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A pit bull, a pawn shop and a pain-in-the-ass kid brother. . .
Dix is good with two out of three. She’s had it with dusty shelves, desperate people and her teenage brother. With Riley about to graduate, Dix is ready to buy her one-way ticket to Paris.
Then sexy cop Dane Caldwell walks into her store on the hunt for stolen goods, and threatens her brother and her business.
The worst threat is to Dix’s heart…if she loses that, she loses her dream.
Dane soon realizes he’s found love in a pawn shop. Even the pit bull thinks he’s okay. Now all he has to do is convince Dix that love is more than just another complication.
April 1 Seattle, WA
Dane Caldwell ignored his better judgment at 3:45 p.m. and walked across the street into Dixon’s Pawn Shop. Like millions of others in every city in America, the shop sat in a row of storefronts with overhead apartments. Except for the signs, they were all identical. Each one had a door at the side for the apartment stairwells, and he’d bet each one also had a rear entrance to the apartment from an alley in back.
Cops liked to know where the exits were, but since he was here without backup, he’d take the most direct approach and walk in like any other customer. He was so far out of his jurisdiction he might as well be from Mars.
He’d watched the place since arriving from Philly this morning. But at 3:10 p.m. waves of school kids had begun to visit the store and he had to see for himself what drew them in. He didn’t know much about children, but a pawn shop was a damn strange hangout for nine-year-olds.
Three boys went inside, and he slid in behind them and kept his back to the window as they barreled up to the counter in the darker recesses of the store. He planned to hang back and observe nothing more.
Then he saw her.
Dark red hair fell in slight waves across her face. Her mouth, pursed in concentration, sat over a strong chin with a slight dimple. It had to be her. His information said she worked alone every weekday.
The woman must be Dix Dixon. She bent over her cash drawer with a screwdriver in her hand.
As the boys raced toward the counter, papers fluttered in their hands. “Hey, Dix! We got our report cards! Wanna see?”
Her chin dimple disappeared when she smiled at the boys. Warm, friendly, and bright enough to clear the gray Seattle sky, her smile packed a punch. He narrowed his gaze as she patted each head affectionately and read their report cards in turn. Each boy preened at her compliments. Dane frowned. She could charm the birds from the sky.
And his grandmother out of the family jewels. For a woman like Dix, conning an old lady would be a piece of cake.
The boys were busy petting some kind of animal; from where he stood, he couldn’t tell if it was a cat or dog.
Dane hung back, surprised that a woman he was half convinced was a con artist would give this kind of attention to neighborhood kids. He supposed that her wide-open smile worked its magic on most people. It was certainly working on him. He fought the urge to smile along with the boys and feigned interest in a carpenter’s tool kit. He’d given in to his curiosity and come into the shop, but he wasn’t idiot enough to move closer.
“I’ll be right with you,” she said to him. After one more set of oohs and ahs, she handed the boys back their report cards.
He gave her a nod and studied the front of the store while listening to the conversation behind him. Older computers, household appliances, and sports equipment filled the front half of the space. Closer to the counter, he saw electric and acoustic guitars hanging from the ceiling. Amplifiers lined the walls.
She clapped her hands, pulling his attention to her again. She said, “Okay, troops, line up single file and head for the exit. I’ve got work to do.”
The boys groaned and she grinned at them. When they turned, he could see them better. Identical triplets.
“Now,” she said. “If you see my brother, tell him to get his butt home. I want to see how he did on his science quiz.”
“Ah, Dix,” one of them said, “Quit worrying. Riley’s gonna make it. All the way.”
“Yeah,” the other two chimed in. “All the way, Riley, all the way, Riley!” they chanted until she whistled loud enough to be heard over the din.
“Like I said, line up and get a move on.” She clapped her hands again to shoo them along.
The boys trooped past him single file until they reached the door. Then they jammed up, arms and legs and elbows wedging their way through.
He was hard-pressed not to laugh, but he managed. He wasn’t here to be amused. He was here to get an overall impression of the woman.
