Elaine Lambert trudged toward the gathering crowd of children and dogs. Off to her right, a tall man approached, looking familiar in a pair of worn jeans and a short-sleeved shirt that showed off his muscular arms. Oh, of course! Ivory’s kindergarten teacher. His deep blue eyes focused on her as he drew closer.
“Good afternoon.” He bobbed his bald head.
“You’re Mr. Cliff.”
He beamed. “Yes, and you’re a Lambert sister. I remember you from the day of the kindergarten play.”
“Yes. Elaine. I couldn’t miss my niece’s theatrical debut!” she laughed. “You have an impeccable memory.” She pointed. “I’m here to watch the dog obedience show.”
“Sounds like fun. Ivory has a dog?”
“No, but her cousin, Chance, does.”
“Enjoy the day.” He continued toward the John Muir Elementary School building.
Elaine picked up her pace, unwilling to miss any part of the action. She returned her sister-in-law’s wave and grabbed the empty seat between her oldest brother, Fletcher, and his wife, Lexi.
“I never dreamed this would be such a big deal. Look at all these people!” Elaine exclaimed. “Where’s Chance?”
“His class is coming soon. It’s the advanced class showing off right now.” Fletcher, holding their sleeping baby, Megan, leaned toward Elaine and stage-whispered, “Probably to generate more business.” He sat up and craned his neck. “Here come the beginners.”
“Oh, look! They’re so adorable. Chance and Racer have the same color neck scarf,” Elaine said.
“To enable the judge to know what dog goes with which kid,” Lexi replied, laughing.
“The dogs and the kids are being judged? I thought it was the dogs being tested.”
“The teacher wants all her students to shine,” Fletcher explained. “Hence, the judge, although he isn’t all frowns like those officials at the Westminster Kennel Club shows.”
Elaine stood up, the better to see over the people in the front row. She gave a quick wave to Chance, who Fletcher adopted after they married three years ago. The boy barely acknowledged her with a nod and a grin.
“I guess they’re not supposed to wave back?” Elaine asked. “Look! Chance just dropped the leash and walked away from Racer.”
“To show that he knows to stay,” Fletcher explained. “They’ve been practicing that one for weeks.” Fletcher groaned. “Uh-oh, that beagle just blew it.”
“You think Racer will stay?” Elaine asked. “His butt is wiggling.”
The yellow lab held his position, unlike two more dogs down the line that broke ranks. One ran directly to its owner. She hugged him and burst into tears. The other dog, a breed Elaine couldn’t recall, took off after the beagle. Their pint-size owners ran after them.
“Oh, dear. Gadzooks, the beagle,” Lexi said, shaking her head. “I’ll bet the crowd spooked him.”
“Gadzooks? What a name,” Elaine shook her head. “Chance just called Racer, and he lived up to his name. He ran right back to him.”
“Staying’s not one of his easier lessons,” Fletcher deadpanned. “Except for treats.”
Elaine watched as her nephew put Racer through his paces with one command after another. “He’s showing that he can sit and shake hands and lie down, roll over, and everything. I’m impressed.”
Lexi’s long blond braid slid across her shoulder as she scooted closer to Elaine, her blue eyes twinkling. “Ask Fletch what he asks Racer when Chance signals him to roll over.”
“Okay, bro. What do you say?”
Fletcher affected an innocent mien, although his grin told Elaine her brother had something up his sleeve. “I just ask Racer if he’s going to vote Republican, or play dead? Can I help it if he rolls over and plays dead?” After a quick laugh, he added, “He also plays dead when I ask him if he’s going to vote Democratic.”
Elaine slipped her hand under her shoulder-length bob and lifted her chestnut-streaked brown hair off her neck to catch the breeze as she sat in the sun. She playfully poked Fletcher. “Oh, you! What if one of your neighbors hears you? The one who had that awful sign in his yard right before the midterms.”
“If he hears it, too bad for him. I happen to think Racer is a really smart dog. Want to hold Meggie for me? I have to talk to the teacher. Here come our graduates.” He stood up and waved at Chance, who walked with Racer at heel toward his mother and aunt.
“Did you see us, Aunt Elaine? I want to do another class, one where Racer runs around sticks and crawls through tubes and stuff like that.” He pointed to another section of the park where an obstacle course had been set up.
Chance handed Racer’s leash to his mom and rubbed a hand across baby Megan’s dark hair, causing it to stand on end. “Can I, Mom? Ms. Washburn says Racer and I are ready. He was the best dog in our class, except that his butt wiggles when he has to stay.”
Lexi chortled. “Just shows how eager he is, sweetie. If Amelia says you two are ready, your dad will sign you up.”
