Chapters 1-5 of TROUBLE WALKS IN

Ronan and Maddy’s book comes out TOMORROW! I can’t wait for you to get your hands on this book, so here are the first five chapters!

“I noticed you too. More than that, hon- estly. You were the one girl I wanted who wanted noth- ing to do with me.”

Prologue

The boy had been missing for twelve hours, and Ronan McGuire knew better than anyone that if they didn’t find the kid soon, the search could end in the worst possible way. It had been an unusually cold November, and when little David Newhart wandered away from his parents this morning in the park, he hadn’t been wearing a coat. The sun had gone down hours ago, and the temperature was close to freezing.

Ronan’s partner grew increasingly agitated as they climbed the steep incline of the hill near Turtle Pond, and hope fired brightly in Ronan’s chest. He knew the dog’s signals and could read him better than he could most people.

The boy was close.

Bowser whined loudly and tugged harder on the long leash, and Ronan swore under his breath. The enormous bloodhound had the best nose in the tristate area. Once he detected a scent, he rarely—if ever—failed to find what he was looking for. He tilted his snout to the air before spearing it back to the ground and turning left. Bowser’s lanky brown-and-black-furred body quivered with excitement, the way it did whenever the trail grew stronger.

The scent article they’d given Bowser, the missing boy’s hat, had given him a solid lead to follow, but this was more an art than a science. David had been missing for hours, and the gusty winds of late November had been blowing hard, making the search-and-rescue job that much more difficult. Well, for Ronan, it was a job. For Bowser, it was more like playing a big game of hide-and-seek. And there was nothing his dog loved more than finding what he was looking for.

Bowser kept his nose to the ground and trotted to the left toward a long stone wall. He followed the scent through the brush and dried leaves in an almost sideways direction along a wooded section of Central Park. Bowser was one of the most talented bloodhounds on the force and could detect scents up to a week old if he had to.

Tension settled in Ronan’s shoulders, and his muscles bunched as he wrapped the leather lead tighter around his hand. He scanned the area ahead, and a tickle of panic glimmered in his chest as it sometimes did when he was searching for a missing kid. Faint memories from years ago bubbled to the surface. He knew exactly how this little boy was feeling. Alone. Terrified. Cold.

“David?” Ronan shouted. “I’m Officer Ronan McGuire with the NYPD. Your mom and dad are worried about you. David, can you hear me?”

The wind whistling by his ears was the only answer. The glimmer of hope began to fade right before Bowser whimpered and made a sudden turn to the right, his long, sword-like tail bouncing wildly as he picked up the pace. A bitter gust of wind whisked through the woods, sending a chill up Ronan’s spine. Shit. Please let the kid be okay. Bowser dodged around a massive elm tree, and Ronan ran around behind him.

“David!”

That was when he spotted a dark lump…and it moved. Ronan’s heart thundered in his chest. He shone his flashlight over the area, and the breath rushed from his lungs. Got him. David was curled up in a ball in a pile of leaves at the base of the tree. Bowser barked and went right over, sniffing and licking at the boy before sitting down beside him protectively.

“I wanna go home,” David whimpered as he placed one quivering hand onto Bowser’s paw. “I want my mommy.”

“I gotcha, David.” Ronan squatted down and took off his coat before quickly wrapping it around the kid. “Bowser and I are gonna get you back to your mom and dad. They’re worried sick about you.”

“I’m cold.”

“I know, pal, but you’re safe now. Everything’s gonna be okay.”

He started rubbing the boy’s arms, but Bowser moved in and lay down right next to the kid, practically on top of him. David giggled through his sniffles and swiped at his eyes before snuggling up to the dog. Bowser was panting heavily, his long, pink tongue dangling from the side of his open mouth. The damn dog looked like he was smiling.

“Good boy.” Ronan repeated the phrase a few times, scratched Bowser’s ears, and gave him the praise he expected. “Nice job, buddy.”

Bowser licked his hand quickly, as though returning the kudos. Ronan crouched next to his panting K-9 and radioed for the other officers in the area.

Ronan loved his job, especially when it had a happy ending.

Chapter 1

“I told you that I’d be there, and I meant it.” Maddy Morgan pressed the iPhone harder against her ear. She was attempting to block out the sounds beyond her office door while her best friend pestered her to within an inch of her life. “I’m your maid of honor, for heaven’s sake. What? You think I’m gonna bail after everything you and Gavin have been through? Hell no!”

“Okay, well, you can’t blame me for double-checking, can you?” Jordan hesitated, her voice concerned. “We’ve hardly spoken. I mean, you haven’t been home since… It’s been over a year and…”

Maddy stared out the window that overlooked the hustle and bustle of Manhattan and sucked in a deep breath, her friend’s unfinished thought hanging in the air. She nibbled her lower lip and fought the sudden, unexpected swell of emotion. It had been fifteen months since Rick died and a full year since she had been back to the town she’d always called home.

At least, she had until recently.

“I know,” Maddy said quietly.

She swallowed the lump in her throat and refused to cry. She’d cried enough at Rick’s funeral and during the weeks following. No more tears. If Rick were here, he would tell her to put on her big girl panties and get on with life.

“I’m not missing your wedding,” she said firmly. “Jeez, Jordan. You and Gavin have waited sixteen years to finally get hitched. Hell, you two would have gotten married last Christmas if it weren’t for me.”

“That’s not true,” Jordan said firmly.

“Bull.” Maddy laughed.

“Okay, well, it wasn’t the only reason.” Jordan replied. “Gavin’s parents wanted to throw us a huge Christmas wedding, and four months wouldn’t have been enough time to pull it all together. Deciding to wait a year has been a win-win. My future mother-in-law had plenty of time to do her thing, and we all had time to properly grieve for Rick. But I’m still worried about you…”

“I’m fine, Jordan, and I promise… I’m gonna be there to witness your dream coming true.”

“Okay, but—”

“No buts.”

“Yo, Maddy.” The increasingly irritating voice of Chris Drummond shot into the room as he barged in. “That blond, the Brenda chick—are you gonna to take her out to an open house this weekend, or should I? And what about those newlyweds? I know you’ve been slammed. I could take them out to see the new listings, if you want.”

“Hang on, Jordan,” Maddy said tightly.

She covered the phone with her hand and leveled an irritated gaze at her colleague. She knew that Terrence, the owner of the realty agency, had hired Drummond because he had an amazing reputation for selling and one of the best portfolios in the business, but he was a letch. A letch that thought anyone with boobs wanted him. Maddy had learned a long time ago that big talent usually meant even bigger egos.

Unfortunately, this talent was also turning out to be an asshole. She had already reported him once to Terrence for inappropriate advances on the young women in the office. Big talent or not, he was making her tired of him and his misogynistic bullshit. And lately, there had been attempts to steal her clients.

“Did you happen to notice that my door was closed?”

“Yeah.” He leaned in the doorway with his usual casual arrogance. Tall, slim, well dressed, and always perfectly coiffed, he was considered good-looking by most. But the air of entitlement he wore like a cloak was a turnoff as far as Maddy was concerned. Besides, she would never date a colleague.

“I’m on a call.”

“Right.” He jutted his thumb over his shoulder. “Anyway, should I take that Brenda chick out and, uh, show her the ropes? We could take the newlyweds, the, uh…”

“The Bartholemews,” Maddy finished for him. “No, I can handle my client list. Thank you.”

“Fine, then let me take Brenda out.”

The smarmy smile on his face gave Maddy pause. He’d been hitting on the assistants, who were savvy New Yorkers and more than capable of handling themselves, but now he was moving on to the young real estate agent. Brenda was a recent college grad from the Midwest. She was pretty, smart, and naive.

A prime target for a guy like Drummond.

“No,” Maddy said firmly. “Terrence asked me to handle her training. Thank you, and please close the door on your way out.”

His smile faded, and a hard, cold look settled in his eyes. Maddy had moved up the ranks quickly since joining Cosmopolitan Realty House, and her rise hadn’t gone unnoticed by Drummond. He hated not being number one, but she suspected that being second to a woman was a bigger insult.

“Sure thing,” he murmured.

Drummond left but neglected to shut the door. Maddy crossed the room, pausing only to tell Sharon, her assistant, to hold her other calls before she closed her door once more.

“Sorry about that, Jordan.” She caught a glimpse of her reflection in the window and grimaced before running one hand through her unruly brown curls. “I’m coming into town a week before the wedding so I can help you with whatever you need. Y’know, all that bridesmaid stuff. I mean, I’m not a real girlie girl, but it’ll be fun to hang out. And tell Gavin he better not try to horn in on our girls’ night out. It might only be the two of us, but there’s a no-boys-allowed rule in effect for that event.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that,” Jordan said through a chuckle. “All four of his brothers are coming in early as well. From what I hear, Ronan has quite the bachelor party planned. Speaking of Ronan, why don’t you two ride back to Old Brookfield together? I mean, you’re both in the city, and he is the best man.”

“Yeah, that’s not gonna happen. I’ll take my own car, thank you very much. I’m staying at the Old Brookfield Inn, and Ronan will be at his parents’ house, obviously.” Maddy’s eyes narrowed, and the smile on her face grew. “Your matchmaking scheme hasn’t worked, Jordan. But I’ll give you and Gavin an A for effort.”

“What are you talking about?” Jordan asked with feigned innocence. “When you moved to the city last year, Gavin merely suggested that Ronan should look out for you. He’s been a cop there for over a decade. Besides, I heard through the McGuire brother grapevine that you two have been going running on the weekends, so Ronan can’t be all bad.”

Nope. –That was half the problem. He was exactly the right kind of bad.

They had gone jogging in Central Park almost every weekend for the past several months, but Maddy had made it clear from the start: she wasn’t interested in dating. Not him, nor anyone else. Friends? Sure. Romance? No way.

Her heart couldn’t take another turn through the shredder. Dating a cop, just because he also happened to be one of the sexiest men God ever put on this earth, would not be a smart move.

Besides, Ronan had a reputation as a total ladies’ man.

Not that she could blame any woman for taking a ride on that handsome train. When he flashed that lopsided grin and his bluish-green eyes crinkled at the corners, it took superwoman strength for Maddy not to drop her panties. He was a combination of mischievous little boy and irresistible alpha male—a deadly pairing.

Ronan McGuire was wickedly sexy. The worst part was that he knew it.

“Well, yeah,” Maddy said quickly. She sat at her desk and spun the chair to face the window so she could see the rest of the world. Living and working in this city made her feel like a rat in a cage sometimes. “Running around, getting sweaty, and panting in the cold is not exactly dating, Jordan.”

“Sweaty and panting sounds promising,” Jordan teased.

Maddy’s face flushed. “That’s not what I meant.” She quickly added, “I was talking about Bowser.”

“Sure,” her friend said slowly. “Sure you were.”

“You know Ronan doesn’t go anywhere without that dog. Speaking of which, are you prepared to have a drooling animal at your wedding?”

“Oh fine, change the subject.” Jordan sighed. “Any chance I can talk you into coming for Thanksgiving?”

“Sorry, babe. I’m slammed.”

“Then how about staying for Christmas? The wedding is on the twenty-third. Come on. Please? The girls would love it,” she said, referring to her two adorable daughters. “You’re going to be here for a week, so what’s a couple more days? You said they were closing your office between Christmas and New Year’s anyway.”

Maddy had never been part of big family holidays, and that had been fine with her, but the pleading tone in Jordan’s voice was starting to make her rethink her decision.

“You know the holidays were never a big deal for me, Jordan. My mom hated celebrating them after my dad died, and then once she was gone, I didn’t really want to. And besides,” she added quickly, “Rick and I never even got a tree or anything. He was always working, and so was I.”

“I know, but I hate to think of you alone in that big city on Christmas. Again. It’s bad enough you wouldn’t come last year. Please think about it?”

“I’m hosting a huge New Year’s Eve party for my clients—it’s at my apartment.”

“You could leave on the twenty-sixth and still be back in plenty of time to be party ready,” Jordan persisted. “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to call bullshit on that excuse. You and I both know your assistant already has the whole shindig tied up and ready to go.”

Jordan was right. The party was a lame reason not to spend the holiday with them. Besides, it was all being catered, and the invitations had been sent. What did Maddy really have to do other than show up and schmooze? And what was here for her on Christmas? She didn’t even have a cat or a fish to feed.

Ugh. She felt more pathetic by the second.

“Okay,” Maddy said with a dramatic sigh. “I’ll think about it. Jeez, when did you become such a nudge?”

“Since I had two children and learned that being a nudge can sometimes be quite effective.”

A knock on Maddy’s door sent a flicker of irritation up her back. But when she spun around, Sharon’s tearstained face stopped her cold.

“Girl, I have to go.” A knot of dread curled in her gut. “I’ll see you in a few weeks. Give Gracie and Lilly a kiss from Aunt Maddy.”

Maddy hit End and set the phone on her desk. Her legs felt like Jell-O as she rose to her feet. Sharon was still weeping while she closed the door behind her, and before it shut, Maddy saw two of the other agents in the office crying.

“Sharon, what is it?”

“Th-they found her.”

“Who?” Maddy asked shakily, her fingertips pressing into the mahogany desk. But she knew the answer before Sharon said it.

“Lucille Bowman.” The young woman swiped at her eyes and let out a shuddering sob. “She’s dead.”

***

A haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace” spilled from the organ filling the small church, and Maddy wiped the tears from her eyes. The last time she’d heard this song had been at Rick’s funeral. A new surge of sadness and grief welled up inside as the pallbearers carried Lucille’s casket silently toward the open double doors.

The sounds of the city spilled in, buzzing beneath the mournful melody—a bitter reminder of how cruel life was. The world outside went on as though nothing had happened. While Lucille’s death had barely been noted on the evening news, it was far more personal for Maddy and her coworkers. According to police, the last call Lucille had made was to her husband, saying she was going to meet a client at an open house. The client had called the office later that day to say Lucille had never arrived.

Lucille’s husband kept his vacant gaze fixed to the ground. He lumbered silently behind his late wife’s casket, seemingly unaware of anyone or anything around him. Grief and shock clung to him like an invisible shroud. Maddy knew that feeling all too well.

He and Lucille didn’t have any children and, according to a few of the other realtors, had been married only a couple of years. People said that as though it would somehow make his loss less horrible. Did the amount of time he and Lucille had been together even matter? One year or ten, a loss was a loss.

The remaining mourners filed out, all of them in various states of grief, but Maddy remained quietly in the back row. She had spoken with Lucille only a few times, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to pay her respects—but without overstepping her bounds. The little church in Old Brookfield had been full for Rick’s funeral. Even though she couldn’t possibly have said who was there and who wasn’t, the presence of every individual was a comfort to her. The least she could do was offer the same to Lucille’s husband.

