THE TROUBLE WITH LOVE
By John Reeves
Every woman makes mistakes.
Susannah Quinn glared at the door to the Sheriff’s private office. Yep, every woman makes mistakes, but most women didn’t have to put up with a constant reminder of their not so brilliant actions. And most women didn’t have their mistake showing up at their office –flaunting tanned muscles and polluting the environment with clouds of testosterone and male arrogance.
Of course, mistake didn’t quite describe what she’d done. No tiny lapse in judgment for old Susannah Quinn. When she decided to throw common sense out the window, she didn’t mess around. Her fair skin flamed at the memory.
Temporary insanity was the only explanation for her behavior. If temporary insanity was a legal defense in criminal court, shouldn’t she also be able to escape punishment for her lapse in judgment? Instead, she had her mistake aka D. E. Hogan show up, right on her doorstep. That was cruel and unusual punishment if she’d ever heard of any. That kind of redress might be banned by the U. S. Constitution, but, apparently, in the grand cosmic scheme of things, it was still being dished out. What was even worse was that Hogan turned out to be the new consultant for the Murphy’s Cove Police Department down on the coast. To make matters worse, he just had to drop by the Sheriff’s office every blasted day.
Susannah picked up her coffee cup, an oversized white mug emblazoned with red letters: Deputies do it in mirrored sunglasses! She drained the lukewarm black coffee. Muttering beneath her breath at the injustice of it all, she slammed the heavy ceramic mug down.
“What’s wrong with you this morning?” asked Grace Collier.
“Nothing.” Susannah didn’t look over at the dispatcher for fear of encouraging her. She’d known Grace, her best friend’s mom, all her life and loved the outspoken woman, but she wasn’t interested in being on the receiving end of one of Grace’s well-meaning lectures.
The ringing phone saved her. Grace punched a button. “Dispatch. This is Grace.”
Susannah ignored the conversation, knowing it was Grace’s friend Eunice who ran the Courthouse Cafe across the street. The woman called every morning so she and Grace could discuss yesterday’s episode of their favorite soap opera. Soap news ranked at the top of the list of excitement here in Vance.
There was never any criminal activity in Alton County. Other than high school seniors climbing the spindly old water tower to spray paint Class of whatever on the rusty tank. Sometimes, a few years passed before a kid got an itch and a can of spray paint along with the desire to immortalize his graduation from the consolidated high school that served most of the small towns in the county. Nothing ever happened in this narrow slice of coastal prairie far west of Houston. That was the way her uncle Barney Drummond, the Sheriff of Alton County ever since Susannah could remember, liked it. Life here moved as fast as a crawling turtle.
Not much occurred even down in Murphy’s Cove, the county’s richest town. Besides, the resort town had its own overpaid police department to deal with the few year-round residents as well as the many rich divorcees who mobbed the coastal enclave for the rich and perpetually bored.
The only hotbed of activity was over on the four-lane highway that sliced through part of Alton County. That’s where the real action was. Susannah sighed. If catching speeders could be considered action. Disgruntled at her lot in life, she tried to return her attention to the report she was typing. Unfortunately, that reminded her of her temporary insanity.
“Just Hogan,” he’d said when her uncle the Sheriff had introduced him. Susannah had shaken his hand as if she’d never laid eyes on him before.
Until Hogan, she’d had only one secret in her life. It had caused her humiliation and anger. Now, she had something else to hide. Ironically, Hogan was the only person on earth who knew anything about her first painful secret. One thing about being hurt, humiliated, and angry. Those emotions sure helped squash the warm tinglies that assaulted certain parts of her anatomy every time Hogan walked through the door. If only those painful emotions had changed her body’s instinctive reaction to him.
Another sigh escaped her. There was just something about Hogan. If she’d been a woman given to flights of fancy, she’d have called it love at first sight. But she didn’t believe in love. Much less love at first sight. She knew enough about human sexuality to know love at first sight was nothing but pheromones. Calling it smell at first sight would be more accurate. It was just basic primitive sexual response.
Whatever you called it, Susannah would do anything to keep Hogan from learning how susceptible she was to him. Her delicate chin squared in resolve. She might not be able to run away now that he was in her county, but she could stand and fight. Or take cover behind cynicism and sarcasm. Whatever worked.
“Hey, hon. Eunice wants to know if you want her to save you some peach pie?”
“No, thanks. I’m not in the mood for anything else sweet. I had one of Aunt Opal’s cinnamon rolls this morning.”
Grace hung up the phone. “Maybe some more sugar would change your sour mood.”
Though Susannah protested that she wasn’t in a sour mood, Grace waved her words aside. “You’re grumbling and muttering beneath your breath with every word you type. And what’s with all those long-suffering sighs?”
“It’s not fair that I have to do Hogan’s reports while he swaggers around this office every day. Why doesn’t he stay down in Murphy’s Cove at the police department where he belongs?”
“My advice to you, missy, is to just get over it. Life isn’t always fair.”
Susannah clamped her mouth shut. She, better than anyone, knew how unfair life was. She’d learned that at the age of seven. Just in case she ever thought about forgetting that little lesson, what had happened when she’d turned sixteen would always remind her. Then there was last month. She just hadn’t been able to leave it alone. What a fool she’d been.
Enough, damn it! Anger at the present was better than wallowing in the past. She shot a venomous look at the solid oak door separating the outer office from her uncle’s inner sanctum. Every day Hogan visited her uncle. Susannah suspected he hung around just to irritate her. Just to look at her with his big blue eyes as if he were–.
“Damn!” Susannah struck the keys with so much force that her fingertips hurt. Thinking about him was always a mistake. Why wouldn’t he stay away? “Double damn. I don’t care if Hogan and Uncle Barney are best buds. Just let that man ask me to type one more report. Or. . . or . . . anything, and I will not be responsible for my actions.”
Her fingers flew across the keys as she typed. The archaic word processing program, set to make an audible electronic beep when a word was misspelled, beeped like the back-up horn on a garbage truck. “That man isn’t even connected to the Alton County Sheriff’s Department. Unless you count his schmoozing with Uncle Barney.”
Grace laughed at her as if she were a stand-up comic. With a careless wave, the woman dismissed Susannah’s complaints and turned her attention to the romance novel that lay ever present on the dispatch desk.
Susannah picked up a crumpled paper napkin covered with blue ink squiggles. “Would you just look at this? It looks like a Rorschach test, not notes to be transcribed. I should’ve refused the first time Uncle Barney asked me to lend a hand. I’d like to lend Hogan a hand. Right across his smug face.”
“Then why didn’t you just say no?” Grace chuckled. “It’s not like anybody twisted your arm and forced you to type Hogan’s reports.”
Grace was right, but Susannah’s intuition had told her it might be wise to pick her battles with Hogan. “I was just trying to please my uncle.” Her first day as a deputy for her uncle had been a disaster. She looked up and caught Grace’s hard stare. “Okay, okay. We both know I was trying to make amends for my little faux pas.”
“Little faux pas? That’s a good one.”
Susannah gritted her teeth as Grace laughed loudly.
“Hon. You’re gonna grind the enamel off your teeth if you keep gettin’ upset like that, and what’s Hank gonna say about that?”
Susannah exhaled loudly and leaned back, determined to cool off. “Thank you, Grace, for that pearl of wisdom. I’m sure your husband, talented dentist that he is, can just make me a set of veneers if that happens.”
When Grace laughed even louder, a reluctant smile tugged at Susannah’s mouth. Grace had always been like a second mother to her. The only thing more ample than the woman’s bountiful curves was her quirky sense of humor.
“Hon, just smile when Hogan comes in. Don’t stiffen up like somebody put you in a body cast. And quit being as touchy as a wet cat. Try to be more agreeable.”
“Being agreeable is what got me stuck transforming Hogan’s chicken scratch into a report. If this report’s for the Mayor of Murphy’s Cove, why can’t Mr. Hotshot Consultant get someone in that police department to type it?”
“Maybe he likes the way you glow like a red warning light when he hands you his notes.”
“It’s the principle involved. I’m a deputy, not a secretary.”
When Grace just chuckled, Susannah frowned. “Well, I am. Or I would be if I were given half a chance. Stop laughing. This isn’t funny.”
“You’re too danged serious. Lighten up. Be nice to Hogan. After all, he was pretty gracious about that little faux pas as you call it.”
“He was not! He was obnoxious and overbearing. I’ll tell you what his initials stand for. D is for demanding. E is for egotistical. To top it all off, he got Uncle Barney to tear up the ticket.”
“Tickets,” Grace corrected. “One for parking. The other was for a cracked tail light on the Suburban he was driving. At least that’s what you said.”
“Tickets then. And the tail light was cracked.” Susannah hoped Grace attributed the crimson that stained her cheeks to anger. That day, meeting Hogan again, here in her town, had shaken her. After her uncle had introduced him, Hogan had possessed the nerve to ask her to lunch. Fear had flooded her. Fear that he thought they could have a fling. Fear that he didn’t want a fling. Most of all, fear that she might not be able to keep her hands off him.
When she’d declined his offer, his eyes had mocked her. She’d pretended to be absorbed in the fax from the state police that she’d been reading.
In a voice so soft she’d thought perhaps she’d imagined it, he’d said, “Coward.”
Alarmed that he’d nailed it so perfectly, she’d not dared to look up. Moments later, the door had opened and closed. He’d left without challenging her further.
Later, returning from lunch, she’d seen a black Suburban pull up and double park behind the cars filling the diagonal slots in front of the Sheriff’s office. She honestly hadn’t realized it was Hogan driving until she’d walked over to ask the driver to park in the lot across from the courthouse.
His blue eyes had gleamed with amusement. And with something else. Something that made her breath catch. Suddenly, the heat of the July day intensified. She knew what Hogan was thinking. She could read it in his gaze as clearly as she could feel it in the pulse points of her body. And that really scared her. If only he hadn’t looked at her that way. If the corner of his mouth hadn’t lifted in that little smile.
All it had taken to send panic chasing after the shiver of sexual awareness was his softly spoken question. “Don’t you think we have something to talk about, Susy?”
The timbre of his voice and the heat in his gaze were like flame to dry tinder. Terrified at her body’s response to everything about him, Susannah had backed away. She shook her head. “Don’t call me Susy.” She knew her quavering voice must have matched her “deer in the headlights” expression.
“No heart to heart talk today? No problem. I’ll be here a few weeks. We’ve got time.”
Susannah had felt all the blood drain from her face. She’d felt hot and cold all in the same moment. She could find no words to counter what she viewed as a threat. To be honest, there was a traitorous part of her that wished she could leap into his arms. Into his bed. But that would be disastrous.
All she’d had to do was make a joke about that night. Pretend that she was sophisticated. Unfortunately, she’d lost the ability to put together a coherent sentence, much less a smart, hip response to defuse the situation. So she’d taken refuge from his searching gaze and husky voice by whipping out her ticket book from her khaki shirt pocket. Gruffly she’d explained he was illegally parked. She’d only intended to write a warning. But Hogan had flirted. He’d winked and softly said, “Are you sure you don’t want to go someplace private and talk about this, Deputy? Maybe we can work something out?”
That had just increased her panic. In a flash she saw a future she dreaded. He’d finish his job at Murphy’s Cove and shake the dust of this small town. If she yielded to her emotions, he’d leave her with nothing but regret. She’d ripped the ticket out and handed it to him. He’d laughed.
The sound was the match to her fuse. She seared him with a glance and walked around the Suburban, making a pretense of inspecting the lights on the rear of the Burb just to buy her panicked brain more time. In her most official voice, she said, “Your right rear tail light is cracked.”
“Well, gee whiz, Officer,” he said in a parody of a Texas drawl. “You sure as shootin’ better write that up. Can’t let a lawless desperado like me get away with anything.”
His mocking voice spurred her on. Retribution was a bitch with a ticket book in hand. Ripping the second ticket from the book, she handed it to him with a flourish. “As you wish.”
“You must not have been in uniform longer than a nano second, or you’d know you don’t give tickets to other law enforcement personnel. It’s not professional.”
His jeering words burned her. She’d wanted to smack him with her ticket book.
Fortunately, her uncle had arrived just then. It hadn’t taken the Sheriff long to get the picture. He’d tsk tsked a bit, taken the tickets from Hogan, and stuffed them in his pants pocket. She’d known her uncle would tear the tickets up. And he had.
Battle lines were drawn that day. When Hogan dropped by, he alternated between flirting outrageously and treating her like a child. She countered with whatever put-down fit the occasion. She was just counting the days until he packed up and went back to wherever he’d come from. Until then, her best defense was a good offense.
Still, it hurt that her best friend’s mother seemed to side with Hogan. “Grace, you don’t think it’s right for Hogan to act as if he’s above the law, do you?”
“Oh, pish. You’re too young to be such a stickler for rules. Just once I’d like to see you thumb your nose at responsibility.”
Grace’s outburst surprised Susannah. “You make me sound like a, well, like a stick in the mud. A pompous stick in the mud at that.”
“Kids should be kids, but you skipped over that and went straight to adulthood. You’re too serious to moralize like this.”
Surprised, Susannah asked, “Do I really sound so self-righteous?”
“No, hon, no.” Grace smiled and held her thumb and index finger close together. “Well, maybe just a teeny bit. You gotta quit judging people and how they should or shouldn’t act. And quit assuming responsibility for other people. You’ve been doing that since you were seven. It’s time to live your own life. Let others live theirs. Good golly. Have some fun. Stop being as unyielding as a clod of sun-baked mud.”
Grace’s assessment hurt. A lot. Susannah blinked to dispel the sudden moisture that threatened to turn into tears. “I was just saying that Hogan, as a hotshot consultant, should set an example for others.”
“It’s not as if he robbed a bank. All he did was double park.”
“That’s illegal. He was impeding traffic flow. He could have caused a traffic jam.”
“Oh, come on. Not only is this the smallest dang county in Texas, it’s also got the smallest towns. The closest thing to a traffic jam here in Vance was when Cici Rojas’s pet sheep got loose and rammed the plate glass window at the bank.”
Susannah smiled at the memory. She’d been fifteen when the massively overweight Ruffles had made his great escape.
“Now that assault sheep impeded traffic when everybody jumped out of their cars to try to catch him. Would you have written tickets for all of them or joined in the effort to catch Ruffles? I’m just saying that sometimes there might be mitigating circumstances to consider.”
Resignation seeped through Susannah. “You should have been a preacher the way you keep at a person until she admits her sins. All right. Maybe he wasn’t impeding traffic. I’ll even admit, I should have let him off with a verbal warning.”
“You’ve got a bad case of Rookie Cop. Ever hear about pride going before a fall?”
The phone rang again. Susannah decided it was better that Grace thought she was a gung ho rookie than to have her learn the truth. She listened to Grace’s side of the conversation, hoping someone, somewhere, needed a deputy. But the call was from another of Grace’s friends. No escape. The only thing more boring than this job was the small town she couldn’t escape from either. And the only thing more boring than that was her personal life.
In college, she’d had friends. And dates. Though she’d never let any relationship slide into the perilous waters of romance. She sure didn’t have to worry about that here. Eligible men were as scarce as unbroken sand dollars on a Gulf coast beach. Not that she cared, she silently affirmed. She’d decided long ago that all she wanted was a career. She’d be a good cop. If her uncle would give her a chance. She didn’t want romance, but a social life would be nice.
Unfortunately, her high school friends had deserted Vance for the bright lights of Houston or San Antonio. She didn’t blame them. She’d have done the same if it hadn’t been for her mother. Luke Orland, her high school boyfriend, was now a cop down in Murphy’s Cove, but they hadn’t hooked up when she’d come home. To Luke, women were divided into two groups. Those good for sexy fun and games, and those he’d never get between the sheets. She still fell into the latter category.
Boring job. Boring town. Boring personal life. The triple threat was about to do her in.
Maybe it would be more bearable when Paula came home. Grace’s daughter taught at Sam Houston State, the college they’d both attended. When the summer semester ended next week, she’d be home. That might save her sanity.
To Susannah’s annoyance, after Grace finished the latest call, she picked up where she’d left off. “You’ve always been a rule follower, but in law enforcement, professional courtesy is as important as protecting and serving. You don’t write the Mayor’s pal a ticket. Especially when the Mayor runs the richest town in the county. And you sure don’t ticket a cruiser from another police department.” Then Grace spoiled the whole effect of her professional courtesy lecture by giggling like a school girl. “There’s easier ways to get a stud muffin like Hogan to notice you.”
Horrified, Susannah stared at Grace. Surely the woman couldn’t know. “I did not write him a ticket so he’d notice me. Even if the governor declares D. E. Hogan heaven’s gift to womankind, I wouldn’t be interested. He’s not even what I’d call handsome.”
“Well, Susy Q,” a male voice drawled. “I’m mortally wounded. Are you sure you don’t find me appealing?”
Susannah’s head snapped around hard enough to give her whiplash. Fortunately, Grace’s giggle camouflaged the groan of dismay she couldn’t suppress. Heat rushed to her face. How had the dratted man opened the door to the Sheriff’s inner sanctum without even a squeak of the old hinges? Susannah swallowed hard. She refused to act as embarrassed as she felt.
As usual, weirdness accompanied D. E. Hogan into a room. That had to be the explanation since all the oxygen seemed to dissipate leaving her breathless. Her pulse beat harder, faster. Her senses heightened. She caught the scent of coconut that made her think of suntan oil on naked skin, heated by the summer sun.
“Grace and I were just, uh, just discussing. . . .” Her voice trailed off into nothingness. When he was near, her brain went into meltdown. It always took a few seconds for her to muster up an attitude. The kind of attitude designed to keep him at arm’s length. Cool as can be, she lied, “Actually, I was just transcribing your notes.”
The impediment to her peace of mind leaned against the doorframe. All six feet plus of tanned majesty. He could be the poster boy for tall, dark, and too yummy for her peace of mind. But she’d step barefoot on a jellyfish before she let anyone, especially him, realize how she felt.
As usual, he wore ragged cut-off jeans, a white tank, and a Hawaiian shirt. Today a red one adorned with palm trees. Running shoes that looked as if they’d seen their fair share of miles completed his ensemble. He might not know fashion, but he sure knew how to strike a pose.
“Transcribing my notes? Sounds like you were trashing me. I’m wounded.” He faked a pout. Then he smiled in a way that made her insides feel as if they were in a blender.
“Wounded? I’d like to wound you.” She muttered. Hoping the chill in her voice countered the heat in her face, she asked, “Don’t you have somewhere to go?”
“Don’t you have something better to do than stare?”
Susannah glared at him. “Well, look in another direction.”
Hogan met her blistering gaze and wished looking in a different direction was all it took to get the woman out of his head. The truth was that he’d thought of little besides the prickly deputy since he’d met her. Even though he knew she was off limits, he still spent way too much time thinking about her. About kissing her. Stroking her. Getting her into his bed. Like that was going to happen.
She wouldn’t even acknowledge his existence outside this office. He’d called her at home. She’d hung up as soon as she’d heard his voice. After that, he got the answering machine until he’d given up. He’d tried to talk with her on the street. With cold amusement gleaming from her green eyes, she’d whipped out her ticket book and pen.
She made him feel like a bumbling high school idiot. He’d been a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a decade and had handled every kind of crisis, but he couldn’t handle his attraction to Susannah Quinn. Nor could he figure out what to do about the ridiculous situation he found himself in.
Hell. He was an idiot. And it was his own damn fault. He never should have approached her that night when he’d known who she was. But the tears sparkling in her eyes had made him ignore common sense. As a result, he found himself playacting in a farce that, unlike a movie, had no possibility of a good ending. All because of his family. First Vonnie. Then his uncle.
