suffered his own unimaginable losses, would have known to leave Luke alone, but not Jack. Jack would sniff him out sooner rather than later, but Luke wanted to have his head on straight first, because no one saw through him like Jack did.
Ali had answered the phone and was frowning. “You’re looking for who?” she asked. “Detective Lieutenant Luke Hanover?” She slid Luke a long look.
People usually had one of two reactions when finding out that he was in law enforcement: They either wanted to see his gun and be shown some self-defense moves, or they ran like hell.
Ali’s reaction was somewhere in between, but Luke didn’t care. What he cared about was not having anyone know he was here. He shook his head with a “hell no” look. He had no idea how whoever was looking for him had gotten this number but he was not here.
“How did you get this number?” she asked whoever was on the phone.
Luke liked the question and wondered at the answer.
“Uh-huh,” she said, still looking at Luke. “I see.”
Luke pointed to himself and shook his head, his message implicitly evident: He was not here.
Ali gave him a sweet smile and then lifted a single finger, indicating that she needed a minute.
Luke gave her his best intimidation stare—which was completely wasted on her because she turned her back to him.
“Yes, of course,” she said into the phone. “I understand why you’d want to speak to him.”
Okay, they were done here. Luke strode toward her, intending to physically remove the phone from her hand, but then she surprised him again by holding him off with a hand to his chest. “However,” she said, “you’re mistaken about Detective Lieutenant Hanover being here…uh-huh…”
She was getting an earful, he could tell. Ignoring the hand still on his chest—which was shockingly difficult to do—he motioned for her to hang the fuck up.
Again he reached for her, and again she pressed on his chest. “Hmm,” she said, reminding him he still had no idea what that meant. “Well, as I mentioned, he’s not here. Don’t call again.” She hung up and looked at Luke. “Interesting.”
“A reporter,” he guessed.
He let out a breath. “Thanks.”
“No problem,” she said. “I’ve got lots of practice dodging callers. I honed the skill with bill collectors and various other annoyances for my mom. Had it down to a science before I knew my multiplication tables.”
Luke braced himself for the inevitable questions that most anyone else would have asked, but she surprised him yet again.
“I’ll get that phone line shut down for you before I go,” she said.
Someone knocked at the door, and he swore.
“I’ll get it,” she said. She started to head out of the kitchen, but stopped to look at him. “I take it you’re still not here?”
She looked at him for a beat, her eyes softening just a little before she vanished. He had no idea what that meant, but a minute later he heard the front door open.
“Mr. Gregory,” she said, an obvious smile in her voice. “Everything okay?”
In the kitchen, Luke swore again. Mr. Edward Gregory was the closest neighbor, a disarmingly sweet-looking old man who was actually about as sweet as a rattler.
And once upon a time, for about three minutes, he’d been married to his grandma—which made him Luke’s biological grandfather. Not that Ali could possibly know that since he sincerely doubted Edward would have mentioned him. Luke hadn’t exactly done anything to be proud of in his grandfather’s eyes, unless one counted getting his sister sent to prison at age eighteen, and then two years later, letting his grandma die alone.
Luke and Edward hadn’t spoken in a while, a long while. And for now, he intended to keep it that way.
“Do you need help with the pot I started for you?” he heard Ali ask.
What the hell?
“No, I’m good,” Edward said. “I’m heading over to the senior center to take the whole crew to the buffet special.”
Luke glanced out the kitchen window. Parked behind Ali’s truck was a big, white van with SENIOR CENTER DIAL-A-RIDE across the side. His grandfather was old enough to be in the damn center himself, or at least close to it, but apparently he was driving for them instead.
“I saw an unfamiliar truck in the driveway,” Edward said. “Wanted to make sure you were okay.”
Luke’s truck was two years old. No one here in Lucky Harbor would recognize it except Jack, but Edward Gregory was a wily, old fox. And Ali was clearly kind and caring and all kinds of gullible. She’d probably fall for it hook, line, and sinker and let the old man in.
And wouldn’t that just make Luke’s day, having the confrontation that had been brewing for a decade, on top of everything else.
“Oh, aren’t you sweet,” Ali said. “But I’m just fine, Mr. Gregory. Thank you so much for asking.”
Was she actually protecting Luke? It’d been a while since he’d found himself in this position, needing help, and he didn’t know how to feel. He settled for uncomfortable and off balance.
“You still having problems with that kitchen plumbing?” his grandfather asked.
“Nope, it’s behaving now.”
Luke looked into the kitchen sink. Yeah. She was definitely protecting him. It was totally clogged. And suddenly, so was his throat. Christ, he was tired. Tired and messed up.
Ali and his grandfather continued to chitchat for what felt like ten years, but in reality was only a few minutes, with Edward continuing to angle for an invite in, turning on the charm full power.
But Ali held her own, laughing and keeping things light, while remaining utterly firm. And in another minute, the front door shut, and she was back.
Luke looked at her. “You deal pot to the geriatric crowd?”
She stared at him and then laughed. She laughed so hard she had to put her hands on her knees and double over. Finally she straightened and swiped at her eyes. “Oh my God, I needed that.” She got herself under control with what appeared to be some effort. “No, I don’t deal pot. I teach a weekly ceramics class at the senior center.” She shook her head at him. “You are such a cop.”
Guilty. “A detective.”
“So I heard.”
The damn reporter.
“A lucky cop too,” she went on.
His life was such complete shit that he had no idea what she could possibly be talking about. “Lucky?”
“With your neighbors,” she said. “Growing up, my neighbors were career arsonists and loan sharks.” She shrugged. “The arsonist was nice enough, but if I left my dolls out, he’d set their hair on fire.”
“And the loan shark?”
“He wasn’t crazy about little kids,” she said. “He used to tell me and my sister that he was going to sneak into our place one night and sell us on the white slave market, and then retire off his portion of the profit.”
Jesus. “How old were you?”
“I don’t know, twelve maybe. He never got the chance. When my mom found out what he’d said, she threw a lamp at his head. That straightened him out pretty quick.”
Luke wasn’t into civilians taking matters into their own hands, but in this case, the vigilante justice worked for him. “Good. And thanks for your help.”
She smiled. “I figured you didn’t want to socialize.”
“So maybe it’s fate that I’m here.”
Fate? He’d call it bad luck. “I don’t put much stock in fate.” He believed in making his own path—even if that way was to fuck up a few times before he got it right. He never blamed something as intangible as fate for his screwups.
He blamed himself.
She stared at him for a moment, her eyes soft, as if maybe she felt sorry for him, of all things. “That’s okay,” she said. “I believe enough for the both of us.”
He tried to shake it all off, but his eyes were gritty from the exhaustion. “I’m hitting the sack.” He walked away and took the stairs down to the basement.
It’d been years since he’d been down here, but not much had changed. The walls were a midnight blue with the galaxy painted on the ceiling. Pluto was still a planet. The door was covered in late ’90s radio station stickers, a virtual time capsule to Luke’s teenagehood.