After everyone had left, Maddy rose to her feet and slipped out of the pew. She could still go to the burial and reception afterward. The invitation had been extended to everyone at the end of the service. But those events felt like they were for close friends and family, and Maddy didn’t qualify for either role. No, it was probably best if she dragged her butt back to work. After all, it wasn’t like she had anyone waiting for her back at her apartment.

Maddy tugged her black wool coat closed and tied the sash, bracing herself for the brisk air that awaited her outside. As she passed, she gave a polite smile and nod to one of the ministers rearranging some pamphlets in the vestibule.

Life went on, it would seem, even for the clergy.

When Maddy pushed open the heavy wooden door, a gust of brisk November wind rushed over her, making her suck in a sharp breath. Why did this city seem cruel and cold at every turn? The stubborn wind had pulled several strands of her curly hair free from her lame attempt at an updo. She pushed her unruly locks from her eyes and started down the stone steps, prepared to go back to her desk and stare at the computer. She had cleared her calendar today, but returning to an empty apartment was simply too depressing an option. At least at the office, she’d have the illusion of not being alone.

Maddy had made up her mind to hail a cab by the time she reached the sidewalk, but when she saw who was waiting for her, she stopped short.

Not much surprised her in Manhattan anymore—she’d seen just about everything in her year living here, including a woman walking a ferret on a leash, a naked homeless guy streaking down Park Avenue, and an old man strolling through Central Park with a squawking parrot on his shoulder.

But she never expected to find this.

Standing beside a lamppost, brimming with confidence and with his K-9 partner by his side, was Ronan McGuire. Dressed in his dark-blue NYPD uniform, he looked every bit the ruggedly handsome hero that he was. His cap obscured her view of his thick ebony hair, but those pale bluish-green eyes peered at her from beneath a furrowed brow. His tall, broad-shouldered frame was covered from head to toe against the bitter air, and the bulletproof vest he wore only served to accentuate his size.

How did Ronan manage to look devastatingly gorgeous in a standard-issue uniform? She’d seen plenty of other cops in this city, but not one of them hummed with masculine sexuality the way Ronan did. He reeked of calm control and steely strength. On the surface, he was cool and steady, but beneath was a distinctly powerful energy. She knew, without a doubt, that he could burst into action in a split second.

The guys brushing past her on Park Avenue, the ones dressed in thousand-dollar suits, didn’t look half as sexy as Ronan did in his uniform.

I bet he looks pretty good out of it too.

Bowser, an enormous bloodhound who seemed to delight in startling Maddy whenever possible, barked loudly. She flinched as Ronan’s constant companion interrupted her naughty train of thought, and her face heated. How long had she been standing there staring at him? Based on the slight smirk curving Ronan’s lips, it was longer than she’d like to admit.

“Hey,” Maddy said, trying to collect herself. She crossed the sidewalk to greet Ronan but kept a healthy distance from the two of them. “What are you doing here? Did you just happen to be in the neighborhood? Because if I’m not mistaken, this isn’t your usual haunting ground.”

“This is most definitely not my neighborhood. Too rich for my blood,” Ronan scoffed. He gathered Bowser’s leash, wrapping it around his hand, before he pushed himself off the post and inched closer. “Our shift starts in a couple of hours. We came to check on you.”

Her gaze flicked briefly to Bowser. He was staring at her as usual. She had never met an animal as tuned in to people as he was. But then, he was a search-and-rescue K-9, so tuning in was part of his job.

“Me?” Maddy stilled. “I’m fine, really,” she said in a shakier voice than she expected.

Even she didn’t believe it. Nope. Not okay.

“Your friend was murdered, and you just attended her funeral.” Ronan leaned in and lowered his voice. “Don’t give me that. There’s not a damn fine thing about this whole crappy situation.”

Something in Maddy’s chest crumbled a little at the tenderness in his voice. How long had it been since someone had expressed concern for her well-being? It felt like forever. Still, she suspected there was more to it than that.

“You’ve seen things like this before,” Maddy whispered. “Does it ever get any easier?”

“No,” he said quietly. Bowser whined and licked Ronan’s hand in a sweet, almost reassuring gesture. “Sucks every time. Nothing easy about it.”

Ronan and Bowser had been part of searches that ended badly. He’d obviously been affected by those experiences, and knowing that he’d remained unjaded by the cruelty of his job somehow made him even more attractive.

Bowser, who was sitting dutifully at Ronan’s feet, let out a low whine and snuffled loudly. Sometimes Maddy was convinced that dog was more human than half the people in this city.

“No…I don’t imagine there would be.” Maddy adjusted the purse slung over her shoulder, trying to squash a fresh swell of emotion. She pulled her leather gloves from her pocket and tugged them on while avoiding Ronan’s inquisitive stare. “I mean, it’s sad. It’s beyond sad, the whole situation is horrible, but—”

“What are you doing now?” he asked abruptly. “Everyone else is gone. Since you’re still here, I’m figuring that you opted not to go on to the burial. And knowing you, that means you’re going back to work.”

Maddy opened her mouth to argue with him but snapped it shut. He’d hit the nail on the head. Ronan’s lopsided grin widened.

“I-I have work to do,” she sputtered.

“Really?” He tilted his head and narrowed those beautiful eyes. They looked more blue today than green.

“Yes, really.”

“Because if I had to guess, I’d say you were gonna go back to that fancy office of yours and stare at your computer or surf the Internet. Maybe play some solitaire or ?”

Why, oh why, does he have to be so damn observant?

Maddy wasn’t sure if it was comforting or irritating to have someone see her so clearly. Maybe it was both? She had started to get used to the anonymity of this city, the sense of disconnection from other people. She’d left Old Brookfield to give herself distance from Rick’s memory and the well-meaning but meddlesome members of her small community.

No one here knew her past, or even cared enough to ask. Her life in Manhattan was strictly business, which made her feel safely cocooned, sheltered from painful memories. She remained insulated from having to dig past surface pleasantries. Ronan wasn’t like that. He was a cop, and his desire to find the truth was evident in everything he did.

“Well, smarty-pants.” Maddy folded her arms over her breasts, suddenly feeling exposed. “For your information, I don’t play Candy Crush.”

“Farm Heroes ?” he asked playfully.

“No,” Maddy said through a bubble of laughter. She swatted him on the arm and tried not to smile while avoiding his gaze. “I don’t do any of that stuff.”

“How about coffee?” He offered his arm and jutted his head toward the corner. “You do that, don’t you?”

“Yes,” Maddy said slowly. She flicked her gaze to his elbow and sighed dramatically. “You aren’t gonna quit until I agree to go, are you?”

“Nope.” His grin widened. “After all these years, you should know how persistent we McGuire boys are. Carolyn and Charles didn’t raise any quitters.”

“I can see that.”

“C’mon, and I won’t even try to pretend it’s a date,” Ronan prodded. He wobbled his elbow at her. “Don’t make me look bad in front of Bowser.”

“Well, I certainly wouldn’t want to be responsible for that,” she said dramaticaly. “Coffee it is.”

Maddy slipped her arm through his and shivered, the warmth of his body seeping through the layers of wool. Her gut reaction was to snuggle deeper against him and his rock-hard body, but she resisted, straightening her back. She couldn’t afford to dip beneath the surface and touch the raw emotions lingering there. That would get her nowhere, and she refused to be reduced to a weepy woman in the middle of the street. If Ronan noticed her subtle shift away from him, he didn’t comment on it.

They walked in silence, arm in arm, with the bloodhound trotting dutifully at Ronan’s side. They approached a Starbucks, but instead of crossing Fifty-Sixth Street, Ronan led her straight toward one of the street vendors.

“It’ll have to be coffee and a walk.” He jutted a thumb at his partner. “Starbucks isn’t big on having dogs in their establishments. Besides, our squad car is parked around the corner. How about coffee and a ride home?”

“That’s fine by me.” Maddy sucked in a deep breath of cold air. “Sitting in a crowded coffee shop with half the population on their laptops doesn’t sound appealing. But a walk sounds great.”

“I thought you’d say that.” He nudged her gently and smirked. “But don’t worry, I know you’re not a cheap date.”

“It’s not a date. It’s coffee.” Maddy kept her tone light. “We’ve already been through this, McGuire. I’m not dating anyone, so don’t take it personally.”

“Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

They stopped at the truck, and she slipped her arm from his before quickly shoving her hands in the pockets of her coat. The cold air slithered under her clothes with surprising speed as the warmth of his body against hers became a memory. Ronan made quick work of ordering their coffee and, to her surprise, knew exactly how she took it.

“I know it’s not that fancy French stuff you like, but it’ll do in a pinch.”

“Impressive,” Maddy said, taking the steaming cup from his hand. “You nailed it.”

“I pay attention.” Ronan slid a sidelong glance at her while he handed money to the guy in the truck. “We’ve been going for a run followed by coffee almost every week for months. What kind of a cop would I be if I couldn’t even remember how you take your coffee?”

“You love being right, don’t you?” She tilted her chin, daring him to deny it.

“Yes.” Ronan inched closer, cradling his cup in one hand and holding Bowser’s leash in the other. Confident and in total control as always. “But especially when it comes to you.”

She was about to ask him what exactly he meant by that, but Bowser started walking toward the corner. They strolled side by side, but she kept her eyes on the pedestrians ahead of them. If she looked at Ronan, he might get a peek at the conflicting swirl of emotions currently running through her.

“Okay, explain, please.” Maddy shivered again, but not from the cold. “Why do you want to be right when it comes to me?”

“Because you’re this big, bad businesswoman who acts like she’s got it all under control.”

“And I don’t?” She let out a short laugh. “Gee, thanks.”

“That’s not what I said, and definitely not what I meant.”

They stopped at the corner. Maddy was about to cross, but Ronan grabbed her arm, pulling her back just as a car blew through the light. If it hadn’t been for him, she would have gotten hit.

“Shit,” Maddy hissed. “Damn taxi drivers.”

She turned her eyes to his, and his grip on her tightened, almost imperceptibly. Maddy’s heart thundered in her chest. Was it from the near miss with the cab, or the feel of Ronan’s fingers curled around her bicep?

“I like surprising you,” he said quietly. Bowser made a snuffling sound and sat between them, but Ronan didn’t take his eyes off hers. “How am I doing so far?”

“Today?” Maddy asked quietly. “Well, to be honest, you shocked the hell out of me by showing up at the church. Why did you come?”

“Are you serious?” His brows furrowed. “I thought that would be obvious.”

“Not to me.” Maddy shook her head slowly and studied him, clutching the cardboard coffee cup with both hands.

“I figured it would be a tough day for you.” His mouth set in a tight line before he completed the thought she could practically see floating over his head. “Going to the funeral couldn’t have been easy, and I thought you could use a friend. I didn’t think you’d want to be alone.”

“I didn’t,” she whispered. “Thank you.”

The wind blew over them, sending her hair flying into her eyes. It was perfect timing, making the tears that welled up easy enough to explain away. Maddy tugged the strands of hair aside and nodded before turning her attention to the passing cars.

“See, Bowser?” Ronan scratched the bloodhound’s head, which elicited a loud bark from the dog. “Right again.”

Maddy burst out laughing in spite of the surge of emotion and wiped discreetly at her eyes. “No one likes a know-it-all, McGuire.”

“Maybe not,” he said with a wide grin. “But I still surprised you. Come on, the light changed. Let’s cross before another taxi tries to run you over.”

As they made their way to the safety of the other side, Maddy had a feeling that there would be more surprises where Ronan was concerned.

That was the part that frightened her.

Chapter 2

Ronan McGuire loved women, and until recently, he’d enjoyed a variety of them. All of that had changed when Maddy Morgan came roaring back into his life. The moment he’d laid eyes on her at his parent’s anniversary party last summer, it had been like a kick in the gut. She was as gorgeous as she’d been back in high school, and just as unattainable. As far as she’d been concerned, he had merely been the pesky brother of her best friend’s boyfriend.

Ronan would see her around town when he went home to visit over the years, but nothing had changed and she was still out of his reach. Maddy and Rick had been practically joined at the hip for years. Ronan was many things, but a home wrecker wasn’t one of them. Rick had been a good guy and he seemed to make Maddy happy, so that had been good enough for Ronan. He had never considered himself the jealous type, but every time he saw the two of them together, the green-eyed monster would rear its ugly head.

When had he first fallen for her? If he had to nail it down, it was when she punched out Billy Hollibrand in the school parking lot. Maddy was feisty—a take-no-shit kind of girl—and if you asked Ronan’s mother, that was exactly the type of woman he needed. Hollibrand had been the town bully, and when Maddy moved there in ninth grade, Billy made the mistake of trying to push her around. The jerkoff made fun of her curly hair and grabbed her ass. Two seconds later, the boy was on the ground nursing a bloody nose.

A smile curved Ronan’s lips at the memory.

“Yo, McGuire.” His captain’s voice pulled him from his daydreaming. “You awake over there?”

Bowser was lying in his bed next to Ronan’s desk, but he lifted his head and turned his brown eyes toward Ronan when the captain approached. If Ronan didn’t know better, he’d swear the dog was laughing at him.

“Wide awake, Cap.” Ronan adjusted his chair as Bowser settled his snout on his front paws again. “Can’t say the same for my partner.”

Bowser whined and made a snuffling sound before closing his eyes. Ronan couldn’t really blame the dog—he was pretty beat himself. They had gotten back-to-back calls from two departments upstate. Not all of the counties in the state had K-9’s, so he and Bowser helped out when necessary, lending a hand—or a paw—as needed.

Both cases had been high-stress with even higher stakes.

Luckily the little girl who had wandered away was found safely, and so was the teenager who got separated from her friends on a hike. She must have been the only teen girl in the tristate area who didn’t have a damn cell phone attached to her. Needless to say, it had been long days and longer nights, but both searches ended with happy parents.

Captain Jenkins strolled over, hoisting his uniform pants over his belly. The guy might be out of shape and only a couple years from retirement, but he was one of the best cops Ronan had worked with. Jenkins and his partner, Saratoga, a sweet bloodhound with wide, caramel-colored eyes, were in-house most of the time these days. Saratoga was retired, but like all K-9s, she would live out the rest of her days with her partner and his family. In Jenkins’s case, that was only him.

“Why are you and Bowser here?” Jenkins settled his hands on his hips and pointed at Bowser just as Saratoga sidled over and lay down next to her friend. “You two have been goin’ nonstop for the past three days. You should have taken today off, and you know it.”

“No can do, Cap.” Ronan hit a few buttons on the keyboard and printed out his report from the last search. “My brother is getting married in a few weeks, and I’ll be out for a while. I’ll be using up the rest of my time for the year, and I can’t risk not being able to go because I didn’t do my paperwork. I’m the best man after all.”