Damn that photograph. No matter how he’d tried, he couldn’t get Walter to give up his grand plan. Walter Bofco was his favorite uncle. Most of the time. At the moment, the man was a major irritant. He’d left Hogan with only one course of action. Make Susannah detest him so much that she wouldn’t agree to play a part in Walter’s scheme. He just hadn’t realized making himself persona non grata with her would bother him so much.
“Why don’t you go get another of Aunt Opal’s cinnamon rolls while I finish your report?” Susannah asked in a low voice.
“Why?” Hogan lowered his voice. “Am I bothering you? Making you think about me instead of the job?”
“Actually, I don’t think about you at all.” Susannah’s eyes stayed on the keyboard.
“Really?” Unfortunately, he couldn’t say the same. Why wouldn’t she at least talk to him?
“I have more important things to do.” Susannah started typing again.
Hogan knew he should go. But he was tired of getting stonewalled. “Hey.” When she looked up, his eyes locked with her cool green gaze. “You’re a liar.”
His challenging words incensed Susannah. She didn’t care if he was right. Her temper soared. Her fingers stilled. “Don’t call me a liar.”
The phone rang, shattering the tension. Susannah jerked her gaze from his blue eyes. She barely heard Grace’s voice as the dispatcher answered the call. Why wouldn’t Hogan leave her alone? She couldn’t fall for him. She wouldn’t. Or had that train already left the station?
“Don’t call you a liar? Liar, liar. Pants on fire. What are you going to do about it?”
Though her poor heart hammered, with anger, she tried to tell herself, she couldn’t think of a blessed thing to do about the situation. She told herself that his voice, pitched just loud enough to make a woman’s pulse throb, was too practiced. Maybe it worked on other women, like the rich divorcees in the Cove, but it had no effect on her.
She’d lost her rose-colored glasses at the age of seven. Everyone in town knew that. He needed to learn it too. She refused to allow his low-voiced purr sweep away her hard-won disdain. If her pulse did throb, she reassured herself, it was from anger with the man who knew just what to say to rile her.
Hogan settled a hip on the edge of her desk. Softly, he asked, “Do I haunt your thoughts as much as you haunt mine?”
In a voice, carefully dripping with boredom, she drawled, “Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but not every woman in the county is obsessed with your rather unexceptional charm.”
“You’re a hard woman, Susannah Quinn.” He grinned. “That’s okay. We’re evenly matched because I’m a hard man.”
She snorted. “I wouldn’t touch that line with a ten foot–.” Her mouth snapped shut. Color blazed in her cheeks. When Hogan leaned toward her, she snapped, “Haven’t you heard of the concept of personal space?”
Lazily, he stood. “It’ll be interesting to see who wins this battle of wills.”
“There is no battle.” Susannah scowled. “Was there something else you wanted?”
“Something else I wanted? Hmmm.” He swept her with a hot gaze.
When Grace giggled, Susannah snapped, “Clerically, that is.”
Grace whooped with laughter. Susannah’s face burned. Her eyes retreated to the monitor.
“Clerically, I wondered if you’d finished my report.”
She stared at the words on the screen, refusing to look up. “It’ll be ready by the time Mayor Bofco arrives if you’ll quit bothering me.”
As if his gaze had been a physical touch, as tangible a connection as flesh to flesh, she knew the instant his eyes left her. She heard a soft click when the door to her uncle’s office closed behind him.
Relieved that he’d departed without further comment, Susannah exhaled loudly. She felt as if she’d run the hundred meter dash in full uniform. Boots, gun, cuffs, and all.
“Whew!” Grace fanned her face with her paperback book.
Why did Hogan always make her want to forget her rules concerning the obstinate sex?
“Glad I wasn’t standing between you and Hogan. Talk about hot! A body could get singed by the electricity flowing between you two.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Susannah protested. “The only thing between that man and me is animosity. Unless you count his enormous ego.”
Grace giggled. “Yeah, I think he likes you too.”
The corners of Susannah’s mouth turned down. “And I think you’ve been reading too many romance novels.”
“Yeah, yeah. You’re not interested in him or any man. All you want’s a career.” Grace sighed dramatically. “You and Paula are two peas in a pod. A very lonely pod, I’m afraid.”
At the mention of Grace’s daughter, the desire to confess all to her best friend hit Susannah. If anyone knew how to handle Hogan, it was Paula. The girl had been born with man-handling skills encoded in her DNA.
“I just don’t understand you girls nowadays. Instead of dating men, you want to be friends with them. Or in your case, enemies. Y’all need to get interested in romance.”
“I’d say you’re interested enough for both of us.”
“Well, someone needs to lend a hand. Otherwise, you’ll both end up as old maids still talking about achieving your life goals.”
Susannah didn’t bother asking what was wrong with being an old bachelorette. She knew Grace would tell her. Instead, she asked, “What’s wrong with goals?”
“Nothing, but why do you have to plan every step of the way? Whatever happened to just enjoying what life may bring?”
“We discovered it brings nasty surprises.” Susannah didn’t care if she sounded as if she’d sucked on a lemon or two.
“You think by setting goals and writing five-year plans, you’ll eliminate life’s nasty surprises?” Grace hooted.
“Enough, Grace. I want to be a good cop, and I want to get ahead. What’s wrong with that? I’ll tell you. Nothing. I will be respected as a member of the law enforcement community. I worked hard to get my criminal justice degree, and I’m not going to let it go to waste.”
“You can be taken seriously without being a stick in the mud. To use your own phrase. Lighten up. Life’s too short. Have some fun with Hogan.”
Susannah ignored her and resumed typing. Fun? Ha. There was little chance of that. That would be like having fun with a stick of dynamite. How dare Hogan turn his well-practiced charm on her, and in front of Grace too. Men like Hogan dispensed charm as easily as false promises.
Her flying fingers hit a wrong key for every right one. The computer beeped endlessly as it signaled misspellings. Susannah grumbled and backspaced to correct the typos. There was only one answer. She had to make Hogan stay away. She had to quit typing his reports. Since Uncle Barney had volunteered her services, she couldn’t tell Hogan to take a hike. She had to make him want her to quit. Her fingers froze over the keys. The error beeps stopped.
“You know. I think you’re right.” Slowly she began to type, deliberately making mistakes. The machine started its crazy beeping again. “I think I do need to have some fun with Mr. D. E. Hogan.” Grinning, she inserted a few asterisks in the next word and chuckled. “You know, Grace? I’ve seen the light. I feel better already. Let’s see how Hogan likes this report.”
Susannah started to hum the Kelly Clarkson song, “Miss Independent.” She smiled smugly. “After today, I bet Hogan won’t even ask me to type a grocery list.”
Her mood lifted at the prospect. Before the unsettling man had dropped in, everything had been going her way. After last night’s storm, the first of August had dawned with cooler temperatures and lower humidity. For a Texas county bordering the Gulf, low humidity promised a good hair day which was a blessing for her because her naturally curly hair had developed a mind of its own since she’d chopped off the length when she’d returned from that disastrous Houston trip.
She planned to talk to her uncle again and demand he let her be a real deputy, not a secretary in a shapeless uniform. She wanted her share of patrols. She was tired of being stuck with all the paperwork. If that didn’t work, well then, she’d cry and beg. Barney Drummond, her mother’s much older brother, was a sucker for tears. Her macho uncle might be Alton County’s oft-elected sheriff, but he was a total marshmallow when it came to a crying niece.
A woman had to use the weapons at her disposal, she reasoned. That was female empowerment whether people on the outside looking in saw it that way or not.
The phone rang again. Three calls in less than an hour. Susannah heard Grace say, “Raynelle, of course Red has crab beignet on the menu tonight. It’s Wednesday, isn’t it?”
Susannah shook her head in disgust. Life was too predictable when you knew the entree offered each day of the week at Sunset Red’s, the only restaurant in Vance open after dark.
Protect and serve? In this county, it seemed the Sheriff’s department served up information rather than protection and law enforcement.
The desire to flee her hometown welled inside her. That wasn’t going to happen. But she could at least be a real deputy and take pride in her job. Uncle Barney just had to let her start doing something other than be a glorified secretary, or she was going to go completely stark, raving crazy.
“I got one question for you, hon?”
Susannah hit the print button. “What’s that?”
“You really don’t think Hogan’s cute?”
Susannah checked over her shoulder to make sure the man wasn’t again lounging in the doorway. “Maybe he’d be passable if he didn’t always look as if he needed a shave.”
“Oh, honey.” Grace batted her eyes comically. “Couldn’t you just imagine his five o’clock shadow abrading the tender parts of your anatomy?”
“Now I know you need a reality check. Getting your tender parts scraped by beard stubble is not appealing.” Not that Susannah knew from experience. Her few romantic adventures had been, well, less than adventurous. She was tempted to say sex was even more overrated than romance, but she imagined she’d only get another lecture from Alton County’s version of a sex therapist. Instead, she asked, “Now what would Hank say if he heard you?”
“Oh, pish. Who cares what he’d say? Just because I’ve been married since the pioneers came over in covered wagons doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good-looking hunk like Hogan.”
“Then you think it’s all right for Hank to appreciate a good-looking woman too?” Susannah teased, thinking of Grace’s equally round husband, the town’s only dentist.
“Honey, as long as that woman is me, it’s perfectly all right. And, let me tell you. He does appreciate me. Every pound and every curve.”
Susannah blushed. She’d walked in on Grace and Hank Collier one day when she’d returned early from lunch. Hank’s exploration of his wife’s mouth hadn’t been a search for cavities. And she didn’t even want to recall where the dentist’s hands had been located. To see her best friend’s parents carrying on like that had given her pause.
“Take it from me, honey. You gotta let a man chase you until you decide to catch him. Then you grab him and hold on tight.”
“I don’t want any man chasing me, and I certainly don’t want him getting a choke hold on me. I’m like Mom. I’m perfectly happy going through life alone.”
“Puh-lease. You know even less about Rory than about yourself.”
“What are you saying? Mom doesn’t want a man in her life.”
When Grace made a rude sound in reply, Susannah protested, “She’s content in her own little world. She really is.”
“There’s a difference in content and happy.”
Susannah frowned. “I meant happy. She’s happy. I’m happy. We’re both happy, damn it! Quit trying to confuse the issue. Mom doesn’t need male companionship to make her feel complete or to be happy. And neither do I.”
Grace leveled a look that spoke volumes. Susannah didn’t want to talk about that any more. “So you think it’s okay for you to look and appreciate, but not okay for Hank? Isn’t that a double standard?”
“Okay. I’ll let you change the subject. For now. And, yep, I do believe in the double standard when it favors women. We need every advantage we can get in the battle of the sexes.”
“Battle of the sexes? That’s kind of archaic, isn’t it?”
“Trust me, hon. Ain’t no new millennium going to change the battle of the sexes.”
Susannah collected the pages from the printer. Anticipation filled her as she stuffed them into a manila envelope. “Let me tell you something, Grace.” She waved the envelope. “This is a preemptive strike against the enemy which I predict will bring a swift end to this war between the sexes.”
“War? I said battle, not war.”
“As far as I’m concerned, this is war. And it’s a war I’m going to win.”
“There you go. Turning into a stick and throwing yourself in the mud. You’re getting more like your cousin Judy Anne Palmer with every day that passes.”
“I’m not like that professional virgin.”
“Professional virgin? That’s a terrible thing to say. And don’t try to change the subject this time. You don’t know anything about men. A battle of the sexes is fun and games, not war.”
“This little muddy stick disagrees with you. This is war. I’m not about to let Hogan get the best of me. Besides, winning is lots of fun. It’s one of my favorite things.”
She walked to the door separating her uncle’s inner sanctum from the rest of the office. Hogan was still closeted with her uncle, but it wasn’t as if he actually had business in there. He showed up at the same time every Wednesday morning since that first Wednesday when he’d happened to be here when Uncle Barney had brought in a container of cinnamon rolls.
Homemade cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven, and dripping with icing. Aunt Opal baked three dozen of the luscious creations every Wednesday morning for her book discussion group. She couldn’t even blame Hogan. Legend had it that Uncle Barney had proposed within minutes of her serving him one of the sweet rolls, hot from the oven, with a big pat of butter melting on top.
If Walter Bofco, the Murphy’s Cove Mayor, was on his way over, she knew the men would end up playing three-handed gin the rest of the day and filling up on coffee and cinnamon rolls. It was amazing that Hogan didn’t have love handles sprouting beneath that tight tank top.
She rapped on her uncle’s office door then entered without waiting. The office smelled like a coffee shop with the aromas of cinnamon and strong, rich coffee perfuming the air. Hogan stopped talking in mid-sentence. Both men looked at her. “Excuse me, Sheriff.” She always made it a point to be proper when someone else was present.
“What is it, Sugar?” Barney Drummond asked.
Hogan snickered. Susannah signed in exasperation.
“I meant Deputy Quinn.” An apologetic grin creased a face baked as brown as quarry tile by six decades in the Texas sun. “Sorry, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, and this old dog has known you since you were in diapers. I’ll just never get the hang of thinking of you as Deputy Quinn no matter how much you scold me.”
Susannah laughed. “Well, at least that’s honest.” Her uncle would never change. And that was okay. She adored the man just the way he was.
Hogan stretched. “Looks like Susy Q finished my report.”
Her eyes followed his brawny, tanned arms. His shirt flapped open. He wasn’t carrying, she noted. There was no room beneath the tight tank top for a shoulder holster. Her breath caught as she watched the white ribbed tank expand with the muscles in his chest. Curly dark hair peeked above the deep neckline.
“Finished?” His grin told her he’d caught her looking at his assets.
She ignored any possible double meaning and silently handed him the envelope.
I don’t want him. I don’t.
Susannah kept up the silent chant even as her pulse beat hard and heavy in a place she didn’t even want to think about with him just inches away. It was impossible not to glance again. She’d felt the crinkle of his curling chest hair against her skin when he’d held her. She wet her lips. Her fingers tingled. She wasn’t attracted. She was just practicing her observation skills.
Susannah hated the assortment of nicknames he called her, but she beamed at him. “You are more than welcome.” Anticipation hummed inside her. She knew she must look like a cat that had dined on canary. She walked away. Her hand was on the doorknob when Hogan stopped her.
“Just a minute, Susy Q.”
Susy Q again. She scowled and turned. “Yes?”
He shook the pages. “You made quite a few typos in this.”
She smiled for real this time and opened her eyes wide in pretended innocence. “Really? Now that you mention it, I’m not really surprised.”
“You’re not?” Hogan sounded puzzled by her frankness.
“No. After all, I majored in Criminal Justice. Not typing. Maybe you should get someone more skilled than I to type your reports next time.”
“Ah. I think I get the picture.” His grin reappeared.
Irritated that he looked so cheerful, she snapped, “Good. I’m glad you do. Finally.”
Again, when she started to open the door, he stopped her. “Just another minute, Susy Q.”
She gritted her teeth. What kind of creative solution was needed to make him stop calling her that? She crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently. “What?”
“I just bet you are,” she muttered.
“This report is full of mistakes. Yet, the first ones you typed were perfect. Not a single error. Tell me, Susy Q. How do you explain that?”
“How do I explain reports with no errors?” Susannah beamed at Hogan and shrugged. “Beginner’s luck?”
She left the office quickly, closing the door behind her. In the outer office, she had only a minute to savor her victory. A moment later, the chime over the door jamb rang. With a sunny smile, she greeted the tall, slender man dressed in a pale blue golf shirt and tropical white slacks. “Good morning, Mayor Bofco.”
“Good morning, Susannah. Please. How many times must I ask you to call me Walter?”
Though she wondered why he always spent so much time and attention on her, she didn’t mind his rather old-fashioned charm. “Good morning, Walter.”
“Much better.” Bofco’s dark eyes twinkled. He doffed a straw panama hat, revealing a mass of dark brown hair, edged with silver at his temples. His pale blue shirt contrasted sharply with his tanned skin. Unlike her uncle who never used cologne, Mayor Bofco always smelled faintly of lemon. He’d moved to Murphy’s Cove last year and had immediately been elected mayor. He was a perfect portrait of all that he was down to the expensive designer fragrance he wore, a wealthy, middle-aged man in the prime of life who spent much of each day on the golf course. The Mayor never failed to treat her with deference. Hogan could take lessons.
“I love Wednesday,” the Mayor said. “I hope Hogan didn’t eat all of Opal’s sweet rolls.”
“I might have saved you one,” Hogan said from the doorway.
Susannah’s smile faded. Darn that man! How did he move so silently?
“You better have saved more than one.”
“Come on. Barney’s ready.”
Walter didn’t move from Susannah’s desk. “You graduated in May with a degree in Criminal Justice didn’t you? With honors?”
“Yes, from Sam Houston State in Huntsville.”
“Well, done. That’s a tough degree program.”
Hogan watched Walter and Susannah and realized that he’d overestimated the amount of time he’d had to dissuade his stepmother’s brother from his plans. The man was as impossible to handle as Hogan’s stepmom. Despite their differences Walter and Vonnie were easily identifiable as siblings because the two trust fund babies had mastered stubbornness before toilet training. At least his stepmother wasn’t as autocratic as her brother. Vonnie ruled with a velvet glove over her iron hand.
Hogan tried again, but his uncle ignored him. Walter Bofco lived as if he were still a colonel in the army. In fact, he ran his mayoral office the way he’d run the Army post he’d commanded. With complete and total control. The man hadn’t retired from military life. He’d merely transferred his power base. He refused to listen to anyone, much less answer to them. And if what he wanted to do couldn’t be paid for from city funds, well, Walter just paid for them out of his millions. This little operation was a perfect example. Whatever it cost didn’t matter. Walter just charged ahead like the cavalry but with a checkbook in hand instead of a saber.
“If I might be permitted, why did a bright young woman like you come back to Vance? Not that Barney isn’t a great Sheriff,” he added hastily. “But most young people want to be where the action is. That hardly describes Alton County.”
Susannah laughed. “True. But it’s as good as any place to get started. Also, right after graduation, my mother had surgery that required her to be off her feet. I was needed here.”
“Is she all right now?”
“Sure. She’s fine. It was foot surgery. Nothing life threatening.”
The Mayor frowned. “I don’t believe I’ve ever met your mother, and I’ve been introduced to a lot of your relatives since I’ve been going to Sunday dinner at Barney and Opal’s.”
“Weekends, and most weekday evenings, you’ll find my mom only in one place. Her yard. She loves gardening. She’d spend every waking moment outside if she could. The only time I can drag her away from home is in the winter when the weather’s too nasty to work outdoors.”
Walter Bofco laughed. “Sounds as if she has a very green thumb.”
“Green thumb, fingers, and toes too probably. She can make anything grow.”
“Well, I don’t know much about gardening. I wouldn’t know crabgrass from crab legs. That’s why I live in a condo so I don’t have to contend with lawn maintenance.”
“I hate to brag, but we have the most beautiful yard in town. If you ever need to find me, just drive around until you come to a yard that looks like it should be featured on some gardening television show. That’s our place.”
“So is your mother a landscape architect or a professional gardener?”
“No. She owns a small bookkeeping business, a one-woman shop. Between that and the gardening, she doesn’t usually join Uncle Barney and Aunt Opal for Sunday dinners.”
“Well, that’s too bad. What does she think about your being in law enforcement?”
“She understands and supports my choice,” Susannah said.
A sound between a laugh and a snort of disbelief from Grace’s side of the room drew their attention. Grace smiled blandly. “Sorry, got a frog in my throat I guess.”
“I know I sound nosy, but do you still need to take care of your mother?”
“No, she’s in a soft cast and should be out of that soon. She gets around just fine now.”
Hogan tried to head his uncle off. “Walter, remember all the reasons this won’t work?”
“You mean you think it won’t work. I think it’s a great idea.” To Susannah, the Mayor said, “What does your father think about your career choice?”
Hogan saw the quick flash of pain in her eyes before she said, “My parents are divorced. He has no say in my choices.”
