Free Reads

Welcome to the free reads page!

I know when I walk into a store and they're offering samples, I'm much more likely to buy that product if I've tried it. So, here are my samples! LOL

The Embattled Road is the prequel to my long-running Lost and Found series.

Embattled Hearts is book 1 of the series.

And Genesis is the prequel to the Dog of War Series, a paranormal spinoff, and it is meant to be read once you get through most of the Lost and Found Series.

Scroll to the bottom for Pound Puppy!



Pound Puppy

This is a free read I've been putting out on my newsletter. The story is complete, and if you would like to purchase it, follow this link!

I will continue to release it free here. As of 3-9-24, we are most of the way through Chapter 5. There are 7 chapters total.

Pound Puppy by Chapter

Chapter One

“I’m sorry. You want me to do what?”

Duncan gave him a smirk as he rocked back in his office chair, and Rowdy wasn’t sure he was happy to be given his very own investigation. “Find a dog,” Duncan said calmly.

For the past six months, he’d been working with the other investigators, mostly doing whatever they said he needed to do. Surveillance, courthouse legwork, record searches. Everything so mundane that no one else wanted to take it.

But Rowdy didn’t care. He was too appreciative to have an actual job. 

He’d been out of Walter Reed about a year, and his body had gotten so much better in that time. When he’d gone in, they’d told him he had very little chance of ever walking again. Rowdy knew the doctors had to give him worst case scenario, but it had only served to motivate him to work harder.

Within two months he was walking, though it was very different than how he’d moved before. The metal rods in his legs had taken some getting used to. And his left leg was always going to be a hair longer than his right leg. The bones had been obliterated in his right leg- total mush- and even though he was sure the doctors had measured repeatedly, his right leg had settled short. Rowdy didn’t really care, though. Yes, he had a very obvious limp, but he was fucking walking. He was working up to running, now.

That didn’t mean he wanted to chase down a lost dog, though.

Duncan reached a folder across the desk, and Rowdy took it, flipping it open. 

“I know this sounds like a waste of time, or a noobie joke, but the client has been with us for years. She’s a sweet old lady that people take advantage of. Go talk to her and see what you can figure out.”

Without a word, Rowdy nodded his head and pushed to his feet. “Will do.”

He limped out of Duncan’s office, his back aching. Shannon, John’s wife, gave him a sweet smile. “If you need help with anything, just call, Rowdy. Mrs. Dodd is a getting on in years, but she’s sweet as can be, sharp as a tack, and I know she loves Cookie. The dog doesn’t leave her side, so something must have happened to him.”

She held her hand out to him and Rowdy automatically took what she offered. Three ibuprofen. Then she shoved a bottle of water at him. Apparently, his limp had been more pronounced today. Shannon had told him once that the way he walked even made her back hurt. So, he took the pills gratefully, drank down half the water and gave Shannon a nod. 

“Thanks, Shannon. Kids good?”

She nodded, grinning. “Ready for Santa.”

Santa. Ugh. He’d prefer to just skip over the holiday if he could.

With a final wave, Rowdy called the elevator and left the Lost and Found offices, his mind going back to his assignment. This could either be a slam dunk or a really bad situation, if the dog was hurt or injured. Assuming he could even find the thing…

Walking across the icy parking lot, he read through the basic info in the file. There wasn’t much to it. There were several pictures of a white, fluffy-haired dog, though. He was less than ten pounds, so, not very big. One of the pics was of the dog panting happily, pink tongue lolling. Cookie looked like a nice little ankle-biter. And that white hair would be prefect camouflage for the snow they had outside right now.

Rowdy stopped at the side of his truck, digging for his key-fob as he juggled the file.

“Hey, Rowdy,” someone called. 

Turning, he waved at Brody Bennett. The guy was just in for a few days from the Columbus branch of Lost and Found, but Rowdy had enjoyed talking to him. The big man was in his blacked-out Dodge Challenger rental car. The car was almost as beefy as Brody. 

Grinning, Brody slowed beside him, leaning out the window. “What do you call a dog with no legs?”

Rowdy sighed, shaking his head as he waited for the punch line. 

“Nothing. He’s not coming anyway! Have fun on your call!”

Brody gassed the car out of the lot, squealing the tires as he turned North.

Rowdy sighed. Terrible joke, but he appreciated the camaraderie. It was like he was back in the SEALs.

Rowdy climbed into his truck and cranked the engine, then shifted into gear and pulled out of the lot. He hadn’t been in Denver long, but long enough that he knew Anderson Hills was one of the most exclusive neighborhoods in the state. It was world-renowned for its state-of-the-art golf green, and he’d seen an army of landscapers working on it at all hours. The adjoining ‘enclave’ was very exclusive, with several local celebrities calling it home. 

There were two guards in a squat gate building when he pulled up to the neighborhood entrance, and he had to let them know he was from Lost and Found. Then he had to wait for the older guard to call the Dodd house to make sure he was allowed in.

The man hung up the phone, giving him a considering look. “I hope you find Cookie. That little dog means more to the neighborhood than you know.”

Rowdy’s brows went up and he nodded. “I’ll do what I can, of course.”

The guard pressed a button to open the wide wrought iron gate decorated with Christmas lights and Rowdy pulled through slowly. He rolled up his window and cranked the heat to stave off the chill.

There weren’t many houses in Anderson Hills. They were spaced out, yards of manicured green grass between them. The golf course stretched out to the right, and players dotted the green. It was an especially warm day for December in Colorado, and people were taking advantage of the slightly warmer weather. A lot of the snow had melted from the last storm, leaving the roads wet. He passed the massive clubhouse, lines of expensive cars filling the lot. Rowdy felt a little self-conscious in his utilitarian Chevy as he pulled past the building and followed the road on around. A pond glittered off to the right, and there were a few ducks on the surface.

After another quarter mile, he neared the address he’d been given. The houses themselves were rustic and set far back from the road, with long, paved, gated driveways. Pines lined most of the yards, along with hardwoods that had obviously been growing for hundreds of years. It was a truly beautiful area.

The Dodd house was in a cul-de-sac with five other houses and up a small rise, nestled into the base of a rocky hill. It was a beautiful, stone home, with tall windows in the front. The front yard was manicured sharply, and he could still see the diagonal lines from the final mow beneath the melting snow. Flower beds circled the house, covered with straw to protect next year’s blooms. The house was lined with ropes of clear Christmas lights, and he had a feeling it was beautiful at night. He parked his truck as out of the way as he could and grabbed the file as he slipped out. For a moment, he held onto the door handle as he got his legs beneath him, then he turned and headed up the walk.

The giant wood and glass entry doors swung open before he could even ring the bell, and an older woman looked up at him with tears in her eyes. “You must be the one who’s going to save my Cookie.”

Rowdy fought not to wince. He forced a smile for the older woman and held out his hand. “Rowdy West, from Lost and Found.”

“Come in, come in. I’m Georgette Dodd.”

Georgette Dodd had to be in her seventies, but she had the well-preserved look of a woman with money. He didn’t doubt that she’d done a little nip and tuck, but whoever had done it had done an exceptional job. Her gray hair was short and swept back from her face, and she stood tall, though her hand was swollen with arthritis.

A second woman stood inside, but Mrs. Dodd didn’t even seem to notice her. As Rowdy walked through the doors, the nameless woman closed them behind him. Knowing that she could be a resource, he held out a hand to her. “Rowdy West.”

The woman seemed flustered, but she shook his hand. “Linda. I’m the housekeeper.” Then she glanced away.