“That you are, McGuire,” Jenkins said through a snort of laughter. “But all work and no play, and you’re gonna end up like me and Sara here. All we got is each other and this damn job. No wife, no kids. Just me and her.” He smiled at the aging bloodhound who currently had her head nestled on top of Bowser’s. “Ain’t that right, sweetie?”

The old girl whined in response but didn’t move.

“Seriously, McGuire,” Jenkins said, sitting in the chair in front of Ronan’s desk. “You coulda taken today, y’know. You sure as hell have enough time leftover.”

“Really, Cap.” Ronan shook his head and held up one hand. “I’m fine.”

“Right. You always are.” Jenkins’s mouth set in a thin line. “How’s your friend? Didn’t you say that your girlfriend, that realtor lady, knew the Bowman woman they found by the river?”

“She’s not my girlfriend. Maddy’s just an old friend from back home.” Ronan went to the printer and grabbed the reports. “But yes, she knew Lucille Bowman, at least casually. Maddy’s a broker, and they ran in some of the same professional circles.”

“Well, tell your friend to watch her ass.”

Ronan stilled and carefully placed the reports on his desk. A knot of dread curled in his gut, and the serious expression on the captain’s face didn’t do anything to ease it.

“They think the murder was somehow connected to Lucille’s job?” Ronan let out a slow breath. “Shit.”

“Don’t know yet.” Jenkins folded his hands on top of his round belly. “All they know right now is she was supposed to show an apartment on the West Side—an open house or something—and she never made it. Hell, those real estate people have all their contact info online now. It’s easy to find someone and track ’em down, if you want to.”

“What are they thinking?” Ronan’s gut clenched.

“Husband ain’t good for it,” Jenkins said. “His alibi is airtight. No affairs, financials are in order. Whoever did this knew her though—or at least knew where she was going. Hell, she obviously didn’t get dragged through the streets of the city kicking and screaming, so odds are that she knew the perp in some way. They’re still waiting on toxicology. You know that shit takes forever.”

“Damn it.” Ronan ran one hand over his face and sat in his chair. “Maddy is always doing those open houses. Not to mention the running around she does for individual appointments. She works her ass off. You’d think that her life depended on it.” He let out a slow sigh. “Hell, she lives and breathes it.”

“You’d know somethin’ about that. Wouldn’t ya?”

“It’s not the same thing, Cap. Those rich, fancy clients of hers freakin’ love her because she drops everything to get them what they need. The woman is nothing if not tenacious.”

“I guess that includes resisting your charms, eh, McGuire?” Jenkins laughed and wagged a finger at Ronan. “You like this broad, so don’t even try to deny it.”

“Of course I do. We’re friends.”

“Yeah but you wanna be more than friends.” Jenkins raised his salt-and-pepper eyebrows. “You know how I can tell?”

“No.” Ronan stapled the reports and busied himself, trying not to let Jenkins know how right he was. “Enlighten me.”

“Ever since she came to town, you haven’t been out on a single date.” Jenkins hoisted his rotund form out of the chair with a groan. “And for a guy who seemed to have a different date almost every Saturday night for the past several years, that seems a bit odd. Don’t ya think?”

“Careful, Cap.” Ronan winked and extended the two finished reports to his superior. “You sound jealous.”

“Some detective you are.” Jenkins made a snort of derision and snagged the papers from Ronan. “Not jealous, more like impressed. I can’t remember the last time I went out on a date…and believe me, it ain’t for lack of effort. A good-lookin’ guy like you could be out with any woman he wanted. And here you are, pining away for the one broad in this city who turned you down.”

“See?” Ronan leaned back in his chair and laced his fingers behind his head. “You’re working under the assumption that I’ve asked her out—for an actual date, that is. I’m still in the game.”

“Sounds like you’re on the bench.” Jenkins narrowed his pale-brown eyes. “You haven’t actually asked her out? You been joggin’ with this woman all the freakin’ time. What’s the holdup?”

“I told you, man. We’re just friends.” Ronan shrugged. “Period. End of story.”

“Bullshit,” Jenkins snorted. “I may be old-fashioned, but men and women can’t only be friends. Not really.”

“Whatever, man.” Ronan sighed and dropped his hands onto the arms of his chair. He would never win that argument with his captain. “It’s complicated, okay?”

“You mean because of the dead boyfriend?”

“Real sensitive, Cap.” Ronan gave him a sarcastic thumbs-up. “His name was Rick, and he was a firefighter in our hometown. He bought it on the job. I knew him, okay? He was a good guy.”

“Right… That sucks,” Jenkins said slowly. “But with all due respect, she can’t date a dead guy, and his memory ain’t gonna keep her warm at night.”

“Come on, Cap,” Ronan persisted. “They were practically married and were together for years, like almost a decade. It seems shady to be hitting on her so soon after something like that. I’m being her friend, which is exactly what she needs.”

“Maybe, but it sounds like an excuse to me.” Jenkins snapped his fingers at his dog. “Come on, Saratoga. Let’s go, girl. It’s time to head home.”

“Why would I need an excuse?” Ronan shouted after him.

“Easy,” Jenkins barked over his shoulder. “If you don’t ask, then she can’t turn you down.”

Ronan had no response to that. The son of a bitch was absolutely right. He hadn’t come right out and asked Maddy on a date because he was pretty sure she’d say no. Plus, why would he want to make it weird between them, especially before the wedding? That wouldn’t be fair to his brother and Jordan. The last complication they needed was awkwardness between the best man and the maid of honor.

He went to shut his computer down, and the Bowman case came to mind. A knot formed in his gut. Like the investigating officers, he suspected that Lucille knew her killer—at least enough to go off with him without raising an alarm. But on the other hand, the New York City real estate market was massive. The odds were probably slim that Maddy knew this guy too, whoever he was.

Slim chance or not, Ronan was going to have a chat with her about safety precautions. Bowser yawned loudly before stretching and rising to his feet.

“What do you think, buddy?” The bloodhound came over and laid his head in Ronan’s lap, as though asking to get the hell out of there. “Think Maddy will listen to advice from me and take the proper precautions?”

Bowser snuffled loudly and sat on his haunches.

“Yeah,” Ronan said, laughing softly. “Me neither. But that won’t stop me from trying.”

***

Maddy discreetly checked the time on her phone before turning her attention back to the young couple whispering with each other in the kitchen. Mrs. Bartholomew loved the place and Mr. Bartholomew wasn’t entirely sold, but if Maddy had to bet, the wife was going to win.

While at an unorthodox time, the Friday-evening open house was turning out to be one of her busiest in the past month. Brenda was supposed to assist Maddy tonight to get a little more experience under her belt, but she’d never showed. The girl was new and eager to please, but flaking out on this event was not cool. Maddy loathed reprimanding people, but a lecture was coming Brenda’s way. The beautiful blond was barely out of college. Might she have blown off work for a better offer and a hot date? The company had taken a chance with bringing someone so young and green into the office.

It looked like they had made a mistake, but Maddy hoped like hell the girl had a good reason for not showing up. A smile curved her lips. Terrence, her boss and the owner of Cosmopolitan Realty, would surely tell her to give Brenda another chance. His compassion and strong ethical code were the two main reasons she had signed on with his company. His business was about people, not just making the sale, which was unusual in the cutthroat real estate world.

Maddy had come to this city to live without emotional attachments, but time and again, she found herself getting suckered in. She couldn’t help it. The city might be cold and unemotional, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t be.

Letting out a sigh, she checked her phone again. There was no answer to the text she’d sent Brenda, and no missed calls. Perfect. Managing staff and juggling personalities was Maddy’s least favorite part of the business. She used to tell Rick she was fine not having kids, because she knew plenty of adults who acted like children. Maybe she was being too hard on the girl and too quick to judge.

She pictured herself scolding Brenda, but Maddy knew the fantasy would have to suffice. She’d never do it in real life. One look into Brenda’s sweet, wide-eyed apologetic face, and Maddy would be telling the girl not to worry about it.

I’m a sucker.

Handling the open house on her own wasn’t difficult. She could run events like this with her eyes closed. But it had been busy. The spacious Upper West Side penthouse had only been on the market for a week, and the owners were eager to sell. That typically happened with a divorce. Since they were so eager, Maddy had set up a Friday-night open house to go with the one on Sunday, but based on the interest tonight, the place could be sold by then.

God bless the Internet.

She’d done damn well in the Old Brookfield beachfront market, and many of those wealthy clients who’d bought summer property lived and worked in the city. Transitioning to the New York City market had been surprisingly easy.

Besides, her favorite part of being a realtor was helping people find the place they would call home. The one space where they could kick off their shoes, snuggle up on the couch, and find shelter from the world and their worries. It was the most satisfying part of her job.

Maddy gave the wealthy young twosome the space she knew they wanted, loitering by the front door while they chatted quietly. Twelve other realtors had been through the massive apartment with their clients at last count, in addition to seven walk-ins. It had been a long and emotionally draining week, and there were about ten minutes left before she could go home and collapse.

Just as that thought rushed through her weary brain, the private elevator to the penthouse dinged. The doors slid open and a man stepped out. He was older, probably late fifties, good looking and distinguished in a Gordon Gekko way. He had Wall Street sleazeball written all over him and reeked of overcompensation. She’d be willing to bet he drove either a Porsche or Corvette—probably bright yellow.

Men like him dressed in expensive suits and carried themselves with shoulders back and head up, but the fear of discovery lingered behind their eyes. It was like at any moment someone might reveal them for the fraud that, deep down, they believed themselves to be.

Sucker or jaded bitch? Maddy forced a smile and extended her hand. This city has already done a number on me.

“Hello, I’m Maddy Morgan.” She shook his hand briefly as he moved into the large foyer. His gleaming, polished shoes clicked on the tumbled marble floor. “You made it to our open house just in time.”

“Thank you.” He didn’t look at her but scanned the foyer as he continued toward the open living room. “Peter Gregory.”

“Did you have an opportunity to sign in at the front desk? The building’s board insists upon it.” Maddy strode up next to him. “The security here is top notch, which is, of course, one of the selling points.”

“Of course.” He gave her a tight smile and nodded toward the window bank on the opposite wall. “May I have a look around? I’ve just begun the process of finding a new home, and this one seemed perfect on paper.”

“Absolutely.” Maddy folded her hands in front of her and glanced at the yuppies. Still whispering. “Then you know that this lovely home has four bedrooms and three-and-a-half baths. The kitchen is state of the art, and you have a private garden terrace off the master bedroom.”

“Yes. As I said, I’ve seen the listing.” He tilted his head and strolled across the room with an air of arrogance about him. “Thank you, Ms. Morgan. I’ll just take a quick walk through. I realize the showing time is almost over, and I wouldn’t want to throw anyone off schedule. My wife will be joining me in a few weeks, and if I don’t have something decent to show her, she’ll be quite perturbed with me.”

A wife? That was surprising. Maddy had thought for sure this man was a bachelor.

“I see,” Maddy said as she scolded herself for jumping to conclusions. “Is there something in particular she’s looking for?”

“I’ll know it when I see it,” he said quietly. He held his hands behind his back and surveyed the space. “Finding a new home, knowing when it’s the right one, is more of a feeling. It’s not something one can put on paper. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“Yes, absolutely.” Her lips lifted. She had definitely misread this man. “In fact, I couldn’t agree more.”

“Well then. I’ll be just a moment.”

“Take your time, Mr. Gregory.” Maddy meant it too. She may have been tired, but time was money. Besides, if he and his wife weren’t already working with another realtor, she’d be more than happy to help them. “I’ll be right here if you have any questions.”

“Excuse me, Ms. Morgan?” The young Mr. Bartholomew strode out of the kitchen with his wife’s hand clasped tightly in his. Based on the excited twinkle in the pretty blond woman’s eyes, she’d won the whisper war. “We’ll be putting in an offer. We didn’t officially sign the contract with you and Cosmopolitan Realty yet, but I’d like to rectify that immediately.”

“Absolutely. I know you had to rush out to another appointment after our last meeting.” Maddy smiled warmly. She pulled her card from her pocket and handed it to him. “This is my listing, and I’m happy to help you.”

“Thank you,” the young woman squealed with excitement. “I know you’re not supposed to show how much you love a place, but I can’t help it.”

“Believe me, I understand.” Maddy nodded. “I knew my apartment would be mine from the second I stepped through the front door. It just felt…”

“Like home?” Mrs. Bartholomew asked hopefully.

Referring to Maddy’s apartment as home would be a major stretch. Nowhere in this huge, heartless city would ever be her home. Not really. Honestly, she’d begun to wonder if she’d ever feel at home anywhere again.

“You could say that.” Maddy smiled. “It felt safe.”

Yeah, safe for you to hide from your life and the rest of the world. Coward.

“Honey,” her husband said warningly. “We still have to go over a few things. I’m sure if Ms. Morgan gets any offers between now and nine o’clock tomorrow morning she’ll let us know, so we can jump into the bidding. Right?”

“Definitely.”

Maddy showed the Bartholomews to the elevator and let out a weary laugh the instant the door slid closed with a dull thump. Their enthusiasm was refreshing—if not naive. They were first-time buyers and came from big-money families. Private schools and country clubs had been their playgrounds, and dropping several million on this apartment didn’t seem like it would faze them in the least.

Really, though, what did Maddy know? They could have won the freaking lottery, or maybe the guy hit it big with some start-up company. At the end of the day, where they got their money didn’t matter. It was none of her business, but that aside, she did like to speculate. It kept the process interesting and forced her to pay attention to details. Usually, the smallest detail gave the largest amount of information.

Like Ronan McGuire and the coffee, for example.

A smile curved her lips when she recalled the way he’d effortlessly ordered her coffee exactly the way she liked it. It might have seemed silly to some, but that small bit of knowledge showed his attentiveness. Her smile faltered, and she fished her phone out of the pocket of her suit jacket. In all the years she’d been with Rick, the man had never remembered how she liked her coffee. He got it wrong so often that it had become a running joke between them. Then again, he’d always had a rotten memory and had even forgotten her birthday a couple times.

Details hadn’t been Rick’s strength.

“Ms. Morgan?” The voice pulled her from her memories and Maddy spun around quickly, feeling foolish for drifting off like that. “Are you feeling alright?”

Mr. Gregory stood behind her and was peering at her as though he was worried she was going to faint or something.

“Yes,” Maddy said quickly.

“You’re certain? Because my wife has been ill, and…well…she sometimes gets a faraway look on her face like the one you just had. It makes me worry.”

“I’m so sorry, Mr. Gregory.” Maddy’s voice softened. “I hope she’s on the mend.”

“As much as one can be after a few rounds of chemotherapy.” He dropped his gaze from hers and cleared his throat before turning his back to her. “I don’t think she would truly love this penthouse, and given the circumstances, it must be exactly right.”

