Katie MacAlister

Time Thief

Time Thief

Time Thief, Book 1


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Keeper Shelf Books (May 7, 2013)
REPRINT: February 6, 2018
ISBN-13: 9781945961274 • ISBN-10: 1945961279

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Outcast due to their ability to manipulate time, shunned by the mortal and immortal worlds alike, a Traveller’s life is anything but easy.

Traveller Peter Faa is a member of the Otherworld’s Watch tracking down a murderer, and unfortunately, the clues all seem to point toward his own estranged family. Any of his cousins could be guilty, but finding which one is tricky when they’re all experts in the art of stealing time.

After surviving a lightning strike, Kiya Mortenson is determined to get just one thing in her life right. And if that means taking a job as nanny to five pugs who live in a campsite in the Oregon wilderness, then so be it. It doesn’t hurt that the job comes with some pretty spectacular male eye candy, including her new boss’s gorgeous black sheep grandson. If only she didn’t keep having this strange sense of deja vu…

When Peter discovers that his own family is stealing time from Kiya, all bets are off. While she may drive him crazy at times, it’s clear to him that it’s not just lightning that’s creating some serious sparks between them. And he’s not going to let secrets, lies, or a devious murderer keep Kiya from where she belongs: at his side.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

“You know that saying about lightning never strikes twice in the same place? Well, I’m the living proof that it’s totally false.”

“The lightning is false, or the saying? Aaaa . . . aaaa—”

“—choo,” I finished for the man sitting across from me in the small reception area. I flinched in sympathy when he wiped an already red nose, his eyes just as angry-looking, and swollen to boot. But it was the really magnificent array of hives all over his face and what I could see of his chest through the neck of his shirt that had me adding, “Don’t worry, I’ve heard from my friend Lily that the doctors here are awesome. I’m sure you’ll be de-hived and de-puffied in no time.”

“I truly hope so,” the man said wearily, closing his eyes and leaning back in the waiting room chair, dabbing at both his streaming eyes and nose. “I’m used to pollen allergies, but the hives are new.”

“I didn’t know that you can get hives from anything but drug allergies,” I said, absently mimicking his movement when he reached for his neck before he forcibly stopped himself. Just seeing all those angry red welts made me itchy all over.

“Evidently if you are hypersensitive to some plants, you can. As I found out this morning when I ran into a large sagebrush next to the road.”

I scratched my arm. “Huh. I see mountain sagebrush all the time. They’ve never bothered me.”

“Stranger things, Horatio,” he murmured, his hands fisted as they rested on his legs. Poor guy must be miserable with all those hives. He looked nice enough, too, probably in his late fifties, with brown hair and eyes, and round little 1930s-style wire-rimmed glasses.

“You got that right.”

His eyes popped open suddenly. “My apologies, Miss . . . Miss—”

“Mortenson. Kiya Mortenson.”


“Yeah. It’s kind of odd, huh?” I scratched my shoulder. “Mom and Dad were hippies. Smart hippies. They thought it would be fun to name me after some ancient Egyptian who people used to think was King Tut’s mom, but I heard recently that she’s not. So now I’m named after someone who isn’t related to King Tut.”

“There are worse people to be named after.”

“True that. I could be Hitlerina.” I smiled when he gave a rusty chuckle, then grimaced in itchiness, his fingers twitching with the need to scratch. I scratched my wrist for him.

“I am Dalton.”

“Just Dalton? Like a movie star one-name Dalton, or you’re afraid to tell me your last name in case I covertly take a picture of you all puffy and hivish, and post it on Facebook, where it’ll embarrass you in front of all your friends and family?”

He opened his red, swollen eyes as wide as they could go. “Are you likely to take covert pictures of me?”

“No, but mostly because my cell phone is a dinosaur, technologically speaking, and doesn’t take photos.”

He chuckled again, more carefully this time. “Since my friends and family are safe from my gruesome visage at the moment, I shall risk you suddenly blooming into stalkerhood, and will tell you my surname. It’s McKay.”

