Mystery Inc-Lost & Found





“I think that’s the last of it.” Bailey said with a sigh, flopping onto the couch they had wrestled into the office that morning.


“Damn good thing. Could it get any fuckin’ hotter out there?” Ken went to the air conditioning controls on the wall and adjusted it down a few degrees. The air in the office was already cool-the fan kicked in and Bailey smiled at the rush of cold air that wafted through the room.


“You were the one who wanted to move in NOW. Summertime. Texas. You do the math.” Bailey pointed out.


Ken shook his head. “Yeah, yeah.” He moved a box out of the way and sank onto the couch next to Bailey, looking hot and tired. His blonde hair was out of sorts from running his hands through it in frustration. There was a smudge of dust on his cheek.


“Need a nap, Kenny?” Bailey asked when he yawned.


“I need a fuckin’ vacation.”


“We haven’t even started working yet, you already want time off.” Bailey smacked his arm half-heartedly. Truth be told, she was dead on her feet too. They’d started moving into the office at eight that morning. It was now past three. They had worked through the hottest hours of the day, doing the hottest work they would have to do. They both had to be crazy.


“Just a day or two.” Ken whined. Then he grinned boyishly. “We should really think of a better name that Anderson Cooper.”


Bailey laughed. “Why? People might think we’re that guy from CNN and come see us anyway.”


“That’s just it.”


“Well, Ken and Bailey sound like morning newscasters. So we’ll stick with what we have. Besides…we haven’t even ordered the damn lettering on the door yet. It’s not too late to come up with something better.”


Ken nodded. “If you say so.” He yawned again. “There’s still a lot of unpacking…”


“We can do that tomorrow.” Bailey said, stretching her arms over her head. This had been a big gamble for her. And for Ken. It was still up in the air whether or not their business would flourish, but she was optimistic.


Ken and Bailey had known each other since childhood. They’d both joined the Houston police force right out of high school. They were both injured in the line of duty. Ken had been stabbed during a raid of an apartment building one night. A young woman, her eyes wild, had managed to cut him deeply. She’d hit a nerve bundle on his lower back. Ken sometimes had difficulty moving his left leg-often he would be walking and lose all feeling in it with no warning. He dealt with it. The department had given him severance pay. They could not keep a cop on their roster who could not chase criminals.


Bailey had been doing routine traffic stops when a man had taken offense to her being a cop. He’d shot her twice, once in the stomach, once in the leg, before driving off. She’d been too stunned to feel any pain. She calmly climbed back into her squad car, called in to dispatch, and had passed out in the driver’s seat. When she came too, she found that they guy had shot two other officers before finally being subdued, killing one of them. When she’d put in her notice to quit, no one had been surprised.


She had tried a security job for a while. It was boring. She hated having to do what other people told her to do. So she’d been more than willing to listen to Ken’s idea…a business where they could use their police skills and be their own bosses. A private investigation firm. They could still collar bad guys, could still do routine police-type work. The best part was…they could set their own hours and pick and choose their cases.


It had taken quite a bit of capital to get it started. They’d set up shop an hour’s drive from home, because it had been a more affordable option. Slowly they built up a list of clients. They handled as many cases as they could, regretfully referring the odd case here and there to other agencies in town. They’d finally saved up enough money to move into their own building. They planned on using the downstairs as an office, and upstairs as a safe house. It was an untried theory of Ken’s, but one that Bailey could find no argument with.


They both made fun of the name of their company. Anderson Cooper was a reporter for CNN. Bailey had not noticed it until Ken pointed it out. They’d had a good laugh over it, but had not bothered with anything else. They were used to it.


“Want a drink?” Ken asked, following her lead and stretching his arms over his head. His back popped loudly. Bailey laughed.


“Sure. We got any water back there yet?” In the back of the office was a tiny kitchen. Bailey had asked that bottled water be kept in the fridge. She had not checked yet to see if it had been done.


“I can check it out.” Ken groaned and stood up.


“How’s the leg?”


“Functioning. How’s your liver?” Ken laughed as he moved toward the kitchen.


“You’re a retard, Kenny.” Bailey rolled her eyes. The bullet had not gone anywhere near her liver. It had passed through lower stomach. The good news was…she was alive. The bad news…she would never be able to have children. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that yet. She hadn’t even thought of starting a family.


Bailey pushed herself up from the couch, twisting her arms to make her back pop, skin prickling at the cold air that wafted over her. It felt damn good compared to the heat outside. She moved toward the corner that housed her desk, meaning to get started on unpacking her computer and hooking it up.


She’d just opened the box when the door behind her squeaked open. Bailey glanced over her shoulder, eyebrows raised. They were not open…would not be open for at least a week. Every one of their clients knew that. They worked with several businesses doing intensive background checks on potential employees. They all had been told that the month of July was a month off from work for Anderson Cooper. They had to move.


It was not what she expected.


Instead of one of the men in business suits that usually frequented their agency, there stood a little girl. She couldn’t be more than five or six. Her hair was long, down to her waist, dark blonde. Her eyes were huge dark blue pools. She sniffled a little, looking as if she were on the verge of tears and fighting them every step.


“Honey…are you all right?” Computer forgotten, Bailey turned and moved across the cluttered room toward the girl. She got down on her knee so they were at eye level.


“I can’t find my dog…” This was a whispered statement, said just before the sweet little voice issued a soft sob.


“Ok, honey. What kind of dog?” Bailey asked, trying to get the kid to focus on something that would not make her cry.


“Spiderman.” The girl’s big eyes filled with tears. Wetness spilled over her lashes and down her cheeks.


“Spiderman?” Bailey asked, fighting against a smile.


“That’s…my dog…” The girl’s voice was so soft Bailey could barely hear it.


“Hon…where are your parents?” Bailey asked, looking at the door behind the girl. It was a full cut piece of glass, completely see through. There was no one on the sidewalk in front of the office.


“Mark is over there…” The girl waved a hand. Apparently ‘over there’ to her meant anywhere in the world where she wasn’t. “Momma’s…” She waved again. Big blue eyes rose to meet Bailey’s. “I heard some old man say you were detects and you could find stuff. Can you find my dog?”


Bailey smiled at the girl. “It’s detective, hon. Private investigators…” She trailed off. The little girl obviously did not care. “What’s your name?”


“Payge.” The girl replied promptly.


“Payge…not to scare you, but didn’t anybody ever tell you not to talk to strangers?”


“Momma says I can talk to police all I want to.”  Payge said defiantly.


Bailey smiled again. “Close enough for me, I guess. How about I walk you over to where your mom is?”


“You won’t help me?” Those big eyes turned cloudy. Uh oh. Bailey sighed. She opened her mouth to speak when the door behind Payge was thrown open forcefully.


“Payge! What did I tell you about wandering off, talking to strange people, going out of sight?” The woman did not give the girl time to answer as she swooped her into her arms and hugged her, sounding on the verge of tears.


“Momma, I wanted help.” The girl said patiently. The woman sniffled against her daughter and warily eyed Bailey over her shoulder.


“Baby, I told you we can get another dog…”


“No! I want Spidey back!” Payge’s lower lip trembled. She sobbed and buried her face against her mother’s neck.


That they were mother and daughter was obvious to Bailey. The woman’s hair was dark, nearly black, but the eyes were the same. And the facial features…the little girl certainly took after her mother.


“I’m sorry she bothered you, ma’am.” The woman said, apologizing.


“It’s not a bother. Finding lost stuff is what I do.” Bailey smiled reassuringly and once again looked toward the door. It had opened again. A very…very…tall man entered. His shoulder length, dark hair was tied back. A pair of sunglasses rested against his forehead. His green eyes carried a worried, protective vibe. Bailey took him in, awed at the size of the guy. She was not short by any means but her head barely made it to this guy’s chest.


“Everything all right, Austin?” He asked, his voice a deep rumble. He directed the question at the woman who was still holding the little girl. Payge was struggling to get free from her mother’s arms.


“Fine, all fine, she’s all right…” Austin breathed out in a rush.


The man eyed Bailey with interest, looking her up and down as if weighing her against some interior image. Then he nodded. “Good. Ready to go, little one?” He directed it at Payge.


“No.” Payge finally wriggled free and stood next to her mother, her arm around her mother’s knee.


“Payge.” The man’s voice held a warning note. Not a harsh one. If Bailey had heard anger in it, she would have dropped the big man on his ass, no matter how much he outweighed her. She wouldn’t stand for some man intimidating a little girl. Or any kid for that matter.


“Please, Mark…Please?” The girl pleaded softly. She looked to Bailey, her eyes pleading as well. Bailey sighed tiredly, smiling at the little girl.


“What kind of dog is Spiderman, honey?” Bailey asked, ignoring the two adults for now.


“He’s a…” Payge looked to her mother.


“He’s a lab.” Austin supplied weakly. “Payge…there is no way we can afford to have a private investigator run around town looking for your dog! I told you, we’ll check the pound every couple of days, and the neighbors…”


It was not enough for the little girl. The pout returned. “Momma…I don’t wanna let him go to the pound. They’ll kill him!” She sniffled, louder this time, more tears falling from beautiful dark eyes.


Bailey heard a noise from behind her and knew that Ken had entered the room.  She had the distinct feeling of being stuck between a rock and a hard place. So she did the first thing she thought of. Kneeling once again, she motioned to the little girl. Payge stepped toward her slowly, hope in her eyes.


“I tell you what kid, it’s your lucky day. We’re runnin’ a special this week.” Bailey smiled reassuringly. The girl smiled back. It was weak but it nearly took Bailey’s breath away. The kid was adorable. “You have a buck?”


The girl frowned and dug into the pocket of the shorts she was wearing. Payge pulled her hand out and showed her a wrinkled dollar bill that looked like it had seen better days. She held it out. Bailey took it, her face turning serious.


“The fee is a dollar now, another dollar when we finish the investigation. Agreed?” She held out her hand. Payge hesitated, as if not really sure she was hearing right.


“Wait a minute…” The man, Mark, stepped forward.


“We can’t let you…” Austin said at the same time, watching as her daughter slowly took the woman’s hand in hers.


“I told you…I’m runnin’ a special.” Bailey said, looking from Austin to Mark.  She shook Payge’s hand solemnly. “Now…around this place, a handshake is a good as a contract. I’ll find your dog, hon. Don’t you worry.”


“Yeah?” Payge’s smile widened. Bailey could not help but smile back.


“Count on it.” She gave the girl’s hand a squeeze and let her go. “I have a very high clear rate. I think you’d be quite pleased, if you knew what I was talking about.” She gave the little girl a wink. The girl giggled and returned to her mother’s side. “I’ll need a picture of Spiderman, if you have one.” Knowing that THAT particular statement was ridiculous, Bailey could not help but laugh.


Payge nudged her mother’s leg. Austin dug into her purse. She brought out a picture. “It’s from last week…we just had them developed…” She said, holding it out. Bailey had risen to her feet. She took the picture and looked down at it, smiling. In it, a grinning Payge sat next to a tawny colored dog. The dog also looked like it was grinning.


“Mind if I hold on to this?”


Austin shook her head. “Not at all. I have copies…” She looked at Mark. He shrugged.


“Go on out to the truck. I’ll be there in a minute.” He said softly, smiling down at the woman. Austin nodded and ushered Payge through the door. Mark stood there for a long moment, looking down at Bailey as if trying to read her mind.


“I’ll need your phone number, her full name, address.” Bailey said, moving toward her desk again. She had forms somewhere…she decided to hell with it. She picked up a notepad and pen, then turned to find that Mark had followed her.  He towered over her, looking down at her with interest.


“Payge Co…Calaway.” He corrected himself. Bailey’s expression did not change, but she caught his slip up. He gave a phone number and an address. Then he went back to staring. “You don’t have to do this, you know. We can find her dog.”


“Not a problem. It would be a nice break from finding cheating husbands and finding out that some idiot didn’t actually go to MIT.” Bailey commented, jotting down a few notes. She tucked the picture into the notebook and looked at Mark expectantly. Up close, his eyes were a very vibrant green. Intense. She had to struggle not to squirm under his gaze.


“I can afford your fee. Austin…can’t…right now, but it seems wrong to let you help for nothin’.” Mark stated.


Bailey shook her head. “My fee was quite clearly stated at the door. My contract is with Payge, not you or your…” She paused waiting for him to say the obvious.


“Sister. Austin.” Mark nodded. He was smirking a bit.


“Sister?” Bailey asked, raising an eyebrow.


“Same father. Different mothers. Half sister, I suppose you’d say.” Mark smiled. It made her notice his lips. Bailey licked her own lips thinking about his. They were that damned sensuous.


“Well…Mister…Calaway?” She said, hesitating.


“Mark. Just Mark, please.”


“Mark, then. I should probably get to work finding this dog. I’ll call, let you all know if I come up with anything.” Bailey dragged her eyes from his mouth and looked down at her notepad, flipping it open to once again study the picture. Mark nodded without her seeing and turned to leave.


“Thank you.” His voice was a deep rumble. Before Bailey could reply, he was out the door, into the heat of the late afternoon. She sighed and tapped the notebook against her fingers, thinking.


“First case, and already giving a discount. Damn.” Ken said from behind her, making her jump.


“Damn! Could you warn somebody before you go sneakin’ up on them?” Bailey pressed a hand to her chest.


“That would kinda be against the principle of sneakin’, now wouldn’t it?” Ken smiled. “Cute kid.”


“She is.” Bailey nodded.


“Cute Momma too.”


“If you say so, Kenny.” Bailey laughed. Ken was not a skirt chaser by any means, but he did enjoy looking.


“Dude was checking you out something fierce.”


“Gee…I hadn’t noticed.” Bailey laughed again.


“Something’s going on there. I don’t know what, but it goes beyond a missin’ dog.” Ken said, his tone serious. Bailey nodded. She’d gotten that feeling too.


“Not our problem. Unless they pay us to make it out problem.” Bailey reminded him. She took the bottle of water from his hand, then turned to pick up her purse.


“Where are you goin’?” Ken asked as she went toward the door. “We still have unpackin’ to do.”


“I have a case, remember?” She waved the notebook at him. “I’ll be back in an hour. Don’t freak out, Kenny. I’ll do my share.” With a laugh she went outside, regretting it the moment the door shut behind her. It felt as hot as an oven, the sun baking from the sky, heating the sidewalk, baking up from the ground. “Christ…next time we move, it’s Alaska…” Bailey muttered to herself as she walked toward her Jeep. She would start at the pound, then decide what to do from there. The Jeep’s air conditioning was on high as she pulled onto the road, the radio blasting a rock tune to keep her company.




Bailey’s luck turned at the fifth dog shelter she went to.


Shelter was possibly too grand a word. It was an old ranch, no longer operating in horses. Instead the land was overrun with dogs. All sizes, shapes, breeds. Bailey had made it to the front door in one peace, shaking her head at the sign that hung next to the porch. Waggin’ Tails Farm. Nice.


The woman who had answered was in her late fifties. Her house was flooded with animals. She explained in a soft voice that she took in dogs that the county run shelters could not deal with. She had the room and the patience. Bailey showed her the picture of Spiderman and the grinning Payge, making the old woman’s eyes light up with delight.


