Piper Daniels has one wish—to keep her little brother out of trouble—but her work schedule and a lack of activities for teens in her neighborhood complicate that mission. When she latches onto the idea of starting a community garden, it seems to answer all of her requirements. Until she realizes who owns the property she wants to use.

Reece Stone was the love of her life ten years earlier, until he left with only a phone call goodbye and no explanation. Now he’s the head of Stone Enterprises, and he’s thrilled at the chance to make amends and spend time with the woman he’s never been able to forget. He knows they can find love again, if he can melt her anger enough to give him a chance.

One

PIPER LISTENED AS the Croods avoided being squashed or eaten by a bevy of prehistoric animals. It was at least the hundredth time she had heard this scene, so she could nearly recite it as she finished polishing Jill’s teeth. The ten-year-old had been a pill throughout the appointment. Now she whined and fidgeted as Piper finished the last tooth. She could not wait for the dentist to come in for the final checkup. The x-rays looked fine to Piper, and if Dr. Dansie agreed, Jill wouldn’t be back for six months. Hallelujah!

“Piper, someone on the phone for you,” Lorna called from the front desk. “He said it’s important.”

“Just a minute.” Piper rinsed the teeth, having Jill spit back into the suction. “All done with that part,” she told the little girl when she was sure the residue was gone. “Wait here for the doctor to come talk to you, okay? After he has a chance to talk to you and your mom, we’ll get you a prize up front.” She said this brightly, like it would be a big treat to pick out a sticker or cheap spider ring. Only one more patient and she could clean up for the day. She liked kids—most of the time—but her work day began with a biter and hadn’t improved from there.

She gestured to Dr. Dansie, an easy-going forty-something, with a forehead that had been gaining ground on his hairline for the past few decades. “Jill’s ready when you are,” she said.

He nodded in acknowledgment over his other patient, midway through cracking one of his signature lame jokes.

Piper asked Lorna to let Jill’s mom know they were nearly done and to go on back, then picked up the phone. “Sorry about the wait,” Piper said, glad to see the person on the other end of the line hadn’t hung up. “This is Piper, can I help you?”

“This is Officer Belliston of the Crystal Creek Police Department. I have Spencer in my car.”

Piper closed her eyes. “What happened?” Spencer was a good brother who didn’t generally do anything that could get him into trouble, but his autism meant sometimes he had impulse control issues. At fourteen, he did better at managing impulses than he used to, but when his friends were around, sometimes he slipped.

“He and some friends thought it would be fun to break windows in an empty apartment building on Walnut Avenue. You know the one near Dequan’s Chinese place?”

She knew it well as she often walked past it. “Yes. The six-story that’s falling apart?” It had been empty for four or five years, since the city condemned it. Rumor was that the building was worth fixing, but whomever owned it hadn’t bothered.

“That’s the one,” Officer Belliston said. “I spoke with your mother on the phone but she can’t get off work and I can’t take him home without a responsible adult present.”

Piper managed not to growl, but barely. Of course her mom wanted Piper to drop everything to handle the problem. A peek into the waiting room showed her final patient of the day was already there, dashing her hopes that he would canceled so she could leave early. “I’ll figure something out and meet you there. Give me ten minutes.” It was only three or four minutes to her house, but she would have to make arrangements for someone to take her patient.

She turned to Lorna. “Anyone have the next little bit free?”

Lorna pushed back her stylish brown bob and consulted the schedule on her monitor. “Heidi has a twenty-minute window. Good luck.”

Piper frowned. She would need the luck. Heidi did not like working with children, even if Chandler was fifteen now and barely qualified as a kid anymore. Piper checked on Jill and her mom, but the doctor hadn’t gotten to her yet. Glad she had a few minutes, she slid into the employee lounge area where Heidi was sitting at the table, reading a fashion magazine. “Heidi, how are you doing? You have a break right now, don’t you?”

“I’m not covering for you.” Heidi lifted her hand to brush her raven curls over her shoulder. “I don’t do kids.”

Piper bit back a groan. “How did you know what I was going to ask?”

“I heard you saying you’d be home soon. It’s not my problem.” She wagged her finger in the air, though she didn’t look up.

“He’s fifteen, not a kid. He doesn’t bite or spit or anything. I really have to get home.”