“Hi, Dalton McKay.”

“Hello, Kiya. I’m sorry I interrupted you when you were telling me something about lightning. You said you were struck by it? That sounds like a major life event. I would think you would have gone to the emergency room rather than a walk-in clinic.”

I shrugged. “I wasn’t really hurt. Just kind of a bit woozy for a few seconds, but then that cleared up and I was fine. Though I figured I’d better check in and make sure that my heart was OK, or that the lightning didn’t screw up something in my head. That sort of thing. So here I am.”

“Indeed you are.” He blinked owlishly behind round lenses. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met someone who has been struck by lightning.”

“Twice. This was my second time. Hence the comment about the saying being false.”

He blinked a few more times, dabbed at his eyes and nose again, and said with a little frown, “What were you doing when you were struck?”

“Helping a chipmunk.” I gave a wry little smile. “Well, gasping and heaving and swearing that I was going to get back to jogging regularly is more accurate, but the reason I was doing all that is because I was trying to help a chipmunk that had his head stuck in a plastic milk container. Little bugger could sure run despite that handicap. I had to chase him all over a mountaintop before I caught up with him. I forgot that you’re not supposed to hide under tall cedar trees when there’s a storm. One minute I was fine, and the next, crack, zap, and sizzle.”

“Sizzle?” Dalton looked appalled. “You actually sizzled?”

“Well . . .” My face screwed up as I tried to remember the event of this morning. “‘Sizzle’ may not be the right word. There was kind of a scratchy noise when the lightning flower grew. At least I think that was it. Maybe the scratchy noise came from the chipmunk ripping the milk container off his head.”

“I don’t think . . . no, I’m sure I have not ever heard of a lightning flower. Is it a plant native to this part of Oregon?”

“No, no, it’s not an actual flower.” I moved over and plopped myself down on a saggy sofa next to his chair, pulling off the gauze overshirt I wore over a tank top. “It’s a feathery pattern that sometimes shows up on people who are hit by lightning. See? Supposedly, it’s from all the veins and arteries and stuff being lit up by the lightning, but because it’s so delicate, it’s called a lightning flower.”

“That is just . . . amazing.” Dalton leaned forward to examine my upper arm. “How very unique. And it doesn’t hurt?”

“The lightning flower?” I gave a cursory glance to the feathery pattern of light tan that ran down from my bicep to my wrist. It wasn’t like I hadn’t seen the same pattern before. Well, assuming I was naked and looking over my shoulder at a mirror. “No. Getting hit by lightning is a bit like touching an electric fence, only more so, but this? Doesn’t hurt at all.”

“It’s almost . . . feminine in its delicacy.”

“Yeah, they are kind of pretty, in a weird sort of way.”

“Will it last long?”

“Well, that’s where it gets a bit strange,” I said, making myself comfy on the sofa. I couldn’t quite say why, but I was content to while away the half an hour or so it would take to be seen by the clinic doctor by chatting with this man. “I looked it up online a few years ago, and they’re not supposed to be permanent, but mine are. It’s kind of like a scar.”

“It doesn’t look like a scar.” He leaned in closer, touching the pattern with the tip of one forefinger. “It looks like a henna tattoo.”

“It does, doesn’t it? My foster mom says my other one looks like I drew it on with a tan felt pen, but really, it’s just a case of me being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Again.”

“You should definitely give trees a miss the next time a storm comes up,” he agreed.

“I couldn’t really help it. I was . . . er . . . kind of working a temp job. An unofficial one. I was helping out Lily, a friend who wanted to take a couple of days to go see her family, but she had to be up on top of a mountain watching for fires. So I said I’d help her out and take over for her for her shift. We figured that this way, she’d get to see her family at the same time that I’d make a few bucks, and no one would be the wiser. So of course, what happens but I chase a chipmunk to kingdom come and back again, and get struck by a freak bolt of lightning that I swear came right out of nowhere. And when I called 911 to see if there was someone who could drive me off the top of that mountain to the hospital, everyone had a major hissy fit, and they called the Forest Service, which meant Lily’s boss found out that I was there instead of her, and . . . well, you can guess how that all turned out.”