As soon as the boys squeezed their way out the door, he was alone with her.
* * *
Dix’s day was going pretty well. And now she had an honest-to-God browser by the front of the store. After the Fanelli boys had squeezed their way out the door, she sized up the stranger as best she could. He stood with his back to the window, so she couldn’t make out his face. His silhouette was imposing, but that didn’t faze her.
At her size, not many people intimidated her physically, and in her profession, she met a lot who tried.
He stepped closer and out of the window’s glare. He was broad in the shoulders Good looking, too. “And what can I do for you, Good Lookin’?” She flashed her best shopkeeper’s smile. It wasn’t like her to use flirtatious talk, but it had just popped out.
That’s what happened when she spent too much time alone.
The stranger’s all-encompassing gaze said ‘cop,’ but she knew all the locals and didn’t recognize him. “You must be new around here,” she said in a questioning tone, which he ignored.
He trailed a finger over an amplifier as he moved closer. He leaned over to give it a better look, and she drew in a breath at his profile. Strong nose, commanding chin, high-ridged brow bone. She’d been right: this was one good looker.
“Just browsing,” he said in a smoky blues club voice. She had an ear for voices, and his was strong and warm with just a hint of rasp that could, if she let it, trail down her spine. She closed her eyes to help her absorb the sound and let it slide to her vitals. Mm-mm. Fine.
She suddenly remembered she was alone in the store, except for Razor, who only looked like a nasty dog. He was still in a happy stupor from the kids petting him. She slanted him a glance and toed him in the side. He lifted his head and cocked it. She clicked her tongue and he stood without a sound.
This man had waited for the boys to leave so they would be alone. She hated when that happened.
She idly placed her right hand over the screwdriver she’d been using on the stuck cash register drawer and cupped her other hand over the panic button just under the counter.
She studied him. His new leather jacket said he wasn’t likely a junkie or a robber. Still, he walked with deliberation toward her. Observation, honed by years of practice, told her he never moved quickly. If he were a buyer, he’d be decisive once he found the item he wanted. He would go after anything he wanted. And get it.
Warmth bloomed deep in her chest as she watched him raise his face to the ceiling to study the guitars. She’d been right about his chin.
Razor leaned against her calf and jutted his head around her leg. He peered through his lookout hole in the counter’s swinging door. She could handle just about anyone with Razor at her side.
She knew the exact moment when the man noticed the dog.
Razor wasn’t what anyone would call ‘cute.’ The black and white pit bull was scarred and marked by abuse with one ear half chewed off. Most people stopped dead at sight of him.
Not this guy. His step faltered for a split second, but when Razor didn’t bark or growl, he continued to move toward her.
Which she decided was a sign of character.
Razor continued to watch him but must have seen even less threat than she did, because his tail soon thumped against her leg.
She wanted to see the man’s eyes, but the instruments overhead shadowed his face. Thanks to Paul, her part-timer, she did a brisk business in guitars and amps.
The browser hadn’t said anything more, but a lot of people wanted to be left alone. Good, he wouldn’t waste her time with useless questions. Once he saw something he wanted, he’d ask only the pertinent stuff.
She considered going back to work on the cash drawer, but couldn’t force her eyes away from his easy grace. His grin showed straight teeth and eye crinkles. She gauged his age at around thirty-five, give or take a year. She couldn’t make out the color of his eyes, but he was gorgeous. Her breath wheezed out at the sight of his ring-free left hand. “May I help you find something?”
Not that she was in the market for a man, because she’d run for the hills if one asked her out, but still, good looking and single added a touch of spice to her day.
“No, thanks,” he replied to her offer of help, “I haven’t been in before and wanted to check the place out.” He looked at the guitars threatening to brain him. His eyes caught and lit up. “Is that a Fender Mustang?”
“Hand made in ’65,” she replied, easing her grip on the screwdriver.
“Nice.” He looked around again, but kept Razor in his peripheral vision. Smart, too. She liked smart men.