“Of course.” The broken tone of his voice tugged at her heartstrings. “If you decide to work with me, I promise you we’ll find the perfect home for you and Mrs. Gregory.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“Yes and no.” He turned to face her again, his cool demeanor once again in place. “I saw what I needed to see. Since I’m just starting my search, I’d like to go look at some other spaces. Do you have time on your schedule this weekend?”

“Of course.” She squared her shoulders and grabbed a copy of the listing off the table before handing it to him. “I apologize. I should have given you this when you came in. The couple that just left said that they’ll have a bid in by morning. No pressure, but I want you to have all the information you might need to make an informed choice.”

“I see.” He folded the paper lengthwise and slipped it inside his jacket pocket, and all the while his cool gaze remained pinned to hers. “I don’t care for this particular apartment, so I’ll want to see others. While I am not a man who normally makes decisions quickly, time is of the essence. For obvious reasons.”

“Understandable.” Maddy gathered the extra listing sheets into a folder. “If you’re not already working with an agent, I’d be happy to help you.”

“I was but…it didn’t work out.” He lifted one shoulder and waved his hand dismissively. “She wasn’t a good fit. The woman seemed more concerned with her commission than finding me what I needed.”

“I’m sorry to hear that you had an unpleasant experience.”

“It’s business,” he said flatly. “I want the best, and based on everything I’ve heard lately, that would be you. You came highly recommended.”

Maddy tightened her grip on the folder and held it against her chest.

“Really?”

“Yes.” He nodded curtly. “I’m new to the city. Until recently, I operated out of our company’s Chicago offices. After my unpleasant experience with the other realtor, I was told by our CEO, Bill Weinstein, that you are the best in the business on every level.”

“I’ll have to thank him for the kind recommendation.” Maddy’s chest puffed a bit with pride. The Weinsteins were one of her best clients and had rented houses in Old Brookfield from her every summer for the past several years. They had been persnickety about their new home in the city, but she’d stuck with them and found them a fabulous duplex that met every one of their needs. No small task, to be sure.

“If you know Bill,” he said as a hint of a smile played at his lips, “then you know he’s not one to pass out compliments easily. My wife, Helen, told me if I didn’t take his advice I was a horse’s ass.”

Maddy’s brows lifted, and her reaction elicited a small smile from Mr. Gregory.

“Thirty-five years of marriage and one learns to listen to one’s wife. Especially when she refers to one as an animal’s backside.”

“Then I’ll be sure I take the time to find out exactly what you’re looking for.” Maddy’s lips lifted. “Perhaps we could meet at my offices tomorrow or Sunday. Just let me know what’s best for you. I like to meet with my clients first to find out exactly what they are looking for.”

She handed him her card, which he promptly slipped into his pocket without even looking at it.

“Sunday.” He strode past her to the elevator and hit the Down button. “Your office at noon.”

“Wonderful.” Maddy smiled. “I’ll see you then.”

The door slid closed, and Maddy was left alone in the enormous apartment. She hoped that his former realtor wasn’t anyone she knew. That could get awkward fast. This business was nothing if not cutthroat, but Maddy wasn’t. Stealing clients was just plain wrong, and there was no way she would knowingly poach from another realtor’s list.

Gregory was uptight and bossy, but none of that mattered. Maddy had a new bee in her bonnet—finding a home for him and his ailing wife. Thirty-five years? Holy shit. That was a long damn time to be with one person.

She made quick work of shutting off all the lights and making sure everything was exactly as the owners had left it.

Her phone buzzed in her pocket as she stepped out of the elevator into the ornate lobby. She expected to see a voice mail or text from Brenda, explaining where she’d been.

But as Maddy glanced at the screen, a slow smile curved her lips. Her heartbeat picked up, along with a giddy fluttery feeling in her belly, making her feel like a swarm of butterflies had been let loose. Definitely not Brenda.

It was a text from Ronan.

Meet you in the park for our Saturday morning run tomorrow? By the Alice in Wonderland statue. 9 a.m. Be there or be square.

Maddy bit her lower lip and started to type back, but her thumb paused above the screen. It hovered there like an indecisive squirrel in the middle of the street, choosing whether or not to get run over by the oncoming car. If she continued meeting up with Ronan, eventually their platonic relationship would likely take a hefty turn toward lusty.

Would that be so bad?

Before she could talk herself out of it, she typed back.

Yes. See you then, and this time coffee is on me.

She went to put her phone back in her pocket, but Ronan, the speed texter, texted back immediately.

Good. You do know how I like it, don’t you?

A wicked grin cracked Maddy’s face because the message was brimming with sexual innuendo. Before she could come up with a witty response, he texted again.

My coffee…I was talking about my coffee…really 😉

A delicious shiver flickered and got her blood moving. How silly was it that a flirty text exchange could give her such a thrill? Maybe pathetic was a better word, but she didn’t care. She was having too much fun, and it had been far too long since she’d had any. Maddy puffed a curly strand of hair away from her eyes and texted back.

Sure, McGuire. See you tmrw.

Smiling and filled with almost schoolgirl giddiness, Maddy tried to maintain her professional exterior. She collected the sign-in sheet from the front-desk bell captain and slipped it into her folder. Then she placed everything on the quilted bench by the desk and pulled on her wool coat, bracing herself for the dark, chilly night air. Her last message to Ronan was still on her screen, and without even thinking about it, she scooped up the phone and sent one more text.

And for the record, I bet I know exactly how you like it.

Chapter 3

“Damn, it’s cold.” Maddy’s body had warmed during her run with Ronan, but she knew the minute that they stopped she’d be a shivering mess. “If it’s this chilly now, what’s it going to be like in February?”

“I’ll take this over August.” Ronan chuckled. “There’s nothing more brutal than New York City in the summer. We don’t get the relief of an ocean breeze the way they do in Old Brookfield. Bowser overheats pretty easily; I have to carry extra water for the poor guy. And he slobbers a lot when he’s hot.”

Bowser made a snort of derision, and Maddy couldn’t help but smile at the agreeable floppy-eared dog as he ran next to them. Her curly ponytail was bouncing in unison with his tail, but only she and Ronan were there to see it. It was unusually quiet in the park today due to the overly chilly morning.

“I almost canceled,” Maddy said through huffing breaths. She glanced at Ronan, who kept up a steady jogging pace on her left. “The rain from last night turned parts of this path into a freaking mess. There are icy spots everywhere.”

“I figured it would be a rough run, but I knew you wouldn’t cancel,” Ronan said with a hint of arrogance. Bowser ran at his side and occasionally tilted his snout to the sky. “That’s not your style.”

She sent a sidelong glance at him, briefly catching a glimpse of his square, stubble-covered jaw. Jeez, he was handsome. Rugged and manly. All rough angles and edges that looked like they could be carved from stone. What was it about a manly man that could get a girl’s motor running?

“Is that so?” Maddy laughed. “Why so confident?”

“Well, aside from the fact that you aren’t a quitter…” He pointed to a spot of black ice. “Watch out.”

“I see it.” Moving around the spot, Maddy kept her gaze straight ahead, the familiar curve of the path less distracting than the man next to her. That, and falling on her ass in front of Ronan was not an appealing idea. “And no, I’m not a quitter, but I sense more comments coming. What is it? Come on, spit it out.”

They jogged quietly for a few strides, with only the sounds of their breathing filling the air. Maddy flicked her gaze to Ronan briefly when he didn’t respond. A serious expression had set in on his handsome face, and muscles in his jaw flickered. Tension had settled where she’d expected to see humor, and his breath puffed out in white clouds when it mixed with the cold morning air. His broad, thick shoulders lifted and fell with the steady gait of his run. The man looked like he was about to erupt, but she wasn’t sure why.

“Are you trying to come up with a witty retort, or did you forget the question?” she teased.

Ronan swore under his breath and slowed to a walk. Bowser instinctively matched his pace but it took Maddy a second or two to realize they’d fallen behind. She jogged in place and turned to find Ronan standing with his hands on his hips. His dark brows were knit together, and his mouth was set in a grim line.

“You’re stubborn,” he said flatly.

“And?” She kept jogging in place but nodded her head toward the direction they’d been headed. “Come on, you can keep pointing out the obvious while we run. We’re almost at the end of our route.”

“I mean it.” Ronan strode toward her, his breathing still heavy. “I need to talk to you about something. It’s been nagging at me for a while, and I’ve been trying to figure out how to approach you about it without pissing you off.”

At six feet tall he towered over her five-foot-four frame even when she donned heels, but when she wore only sneakers, he seemed positively huge. His tall, well-muscled body dwarfed her as he closed in on her, invading her personal space. Maddy stopped moving and held her ground, even though she wanted to run now more than ever.

Oh shit.

She knew what he wanted to talk about. The flirty text she’d sent him last night. Ugh. Why, oh why, had she done that? She was the one who shut down the possibility of anything more than friendship months ago. They’d always flirted a little; it was hard not to with a man like Ronan. But yesterday, she’d crossed some kind of invisible line.

When he didn’t mention the text that morning, she’d figured it was for the best—even though she’d both dreaded and hoped he’d bring it up. But now it was time to face the music.

“Okay,” she said after swallowing the lump in her throat. Her heart was racing now, and that had nothing to do with the run. Nothing at all. “What’s up?”

“You need to take better safety precautions when you’re showing properties.”

Maddy’s jaw dropped and she gaped at him. He might as well have suggested that next time, they should run through Central Park buck naked.

“What are you talking about?” She shook her head in an attempt to shake the stupid right out of her—or maybe it was the embarrassment. How could she have thought he was going to bring up the flirting? Damn it all. She was so out of her league. Dating. Men. Sex. She sucked at this whole single-woman thing. She hadn’t been on the market in so long that she had completely forgotten how to handle herself.

Not that she was on the market. Was she?

Thank God she hadn’t said anything. That would have been totally humiliating. Her private mortification was more than enough.

“I’m talking about Lucille Bowman,” he said, his tone gentler. The tension eased from his face and sympathy filled his eyes. “You need to be more careful.”

“Oh, come on, McGuire,” Maddy scoffed. “What happened to Lucille was horrible, but it’s not unheard of in this city. What? Because one real estate agent gets killed, now all of us are in danger? That’s crazy.”

“See? Stubborn. Just like I said.”

“Not stubborn, experienced. Look—I’ve been doing this for years, and I’ve never had an incident. I know how to handle myself.”

“Is that so? Do you even know how to defend yourself?”

“Ask Billy Hollibrand,” Maddy said with a smirk.

“He was a kid, Maddy.” Ronan didn’t flinch and his expression remained humorless. “The guy they’re looking for isn’t an awkward teenager with grabby hands. He’s a killer.”

“This is nuts.” Maddy swiped at her sweaty forehead with her arm. “McGuire, you’re being overprotective. Lucille was probably in the wrong place at the wrong time. Besides, women are far more likely to be accosted by someone they know. A boyfriend or a jealous husband—neither of which apply to me. Now, can we finish our run please?”

She turned to go, but Ronan linked his hand around her bicep, preventing her exit. Maddy stilled. She looked from his fingers—securely clamped over her arm—to his face. Clearly, his stubbornness matched hers, and they weren’t going anywhere at the moment.

“It’s not crazy, but I am being protective.” He kept his voice even but didn’t let her go. “The detectives handling the case are almost certain that she knew the killer, at least well enough to go off with him peacefully. And given what she did for a living, odds are the perp could be connected through her job. All I’m asking is that you take precautions.”

“I have Mace in my purse,” Maddy said quickly. “Jordan and Gavin gave it to me as a twisted going-away gift before I moved here.”

“In your purse? Oh, that’s great,” he said sarcastically.

Bowser started whining and shifting his weight restlessly. Ronan dropped her arm and gathered Bowser’s leash around his palm, keeping the dog close. “I’m sure the guy who attacks you will give you a minute to find the Mace in that suitcase you carry around and try to pass off as a purse. You and I both know that it weighs about fifty pounds, and it takes you at least ten minutes to find anything in there.”

Maddy opened her mouth to argue but snapped it shut quickly. He was right. She was constantly losing shit in there.

“Fine,” she said quietly. “I’ll give you that.”

Bowser whined again and sat down before sticking his big snout in the air again. He was obviously tuning in to their little tiff.

“Keep it in your pocket, at least. Someplace you can easily get to it.”

“Okay.” She folded her arms over her breasts in an attempt to calm her now-shivering body. “Anything else?”

“Have your phone out and ready to use if you need it. But above all, trust your gut.”

Ronan inched closer still and kept his voice low. He settled both hands on her shoulders and looked her square in the eyes. The heat of his palms seeped through the fabric of her running jacket surprisingly quickly, and Maddy had to stop herself from moving closer. Her gut instinct was to seek out more of him and his touch.

“If something or someone feels wrong, then you get the hell out of there. I don’t care if you’re meeting with a house full of nuns. If it feels wrong, then it probably is.”

He squeezed her arms gently, and that fluttery feeling in her stomach came swirling back like a storm. Maddy forced herself to focus on his words instead of the nearness of him. His scent, a heady mixture of sweat and soap, filled her head. She swallowed hard and nodded, but staring into his eyes, dark with concern, she had trouble finding words. Ronan’s protective nature was one of his most appealing qualities. As an independent modern woman, she probably should have protested more, but his concern for her was sweet.

And he was all man.

“I-I care about you, Maddy,” he murmured, his voice quiet but rich with promise and purpose. “I don’t want you to get hurt.”

Maddy sucked in another deep breath to clear her head, but it had the opposite effect. Damn, he smelled good. The cold air seemed to make his scent stand out even more. As Ronan leaned closer, the fabric of his running jacket brushed against her folded arms, and his glittering gaze skittering over her face. She licked her lower lip but couldn’t look away. For a brief, terrifying, exhilarating second, she thought he was going to kiss her.

Ohmigod. I’m not ready for this.

“I got it.” Maddy abruptly stepped backward and out of his arms. “Mace in my pocket. Cell phone out. Trust my gut. Can we go now?”

She spun around and started jogging before he could answer her. Too bad she didn’t look first, or she would have seen the thin layer of ice in her path. One second she was focused on getting distance between them, and the next she was flying through the air. A sharp pain shot through her left ankle, and she squeezed her eyes shut waiting for the inevitable impact. She would have landed flat on her ass if Ronan hadn’t been there.

Instead of meeting the cold, hard pavement, Maddy was caught in the warm, firm, and unyielding embrace of Ronan McGuire. They were inches from the ground. Ronan’s knee was bracing her body, and his arms were wrapped around her as though he’d just dipped her after an amazing dance. Pure unadulterated embarrassment kept her from moving, and the zing of lust from being pressed against him did little to slow her pounding heart. With her eyes still shut, her ankle throbbing, and her arms securely linked around Ronan’s neck, it took Maddy a second before she could face him.

“I give you a ten on the dismount.” Ronan’s teasing voice floated around her and warmed her, along with the feel of him. “But you need to work on your landing.”

