Hearing a ruckus in the backyard, Steph leaped from the
kitchen chair and darted to the patio door. She slid it open
with a thud and stepped outside. "Fred. Stop."
The yips and barks split the air while Fred wagged his tail
and leaped along the fence with a shaggy gray mop of a dog
on the other side.
Steph's gaze shifted to a man leaning against the fence, her
new neighbor she presumed. An amiable grin curved his full
lips, and he gazed at her with twinkling saddle-brown eyes.
"Fred. Come." She clapped her hands to get her border
collie's attention. He twisted his neck, and she could see
his struggle to respond to her call or to stay with his nose
against the chain-link fence while his shaggy friend
mesmerized him. Finally Fred bounded toward her.
Steph approached the stranger, who lifted his hand in
welcome and then ran his fingers through his dark brown,
wavy hair. It looked tousled and made him seem playful. As
she studied his classic good looks, Fred tangled around her
feet, and she nearly tripped. So did her pulse.
The stranger gestured toward Fred. "It's nice to see another
dog in the neighborhood and right next door."
Steph chuckled. "Not everyone feels like that." She'd forced
the levity, startled by the sensation she'd felt when she
looked in his eyes. She lowered her gaze to his ring finger.
What was she thinking? Steph released a puff of air and
managed to meet his gaze again.
He grinned. "I'm getting a kick out of the dogs."
"I noticed." His warm smile heated her face.
He grasped the fence rail and tilted back on his heels. She
watched as he lowered his body to the fence again, as if
thinking of what to say next. She forced her focus away from
He straightened. "I hope I didn't disturb you."
"You didn't disturb me at all." Not true. His beautiful eyes
disturbed her. "But Fred and his furry friend did." Furry
friend? She cringed listening to herself. She sounded like
"My furry friend is Suzette."
Happy to have another place to focus, she looked at the
slate-gray dog, its eyes nearly covered by long silky bangs.
"Nice to meet you, Suzette." Managing to get her wits under
control, Steph lifted her head. "And nice to meet you, too."
She extended her hand. "Stephanie Wright. Steph to my friends."
"A pleasure." He gave her fingers an easy squeeze. "Nick
Davis." He smiled and tilted his head toward the dogs. "They
seem to like each other. It's too bad people can't make
friends that easily."
She eyed the dogs, grinning at their wagging tails and their
snouts sniffing against the chain links. "You mean, as
easily as rubbing our noses together?"
His grin broadened. "Sure, if we were Eskimos." He winked.
Why had she said "our" noses? Noses would have been bad
enough. Feeling the heat reach her cheeks, she averted her
eyes. While she grappled with her discomfort, she watched
the dogs' antics. Fred appeared smitten.
When her cheeks cooled, Steph decided the dogs were safer
conversation. "Your dog looks like a big rag mop. What breed
Nick's dark eyes twinkled. "A Bouvier."
"Bouvier. So that's what they look like."
He glanced over his shoulder, appearing to look for an
intruder, then leaned closer as if sharing a secret. His
breath whispered against her cheek. "If you ask my brother
her breed, he'd tell you Suzette is a Bouvier des Flandres.
She's actually Martin's dog." He drew back, giving her a
crooked grin. "Martin thinks it sounds classier."
"Well, la-di-da." La-di-da? Get a grip. She had to stop
herself from rolling her eyes. "Fred's just a border collie
from Michigan." Steph hoped she sounded sane.
"But a very nice one, I'm sure."
He'd ignored her lunacy or else didn't notice. That made her
"Martin's pitiful with his pretentiousness at times. I don't
know where he gets it."
Steph appreciated the distraction. "I'd like to strangle my
brother once in a while." More often than she wanted to
remember. He'd upset her much too often. "My parents were
thrilled to finally have a son to carry on the family name,
and Hal knew it. He seemed to think he'd been born with a
crown, and he expected us to bow to his every need."
She peered at Fred, his tail slapping against the grass.
"Fred usually doesn't carry on like that. He's used to being
around other dogs."
"Suzette's a flirt." Nick flashed Steph a grin, then
crouched down and put his finger through the chain link. "Is
she playing with your heart, old man?"
Fred gave his finger a sniff and then swiped it with his tongue.
Suzette had no intention of being outdone. She wiggled
between Fred and Nick, then nuzzled her nose against the
links. Nick petted her, then looked up at Steph. "If you're
not familiar with a Bouvier, feel her coat."
Steph leaned over the fence and drew her hand across the
dog's fur. "She's not a rag mop at all. She feels like
He ran his fingers through her coat, too, their hands
brushing against each other's, and when he rose, they stood
eye to eye.