Rowdy turned and followed Mrs. Dodd. She led him past several expansive, well-appointed rooms, one of which had a massive live fir Christmas tree, then into a much smaller, cozy room. Rowdy assumed Mrs. Dodd spent a lot of time here, because there were several personal items scattered around the room. It looked lived in and homey.

Mrs. Dodd sank into a worn armchair and glanced down to the side. There was an expensive looking miniature couch dog bed in purple velvet, draped with a white fluffy blanket. 

“This is where my Cookie stays, right beside me, all the time. He never leaves my side, unless he has to go poo-poo.”

Rowdy blinked and forced his face to stay still, though his lips twitched. “And how often does he have to go poo-poo?”

The guys on his team would have roasted him if they’d heard him say those words. They never would have let him live them down, either.

“About three times a day. She takes him out.” 

The older woman waved a hand over her shoulder, he assumed at the housekeeper. Was she always that dismissive with the help? Or was she being cold because she thought the woman lost her dog?

Rowdy focused on Linda. “How many times a day do you take Cookie out?”

Linda wiggled a hand. “About six times a day, sometimes more if his tum-tum is upset.”

The housekeeper’s eyes flicked to Mrs. Dodd and the older woman’s lips tightened, but she lifted her chin. “He loves his treats.”

Rowdy glanced at Linda. Her lips flattened as well and she crossed her arms beneath her breasts, looking away. It was obvious this was a bone of contention between the two of them.

“Cookie is a hero and he deserves to be pampered a little.” Mrs. Dodd’s blue eyes lit up as she smiled. “Did they tell you he was a hero?”

Rowdy shook his head. “No. How was he a hero?”

Mrs. Dodd folded her hands in her lap and straightened. “Well, it was a few years ago when we were having those terrible wildfires. We had let Cookie out to do his poo-poo, and he went all the way to the back corner of the yard and started barking. It wasn’t his normal bark and when we investigated, we discovered that an ember had flown over the mountain and started to smolder. We were all in danger, Rowdy! And my Cookie saved us!”

Rowdy smiled slightly at the woman’s enthusiasm. “He sounds very courageous.”

He caught Linda’s eye roll out of his periphery. 

“I have Christmas hope in my heart that you will find him, Rowdy,” Mrs. Dodd told him.

No pressure, or anything, Rowdy thought with an inward sigh. “And where was he last seen?”

“I can show you,” Linda murmured, heading toward the door.

Mrs. Dodd waved a monogrammed kerchief at him. “Come tell me what you find.”

Rowdy followed the housekeeper through the pristine house. It didn’t even look like anyone lived here. If he hadn’t seen Mrs. Dodd’s sitting room, he would have thought the house was unoccupied. Could Cookie be trapped in one of the unused rooms?

“You don’t seem to agree with Mrs. Dodd’s version of events,” he murmured to the housekeeper.

Linda slowed, then stopped. They were standing in an expansive kitchen now, and a heavy-set woman standing at the stove looked up. Linda held up a hand in acknowledgement but turned to face him. “Mrs. Dodd loves that little dog, but Cookie can be an obnoxious twit.”

The woman at the stove snickered in agreement but didn’t interrupt.

“He was barking in the back corner because he always barks at squirrels, chipmunks, it might have been a leaf. Who knows? Cookie has been known to bark at his own farts. It just so happened that that day, the fire jumped. And Mrs. Dodd attributed all the noise he was making to trying to save our lives. Cookie could give a damn about us.”

Rowdy fought not to laugh. The woman at the stove snickered again, nodding her head. Linda just looked put out from dealing with it all. 

Was she frustrated enough to do something to the dog?

“Was the dog microchipped?”

“Yes,” Linda sighed. “Annabelle, Mrs. Dodd’s assistant, has been calling vets and shelters for the past two days looking for him, but no luck.”

Rowdy filed the information away, then made a motion, waving her on.

Rowdy was escorted out into the backyard. Linda had explained that it wasn’t unusual to let the dog out for several minutes while she attended to something else. In other words, she would dump the dog and forget him for a while.

“And when was the last time you saw him?”

“It was his last trip out. So, about ten at night three nights ago. I usually let him in Mrs. Dodd’s bedroom before I go to bed.”

“Okay. You can go back in,” Rowdy told her. “I’m going to look around.”

Without a word, the housekeeper disappeared back into the kitchen.

Rowdy looked around the space. It was a broad back yard, with several rocky landscaping displays. Snow hid in the crevices, now. Plenty of places for squirrels to play and a dog to chase them. A four-foot-tall wooden fence surrounded the yard, with a woven wire lining inside to keep the dog in.

He hiked the length of the fence, looking for holes under the boards, but he didn’t find any. At the back fence, there was a branch leaning over one corner, but there was no way a dog could climb it to get out. By the time he circled all the way around, his leg was hurting from the sloping, slippery terrain, but he hadn’t found anywhere for Cookie to escape.

Rowdy glanced over the fence. There was a man standing on the back patio of the house next door, smoking a cigarette. Rowdy gave him a wave and crossed to lean against the fence. “Any chance you’ve seen a lost dog?” he called out.

The man shook his head and dropped the cigarette to the ground. “You mean Cookie? No, I haven’t seen the little bastard for a while. It’s been exceptionally quiet and peaceful back here the past couple of days.”

“Not part of the Cookie appreciation club, hm?”

The man left the patio and crossed the grass, stopping a few feet away. He leaned against the opposite side of the fence and pulled his jacket tighter around himself. Rowdy reached out a hand. “Rowdy West, Lost and Found Investigative Service.”

The man looked at him incredulously for several long seconds before reaching out his own hand. “Tom King. She hired a detective to find that damn dog?”

Rowdy nodded. “He’s quite the hero, so she wants him found.”

Tom shook his head, snorting. “The hero, right…”

“You don’t agree?”

“No, I don’t agree,” Tom laughed. “That fire was coming for a while. They had warned us we might have to evacuate. Cookie was just out there barking his fool head off like he always did, and Mrs. Dodd connected two very unconnected things. I love the old bat. We’ve been neighbors for years. But she has a total blind spot when it comes to that dog. You should have seen the party she threw for the hero, though. It was worth it just to attend. Biggest thing that’s happened around here for a long time. She raised money for the local animal shelter.”

Rowdy nodded, filing away the information. “Do you have cameras, or motion detectors, Mr. King?”

The man shook his head. “Down at the gate, but not up here.” He motioned toward the back yard. “We have enough wildlife that the things would be going off all the time.”

Probably true. “Thank you for your time, Mr. King. If you see the dog, maybe you can let us know.”

“Maybe,” Tom said, turning to walk away. “It’s been nice and quiet without him.”

Rowdy glanced around, looking at the fence. It seemed intact, although a few yards down from where he’d been leaning, there was a puff of white hair. It was attached to the top of the fence, caught under one of the woven wire knots. Tom pulled the hair, looking at it. No blood or anything. It was hard to tell how old it was.

Rowdy continued, along the side yard and down the front. He tried to avoid the snowy patches in the shadows, but he wasn’t always successful. The fence seemed intact all the way around. When he circumnavigated almost the entire yard, he found a man draping lights on a bush on the far side of the house. “Hello,” Rowdy called out, drawing close.

The man didn’t seem to hear him. Rowdy drew close and the man glanced up, startling badly. He dropped his pliers and danced back a few steps. Then he pulled an air pod out of his ear. “I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t hear you.”

The man spoke with a bit of a Hispanic lilt. “I’m sorry I scared you,” Rowdy told him, grinning.

The other man waved a hand. “I should have been watching. I was lost in the music.”

