Mystery Inc

Lost & Found

 

 

1

 

“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.

 

2

 

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?”

 

“Nothing.”

 

“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.

 

3

 

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.

 

4

 

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.

 

5

 

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.

 

“Ellie?”

 

“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.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“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.

 

6

 

“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.”

 

“Collection?”

 

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.”

 

“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.

 

7

 

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.

 

 

8

 

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.

 

“Hello.”

 

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.

 

9

 

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.

 

10

 

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?”

 

“Ken?”

 

“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.

 

11

 

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.”

 

“Think I can make it look like an accident?”

 

“Hell…I’ll vouch for you.” Bailey rose to her feet and watched as he did the same. “Is that everything?”

 

“Everything?” Mark looked at her, confused. Bailey smiled at his repetition.

 

“You’re not harboring a dark past, a wife, three kids, anything like that?” Bailey said, this time taking his hand before he could make the first move.

 

“Uh…” Mark smirked. “No. You know what I know.”

 

“Good. I feel better then.” She stood before him and pulled him down, kissing him until he couldn’t breath. When she pulled away, that dark look was gone from his eyes, replaced with something much more desirable. “I can dig around, see what I can find out about this asshole. I don’t have to tell Austin until you want. He’s not SURE that she’s here, Mark. He doesn’t even know who you are, right?”

 

“Yeah.” Mark nodded, stroking his knuckles against the line of Bailey’s jaw.

 

“You’ll just have to stick close to home. Either that or hire a bodyguard. Just in case.” Bailey advised.

 

Mark nodded. “Happen to know of a good one?” The thought of a bodyguard actually made sense. He should have thought of that earlier, but Austin did not trust new people. With good reason.

 

Bailey smiled innocently. “I just happen to have the number of the perfect man for the job.” Her smile widened. Mark raised an eyebrow but did not question her as she led the way out of the woods, toward the house and the phone.

 

12

 

“You want me to what?”

 

Bailey was sitting in Ken’s living room, on Ken’s couch, drinking one of Ken’s sodas. Mark had asked her to stay the night with him. Bailey had regretfully declined. She had to talk to Ken, and Mark would have his hands full with breaking the news to Austin. She didn’t want to be the third wheel in that particular conversation.

 

“Bodyguard. You know.” Bailey said it slowly, grinning.

 

“I know what a bodyguard is you ‘tard.” Ken muttered. He looked at her speculatively. “You wanna tell me why?”

 

Bailey sighed and filled him in. This time, she did include the lecherous looks from Copeland. “I can’t figure out how he got my number. Although I think we need to put a rush on this.”

 

“Oh?” Ken took a drink of his bottled water and cocked an eyebrow. “Might I ask…why?”

 

“You may ask.” Bailey said, nodding. Even when her interior alarms were sounding, she still made time to aggravate Ken. It was just the way they operated.

 

Ken rolled his eyes dramatically. “Why do we need to rush?”

 

“Because Mark said that she never told Copeland she had a brother. But she would have to have told him her maiden name if they got married. So he’s looking for Calaways, in Texas. In certain parts of Texas I might add. Mark didn’t know if she actually told him she was from Houston, but we can’t take that chance, now can we?”

 

“Absolutely not.” Ken said, agreeing with her. He grinned boyishly. “So who’s payin’ us for this job?”

 

Bailey met his eyes and smiled. “Anonymous donor.”

 

“Ah.” Ken stared at her, biting back a grin.

 

“The lawyer called.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“The asshole settled.”

 

Ken’s eyes widened. “No.”

 

“Yes.” Bailey tipped her drink it Ken’s direction and chugged the last of it. “Three hundred thousand.”

 

Ken choked on his water. “Are you kidding me?”

 

“Would I kid about that?” Bailey smiled again. She should be happy about the money. After being shot, the department had sued the guy on her behalf. It turned out he was something of a drug kingpin. After taking all the appropriate amounts of money for federal and state, the man had agreed willingly to divide the rest of his money among his victims. “I heard that Kincaid’s family got a million.” Kincaid was the officer who had been killed while trying to catch their guy. He probably hoped to lighten his sentence. Bailey knew it would not work. Not when a cop got killed in the process.

 

Ken whistled. “Who the hell needs a retirement fund?” He said with a laugh. He himself had left the force with a bit of money, although just enough to cover medical and five years pay.  His injury had not been nearly as severe as Bailey’s.

 

“Not me, at least, not for the moment.” Bailey said, looking at her empty can.

 

“Uh oh. What’s wrong?”

 

“Nothing.” She sighed and set the can on the coffee table in front of her. “It just seems…wrong. I guess.”

 

“You…guess.” Ken repeated slowly. “Listen here, Coop. That guy took away a hell of a lot more than just your job, so don’t go feelin’ bad about the money. Hell…use it to adopt a kid. There’s justice in that.”

 

Bailey shrugged. “Me. A kid?” She snorted. “Right.”

 

“It could happen. Eventually. Not until I get tired of bein’ in the PI biz of course.” Ken conceded. He grinned. “Wouldn’t wanna lose my partner, especially since the work is getting so much more interesting.”

 

“So you’re gonna do it?” Bailey asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Like I ever had a chance to say no.” Ken muttered.  “You know how long it’s been since I’ve been on guard detail? Christ, I’ll be lucky if I don’t get us all killed.”

 

Bailey rose to her feet and gave Ken a pat on the shoulder. “I have faith in you, Kenny-bear. I should call…” Before she could finish the sentence, her cell phone trilled from her purse. “Maybe that’s him.” She said, pulling the phone out and looking at the caller ID. She once again did not recognize the number. “Hello?”

 

“Ms Cooper…” Copeland’s voice was smooth, low. Bailey made a face and motioned to Ken not to speak.

 

“Yes. Who is this?” She asked, faking ignorance. She winked at Ken. He hid a smile behind his hand.

 

“Oh…Adam Copeland…” Her inability to recognize his voice momentarily threw him off. “I was wondering if you gave my case any thought?”

 

“Ah. Mr. Copeland.” At Bailey’s words, Ken’s eyes widened. “I have thought of little else all day.”

 

“So what’s the verdict?” He purred into the phone. Bailey winced. Did the guy honestly think he was going to get her hot and bothered by his voice. Bleh. Maybe Mark could do that, with his deep Texan drawl…but that was neither here nor there.

 

“I’m still trying to contact my partner to run preliminary investigations.” She said, trying to sound apologetic and just as smooth as him. “He’s had the day off, I’m afraid he might be out doing naughty things. You don’t know what it’s like being married to a man who runs around every chance he gets…” She tried to sound whiny. It worked. Ken was bent over, trying to laugh quietly into his folded arms.

 

“Oh…uh…” Copeland was at a loss. “You’re married?”

 

“Yes. For ten long, grueling, disgusting years.” Bailey sighed. She gave Ken a thumbs up.

 

“Hmm. Well…perhaps if your husband is out doing…naughty…things…you would be interested in joining me for a nightcap?” Copeland said huskily. Bailey rolled her eyes.

 

“Where would you like me to meet you?” She asked, sounding eager. She could almost FEEL the slime ball’s smile through the phone.

 

“How about here, at my hotel? There’s a bar in the lobby. Eleven O’clock?” He asked, smug as he could be.

 

“I’ll be there…if my husband doesn’t come home reeking of some other man’s cologne.”

 

There was silence on the line.  Then Copeland found his voice. “Bailey?”

 

Ken almost ran out of the room at that point. Bailey cleared her throat. “Please…call me Ms Cooper. You don’t know how hot that is.”

 

There was a chuckle. Bailey made a face. “As you wish, Ms Cooper. I’ll see you at eleven.”

 

“Hmm…count on it.” She murmured, then hung up. Ken came back into the room, his face red from laughing. Bailey took one look at him and burst into giggles.

 

“Why do you have to tell everybody I’m gay when you pull that shit?” Ken asked, holding his side.

 

“Because of the shock value.” Bailey said, hitching in her breath.

 

“You’re not really going to meet him, are you?” Ken sank onto the chair he’d vacated and tried to reign himself in a bit.

 

“Hell no. I’ll call at twenty after, tell him you came home with two guys in drag. Then we can figure out where to go from there.” Bailey sat down on the couch. “Now. As I was saying. I’m going to call Mark, see if he talked to Austin.” She dialed the number on her cell phone while Ken chuckled to himself in the background.

 

*~**~*

 

Austin was not taking the news very well.

 

Payge was in her room, in bed, probably not sleeping yet. Mark had pulled Austin outside to tell her everything that Bailey had told him. Her first response was to get Payge and run. It had been that way for five years, why change the program now?

 

Because Mark was not going to let her. “Bailey said she could get a bodyguard for the house, someone she trusts.”

 

“But not somebody I trust.” Austin said, trying to keep her voice down. It was an effort.

 

“Well…I trust HER.” Mark said, soothingly. Austin hated it when he did that. She wanted him to be as worked up as she was, not Mr. Fix-it.

 

“I can’t…I can’t put Payge into danger by staying. I can’t put YOU into danger.” Austin was shaking her head.

 

“You don’t have a choice. I had my date, remember? I earned a month.” Mark smirked at Austin’s outraged looked. “Two dates if you count tonight, so that’s three months.”

 

“That’s not fuckin’ funny, Mark.” Austin said, her voice suddenly low. Which meant that she was more than mad. She was furious and trying to hide it.

 

“Wasn’t meant to be. I held up my end, now you hold up yours. We’ll stop him, we’ll end this, and you won’t have to run anymore.” Mark assured her. Austin threw up her hands and uttered a harsh laugh.

 

“Stop it how?” She asked, not expecting an answer. “I only exist now because you know who I am! He stole everything to keep me with him, my birth certificate, my driver’s license, my social security card! I can’t even prove I’m a fuckin’ US citizen!” She raked her hands through her dark hair, tears welling in her eyes. “And I have no proof of what he is. It’s been too long.”

 

Mark was shaking his head. “I mean to end this, Aus.”

 

Austin stared at her brother, not sure if she had interpreted that correctly. “End it. How?”

 

Mark shrugged and looked away from her. “Any way I can. If that means I get his blood on my hands, so be it.”

 

Austin grabbed his arm, forcing him to look at her. “Mark…you can’t…he’s a fucking PROFESSIONAL killer!” The tears started falling at the thought of her brother standing in Adam’s way…and getting killed for the effort.

 

“Yeah?” Mark cocked an eyebrow. “I’m a professional brother. And uncle. So he’s free to try me anytime.” He cracked his knuckles.

 

“But…what…what about Bailey? She used to be a cop, for God’s sake, don’t you think she’d frown on you up and killin’ a guy?”

 

“She knows why I’d do it. And I don’t think she’d bat an eye at it. Not for my reasons.” Mark said softly. He had told Austin that he’d filled Bailey in on her situation. Her sister had been pissed at first, but only until she heard WHY he had to tell. “Face it darlin’, whether you’re here or not I’m already in danger. Might as well make a stand. And we’ll have an extra set of eyes and ears in the house. We can deal with this.”

 

Austin shuddered and hugged her arms around herself. “What if…what if whoever is supposed to be watching over us decides they like Adam’s money better?”

 

Mark frowned thoughtfully. He hadn’t even asked Bailey what kind of fee they would be talking about for a bodyguard and some kind of investigation. Something else to add to his to do list. “That won’t happen. You’ve met Bailey, does she seem like she’d associate with those kinds of people?”

 

Austin mulled that over for a long while. “I guess…not. She seems so…” She sighed. “She’s good for you. I can see that. Fuck. Fine. All right? Just…call her and tell her all right.” Austin gestured with her hands again. Mark smiled approvingly. The house phone rang at that moment.

 

“That could be her right now.” He said. He touched his sister’s shoulder as he moved past her to get the telephone before Payge was disturbed. As he’d thought, it was Bailey. “Any luck?” He asked after their hellos.