“Well…that’s Max!” She said, clapping her hands together. “Just got him this morning. Dog warden caught him out by the road, afraid he was gonna get run down. His tag fell off…” The woman paused for a breath. “Still has that collar on though.” She pointed at the dark blue collar around the dog’s neck in the picture. “You know who he belongs to?”


“This little one here.” Bailey had pointed to Payge. The woman had clucked her tongue and led her through the house, back outside, whistling for the dogs.


There were at least three dozen of them. More. Bailey could not get an accurate count. “Here we go.” The woman pointed. Spiderman…or a dog that remarkably resembled him…was running in their direction.


“That’s him all right.” Bailey said when he got close enough for her to make out the markings on his chest. It wasn’t much, but he had a patch of very light hair in the shape of a T. It matched the picture. She turned to the woman, and smiled. “How much to spring him from prison?”


The woman had cackled. “No charge. I love ‘em so I keep ‘em.” Her eyes were twinkling in the fading light of evening. “Although donations are always appreciated. Got a lot of mouths to feed.”


“I’d be happy to help out.” Bailey said with a smile. The old woman was smooth, that was for sure.  Bailey dug in her purse and scribbled out a check. The woman accepted without looking at the amount.


“You get him a new tag, you hear me?” The woman said amicably as Bailey loaded Spiderman into her Jeep.


“As soon as we get back to town.” Bailey said with a nod. Spiderman refused to ride in the backseat. He sat in the passenger seat, his head out the window, grinning a doggy grin. She hoped he wouldn’t drool all over her Jeep. She’d just had it washed.


She glanced at her notebook, where she’d written down the address that Mark had rattled off for her. It was on the opposite side of town. That figured. It took half an hour to reach downtown. Another thirty to find the ranch road that led to the Calaway residence.


Spiderman barked happily at the sight of the house. He scrabbled at the window, eager to get out and see his family. Bailey grimaced at the sound of dog nails on black paint, hurrying herself out of the Jeep to set him loose.


Spiderman took off for the house. She followed at a slower pace, brushing imaginary dog hair from her clothing. She did not like dogs, never had. Bailey wasn’t scared of them, she had just never understood the relationship a person could have with an animal.


The front door opened. A little girl’s squeal of happiness broke the quiet of the ranch. Bailey walked onto the porch, looking around curiously. The house was huge, rambling, all on one story. It sat back from the road a good quarter mile. There were three or four barns out back that she could see from the front, and rolling hills in all directions. The Calaways had spent a pretty penny on this place, that was for sure.


At Payge’s noise, Austin appeared in the door behind her, eyes wide at the sight of the dog returned. She raised her eyes and looked at Bailey, a weary smile of relief on her features.


“Thank you. I don’t know how much longer we could keep her occupied…” Austin started. Then she shook her head. “How did you find him?”


“Leg work. I know people.” Bailey shrugged and grinned at the other woman. “He lost his tag. Probably would have come home a lot quicker with it.”


Austin nodded but looked away, back down at her daughter, who was on her knees hugging the dog. “We’ll replace it tomorrow. He’ll just have to stay inside until then.”


“Sounds like a plan.” With that Bailey turned to leave.


“Wait!” Payge said excitedly, as if finally noticing Bailey’s presence.


Bailey halted and waited as she’d been told, smiling in amusement as the little girl disappeared back into the house. Mark had come to the door to see what all the excitement was about. He kneeled down and stroked the dog lightly between its ears, smiling a bit.


Payge came running back outside, almost knocking her uncle on his ass in the process. A dollar bill flapped in her fingers. “I almost forgot!”


“That you did, sweetheart. I was just gonna send you a bill though.” Bailey accepted the dollar. Then she held it out again.


Payge looked at her confused. “But I thought you said…”


“Payment at the end of the job. Right.” Bailey smiled. “Take this dollar and use it to get him a tag. That’ll keep me from having to be hired again, right?”


“I suppose.” Payge said thoughtfully. Her smile returned. “Wanna stay for dinner? We’re having fried chicken, mashed taters…”


Bailey laughed. She hadn’t heard potatoes referred to as ‘taters’ since she was a kid herself. “Hon, I don’t mix business with fried chicken pleasure. You go on, play with Spiderman. I’ll see you around, huh?” With that Bailey once again turned to leave.



Payge stood for a moment before turning back to her dog. Austin smiled softly and watched her daughter, happy that she was happy, content that once again she’d been proven wrong. Mark sighed as he watched Bailey retreat to her Jeep. With a mental shake, he followed her to the vehicle.


“Hey.” He said before she could slam the door and block out the sound of his voice.


“Yeah?” She put her key in the ignition but did not start the Jeep. She watched him, waiting.


“You never told us your name.” Mark said, not knowing what else to say.


Bailey smiled. “Bailey Cooper.” She shook his offered hand. Mark smiled.


“Mark Calaway. You already know that.” He corrected himself, making her laugh.


“I think I made a note somewhere.” Bailey said wryly.


“You could…if you want…stay for dinner. Least we can do for bringin’ Spidey back.”


Bailey shook her head. “I’d like to, believe me, I can’t remember the last time I had something home cooked. But Ken would send out a search party, and I don’t really want to get him agitated so early in this partnership.”


Mark’s face had taken on a serious look. “Oh. Well, your boyfriend could come too.”


Bailey started laughing. Mark smiled uncertainly, not sure why she was so amused, but noticing that she had a wonderful laugh. Deep and throaty and uninhibited.


“Ken is NOT my boyfriend. Just a business partner.” She said, hitching in a breath. If she had a nickel for every time someone had asked about her relationship to Ken, she’d be a rich woman.


“Oh. Good.” Mark half-smiled.


“Good?” Bailey was still grinning when she looked at him.


“Uh. I guess.” He backtracked. Then he laughed at himself. “Are you sure you can’t stick around?”


“Positive. I have unpacking to do.” With a smirk she pulled a business card down from the visor over the passenger seat. It had the new address and phone number of the agency on it in dark blue lettering. Bailey held the card out to Mark. “If you need any more detecting, I suppose I should go ahead and tell you if you don’t call us first, I’ll be pissed.”


“I’ll take that under advisement.” Mark said with a grin as he took the card. Their fingers brushed. Mark looked a bit stunned at the contact. It made Bailey feel strange, as if it were not right to be having any kind of effect on such a big man. She did not intentionally draw attention to herself. Usually she got close enough for men to see the scars she carried and they backed off, repulsed. It was not a great way to build confidence.


“Well…uh…I gotta go. Unpack.” She stuttered, feeling a bit shy all of a sudden. Mark nodded.


“Thanks again.” He met her eyes. “If you need anything…”


“I don’t, but thanks.” Bailey said with a laugh.


“Well, we have to repay you somehow.”


“It’s been handled. Don’t worry about it.” She started the Jeep and shut the door. “You take care of that little one, now.” She said, rolling the window down a crack.


Mark nodded. “Count on it.” He gave a half wave. Bailey smiled and turned her Jeep, heading away from the house. Well. That had been an interesting introduction to their new home.


Sighing, she hoped that Ken had at least attempted to start unpacking. She knew they should just leave it for the next day, but she wanted to get it over with so she could spend a bit of time relaxing before being buried in work. At least, Bailey hoped they would be buried. Who knew if their clients would follow them?


Oh well. If they didn’t, she and Ken had saved enough money from jobs so they could do some footwork, pulling in new clients. It was just like starting over. Actually, it was starting over. Bailey found herself looking forward to the challenge.


Twenty minutes later she was pulling her parking spot in front of their office. Humming under her breath, Bailey used her key to enter the office. A pathway through the boxes had been cleared. The desks were bare save for their computers. She smiled. Ken had been busy.


“Took you long enough. An hour.” Ken muttered from the doorway to the kitchen.  Bailey grinned.


“I had a lead, I had to follow. You know how that is.”


“Rescue mission accomplished?” Ken asked, moving to his desk to sit down. He carried a cup of coffee. Bailey did not drink coffee, but the smell of it made her stomach growl. She had turned down a fried chicken dinner. How stupid could she be?


“In record time.”


“Good.” Ken sipped his coffee. “Wanna grab Chinese food?”


Bailey made a face. “Ugh. No.”


“Mexican?” He tried again.


“Kenny…one of us needs to learn how to cook.” Bailey said with a laugh.


“Hey! I know how to cook, damn it.” He argued, kicking his feet up to rest on the desk.


“Boiling water for noodles does not count, dumbass.” She said with a laugh. Bailey went to her own desk and sat down, looking once again around the room. “It’s comin’ together.”


“Finally. It’ll look nice once we get everything squared away.” Ken agreed. “I’m done for the day though. My back is killin’ me. I just wanna hot shower and some food in my belly. Then I’m a happy boy.”


“Hmm.” Bailey made a noncommittal noise in her throat.


“Uh oh. What’s wrong?”




“Bullshit.” Ken dropped his feet to the floor with a thump. “I know that look. I know that noise you made. What’s got your radar spinnin’?”


Bailey shook her head. “I don’t know. I feel like I’m missing something.”


“Those people today. Hottie mom and her kid.” Ken commented, smirking.


“Yeah. Something weird is goin’ on there.”


“Don’t tell me you think…”


“Don’t even go there, Kenny.” Bailey warned. “That’s disgusting.”


“Well, you said weird…” Ken said, laughing.


“Not that weird.” Bailey rolled her head, making her neck pop. “Just…a feeling that they are hiding something.”


“Or hiding from something.” Ken smiled.


“You sense it too?”


“I don’t know what I’m sensing. Maybe just the need to eat some food.” He rose to his feet. “Look, don’t sweat it, all right? If they need help, if they need OUR specific kind of help, let them come to us. Not the other way around. Therein lies trouble, or so my commander used to spout.”


“I know.” Bailey nodded. “Go on, grab some food. I’ll get a little work done here and grab something later on.”


“You’re sure?” Ken pulled his keys from his pocket, looking at her with a raised eyebrow.


“Yeah. Go on. Don’t want you passing out from starvation when we rearrange the office tomorrow.” She said wryly.


Ken made a face. “Don’t threaten me woman.”


“I wouldn’t dream of it.” Bailey said with a laugh. It died as Ken left the office, the door locking behind him. She could play off her feeling of unease for a while, but Ken was not stupid. He liked to play dumb, it sometimes helped gain confidence from certain people, but he was one of the sharpest people she knew. He would figure out something was bothering her, then he would figure out exactly what was bothering her. And she was not ready for him to jump in just yet. Not when she was not entirely sure anything was even wrong.


With a sigh she got to her feet. Bailey figured a few hours of mundane unpacking would help get her mind off of the vague unease she was feeling. Two hours later, she realized she had not been wrong. It was time to go home. She’d gotten most of the office put together, the boxes standing near the door to be taken out in the morning. They would take care of the rest the next day. With a grim smile, Bailey turned off the lights and locked up, wanting nothing more than a hot bath and eight hours of sleep.




It was well past midnight when Austin stepped onto the front porch, meaning to tell Mark goodnight. Taking care of Payge was her reason for living, but that day had been bad…Payge had been a little terror until Spiderman had returned.


Mark was lounging in the porch swing, one foot pushing it into motion. “Headin’ to bed?” He asked softly.


“I think so. Payge is down for the count.” Austin yawned and leaned against the porch rail, watching fireflies flicker in the large front yard. It was still hot, humid, but still a beautiful night.


“Kid’s got some good batteries.” Mark commented wryly.


“I can’t remember ever having that much energy.” Austin sighed. “Payge thinks she made a new friend.”


There was a hesitation. “Oh?”


Austin smirked, aware that Mark could not see it on the dark porch. “Yup. That woman who found Spidey. She’s been talking about her all night.”


“I hadn’t noticed.” Mark said sarcastically. All through dinner and the rest of the night, Payge had animatedly spoken about Bailey. It was cute and annoying at the same time.


“What did you think about her?” Austin asked, still smirking, curious. She knew her brother better than most people. He’d first looked at Bailey mistrustfully, then with interest when Spiderman was returned to the house. As if she was a puzzle that Mark wanted to solve.


“Why should I think anything about her?” Mark said, once again hesitating before speaking.


“She’s pretty.” Austin persisted. Trying to draw him out a bit. Mark was close with his thoughts. He didn’t share with anyone easily.


“I suppose.” Mark said, shaking his head a bit.  Pretty was not the word. Bailey was…damn, even he didn’t know the word. Tall, shapely, with long copper-colored hair and soft gray eyes. She’d been wearing a pair of battered jeans and a t-shirt that had seen better days, but something about her transcended her clothing. He could not put his finger on it. That did not mean he had to tell his sister what he thought.


“I was thinking…” Austin said softly, interrupting his thoughts.


“About?” Mark asked when she did not immediately explain.


“Oh…” Austin sighed again. “Maybe it’s time Payge and I moved on. You know. Somewhere else. We’ve been here too long as it is.”


Mark was shaking his head before Austin could finish her idea. “No. No way. You’re stayin’ right where you are.”


“Mark…” Austin looked at him. He was a vague shadow among other shadows. It made it much easier to talk to him like that. “I don’t want to get in your way, that’s all.”


“Get in my way?” Genuinely confused, Mark sat forward, resting his elbows on his knees, and looked at his sister. The light from the front door spilled onto the porch enough to illuminate her features.


“Yeah.” Austin nodded slowly. “If you wanted to have a life outside of us…”


“You’re family. What kinda life would be better?” Mark interrupted.


“You know. Don’t be dense. Christ…when was the last time you went out? Last year? What was her name…Fran, Freddie…?”


“Fran.” Mark admitted. He’d gone out with her three times before giving up on the woman. She was an airhead, flighty, a bit too out there for Mark’s taste.


“Whoever. You came home from a date early because you called and I didn’t answer the phone, remember that? Payge and I were right here, on the porch, and I didn’t think to pick up the phone when I heard it.” Austin ran her fingers through her long hair.


“I was worried.” Mark stated as if it were the simplest fact in the word.


“Too worried, Mark. How are you ever going to have a family of your own if you are so worried about mine?” Austin stated it in the same tone Mark had used, but to a different effect.


Mark’s feelings were hurt by that. She could tell by the way he lost his relaxed posture, sitting straight up, his whole body stiff.


“You two are my family.” He said, his voice still low. But Austin heard what he was trying to hide. She’d disappeared from his life ten years ago to sow her wild oats. She had not bothered keeping in contact. Then she’d shown up one day on his doorstep, four year old daughter in hand, telling him a crazy story she herself could barely believe. Mark had not turned her away. He’d taken them in. It was as if Austin had never left.


She knew what he thought. That if she left, it would be another ten years before he’d get to see her…or his niece again. She would not do that to him again, couldn’t even if she wanted to. It was too heartbreaking for all of them, and now especially for Payge, who thought her uncle could walk on water.


“You can’t keep runnin’ from him.” Mark said, his voice deadly serious, when she did not seem inclined to speak.


“I can’t…put you in danger anymore.” Austin said, hanging her head. “I know you can take care of yourself, and I trust you with my life…but he’s crazy, Mark. Dangerous crazy.”


“It’s been over a year.” Mark pointed out.


“That doesn’t mean anything!” Agitated, Austin began to pace back and forth across the porch. “He could be watching us this very minute for all I know, waiting for my guard to go down!”


“He’s not.” Mark said reassuringly.