“You say that now, but the second they sit in my chair, they start to spit and bite and stuff.” Pointedly, she licked a finger and flipped a magazine page.

“Come on, please. I’ll owe you, I know, but I have to get home to strangle my little brother.” Piper took the hard wooden chair beside Heidi.

Heidi glanced up, but she appeared only mildly curious. “If I work for you so you can kill your brother, does that make me an accessory?”

“Only if I get caught. But I’ll probably make him do extra chores instead. Dr. Dansie might frown on a child killer working in his office.”

Heidi set down the magazine, which was open to a page with models in retro 1920’s outfits. “I’ll cover the kid for you under one condition.” She paused for effect. “I want you to fill in for me on Friday afternoon. We’re going to Branson and I need to cut out of here early.”

Though Piper cherished her few hours of peace and quiet on Friday afternoons, she was desperate. “Fine. But you have to clean up after Jill’s appointment and set up for Chandler so I can go in a few minutes.”

“Done. How long?”

“Dansie’s about to go in to see Jill now. I’ll make sure her mom gets her goodie bag and let you know when I leave.” Piper didn’t wait for a response, hurrying back to the main hallway. Dr. Dansie was just preparing to go in to Jill and her mom. “Ready?” Piper asked cheerily.

“Anything I should know?” What was left of Dr. Dansie’s light brown hair was shot with gray and feathered over his ears. It was time for a haircut.

“She didn’t bite me this time.” Piper smiled manically, but was grateful Jill had behaved at least that much.

“Good, my workman’s comp was getting steep.” He flashed her a grin before entering the room and greeting Jill.

Fifteen minutes later Piper rushed out the door, sliding into her coat as she hoofed it to the parking lot. She frequently walked to work, but the sky had been spitting at Kansas City’s suburb of Crystal Creek when she left that morning, so she’d driven instead. Which was good, because while the apartment she shared with her mom and brother was in walking distance of work, she wasn’t sure how patient Officer Belliston was going to be.

Almost twenty minutes after her phone call, Piper pulled into the old run-down apartment building her family had been living in since she was a senior in high school and found a parking spot. The black and white was parked in their family slot in front of the building—with Officer Belliston and Spencer still sitting in the front. At least Spencer wasn’t in the back seat.

Piper glanced at the apartments in time to see the manager, Ida, part the curtains a few inches to peer out at the police car. Perfect. Piper had been saving money for first and last month’s rent at a nicer place, but thanks to some unexpected expenses, it would take another month or so and the last thing they needed was to be kicked out over something stupid like this. But Ida sometimes evicted tenants for less.

Officer Belliston stood and Piper recognized him. He was friends with her best friend Maddie’s brother. She’d known Ben was a cop, but hadn’t put two and two together when he introduced himself on the phone. She apologized before he could say anything, “Sorry, it took longer to finish up with my patient than I expected.” He was a tall, blond, and gorgeous, the planes and angles of his face would turn many a woman’s head. Surprisingly, he didn’t act as though he was aware of his good looks.

“No problem. Your mom was afraid she’d lose her job if she left now.”

“Are you surprised? It is the plastics plant. You’d think after she’s worked there five years they could cut her some slack.” Piper pushed the red hair that had escaped from her ponytail back over her ear, then tugged on her puppy-covered scrubs, feeling self-conscious.

Spencer pushed out of the passenger’s side of the front seat. “Am I going to be grounded?” His eyes were downcast, his arms hung straight at his side and his fingers tapped nervously on the legs of his threadbare, over-sized jeans—which were just the way he liked them. His hair hung down covering his eyes at this angle. She wasn’t looking forward to nagging and badgering him into another haircut.

“Only until you’re thirty-two.”

That brought a quick smile to his lips as it was a common joke of theirs, but his fingers kept tapping and his shoulders hunched.

Piper draped an arm around his shoulder and gave him a quick squeeze. “We’ll talk about what happened when we get inside.” Her mom worked swing shift, so other than a few minutes at breakfast, she wouldn’t actually see Spencer for the next several days. This left the discussion about his behavior firmly in Piper’s hands. She looked back at Officer Belliston. “Give me the lowdown. What are we looking at damage-wise?”

He pushed back his cowboy hat a little. “We still need to talk with the property owner, but there were several windows broken.”

