The Courtship Maneuver

By: Alexa Wilder

Book I





1





Chloe




I lay on the couch reading a book on my tablet; the screen dimmed so the light wouldn’t give me away. Beside me, a mug of tea steamed, scenting the air with herbs and flowers. I was trying to relax. Tea, a good book, sacking out on the couch. I should have been totally chilled.

Instead, every muscle in my body was tense. The house was brand new, but each creak sent shivers down my spine. I wasn’t supposed to be here. No one was. I’d left the lights off, sneaking around in the shadows to set up my sleeping bag on the couch and brewing my tea using the built-in hot water spout in the kitchen. Dinner had been a drive-through burger and fries, the now empty bag sitting on the floor beside me.

The idea had been to hide out, try to calm down somewhere safe, and then figure out what to do. So far, it wasn’t working. I’d taken care of the hiding out somewhere safe part. At least I hoped I had. No one who might be looking for me would be looking here.

As far as figuring out what to do? I had no clue. It wasn’t even my mess I was running from. It was my baby brother’s. I’d been taking care of him our whole lives. It had been suggested to me, more than once, that maybe it was time to stop. But he was my brother. My only real family. I wouldn’t turn my back on him.

The glare of headlights flashed across the front windows of the two story house, sending terror crashing through me. No one should be here. There weren’t any residents in this neighborhood. It was a new construction community, and I was squatting in the model home.

A truck pulled into the driveway and idled. Struggling to catch my breath, I slid off the couch and moved to hide behind its bulk. Should I try to sneak out the back door? I’d parked a few streets away so my car in the drive wouldn’t be obvious, and I’d have to pick my way across the construction site in the dark. But that was preferable to facing the people looking for me.

Suddenly my bright idea about hiding in the model home didn’t seem like such a good plan. I was completely isolated, surrounded by acres of mud and silent construction vehicles. No one to hear me scream. No one to help.

The silence of the truck shutting off, followed by the heavy thunk of a door closing had my heart thundering in my chest. What to do? I crab walked backwards into the kitchen and slid across the hardwood floor to hide behind the island. The houses here all had open floor plans. Attractive and practical unless you were trying to hide.

I lost the chance to make a run for the bedrooms when the front door swung open and the lights flipped on. Whoever was here had a key, then. That improved my chances a lot. At the realization of who it must be, my heart calmed, then sank.

Taking a risk, I peaked out around the side of the kitchen island to see who was at the front door. In the glare of the lights I saw a tall figure with broad shoulders, long legs, a lean waist, and a familiar shock of messy blond hair. Sam. Before I could stand up to reveal myself, he spoke.

“I already called the police, so I suggest you get your ass out here and explain yourself before you get arrested.”

I jumped to my feet, wishing with all my heart that I wasn’t wearing my now very wrinkled suit. It was bad enough that Sam was way out of my league. He didn’t need to see me looking like I’d been sleeping in my work clothes.

“Sam, it’s me. Don’t call the police.”

“Chloe?” he said in surprise. Belatedly I noticed he held a gun at his side, his arm tense and ready. He lifted the gun and did something to it before he shoved it in his waistband behind his back. “What the hell, Chloe? I could have shot you.”

“I didn’t know you had a gun,” I said. Not really the point. And kind of a dumb thing to say, but my head was spinning. For a moment, while he was holding that gun, he hadn’t looked like my Sam at all. He’d been menacing. Scary.

“Yeah, I have a gun,” he said. “And I didn’t call the cops. I called Axel. Hold on a sec. And don’t move,” he barked when I turned to go back to the couch.

He was angry. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen Sam angry. At least not at me. Sam never got mad at me. Not wanting to piss him off further, I stayed where I was, between the kitchen and the living room, and watched him make a call.

“It’s me,” he said, scowling in my direction. “Don’t worry about it. It was Chloe.” A pause. “I have no idea, but I’m going to find out. Yeah, later.”

Shoving the phone in his pocket, he pointed to the couch and said, “Sit.” I did.

“Did you forget that I had an alarm put on the gate and the spec houses after we had those problems with vandalism last month?” he asked.

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