“What are you listening to?” Rowdy asked, trying to put the man at ease. 

“Um,” the man looked down at his hands, as if just realizing he’d lost his shears. “I’m listening to Cats, the musical.”

Rowdy nodded. “I thought I recognized Memory.”

The gardener grinned. “Yes, it’s one of my favorites.”

Rowdy introduced himself and explained his reason for being there. The man’s face fell, and he shook his head. “Poor Cookie. I’ve walked this yard several times, looking for a hole in the fence or something, but there’s nothing. There were no prints in the snow yesterday, but it had snowed the day before. The front gate is always closed, and we don’t get a lot of visitors. I don’t understand where he’s gone.”

“When is the last time you saw him?”

“Three days ago, in the back yard. He was barking, but,” Ernesto shrugged. “I just put my headphones in and go to work. Linda or Annabelle is responsible for the dog, but I always kind of keep an eye on him. For them.”

His cheeks took on a ruddy cast, and Rowdy wondered which woman he was sweet on.

He held out his hand. “Thanks, Ernesto.”

Chapter Two

Rowdy made his way on around the house and let himself in the back door of the kitchen. He wiped his boots on a rug but debated taking them off. The cook looked up, her broad face splitting into a smile. “Don’t worry about it. Come on in,” she urged. “Can I get you a cup of tea?”

Rowdy nodded, his hips aching from the cold. “I would appreciate that.”

The woman waved a hand at a small table near a window looking out on the back yard. “Have a seat.”

Rowdy watched as she poured him a steaming cup of tea and set it on a saucer. She checked a pot on the stove before she walked the cup and saucer over to him. “I’m Rowdy,” he said, taking it from her.

“Nice to meet you, Rowdy. I’m Emma.”

“Will you join me, Emma?”

The chef settled into the chair across from him with a sigh. “Thank you, Rowdy. I’m at a good place to take a little break. No luck finding Cookie, hm?”

Rowdy shook his head. “Everyone saw him about the same time three days ago, but not since then.”

Emma’s round face turned sad. “I don’t know what Mrs. Dodd is going to do without that little dog. He’s her closest companion since her husband died. And with it being so close to Christmas…”

Rowdy winced. He didn’t want to think about this being a dead-end case. Possibly literally. “I know the assistant is calling vets, but did you check with animal control?”

“I’m sure she probably has, but you should confirm with Annabelle.”

“I will. Is she around?”

Emma’s eyebrows furrowed. “She should be. Let me text her.”

Within a few minutes, Rowdy heard light footsteps coming through the house toward the kitchen. He looked up and blinked. And lost his breath.

The woman that came into the room wasn’t classically beautiful, but something about her was intriguing. Her hair was so dark it was almost black, cut in a slightly choppy way to curve around her smooth face. The round glasses that sat perched on her nose almost swallowed her, but they made her bright green eyes that much bigger. She smiled as she walked into the room and held out her hand as he stood from the table. Rowdy noted that her hand was finely boned, her skin almost translucent pale. She wore a very soft pale, blue sweater, and blue jeans cupped her curvy hips.

She shook strongly, though, and straightened before him. “I’m Annabelle Finch,” she said softly. “And you’re from Lost and Found?”

Her gaze ran down his length, then back up, almost too quickly to catch, and he wondered what conclusions she had drawn. Did she see how broken he was? 

Rowdy gave a single nod, missing the feel of her delicate hand in his own. He blinked and had to force himself to remember why he was here. “I am. Have you made any headway with the shelters? Did you call animal control?”

Annabelle pulled out a chair and sat at the table, setting her planner book in front of her. “No and yes.” She flipped the brightly covered book open to a tabbed page in the back. A list of names had been written on the page in colorful pens, with notes below each one. “No one has seen Cookie. I’ve had a few ‘almosts’, but no confirmed sightings. I have flyers being printed up as we speak, and we’ll be posting those in the neighborhood tonight, with a significant award attached.”

Rowdy appreciated her enthusiasm, but he wondered if she knew what she was letting herself in for. “You know you’re going to have scammers crawling out of the woodwork for the money, probably.”

Her face fell a little and he felt like he’d kicked a puppy. But she rallied, giving him a slight smile. “I know, but we have to do what we can. If only to reassure Mrs. Dodd.”

Rowdy nodded, adjusting in the chair to ease his hips. She was motivated to please her employer, which was admirable. “Do you know if Mrs. Dodd has anyone that would want to wound her? Damage her business?”

Annabelle sighed and took off her glasses. She rubbed the bridge of her nose, and Rowdy could see how stressed she was. Lines pinched her mouth, and her eyes seemed tired as she thought about his question. This job was probably not in her wheelhouse either.

“I’ve racked my brain trying to think if anyone could have grabbed him or harmed him, but I’m coming up blank. He’s a treasured pet of a woman that most of the people in the neighborhood love.”

“Who doesn’t love her,” Rowdy asked, picking up on the slight distinction.

Annabelle frowned. “Well, no one actively dislikes Mrs. Dodd, I don’t think, but she can ruffle feathers if she’s passionate about something.”

“What do you mean,” Rowdy asked, leaning forward on the table.

Annabelle shifted in her seat, obviously uncomfortable even mentioning something negative about her boss. She glanced around the kitchen, maybe looking for help, but Emma had disappeared. 

“I’m not looking for gossip,” Rowdy told her, “But it is important that you’re honest with me, Annabelle.”

She looked out the window. “Well, we have a party coming up in a few days for the animal shelter. It’s called Paws for a Cause: A Holiday Gala Benefiting Sheltered Souls, and last year we did have… an incident.”

Rowdy nodded encouragingly. 

“There were many, many cars at the clubhouse, and a few of the residents were unable to make it through the crush to get home. They were delayed for several hours.”

Rowdy didn’t let the surprise show on his face, but he needed to reiterate what she’d said. “People couldn’t get home because of the gala last year?”

Annabelle nodded, frowning. “The valet company cancelled on us at the last minute, so we had to rely on the golf club’s valets, and they were just completely overwhelmed by the number of invited guests. They did the best they could to get the traffic moving and parked, but it was a considerable headache.”

“And when is this holiday gala scheduled for, this year?”

“This coming weekend,” she admitted softly.

“And is Cookie an attendee?”

Annabelle scraped a hand back through her hair. “Yes. He’s the guest of honor. Mr. Dodd adopted him from this shelter several years before he died. Called him Mrs. Dodd’s pound puppy. After he … rescued us from the fire, Mrs. Dodd had a party in his honor. Over the years it’s turned into a gala to raise money for shelter animals. Mrs. Dodd dresses him up in his own little tux.”

Rowdy sat back in his chair, thinking. It seemed a little too coincidental that the man of the hour would disappear right before his big show. “And if Cookie wasn’t there, would Mrs. Dodd cancel the event?”

Annabelle frowned. “I’m not sure, honestly. The invitations have been out for weeks, so I doubt it. This is the shelter’s biggest fundraiser, so it would be a terrible blow if we didn’t go through with it.”

Chapter Three

Annabelle watched the handsome investigator’s face barely flinch in reaction to her words, even though she knew how ridiculous they sounded. Dogs in tuxes and all that. They were very true, though. Cookie, as well as the other animals that came in from the shelter, were a big part of the draw of the gala. Each of the dogs chosen to be ambassadors for the party were almost guaranteed an exclusive new home. The Dodds had been championing this cause for many years, now, and it had grown exponentially. Since it was right before the holiday, people were eager to prove their giving spirit. Last year had been a bit of a shit-show, but the parking situation had been out of their control.