Fletcher returned. “I asked your teacher if she’d include you in that other class.”
“Yeah! Thanks, Dad.” Chance gave Fletcher a high-five.
Elaine played pat-a-cake with four-month-old Megan before handing her back to Lexi. “Thanks for inviting me to watch Chance and Racer. I’m impressed.”
“You’re working today?” Lexi pointed to Elaine’s work outfit.
“Only half a day.”
“Why don’t you come over to our place for dinner?” Lexi offered. “We haven’t seen much of you this summer. You’ve skipped several of your mom’s Sunday dinners, too.”
“Trying to avoid her questions?” Fletcher teased.
Elaine grimaced. “Let’s just say I’m not interested in answering if I’m dating again, who, for how long, yada yada.”
“Well, we’ve missed you,” Lexi declared. “Everyone’s been so busy lately, especially since Eden had Garrett, and Hale took over the finance office and began making all those changes on his years-long to-do list. It seems we’re all going in different directions right now.”
“At least you have a great excuse, with a new baby,” Elaine replied with a quiet sigh.
“You’re not thinking about Norm, are you?” Fletcher asked, as they walked toward Fletch and Lexi’s new SUV.
“Oh, please. He’s out of my life and I’m glad.” She shaded her eyes with one hand, regretting that she’d neglected to tuck sunglasses into her purse.
“And you’re not dating again? I thought Eden said you had your eye on her boss before she went on maternity leave.”
Elaine gave her brother a sidelong glance, hoping he wouldn’t notice her flaming cheeks. “He might have been fun, but she was right. He’s too old for me.”
Elaine and Lexi shared a one-armed hug before Fletcher took Megan to strap her into her car seat. “Then, unless you’re going out tonight, come over for dinner,” Lexi urged. “I need your opinion about updating my wardrobe now that I’m not pregnant. And you can play with Megan while I put the food on the table.”
Fletcher nodded encouragingly. “Lexi’s right. We don’t see enough of you.” He motioned for Chance to climb into the car.
“Okay. I’ll see you there. I want to go home first and change out of my work clothes.” She brushed a hand along the side of her navy pencil skirt.
“Aunt Elaine,” Chance called out from the backseat.
She squinted in her nephew’s direction.
“Mom made a chocolate cake. She even decorated it with a yellow dog! I’m going to have some when we get home. I’ll save you a piece.”
“That settles it,” Elaine replied, with a grin. “See you soon.” She waved and headed for her Mini Cooper, parked near the edge of the park.
As she drove, she sighed to herself, feeling out of sorts, lonely. Or maybe I’m just bored. She and Norm had rarely stayed home on the weekends. Even weeknights were often filled with gatherings with their mutual friends. Now, many of those friends had drifted away. Because they’d felt closer to Norm? Or because she was no longer part of a twosome?
She parked in her driveway and went inside to ditch her work clothes and pull on a pair of well-worn cutoffs and a sleeveless blouse, perfect for a summer day. After she slid her feet into a pair of flip-flops, she detoured into the kitchen and pulled open the refrigerator. She’d planned to finish off the three remaining pieces of pizza. They’ll keep for another day, she thought, grabbing her purse and locking the front door as she left for her big brother’s place, relishing the thought of eating a nicer dinner. And chocolate cake, one of those wonderful desserts Lexi, a professional baker, had baked.
~ ~ ~
Two hours after a delicious dinner, the adults relaxed in the great room while Megan nursed.
Elaine yawned. “I guess it’s time for me to go. Thanks for feeding me, you two.” She leaned forward to stand up, but sat back down when her phone buzzed in her pocket.
“An invitation to go out next weekend?” Fletcher asked.
“You’re as bad as Mom.” Elaine glanced at her phone and shook her head. “My landlord. Wonder what he wants. Mr. Duffy, hello.” She listened, her eyes widening with each word he spoke. “I’ll be right there.”
“You don’t look happy, sis.”
“Someone broke into my house—broke the back window. One of my neighbor kids saw it and must have alerted a parent. Mr. Duffy called 9-1-1.”
“I’ll go with you.” Fletcher opened the front door. “I’ll call you when we know more, hon.” He kissed Lexi.
She flipped her braid over her shoulder. “Ellie, please come back here if you don’t feel safe staying at your place tonight. Our guest room is available.”
“Let’s hope that’s not necessary.” Elaine rushed after Fletcher.
She remained silent as he drove rapidly across town.
“I never did like your neighborhood,” he said as he pulled up behind a police cruiser outside Elaine’s townhouse.
“Now you tell me.” Elaine glared at him.