She flicked her eyes open, and the second her gaze met his, any embarrassment melted away. Maddy burst into a hysterical fit of giggles and Ronan joined her, his body shaking with laughter as he helped her stand. But once she tried to put weight on her ankle, a fresh zing of pain shot up her leg.

“Shit,” she said with a hiss. When she put all her weight on her right foot again, Ronan instinctively slipped his arm around her waist, pulling her against him. “I twisted it pretty badly.”

“You aren’t running on that anytime soon. Or walking, for that matter.”

“I’ll be fine,” she said, not really believing it. At the moment, it freaking hurt. “Come on, let’s go.”

Maddy started hobbling away, wanting to retain some dignity, but before she could get far, Ronan scooped her up in his arms. He cradled her against his chest, and as she linked her arms around his neck, Maddy caught a glimpse of that cocky smirk.

“I can walk on my own, Ronan.”

“No you can’t.” He stopped walking and let out some of the slack on Bowser’s leash. The dog was whining again and pulling away, toward the wooded area to the left of the path. “You’re stubborn, just like I said before. Bowser thinks you should stop complaining too.”

“Right.” Maddy rolled her eyes but couldn’t stifle the smile. “We aren’t too far from the road. I can get a cab from there.”

“We,” Ronan said firmly. “We can get a cab from there. I’m taking you home and getting a closer look at that ankle.”

“You are persistent, aren’t you?”

“You have no idea,” he murmured. Ronan’s fingers dug into her leg. It was an almost imperceptible shift, but it carried a wallop. “We McGuire boys have what my mother calls ‘tunnel vision.’ Although she says I have the worst case of it out of the five of us.”

“What does she mean?”

Maddy’s own voice sounded far away because the sensations were beginning to drown out everything else. Her fingers drifted over the nape of his neck, the strands of his hair sifting tantalizingly between them. She swallowed hard and licked her lower lip as all of the words went out of her head.

Tunnels? Visions? What were they talking about?

It took her a moment to realize that Ronan had stopped walking. He held her tighter against him, and those eyes remained pinned to hers, the bluish-green conjuring up images of the ocean back home. Her heart thundered in her chest, and she fleetingly wondered if it would burst right out of her rib cage. Maddy stopped breathing when Ronan flicked his gaze to her mouth and then back again.

There was heat there and unmistakable desire, and Maddy burned beneath the weight of it.

“Once we set our sights on something we want,” Ronan rasped, “we don’t quit until we get it.”

She wasn’t sure if he bent to her or she reached for him, but the end result was explosive. Ronan’s mouth covered hers, and with a strangled groan, she opened to him immediately. His tongue sought entrance and lashed along hers with swift, furious strokes. Maddy’s arms tightened around his neck as she met his greedy kiss with one of her own.

Devoured—that’s how she felt—and she couldn’t get enough.

Ronan’s large hand cradled her head as he kissed her deeply, and she reveled in the wonderful warm expanse of his chest. The side of her breast molded against those muscles that grew harder with each passing second. It didn’t matter that they were in the middle of Central Park in broad daylight or that anyone in the area might see them making out like a couple of teenagers.

All she could think about, see, or feel was him, and Maddy was lost in the rush.

Something tugged on them persistently, almost like a child yanking at a parent’s sleeve, and Ronan slowly broke the kiss. He suckled her lower lip but didn’t loosen his hold on her. Then he rested his forehead against hers. They stayed that way for a second, puffs of white from their hot breath mingling in the cold air between them.

A flood of conflicting emotions rushed through Maddy as she looked into Ronan’s eyes. Guilt. Lust. Comfort. Longing. Sadness. Need. Fear. Betrayal.

“It’s too soon.” Maddy’s eyes fluttered closed, and she cupped his cheek with one hand. “I’m sorry, Ronan. I-I don’t know if I’m ready for—”

“How’s your ankle,” he asked abruptly.

“Huh?” Maddy flicked her eyes open. “M-my ankle?”

That was the last body part she was tuned into at the moment.

“I bet it barely hurts anymore.” He waggled his eyebrows and pressed a quick kiss to her forehead before casting a glance over at Bowser. “All I had to do was get you thinking about something else. You know? Get your mind off the pain.”

“Oh really?” Irritation shimmied up her back, mixed with a healthy amount of embarrassment. “That’s why you kissed me? To get my mind off my sore ankle? You know, McGuire, you are a piece of work.”

Bowser barked, and the interruption only added to her aggravation.

“What is with your dog?” Maddy pointed at Bowser, who was standing at attention and pulling them toward the wooded area. “Is there an animal in those bushes, or is he trying to distract me too?”

“I don’t think so.” Ronan’s body tensed, and all humor had left his voice. “He’s gotten wind of something, and if I’m reading him right, it’s not good.”

“What is it?”

“I’m not sure. It could be a dead animal but…” His voice trailed off and his jaw clenched, a tiny muscle flickering beneath the stubble-covered flesh. “I should check it out. He’s being pretty insistent.”

Ronan strode over to a cluster of boulders along the edge of the path and set Maddy down. The ice-cold surface of the stone quickly seeped through her leggings, a stark contrast to the warmth of Ronan’s embrace. She didn’t have much time to register the loss, though; she was too concerned with Ronan’s sudden shift from regular horny guy to full-blooded cop.

Maddy’s breath hitched in her throat. For a moment, she’d allowed herself to forget what and who Ronan was.

A pit of sadness and a familiar ache of white-hot fear bloomed in her chest. Cops were never regular guys, just like firemen weren’t. They were always on call, always on duty, and put themselves at risk every day. It wasn’t a merely a job for men like Ronan—it was a calling and a way of life. Being a policeman would always be a part of who he was. It was woven through the fiber of his very soul, and there was nothing—and no one—that would ever change it.

She had already learned that lesson the hard way. So what the hell was she doing?

“Maddy, I want you to sit right there.”

Ronan bent down and quickly retrieved his gun from the ankle holster hidden beneath his running pants. He wore a gun while they were jogging? That knot of apprehension tightened in her belly. Intellectually, she knew what he was and what he did. She’d seen him with the gun when he was in uniform, but it was never drawn. Somehow that made it seem less real.

Not anymore.

Ronan rose to his feet, and the shift in his body language was disturbingly vivid. The cocksure boy from Old Brookfield was gone, replaced by a man who had sworn to protect and to serve.

“Don’t move a muscle.” He held the gun at his side. Ronan’s fierce gaze remained pinned to the trees on the small hill, the one that Bowser was itching to investigate. “Do you understand me?”

Maddy nodded and stared after Ronan as he and Bowser headed up the incline. Bowser had his nose to the ground, and his long tail bobbed behind him. Ronan was quietly reassuring the dog while he kept up with the bloodhound’s pace. The two of them trotted up the hill, and it was evident that Bowser was following a trail.

But tracking who, or what?

A knot of fear coiled in Maddy’s belly, and she shifted her position on the rock. She wasn’t stupid. K-9 units like theirs looked for the missing—and the dead. Ronan’s words of advice rushed through her mind, and she quickly took her cell phone out of her jacket pocket. She cradled the device in her lap but kept her gaze on the tree line at the top of the grassy hill. Dry leaves blew by and swirled in a tornado-like dance, but there were no other signs of activity from the trees.

“Ronan?”

She called him a few times, but no answer came. The city had never seemed as empty or silent as it did right this minute.

***

Ronan saw the woman’s motionless body the minute he reached the top of the hill. Even if he hadn’t seen it, Bowser’s change in demeanor would have tipped him off. The bloodhound tensed and whined loudly before sitting down near the still form of the dead woman.

Pale blond hair, with leaves and twigs tangled in it, partially covered her face, and her lifeless, vacant gaze stared out at nothing. She was on her stomach, and it looked like her blouse had been torn open. A pair of ripped stockings were tangled around her ankles, and one of her shoes was missing. It was in the area, no doubt.

Ronan swore under his breath and yanked his cell phone from his pocket after praising Bowser. Not all search-and-rescue K-9s would have picked up that scent without being instructed to do so.

The dog was one hell of a cop.

“Is everything okay?” Filled with uncertainty, Maddy’s voice crushed the silence. “Ronan?”

“No, it’s not. Stay where you are, Maddy,” Ronan said firmly. He kept his gaze on the dead woman and pressed the phone to his ear. “This is Officer Ronan McGuire with the NYPD K-9 unit, badge number 1275–470. We have a female DOA in Central Park. We’re gonna need a bus and a full crime-scene unit ASAP.”

After giving them the location, Ronan moved back to the top of the ridge and caught Maddy’s frightened gaze. His heart clenched in his chest. She looked scared shitless, and he couldn’t blame her. Ronan glanced at the blond, sprawled amid the dry leaves and brush, and fought the fear that niggled at the back of his mind.

His gut told him she was connected to the real estate scene in the city, like Lucille Bowman.

And Maddy.

***

Seconds ticked by, and just when Maddy thought she’d scream with frustration, Ronan and Bowser reappeared at the top of the hill. Relief fired through her but dissipated quickly when she spotted the grim expression on Ronan’s face.

“It wasn’t a dead animal,” he said quietly.

The sound of dry leaves crunching beneath his sneakers peppered the air.

“Wh-what was it?” Maddy squeezed her eyes shut and quickly held up her hand, preventing him from telling her what she suspected. “Don’t. You don’t have to say it. I-I think I get it.”

“I’m sorry,” Ronan said gruffly. “I know your ankle probably hurts like hell, but we have to stay here until the crime-scene unit and detectives show up.”

“My ankle is the least of our problems,” she said with a bitter laugh. Maddy shivered and hugged herself, trying to warm up. “Was he or she—?”

“She doesn’t look like she’s been there too long.” Ronan squatted down next to Maddy, and Bowser moved in, mirroring his master’s movement. “Luckily, Bowser picked up her scent.”

Ronan’s words tumbled through the cold around her, but Maddy barely heard them. She grew numb as the reality of what he was saying set in. Somewhere over that ridge, beyond the hustle and bustle of the city, lay the body of a dead woman. What would have happened if Bowser hadn’t picked up her scent? How long would she have remained there, undiscovered and unseen in the center of a cold, uncaring city? Tears pricked Maddy’s eyes and her vision blurred. Weeping for the woman who’d been killed and for all the things she never got to do, Maddy swiped at her cheeks with the sleeve of her running jacket.

“Luckily?” Maddy sniffled. “She doesn’t seem all that lucky.”

“Her family will know what happened to her,” Ronan said quietly. He rose to his feet and gathered Bowser’s leash around his hand. “Not knowing is worse than anything else. Trust me.”

Ronan’s tall, broad-shouldered form cut a striking figure, and with Bowser at his side, the two of them had an almost superhero-like air about them. They were resolute and unwavering in the face of a frightening and hopeless situation.

Man and beast, strong and steady.

The memory of Ronan’s kiss still lingered in Maddy’s mind and on her lips. It was too soon. There would be other chances. More time to explore the feelings she had or could have for him.

Sirens wailed in the distance, growing closer with each passing moment. No doubt they were headed here, answering Ronan’s call for backup. As he and Bowser headed up the hill again, Maddy thought of the woman who lay in the woods just over the ridge. How much time had that poor soul believed that she had left? The number of years she imagined was undoubtedly longer than what she had. Maddy sucked in a shuddering breath and forced herself to give Ronan a reassuring smile.

When would she learn? The future was promised to no one.

Chapter 4

Having Maddy at a crime scene made Ronan beyond uncomfortable. Even though he wanted to get her the hell out of there, they had to wait for the detectives to show up.

Bowser went right to Maddy and settled into an almost protective position. He sat right in front of her with his head up and his gaze alert while the cops milled about taping off the scene. After a few minutes, the dog nuzzled up against her legs and put his head in her lap seeking affection, which she was quick to give him. She scratched his ears and rubbed his flanks as though she’d been doing it for years.

Ronan had dated other women, but Bowser had barely paid them any mind. It was as if he knew they weren’t going to be around long enough for him to bother trying to get to know them. But Bowser had been drawn to Maddy from the beginning, and the sight of them together was oddly…right.

Once they’d been given the all clear to leave, Ronan had tried to carry her, but Maddy had refused. She finally gave in and leaned against him for support, but he could tell it was killing her to do so. Her independent streak was matched by her stubborn streak. And damn if that didn’t turn him on. He loved a woman with spirit.

By the time they got into a cab, Maddy was shivering and Ronan was relatively sure that it wasn’t only because of the cold. His one comfort was that she hadn’t seen the body. Looking at a brutalized homicide victim was tough enough for a seasoned cop, let alone a civilian. He didn’t want her touched by that kind of ugliness any more than she already had been.

Maddy had hit the nail on the head earlier. He was being overprotective. But if he could shield the people he cared about from violence, then he damn well would.

Ronan stole a glimpse at her before getting out of the cab, and his heart clenched in his chest. She was staring out the window and absently stroking Bowser’s head, which was once again in her lap. Her normally feisty air had been replaced by one of sadness and uncertainty, and all Ronan wanted to do was gather her into his arms and hold her, tell her that everything would be okay and vow that he’d never let anything happen to her.

Ever.

He did care about her, but that was more than he had admitted, even to himself. He had been doing his best to give her the space she needed, to be respectful of her wishes, but that had all gone out the damn window back at the park. Her kiss had been sweet and hot, cool mint with warm cinnamon. Right then, he knew that he’d gone directly past caring to fall into a swirling abyss of feelings that could only be classified as uncharted territory.

Ronan had never been in love before, so he wasn’t even sure what it felt like. Whatever this was, this tangled knot of need and protective instincts that fired up every time he was near her, it scared the shit out of him.

He hadn’t planned on kissing her, but she had been so soft and warm in his arms. When her delicate fingers tickled the back of his neck, it had been like a switch flipping—and he’d lost his damn mind right there in the middle of Central Park. She was injured, and he’d jumped her bones like some kind of horny teenager with no self-control.

Good move, McGuire. Real smooth.

The cab pulled to a halt in front of Maddy’s building, the sudden stop bringing Ronan out of his self-imposed pity party.

Bowser, who was seated between Ronan and Maddy in the cab, lifted his head from Maddy’s lap. He snuffled loudly and leaned against Ronan, his way of saying, I want to get out of the car now. Not that Ronan could blame him. The three of them were stuffed into the backseat with little room to move.

“Alright, man. Keep your collar on.” Ronan ruffled Bowser’s ears before checking for oncoming traffic and opening the door. “We’re going, you bossy, old dog.”

“Don’t be mean,” Maddy chimed in. “I can’t blame him. I’m ready to get home too.”

Ronan and Bowser got out and went around to the sidewalk, but the doorman had already opened Maddy’s door.

“You alright, Ms. Morgan?” The older man, probably late fifties, took Maddy’s hand in his and helped her out of the cab. He cast a glance at the icepack attached to her ankle with an Ace bandage. “You look like you took a tumble.”

