Chapter 1 - Madison
“Maddie! You are not seriously leaving the house this time of night.” Though it was more of a statement than a question, Maddie found herself shrugging. “Maddie!”
Madison groaned. “Xander,” she warned, flicking her eyes in Xander’s direction before she returned to tying up the laces on her cross trainers.
“Look, at least let me come with you. This is not the time of night to be out alone.” The man meant well. His eyes pleaded with her to take him up on his offer, and there was not a doubt in her mind that he would go as he was in his khakis, dress shirt, and dress shoes just to prevent her from going alone.
Maddie smirked at the thought of him trying to keep up in his semi-casual dress clothes and hard-bottomed dress shoes. It was almost worth it just to see if he would try, but she let the thought quickly fade as her need to be alone with her thoughts trumped her desire to be hilariously entertained by his dramatics. Watching him for a minute, she instead let all the reasons he should not go with her speed through her mind, but could only linger on one that she knew he would accept.
She lifted her brow and asked innocently, “If you go, who will watch over Lupe?”
The white fluff ball that lay resting on his bed in her room had a warmer than usual nose that afternoon, and was sleeping more than normal. Before she had left her room, she had given him a loving scratch behind the ear. Even with her touch, his head lifted only a fraction while his tail gave a small thump against the cushion in acknowledgement. There was no doubt that he was unwell, and she had already planned on taking him to the vet in the morning if his condition had not improved by then.
Xander grumbled at her. “That was a low blow, and you know it!” The smug grin that found its way to her lips was the only response she had for him. “You cannot let that man get to you, Maddie. Look how he has you all wound up, and you have not even laid eyes on the man.”
“Exactly! The man has more land than any state park that I know of, and he wants to make a legal matter about my paltry ten acre tract? What kind of man does that? Doesn’t that man have better things to do with his time and money than to use them against a small business owner?”
Though she had already ran through this with Xander, she felt the rush of it consuming her once again. Xander did not seem to mind. He never did. Since they met, he was always a constant in her life. Her best friend.
“Maybe it means nothing. Maybe he just wants to meet with you and make sure that you have no intentions of causing trouble for him,” he offered in response, though there was a healthy dose of skepticism that clearly rang through his words.
“Really Xander? You want to try that one on me again?” She stood from the couch and let her hand rest at her hip. Putting her full weight on that leg, she cocked her head to the side with a raised brow. Definitely a signature look for her that he would know only too well.
With an exasperated sigh, he plunged a sculpted hand into his thick, silky mane of dark hair. It was the kind of hair that women loved, and wanted as their own. “Look, Maddie. All I am saying is that you should wait until you meet with him before reacting. It might be…”
Before he had a chance to finish what he was saying she snapped back at him. “It might be exactly what I think it is. Which means I need to be prepared for just that.”
Xander looked skyward. “Heavens, if I don’t see your father in you.”
“Says the man who never met him,” she retorted scornfully. She didn’t mind being likened to her father, but she didn’t like when he tried to use him against her in an argument.
Xander’s eyes went round as his mouth gaped open softly as though he were looking for a proper response. Instead, he closed his mouth tightly and continued to watch her with an expression that made her a bit uncomfortable.
Maddie’s father, who was a general in the military before he was taken from her a few years back, had been strict in her upbringing. Not only did he expect her to be prepared for the unexpected, but he insisted on her training in self-defense. “Being prepared can save your life, Maddie,” he used to say. After she would roll her eyes from hearing it for the hundredth time, his face would get a stern look before they would say in unison, “Be aware of your surroundings. It only takes once.” Then she would chuckle and wrap her arms around her father’s neck to give a tight squeeze. She knew he only meant well.
His lessons were well taught, and he always insisted that she should follow her instincts. From them, she could prepare herself for anything, and thwart any who would choose to attack.
At least it always felt that way until now. Now she felt like she was against an opponent whom she had no control over, and who might actually get the better of her. She grimaced, her lips pressing together in a firm, white line. That little space of land that her and her mother now owned meant the world to her, and she would be damned if that man got an inch without her fighting tooth and nail.
Grabbing her keys from the table next to the front door, she shot Xander a look that would wither the weak. The pang that struck her heart thinking of her dad hit her hard and she fought to keep the dampness that clung to her lashes from trekking down her face. It didn’t help to have thoughts of him while the frustrations in her mind plagued her. What she wouldn’t do to have him here with her now. He would know exactly what to do.
Xander looked defeated. “I’m sorry, Maddie.” A few seconds passed and neither made a noise before he continued. “When will you finally quit blaming yourself for what happened to him? No one else blames you, why do you?”
“No, we are not having this conversation! You will stay here because I need to clear my head with fresh air and solitude, and there is no room for you there.” With that, she stormed out the door, giving it a firm enough tug behind her that it rattled the frame. Okay, so maybe it was more of a slam than a mere closing. She knew that there would be no doubt that he would know his place…and no doubt she would get her peace.