“I didn’t mean to pry.” Bofco turned to Hogan. “She’s perfect. I don’t know why you’re so against it.”
Hogan wasn’t about to enlighten him in front of Susannah. He focused on dissuading Walter. “Not in a million years. Not in a trillion.”
“Now, Hogan. I outrank you, and I say she’s perfect.”
“This is not the Army,” Hogan said. “You don’t outrank me. You have no rank. You’re a civilian, remember? And she won’t do.”
“I guess we should discuss this with Barney,” Bofco said.
“He won’t agree.” Hogan hoped like hell he was right. He was depending on Barney Drummond to veto Walter’s crazy idea.
“You two are discussing me as if I’m not here. Exactly what are you talking about?” “Nothing, Deputy Quinn.” Hogan grabbed Walter’s arm and hustled him away.
“Well, ain’t that something?” Grace asked.
Susannah shrugged. “Guess I’ll go work on the old files in cell number four.”
“Good girl. Keep at it and you’ll have all twenty years of those records input into the computer before you retire.”
Susannah rolled her eyes. “Funny, Grace.”
Five minutes later, the door to the Sheriff’s office flew open. Hogan stood in the doorway and bellowed, “Quinn?”
Susannah hurried out. “What?”
“Get in here.”
She bristled at his peremptory tone. “Don’t snap orders at me. I don’t work for you.”
“Do you have to argue about everything?” He held up both hands. “Forget I asked.” With a long-suffering sigh, he rephrased his request, “Would you please join us, Deputy Quinn?”
Susannah pasted a smile on her face. “Why, certainly, Mr. Hogan.”
Bofco stood when she entered the room and didn’t sit until she settled into one of the worn leather chairs. Susannah felt somewhat like the fly who joined the spider in its parlor.
Hogan prowled the room like a restless cat. The undomesticated variety. The rubber soles of his running shoes squeaked against the oak-planked floor.
Barney rubbed a gnarled hand over his buzz-cut gray hair. “I don’t much like this, but I told Walter I’d let you make your own decision. You’ve got a level head, and you’re a deputy as you keep reminding me. I don’t think there’s any danger, or I wouldn’t even let him mention it.”
Danger. The word vibrated through Susannah’s nervous system. She perked up, waiting impatiently for someone to tell her what was going on.
Barney sighed heavily. “Your mother’s gonna kill me when she finds out ’cause I know there’s no way on God’s green earth you’re gonna turn this down.” He leaned back. His old swivel chair groaned. “Go ahead. Tell her.”
The Mayor smiled. “We have a little assignment for you, Susannah.”
Assignment? Her breath nearly stopped. Not job. Not project. Assignment. This might be the chance she’d wanted to prove herself.
“It’s my sister Yvonne. Hogan, what’s the name of that Italian industrialist, I should say alleged industrialist, she married? She’s still using his name. Said she’d keep the name to remind herself of the price of stupidity.”
“Rizzoli,” Hogan muttered.
Susannah thought it curious that Hogan knew the man’s name, but Walter Bofco, the woman’s own brother, didn’t.
“That’s it. Rizzoli. My sister Yvonne Rizzoli has a problem. Yvonne’s older than me. I was a surprise to my parents,” Bofco said a bit sheepishly. “Since she was an only child until I came along, she was spoiled dreadfully I’m afraid.”
Susannah willed Mayor Bofco to hurry through the family history he seemed compelled to share with the occupants of the room. Get to the good part, she wanted to shout. The part about the assignment. And danger. The words danced through her mind with a tantalizing samba beat. At last, something more exciting than inputting twenty years of musty files into the computer. More exciting even than clocking speeders on the state highway.
“It took Yvonne two marriages before she found the right man. When he died several years ago, she had a hard time with grief. She immediately went into a marriage with that Italian playboy.” Disgust colored his voice. “And him ten years younger. He was a fortune hunter who tried to bilk her for a million when she divorced him nine months later. After that, she played the field. To make a long story short.”
“Too late.” Hogan grumbled.
Susannah held her index finger to her lips and frowned at him to be quiet.
“Last year, she became entangled with this man she met on a cruise. Thomas McConnell. He was quite the charmer. I knew something was up when she didn’t move on after a few months. McConnell isn’t just a fortune-hunter. He’s a thief who’s served time in prison.”
Bofco’s voice rose incredulously. “Can you believe it? My sister running around with a convicted felon. It came as no surprise when Yvonne told me he’d stolen some jewelry from her.” His voice rose in outrage. “Jewelry that’s been in our family for generations.”
“I’m sorry. I can see how upsetting this is for you,” Susannah murmured. Sympathy, curiosity, and excitement bubbled inside her. She couldn’t hold back the question she very much wanted answered. “What has this got to do with me?”
Hogan quit pacing. “Nothing. That’s what I keep telling Walter.”
The Mayor ignored him so Susannah did too. “How do I fit into this, Mayor?”
“It’s complicated. Yvonne told me that she’d already made an, uh,” he paused, “an arrangement of her own to recover the jewelry. I want to make sure there are no slip ups so I’ve fine-tuned her plan to better handle the situation.”
“You should let your sister handle this,” Hogan warned with a look as sharp as his words.
Surprised by his remark, Susannah was even more surprised that the Mayor didn’t seem insulted. Bofco didn’t look like a man who’d tolerate such rudeness from anyone, much less an employee, and that’s basically what Hogan, as a consultant, was.
“Yvonne insisted this thief, this Thomas McConnell, would come to the Cove.”
“Why would she think that?” Susannah asked, surprised by the information.
“I don’t know. She had some brochures lying about or something. I’d guess McConnell expressed a lot of interest in the area so she figured he’d show up here.”
Susannah nodded. “That makes sense. I can see why a man like him would come to the
Cove. There’s a lot of money down there. But it seems foolish that he’d still come here after ripping her off. Wouldn’t he realize she might suspect he’d pay a visit?”
“You’d think he’d have more brains than to show up,” Bofco agreed. “But he’s there.”
“What?” A thrill raced up her spine. “There’s a jewel thief in the county?” Oh, she could hear the sweet siren call to her ambition. “Is it really him?”
“It’s him all right. I had Yvonne email me a picture. Thomas McConnell is staying at the Las Brisas in the west tower. He’s got a tenth floor suite with ocean view. Arrogant crook registered under his own name. He didn’t even try to hide his identity.”
Hogan slammed his hands down on Barney’s desk. “That’s enough, Walter. I don’t want Susannah involved in this. I won’t have it.”
He wouldn’t have it? There was no way she’d let Hogan keep her from this. Whatever this was. He probably thought she couldn’t cut it. Well, she’d show him. She’d show them all. She wasn’t about to let him cheat her out of this opportunity. “What can I do to help?”
“I want to make it clear I’m not interested in seeing justice served. I don’t want McConnell arrested.”
“What? Why not?” Equal amounts of confusion and disappointment filled her.
“As foolish as Yvonne is, I don’t want her dragged through some scandal in front of the whole world. I just want those black opals back. I think McConnell may have them with him because they haven’t turned up anywhere yet. I know because I’ve had men in all the major cities checking on them, and there’s been no trace of them. We can install you in the suite across from him. With the proper surveillance equipment, we might actually see where he’s got them hidden.”
Hogan’s snort of disgust didn’t faze Susannah. Excitement shone from her eyes. “You mean this will be a stakeout?”
“You’d be in the east tower in a tenth floor suite directly across from him. Very low profile. Frequent the pool, sunbathe on the balcony. That sort of thing. You won’t do anything except attract attention. He’s got an eye for the ladies. I imagine when he sees you, he’ll approach you. All you have to do is be visible and wait for him to make contact,” Bofco said.
“Not just a stakeout, but an undercover operation?” Wow. Undercover and a stakeout. That would look awesome on her resume. But something just didn’t sound right.
“Uh, yes. Kind of both,” the Mayor said. “Just chat him up, no private tete-a-tete or anything unseemly. We’re not asking you to do anything inappropriate. Nothing like that. The man’s supposed to be very social, but he’s been a recluse since he arrived. It doesn’t fit his profile so I’m hoping that seeing you will draw him out into the open.”
Susannah’s brow wrinkled in confusion. She hated to admit it, but this sounded like a load of crap. How could they be certain the thief would approach her? She didn’t exactly look like a Sports Illustrated model. Before she could ask questions or voice her concerns about what sounded unorthodox even to her inexperienced ears, Hogan jumped in.
“Walter, she’s not right for this job.” He smiled at Susannah as if to take the sting from his words. “No offense, Deputy Quinn.”
“None taken,” she said in a deceptively calm voice. Hogan didn’t want her on assignment in the Cove. Well, she didn’t care if Bofco’s assignment did sound bogus. It was better than typing and filing. She wanted the job. She’d worry about the logic of it later.
“I can get a woman officer from the Department of Public Safety for this,” Hogan said. “Susannah’s perfect. You know that. You also know I don’t want anyone else involved in this. You shouldn’t either,” Bofco said.
Susannah watched them as they argued. What weren’t they telling her?
“All Susannah has to do is be seen. There’s nothing dangerous or repugnant.” Bofco turned to Susannah’s uncle. “Barney, I wouldn’t propose this if I thought there was any danger.”
“A stakeout and an undercover assignment. Piece of cake. I can handle that,” she said.
“This isn’t a job for Nancy Drew, girl detective.” Hogan threw his hands up. “She’s not trained for this kind of thing.”
“You don’t know what I can or cannot do.” Susannah turned to Bofco. “I’ll do it, Mayor.”
She’d get those damn jewels back, and she’d arrest the thief too. She didn’t care what the Mayor said about letting the man go. Right was right, and wrong was wrong She’d show Hogan that she wasn’t the weak, weeping female she’d been when they first met. She was a professional and up to any task she was asked to perform. She’d prove that to him. And she’d show her uncle that she was just as capable as any of the deputies.
Hogan quit pacing and leaned against the door. He crossed his arms and affected an air of nonchalance. “I bet a bored, young, attractive wife will really interest McConnell.”
“Wife?” Susannah frowned. She didn’t like the mocking grin on his face. She fixed her questioning gaze on her uncle then on the Mayor. “What do you mean by wife?”
“Tell her the good part, Walter.” Hogan urged.
The Mayor cleared his throat. “Your cover is that you’re a young wife. You’re lonely because of your workaholic husband.”
“Husband?” A sense of foreboding hit her.
“I wouldn’t let you go down to Murphy’s Cove all by yourself. You’ll have backup every step of the way,” Barney assured her, looking pleased.
“You mean I’d have a partner? A partner posing as . . . my husband?” Her eyes flew to Hogan’s face. She blanched. “Who?”
“Come on, Susy Q. You already know, don’t you?” Hogan grinned like the devil he was.
“One of the other deputies?” She asked hopefully. The three men shook their heads. “One of the officers from the Cove?”
“No,” Walter and Barney said in unison.
Susannah shivered. Her voice cracked. “Who’s going to pose as my husband?”
“Oh, Susy Q, wait for it,” Hogan drawled. “You’re going to love this.”
“You’ll be posing as Hogan’s wife,” the Sheriff and the Mayor chorused in unison.
“Hogan’s wife?” Susannah echoed the words in a tone that matched the horrified expression on her face.
She looked as if she’d been told she had an advanced case of bubonic plague. Hogan suppressed his laughter, but it wasn’t easy. He should be insulted, but it was so damned comical. Unfortunately, he didn’t have time to appreciate the humor. He should have known Walter would take the matter into his own hands when Hogan had refused to involve Susannah.
Damn his uncle. He had to figure out a way to get her to refuse this cockeyed sham assignment. He pasted as smarmy a leer as he could produce on his face. If he’d had a moustache, he’d have twirled the ends like an old school cinema villain. “What do you say to that, Mrs. Hogan?”
Susannah shot out of the chair and was nose to chin with him before he could blink. In a voice so low he knew no one else could hear, she hissed, “I wouldn’t be your wife if you were–.”
“Pretend wife,” he interjected, grinning.
“The last heterosexual male in the entire solar system,” she finished as if he hadn’t interrupted.
“So, I guess that’s a no?” God, he hoped so.
“Not just no. Hell no.”
Hogan breathed a sigh of relief. He didn’t think he could have stood five days and nights of temptation alone in a hotel room with her.
Susannah sidestepped him. “Sheriff,” she said brusquely. Then she stopped. In a softer, sweeter voice, she said, “Uncle Barney.”
Hogan grinned at her lightning-quick change in strategy. He had no choice but to admire her though he thought it a bit unethical for her to play the uncle card.
“Uncle Barney, wouldn’t it be better if we used one of our guys? Like Carl? We know him and the way he thinks. Surely that’s important for two partners on an assignment like this?”
“Well, now, sugar, Carl’s got vacation scheduled, and I don’t think Noreen would take kindly to his canceling it. She’s been looking forward to this trip to Branson for six months.”
“Oh, no, Susannah,” the Mayor chimed in. “It has to be Hogan. He’s the man for this assignment, just as you’re the woman for the job. If you don’t want to be partnered with him.” He frowned. “Well, that kind of throws a monkey wrench into the plan. You see, you’ve got a, uh, special quality that’s needed for this job.”
“It’s not that I don’t want to be partnered,” she paused, “with Hogan.”
Hogan knew she’d nearly choked on his name. He tried to think of something more obnoxious to say, but nothing came to mind.
“It’s just that. . . I mean,” Susannah floundered. “Did you consider one of the police officers from the Cove? A real cop not just a consultant?” Her face brightened. “I know Luke Orland. He’s a good man. Smart. And he’s single so there’s no wife to complicate matters. Luke and I get along great.”
Hogan’s smile faded. She got along great with Orland? What the hell did that mean? Luke Orland was a player if he’d ever seen one. He doubted that guy ever slept alone on a Saturday night. Surely Susannah wasn’t one of his conquests?
“No,” the Mayor vowed. “It’s got to be Hogan.”
Hurriedly, Susannah scrambled for excuses. “But surely he’s too busy with the demands of his consulting position to tie up his days.”
“And nights,” Hogan interjected, though he was annoyed at her insistence on partnering with Orland. Annoyed and something else that didn’t bear scrutiny.
Susannah directed a look at him that would probably have melted lesser mortals into puddles of testosterone at her feet.
“Believe me, Luke would be perfect for this job.” Susannah rattled on about how wonderful the hometown boy was.
Hogan’s grin remained fixed even though his amusement at her attempt to oust him had begun to fade. He hadn’t wanted to get Susannah involved. He’d known scaring her off would be difficult. She was acting like a stray dog with only one bone between her and starvation, and she didn’t intend to lose that bone. Trouble was, the more she sang the praises of Orland, the more his focus shifted from scaring her off to making sure that if she ended up in a hotel at the Cove with a man, he was going to be that man. Not Orland.
“But Luke is already on the payroll, and he’s perfect for the job.”
Hogan’s jaw hardened. Perfect? In what way was Orland better than himself? There was no way in hell he was going to throw Luke Orland and Susannah together. For anything. Derisively, he snorted. “Luke doesn’t have the experience for this.”
Walter pursed his lips and nodded. “Hogan’s right. Luke’s a good man. He’ll go far in the Cove’s police department, but he doesn’t have the background Hogan has. I want someone with experience.”
“Background? Experience?” Susannah looked at Hogan. Her head tilted to the right as if she were seeing him in a new light. “What kind of background and experience could he possibly have? He’s just a consultant.”
“Walter,” Hogan broke in. It was no use. He knew nothing that was said would change Walter’s battle plan so he might as well end the useless discussion before Walter revealed his true identity. “I’m sure Deputy Quinn isn’t interested in my past.”
Oh, but he could tell she was. He could see the wheels spinning in her pretty head as she chewed on the tidbit Walter had tossed her way. He’d have to do some fancy tap dancing to shift her attention.
“As far as being too busy, let me assure you, Deputy Quinn, I’ve finished my work with the police department in the Cove. It’s a well-oiled machine, and Orland is a good cop. He’s needed to keep things running smoothly. I’m comfortable leaving everything in his capable hands so I can help the Mayor with his little project as my last official duty for this consulting job.”
He wasn’t lying. He did think Orland was a good cop. At least Orland was smart enough to be discreet. The Mayor had personally selected the man to assist in Hogan’s pretense as a consultant which hadn’t involved much except looking busy and creating phony memos and reports. Which the lovely Deputy Quinn had typed for him.
He tried one last tactic. “Look, Barney, she’ll be in over her head. I can’t guarantee her safety. How can I take care of this matter appropriately, as we discussed, Walter, when I have to keep an eye on her all the time?”
“Guarantee my safety?” Susannah stared hard at Hogan. “I’ll have you know I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, right.” Hogan plowed on. There was always the chance if he might still alienate her enough to make her back away. “You don’t look like you could take care of a herd of gnats, Susy Q. No offense.”
“None taken,” she grated.
Resignation settled over Hogan. He didn’t need a crystal ball to realize when the intriguing Deputy Quinn learned what was really going on, she’d probably plug him with her service revolver. Glumly, he tried to think of a solid reason to exclude her, but Walter’s pigheaded attitude would make every argument null and void. Hell. No wonder Walter’s only daughter couldn’t be under the same roof with her father longer than twenty-four hours before they butted heads.
“Actually, Mayor Bofco, I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.” Her smile held little warmth as she glanced at Hogan. “I have a black belt in Aikido, and if Mr. Hogan would like a quick demonstration, I’d be more than happy to oblige.”
“No, no, that won’t be necessary,” Walter said. “I think we’re straying from the point here. There won’t be any danger, Hogan. You said so yourself. She’ll never be out of your sight.”
“But I still think Luke Orland would be better on this job.” Susannah added. “You’ll get recognized in the Cove. People know you were working for the police department.”
At the mention again of the Murphy’s Cove cop, some part of him, obviously the part of his anatomy that controlled his thought processes when he was around Susannah, forced Hogan to rebut her point. “I kept a very low profile. Hardly anyone in the Cove knows me.”
“What about the other officers and the civilian employees of the police department? Are you saying they don’t know you? How can that be?”
“Well, sure, they know me, but they won’t talk. Chances are we won’t even see any of them while we’re closeted together in a hotel room.”
“Closeted together?” Susannah echoed. In a frantic voice, she said, “But, there’s another problem. You look like a beach bum. I don’t mean to criticize your appearance, Hogan, but it’s a definite problem. You don’t look like a workaholic successful businessman. Not by a long shot.”
“Not a problem.” He rubbed his stubbly chin. The soft rasp was easily heard in the room. “I do own a razor. I’m pretty sure I remember how to use it.”
Susannah opened her mouth to protest further, but Hogan quickly added, “And I actually own some decent clothes. You can check my closet for yourself, Deputy Quinn.”
Susannah looked as deflated as a leaky helium balloon. Hogan took a deep breath and ignored the traitorous part of his brain that whispered he’d have her all to himself for a week. He was a professional, and he damn well better start acting like one. From this point on, it was hands off. Business not pleasure. Not even any thoughts about what might have been.
Hogan knew Susannah wanted this just as he knew Walter wouldn’t change his mind. He looked at Susannah. Aw, hell. He threw in the towel “Okay, Walter. You’re the boss.”
Walter Bofco beamed. “Wonderful. Let’s tell Susannah everything.”
With a sigh, Hogan began, “McConnell’s had a long career, but he’s been inactive for the last decade, or he’s been lucky. He hasn’t had an arrest since he came out of prison ten years ago. The ladies like him.” He shrugged. “Maybe he’s so smooth women chalk it up to an expensive good time when he rips them off.”
“You may be right,” Walter interrupted. “Yvonne had a change of heart right after she told me about him. She wants me to just drop it. She doesn’t want him arrested. Says she won’t press charges. But those jewels he took are family heirlooms. Damn it all. I want them back even if she doesn’t.”