“How do you know?” She spun and stared at him, hands on her hips.


“Because I know.” He sat back in the swing once more and set it into motion. “He doesn’t know where you are. How could he?”


Austin took a shaky breath. “He couldn’t. I guess.”


“He couldn’t period. Nobody knows where I live, hell, you said yourself you never told him about your family. As far as I am concerned, I don’t even exist to that guy. So why would he be staking out a house of a nonexistent person?” It was rhetorical. Possibly meant to be funny. Austin did not laugh.


Her expression still serious, she cocked her head and looked at him, peering through the dark. “I have a condition.”


“God help me.” Mark said with a sound that might have been a chuckle. Austin had taken this particular stance in arguments since she was a kid. She would do nothing unless she got something in return. He’d learned to just live with it and give in…she would win in the end anyway.


“Payge and I will stay on one condition.” She said as if he had not spoken.


“I wait in eager anticipation to hear what that would be.” Mark said, matching her serious tone. Of course, that was for show. In the darkness Mark was sure Austin was grinning.


“One month. We’ll stay one more month if you can get Ms Cooper to go out with you.”


Mark raised an eyebrow. “Out? As in dating?”


“No, out as in one date.” Austin corrected. “Hell, if you go out on two dates, we’ll say three months. And so on and so forth.”


Mark rolled his eyes. “What is the point of it, Austin?”


“The point is…” Austin smiled grimly. “I’m tired of watching you sit here all alone. Payge and I are perfectly fine by ourselves on rare occasions. Would it kill you to go out and have a good time?”


“It might.” Mark was intrigued by wary. “Does it have to be…her?”


“Yeah. I want you to challenge yourself a little.” Austin said smugly.


Mark sighed heavily. “She’ll turn me down. Hell, we asked her to stay for dinner, remember?”


Austin laughed. It felt good to hear that laugh after so long without it. “She was busy, just moved in. It would be very…neighborly…if you called her tomorrow and offered to take her out on the town. So she can get to know the place.”


“I hate to tell you this, but I’m pretty sure she’s from nearby. So what else would you have me do to embarrass myself?” Mark said with a grin.


“Damn it, why don’t you just play it by ear? Don’t take no for an answer.” Austin made a fist and smacked it into her other hand.


“You make it sound like some major battle invasion about to take place.” Mark observed.


“Isn’t it?” Austin laughed again. “How about it?”


Mark rubbed his temples thoughtfully, wondering what exactly had gotten into his sister that day. “You should probably go pack, then. I don’t see her agreeing to anything I throw at her.”


Austin smiled knowingly. “That remains to be seen.” She smoothed her hair back with her hands. “I’ll give you a week. Better come up with something good.” With that she turned on her heel and went back into the house. Mark could do nothing but stare at the spot she’d been standing in, marveling at how his sister more than any other person on the planet could send him through hoops.


Mark shook his head and rose to his feet. He had Bailey’s card, in the kitchen, on the counter by the phone, where such things tended to wind up at this house. What could it hurt to give her a call in the morning, see how she was doing with the moving, maybe to offer a bit of help? None at all, he figured. Austin was right. It was neighborly. Even if the neighbor in question lived more than half an hour away.


Austin tiptoed into the room where Payge was sleeping to check on her, smiling at the shape of her daughter under the thin sheet.  She leaned down to kiss one soft cheek and uttered a yelp of surprise when Payge shifted, laughing.


“Fooled ya, Momma!” Payge kept her voice low.


“I thought you were sleepin’, princess.” Austin had to laugh at herself. She had been too intent on keeping quiet to notice that there was no need to do so.


“I was. Woke up to get a drink.” Payge blinked sleepily. “Is he gonna ask her out?”


Austin adjusted the sheet around her daughter’s frame, searching for words. “How did you know about that?”


“I heard you when I went to get a drink.” Payge said truthfully, looking at her mother with heavily lidded eyes.


“Eavesdropping is wrong, babe. Especially if you’re a kid and it’s a strictly adult conversation.”


“I know Momma. Sorry.” Payge yawned. “I was goin’ to see if you’d tuck me again, and I didn’t stay for long…”


“You’re forgiven, this time.” Austin brushed her lips against Payge’s forehead.


“So is he?”


“Is he what, baby?” Austin said absently, stretching her ams and yawning in response to her kid’s yawn.


“Going to ask her out!” Payge said with a grin.


“Of course he is.” Austin decided not to lie to the girl. Payge could detect one from a mile away. Austin was shocked that the kid still believed in Santa.


“You played him, Momma.” Payge said dreamily, smiling to herself as she drifted back to sleep.


“Like a fiddle, baby doll.” Grinning, Austin stroked her daughter’s face one last time before heading for her own bed.




Late afternoon the next day, Bailey and Ken finally took a break from unpacking and rearranging. Bailey looked around and sighed.


“Where did we get so much junk?” She asked, not expecting a good answer.


Ken smiled at her. “Why are you askin’ me? Most of this stuff is yours.”


Bailey swatted at his head. They were sitting on the couch…sprawling on the couch would be a better description. “You are such a dork.”


“So toss the rest, dollface. It’s not stuff we’ll die without.” Ken said, scratching his stomach.


“I wish I could but it’s more files. We’re gonna have to take them upstairs.”


Ken groaned dramatically. Upstairs was an attic, converted for use. The stairs were narrow, shaky.  He’d already been up there more times than he cared to count. “How about we just throw a blanket over the boxes and make a table out of them?”


Bailey laughed. “How about no?” She finally got up from the couch and stretched her arms over her head. “If we get this stuff done today, then we can take two days and do absolutely nothing before we have to come back here.”


“Ah…” Ken groaned out. “Keep talkin’ dirty to me, baby.”


Bailey grinned. She lowered her voice to a husky whisper. “Two…whole…days…no moving, no clients…just you and your bed and your refrigerator.”


“Oh, baby.” Ken laughed and forced himself up. “Where do we put them up there?”


“In the closet, of course. Out of sight, out of mind. Unless we need something out of them.” Bailey laughed, her voice returning to normal.


“I’m on it. Two whole days off…” He muttered as he went to the first box and attempted to pick it up. He grunted with effort but finally got it off the floor. “Damn things are heavy.”


“Be careful.” Bailey cautioned.  She stepped over to her desk and began sorting through a smaller box of her personal items. She took out a picture…in it she stood with her parents and younger brother Alex. Her dad was in his dress blues…he’d been a decorated police officer. He had retired two years ago. Alex and Bailey were also in uniform in the picture, grinning for the camera. Their mother stood with them, looking young, looking healthy.


Bailey hadn’t seen them in several years. Her father, who normally did not abide dramatic family issues, had pretty much disowned her when she’d quit the force. Occasionally she would call home, and her mother would fill her in on anything that was going with the Cooper brood. She had tried to speak to her father on several occasions, but usually ended up finding reasons to get off the phone. There was always something so accusing in his voice, as if she’d committed the biggest crime in family history.


Bailey set the picture down and sifted through the box again, shaking out of her thoughts. There was really nothing else she needed. The rest of the items were just the odds and ends a person tended to collect over years in an office. She set the box by the door for the garbage and jumped a little as a shadow fell over the glass.


Bailey put a hand to her chest and unlocked the door, smiling up at Mark. “You scared me.” She admitted, letting him into the cool office from the stifling heat of outdoors. Mark smiled at her.


“Sorry. I thought you saw me.” He looked around. “It looks like a totally different place in here.”


“We’re trying.” Bailey said with a smile. She followed his gaze. The last three boxes were stacked at the far wall. Bailey and Ken’s desks were at opposite sides of the main office. A large area rug in muted greens and blues had been laid on the floor between them. There was a couch, some chairs, a few tables. And pictures on the walls, some landscapes, some abstracts.


“I tried calling but your number didn’t work.” Mark said, turning his attention to the woman next to him. Bailey smiled, a bit confused as to why he was there.


“Oh. Uh…probably isn’t turned on yet. I’ll need to call them about that. It was supposed to be on yesterday.” She said by way of explanation. Then she eyed him curiously. “Did you need something?”


“I…uh…” Mark hesitated, looking around again. He’d been tied up all day, dealing with things at the house, and hadn’t had time to come in until now. It looked like they had everything under control. “I guess I was going to see if you needed a hand.” He smiled at her.


Bailey grinned. “Good thing you didn’t stop by. It’s hard enough to get Ken motivated without giving him somebody to push his work off onto.”


“Hey, now, I resent that remark.” Ken said amicably, shuffling back into the room. His face was a little red with effort from lugging the box upstairs.


“You look like a heart attack waiting to happen, Kenny.” Bailey said with a laugh.


“I’m in shape. You try goin’ up those stairs with a two hundred pound box.” Ken grouched, leaning down to pick up the next one.


“You offered to do it, bud.” Bailey said, watching as Ken moved slowly to the hallway that led to the stairs.


“Let me get one of ‘em.” Mark said, moving toward the boxes automatically. Bailey did not argue. If he wanted to break his back and help, then she was more than willing to help him.


While the men went upstairs, she gathered empty boxes and headed for the dumpster out back. It took three trips. On the last one, she noticed that the other file box had disappeared. With a sigh, she stood in the middle of the room and looked around.


“Finally finished.” Ken said, thumping down the stairs with Mark at his heels. “Man, we coulda used you yesterday moving the heavy stuff.” He clapped Mark on the back then headed for the kitchen.


Mark laughed. “If I had known, I woulda helped.” He came to a stop and smiled at Bailey.


“Be thankful. Only crazies like us would move during the hottest time of day, during the hottest month. Well, except for August.” Bailey corrected with a laugh.


“We’ve got two bottles of water in the fridge!” Ken called from the kitchen.


“I told you to go get more!” Bailey called back, brushing her hair back from her face. Ken appeared cradling three bottles against his chest. “I thought you said two? Do you need to relearn the art of counting?”


Ken smirked and tossed her a bottle, then handed one to Mark. “Nah. I meant there were two left in the fridge. So since we’re takin’ a break, I believe I’ll mosey out to the store for some staples. Catch ya later.” He left before Bailey could even think of responding.


She looked at Mark instead, her expression amused. “So did you just drop by to take one box upstairs?”


Her question caught him off guard. He paused in mid-sip of the cold water, eying her. Mark swallowed what was in his mouth, then smiled. “Actually, I might have had an ulterior motive.”


“Uh oh.” Bailey said with a laugh. “I knew it. What is it this time? Runaway cat?”


Mark shook his head. “No…uh…” He cleared his throat. “I was wondering…”


When he didn’t finish, Bailey smiled at him. “You were wondering what?”


“If you weren’t busy…tonight…or tomorrow night…”


“Ah…” Bailey was still grinning. She figured out where he was going finally.


“Dinner maybe? A movie?” Mark finished asking, looking a bit red in the face. She could tell that he was not used to dancing around the subject. He seemed to her like the kind of man that saw something he wanted and took it. So why was he stumbling all over himself to ask her out?


“I would like that, sure, but I have a rule…” Bailey smiled. “I don’t go out with clients.”


At that, Mark seemed to relax. He chuckled. “Well, technically I am not a client. Payge was. Had nothin’ to do with me.”


“You’ve got a point there.” Bailey eyed him speculatively.


“So how about it?”


“Dinner?” Bailey asked, frowning thoughtfully.


“Yes. If you want. Or…I don’t know…we can find something to do.” Mark shrugged.


“All right.” Bailey nodded.


“That’s a yes?”


“No, that’s an ‘all right’. This is a ‘yes’.” Bailey emphasized the words, grinning as she did it. Mark laughed.


“Great. Uh…when?”


“Whenever you want. I’ve got a pretty open schedule for the next few days.” She gestured, indicating the office.


“Tonight?” Mark asked. Bailey nodded. “Great. I’ll pick you up…seven?”


“Better make it eight.” Bailey said with a smile. “I have a few things to take care of here, then at the house before I can go anywhere.”


Mark nodded. “Sounds good to me. I’ll need your address.” Bailey found a note pad and pencil and scribbled it down for him, along with her home number. Mark took it from her, tucking it into his pocket after reading. “I’ll see you at eight then.”


“I’ll look forward to it.” Bailey grinned at him and followed him to the door. She held it while Mark stepped out into the baking heat. He gave her a half wave then walked toward his truck, parked at the curb.


Bailey shook her head thoughtfully and shut the door, sighing in relief at the cold air of the office. Then she smirked to herself. She could not believe that Mark had asked her out. Usually guys were intimidated by her. For some reason they picked up some kind of vibe from her that said back off. He did not seem to be put off. Just unusually shy.  Strange considering how big he was. Guys like him didn’t usually get nervous around many people.


She settled at her desk and began storing things in the drawers. Mindless work, but easy considering she could sit down to do it. When Ken returned, Bailey was playing solitaire on her computer, bored out of her mind. They were finished. Now they would take a few days off before opening for business again.


Ken was lugging three cases of water with him. Sweat had beaded up on his forehead during the short walk from his car. With a groan, he took the water to the kitchen and put it on the small counter.


“Damn…that’s it, I’m not leavin’ this office again til winter.” He said, puffing a breath as he perched on the edge of her desk.


“If only you could get away with it, huh?” Bailey smirked restarted her game. She’d lost.


“So…he left already?” Ken asked, looking around.


Bailey shot him a look. “So how much did he pay you to take a walk, Kenny?”


“Pay me?” Ken tried to put on an innocent face, once she was all too familiar with.


Bailey rolled her eyes. “I said yes.”


“Good.” Ken sputtered. “I mean…yes to what?”


Bailey laughed. “Don’t ever play poker. You would lose your shirt.”


“In this heat it might be a good idea.” Ken grabbed the material and moved it back and forth rapidly, fluttering a breeze up to his face. “So…you said yeah, huh? And he didn’t…pay…me. He just asked me what he thought his chances were.”


“His chances? What am I, Vegas?” Bailey said with another laugh.


“Maybe he did not put it in those exact words, but it’s close enough.” Ken smiled. “I told him pretty damn good, especially since you haven’t gone out since senior prom.”


“Oh…fuck you, buddy.” Bailey giggled and raised her middle finger at him.


“Yeah, I heard you said that to your prom date too.” Ken snickered and dodged off the desk before Bailey could take a swipe at him. “Only in a more inviting tone.”


Bailey laughed, covering her mouth with one hand, trying to hold it in. “How the hell would you know?”


“I know everything about you, Coop.” He snorted as he used his affectionate nickname for her. “That’s good detecting at work.”


“Full of shit, as always, Kenny boy.” Bailey stopped her laughing, got it down to giggles, and took a deep breath. “You think I did the right thing?”


Ken studied her for a moment, a smile tilting the corners of his mouth. “Why are you asking me? The only person in this room worse at that dating thing than you is me…” His smile turned into a smirk.


Bailey sighed. “Yeah, don’t I know it…” She muttered. “What’s left, O Great One?”


“That’s more like it, woman.” Ken laughed and looked around. “That’s it. The damn phone is all that’s left. Oh, and the satellite. Can’t forget that. How am I gonna watch my shows if we don’t have good reception?”


Bailey rolled her eyes again. Unfortunately, Ken was not joking. If he was in the office during the day, he was working with one eye and one ear on the television set. She’d tried watching a soap opera with him on several occasions and had given up, disgusted with the whole process. Ken seemed to love the drama. He was weird like that.