“Hey, I figured you’d be fine with Norm. After he took off, I was hoping you would move. Especially after Eden started working in that realty office.”
Before Elaine could reply, Fletcher stepped out of the car. “That cop looks like he wants to talk to you.”
A police officer walked rapidly toward Elaine. “This is your place?” he pulled out a notebook. “You’re Ms. Lambert?”
She nodded and waved at her landlord who was sitting on her porch. “Thank you for calling, Mr. Duffy.”
The older man nodded. “Now that you’re here, I’m going on home. If you need anything, come over after …” One hand fluttered in the direction of the police officers.
A second officer invited Elaine to step inside. “We need to know what’s missing, ma’am. And you are?” he asked Fletcher.
“Her older brother. Fletcher Lambert, the family attorney.” He shook hands with the police officer. “Mind if I go in with her?”
“Just don’t touch anything.”
Fletcher pulled out his cell and texted a message to Chris.
“Look at this mess,” Elaine murmured as she stepped into the living room. Books lay on the floor in front of a tipped over book shelf. “Never thought this would happen to me. Not in Pacific Knoll.”
“Crime happens everywhere, sis. Ask Hale.”
“But that was cybercrime, Fletch. Hacking. Not burglary.”
“What about shortly after you moved in with Norm?” he reminded her. “That’s why Dad and I were glad you weren’t living alone, even though we had our doubts about Norm.”
“Now you tell me?”
Her brother looked down on her and laughed. “Hey, we knew you wouldn’t appreciate if we objected when you insisted on moving in with him. At least we figured you weren’t in danger if he was with you.”
“We’ve never had problems before.”
“Maybe not, but you have a first-floor unit. Easy to break into. Remember those women three years ago? They were living alone. Two were assaulted, in addition to being burgled.”
Elaine nodded. “But didn’t the cops catch that guy?”
Fletcher nodded. “Maybe these officers were in on those other cases.”
Elaine chose not to ask. I don’t want to know. Looking at how her home had been messed with gave her a feeling of dread, her sense of privacy violated. She pointed to where her flat-screen television had been mounted on one wall. Now there were only bare metal brackets. “Guess I’ll have to get another TV.”
“And DVD player?” Fletcher motioned to the empty shelf on which it had sat.
“Another item gone, along with most of my DVDs.” She pointed to where nearly a hundred DVDs had been neatly stacked.
She mentioned those items to the police officer, who asked, “What about jewelry? You have anything of value worth fencing? Have a look, but don’t touch where you keep them. We haven’t dusted for prints yet.”
“My jewelry isn’t all that valuable, except maybe to me. Mostly costume. No precious gems.” Then Elaine thought of the necklace her parents had given her and her sisters, each sporting three hearts, inside of which sat a tiny picture of a Lambert sister. Her gaze swept over the earring holder, which seemed as festooned as before. Just as it had when she selected pearl studs to wear to work that morning. She studied the holder on which her necklaces were draped and breathed a sigh of relief when she spotted the necklace whose design meant something only to her and her sisters.
Fletcher must have recalled that gift. He gently squeezed her arm as she stepped away from her dresser.
“What about your engagement ring? It had a two-carat diamond.”
“I gave it back to Norm.” She nibbled her lower lip. “Actually, he took it off my finger.”
“Cheap jerk,” Fletcher muttered, loud enough that one of the officers smirked.
Elaine glanced around the bedroom she’d taken pride in leaving neat whenever she left the house. The bedclothes and pillows lay on the floor. Had the thieves been looking under her mattress for cash? Magazines usually piled on her side table were strewn across the room. Her dresser drawers had been pulled out and rummaged through. Two bras and a pair of lacy panties lay on the floor. She swept them up and shoved them out of sight.
Too late, one of the cops warned. “Please, don’t.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, tears of embarrassment in her eyes.
“Check your closet, sis,” Fletcher urged.
“Why would they have bothered my clothes?”
“Looking for a mink coat,” Fletcher deadpanned. “Not that you’d ever wear one.”
Some of her work clothes had been pulled from their hangers and lay in an unruly pile, although nothing else seemed to have been touched or taken.
“Could you come check the kitchen, ma’am?” The second police officer had appeared in her bedroom doorway. “It looks like they got in through that laundry room window.”
“You think it was kids? The laundry window isn’t all that big,” Fletcher said.
“Maybe not. The entire frame is mostly gone. I’m thinking a burglary ring. There’ve been some break-ins south of here. Closer to the freeway.”
Fletcher shrugged a shoulder, as if to remind Elaine of the earlier crimes he’d mentioned.