“Weren’t those things insured?” Barney suddenly asked.
“Of course, but I’d have to file a police report in order to get the insurance money. I don’t want the money. I want the black opals. They’ve been in our family over two hundred years.”
“We’re really not going to arrest him?” Susannah asked, frowning.
“Sorry, Susy Q,” Hogan quipped. “No arrests.” He couldn’t resist adding, “Not even a ticket to write. Why waste your time?”
“Because it’s my time to waste.”
“Despicable though his thievery is, he’s never harmed his victims,” Walter said. “It’s unlikely he’d change his habits now. I really wouldn’t present this to you, Susannah, if I truly thought there was any danger. So she’s going to be your wife, Hogan, and there’s nothing you can do about it but get used to the idea. Let’s move along.”
“Fine. No problem,” Hogan said. Somehow he’d find a way to keep her out of his hair. And off his brain. He hated complications. With Susannah involved, his job, not to mention his life, was going to be one massive pile of complications.
She wanted to be an undercover agent? He’d see how well she took orders. “Okay, Deputy. Welcome aboard.” Somehow, he’d keep his hands off her and still do what he set out to do. He just hoped she didn’t end up hating him too much when this was over.
“Thank you so much for your faith in me, Mr. Hogan,” Susannah said, sarcasm dripping from her words.
His eyes narrowed. He’d like to kiss the sass out of her. But if he was going to survive this, he’d better start treating her like one of the guys. He wasn’t known for being a stern, detail-oriented team leader, but maybe that was the best way to handle her. It would certainly keep her mad at him and at arm’s length. If he was lucky.
“Be ready to leave Saturday morning at seven. Think you can handle that?”
“A cocker spaniel could handle that,” she said with a smirk.
Hogan closed the distance between them and leaned toward her. His gaze flicked to her lips. Softly, he asked, “Anyone ever complain about your smart mouth?”
Her smile tightened even as her voice dropped to match his in softness. “Why, no. Anyone complain about yours?”
“No woman ever has.” At that, her grin disappeared. Hogan would have given a year’s salary right now to feel her mouth against his again. To feel her softness pressed to him. “You know what happens to little girls with smart mouths?”
“My mouth is none of your business.” Her auburn brows snapped together in a frown.
He swore he could feel the heat from her body. In a voice full of promise, he said, “They get them closed in the most interesting ways.”
“Is that a threat?” Susannah’s stuck her chin up and didn’t retreat an inch.
Hogan admired her for not backing down. “No, that’s a promise.”
For the first time, he thought he’d got the better of her. Her gaze dropped for an instant, but only an instant. Then she looked up. He read her message loud and clear. Touch her, and she’d make him pay dearly. It was a dare he willingly accepted. For the hundredth time he wondered why he couldn’t have found a nice, uncomplicated woman.
Nah. Too boring. No challenge at all.
“What’s the matter? Cat got your tongue, Susy Q?”
“No, but if I’m lucky, next time you have dinner with Uncle Barney, Aunt Opal’s tabby may think yours is an hors d’oeuvre.”
“Let’s get one thing straight right now. You follow my orders to the letter. Understood, Deputy?” She didn’t like being bossed, but she’d better get used to it. He planned to do a lot of it.
Susannah snapped him a sassy salute. “Yes, sir, Mr. Hogan.”
“When I say jump, you don’t bother to ask how high. You just start jumping like you had springs on your feet.”
Susannah mocked him with another salute. “Yes, sir, Mr. Hogan.” Defiance sparkled in her green eyes.
The Sheriff said, “Hogan’s right, Sugar. You follow his orders.”
Hogan sighed. This had disaster written all over it.
Susannah smirked at Hogan’s long-suffering sigh. She looked at her uncle. “Of course, Sheriff.” She had brains and guts and determination. One way or the other, her uncle, and Hogan, would recognize that. “How long will the assignment last?”
“Probably only a week,” Bofco said.
A week. Seven days. And nights? A week of twenty-four/seven with Hogan? In close quarters? Doubts assailed her. She hadn’t been able to stand seven minutes with him since he’d arrived in town. How was she going to tolerate seven days?
“Still want to tackle this, Deputy Quinn?” Hogan asked.
Susannah detected no antagonism in his voice. She looked up. He seemed serious, not patronizing. She nodded. Stuck in Alton County, this might be the only chance she’d have to do the kind of police work that advanced careers in other venues. With steely determination, she said, “I wouldn’t miss it for the world.”
“Good. Let’s get down to business.” The Mayor grinned like a victor who’d won the battle. “Have you got those copies I left with you, Barney?”
The Sheriff opened the top left side drawer and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers and handed them to the Mayor.
Bofco passed out the bound reports. “I took the liberty of creating this scenario should you say yes. Read this and learn your part well.”
Susannah tried her best not to snicker at the retired military man’s fifteen page scenario that read like an Army threat assessment. Her sense of humor failed her when she came to the list of clothing appropriate for the resort. Bikinis? Evening gowns? The list was long and consisted of items she simply didn’t possess. She hadn’t had an evening gown since senior prom. It still fit, but she didn’t think mint green satin with a bouffant skirt was suitable for a sophisticated evening in a swanky club or restaurant.
Her brow wrinkled in alarm. This sounded more like a James Bond spy movie than a police department stakeout. And she was cast as the Bond girl. “Uh, excuse me, Mayor. I understand I’m just bait, but I have a problem with this.” She shook the pages.
“What’s wrong with my plan?” the Mayor asked, frowning. “I’m sure I’ve covered everything most logically and in detail.”
“No, it’s not that. It’s a great plan. Very logical and certainly very detailed. The problem is, well, I don’t exactly own evening gowns and cocktail dresses. I’m a small town girl who just graduated from college. My wardrobe is pretty much limited to jeans and tee shirts.”
“Oh.” Walter laughed. He sounded relieved. “That’s not a problem. Since this is a personal project, I’m funding it. Just like I’ll be compensating the Sheriff’s department for your time. I’ll take care of everything.”
“He’ll even look in on your mom so you don’t have to worry about her. Isn’t that right, Walter?” Barney asked with a gleam in his eyes.
Susannah thought the Mayor looked surprised, but he assured her he would indeed keep an eye on her mother. Then he told her he’d made arrangements with a boutique owner in Houston to supply her with the proper wardrobe and bill him.
Half an hour later, she left the trio of conspirators. She closed the office door behind her, skipped over to Grace’s desk, and did a high five then told her the big news.
The dispatcher began to laugh. “Oh, this is going to be good. What I wouldn’t give to be a fly on the wall.”
“What do you mean?”
Grace wiped tears of mirth from her cheeks. “I don’t know which of you I’d place my money on. It’s a toss up as to whether you kill Hogan first or vice versa.”
Hogan waited until Susannah went to Houston to visit the Alton County Sheriff’s Department again. He didn’t want another confrontation with Susannah. He’d have enough of those once they left for the Cove and the sham undercover assignment. If he was blessed with an inordinate amount of good luck, maybe the dynamics of their relationship could change. In his favor. He’d overheard a phone conversation a few days before between Grace and her daughter Paula. Grace had mentioned some college boy that was supposed to be in love with Susannah. That had got his attention. He needed intel.
He dropped into the worn leather chair in front of the Sheriff’s desk. “I thought maybe I should know more about your niece. Just to know how she might react in certain situations,” he explained, trying to sound dispassionate and business-like. “How does Susannah’s boyfriend feel about her being a Deputy?”
“Hasn’t got a boyfriend that I know of.”
“Nobody special at college?”
“Nope. When she stayed on in Huntsville a month after graduation, I thought maybe it was because of that, but I found out it was just so they could hire someone to replace her at her part-time job. To be honest, Hogan, I never thought she’d take the job I offered her after one of my deputies quit. I know she wants something bigger and better. But she surprised me. Then again, maybe it wasn’t such a surprise.”
“No boyfriend. Hmmm.” Hogan felt like grinning. When Susannah had proved so resistant to his attempts to get to know her, to get closer, he’d begun to wonder if maybe there was a man in her life. Still, he hadn’t been able to find a name connected to her despite the willingness of the ladies in this county to gossip.
“Oh, she’s got lots of male friends. She just doesn’t let any of them get too close. She seems to have a way to keep men at arm’s length.”
“That she does. I’m guessing she buys vinegar by the barrel.”
Barney’s bushy eyebrows rose. He guffawed. “What does that mean?”
“You know what I mean. Sour. She could curdle milk with her insults.”
“Now, Hogan, don’t let her fool you.” He turned and lifted the coffee carafe from its hot plate on the credenza behind him. “Want some more coffee?”
“Don’t mind if I do.”
“If we’re being truthful here, I don’t think my niece dislikes you, son. If that’s what you’re trying to find out.”
Hogan felt his face burn in embarrassment. He’d forgotten that Barney Drummond’s soft drawl concealed a sharp brain. “That’s not what I meant,” he protested.
“You see, that’s the problem,” Barney added.
“What do you mean?”
Barney shrugged. “There’s things you don’t know, and I probably should keep my big mouth shut, but then I’ve never been famous for shutting my trap. You see, Susannah was seven when her daddy walked out on my sister. The man never set foot in this town again. Plumb broke their hearts and just about killed my sister.”
Hogan nodded. He felt a rush of sympathy. He imagined Susannah with dark red braids and big green eyes. All arms and legs. And a broken heart. “I can’t begin to imagine how hard that must have been.”
Susannah needed someone. Someone she could lean on. Someone permanent. That wasn’t him. Sure, he wanted her. But he hadn’t thought beyond the present. For the first time, he faced the painful knowledge that no matter how much he wanted her, he wouldn’t be doing her any favors by having an affair with her. The realization depressed him.
“I’ll tell you this, son. Susannah’s always had spunk. She was the one my sister leaned on. She had to be strong, and sometimes when a woman is strong, she gets too used to being the steel in the family. Steel isn’t noted for its ability to bend. My niece ain’t gonna bend for no man. She’ll never be a doormat.” He leaned close and said earnestly, “The man who wins her heart is gonna get a prize, and he’ll have a damn fine wife.”
Hogan forced a laugh. “Wife? Hey, I was just curious. I’m certainly not in the market for a wife.” He flushed, uncomfortable about sitting with her protective uncle while he entertained thoughts of what he was in the market for. He knew Susannah’s uncle wouldn’t find it a bit acceptable or amusing that he wanted to romance her into his bed.
“Too bad. Susannah would never bore you.” The Sheriff laughed. “I wish I’d had a video of that little scene you two played out the other day. She got you good, son.”
Hogan grinned and remembered the so-called report Susannah had handed him. She’d looked so victorious. He’d let her think she had the upper hand. For now. It made the element of surprise his. Barney was right; she’d never bore a man.
“She definitely gave you what for.” Barney’s eyes narrowed. “Glad it doesn’t seem to bother you.”
“You know the old saying, Barney. He who laughs last. . . .”
“Didn’t get the punch line?” Barney slapped his thigh and guffawed.
“Very funny. Comedy must be in your family’s DNA.”
“Guess typing your reports must’ve bothered her a tad.”
“Obviously,” Hogan said dryly. It had been the only excuse he’d come up with to make sure he could see her every day. Pretty lame.
The Sheriff’s phone rang. Hogan paid scant attention to the conversation. He had to figure out a way to deal with being near Susannah. He’d suspected her by-the-book attitude was all about a need for justice. Her father had wronged her. In light of that, it was easy to understand her career choice. He just wondered how long it would take her to realize there was no more justice for what her father had done than there was understanding for it.
Maybe when she discovered that fact she’d turn to a more suitable career which would be a good thing since he wouldn’t be around to protect her. She probably didn’t weigh a hundred and twenty pounds dripping wet and wearing her spit-polished black boots, her sidearm and all the other accouterments a cop had to wear today. The thought of her tangling with a hardened criminal gave him nightmares.
A woman like her, with a crop of dark red curls and wide green eyes, not to mention a mouth just made for kissing, belonged someplace other than behind the wheel of a patrol car in harm’s way. Where he thought she belonged was pretty obvious judging by the way his body reacted whenever she was around, but, he didn’t think she’d agree to a trip to paradise via his bed. Especially when she found out how he’d lied. Even if he got this job wrapped up, there was little chance of their riding off into the sunset together.
Lying to a woman with trust issues was a guarantee that you’d never have her in your life once she discovered the truth.
“That woman is a royal pain,” Barney said, as he hung up the phone. “Always has been. Always will be.”
“Who? Your niece?” Hogan asked, his thoughts still centered on Susannah.
“Naw, not my niece.” He pointed to the phone. “Thelma Thompson. Complaining again about water rationing. Like I personally made up the schedule to irritate her. Says her dadgum petunias are going to die if she can’t turn the hose on them every day.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Ms. Thompson.”
Barney snorted. “Believe me, it ain’t a pleasure. The woman’s perfected complaining to an art form.”
Barney stood and stretched. Hogan could hear the older man’s joints pop which attested to the Sheriff’s sixty-plus years. Still, Barney moved like a much younger man and had biceps that looked like oak branches. Most men with a shred of common sense would not want to tangle with the man.
“Now my niece on the other hand is as different from Thelma as night is from day. She’s a delight, son. I’ll admit she can be a bit difficult, but if you overlook that then the girl is an absolute delight.”
Barney dropped into his chair and kicked back. The springs on his ancient chair groaned as he propped his booted feet on the desk. “She sure didn’t like havin’ to type those trumped up reports though.”
“Anyone would think she’d been asked to dress in hot pants and turn tricks on Seawall Boulevard at the Cove.” Hogan had loved the green sparks shooting from her amazing eyes during their altercations.
“I’ll be honest with you. She’s a great girl, but I wish she wasn’t so gung ho on being a cop. She’s impatient. Just because she’s got a badge, some dang Bruce Lee colored belt, and a college degree, she thinks she can leap tall buildings like Wonder Woman.”
Hogan grinned at Barney’s mixed analogies. “Yeah, I got that impression. We both know college can’t teach you how to be a cop. Criminal Justice grads know statistics and facts, but not much about human nature. Only experience teaches that.”
“You’re right, Hogan. You’re absolutely right. Susannah has a lot to learn. She needs some street smarts. Like you’ve got.”
“Right. She needs to learn people,” Hogan agreed.
“Exactly. Glad you agree with me.”
Hogan continued. “She needs to learn life isn’t black and white, but gray. She’s just too naive for her own good.”
“Exactly. I’m glad you see my point. That’s why I didn’t put up a fuss about this little undercover thing. Being together down at the Cove is a great opportunity. I think you should take her under your wing. Be her mentor and teach her some of the finer points about law enforcement before I turn her loose on the county.”
“She needs,” Hogan broke off. His eyes rounded. He sat bolt upright, banging his knees into the front of the solid oak desk. “You what? What did you say?”
“You heard me. With your experience, you can be a big help to her. She wants to be a real law man. I’m pretty sure she won’t be satisfied with the county for long. I figure she’ll go to the state police eventually, but I don’t know if that will make her happy either. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if she didn’t have plans to become a G-man like you. A feeb. God knows why she’d want to, but I love her like a daughter so I want her to get what she wants.”
He looked pointedly at Hogan. “Whatever she wants.”
“No way.” Hogan rubbed his knees.”Forget it.” He had things he wanted to teach Susannah, but law enforcement wasn’t at the top of his list.
“Aw, come on, Hogan. Susannah is ambitious. You’ve got ten years experience.”
“Don’t even think about telling her I’m with the Bureau. You, Walter, and Luke Orland are the only ones who know, and I want to keep it that way. I’m on personal time, and you know it. When this is over, I’m outta here.”
“But I thought Walter said you might be taking over the police department at the Cove for real?”
“He caught me in a weak moment when I was thoroughly disgusted with the Bureau. I told him I’d think about it. I didn’t make any commitments one way or the other.”
“Well whether you do or you don’t, she still could learn from a mentor like you. Show her the ropes. Clue her in.”
Mentor? No. Lover was the label he wanted, but he couldn’t tell Barney that. “Hell, Barney, I don’t want to play nursemaid to a starry-eyed kid.”
“Starry-eyed kid?” Barney Drummond snorted. “She’s never had stars in her eyes, more’s the pity. And she’s no kid.” His eyes narrowed shrewdly. “I’d have bet money you noticed that already.”
Hogan didn’t rise to that dangerous bait. Instead, he tried a different tack. “In case you haven’t realized it, your niece and I don’t get along. She doesn’t like me. She won’t listen to me.”
“Yeah, I’d noticed there was some, uh, tension, between you two.” He chuckled softly. “But I bet you could overcome that. I think you’re perfect for her. So does Opal.” His eyes crinkled as he added, “As a mentor, of course. Let’s say a tutor.”
Hogan’s brain was spinning. “Sorry. You’ll have to get someone else. It just wouldn’t work out between us.”
He suspected the Sheriff would throw him in one of his cells and hide the key if he knew what Hogan wanted to tutor Susannah in.
* * *
Susannah was exhausted. Somehow, she’d accomplished everything including sneaking the clothes into her closet yesterday evening while her mom, who thought Susannah had gone to Houston to pick up something for the sheriff’s department, was visiting the Palmers in Clayton’s Bend.
What she’d thought would be a dress or two from the expensive boutique and maybe a pair of shoes if she were lucky had turned out to be a complete wardrobe with outfits for seven days. Not only daytime and evening wear, but also swimsuits. And hats, purses, and shoes to go with every ensemble. Mayor Bofco’s friend who owned the boutique even had a set of expensive luggage waiting for her. Susannah couldn’t help but feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.
Susannah knew she should have sat down with her mom that very first day and told her everything, but she’d dreaded the conversation. So, like any mature, responsible adult, she’d procrastinated. Now it was Friday evening. She’d leave tomorrow so she had to tell her tonight. She was more worried than ever about telling Rory Quinn, but she hadn’t had time to obsess about it because it seemed everyone she knew had suddenly wanted to talk to her today.
She’d even had a call from her cousin Judy Anne Palmer, inviting her to come over the next time Rory visited. Judy Anne had seemed so nice that Susannah felt bad about calling her a professional virgin to Grace. Outwardly, it seemed as if she and Judy Anne should have a lot in common since they were both unmarried females living at home with their mothers, but the two young women had never seemed to connect, mainly because Judy Anne, recently promoted to principal of the high school in Clayton’s Bend, was overloaded with responsibility.
They’d chatted a bit and Susannah answered questions about the upcoming Midsummer Night’s Fest. She assured Judy Anne that she and her mom would be delighted to have Judy Anne and her mother stay over the night of the festival.
After that, she made a quick call home to her mom who promised she’d call Judy Anne’s mother and second the invitation. Then Paula had called. After that, she had to work the Dispatch desk while Grace did some shopping at the big end of summer sale at Ainsworth’s Department Store, the only clothing and home goods store in town.
The phone rang constantly with requests for assistance for everything from Miss Lucille whose cat Elizabeth was stuck up in a tree again to Miss Adrian’s complaint that someone had stolen three ripe watermelons from her garden to a fight in the Ainsworth’s store parking lot where two shoppers had gotten into a fight over a clearance bed-in-a-bag set.
Five o’clock came, but Susannah wasn’t yet ready to go home and face her mother so she stayed. When the deputy on duty and the night dispatcher started asking if she’d brought her pajamas, she finished up and said goodnight.
Heat shimmered above the hot asphalt as she climbed into her soft top Jeep. She reversed from the parking slot and drove away. The sun hung low above the horizon. Warm air flowed past her and ruffled her hair. She drove the few blocks home at a snail’s pace. Absently she noted the kids playing baseball on the nearby elementary school ground even though day was turning into night. Thankfully, the small town of Vance was still safe enough that parents didn’t worry about their kids playing outside after dark.