This year, she had a back-up company in addition to her chosen company, and they would be ready to send valets out at the first distress call. 

Annabelle prided herself on everything running smoothly, and she’d never dreamed there would be a screw-up so bad. At least four neighbors had been unable to make it home that night. Since they lived on a dead-end road past the clubhouse, with only one way in and out, it had been catastrophic. She’d fielded angry calls and emails for days after and had done her best to smooth things over. And she’d known as she started planning the next party that these issues would pop up again.

The man was watching her, and she shifted on the chair a little. That gaze of his was intense. 

“I need you to make a list of the people that were inconvenienced last year. And I’d like to see any emails or correspondence you received.”

Annabelle nodded, glad that she had something she could do. She jotted a note on her pad and took his email. “I will forward you everything I have.”

She blinked, thinking about the names that were going to go on the list. “They’re all close neighbors, directly in the cul-de-sac here.” She motioned around the house. “They’ve known Mrs. Dodd for years, and I can’t imagine any of them hurting Cookie.”

Rowdy smiled slightly and she blinked. Wow, his whole face had changed, and she wondered what he would look like with a full grin.

She knew investigators were supposed to be stalwart and cold, expressionless, and Rowdy had that part of his job down pat. She shivered a little, wishing that his shuttered hazel eyes would warm up a little. For a moment, when she’d come in, she thought there’d been a spark of something… but maybe that had been wishful thinking. Rowdy West was drool-worthy, as her sister would say, with his dark hair and lean, square-jawed face. He wasn’t especially tall, maybe just under six feet, but she didn’t need tall. She wished she’d taken time this morning to add some makeup, or maybe dress a little better. Heck, she didn’t even have her shoes on. He probably thought she was as absent-minded as Mrs. Dodd.

Story of her life. People usually took a look at her and decided she was a flutterby, as her sister used to call her. But just because she liked comfortable clothes and colors and unique things, it didn’t mean she was stupid or lacking, in any way. She prided herself on doing her very odd job well, and Mrs. Dodd seemed happy with her performance, so that was all that mattered.

For some reason, though, she wanted him to look at her differently. She didn’t normally feel insecure about what she did, but she thought maybe she wanted him to look at her as more competent. She’d never felt the need to impress a man before.

Was it just because he was really handsome, and she had no love life? Maybe.

And maybe there was nothing wrong with letting him know she was interested.

“So, how long have you been an investigator?”

Annabelle thought the question was innocent enough, but he shifted uncomfortably. “Not very long, actually.”

She cocked her head. “Have you had a case like this before?”

“Definitely not,” he barked out a laugh. “I don’t think anyone in the company has had a case like this.”

Annabelle grinned. “Well, hopefully Cookie will turn up and you can be the only one to have solved a case like this.”

He grinned at her, and Annabelle caught her breath. Yup, he was even more stupid handsome. Damn.

“So,” she said slowly, “in your limited experience, what do you think our chances are of getting Cookie back?”

The laughter faded from his expression. “I can’t say, honestly. There are too many unknowns. I will say, though, that the timing is very suspect.”

She nodded. “Yes. I don’t want to think ill of any of her neighbors, but the more time that goes by and the more dead ends I hit, the more I think someone took him to hurt her.”

Rowdy didn’t say anything, but his silence was agreement enough.

“If you can send me those emails, I can get on them.”

Annabelle nodded, pushing up from the chair. He stood with her, as well, which she thought was very sweet. “Give me a few minutes.”

* * *

The investigator nodded and she headed down the hallway to her office. It was just a tiny space near the den, and she wondered if at one point it had been a closet. There was enough room for her L-shaped desk and office chair, and a single armchair against the wall. The six-foot Ficus took up the rest of the room on the other side, and was the only true green. The rest of the space was decorated with colorful tchotchkes, figurines and lights. Annabelle loved her little space and was very thankful that Mrs. Dodd allowed her free rein in her decorating.

She also appreciated the excellent internet she had in the house, because within seconds Annabelle had logged into her email account and found the abusive emails. Each of the neighbors had expressed their extreme displeasure and she had a feeling Margaret Sneed Wanton-Klapper had led the pack. Her’s was the first email that came in, and the rest all followed a similar layout. Margaret had been the most vocal that night and there had been no way to calm her down. Even when Mrs. Dodd had walked out into the snow to personally apologize, Mrs. Wanton-Klapper, as pretentious as her name intimated, had turned her nose up at the apology. She’d seen it as a way to lord it over the older woman. That night had shown Annabelle exactly what kind of woman Mrs. Wanton-Klapper was.

“Is there any way you can print those off?”

Annabelle startled hard, her hand jerking across the keyboard. Her email page disappeared into the ether, and she glared up at the investigator, who was leaning disturbingly close against her desk. “Holy crap, you scared me,” she gasped, hand to her heart.

Rowdy grimaced, holding his hands out. “I apologize. I was just trying to save myself a few steps and thought I would see if you could help me out. If you can print them, I don’t have to go back to the office.”

Annabelle could tell he was sorry he’d scared her. Slowly, she nodded, giving him the side-eye. “Yeah, just let me pull up my email again.”

She surfed through, pulling up the date again. Then she sent them to her printer. She handed the small stack of papers to Rowdy, who was still leaning against her desk. Why did he have to be so close? She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. 

“So, tell me your impression of these people.”

Annabelle sighed and she knew she could be wading into dangerous territory. If any of this got back to them…

“On the top is the one from Margaret Sneed Wanton-Klapper. Her name is a mouthful, and she likes it that way. Sneed is an old family money name in Denver, and she wants it to be known she’s part of them, though only distantly. She runs the neighborhood watch and was the first one I called two days ago. Though she pretends to be helping me out, she actually just lords it over us that we’ve lost the dog. I can tell she’s extremely happy that Cookie is gone, and she hopes that it makes us cancel the gala.”

“Jack and Linda Hofstetter moved in just a few years ago. Unfortunately, they moved right next to Wanna-Klap-her and they’re starting to…”

“Wait,” Rowdy said, looking up from the papers and grinning. “Did you just call her Wanna-Klap-her?”

Annabelle felt blood rush to her cheeks, but she tilted up her chin. “Yes, that was my bad. Her name is a mouthful and I’ve found myself shortening it over the years.”

Rowdy grinned at her, settling more comfortably against her desk. “That sounds like you’ve said it in conjunction with something else. Like, Wanna-Klap-her…” he held a hand out to her to finish his sentence.

“Like Wanna-Klap-her sanctimonious face off,” Annabelle finished quietly, a grin breaking out across her face. 

Rowdy tipped back his head and laughed, nodding. “I’m going to have to try not to use that when I talk to her.”

“Oh, hell, please don’t. I would never hear the end of it. Mrs. Dodd wouldn’t hear the end of it.”

“Would Mrs. Dodd fire you over it?”

Annabelle shook her head, giggling. “Nah, she’s said worse.”

“So, tell me about the rest of these.”

Annabelle went over the rest of the complaining neighbors. As she read over the emails again, she could see certain words pop out that Wanna-Klap-her had used. It was so obvious that she’d led the complaint charge. The Comptons used half a dozen of the same words, and the Ngyuens used even more of the same words. One sentence was verbatim.

“These people weren’t even in town that night, but they still sent me an email letting me know how happy they were gone so that they didn’t have to deal with this mess.” She pointed at the last email from the Browns. 

Rowdy shook his head, somehow not even surprised. “Sounds like Mrs. Dodd really ruffled some feathers.”