“Mmm,” Dalton said noncommittally, returning his gaze to my arm. “You said this was the second time you were struck?”

“Yes.” I examined his face for a few seconds. “Are you really so miserable that hearing my boring life story will distract you from all the itchiness?”

“Yes,” he said frankly, then made a face. “I apologize, that was rude.”

“Not in the least,” I said, laughing and waving away his apology. “I know what it’s like to try to not do something, so I’m happy to give you something else to think about. I was hit by lightning once before, when, according to my foster mom, I was about three years old. I don’t really remember anything about the storm or the fire that followed it.” I smoothed my hand down one leg of red Capri pants that made me feel very 1950s.

“And you weren’t hurt? A little girl of three?”

“Nope. Evidently I was just struck by lightning on my butt. Which is odd enough, let me tell you. Carla—my foster mom—says that the lightning that hit me also started the forest fire that killed my folks and a couple of people who were with them in the campground, and that the firemen couldn’t believe I hadn’t been hurt other than having my clothes blown to shreds.” I thought for a moment, then gave a shrug. “I’ve tried to remember what happened because I have absolutely no memories of my parents, but it’s all just missing. Carla says my id and ego and superego are all blocking the events of that night because they were so horrific. Sounds kind of odd, since they don’t block any other bad events I’ve lived through, but I guess Carla would know; she’s a clinical psychologist.”

Dalton peered at me through the thick lenses of his glasses, his liquid brown eyes full of empathy. “I lost my parents at a young age, as well. You are lucky not only to have survived but to have found a good home after the tragedy.”

I smiled and curled my toes around the toe-grip on my sandals. “I’ve always been lucky that way. Well, I used to be lucky. It seems to have run out of late.”

“Oh? In what way?”

“No job, no boyfriend, my apartment house is going to be torn down, and I’ve got too many fines at the library to do anything but sneak in and read books while hiding in one of the back study carrels.”

“And then you were struck by lightning,” he said with a little smile.

I answered the smile. “Yup. Kinda makes you glad that all you have are easily fixed hives, huh?”

The nurse behind the frosted glass window slid open one section and said loudly, “Dalton McKay? You may go into room two. The doctor will be with you shortly.”

“Ah. Excellent.” He stood up and started toward the door the nurse had gestured at, then turned around and offered me his hand. “Thank you for entertaining me, Kiya. I hope your luck changes soon.”

“Thanks. Happy dehiving!”

I didn’t see him again, since I was called into another room and had to repeat my story of the morning’s adventures, which necessitated a number of tests, but after a couple of hours of giving up what felt like way too much blood, having an EKG, and explaining just what a lightning flower—officially known as a Lichtenberg figure—was, it wasn’t until early afternoon that I was released from the clinic with a clean bill of health. I waved to the nurse as I headed out to where Eloise sat somewhat lopsidedly on the side of the street.

“Right,” I told the car as I climbed in through the window, not an easy task on a 1969 VW Bug, crawling over the passenger seat to the driver’s side. I gave the dashboard a little pat. “I’ve given you gas and oil and water, Eloise. I cleaned your spark plugs. I washed your front window, and if you had a back one, I would have washed it, too. I even vacuumed, and found a piece of fresh rope to hold the driver’s-side door tight. There is no earthly reason why you shouldn’t start, so let’s not go the prima donna route this afternoon, OK? We have a good two-hour drive to get home, and since there’s no one here in town I can stay with, I really, really, really need you to be reliable today.”

I took a deep breath and, bending down, fished out the ignition wires that I had to use to start the car because the ignition was shot. Literally. Stupid hunters thinking Eloise was a derelict when she clearly was in fine working order, if admittedly suffering from a few cosmetic insults.