Susannah hadn’t been exaggerating when she’d described their yard as the most beautiful in town. She paused a moment as she turned into the driveway to admire it. The yard in front of the simple white frame bungalow was a lush emerald green carpet. Dense, dark green pittosporum shrubs bordered the house with shasta daisies massed in front of the shrubs. Bright yellow day lilies marched up both sides of the front walk. Live oaks marked the boundaries of the yard and shaded the house. A deep porch sheltered the front door and wrapped around to the back. On the side porch, an oak swing hung from the ceiling.
Susannah followed the curving drive to the back. The garage doors were the old fashioned heavy kind that opened in the middle. Since there was no automatic opener, she and her mother usually parked in the driveway. She pulled up next to Old Reliable, her mother’s ancient burgundy minivan that ran better than it looked.
Everyone in town knew that if they wanted to locate Rory Quinn on a summer evening, just go to her backyard. That’s when Rory took advantage of the relative coolness of early evening and the filtered shade of river birch trees to weed the many flower beds.
Susannah saw her mom wave. She waved back and turned off the engine. How was she going to tell her mom about the undercover assignment?
Her mother returned to the bed of scarlet and sunny yellow zinnias lining the weathered cedar fence separating their back yard from Grace and Hank Collier’s back yard.
Susannah could remember back when the house wasn’t in nearly as good a shape, and the yard was just like any other yard with grass and an occasional tree. When she’d started high school, her mother had suddenly developed an all consuming passion for gardening. She’d always thought her mom had been too busy trying to make a living and trying to fix up the old house she’d bought to indulge in a hobby. But maybe that wasn’t true. After the conversation she’d had with Grace, she’d begun to wonder if her mother was sublimating her needs by the physical labor of gardening. She’d spent a lot of time thinking about her mother lately.
Rory Quinn’s passion for gardening made their home a showplace. The white bungalow might be modest, but the yard more than made up for the house’s unprepossessing appearance. In fact, the yard was a riot of color and smell. She caught the scents of honeysuckle, night blooming jasmine, and roses. That’s what she liked best, the flowers that perfumed the air. Jasmine and honeysuckle on the cedar fence and trellises with old-fashioned climbing roses that bloomed profusely and delighted the nose.
Susannah smiled as she watched her mother straighten and stretch her back. Dressed in a white tee shirt and jean shorts, she looked more like a teenager than a woman in her early forties. She’d been only sixteen when she’d gotten pregnant with Susannah.
The late afternoon sun picked up red highlights in Rory’s pony tail. Her mother’s hair was a brighter red than Susannah’s, and not a single thread of gray dimmed the shine of Rory’s red-gold hair. Her eyes were a blue-gray. Susannah had gotten her father’s green eyes.
The gathering dusk obscured the few lines of stress on Rory’s face, the only evidence of the hard years the woman had endured. The years had been difficult, but, all in all, they’d left little mark on her mother’s heart-shaped face. All the damage lay on the inside, invisible to onlookers. The blow to Rory’s heart when Susannah’s father had left them had been devastating. But there was more that Susannah had only recently learned about the matter.
Cheerful Rory Quinn who’d been the homecoming queen in high school in the tenth grade had turned into a bitter, morose, clinging woman determined to make sure her daughter didn’t make the same mistake.
Susannah had done her best to be a good daughter, never giving Rory problems, always pitching in, trying to be daughter, mother, friend, and companion to Rory. She’d tried her best to make sure her mother didn’t regret being saddled with a baby daughter while still in high school. She would never hurt Rory, not intentionally, but sometimes she felt suffocated by her mother’s love.
Sometimes she just wanted to get away and draw a free breath. But she had stayed, rock steady for her mom to lean on. But, too often, she found herself wishing she had the courage to leave. But that would hurt her mother greatly. Susannah sighed. Grace might be right, but it was hard to think about living your own life when you spent so much time taking care of another. That was a responsibility she hadn’t wanted. It had been thrust upon her. She hadn’t even thought about it much before last month. Maybe, in her heart, she resented the burden.
“Might as well get this over with,” Susannah said aloud. Her mom was going to be upset over the Murphy’s Cove assignment, but then everything about Susannah’s career upset Rory. She remembered her conversation with Grace. Was her mother happy?
Rory had lost her innocence and any chance of a life outside Vance in one reckless act. One stupid mistake. Susannah shuddered, refusing to believe that it could have been anything but a mistake. Her mother didn’t lie. She didn’t. Love hurt. And it ruined lives. She never wanted to love anyone the way Rory had loved the boy who’d made her pregnant and then seven years later had walked away.
Grace had to be wrong. Her mom was happy. Even if all she did was garden and run her bookkeeping business. It sounded boring to Susannah, but maybe it made Rory Quinn happy.
Susannah walked toward her mother. Immediately, she noticed the new athletic shoes. “Mom. You’re wearing shoes. How wonderful.”
“Dr. Munoz said I could ease into real shoes, even wear heels eventually. But he said no dancing in high heels.” Rory laughed as she stood and dusted her hands together, sending dried zinnia petals to the mulched flower bed below. “As if there were any likelihood of that.”
The way Rory sounded. The rueful laugh she gave. Suddenly, it all made Susannah uneasy. Did Rory want to go dancing in high heels? “Uh, that’s great, Mom.”
“How about some dinner? Iced tea and chicken salad?”
“Sounds good. I’ll change and get started.” Susannah hurried into the house where an attic fan rumbled, pulling fresh air inside and billowing the white lace panels at the old-fashioned double-sash windows. It wasn’t really cool, but it was tolerable, and much cheaper than running what many older Texans still referred to as refrigerated air conditioning.
In her room, she emptied her pockets and tossed her cell phone on top of the bureau. She realized she’d forgotten to buy a refill card for the pay-as-you-go phone. She was desperately low on minutes so she had to get a card tomorrow or she’d be up a creek without a paddle. Or a cell phone.
She shed her uniform for a pink cotton halter top and a pair of jean cut-offs similar to those her mother wore. Nothing ever went to waste in their household. They both wore jeans until they were ragged then hacked the legs off to make shorts. They economized every way they could. Living frugally meant no internet or email at home. Her mom had an old computer she used in her bookkeeping business. No fancy cordless phones. No Caller ID. No cable though they did have a DVD player since there was no movie theater in town. They lived an uncomplicated life. Some might call it austere.
Barefoot, she went straight to the kitchen where she poured two glasses of iced tea and started chopping an apple for the chicken salad. She set the wicker table on the porch and returned to the kitchen where her mother was washing her hands at the sink.
They chatted while Rory chopped pecans then mixed in the apple and leftover chicken chunks. Rory added a dollop of Miracle Whip and mixed it well while Susannah covered two plates with shredded Romaine lettuce. Rory divided the chicken salad between the two plates.
As they carried their plates to the table on the back porch, Susannah thought how much she loved this time of the evening. No cable television nor any of the other things that took most people’s time in the evenings. Instead, they had leisurely meals outdoors with conversation instead of noise. Their leisure time was spent reading or engaging in hobbies. Rory had her gardening, and Susannah her martial arts workouts.
The aroma of a multitude of blooming flowers wafted over the yard while lightning bugs, or fireflies, glimmered in the near darkness. For a mother and a daughter used to each other’s company, they found a variety of things to discuss. When had that happened? She remembered silent meals when she’d been a child. Her mother had been too sad in the early years and too busy working in the later ones.
Susannah looked at her home and the glorious yard. “Mom, I don’t think I’ve ever told you how proud I am of you.”
Startled, Rory looked up. “What brought that on?”
“I just realized how hard you’ve worked all these years to create this.” Susannah gestured to indicate the house and the yard. “You did it almost completely alone, working two jobs until the bookkeeping business brought in enough to support us. Then you bought this old house and brought it back to life.”
Rory laughed. “Remember how awful it looked? How the floors sagged and there was a nest of squirrels in the attic?”
“I do remember. It’s amazing what you’ve done.”
Rory blushed and seemed to glow with pride. “Thank you. I know we’ve never had a lot of luxuries, but I’m proud that I’ve always kept a roof over our head and food on the table.” She reached over and squeezed Susannah’s hand. “Now, speaking of food on the table, let’s eat.”
Regardless of how easily they could talk about most things, Susannah couldn’t figure out how to broach the subject of her assignment at Murphy’s Cove. Tonight, the quiet pleasure of their dinner together was filled with too much pondering on her part. She couldn’t get Grace’s comments regarding her mother out of her mind. Was Grace right? She found herself studying Rory, listening not to her words, but to her tone of voice, watching her facial expressions. She picked at her chicken salad rather than eat.
“Doesn’t the chicken salad appeal to you, dear?”
Startled, Susannah looked up. “No. It’s fine. Really.” She forced herself to eat a bite. “Delicious, like always.” She looked at her mother. Feeling nervous because she didn’t know how her mother would react, she said, “Could I ask you something, Mom? It’s kind of personal.”
Rory quirked an auburn eyebrow and shrugged. “You’re being very serious tonight. Okay. Shoot. What do you want to ask?”
Susannah forged ahead. “Do you ever get lonely?”
“What?” Rory laughed, but stopped when Susannah didn’t join in. “You’re serious?” At Susannah’s nod, she slanted her head to the side as if in thought. “Well, maybe. But who doesn’t?”
That wasn’t the answer Susannah wanted.
Rory laughed. “You look as if you just found out there’s no Santa Claus.”
Susannah tried to grin. “What? No Santa? Now you tell me.”
Rory’s laughter subsided to a smile then that faded. She looked at her daughter. “What’s this about?”
“Nothing. I just wondered.” Susannah forked a piece of pecan out of the salad and nibbled on it.
“Well, don’t lose any sleep over it. When I feel that way, I just get busy and pretty soon I forget all about it.” Rory gestured toward the yard. “There’s enough work here to keep me too busy to think about anything else. Besides gardening, I’ve got the bookkeeping business. Now you’ve come home to live. So what more could I possibly need?”
That definitely wasn’t what Susannah wanted to hear. “But what about other things? What about,” she hesitated. Her eyes dropped then raised to meet her mother’s eyes. “What about men? Do you ever think about, well, men? Meeting someone?”
Rory’s laughter held an edge to it, but no amusement. “Meet someone? Here? In Vance? You’re kidding, right?”
“After my father left, after time had passed, did you ever date? Maybe you did, and I just don’t recall it. Was there ever anyone?” All Susannah really remembered was how bad it had hurt when her father had walked out. And she remember her mother’s tears. An ocean of them. Susannah had hidden her own tears in her pillow at night as she’d listened to the sobs from her mother’s room.
As her mother remained silent, Susannah studied her hands, not wanting to look into her mother’s eyes for fear she’d see tears there. Her father had been a subject to avoid when she’d been a child. Just the mention of his name would send Rory into a tailspin. One time when she’d been nine, she’d asked her mother why her Daddy didn’t come visit the way other divorced dads did. That night, for the first time in months, she’d heard the sobs again from her mother’s room. She never asked about him again.
“Date? Who would I date?”
To her surprise, her mother didn’t look shocked. Or angry. Or depressed which Susannah had feared. In fact, her voice was calm and without a hint of anguish.
Rory lifted the tea pitcher and refilled their glasses. “Who could I possibly have dated? There’s not a whole lot of bachelors in Vance. And I had you to raise not to mention the job of supporting us when all I had was a GED. Your father paid child support, but it wasn’t much.”
She sipped her tea. “I could have fought him for more. I could have found him and forced the issue. But I thought if he didn’t want us then I didn’t want his money. After a few years, I didn’t really want to see him again.” She grinned ruefully. “I think that’s what they call cutting off your nose to spite your face. I wasn’t particularly bright about that part of my life. I should have swallowed my pride and demanded more.”
She swirled her glass of tea. The ice cubes clinked against the glass. “Sometimes I look back and am amazed that we survived. If it hadn’t been for Barney and Opal and Grace and so many others, I guess we wouldn’t have.”
She reached over and patted Susannah’s hand. “Actually, I guess I owe you as much if not more than anyone else. You, Susannah, saved me.”
Susannah fidgeted in her seat. “Grace thinks–.”
Rory laughed and rolled her eyes. “Oh, Lord. Has Grace been running off at the mouth again. Is that what this is about? I can imagine what Grace thinks. Lord love her. Sometimes I think that woman missed her calling. She should have been an advice columnist. Lord knows she’s got an opinion on everything. You put whatever Grace said out of your head.”
Rory pushed away from the table. “Enough of this. Come on. You’ve got a lot to do if you’re going to be ready to leave in the morning. Do you need any help packing those fancy new clothes you’ve got?”
Startled, Susannah’s mouth dropped open. “You know about that?”
“Grace doesn’t just run off at the mouth to you. She told me that same day. Not only did she tell me what you should have told me, she also said Barney had made Mr. Bofco, the Mayor of the Cove, promise to be my shadow while you were gone.” Rory sniffed. “How embarrassing for the poor man. And for me! As if I were a child who needed babysitting. I’m going to have a talk with my brother.”
Rory’s ire quickly faded, leaving her looking troubled. “I know how important this must be to you. Why didn’t you tell me?”
Susannah shrugged, not wanting to say that she was afraid of her mother’s reaction.
When she remained silent, Rory said, “Well, never mind. Now’s your chance to fill me in on all the details while we wash up.”
Susannah’s mother surprised her again. Rory offered nothing but positive comments about the upcoming assignment in Murphy’s Cove. She even went so far as to say that even if it was boring Susannah might enjoy a week’s vacation in a luxury hotel.
As they cleaned the kitchen, Rory said, “I want to tell you how much I appreciate your helping me out this summer.”
“That’s okay, Mom.”
“No. I mean it. Ever since you were a little girl, you’ve been my tower of strength. I know you turned down offers so you could come home to Vance. I know you made sacrifices.” She reached over and ruffled Susannah’s curls. “Your short hair reminds me of your baby curls.” She blinked rapidly.
Susannah was surprised to see tears in Rory’s eyes. “Mom? Are you okay?”
Rory laughed. “Sure. I’m just wondering where all the years went. You should still be a curly-haired toddler. Seriously. I do appreciate your sacrifices.” She tugged Susannah’s short curls. “Though you didn’t have to sacrifice your hair.”
“It was time to part with it.” Susannah shrugged. “I was beginning to feel like Rapunzel. Besides, it didn’t look–.”
“I know. Professional. No one would take you seriously as a cop with such long hair.” Rory sounded resigned. “I’ve never been happy with your decision to major in Criminal Justice.” Softly, she said, “I understand your motivation, but being a cop isn’t going to help you find your father. Even if you did find him, you can’t make him come home. That was a long time ago. We’ve all moved on. Though it took some of us,” she grinned and pointed a finger at herself, “longer than others.”
Guilty knowledge weighed heavily on Susannah. So much so that she couldn’t laugh at Rory’s weak attempt at a joke. “I know that. I’m not a hurt little girl any longer.”
“I’d like to amend my answer to your earlier question.” Rory pumped lotion from the dispenser in the kitchen. “I find my life is pretty darn good especially since you’re home now. There are things I want to say to you, but not tonight. We’ve had enough serious conversation. There’ll be time in the future to say them. Lots of time. Right now, you need to pack and get to bed. Tomorrow will be a long day.” She smoothed the lotion over her hands and arms.
Everything her mother said just made Susannah feel worse.
“See?” Rory asked with a bright smile. “I’m getting used to your being a deputy. I’m not so worried about it since you chose to take the job Barney offered you.”
Susannah’s heart sank. Now was the time to tell her mother that she didn’t intend to stay a deputy in her uncle’s sheriff’s department forever. But the words wouldn’t come.
“Tell me about this D. E. Hogan,” Rory said. “Grace says he’s quite a hunk. What does D. E. stand for?”
Susannah hated herself for being such a coward, but she seized the change of topic. “Domineering and egotistical?”
Rory chuckled. “Sounds as if you aren’t one of his admirers.”
“Definitely not. Grace admires him enough for both of us. He expects me to fall at his feet too I guess.” Susannah shook her head adamantly. “I can’t stand the man. This would be a plum assignment if it weren’t for him.” Warming to her subject, she told Rory how Hogan had gone out of his way from the very beginning to annoy her.
“Sounds as if he made a vivid impression on you.” Rory’s face held an odd expression. “I’ve never heard you express such strong feelings about a man before. Any man.” Thoughtfully, she murmured, “Even in high school, you were oblivious. And believe me. I could see Jack and Juanita Orland’s boy tried his best to capture your interest. Hmm. This is odd. Very odd.”
Susannah barely heard her mother’s soft comments. She was thinking about what the Mayor had said. If Hogan really did have experience, what was he doing out here in the boondocks? True, Murphy’s Cove with its jet setters was more cosmopolitan than the rest of the county, but it was nothing to excite a real cop. Not the kind of cop she wanted to be.
So what was Hogan up to?
So what was Hogan up to?
That question and Hogan’s face haunted Susannah’s dreams. When she awoke before dawn Saturday morning, her thoughts immediately went to the irritating man. Disgusted and somewhat bleary-eyed, she rolled out of bed and proceeded to get ready.
Seven o’clock sharp, the appointed time according to her newly-appointed boss, dulled to half past the hour. Then eight o’clock came and went, taking Susannah’s patience with it. She sat at the kitchen table and sipped her third cup of coffee. At this rate, maybe she could plead caffeine overdose when she was tried for assault and battery of her obviously reluctant partner.
Moments later, she heard the subdued growl of a powerful engine from her driveway. She dumped the rest of the coffee down the drain, rinsed the mug, and left it in the sink.
Impatiently, she shoved the back door open and marched down the flagstone walk toward the sound. Her mouth dropped open in surprise. A candy apple red Porsche Boxxter, with Hogan in the driver’s seat, idled in the driveway behind her Jeep. She hadn’t expected him to show up in the police department Burb, but this?
She turned to him to ask where he’d gotten the car, but Hogan’s appearance made her forget what she was going to say. No scruffy beard. No wild Hawaiian shirt. Oh, dear. He looked like he’d looked that night in Houston. Like a cover model for GQ. No. He looked better. More male than a pretty boy model.
Oh, dear. She was in a heap of trouble.
Several moments passed before she realized Hogan was staring at her as hard as she was at him. Neither said a word. Susannah began to wonder if she’d forgotten to close some of the big black buttons stretching from the low cut vee of the yellow polka dot sun dress to the hem. Disconcerted by his perusal, she sought defense in a good offense. “You’re late.”
He turned off the engine, and his long frame unfolded from the Porsche. He wore tailored gray slacks and an expensive designer golf shirt in a pale blue that made his eyes seem even more blue. Not only had he shaved, but he’d had a haircut. Grace would swoon, Susannah thought, trying hard not to do the same.
“Lighten up.” His voice held more than a hint of a growl.
Lighten up? She was tired of being told that. If she took everyone’s advice, she’d be floating like a balloon. In a huff, she planted her hands on her hips. “One of us has to be the adult and focus on details.”
“There’s no doubt you’re perfect for that role,” he muttered.
Susannah’s eyes narrowed. “If you have something to say, then speak up. Don’t mumble.”
“Look, details are like rules. Sometimes you pay attention to them, and sometimes you don’t. That is if you’re a good cop.”
“I am a good cop, and a good cop always follows the rules.”
“No, a good cop is flexible.”
“Don’t lecture me on the attributes of a good cop. You’re just a consultant, not a real cop so how would you know?”
“You must have got up on your usual wrong side of the bed, Susy Q.”
“Where I get up is none of your business. I’ll thank you to remember that.”
His eyes rolled. “This is gonna be a fun week.”
A week of discord held no appeal for Susannah even if it was a good weapon against Hogan’s charm. She decided to call a truce. She could be more amicable if he could. In a milder tone, she said, “I kind of expected to see you in the Suburban.”
“This goes better with our cover. Where’s your bag?”