 

“Yeah. My gay husband was totally in agreement.” She sounded in very good spirits. Mark got the feeling that this was the kind of thing she lived for, not that boring background/corporate stuff, but actual life-threatening emergencies that had to be handled just right.

 

“Gay husband?” He couldn’t help himself. He wanted to be sure he heard her correctly.

 

“I’ll explain later.” Bailey said with a laugh. “Can we come over?”

 

“That would probably be a good idea. Austin is begrudgin’ the need, but she’ll do it.” Mark cleared his throat. “Just tell me it’s somebody you trust, Bailey.”

 

Bailey laughed again. “Don’t worry, Mark. I would trust him with my life.”

 

Satisfied, Mark smiled grimly. “Then get your ass over here and calm my sister down.”

 

“On my way, boss.” Bailey laughed again and hung up. Mark hung up the phone, Bailey’s throaty laugh still in his ear, wondering if they were doing the right thing. At some point, the cops would have to be involved. But not until he’d gotten a bit of revenge from his sister’s soon to be VERY sorry husband.

 

13

 

Austin was speechless when Ken walked into the room behind Bailey.

 

Mark greeted Bailey at the door with a kiss on the cheek, and Ken with a confused handshake.

 

“Mark…my gay husband…heretofore known as your bodyguard Ken Anderson.” She gestured. The two men smiled at each other and shook hands. Ken looked at Austin, his eyes softening a bit at her nervous appearance.

 

He stooped in front of her, getting eye level with her. “Aus…I’m not about to let anybody hurt you or that baby of yours, you got me?” He touched her hand. Austin twined her fingers with his and nodded slowly.

 

“If anything happens to Payge…”

 

“Nothing is going to happen to Payge.” Ken assured her. “I’d sooner die than let some asshole touch a hair on her head. And you’d better believe I’d take that fucker out with me when I go.” Ken gave her hand a squeeze and let go, moving to sit next to her on the couch. Mark sat down in an overstuffed chair with Bailey leaning against the arm of it.

 

“So…what do we do?” Mark asked, looking from Ken to Bailey, then at his sister, who seemed to be trying hard not to cast glances at the blonde man beside her. He hid a smile. Ken had already proven himself to Austin the night before…he could sense her trying to relax as the two former police officers spoke.

 

Bailey ran through her second phone call from Copeland. This time she informed Mark of the other man’s overtures, laughing off his attempts at seduction before Mark could go into full jealous mode. Austin looked more worried instead of amused at the end of it.

 

“You don’t get it do you?” She asked, twisting her hands together in her lap. “When I first met him, I didn’t want anything to do with him. I was a challenge, see…so he poured on the charm. I finally gave in because I convinced myself he was what I needed. I was wrong…” She took a shaky breath. “I heard rumors. There was a girl, Miranda, who worked for him at his house, cleaning. He wanted her too. She was married, had a couple of kids, but she was…so pretty.” Austin sniffled. “He can’t stand being told no. He’s used to getting his way. Miranda didn’t show up for work for a week. The police came asking questions. They found her body, stabbed, beaten, RAPED…” She spit out the words. “It could have been random. But…Adam has a calling card, you see? He always cuts them a certain way, even if he kills them with a gun. He gets his knife and he carves a half-moon on their leg. He did that to her. The cops showed me a picture.”

 

Austin realized she was rambling and shut her mouth, tears once again spilling over her lashes and down her cheeks. Ken put a reassuring arm over her shoulders, hugging her close. He smiled coldly at Bailey. “I think we’re doing it right then.”

 

“What?” Mark asked, sitting up straight, wondering why only he and Austin were worried about Bailey’s life.

 

Bailey was nodding. “If what you say is true…and I don’t doubt it is…I can keep him off balance by holding him at arm’s length.”

 

Austin shook her head violently. “I can’t…no…” She sighed. It sounded watery. “You…well…Bailey, I don’t think I have to tell you how pretty you are. He won’t give up. He’ll have you one way or the other.”

 

Bailey nodded. She shot Mark a dazzling smile. “He’ll be in for a rude awakening.” She rolled her head on her shoulders, making her neck pop. “While I don’t think I’m invincible, I think I have a leg up on a housekeeper. I was a cop, remember? From generations of cops. I can handle myself.”

 

“I hope so. I PRAY so.” Austin said, straightening up. She seemed to become aware of Ken’s arm around her and her face flooded with color. She did not shrug him away though. The man made her feel safe…safe in a way she hadn’t felt in a long time. Mark was good, Mark was her brother, but this was a different kind of feeling all together.

 

“I know so.” Ken said, smiling again. “Bailey would make a marine shit himself. She can take care of herself…although she doesn’t have to as long as I’m around.”

 

“That’s right.” Bailey said with a grin. “For right now, I need to start digging. Records, newspapers, police reports…Ken is going to stay here. I’ll come by on occasion so he can get some rest, but he’s pretty much going to be moving in with you until we deal with this asshole.”

 

Mark and Austin nodded. Austin had such a look of relief on her face that Bailey felt like crying with her. Mark looked grateful-worried, but grateful. She gave him a smile. “I’ll need to go to the office, to use the computer.”

 

“We have one here.” Mark pointed out. Bailey touched his shoulder.

 

“Mine’s connected to the police database. Can you brag about that?” She asked with a smirk.

 

“Nope.” He smiled back. He wanted to DO something, not just study on the past. But Bailey was right. They had to dig up as much dirt as they could. “I’ll go with you.”

 

“Of course you will.” Bailey said it as if she’d already told Mark he was going. “I have my cell on me. Keep a good eye on them, will ya?” She said to Ken as she and Mark rose to their feet. “I’ll be back later so you can get some sleep. We’ll rotate off til you get used to the night watch.”

 

“Yes, ma’am.” Ken gave her a salute.

 

“Keep the doors locked.” Bailey advised. She looked at Austin. “Keep Payge close. Even if she has to sleep in your bed with you.”

 

“We have connecting bedrooms…” Austin said, sighing. “My bed is about four feet from hers through a wall. Although I don’t think I’m gonna get much sleep til this over.”

 

“Understandable.” Bailey smiled. “We’ll be back soon. Get some rest if you can.”

 

With that, Bailey and Mark left. Ken ran his fingers up and down Austin’s spine, soothing her as best he could. “Don’t worry now. Coop is on the job.” He assured her quietly. Austin shot him a look, half amused, half frustrated.

 

“Coop?” She asked, unable to help herself from being curious. Ken smiled. At least a few of his stories about his and Bailey’s exploits would help pass the time. Settling back, pulling Austin into his arms as he did, he kept his voice low and his tone light, wanting nothing more than to ease this woman’s fears and maybe to hear her laugh just one time.

 

14

 

Bailey leaned back in her chair and rubbed her eyes, blinking a few times to clear the blurriness that had settled into them.

 

She and Mark had been at the office for two hours, going over any information they could find about Copeland. Mark was at Ken’s desk, reading old newspaper stories. Bailey was sifting through public records.

 

“I can’t find a damn thing.” She muttered. Mark looked up at her.

 

“Can’t find what?”

 

“No marriage certificate. Nothing with Austin’s name on it in relation to an A. Copeland.” She sighed and ran her fingers through her hair. “Hell, there’s not even any kind of announcement for the wedding.”

 

“Do you think they were really married?” Mark asked, rising to his feet and stretching.

 

“I don’t know. But it’s nice to see your mind is wandering the same track that mine is.” Bailey said with a smirk. She opened the folder that Copeland had given her, thumbing through the papers inside. “He’s got a certificate here. See?” She held it up. Mark came to her desk and perched on the corner, glancing at the paper.

 

“That’s not Austin’s handwriting.” He said, pointing to the signature.

 

“You sure?” Bailey didn’t bother looking. She hadn’t seen a sample of Austin’s writing, so she had no basis for comparison.

 

“Yeah. That’s messy. Austin is a neat freak about her writing. This looks more like how I would sign her name.” He studied it for a minute. “And it looks a hell of a lot like Copeland’s signature.”

 

Bailey took the paper back and compared the names. The writing was remarkably similar. “I’ll be damned.”

 

“So what would he get out of forging the license?” Mark asked.

 

“I don’t know. If he did this recently…” Bailey sighed. “Maybe it’s so he could gain custody of Payge. Although I don’t see how he’d go through legal channels to do it.”

 

Mark shook his head thoughtfully. “Do you think…he just shows this to people, PI’s like  yourself, and asks them to look for her like he asked you?”

 

“It’s possible. It would give him an air of credibility.” Bailey said distastefully.

 

“Not with you.” Mark said, admiring her in the lamplight that fell across her desk. Bailey smirked.

 

“I have a highly developed sense of bullshit.” She quipped. With a sigh she snapped off her computer. “Tomorrow I’ll call some friends at the station, see if they’ve ever heard of Copeland. Gossip travels fast with cops. He might have been fingered but not caught.”

 

“Hmm.” Mark rifled through the papers. There were what looked like court documents, divorce papers, custody agreements…he sighed heavily. “Why would he want Payge now? After trying to make Austin miscarry?”

 

Bailey shrugged. “Probably cuz it goes back to having something he wanted. He might just want to kill her.” She hated to put it so bluntly, especially when Mark visibly flinched at her harsh words. “Then again…he might just want to get over on Austin. We’ll have to ask the asshole himself to find out for sure.”

 

Mark nodded slowly. Then he rubbed his cheek with one hand thoughtfully. “Maybe Austin is right. Maybe she should run.”

 

“Bite your tongue.” Bailey said, swatting him on his lower back with one hand.

 

Mark smirked. “It’s worked so far.”

 

“Yeah, well, runnin’ only gets you so far. There comes a time for confrontation. Closure. Does she want to look over her shoulder the rest of her life? Does she wanna raise her daughter to be paranoid?” Bailey asked rhetorically. “We’ll deal with this. I promise you. And I don’t go throwin’ around promises lightly.”

 

Mark looked at her, met her eyes, and nodded again. “I trust you, Bailey. God knows why, but I do.”

 

She met his gaze and smiled gently. “Because I’m damn good at my job. That’s why. It’s a vibe I put out. That’s what brings in clients.”

 

Mark chuckled. “I thought it was your looks.”

 

“Oh. Yeah, there’s that too.” Bailey fluffed her hair, preening a bit in exaggeration. “Got you in here, didn’t it?”

 

“No. Payge got me in here.” Mark reminded her.

 

“You could play along.” Bailey said with a grin. “Ready to head home? We can pick this up in the morning. We’re not gonna find anything tonight.”

 

Mark nodded and rose to his feet. He came around the desk and gave Bailey a hand up. With a wicked smirk, he grasped her waist and lifted her, depositing her on the desk behind her.

 

“What…are you doing?” Bailey said with a laugh.

 

“Nothin’.” Mark spread her legs and stood between them, looking down at her. He ducked his head and pressed his lips against hers, kissing her gently. Bailey gripped his shoulders and let herself get lost in him for a moment, returning his passion with her own.

 

They finally broke for air. Mark was running his hands over her body, touching her through the thin material of the dress she was still wearing. Bailey laughed breathlessly and grabbed his hands, stilling his movements.

 

“Hold on, wait…” She gasped out. “I don’t think this is the time or place…”

 

Mark groaned and kissed her neck, making her shiver.

 

“Mark…” She tried to sound stern. It was a lost cause. “All right…can we at least go to my house so I can take a shower?”

 

Mark chuckled and slid his hand between their bodies, pushing her dress up insistently. “In a minute.” He rumbled, his voice hoarse.

 

“Mark…” Bailey tried again. His hand had reached the edge of her panties. He tugged them sharply, making them rip, and yanked them from her body. Just that animalistic little act made Bailey feel dizzy with lust. Mark’s fingers found her center and he delved into her, stroking her clit with his thumb while his index finger slowly entered her.

