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Alice Moore opened the screen door and took a step out onto the porch as if she were moving in a dream. The brisk December wind cut through her trousers. She’d only been home for five minutes—she was still in her teaching clothes, for heaven’s sake. She was not ready for this. “Mr. Rodriguez? Is that a…”
“Sí,” the small man said, smiling widely. It didn’t reach his eyes. “I want to give to you.”
Alice blinked. Maybe she should pinch herself? Because the fact that Mr. Rodriguez was standing on her front porch—with a small black horse—had to be a dream.
The Rodriguez family had only moved into the rental duplex on the corner of Alice’s block a few months ago. She didn’t know them well—the wife, Maria, was a bilingual nurse with the Health Department and their younger daughter, Eva, was in Alice’s class at Brittany Hills Elementary School. Although Alice hadn’t spoken with Elijah Rodriguez much—he worked nights and was taking English as a Second Language classes, she knew from talking to Maria—they seemed a lovely family. When they’d moved in, Alice had done what she always did for newcomers—she’d baked cookies and made friends. Eva and her older sister Lupe were delights. Alice had paid them ten dollars each to help set up her Christmas decorations on the lawn.
Their rental property didn’t allow pets. Eva had written a persuasive essay in class on why dogs should be allowed. At no point had there been any mention of horses.
This had to be a dream. It was the only reasonable assumption at this point. She’d had a long day teaching fifth graders how to subtract fractions and she had come home and taken a nap and now there was a beautiful little black horse on her doorstep.
If she were going to dream up a knight in shining armor, complete with horse, she wouldn’t exactly pick Mr. Rodriguez. She’d pick someone who looked like Harrison Ford, circa Indiana Jones. A dashing rogue with a sense of humor—and not married. Definitely not married.
Then the horse lifted its tail and deposited a rather fragrant load on her welcome mat and Alice realized that this was happening. “Mr. Rodriguez, you have a horse!”
“Sí, sí—Pele. For you.” And the man actually held out the rope clipped to the harness around the horse’s head to her.
“Mr. Rodriguez,” Alice sputtered, trying not to breathe through her nose. Or her mouth. “You can’t give me a horse!”
“Not for you,” he protested. “For the little girl. For Christmas. Girls love horses.” As he said it, he sounded truly sad.
Vera, Alice’s granddaughter, would indeed love a horse for Christmas—but she was two and a half. No one in their right minds bought a preschooler a horse, and her mother, Amy, would have Alice’s head on a platter. “I can’t…”
But then, plastered smile still on his face, he looked back down the street. Alice followed his gaze. She didn’t see anything, but there was no missing the tension in Mr. Rodriguez’s posture.
That, combined with the way his normally generous smile didn’t reach his eyes… All of Alice’s instincts for sniffing out trouble kicked in. “Mr. Rodriguez, what’s going on?”
“Pele made a mess. I put him in your yard, sí? And I get a shovel. Your little girl love her own horse!”
Before she could stop him, he’d led the horse—Pele?—down the stairs and was heading around to her backyard. “Mr. Rodriguez! Elijah! Wait!”
He didn’t listen, nor did he turn that horse around. And she couldn’t follow him because she’d only gotten as far as kicking off her flats. She was not about to chase after a horse in her knee-highs. Horse poop would be the least of her worries.
She ran back into her house, shoving her tired feet back into the flats and hurrying for the back door. She could not let that man leave that horse here. This wasn’t a farm—they lived in a residential neighborhood!
But by the time she made it to the backyard, Mr. Rodriguez was gone. There was no sign of him, just a pretty horse nipping at the dead grass. She did pinch herself then.
The horse lifted his head, nickered at her, and peed all over the flowerbed.
For heaven’s sake.
Okay, this was a problem. But Alice hadn’t made it through a twenty-five year career teaching fifth graders without learning how to stay calm in the face of epic, complete disaster. She could keep a classroom of rambunctious children from falling apart come heck or high water. The time poor little Laurence had panicked during a math test and wet his pants? Alice had handled it. When Jimmy had passed out at the sight of blood? No problem. When Laci had literally flipped a desk and charged at Devon over a nose-picking rumor? Alice had managed to keep the classroom from devolving into a riot.
This was just a horse. She could handle this.
The horse made no move to bolt from the backyard and Alice was still in her teaching clothes. She was not about to shovel horse poop in a poly-blend blouse.
