Connor knew Noah was expecting a flip response, so he said, “If it hasn’t been apparent, your sister has been barely acknowledging my existence lately.”

“You do know how to push her buttons, I’ll give you that.”

“Likewise, she’s not so bad at pushing buttons herself.”

Noah threw him an amused look. “Why don’t you help take her off our hands?” he joked. “You know my parents think you’re great. And, you’d be doing us a favor if you two got hitched.”

Connor looked at Noah quizzically. He could swear there was a note of underlying seriousness to Noah’s kidding but Noah’s face revealed nothing other than his typical expression of amusement at the world. “If you value your health, you won’t let Allison hear about that scheme.”

As much as the Whittakers thought of him as family, Connor doubted any of them really regarded him as an ideal mate for the family’s precious darling. No amount of polish would ever get rid of some of his rough edges.

Noah cast him a look of mock offense. “Me? Plotting to marry off Allison?”

Connor tossed him a skeptical look as they reached the volleyball net set up on a corner of the lawn in the Whittaker’s backyard.

Noah sighed heavily as if being forced to confess. “Okay, yeah. Guilty.” He shrugged, looking far from repentant. “Ever since Allison got ol’ Quent hitched to Liz last year, I’ve suspected that she’s set her sights on me and Matt. And, you know what they say, the best defense is a good offense.”

“In other words,” Connor supplied, playing along, “get her hitched to me before she gets you hitched?”

“Exactly.” Noah added with a pretense of ruefulness, “Can’t blame a guy for trying.”

Connor looked over to see Allison joining the crowd near the net. “Yeah,” he agreed, “but I’m not sure I’m good enough for our little princess.”

Noah scoffed, dropping his teasing demeanor. “You’re kidding, right? The folks adore you. They’ve never said it, but I think they’d be pleased if you and Allison ever wound up together. And, I’ve got to tell you, it would be a relief for me, Matt and Quentin.” He gave a mock shudder. “Have you seen some of the guys Allison has brought home?”

Unfortunately, he had…and he agreed with Noah. He nodded over at Allison and said, “The princess might have some objections though.”

Noah followed his gaze. “Yeah, I know Allison can get into her nose-in-the-air routine with you. But, I always thought that was just a defensive mechanism. You know, a way to show you that you don’t get to her when you obviously do.”

She showed him all right. Every opportunity she got. Aloud, he said, testing, “Just supposing I was willing to help you implement this little plot of yours—purely in the interest of helping you escape a possible marriage trap, of course—”

“Of course,” Noah agreed readily.

“What’s to say that you, Matt, and Quent don’t beat me to a pulp for unintentionally breaking the princess’s heart.”

Noah cocked his head, pretending to consider that for a moment. “Okay, yeah, I grant you that’s a risk. Under the circumstances, though,” he said, his tone nonchalant, “I’d say it’s more likely that the danger would be that the princess would break your heart.”

Connor tossed him a quizzical look, but Noah’s face revealed nothing. The youngest Whittaker brother, Connor thought, was way more depth than the fun-loving playboy the gossip columns portrayed him as.

Noah slapped him on the back. “Come on. We’ve got a game to play,” he said, walking with him toward where the other players were standing, “and I can’t wait to cream these guys.”

As it turned out, their team eked out a victory for the second year in a row. Afterward, Connor sat down with a cold beer and some hot dogs. It was dusk and the party was starting to wind down.

He was just finishing his second hot dog when his cell phone rang. Sliding the phone out of his pocket, he noted that the name on the display was that of one of his top deputies.

He quickly excused himself and walked toward a nearby tree. No use getting the Whittakers’ expectations up if the news wasn’t what he hoped. He’d had a hunch, though, and had followed through on it.

The call was brief but nevertheless had him wanting to punch the air with satisfaction.

When he got back to the picnic table, he sat down next to Allison and, keeping his tone as mild as possible because he knew his words alone would be shocking enough, murmured, “They’ve caught Kendall.”

