“Don’t get smart, Lacy,” he muttered, striding into the lobby. The last time Stokes had taken out her petty revenge on him, she’d made him stand in as a training dummy for patrol’s attack dogs. He had all of the protective gear on, but one of the ferocious beasts had knocked him down and dislodged his face mask. The handler called off the dog, but not before Marc humiliated himself by fainting. That was two years ago, well before Lacy joined homicide, but he still hadn’t lived it down. Apparently stories like that never got old.

When the woman standing alone in the lobby turned toward him, all thoughts of dogs and deskwork vanished.

At first glance, she wasn’t his type. She was dark-haired, for one thing, and short-haired, for another. Nothing about her clothes or manner was designed to attract a man’s attention, either. Maybe he was shallow, but he liked women who weren’t afraid to show a little skin. She looked like she might jump out of hers.

Her faded green T-shirt was several sizes too big, and her battered blue jeans were two inches too short, exposing a pair of trim, nicely tanned ankles. She was wearing dingy white sneakers with Velcro straps, no socks.

The clothes were atrocious, but the body underneath warranted further examination. She was tall and slim, almost to the point of being skinny, except for her breasts, which looked soft and malleable. If she had a bra on, it was one of those no-frills types that molded to her shape as well as the worn cotton T-shirt.

Her face was even better than her breasts. Her features were finely drawn and angular, her eyes a misty, ethereal gray, framed by lush black lashes. With her close-cropped black hair, unisex style, and no makeup, she resembled an exceptionally beautiful teenage boy. He dismissed her as one of those women who couldn’t be bothered with men. She already had one, she wasn’t looking for one, or she’d given up on finding one.

“Miss Morrow?” he inquired, introducing himself politely.

She looked down at his outstretched hand with undisguised distaste. Puzzled, Marc dropped his arm. Taking the hint, Lacy didn’t even attempt a handshake.

“I have the dog in the back of my truck,” she said quickly, pointing outside. She was wearing latex gloves. “If you can just tell me where to take him, I’ll be out of your way.”

He looked out at a sturdy red pickup in the parking lot. Sure enough, an ugly mongrel just like Candace Hegel’s was in an extra-large dog cage in the back. “Any chance of him getting out?”

“Not unless he grows human hands.”

He waited for her to claim that was in the realm of possibility. When she didn’t, he shoved his own hands in his pants pockets, for they seemed to make her uncomfortable. It was as if she feared he was going to reach out and touch her, of all horrors.

“Let’s talk,” he said. “Do you have time for a short interview?”

“Can’t we do it here?”

“This is a sensitive case. We have to keep the information confidential, if possible.”

She looked around the empty lobby in confusion.

“Witnesses tend to remember more in a place free of distractions,” he added.

“Oh, I didn’t witness anything-”

“Do you have something more pressing to take care of?” he interrupted.

“It will only take a few minutes,” Lacy said with a reassuring smile, probably because he was being rude. “A woman is missing. Anything you could tell us would be greatly appreciated.”

“Of course,” she said, resigned.

Marc’s curiosity was piqued further. Most people couldn’t wait to share everything they knew, to contribute, to feel important. Most innocent people, anyway.

He followed Lacy and the mysterious Miss Morrow, employing the age-old “ladies first” excuse men used to ogle women behind their backs. There was nothing boyish about the way she filled out her jeans, he noted.

As he and Lacy took seats opposite her at the table in the interrogation room, it occurred to him that there was another reason women opted to downplay their femininity, one that had nothing to do with men. His partner, Meredith Lacy, was living proof of that.

He gave himself an illicit thrill, wondering if she was Lacy’s type. “Where did you find the dog?” he asked, dragging his mind out of the gutter.

When she met his eyes, her own darkened slightly, an almost imperceptible expansion of pupils signaling her awareness of him as a man.

Not indifferent to the opposite sex, he decided. Too bad, Lacy.

“He was outside the fence this morning,” she said, staring down at her gloved hands. “At Pacific Pet Hotel.”

A kennel worker, he thought with mild distaste. “You’re an employee?”

“I own it.”

He raised his eyebrows. She didn’t look old enough to own a business. “How’d you get him in that dog carrier?”

“I offered him some food and water. He wasn’t interested, but he seemed to trust me after that. Enough to go in the carrier, anyway.”

“Did he bite you?”

She followed his gaze to her left hand. Under the latex, in the middle of her palm, there was a bandage. “No. He had glass in his fur. And quite a few burrs and foxtails.”

“Did you take them out? Clean him up?”

“No. I just reached down to pet him and…the glass cut into my hand.”

Marc read a lot into that short pause. She wasn’t telling the whole story. “Anything else we need to know?”

“I think he’d traveled for miles,” she hedged. “He was panting, and his feet were wet. Smelly wet, like river. The San Luis Rey is nearby.”

He’d never before felt as though a person were lying and telling the truth at the same time. He leaned back in his chair, paradoxically pleased. It wasn’t every day that plausible suspects walked in off the street.

“Would you like some water?” Detective Lacy asked after an uncomfortable silence. “A soda?”

“No, thanks,” Sidney said, tucking her gloved hands under the table, annoyed with Lieutenant Cruz for scrutinizing her so blatantly. He was one of those effortlessly handsome men who made her feel sloppy, awkward and unkempt.

He was taller than she was, and his clothes fit him perfectly, hinting at a nicely formed physique. Even motionless, he managed to convey grace and power. His features were well-arranged but unyielding, showing no trace of softness or compassion. He might have appeared cold if not for his coloring. His skin was dark, his hair a rich, warm brown and his eyes a shade lighter, like smooth Kentucky whiskey or strong iced tea.

With brown hair, skin and eyes, and a tobacco-brown suit, he should have looked average, even drab. He didn’t. There was an elusive quality about him that probably intrigued women, a dangerous edge that excited them, and an overall appeal she couldn’t describe but responded to nevertheless. He was also quite young, in his early thirties at the most, although he appeared worldly rather than naive.

Staring back at him, Sidney was uncomfortably aware of how long it had been since she’d hazarded the perils of a man’s touch.

Lieutenant Cruz must have decided the interview was over, because he stood abruptly. Lacy followed suit, so Sidney rose to her feet as well.

“If you think of anything else,” he said, holding out a card with his name and number on it, “feel free to call.”

She took it from him gingerly, not allowing his fingers to brush over hers, and shoved it in her pocket. “What are you going to do with him?”

“The dog? Process him for trace.”

“And then?”

He shrugged. “Turn him over to the pound, unless his owner or another family member comes to claim him.”

“If they don’t, will you call me?” Sidney posed this question to Detective Lacy, deciding she was the more amenable officer. “I’d hate to see him put down.” Large, mean-looking dogs were rarely placed in good homes.

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