So she’d change, clean up the mess, and then figure out what to do with Pele. And at no point did that plan including sticking a large bow on the animal and driving him to her daughter’s house in Olathe, Kansas.
Amy would kill her if Alice showed up with a horse for Vera. There was a lot of latitude in being a grandmother with her first grandbaby, but even Alice knew a horse was over the line.
She hurried back into the bedroom of her small bungalow and dug out a pair of jeans and a long-sleeved cotton t-shirt. As she was struggling out of her hosiery, the phone rang.
That did it. Tonight, after she’d gotten the horse to wherever he needed to go, she was opening a bottle of wine. Thursdays be darned.
“Hi, Mom.” Amy. She sounded frustrated. “You are not going to believe the day I had. Vera—”
Well, she could join the club. A loud thunk came from the backyard. Lord, that horse better not be trying to get into the house! “Amy, sweetie, I can’t talk right now.”
“What? Why? Is everything okay?” Great. Now Amy was panicking. “Do you need me to come over?”
“No!” Amy operated under the delusion that Alice was a fragile little old lady who shouldn’t live alone. As if being fifty made her old. Alice may be a grandmother, but that didn’t mean she had one foot in the grave, for heaven’s sake. “I’ve got company,” she said, wincing at the almost lie. “Neighbors. I’ll call you later, okay?” Which was true enough. This was a neighbor-related incident, anyway.
“Are you sure? You know we worry about you, all alone over there.”
As if Alice lived on the moon or something. Ever since her daughter had become a mother, she mothered everyone. Including Alice. “Absolutely. Give Vera a squeeze for me. Love you, sweetie.” Before Amy could protest, Alice hung up the phone. The last thing she needed right now was Amy rolling up and launching into some sort of histrionics about the horse, and how could Alice let people take advantage of her, and maybe she should move closer to Amy and Derrick in Olathe so they could keep an eye on Alice.
No, thank you. Alice valued her freedom and her privacy more than that. She was perfectly content to stay right here in Independence, Missouri. The city suited her.
She’d just grabbed the thick cardigan she wore around the house when there came a firm knock on the front door.
“Now what?” she groaned. She hadn’t even gotten her socks on yet! This was looking like a two-glass kind of night. Tomorrow was Friday, after all. She could always show the kids a movie or something after the spelling test.
Shoving an arm into the cardigan, she hurried to the front door. It better be Mr. Rodriguez, back to claim his horse. Because that animal could not stay.
But when she flung open the door with an impatient, “What?” it wasn’t Mr. Rodriguez. Or either of his daughters. It wasn’t even a neighbor.
It was a stunningly good-looking man in police blues.
It took a lot to render Alice speechless. A woman didn’t survive a fifth-grade classroom without being able to think on her feet. But this made twice within ten minutes that she had absolutely no words as the officer removed his sunglasses, revealing a pair of beautiful hazel eyes, warm and full of humor. The corner of his mouth kicked up in a crooked smile and all Alice could think was, Maybe I am dreaming, after all.
Because this? This was a rogue. She could see it in his eyes.
“Afternoon, ma’am,” the officer said. His badge was pinned to his chest and he had a radio unit on his shoulder—but he wasn’t wearing a bulletproof vest. There was no missing the gun on his hip, though. Armed and dangerous.
And she was staring at him with her mouth open. She didn’t even have her sweater on all the way! She must look ridiculous.
She pulled herself together. She got her other arm the rest of the way into the cardigan and stopped staring like a love-struck teenager. “Hello, officer. How can I help you today?”
He tucked his sunglasses into a pocket on his chest. Not that she was staring at his chest. She was not the kind of woman who gaped at a man in uniform.
He cleared his throat she jerked her gaze back up to his face. Was she blushing? How else could this afternoon go wrong? “My name is Officer Douglas. I’m an animal control officer with the Independence Police Department.” From the same shirt pocket his mirrored sunglasses were now dangling from, he calmly removed a business card and handed it over to her.
Animal control? Oh no. To stall for time, she studied the card. Except it wasn’t a business card—was this a baseball trading card? It was…except instead of him in a baseball uniform, he was wearing dress blues. He made dress blues look good. The card had a picture of him and his name and his position and his badge number and—wait. “Your name is Kirk Douglas?”
He arched an eyebrow at her. “That’s correct, ma’am. But that’s not why I’m here. We’ve had reports from some of the neighbors that someone was keeping a horse around here—would you know anything about that?”
“A…horse? Is that a problem?”