She stopped in midmotion while reaching for a can of soda and swung to face him. “He’s been arrested?”

He nodded. “And my guess is he’ll be held without bail under the circumstances.”

He watched as a variety of emotions flitted across her face. “Why?” she asked finally, seeming to settle on that one word as vague enough to encompass anything he might tell her.

Matt Whittaker glanced over at them from the other side of the table. “What’s wrong?”

“Yeah,” Noah chimed in, “you look pale, sis.”

Connor looked down the table and noticed that they’d gotten Allison’s parents’ and Quent and Liz’s attention, too.

It was just as well. He could get the story over with in one telling. “Hugh Kendall has been arrested in connection with the threats against Allison.”

Liz gasped while Noah uttered an expletive that Connor privately agreed with. Then everybody tried to talk at once.

“How did the police catch him?” Allison’s father asked finally, making himself heard after the initial tumult had died down.

“The police executed a warrant and searched Kendall’s house and car,” Connor said. “They found a gun there that matches the type of .32-caliber weapon they think was used in the parking-lot shooting, based on the type of slugs they recovered that night.”

“They executed a warrant? Based on what evidence?” Allison asked. She had been looking relieved since he’d told her the news, but now her tone was tinged with suspicion. “Were they able to trace the color of the car that the gunman used back to Kendall?”

“Does Kendall even have a state gun license?” Noah added.

Connor shook his head. “The answers to your questions are no and no. But, the police concluded that the slugs had probably come from a make of gun that hadn’t been manufactured in a long time, so I decided to have my people do some more digging.”

“Good going,” Matt said, nodding approvingly.

“I had a couple of my investigators visit gun shops around Boston,” Connor explained. “One shop owner recalled someone fitting Kendall’s description asking about possibly selling some guns a while back. They were practically collector’s items, and the guy who came in wanted to know how much they’d be worth.”

Connor looked around the room. He had everyone’s undivided attention, it seemed.

“None of the stuff I’d dug up on Kendall revealed that he was a gun enthusiast or even into hunting,” he went on. “So, I figured, if Kendall did own some unlicensed guns and he was in fact the guy who had gone into the gun shop trying to sell some classic firearms, then he’d probably inherited some handguns. Once I had one of my investigators look into probate court records in New Hampshire, I knew we definitely had our man.”

“How so?” asked Liz.

“Kendall’s father’s will is on file,” he responded. “It reveals that he gave his gun collection to his son and that collection included the type of .32-caliber the police think was used in the shooting.”

Connor looked at Allison and didn’t add the fact that, since Kendall had kept the gun after the shooting, instead of disposing of the incriminating weapon, there was a good chance he was thinking of using it again, and to fatal effect.

The thought again sent chills down Connor’s spine. As soon as all the clues had been gathered, he’d turned over his evidence to the police so a warrant could be executed. The urge first to beat the crap out of Kendall himself had been hard to resist however.

“What about the guy you saw lurking outside the townhouse that first night?” Allison asked. “Do you think it was Kendall who sped away that time?”

Connor nodded. “Probably. And, as we suspected, Kendall was throwing us off the scent by making it seem as if the threats were coming from a run-of-the-mill hood.”

“The note in the mail with the bad English you mean?” Allison asked.

Connor nodded. “Among other things.”

“We all owe you a debt of gratitude, Connor,” Allison’s father said. “You know you’re like family to us, but let us know if there’s ever a way we can repay you.”

Connor noted that, next to him, Allison stiffened slightly. “You mean on top of his hefty fees?” she asked.

Quentin shook his head. “Actually, I offered to pay him—” Quentin either ignored or didn’t see the quelling look that Connor shot him “—but he refused. He insisted on volunteering his services.”

Allison swiveled toward him and Connor met her look head-on. He could see what she was thinking. He’d purposely misled her. And this time he had no excuse.

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