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Heidi Bluthe pinched the bridge of her nose and pushed her laptop across the desk. For a good hour, she’d been staring blankly at the screen, willing something to jump out at her from the pile of emails in her inbox. But all of it was slush. Reams of cheaters. Husbands, wives. Girlfriends, boyfriends. Siblings hating siblings. Best friends ditching best friends.
And such is the glamorous life of an advice columnist, Heidi thought.
With a sigh, she dragged the laptop back and searched for something that would make her want to channel her inner, snarky self onto the page. A glance at the little clock in the corner of the screen told her she had less than seventy-two hours to go until she had to turn in no less than five carefully worded responses. And really, her editor at Between The Sheets magazine preferred to get eight. “More choice,” said Rowena. But over the course of the last year, Heidi had decided that the woman just liked drama. She probably devoured it with the same fervor as the readers of Dear Miss Anonymous.
They wanted juicy stories and over-the-top questions that made them shake their heads. Moral turpitude. Spice. It was what they paid for. What she got paid for. And even though it wasn’t the genuine counseling work that Heidi had been trained for—or maybe because of it—she still felt a great deal of satisfaction in it. It was a fun job. One where no one knew who she really was, and one where no one cared, either. On top of that, the popularity of her two-page advice column meant she earned a decent salary, too. All in all, Heidi thought she was pretty damned lucky.
“So the drama’s what you have to give them,” she murmured to her laptop.
She stared at the screen a little longer, as if trying to glare something to life. When that didn’t work, she sent up a mental prayer to the gods of advice column writing.
Please let there be something here that will work.
But her efforts didn’t change a thing. And truthfully, she knew it was because her heart wasn’t in at the moment. Part of that, she knew, was the date looming on the desk calendar. Not that she’d circled it or marked it in any way. In fact, she’d left it completely blank. Which, in retrospect, might’ve been the wrong thing to do. She should’ve filled the upcoming square with ten different things. A fitness class. A yoga session. Anything to keep her mind off the one-year anniversary of the most trying time of her life.
But none of that stuff is an option, is it?
Heidi didn’t answer the silent, self-directed question. The nagging voice in her head had a real knack for pointing out the obvious. Her conscience, she supposed. And every time it reared up, she pictured a crotchety old woman—who looked remarkably like her fifth grade teacher—sitting on her shoulder and shaking her fist somewhere awfully close to Heidi’s ear.
With a sigh, she strummed her thumbs on the table and wondered a little absently if maybe her screening process had turned things a little stagnant. She had a pretty good filtering system in place. First, an automated bot weeded out the curse-filled messages. Then everything went through one of the assistants at the magazine’s head office. They took out anything political. Anything contentious. Any spam that slipped through, or anything too lewd. Finally, it came to Heidi herself, and she quickly did her own little dance through them. She never replied to anyone who she thought might need serious, psychological help. She filtered out the ones full of anger, too. She didn’t want a lawsuit. She didn’t want a fight. And she really didn’t want to steer someone in the wrong direction.
Not again, anyway, said her old lady conscience.
“Would you just shut up?” she said aloud to the nagging voice.
She pulled the computer even closer—like she could use it as shield—and skimmed the next few emails.
“Mom sleeping with stepson.”
A bit ew. And delete.
“Dad having an affair at work, aka, cheater.”
“Ugh. Cheater. Would it kill you all to exercise a little restraint?”
She exhaled a frustrated breath and resisted an urge to bang her head on her keyboard.
Then the old-fashioned wall clock hanging just behind her desk caught her eye, and she was reminded that she wasn’t doing herself any favors by criticizing every little thing that came through her inbox. And somehow, she’d already managed to waste another sixty minutes. Doing nothing. Which meant she was now down to less than seventy-one hours instead of seventy-two hours.
“Okay, Heidi,” she said. “You need a plan. First thing on the agenda. Pick one—just one, because that’s a start—Dear Miss Anonymous letter to answer.” She reached for her computer, then stopped. “Actually. Make that the second thing on the agenda. First, you should make a cup of coffee. You clearly need it.” She paused again, and shook her head. “Actually. Before both of those things, how about you stop talking to yourself? Oh, and maybe don’t refer to yourself in the third or second person, either.”
She started to answer that suggestion with a snide comeback, realized the irony of it, then clamped her lips together and pushed to her feet.