Annabelle shrugged. “Yes. But Mrs. Wanton-Klapper has always had it out for Mrs. Dodd. I think she moved into the neighborhood expecting deference and recognition for her name but didn’t realize that Mrs. Dodd had been here for many years and already knew everyone. Heck, Mr. Dodd helped to lay out the plans for the golf course and the surrounding subdivision, and he knew everyone that built a house. We’ve got ball players and musicians and businesspeople in this area that make more money than you or I could ever spend, and he became friends with them all.”

Rowdy nodded and Annabelle could tell that he was mentally recording everything she said. 

“Okay, I’ll work on these. Thank you, Annabelle.”

She watched as he pushed to his feet, then stagger a little, like something caught in his hip. “Are you all right?” she asked.

He turned his face away, like he didn’t want her to see his pain. “Yeah, I shouldn’t have sat on your desk like that. Serves me right for wanting to get closer to you.”

Annabelle laughed and watched as he limped out of her office. It was a good thing he wasn’t looking at her because she just knew her cheeks were pink.

Chapter Four

Rowdy decided to start with the Browns. He drove to their house, which was the furthest away from Mrs. Dodd’s house, and just down the road a little. There was a middle-aged man packing up a golf-cart with clubs when he pulled up the long drive. 

He slipped out of the truck and grabbed to leather portfolio he’d put Annabelle’s emails into. Chad had explained that when he went on interviews, he needed to have something in his hand to take notes. People liked to believe they were a part of something, and if you were writing down their words it made them feel important. And sometimes it opened the floodgates to information.

“Hello, Mr. Brown? I’m Rowdy West, an investigator from Lost and Found Investigative Services. Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

“If you’re quick,” the man grumbled, tucking a new set of balls into his bag. “I have a tee time at the driving cage in twenty minutes.”

Of course, he did. “No problem. Are you familiar with Mrs. Dodd, your neighbor? Her dog is missing.”

Mr. Brown looked up at him and Rowdy could see the condescension in the man’s face. “She hired an investigator to find her dog?” Snorting, he turned back to the cart, shaking his head. “Yes, I know her. She’s a crazy old bat, but she’s never hurt anyone, that I know of. And I don’t think the dog has either.”

“So, you haven’t seen the dog, then?”

Mr. Brown shook his head. “Nope. Is that all?”

“Are you aware that the Paws for the Cause Holiday Gala is coming up this coming weekend?”

The man looked back at him. “I am very aware, and we’ve already made plans to be out of town so we don’t have to deal with the parking mess.”

“You didn’t have to deal with it last year, yet you still felt the need to express your anger in an email.”

Mr. Brown sighed and leaned against the cart. “Listen to me, Mr. whatever your name was. My wife felt the need to write that after she spoke to Margaret the day after the event. I did not write it. But if I had been here, I would have been as mad as Margaret was. Anything else?”

Rowdy shook his head. “No, sir. Enjoy your tee time.”

Mr. Brown didn’t even acknowledge when he left.

Rowdy jotted a few notes down on the notepad, then shifted into reverse. He pulled into the next drive and keyed an intercom button at the gate. A voice came on the line and he explained what he was doing. After a pause, the gates slid open and he drove up the tree-lined pavement. He scanned the area, looking for any evidence of the dog, but he didn’t see anything.

A woman met him at the door of the big, beautiful house. He showed her his investigator badge, and explained what he was there for. 

The woman was Jill Ngyuen, a stay-at-home mom with two small kids. Rowdy smiled as the kids crowded behind their mother’s legs, one boy, one girl, peering out at him through dark hair. 

“Are they twins?” 

Mrs. Ngyuen gave a single dip of her head, a proud smile spreading across her mouth as she rested her hands on her children. “They are.”

“Congratulations. A dragon and phoenix pair is very rare.”

The woman beamed, nodding politely, and waited for him to state his purpose.

“Are you aware that Mrs. Dodd’s dog Cookie is missing?”

The smile slipped away from Mrs. Ngyuen’s face. “Oh, no. He’s such a cute little dog. And he saved us from the wildfire.”

Rowdy wasn’t surprised she believed the Cookie savior story.

“You haven’t seen him?”

The woman shook her head, then spoke softly to the children. They shook their heads in unison and Rowdy couldn’t help but smile. They were cute little critters.

He handed Mrs. Ngyuen a card. “I have to ask you about the email you sent to Mrs. Dodd last year.”

Mrs. Ngyuen blinked and clasped her hands in front of herself. “We went out that night and it was difficult to get home to the children. I’m glad my mother had come for a visit, because they would have been too much for a sitter for that long. I always put them to bed and they were not happy I wasn’t here to do that.”

Rowdy nodded. “I get that. And the email?”

The woman shrugged. “My husband was upset and he talked to Mrs. Wanton-Klapper about it. They decided to let Mrs. Dodd know how aggravated they were.”

“This year they’ve hired a new company to park the cars.”

Mrs. Ngyuen shrugged again, smiling politely. “I will not be leaving the house, this Saturday.”

Rowdy could see how she hovered over the children. She seemed the type to be a little overprotective.

But then, in Chinese culture, the boy-girl twin pairing meant good luck and fortune, and he had no doubt that the children would be cared for like royalty. 

Rowdy pulled out a current picture of Cookie and handed it over. “If you wouldn’t mind keeping an eye out and calling me if you see anything.”

Nodding, Mrs. Ngyuen took the photo. “I will.”

Rowdy wasn’t surprised he was striking out. Finding a lost dog was about like looking for a needle in a haystack. He’d seen on some news channel the other day that there was a company in England that did drone searches for lost dogs and they had a very high success rate. They’d been on the news because they’d found an older, blind black lab that had been lost for a few days.

Hopefully, finding lost dogs was not going to be his specialty at Lost and Found.

The gate opened automatically as he headed down the Ngyuen’s drive and he turned into the next drive. This was the Comptons and they’d seemed just as aggravated with Mrs. Dodd as Mrs. Wanton-Klapper. When he pulled up to the gate box, though, there was no answer. It was the middle of the day, so maybe they were at work. Jotting a note on the back of his business card, he left it wedged into a seam of the box. It would be seen as soon as they pulled up. Then he backed out of the drive and headed next door.

Mr. Hoffstetter sounded very old. He answered the gate bell and was reluctant to let him in. Rowdy explained who he was and what he was doing, but the man didn’t budge. He said he hadn’t seen Cookie and that if he had he would have let Mrs. Dodd know. Rowdy left it at that.

His heartbeat picked up a little as he pulled into the Wanton-Klapper’s and rang the gate box. When he explained who he was, the big iron gate swung open, and he drove through. If anyone had seen anything, he would think it would be the Wanton-Klappers on this side of the property or the Kings on the other side. 

Rowdy parked in front of the garage in the circular driveway, behind an expensive black SUV. Grabbing his folder, he headed up the front walk. A woman in a uniform answered the door and he wasn’t surprised. From what he’d heard, Mrs. Wanton-Klapper seemed like the type to need domestic help. He smiled at the woman and requested to speak to the owner. 

The housekeeper waved him through into the marble foyer. 

“If you’ll wait here just a moment.”

Rowdy stood where he was and waited patiently for her to return. After ten minutes of waiting, he sat in the old-looking chair near the door. Still, no one came. He was very aware that this was a power tactic, but all it was doing was pissing him off.

A dark-haired teenager with mussed hair shuffled across the hall down the way, then backed up and looked at the front door where Rowdy was sitting. “Can I help you?” the kid asked.

Rowdy pushed up from the chair, smiling slightly. This girl was not the one he’d come to see, but he would take the opportunity to pick her brain. She looked about sixteen, so, old enough to maybe answer some questions.