So few of them came into the store that this one stood out. Who was she kidding–he’d stand out anywhere.
“You’re a musician?” she prodded, wanting to hear him use that voice again. There was no harm in chatting, because he’d leave soon and wouldn’t return. Smart men with great teeth and new leather coats never did.
“Nah, I just did the garage thing when I was a kid. But a buddy of mine had a Mustang. He told me Jimi Hendrix used one in the studio.”
His gaze wasn’t on the guitar now but on her. Her belly dropped hard, like an egg into a hot frying pan. Ker-splat. Sizzle.
A shaft of primal awareness steamed up her spine. She couldn’t for the life of her remember the conversation. Her face heated and she blinked, trying to come up with something, anything, to say to cover the full silence. In the end, all she could do was stare and remind herself that she wasn’t in the market for a man. Not now!
He reached up and smoothed his hand across the guitar’s finish, reminding her of what they’d been bantering about.
“Yes, Jimi did use a Mustang, but only for one album. He liked the whammy bar. I doubt it was that one, though.” She leaned her elbows on the counter and gave him her cheekiest smile. “But I could tell you it was if that’d make a sale for me.”
He grinned again, all sex and male interest. His gaze dropped to her cleavage and back to her eyes. Her temperature rose with his eyes.
Trouble. Six feet four inches of trouble.
Sexy trouble, fun trouble, and the kind of trouble she hadn’t had in a long, long while. The kind she couldn’t afford now.
Razor picked that moment to send a waft of pure stink into the room. His opinion stated, he groaned and circled at her feet until he landed with a thud. Clearly, he didn’t see the harm this man was doing to Dix’s equilibrium.
“Oh, man! My eyes are watering,” he said as he backed up out of harm’s way. “What are you feeding that dog?” He waved his hand in front of his face.
Empathy enveloped her and she turned on the ceiling fan. “This will help.”
But the moment was ruined, and he looked at his watch and backed away. “I’m late,” he said, and walked to the exit, his head turned to see the contents of the jewelry case as he cruised by.
“Too bad you didn’t find anything you liked,” she said to his retreating back. For a moment there, she’d thought he had. She supposed it was a good thing he’d had a look around and wouldn’t return.
He left without a backward glance. Just as well, because men like him were dangerous. She had no time for dangerous men. Especially not men who looked like him– all sex and hard lines. If she got involved with a man like him now, it would ruin everything.
And nothing–but nothing–would ruin her plans; not a man, not sex, not a sexy man, not a man with sex on his mind, not even a smart man with sex on his mind.
She checked the time. Here it was after four and still no sign of Riley. She tried a practice conversation in her mind, a dialogue in which they actually communicated. Hey, sis. How was your day? Tolerable, she’d answer, and they’d play a hand of gin rummy the way they used to. They’d laugh the way they used to. Have fun the way they used to, and she’d be his big sister again instead of the nagging bitch she’d become.
In her wildest imagination, she couldn’t see it happening.
She sighed. She loved her brother, would do anything to help him through these teen years, but most days he was a pain in the butt.
She picked up a pile of mail. Mostly flyers and junk mail, but then she found the letter. Her heart stopped. The school in Paris.
She sucked in a breath. Held it to a count of three then let it whoosh out again.
L’ecole Poirot and the life she’d been meant to live. The life that Fate had taken from her when her dad was shot. She blinked twice to force away her terrific sense of loss and injustice, and tore open the envelope.
“It was with great surprise that I read your letter, Mademoiselle Dixon. I remember the tragic events that prevented you attending your final year of school here.” It went on in a sympathetic tone until Dix wanted to scream, but she read every word.
She was hired.
An American housemother would bring an interesting element to the students’ lives, the letter said. It was imperative she be ready to start work on September first. Her legs gave way and she sank to the floor, where Razor did his best to crawl into her lap. He licked her face and wriggled against her. She draped her arms around him and cried against his bony head.
September first. Only four months. Riley would be in university as long as he got that scholarship.