“You’re not the only one who’s had a few years on her,” I told the car while I touched the wires together.

A few sparks, a puff of acrid electrical smoke, and Eloise’s engine coughed and sputtered to life.

I sang while I drove out of the southern Oregon town that nestled up against the Cascade mountains, interrupting myself periodically to swear at the logging trucks that barreled out of the wilderness, their swaying loads of freshly cut trees annoying me on many levels. Not only were the truckers arrogant with their “we’re bigger than you and thus you have to give way to us” attitude, but I hated the clear-cutting that went on in the interior of the state, even if the lumber companies had a stringent replanting policy.

“The forest belongs to everyone, you road hog!” I bellowed at one truck when it came whipping around a curve, straddling the center line of the road, and causing me to jerk the wheel to the right, sending poor Eloise onto the shoulder, where the passenger side was forced to endure the savagery of a long stretch of wild blackberry bushes before the car came to a shuddering halt. “I’ve got your license plate number! I’m going to turn you . . . well, drat, no, I didn’t get the number. Bastage.”

It took me a few minutes to get a grip on my jangled nerves, but at last I stopped shaking and tried to start the car.

Eloise gave a few oily coughs, backfired twice, and lapsed into an ominous silence. I swore to myself. “Great. Stupid logging trucks picking on innocent little Bugs. Well. Only thing for it is to get out and see if you’re truly stuck or just being cranky.”

I crawled over to the passenger seat, intending on exiting the car the same way I entered it (which was pretty much my only option), when I realized that in my haste to avoid being squashed flat by the logging truck, I’d run the car right off the tiny dirt shoulder, and into a dense wall of blackberries. There was no conceivable way I was going to climb out of the window into that, even assuming I could shove the blackberry vines back enough to escape the car.

“Crap.” I sat back down in the driver’s seat, and considered the door to my left. Due to the fact that the door itself didn’t work, it was tied on tightly from the outside. Likewise, the window had been cemented into place, since the mechanism that managed it had long since given up the ghost. “Well, I guess I’ll have to go out the back.”

The little car shook as another logging truck whizzed past, the wind from its passage sending my shoulder-length hair whipping around my face when I peeled back the duct tape holding the thick, clear plastic that stood in place of my rear window.

I was halfway out the window, swearing profanely to myself as I tried to reach behind me and disentangle the bit of my outer shirt that had somehow been caught on the twisted window frame, when a car passed me, slowed, stopped, then, with blithe disregard to both laws of the road and common safety, backed up until it was stopped behind me.

“Problem?” the man who got out of the car asked as I struggled with the tangled wad of shirt behind me. I was half in the car, half out of it, one hand braced on Eloise’s sloped rear Eloise while my legs kicked around inside.

“Yeah, my shirt is caught on something and I can’t . . . ow! Son of a bitch, Eloise!”

“My name is Gregory, not Eloise,” the man said with a voice filled with humor. “Perhaps I can help.”

“Sorry, I was swearing at my car, not you,” I answered, releasing my hold on the twisted cloth, and leaning forward, sucking the blood off my punctured finger. “Be careful. The metal’s jagged just around the top, and it’s sharp.”

The man reached in alongside my hip, sliding his hand up and onto my butt.

“Whoa now!” I jerked to the side, my legs kicking again as I tried to escape both the caught shirt and the butt-groper. “That is totally uncalled-for! What sort of a man takes advantage of a snagged woman to cop a quick grope?”

“Sorry,” he said, quickly moving his hand. “I didn’t mean to . . . er . . . grope. I’m just trying to locate . . . ah, this must be it. Hold still, or I won’t be able to unhook the material.”

I twisted around to glare suspiciously at the back of his head as he bent into the empty window, but he must have been telling the truth, because he didn’t attempt any more unsolicited touching. The shirt gave way as he released it.