 

Bailey bit her lip and clawed at Mark’s shoulders, her hips moving a bit on the desk as he began to rhythmically moved his hand, his fingers sliding against slick hot flesh. She moaned softly, whimpered, pulled his hair. Mark seemed to be lost in the feel of her, oblivious to her actions.

 

When she thought she could not take anymore, Mark used his free hand to unsnap the fly of his jeans. He barely shoved them down his hips. “Can’t wait…Bailey…sorry…” He groaned out as he took his already swollen cock into his hand and guided it to her opening.

 

Bailey wasn’t going to complain. His fingers were replaced by his cock. He slid himself against her, making sure she was wet enough, ready for him. Satisfied, he found her entrance and sheathed himself with one smooth, steady thrust.

 

Bailey cried out as he filled her. Mark waited a moment and grabbed her legs, wrapping them around his waist. He stared into her eyes. Bailey nodded imperceptibly. She’d argued at first, but if Mark stopped now she would kill him. It felt as if her whole body were on fire, even though the AC in the office was set to arctic levels.

 

She crossed her ankles behind his back, then wrapped her arms around Mark’s neck. He grunted and lifted her, standing with her impaled on his cock, his hands sliding under her thighs and holding her steady. Bailey moaned at the new sensations the position caused and experimentally flexed her thighs, moving him within her.

 

Mark hissed in his breath and sought her mouth with him. Bailey kissed him hard, sliding her tongue over his as Mark began guiding her movements on his cock, lifting her, lowering her, setting the pace as she squeezed her thighs together to get more leverage.

 

She could feel her orgasm building as their pelvis’ were ground together at every stroke. She started wiggling her hips, making the most of every contact, until she thought she’d explode from the pleasurable sensations.

 

It was all Mark could do to hold himself in check and wait for her to catch up to him. He thought he’d lose control the minute he touched her. Her moans, her body taking him in…it was too much for him. This woman turned him on like no other, and he didn’t even know why. Even fully clothed while they moved, only their intimate parts bare, was way too much contact for him.

 

Bailey suddenly jerked in his arms, crying out wordlessly, her head thrown back as her orgasm took her. Mark grunted with effort and let loose his control, his own climax drowning her soft moans. He muttered her name thickly, grabbing her close again, hugging her against his body.

 

Bailey moaned softly and let her ankles unlock from each other, her legs dropping to either side of his hips. Mark carefully lowered her to her feet, kissing her forehead gently. “Now…about that shower…” He said huskily, winking at her.

 

“Oh…boy…” Bailey said with a giggle. “You wash my back, I’ll wash yours?”

 

“That ain’t the only thing I plan to wash, darlin’.” Mark righted his clothing and found her ripped panties on the floor. “Need these back?”

 

“Why? Not like I can wear ‘em anymore.” She shook her finger at him and shakily gathered her purse. The file she shoved into her desk drawer. She’d deal with that in the morning. Mark tucked her panties into his pocket with a mischievous grin.

 

“Can’t have Ken findin’ ‘em, now can we?” He asked innocently. Bailey rolled her eyes.

 

“If you say so.” She tucked her hand into his and locked the office door behind them. With a satisfied smile, she climbed into her Jeep and drove toward her house, Mark holding her hand the entire trip.

 

15

 

Austin got up to check on Payge three times before Ken got her to calm down.

 

She perched on the edge of the couch, still twisting her hands nervously, staring into space. Ken sighed and grabbed her hands, pulling her next to him. Austin stared at him, and he felt his stomach churn at the look in her eyes. She was scared, terrified, and it was amplified by the fear for her daughter.

 

“You have to relax.” He said softly, turning her a bit, resting his hands on her shoulders.

 

Austin barked out a harsh laugh, which turned into a moan as Ken began massaging her shoulders, his thumbs circling her skin, pressing into her tense muscles. He made soothing noises and worked his way up her neck, then back down, pushing her hair aside to do it.

 

She whimpered every time he found a knot of tension and massaged it out. She was wearing a tank top, the straps thin. Ken shifted the straps down her arms and resumed his slow rubbing of her skin.

 

Austin couldn’t remember the last time she’d gotten a massage. She gathered her hair over her shoulder, holding it in one hand to get the dark locks out of Ken’s way. She shouldn’t be letting him touch her, she knew that but could not help it. It had been way too long.

 

Ken ran his fingers down her arms, back up, onto her neck, stroking her right below her ears. “You gotta trust us, you gotta understand that we know what we’re doing.” He said, his voice low.

 

Austin looked at him over her shoulder. “You don’t know how hard it is…” She whispered. “Trusting people again…I don’t think I remember how to do it.”

 

Ken gave her a lopsided smile, his hands warm on her neck. “You’ll figure it out, darlin’. I don’t doubt that a bit.”

 

“I’m glad you have faith in me.” Austin muttered, sarcastic all of a sudden. Ken laughed.

 

“I do. When are you gonna have faith in yourself?” He gave her shoulders a squeeze and let her go, finished. Although he really hated giving up the feel of her silky smooth skin under his hands. Ken cleared his throat and settled himself back on the couch more comfortably.

 

Austin adjusted her hair, letting it once again fall down her back. Then she sat next to Ken, trying to appear relaxed. She glanced at him occasionally, as if trying to figure him out. Ken smiled at her when he caught her doing it.

 

“If you’re not heading to be anytime soon, how about a game of card?” Ken asked, smirking at the look on her face.

 

“What game?” She asked.

 

“I dunno. Poker? Blackjack?” He shrugged. “I’ll let you pick.”

 

“I don’t know how to play poker.” Austin admitted. “Never really had the patience to learn.”

 

Ken smiled. “Well, we have all night darlin’. Unless you wanna do…somethin’…else.” He couldn’t help but sound suggestive.

 

Austin cleared her throat. “Uh…” Her mouth was suddenly dry. She picked up the glass of tea she’d made herself earlier and took a long drink. “I was…uh…actually thinking of taking a swim…but that was before I found out that Adam was around.”

 

Ken shrugged. “What does he have to do with it? Payge is safe…the house is locked up tighter than Fort Knox. Does her window face your pool?”

 

Austin nodded. “She insisted.”

 

Ken smiled. “Then we’ll open her window and lock her bedroom door. And put the dog on guard in there.”

 

“Yeah, Spidey would probably lick an intruder to death.” Austin said, laughing in spite of herself.

 

“I think you underestimate him.” Ken said with a raised eyebrow. “He loves your kid. He’d die protecting her.”

 

“I’ll believe that when I see it.” Austin said with a smirk. That dog had never met a stranger. But…she did want to get in the pool, if only for a few minutes. “You promise you’ll keep an eye on her?”

 

“Both eyes.” Ken assured her.

 

“All right.” She looked at him. “He won’t be coming soon, will he?”

 

Ken did not have to ask to know who she was talking about. Copeland. He would love to wring that guy’s neck for turning Austin into a nervous wreck. “No. He’s too busy tryin’ to figure out why Bailey isn’t fallin’ over herself to get to him.” He smiled. It could be true. From what they’d heard, Copeland did not take rejection easily. He’d be pouting, his search for Austin all but forgotten, at least for a little while.

 

Austin studied his face, as if trying to see that particular scenario in Ken’s eyes. She nodded slowly and rose to her feet. “If you’re sure…then I believe it.” She said softly. She smiled. “Wanna join me?”

 

Ken smiled back. “I’d love to. But I’m on duty.” He let his eyes linger on her. Austin felt as if she were tingling from head to toe at the look he was giving her. How long had it been since a man had looked at her like that? She held back a shiver. Still a bit overheated from his gaze, Austin abruptly turned and left the room.

 

Ken watched her go with smile tilting the corners of his mouth. He was going to have to keep reminding himself that he was on the job, a professional, here to protect Austin and Payge. It was going to be hard, he could already tell. Austin was a beautiful woman, and there was something about her, something he could not define, that woke up a need in him to protect her. Even from himself.

 

With a sigh, he got up and checked on Payge. The little girl was curled on her side, sleeping peacefully. Ken smiled and went to the window, opening it, letting in warm night air. Austin was already outside, wearing a modest two-piece, stretching in the darkness. The only light came from the moon above. The water of the pool looked black.

 

Feeling like the worst kind of pervert, he forced himself to leave the window. He would settle in the kitchen, the midpoint between the back yard and Payge’s room. Maybe he’d find a book or something to look at. Anything to keep his mind off the beautiful woman that was swimming just out of sight through the back door.

 

*~**~*

 

“We gotta go.” Bailey said with a sigh, trailing her fingers down Mark’s chest.

 

After their shower, they’d gotten into bed and had spent an hour just fooling around, exploring each other’s bodies. Unlike earlier, there was no sense of urgency. Mark had made love to her reverently, as if afraid she would break if he got too rough. Bailey had loved every minute of it. But now…it was time to get back to reality.

 

“I know.” Mark said, his voice a low rumble. He stroked her side, her hip. He was lost somewhere between being grateful at having Bailey in his arms and cursing the man that kept intruding on their fledgling relationship. When this was over…

 

He cut off the thought. There was no sense in getting ahead of himself. He kissed the top of Bailey’s head and regretfully released her, rolling to a sitting position. They got dressed quietly, Mark in the clothes he’d been wearing, Bailey in a pair of jeans and a black halter top. The smooth skin of her back was exposed. Mark had to struggle not to pull her back into bed.

 

The drive to his house was made in silence. Bailey didn’t even turn on the radio. She seemed to be lost in thought. Mark did not want to disturb her.

 

They got to his house and she parked close to the building, behind Mark’s truck. The walked onto the porch and Mar could not take the silence anymore. He grabbed her hand before she could reach the door and turned her to face him.

 

“Is something wrong?” He asked, keeping his voice low.

 

Bailey shook her head. “Nah.” She stepped into his arms and stood on tiptoe to kiss his neck. “Just mulling things over, I guess. Sorry.” She muttered, hugging him. Mark stroked her back, smiling a little.

 

“Don’t apologize for thinkin’, darlin’.” He said with a chuckle.

 

“And it wasn’t anything bad about you.” She said, poking him in the side.

 

“That’s what I was wonderin’.” Mark kissed the top of her head and let her go. “Come on, let’s get inside. Ken might need a break.”

 

Bailey snorted. “Yeah. From his libido maybe.” She laughed at the look on Mark’s face. “Don’t you start with him.”

 

“I wasn’t gonna say a word.” Mark said, frowning a bit. Bailey had him there, and she knew it.

 

“If you do, try giving him some pointers. God knows he could use ‘em.” With that Bailey gave Mark’s stomach a pat and went inside the house. He shook his head and followed her. Hopefully Ken’s intentions toward his sister wouldn’t give him something else to worry about.

 

16

 

“You pick. Days or nights?” Bailey said, pouring herself some orange juice.

 

“Do I have to pick either one?” Ken asked blearily. It was almost noon and he was just sitting down to eat breakfast. He wasn’t a morning person by nature, and staying up all night had only made him crabbier.

 

“It would be helpful.” Bailey said, sinking down into a chair. Ken had been pretty wired last night, so she’d gone to bed. She got up at five to let him take a break. He’s slept for four hours, then the sun had woken him up. Another point in the grumpy column for him. Ken kept his bedroom just a shade away from black hole lighting.

 

Ken sighed and spooned some cereal into his mouth, chewing without really tasting. If he was honest, he would admit that it was mostly sleeping in a strange bed alone that set him off that morning. He’d woken up with no idea where the hell he was. “With Mark takin’ a turn, I don’t see why we have to split shifts.” He can do the daytime. You can do evenins’…I’ll take nights.” Ken shrugged.

 

“So you think it’s all right to leave her in the daytime?”