“Then I guess I’m going to head home. At least I have the internet there.” Bailey poked her computer screen with one finger. “I’ll e-mail a few of our regulars, tell them we’ll be ready in three days. Sound all right?”


“Three…whole…days…” Ken whispered, sounding as if he were in the throes of ecstasy. Bailey snickered and elbowed him in the side on her way past.


“You’ve had time off before, Ken doll.”


“Mmm…but not from the new place. When’s your date?” Ken asked, walking with her as she gathered her purse and half empty bottle of water.


“Tonight, eight, why?” Bailey dug her sunglasses from her purse and perched them on the tip of her nose, looking at Ken over the top of them.


“No reason…just wanted to make sure I didn’t try to call you when you were doin’ something naked with the man.” Ken winked at her, exaggerating it.


Bailey groaned and pulled back her fist as if she were going to punch him. Ken flinched, acting terrified. “Watch it, Seven-Up.”


“Uh…Seven-Up?” Ken looked confused by that. Bailey had called him an uncountable number of things over the years but this was a new one on him.


“You know, that old commercial…never had it, never will.” Bailey laughed at the look on his face then stood on tiptoe to kiss his cheek. “Lighten up, bud. I’ll see you soon. Call me tomorrow…we’ll go do something brainless…” With that she waved over her shoulder and headed into the heat of the day. Ken was still smiling when the people from the phone company showed up. Bailey just had that power sometimes.




Mark called at six to tell her to dress casual.


Bailey decided on a pair of comfortable jeans and a tight fitting tank top that left her shoulders bare. She hadn’t had time to actually lie in the sun recently, so she’d been going to tanning bed once a week.  Yes, it was for vanity purposes, but she had another reason. When she was tan, the scar on her stomach was less noticeable. When she was pale, it seemed to glow white against her skin. Tan, and the scar faded a bit. So she did what she had to do.


She had to laugh at herself as she pulled her black boots on. It wasn’t as if Mark was going to be seeing that damn scar anytime soon. He just wanted to go out to dinner or a movie. And she had no intentions of sleeping with him. He seemed all right. Bailey had developed an intuition about people over time, and Mark did not ring any alarm bells within her. So maybe he wasn’t some psycho killer looking for a victim.


Bailey eyed herself critically in the mirror one last time. She didn’t wear makeup, had always hated the feel of it on her skin. Her copper hair was brushed straight down her back. It played well against her red tank top. Deciding she looked as good as she was going to get, she wandered toward the living room, grabbing her purse on the way.


At eight o’clock, Mark knocked on her door. Bailey lived on the outskirts of town in a tiny subdivision. Her house was two stories, but on the small side. Only two bedrooms. The entire first floor was one big open room. The kitchen was tucked into the back corner. It made the house feel so much bigger inside than what it was.


Bailey opened the door with a smile on her face. “Hey.” Behind her, the trill of a phone ringing made her jump. “Damn. Come on in, I’ll be just a sec.”


Mark nodded, smiling back at her, as he crossed the threshold and stood by the door, uncertain of where he should wait. Bailey was across the room, cordless phone to her ear, a frown on her face.


Mark watched her, studying her face as she listening intently to whoever was on the other end of the line. His eyes took in her home, the comfortable looking leather couch, the big television, all the open space. There were dozens of pictures on the walls, most featuring her with her partner Ken. In a few, Ken had dark hair as opposed to the white-blonde he now sported. It was kind of strange to see him with brown hair.


Bailey’s voice broke into his thoughts. “What?”


Mark turned his attention back to her, watched her smile. She looked relieved. When she finally put down the phone, she saw him looking at her and laughed.


“Sorry. That was…uh…” She shrugged. “My lawyer. Kind of.”


“Oh?” Mark half-smiled as she led the way out the door.


“So where are we going?” Bailey didn’t even try to be subtle. Mark took that as a hint that the subject was off limits.


“I thought we could head out for a drive.” He said with a shrug, opening the door to his truck for her. Bailey smiled as he helped her in. He came around the front and slid into the driver’s seat.


“That sounds nice, but I’ll tell ya…I haven’t eaten since early today, so if I pass out from low blood sugar, it’s on your head.” Bailey said sweetly as Mark guided the truck onto the road.


Mark laughed. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to let you starve.”


“Damn good thing.” She watched the scenery for a moment. “How’s Spiderman doing? Did you get him new tags?”


Mark smirked. “Yeah, picked some up this morning. I don’t know why we bother, he figured out a way to chew through his collar last night.”


“Some were just born to be free and live wild, I guess.” Bailey said with a laugh.


“Nothing wrong with that.” Mark glanced at her before putting his attention back on the road. “So are you from around here?”


Bailey made a face. “Kinda. San Antonio. That’s where my parents and brother live. I guess I’m the black sheep.”


“Yeah? I was born and raised right here.”


“Well it wasn’t really my choice to move, but I’m…” She stopped herself.


“Why wouldn’t it be your choice?” Mark asked when the silence had stretched out for several beats.


Bailey sighed. “I shouldn’t have said anything. Long story.”


“Long drive.” Mark pointed out. He glanced at her again. “Isn’t that kind of what going out with a person is? Learning about stuff they normally wouldn’t tell you?”


Bailey shook her head. “I don’t know what the hell it’s about, actually. Most guys are not interested in hearing me talk.” She shot him a meaningful look, making him chuckle.


“Well, I’d like to hear it, if you don’t mind.  You tell, then I tell. That’s how it’s supposed to work.”


Bailey sighed again. “All right. I was a cop, got onto the force right after high school as a dispatcher, worked my way up. I was working on a promotion to detective.”


When she paused, Mark risked another look at her face. She was staring out the window, not looking at him as she spoke.


“So why did you leave?” He persisted.


“I stopped a car one day. Not unusual…cuz I did a lot of traffic work during summer time. The guy seemed friendly enough right up until he pulled his gun out. I got shot twice.” She shrugged as if it were not a big deal. Mark looked at her, horrified at the thought.


“Damn…obviously you’re Ok, or I’m sittin’ here with a ghost. But what happened?”


Bailey ran a hand through her smooth hair, and finally looked in his direction. “I quit. I was afraid to go on routine patrols after that. I knew when I signed up that I’d be in danger, but it wasn’t just that. I guess it made me realize I was not immortal after all, you know? Some of us think we’ll live forever when we’re young.”


“I know that feelin’.” Mark said wryly, smiling at her, getting it returned weakly.


“Ken had…some issues as well. We decided to go into business together. The rest is history.” Bailey said, raising an eyebrow. “Ken and I go way back. When he found out that I had quit, he called and told me about opening an agency. It seemed like a good idea.”


“So why Houston?”


Bailey smirked. “You won’t let it go will you?”


“Curiosity is peaked, darlin’.” Mark smiled at her.


“All right, well…” She shrugged. “I come from a family with a long tradition of raising police officers. Everybody in the family is a cop, a fed, in the military…so when I quit, Dad decided I was a disappointment and disowned me.”


“You’re kidding.”


“Do I look like I’m kidding?” Bailey’s expression was dead serious.


“After you almost got killed in the line of duty, he doesn’t understand why you want to quit?”


“Oh he understood all right. Called me a coward among other things.” Bailey had a grim smile on her face now. “Little did he know. I’m no chicken. Hell, I’ve had guns drawn on me more now that I’m a PI than when I was in uniform.”


This caused Mark to raise an eyebrow. “Really?”


“Oh yeah. If you’re wearing a uniform, it’s more official. If you’re diggin’ in records and finding dirt, they hate you.” She said it with a grin.  “Where are we going by the way?”


Mark smiled finally, but the thoughtful frown was not completely erased. “A place I know.”


“Sounds cryptic.”


“Might be.” He chuckled. They shared a strangely comfortable silence for several minutes, each thinking their own thoughts. Mark slowed the truck and guided it onto a mostly hidden gravel drive. “This is it.”


“This is what?” Bailey asked as she looked around. The trees on either side of the drive almost touched the truck. The gravel road twisted and turned.


“You’ll see.” Mark said with a smirk. He navigated the final curve and the trees suddenly opened onto a cleared area.


“You gotta be kiddin’ me.” Bailey said with a laugh. Hidden in the trees was a log cabin-like structure, several vehicles parked out front. There was a sign that hung over the large porch. “A steakhouse? Out in the middle of nowhere?”


“Took a little searchin’ but I found it.” Mark chuckled. “You’ll love it. That is, if you really are starving.”


“I am.” Bailey slid from the truck when Mark had pulled into a parking spot and eyed the building dubiously. “How the hell did you find this place? I didn’t even know there was a restaurant out here.”


Mark grinned and put his hand against the small of her back, guiding her toward the door. “It’s a secret. Of course, you bein’ an ex-cop might get me blackballed from this place.”


“I won’t tell ‘em if you don’t.” Bailey said, grinning, enjoying the heat of his hand against her back. She’d never really thought about that before, but she was now. Especially given the size of the hand that lay against her.


“Believe me, my mouth is shut. Ellie has the best steaks in the state here.” Mark held the door, letting Bailey enter first.




“She’s sort of…well…” Mark smirked. “You’ll see.” With another chuckle, he led the way through the building to a table in the back.




There was a noise.


Payge was lying on her stomach on the living room floor, hand propped in her chin, light hair spilling over her shoulders. Austin thought that at times like this, when she could study her young daughter without notice that Payge was nothing short of an angel.


She’d been thinking that very thing when she heard the noise the first time. Austin looked up, at the window that faced the front yard. It had grown dark and she could see nothing. Deciding her imagination was working overtime, she went back to reading her book.


The noise came again. Austin cocked her head and rose to her feet. “I’ll be back in a sec, pumpkin.”


Payge grunted an acknowledgement, making her smile even as a worried frown marred her features. Austin went into the hallway that separated the kitchen from the living room and stood still, listening.


The noise was coming from the kitchen.


It sounded as if the doorknob on the back door were being slowly turned. The door was locked of course, Austin had locked it herself and double checked it before she’d settled in with her book.


She was frozen in the spot, unsure of what to do. If someone were trying to get into the house, she really had no way to chase them off. Mark didn’t keep a gun. She could grab a kitchen knife but knew without having to think it over that she would not be able to use it effectively.


Damn but she wished Mark was there, as she heard the noise yet again, this time more urgent-sounding. She refused to call him. He’d been in a good mood all evening, thinking about going out with Bailey, and Austin would not ruin their night with her imaginary burglars.


The kitchen light was off. The only illumination came from the small bulb over the stove. Austin peaked around the corner, looking at the back door. From her vantage point, if someone were looking in the window over the sink, they would not be able to see her.


She saw the doorknob jiggle and realized she had been right. Someone was trying to get into the house. A hand against her chest, she backed into the hall once more, her heart pounding in her ears.


Austin couldn’t call the police, damn it. That was her biggest problem. If she did, then she’d have to put her name on reports. Police reports were very easily monitored. No one knew she was staying with Mark.


The doorknob rattled again. Austin backed all the way to the front door, bumping into the table that was next to it. They used it for a catch-all. Her keys were there, her purse, Mark’s mail. And Bailey’s business card. Austin picked it up, glancing at it, scared out of her mind. Mark had not told her where they would be going that night. Bailey’s home and cell phone number were scrawled across the back of the card.


She would not call them. Not even for this. Mark deserved a night of fun, damn it. Austin heard laughter from the living room as Payge found something amusing. The sound of her daughter’s happy laugh seemed to shake something inside her. She snatched up the phone and dialed the office number on the front of the card. She would leave a message, maybe Bailey checked her machine at night. At least it was doing something.


The phone rang once. Austin moved so she could keep an eye on the hallway and the living room at the same time. Payge was unaware of anything going on, which was good. She’d had nightmares when they’d first moved in with Mark. Austin didn’t want to cause them to start up again.


On the second ring, the phone clicked. A deep male voice answered. Austin was too shocked to say anything for a long moment.


“Hello?” The man’s voice carried a humored note. At least he found her speechlessness amusing.


“Uh…hello? Is…is this Bailey Cooper’s office?” For lack of anything better to say, Austin managed to squeak that out.


“Yeah, Anderson Cooper, this is Ken. Her partner in crime, so to speak. Who is this?”


“Um…My name is…uh…Austin…Calaway.” She stuttered, trying to talk. The doorknob was shaking again.


“Calaway?” The man repeated.


“Yes. Uh…Bailey is out with my brother tonight.”


“Oh. OH!” It must have registered who she was. The man laughed at himself. “Sorry, I’m terrible with names. You’ve got that sweetheart that had the missing dog.”




“Well, what can I do for you? Bailey won’t be in for a couple of days. I’m just setting up the computers.” He said, as if needing to explain why he was still at the office at nine o’clock at night.


“It’s…silly…crazy.” Austin did not really know how to classify it. “I was just…I was going to see if my brother would be…maybe Bailey would check her messages.” She really had a hard time piecing together sentences. Payge shifted in the living room, sitting up.


“Eh, Bailey won’t be back in for a day or two. Our clients all know we’re off til next week.” Ken’s voice sounded concerned. “Are you all right? You sound kind of…”


“No. No I’m not.” Austin sighed out.


“Ok, hon, tell me what’s wrong.”


Austin quickly explained the noise she’d heard and the movement she’d seen in the kitchen. Ken listened, not speaking, until she was finished.


“You should call the cops.” He finally spoke when he was sure she was done.


“I…I can’t. Please, I don’t want to call Mark…he was looking forward to his date so much…”


Ken interrupted her. “What’s your address?”


“My…address?” Austin asked, confused.


“Yeah. I’ll come out, checking things for you. I don’t mind.”


“I don’t…want to put you out or anything…”


“It’s not a problem, hon. Just tell me where you are.”


Austin rattled off her address, keeping one wary eye on the doorway into the kitchen.


“Sit tight, hon, you hear me? Get that angel of yours, go into a room with no windows and a good lock, and sit tight until I get there.” Ken advised, sounding confident.


His confidence soothed her nerves somewhat. “There’s a bathroom…Payge will be scared to death…”


“Make it a game, hon. I’ll be there in ten minutes.” Ken said softly. “I’m going to hang up now. Get that baby of yours and go, Ok? Don’t stop for anything else. I’m leaving right now.”


“Ok…thank…” She did not get to finish. Ken had hung up. Austin tossed the cordless aside and went into the living room. She tried to compose herself a bit for Payge’s sake. The kid was only five but she was sharp, and she knew when her mom was upset. “Payge, hon, how about taking a bath with Mom?”


“With you?” Payge asked, surprised. The question even pulled her attention from the television.


“Sure. Well, not a bath, but we can play in the water.” Austin conjured up a smile. Payge eyed her for a moment, then smiled back.


“Can we get my water guns?” The child had an entire collection of the things, given to her by Mark last summer.


“Absolutely. Go on in there, I’ll find your bathing suit.” If Mark got mad they soaked the bathroom with water, so be it. She’d deal with that later.


Payge went into the bathroom, laughing at the idea of an indoor water fight. Austin all but ran to her room and dug into the closet for Payge’s swimwear. She dashed back down the hall, shutting and locking the door.