I’ve got this, she told herself.
She was probably a little overly pleased that the reassurance was both silent, and appropriately first person. But she didn’t care. She knew that the self-affirmation wasn’t just about that. It was a reassurance that she would get through the next seventy-one hours. She’d complete her work on time, just as she always did. And she’d make it through this awful anniversary without completely losing it.
“I’ve got this,” she repeated aloud, stepping confidently toward her kitchen.
But she no sooner lifted the coffee canister from the counter and started to scoop the pre-ground beans into the coffeepot than the universe decided to throw her the mother of all curve balls. Or maybe it—he—was the father of all curve balls. Because he was undoubtedly a man. A few feet into her backyard, and perfectly in view through her kitchen window.
A very attractive man, her usually ornery sub-conscious pointed out.
And for once, Heidi couldn’t disagree with the little old lady on her shoulder.
The strange man had to be six foot three or more. She’d bet her solitary, advice columnist existence on it. And she’d always been a sucker for a tall, lean man. From where she stood, she could see the details of his face, too. The cleft in his chin. The hint of dimples in his cheeks. His square, even jaw, and his mouth—full and firm-looking. His hair was an interesting color—a shade too dark to be true blond and a shade too light to be called brown. It hung a little long in the front. Like he sensed Heidi’s scrutiny, he lifted a hand—tidily groomed but still masculine—and flicked back the hair in question. Unconsciously, she leaned forward, trying to catch a glimpse of his eyes. And a heartbeat later, she got what she wished for. He lifted his face and tilted it to fix his gaze her way. Blue-gray. Like an incoming summer storm.
He took the smallest step forward then, and Heidi’s brain finally caught up and issued a belated warning.
There isn’t supposed to be an attractive man in your backyard, it reminded her.
To get there, he would’ve had to ignore the large, red-and-black No Trespassing sign at the end of her front pathway. He would’ve had to have walked past her front door. And he would’ve had to bypass the padlocked gate that led to the thick rosebushes where he stood now.
Slowly, with her heart in her throat and her stare still locked on his, she reached for her phone. But in her eagerness to grab it, she forgot that she still held the coffee scoop in one hand. As her fingers went for the slim device that sat on the edge of her counter, they loosened their grip on the scoop. It dropped down, spraying ground beans up to her mouth as it fell.
Heidi drew in a startled breath, then doubled over, choking on the coffee. The forward motion sent her forehead straight into the solid countertop. She barely had time to let out a shriek, but she was strangely sure that as the blackness overtook her, she heard a distinctly British voice yell out, “Bloody hell!”
William Rutherford dropped the noisy curse, then tried to stride forward, completely forgetting he was stuck. Startled, he swung around. Just as they had been for the last four or five minutes, his trousers remained attached to the over-excited rosebush behind him.
He swung his gaze back to the house. The dark-haired woman showed no sign of reappearing.
“Double bloody hell!”
He tried again to yank himself free. He wasn’t even rewarded with the satisfaction of a tear. If anything, he only got himself more thoroughly tangled.
He could swear that just five minutes ago, he’d been on his way to solving the problems that had plagued him for the last year. After nine months of brooding—and no, he didn’t believe that time frame was a coincidence—he’d finally given birth to the idea that brought him to this moment. A month more of fervent research, and he’d at last tracked down the woman who ruined his life.
The name, plucked from weeks of endless research, had brought him more than a modicum of satisfaction. So had driving up to her house. So had knowing that his fate sat just on the other side of the out-of-the-way bungalow on the outskirts of Seattle. He’d bloody relished it.
“And now you’ve probably inadvertently knocked her unconscious, haven’t you?” he muttered. “Right sorry state.”
He started to reach for his mobile phone, then stopped. How the hell would he explain the scenario to the police?
Oh, hello. Sorry about all this. Was just stalking this lovely American citizen in her home country—in her home, in fact—and I might’ve caused a near-death accident. Oh, is that illegal here in the States? Didn’t mean to break the local laws. Sure, I’ll gladly spend a year in one of your lovely prisons.
“Triple bloody hell,” he muttered.
He cast a look around the back garden in search of an answer. He didn’t see one. After another second, though, he realized he had an answer right in front of him.