“I’m Rowdy West. I’m an investigator with Lost and Found Investigative Service. Do you live here?”

The girl nodded, blinking as she took his business card.

“I’m looking for Mrs. Dodd’s little dog Cookie,” he continued. “Have you seen him?”

If he hadn’t been watching her closely, he might have missed the slight flinch around her eyes. “No, I haven’t seen him. He’s a sweet little dog. I hope she finds him.”

The girl turned and continued on her slipper-scuffing way, but Rowdy was curious enough at her response to follow her into the kitchen. The girl went to the fridge, eyeing him as he stepped into the massive space. She pulled out a container of orange juice. “Want some?” she asked reluctantly.

“Please,” Rowdy said, smiling. He really didn’t, but he wanted to continue talking to her. “What’s your name?”

“Cora,” the girl said. She pulled two glasses from one of the overhead cupboards and splashed juice into the glasses. Then she pushed one across the marble island to him. Rowdy wasn’t very familiar with kids, but he appreciated her reluctant cordiality.

Rowdy picked up the glass and took a big swallow of the juice. “Thank you,” he said. “When’s the last time you saw Cookie?”

Cora glanced back the way she came. “Um, a few days ago. He was chasing a bird in Mrs. Dodd’s back yard.”

“Ah,” Rowdy said. “Is your room on the back? Is that how you saw him?”

Cora nodded slowly and he could tell she didn’t like answering his questions. “I see him bark at the squirrels all the time.” 

“Do you have a dog?”

Cora snorted. “No way. Mom would never let me have one.”

“I’m sorry. Dogs are pretty cool animals.”

“Yeah, I know. I like Cookie.” She glanced down the hallway again. “Mom hates him, so don’t be surprised if she kicks you out.”

“Noted. Can you think of anyone who would want to hurt the dog?”

Her big eyes flipped up to him, then away, then very subtly to the hallway. “Um, no.”

Rowdy didn’t like her response and he wished Chad was there to back up his gut instinct. He felt like the girl was hiding something. “Cora, if you know something, it’s very important you let someone know.”

She opened her mouth but didn’t have a chance to say anything.

“Excuse me,” a woman said as she walked into the kitchen. “Who are you?”

Rowdy knew this was Margaret Sneed Wanton-Klapper, from the top of her expertly styled blond hair to her dramatic red pantsuit. At first glance she seemed to be as pretentious as her name and Rowdy took an immediate dislike to her. In general, he tended to give everyone a chance, but she might be the exception.

“Are you interrogating my daughter?” Her blue eyes flashed with anger, and he felt like she was looking for something to be mad about.

Rowdy gave her a crooked, disarming smile. “No, ma’am. Just making conversation while I drink my juice.” He picked up the glass, pointedly, and took a sip. 

Margaret looked at her daughter. “Cora, isn’t there a class you’re late for, or something?”

“We’re on Christmas break, remember?” Cora rolled her eyes at the woman’s glare, and glanced back at Rowdy. Then she picked up her glass of juice and shuffled out of the kitchen.

As soon as Cora was gone, Margaret Sneed Wanna-Klap-her— Rowdy smirked at the internal thought— turned back to him. “What’s this about?”

“Mrs. Dodd’s little dog Cookie is missing.”

The woman snorted. “I’m well aware. Georgette’s assistant called me whining about it. The little bastard was always barking like an obnoxious twit, so I’m not surprised he’s gone. I sent Mrs. Dodd an estimate three days ago for a solid six-foot fence. Since it’s her dog being the nuisance, I expect her to pay half of the cost.”

Rowdy’s brows twitched and he had to consciously not laugh. “If you’re the one bothered, shouldn’t it be your expense?”

The woman waved a hand. “That’s not what my lawyer says. There’s some kind of ‘gentleman’s agreement’ when it comes to shared fence.”

Hm. Maybe she needed a new lawyer. Rowdy knew what she was talking about, but it was an agreement between farmers with livestock to share the cost of fence maintenance. That wasn’t his place to advise, though. “So, you haven’t seen him?”

Margaret flicked a freshly manicured hand. “I just hear his constant yapping. Now that you mention it, though, it has been a little quieter. Good. Maybe he’ll stay gone.”

“You wrote Mrs. Dodd a pretty harsh email last year.”

Margaret rolled her eyes and planted a hand on her slim hip. “I did. She had no business blocking our street that way. I sat in my car for two hours and it didn’t matter who I complained to. All these people showed up for her little gala to prove how benevolent they are, and they didn’t care that they were inconveniencing others.”

Wow. What a royal bitch. He made sure none of what he was thinking showed on his face. “Well, I don’t think it was anyone’s fault. The valet company didn’t show up. I assure you, this year things will be run differently.”

One corner of Margaret’s lips turned up, and there was definitely an edge of maliciousness to it. “If that dog is missing, her pride and joy, the gala may not even happen. And I would be fine with that.”

Hm. Wasn’t that an interesting observation for her to make. “Do you mind if I look in your backyard? Since you have an adjoining fence, I just want to make sure he didn’t try to slip through somewhere.”

She waved a negligent hand. “Break a leg,” she murmured. And he wondered if she didn’t mean that literally. Had she seen him limping up to the front door and had to make a dig? She seemed the type.

“Thank you,” he said simply. “If I see anything, I’ll let you know.”

“Don’t bother. I’m going out for lunch. Greta will show you out when you’re done.”

The housekeeper showed up out of nowhere, like she’d been waiting just beyond the doorjamb for Mrs. Wanton-Klapper to call her. “If you’ll follow me,” the woman said softly. 

Rowdy downed the rest of his juice and followed the older woman through a back sunroom, then to a door. “You can come back in this way.”

Rowdy stepped out into the back yard. It was as manicured as Mrs. Dodd’s, but it seemed less welcoming. Granted, it was almost Christmas and all of the flowers had gone dormant, for the most part. There were lights strung along the front of the house, but none on the back. Everyone else had done some decorating for the holidays, but the Wanton-Klapper house didn’t seem especially joyful.

He thought about the teenager, Cora. She’d seemed depressed, and he had to admit, if he lived here with that woman, he’d be depressed as well. He felt like she had some information.

Rowdy walked the perimeter of the yard, looking for anything out of the ordinary. He especially checked the base of the fence, but he didn’t see anything worth noting. There were cameras on the house, and one pointed somewhat conspicuously into the Dodd’s back yard. Rowdy had a feeling Margaret wouldn’t follow through with the fence because she wouldn’t be able to snoop if she did.

When he let himself inside the house, the housekeeper was unloading the dishwasher. She wiped her hands and started to lead him out of the kitchen, but Rowdy held up a hand. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?”

The woman’s gaze flicked to the hallway, but she shook her head, then pulled her sweater tighter around herself. “No, sir.”

Rowdy shook his head. “You can just call me Rowdy. Mind if I call you Greta?”

She nodded once. 

“There are cameras on the back of the house, and one pointed toward the Dodd’s back yard. Do you have access to those?”

Greta shook her head. “Only Mrs. Wanton-Klapper has access to those, and her husband. He’s away on a business trip, though.”

“I can get you in,” Cora said, coming into the kitchen. She set her juice glass in the sink.

Rowdy was surprised she’d come back. Maybe she was curious. Or maybe she wanted him to see something. “I would appreciate that.”

She left the kitchen and returned a few minutes later, carrying a tablet. She swiped through a few pages, then pulled up a common security app. Rowdy watched over her shoulder as she found the appropriate camera and started cycling through the footage. “It would have been three days ago, approximately ten at night.”