“Hey, David.” A strained smile curved her lips. “It’s not a big deal. I twisted my ankle but I’ll live.” Maddy stilled and braced herself on the door of the cab, letting out a short, bitter laugh. “Believe me, things could be a lot worse.”

Her tone was light, but the sidelong glance she gave Ronan was full of unspoken words. How could it not be? She obviously didn’t want to share what had happened with the doorman. If Ronan had to guess, he’d bet that she wouldn’t mention it to anyone. Like she seemed to do with most upsetting events, Maddy would squirrel it away and bury it.

“I should really be carrying you,” he said, slipping his arm around her small waist as she tried to walk on her own. He dragged her arm over his shoulders and tugged her close. “But you’re not going to let me, are you?”

“Nope.” She was doing her best not to lean on him, but Ronan held on tight. “It’s not that bad anymore, really.”

“Humor me, okay?”

“Thanks, David,” Maddy said to the doorman, her lips quivering. “I’m sure I’ll be fine by morning.”

“Let me know if you need anything, ma’am. I can have Vincent up to your place in a hot minute.” The doorman held the enormous glass door open and stepped aside, allowing them entrance to the luxury building. He tipped his head to Ronan and looked warily at Bowser. “Sir.”

“David, this is Ronan McGuire and his partner, Bowser,” Maddy said. “They’re two of New York’s finest.”

“Good to meet you, officers.” David closed the door behind them and waved at the man behind the front desk. “Get the elevator for Ms. Morgan, Vincent.”

Ronan surveyed the lavish, cavernous lobby of the building and hoped that he was hiding his shock. The floor was made of gleaming white-and-black marble, and . The entire place reeked of wealth and privilege. He knew Maddy had done well for herself, but he’d had no idea that she had this kind of money. Apartments in this building had to start at a couple million, and prices would only go up from there.

His entire crappy apartment in Washington Heights could fit easily in the lobby—with room to spare. Ronan was no stranger to wealth. His family had money; thanks to his great-grandfather, they held the patents on several handy-dandy inventions. But his parents had never allowed him or his brothers to become trust fund babies. Most of the money was tied up in investments, so there really wasn’t a trust fund to be had and there weren’t any cushy board positions to occupy.

They’d all been told, in no uncertain terms, that they had to go out and make their way in the world and, better yet, be of service to the community. His father had been in the military and so had his grandfather. It was a natural fit when Ronan and his brothers each donned a uniform of some kind.

Ronan had never really thought much about the way his apartment looked or the area it was in, but being here with Maddy certainly put it in perspective. He was making his way and doing what he loved, but he would never earn the kind of money that she did. He didn’t know why that thought even occurred to him—or bothered him, for that matter—but it did.

They rode up in the elevator in silence, which was just as well, because having her soft, curvy body pressed against him was becoming a distraction. Her full breasts melded against his rib cage, and his fingers settled into the dip of her waist with comfortable and almost familiar ease. Even though he tried to think about anything other than the delicious feel of her, he couldn’t. Without meaning to, he was quietly memorizing the way the swell of her hip fit perfectly against him. Add to that the brush of her thigh along his and her soft hands curled around his far rougher ones… Each sensation was more tantalizing than the last.

The elevator dinged and Ronan sucked in a deep breath, forcing himself not to look at her. If he did, he would want to kiss her again. That was all he could think about. Tasting her, drinking from her, and finding out if he made her half as crazy as she made him. But given the way she’d put on the brakes earlier, he was probably going to be crazy all by himself.

The doors slid open, and they stepped into a square foyer decorated almost exactly like the lobby. There were two enormous, white paneled doors, one on either side of the hall, and an antique-looking table with a huge arrangement of fresh flowers sat directly across from the elevator. Their sweet odor permeated the space, giving Ronan a much-needed distraction from Maddy’s naturally alluring scent. Whatever her perfume was, it must have had some kind of pheromones in it or something, because it drove him wild.

“Mine is on the left.” Maddy fished a key out of her pocket. “15A.”

“Who’s in 15B?” Ronan asked, hoping small talk would keep his mind off his increasingly dirty thoughts.

Before Maddy could answer him, the door of 15B opened suddenly, and Maddy’s body tensed against Ronan’s. He turned just in time to see a young guy with dark hair and glasses stick his head out quickly.

Bowser snuffled loudly and let out a low growl.

“Oh, hey, Maddy,” the kid said. He flicked his gaze at Ronan and Bowser but looked away a split second later. “You okay?”

“Hi.” The word escaped on a breathy sigh. “Yeah, I’ll be fine. I twisted my ankle when I was running.”

“Okay, bye.” The door slammed shut abruptly.

“Jeez,” Ronan murmured. “Nice neighbor. What’s his deal?”

“He’s an Internet whiz kid,” Maddy whispered with a giggle. “He’s kind of a shut-in. Geeky and quiet. Tim, or Tom? I can’t remember. Anyway, I hardly ever see him. Vincent and David say that he rarely leaves his place. He’s nice enough. We were in the elevator together the other day, coming up from the laundry room, and when I told him my computer was acting up, he offered to fix it.”

She hobbled over to her apartment, pulling away from Ronan in the process, and slipped her key in with the ease of experience. When he reached her side, he held her arm and pushed the door open with his shoulder before helping her inside.

“Your computer can wait. The ankle is more important at the moment.”

“If you get me to the couch, I’ll be fine from there.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Ronan kicked the door closed with his foot. “Whatever you say, boss.”

She tossed the keys onto a small table with a gilded mirror above it, and they headed into the massive living room. A bank of windows covered almost the entire wall, but the drapes were drawn and he fleetingly thought it was a shame to close out the view she must have had. Ronan let go of Bowser’s leash, but as usual, his partner remained by his side.

The walls had been painted in muted shades of gray, and the furniture blended in perfectly, almost seamlessly. A huge, white sofa faced the windows and was flanked on either side by overstuffed gray chairs, while a large glass coffee table sat at the center of it all. There were splashes of red in a few spots, and the bright pops of color were like blips of Maddy’s bubbly personality busting out here and there. She had always been feisty and smart and full of life. Ronan had expected to see a home full of color, but what he’d found was the exact opposite.

It was a place to live, but it wasn’t a home.

“I’m fine now, Ronan.” Maddy bit her lower lip as he helped her ease onto the fluffy sofa. “Really, I’m sure you and Bowser have better things to do today than babysit me.”

“Nope.”

“And you say that I’m stubborn?” Maddy scoffed audibly. “Takes one to know one, McGuire.”

Once she was settled, Ronan lifted her leg and propped a pillow underneath it, then slipped off her sneaker and tossed it to the floor. He knelt next to her and carefully unwrapped the bandage, removed the no-longer-cold ice pack, and peeled the sock from her foot, not moving it any more than he had to.

“It’s probably sprained, but I don’t think you broke anything.” Ronan cradled her foot and inspected her ankle, trailing his fingers lightly over the swollen area. “Does that hurt?”

He locked gazes with her, and she stilled beneath his touch. Ronan stroked the graceful arch of her foot with his thumb, and a smile curved his lips when her eyes widened slightly. Some of her wild curls had come loose from her ponytail and perfectly framed her oval-shaped face. Those brilliant icy-blue eyes glittered at him, but unmistakable heat shimmered beneath the surface and reminded him of their kiss.

God, she was beautiful.

“N-no.” Maddy shook her head quickly and tore her gaze from his. “It’s fine.”

Why did she insist on being so damn independent all the time? What was so wrong with taking help from him—or anyone else, for that matter? Jordan had warned him that Maddy would push him away and insist she was fine on her own. That was exactly what she had been doing. But he wasn’t backing down.

“Stay put. I’ll get some ice for that ankle and pop this in the freezer,” he said, holding up the soggy ice pack. “Most of the swelling is down, so you’ll probably be back to normal in a day or two.”

Ronan unhooked Bowser’s leash, snapped his fingers, and pointed to the floor next to Maddy. Within seconds, his partner lay dutifully by her side, his head up and his alert gaze fixed on her.

“Looks like I don’t have any choice,” she said through a nervous laugh. “He looks pretty serious, McGuire. Is he going to freak out if I try to get up?”

“Nah.” Ronan winked. “But he might lick you to death. And besides, you’re not gonna get up, because you are going to listen to me. I am a cop, after all, and you’re supposed to obey the law.”

With Maddy’s sweet laughter drifting in the air behind him, Ronan headed toward the kitchen. The open floor plan of the apartment made it easy to spot. It was off to the left and just past the dining table and chairs that looked as though they had never been used. If he thought the living room looked unlived in, it was nothing compared to the kitchen, where gleaming stainless-steel appliances, all top of the line, were surrounded by bright-white cabinetry. The slick marble counters were void of clutter. No crumbs. No flowers. Not even a bottle of wine or an empty glass.

Nothing.

He stopped for a moment and looked around at the open, unfettered space.

No living happened in this apartment.

He turned slowly and leaned both hands on the island that divided the kitchen from the rest of the space. Maddy was lying back on the couch with her eyes closed and gently stroking Bowser’s head.

That’s when it hit him.

Maddy wasn’t living in this city; she was hiding. Hiding from her grief over losing Rick and doing a damn good job of avoiding any kind of future. What better place to try to disappear? Other than him, no one here really knew her, and it was probably easy for her to simply exist, rather than live.

But that wasn’t going to continue—not if he had anything to say about it.

Right then and there, Ronan made a vow. Maddy McGuire was going to start living again. She was too beautiful, vibrant, and smart to hide herself away from the world, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to let her hide from him.

With his determination in place and a plan brewing, he grabbed some paper towels and a bag of frozen peas from the freezer. He couldn’t help but notice that the only other item in there was a quart of Breyers mint chocolate-chip ice cream. Ronan smiled.

That was his favorite too.

He closed the freezer door and headed back into the living room.

“Okay, Bowser.” Ronan shooed the dog out of the way. “Move it or lose it, man. I have business to attend to.”

Bowser rose to his feet and shot Ronan a look of disapproval before trotting over to the front door and lying down. His partner may have been a dog, but he was still a cop. When all else failed, the bloodhound would park himself by the door. The strategic and protective move was never lost on Ronan and often made him wonder if his partner had been human in another life.

“He didn’t look too happy with you.” Maddy chuckled and adjusted her position on the couch. “Someone doesn’t like being bossed around.”

“Yeah?” Ronan knelt by the couch and slipped his hand beneath her bare ankle. “Well, that’s something the two of you have in common.”

“Very funny.” Maddy folded her hands on her stomach. Her brows lifted when she saw the bag of peas in his hand. “You found those in my icebox?”

“Yup. It was either this or the ice cream, but the mint chip could get messy.”

A smile tugged at his lips at the mental image of licking ice cream off her naked body.

“What are you grinning at?” She leveled a narrow-eyed gaze in his direction.

“Nothing I care to share…yet.” He was in big trouble. “This is gonna be cold.”

He gently placed the paper-towel-wrapped bag over her ankle, and a rush of air hissed through her lips when the makeshift icepack made contact with her bare skin. She grabbed the cushions on either side of her and scooted back a bit. Ronan gripped her calf gently but firmly and shook his head slowly while holding the bag of peas in place.

“Ah-ah-ah,” he sang. “Hold still. You know, if I hadn’t become a cop, I probably would have been a doctor. Playing doctor was always one of my favorite games.”

“Right.” Maddy laughed and rolled her eyes. “So tell me, McGuire, what made you become a K-9 officer?”

“Because I get it.” Ronan avoided her probing stare and adjusted the ice pack. “I know what it’s like to be lost.”

“You mean literally or figuratively?”

Ronan paused before answering her question and sat back on his heels as he studied her. He’d never told anyone why he’d chosen this job. His family knew, but no one else did. Not his captain or the guys he’d been with in the academy. It seemed too personal, and sharing it made him feel exposed somehow, or vulnerable. But staring into Maddy’s big, blue eyes, Ronan knew he could share the story with her.

“My family was camping in the Adirondack Mountains when I was four. I woke up in the middle of the night and had to go to the bathroom. Gavin had been razzing me about being a scaredy-cat, so I didn’t wake anyone up and went by myself. It was dark. I mean, like pitch-black. I thought I’d be able to go quickly and find my way back. I was wrong.”

“You got lost in the mountains?” The concern in her voice hit him like a kick in the gut, but when he turned his gaze to hers, the throb swelled to a burn. “Oh my God.”

“I don’t remember much,” he said quietly. “It was dark and cold. Damn cold. I remember being terrified. The world had always been safe, you know? My family. Old Brookfield. It was a bubble. But when I got lost that night, the bubble burst and the big, wide world came crashing in. It was the first time I realized how small I was—how small we all are.”

“Ronan, that must have been awful,” Maddy whispered, her eyes searching his. “Your poor parents!”

“Yeah, from what I’m told, Mom was freakin’ out, and my dad was ready to call in the National Guard.”

“What happened?”

“A park ranger found me. He and his partner, an enormous German shepherd named Daisy Mae. Anyway, one of the things I do remember is Ranger Dave and Daisy Mae coming around a big pine tree. And ice cream.” He grinned as the laughter bubbled up. “I got to have ice cream for breakfast for a week. Gavin was so pissed!”

“Now it all makes sense,” Maddy said softly. “Why you do what you do.”

He held her stare, and something in his chest squeezed. It was like the woman could see right through him to the core of who he was. What the hell? Ronan swallowed the lump in this throat and looked away.

“If you don’t behave and stay off this ankle, you won’t get your ice cream. As fate would have it, you just happen to have my favorite flavor, and I might go in there and eat it all up.”

“Lots of people like mint chip,” Maddy said quickly. “Besides, you’re not the boss of me. It’s my life, Officer McGuire, and I’ll have ice cream for dinner if I want to. So there.”

“Your life, huh?” Ronan arched one eyebrow and loosened his hold on her calf, lightly trailing his fingers over the exposed flesh. “If you ask me, you haven’t been doing much living since you moved here.”

“What are you talking about?” Maddy stilled, and her cheeks turned pink.

“This apartment is more like a showroom than a home.” Ronan adjusted the bag of peas and leaned his elbows on the edge of the couch. He shrugged. “It looks like you’re never here, but I know that’s not true. If you aren’t working or out jogging with me on a Saturday morning, you’re holed up in here like a hermit. You’ve been here for over a year, but this place barely looks lived in.”

“Hey!” That feisty spirit was back, and fire burned in those blue eyes. “I am not a hermit. I am the top-performing realtor in the most successful real esate agencies in this city despite having to deal with a staff of people who sometimes act more like children than functioning adults. Take last night, for example. I was supposed to be training one of our newest hires on how to run an open house, and the little blond dingbat never showed. No text. No phone call. Nothing. I have a full plate, McGuire.”

