Over the years, Ned Porter had encountered many things in his parents' backyard, but never once had he discovered a woodland nymph under his mother's prize rosebush. It wasn't much of a rosebush, considering his mother's thumb was more brown than green. The same thing couldn't be said about the nymph. From the shadows in which he stood, he had a clear view of the tiny woman and her pert, little jean-clad bottom as she wiggled and cussed her way farther under the thorny bush.
He had heard Girl Scouts use stronger language, but he had to give the nymph extra points for creativity. He'd never heard that particular word used as an adjective before. Whatever the woman was after, it wasn't coming easily.
He reached down and lightly patted the head of his dog, Flipper. He could feel Flipper's large, muscular body quivering with excitement. The hundred and fifty-pound Newfoundland wanted to go play with the enchanting woodland creature. It had been Flipper who had alerted him to the presence of a stranger in his parents' backyard that they should go investigate.
Ned and his dog had stopped over to check on his parents' home because they were out of town. Their house was in total darkness behind him, but most of their backyard was lit up by the light pouring out of every window and glowing in every outdoor bulb that the new neighbor had lit. The Las Vegas strip used less wattage per square foot. It was ten o'clock at night, and he needed his sunglasses.
A high-pitched yelping sound coming from under the rose bush caused him to reach for Flipper's collar instinctively. He didn't think the rose fairy would appreciate competing for space with the Newfoundland under the thorny bush. She would surely be trampled into the mulch and weeds his mother never had time to pull. From the angle at which he was viewing the nymph, the dog outweighed her by a good forty pounds.
A string of inventive forms of torture caused him to chuckle and step out of the shadows. Whatever it was that was yelping needed to be gagged. The high-pitched barking was causing the hair on the back of his neck to stand up. Fingernails scratching a chalkboard would be less irritating. Flipper, who usually wouldn't move an inch without a direct command, was pulling against the hold he had on his collar.
Flipper either wanted to go play with the annoying creature, or he was looking for a late night snack.
“Need any help?” he asked as he took another step closer to the intriguing visitor.
He cringed as the nymph jerked her head up and her short hair got caught on a thorn or two. He hadn't meant to scare her. He wouldn't be surprised if the woodland sprite put a curse on him. Did nymphs cast curses, or was that a troll? To be on the safe side, he offered a hasty apology, “Sorry, I didn't mean to startle you.”
Norah Stevens felt a thorn dig into her scalp and the painful yanking of her hair as it tangled with the bush. She bit her tongue to hold back a heated word and glared at her mother's Pomeranian, Zsa Zsa, who was covered in mulch and hiding behind weeds, deep in the shadows. The four-pound diva seemed to smirk back at her. “I have one more four-letter word for you to think about”âshe hissed softlyâ“cage.” She started to wiggle her way out from under the bush. Thorny branches tugged at her hair, and one particularly sharp thorn scratched her shoulder. “First thing tomorrow morning, I'm buying you a leash and the most uncomfortable cage I can find.”
The miniature dog had been a royal pain in the tush since the day her mother had spotted her in the pet store's window. It had been love at first sight. Nothing else would do but to have the spoiled Pomeranian join their family. Her mother had even kept the ridiculous-sounding name some employee had bestowed upon the tiny dog. Zsa Zsa had made her mother smile. With that simple act, Norah had opened her wallet and bought her mother the dog as an early birthday present. Six months early.
Her mother deserved all the smiles she could get even if they came wrapped in some neurotic hairball that liked to get her nails painted and would only take a âpoo' if no one was watching. With her luck, Zsa Zsa had probably just fertilized the neighbor's rosebush.
It was a hell of a way to meet the neighbors. First impressions counted, and here she was crawling around on all fours, and without a pooper-scooper in sight.
She stood up and brushed her hands on the back of her jeans before running them through her short, spiky hair. She tried not to cringe when her fingertip rubbed against a particularly nasty scratch. She was dirty, tired, and in no mood to make nice with the neighbors. She had spent the past two days unpacking boxes; moving furniture; and putting up with Zsa Zsa, who had developed an irrational fear of seagulls. Norah wished she would have known that fact before moving to a small fishing village on the coast of Maine. She still would have moved to Misty Harbor, but Zsa Zsa might not have joined the family the week before the move. She wasn't looking forward to Zsa Zsa meeting her first lobster.
