Excerpt for Payoff Pitch

“Buster? Buster, come here, you!”

Alarmed at the dead silence that enveloped the cavernous stone house, Teddy Quinn raced through the Bennetts’ marble foyer and skirted the great room on her way to the side door. She worried because Buster always greeted her with his wagging tail and bright blue Siberian Husky eyes when she arrived for the dog’s daily afternoon walk. The poor animal got little enough attention from the couple that owned him, a pair of lawyers who had brought the puppy home a year ago to placate their whiny five year-old twins. Bored after the novelty wore off and the puppy grew into a gangly, rambunctious adolescent, the twins now mostly ignored Buster, too.

Teddy said a silent prayer as she hurried to the flexible dog door that enabled Buster to get outside to do his business. Her heart thudded because she knew that if the dog was in the six-foot high enclosure that the Bennetts had constructed as a doggy poop yard, he would have started barking as soon as he heard her car pull up to the house. The silence greeting her could only mean one thing.

Buster had busted out. Again.

She flung open the mud room door and scanned the empty yard, quickly locating the escape tunnel. In the front corner of the enclosure, clumps of dirt and grass were strewn around a freshly-dug hole under the cedar fence. That particular location was Buster’s preferred route—it was the third time he’d dug that same tunnel and escaped into the wind. And yet the idiot Bennetts hadn’t done a thing to stop it from happening again.

Teddy gritted her teeth, furious that the lazy owners had ignored her advice on how to secure their yard. Of all the dog breeds in the world, Siberians were among the most inclined to dig their way out of captivity and run like their tails were on fire. They loved to dig, but even more they loved to run. They needed to run.

“Shit!” She cursed Winston Bennett for his lousy attitude toward his dog’s welfare. She’d been lucky the first two times Buster made his break because he’d raced straight to the local park where neighbors recognized him and grabbed his collar before he could continue his dash to freedom. But she knew that he could just as easily have sprinted away so fast and so far that she would never have been able to find him. Or, worse yet, she could have found the beautiful creature’s broken body in the middle of the road, crushed by a car or truck.

There was no point calling Bennett. He’d just snap that it was her responsibility to find the dog. And his wife would probably berate Teddy for getting her out of a client meeting or something. That had happened once before. No, this was on her. She’d deal with the Bennetts later.

She hurried out to her car after quickly locking the front door of the house. Popping the hatch of her dusty Ford Escape, she reached into one of her plastic containers and grabbed a handful of the dried liver chunks she’d made at home. Buster, like every other dog she’d met, would dance a jig for one of the disgusting but effective treats. If he’d come to her for anything, he’d come for liver.

The park. Only a couple of blocks away, it would be deserted in the early afternoon except for maybe a couple of moms or nannies and their preschoolers. Teddy stuffed the liver in the pocket of her jeans, slammed the hatch shut and took off, running down the road with her long ponytail flying behind her.

But she almost came to an abrupt—and tragic—end when a dark blue car popped out of the neighbor’s hidden driveway and slammed to a stop just before slamming into her. Fortunately, she’d unconsciously registered the car out of the corner of her eye and, at the last moment, managed to dodge just enough to miss getting T-boned. For several frantic heartbeats, she and the obviously startled driver gaped at each other, but then Teddy got moving again. Half-turning her head, she gave the man a little wave as if to say no harm, no foul. He looked absolutely stunned at first but then recovered and gave her a warm smile.

Teddy remembered that sexy smile. He’d used it on her once before—the time she was walking Buster and the dog unexpectedly deposited a present on the guy’s front lawn just as the big and decidedly gorgeous man looked up from washing his fancy car. Embarrassed, Teddy had given him a shy smile in return as she stooped to pick up after Buster, then had scurried off before her panties melted. From more than fifty feet away, the thirty-something, athletic-looking hunk had radiated the kind of confident masculine power that very few men could muster. He was, quite simply, totally hot.

That was the only time she’d ever laid eyes on him despite having walked Buster every day for the past month. She’d idly hoped more than once that she’d bump into him again but it had never happened.

Until today, when he’d almost bumped into her.

Focus, girl. Find the dog.

Teddy picked up her pace as she veered to the far side of the road to face the traffic.

She glanced left to right and back again, then stared down the street toward the park, hoping to get lucky and catch a glimpse of Buster. She called out his name a few times even though she didn’t expect him to hear her.

When she stopped shouting, she heard the purr of a well-tuned engine approaching slowly from behind.

“Hey, there, are you all right?” The hot neighbor’s deep, sexy voice slid over her like warm honey.

She glanced over at Mr. Gorgeous, frowning at her out the open window of his Beamer sedan. “I’m fine, thanks,” she said, breathing hard. She told herself that it was strictly from the run and her anxiety over Buster. Definitely not from him.

“Good. But I couldn’t help wondering, since you sure don’t look like you’re running just for exercise.”