 

Ken gave her a scornful look. “Have you even looked at her brother? What man is going to tangle with a guy that big in broad daylight?”

 

“Can’t underestimate the enemy.” Bailey commented.

 

“Underestimate. Right.” Ken snickered. “Besides…Austin knows him better than any of us…and she seems to think that nights are the worst time for her to be alone. I guess the guy’s nocturnal. He’s gotten used to operating at night.” He shrugged.

 

“So…you think we should move in for the duration?”

 

Ken shrugged. “As much as we’ll be around, it’ll be like we already live here.” He sighed and leaned his elbow on the table, propping his hand under his chin while he ate. He was looking out the window speculatively.

 

Bailey didn’t know if it was lack of sleep or something else, but she had never seen Ken so serious. Especially considering he was not drinking anything laced with caffeine.

 

Before she could comment on it, a giggling Payge came skipping into the room, chattering a mile a minute to her guests. Mostly, Bailey noted with amusement, to Ken. He seemed to fascinate her for some reason, and had nothing to do with his pale blonde hair.

 

Payge clambered up into Ken’s lap, and Bailey had to laugh at the look on his face. It was somewhere between panic and pride, and she could understand both emotions as Payge grinned up at him. “Can I have some cereal?”

 

“I’ll make you a bowl, hun.” Bailey said, starting to rise. Ken waved her back into her seat.

 

“I can share mine. I have too much anyway.” Ken said, tickling the little girl on the ribs. She squealed and laughed, then accepted his spoon. She took turns giving herself a bite, then holding the spoon for Ken so he could eat with her. It had to be about the cutest thing Bailey had ever seen.

 

After the bowl was empty, Payge seemed in no hurry to lose her perch on Ken’s lap. She seemed perfectly happy in the protective circle his the man’s arms, and giggled with a hand over her mouth when he bounced his legs, making her hop. Payge chatted about anything and everything that came to mind, commenting on the cereal, on Ken’s hair, on Bailey’s choice of pajamas-which at the moment was a long t-shirt over a skimpy pair of shorts, on the weather outside and how it would effect her chances of swimming. Bailey glanced out the door. It was overcast, the clouds high and gray. It could mean relief from the sweltering weather. Of course, it could just mean more humidity and hotter weather after a ten minute sprinkle.

 

Ken was listening attentively, finding a napkin on the table to wipe a drop of milk from the little girl’s chin, talking to her in much the same fast, friendly tone that she was using. Bailey cold not believe this was Ken, her Ken, and he was perfectly at home with the little one. He’d never expressed an interest in having children, and steered clear of anyone under the age of twenty under normal circumstances.

 

He was discussing the pool with Payge when Bailey finished eating and rose, rinsing her bowl in the sink. She gave Ken a half-wave. He returned it with a grin. Bailey stepped out of the kitchen, a smile still on her face. She went into Mark’s room to get her bag. She’d remembered to pack a small overnight bag when she and Mark had been at her house. Now she sorted through it, pulling out a pair of jeans and another t-shirt, this one smaller, tighter, and a deep shade of blue. She glanced out the window then went into Mark’s private bathroom for a shower.

 

Finished, dressed, hair brushed, she tossed her bag onto the floor by the door and went back down the hall. Ken and Payge had left the kitchen…she thought she heard giggles coming from outside and the occasional splash of water. Bailey peered out the window over the sink and saw the two of them in the pool, splashing each other. Austin was sitting in a lounge chair a safe distance from the ruckus, smiling, watching her daughter interact with her new friend.

 

Bailey smiled and turned from the window…and uttered a yelp as she ran face-first into Mark’s broad chest. He grabbed her upper arms to steady her, chuckling a bit.

 

“You gotta stop sneakin’ up on me.” Bailey said, rubbing her nose.

 

Mark pushed her hand away and cupped her chin, tilting her head, studying her intently. “I think you’ll live, darlin’.” With that he pressed a kiss to her lips. Bailey sighed into his mouth and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. When they finally broke for air, they were both gasping. “So what are you doin’ today?”

 

Bailey smiled and ran her fingers through his soft hair. “I thought I’d go visit some friends at the station I used to work out of. See if they can’t dig anything up.”

 

“Want some company?” Mark asked. He smirked and nodded toward the window. Bailey looked over her shoulder and saw Ken scoop Austin up and toss her fully clothed into the pool. Payge laughed and clapped from her spot in the shallow end, looking at Ken was a serious case of hero worship. It was cute. And Ken was handling it well.

 

“Think you wanna leave them alone? Ken might need backup.” Bailey said with a laugh, watching as Austin came up sputtering, shooting a glare in Ken’s direction. She was trying not to laugh, it was obvious, as Ken dove into the pool next to her, splashing her again.

 

Bailey shook her head and looked at Mark. “You just wanna go with me so you don’t have to watch Ken make an idiot of himself.”

 

“Do you always look for an ulterior motive?” Mark asked, releasing her and grinning.

 

“Constantly.” She replied. Bailey went to the door and poked her head outside. The air was still and hot, humid. It felt as if it actually had weight to it. She sighed and shouted Ken’s name.

 

Still laughing, he turned to look at her. “Yo!”

 

“We’re leaving…going to town. Think you can handle it?” She called to him. She smirked as Austin snuck up behind him while Ken was distracted.

 

Ken gave her a thumbs up then sputtered as Austin jumped on his back, dunking him under the water. Shaking her head, Bailey went back inside to grab her purse from the kitchen counter. Mark followed her to her Jeep and climbed into the passenger seat.

 

“So what are you lookin’ for at the station?” He asked amicably as she steered the vehicle to the road.

 

Bailey shrugged. “My computer at the office only pulls from the local files. They’ll be able to look into federal and other state files at the station house.” She glanced at him with a smile. “And honestly, I don’t know what I hope to find.”

 

Mark nodded thoughtfully. They shared a comfortable silence as Bailey found them a parking spot, and he followed her into the cool police station without saying a word.

 

Bailey spoke to a person behind a desk, then motioned Mark to follow her along a brightly lit hallway. There was buzzing activity all through the building, and for some reason it made Mark nervous. He lived close to the city, but his house was secluded. He was not used to being around this kind of action.

 

Bailey turned and entered an archway. Mark looked around the big room. It was open, about the size of his living room and kitchen combined, and had ten desks scattered throughout at different angles. The room was mostly empty. There were two women at a desk, one of them typing madly on the computer in front of her, the other sitting on her desk and talking animatedly. A very large man sat in the back corner, flipping through a stack of papers. Several other men milled around, talking, comparing notes. They all called out to Bailey, grinning. She waved at them but did not stop to chat.

 

She did however come to a halt at the desk of the big man in the corner. “G-man. What’s up?” She said, ruffling the man’s dark hair. He looked up and grinned.

 

“Holy shit. Coop. What the hell’s goin’ on?” He rose, setting his paperwork aside, and grabbed her in a hug. Mark watched, eyebrow up. The guy was his size, maybe a hair taller. He was dressed casually in jeans and a button down white shirt. His dark hair was held back with an elastic band.

 

“Oh, you know…the usual.” She grinned at the man as he put her back on her feet. Bailey smiled at Mark. “Mark Calaway…this is Glen Jacobs. Glen, Mark. Glen used to be my partner, back in the early patrol days when I was a kid startin’ out.”

 

“Yeah, all of two years ago.” Glen said with a grin, holding out a hand to Mark. “Nice to meet ya.”

 

“Same to ya.” Mark said, shaking Glen’s hand. Bailey was still smiling,

 

“Uh oh.” That came from Glen when he caught her expression.

 

“What?” Bailey asked, tilting her head.

 

“You look like you want somethin’. And you also look like it’s not gonna be somethin’ I’m gonna like.” Glen said, lowering his big frame into his chair, his hazel eyes twinkling.

 

“Of course I want somethin’ you won’t like. What the hell other reason would I have to come see you?” Bailey said with a laugh. She motioned Mark into a chair on the other side of the desk.

 

Glen sighed and picked up his paperwork again, straightening it out. “So lay it on me. I don’t have all day.”

 

Bailey smiled sweetly. “I need a full background on a guy.”

 

“A full background?” Glen smirked. “What, you contracting out with government spies? I thought those companies you pander to just wanted the bare facts.”

 

“It’s not for any of them.” Bailey said, growing serious. “It’s more of a…a personal nature.”

 

Glen studied her for a long moment. “Personal huh?” He eyed her speculatively. “I’m not supposed to use the department computer for personal reasons.” He pointed out.

 

“I know this.” Bailey commented. She said nothing more, just looked at her friend.

 

Glen sighed again. “I’ll need a name.”

 

Bailey smiled again. “Copeland…” She spelled it. “First name’s Adam. I can’t find shit on him.”

 

Glen’s scribbled the name down on a notepad in front of him. “Anything in particular you’re looking for?”

 

“Well…I’ll take whatever you can find, but I really want to know about his private life. Whether or not he’s married, has kids, that kind of thing.”

 

Glen was giving her a strange look. “That’s public record.”

 

“I know it is. I just can’t seem to FIND it.” Bailey stressed the word, giving Glen a winning smile.

 

“I guess I can give it a look.” Glen said with a shrug. “Although I’m not supposed to.” He gave Bailey a grin. “So how is your wayward partner?”

 

Bailey grinned. “You know Ken.” Was her only answer. Glen laughed.

 

“That I do.”

 

Bailey reached over and took Glen’s notepad, then jotted down her cell phone number. “I guess this is gonna be the best way to reach me.” She handed it back.

 

Glen looked at the number, then up into Bailey’s eyes. “What’s really goin’ on here, Coop?” He asked softly.

 

Bailey shook her head. “I’ll tell you when you call. It’s not something I wanna discuss surrounded by nosey cops.”

 

Glen put a hand up. “Fine, fine!” He was smiling again. “Give me a couple of hours, let me dig a little. I’ll see what I come up with.”

 

“I’d appreciate it.” Bailey rose to her feet. Mark followed her lead again, watching as she kissed Glen’s cheek.

 

“I’ll call you later.” Glen said, smiling at Bailey, then at Mark before telling them both goodbye.

 

Bailey led Mark from the building. Once outside, he shook his head.

 

“You think this is gonna help” He asked.

 

“I dunno. We’ll at least try to find out who the hell we’re dealin’ with.” Bailey said, unlocking her car doors. “So what do you suggest we do while we wait to hear from Glen?” She smiled suggestively, Mark laughed.

 

“Darlin’, I’m up for anything right about now”

 

“Famous last words.” Bailey muttered as she started the Jeep. Mark laughed as she steered the car away from the police station.

 

17

 

Ken and Austin were alone in the house for the first time.

 

Bailey and Mark had appeared, had talked to Austin, and had gotten Payge dressed and out the door before Ken could even ask what they were doing. Austin told him that Mark wanted to take his niece to the playground at the local elementary school. Payge had been so excited at the prospect that Austin had not been able to tell her no. She’d watched them drive away, face a careful neutral, but Ken knew that inside she was torn apart with worry.

 

Bailey called an hour after they left, informing Ken that they had decided to go see a movie-a very rare treat for Payge-and have dinner at a restaurant.

 

Ken had found Austin on the back deck, sitting in one of the lounge chairs, looking up at the clouds that still rolled in from the west.

 

“Bailey and Mark decided to take Payge out for dinner and a movie.” He informed her, sinking into a chair next to Austin’s. She cast a look in his direction, faint smile on her face.

 

“I’m sure Payge is having a great time.” She stated.

 

Ken nodded with a chuckle. “I take it this doesn’t happen to her very often.”

 

“No. There’s…I can’t…” Austin struggled for words, her smile fading away. “I’m just too damn paranoid to take her anywhere. I’m turnin’ my kid into a recluse and can’t seem to help myself.”

 

“Well there are extenuating circumstances.” Ken observed.