Ronan stilled. Blond? The girl they had found in the park this morning was blond. She had no ID on her, but she was likely in her early to midtwenties, and based on the clothing she had left on her body, she was corporate. Not a pro or party girl but a woman who had been at work or planning to go to work.

A knot of dread curled in his gut. The detectives had said the crime scene looked eerily similar to Lucille Bowman’s. He must have been looking at Maddy funny because she had stopped talking and was staring at him with a puzzled expression.

“Hello?” She snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Are you listening to me? If you’re going to insult me, the least you could do is let me rant at you a little.”

“I’m sorry.” Ronan shook his head. “I was thinking about work.”

Damn it. He’d deliberately been avoiding any discussion of the woman in the park, but the topic was the undeniable elephant in the room. Silence settled between them, and Maddy folded her arms. Ronan let out a frustrated breath and looked past her to Bowser who was oblivious to it all, having fallen asleep on the floor in front of the door.

So much for guard-dog duty.

“Is that why you’re giving me a hard time about living? Because of the girl in the park?” Maddy’s voice shook. “Because don’t think for one second that I don’t know how fragile life is, okay? Believe me, I know. Life can change in an instant. One minute everything is normal and you’re arguing about what to watch on television or what to make for breakfast in the morning…and the next…”

When he turned his attention back to Maddy and saw one tear fall down her cheek, he cursed under his breath. Without thinking about it, Ronan reached out and cradled her face with one hand, then swiped the tear away. Her eyes were closed, a fan of dark lashes resting on fair skin beneath them, and those full pink lips quivered.

“Ah, Maddy,” Ronan whispered. He pressed a kiss to her forehead. His voice was gruff and strained, full of emotions he didn’t quite have a name for yet. “I’m sorry. Look, sometimes I can be an insensitive asshole. Chalk it up to growing up in a house full of boys. But I’m worried about you. It’s like you’re hiding from the whole world…but please, don’t hide from me.”

When Maddy didn’t open her eyes, Ronan settled his forehead against hers. She sucked in a shuddering breath and curled her hands around his wrists. For a second he thought she was going to push him away, but she didn’t; she held him closer instead. He wasn’t sure how long they stayed that way, nose to nose, heart to heart. No words were spoken, and yet he felt more connected to her than to anyone else in recent memory.

He flicked his tongue over his suddenly dry lips before brushing them over hers. A breathy sigh mingled with a needy whimper escaped her luscious mouth and the sound drove him wild. But Ronana fought for restraint. The last thing he watned to do was scare her off.

Her lips reminded him of plums, soft and sweet, and he reveled in the sensation as they melded with his. Maddy tangled her fingers in his hair, and he groaned when her tongue sought entrance, pushing into his mouth gently but eagerly. Ronan tilted her head, taking control of the kiss, and dove deep. She sat up and he moved with her, wanting to savor every bit of contact while still being mindful of her ankle.

Maddy sighed into his mouth as her hands slipped beneath his jacket and shirt. When her fingers splayed over the flesh of his lower back and dipped beneath the band of his running pants, all of the blood rushed from his head to other parts of his anatomy. His body started screaming for more—more of her touch, more of her taste—but his brain told him to slow the hell down. Emotions were running high for both of them. If they took this too far too fast, whatever this thing was between them could get snuffed out before they had a chance to explore it.

She was vulnerable, so taking it any further right now would be a shitty move. Ronan broke the kiss and pulled back, her face cradled between his hands. Her heavily lidded eyes were glazed with the unmistakable air of lust, and her lips were swollen from his kisses. Maddy tried to kiss him again, but he held her mouth a mere inch from his.

Her brow furrowed and confusion flickered across her face.

“What’s wrong?” she said through heavy breaths. “I thought this was what you wanted.”

“It is,” he rasped. “But I don’t think—”

The shrill ring of the cell phone in her pocket cut him off. Even if it hadn’t, the annoyed look in Maddy’s eyes would have put an end to things. She let out a curt laugh and removed the phone from her jacket before pulling away from him.

“You surprise me, McGuire. I never thought that you, the big stud I’ve heard about all these years, wouldn’t close the deal.” She pressed her phone to her ear and leaned against the cushions. “Maddy Morgan speaking. How can I help you?”

Ronan rocked onto his heels before rising to his feet. She avoided looking at him, but he couldn’t miss the irritated expression on her face. Great. He was screwing things up at every turn.

He ran both of his hands over his face and strode to the windows while Maddy took her call. Something about an appointment tomorrow and scheduling or rescheduling. The woman even worked on Sundays. Did she ever stop and breathe, or even take a moment to enjoy in the view from her own apartment? He pulled aside the drapes with one hand and looked out. The city was beautiful from up here. The windows overlooked the West Side and gave a partial view of Central Park.

Yup. It was easy as hell for her to hide up here, and why wouldn’t she? Had anyone tried to stop her? Ronan glanced over his shoulder at her. The flush from their encounter still lingered on her cheeks, and in that moment, he decided enough was enough. She’d had the opportunity to grieve and regroup—plenty of it—but it was time to change things up.

When Maddy ended her call, silence filled the spacious apartment, and neither of them moved or said anything for a couple of minutes. The air was swollen with unspoken apologies and all the reasons why they shouldn’t do what they had been doing.

“The wedding is coming up soon,” Maddy said quietly. “I’m leaving for Old Brookfield about a week before, so I can help Jordan with the maid-of-honor stuff. And all that.”

“Right.” Ronan let the curtain drop, settled his hands on his hips, and nodded but didn’t turn around. “Me too. Best man.” He glanced over his shoulder at her and smiled. “And all that.”

They locked gazes, and to his great relief, they both burst into laughter at the same moment. The tension between them eased, slowly and steadily but not completely.

“I’m sorry,” Maddy said, her laughter fading. “This is…awkward. I’m not good at this. I never was and, well, I’m out of practice.”

“Then we need to change that.” Ronan pointed at her and grinned. “So, practice it is.”

“What are you talking about?” Her eyes narrowed as he strode slowly toward her. “What kind of practice?”

“You’re the maid of honor and I’m the best man. Right?”

“Right…” she said slowly.

“Are you bringing a date to the wedding?”

“A date?” Maddy blinked. “No.”

“Me neither.” He shrugged. “We can be each other’s dates. As best man and maid of honor we kind of are anyway, but we wouldn’t want to be selfish.”

“What are you talking about?” she said through a laugh. He could feel her watching him as he strolled around the couch toward the front hall. “How exactly would we be being selfish?”

“Come on, woman. Think about it.” He picked up Bowser’s leash off the sofa table and snapped his fingers. The dog stretched, yawned, and rose to his feet before trotting over to Ronan. “We can’t have our first date be at Gav and Jordan’s rehearsal dinner or wedding. Now that would be awkward.”

“Oh really?” Maddy sat up and rested one arm along the back of the couch. “Then what do you propose?”

“I’m not proposing yet.” He hooked Bowser’s leash onto his collar. “Don’t you think that we should date for a little while first?”

Maddy stared at him as though she couldn’t figure out how much of what he’d just said was meant to be funny, and what was serious. The truth was, he didn’t know what the percentages were on that either.

“You and me. A real date right here in New York City.”

Maddy nibbled her lower lip and fiddled with the edge of the cushion as though weighing her options. Ronan played it cool on the surface, but his heart was thundering in his chest like a damn drum. What if she said no?

After what felt like forever, she finally spoke. “Okay.”

Thank God.

“Great.” He nodded and grabbed the doorknob of the front door. “Do you have plans for Thursday?”

“Um…isn’t that Thanksgiving?”

“Whaddya know?” He smacked his forehead in an overly dramatic gesture. “It is!”

“Are you serious?” She let out a short laugh. “You want to take me on a date for Thanksgiving dinner?”

“Yup. And don’t try to tell me you have plans because I know you don’t.”

“Oh really? And how could you—” Maddy’s mouth snapped shut and her eyes narrowed. “You’ve been talking to Jordan and Gavin, haven’t you?”

“When Gav called trying to get me to go home for the holiday, he might have mentioned that you refused their invitation and planned on staying home.” He pointed around the room. “Not real festive around here.”

“Are you asking me out or insulting me?”

“I’m teasing you…and asking you out.” He grinned. “So what do you say? You and I will go out for Thanksgiving dinner. Provided you can walk by then, of course.”

“I’m sure I’ll be walking—or limping, at least, by tomorrow. It’s feeling better already.” She held up one hand before he could argue with her. “Where should we meet?”

“Woman, what kind of man do you think Carolyn McGuire raised?” He arched one eyebrow and tugged the door open. “I’ll make a reservation and pick you up here at seven.”

“What about Bowser?”

“He can get his own date. Besides, if I bring him a doggie bag, he’ll forgive me.” Ronan winked. “See you then.”

The image of her smiling face filled his head all the way home. Maddy Morgan was going to start living again, and if he had anything to say about it, it would be with him.

Chapter 5

Her phone had buzzed somewhere in her bag several times already, but Maddy made it a habit not to answer calls while showing a home. It was rude and could give the client the impression that they weren’t her number one priority. Mr. Gregory was definitely one of those clients—finding him and his wife a new home had become her most important job.

At that moment, Mr. Gregory was taking his time as he strolled through the fifth apartment of the day. Maddy gritted her teeth against the pain in her ankle but kept a polite smile plastered on her face. She’d already gone through the place with him once and was now standing by the front door, giving him the privacy to look on his own. Many realtors hovered over their clients, but that wasn’t Maddy’s style.

She leaned against the wall and gently rotated her ankle to loosen it up, but to no avail. The tall leather boots she wore had a low heel, and while they weren’t as tough to walk in as her shoes with higher ones, she’d give just about anything for a pair of flip-flops.

Being a realtor in New York City was a far more formal venture than when she’d had her business in Old Brookfield. Back home, she could wear her long, flowing skirts and peasant tops, and nobody would look twice. If she did that in this market, her clients would never take her seriously. Nope. Gone were her trademark hippie-chic clothes, and her free-spirited lifestyle had vanished right along with them.

When Rick died, that part of her had died too.

She hadn’t glimpsed that side of herself since that fateful August day—at least, not until recently. Something about Ronan McGuire brought that missing part back to life—or a glimmer of it anyway. Maddy pressed her fingers to her lips, a smile blooming there. The man could kiss like the devil. Hot, passionate, demanding. Holy hell. Ronan McGuire was a force of nature, and equally dangerous.

“Ms. Morgan?” Mr. Gregory’s voice interrupted her memories. “I’ve seen enough. I’m afraid this won’t do either.”

“I see.” Maddy forced herself to stand on both feet but kept most of the pressure off her sore ankle. “Unfortunately, these were the only listings on the market that met your specifications.”

“Very well.” Mr. Gregory’s mouth set in a grim line. He was clad in a dark-gray suit, odd even for New York. Even here, most clients didn’t dress that formally on the weekends, but this guy was definitely not “most clients.” “Please keep me apprised of any new possibilities. My wife will be here soon, and I simply must have proper prospects to show her.”

“Of course.” She checked her watch. “If you have time—”

“I don’t,” he said abruptly. “I have a call with my wife in fifteen minutes, and I mustn’t miss it. If anything new comes on the market that meets my criteria, I will see it immediately.”

His dark eyes darted from her face to her ankle, and he gestured to her leg. “Is something wrong?”

“It’s nothing,” Maddy said with a wave of her hand. “I twisted my ankle on a run in the park yesterday.”

“The park?” he said absently.

“Yes.” Maddy limped over to the bank of light switches, not bothering to try to hide her injury anymore. “I run in Central Park most Saturdays with a friend. I’m lucky he was with me, or I would have had to hobble home all by myself.”

“I see.”

Mr. Gregory looked her up and down in a way that gave Maddy pause. It wasn’t lascivious, but something about the way his gaze lingered made her uncomfortable. For a split second, the caring, dutiful husband vanished, and someone darker emerged. Ronan’s words of warning flickered through her mind, and she realized that she hadn’t put the Mace in her pocket like he’d told her to. She adjusted the huge leather bag on her shoulder. Nope, the little spray can was somewhere deep inside the disaster she liked to call a purse. Her phone was also buried in the abyss.

This was the penthouse.

No one would hear her if she called for help.

“Shall I walk you out?” Maddy held the folder with the listing details over her breasts. The man continued to stare at her wordlessly. “Mr. Gregory? Are you alright?”

“Yes. I’m sorry, I was just thinking about…” His voice trailed off, and he tugged the front door open. “Never mind. Do call me if any other listings are appropriate.”

“I have to be honest with you. Because of the Thanksgiving holiday, there won’t be much activity over the next week or so. I promise that I’ll notify you if anything does come up.”

“Of course.” He gave her a tight smile. “Good day.”

He left, closing the door behind him without another word. Maddy let out the breath she’d been holding and silently cursed Ronan McGuire for making her a paranoid crazy woman. Mr. Gregory was nothing but an uptight businessman who probably weighed twenty pounds less than she did. He was a rich man looking to buy a new home for himself and his ailing wife. The man wasn’t a killer. She rolled her eyes and laughed at her foolishness. When she saw Ronan, she was going to give him a piece of her mind.

A shiver of excitement, along with a hint of dread, shimmied up her back at the thought of it. When she saw Ronan. A date. Holy crap. It had been years since she’d been on a first date, and now she was doing it with one of the biggest players she had ever known—and on Thanksgiving, no less! And not only that, but he was her best friend’s future brother-in-law.

What the hell was she getting herself into?

Maddy shut off all the lights and locked the front door. She punched the button on the elevator inside the private penthouse foyer and leaned against the wall, waiting not so patiently for it to arrive. Her cell phone buzzed yet again. It was hidden in the cavernous reaches of her purse, and though she dreaded trying to find it, it was a necessary evil.

After digging around, and with a few choice curse words, she finally curled her fingers around the smooth case of her phone.

“Aha!” Breathless from her search, Maddy checked the screen. She had four missed calls and two voice mails from Ronan, but the current call was from her office. “Maddy Morgan, how can I help you?”

“Maddy?” Sharon’s voice was teary, small, and meek, and she was sniffling. “Hello?”

The doors to the elevator opened, and Maddy stepped inside. The line went dead almost instantly. Great. Her ankle throbbed, her client was displeased, and now her assistant was crying.

What else could happen today?

As soon as the elevator opened, Maddy hobbled into the lavish lobby of the Park Avenue building and checked the signal. Satisfied they wouldn’t get cut off again, she called the office, and Sharon answered after the first ring.

“Hey, Sharon. Sorry about that. I had a crap signal. What’s up?”

Sniffling filled the other end of the line.

“Sharon?” Maddy closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath, searching for what little patience she had left. “What’s going on? Did Drummond hit on you again, or did he yell at you or something?”