God! I’m glad I wasn’t home. She shivered, and followed the officers into her kitchen. The canisters her mother had given her— a set that matched what Iona had in her own kitchen —had been tipped over. The flour, sugar, oatmeal, and rice now mingled on both the counter and the floor, but nothing else seemed out of place. Even the knives in the wooden holder Chris had made sat in their usual place near the stove.
“Smells like pizza in here. Your dinner, ma’am?” the officer asked.
Elaine reached for the refrigerator door but stopped when the officer held up a gloved hand. He pulled it open for her. She looked inside and snorted. “They ate my pizza. Must have heated it up in the microwave,” she said, prompting laughter from both police officers.
Fletcher gave a scoffing hoot. “My money’s on kids.”
“Wonder why they didn’t take the toaster oven,” Elaine mused.
“Maybe they didn’t realize it could be fenced,” the officer said. “Good thing you weren’t here when they broke in.”
She nodded. “Do you suppose they were watching the house, waiting for me to leave? Mind if I sit down? I’ve never been broken into before.”
Fletcher pulled out a chair for Elaine, and took the other one next to his sister. “You look kind of shocky. Put your head between your knees if you’re feeling lightheaded.”
She shook her head. “I could use a glass of water.” She pointed to the cabinet to the right of the sink and the officer filled a glass and handed it to her.
He waited until Elaine set down the glass. “You mentioned the flat-screen TV, your DVD player and some movies. But no jewelry. What about other technology like a laptop?”
“It’s at the office.”
“Good,” Fletcher said. “What about important papers, extra checkbooks, that sort of thing?”
“Oh! I never thought of that.” Elaine pushed shakily to her feet and staggered down the hall to her guest bedroom, followed by an officer who steadied her. She motioned to a drawer in her corner desk. The officer who accompanied her pulled it open. “I guess they didn’t bother with this room. Nothing’s out of order in here. See, Fletch?” She pointed to a pair of extra checkbooks and her passport. “Everything’s here.”
“Good, but call your bank on Monday, just to be on the safe side. Ask them to deny payment of any check that isn’t next in line by number after the one currently in your checkbook. Tell them the last one you wrote.”
Elaine nodded. “I will.” She walked back to the kitchen, glancing toward the front door when she heard a firm knock. “Oh, Chris!” She responded to his open arms by returning her twin’s hug.
“Can you cover up the laundry room window, Chris?” Fletcher asked. “Is that okay, Officer?”
“That’ll have to wait until my partner has checked for things like footprints, handprints, and other evidence.”
“I’ll gather what I need to bring over,” Chris said, following the officer out the front door.
Elaine talked with the remaining police officer.
After the officers left, she sat with Fletcher and Chris. Both brothers looked grim.
“You’re not staying here tonight,” Fletcher declared.
“You can bunk in with me and Teddy,” Chris stated.
Fletcher scoffed. “You’re not still in honeymoon mode, bro? Besides, Lexi’s already prepared our guest room.” Fletcher showed her the picture on his phone. “Don’t disappoint her. Or Chance.”
“Okay, but let me grab some clothes.” Elaine filled her small suitcase with a change of clothes and followed her brothers out of her townhome.
She locked the front door, assuring her brothers that she always locked her doors. When they began to argue again about where Elaine should stay the night, she stopped them with a hand on each of their chests.
“Stop. My car’s at Fletch’s. I just want to go back there, take a hot shower and go to bed.”
“Got it,” Fletcher said.
“What he said,” Chris seconded.
~ ~ ~
The next morning at breakfast, Fletcher asked if Elaine was prepared to meet with the crime scene investigator from the police department at her house.
“The sooner the better. Once they’ve done their job, I’ll be able to clean up the mess.”
“Want me to help?” Lexi offered. “Another pair of hands will make the work go faster.”
“Thanks, but I’d rather do it myself. Maybe I’ll discover other things that were taken, things only I would know about.”
Chance, his expression intent, said, “You should get a watchdog, Aunt Elaine. One like Racer. He always barks when someone comes to our door.”
“Really? But he’s so friendly with everyone.”
“Not since we brought Megan home from the hospital,” Lexi clarified. “It’s as if he suddenly realized that he has another job besides playing with Chance.”
“He likes to go after my soccer ball when I’m practicing dribbling,” Chance added, grinning.
“But I’m not home enough to keep a dog. Don’t you think he’d get lonesome?”
“Maybe you could take him to work with you. Have him wear one of those special vests that label him a service dog,” Lexi offered.
Elaine shook her head. “We’ve had enough troubles with pretend service animals at the mall. Why do you think we’ve added signs about only certified animals being allowed inside?”