How perceptive. Might the look of sheer panic on her face account for that?

She snuck another glance, noting that he’d matched the car’s speed to hers as they neared the entrance to the park.

“I’m chasing an escaped dog,” she said.

Teddy swore she heard a faint chuckle over the sound of her panting. “What was he in prison for?” he said.

“That’s really not very funny,” she snapped. “The poor dog could have been run over by now.”

He visibly winced. “Yeah, you’re right. Sorry. I’ve had to chase dogs more than once myself. Can I give you a hand?”

The tension in her chest eased a bit at the offer. The thought of Buster meeting a tragic end made her ill. And if she didn’t find him, his owner would have her hide. It didn’t matter that the dog’s escape wasn’t her fault—Bennett would blame her for not finding him. And though the lawyer was one of her more difficult clients, he was also a very well-paying one that Teddy didn’t want to lose.

She gave her unlikely helper a tentative smile. “Sure. That would be great. He likes to go to the park, but he might have headed farther down the road toward the tennis club, too. Could you check that out?” She veered a little toward him, enough to see the genuine concern in his magnetic dark gaze. “He’s a Siberian Husky, by the way. Black and white. And his name is Buster.”

“Sure, I know who Buster is. And I’m on it,” he said with no hesitation. “I’ll drive around the neighborhood and hook up with you later.” The BMW roared away before Teddy could thank him for his kindness.

Hook up with you later? Now that sounded interesting. Then again, he obviously didn’t mean hook up in the let’s grab a beer and see what happens sense.

Teddy couldn’t repress a mocking snort at the idea, even as she kept up her fast jog. Who was she kidding? If a hottie like that wasn’t married, he was probably dating a supermodel or somebody equally spectacular—certainly not a dog walker slash student like her.

“Buster! Here, Buster! I’ve got treats for you!” She yelled out a few more encouragements in her sappy doggy voice as she sprinted past the play structure and swing set. The park was deserted. No moms, no kids, and, most importantly, no Buster. It was wide open in this section, so if he was anywhere around she’d have already seen him.

Damn, damn, damn.

The park had been her best hope, but she hadn’t counted on there being nobody around to stop him or at least see where he was heading. Buster must have kept running west through the park, past the ball field and on into the stand of trees beyond the fence. Or else he could have stuck to the road and motored on down toward the tennis club and maybe even to the high school farther in the distance. Those were really the only big, open spaces she knew of in the immediate area. Other than that, it was just houses and yards, and Buster didn’t seem the type that would go running back toward something he probably associated with captivity. Every instinct told her that he wouldn’t go east, because he was so used to heading for the park on his walk.

Trying to keep her worry from escalating even more, Teddy crossed through the eastern end of the park. Then she circled the ball field and headed for the big stand of evergreens and sycamores on the west side. Once she’d penetrated the line of trees, the thick canopy of leaves and branches overhead blotted out most of the bright sun as she picked her way slowly through. Buster might have decided to check out these woods. On their daily walks, he would sometimes pull her in that direction and even whimper a little when she took him on a stroll around the perimeter, as if something interesting must surely be happening in there. Like maybe he could find a critter or two to chase.

But as she combed her way through, it became clear that Buster was no longer there, if he’d ever been. Since he could have escaped as much as three hours ago, right after Winston Bennett left for work, there was just no telling how far Buster might have run.

Tears started to prickle her eyes as hopelessness began nudging aside panic. What should she do now? Knock on neighbors’ doors? Get in her car and drive around looking for him? Whatever she decided, the first priority should be a call to Mr. or Mrs. Bennett. Maybe they would come home and help her search.

Then again, maybe not.

In any case, she would retrieve her cell phone from the car and call them as she drove around the area. With both her and Mr. Hot Neighbor on the lookout, they could cover a lot of ground and maybe get lucky.

Picking her way out of the trees, she took off at a fast jogging pace, heading directly across the baseball field to the park entrance, her eyes constantly scanning the distance for any glimpse of Buster.

Unfortunately, scanning for Buster meant she wasn’t focusing on what was in front of her, something she realized when her right foot landed awkwardly in a small depression in the infield dirt, making her ankle wobble and then give way. Pitching forward and to her right, she tried to tuck into a roll but didn’t quite manage it. Instead, she hit the ground hard, landing on her right elbow and shoulder.

Growing up on a dairy farm, Teddy had suffered her share of injuries—including a disfiguring one. She knew that the first order of business after a hard fall was getting up and assessing the damage, and that was what she did now, using her uninjured arm to push herself up onto her knees before rising to her feet.

What a freaking awful day this was turning out to be.

Since her elbow burned like it’d been bitten by a swarm of fire ants, she looked there first. Her shoulder had taken a heavy impact but didn’t hurt much and seemed intact as far as she could tell. The elbow, on the other hand, was trashed, as was much of the back of her forearm. The gritty infield surface had scraped away a good chunk of skin, leaving a bloody, dirt-encrusted mess that needed to be cleaned up as soon as possible. She could do that at the Bennetts’ house.