Cora scrolled back through the footage, then slowed. 

“Stop there!”

On the screen, at the very top, a figure appeared. The cameras recorded in color, but the figure seemed to be dressed in black. From Rowdy’s point of view, it looked like he was in the King’s back yard. The figure appeared to step up onto something and lean over the back fence, obviously making motions to the barking Cookie. Eventually, the figure jumped over the fence, grabbed the dog, and hoisted him back over the fence. Exactly where Rowdy had spotted the white tuft of fur.

Pulling out his phone, he pointed it at the tablet and snapped a couple of pictures. “Can you send me this video?”

“Yes,” Cora murmured. She flicked through screens, copied a link and sent it to the email he read off. 

“Thank you, Cora. This is a fantastic starting point. I don’t think your mother would have helped me.”

Cora shook her head. “No, she wouldn’t have,” she confirmed. “The King’s have a  son living with them. His name is Casper. He dropped out of school, and likes drugs and money.”

Rowdy looked at her, trying to understand what she was trying to tell him. “Okay.”

Without saying anything, Cora went back through the video feeds. She paused at one section, taken during early morning hours two days ago. On the screen there was a figure. Rowdy could only see the top of the person’s body, but he seemed to be motioning to something. Was he trying to get a dog to go potty? That’s what the motion made him think.

It would have been so much better if he could see what he was doing. And if it was Cookie, why wasn’t the dog barking like he always did when he was released into the backyard?

“My mother hates that dog,” she said softly, then she looked up at him. 

Rowdy understood what she was trying to say. Without completely betraying her mother, she was telling him that she was behind the dognapping. Rowdy rested a hand on her shoulder. “Thank you for the email. If there’s anything else that pops up, send it to that same email.”

Cora nodded, then circled the kitchen island to the housekeeper. As he walked out, he saw Greta wrap her arms around Cora. And he felt bad for the kid for whatever might happen.

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Chapter Five

Annabelle made sure she answered the door as soon as Rowdy returned. Her curiosity was burning through her. “What did you find out?” she whispered.

Rowdy lifted a dark brow at her enthusiasm, but shook his head, frowning. “Let’s go to your office.”

Well, damn. It didn’t seem like he’d discovered anything, but then, it had been kind of a long shot anyway. Her heart sank as she thought about calling all the shelters again to look for Cookie. She didn’t know where else to look. In a little while she’d go out and post the reward fliers, but she doubted they would work in such an isolated community.

Once in her office, Rowdy shut the door behind himself and leaned against it. “No screaming,” and he held up a finger.

Excitement leapt in her gut, and she nodded.

“I think I found him.”

He stepped forward and held out his phone. The video was already set to play, and she tapped the arrow. Then gasped. “That’s Cookie! Oh, who is that! Is that one of the King boys?”

“I believe so. I never get a good look at the dog, but I’ll do that tonight.”

Annabelle blinked. “How are you going to do that?”

He cocked his head at her. “I’m going to stake the property out, of course. I can’t make any kind of move until I confirm it’s actually Cookie in that video.”

Annabelle frowned. “So, you’re going to sit in the back yard and hope you see him come out? You could be waiting for hours.”

Rowdy shrugged his big shoulders. “Mrs. Dodd is paying our company to do a job. We have to get it done, one way or the other.”

Annabelle looked back at the still image on the screen. “I don’t know if I can keep this secret.”

“You have to,” Rowdy told her, voice stern. “It could be devastating to your boss if we misidentify the dog and get her hopes up.”

“Yes, you’re right,” Annabelle murmured. “This is going to be worse than waiting on Christmas morning to see what Santa brought you.”

Rowdy chuckled and Annabelle had to swallow hard. The man was delicious, and as much as she wanted Cookie back, she didn’t want Rowdy to leave. Maybe they could… have a date later, or something.

Did she want to ask him? Or should she wait and hope he saw her interest? He was an investigator. Surely, he would pick up on that.


She didn’t want him to leave without her knowing.

“Any chance I can tag along?”

Rowdy blinked. “On the stakeout? I’m going to be sitting in the cold and dark freezing my nuts off and hoping I see a tiny little dog. It’s boring.”

She shrugged, smiling slightly. “I’ll sit next to you so we can share body heat.”

His eyes dilated and he blinked, then looked away. She watched him force a smile and try to play off her words, and it gratified her that he was struggling. Or maybe he was just trying to figure out a way to extricate himself from her unwanted attention. Who was she to think that this impressive guy would want to be with her?

Color surge under her cheeks and she cursed her mouth. “No worries,” she said, spinning her chair toward her computer. “I’ll just wait for the update.”

She could feel Rowdy staring at her profile, and she forced her fingers to move, pulling up Mrs. Dodd’s email.

“I’ll bring the coffee,” he said, voice reluctant. “Be ready at eight.”

The relief she felt was more than she could articulate, so she nodded her head without looking at him. Then he left the office, closing the door softly behind. Annabelle let out a heavy breath, her shoulders slumping. She felt like she’d just run a marathon.

* * *

Rowdy left the house without talking to Mrs. Dodd. Yes, she’d told him to update her, but he wasn’t sure he could lie to her and tell her he hadn’t found anything. He guided his truck toward the east side of the city, and Lost and Found. 

Shannon grinned at him as he exited the elevator into reception. “Are you okay? You look a little off.”

Rowdy stopped, surprised, because he usually had a pretty good poker face. He glanced at the clock on the wall. He’d left this same spot six hours ago, but it felt like a lifetime. A lot had happened today. And dealing with Annabelle… well, he wasn’t sure exactly what he was doing. Was Shannon the right one to ask about it? He didn’t know her well, but he knew she had a kind heart and a level head. Plus, she dealt with extreme craziness every day. John Palmer was her other half- the crazy bastard- and she had three kids she was juggling. He was surprised she was still here. Normally, she’d left by now and Marigold had taken her spot. 

Maybe she was here for a reason.

“I…” he hesitated. “I met a woman today I think I really like. She’s easy to get along with and seems fun. She wants to go on a stakeout with me tonight.” Shannon’s eyes widened and a smile spread across her mouth. “Oh, and I think I found Cookie,” he added as an afterthought.

Shannon jumped up from her seat. “No way,” she breathed. “That was fast. I’m sure the guys will be overjoyed. But more importantly, what is this woman’s name?”

“Annabelle,” Rowdy said, walking toward her desk. “I don’t know how I feel about her wanting to join me on the stakeout.”

Shannon tilted her head, giving him a chiding look. “I have a feeling she wants to be close to you and if she’s willing to sit through the monotony of a stakeout, she must want it pretty bad.”

Rowdy frowned. He hadn’t thought about it like that. Would she really do that? Warmth built in his chest at the possibility. If he had indeed found Cookie, though, he wouldn’t see her any more after tonight.

Yes, he would, he told himself. Because he was interested in her enough to make it happen.

“Thanks, Shannon. I’ll let you know tomorrow what I find out. I need to grab some night vision goggles from the armory.”

“I’ll have John meet you there. Supposed to snow tonight,” she said with a grin. “Better figure out how to keep her warm.”

Rowdy grimaced, but a small, excited pang went through him. “Got it,” he said, giving her a wink. Then he headed down the hallway to the ‘armory’. It was just an office with locked cabinets full of useful tools. Investigators could sign-out what they needed, then they returned the items to John Palmer for check-in. Since he’d been there only a few months, he still had to have approval for equipment removal.

Palmer met him with his standard scowl, but Rowdy didn’t let it dampen his mood. He explained what he needed the goggles for.