“Oh, thank you,” I said in relief, intent on sliding forward down Eloise’s rear. Two strong hands under my arms caught me instead, pulling me out until I was upright on the road. “Oh. Er. Thanks,” I repeated.

“My pleasure. I don’t mean in reference to touching your ass, although that was very nice. In a wholly accidental way.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not the way to make friends or influence people,” I muttered, spinning around as I tried to see the damage to my favorite gauze blouse. I finally twisted it around, grimacing at the dirty hole now present in the back.

“Would it be rude of me to inquire why you were climbing out the back of your nonexistent rear window?” the man asked.

I sighed and released the shirt, then turned my attention to my butt-groping savior. One look at his curly blond hair, Californian surfer-dude good looks, and mischievous blue eyes had my mind going blank for a few seconds.

Gently, he reached out and pushed my chin upward until my mouth closed. I blushed, ashamed that I’d been gawking so brazenly.

“Sorry,” I mumbled, wondering how the hell one man could be so handsome and not have a harem of women traveling around with him. Maybe he was gay? No, in that case, the harem would be male. I shook my head. No matter what his sexual preference, this man was so handsome, it just wasn’t possible that he was there at that moment, standing by the side of a little-used road in the backwoods of southern Oregon.

“Why are you shaking your head at me?”

“You’re not real,” I said. “You can’t be real. Unless America’s Sexiest Male Models is filming at Crater Lake, or something like that. Because otherwise? No. It’s just not possible.”

He laughed. He had a nice laugh, baritone with just a hint of huskiness. “I assure you that I am very real. Although I do thank you for the compliment. At least, I think it was a compliment.”

“Oh, it was.”

He laughed again, which relieved the awkwardness of the moment, then suddenly jerked me to the side as a large Land Rover with a boat in tow hurtled past us, far too close to the shoulder for safety. “Idiot American drivers.”

“You’re not American?” I asked in surprise. He certainly sounded West Coast to me.

“I was born in a very small town in what is now Romania, actually,” he said with a little bow. “My name is Gregory Faa. And will you give me the pleasure of knowing your name?”

He had absolutely no accent, but the way he put words together did sound a bit foreign. Or at least, very upper-class. “Kiya Mortenson. Sorry I gawked just then. I wasn’t expecting to be rescued from the depths of Eloise by a Romanian supermodel.”

“I’m not a model,” he said with another smile. “I take it that your car has broken down?”

“Well,” I said slowly, following him when he went around to the front of the car. “With Eloise, it’s not so much a case of breaking down as it is running on a hope and a prayer, but yes, we got run off the road, and she stopped and won’t start again. Oh, the engine is in the back on a VW Bug. Are you good with cars?”

“Not particularly.” We moved to the rear of the car. In silence, we both contemplated the workings of Eloise’s motor. “I can give you a lift into town, though. I’m sure you can get someone to tow the car there.”

“Ew. Tow truck.” I bit my lip and tried to calculate how much money, if any, was left on my credit card. My bank account was sorely depleted due to Lily having to return to work, and thus not paying me for my covert fill-in job. “Um . . . yeah. Maybe I’ll just let her rest for a bit. Sometimes she will start up if she’s had some time to recuperate from trauma.”

A large RV lumbered past us, narrowly missing hitting Gregory’s shiny red car. He cocked a light brown eyebrow at me. “I wouldn’t risk leaving my car on this road, even if it was”—he glanced over my shoulder to where Eloise sat—“temperamental. It’s not safe.”

I eyed his sports car. “I don’t suppose if we had a rope, you could tow me into the nearest town? Or maybe just to a pullout spot, if there is one on this road?”

“No,” he said gently, taking me by the shoulders and pushing me toward his car. “Jaguars do not tow other cars. Get in, and I will take you down the road to the next town. It’s not far, three or four miles at best.”

“But, Eloise—”

“It will take us ten minutes at the most to get to town. We must hope that your car will be safe for the time it takes for the tow truck to fetch it.”