 

“I have a good reason. At least, I tell myself that.” Austin said sadly.

 

“It’s true. So don’t beat yourself up.” Ken said amicably, stretching out on the chair. Thunder rumbled low in the distance. He half-smiled, watching the storm build in the distance.

 

Austin was content to just sit quietly with him nearby. It was the first time in a long time she’d felt comfortable around any man…not including Mark. Ken just had a very non-threatening attitude around her, and she couldn’t help but respond to it.

 

“So…” She said, then hesitated. Ken was looking at her, eyebrow up.

 

When she didn’t go on, he grinned. “So…?” He goaded.

 

“I don’t know.” Austin laughed at herself. “I think I’m going to get a soda. Would you like anything?”

 

Ken shook his head. “No thanks.”

 

Austin hurried into the kitchen, putting a hand against her chest, feeling her heart pound. She felt ridiculous, like a middle school girl with her first crush. She grabbed a glass, and put a few ice cubes in it. She started to pour the soda, but her hands were shaking so much that it dribbled down the sides of the glass and formed a puddle on the counter.

 

Strong hands came from behind her, steadying her hand on the glass and on the bottle she was trying to pour out of. Austin jumped and her shoulders bumped Ken’s chest. He helped her fill the glass and then took the bottle from her hand and set it aside. Austin lowered the cup to the counter, aware that her hands were shaking worse than ever. She did not want him to see that, although since he still had a hold on her, he would probably feel it.

 

Ken let her hands go and his arms disappeared. Austin uttered a shaky sigh and turned to find him standing just inches away from her. His warm brown eyes were staring into hers, as if he were trying to read her mind. She did not see him move, she was so entranced by his eyes. Ken took her in his arms and ducked his head, pressing his lips against hers.

 

Austin did not respond for a few seconds. She was too shocked…shocked that this man was kissing her, shocked that she was ALLOWING this man to kiss her. All thought was erased as he moved, sliding his mouth across hers. Austin opened up for him and felt her knees buckle when his tongue slipped between her lips, tasting her.

 

She gripped his shoulders as if he were her lifeline, her whole body responding to his kiss, the touch of his hands on her lower back, his body heat radiating into her from the front. She flicked her tongue experimentally against his, shaking at the sound of his soft moan, and answered with one of her own.

 

Gasping, Ken broke the kiss and pulled back, looking into her eyes. Austin all but fell against the counter at the heat in his gaze, her legs refusing to support her anymore. He cocked his head a bit to the side and tried to reign in his breathing, to control his sudden need to be with her.

 

“I’d apologize for that…but I’d be lyin’.” He finally said, raising a hand to softly stroke her cheek. Austin smiled weakly.

 

“We…can’t…” She said, her voice sounding strange to her own ears, full of regret at not being able to do more than what had just happened. She did not want or need a man in her life at that time…and probably never would, considering how the last relationship had worked out. The thought sent a shiver of sadness through her as she stared up into Ken’s whiskey brown eyes, seeing nothing there that meant any harm to her.

 

“I know we can’t. Doesn’t make it any easier to stop.” Ken tucked a strand of her dark hair behind her ear. “I’ve never been one to hide what I’m thinkin’, Aus. And all I’m thinkin’ right now is how much I’d love to do more with you than just steal a kiss in the kitchen…but you’re right. I can’t go any farther…” He paused, eying her expectantly.

 

“You…can’t?” She shook her head, wondering what he meant.

 

“No…cuz you’re probably not ready, and I’m not here to take advantage of your trust for me. I wouldn’t do that.” He sighed heavily and let her go reluctantly. “This…has gotta be somethin’ you decide for yourself.”

 

“I don’t…understand…” Austin said, hesitating. She stared up at him, her eyes wide and seeking, wanting nothing more at the moment than to have him kissing her again.

 

“When you’re ready…when you think you can be with me…then you come to me.” Ken smiled softly. “I ain’t makin’ any more moves past this one. The rest is up to you. That way you’ll know I’m not rushin’ ya.” His voice took on a bit of a drawl as he spoke.

 

“I don’t…I can’t…” Austin closed her eyes and swallowed hard. “All right. That’s fair. To both of us.” She opened her eyes to look at him once more. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry that I’m so screwed up I can’t even have a fling when I want one.”

 

Ken chuckled at that. “Darlin’…knowin’ you want one is enough for me. For now.” He amended. “How about we settle in and watch a movie?”

 

His suggestion came from nowhere. Austin hesitated before nodding. “All right. I’d like that.”

 

“We could go out.” Ken suggested.

 

“No. I don’t think so.” That was something she did not even have to think about. Going out right now, with Adam on the loose, was more than she was ready to handle. “I’ll settle for a nice afternoon on the couch though.”

 

Ken nodded and took her hand. “All right. As far as first dates go, it’s not much, but I’ll take it.”

 

Austin let herself be led to the living room, drink forgotten on the counter, tingling a bit at his words. And she could not kid herself. The tingle came from his hand in hers as he helped settled her on the couch. Maybe watching a movie was a bad idea. She would not be able to hold her concentration on the screen for very long with this man in close proximity.

 

*~**~*

 

There had been no other kids at the playground due to the impending storm.

 

Mark and Bailey decided to take Payge to an indoor playground at a gym that cops were known to frequent. As Bailey had suspected, it was packed with children. Payge had run off immediately, joining in some game, talking to any child that was within hearing distance.

 

She and Mark had settled at one of the benches that surrounded the play area, not talking much, just watching the chaos around them. Bailey sensed Mark had something on his mind, and it was probably something she would end up not liking. It would explain why he was keeping it to himself for the time being.

 

They started to discuss dinner when her cell phone rang. Bailey flipped it open and glanced at the ID. “It’s Glen.” She explained, punching a button and rising with the phone pressed to her ear. Mark sighed and wandered off to drag Payge from the playground.

 

“You really stumbled into a winner this time, Coop.” Glen’s voice was muffled due to the noise from the playground.

 

“Yeah? You found something?” She covered her free ear with a hand, blocking out some sound.

 

“Oh yeah.” Glen said with a whistle. “He was arrested twelve years ago on suspicion of murder.”

 

“And nothing happened to him?”

 

“No. Some other guy confessed.” Glen was shuffling papers. Bailey heard that clearly even though his voice was still far away sounding. “There’s no record of him being married. Or fathering a kid. That doesn’t mean anything of course, just means his name never went on the birth certificate. Seems when he’s back home he’s something of a charity whore.”

 

“You’ve gotta be kiddin’ me.” Bailey said, sighing as she walked toward the exit. Once outside, she saw the black clouds overhead and huddled under the building’s overhang at the sound of thunder. “What charities?”

 

“You name it, his name is one it. Sometimes he donates and asks for no mention of his name. It’s supposed to be anonymous but he still signs off on it.” Glen sighed. “I talked to a friend of mine in the FBI.”

 

Bailey cocked an eyebrow. “Yeah? Askin’ about Copeland?”

 

“Yeah. Something about him just seems…off.” Glen cleared his throat. “The feds have been lookin’ into Copeland for a long time. They suspect his computer business is a cover up for the money he’s makin’ as a contract killer.”

 

Bailey closed her eyes. “I was hoping that part was wrong.”

 

“Could still be. It’s just…some asshole in prison that used to work for Copeland wanted to turn narc. Told stories about a few of the people Copeland had killed that he knew about. Not only that, told about how much Copeland seemed to ENJOY the actual murders. Of course, nothing ever stuck. The guy took a knife in bed one night. Died before he could make a formal statement to the feds.”

 

“Fuck.” Bailey muttered. Lightning flashed overhead and she cringed a bit. She did not mind storms, but did not care to outside during one.

 

“You have a head on this guy?” Glen asked. “The feds would love to know. Copeland disappeared off their radar five or six years ago. Went underground.”

 

“Nope. Just wanting information.” Bailey said, smiling a bit. Glen knew she was lying.

 

“Well if you happen to see him around these parts…” He chuckled. It sounded hollow. “Be careful Coop. The guy’s got more than just one screw loose. You need anything, you call me.”

 

“You’re always the first one I think of G. You know that.” Bailey said with a laugh. “Gotta give you the glory of the big arrest, right?”

 

“It does look good on my permanent record.” Glen said. “I’ll keep on looking. Just thought I’d tell you about the big stuff.”

 

“Thanks. Take care. I’ll call you later.” Bailey hung up and pocketed the phone. The first fat droplets of rain hit the street, practically hissing against the hot pavement. Mark and Payge were standing near the doors, looking for her. Bailey shook her head and waved at them. They ran for the Jeep and ducked inside just as the sky let loose with the real rain, heavy warm drops that came down fast. Bailey started the Jeep and put the windshield wipers on high.

 

“So where to?” Bailey asked, looking over her shoulder at Payge. She was in the center of the back seat, dutifully buckled in, looking very pleased with herself.

 

“I’m starvin’.” Payge said with a laugh. “I want a burger…and fries…”

 

Bailey looked at Mark. He was smirking. “Fast food it is.” She guided the Jeep toward the nearest restaurant and parked near the door. They dashed into the building, getting soaked in the process.

 

Bailey’s phone rang before they could place an order. She looked at Mark apologetically and went back outside, once again using the building for shelter, to answer it.

 

“Hello…Ms Cooper.” The oily voice set her nerves on edge. Bailey hid it well though.

 

“Mr. Copeland. It’s a pleasure to hear from you again.” She said, making a face that he could not see.

 

“I’m willing to forgive you standing me up for drinks. But how about tonight? I really would like to…discuss my case.” Copeland sounded pleased with himself for having a reason to call her. Bailey bit back a gag and tried to put a sweet tone to her voice.

 

“Well…I will have to check my schedule…”

 

Copeland interrupted her. “I’m sure you can accommodate me, Ms Cooper. Midnight, my hotel?”

 

Bailey thought for a moment. She really…really…REALLY did not want to have to meet with this guy again. But she realized she would have to. It was the only way to get any real information out of him. She’d just avoid food, drinks, alcohol, and being alone with the sleaze. Simple.

 

“All right. I’ll be there at midnight.”

 

“You wouldn’t just be telling me that, now would you?” Copeland’s voice was practically a purr.

 

“Oh…no…” Bailey gave a breathy laugh. “I’m already…anticipating…our meeting, Mr. Copeland. I’ll be there.” With that she hung up. And felt like stepping into the rain. She felt dirty having to talk to the man as if she were attracted to him. With a sigh she went back inside the restaurant.

 

Mark had ordered for her. Payge was already eating, happily chattering about the kids she’d played with that afternoon. Mark gave her a questioning look. Bailey mouthed ‘later’ at him, and picked up her burger, taking a big bite. She did not taste it. Her mind was on other things.

 

Payge excused herself to use the restroom. Mark watched her disappear through the doorway before turning to Bailey. “So who was that?”

 

“Your good friend and mine-Copeland.” She said, sipping her soda. Mark frowned.

 

“Both calls?”

 

“No. The first was Glen.” Bailey checked the bathroom door. Payge was not back yet. “He told me he found some stuff on Copeland. Most of it exactly what we thought before. Although there is no record of him being married.”

 

“What does that mean?”

 

Bailey shrugged. “It means he forged a marriage certificate and court papers to try to fool me into believing he had legal custody of Payge. At least, that’s my take on it.”

 

Mark nodded. “He’ll get Payge over my dead body.”

 

Bailey looked at him. “That’s not exactly something he would mind considering he kills people for a living.” She kept her voice down.

 

“So what did Copeland want?” Mark practically spit his name out. Bailey finished chewing her bite of food before answering.

 

“He asked me to meet him tonight.”

 

Mark looked at her as if she’d just suggested she light herself on fire and dance in a lake of gasoline. “I know you told him fuck no.”

 

Bailey shook her head and sighed. “No. I had to tell him yes.”