“All right, here, put it on, don’t wanna get your clothes soaked.” Austin gave Payge her suit and began running tepid water into the garden tub. It was big enough for both of them with plenty of room left over.


“What about your clothes mom?” Payge said, tugging the stretchy material over her hips.


“This old stuff?” Austin was wearing a pair of cut-off shorts and fitted t-shirt. Nothing that she’d mind getting wet. The tub was half-full when she stopped the water and helped Payge in.


Pretending nothing was bothering her was increasingly difficult for Austin. Payge was splashing, laughing, shooting her water gun at anything she thought could use water. Her noise masked any sounds that came from outside the bathroom.


“Mom!” Payge was talking to her. Austin had been zoned out, thinking, worrying.


“Yeah, baby?”


“Somebody’s knockin’.” Payge said in exasperation.


Austin breathed an inner sigh of relief. “I’ll get it, baby. Just stay here and play for a few minutes, all right?”


“Sure thing, Mom.” Payge was already absorbed in her water play again as Austin climbed dripping out of the tub.


She grabbed a towel and wrapped it around herself before cautiously opening the door. She’d have to leave it open, no way would she lock Payge into the bathroom alone. She hesitated until the knock came again. The front door. Holding the towel tightly, wishing for a gun, she tiptoed to the door and peer out through the spy-hole in the center.


A blonde man stood there, a worried frown creasing his face. She recognized him as the man who’d been in the office with Bailey. Just to be sure, she pressed her hand to the door and called, “Who is it?”


“Good girl. It’s Ken.” He looked directly at the small circular hole in the door, smiling in relief at the sound of her voice. “You can open up.”


Austin quickly turned the deadbolt and opened the door to let the man enter. He smiled down at her, noticing her wet clothing. “Good night for a swim.”


Austin uttered a nervous laugh. “Good night for anything but being scared out of my wits.”


Ken shook his head. “Well, I looked around and didn’t find anybody here.”


“But…I heard…and I saw the damn knob move!” She said, wondering if all the hiding and running was finally catching up to her. All that pressure, even a strong person would snap.


“I’m sure you did. Just a question though.” He grinned and stepped aside. Spiderman was standing behind him, panting, looking as if he were grinning. “Is this your dog?”


“Oh…Spidey…how the hell did you get out again?” Austin said with another nervous giggle. “Where did you find him?”


“At the back door.” Ken shook his head. “He was up on his hind legs, scratching at the doorknob. Tryin’ to get in.”


“Oh. Oh God.” Austin smacked herself on the forehead.


“I saw him with my own eyes.” He grinned, and Austin noticed his eyes for the first time, beautiful warm brown eyes. Twinkling with humor. Utterly guileless.


“I feel like such an idiot…” She groaned out, kneeling down to scratch Spiderman behind the ears. “I thought somebody was tryin’ to break in.”


“I would have thought the same thing.” Ken said, stooping down with her. “You should put in a doggy door. Let him come and go as he wants to. So he doesn’t give random heart attacks.”


“I’ll have to definitely consider it.” Austin said, smiling shyly, focusing on the dog instead of the man next to her. “Thank you. I am so sorry I bothered you.”


“It wasn’t a bother.” Ken said, his eyes taking her in. Austin felt herself flush with color at his assessment. Men had looked at her, of course, she was a lovely woman, but there was something about this man in particular that set her off balance. And it wasn’t the fact that he’d come running to help a woman he didn’t know.


“Still…I can’t believe I just went crazy like that…I don’t usually…”


“You didn’t ‘go crazy’.” Ken said with a laugh. “Big house, alone with a kid, things just amplify.” He rose to his feet, smiling down at her as he offered her a hand up.


“Oh. Damn. Speakin’ of a kid…” Austin laughed and headed down the hall to the bathroom. “Babydoll. Come on. We have company.”


Ken smiled and leaned down to scratch the dog behind the ears. He listened to the little girl’s laughter, his smile broadening. If this was all it took to be a hero to a beautiful woman, he was definitely going to do it more often.




“You were right.”


“About what?” Mark asked, glancing over at her. Bailey was once again in the passenger seat. They had stayed at the hidden restaurant for almost three hours, eating, talking, getting to know each other better. Bailey’s question had come out of the blue. They had been sharing another comfortable silence.


“Ellie. She’s somethin’.” Bailey said with a grin. Ellie was the owner of the Hideaway, the home of the best damn steaks in Texas. In her late fifties, with long silver hair tied back in a braid, wearing cowboy boots and a wild print Hawaiian shirt, she’d been a bundle of energy, weaving through tables, carrying huge plates of food, doting on her customers.


Bailey had gotten the feeling that Ellie was like a mother figure to Mark. She certainly seemed to dote on him. She made sure they got their food quickly, that their drinks never ran empty. She even sat down with them for a bit, chatting with Mark about anything that came to mind.


“She’s a ball of fire.” Mark smiled.


“I noticed.” Bailey shook her head.


Mark cleared his throat. “It’s almost midnight.”


“You gonna turn into a pumpkin?” Bailey asked with a laugh.


“I dunno. It’s possible.” Mark grinned, slowing down as they entered the city limits.


“Ready to get rid of me?” Bailey reached over and poked his side. Mark jerked and laughed. Bailey was a very physical person, he had figured that out already. All through dinner she had constantly reached out to touch his arm, his hand, to get his attention. She’d play fought with him in the parking lot, to the amusement of the other customers who were sitting outside smoking. When he’d helped her into the truck, she’d slid to the middle of the seat, next to him, so that she brushed against him with every turn he made.


“Not even close, darlin’.” He drawled out playfully. It was strange…Bailey was actually fun to be around. He could see himself being friends with her. Hanging out with her. And then he’d think of doing other, more clothing-optional things, and turn red. He was a bit confused by his scattered thoughts.


“What do ya have in mind?” She looked up at him, gray eyes sparkling with mischief. Mark struck her as the kind of person that was just too serious. After working with Ken for so long, Bailey had developed a very wicked sense of fun. Mark looked as if he needed a good dose of it. It wasn’t anything he said-at dinner they’d kept their talking to light subjects, neither wanting to delve too deeply just yet. He still seemed to be mulling over her story from earlier, on the ride to the restaurant.


“I don’t know.” He glanced down at her. “Too late for a movie.”


“That’s all right. I’d just as soon wait and buy the DVD.” Bailey said with a smile.


“I suppose you have to work tomorrow, so I don’t wanna keep you out too late.”


“Nope. I’m not working until next week. So I can stay up as late as I want to.”


Mark glanced at her again. They were nearing the turn off that would lead to her house. “So what do you suggest?”


“Hmm…” Bailey tapped a finger against her chin, thinking. “I don’t know. I don’t usually go out and enjoy the nightlife.”


“It’s Wednesday. The nightlife doesn’t exist until at least tomorrow night.” Mark said wryly.


“All right then. How about we watch a movie at my place?” She asked, looking up at him.


“Your place?” Mark repeated, thinking it over. Then he chided himself for thinking about it. She’d offered a movie, it wasn’t as if she’d stripped her shirt off and told him to go to town. Now there was a thought.


“Remember that house you came to and I answered the door?” Bailey said sarcastically, smirking.


“Ha ha. No. Refresh my memory.” Mark said, chuckling.


“If you have to go home, that’s all right too.” She said, grinning. “Since you brought up the fact that it’s late. Do you have to work tomorrow?”


Mark shook his head, looking at her again. “The bike shop pretty much runs itself.” He’d told her over dinner that as soon as he’d gotten out of school, he had opened his own motorcycle shop. They did everything from repairs to rebuilds. He’d made a very lucrative living from it.


“Well…” She drawled the word out. Mark nodded.


“All right. What movie?”


Bailey laughed. “Hell, I don’t know. You’ll have to peruse the collection and decide for me.”




She snickered. “You’ll see.” She said, repeating his words from earlier in the evening.


He parked on the street in front of her house and climbed out, then went around to help her out of the truck. Bailey led the way into the house, tossing her purse onto a table inside the door.


“I can make some popcorn…” Bailey said, smiling at him. Mark shrugged.


“I’m full.” He said, rubbing his stomach absently. He always ate too much when he went to Ellie’s. But that was the house rule.


“All righty. Want something to drink?” Bailey leaned against the back of the couch and tugged her boots off. Mark watched her with interest, almost wanting to ask what else would be coming off.


“I’ll take a beer if you have one.” He said, moving to the couch and settling on it. Bailey grinned at him and padded into the kitchen, rummaging in the fridge.


She came back and handed him the cold can. “Now. Pick a movie.” She pointed to the television. On either side of the big screen stood large shelves. They were packed end to end with DVD cases. She’d apparently run out of room as some movies lay on top of others.


“Damn.” He said under his breath, making her laugh.


“I told you.”


“Yeah, you weren’t kidding.” He stood up and began looking at the titles, trying to find one he would want to see. “Have you watched all of these?”


“At some point or other. I’m sort of a movie fiend. Horror movies, mostly.” Bailey said around a sip of her beer. She set the can on the table and stretched. “I’m going to go change while you decide. Anything is fine with me.” She didn’t wait for an answer. She climbed the stairs and disappeared from sight.


Mark sighed and went back to looking through her movies. There were some he’d never heard of, let alone seen. He laughed when he came across a copy of Spiderman. It made him think of the dog that had disappeared the day before.


Bailey reappeared, her hair held back in a loose bun, wearing a knee length nightshirt. She smiled at him. “Got one yet?”


“You have too many to choose from.” He said with a sigh, taking a drink of his beer. “Is this one any good?” He held out a case. Bailey took it and made a face.


“Not really.” She laughed. “I really should start renting before I buy. I can’t help myself though.”


“There are worse hobbies. I guess.” He smirked. Bailey made a fist and shook it at him.


“Don’t be jealous, bud. Pick one.”


Mark decided to go with one he’d already seen. Halloween. The original. He hadn’t seen that movie in years. Bailey nodded at his choice and turned the TV and DVD player on, loading the movie.


Mark settled on the couch again. Bailey looked at him thoughtfully. “You know, get comfortable. Don’t be so stiff.”




Bailey rolled her eyes. “You have this strange habit of repeating things. Do you do that on purpose?”


“Repeating things?” Mark said, looking genuinely puzzled. Then he laughed. “I know. I can’t help myself though.”


“You.” Bailey said in exasperation, throwing a fake punch at his arm. Mark laughed and dodged her. “I suggest you make yourself comfortable. Or else.”


“Sounds like a threat there, woman.” Mark eyed her, becoming serious all of a sudden. His eyes hardened. “I don’t much like it when a…woman…tells me what to do.”


Bailey cocked an eyebrow at him, as if she’d just seen a roach crawl from his mouth. “Uh oh…am I in trouble here?” She eyed him warily. Until he grinned. She groaned and smacked the back of his head. “You asshole. I thought you were gonna kill me.”


“I might still.” Mark said, laughing again. Thanks to his size, he had learned a long time ago how to be intimidating. Sometimes it was funny to watch.


“Not if I kill you first.” Bailey absently rubbed his head where she’d smacked him. “Are you sure about the popcorn?”


“Positive. If I eat anything else, I’ll bust.” He said, bending and tugging his shoes off.


“Ok. I’m gonna grab another beer. Do you want one?” At his nod, she went into the kitchen again. This time she came back balancing four of them. “So I don’t have to get up again.” She explained, setting them on the floor. She turned off the lights and sat next to him, pushing play on the remote control.


Fifteen minutes into the movie, she leaned her head against his shoulder. Ten minutes after that, Mark had his arm around Bailey, leaning his cheek against her head. They finished their beers. Mark drank most of Bailey’s third one. She was still working on number two. The movie passed in relative quiet, although every now and then one of them would say something, usually something scathing about the film.


By the time the movie was over, Mark was stretched out on his side with Bailey spooned against him. They were both still facing the television. Bailey was using his arm as a pillow. His free hand rested lightly against her hip. The credits were rolling and he did not want to move from the spot he was in, perfectly content to just lie there with her next to him.


When the credits ended, the DVD went back to its menu screen. Bailey sighed and carefully turned in Mark’s arms to face him, her head still cushioned by his arm. “I haven’t seen that one in a while.” She observed, her voice sounding a bit thick.


“Me either.” Mark said softly. He nuzzled the top of her head, wrapping his arm around her waist. “Now it really is late.”


“Mmm.” Bailey made a noise, but did not actually speak.


“Are you fallin’ asleep on me?” He asked, chuckling.


“Nope.” Now she sounded wide-awake. Mark smiled in the dimly lit room, cuddling her even closer. She did not protest it. “Now what?”


“Um…I don’t know.” Mark said, tracing her spine with one finger. “I guess I should head home.”


“Yeah…probably.” But she made no move to get up and let him go. Her hand snaked around his waist. They held each other for a few moments. Bailey finally tilted her head to look up at him. “You have had a few beers though. I don’t know if I should let you drive at the moment.”


Mark said nothing. He was lost in her eyes. There was enough ambient light coming from the TV and the small nightlight in the kitchen to see her eyes, those beautiful gray eyes that drew him in like nothing he’d ever felt before. Without a word or warning, he ducked his head and brushed his lips over hers, kissing her timidly, gently, no pressure, just the barest hint of his lips on hers.


Bailey sighed against his mouth and he took that as his cue to deepen the kiss. He pressed his lips more firmly against hers, his tongue slipping out to caress the curve of her lower lip. Her lips were parted; he flicked his tongue along the opening, urging her to open up for him.


She tilted her head to the side a bit to give Mark better access, using her tongue to play against his. He made a low growling noise in his throat at her actions and delved his tongue deeper into her mouth, moaning at the taste of her against his tongue. He brought his hand up and tugged the elastic holding her hair. It spilled over his hand in a copper fall, the silky texture tickling his fingers. Mark stroked her hair, still kissing her, not wanting to stop.




Austin tucked Payge into bed, kissing her daughter gently on the forehead before heading back out to the living room.


Ken was still there. She just felt better having him with her, and she did not want to be alone. It made her realize just how dependent on Mark she had come to be.


Ken smiled at her when she came back into the living room. Austin was embarrassed. “Ken, I’m glad you’ve stuck around, but if you need to leave, then I won’t put up a big fuss.”


“Well…” He was still smiling. He had a little boy smile, dimples and all. “I suppose I should get home and crash. Since I’ll be so busy tomorrow.”


“Oh?” She couldn’t help herself. She sat down and smiled back at him. “What are you doing?”


“Absolutely nothing. Anderson Cooper is closed until Monday.”


“Anderson Cooper.” Austin said thoughtfully. “Isn’t that they guy on…”


“Yes it is.” Ken laughed and interrupted her before she could finish.


“Is that on purpose?” Austin asked with a smirk.


“Nah. Cooper Anderson doesn’t sound right. We’re still tryin’ to come up with a catchy name.” Ken sighed and looked at the clock. “You sure you don’t want me to stick around? You seem kind of edgy. Is something wrong?” He remembered Bailey’s thoughts from the day before, about there being something going on with this family. After Austin’s phone call, his curiosity was running rampant. She was calm now, and she was wonderful with her daughter, but the way she had sounded on the phone…


“I don’t need a babysitter.” She said with no malice. “I was just…jumpy I guess. And no…nothing is wrong.”