“We only did three of them,” Spencer said, as if he’d said it before but no one had listened. His gaze didn’t meet hers—it rarely did. “The others were already broken. We only broke three.”

“Okay.” Piper tightened her arm on his shoulder. As usual, the compression on his body seemed to help calm him. “Do you need me to sign anything?” she asked the officer.

A few minutes later she ushered Spencer into the apartment—thankful Ida hadn’t accosted them in the hallway—and sat him on the sofa. The tapping continued and he’d started humming under his breath a little, so she got out the compression vest she’d made for him and slid it over his head and onto his shoulders. It was made from a couple of old x-ray covers Dr. Dansie had been getting rid of because they were so worn. She’d sewn them together and hot-glued transformer-print fabric on the vest to brighten it up. Though Spencer was considered a high-functioning autistic, the compression therapy helped him deal with stress.

“So, you want to give me the full version of what you did since getting out of school today?” Spencer was always scrupulously honest; it was the way he was wired.

“Well, I stayed after to get help with my math homework, like you said to. It’s all done. I don’t have any homework, now,” he said as if to prove his relative innocence.

“Glad to hear it. What happened next?” Piper opened the aging fridge and pulled out the orange juice, a rare treat that was nearly gone, and two apples for a late-afternoon snack. She didn’t want to think about dinner yet but knew he’d be running out of steam.

“Then I was coming home and I ran into some guys.”

“Which guys?” Piper asked, though she could guess on her own. She set cups on the table.

“Dirt and Nails.” The words were barely understandable. Spencer was well aware of Piper’s dislike of these particular young men.

Piper closed her eyes in frustration. The boys’ real names were Dirk and Niles, so she couldn’t blame them for wanting nicknames, even if the ones they used were lame. But why did her brother hang out with them? They were nothing but trouble. “Go on.”

“At first we just hung out in that empty lot, the one by the Chinese place, and looked at the spray painting. There’s some really cool stuff there. Some people put names and others draw pictures. There were some bad words and someone painted a mushroom from Super Mario Bros, it’s really cool.”

Piper was relieved he was no longer humming, and the tapping was calmer since she hung the vest on him, but thought it prudent to bring the subject back around. “So Dirt or Nails picked up something from the ground and threw it at the empty apartment building next door. And you thought it was cool and pitched in?” Piper kept her voice as neutral as possible, but knew it wasn’t a complete success.

He smiled as the memory came back. “The windows made a cool sound.” He lifted his arms and approximated the sound of glass breaking.

“You didn’t think about the fact that you were damaging something that belonged to someone else?” She glanced over at him, wanting to gauge if their discussion was working.

His shoulders hunched again and he looked away. “Well, yeah, but Dirt said the building has been empty for like, ever. No one is going to care about a couple of windows. Some were already broken. We only broke three but there are more broken.”

“And that makes it okay? Someone will have to pay money to fix the windows.” She slid into the chair beside him and stared at him, not saying anything else, hoping he’d meet her eyes.

Spencer looked up at her quickly before his gaze skittered way again. “No, it’s not okay.”

“Then why—” Piper cut herself off, remembering clearly that sometimes as a kid she couldn’t say why she did something. That was especially true for him. If she asked, he would say he didn’t know why and then she’d get irritated and he would get even more anxious and things would spiral downward from there. She took a deep breath instead. “All right, well, there are going to be some consequences, but I’ll have to chat with Mom about them first. And if those windows have to be replaced, guess who is going to be doing chores to work it off?” It would mean waiting even longer to get into the new apartment, but it couldn’t be helped.

He sank further into his seat. “Okay. I’m sorry.”

“I know you are.” He was always sorry, but it didn’t make him think the next time Dirt and Nails mentioned some “great” idea they thought he should get involved in. She’d seen several unsavory teens hanging out near that empty lot and wished Spencer would stay away from it. Most of the time he came home from school and didn’t get into trouble, but she knew he got lonely waiting for her to come home from work. “We’ll chat more when Mom calls on her break. Eat your apple, then get the bathroom cleaned up. You missed the sink yesterday.”

Sometimes she felt more like the parent than the sister, but the plastics plant was good, steady work, even if they were inflexible in many ways. Piper had urged her mom to get a certification or something at the tech college so she could get a better job—a day job—but Trina didn’t want to go back to school. Even getting onto day-shift at the plant would have been a significant improvement, but it hadn’t happened yet.