“On the porch.” She couldn’t help adding, “Since seven sharp.”
She presented her back to him and flounced along the flagstone walk to the back porch.
* * *
Hogan leaned against Walter’s Porsche and stared at the expanse of skin bared by the black and yellow sun dress, and at her shapely legs in black stiletto sandals. Walter had said he’d arranged for Susannah to get an appropriate wardrobe and accessories so she’d look like a young, affluent wife. A long painful sigh escaped him. He couldn’t recall Walter adding the adjectives sexy and seductive to that description.
Just wondering if the rest of the clothes were like the yellow polka dot number she wore made Hogan break into a sweat. The dress was tight and revealing, plunging low in front and lower in back. She should look like a silly bumblebee in the yellow and black dress, but she didn’t. He’d finally realized his fantasy. Once again he got to see Deputy Quinn in something other than her uniform, Stetson, and boots.
The trouble was, Susannah, out of khaki and into a sexy little dress and swaying along on four-inch stilettos, was better than anything he’d imagined. As if he needed unending days of sexual frustration. And nights.
Hogan took a deep breath and forced himself to restrain his inconvenient lust. How the hell was he going to keep her at arm’s length when everything about her made him want to get up close and very personal? He hit the heel of his hand against his forehead. This whole thing was dumb. Dumb, dumb, dumb. He accentuated each word with a thud to his forehead.
Susannah looked over her shoulder. “Are you coming?”
His body clenched. Not yet, he thought, but hope springs eternal in the male heart. He pushed away from the car and followed her. This was a fine mess he’d gotten himself into. Rather, it was another fine mess his stepmother had gotten him into. When was he going to learn to say no to Yvonne? Hogan stepped onto the back porch and halted dead in his tracks. The pile of luggage stunned him. “What the hell is this?”
“Luggage? You are familiar with the concept? It’s kind of a box with a handle? It holds clothes when one travels?”
“Yes, I’m familiar with the concept,” he mimicked in a singsong voice. “Since you’re so smart, why don’t you tell me how you think we’ll fit all this in a Porsche?”
“Well,” Susannah said sweetly. “You didn’t tell me we were traveling in a Porsche, now did you?”
He folded his arms. “Deputy Quinn, why don’t you offer me a cup of coffee before my head explodes?” He forced himself to smile. “I’ll sip it quietly and patiently while you decide which two bags you want to take. And make sure they’re two of the smaller bags, not that thing as big as a steamer trunk.”
“Well, you better make it possible.”
“There’s no way I can get all this in two smaller bags.”
“I’d say you’re right.” His lips stretched in a smile, but his eyes were shard as flint.
Susannah stepped closer and lifted her chin to stare defiantly at him. “I’m not the one who drew up that clothing list. If you have a complaint, tell it to the Mayor.”
“That list was about as stupid as this whole situation. I didn’t create it, but I’m the one responsible for transporting it, so decide. Two bags. Uno. Dos.” He held up two fingers. “Two.” Then he pushed past her and grabbed the doorknob. “In the meantime, I need coffee.”
Susannah grabbed his arm. “Hey, this is breaking and entering, buddy. I didn’t invite you into my house.”
“Then arrest me, but let me have some caffeine first.”
“I drank all the coffee while I was waiting.” Sparks flew from her eyes. “Quit thinking about coffee, and start thinking about my luggage. Be creative. Figure out how to squeeze my bags into your silly car.”
“Listen, sweetheart, there’s just one problem with that.” He took a step to bridge the short distance between them. He looked down the low neckline and saw the shape of her small, perfect breasts. And forgot what he was going to say. Sweat popped out on his forehead.
Susannah’s eyes narrowed. “And what’s that?”
“You said there was just one problem so tell me what it is.”
“Problem? Right.” He got back on track. “No matter how creative I get, six bags won’t fit in a Porsche.”
She stepped even closer and tilted her head to look him in the eye. Her breasts brushed against him, and Hogan’s brain shut down. All the blood stampeded south. With great effort, he managed to ignore a certain part of his anatomy and dragged his gaze from the creamy curves of her breasts. Breasts that were pretty damn perfect as far as he could tell. She was close enough to hear his pounding heart. Hell. He was close enough to count the gold flecks in her green eyes.
Moments passed. He caught a whiff of honeysuckle and couldn’t help himself. He glanced down, wondering if the light fragrance came from the shadowed valley between her breasts. He could picture her spraying perfume there. That mental image just enhanced something that didn’t need any more enhancing. His pulse pounded even harder, traveling through his body like tom tom drums signaling danger on the horizon.
Dishes clattered and crashed. Hogan quickly stepped away from Susannah. A blush stained her cheeks. Maybe she wasn’t immune to the electricity between them.
A woman who must be Susannah’s mother opened the back door. She held a broken cup in her left hand. Hogan hurried over and held the door for her. Embarrassed, he was fairly certain his face was suffused with the same scarlet hue as Susannah’s.
“Hi, I’m Rory Quinn, Susannah’s mom. Sorry for the noise. I thought I’d bring a tray out so I could offer you some coffee, but I dropped a cup trying to get out the door.” She held her hand out to him. “You must be D. E. Hogan. Would you like some coffee?”
He pumped her hand vigorously and said in a heartfelt voice, “Yes, I’m Hogan. I’d kill for a cup of coffee.”
“I don’t think homicide will be necessary, Mr. Hogan.” She flashed another smile. “Susannah, I think you need to redo your bags. I’ll keep Mr. Hogan company while you take care of that.”
She turned to Hogan. “Why don’t you come inside so Susannah can focus on what needs to be done?”
Sweating like a man on the rack, Hogan followed her and sat at the kitchen table. While Rory Quinn got another cup and filled it for him, he pulled a handkerchief from his back pocket and discreetly blotted his forehead. Somehow, he had to erect a big wall around Susannah and hang a “no trespassing” sign on it. And he’d better figure out a way to do it fast, or he wouldn’t last the day out at this rate.
* * *
Susannah watched Hogan and her mother. Slowly, she released the breath that had somehow lodged in her lungs. The heated encounter with Hogan had shaken her. Hyper awareness made her shiver. She could smell the musky aftershave he wore. Even if she closed her eyes, she could see his blue eyes. And his mouth. Even drawn into a scowl it had made her want to trace his lips with the tip of her tongue. To press her mouth against his lips. That thought struck fear in her heart.
“Are you all right?” her mother asked from the doorway, startling her. “You look kind of peculiar.”
“Mom! I thought you were in the kitchen. Yes, I’m fine. Just fine. Just trying to figure out what to do with the clothes situation.”
“Just take what you think are necessities. If you find you need something you’ve left behind, just call me. I can sneak it to you at the hotel.”
“That might be a good idea. Thanks.”
Rory nodded and left her alone. Susannah snapped open the locks on all the bags and surveyed the contents. In a matter of minutes, she had two medium-sized bags and a makeup case ready. She was certain they’d fit in the small trunk of the car despite what Hogan said. He could just shut up and deal with it because there was no way she could get by with less.
When she went into the house, she was surprised to find Hogan and her mother laughing together as if they were old friends. She cleared her throat. Her mom turned merry eyes to her. “Before I leave, Mom, I wanted to tell you that Mayor Bofco may come by to check on you. Just be, well, be cordial.” She blushed and felt foolish for advising her mother on how to act. “You know just in case you need anything.”
Rory chuckled. “Well, that’s very sweet of him, but I don’t think he needs to bother. I can take care of myself just fine.”
Guilt at leaving her alone urged Susannah on. “Yes, but you had surgery just a couple of months ago.”
Rory laughed. “I’m fine now and wearing regular shoes. Don’t worry so much.”
“The Mayor’s nice. It doesn’t hurt to have someone in addition to Uncle Barney or Grace to call for help. Just in case, I left his phone number by the kitchen phone.”
“Oh, and Walter’s single, rich, and fancy free,” Hogan threw in, laughing.
Rory laughed. “Somehow I don’t see you as a matchmaker, Mr. Hogan. Honestly, if I need anything, there are people who’d come running if I so much as whistled. Go. Don’t give me a thought.”
“The coffee was great, Rory,” Hogan said.
“Another cup before you go, Mr. Hogan?”
“No, thanks. And please. It’s just Hogan.”
“D. E.? Right?” Rory asked, with a laugh.
Hogan nodded. “That’s it, but everyone calls me Hogan.”
“What do the initials stand for?”
“That’s top secret information, Mrs. Quinn. I could tell you,” he grinned, “but then I’d have to kill you.”
Rory laughed. “I thought that was James Bond’s line. All right. Since I don’t have a death wish, I won’t ask again.”
To Susannah’s surprise, Hogan seemed to enjoy talking and laughing with her mother. Maybe he wasn’t a complete jerk. Any guy who was this nice to her mon had to have some redeeming qualities.
After a few minutes of listening to them joke back and forth, Susannah said, “I hate to interrupt, but shouldn’t we be going?”
Rory laughed. “My daughter. Always focused on the task at hand.”
“Rory, it was a pleasure.” Hogan shook her hand then followed Susannah.
Back on the porch, he studied the two bags she pointed to. He lifted one dark brow as if questioning her. She crossed her arms and stared him down. Wisely, he just picked up the bags and headed to the Porsche.
“Hey, don’t forget your hat.” Rory pointed to a wide-brimmed black straw hat laying on the porch swing.
“Thanks, Mom. I’ll call you tonight.” Susannah planted a hasty kiss on her mother’s cheek. Rory whispered, “I can see why Hogan bothers you so much.”
“He’s impossible, isn’t he?” Susannah replied in a hasty whisper. “What am I going to do with him?”
Rory pulled her into her arms for a quick hug. Her voice sounded choked. She blinked rapidly and cleared her throat. “You’re a smart girl, Susannah. I think you’ll eventually figure out the real problem and the only right solution all by yourself.”
“I hope so.” Susannah placed the sun hat on her head and hurried outside.
As she walked up to the car, Hogan slammed the trunk shut and turned. “Why are you wearing an umbrella on your head?”
“Very funny.” Susannah walked around to the passenger side.
He climbed into the driver’s seat. “Whatever.”
Susannah tapped her foot impatiently. “Well?”
“Well what?” he asked, putting on a pair of expensive sunglasses.
“Aren’t you going to open my door for me?”
“This isn’t a date, Deputy Quinn. Open it yourself.”
“I think we should get into character immediately. I’m certain rich, attentive husbands always open the car door for their wives.”
“You’re going to milk this for all it’s worth, aren’t you?”
An impudent grin was his only answer.
“This is going to be a damned long day.” Nevertheless, Hogan climbed out, walked around, and yanked open the passenger door.
“There you go, muttering again.” Susannah enjoyed seeing him grinding his teeth in exasperation for a change. Smart, sassy remarks might be as good a defense as antagonism.
Her dress rose to mid-thigh when she slid onto the black leather seat. She’d have to have been blind not to notice his interest. Somehow, that made her feel better. Ridiculously pleased, she leaned back against the warm leather. She was tempted to leave the hemline where it was, but that might be playing with fire. Those who played with fire often got burned. She yanked her dress down.
Hogan still stood beside her. She waited for a taunting remark. When it didn’t come, she looked up, meeting his gaze. The heat in his eyes robbed her of thought.
“Uh, you need, that is, we need, to wear these.” He reached into his trousers pocket and pulled something out. Sunlight glinted off two plain gold wedding rings in the palm of his hand.
Susannah held her hand out, surprised to see a slight tremor in it. He slid the smaller band onto her ring finger. Her heart beat unsteadily. A weird feeling swept through her as she watched him slip on the larger gold band.
“Right. We’re set then.” He slammed the car door and walked around. He slid into the driver’s seat and turned to her. “Ready, Mrs. Hogan?”
His voice sounded as hollow as she felt. The gold band on her finger taunted her. Uneasy, she rotated the ring surprised that it fit perfectly. Why did being with Hogan make her have such a feeling of anticipation? As if something new and different and exciting lay just around the corner. And she wasn’t thinking about a police operation. Her heart beat so fast and so unsteadily.
“Ready,” she managed to say, willing herself to believe it was the undercover operation that affected her. Because if it was something else, something she couldn’t allow herself to think about, then she was in big trouble. Upset that a piece of meaningless metal placed on her finger by him could induce such crazy thoughts, such weakness, she rallied her defenses.
“What should I call you this week? I can’t very well go around addressing you as Hogan. I’m surprised the Mayor left that little detail out of his battle plans.”
Susannah fished a pair of oversized black sunglasses from her small purse and popped them on, hoping he didn’t notice the mistiness in her eyes and the quaver in her voice. “You realize this is the new millennium. We women don’t have to address our husbands by mister or lord and master.”
“Okay. I’ll just call you D. E.”
At his derisive snort, she giggled. “Wow. Your names must be really horrendous.” She’d stumbled on a topic that made him uncomfortable. Good. That made them even then because everything about him made her uncomfortable. “Come on. Tell me what your names are? Delmar Egbert?”
“None of your business, Susy Q,” he said starting the engine.
“Come on, confess, Hogan.” When he ignored her, she asked, “Is it Dostoyevski Ezra?”
He shoved the sunglasses down on his nose and looked at her.
“No? Dagny Ezekiel?”
His blue eyes scorched her.
“You call me any of those, and I’ll think of something worse than Susy Q to call you.” He glanced over and grinned at her. “And you really hate Suzy Q so just imagine what I might come up with.”
“Suzy Q isn’t so bad.” She flashed a wicked grin, knowing she had the best of him. “It’s a lot better than Darnell or any of the other names I’m thinking of. You better mind your p’s and q’s, Hogan, or you just might find yourself stuck with Dionysus Engelbert.”
“Better fasten your seat belt. And hang on to that damned hat.”
Susannah placed a hand on the crown of the hat and held tight to the expensive straw concoction. “Oh, I’ve got it. Don’t worry about me.”
Hogan quickly backed out the driveway. On the street, he shoved the gear shift into first, and with a squeal of the Michelins, they were off.
The words vanished into the wind as Hogan stomped the accelerator leaving only the echo of her laughter.
Susannah’s laughter floated on the air. Rory smiled and closed the front door, glad she hadn’t resisted the impulse to see them drive off. The smile lingered on Rory’s face as the sounds of the car faded. She’d waited a long time for this day, and now it had finally arrived. Too bad Susannah didn’t realize she’d tripped over her heart and fallen for the charming D. E. Hogan.
It was easy to see that Hogan was attracted to Susannah. As a mother, Rory couldn’t help but hope he felt something deeper than mere sexual desire. But that would be for Susannah to discover. All she could hope was that her daughter didn’t get hurt.
That was the trouble with love. You had to risk everything to gain everything. Rory had risked it all, but her gamble had been based on deceit and the unstable commodity known as teenage love. She’d ended up as just another number in the teen marriage and divorce statistics. It had taken a long time for her to make peace with the mess she’d made of her life. Now, only one thing about that bothered her conscience. She’d never told the ugly truth to her daughter.
When Susannah had entered high school, Rory had realized she couldn’t go on the way she was. Guilt, bitterness, regret. Those emotions had poisoned her life. She’d known that if she stayed that way, she’d never know any happiness. Slowly, she’d changed. Rory sighed. Too bad Susannah hadn’t recognized that her mom had finally grown up.
She went to her bedroom and changed from the khaki chino capris and yellow blouse she’d worn to meet Hogan into a clean pair of jean cut-offs and an old white tank top so stretched and misshapen that the straps constantly slipped off her shoulders. Since she’d be alone in her back yard, she didn’t bother with a bra.
She was pulling her shoulder length hair into a pony tail when her reflection in the old-fashioned dresser mirror caught her eye. For the briefest moment, Rory studied herself in the mirror. At forty-two, she’d finally accepted herself. Flaws, mistakes and all. She’d stopped regretting that she’d wasted years of her life in being miserable. If she’d faced up to her mistakes sooner, she might have had a chance to marry again. The past couldn’t be undone, but she could take advantage of what the future brought.
Her hands cupped her breasts, thumbs brushed against the nipples. She still longed for a man’s caress. For his mouth on hers and on her body. She lifted her hands to her face and pressed her fingertips against her lips. It had been so long since she’d been with a man. So long since she’d kissed. Sometimes the thought of kissing intoxicated her. Did men and women still have what her generation called make out sessions?
As she’d matured, she’d decided women must never get over the need to be held. At least she hadn’t. She’d never lost the desire to feel a man’s weight on her and feel him deep inside her body. Though she’d had little of that in her short marriage because her husband had been so angry and so filled with resentment. But she’d had enough to know what she was missing as the years had passed.
The trouble was, she didn’t want just any man. She wanted a special man. One she cared about and who cared about her. She hated to be pessimistic, but she didn’t think there was a man like that for her. If there was, then he sure wasn’t in the small town of Vance. Wistfully, she thought if she ever did find a man to unlock the passion inside her, she’d accept him without regret for what the future might hold. Life was passing so fast.
Her hands returned to fixing her hair. Time didn’t just march on. It ran. Though everyone always told her she looked young for her age, she knew where to find the silver hairs in her strawberry blond hair. She wore little makeup most of the time but faithfully used moisturizer and sun screen so her skin was good. All the hard physical work she did in the yard had made her body toned and had given her arms and legs any fitness trainer would envy.
She stuck her tongue out at her reflection then laughed, feeling silly at taking such inventory. What did it matter if she had firm breasts and a terrific butt? It wasn’t like anyone ever saw her in her birthday suit. And that was okay. She had accepted her solitary state and was comfortable with her life. But, oh, sometimes that old restless, hunger possessed her, and she longed for more. Maybe it was the questions Susannah had asked last night that had made her start thinking about everything again.
Quickly, she tidied up her bedroom, grabbed an old blanket and what she called her nap pillow from the linen closet and took them outside. She spread the blanket beneath the dappled shade of a river birch tree and tossed the pillow on it. Then she gathered the rest of the things she needed for her Saturday yard work. A pitcher of ice water and a plastic tumbler, the CD player, the latest romance novel Grace had loaned her, and a clean pair of gardening gloves. She set the pitcher and tumbler on the table on the porch and placed the book and the CD player on the blanket.
She heard the phone ring so she ran for it. She didn’t need Caller ID to know who was calling. She answered it at the kitchen wall phone. Grace was eager for a report so Rory filled her in. As Grace chattered, Rory saw the note Susannah had left on the small bulletin board by the phone. Walter Bofco’s number. She remembered how Hogan had described the man. Single and rich. She tried to imagine such a man showing up on her doorstep to “check up on her.” She couldn’t think of any reason why the poor man would look in on her. She wasn’t an invalid.
Briefly, she wondered if Bofco was more attractive and younger than the other bachelors in Vance who could more rightly be called old geezers. Of course, to her way of thinking, the name Walter Bofco didn’t exactly sound like a gorgeous playboy. The name brought to mind someone of her grandparents’ generation.
Maybe Walter the Mayor would appreciate her gardening muscles and her other assets. Rory suppressed a giggle at that thought. Whether he was attractive or an old fuddy duddy, she doubted he’d give her the time of day. By virtue of being rich and single, he’d have women coming at him from every direction. Women prettier, and younger, than a lowly bookkeeper more at home in ragged jeans than cocktail dresses.
“Listen, Grace, I need to get out into the yard before the sun gets any higher. I’ll let you know if Susannah calls.” She listened for a moment then laughed. “Okay, you’re right. I’m only going to work a little. I’ve got the book you gave me last week, and I plan to spend the whole morning reading. No, I don’t need anything, and, yes, you’ll be the first I call if I do.”
Rory smiled fondly as she hung the phone up. Small towns were wonderful, but sometimes she wished she lived an anonymous life in the city where no one knew her habits. She dropped the piece of note paper with the Mayor’s phone number on the kitchen counter.