Something happened. Her stomach flipped, and she felt out of
control. Steph motioned toward the patio door. "It's been
nice, but I need to get inside. This is housework day for me."
His lips curved to a teasing frown. "That doesn't sound like
fun." He shoved his hand into his pocket. "It's been nice
talking with you, Steph." His brow arched. "I hope it's okay
to call you that."
"Consider yourself a friend."
"I'd like that." He took a step backward. "Maybe we could
walk the dogs one day. They seem to get along well."
Her stomach shot to her chest, and her response followed at
the same speed. "We have a park nearby." She swung her hand
in that direction. "That would be fun."
He stepped back. "Great. I'll talk with you again." He
backed away, then pivoted and headed toward the house with
Suzette bouncing beside him.
Fred let out a whimper and so did Steph.
She made her way to the patio and through the door, then
caved into the same kitchen chair she'd been sitting on
before the distraction. She'd flirted with the man. Flirting
wasn't her style, and on top of it, she'd talked about
rubbing noses. Where did that come from?
Steph rolled her eyes as she got up and opened the
refrigerator. She pulled out a soft drink, snapped the tab
and took a swallow before leaning against the kitchen
counter. She'd been a widow four years, and as time passed,
she'd decided relationships were too difficult. Before he'd
died, Doug had drifted from her like bubbles on the wind.
She reached out to grasp him, and he vanished. Her life
became dark, but these past years, she'd finally found the
light. Artificial light sometimes, but she'd learned to keep
her eyes wide-open. Today she'd squinted and look what happened.
Steph pulled her spine from the counter and grasped the dust
cloth and lemony spray. Back to work and forget the few
moments of backyard fantasy. Reality made more sense.
Nick stood inside the house and gazed through the window at
Steph as she strode toward her patio door. Her straight
blond hair whisked against her shoulders. The woman put a
grin on his face. She loved that dog. Fred. The name gave
him a chuckle. The border collie seemed well behaved and
friendly. So did Steph. His mouth pulled to a grin again.
He rested his hand on the windowsill as he watched Fred trot
beside her. Steph's large blue eyes, canopied by long
lashes, reminded him of a summer sky. He'd been drawn to her
blunt comments, especially the witty ones that made him
smile. And she'd flirted, but in a nice way. She'd even
flushed. His pulse heightened, picturing her playfulness.
The garage door rumbled and dragged him from his thoughts.
Nick heard a car door slam. Then the garage door closed and
he listened for his brother's footsteps.
Martin came through the doorway with a puzzled look. "What
are you doing here?
"Want me to leave?" Nick didn't wait for an answer. He
opened the refrigerator and gazed inside.
"You can't afford your own food with that business of yours?"
Nick's back stiffened. When it came to his business,
Martin's humor grated on his nerves. He forced himself to
let it go, then faced his brother. "You asked me to drop by
to walk your dog and feed her because you're too busy. Now
you begrudge me a drink?" He pulled out a cola and popped
the tab. "I stopped by to offer my service."
"Service?" Distrust grew on Martin's face.
Nick motioned toward the boxes. "Thought I'd help you unpack."
His chin raised as he eyed Nick. "Unpack? Why?"
"Why not? If you tell me where you want things, I'll unpack
some of the cartons or they'll be there forever."
A questioning look filled Martin's face. "You're not looking
for a handout?"
"No handouts." The reference stabbed Nick in the gut. He'd
never asked Martin for anything, and he never would.
"You really want to unpack boxes? Are you sure?"
The response relaxed Martin's expression. He tilted his head
toward the largest stack of cartons. "I guess you can start
Nick had stretched the truth a bit. Not that he hadn't
planned to help, but his offer was the way to a means. He
needed to work it into the conversation without making a big
deal out of it although it was to him. He could ask
point-blank, but he preferred to ease it in. Martin enjoyed
pointing out his guilt.
He hoisted a heavy box onto the table and flipped open the
lid. "By the way, I met your neighbor."
"She's very nice."
"She?" Martin arched an eyebrow.
Nick nodded. "Good sense of humor. Attractive."
"What does that mean?" Martin's voice left no question that
he was aggravated.
Nick swiveled. "It means she's a pretty woman." Pretty
wasn't the half of it. She was great looking. "And she likes
A dark frown filled Martin's face. "I hope you're not
"You're kidding? I wouldn't put a lovely woman through
that." Nick had tried to sound lighthearted.
"Glad to hear it."