But that shouldn’t be her priority. She should she just wrap a dog towel around the scrapes and get on with searching for Buster. She could stand the pain, and it wouldn’t get infected that quickly.

Yeah, she could stand pain, because she’d dealt with a lot worse.

Teddy glanced down at the middle finger of her left hand—or, actually, the mostly empty space where there had once been a middle finger. When she was six, an old, unguarded grain auger had lopped off that finger and badly injured two others when she was stupid enough to stick her hand in the chute. There had been no hope of re- attachment since the finger ended up somewhere in her father’s silo, surrounded by about fifteen tons of grain.

Now, that had been pain. This little scrape was nothing.

She took a couple of quick swipes at her jeans to knock off some of the dirt and dust and then jogged toward the park entrance. A young woman—almost certainly a nanny— was pushing a big-wheeled double stroller the size of a small car. She gave Teddy a curious look as she approached.

Teddy managed a quick smile. “Hi, I’m looking for my dog.” She pointed toward the west, the direction from which the woman had apparently come. “Did you see a Siberian Husky running loose by any chance?”

The woman, a pretty Hispanic in her mid-twenties, about the same age as Teddy, shook her head as the blond twins in the stroller gazed up at her. “No, miss, I didn’t see any dog. I’m sorry.” Her eyes zeroed in on Teddy’s bleeding arm. “Are you all right? Do you need some help?”

Teddy ignored the pain radiating from her elbow and smiled. “It’s just a little scratch. But thank you.”

“I’ll watch for your dog,” the woman said.

“Thanks.” Teddy crossed to the other side of the road and picked up her pace. She’d made up her mind to ignore the injury for now and focus completely on the search for Buster, so the sooner she got back to her car, the better. But she’d only made it about twenty yards down the road when she caught the purr of a car approaching behind.

“Hey, lady—want a lift?” Mr. Hot Neighbor gave her another panty-melting grin.

Teddy hadn’t thought she’d see him again so soon. And before she could answer him, she heard a woof and a dog’s head poked into view from behind the man’s broad shoulders. Buster was sitting on his haunches in the passenger seat, a look of demented excitement on his face. His long, pink tongue was hanging out of the side of his mouth as he panted, and his blue eyes seemed to be saying hey, Teddy—isn’t this is the best day ever?

She should be furious with the mutt but instead she started to laugh, going weak with relief. The laugh came out sounding kind of hysterical, but she figured she’d earned it.

“He’s one happy dude,” the guy said with an answering grin. “He just keeps licking my face like I’m his long-lost owner or something.”

I kind of envy him, since that’s exactly what I’d like to do to your face, too, right about now.

In gratitude, of course, she told herself.

His gaze zeroed in on her arm and he frowned. “It looks like you banged yourself up a bit. Are you okay?”

Teddy had tried to keep her elbow turned away from him so he wouldn’t ask what happened. She felt like an idiot for stumbling on what was pretty much level ground.

“It’s nothing. Where’d you find the escape artist?” She moved closer to the idling car, tucking her injured arm backward.

“Not that far away, really,” he said, giving Buster an affectionate muzzle rub. “I kept on going past the tennis club, then wandered around a bunch of crescents and courts until I hit South Roberts. When I was passing by the Presbyterian Children’s Village, I spotted him meandering across the grounds. By the time I made it up their long drive, a couple of girls had already corralled him.”

Buster crawled over into the guy’s lap, trying to hang his head out the window.

“Aw, he wants you to pet him and tell him it’s all right,” the guy said. “Don’t you, pal?”

Hot Neighbor didn’t seem the slightest bit perturbed by having a big, panting Husky crawling all over him. He was clearly a dog lover, and that only added to his considerable appeal as far as Teddy was concerned.

“You know he’s the Bennetts’ dog, right?” she said.

“Sure, and you’re their dog walker. I noticed you out with the dog a couple of times.”

You noticed me? Teddy instantly gave herself a mental slap down for her girly-girl reaction.

She gave him a weak smile. “Sorry about Buster using your lawn as a potty.”

“He’s a dog, after all.” He nudged Buster off his lap. “Come on, get in and we’ll get you two back home.”

“Thanks, but I’ll just meet you back there.” The last thing she wanted to do was leave blood and dirt in his expensive car, and they were just a few minutes’ walk from the Bennetts’ house.

When he shrugged his broad shoulders, her gaze helplessly zeroed in on the biceps that bulged out from his tight black T-shirt. Suddenly, she barely noticed the pain searing her elbow.

“See you there,” he said and sped away. Teddy watched him go, telling herself to stop drooling like some teenage idiot.

She broke into a jog again. Though she and her pal Emma had been doing the home pet care thing for a couple of years now, she had to admit that nothing topped the last half hour for the most interesting incident of her career.