“It’s not him,” Sharon croaked. “It’s Brenda. She’s—”

“She’s about to get fired, that’s what she is,” Maddy interrupted. “Tell her I want to see her in my office this afternoon. I don’t care what she says. There is simply no excuse for blowing off her job the way she did. I’ve had it. If Terrence finds out what she’s done—”

“No… She’s dead,” Sharon whispered.

Maddy stopped short.

swallowed the bile that rose in her throat. “Brenda’s dead? What the hell are you talking about?”

“Yes. Someone killed her,” Sharon said, sobbing loudly. “They found her body in the park yesterday. Just like Lucille.”

“Central Park?” Maddy asked, her voice sounding wispy and weak. The woman in the park—the one that Bowser had found—had been Brenda. “Oh my God.”

Somewhere in the middle of Sharon’s explanation, the lobby seemed to tilt on its axis. Maddy could hear Sharon’s voice, but she could no longer make out the words. She had to get out of here. Get outside. That’s it. Cold air. If she breathed in cool air, then everything would be okay. It would be clear. The world would be steady again instead of completely insane.

Maddy burst out the front door, practically plowing down the doorman in the process. She choked on the frigid, late-November air when it hit her lungs. A sob escaped her lips, and she fought to stem the tears, but to no avail. She babbled a quick good-bye to Sharon and stood on the sidewalk for what felt like forever, with people rushing by and paying her little mind.

This city had claimed another victim. Once again, the world kept right on going, cruelly oblivious to the latest loss of life. Blinded by tears, Maddy hailed a cab, and one pulled up within seconds. Once inside the warm car, she stared blankly at her phone until the driver asked her for the third time where she was going.

Home? The office? Neither was appealing. What other choice did she have? Ronan?

Maddy shook her head and answered her own question before she even had the chance to ask it. No way. The last thing she should do now was go running to him for help. Their friendship was in a strange place as it was; using him for a shoulder to cry on would only make it more confusing.

“Yo,” the cabbie grunted. “Where to?”

“Um, I’m not sure,” she whispered shakily.

“You okay, lady?” The cabbie adjusted the rearview mirror and peered at her warily. “Where we goin’?”

“I-I don’t—” Her phone buzzed in her hand, cutting her off. She answered it without even looking at who it was. “Maddy Morgan,” she managed to croak out.

“Where the hell have you been? Jesus, I’ve been worried sick about you.” Ronan’s firm, steady voice washed over her, instantly putting her at ease. “Maddy, are you there?”

She let out a slow breath and squeezed her eyes shut, desperately trying to slow the awful feeling of spinning out of control.

“The girl you found in the park,” she finally croaked. “It was… Ronan, she was only a kid. All this time… She’s gone.”

“I know.” Ronan’s tone was gentle and comforting. “Where are you?”

“In a cab. I’m going to work…to my office.” Maddy swiped at her eyes and leaned toward the plexiglass divider. “The corner of Forty-Seventh and Tenth Avenue, please,” she said to the driver.

“Maddy, you have got to be kidding me,” Ronan scoffed.

“No, I’m not.” She squared her shoulders, the tears finally slowing. “We have an office full of scared, upset people, and I need to get there and get it under control. Terrence is off-site with clients, so this falls to me. Not to mention Brenda’s parents. Someone has to call them,” she said, her voice wavering again. “So awful, and right before the holidays.”

Maddy stifled a hysterical laugh after that comment. Would it be any easier on them if their daughter had been killed during a regular week? No, of course not. Rick had died on a normal summer night, and it had hurt like hell.

“They’re already on their way,” Ronan said quietly. “I spoke with the detectives handling the case early this morning, once she’d been identified. I tried getting in touch with you, but you didn’t pick up. Probably because your phone was still buried in that suitcase of yours. Which also means you didn’t listen to a damn thing I said about taking precautions.”

A flicker of irritation shimmied up Maddy’s spine at the hint of arrogance and outrage that edged his words.

“Well, excuse the hell out of me for not listening to your all-knowing pearls of wisdom, McGuire.” Maddy stilled and watched the city go by through the window of the cab. “You know, I really don’t think now is the time to lecture me.”

“Really?” he scoffed. “Well, I think it’s the perfect time.”

“I have to go,” she snapped. “I have responsibilities.”

“You can’t control this, Maddy, or manage it,” he said bluntly. “And you sure as hell can’t hide from it and pretend it didn’t happen.”

She bristled at that last comment because it hit too damn close to home. Facing the truth had never been her strong suit. Nope, she was much better at handling the details and moving on. She could compartmentalize her life like it was her damn job: there was no point in lingering on the good or the bad. “Hit it and quit it” had been her motto, and until Ronan came along, it had seemed like a perfectly acceptable way to live.

But not for him. He couldn’t leave things alone. The man had to push and dig beyond the surface of everything, and it was making her crazy.

“Good-bye, McGuire.”

Before he could utter another word or toss any more truth in her face, Maddy ended the call and threw the phone back into her purse. She sniffled and wiped beneath her eyes, knowing there likely were smudges of mascara firmly in place. She would go to her office and do her best to ease everyone’s fears. Managing the details of a crisis was when she was at her best.

Nothing made her feel better than being in control.

***

Ronan hadn’t spoken to Maddy since she hung up on him. Part of him, a big damn piece, wanted to go find her and shake some sense into her. But after a lengthy phone call with Gavin, he came to the conclusion that that would be a bad move. His brother confirmed what Ronan suspected: if he pushed her too hard or crowded her space, she would shut him down and cut him off.

So Ronan did the exact opposite of his instincts. He didn’t call or text. He didn’t push. He could give Maddy the space she craved, but when the time was right, he was going to dig deeper. Maddy Morgan had quickly become the riddle that Ronan not only wanted, but also needed to solve.

For the rest of that week, he kept his ear to the ground to gather every bit of information on the case that he could. While he wanted his Thanksgiving dinner with Maddy to be free of unpleasant conversation, he knew that at some point, she would ask about the police’s progress in finding the killer. He couldn’t discuss certain aspects of the case, but he could definitely tell her some others.

In his heart of hearts, though, he was hoping they could talk about anything except that. Life and living were on his mind, and getting Maddy back into both was his top priority.

On Thanksgiving, with a bouquet of flowers in hand, he climbed out of the cab and smiled at Maddy’s doorman.

“Hey, David.” Ronan gave a friendly nod as the man held the door open. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“You too, Officer.” David looked at the cab as it pulled away. “No partner tonight?”

“No, sir.” Ronan chuckled. Once people saw him with Bowser, they always expected to see the two of them together. The dog made quite the impression. “No wingman for this evening.”

“You’re here to see Ms. Morgan, I presume?”

“Yes, sir.” Ronan held up the colorful autumn assortment, briefly wondering if he should have gone another way. Maybe roses? But that seemed too ordinary for a woman like Maddy. “Think she’ll like ’em?”

“I’d say it’s a safe bet.” David tipped his hat before calling out to the man at the desk. “Vincent, Officer McGuire is here to see Ms. Morgan.”

“Thank you, David.”

Ronan went to the guest book and signed in, but the instant he stepped into the elevator, he started to sweat. Maybe he should have called to confirm their date? He had texted, and she responded, but was that enough? After what had happened with Brenda, perhaps Maddy would want to pass on a night out. The funeral services would be back in Ohio where the girl had grown up, and Maddy’s office was closed for the holiday weekend.

She wouldn’t change her mind, would she?

He quickly checked his teeth in the reflection of the gold trim on the elevator walls. All clear. His new black wool coat covered the navy-blue suit and white shirt. He’d managed to keep the whole outfit free of wrinkles, but that was probably only because everything he had on was brand-new. Except for the tie, a dark-red one with white paw prints.

He rarely wore neckties—hated getting dressed up or wearing ties in general—so if he had to do it, at least he’d have a little fun with it. His mom had given him one with dogs on it when he and Bowser graduated from the K-9 program, and the theme had stuck. Now they were the only ties he had. Hell, he hated clothes shopping in general and hadn’t been in ages, even though he could clean up really nicely when he wanted to.

The salesgirl had found Ronan wandering the store helplessly and taken pity on him. She’d helped him pick out everything, including new shoes. His brother Finn was the clotheshorse in the family and usually ragged on Ronan for being lame about fashion, but this evening had certainly warranted a little retail torture. Even he had to admit that his boots and jeans weren’t gonna cut it tonight.

The elevator dinged. He straightened his tie, and a smile curved his lips.

This was it.

He had wanted to take Maddy Morgan on a date since he was in the eighth grade. She’d always been out of his league and off the market.

But not anymore.

The timing was finally right.

Jeez. Why was he making such a big deal out of this? Ronan wiped the sweat from his brow and let out a slow breath. He almost laughed out loud at how nervous he was. He’d been on dates with tons of women. If there was one thing Ronan knew how to do, it was date.

Yeah…but none of them were her.

Ronan punched the doorbell and straightened his coat one more time. Seconds ticked by painfully slowly, but there was no response.

Holy crap. She forgot.

Ronan knocked this time, but instead of her door, he heard the door of the other apartment open. He turned around just in time to see the guy in 15B poke his head out. The cop in Ronan did a quick rundown. Late twenties. Brown hair with glasses. Thin build.

“Happy Thanksgiving,” Ronan said. “Tim, right?”

“Tom,” he said flatly. “It’s Tom. You here to see Maddy?”

“Yeah, I am. Happy Thanks—”

The guy disappeared inside and slammed the door.

“Okay then,” Ronan murmured. “Nice to meet you too.”

He rang Maddy’s bell one more time. Was it possible that she had forgotten about their date?

Son of a…

As that last thought whisked through his head, and his ego began to shrivel, the door swung open. The sight before him wiped every coherent thought from his mind, and his mouth went dry.

She hadn’t forgotten.

Her voluptuous curves were wrapped in a slinky black dress that hugged the delicious swell of her hips and breasts with wicked perfection. Her espresso-colored curls hung loose around her face instead of being tied up or tamed as they were most times he saw her. Instead, they drifted over her shoulders in wild waves, almost daring him to tangle his fingers in them. A long, silver chain hung around her neck, and an oval pendant dangled precariously in her ample cleavage.

Maddy smiled at him from the doorway, her brilliant blue eyes framed with impossibly long, dark lashes. Ronan was speechless. She was beautiful. He’d always known that, but tonight, there was something ethereal about her. A glow or a light that he hadn’t really seen before…or maybe it had been so long ago that he’d almost forgotten it.

He didn’t know how many minutes passed while he stood there staring at her, but he could have stayed that way forever.

“What?” She looked down at her dress and then lifted her injured foot. “Did I get something on my dress, or do I still have a ?”

“No.” Ronan shook his head and let out a slow breath, taking in the delicious sight of her shapely legs. “Definitely no cankles. You’re stunning.”

“Thanks. So are you.” Her cheeks turned pink, and she stepped aside. “Uh. Come on in. I just have to get my coat.”

“I met your neighbor. Kind of,” Ronan said with a smirk. “It’s Tom, by the way. Not Tim.”

He stepped into the foyer and closed the door behind him. The wool overcoat had been a mistake because now he was sweating like a pig. Maddy wasn’t limping anymore. Her ankle must have been feeling better, because she had donned a pair of sexy black heels. He couldn’t help but get a good look at those gorgeous gams while she fished her coat out of the closet.

“Oh jeez,” she groaned. “I’ve been calling him Tim. He came over the other day and fixed my laptop and was asking me all kinds of questions about real estate prices and said he might be moving. Anyway, now I feel like a jerk because I used the wrong name. No wonder he didn’t take me up on my offer to get him some listings. I insulted the poor guy.”

“Whatever his name is, he’s not real friendly.” Ronan stuck the flowers out at her like a dork. “Happy Thanksgiving.”

“Thanks.” Maddy curled her hand around the paper, her fingertips briefly brushing his. Her eyebrows raised, and she nodded with approval. “Very nice, McGuire. Orange roses, purple cushion poms, and burnt-orange lilies. This is an impressive autumnal assortment. Okay, fess up. Who helped you with this?”

“What? You don’t think I asked for the pom-poms all on my own?”

“They’re called purple cushion poms.” She laughed. “Come on. Be honest. Did you call Jordan, or maybe Cookie and Veronica at the shop back home?”

“Absolutely not. That would be cheating.” He took her coat and helped her into it. “I told the lady at the florist that my date and her mom used to own a flower shop. Obviously, I had to bring my A game. Like I said…I enjoy surprising you.”

Maddy sniffed the bouquet, her blue eyes peering at him above the blooms.

“How am I doing so far?” he asked quietly.

“Well, you showed up,” she said with a nervous laugh. “That’s a good start.”

“Are you serious?” He tilted his head and studied her closely. How could she think, for one second, that he wouldn’t show up? “I’ve never stood up a woman in my life. And I certainly wouldn’t start with you.”

“After what happened to Brenda and the way I spoke to you on the phone the other day…” She looked back at the flowers and cleared her throat. There it was. The elephant in the room.

“Did you get a chance to speak to Brenda’s parents?”

“Yes.” She nodded, her shoulders lifting as she sucked in a deep breath. “The service will be tomorrow, back in Ohio. They never wanted her to move here in the first place. They were devastated, as you can imagine.”

“I know. The guys on the case are keeping me in the loop.” Ronan pulled her coat closed, but he didn’t let go, tugging her closer instead. “They’re gonna find the son of a bitch who did this.”

“I hope so,” Maddy whispered. Her lower lip quivered, and those blue eyes glimmered as she seemed to struggle with what she wanted to say. “Thank you, Ronan.”

“For what?”

He grasped the lapels of her coat a bit tighter, as though that might stop the tears he feared were coming. Seeing any woman cry was awful, but watching Maddy cry might make him crazy. To see her hurting, and not be able to fix it, would be torture.

“For everything,” she murmured. “Calling the other day, being here tonight. Mostly for not giving up on me. After the way I bit your head off, I wouldn’t have blamed you if you’d let me have Thanksgiving alone with the remnants of the lame pint of mint-chip ice cream for my dinner.”

“Sorry, kid.” Ronan tugged the lapels of her coat playfully and leaned a bit closer. “That’s not my style. Besides, emotions were running high, and with everything you were dealing with, I shouldn’t have pushed. That being said, backing down isn’t my style either. I’ve got—”

“Tunnel vision,” she murmured.

When her gaze slammed into his, Ronan’s gut dropped to his feet. God, he wanted to kiss her again. But before he could say or do anything, she backed up toward the living room. The fabric of her coat slipped through his fingers, much like she was slipping into his heart.

Effortlessly and completely.

“And you brought me flowers. Like I said, you’re off to a good start.” She held up the bouquet. “I’m going to put these in water, and then we can get dinner. I hope you like a woman who can eat, McGuire. I’m starving.”

As she vanished around the corner, he couldn’t have agreed more. He was hungry too, but not for food. All he craved was more of her.

***

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