She paused to slip her feet into her yard shoes, a pair of old sneakers minus the laces, that she kept by the back door. Then she went to the garage for a pair of small gardening shears she kept in a bucket containing a mixture of motor oil and sand. She wiped the blades on the folded rag she kept next to the bucket, grabbed an empty bushel basket and marched over to the climbing roses. She set the basket down, hit the play button on the CD player, and began clipping the spent roses.
As she snipped the faded blooms with the sharp shears, she listened to a Kenny G CD and tossed the trimmings into the basket. She hummed along with the mellow music while she worked her magic on the old-fashioned bushes. Their heady perfume flooded her senses. Finished, she stepped back and nodded, pleased with her handiwork.
Satisfied, Rory stripped off the gloves and tossed them on top of the pile of brown rose petals in the basket and went to get a drink of water from the pitcher on the porch table. She pulled the elastic band from her pony tail and laid it on the table and kicked off her shoes and left them on the porch steps. Barefoot, she returned to the blanket, ready to settle down for a good reading session.
Everyone laughed at her penchant for lying on a blanket in the yard and reading the morning away. It was a habit she’d developed while Susannah had been away at college. Saturdays the empty house had felt especially lonely without her daughter so she’d started spending the day outside. If the weather was just right, she’d lay on the old blanket and take a mini-vacation in the pages of a book.
With a sigh of pleasure, she stretched out on the faded blue cotton. The music lulled her, and the warm morning relaxed her. She adjusted the pillow under her head and picked up the romance novel. Without a twinge of guilt, she read the last couple of pages of the book. She wanted to make sure the story had a happily ever after worthy of spending her Saturday on it.
Satisfied with what she read, she returned to the first page. The quiet buzz of honeybees flitting around the many blooming flowers made her even sleepier. She was having a hard time getting into the story. Bored, she found herself flipping through the book, stopping at a love scene only ten pages into the story. Though the scene was hot enough to singe her fingers, she found it difficult to feel any connection to the heroine who was performing oral sex on a detective for the purpose apparently of getting him to take her case. Rory hooted with laughter and tossed the book aside. She just didn’t like the kind of stories where women gave men sexual gratification without getting any in return. That was too much like real life.
She wanted to read a book where a woman had hot sex, and drove the man wild with the desire to do nothing but please her in bed. Maybe she’d ask Grace if she had bought any of the new erotica books she kept seeing in the grocery store. Reading one of those would be about the closest she’d ever get to hot, steamy, sizzling sex.
For a while, she watched the fluffy clouds through the lacy tree branches and imagined pictures in their shapes. Her thoughts drifted. She fantasized about a man lying next to her, pulling her into his arms, kissing her just like the hero in a romance novel kissed. Slowly and thoroughly. This fantasy man knew how to touch her and where she wanted to be touched. Like the old song, he had slow hands.
Drowsy, she thought small towns might have their drawbacks, but this was something she bet city dwellers didn’t dare do, lay outside on a blanket and feel perfectly at ease and safe while they daydreamed. Rory smiled at her fantasy man as she drifted asleep.
* * *
Walter Bofco had knocked on the front door for several minutes but no one had answered. He looked around, impressed by the landscaping. As Susannah had said, it was the most beautiful yard in town. He knocked again.
Odd. There was an old minivan in the driveway. He didn’t actually know how old Susannah’s mother was. Perhaps she was elderly and still infirm after her surgery. Susannah had said she was fine, but her uncle had called him and said he was worried about Rory Quinn. Barney had asked Walter to drop by and check on her.
Walter had hesitated. True, he’d been forced to say he’d keep an eye on the woman, but he did have other plans for the day. Then Barney had said Grace and her husband were out of town and had taken Barney’s wife with them, and Barney couldn’t leave the office because he was waiting for a call from the Department of Public Safety. The officers on the weekend shift were working an accident out on the highway.
“All right, all right. I give up,” Walter had said with a laugh. “I’ll take care of it.” Amused as much as exasperated, Walter wondered why Barney didn’t have a cell phone so he could be reached at any time, then he wouldn’t have to stay in the office.
Well, he’d tried his best. He could call Barney and tell him, with a clear conscience, that he’d paid a visit, but no one had been home. Yet, Walter could swear he heard music. He let his ears lead him as he followed the porch around the house, dodged an old-fashioned oak swing hung from the ceiling, and skirted a wicker table and chairs.
A pitcher of water with slivers of ice floating in it sat on the round table. A half full red plastic tumbler emblazoned with the name Sunset Red’s Café sat next to the pitcher.
From the porch, he saw a woman lying on a blanket in the yard. The music he heard came from a stereo near her feet. He started down the back steps. To his amusement, the woman seemed to be asleep. How trusting people in small towns were. He started to call out, but something, curiosity perhaps, held him back. He wanted a better look at this sleeping beauty.
Five feet away from her, Walter stopped. This couldn’t be Susannah’s mother. She was tanned and toned and entirely too young to have a daughter as old as Susannah. As he got to the edge of the blanket, he could see faint smile lines near her eyes and bracketing her mouth, but that didn’t detract from her attractiveness. She certainly wasn’t an invalid.
He couldn’t think of fitting words to describe the lithe form lying at his feet. Just as he couldn’t decide if her hair was more red than blond or vice versa. He guessed it was what people referred to as strawberry blond. He felt silly analyzing her looks, and even sillier when the name Sleeping Beauty kept echoing in his mind. His pulse leapt as he crouched. The thought of calling out and waking her had gotten lost in his appreciation of her body.
She was built much the same as her daughter with long, lean muscles. Funny, he’d never had these kind of feelings when he’d looked at Susannah. Just watching the sleeping woman was playing hell with his libido. A fine sheen of perspiration covered her sun-kissed skin. The top she wore had slid off her shoulders as she’d slept. His hands itched to touch her and discover if her skin was as silky as it looked.
What color were her eyes? Walt moved closer. Closer. Finally, he hunkered down on the edge of the blanket. That’s when she opened her eyes.
They were an incredible shade of gray-blue with gold flecks.
Walt was immediately aware of two things. One, he had the most painful erection, and, two, the woman was about to scream her head off.
He stood abruptly. “I’m sorry. Don’t be scared. I’m Walter Bofco. The Mayor.” He hastened to add, “of Murphy’s Cove. I know your daughter. And your brother. Barney asked me to drop by and, uh, see if you needed anything since Susannah was gone.”
Walt realized he was babbling like an idiot and sweating bullets. He maintained eye contact with her and hoped like hell she didn’t notice his crotch. My God! He was acting like a hormonal school boy with no self control. It wasn’t as if it was the first time he’d ever seen an attractive woman!
She sat up quickly and looked him over. Her eyes rounded. She scooted back on the blanket, away from him. “Yes, I’ve heard of you. Thank you for dropping by. Uh, you can go now if you don’t mind.”
Walt felt his face turn bright red. He knew she’d seen the way his pants tented over his erection. “Certainly. I didn’t mean to intrude. You just looked so beautiful, uh, I mean, relaxed that I hated to wake you.” He turned and pointed to the porch. In a strangled voice, he said, “I saw a pitcher of water there. Would you mind if I poured myself a glass? It’s such a hot day.”
“No, I don’t mind. Go, please.” Gracefully, she rose to her feet in one fluid motion. “Glasses are in the kitchen, the cupboard to the right of the sink.”
Walt couldn’t have moved if his life had depended on it. Cement boots wouldn’t have held him as securely to the ground as the vision of Rory Quinn did with her tousled hair, sleek arms and legs, and a thin white tank top that left little to the imagination. He could see not only the shape of her nipples but the shadow of the areola as well. And he’d never seen anything so sexy in his entire life.
Rory shoved her hair back behind her ears with her left hand. The movement caused her top to slip another notch. It slanted crookedly from left to right and dipped low over her right breast. His treacherous eyes could not, would not, move away from where the white cotton hovered, barely covering her nipple. He swore he could see a tiny edge of pink peeking above the cotton. Desire throbbed through him. If he didn’t get away from her, Walt figured he was going to embarrass himself in a way he hadn’t done since he’d had his first sexual encounter.
Rory’s face had been pale with fear, now she blushed crimson when she realized where his gaze was planted. She turned her back. “Why don’t you go find a glass in the kitchen? I’ll join you on the porch.”
“Okay. Sure. Thank you.” Walt felt about as articulate as a robot.
While she adjusted her top, Walt had the consolation prize of looking at her beautifully shaped butt before he turned and all but ran for the porch, with thoughts of looking for camouflage.
In the house, he pulled out his mental bag of tricks in order to subdue his rampaging lust while he opened and closed cupboard doors. Once he found the glasses, he grabbed a plastic tumbler like the one he’d seen on the porch and hurried back. Thankfully, his body calmed.
Rory walked up the steps. Her arms crossed protectively over her chest, neatly obscuring her breasts. Yet he remembered the trace of pink he’d seen. He nearly groaned aloud. All his mental tricks had been for nought. He was getting hard again. Disgusted for acting as if he hadn’t had sex in a century, he grabbed the water pitcher and held it low in front of his hard-on, waiting for Rory to sit before he took the chair opposite.
He tried to fill both tumblers, but he sloshed water onto the table. This was ridiculous. He had a reputation for being suave, but he was acting like a horny fourteen-year-old virgin on a first date, hoping to get lucky.
“Are you all right?” Rory asked.
He looked up. She looked as if she were hiding a smile. Her eyes entrapped his. They stared at each other for several long moments. The amusement on her face faded. He felt a connection with her. He wasn’t imagining it. She felt it too. Her gaze dropped. Pink color flooded her face. He opened his mouth to speak, then closed it. He couldn’t say what was in his mind. How could he tell this woman that he’d just met that the only way he could ever be all right, was if he could lay with her on her old blanket out in the yard? And remove her clothes and kiss every inch of her. And give her what his body so wanted to give.
“Mr. Bofco?” Rory asked, her voice the softest whisper.
“Mrs. Quinn,” he said in the same moment. They both fell silent. Her eyes met his then danced away. To his amazement, he could see the pulse pounding at the base of her throat. “Walt. Call me Walt.”
“Rory,” she whispered. She looked up. Her eyes met his. “Call me Rory,” she said in a stronger, more assertive voice.
Walt held his breath. This was crazy. But he thought she was feeling the same thing he was feeling.
Rory’s blush deepened. “Walt, I’m going to ask you something weird.”
“Go ahead. I’m open to weird.” Part of his brain jeered that his daughter would find that difficult to believe.
“What’s your middle name?”
“What?” Some of his tension eased. “Why do you want to know that?”
Softly, Rory said, “Because Walter doesn’t fit you. Walter’s a name for an old geezer, and you’re definitely not an old geezer.”
“I’m not? My daughter would definitely disagree with you there.” After a moment, he said, “Is Willard any better?”
“Willard,” Rory shook her head sadly. “No, it doesn’t suit a man like you either.”
He found himself grinning at her, flirting. “And what kind of man am I?”
* * *
Rory looked at him. At first she thought she’d dreamed him up. Her fantasy man come to life. He did something to her. Made her feel something she’d waited for years to feel. Her heart had already been beating fast, but now it kicked into high gear. She took a deep breath and gathered her courage.
Blame it on the fact that she’d noticed he had an erection as he’d looked at her out in the yard. Blame it on the fact that she knew he was available. And safe. Not some stranger off the street that no one knew. Blame it on her earlier thoughts or blame it on the erotic dream she’d been having, but she was going to do something she’d only read about in books. She was going to try to seduce him.
“You’re attractive, intelligent, and something about you makes me want to be brave. Or foolish. I haven’t figured out yet which it is.” Rory laughed. “I have the oddest feeling that I’ve been waiting a long time to meet you.”
“Maybe that’s,” he croaked, stopped, cleared his throat. “Maybe that’s what they call destiny.”
“Destiny?” Rory smiled. She looked at him in a way that she hoped was seductive. “Maybe it is. I want to tell you something.”
“Certainly. Go ahead.”
She studied his face. He was handsome. Tanned, with a chiseled jaw, dark brown hair going gray at the temples and brown eyes that should have been deep and mysterious, yet they seemed remarkably without guile. If she saw anything in his eyes, it was admiration. And possibly heat that matched hers. Rory’s anxiety eased. “I warn you it’s something private. Intimate.”
“Intimate?” his voice seemed to deepen. Softly, he encouraged. “Go ahead. I’m even more open to intimate.”
Rory laughed softly, “If you’d like to leave, now would be a good time.”
“This is one of the strangest conversations I’ve ever had, but I don’t think I could walk away from it, from you, if I wanted to. Go ahead. I’m waiting.”
“Since you live down at the Cove instead of in town, you probably haven’t heard the gossip about me before,” Rory began. To her surprise, this wasn’t as difficult as she’d thought it would be. “I’ve lived my whole life trying to prove to everyone in town wrong.” She saw the surprise in his eyes, but she didn’t stop. “I just want you to know I’m not a slut.”
“If I’ve offended you,” he said in a rush, “I apologize. I don’t know what’s come over me since I stepped into your back yard. It was just something about you that, that, well, that spoke to me.”
“That’s not why I said that. I want you to know that I don’t sleep around. Don’t think that what I’m about to say is something I say to every man.”
“At the moment, I can’t think of anything except how to control myself.”
Though Walt laughed as if he were making a joke, Rory sensed he meant what he said about control because she felt dangerously out of control herself. She shrugged and looked over at him. “Actually, I haven’t even had sex in more years than I want to admit.”
Walt started to say something, but Rory reached out and pressed her fingertips to his mouth to silence him. She felt instant heat rising inside her. To her shock, his lips puckered. He kissed her fingertips. She jerked her hand away as if he’d bit her.
They stared at each other. Rory unfolded her arms. She saw his gaze drop to her breasts then jerk back to meet her eyes. She didn’t understand it, but she was positive he wanted her as much as she wanted him. She pushed her chair back and stepped around the table to stand in front of him. “Would you mind very much if I kissed you?”
“God, no!” He started to rise, but she stopped him.
“Please, if you’d just sit still and let me kiss you?”
When he nodded, Rory leaned down, cupped his face, closed her eyes, and pressed her lips to his mouth. She heard him groan as if he were in pain. The table grated on the floor. She opened her eyes and pulled back a little. Walt gripped the edge of the table with both hands and appeared to be hanging on for dear life.
“Would you kiss me back please?”
With a guttural cry, Walt’s hands came up and tangled in her hair. His mouth slanted over hers, and he thrust his tongue into her mouth. Rory captured it and felt a tremor rack his body. His hands reached out and grasped her shoulders and pulled her to him. He took command of the kiss, shaping her lips, tracing them with the tip of his tongue, then plunging into her mouth.
Rory felt weak. When he pulled her onto his lap, she felt the unmistakable ridge of an iron-hard erection. She kissed him back and gasped when his mouth left hers to slide down her throat and bite the sensitive cord there. She pulled his mouth back to hers. She’d gone years without this, and she intended to savor every moment. She felt his heart pounding in his chest against her breast. With what little brain she had left, she was thinking about sliding her top down and pulling his mouth to her breast.
He pulled away. “Rory,” he panted. “I can’t take it. I’m so close to coming that it’s not even funny.”
Rory’s eyes were huge in her face. She had difficulty catching her breath. Her lips were wet and felt overly sensitive. The pulse pounded at the apex of her thighs. His erection throbbed against her bottom. “I haven’t done anything except kiss you,” she whispered, not ready to stop.
“No, you’ve enchanted me. From the minute I saw you asleep. I’m old enough to know better, but I think I’ll die if I can’t make love to you.”
To his surprise, Rory laughed softly. “Well, I wouldn’t know how to explain a dead mayor on my back porch.”
Walt smacked the heel of his hand against his forehead. “Damn! I don’t have any condoms.”
She looked taken aback, then she smiled ruefully. “Well, don’t look at me. I’ve been celibate for about two decades.” Her confession fell like a stone into still water. She lowered her head, embarrassed by her own bluntness.
Walt tipped her chin up until she looked into his eyes. “I haven’t been. But there isn’t anyone special in my life. There really hasn’t been since my wife died.”
Rory smiled. “Good.”
“Let’s try this again. The right way. Rory, would you like to have dinner with me tonight?”
“Why, yes, Walt, I would.”
He took a deep breath and exhaled. “I’ll pick you up at eight.”
“I’ll be ready.”
Then he set her on her feet and stood, carefully adjusting himself. When he took a couple of deep breaths and tried to walk it off, Rory giggled. “You’re walking funny.”
“I feel funny.” He gave her a sheepish grin. “I think that’s my exit line. I’ll see you tonight.”
Susannah knew the trip from her house down to Murphy’s Cove wouldn’t take very long, and she didn’t intend to waste a minute of it. Hogan would learn that payback was a given. She couldn’t have him thinking she was a doormat.
“Let’s see. D. E. must stand for Dilbert Erasmus. Right?”
Other than a grunt, Hogan didn’t respond to Susannah’s guess.
The car accelerated. Gratified at the scowl on his face, she had to raise her voice to be heard over the engine noise and the rushing wind. “Are you speeding, Darnell?”
“Look, just call me darling in front of other people. When we’re alone, make it Hogan. Think you can do that, Deputy Quinn?”
“I can if you can. Darling.” Her grin turned into laughter when he punched the accelerator again. The Porsche jumped. The wide brim of her hat caught the wind and flapped violently. Susannah removed it and anchored it in her lap.
Hogan looked over and smirked. “Want me to put the top up?”
She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “Not at all. I love the feel of the wind in my face.”
Once they cleared the city limits, Hogan kicked it up to a speed that brought out the best in the sports car, forcing himself to keep his attention on the road, not on Susannah.
Wind tore through her short curls. Fruit stands and bait shops blurred past as they raced down to the coast. Susannah closed her eyes, loving every minute even though she knew he was speeding and therefore breaking the law. Good thing she’d left her ticket book at home.
When the car slowed, she opened her eyes and saw the stone arch marking the entrance to the enclave of condos, hotels, and million dollar villas known as Murphy’s Cove, home away from home for the world-weary wealthy. The Texas Gulf coast was an undiscovered playground, or so the Cove’s tourist info proclaimed. The one thing that couldn’t be denied is that it kept the economies of several nearby small towns afloat.
Since the Third Coast was the only one Susannah had been to, she didn’t have much to compare it to, but to her eyes it really was lovely. Excitement swirled through her. She’d lived in Alton County all her life and had driven around Murphy’s Cove often, ogling the grand buildings that lined the beach. The only architectural restriction for the community was that each building had to be Spanish-style and be topped with a red clay tiled roof.
Pink, red, and white oleanders in full bloom lined the boulevard. Susannah had always thought the little town was one of the most beautiful places she’d ever seen. Now, as an adult, the Cove still enchanted her.
Las Brisas, the half-moon shaped hotel where they had a two-bedroom suite reserved, courtesy of the Mayor, offered an ocean view from every room. Amenities included a gym, a spa, boutiques, gift shops, a salon for hair and nails, a pool designed like a tropical lagoon, five-star restaurants, and lounges boasting live entertainment. Or so the brochure said.
Each room had a full array of electronic and technological gadgets for those who couldn’t isolate themselves from the real world. Sago palms, gingko trees, oleanders, and crape myrtles of every hue bordered the lushly landscaped grounds that usually had her mother salivating when they drove around the resort town.
Susannah could hardly contain her excitement as Hogan pulled under the porte cochere and cut the engine. Two parking valets hurried over. Hogan tossed the keys to one. The other opened her door. She placed the hat atop her windblown curls and smiled her thanks. The young man smiled back and beckoned to a bellman who hurried over with a luggage carrier.
When Hogan touched her arm, her pulse leaped. She whirled. The wide brim of her black straw hat smacked him right in the face, knocking his expensive sunglasses off.
“Awww.” he yelped, grabbing his eye.
“Sorry. Did I catch you in the eye?”