Ken raised an eyebrow. She was lying, it was obvious, because she averted her eyes as soon as she spoke. “I wasn’t offering to baby sit.” He said, keeping his tone joking.


“Good.” Austin rose and stretched. “It’s after one. Mark should be back any time now. I think we’ll be all right.”


“If it’s all the same to you, I wouldn’t mind waiting until he got home. If it makes you feel safer.” He said, his voice low.


Austin hesitated, then nodded. “I don’t know why you would want to put yourself out for me. You don’t even know me.”


“Yet.” Ken said with a grin. Austin felt a blush rising again. She had not been with a man since…him…and she had no intentions of starting now, especially since ‘he’ was still out there somewhere, looking for her. But if she were to change her mind, she had a very good idea where she would start.


Instead of remarking on his comment, Austin pushed her dark hair away from her face and looked at everything but Ken. “I’m going to go to bed. You can stay if you want to. I won’t argue with you about it. And thank you.”


“For what?” Ken asked, situating himself more comfortably on the couch.


“Just…for being here.” Impulsively she leaned over and kissed his cheek, her face five shades of red. “Good night, Ken.”


“G’night Aus.” He winked at her and watched her walk away. Austin made herself walk normally from the room, even though she felt like running. The way he looked at her…


She shoved the thought aside. Ken obviously thought she was good looking. Too bad that nothing more could come of it that that. Feeling weary to the bone, Austin climbed into bed and snuggled under her blanket, alone, just like always. Being her sucked right then. She wished the whole mess was over with, that she could have a normal life. The end of the tunnel was not in sight, though. And she had a sinking feeling that it never would be.




Mark finally broke the kiss that had seemed to last forever, trailing his lips down Bailey’s chin, her jawline, her neck. He found a sensitive spot and got a soft moan from her. He focused on the spot, just beneath her ear, sucking and nipping on her warm skin as she squirmed next to him at the sensations.


His hand slid down her back, over her hip, moving against the smooth skin of her thigh past the nightshirt Bailey was wearing. Bailey moaned under him again as he stroked her skin with his fingertips, moving upward again, sliding his hand under the material that covered her.


“Mark…” Bailey’s voice was a breathless whisper. He muttered in answer and continued feeling his way up her hip, her waist. She caught his hand before he could move any further. “Wait…stop…”


He immediately pulled away, giving her some breathing room, his breath ragged. “Bailey…sorry…I don’t know…”


“No, no, no.” She smiled and ran her hand down his arm. “I don’t want to stop. Crazy as it is for us to continue this. I just…” She hesitated. “I want to show you something, ok?”


Mark nodded. “All right.” He watched as she slipped from the couch and kneeled next to it, toying with the hemline of her gown.


Without a word she raised the material up, bunching it beneath her breasts. For a moment Mark had no idea what it was he was supposed to be seeing besides way too much exposed skin and the panties she wore under the gown. Then his eyes found the scar. It stood out even in the dim light.


“Bailey…” Mark reached over. She flinched when he brushed his fingertips over the mottled skin. The bullet had entered low, dead center. A circular scar puckered the skin just below her navel. The other scar…he knew that was the one she had the most issues with. It curved across her lower stomach, stark and jagged, almost reaching from hip to hip.


“They couldn’t find the bullet.” She said softly, looking down at her stomach.


Mark met her eyes. “Is this supposed to bother me?”


Bailey smiled. “It bothers most people. Its kind of nasty looking.”


Mark shook his head. “Darlin’, it would take a hell of a lot more than that to make me wanna run.” He said hoarsely.


Bailey eyed him thoughtfully. “You really aren’t put off, are you?”


Mark smiled at her, reaching for her hand. He tugged her, pulling her onto top of him on the couch. “Does it feel like I’m put off?” He asked, pressing his hips upward against her. Even through the jeans, she could feel his erection against her leg.


“Scars turn you on?” She asked with a smirk.


“Depends on who they’re attached to.” Mark said, brushing her hair back from her face. He studied her face for a long moment in the dim light.


Bailey leaned down and kissed him briefly, just a press of her lips against his. “Wanna take this upstairs?”


“I’d love to, darlin’.” He didn’t move to let her go. Instead, he hugged her close to his body one more time, relishing her heat against him.


Mark finally released her. Bailey got to her feet and led the way up the stairs, entering the first room on the right. It was much darker in her bedroom. Mark could barely discern the outline of her bed, a dressed, and what looked like a chair in the corner.


Bailey flicked a switch. The bedroom had an attached bathroom. The light spilled through the doorway, illuminating the room softly. Mark smiled at her and took Bailey into his arms again.


Before he could kiss her, Bailey pressed her fingertips against his lips, stilling his movements. “I don’t want you to think…that this is something I do all the time…” She said, hesitating a bit.


“I never thought you did.” Mark assured her.


“I don’t know why I wanna make an exception for you.” She admitted. Mark chuckled.


“If you’re tryin’ to sweet talk me, you should know that wasn’t even close.”


“I didn’t mean…”


“I know.” Mark shushed her, kissing her quickly before she could stop him again. “I was kiddin’, Bailey.” He looked into her gray eyes, turning serious. “Are you sure you wanna do this darlin’?”


Bailey bit her lip thoughtfully and met his gaze. “I’m sure. I want to be with you, Mark…”


It was enough for him. Mark took her hand and led her to the bed. Without a word, he turned to her before she could sit and took her nightgown in his hands. Mark lifted it from her body with a little help from Bailey. Mark stared down at her mostly bare body, the panties she was wearing were hardly enough to stop his imagination from filling in the blanks.


He moved, turning her with him, and sat on the edge of the bed with Bailey between his legs. Mark’s head was level with her chest. He looked up at her, into her eyes, and gently laid his hands on her legs. He slowly moved them up, sliding once more over the smooth skin of her thighs. His thumbs hooked into her panties and he tugged them down slowly, holding onto her as she kicked them away.


He returned his attention to her body. With a wordless mutter of need, he once again began stroking her with his hands, her soft noises of approval setting off tingling sensations through his body. He did not avoid her scar, merely let his hands wander where they would, testing her smooth skin with his palms.


Mark stopped just shy of her breasts, looking up at her again. Bailey gave a slight nod. He groaned in approval as he cupped her full breasts in his hands, stroking her nipples with his thumbs, feeling the weight of her in his hands. It was almost enough to drive him crazy.


Mark leaned forward and took one nipple into his mouth, letting his tongue flick across its hardening surface. Bailey moaned and tangled her fingers into his hair, arching her back into his gentle ministrations.


Mark let his hand slid down her stomach again, and traced her scar gently. Bailey held still while he did that, biting her lip until he moved on. He touched her legs again, her inner thighs. Bailey spread her legs a bit at his urging and gasped out his name when he found her center, his fingers stroking her clit rhythmically. 


It was all Mark could do to hold himself in check as her sounds of pleasure spurred on his own feelings of passion. He kissed his way across her chest then down, ducking his head the stroke his tongue along bottom ridge of her ribs, making her jerk back in surprise. He had to grin. Bailey did not strike him as the ticklish type.


Without a word, he pulled back, looking up into her passion-clouded eyes. She was watching him with a lazy smile on her face. Mark grabbed her hips and turned her so she fell onto the bed on her back.


Mark rose to his feet and stripped his shirt off, then his jeans. As naked as Bailey, he climbed onto the bed, straddling her legs, staring down at her intently.


It gave Bailey the opportunity to look him over. Mark was obviously into keeping himself in shape…he had muscles ripping everywhere. His arms were covered with tattoos, a fact that had not really registered with her before. There as no bare skin to be seen on them. She made a mental note to check them out at some later date.


In the meantime…she took in his broad chest, his muscular stomach, his long legs…and his cock, she didn’t forget that, as it was just as big as the rest of him.


“Pay dirt…” She said with a breathless laugh as she reached for him. Mark’s chuckle was cut off as her hand wrapped around his turgid member, hissing his breath in at the feel of her fingers running over his heated flesh.


Bailey pushed herself up onto her elbows and watched her hand as she stroked him from root to tip, back down, stopping briefly to caress his balls before going back to a firmer stroke than the first. Mark moaned above her, his hips jerking against her hand as she let him go, sliding her palms across his hips, up his stomach, down his legs.


It was too much, SHE was too much, and it had been way too long for Mark to wait any longer. With a growl he shifted, parting her legs with his knee, settling himself between her smooth thighs.


Bailey braced herself for what was coming, and frowned when he didn’t immediately make a move. Instead, he pressed his erection against her hot, wet center and ducked his head, sucking once again at her neck, making her arch up into him with a moan. His cock slid against her easily, lubricated by her juices, rubbing against her clit with maddening slowness.


“Mark…” Bailey moaned out as his shifted lower, suckling at her breasts again.


“Mmm?” He made a wordless sound low in his throat. It made Bailey shiver with anticipation.


“Sometime this year would be…great…” She gasped the last word as he ground his hips against her. Mark chuckled against her breast, his hot breath giving her another shiver.


“I’m gettin' there, darlin’.” He said, his voice hoarse. It was almost enough to make her melt at the restrained lust she could hear from him.


Bailey felt his hands grasp her hips, and murmured as he pulled away from her, tilting her lower body at a better angle. His cock probed at her entrance, found it, and he inched his way in slowly, steadily, not wanting to rush, just wanting to enjoy the feel of her hot center wrapped around his throbbing member.


She gasped out when he was fully sheathed, panting in harsh breaths as she got used to his size. When he moved, sliding out, she wiggled her hips in answer, rubbing against him. Mark moaned and entered her again, moving in slow methodical thrusts, rotating his hips when he was fully inside her to give her even more sensations.


Bailey reached above her head and grasped the bed in her hands, using it for leverage. She began to grind up against him harder, faster, urging him with wordless moans to get his ass moving and putting her out of her misery.


Mark finally began thrusting faster, harder, grabbing her hips almost painfully to jerk her body against him, then changed his mind and slid one hand between their writhing bodies to find her clit and stroke it in time with his thrusting.


Bailey suddenly went stiff beneath him and cried out, her body shaking at the intensity of her orgasm, writhing as he continued his assault on her clit. She finally pushed his hand away, still feeling the after shocks. Mark slowed his pace to barely moving, giving her time to recover.


“C’mere.” He growled out, pulling her up onto his lap, still sheathed inside her body. Bailey laughed breathlessly as she found herself facing him, Mark on his knees, her feet braced on either side of his legs.


“Oh…” When Mark shifted into a more comfortable position, Bailey grabbed his shoulders to steady herself, feeling heat flare low in her belly as he twitched deep within in her body. Mark met her eyes and held onto her waist as he began to guide her movements, first sliding back and forth, then up and down, fast, then slow, taking all of his in as deep as she could.


He was getting damn close to the edge, too close to stop himself this time as Bailey wrapped her arms around him and flexed her legs, moving him deep within her. She was climaxing a second time, her whole body shaking at the power of it, when Mark finally let go. He cried out hoarsely crushed her against his body as his seed spilled into her wrung out body.


Gasping for breath, they remained still for several minutes, neither feeling like talking or moving. Bailey finally came to her senses and eased away from him, collapsing on the bed with a heavy sigh of satisfaction. Mark chuckled and stretched out next to her, pulling her into his arms.


“Wanna say the night?” She muttered against his chest, her warm breath puffing across his skin.


Mark smiled and stroked her back. Really, he shouldn’t, he should be going home. But damned if he could make himself get out of bed. “I’ll stay as long as you’ll have me, darlin’.” He said softly, chuckling as Bailey uttered a dreamy moan. She was already asleep.


Mark sighed and shifted, cradling her more comfortably in his arms, and stared up at the ceiling, feeling rather tired himself. He hoped that Austin was all right, that he had not made a mistake in going out with Bailey. At that, he gave himself a mental shake. Going out with Bailey had been the best thing he’d done in years, as evidenced by where they were at that very moment. Austin was fine, of course, Mark’s words to her were true. No one could find her if she did not want to be found at his place. With that thought in his head, he finally closed his eyes and drifted into sleep.





Ken snapped awake, jerking upright before his eyes were fully open, looking toward the hallway.


The sound of the door closing had been what awakened him. A moment after he sat up, Mark appeared in the hallway, looking tired but strangely happy. He glanced at Ken, did a double take, then raised an eyebrow.


“What are you doin’ here?” Mark asked, entering the living room, keeping his voice down.


Ken shrugged and stretched, glancing at his watch. It was just past six in the morning. He grinned and rose to his feet.


“I was workin’ in the office last night when your sister called…freaked out cuz she thought somebody was tryin’ to get in the house.”


“What? Is she all right?” Mark was immediately concerned. Ken waved a hand.


“She’s fine. I took care of it.” Ken smiled again. “Your dog was tryin’ to figure out how to open the door, that’s all. She was kind of freaked out for a while, so I said I’d stick around til you got back.”


“Well…uh…thanks, I appreciate it.” Mark said hesitatingly. He was well aware of the time. He’d woken up, Bailey wrapped in his arms, and had decided to come home. He was no good at the morning after stuff, and wanted time to think about what had happened between them.


Bailey had stirred a bit when he’d moved, and had woken up when he’d left the bed. She understood he wanted to leave. She’d kissed him on the back and curled into bed, her head burrowed into the pillow. Mark had to smile at the image.


“I guess I should get home now.” Ken said when the silence had stretched out for a few minutes.


“Sorry to bother you, she’s not usually so jumpy.” Mark said as he followed the other man to the door.


“Yeah? I’d love to see it.” Ken laughed as he stepped outside. “How was the date?” He couldn’t help but ask. Mark’s cheeks reddened a bit.


“It was good.” Was all he would say, trying not to smile.


“I guess I’ll see ya around.” Ken waved over his shoulder with a chuckle as he went toward his car. He had to shake his head. He had known Bailey for a long time, and could not recall her EVER keeping a man out all night. Unless of course they were doing something naughty. He smirked as he headed toward his own house.




Bailey finally dragged herself out of bed after ten, stretching, yawning, smiling at the soreness that had settled into her limbs. She vaguely recalled Mark waking her up because he had to go home. Still smiling, she took a quick shower, then walked downstairs wrapped in a towel to find something to eat. She was starving.


Her cell phone beeped from her purse as she pulled out milk and a bowl. She was going to have some cereal, then grab a quick workout in her home gym. With a sigh, she pulled the phone at, wondering what the hell Ken wanted this early on a day off.


She glanced at the caller ID, frowning. It was a number she did not recognize. Bailey did not call it back…it was probably just a wrong number.


She ate her cold cereal while watching an all day news channel…not CNN of course, that would be too ironic for her taste. The usual bad news. With a sigh she turned off the television and headed back upstairs to change into her work out gear.


An hour later, sweaty, tired again, she grabbed a bottle of water from the fridge and went onto the back porch to see what the weather was like. Hot of course. Scorching still. She’d be glad when summer was over and the temperature would drop into the lower nineties. Bailey smirked and headed back inside to take another shower, this time as cold as she could stand it.


She dressed in a pair of jean shorts and tank top, and padded into the living room wanting nothing more than to watch one of the movies she’d bought and hadn’t had time to check out. Her cell phone was ringing when she entered the room. She glanced at it, then at the TV, before picking the annoying device up and flipping it open.