“Sounds good. Don’t break them. Even civilian quality, these bitches are expensive.”

“Roger that,” he said, and signed his name to the tablet. Then he headed out.

Rowdy double-checked the forecast. Yes, it was calling for snow, but not a lot. He had a few ideas for staying warm and dry, so he drove to his apartment. He had some gear he needed to gather. Annabelle’s comfort was topmost in his mind as he repacked his trail bag. Thicker ground sheet and seat warmers. He could take his sub-zero sleeping bag and open it up around her. Hand-warmers. Toe-warmers. 

As he hefted the bag, he realized he’d probably packed too much, but he wanted her to be comfortable. It was hard to tell how long they would have to watch the house next door. Hopefully, just a few hours. The time stamp on the video had been between eleven and twelve when they’d seen the figures outside.

He gave himself some time to catch a quick nap, then when he got up, he packed a thermos of hot chocolate. And some easy snacks. He felt a little ridiculous, because it had turned into kind of a nighttime picnic, but whatever. She had expressed her desire to spend time with him, so he would try to make her comfortable. 

Catering to a woman was not something he normally did, and he felt uncomfortable trying to guess what she would think. As a SEAL, he’d been happy with a groundsheet, or a cushion. But women needed more care.

If only they came with a manual.

When he’d been injured, he’d been seeing a woman casually. Erica had been a nice distraction, not especially interested in a deep commitment, which suited his crazy life. He was dedicated to the SEALS, and everything else took a back seat. He’d face-timed her after he’d regained consciousness, and she’d been shocked at his injuries. So shocked, apparently, that after that call, she’d ghosted him. She must have gotten a completely new number because the old one was out of service.

No, they hadn’t professed their love for each other, but damn. He’d thought he’d meant more to her than that. 


When he arrived at the Dodd residence, he circled around to the back kitchen door and knocked lightly. The cook let him in, her broad face splitting in a smile. “Oh, Rowdy,” she said, shaking her head. “You have lit a fire under someone.”

She chortled and Rowdy grinned with her. “What do you mean?”

“Annabelle has been talking about her stakeout with you.”

Rowdy frowned, really hoping she hadn’t let slip that they thought they knew where Cookie was. “Well, it’s just a hunch I’m following.”

Emma nodded, reaching for a bag. “That’s what she said. I think it sounds romantic, so I packed you a small repast.”

Rowdy’s brows lifted. “You didn’t have to do that.”

“Well, I did. You have homemade hot chocolate in the thermos and some little prosciutto appetizers I threw together. Let me message Annabelle.”

Rowdy thought about the snacks he’d packed. The beef jerky and packaged hot chocolate he’d made didn’t sound as appealing as what Emma had created. Maybe he’d take both bags just to be safe.

This stakeout was taking on a life of its own.

Annabelle arrived just a moment later. Her bright green eyes were lit with excitement, her cheeks flushed with pink, and he felt like he needed to temper her expectations a bit. “This may lead to nothing,” he cautioned. “We may be sitting for hours on the cold ground and get nowhere.”

Her excitement didn’t dim. “I’m okay with that. Although I think otherwise.” She glanced at Emma, and he knew she wanted to say something else, but she erred on the side of caution. “I’m ready when you are.”

Excitement pounded in his chest as he looked at her eager expression. They were going to be sitting in the dark, close, and he had no idea what they were going to talk about. Or even if they were going to talk. There was a chance they would sit there awkwardly, not saying a thing.

No, he knew they would connect. He could already feel it. And he knew instinctively that he could tell Annabelle anything. She had a warm openness to her that he wanted to bask in.

Rowdy mentally shook his head. They had a dog to find. “Come on, then,” he said, voice brusque, and turned for the kitchen door. Snagging Emma’s bag with one hand, he opened the door for Annabelle to go through. Emma flicked off the back light as they left the patio and the darkness wrapped around them. It was only about thirty degrees, and snowflakes were falling softly. Rowdy knew where he wanted to park their behinds. There was a rocky outcropping in the back corner of Mrs. Dodd’s yard. There were several large, flat rocks with a bit of an overhang, and it was the perfect spot to look down into the King’s back yard, where he thought Cookie was.

He heard an ‘oof’ from behind and he paused to check on Annabelle. Her face was pale in the faint moonlight, but she was still smiling. “Sorry, I slipped a little.”

Without thought, Rowdy reached out and took her gloved hand into his own to guide her up the rest of the way. He told himself he did it just because if she fell, he’d have to delay his surveillance that much longer to take her back to the house, but he couldn’t deny the heat that kindled in his heart. It was just her hand, damn it.

They circled around the outcropping and Rowdy dug in his pack for the groundsheet and seat cushions. Then the puffy sleeping bag. Annabelle laughed as she watched him make their little nest. “I thought this was going to be cold and boring, you said.”

He avoided her eyes until everything was set up, then he waved her toward a cushion. “Well, it doesn’t always have to be. I have hand and toe warmers too, if you want them.”

Annabelle grinned at him in the low light, tugging at her knit cap. It had sparkly things on it. “I already packed them.” She drew one out of her right pocket to show him. “And I have one down my bra, as well.” Rowdy blinked at her, and Annabelle grinned. “I’m a Colorado girl. I know how to dress for the cold.”

She settled onto one of the cushions, crossing her legs. Rowdy draped the sleeping bag around her shoulders, and she pulled it tight. He settled onto the cushion beside her, his legs hanging off the rock, but there was almost a foot of distance between them. She would fix that in a little bit. 

Once they settled, Rowdy handed her a small pair of binoculars. “I have a feeling Casper will turn out the light before he brings the dog out, just to keep from being seen. What does the father do?”

“Some kind of advertising. He has an office downtown and he works late. Casper is home alone a lot. We heard he dropped out of school. Mr. King is usually in the bottle by now. And his wife is doing everything she can to avoid them both. I think she’s a manager for some big tech company and on the road a lot. We very rarely see her. They have an older son, but he’s at college out east.”

“So, it sounds like Casper is basically unsupervised.”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “But I kind of feel bad for him. He really has no one.”

He gave her a look. “No matter how lonely he is, if he stole the dog, he’s going to be in trouble.”

Annabelle sighed. Yes, he was right. Being neglected didn’t give him the right to do bad things. “I can’t see him doing it randomly. That’s what I don’t understand. He’s never shown any kind of interest in Cookie before.”

“Maybe someone paid him,” Rowdy said softly. “But he’s the only one who can confirm that.”

Annabelle nodded. “You think it’s Margaret. I can see her doing that. The woman has done everything she can to make Mrs. Dodd look bad or throw her off her game. I can see her trying to ruin the gala. I feel bad for Cora. The poor girl has to live with her.”

Rowdy stared at her for a long moment. “Cora is helping us out. I don’t think she wants her mother to get away with it either. She’s the one that showed me the camera.”

Annabelle nodded. She didn’t know Cora well, but it made sense. The girl had always seemed embarrassed of her mother’s behavior. Emma was friendly with Greta, sharing recipes and the like, and sometimes Cora would run things over for her. 

“Any chance you saw any movement at the house today?”

Annabelle shook her head. “Nothing obvious. Sorry. I’m still in the midst of gala planning. I’m down to three days.”

“No worries,” Rowdy said. 

Annabelle wished she’d seen something to tell him about. Then she would have been useful. She watched the back door of the King residence, hoping she would see something. “Do stakeouts usually work?”

He sighed beside her. “Sometimes. Other times you sit for hours and don’t see anything.”

“So, how did you get into this job? It’s a little non-traditional.”