Fletcher nodded in agreement. “A decent security system would be better, but I’d really like to see you living in a better neighborhood. One less likely to attract the criminal element. At the very least, talk to Chris about a security system and get your landlord’s okay.”
“I will, but please don’t mention the break-in to Dad or Mom. This is the first time I’ve had any trouble and I’ve been living on my own since before I graduated college.”
Lexi glanced at Fletcher, then placed a comforting hand on Elaine’s arm as she walked with her sister-in-law toward the door. “I’ll do what I can to calm the waters of brotherly concern.”
“Thanks. At least one person trusts me to make my own decisions.” She climbed into her car and drove home, steeling herself to approach the interior as if nothing was wrong. She was relieved to see a police car already in the driveway. A pair of investigators climbed out and followed her into the house. She told them what the other officers had said, which sent one man outside.
“I found a partial print on this large shard of glass,” he announced on his return, holding up an evidence bag. “What’s left of the window was too small to take with me. I’ll dump the other glass in the trash, if it’s okay with you.”
“Sure. You might want to check inside the laundry room. Maybe you’ll find more prints there.”
The man headed for the laundry room while Elaine stayed with the man who dusted for prints in the living room, along the wall where the TV had been attached, and where the DVD had taken up space on the bookshelf. He then proceeded into the kitchen, paying attention to the microwave, the counter and the interior and exterior of the refrigerator.
“Where else did they go?”
“My bedroom and the closet. But I don’t think they took anything. Just messed with some of my clothes.”
She did so and waited until he’d dusted everywhere. When he and his partner had completed their work, Elaine asked if she could pick things up and they gave her the go-ahead.
Three hours later, her stomach growling, she locked the door of her townhome and drove to a fast-food place for a snack before heading back to Fletcher’s house.
“How bad was it?” Lexi asked as she refilled Elaine’s coffee cup. “Want to sleep here again?”
“I should go home, so it feels more like mine again. Even though it was kind of creepy watching those investigators doing their thing. Everything’s still dusty from that stuff they used.”
“Did they find much evidence?”
“One guy mentioned a print on a piece of glass where the robbers got in. And a couple of prints in my bedroom and on the wall when they grabbed my flat screen.”
Lexi nodded. “So they think it was two people?”
“They never said. I’m assuming it was more than one.”
“Are you thinking about getting a dog? One that will bark if anyone shows up on your porch, rings your doorbell, or, God forbid, tries to break in? Having a dog would mean you wouldn’t be alone at night. And you’d know the house is safe when you get home. Won’t that make you feel better? Or are you going to depend on a security system of the electronic variety? Personally, I think a dog would be nicer.”
“My landlord had a fit when my next-door neighbor brought a cat home. Made him pay what he called ‘an animal damage fee,’” she air-quoted.
“Does your neighbor still have the cat?”
Elaine nodded. “It’s usually sitting in his front window when I come home from work.”
“Well, if your landlord allowed a cat, what’s to say he won’t allow a dog? You’d think he’d want to have one or two in the complex to sound the alarm if bad guys show up. Why don’t you ask? And you can remind him that your neighbor has a pet, which means you should be able to have one, too.”
Fletcher entered, gave his wife a kiss, then veered over to Elaine and gave her a hug.
“Did I hear right? You two are talking about a doggy security system, one Ellie can pet, who’ll give her sloppy kisses when she comes home after a hard day at work?”
“Not a bad idea.” Fletcher grinned. “Maybe you’ll meet a nice guy when you take the dog for a walk, or to the dog park. Dogs are boyfriend magnets.”
Elaine huffed. “You’re saying I can’t find my own boyfriend? I resent that remark.”
“Not just any boyfriend, sis, a nice one. Not like Norm. I seriously doubt any self-respecting dog would have approved of him.”
Chance came out of his room and grabbed a cookie on the kitchen counter, shoved it in his mouth and reached for a second one.
“Your dad and mom say I should get a dog, Chance.” Elaine ruffled her nephew’s blond hair. “Do you agree?”
“That’d be so cool! You could go with Racer and me to the park.”
“I already go with you and Racer to the park.”
“But it’d be even more fun with two dogs.”
“As long as I can skip the house-breaking step.”
Lexi chuckled. “Good point. Why don’t you stop by the animal shelter? I’m sure they have adult dogs. Maybe even trained ones. And they all need good homes.”
Elaine sipped her coffee. “I’ll think about it.”
“Think hard,” Fletcher admonished. “Knowing you have a dog whose bark would wake the dead will mean Dad and I will sleep better at night.”
“Dad? Did you tell him I was burgled? After I begged you not to?”
“Sorry. I meant Chris.” Fletch avoided Elaine’s hands when she reached out to pull his head down and give him a noogie.