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“Stop it.” The tall blonde held up her hand. “You’re not. You’re my friend and I want to do this. You need my help in the worst way. You’re my special project, and I’ve made it my personal mission to create your perfect day.”

Ava wanted to hug her. “You have more patience than I do, Cheryl.”

“That’s why we get along so well.”

“Say . . . I work with a great guy—”

Cheryl cut her off. “Tell you what. I’ll meet this great guy when you place a deposit on a venue.”

She has a point.

“I think you two will hit it off,” Ava said.

“If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that, I wouldn’t have to work.” Cheryl shook her head. “I swear each bride I’ve worked with has tried to hook me up with someone. Usually it’s their divorced and lonely father. I’ve had to make a policy of not accepting dates with relatives of my clients.”

“Zander is great. If I wasn’t with Mason—” Ava stopped, abruptly aware that she hadn’t been with Mason when she’d met Zander. There’d been no sparks. Instead she’d always regarded him with a brotherly affection. When she’d met Mason, she’d wanted to learn more about him even though it felt as if she’d known him forever; they’d been instantly comfortable in each other’s presence.

“You should see the look on your face right now,” Cheryl said. “You’re thinking about your man and it’s the reason I want to make your wedding perfect. You two are nuts about each other, and I’m so pea-green with envy, it’s clashing with my sweater.”

Ava had no answer for that.

“Go look at the hotel website I sent you and let me know today.”

“I’ll do it right now,” Ava promised as she said good-bye.

Her neighbor was awesome. She was friendly, blunt, and outgoing. The third day after Mason and Ava had moved into the old Tudor home, Cheryl had brought over red wine, white wine, beer, vodka, and a big container of homemade white chocolate cookies. “I didn’t know what the two of you liked, so I’ll let you choose. I figured I was safe unless you’re both alcoholics. In that case I’ll put the alcohol in my own cupboard and you can keep the cookies.”

She and Mason had reached for the red wine. “We’ll take the cookies, too,” Ava had stated. That evening the three of them finished the red wine, moved on to the white, and wiped out most of the cookies. Ava had promised herself she’d work to develop a relationship with the fun woman. She’d had several friendships fizzle away because she hadn’t put forth the effort. Cheryl was worth keeping.

After a few months in their home, Mason had said Cheryl had made the move as worthwhile as the house had. Ava agreed.

Bingo did an “I need to go out” dance as she stepped in the door, his toenails skittering on the wood floors. Ava tossed her bag on a chair and rubbed his head. His dog door had broken, and Mason had ordered a replacement. Bingo had stood at the boarded-up door, stared at it, and turned sad doggy eyes at the two of them, wondering why they were torturing him. “It’ll be here soon, boy,” Ava had promised.

He danced at her heels as she moved through the kitchen to the back door. He bolted as she opened it. “Jeez, poor guy,” she muttered as guilt flooded her. She watched him tear to the back fence and lower his nose to the ground, running back and forth along the fence behind the bushes and trees. The hair stood up on Ava’s neck.

I’ve never seen him do that.

After a few more sniffing passes along the back of the yard, Bingo seemed satisfied and lifted his leg toward his favorite tree. He trotted about the yard, doing his usual curious inspection. Ava watched him closely, looking for any other new behaviors. The dog was a good alert system. Bingo found a tennis ball and galloped back to the door, his tail wagging. He dropped it at her feet with an expectant look.

She grabbed the ball thrower to scoop up the drooly ball and hurled it toward the back of the yard.

He probably saw a squirrel near the back fence while we were gone.

Images from the Samuelson crime scene filled her mind. The impressions in the soft barkdust. Her own backyard was nearly three times the size and fully fenced. Mason had a deck on his list of home improvements, but for now they had a small concrete patio. Bingo dropped the ball and Ava threw it again, stepping off the concrete onto the grass. She slowly moved to the back of the lot. Their home had a wide curving area of barkdust along the back fence, full of big bushes and trees.

Ava walked carefully, studying the grass. I just left a crime scene and now I’m paranoid in my own home. She stepped into the bark and started peering behind bushes, fully aware of the weight of the weapon still holstered at her side. She spotted three dingy tennis balls but no footprints. Bingo rushed past her and grabbed one of the balls. With him at her heels, she walked the length of the fence. At the far corner she stopped, staring at the ground. Footprints? Mason could have made them weeks ago.

She took a deep breath. I’m being ridiculous.

Was she? Last spring they’d had a break-in at Mason’s old home. Her sister and Jayne’s current boyfriend had been the guilty parties. She froze as she remembered that Jayne’s “field trip” had been yesterday.

Déjà vu?

She marched back to the house and went from room to room, checking closets and drawers but discovering nothing disturbed. Their security system was the best. Mason had installed it before they’d even moved into the house, but that didn’t mean someone hadn’t wandered through their backyard and peeked in windows. Mason had turned off the outdoor motion detector lights a month ago after nightly disturbances by raccoons and neighborhood cats. “We can rely on Bingo,” he’d said. “That dog acts like a horde of zombies is trying to break in when the UPS guy walks up the front steps.”