And she had to find a home for Razor. The thought of losing him in the midst of all her dreams coming true brought tears to her eyes. It didn’t matter that she let them fall. Razor kissed them away.
* * *
Dane stepped onto the curb across the street from the pawn shop and leaned on a lamp post. That was not supposed to happen.
If he’d ever needed proof he’d lost his edge, he had it.
Like a rookie, he’d exposed himself and let her get a good look at him. She’d had plenty of time to size him up. Not that he’d been slack in that department. He’d taken a damn good look at her, too. That woman packed a wallop. He’d about fallen into her cleavage when she’d leaned on the counter with her come-hither smile.
He’d leered like a pig.
She probably wanted him to feel that way.
In spite of the kindly tap dance she’d done with those boys, she could be a con artist– the lowest of the low, a woman who preyed on the susceptible elderly.
Even so, she drew him like a magnet drew iron filings. She would remember him now.
He should have hung back, out of her view, grunted a couple of times if she noticed him and taken a thorough look around the place, just as he’d planned.
He dug into his pocket and felt for his cell phone. Dialing the number his partner had given him; he waited for the Seattle Police Department to answer his call. When he was patched through to the man he wanted, he made his pitch.
“Detective Addison, I’m Dane Caldwell. I’m on the job in Philly. Joe Davis told me if I needed any favors while I was in Seattle, I could call you.”
“Caldwell. I heard you might call.”
Dane heard phones ringing, some distant yelling in the background. It was a downtown precinct, all right. “I need a favor,” he said.
“I need information on a Caucasian female. She’s mid-to-late twenties, five foot ten, and built. Red hair to the shoulder, no visible scars or tattoos. Her name is Dix Dixon, but I doubt that’s her given name. I can’t get a line on that.” Gran had been coy about her first name, even though he’d pressed her on it.
“You want priors? Or just to find out if she’s married? She sounds like a looker.”
Dane felt the comment and shifted. “My old man would call her fulsome.” He’d always been a leg man, himself. “I suspect she’s running a scam on my grandmother. I need everything that shows up, even parking violations.”
“Where does she spend most of her time?”
“She runs a pawn shop.” When Dane gave him the address, Addison grunted.
“That’s a tough neighborhood for a woman to run a pawn. She must be hard as nails.”
She’s already gotten her hands on half my grandmother’s jewelry, and I want it back. If you’ve got anything on her, I can use it for leverage.”
“I’ll get back to you ASAP, and I’ll ask the beat cop out there if he knows her. She could be straight. Any chance the old lady pawned some brooches for a few extra bucks?”
Dane snorted into the phone. “I doubt it. I looked at Dixon’s jewelry case and didn’t see any of the stuff I remember. If she’s not selling it in the store, she can get far more for it elsewhere. I want to know where it is and how she talked my grandmother into handing it over.” He’d already checked all the online auction sites he could think of and had come up empty.
“I’ll get back to you. And if this turns into anything, I want the collar.”
“Sure thing. Thanks, Addison, I owe you.”
“Tell your partner we’re square.”
“Will do.” Dane disconnected and shoved his phone back into his pocket, convinced that the calls for information were already being made. Everyone had a grandmother somewhere. He’d have answers before the end of the day.
He’d always heard that Gran had a mind like a steel trap when it came to investments. So the broke theory didn’t fly.
Even if she did need more cash flow, there were other ways to get it. She’d set such store by the family jewelry. The pearls were her grandmother’s, and she also had a filigree necklace that had been handed down from an old suffragette auntie. The stuff went back generations. He recalled his mother talking about the collection with reverence.
No, Gran would never sell off the jewelry, not without strong reason.
When Addison called him back with proof that Dix was a con artist and had taken advantage of Gran, he would get the jewelry back. Simple. If she’d sold it all, he’d get the money.
Then it should be easy to convince his grandmother it was time to move into a seniors’ residence. Living there, she wouldn’t be prey to people like Dix Dixon, and if her mind continued to go the way he suspected it was going, she’d be safer.