That left Piper filling in around the house and taking care of Spencer, who was thirteen years younger than herself. He was a generally good kid and was doing better in school, but obviously they needed to do something different. If his only after-school option was to sit home alone on his ancient Sony game system or to hang out with Dirt and Nails, there would be more trouble in the future.

IT WAS AFTER SIX when Trina called home during her work break. “Honey, what’s going on? Spencer was breaking windows?”

“Sounds like it.” Piper stirred the boiling penne pasta and checked the clock to see how much time was left. “He admitted that they broke three windows. I told him I’d have to talk with you before he’d find out what his punishment was.” Not that Piper expected her mom to take a stand, but she could always hope.

“I would say he’s grounded, but I’m not going to be around to enforce it. It’s all I can do to keep up with the laundry and my job.”

The laundry that Piper had taken down to the machines half an hour ago? Yeah. Piper noticed her mom managed to clean up the living room and finish the dishes before going to the plastics plant that afternoon, but she never quite seemed to get through the chores before her shift started. The fact that she worked swings and was never home at night to be with Spencer was the reason Piper was still living at home, despite the fact that she was twenty-seven. Spencer was pretty independent, but he still needed more direction than their mom could give him right now. Getting stuck with extra chores was not Piper’s idea of fun, though. “So you want me to set the punishment?”

“Set something you can actually enforce. It does no good to say he’s grounded without being able to follow through,” Trina said.

“True enough.” Though not unexpected. Piper considered the options. “He’ll be grounded for two weeks and we’ll go clean up the broken glass outside the building.” She thought of the trade she’d had to make with Heidi and grimaced. “Saturday, I guess. If the windows have to be paid for, we’ll work something out so he earns at least half the money for it.” She would cover the rest. He’d probably be working around the house to pay for the repairs, so she’d end up paying for all of it, but at least he would have to deal with some of the responsibility. She knew enough about Dirk and Niles’ family situations to be sure they would get away with zero consequences from their own parents.

“Thank you, honey,” Trina said. “I don’t know what I would do without you! I have to get back to work; my break ends in a couple of minutes. I’ll talk to you when I get home tonight. Bye, hon.”

“Goodbye, Mom.” Piper hung up with a sigh. She knew Trina had to stash the phone in her locker and be on the floor before her break time ended—the lady in charge used a time chart to make sure no one went over on their breaks. Anyone coming back even a minute late got written up. To think working conditions were actually better since the previous owner died almost a year earlier.

Piper hated that place, and that was only partly because of the working conditions. The fact that it was owned by the Stone family was plenty of reason all by itself. She spooned up a piece of pasta and blew on it to cool it.

“Two weeks?” Spencer asked from the doorway.

Though her hand bobbled in surprise, Piper managed not to drop the pasta back in the pan. “Plus cleanup and possible restitution.”

He slouched against the door jamb. “The other guys probably won’t have to do anything.”

“The other guys’ parents ought to take more interest in how their kids are turning out.” She bit her lip rather than continue. Criticizing his friends’ parents wasn’t going to make the situation better. Plus he might innocently repeat what she said, which would cause hard feelings. “Saturday we’ll clean up the glass you broke.”

“Why? There’s so much junk there.”

“I’ll go with you and help.” She loved when his punishments became her punishments too.

“No one uses that space, it’s sitting there empty. No one cares. People dump stuff there all the time.”

“All the more reason not to add to the problem.” Piper tested the pasta and found it was perfectly cooked. She turned off the heat and took the pan to the sink to drain the water. “We’ll eat in a few minutes. Set the table, please.”

Spencer did as he was asked, but moped through the work and dinner.

If this was a sign of how things were going to be for the next two weeks, Piper wasn’t looking forward to it.

 

Two

“I WISH YOU DIDN’T have to leave.” Layla Jennings reached up to fiddle with the lapels of Reece Stone’s suit jacket, even though he knew the jacket looked fine. Her hands smoothed the fabric and came to rest on his chest. She shifted closer so their faces were only inches apart.

Reece took her hands off his chest and gave them a friendly squeeze. “Sorry, I have to leave early tomorrow for Houston. Thanks for dinner. It was a nice night.”