With an unsuppressed groan, he dropped his fingers to his belt and fumbled to loosen it. The metal was slippery, his hands uncooperative.
Come on, mate, he said to himself. It’s just a sodding belt. You undo it every day. Ten times. Maybe more.
At last he got it free. He moved onto his button, then his zipper, relieved that both things were more cooperative than the belt. Exhaling, he kicked off his shoes, dropped the trousers to the ground stepped out of them, then renewed his efforts to get to the bungalow. He got to the back door in seconds. There, he let out a relieved breath. The relief only lasted as long as it took for his hand to close on the handle and find it unyielding.
It wasn’t surprising, but it was irritating as all hell. It also meant that he’d need to try the front. He shot his discarded pants a final, disgusted look, then jogged off from the back door to the fence. He grabbed a hold of the gate and pulled. It didn’t move.
William growled. “For the love of…what’s she expecting? An invasion?”
He looked down at his underwear. Not exactly the best climbing attire.
Then again, you were fully clothed the first time, and look where that landed you.
Muttering to himself, he grabbed a hold of the nearest fence slat, then heaved himself over. Thankfully, he cleared it without too much bother. Just a solitary splinter and an off-kilter landing. He quickly righted himself, then moved on, wading through the overgrown grass to the front of the bungalow. He took the rickety stairs, two at a time, then paused on the porch to pray for a spot of luck. He reached for the doorknob. It didn’t move.
“Right, then,” he said.
He eyed the nearest window. Undoubtedly, it was locked as well.
Smash it? offered a not-so-prudent voice in his head.
“And just add that to the list of things the police are unlikely to understand,” he muttered, spinning to look for another option.
The front of the house was in just as much of a disastrous state as the rear. Knee-high grass decorated the entire front garden. Colorful weeds sprouted out here and there, adding a splash of unintentional sprightliness. The profusion of foliage nearly masked the late model hatchback that sat up near the top of the driveway. The car—in spite of its year—seemed to be in complete disuse. The rear, driver’s side tire was flat, and the grass from the yard had crept up and grown past the hubcaps. A stone walkway led from it to the house. Cracked and uneven. Dotted with wild, long-stemmed buttercups that were of no use to a man who wanted to break into a house.
“Bloody lawsuit waiting to happen, though, isn’t it?”
None of it was of any help.
Truth be told, when he’d first parked his truck down at the bottom of the gravel drive, he’d questioned whether or not anyone lived there at all. Even the affirmation from his ever-reliable GPS hadn’t quite convinced him. His doubt prompted him to take a quick look around rather than rushing in. And the exploration was what had led to demise.
He’d leaned over the fence in an attempt to get a glimpse of the inside of the house, and immediately dropped his entire set of keys straight into a rosebush. He’d had no choice but to climb the hip-high fence to retrieve them. When he’d bent to grab them, though, the overgrown foliage had unceremoniously taken a hold of his trousers. Then stubbornly refused to let him go no matter how he twisted and pulled. Stubborn bugger of a plant.
As is evidenced by the fact that you’re standing here without them, staring at a ceramic frog in your underwear while you…
A ceramic frog.
He stepped toward the decoration, bent down, and tipped it over. Sure enough, a silver key sat beneath it. Triumphant, William snatched it up. He turned to the door, jammed it into the lock, and twisted. A satisfying click told him it was a perfect match. Leaving the key where it was, he slid his palm to the knob. This time, it slid smoothly open.
The pleased exclamation no sooner left his lips than an unidentified projectile came flying his way.
William considered himself to be a man with good reflexes.
He’d played football—the proper, non-American kind—his whole life.
He’d dabbled in martial arts as a much younger man.
And in his hometown near Southsea, he’d been the only person—ever—to win the bonus in the pinball machine at the arcade. Which, he was proud to say, he’d done twice.
Unfortunately, none of it prepared him for the unexpected attack. He didn’t duck. He didn’t dive out of the way. He took it straight in the face.
The impact was far from pleasant. It stung like a bitch, actually, and made him yelp in a way that would’ve earned him some serious laughs on the soccer pitch.
His hand lifted to touch the already-tender spot, and his watery vision fixed on the woman in front of him. “What, in God’s name—”
He didn’t get to finish.
“Sorry!” the woman gasped.
Then she yanked the key out of the lock and soundly slammed the door in his face.
End of Excerpt