There was silence for a long moment, then a male voice. “Sorry, I wasn’t expecting an answer. Is this Bailey Cooper?”


“It might be. Who is this?” Bailey cocked a hip against the kitchen counter, waiting to figure out who this stranger was.


“I realize that I’m calling at a very bad time, since I understand your company is in the process of moving.”


“If this is a investigative job, we won’t open again until Monday. You’ll have better luck getting me to listen to you when I’m actually at the office.” Bailey informed him.


“That’s fine. I have heard from several friends that your agency is the best. And I have a very delicate problem that needs a solution immediately.” The man sounded cryptic. And he still hadn’t told her his name. “I could have called any number of other investigators, but I trust your company to be very discreet…”


“That’s how we usually play it.” Bailey said wryly. Their cases were always confidential. “Who is this?” She asked again, curious beyond belief. “Is this business related? If you are a corporate account, then we’ll have to deal with some forms…”


“This is not business related…it is of a more personal nature.” The man corrected her.


“Oh. Well…normally we don’t handle single person investigations…”


“I would hope that this one time, you could make an exception.” The man insisted.


Bailey sighed and looked at the clock. “I’ll have to call my partner.”


“Of course.”


“Can you hold on five minutes? Let me call him now.”


“That’s fine. I’ll wait.”


Bailey set her cell phone aside and reached for the cordless house phone she kept on the counter. She dialed Ken’s number and waited through six rings before his machine picked up. With an annoyed groan, she told him that she was meeting a possible client and would need him to confer when she was finished. She picked up her cell phone and pressed it to her ear again.


“He’s not in. I suppose I can hear you out.” Bailey said with a sigh.


“That would be wonderful.” The man said, his tone sounding humorous. “Two o’clock?”


“That’s fine.” It would give her an hour to get ready.


“Let’s meet at Sage, the least I could do for interrupting your time would be to treat you to lunch.”


Bailey hesitated. Sage was one of the fancier restaurants in town, and catered strictly to the wealthy. So obviously the guy had money.


“All right. Two o’clock. If you keep me waiting for more than five minutes, I’m leaving and you can take your case elsewhere.” Bailey stated, not hateful in the least, just making sure he knew who was really in charge here.


“That’s fine.” The man chuckled. “I’ll be waiting. My name, by the way, is Adam Copeland. Please just ask the host to seat you at my usual table. I look forward to meeting you, Ms Cooper.” At that he broke the connection.


Bailey stood there for a moment, staring at her cell phone, frowning a bit. The guy, Copeland, definitely wasn’t from around there. He was rich and used to getting his way. But the man had somehow managed to find Bailey’s personal, PRIVATE cell phone number. The only person besides her family and Ken to have it was Mark.


Shaking her head, Bailey headed upstairs to change clothes yet again, this time into a loose fitting sundress that fell to just above the knee. It was dark yellow, making her skin and hair look bronze. She brushed her hair then gathered her purse and cell phone. So much for taking a few days off. Bailey braced herself for the hot air and sweltered in the Jeep as she waited for the air conditioning to really kick in. With a thoughtful frown she guided her car toward town and Sage, and her meeting with a mysterious stranger.




The first thing she noticed was that he was wearing a suit.


Given the restaurant’s reputation, most people dressed casually in deference to the heat. Not this guy. His suit was solid black, his shirt snowy white, the tie a bright blue. He looked like he belonged more in a law office than in a fancy restaurant at midday.


The lunch rush was over. Bailey presented herself to the host, who nodded at her and led her to a table near the center of the room.


The second thing she noticed was his hair. It was blonde, shoulder-length, shaggy. And it looked as if he’d spent an hour getting it to look just that way. Vain…that was her first thought about him. She couldn’t stand it when a man took longer than her to be ready for anything.


The final thing she noticed was not actually something wrong with him. It was something wrong with HER. Her inner alarm bells, her intuition, whatever it could be called, were thrumming at an alarming speed. The guy was trouble, without a doubt. What kind of trouble remained to be seen.


Adam rose to his feet as she approached, a smile on his face. Bailey eyed him warily, although she hid it well. The guy was definitely not putting off good guy vibes at the moment. The host held her chair and she sat down, forcing herself to smile back at the blonde man across from her.


“Ms Cooper, it’s a pleasure.”


“Actually, it’s business, but I’ll forgive you for thinking it otherwise.” She deadpanned, studying him without trying to hide that fact that she was doing it.


Adam laughed. “I suppose you have me there.” He gestured to the menu that was in front of her. “Please, decide what you’d like.”


“No thank you.” Normally Bailey didn’t mind having lunch with clients. It helped loosen them up a bit. This time she was making an exception. The less time she spent with this guy, the better. “I’ve already eaten. I just came to hear you out, to see if I could help you.”


Adam nodded thoughtfully. He gestured to a hovering waiter and placed an order for drinks. Bailey raised an eyebrow at that but said nothing. The waiter returned quickly, putting glasses of wine down in front of each of them.


Adam sipped at his but Bailey’s remained untouched. She did not drink much as a rule…and never this early in the day. The man was looking at her speculatively.


“So are we going to talk business or am I just here to watch you get hammered?” Bailey finally asked, breaking the silence. Adam chuckled.


“Business, of course. I’m sorry. Forgive me. When I find myself looking at a beautiful woman, I tend to get sidetracked very easily.”


Bailey shook her head. Whatever else the guy was, he was proving himself to be full of shit. She was not impressed or even remotely complimented by his words. The guy made her feel like she needed to take yet another shower.


Adam cleared his throat and reached down, pulling a briefcase she had not noticed onto his lap. He snapped it open. “I suppose a bit of background is in order. I was…am…” He corrected himself with a strange smile. “Married. My wife and I had one child, a daughter. Things did not work out between us. She filed for divorce. When it became apparent that I would receive full custody of our daughter, she took her and disappeared.”


“A kidnapping? Parental kidnappings are so hard to…”


Adam was nodding before she could finish. “I know. I have talked to many agencies about this matter. The fact is…I believe she has brought my daughter here. She grew up around here, it makes sense that she’d come back hoping to hide in her hometown, a place she knows well. She crossed state lines to do it. I don’t want to get the FBI involved, but I can and I will if she proves to remain elusive. For right now, I think that a small investigation firm will be enough to gather information.”


Bailey toyed with her wine glass, her eyes narrowed at the man across from her. She got the feeling that there was more to his story than he was coming out with. But she didn’t push him. She’d figure it out eventually, it was her job after all. “So what kind of base information do you have about your ex…or soon to be ex.” She said, pushing the glass away.


Adam smiled again, though it did not reach his eyes. “I have pictures, mostly. Austin was always one for taking photographs.”


“Austin?” Bailey asked, keeping her tone carefully neutral.


“Yes. Austin Copeland, although her maiden name was Williams.” Adam pulled a folder from his briefcase and slid it across the table.


Bailey opened the folder, her face conveying no sign of recognition at the picture that was on top of the other papers. It was Austin and Payge, much younger versions of both, but still they were unmistakable. Bailey could see where Payge got her light hair from. It was the only trait she shared with her father.


“May I ask a question?”


“Please. Feel free.” Adam gestured.


“Why did she run? Even if you had gotten custody, she would still have visitation rights.” Bailey pointed out. Adam shook his head sadly.


“I’m afraid that was out of the question. Austin was…is…abusive to our daughter. It’s all documented in the paperwork.” He reached across the table and flicked the pages with one finger.


Bailey nodded absently, studying the picture again. What were the odds that it would be people she’d just met? She kept that fact hidden though, for some reason she did not want Adam to know that she knew exactly where Austin and Payge were.


“Do you mind if I hold on to this for a while?” She asked, pointing at the folder.


“Not at all.” Adam grinned broadly, showing off a row of perfectly white, straight teeth. “Does this mean you will take me on as a client?”


Bailey shrugged. “It means I need to do some research and background. But I think we can work something out.”


“Excellent.” Adam reached into his suit coat and pulled out a small leather case. Inside was a checkbook. “What’s your retainer?”


Bailey laughed. She could not help it. “Retainers are for lawyers. And since I’m not sure this is a workable case, I can’t even begin to start charging you.”


Adam smiled and scribbled on his checkbook. “Well…take this in good faith then. If it turns out the case is a dead end, we can just rip it up and settle some other way.” At his last words he held out the check and eyed Bailey’s cleavage openly. She fought the urge to reach over and smack his face. She took the check, carefully keeping her fingers far from his.


She glanced at the amount and showed no emotion, even though she was mentally laughing. He’d written it for ten thousand dollars.


“Ten now. More when you find my daughter. She’s worth everything to me, you know.” Adam said, trying and failing to sound like the wronged party.


Bailey played along. “Fine with me.” She gathered the folder up and rose to her feet. “I have another meeting, unfortunately, time off just means I get to visit restaurants for days on end. Do you have a number you can be reached?”


“Of course.” Adam reached into his pocket and pulled out a card. “The office number is in New York, but I have my cell phone with me at all times. I’m staying at Griffin Gate for a week before moving on to Dallas.” Griffin Gate was a fancy hotel in the heart of downtown Houston. “Room seven-fifteen. Feel free to call there if you can’t reach the cell phone.”


Bailey dug a pen out of her purse and made a note. Then she reluctantly reached out to shake Adam’s offered hand. “I’ll see what I can do, Mr. Copeland. But finding a mom and daughter in a city like this is like finding a needle in a haystack.”


“Please…call me Adam.” He held her hand for an unnecessary amount of time before Bailey was able to pull away without seeming like she was rushing it. “And I have faith that this will be resolved soon.” He smiled. It set Bailey on edge.


“Let’s hope so. I’ll be in touch, Mr. Copeland.” She said it pointedly, letting him know that she was all business when it came to him. Without waiting for him to speak, she turned on her heel and walked out of the restaurant.


Once in the Jeep, letting the AC blow onto her face, Bailey glanced at the picture. What the fuck had she gotten herself into? Mark had some explaining to do, that was for sure. If Austin had kidnapped Payge, if Adam’s story checked out, then Mark was harboring a criminal.


She sighed and put the Jeep into gear, heading toward the office. She would use the computer to look up information on Adam Copeland. And it would give her time to think about what she was going to do with Mark. It was strange though…those alarms in her mind that had never been wrong before. Around Austin and Mark, she’d gotten nothing but good feelings. Adam on the other hand…she shivered a bit. And it had nothing to do with the cold air blowing on her skin as she drove.




Three hours later, shoeless, wearing a pair of glasses she’d dug out of a drawer, Bailey was almost ecstatic to hear her cell phone ring. It meant a break from the computer she’d been staring at since she’d entered the office.


There were many articles related to Adam Copeland, all related to his business dealings. Some seemed a bit shady. There were also many bits that spoke of his contributions to various political campaigns.


But nowhere, not in any of the usual places, or even the out of the way places, was it ever mentioned that he had been married…or had sired a child. A man with that much money…his heir would be news too if only because of blood relations.


“Yeah?” She picked up the cell phone and rubbed her tired eyes.


“Hey.” Mark’s voice. Bailey sighed and opened her eyes, turning the computer off. “How are you?”


“Good. I guess.”


He must have picked up the distracted tone of her voice. “Is this a bad time?”


“No.” Bailey sighed again. “I’m just…having business issues. No big deal.”


“Oh.” Mark was quiet for a minute. “I was just wondering if you’d want to come to dinner tonight.”


“Dinner?” Bailey repeated, pulling one of Mark’s tricks without thinking about it. He chuckled.


“Yeah. I’m grilling steaks. Payge would love to see you.” He added, as if that would entice her more than the food.


“All right.”


“Yeah?” Mark sounded surprised she didn’t put up an argument.


“I can turn down fried chicken, but barbeque?” She said, forcing herself to sound amused. “I’d be run out of the state. Should I bring anything?”


“Just yourself. Seven all right with you?”


Bailey glanced at the clock on her computer. It was after six already. “I’ll be there…I might be a little late though.”


“We’ll hold it for you.” Mark said, his voice turning serious. “Bailey…is something wrong?”


“No. Why?” She said after a hesitation.


“You just sound…” Mark paused. “Nothing. Never mind. I’ll see you in a little bit.”


“Not if I see you first.” She said, an automatic response she’d picked up from Ken over the years. Mark laughed and said goodbye. Bailey hung up the phone and looked thoughtfully at the folder in front of her.


She slid her feet into her shoes and grabbed the folder. This was one of those rare occasions…and the only occasion to date…that she was willing to say fuck the confidentiality rule. Mark and Austin had some explaining to do. So going to their house for dinner gave her the perfect opening to ask some questions.




Bailey barely made it into the house before Payge was throwing herself at her legs, talking a mile a minute.


Austin offered her an apologetic smile, which Bailey just laughed off. She looked down at the little girl, grinning. “I see you’re doing all right.”


“Yeah. Hey, wanna see my room?” Payge was already tugging her hand, pulling her down the hall.


“Payge!” Austin said, laughing. “Let her get all the way inside before you hog her!”


“Yeah, Ok…” Payge said, but kept pulling Bailey along. Mark had come to the archway that led to the kitchen. His lips were tilted in a wry smile.


“Hi.” Bailey waved at him with her free hand. Mark nodded, smile widening into a grin.


Payge finally halted and threw open a door about halfway down the hall. She tugged Bailey’s hand once more until she was fully in the room. Bailey took a look around. The walls were covered with animal posters. Horses, dogs, cats…the little one was obviously into animals. The floor was carpeted in a soft gray shade, the walls painted a light pink. And there were toys everywhere. Dolls, plastic cars, even a miniature drum set.


“Wow, kiddo. You have a lot of stuff.” Bailey commented, smiling.


“I’m spoiled.” Payge said it as if it were obvious. “Do you swim? Did you know we have a pool? Did you bring your suit?”


“Yes, no….and no.” Bailey said laughing.


“Darn it. Mark was supposed to tell you.” Payge pouted. Then she brightened. “Is Ken coming?”




“Your friend with the white hair.”


That comment made Bailey laugh again. “I didn’t know you knew him. So I don’t know if he’s comin’ or not.”


“Oh.” Payge looked thoughtful. “Oh well. Mark’s cookin’, did he tell you?” She was apparently finished showing off her room. She headed back into the hallway.


“He might have mentioned something.” Bailey stated. Payge led her into the kitchen, where Austin was at the counter, chopping lettuce for a salad.


“Payge, help please.” Austin said, giving her daughter a look. Payge sighed and went to the counter, dragging a stool with her. “Here, wash the tomatoes.” She set a bag in the sink. Austin smiled at Bailey again. “Now that I distracted her, hello.”


“Hi. Again.” Bailey grinned. She stepped toward the counter. “Do you need a hand?”


“No, no…” Austin waved her off. “Mark’s outside, if you want to say hi. I’ll occupy Payge for a minute at least.”


“Mom.” The way Payge dragged the word out made Bailey laugh before heading to the back door.


Payge hadn’t been lying. They had a pool, huge, with sparkling blue water. Given how hot it was, Bailey had to fight not to jump in fully clothed. She still wore the dress from earlier, only stopping long enough to change shoes. Now she was wearing a pair of sandals, low heeled, comfortable. Her hair was tied back from her face.


Mark was leaning over the grill, turning steaks with a professional flip of his wrist. He glanced over his shoulder at Bailey, then shut the lid on the grill.