He knew she was hoping for more, but despite the fact that this was their third date—sort of—and that she was beautiful, he wasn’t even a little interested in kissing her. Layla was bright and blonde, blue-eyed and bronzed. She’d mentioned to the other women at the small dinner party that she owned a tanning bed so she could maintain her perfect coloring year round. Which was fine as far as it went, but in the next breath she was talking about how much time and money she spent to keep her skin looking young. Somehow there seemed to be a disconnect in her head between cause and effect. That was one of the many reasons he couldn’t get as excited about her as his mom thought he should be.

She wasn’t the least bit shy about showing off the all-over tan as her low neckline and tiny skirt could attest. The other two men in the room had let their eyes wander away from their dates and to her enhanced silhouette several times during the dinner. If Reece had really been interested, he would have been irritated that they couldn’t keep their eyes on their own women. Instead, he was glad the evening was ending. Layla was nice enough, smart in a general sense, aware of what was on the news and going on in the world, but he found her too self-absorbed for his taste. There was no spark between them. At least not on his side, though she seemed to believe differently. Or maybe it was his corporate assets that she found terribly attractive.

He walked back out to his car, grateful for the excuse of the early flight tomorrow so he could leave the dinner party early. The last thing he wanted was to be stuck behind after the others left, trying to extricate himself. Next time he would tell her no thanks.

Better no dates than dates with the wrong woman. He’d known she was the wrong person by the middle of date two, but her father was on the board of directors for his family company, Stone Enterprises, and he didn’t have a ready excuse to turn down the dinner party she was throwing. Not when her father was standing by, looking so pleased.

Reece clicked the unlock button for his BMW 640i convertible and ran a few fingers over the deep sea blue exterior on his way to the driver’s seat. The weather had been cloudy when he went inside, so he’d put the top up, but the sky was clear now. He took it back down and breathed in the fall air. It was growing cool; there wouldn’t be many more starry, top-down evening drives. As he drove down the quiet roads, leaves crunched and swirled around his tires and a ghoul glared at him through a store window.

You gotta love Halloween—and there was still more than two weeks to go.

He turned onto Mediterranean Terrace and glanced over at the run-down, four-story walk-up squeezed between the pawn shop and liquor store, and felt a wistful pang of nostalgia. He had thought he’d set that part of his life entirely behind him, but after a tedious date like tonight, he longed for the uncomplicated romance of his college days, and the sweet, very complicated woman. Or maybe it had been their circumstances that were complex. She had been easy to fall for, impossible to forget.

He wondered what Piper was up to now.

A few turns later and he pulled into his neighborhood, coming to a stop in the garage of the two-story rambler he’d bought shortly after moving back to Crystal Creek early that year. It was dark and empty—a fitting metaphor for his life at the moment.

Reece pulled his phone out of his pocket as he went inside and turned the ringer back on, pausing to double-check his schedule for the next morning. He set his keys on the marble counter tops and padded over to the fridge for a glass of juice. The carton was nearly empty—an indication that he’d been spending far too many hours in the office lately instead of at home. Then again, his home was nice but he always felt a little alone there, despite the fact that he’d done his best to make it comfortable.

He selected a voice mail from his mother. “Reece, dear, I know you said you were going to be out of town for a few days but when you get a chance, can you call me back? I have a question about the quarterly reports. Hope you get a chance to relax in the middle of all that work. Love you!”

There was a beep and Reece deleted the message. It was too late to call her back tonight, but he made a note in his calendar to call her when he reached Houston the next day. His mom always had trouble reading the quarterly reports, but she was making an effort to keep up with what was going on in the company, which was more than he could say for her in the years that his father had been alive. Reece chose to believe that was because she’d been blind-sided by the questions that had been thrown at her before her son took over, and not because she didn’t fully trust him.

The silence echoed around him and Reece wondered, not for the first time, if he should have stayed with his mom instead of getting his own place. He was hardly ever here. But he’d felt like he was suffocating, living in the family home. His father may have died, but his presence was everywhere and Reece hadn’t been able to escape his influence until he’d moved. Even in death, his father’s disapproval seemed to hang in the air.

Reece wasn’t sure whether suffocation or loneliness was worse. He opened his computer to check out the reports from the office that day. It wasn’t company, but it was better than nothing.

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