With a silent sigh and one last glare at the quivering spot beneath the bush, she forced herself to smile pleasantly and turned around. Her gaze collided with a solid wall of bulging chest muscles encased in a dark green T-shirt. She looked up. Way up.
The square-jawed man smiling back at her wasn't her neighbor. She distinctly remembered the real estate agent telling her and her mother that the neighbors were a nice married couple in their fifties. The man before her, doing a great job of imitating a modern day Hercules, wasn't quite thirty years old. Misty Harbor had just gotten a whole lot more interesting. She always was a sucker for a man with a crooked smile and laughing eyes. “Hi, I'm Norah Stevens, and I'm trespassing.” She stuck out her hand in greeting and prayed she wasn't about to get a firsthand look at the inside of a jail cell.
“Ned Porter.” Ned's smile seemed to slip a notch as he shook her hand. “No one trespasses in Misty Harbor. We're quite open to having rose fairies visit our gardens anytime, day or night.”
Norah was startled not only by the electrified contact of Ned's touch but also by the sheer size of his hand. Ned Porter had huge, work-roughened hands. Hands like her father's. She quickly dropped his hand and then tried to cover up the insult by asking, “Do you get a lot of fairies around here?”
“Only during the summer months. Our winters tend to scare off even the hardiest of souls. Mythical or otherwise.”
“Great, now I'm really looking forward to January.” She tried not to roll her eyes.
Ned chuckled. “They're not that bad if you are prepared for them.” Ned glanced at the rosebush. “I take it you're the new neighbor and not some rose fairy.”
“How can you tell?” She looked at the sad rose bush. One lone yellow rose was in full wilt. It was the saddest looking bush she had ever seen. “Never mind, I think I've figured it out. If I was a card-carrying fairy and this was the best I could do, they would drum me out of the union.”
Ned shook his head at the pitiful shrub. “My mother loves this bush. The more she tries, the worse it looks.”
“This is your parents' house?” It was on the tip of her tongue to tell him that her mother would gladly give gardening tips to his mother, but she wasn't even sure her mother's green thumb could save such a sorry-looking sight.
“Yes, they've been out of town for the past couple of days. Mom's sister is in the hospital down in Boston, so they are there visiting her.” Ned's left hand maintained its hold on the dog. “Flipper and I just stopped by to check on things.”
She glanced at the massive black dog. “Flipper?” Ned's chuckle was a deep rumble that sent a thrill skipping down her spine.
“He swims like a dolphin.” Ned patted the top of the dog's head. “Can I ask what's under the bush? My first guess would be a dog, but I've never heard one bark quite like that before.”
“Your first guess is right on the money.” She glared at the bush and couldn't detect a glimpse of Zsa Zsa. The spoiled mutt had burrowed herself farther into the mulch, and she could only pray she hadn't christened it first. Her mother was going to be up half the night shampooing and blow-drying the pampered pooch. “At least the American Kennel Club calls it a dog.”
“What do you call it?” Ned's glance was searching the shadows beneath the bush.
“In polite company, I call Zsa Zsa a spoiled rotten princess.” Ned looked at her, and she could tell he was trying real hard not to laugh.
“You named a dog Zsa Zsa?” he asked.
“No, my mother named
dog Zsa Zsa. I have quite a few names that I call her, and if you were standing there for any length of time, you would have heard a couple of them.” With any luck, he had just arrived and had missed her ranting and raving while crawling around in his parents' garden.
Ned's mouth twitched into that endearing crooked smile. “So it's your mother's dog that is under my mother's rose bush?”
Zsa Zsa gave a high-pitched yelp, causing Flipper to yank Ned another foot closer to the bush. “If my mother wasn't crazy for the mutt, I'd leave her out here to become snacks for the seagulls.” Zsa Zsa's yelp turned into a pitiful cry.
Ned's smile turned into a look of concern. “Is she hurt?”
