The murderer crept silently into the bedroom, his footsteps muffled by the hearty drumbeat of a summer thunderstorm.
He raised the knife, pausing only long enough to delight in the quick flash of lightning that illuminated his victim’s terrified face, before
“Dalton, I need your help!”
Dalton Scott let out a curse. Then another one. His neighbor. Viola Winterberry, one of those people who needed favors like trick-or-treaters needed another Hershey bar, was somewhere downstairs.
“I’m working, Mrs. Winterberry. On the book,” he called down.
“I know,” she said, her voice rising in volume as she climbed the stairs toward his office, “but I have“
“I’m on a deadline.” He shouted the words, heavy on the hint-hint.
Actually, he was way past his deadline. The pressure cooker had not just reached its peak, it had exploded.
“But you have to“
“And if I get disturbed, I lose my concentration.” He’d told her that a hundred times, yet she still walked in uninvited. It was his own fault. He’d forgotten to lock the door after he retrieved the paper this morning.
He needed a guard dog. A big one.
Aw, hell. It wouldn’t matter. His writing stunk, dog or not. Concentration or not. He’d already missed his deadline, ticked off his editor, nearly destroyed his career.
What else could go wrong?
“I have an emergency,” Mrs. Winterberry said, poking her curly gray head into his office and into his line of vision. “I know you said not to bother you, but I’m desperate, Dalton. Desperate. You said anytime I needed a favor, you’d help me out.”
She’d been desperate last week when she needed a cup of sugar from him so she could make her special raspberry cake. Desperate the week before when she needed him to come by immediately to change a light bulb. Desperate the week before that when she’d called him four times in one day because she was sure the noise she was hearing outside her window could only be caused by an intruder. A little investigating on Dalton’s part turned up a little non-threatening neighborly roofing work.
“I’ve been calling you,” Mrs. Winterberry said. “For ten minutes.”
“I unplugged my phone.” On purpose, he’d add, but that would offend her. And told her she was the reason he kept his phone disconnected when he worked.
He liked Mrs. Winterberry. She had that grandmotherly look about her, with her seemingly endless supply of cookies and muffins, and her mother-hen ways, but that package came equipped with a tendency to pop in unannounced, needing something almost every five minutes. When Dalton really needed to get this incredibly overdue book done.
“I’m sorry to bother you again, Dalton, but this time I really do need you. My sister…” Mrs. Winterberry’s face flushed, and something churned in Dalton’s gut, telling him this wasn’t a light bulb or a too-high can on Mrs. Winterberry’s kitchen shelf, “my sister had a heart attack and…” she pressed a hand to her mouth. Her light blue eyes began to water.
Immediate regret flooded Dalton. He leapt to his feet, and crossed to the older woman, then stood there, helpless, not quite a friend, but not quite a stranger, either. In that next door neighbor-limbo of too distant to give a hug. Not that he was the hug type anyway. “I’m so sorry, Mrs. Winterberry. Ah, do you need a ride to the hospital?”
“No. But I do need you to…” She gave him a hopeful smile. “Watch Sabrina.”
Mrs. Winterberry made a vague wave toward the downstairs. “Yep. She’s sleeping downstairs. All her things are there.” Mrs. Winterberry started to leave.
“Wait. Who? What things?”
His neighbor poked her head back in. “I thought I told you. I’ve been baby-sitting for a neighbor. Maybe you know her? Ellie Miller? She lives in the little house across the street? You know, the brown one with the…”
Dalton looked back at his computer. Daylight was burning, as was his editor’s short-fused temper. And he was no closer to being done. He had no time or desire to be watching so much as a neighbor’shouseplant. “Mrs. Winterberry, isn’t there another”
“Don’t worry,” she interrupted, misinterpreting what he was about to say. “I left Ellie a message. She should be here any minute. Surely, you can watch Sabrina until then? Besides, it will probably be good for you. Give you a whole new perspective for you work.” Satisfied his non-answer was a yes, Mrs. Winterberry headed for the door of his office and down the stairs, her mind clearly on her sister and not on anything else. “Thank you!”