 

“What?” Mark’s voice rose. Several other customers glanced at them. Bailey sighed again and met his eyes. This was why she had never been married, had not had a relationship of any real length, in her life. There were times when she had to do things for her job…and men just did not understand why she had to do it. It wasn’t like she WANTED to meet this asshole at some bar. It was just their only real contact to figure out what the hell was going on.

 

“Look, Mark…”

 

“You’re not going.” He said, his tone final.

 

Bailey cocked an eyebrow. Payge exited the bathroom, skipping across the restaurant, grinning. “I am going. I have to.”

 

“Like hell.” Mark glared at her. “You are not going.” He spoke slowly, his voice low, deadly serious. Payge rejoined them, cutting off any argument Bailey could make. She pushed her food away. Her appetite was gone. Mark was going to have to understand…she had no choice. If he wanted his sister to be safe, his niece to be safe, he’d have to squash that male ego of his and let her do her job.

 

18

 

The movie seemed to last forever, but Bailey and Mark had promised Payge, so they endured the animated flick for her sake.

 

When it was over, it was late evening. The storm had moved on to the east. The sky was still clouded over. Payge was dozing in the backseat as Bailey drove in silence back to Mark’s house.

 

Mark made no attempt to talk to her. After his demand at the restaurant, he had not spoken to her again. To him, the argument was over. To Bailey, he’d just lobbed the first ball into her court.

 

Mark carried a sleeping Payge into the house, handing her over to Austin, who grinned and took her to get ready for bed. He stomped down the hall behind his sister, heading for his own room, where he slammed the door without saying a word.

 

Ken looked at Bailey. She had a thoughtful frown on her face. “Trouble in paradise?”

 

“Hmph.” Bailey flopped onto the couch next to him.

 

“That good, huh?” Ken said with a laugh. “What’s up?”

 

Bailey ran through her call from Glen and Copeland. Ken nodded in all the right places. She finished and sat there quiet.

 

“You better go in packin’.” Ken commented after a moment.

 

Bailey nodded. That was one of the reasons she liked Ken…he understood that there were times she would have to basically go ‘undercover’ to get information. He worried about it of course, but he knew she could take care of herself. If only he’d rub some of that confidence off on Mark, it would be all right.

 

Bailey glanced at her watch. It was just going on eight o’clock. “I could attempt to explain why I have to do this or I can go home and get myself in the right frame of mind to do this.”

 

“Uh oh. He’s not likin’ it, huh?” Ken said, waving a hand in the general direction Mark had gone.

 

“When do they ever?” Bailey rose to her feet. “I’ll check in before and after. Hold down the fort.”

 

“And deal with the raging bull when he finds out your gone?” Ken asked with a smirk.

 

“That would be great.” Bailey said, not able to smile at him. Her stomach churned. She wished she had not eaten at all. Bad enough she would have to spend an hour with some psycho killer. Now she’d have to worry about Mark’s way of thinking while she did it. “I’ll be back later.”

 

“I’ll wait with baited breath.” Ken said, nodding. He watched Bailey leave, then locked the door in her wake.

 

“Where’s Bailey off to?” Austin asked from behind him.

 

“Intel gathering.” Ken said, smiling at her.

 

“If that’s what you wanna call it.” Mark’s voice came from further up the hall. He looked very angry. It was not very reassuring to Ken, who had the unenviable job of keeping watch on this family.

 

Austin looked from one man to the other, frowning. “What’s that mean?”

 

Ken opened his mouth, but Mark spoke first. “She has a date with your abusive, conniving ex husband.”

 

“What?” Austin’s eyes were round with shock.

 

Ken sighed. “Look…sometimes we have to do shit we normally wouldn’t do to get a bead on a bad guy. That’s all it is. It is NOT a date.” Ken looked at Mark when he said it. “Bailey’s done this before. She knows what she’s doing. Have a little faith. She’ll check in a few times while it’s goin’ on. She’s safe as a baby in her mama’s arms when she does this stuff.”

 

Mark huffed. “Safe. Right.”

 

“Did she tell you where she was meeting him?” Austin asked her brother, looking panicked. Mark shook his head. Ken laughed.

 

“She’s a smart one, that Bailey. If she had told him, then Mark would take it upon himself to crash the place. It would look kinda bad for her if you did that, Mark. Like I said, she knows what she’s doing.”

 

“She’d better.” Mark said, his voice holding a dangerous note that Ken did not like. With that he turned on his heel and went into the kitchen, out of sight, leaving Austin and Ken to stare after him worriedly.

 

*~**~*

 

Bailey dutifully called Ken three times before she arrived at the hotel, and once from the lobby. Through a window she could see Copeland already there, glass of wine in front of him. She sighed and brushed a hand down her black dress. It was the fanciest thing she owned, a spaghetti strapped gown made of silk. The hem stopped at her ankles, fluttering as she walked. The material hugged her curves in all the right places. She’d thrown on a pair of spike heels with straps that went up her legs. Her hair was down, swinging softly around her shoulders.

 

Copeland took one look at her and his mouth dropped open. Bailey greeted him and took a seat across the table from him before he could offer her a hand. She did not want him touching her.

 

“You look…wow.” Copeland breathed out, unable to even form a compliment.

 

“Thank you.” Bailey smiled sweetly. Copeland held up his wine glass.

 

“You’ll have to try this wine. Delicious.” He lipped his lips seductively, looking openly at her cleavage. Bailey fought not to roll her eyes as she accepted the glass of wine the waiter brought. Once again she did not drink, just toyed with the glass.

 

Copeland seemed content to just look at her over the table. Bailey decided she would have to be the one to start this off.

 

“Well…I’ve reviewed your file and have decided to take the case.” She said without preamble. She was trying to remind him that this was a business call not a social one.

 

“Excellent.” He purred, once again staring at her chest. He finally met her eyes. “I think we should celebrate.”

 

“Oh?”

 

“Yes. I have a suite of rooms upstairs. Wine, some food…we could talk there and be much more comfortable…” He said suggestively.

 

Bailey hesitated and smiled a bit shyly. “Mr. Copeland…”

 

“Adam.” He corrected.

 

“Adam.” Bailey smiled again. “I don’t make it a habit to give…private…consultations to people I hardly know.” She put emphasis on ‘private’, hoping he’d think it had hidden meaning.

 

He did. Of course he did. Guys like him thought every woman in the world was falling down to sleep with him.

 

“I understand completely. Perhaps in a while, then.” He did not mask his disappointment. He had come here to find his bitch ‘wife’, and had immediately found a woman who would make quite a conquest. He was lucky like that sometimes, he mused.

 

“So back to business…” Bailey managed to conjure up a seductive smile. It was especially hard considering the man across from her made her skin crawl. “Is there any other information you can tell me about your wife or daughter? Anything at all would help me find her faster.”

 

Adam thoughtfully toyed with his wine glass, a slight frown on his face. “Well…I don’t know. As far as I could find out, her family is all gone. I can’t seem to track down anyone that knew her from her childhood.”

 

Bailey shrugged. “People grow up and move on. How long ago was she here?”

 

“Ten…twelve years.” Adam said idly. He was more interested in looking at Bailey than conversing about his case. He’d waited this long to find Austin and his kid. A few more days wouldn’t hurt him.

 

“Hmm…” Bailey shifted in her seat, leaning forward against the table. Adam’s eyes were riveted to her cleavage. She bit back a smirk. So predictable. And this meeting…she wasn’t going to find out anything. Adam wanted to bed her, not hire her to find Payge and Austin.

 

“I would really be able to concentrate better if we went somewhere more private.” Adam said. He leaned across the table and touched Bailey’s hand. She had to fight not to jerk away from him. She looked over his shoulder, now having a clear view of the bar. Glen was seated at one of the barstools, a beer in front of him, looking a bit dressy for a detective. She breathed an interior sigh of relief.

 

“Shit.” She tried to make her voice sound panicked.

 

Adam looked at her in concern. “What is it, baby?” He purred, stroking her hand with his fingers.

 

“Don’t look now…” She said in a whisper. “My husband is at the bar.”

 

Adam cocked an eyebrow. “The gay husband?” He said, struggling not to look.

 

“He’s not gay. I just say that to get him to leave me alone. He won’t sleep with me if I call him gay.”

 

“He’s that bad in the sack, huh?” Adam said with a smirk.

 

“No, no, he’s a great fuck, I just can’t handle his gigantic dick more than once a week.” Bailey made a put upon face. Adam’s expression changed. It was unreadable. If she hadn’t been trying to get away from him, she would have laughed.

 

“Uh…” Adam did not know what to say. Bailey saw Glen glance in her direction, a strange look on his face.

 

“Oh no. He spotted me.” Bailey whispered.

 

Adam looked over his shoulder, eyes widening at the sight of the huge man sitting alone at the bar. “You gotta be shittin’ me. That’s your husband?”

 

“Every last inch of him.” Bailey said with a nod, pasting on a fake looking smile. Glen had his head cocked to the side, trying to figure out what she was up to. “Come on. You have to meet him.”

 

“What?” Adam let go of her hand and sat up straight.

 

“I’ll tell him you just hired me for a case, and that we were discussing the best way to go about starting. That way he won’t go all fuckin’ psycho on your ass.” Bailey hissed.

 

“That’s what we’re doing here, isn’t it?” Adam asked, an innocent look totally out of place on his features.

 

“Well…I would have liked for it to have led to more…” Bailey trailed off, looking directly into his eyes. That was the key, keeping Copeland on the hook, thinking he would actually have a shot with her. “But now…I can’t. Come on. Let’s do this. I’ll call you and we can plan something tomorrow.” With that she rose from her seat. Bailey was aware of Adam reluctantly following her lead. She cast a look at Glen. Damn…she hoped he’d play along.

 

“Baby!” She said, her voice a breathless squeal. Bailey threw her arms around Glen’s neck and pressed herself into his arms. Glen held onto her, chuckling.

 

“Darlin’…didn’t think I’d run into you’re here.” He said, loud enough for Adam to hear.

 

“It’s business, hon. This man wants to hire me.” Bailey extracted herself from Glen and turned to Copeland. “Glen…this is Adam. Adam…my husband, Glen.”

 

If Glen was surprised by either the name of her companion or the fact that he was apparently married to Bailey, he hid it well. He held his hand out for Adam to shake. “Bailey is an excellent PI. You hired the best.”

 

“I only hire the best.” Adam confirmed, struggling not to cast a look at this huge man’s wife. What the hell would a hot woman like Bailey see in a beast like this? “It was nice meeting you. Ms Cooper, I look forward to your next update.” He turned to her and shook her hand. Bailey smiled at him, her manner coolly professional.

 

Copeland wandered toward the elevators. Glen waited until he was out of earshot before turning to Bailey. “So…how drunk was I when we got married?” He asked with a grin.

 

“Oh…pretty drunk. Don’t worry…I told him I wanted to cheat on you cuz you have a massive unit.” Bailey motioned to the bartender and asked for a water, laughing as Glen sputtered on his beer.

 

“So that’s Copeland?” He asked when he’d finished choking. “I thought you were just doin’ research.”

 

“Yeah, well. I’m still researching.” Bailey said with a smirk. She took a deep drink of her water. “There’s no proof he’s done anything. Can you believe that?”

 

“I saw for myself.” Glen said.

 

“If I could talk Austin into testifying against him…”

 

“Austin? Is that the supposed wife?”

 

“Yeah. She lived with him. She knows some inside dirt. She’s scared to death of him, and I don’t blame her.”

 

They were quiet for a few minutes, each thinking. “Bailey…”

 

“Yeah?” Bailey looked at Glen. He had a thoughtful, troubled look on his face.

 

“If you can’t find any dirt to pin on him, if she won’t go against him…there are always other options.” Glen finally muttered.