“You escaped.” He remarked, turning to face her.


“Eh…she got distracted.” Bailey smiled, a bit unsure. She felt a little weird about what had happened the night before, but she had expected that. Mark stepped toward her, looked at the doorway to be sure Payge wasn’t watching, and leaned down to give her a quick kiss.


That seemed to take care of the awkwardness. Bailey smiled, more confident when he pulled back. “Something smells good.” She commented, eyeing the grill.


“Ten more minutes. Unless you like yours rare?” The last part turned into a question. Bailey shook her head.


“No thanks. I like my meat totally dead with no hope of resurrection.” She looked around. From here she could see the barns that she’d noticed from the driveway. There were horses. Mark followed her gaze and shrugged.


“All this land. I don’t own any horses. I just lease the barns and land out.” He explained, once again checking the steaks.


“It’s really beautiful here.” Bailey said, moving across the deck. She leaned on the rail and looked longingly at the water.


“I forgot to tell you to bring something to swim in.” Mark said, his voice from right behind her, making her jump. She hadn’t noticed him moving across the deck.


“Payge informed me you were supposed to.” Bailey smiled over her shoulder at him.


“Could always borrow one of Austin’s.” Mark said with a grin.


“Uh…” Bailey cocked an eyebrow.


“Or not.” Mark added, chuckling. “Steaks are ready.”


“Good.” Bailey pushed from the rail and turned, finding herself locked into Mark’s arms before she could do more than blink. “Hey…”


Mark took advantage of her open mouth and kissed her more thoroughly that time, holding her tight against his body. Bailey kissed back after her initial shock, taking in the taste of him, the smell of him. It was hard to remember that she actually had some business there. But then again…business could wait.


There was a giggle from behind them. Mark broke the kiss guiltily and looked around at Payge, who stood just outside the door with a hand over her mouth. “Get yourself an eyeful, darlin’?” Mark drawled out, winking at his niece.


Payge’s answer was another giggle. She’d managed to change into her swimsuit in the time that Bailey had been outside. The little girl had spent a lot of time outside this summer, apparently. Her skin was a golden color, her blonde hair streaked with almost white.


Mark smiled down at Bailey. She’d had enough time to catch her breath. “Hungry?” He asked, meaning several different things at once. It made Bailey dizzy.


“You have no idea.” She grinned.


Mark let her go and motioned her to follow him. Austin was coming through the door balancing a large salad bowl, several plates, and a pitcher of lemonade with ice floating in it.


“Let me help, Aus.” Mark said, taking the bowl and pitcher from his sister. She gave him a grateful smile.


“There’s more in the kitchen. And no, Bailey, we’ll get it. Have a seat.” Austin said before Bailey could even turn toward the door.


“All right. Sheesh.” Bailey threw her hands up and grinned at Payge, who was already sitting at the wooden table in the corner of the deck. Bailey sat next to her, watching as Austin set plates and silverware down. Mark had gone inside, he returned carrying two more large bowls and a basket full of condiments.


Austin went to the grill and piled thick steaks onto a serving platter. Once that was done, she and Mark took their seats and smiled at their guest. “All right, dig in. Payge, I’ll get that for you…” Austin said, shooing her daughter’s hand away from the steaks.


Bailey loaded her plate. Besides the steak and salad, there were baked potatoes and rolls so soft they had to be homemade. Mark poured her a glass of lemonade before fixing his own plate. Austin was cutting Payge’s steak into bite-sized morsels when the little girl finally decided to talk.


“Why didn’t you invite your other friend, Mom?” Payge asked, not looking up from her food as her mother kept preparing the plate.


“What other friend, baby?” Austin said absently. She split Payge’s potato open and put a large spoonful of butter on it. With that, she handed Payge her fork.


“White hair Ken.” Payge said sweetly. She grinned at the look on Austin’s face. “He was nice. He played go fish with me.”


Bailey smirked at that. Ken, playing go fish with a five year old? She couldn’t even picture it in the farthest reaches of her imagination. Payge filled dinner with chatter about everything from her dog, who was currently in one of the barns sleeping, to the school year that was about to start. Bailey caught the look that Mark and Austin shared at that, and carefully hid a frown. Payge was old enough to go to kindergarten. Why would that cause issues?


Copeland’s words replayed in her mind. Bailey studied Austin surreptitiously, careful not to get caught staring. She doted on her daughter, laughing as she helped guide a forkful of salad to her mouth, wiping her chin when Payge seemed too involved in eating to remember. It had to be some kind of sick joke. Bailey’s intuition had never been wrong before.


Dinner was long and leisurely. Bailey found herself telling them a few of her funnier police officer stories, edited for little ears of course. Payge was asked to clear the table. She did so with good-natured grumbling.


“Want a beer?” Mark asked, raising an eyebrow in Bailey’s direction.


“No. Thank you though.” She smiled at him. Mark nodded and looked to his sister.


“You know better than to even ask.” Austin said shaking her head. “I’ll get these dishes started. And try to talk Payge out of swimming for at least a little while.” She gathered the leftovers and carried them off the to kitchen, Mark at her heels.


Bailey sat back in her chair, lemonade in hand, dark sunglasses pulled over her eyes. The sun was starting to go down, and the angle sent light spilling onto the deck. Mark reappeared, bottle of beer in hand, and resumed his seat next to her.


“What’s on your mind?” He asked, out of nowhere. Bailey looked at him, her eyes shielded behind the dark frames.


“Dessert.” She deadpanned. Mark smirked but shook his head.


“Something’s botherin’ you. I can tell. You hide it pretty good, but not good enough.” He took a long drink of his beer.


“It’s work related.” Bailey said, keeping her expression neutral. “Can I ask a question?”


Mark had been on the verge of saying something. He closed his mouth and nodded.


“Where is Payge’s dad?” Bailey asked, coming right out with it. Sometimes being direct was the only way to be.


Mark was quiet for a full minute. His face betrayed nothing of his thoughts. “I don’t know.”


Bailey sensed no dishonesty in his answer. But still…it was impossible that he knew nothing. “Why did Austin move in with you? And bring Payge with her?”


Mark was frowning. It was obvious something he did not want to talk about. She was not about to drop it. “I don’t know.” He repeated finally.


“Do you like being lied to?” Bailey asked, shooting the question out before she could stop herself.


“No. Of course not.” Mark said, this time with no hesitation.


“Good. Then what makes you think I enjoy it?” Bailey asked, tipping her sunglasses up to peer at Mark in the late evening sunlight. He could do nothing but gape at her, the frown deepening thunderously.




Payge came giggling, slamming through the backdoor. Mark turned his attention from Bailey to his niece, the anger fading to a look that was unreadable.


“Gotta get Spidey!” She called as she ran across the grass barefoot, blonde hair streaming behind her.


As soon as she was out of earshot, Mark resumed looking at Bailey. “I don’t wanna lie to you.” He finally said as if the conversation had not been interrupted.


“Then don’t. Tell me what’s goin’ on here.” Bailey said, leaning forward. Mark sighed and scrubbed a hand down his face.


“How did you know something was going on?”


“I asked you first.”


“Technically, I asked you first.” Mark pointed out. A hint of wryness had seeped into his voice. Bailey shook her head.


“What the hell have I gotten myself into, Mark? Tell me. Tell me right now or I’ll fuckin’ walk outta here and wash my hands of you and your whole family.”


Mark cocked an eyebrow at that and let the silence grow between them. Bailey refused to back down or show any sign that she was intimidated. Mark finally rolled his eyes and relaxed in his chair. Bailey breathed in inner sigh of relief. It was kind of obvious that Mark liked her, even excluding what had happened the night before. There would be no repeat performance until he came clean though.


Austin came through the doorway, carrying another tray. On it were ice cream sundaes. Five of them. One with just vanilla ice cream. She smiled uncertainly at Mark and Bailey, sensing the tension at the table. Mark cast one last glance at Bailey, and she saw that he wanted her to not bring up their discussion in front of Austin.


“We’ll finish this later.” He said, his voice low so that Austin could not hear.


“We’d better.” Bailey said, forcing a believable smile. She accepted her cold dish of ice cream and a spoon, smiling at Payge when she returned with Spiderman at her heels. The vanilla ice cream was for him. He sniffed Bailey’s hand and then had gobbled at the cold treat, making funny lapping noises with his tongue. Payge refused ice cream, too eager to have a swim in the pool. She understood that if she ate, her mom would have another excuse to keep her out of the water.


“Please, please, please can I go in now?” Payge asked as the adults ate their dessert. She was bouncing on her chair, causing the dog to bark excitedly with her.


Austin sighed and rolled her eyes, mimicking Mark’s expression from earlier. “All right, bug, go inside…” Payge was up and running. Austin had to shout so her daughter could hear. “AND GET TOWELS!”


Bailey grinned as she spooned more ice cream into her mouth. Mark, who had been chatting comfortably with them all night, sat in sullen silence, staring into his melting ice cream. If Austin noticed, she did not comment. She ate what she could of the sundae, then picked up their bowls when it was obvious they were finished.


“Anybody else want to swim?” She asked, looking from her brother to Bailey, smiling.


“No thanks.” Bailey said, waving her hand.


“I think Bailey and I are going to take a little walk.” Mark said, catching Bailey’s eye. She nodded.


Austin bit back a grin, thinking they just wanted some time alone. Payge had told her about seeing them kiss. She left them to put the dishes in the dishwasher and get it running before changing into her own swimsuit.


Mark pushed away from the table. He hesitated, then offered Bailey his hand. She took it a bit reluctantly, letting him lead the way from the deck, across the backyard. He did not let her go, instead he twined his fingers through hers and kept his pace leisurely as they headed toward the trees that lined the back of his property.


“You want answers.” It was not a question.


“That would be nice.” Bailey had to fight to keep the sarcasm out of her voice. Mark stroked her wrist with his thumb, as if he needed to touch her to get himself talking.


They reached the trees in ten minutes. Mark did not stop. He followed a barely visible path, winding between the tall pines. Bailey breathed out a sigh of relief. The trees offered shade and a ten-degree difference in temperature from the yard. It was heavenly.


The trees opened up onto a small area that had been cleared. It was circular, and grass had been planted and tended to. Another trail led off to the west, one to the east. Mark had apparently reached his destination. He let go of Bailey’s hand and sank down onto the cool grass.


Bailey followed his lead, looking around once more. “It’s really beautiful here. Did you do this?”


Mark shook his head, seeming to be lost in thought. “My dad. Before my mother died, he wanted to make her a garden back here. She loved the woods.” Mark trailed off, remembering. Bailey said nothing. She leaned back on her hands and looked up at the sky. “When he remarried, Austin’s mom, he abandoned it. He still came out and took care of the grass, so the woods didn’t take it over. But that was it.”


“So you do it now?” Bailey asked.


Mark nodded. “I don’t know why. I’m the only person who ever sees it.”


“And now me, I guess.” Bailey said, feeling bad. Mark had told her his parents were gone, his mother from heart disease, his father from a car accident. Now that she was in this place, this sacred place, she felt guilty that Mark would be moved to show her this clearing.


“Austin’s mom died in the car wreck with my dad.”


“Austin came to live with you after that?” Bailey asked.


Mark shook his head. “No. Austin was already gone. When she was sixteen, she ran away from home with a boyfriend. We couldn’t find her. She sent a postcard three years after she disappeared saying she got married. Then she appeared on my doorstep seven years after that with a kid in tow, crying, scared to death.”


“What happened?”


Mark sighed. “Don’t tell her I told you this.”


“I won’t if I don’t have to.” Bailey said, nodding.


Mark considered that before going on. “The guy she married was a real piece of shit. Not at first, of course, he hid it well. He was older, he had money, and at that point Austin’s boyfriend had disappeared leaving her alone in New York City.” Mark took a deep breath and raked a hand through his hair. “So she meets this asshole, he convinces her that he’ll take care of her, and she marries him.”


Bailey digested that for a moment, raising an eyebrow. “So what happened?” She prodded when Mark did not seem in a hurry to continue.


“I’m still not entirely sure of that myself.” Mark admitted. “Austin hates to talk about it. I don’t blame her. From what I could figure, everything was good for the first year. Then she found out that he wasn’t the squeaky clean rich boy she thought she’d married. She thinks he’s some kind of contract killer.”


Bailey cocked her head to the side, studying him. “They don’t just exist in movies.” She said, half-smiling. Mark returned it weakly.


“He used that against her. Said that if she ever got the nerve to walk out on him, he’d just track her down and kill her. Then…he started beating her.” Mark’s jaw clenched at the thought. Bailey waited him out. He finally relaxed and resumed talking. “First it was…I guess…a form of play for him. Then he got serious about it. Broke a couple of her ribs. Her fingers. She never went to a hospital. He had a private doctor that came and took care of her.”


Bailey rubbed her temples, sitting up straight. “But she got out, right?”


“Yeah. Of course. She’s here, isn’t she?” Mark smirked. “She found out she was pregnant. I guess it woke her up. That doctor, the one on his payroll, knew about it. Apparently he told her husband. He didn’t want the baby, Payge, he didn’t want her, so he tried to beat her out of Austin. She had some internal bleeding that time. But Payge is all right, as you can tell. After she healed a bit, Austin faked a miscarriage. The assholes were satisfied. Then one night, when her husband was out, she snatched five hundred bucks from his safe and ran away from him.”


“Brave girl.”


“You can say that again.” Mark said with a bit of pride. “She had Payge up in Michigan, staying with friends. The asshole found her. It seemed like everywhere she went, he would show up. Until she finally remembered me, I guess. She said she never told him about her family, other than to say her mom and dad were gone. He knew she was from Texas, but not where in Texas. So she’s been with me for a year now.”


Mark seemed to have exhausted himself talking. His silence was louder than the words had been. Bailey shifted and sighed. “I have bad news.”


“Don’t.” Mark said softly.


Bailey shook her head. “Was her husband’s name…Adam Copeland?”


Mark looked at her with narrowed eyes, teeth clenched again at the sound of the name. “How did…”


“He called me.” Bailey said softly, reaching over to touch Mark’s hand. He gripped her fingers, not tight, but enough for Bailey to really get a sense of his anger at the man who had almost destroyed his sister and niece.


“Why? How?”


“He called wanting to hire us…” She shook her head. “But he called my personal cell phone. I’d like to know how he got the number.” She quickly recapped her phone conversation and subsequent meeting with Copeland, leaving out the lecherous looks the man had given her. Mark was mad enough as it was.


“You can’t…he can’t know where Austin is. Where Payge is.” Mark pulled her hand, yanking her closer to him, trying to convey his urgency. Bailey got it. She let him hold onto her, knowing he needed some kind of release.


“I had no intentions of telling that slime ball.” Bailey said, resting her head on Mark’s shoulder. “I got a bad feeling from him from the get go. But Mark…he claims he’s got divorce and custody papers. How does he know that Payge is alive? How the hell did he find MY phone number out of all the PI firms in the city?”


“I just…I don’t know…” Mark said, sounding hopeless. “I’ll kill him. If he comes near my family, I’ll wring his fuckin’ neck…” His eyes darkened with anger.


Bailey smiled, oddly comforted by his words. “I know where he’s supposedly staying.”