Nick avoided looking in Martin's direction. His brother
would see the truth in his eyes. He'd been drawn to Steph
from the moment he watched her march across the grass, and
the more he thought about it, an unsettled feeling rocked in
his stomach. Nick dug deeper into the box.
The rustle of packing material quieted, and their
conversation ended until Martin blurted into the silence.
"What makes you think this woman likes dogs?"
"She owns a border collie."
"Seems like everyone owns some kind of mutt." Irritation
weighted Martin's voice.
"Attitude. Attitude, bro. Suzette's not the only dog in the
world." Steph's spoiled brother had nothing on the Bouvier.
Suzette also wore a crown in Martin's eyes. Nick pulled out
more packing material from the box. "He might not be as
classy, but he's a well-trained dog. That's more than I can
say about Suzette."
Martin spun around to face him, but Nick refused to back
off. "The border collie's friendly. Give him a chance. I
know how you are."
"I don't want him getting friendly with Suzette. She's
Despite his provocation, Nick tried to cover his grin,
thinking of Steph's "la-di-da" comment.
Rather than start a quarrel, Nick didn't respond. "Where do
you want the china dinnerware?"
Martin didn't speak but motioned to a cabinet.
Nick opened the door, then lifted an octagonal plate with a
bamboo shaped edge and slid it onto a shelf. Expensive he
could tell. He grabbed another and flipped it over. Royal
Signet China. Nick never heard of it, but he knew Martin's
His own taste raised in question. What had happened to him?
He'd never cared about fancy china or expensive crystal.
Women often fussed about that, he remembered. What kind of
tableware did Steph own? What difference did it make? He'd
never see it.
He emptied the box, then slapped the lid closed. He'd
already experienced one fiancée who tossed her ring in
his face just before the wedding. Why would he allow himself
to even daydream about another?
The memory triggered a new question. He paused until he got
Martin's attention. "Have you ever thought about dating again?"
Martin's head drew back. "Me?"
"You're the only other person in the room." Nick stood with
his hand on the box lid. Martin's social life ended after
his failed marriage. He'd never been one to hang out with
friends, and Nick didn't recall Martin dating anyone other
than the woman he'd married.
"Why would I date?"
"You have a good life. You have a new home that's too big
for even one person."
"One person and a dog."
"Okay, and a dog." A stream of air burst from his nose. "I
just wondered. You're still young enough. You've been
"Don't bring that up."
Nick drew in a breath. "You have lots of things going for
you, but for some reason, you aren't happy."
"I'm happy." Martin spun around, pointing his index finger
at him. "And what about you? I don't see you with a social
life to brag about."
His brother had nailed him. But Nick had an excuse. The
business took a lot of time and money. Nick faltered. That
was an excuse. He'd avoided commitment since his failed
engagement. Maybe dating would work without marriage as an
option. He wondered about Steph's situation. She was single,
he assumed. He'd noticed she didn't wear a ring, and she'd
even flirted a little. But that didn't mean much in today's
Nick opened another carton and removed layers of Bubble
Wrap. When he looked inside, he caught his breath. He
grasped a crystal plate as memories flooded back. He drew
out a faceted crystal bowl, and beside it, he recognized
other pieces from his youth. "These were Mother's." Sadness
washed over him, picturing his mom since the stroke.
Martin glanced up and nodded. "You took some of her dishes,
"A few things."
Tension grew on his brother's face.
"I'm not challenging the pieces you have, Martin. You use
them more than I would."
His brother gave a shrug and lifted another box from the floor.
The door had been opened to his true purpose for dropping
by. Feeling the weight of his question, Nick managed to form
the words. "Have you talked with her?"
"By her, you mean Mom?"
The question was moot. Nick didn't answer.
"I've talked to her. She can't utter a thing that
makes sense." He turned from the carton and leaned against
the counter, his eyes piercing Nick's. "You're avoiding her."
The words lashed Nick like a whip. "I'm not avoiding her. It
kills me to see her so helpless."
"You don't think it kills me? Ignoring her doesn't help. Do
you think I don't have to force myself to visit her in that
condition and fill the time with one-sided conversation? You
can't shun her. She's still your mother."
"I know. I know." Nick blocked his ears from Martin's
accusations. "I visit."
"When was the last time?"
Like a punch in the stomach, Martin's question knocked the
wind out of Nick. "I'll go. I just wondered if there's any
"Not much. She tries to talk, but it's nearly impossible to
understand her. The nurses do a better job than I do."
Knots twisted in Nick's chest. His mother was a good woman,
and the horrible stroke had taken away her identity. She
couldn't do much for herself. She lay there being fed and
diapered like a baby. The image tore at him.
"I'll go this week. I promise."