Officer Douglas was now openly grinning at her. “Ma’am, I’m not sure if you’re aware of this, but it is illegal to have a farm animal inside city limits, and a horse is considered a farm animal.”
“Illegal?” Several things fell into place so quickly Alice swore she heard a snap.
First off, Alice was not one-hundred-percent confident that Elijah Rodriguez was in this country legally. His wife and daughters, yes. Maria Rodriguez had told Alice over coffee that she had become an American citizen some years ago, and that both of her daughters had been born here.
But now that she thought about it, perhaps Maria had intentionally left her husband out of the conversation.
And clearly, somehow, Elijah had come into ownership of a horse. Two weeks before Christmas, no less. Had he thought that this was a good present for his daughters? That did seem to be the only reasonable explanation—although there was nothing reasonable about her afternoon up until this point.
And now he had foisted this horse onto her. Was that because he knew that the authorities had been called? And because he was afraid of what might happen if he were to come to the attention of the police?
A sick feeling began to build in the pit of Alice’s stomach. Maybe she was wrong. Maybe there was another explanation for this series of unfortunate events that she wasn’t seeing. But decades in the classroom had taught her that the most likely explanation was often the correct one.
She did not tolerate lying in her classroom. She expected honesty from her children.
She expected it from herself, as well. But if she told Officer Kirk Douglas that Elijah Rodriguez had given her the horse, would she get the man arrested? Deported, even? Would she be responsible for breaking up a family two weeks before Christmas—a family she knew and liked?
“Yes, ma’am.” Normally, Alice didn’t like to be called ma’am. It made her feel old. But the way Officer Douglas said it didn’t leave her feeling cranky. “Would you happen to know anything about a horse in the neighborhood?”
“No?” She wanted to wince because her voice had gone up at the end, as if she were asking a question instead of making a statement.
“You don’t seem too sure about that, Mrs.…”
“Ms. Moore. Ms. Alice Moore.”
“Alice. That’s a name you don’t hear too much anymore.”
How old was this man? She needed to pull herself together. “Yes, well, you don’t meet too many men named after movie stars either.”
He leaned against her doorframe, one shoulder cocked up and that tempting smile still on his face. “My mother was a big fan.”
“Of Kirk or Michael?”
He laughed out loud, a warm, teasing sound that sent little shivers down her back. It was time to consider the distinct possibility that she was dreaming. Again. Because a man in uniform just appeared on her doorstep with an easy smile and a twinkle in his eye.
Oh yes. This was the stuff of dreams. Merry Christmas to her.
“Don’t tell her I said this, but I think she had a crush on both of them. My middle name is Michael.”
Alice did something that she hadn’t done in a long time—she giggled. And that made her blush even more. “I’m sorry. You probably get that all the time.”
He shrugged, and somehow made it look good. “Probably no more than you get asked about Alice’s Restaurant.”
Now it was her turn to smile at him. “Kids these days don’t know about Alice’s Restaurant.”
“Not that many of them know about Kirk Douglas anymore, either.”
A moment of silence stretched between them and Alice realized something—this was flirting…which seemed maybe not quite right. How old was he?
“So about the horse?” he said again.
“The horse?” Oh. The horse. She straightened up and tried to look innocent, which was pointless. Never in all her years of dealing with children had she ever seen someone attempt to look innocent actually succeed.
“Do you know anything about the horse?” Why was this man smiling so much? Were they flirting?
“No?” Wonderful. She was back to the questions again.
She wasn’t going to blame that on the horse, however. She was going to blame that entirely on him. He stood up straight and she couldn’t help but notice how broad his shoulders were and how well his uniform fit him.
Then, very deliberately, he turned his head and stared at a spot on her porch.
She followed his gaze and groaned. Because there sat a still slightly steaming pile of horse poop. “I have a dog.” Great. She was actively making this worse.
By the time he looked back at her, she couldn’t tell if she was blushing furiously or having a hot flash. Either way, she was most likely an unladylike shade of red. “Do you mind if I have a look around?”
“Thanks.” He gave little salute and stepped off of the porch.
“Um…” she said again as he disappeared around the side of her house. She still didn’t even have socks on, for God’s sake.
She closed the door behind her and raced back to the bedroom, grabbing a pair of socks and shoving her feet into them. Then she got her house shoes and headed for the backyard.
This was a disaster. A handsome disaster, but a disaster nonetheless, and she was not handling it well.
Do better, Alice, she scolded herself as she threw open the back door.
She had to see a man about a horse.