Limply, I allowed him to seat me in his car, all the while mentally chastising myself for not standing up to this handsome Good Samaritan. It wasn’t like me to be a doormat for any man, but here I was sitting silently, guiltily enjoying the mingled (and heady) aroma of leather seats, expensive car, and sexy man as he whisked me away.

“Were you on your way to your workplace when you had car trouble?” Gregory asked politely a few minutes later. Fir trees that lined the narrow road whipped past us on the right side, leaving the impression of a green blur that was punctuated now and again by sharp, craggy rocks that jutted out of the earth and jabbed pointy fingers to the sky. To the left, off and on through the dense trees I caught a flash of silver light, indicating a stream or perhaps one of the lakes that dotted this area.

“I wish. I’m unemployed at the moment. I was helping out a friend, but that ended kind of badly; hence I’m on my way home. I live near the coast, so it’s important that I be able to get Eloise started again.” I gnawed my lower lip for a few seconds, not wanting to ask the question uppermost in my mind, but not seeing much of a way out of it. “Do you think a tow for Eloise would be much above fifty bucks? If it’s only a couple of miles, that is?”

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. “I shouldn’t think so. A bit on your uppers, are you?”


“Sorry, that was a Briticism. I take it that you’re a bit short of ready cash?”

“And unready cash, and cash that will never have a chance to be ready because frankly, it doesn’t exist, and probably never will.” I sighed. “My unemployment ran out a few months ago. The job market is crap for someone who has no marketable skills other than the ability to coax a forty-five-year-old car into running long past its normal life span. You don’t happen to know of anyone who’s looking for a secretary or receptionist or something like that? I can type and answer phones and file if needed.”

“I’m afraid I don’t, no,” he said, shooting me a sympathetic look as we headed into a tiny little town named, according to the decorative sign by the side of the road, Rose Hill.

“What do you do?” I asked, grimacing when the question came out somewhat accusatory. “Sorry, I didn’t mean that like I expect you to give me a job. Are you a model?”

“Me?” He laughed again. “Hardly. I’m in acquisitions.”

“What kind of acquisitions?”

He shrugged. “Whatever I find profitable at the time. Lately I’ve been working out of Los Angeles exporting artwork to affluent Asian technology companies who wish to make an entrance into the global marketplace.”

“Sounds cool. What are you doing out here in the boonies of Oregon, if you don’t mind me being nosy?”

“I don’t mind at all. My family is here, and due to the work I just mentioned, I haven’t been around much. My grandmother has been demanding I visit for the last six months, and this was the first opportunity I’ve had to drive up here. Ah. There is the garage I remember seeing earlier this morning. Would you be terribly offended if I offered you a small loan to cover the cost of a tow?”

“Offended? Are you kidding? I’d be more likely to throw myself on you and kiss you in gratitude.”

His eyes twinkled at me with a roguish glint that had me grinning. “I’m in a bit of a hurry right now; otherwise I would take you up on that offer.”

“Hot art acquisition waiting for you?” I asked, climbing out of the car once he had stopped in front of a tiny gas station with attached one-car service bay. On the far side of the building a shiny new tow truck sat in the shade of the ever-present pine trees.

“As you said, I wish. Unfortunately what awaits me is a visit to my grandmother and her nightmarish herd of five pugs. Hello? Is someone here able to help me?”

I followed him into the miniscule office, filled almost to capacity with a man in dirty blue overalls and, inexplicably, a knitted hat with antlers and deer ears.

“Whatcha need?” the large man asked as he shifted off a hard metal stool and gave us both the once-over. “Gas is self-service. Pay in advance at the pump.”

“My friend here is in need of a tow.”

I listened silently as Gregory described the location of Eloise, and tossed a hundred-dollar bill across the cluttered counter just as casually as I might flick a piece of lint off my shoulder.