Before he could say yes or no, Mrs. Winterberry was gone. A second later, he heard the front door slam.
Dalton bit back a groan. Why had he ever shared the angst of a writer with his next-door neighbor? He’d been living alone too damn long, that was for sure. And now she’d left him with Sabrina, whoever that was. Probably the neighbor’s cat. Mrs. Winterberry, self-proclaimed friend of the furry, was well-known for taking on people’s pets when they went out of town.
Just great. Now he had a pooch or a cat to contend with. Well, it could be worse. He could be stuck with a-
A piercing wail cut through the quiet of his house. No, it didn’t cut, it viciously slashed the silence. “What the?”
Dalton ran out of his office and into the massive, two-story great room, spinning, searching for the source of the sound. At first, in the huge space, he couldn’t find the thing, praying it was a tape in his CD player, or someone outside, a screech of a too-fast teenager doing a one-eighty on the cul-de-sac, and then finally, his gaze lighted on a bundle of pink blankets squirming in a plastic rocker kind of thing on the floor by his favorite armchair.
He crossed the room, moved the blankets to the side. And faced his worst nightmare. A baby.
Hell, no. Not a kid. He didn’t do kids.
Regardless, there was one. Kicking and screaming. And in his living room.
Its mouth was open in a cavernous O, the sound coming from its lungs reaching decibels usually reserved for deaf rock bands. Dalton was half tempted to put the blanket back, return to his office and shut the door. Except someone would eventually show up on his doorstep, demanding he do something about the human noisemaker. And besides, even he wasn’t grumpy enough to leave a baby screaming in the middle of his living room.
“Hey,” he said. “Hey!”
The baby kept screaming.
“Hey!” Dalton repeated, louder this time. “Cut it out. I’m not in the mood.”
This time, the baby stopped. Looked at him. All blue eyes and red cheeks. A sliver of a memory raced through Dalton.
He closed his eyes for a second, but that only made the past push its way past the mental closet and into the forefront of Dalton’s brain. He opened his eyes and let out a breath. It was better when the baby had been crying, loud enough to keep from hearing himself think. He took three steps back, putting some distance between himself and the bundle of pink, and in the process, between his mind and those memories. They dissipated a little, but didn’t disappear. Not entirely.
He needed to get this kid out of here. That’s what he really needed to do.
Then he could work. Try to wrangle that manuscript back into something resembling readable, and at the same time get his career back on order.
“Listen, kid. I’ve got work to do. You can just sit there and be quiet. I’m going to see if Mrs. Winterberry is still here and tell her to find someone else. There’s no way I can babysit.” He wagged a finger in the infant’s direction. “And I mean it. Not a peep out of you, understood?”
The baby blinked, grabbed the edge of her blanket with her fist. Probably scared into submission.
Good. Now he could concentrate again.
He headed for the front door. Hopefully he could catch Mrs. Winterberry before she had pulled out of her driveway. The elderly woman wasn’t exactly a speed demon behind the wheel.
As soon as he was out of the kid’s line of sight, the wailing began again. Apparently, someone didn’t take direction well. Dalton opened the door anyway, stuck his head out, and saw…
No one. Not a soul. Mrs. Winterberry’s driveway, two doors away, was empty and silent, her familiar gray Taurus gone.
Leaving him stuck.
He spun back toward the baby. “Stop. I mean it.” He wagged a finger at the kid. A gurgle, a blink, and then a few sputters before she stopped.
He stared at her. She stared at him. Trusting. Almost…happy.
Damn. No way. He couldn’t do this. He hadn’t been around a baby since…
Well, he simply wasn’t going to watch her. That’s all there was to it.
The problem? He didn’t see another available adult human option. He was “it” and he hadn’t even asked to play tag.