He hunkered into his jacket. Seattle wind could have a nasty bite.
More flocks of children came and went from the shop across the street. They all looked happy when they came back out. She’d charmed them all. He focused on the children’s hands for a few moments, but couldn’t see them holding anything more interesting than books or sheets of paper. The youngest had drawings with them, the older ones, books and binders.
When a light drizzle started, he zipped up his jacket to his neck and remembered why he hadn’t been back to Seattle since his mother died. He hated rain.
* * *
Riley Dixon saw his best friend on the corner half a block from the shop. “Carlos, what’s up?” He offered his hand for a high-five. Carlos slapped his palm while Riley set his backpack down. All he wanted was to shoot the breeze for a few minutes to delay facing his sister. She’d have the worried look she wore these days and he wanted to avoid it a while longer.
“Hey, if it ain’t the schoolboy,” Carlos said and stepped away from the group of losers he’d been hanging with lately. He punched Riley on the shoulder in welcome. “How’s it going?” he asked.
Riley shook his head. “It’s tough. I got a biology test back, and I didn’t do so good. Dix is gonna skin me alive.”
“You don’t gotta worry, you can take her out,” Carlos said through a grin. “Seriously, man. You gonna make it?”
Riley sighed. “The scholarship? I don’t know; my marks aren’t great. I study all the time, but I wish it came easier, the way it used to.” Lately, he’d messed up a lot and Dix was always riding him for it.
“You don’t gotta knock yourself out. I can take care of you. Set you up.” Carlos grinned again and scanned a car as it drove slowly past. The driver was an old man who lived one block over. Carlos’s hard gaze moved on to the next vehicle then turned back to Riley.
Riley shook his head, ignoring the sharp-eyed look in his friend’s eyes. He didn’t like Carlos’s love for fast cars.
“Mr. Johnson was asking about you,” he said.
“And what did he say, old Mr. Johnson?”
“He told me you have a great mind for math and you should come back to school.”
“Nah, he didn’t. Besides, I got enough mathematics,” he said, stretching the word in mockery, “to take care of my business and that’s all I need.”
“I thought that’s what you’d say, but keep it in mind, okay?” Carlos had never explained his “business.” Riley had his suspicions, but figured he was better off not knowing. “Mr. Johnson said he’d square it with the principal if you want to go back.”
Carlos snorted. “Sure.”
Riley picked up his pack and waved before heading off toward the pawn shop. He thought of the biology test and groaned.
Dix would not be happy. For sure she’d ask if he’d studied, then she’d say he hadn’t studied enough.
A B+ used to make her happy.
But since Russell Graves had climbed out of his sleek black limo and gone into the school office and announced his scholarship, nothing Riley did was good enough. Dix had had a bug up her butt about his grades ever since.
She and Russell Graves remembered each other from school. She figured that gave her an edge in this scholarship race. She’d been one of the few who hadn’t taunted him about being a nerd.
Big deal. Nerd boy made good in Silicon Valley and came back to his old neighborhood to offer a full scholarship.
Dix had been edgy for months, pressuring him, pushing the teachers on his grades. She watched his every move as if she didn’t trust him anymore. The closer they got to the day of the announcement, the worse she got. These next two weeks would kill him, if Dix didn’t first.
He understood better than anyone what was driving her. But did she have to be so keyed up all the time?
She’d already applied for a job in Paris. Being a housemother in a private school meant she would have a place to live, too. It was up to him to get into a good college. This scholarship would take care of that.
He was doing his best, but it was tough. She even harassed him about talking to Carlos. As if he could ever ditch his best friend. She had no right to tell him who he could talk to. No right. Dix wasn’t his mother, just his sister, no matter what the court said about guardianship. He considered bypassing the store, but he was hungry and broke.
He’d get something to eat, and then head to the bus stop. He’d heard that a department store downtown was looking for clerks. He’d try there. Hell, he had to try something to raise some cash. The way things were going with his grades, the scholarship seemed more out of reach every day.
He’d have to find a way to pay for college. Or die trying.