The tow man grunted an acknowledgment, pocketed the money, and hoisted his bulk back onto the stool at the same time he bellowed out a name. “Norm!”

Another rotund man emerged from the depths of the service stall, wiping his filthy hands on a crusty rag. “Yeah?”

“Got a tow for you. ’Bout five miles out of town between here and Heron Creek Road. Old VW.”

Norm hawked and spat, nodding as he trundled out to the tow truck.

I watched him nervously, and wondered aloud if I should go with him to ensure Eloise’s safety.

“Can’t. Against the law,” the station owner said before picking up a hunting and fishing magazine, and burying his nose in it.

“Don’t be such an automotive mother hen,” Gregory said as he escorted me out of the confines of the small office, and steered me over to a bench that sat in the shade opposite the station. I eased myself down carefully, mindful of splinters, since the bench was made out of a roughly hewn split log. It marked the outer boundary of what was obviously a little picnic area, complete with two squirrels who were mating under a beat-up picnic table, and a trash can that—if odor was anything to go by—was housing the several-days-old corpse of a large mammal. Some of the mountain sagebrush that Dalton was so allergic to lay just beyond the area. “Your car will be fine. I hate to leave you by yourself, but if I don’t get to my grandmother, she’ll rip several strips off me.”

“Sorry to delay you,” I said, and I was, although not so much that I didn’t add, “Enjoy the pugs.”

He made a face. “I’m hardly likely to. They’re little monsters.”

“Aww, they’re so cute and adorable, how can you say that? I love pugs. I’ve always wanted to have one, but just haven’t been able to get enough saved to afford it. Do you have far to go?”

“You’ve never met my grandmother’s beasts. She treats them like they are human, letting them in her caravan, and eating food she cooks. And no, she’s staying about a mile from here. Are you familiar with the Appleton Mill in the Umpqua Forest?”

“Not really, no.” I searched my memory for grains of information. “I know the forest is near here, because I’ve seen a ton of signs for various camping facilities.”

He nodded. “My family is residing in the forest at the present.”

“Residing? I didn’t think they let people build there.”

“Not in houses. In caravans . . . er . . . RVs, you call them.”

“Now, that’s the way I’ve always felt camping should be done,” I said with a smile of appreciation. “None of this sleeping out in a mildewed canvas tent that every animal stronger than a slug can get into. Is your family back-to-nature kind of people? I heard there’s a fairly large contingent of nature lovers who hang out in this area.”

“Something like that.” He glanced at his watch and swore under his breath, then eyed me for a second. “It’s too bad you live so far away. My grandmother said just this morning that she is feeling the strain of caring for her little monsters. If you were available . . .”

He left the statement a half question. I shook my head with real regret. “I’d love a job taking care of dogs, especially adorable pugs, but I’m afraid the commute from my apartment to this area would kill Eloise. Not to mention would cost more in gas than any dog-care salary would cover.”

“Alas.” He took my hand and, to my surprise, bent over it, pressing my fingers to his mouth for one scorching hand-kiss. I gawked at him again, amazed at the sensation, and unsure of how to react. Did one clasp the hand that held one’s own? Shake it? Kiss his hand in response?

A giggle built up inside of me at the idea of me gravely bending over his hand and kissing his knuckles. Oh, if only my phone could take pictures, my friends would all receive one of me doing just that.

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Kiya,” he said, releasing my hand. I held it stiffly at my side, feeling horribly awkward.

“Likewise. And thanks for the tow loan. Do you . . . er . . . have a card or something with a mailing address so I can send it back to you when I get home?”

He hesitated for a few seconds. “I am between addresses at the moment, but a letter sent to me care of this address will reach me.” He pulled a card out of his wallet and offered it.

I mouthed the name of the law firm printed on the card, then tucked it away, and thanked him again. He smiled and got into his car, leaving me alone with the two randy squirrels, the dead thing in the garbage bin, and a wish that, just once in my life, something would go right.

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