 

Bailey’s mouth dropped open. “Other…options?” She knew what he was getting at, even if she couldn’t believe he was saying it.

 

Glen sighed. “I’ve dealt with his kind before.”

 

“You…what? When?”

 

Glen shook his head. “I’d rather not go into it, Coop. But…listen…if you need help…with doing option B…just call me. All right?” He peered at her, his hazel eyes intense.

 

“Yeah. All right. You’d be the first and only I’d call.” She sputtered out. Had Glen just told her to kill Copeland? It certainly sounded like it to Bailey’s mind. “I gotta go. I have some papers to go through before I can crash for the night.”

 

“You want company?” Glen eyed her speculatively. Bailey smiled at him.

 

“Sure. You feel like playing detective during your down time?” Bailey waited until he’d paid for his beer and walked with him out of the hotel.

 

“I got nothin’ better to do.” Glen said with a smile. “I got stood up again.”

 

“Monica?” Bailey asked with a smirk. Glen had been seeing Monica on and off for four years. Most of the time it was off. Monica liked the idea of dating a cop…until Glen actually had to go do real police work.

 

“Yeah.” He sighed and raked a hand through his long hair. “Women.”

 

“Men.” Bailey said in answer.

 

“Fighting with your new boyfriend already?” Glen asked, climbing into her Jeep. He’d taken a cab to the hotel because he had expected Monica to not show up, and he’d planned on getting thoroughly intoxicated if it happened. Bailey would just have to give him a lift home when they were through.

 

“He’s not my boyfriend, and no we’re not fighting…just having a heated discussion.”

 

“Sounds like a fight to me.” Glen said with a laugh.

 

“Yeah, well…apples and oranges.” Bailey punched him lightly in the shoulder. “First, we’re goin’ to my place so I can get out of this outfit you men call a dress.”

 

“You could keep it on.” Glen eyed her with insincere lecherousness.

 

“Mm hmm. And you could kiss my ass.” Bailey winked at him. Ken was probably busy wooing the hell out of Austin, so it was nice having Glen around to soothe her nerves with smart-ass-ness. That and the fact that…she didn’t really wanna be by herself. Not after having spent time with Copeland. She suppressed a shudder and guided the Jeep toward her house, pushing thoughts of her evening aside for the time being.

 

19

 

Mark glanced at the bedside clock.

 

It was four in the morning. He’d been lying in bed, sleepless, for four hours. He was trying not to think about Bailey, trying not to think about what Bailey was doing, but it was hard. He found himself straining to hear Ken’s cell phone ring.

 

He heaved a sigh and got up. Mark knew he would not be able to sleep unless he knew Bailey was all right. He picked up his phone and dialed her cell number from memory. It rang three times then went to voice mail. He did not leave a message.

 

Mark shoved a hand through his hair and decided to go to the kitchen and have a drink. Something a bit harder than beer. He quietly shuffled down the hall, still annoyed at the temper tantrum he’d thrown earlier. He was not normally a rude person, but sometimes…

 

Voices in the living room stopped him in his tracks. Ken was talking quietly. Then a woman’s voice. It was not Austin. She’d gone to bed, taking Payge with her, when the little one had gotten up thirsty an hour before.

 

Mark peered around the corner. Bailey was on the couch with Ken, holding up some papers, wearing jeans and a baggy t-shirt that did nothing to hide her lithe body. Her hair was tied back in a braid. She didn’t look the least bit harmed. Of course, he’d blown things out of proportion. He cared about Bailey, he knew it, she probably knew it already. He was not going to apologize for worrying.

 

Mark said nothing, not wanting his presence known. He went to the kitchen and pulled a bottle of Maker’s Mark from the cabinet. He poured himself a liberal shot and stood over the sink, staring out the window into the back yard. For security reasons, they’d left the yard lights on. He leaned over and flipped a switch. The only glow now came from two tall lamps on either side of the deck, and the soft lights of the pool.

 

He heard Ken leave. Probably going home for some sleep, leaving Bailey to watch over Austin and Payge for a little while. Mark understood his need for a break. He heard the sound of Ken’s truck fade into the distance. Bailey was being quiet. Every few minutes, Mark heard the soft sound of paper rustling. She was still going over her notes.

 

He wanted to go to her, but decided against it. Mark realized he’d come across as some overbearing jerk earlier, but had not been able to help it. He knew what Copeland was capable of, and he would NOT see Bailey being victimized by him. It was bad enough he’d gotten to Austin…Mark shook his head. What had happened to Austin could not be helped, it was too late to stop it. It was, however, a perfect time to make sure nothing like that ever happened again.

 

Mark put the whiskey away and quietly went out the back door. The clouds had finally cleared away. The night sky twinkled with millions of stars, the air clear. It was warm but not stifling as it had been the last few weeks. He moved across the deck and went to the edge of the pool, staring into the cool blue water. Without hesitating, he yanked his shirt off, tossing it onto the concrete that surrounded the pool. His shorts were shoved off his hips. Mark dove into the water, swimming to the middle before surfacing and floating on his back.

 

Usually when he was agitated, he worked out until he dropped. It was too late for that. With a deep breath, he began swimming laps in the pool, his arms cutting the water with little noise, from one end to the other and back again.

 

He paused for a break fifteen minutes after starting, satisfied at the warmth in his body created by the exercise. He leaned his arms against the edge of the pool and let his body float, weightless.

 

“I don’t see a lifeguard on duty out here.”

 

Bailey’s voice made him jump. Mark glanced over his shoulder, watching as she walked the perimeter of the pool.

 

“Don’t need one.” He finally said, because it felt as if SOMETHING needed to be said. Bailey came to a halt in front of him, looking down with a smirk.

 

“Tell me you are NOT skinny dippin’.” She said with a giggle.

 

Mark shrugged. “Didn’t wanna get my suit wet.” He said wryly. “Wanna join me?”

 

Bailey studied him for a moment. “I’d love to, but I’m on the clock.”

 

Mark sighed. “You avoid the water. Can you swim?”

 

Bailey seemed surprised by the question. “Well…yeah. I was raised near a lake. I could swim before I could walk. Or so my mother tells the story.”

 

“Is it the scar? Cuz I’ve already seen it. You don’t have to hide it from me.” Mark stated bluntly. After acting like an ass earlier, he could not seem to help pushing her buttons a bit more. He cursed himself even as he did it.

 

Bailey shook her head. She was not going to be baited into another argument…err…discussion with him. She had to mentally correct herself. “I’m not too hot on the idea of your niece or sister waking up and seeing us naked in the pool.”

 

Mark chuckled. “Payge is sleepin’ in Austin’s room, and Austin’s room doesn’t have a window on this side.” He gestured to the house. Austin’s window faced the side yard.

 

“Maybe some other time.” Bailey said with a smile. If Mark could push, so could she. Although she was more into pushing him away than pushing him to an argument. “I still have some things to think about. And somebody has to sit in the house and listen for random noises. Enjoy your swim.” With that she turned on her heel and walked away.

 

Mark cursed under his breath and levered himself out of the water. He caught up to her on the steps, unaware he was naked, dripping water everywhere. He’d managed to hurt her. He didn’t quite know how he had done it, he only knew that he did not like how that made him feel. He grabbed Bailey’s arm and turned her to face him.

 

“Bailey…”

 

 “I didn’t bring a change of clothes.” She said softly, twisting her arm from his grip before he could soak her.

 

“So?” Mark huffed. He stared down at her. With another heavy sigh, he relaxed, a look of utter defeat on his face. “Bailey…damn it…I’m sorry.”

 

“Good start.” She smiled sweetly.

 

“I didn’t mean to question ya about how you do things, all right? I just…I don’t wanna see anything happen to you.” Mark’s eyes were pleading. Bailey felt a little of her anger fading.

 

“Nothing happened. The asshole was just the asshole, and I managed to leave with him thinkin’ I wanted more.” Bailey said softly. Mark felt his stomach twist at her words. She seemed to sense it. “There’s an old saying…keep your friends close…”

 

“And your enemies closer.” Mark finished, nodding.

 

“As long as he thinks he has a shot with me, he’s distracted from finding Austin and Payge. It buys us a little more time to try to find something, anything, to pin on him to make him go away for a very long time.” Bailey said, wanting Mark to really understand why she was forced to even think about spending time with Copeland.

 

“Austin says he has a really hard time taking no for an answer.” Mark said worriedly.

 

Bailey grinned. “That’s only because he’s never butted heads with me before.” She stepped closer to Mark, looking up at him. “From now on, if he wants to meet, Glen is going to be nearby.”

 

“Glen?” Mark asked, frowning a bit. He remembered the cop from the station. If Bailey had needed backup she could have easily asked Mark to do it. He would have been glad to help out.

 

Bailey once again surprised him by reading his thoughts. “It works out better that it’s Glen, since he’s a cop. We were partners for a while on the force…he knows how I work. Copeland thinks we’re married.” She said with a smirk. Mark did not smile in return. Bailey hesitated. “Can I tell you something that won’t be shared with anybody else?”

 

Mark nodded. “You can tell me anything, Bailey.”

 

“Glen…” She faltered, seemed to gather her thoughts, then went on. “Glen’s had to deal with a few situations that involved slippery assholes. He didn’t necessarily follow the law to the letter in dealing with the people he was after.”

 

Mark raised an eyebrow. “You mean he…took it into his own hands?”

 

Bailey nodded. Glen had shared a few things with her while they had brainstormed at the office. Bailey had been stunned to silence, but had understood why Glen had done what he’d done. Sometimes there was nothing else that could be done. Glen knew that better than any other person on the planet.

 

“There was a case…about four years ago…” Bailey licked her lips, wondering if she should tell, knowing to really gain Mark’s trust she’d have to. “This kid showed up at a local hospital, beaten from head to toe. She’d been…molested…” Bailey struggled with the word. It did not seem to encompass all that had happened. “It was not a recent thing either. This girl was four years old. FOUR.” She emphasized it. “Everybody knew the stepfather did it. That smug bastard all but confessed. In the end, he got off because the arresting officers forgot to file one damn page of a report. The little girl…” Bailey hitched in a breath. She feared she would not be able to go on. When Glen had told her this story earlier, she’d managed to keep dry eyes. But now that it was her voice, and she had to sort the details in her mind, she was choking on the words.

 

“Bailey?” Mark said her name softly after a few minutes had passed. He already knew where this was going, any fool could see it, but he had to hear it for himself to really believe it.

 

“The little girl got sent back home from foster care.” Bailey finally spit out. “Two weeks later, Glen catches a call. He was at his desk with the non-emergency line rang. So he answered it. The little girl was told never to dial 911, but she memorized the station number just in case…” She shook her head. “Glen said he was confused at first, and had to look up her name. When he got back on the line, the girl was crying, saying her stepfather was at it again, that he’d done something very painful to her…” She gave Mark a meaningful look. Mark understood what she meant without having to ask. The thought made him feel sick to his stomach.

 

“So Glen went over there. The girl…the girl was sitting on the porch, crying…and Glen said she was bleeding…there was blood all over her shorts and down her legs.” Bailey hitched in a breath. “So he told her to wait there and went inside the house. The asshole was sitting in the living room, eating, watching TV. When he saw Glen, he got all smug again, talking about how the girl did it to herself for attention. Glen knew that he’d get off again…the guy stood up and was ranting and raving about how the girl was nothing but a troublemaker. Then he started ranting about how he had…he had…used her little body. Glen…snapped I guess. He shot the guy.”

 

Mark stood there stunned. He had known it was coming, had sensed it from the very beginning, but to hear it said out loud…

 

“In the end, the other cops made themselves believe the guy had pulled a gun on Glen first. Glen said he was not the one who started that story. The other officers did it to protect him, because they knew the guy would have gotten away with it again. They turned a blind eye because in the end Glen had done what should have been done in the first place.” She took a deep breath.