“No, she's terrified of ”âshe pointed upwardsâ“you know.”
Ned stared at the beautiful woman before him and knew it had been too good to be true. Norah Stevens was packed into one enticing package, even if she was on the petite side for his usual taste in women. Worn jeans clung to a tiny waist and curvy hips. Her feet were bare, and the teeny tank top she wore showed a good two inches of smooth, pale skin between its hem and the waistband on her jeans. What the good Lord hadn't given her in height, he'd surely made up for in other attributes. His mother's new neighbor impressively filled out a tank top.
It was a real shame Norah's elevator didn't go all the way up to the top floor. The five earrings in her right ear and a few more in her left should have been his first clue. The second clue was what appeared to be eight rings on her delicate, little fingers and the two-inch spiked hair that might be more red than brown. High cheekbones and eyes that tilted upward at the corners gave her a fey look. Norah indeed had the look of the fairy he claimed her to be. An enchanting, bejeweled, slightly out of whack fairy.
When he'd first learned that a mother and her daughter had bought the house next to his parents' home, he had pictured an eight-year-old with long braids and skinned knees. Someone who would leave her bike out in the middle of the yard or require a swing set to be built in the backyard.
Ned's gaze followed Norah's finger, and he stared at the night sky, trying to figure out what she was pointing to. “I know what?” The only thing he could see besides the crescent moon was the stars. Somehow he didn't think Zsa Zsa was afraid of the stars or the moon.
Norah's generous mouth turned down into a frown. “She's terrified of s-e-a . . .” Norah started to spell the word.
Zsa Zsa whimpered as Norah hushed him. “Shhh . . . don't say it.”
He didn't know who was more certifiable, Norah or the dog who could spell. “You're kidding, right?”
“Afraid not.” Norah glanced at the bush where the pitiful whimpering continued. In the hushed tone reserved for the breaking of bad news, Norah whispered, “We think it's a phobia.”
Norah's elevator not only didn't reach the top floor, it was totally out of order. He now understood why a woman in her mid twenties was still living with her mother and crawling around under the neighbor's bushes in the middle of the night. If he hadn't heard the dog with his own ears, he would have suspected Norah of making up the entire story. “Maybe medication will help.” To be honest with himself, he wasn't quite sure if he meant for the dog or the woman. It was a fifty-fifty split.
Norah cocked her head as if seriously considering the matter. “I don't know. She has an appointment next week with the local vet; maybe he can prescribe something. Do they make Prozac for dogs?”
“I know they make tranquilizers for animals. My parents once had a dog that had to take them every Fourth of July. He was terrified of the firecrackers. Who's the appointment withâMerle Sherman?” Merle had been the local vet longer than Ned's father had been alive. There wasn't a better vet around, as long as you didn't interrupt him while he was fishing at his pond. Then Merle tended to get a little cranky.
“That's the one.” Norah reached her hand out and allowed Flipper to smell it. Flipper licked it instead.
“He likes you.” His dog's tongue was almost as wide as Norah's palm.
“How can you tell?” Norah grinned as she scratched the dog behind his ears. Flipper rolled his eyes and moaned in ecstasy.
“He licks people he likes.” He watched in envy as his dog plopped down in the grass and rolled onto his back. Flipper wanted Norah to rub his tummy. If only the male species of the human race had it so easy.
Norah laughed at the dog's antics and then knelt down and gave in to the silent command for a good scratching. “What does he do to people he doesn't like?”
Flipper's body vibrated with ecstasy, and his massive paws shook wildly.
“You don't want to know.” Norah's laugh was light and totally carefree. The light, bubbly sound reminded him of water flowing over rocks in a shallow stream. Norah's voice hadn't been so gentle and soft when she had been cussing out her mother's dog. One thing was for certainâshe wasn't a native Down Easterner. “Where are you from? I can't place the accent.”
“Pennsylvania.” Norah gave Flipper one last long scratch that sent the dog's legs into spasms of delight. “The Allentown area.” She stood back up. “Even being named after a fish, Flipper is more a dog than my mother's will ever be.”