“Maddie! You are not seriously leaving the house this time of night.”
Though it was more of a statement than a question, Madison found herself shrugging.
She groaned. “Xander,” she replied.
“Look, at least let me come with you. This is not the time of night to be out alone.”
Xander meant well. His eyes pleaded with hers to take him up on his offer, and she knew he meant it.
Looking at him for a minute, she let all the reasons he should not go with her speed through her mind, lingering on one that she knew he would accept. “If you go, who will watch over Lupe?”
The white fluffball that lay resting on his bed in her room had a warmer-than-usual nose this 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 had lifted only a fraction, while his tail gave a small twitch 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.
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 him.”
“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 run 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’d met, he’d always been 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 intention of causing trouble for him.”
“Really, Xander? You want to try that one on me again?”
She let her hand rest at her hip as she put her full weight on that leg and cocked her head with a raised brow. Definitely a signature look for her that he knew well.
With an exasperated sigh, he plunged a sculpted hand into his thick mane of 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.”
Her father, who had been 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 rolled 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.
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 hit her hard, and she fought to keep the dampness from springing forth in her eyes.
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.
Jogging through the park helped to clear her head.
She hated leaving Lupe behind, and now she was even regretting not allowing Xander to join her. But she really needed to allow the tension that plagued her a chance to work itself out.
For now, she needed time to think, and running through the brisk evening air of late autumn would allow her to do just that. Maybe it was not her finest move to come out so late.
Add that to the fact that she was using the park just outside of town, and it was almost a recipe for disaster.
She had argued with herself that it was the only way to ensure the peace she needed to calm herself and find her center.
So, she attempted to allow that solitude to pulse through the tightness that had seemed to seep into every part of her body.
In one of her hands, she clutched her car keys in such a way that they protruded just slightly between her knuckles, while she carried military-grade pepper spray in her other hand.
She carried them confidently, knowing full well how to use them. On more than one occasion, she’d had to show her skills.
Usually to victims who were drunk and obstinate, though she would have been able to use a swift kick between their legs to accomplish the same thing.
Using the pepper spray would allow them to be able to father children, whereas she would wager they might be shooting blanks a while after she used the full swing of her legs.
Okay, so maybe some of them should not have been allowed to procreate, but who was she to decide that fate.
The lamps in the park alternated along both sides of the running path, and they all emitted small lighted circles along the path. They were spaced so that the glow from one just made it to the outer edge of the next.
As she ran, she watched the patterns that the lamps cast while listening to the breeze blowing through the leaves of the trees, both within the park and those that lined its perimeter. It was peaceful here, and beautiful.
But her father’s training clung to her like cigarette smoke does to a smoker’s clothes.
Though she kept her cell in the side pocket of her Lycra jogging pants, she never used headphones. Never listened to music.
And always was sure to have some form of weapon on her…just in case. Be prepared. Be alert.
Her feet strummed the sidewalk, creating their own comfortable rhythm. The vibrations felt good running up her legs to her hips.
She had taken up running years before when she was a different woman looking for a way out of a bad place. After her divorce, it had become a way of life for her.
A chill breeze whipped around, and she turned her face up to meet it. It felt good to have the brisk stream of it blow against her while she sprinted over the concrete. Like a renewal of sorts.
She let the tranquility of her surroundings soothe her.
The lands that ran parallel to the park were privately owned and ran deep and wide. In fact, they were the same lands that bordered the little investment property she and her mother had bought together several months ago.
If she were to drive north about fifteen miles from the park, she would run into the little bar that had gone to the dogs in recent years.
She believed that it would be a great investment someday, but she needed time to build it into something more fitting than it currently was.
Until she could afford to make the changes, she would have to let it run as it was…with the clientele it currently had.
The plan for the bar was on track. Though it was not a fortune, the bar was making money, and she was able to start putting money aside for the renovations.
As much as it pained her, the bar would have to make a lot more money to be able to do any renovations before the year was up. It would not stop her from making this bar a success.
It was not until she received correspondence from Mr. Maxwell’s attorney that things started to go south for her.
After only a few months of ownership, she had been notified that there were some underlying issues regarding the land titles. Was he wanting to develop his land?
After more than a few decades of leaving the land undeveloped and in its natural state, would he be entertaining industry and business proposals to rent or buy sections to build on?
The town had grown more quickly than most had anticipated over time, and now it had become a small metropolis. It had expanded in every direction that yielded to its demands, while Mr. Maxwell’s land remained unyielding.
Truth be told, the natural state of the land was breathtaking, and Maddie had a lot of respect for the man who had withstood the economic growth and spread of the city.
That is, until she remembered that this was the same Maxwell she was being forced to take a meeting with in the morning.
There were rumors about the man, of course. Philandering, lustful, relentless, ruthless, determined, and proud were some of those rumors going around.
Anytime there was a big social function in the city, he was sure to be invited and attend with one or more gorgeous women in tow.
At least, that is what her roommate would tell her when he was busy gossiping about the nightlife that he was so keen to be a part of.
Xander was like having her own E! News for all the happenings in her own backyard.
Though he always had magazines, articles, websites, and such, Maddie would give them a cursory glance at best when he tried to pull her into his world of glitz and glam.
Now she almost regretted not paying more attention to Xander and his musings. She might have been at least able to put a face to the arrogant capitalist who wanted to make her life so difficult.
The cold breeze tickled the back of her neck where once it had brushed against her face. She shivered as it mingled with the sheen of perspiration there.
Maybe that should have been her signal to head back, but she was still fighting the urge to punch something.
But when it blew against her back once more, nearly pushing her forward with its exertion, a shiver coursed through her that lingered past her skin.
Definitely time to head home now. That felt…eerie.
Without interrupting her jogging rhythm, she crossed one leg over the other and spun around. Her eyes had to refocus with the sudden movement, and she felt herself smash into something big and hard.
“What the…,” she started, the rest of the words falling into a big, hairy barrel of a chest.