 

“Bailey…” Mark hesitated. “Why? Why would he tell you that? And why would you want to tell me?”

 

“Because you have to understand…” Bailey bit her lip. “Glen was talking tonight. He was making a lot of sense. This thing with Copeland might not end with a nice clean arrest and a long prison sentence. We might have to take drastic measures to end it once and for all. I don’t wanna do it that way, I don’t know if I CAN do it that way, but we have to be prepared to do whatever it takes to end this.”

 

Mark gripped her shoulders, staring down into her eyes, trying to gauge how serious she was. He nodded slowly. “Somewhere deep down inside…hell…even sometimes at the top of my mind…I kinda figures it would have to be something harsh to rid Austin of this freak, Bailey.” He paused, taking a deep breath. “Is Glen…is he willing to help us?” Mark finally asked.

 

“Glen is…” Bailey half-smiled. “Vigilante comes to mind. The kid and her stepfather was not the only time where he had to break a law to uphold a law. He said he’d do whatever he had to do for us, for Austin, for Payge. I believe him. I’m willing go that far too, if it comes to that.”

 

Mark closed his eyes, not knowing how he felt about that. How many times had he dreamed about choking the life out of Copeland, of killing him for all he’d done to his family? There was no way to count. Would a jail sentence be enough to rid their lives of him? Mark knew it was not. Copeland would get out madder than he’d gone in, and then they’d all be in trouble. He opened his eyes and met Bailey’s gaze.

 

“I’ll do whatever I have to do to stop him.” He said with conviction. “If it means his blood on my hands, then so be it. I’ll live with it. He’s not touching Austin or Payge. I’d die first. And I’d sure as hell take him with me.”

 

Bailey nodded. “Good. Because…I’m not too proud to tell you that the thought of having to kill somebody is scarin’ me to fuckin’ death.” Mark could feel her shiver under his hands. He pulled her against him, mindless of his nakedness, of the water that dripped from him. Bailey wrapped her arms around his waist. “He’s not going to touch them, Mark. I promise you that. They’ll be safe forever, no matter what I have to do to make it happen.”

 

Mark sighed and stroked her back. He hoped it would not come to something drastic, but knew it was an empty hope. Copeland would not go down easily. It didn’t take a genius to see how slippery the man was, how careful he was about staying out of the eye of police. Mark swallowed hard and wondered if he really had it in him to kill a man, no matter what the circumstances required.

 

20

 

Bailey finally went to bed that afternoon, so exhausted she could barely crawl under the blanket. She was in Mark’s room, the blinds drawn against bright sunlight, asleep almost before her head touched the pillow.

 

Mark sat with her for a while, just watching her sleep. He was scared for her. He could not hide his concern over Copeland’s interest in her. She was right that it was buying Austin some time, but still…the situation did not sit well with Mark. He heaved a sigh and let himself out of the bedroom.

 

Payge was at the kitchen table, crayons and coloring books spread across the surface. Mark ruffled her hair, making her groan in annoyance, before taking a seat across from her. “How are ya, kiddo?” He asked.

 

Payge grinned at him in answer. Austin was out on the deck, cleaning the grill, doing mindless busywork. Mark understood the feeling. He felt like doing…something…but did not know what.

 

Ken still wasn’t back. Mark thought part of Austin’s agitation was directly related to that. She’d gotten used to having the other man around-more than that-she liked having him around. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that his sister had a bit of a crush on her protector. Even Payge was taken with him.

 

“You want some coffee?” Austin’s voice drew Mark from his thoughts.

 

Mark glanced at his sister. “No. Thanks. I might try to take a nap. I’m a little tired.”

 

“Well, go on. We’ll be fine.” Austin waved her hand in the direction of the bedrooms. Mark sighed and rose to his feet. He’d only gotten a few steps when the phone rang. He picked up the cordless handset as he moved out of the kitchen, saying hello almost before he had the phone against his ear.

 

“Hello. Is Bailey there?” The deep voice was vaguely familiar. Mark frowned and went into the living room, sitting down on the couch.

 

“Who is this?” He asked instead of answering the question.

 

“Oh. Sorry. This is Glen. I think we met yesterday.”

 

Mark sighed in relief. “Yeah, I remember ya. She’s here, but she’s sleeping.”

 

Glen chuckled. “That’s a relief. I tried her cell phone but it went straight to voice mail. Had me worried for a minute. She gave me your phone number…” He trailed off, not sure how to explain. Mark didn’t need an explanation of how Glen got the number.

 

“Is something wrong?” Mark asked, leaning back on the couch.

 

“Well…”

 

At the other man’s hesitation, Mark groaned. “What is it? What happened?”

 

Glen sighed. “I stopped by her office a few minutes ago. I’m sitting outside right now as a matter of fact. I don’t wanna freak anybody out, but it looks like the place got broken into.”

 

“What?” Mark sat up straight, frowning thunderously.

 

“The glass door is busted. I didn’t go in, because I didn’t know what Bailey wanted to do about it. Uh…it can’t be random. That’s not the feelin’ I get.” Glen said softly.

 

“What do you mean?” Mark asked, rubbing the bridge of his nose worriedly.

 

“I mean…if this was the kind of business where a bit of ready cash were kept on hand, yeah, some kids could have broken in. But Bailey doesn’t keep money here. Just her paperwork and computers. Seems to me somebody wanted to get at their files.”

 

“Christ…” Mark muttered. “I’m not waking her up. She needs to rest. I’ll meet you down there.”

 

“Do you know what files she kept here?” Glen asked, sounding amused.

 

“I know of a few specific ones.” Mark was thinking of the folder with the papers that Copeland had given her. “I’ll call Ken. He can meet us there.”

 

“All right. I’ll be waiting.” Glen said goodbye. Mark held the phone for a moment before rising to his feet and going into the kitchen.

 

“I hate to do this…” He began, trying to hide his concern. Austin gave him an amused look.

 

“Was that the shop? What’s wrong?”

 

Mark shook his head. “Something’s come up. I have to go out for a little while.”

 

Austin waved her hand. “Go on. We’ll be fine.”

 

“You’re sure?”

 

“Of course. I’m not completely helpless…besides, Bailey is right up the hallway. I’m sure I can get her up if something happens. Which nothing will.” Austin said, her tone sure. Mark nodded.

 

“All right. I’ll have my cell phone. Call me if you need anything, you hear me?”

 

“Yes, worrywart.” Austin grinned. It felt fake to her but Mark seemed soothed. Something was up. She knew that Mark would not just tell her what was going on, especially when it seemed he wasn’t sure himself. Mark gathered his keys and phone and dropped a quick kiss on Payge’s head before leaving. He reminded Austin to stay inside and keep the doors locked. She did so without a word.

 

As soon as he had the truck started, Mark called Ken. He answered in a sleepy voice, waking up fully when Mark told him what had happened. Ken agreed to be at the office in fifteen minutes. Mark tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and sped toward town.

 

He made the half hour drive in ten minutes. He pulled up in front of the office, shutting the engine off even as he opened the door to climb out. Glen was standing at the door, hands in his pockets, baseball hat tipped forward over his eyes. He nodded to Mark as he walked closer. Mark took in the damage. Someone had busted the window in the door. Glass littered both sides of the door.

 

“Why the hell would somebody break into a private investigator’s office?” Mark asked instead of greeting the other man. Glen took it in stride. He shrugged.

 

“Better question is…why would they smash the door?”

 

“To get inside.” Mark stated, looking around. The street was quiet.

 

“Well that would make sense except for one thing. The office isn’t trashed.”

 

“What does that have to do with anything?” Mark asked, mimicking Glen’s posture.

 

“Seems to me…the door getting smashed in instead of just picking the lock…that’s a show of anger. But I peeked inside. There’s nothing out of sorts. Just the busted door to show somebody was here.”

 

Mark shook his head. He had no clue what it could mean, and knew that Glen didn’t either. A truck lurched to a halt at the curb and Ken hopped out. His hair was still wet from the quick shower he’d taken before leaving the house.

 

“Fuck. What a mess.” He was looking with distaste at the glass on the ground. “Been in there yet?”

 

Glen shook his head. “Waitin’ for you.” He gestured. Ken muttered and stepped over the busted door, going into the darkened office.

 

Glen was right. There was absolutely nothing out of sorts. The computers were turned off, but still sat on the desks. Nothing had been smashed. Ken looked around, hands on his hips, tapping his foot thoughtfully.

 

Glen and Mark had followed him inside. Mark had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something there was not right, besides the glass being busted. If Glen was right, if it was just a sign of anger, there was only one person he could think of that would want to lash out at Bailey.

 

“She put his file in the top drawer of her desk.” Mark stated, his voice a monotone. Ken and Glen both looked at him. Ken caught on first.

 

“Copeland? You think Copeland busted the window?”

 

Mark shrugged. Glen was rubbing his chin thoughtfully.

 

“She did put the file there after we decided to call it a night.” Glen saw the looks the other men gave him. “After her…date…last night, I came back here with her and we brainstormed. She showed me the papers that asshole had given her.” He explained, pointing to the desk.

 

Ken sighed and moved to stand next to the desk. He pulled open the drawer. It was empty. So were the other two, save a few personal items of Bailey’s, some office supplies, and some forms. There was no folder.

 

“She didn’t bring it to the house last night, did she?” Mark asked. He remembered Bailey looking at some papers the night before.

 

Ken shook his head. “Nah. She had her notebook. We were goin’ over her notes. Fuck.” He slammed the drawer shut. “So we gotta assume Copeland was here. But why? He gave her that folder.”

 

Glen looked troubled. “Who knows?” He threw up his hands. “The guy’s not playin’ with a full deck. Maybe he wanted to get the papers before she realized they were fakes. Maybe he’s just tryin’ to play mind games.” Either scenario sounded plausible.

 

“So what do we do?” Mark asked, crossing his arms. In truth, what he wanted to do was track Copeland down and snap the fucker’s neck.

 

Glen seemed to catch a bit of that thought. He half-smiled, that thoughtful look never leaving his face. “If he’s escalating, you know that Bailey is going to be a target now too. I think last night might have pushed him too much. He doesn’t like being denied what he wants.”

 

“So he’s snapping cuz Bailey convinced him she’s married?” Ken asked, leaning on Bailey’s desk.

 

“Maybe. Or maybe he’s doing research of his own and finding out that she’s not.” Glen sighed. “We should head back to your house.” He was looking at Mark. “I don’t like the idea of leaving her alone right now. Or your sister or niece.”

 

“Yeah. Me either.” Mark led the way out of the office. Ken took out his cell phone and called up someone he knew to fix the window. There was nothing else they could do there. They each took separate vehicles as Mark led the way back home, worrying the whole way about the confusing situation that had fallen into his lap.

 

21

 

“Something’s not right.”

 

Glen was still mulling it over, sitting on a lounge chair by the pool. He’d decided to stick around Mark’s house while Bailey and Ken took care of getting their glass replaced at the office.

 

Mark found the other man easy to be around. Glen was soft-spoken most of the time, and did not feel like he had to talk through every silence that came along. The two of them were drinking beer by the pool as the sun dropped low on the horizon.

 

“Nothin’ been right around here in a long time.” Mark commented, because it seemed like Glen’s statement required one.

 

Glen shook his head and finished his bottle, setting it aside before speaking again. “That’s a given. I’m talkin’ about recent stuff. The break in mostly. It doesn’t make sense. Why would he steal something he gave to her? Why not just ask for it back?”

 

Mark shrugged. “I’ve said before…there’s no way of knowin’ how this asshole thinks.” He looked at the water thoughtfully.

 

“You’re worried about her.” It was not a question.

 

Mark shrugged again. “She told me not to. Which means I’m worryin’ even more.” He said, a wry lilt to his voice. Glen chuckled.