“Yeah, but that’s okay. I’ve got another one.” He bent to retrieve his glasses from the pavement.
“You were standing too close.” Susannah hoped the complaint hid her breathlessness.
“We’re supposed to be in love. Remember?” He grabbed her arm, but his grip was gentle.
“You can be in love without being pawed to death.” She resisted his unnerving touch. His grip tightened, causing, not pain, but a deeper awareness she didn’t want to feel.
“Guess you’ve never been in love, darling.”
His taunt hurt. “And you have, Darling?”
“A time or two.”
“Yeah, that sounds like true love. Each time I’m sure.” She tossed her head, catching him across the forehead with her hat.
“Would you take off that damned hat before you blind me in the other eye?”
“It’s part of my ensemble.”
“I don’t care. Why would you even want a hat the size of an umbrella?”
“This is my disguise. I can’t take it off.”
“You don’t need a disguise. You’re supposed to be seen.”
“Maybe I’m not ready to be seen yet.”
“Quit scowling.” Hogan ducked under the brim of her head, leaned down and whispered, “Well, are you ready to smile and act as if you’re happy to be spending a romantic week with your husband?”
He was close enough to kiss. The thought shook her to her red-tipped toenails. She felt breathless. “Do I have a choice?”
“Sure. You can always go home.” He stepped away and took her arm to escort her into the lobby.
Susannah tried to ignore the heat spiraling through her body. Sternly, she scolded herself and then him. “Listen, Buster.”
“Buster?” He laughed. “What decade were you born in?”
Susannah’s scowl deepened. “Just because we’re going to be stuck in a room together for a week, don’t get any ideas. Try anything, and you’ll be walking crooked for the rest of the week.”
“Oh, I’m shaking in my shoes.” Hogan ducked under the brim of the hat again and leaned close to her ear. “Better watch it, Deputy. I might be the kind of man who can’t turn down a dare from a beautiful woman.”
Beautiful woman? Her? The tiny hairs on the back of her neck tingled. She imagined his mouth brushing a kiss at the nape of her neck or on the curve of her ear. Excitement rippled through her. Thankfully, he didn’t notice.
He moved out from under the brim of her hat. In a near growl, he commanded, “Act sweet. I know it’ll be a stretch but try.”
Susannah clasped her hands around his arm and squeezed with all her strength while she smiled and cooed at him. Hogan winced, but remained silent as they stepped into the lobby.
On their way to registration, Susannah noticed they attracted an inordinate amount of attention from an attractive blonde who was walking across the marble floor. The woman actually stopped in her tracks and stared.
“Hogan?” The blonde squealed.
To Susannah’s shock, the woman rushed over and threw herself into Hogan’s arms, kissing him on both cheeks as he flushed a red as bright as the lipstick that now decorated his bronzed face.
Susannah, still clutching his arm, felt as if she’d had the breath knocked out of her. With what sounded, even to her ears, like a jealous hiss, she asked, “Old girlfriend? Darling.”
* * *
Hogan eased out of Susannah’s grasp first and then disentangled himself from the blonde. Things were going wrong already. He took one look at Susannah’s stony face and regretted again that he’d gotten caught in Yvonne’s mess which Walter was only making messier. “Allison, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, Hogan. I’ve missed your face. You never call, you bad boy.” The blonde looked over at Susannah as if she’d just noticed her. “Oh. New girl? You naughty boy.”
Before he could say a word, Susannah grabbed his arm again and said in a voice that would freeze water in Hades, “I’m not a new girl. I’m his wife.”
“Wife?” The woman echoed. Her mouth dropped open in shock as she looked from Susannah to Hogan and then back again. She whirled on Hogan. “This is unforgivable. When did you get married? And why wasn’t I told?”
As Hogan sputtered, Susannah said, “I’m Susannah. And you are?”
“Allison Platt, of course. Surely Hogan’s mentioned me.”
“Of course.” Susannah hugged Hogan’s arm to her breasts. “If you’ll excuse us, Allison, we’re late. Come along, darling.”
“But, Hogan,” Allison protested, looking puzzled.
Despite Susannah’s tugging, Hogan didn’t move. “Allison, does your dad know you’re here?”
“Not yet. But I’m sure he will soon enough. Too soon for my comfort.” She giggled. “You’re not really married to her or you?”
“I’ll call you later,” he whispered. Apparently, he hadn’t spoken soft enough. Susannah stepped on his foot.
“But, darling, you promised you’d given up all your women.” She ground the black high heel into his instep. “This isn’t the time or place to break your promise. Now is it?”
Hogan winced. “I’m painfully aware of how right you are. Now would you get off what’s left of my foot?”
“Oh, sorry, darling, did I step on your poor little footsy wootsy? I’ll have to kiss it and make it well.” She smiled brightly at Allison and said in her best bimbo voice, “I promise Hogie Wogie and I will get together with you before we leave. I’d just love the chance to get acquainted with one of his old girlfriends.”
“Hogie Wogie?” Allison giggled. “Yes, that would be entertaining as well as educational to have you and,” she snickered, “Hogie Wogie explain what’s going on. About your relationship that is.”
“Are you staying here, or with your dad?” Hogan asked.
“Never with Dad. You know that. We’d kill each other inside of an hour. Just call my cell.”
“I’ll call you,” he promised.
“Don’t wait too long.” She favored Susannah with a brilliant smile. “My curiosity is killing me.”
“Too bad. You know what curiosity did to that other cat, don’t you?” Susannah asked.
While Allison Platt laughed and waved goodbye, Hogan rushed Susannah over to registration. The screw-ups had already begun. Walter was going to have a stroke when he found out Allison was home for a visit. He closed his eyes and shook his head in exasperation. Had his cousin been kicked out of another college?
“So who was that and who is her dad?”
“Nobody and none of your business.” Hogan didn’t want to open this particular can of worms if he could help it because it would just mean that other, bigger, can of worms would blow.
* * *
Susannah pursed her lips and stared at him, irritated that he refused to tell her the truth. She knew he planned on calling that woman. Well, she’d have to see what she could do about that. She held her peace until she and Hogan had checked in.
As they waited for the elevator, standing hand in hand, posed like the perfect couple for all the world to see, she asked, “So is Allison one of the women you’ve had true love with?”
“I don’t want to discuss Allison.”
“Well, is she?” Susannah persisted.
“What’s the matter, wifey? Jealous?”
“Ha. What would I be jealous of? She’s nothing special though I’ll admit she’s kind of pretty in an obvious way.”
“Very pretty.” Hogan grinned and looked at Susannah.
“I didn’t say very. Just pretty.”
“But not as appealing as you,” he added in a low, smooth voice.
Surprised, Susannah’s mouth snapped closed. She blinked. She didn’t have a retort to that. She felt all warm and quivery inside. Then he spoiled it by adding, “But she’s got a much sweeter personality.”
“Very funny.” She jerked her hand, but he held tight.
“Play the part,” he growled, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm.
This was never going to work. By the time the elevator arrived, her smile muscles had frozen, and her hand felt like lead. She stepped into the elevator, relieved that she’d have a few minutes free of this pretense.
Just as the doors started to close, a man called, “Hold the elevator.” He dashed through the doors. “Thank you.”
Susannah could only stare at the handsome, silver-haired man. It wasn’t the British accent that tingled her nerve endings nor the fact that he resembled Cary Grant in that old Doris Day film where Cary offers Doris a mink coat. Though both his looks and his voice were enough to make a woman stop and stare. It was the fact that he was the jewel thief they were out to catch.
She heard Hogan answer him. She could only stare at Thomas McConnell. He looked much more handsome than the photograph she’d been shown.
Here she was face to face with him, and she felt like a dolt. What should she do? Panicked, she turned her back on McConnell and stared at her pretend husband. Hogan was right. She wasn’t ready for this. Her eyes gazed helplessly into Hogan’s. It was all over. He’d send her packing when he saw how frozen in shock she was.
Hogan plucked her hat from her head and pulled her close. The warmth of his body comforted her. She leaned against him in relief. Her nerve endings picked up a signal from his body. A different kind of panic swept over her.
He bent close and kissed her ear lobe. “Relax,” he murmured softly into her ear. “He thinks we’re lovers.”
Relax? How could she relax when she felt as if she would melt into a puddle at his feet? That was her last coherent thought because Hogan pulled her closes and pressed a gentle kiss on the tender cord at the side of her neck. Lovers? She shivered. She didn’t know whether it was from fear or excitement.
The elevator whooshed upwards. Distantly, Susannah heard bells ringing and a sound that made her think of angels. A tiny part of her consciousness urged her to object. Be outraged. Hogan was taking advantage. A stronger inner voice told outrage to take a hike.
Susannah felt as if she were riding a roller coaster. One moment, dizzy and scared. The next excited. Just hang on tight and enjoy the ride. Her eyes slid shut. She felt Hogan’s soft breath on her cheek. She’d never felt a caress so gentle. It reminded her of the night they’d met when he’d held her so gently.
Somewhere outside herself, out beyond her throbbing body, she heard soft laughter. She was so awash in sensation, she didn’t know if the laughter was real or part of her imagination. Maybe it came from the same place as the ringing bells and the angel music.
Hogan drew back. Her eyes opened. She stared dreamily into his blue, watchful gaze. He really did have beautiful eyes. She smiled.
“We’ve stopped,” he whispered.
“McConnell’s gone. We’re alone.”
“Ummm. Alone.” Her smile widened. “Good.” It was the flash of amusement in his eyes, and the smile hovering about his lips that brought reality crashing back.
She stiffened. “What are you doing?” She became aware of soft new age music pouring from the ceiling speaker. So it wasn’t Hogan’s nearness that had made her hear bells and harp strings.
“Protecting your anonymity?”
Susannah pushed at his chest. “Get off me.” She grabbed her hat from his hand.
“Yes, ma’am.” Hogan set her away from him and grinned. “Don’t you trust me?”
Trust him? Those two words cooled her hot blood more effectively than ice cubes. She didn’t trust any man. “Yeah, about as far as I could throw you in an overhand toss.”
How could his touch make her lose herself so completely? She righted her hat and gruffly apologized. “Sorry. I kind of blanked when McConnell got in the elevator with us. It won’t happen again.”
To her surprise, he said, “No problem. You’re supposed to attract his attention. I guess you succeeded.”
“That makes me feel so much better,” she muttered. The elevator doors opened on their floor. She was surprised he wasn’t going to give her a hard time over it. “I mean it. It won’t happen again,” she promised and stepped out of the elevator.
Anxious to put some distance between her and the scene of what could easily have been her undoing, she said, “Come on before McConnell shows up again.”
“He got off at the mezzanine to take the elevator that serves the west tower.”
She leveled a cold look at him. “I know that.” But she hadn’t. She probably couldn’t have recited her own name if someone had asked. She turned right and rushed away, hoping she’d chosen the correct direction.
* * *
Hogan watched her disappear around the corner. He stepped out. The elevator door closed. He took a deep breath and exhaled loudly. Until she’d turned all snippy and cold, he’d thought she was as besotted as he. Maybe she was better suited to undercover work than he’d suspected. He was just thankful she hadn’t noticed her effect on him. Another minute with her perfect breasts pressed against his chest, and he’d have said to hell with McConnell, Yvonne, and all the jewels on the planet. He’d have locked down the elevator and done his best to seduce Susannah on the spot.
Actually, that scenario still held vast appeal for him. His hands shook with a fine tremor when he wiped the dampness from his brow. He had to get control of himself before he entered that suite with her. A week in a hotel room with Susannah Quinn was nothing but a recipe for certain disaster. He tried to remind himself that he wasn’t here to make mad, passionate love to Susannah.
Uncomfortably, he shifted and glanced downward. Too bad a certain part of his anatomy hadn’t yet got the message there wasn’t going to be a hot, kinky episode on the floor of the elevator. Hogan sighed and went in search of the woman who threatened to drive him mad.
* * *
Susannah found their suite and seized the moment alone to regain her composure. She closed her eyes and took a couple of deep, badly-needed breaths. Her skin felt hot and too tight to contain her emotions. And she didn’t even want to think about how other parts of her body, parts she’d never given much thought to until she’d met Hogan, felt during and after the interlude in the elevator.
Inside her tiny purse she found the key card she’d been given at check in, but Hogan sauntered up just then. She took one look at him, and the drum beat began again in every erogenous zone she possessed.
Why couldn’t she ignore him? She’d never had a problem ignoring other men. She was an expert at giving the cold shoulder. Was it being in a hotel with him? Was it knowing they were going to be thrown together for a week? Maybe old Cupid had decided her number was up because, despite all her denials and rationalizations, she was attracted to Hogan.
She wanted the difficult man, and she was pretty sure he wanted her too. Beneath all his teasing and joking, she could see the truth. As long as they’d pretended nothing had happened between them when they’d first met, she’d been safe. But how much longer could she ignore the heat between them?
“Here, I’ve got it,” he said reaching past her with the key card, brushing her breast in the process. She jumped as if her skin had been touched with a red hot branding iron. To her relief, he didn’t seem to notice her reaction. When he unlocked the door and pushed it wide, she stepped inside quickly.
“Oh, it’s lovely.” She babbled as she walked around the suite, cataloging the soft sea green and warm coral contemporary furnishings as if she were some television designer.
A huge living room with a curving white velvet chenille sectional occupied most of the space. Short halls led to the left and right from the living room. She guessed they led to the two bedrooms and baths. Draperies of an abstract pattern blending the shades of green and coral hung on either side of an expanse of glass that completed the opposite wall of the living room.
A bar with two upholstered leather bar chairs separated the kitchen from the designer kitchen with granite counter tops and upscale appliances.
Sliding glass doors set in a wall of glass opened onto a long balcony that she’d been told stretched from one bedroom to the other. Beyond the balcony, the Gulf of Mexico gleamed like wet slate in the bright sunlight.
Susannah removed her straw hat and tossed it onto a freeform slab of glass that was the coffee table. The wall opposite the sectional sofa held enough electronics to satisfy any media enthusiast. When she had her emotions well in hand, she turned to Hogan and exclaimed, “This is incredible. Just look at that view.”
Hogan made a noncommittal reply and reached for the phone. She heard him talking to the bell captain about their luggage which should have been in the room by the time they’d arrived.
As he replaced the receiver, he said, “Our stuff’s on the way up. Let’s check out the bedrooms and figure out where to set up the camera.”
“Good idea.” His brisk professionalism surprised her. It was as if the sexy interlude in the elevator hadn’t happened. Feeling a bit piqued, she followed him down the short hall to the right of the living room. Well, she could be brusque and business like too. She shouldn’t be annoyed that his demeanor had changed, she scolded herself. She should be glad. That would make the week easier if they were both professionals.
At the bedroom doorway, she stopped abruptly. She swallowed hard and stared at the room in front of her.
Oh, my goodness. That wasn’t a bed. That was a. . . . Words eluded her. She hurried inside, trying to avoid looking at the monolithic bed, but it was impossible to keep her eyes off the massive carved mahogany bed setting on a raised dais six inches above the rest of the floor. The canopy bed was big enough to set sail in the Gulf and would probably make it all the way to Cuba without mishap.
Sheer gold-hued mosquito netting hung from the polished wood rails and could easily serve as sails. The dull sheen of burnished gold beckoned lovers to lie on the coverlet and lounge against the small mountain of sea green, gold, and coral silk pillows piled against the headboard.
“If it’s okay with you, I’ll set up in here.” Hogan said, seeming not to notice the bed. Or her reaction.
“Good. Great. No problem.” Susannah tore her gaze from the mahogany monument to romance. She studied everything else in the room in her attempt to keep her eyes from the amazing piece of furniture. It wasn’t just a place to sleep. It was a haven for two lovers where they could shut out the world and bask in sexuality. She imagined herself and Hogan in that bed, wrapped in. . . .
“Susannah, are you listening?”
“What?” Her startled eyes swung to him.
Hogan stared at her. His face was flushed. He looked as hot as she felt, but when he spoke, he was brusque. Impatient. “I asked if you wanted this bedroom?”
Only if you come with it.
Her eyes rounded. For a split second, she wondered if she’d actually said that aloud instead of just thinking it. But Hogan just stared at her as if he were exasperated while he waited for her to answer. “No. Not at all. The other will do just fine. Unless you want the other room? After all, you’re going to sleep where you set up the cameras, right?”
She sidled toward the door. “I think I’ll just unpack. That is when my bags get here. Maybe take a shower. I’m a bit hungry. How about you? Let me see what’s in the refrigerator.” She knew she was babbling like an idiot, but she couldn’t help it. She kept her eyes averted. Best not to look at that bed. Not even think about it with Hogan in it.
She forced a laugh. “It really doesn’t matter. About the room. I’m sure one is as good as the other. I can’t wait to see the other room. In fact, I’ll go look at it right now.” She fled. Maybe she could escape desire. Elude the overwhelming sense of awareness by outrunning it.
“I’ll get the camera set up,” Hogan called after her. “I’m hungry too. Let me know if there’s any food in there.”
As Susannah fairly raced across the living room, there was a knock on the door. She reversed and went to the door to let the bellman in. “Darling,” she trilled. “Our bags have arrived.”
Hogan came out and waved the bellman toward the room that would be his.
While the bellman went about his duties, Susannah busied herself with checking out the fridge. She felt a moment of panic when the bellman left, and she was again alone with Hogan.
He locked the door and put the safety lock on then proceeded to completely ignore her. “As soon as I get the camera set up, I’ll carry your bags to your room,” he called over his shoulder as he headed back to the bedroom he had claimed.
Susannah wished she could settle on a set of emotions and quit being confused, one moment piqued that he’d acted as if nothing had happened between them then relieved the next. Despite her good intentions, she found herself returning to the room with the bed.
Had Hogan felt none of the feelings that had coursed through her body when his lips had touched her throat? Was she the only one plagued by unprofessional thoughts? From the bedroom doorway, she watched him unpack a camera, tripod, and telephoto lens big enough to see Saturn. If the Mayor had paid for all this, he’d spent a small fortune.
Though she’d pressed her uncle as to why he was going along with the Mayor and Hogan and sanctioning something that wasn’t strictly on the up and up. He’d said he trusted them. Then he’d winked and added that he thought she might like a week away from the dusty files. She’d kissed him on the cheek and thanked him and decided she’d have to find the answer to her questions. She knew she wouldn’t be able to list this assignment on a resume, but she planned to gain from the experience nonetheless. And it really was a thousand times better than going through cartons of papers that were nearly as old as she.
Personally, she’d thought the days spent here might also shed some light on Hogan. There was more to him than the easy-going flirt he’d impersonated since he’d arrived in Alton County. He hadn’t been that way when she’d met him the first time. That night he’d been compassionate and caring. Now as she looked at him, she saw still another persona. His eyes gleamed with intelligence, not the lazy flirtation she’d grown accustomed to seeing. He was focused on the task at hand. He handled the camera and equipment with practiced ease.
“What are we going to do when the maid shows up?” Susannah asked.
“I’ve left instructions that we don’t want to be disturbed. Not even by housekeeping. After all, we’re young and in love,” he said, sounding faintly derisive.
Young and in love? The chances of that were as remote as his voice had suddenly become. Somehow, that made Susannah feel dejected so she focused on Hogan. How quick and sure his hands were as he put the camera and tripod together. What was it the Mayor had said? Hogan was experienced. What kind of experience? She realized she knew very little about him. And unless she slept with him, she’d never even know his name.
How could she have fallen for a man who wouldn’t reveal his given name? Susannah felt sick in the pit of her stomach as that thought echoed.
“What?” Hogan asked, looking up. “You look weird. Are you all right?”
“Yes. Absolutely.” She sounded breathless even to her own ears. She was a fool. D. E. Hogan was a man who was just passing through on his way to bigger and better things.
Had she really been foolish enough to fall for him?