Elise waited for James to pull into the driveway behind her car and back out in the opposite direction to leave the neighborhood, and then she turned off the water and picked up her glass. “Come on, boy. Here, Spike.”
The dog bounded up onto the deck and followed her into the house. He danced around her feet while she locked the back door and headed into the kitchen. She hit the light switch with her elbow, flooding the room with light before setting the wine on the granite counter and rinsing out her glass. She turned on the radio to get an update on the possibility of dangerous weather, got Spike a treat from the jar next to the sink and set about her nightly check of the doors and windows on the first floor.
She secured locks and pulled window shades and makeshift curtains, listening to the jingle of Spike’s tags as he lapped up a drink of water in the kitchen. She stopped for several seconds in front of the living room air conditioner, unhooking the top couple of buttons on her paint shirt and cooling the perspiration on her skin before turning it down for the night. Moving into the foyer, the growing noise from the wind cruising through the leafy trees outside and knocking twigs and other debris against the house fully registered. Elise paused with her fingers on the front door’s dead bolt.
She could hear the dog in the kitchen at the back of the house.
Her breath hitched in her chest at the disquieting thought that crossed her mind. Praying that she’d be proved wrong, Elise quickly returned to the living room and turned the AC unit back on high. The light in the foyer flickered at the sudden drain on the neighborhood’s overtaxed power grid as the machine roared to life and the cold air blasted her again.
Noisy enough. She couldn’t hear Spike anymore.
Then she opened the red front door and reached outside to press the doorbell.
The instant the bell chimed, Spike barked and came running from the kitchen. He barked again, eager to greet or warn off their visitor.
“Shush. It’s okay, sweetie. It’s just Mommy testing a theory.”
But the yapping and squealing continued until she picked him up and pushed open the storm door to show him no one was there. Greeted by a wall of summer heat and uncomfortable suspicion, Elise crossed the porch, mentally timing how long it took her to reach the railing at the edge of the house.
Elise hugged the dog against her shoulder, patting his back as if burping a baby. “He lied to us, Spike.”
Such a small slip of the tongue. Maybe nothing more sinister than a clichéd response.
I rang the doorbell.
No way had James stood on her front porch, announcing his arrival. He would have needed to sprint down the steps and around the side of the house to the back gate to reach her before Spike heard the bell and sounded his alarm. But James had strolled up the walk. His breathing had been perfectly normal, without a drop of sweat visible anywhere.
Glancing up and down the street, Elise peered into shadows beyond the streetlights but saw nothing out of sorts. The only thing that wasn’t right was the portentous wind that made her clothes instantly stick to her skin again, and the nagging suspicion about a man who claimed to be her friend.
Why would James lie? What was the point of sneaking around her house? And when she’d asked him about the flowers, he’d never actually confirmed sending them. Or denied it.
She’d gotten rid of the roses. She’d gotten rid of James.
But she couldn’t get rid of the feeling that her life had taken a very weird, very unsettling turn.
* * *
GEORGE HEARD THE hurried rhythm of a woman’s high heels tapping across KCPD headquarters’ marble floors behind him.
“Hold the elevator, please.”
Even if he hadn’t recognized the voice, he would have pushed the button to hold the doors open. It was the polite thing to do. But he did recognize Elise Brown’s articulate, slightly breathless tone, and his blood suffused with an instant warmth.
“Thanks.” Elise tilted her head and smiled as she darted into the car and moved to the railing behind him.
He knew it was wrong to identify his assistant by the warm contralto pitch of her voice. And he shouldn’t be familiar with the faint whiff of tropical fruits that emanated from the soft waves of her chin-length hair as she breezed past him. His gaze dipped down to the navy blue heels she wore without hose, a choice made in deference to the forecasted triple-digit temperatures, no doubt. While a part of him admired the sensible concession to the summer heat wave, George’s chest constricted and he resolutely averted his eyes.
He wasn’t admiring her sensibility. He was imprinting the curve of her smooth, tanned calves beneath a hemline that brushed the top of her knees to memory, coming up with another completely inappropriate, equally unmistakable way to identify Elise Brown.
Yeah, his life would be a heck of a lot easier if he wasn’t so observant of little details like that—especially where his executive assistant was concerned.
Pushing the button for the eighth floor, George tempered the quickened pace of his breathing and made sure his commander-in-chief expression was in place before he turned to greet her. “Good morning, Elise.”
He might have hit fifty, but he wasn’t dead. He was single and he was a man. Couldn’t blame a guy for noticing an attractive woman. Still, it wasn’t quite protocol to charge up with this rush of energy just because she’d smiled at him, just because he got to spend a few moments alone on the elevator with her clean, fresh scent. He felt more awake, more alert, than he had a few seconds ago. And he hadn’t even had his first cup of coffee yet.
She tucked her sunglasses into the modest neckline of her sleeveless dress and brushed a swath of nut-brown hair off her cheek. “Good morning, sir.”
Way to kill the buzz. It was one thing for the men and women he outranked at KCPD to refer to him with the respectful title. It was something else again for the woman he worked with every day of his life to call him sir. Hearing that from Elise, no matter how well intended, always made him feel like one of her father’s friends or a Dutch uncle. It was easy to squash any perky urge to smile now.
The doors drifted together and the elevator made a slight bounce before starting its ascent. “It’s George, remember?”
“I’m sorry. Good morning, George.”
“No need to apologize. I’ll just keep reminding you until you get it right,” he teased.
Only, she didn’t seem to get the joke. Her blue gaze darted up to his before she suddenly needed something from her flowered purse and focused her attention there. “Of course.”
While he was careful about crossing the line into anything that could be construed as sexual harassment, there was no harm in being friends. Yet Elise seemed to shoot down every overture of appreciation or concern that could take them to being more than polite acquaintances who shared the same connected office space.
Even yesterday afternoon, when the delivery of those flowers had clearly upset her, she hadn’t opened up one bit. Maybe a small stab of unprofessional jealousy had made him linger in her office longer than he’d intended. She’d lit up at first, once she found out the bouquet was meant for her, and he’d been curious enough to find out what kind of man she was dating who could turn her serious, practical head like that.
But even when Elise’s smile had changed to a frown, and her troubled thoughts had been written on her face, she hadn’t been interested in sharing a thing. She hadn’t even wanted him to dust off his rusty investigative skills and make a few quick inquiries to find where the bouquet had come from for her.
The elevator continued its familiar climb, but there was little familiar about Elise’s oddly distracted behavior this morning. She pulled a ring of keys and fobs from her bag and clutched them in her fist, staring at them. Tugging back the front of his suit jacket, George propped his hands at his