THE TROUBLE WITH LOVE(chap 14-last)

Chapter 14
Susannah closed her eyes tightly. When I open my eyes, I’ll see that the woman giggling and cooing at Walter Bofco can’t be my mother. She counted to ten and opened her eyes. The woman was still there, and she was still her mom.

“Welcome to Bizarro-land.”

“What did you say?” Hogan asked.

Susannah set her champagne glass down with such force the liquid sloshed over the rim. She didn’t know which question to consider first. Hogan’s or the question of what was her mother doing here or the question of what was she doing here with the Mayor of Murphy’s Cove?

“What is it?” Hogan murmured.

“Nothing.” She couldn’t tell him. She and Hogan had to keep up their cover with Allison eyeing them suspiciously and Thomas McConnell over at the bar. Maybe the Platt woman knew something was amiss, but she couldn’t risk drawing attention to herself because McConnell might take note.

Hogan frowned at her but didn’t speak. Instead he looked around the sparsely populated bar. She knew exactly when he saw her mother and the mayor. His shocked gaze locked onto hers.

“What the hell is he doing?” Hogan muttered.

Susannah shrugged. “You got me.”

She couldn’t tear her gaze from the couple, but she tried to be discreet as she watched. The mayor’s manners were impeccable as he guided Rory toward an empty table. He seemed gentle and solicitous, but there was something else. His face looked different when he looked at Rory Quinn. He didn’t look like the no-nonsense Army colonel. He looked like. . . . Susannah gulped some of the bubbly. He looked enchanted. Besotted.

They had eyes only for each other. It irritated her that they were completely unaware of the rest of the room’s occupants as they gazed into each other’s eyes. What on earth was wrong with her mother?

Susannah’s eyes narrowed. And where had she got that green sheath dress that hugged her body and revealed a figure Susannah had never noticed before? And what was with Rory’s hair. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d seen her mom with her hair styled. Even when she went to church, she just ran a brush through it. But tonight, Rory’s shining reddish-blond hair was carefully groomed. She’d parted it on the right side, and it fell in waves to her shoulders. And she was wearing heels. True, they were low heels in deference to her recent recovery from foot surgery, but they were still heels. Strappy, sexy, gold evening heels.

As she gazed at the couple over the rim of her champagne glass, her mother tipped her head back and laughed melodiously at something the mayor said. Oh, my goodness. Her mother was flirting.

“Wow, your mom looks hot,” Luke said.

Susannah’s eyes jerked to him. Oh, hell. She’d forgotten about Luke. He’d spill the beans to Allison and anyone else paying attention. Before she could stop him, he’d risen and was walking toward Rory and Walter. She felt as if her world were spinning out of control. When Luke stopped at their table and spoke, her mother and Walter looked over and caught Susannah staring at them. They acted like two kids who’d been caught playing spin the bottle. Or something worse.

“Is that your mother?” Allison asked.

“I think so,” Susannah muttered, resigned to make the best of a bad situation. “She looks like my mom.”

“She’s not what I expected.” Allison’s eyes narrowed as she studied Rory Quinn.

“Oh, no. Luke asked them to join us.” Susannah could have kicked him again, much harder, for his perverse sense of humor. He’d better know that she would pay him back. Some way. Some how.

Luke made the introductions. Everyone acted like polite strangers, but the mayor frowned when Allison Platt was introduced. To her surprise, the mayor was quite brusque as he was introduced to Allison.

Susannah marveled at the farce being played for an audience of one, Thomas McConnell who still sat at the bar. As odd as the situation was, it paled in significance to what her mother was doing. She’d been gone only a few days and look what had happened. Rory was wearing heels and makeup and tight dresses and dating a man she couldn’t possibly know. A man she had nothing in common with. She was beginning to think she didn’t know her mother at all.

Her mind flashed back to her last meeting with her father. She’d tried so hard to forget what the hurtful things he’d said. She’d told herself it was just sour grapes. Now, looking at her mother, she wondered.

Walter nodded at Hogan when introductions were completed. “How are you doing?”

“Doing all I can to keep world war three from breaking out.” Hogan grinned, surprising a laugh from the Mayor.

Susannah frowned. She knew Hogan referred to the present situation as well as to the way she acted toward his old girlfriend. If he didn’t like it, then maybe he shouldn’t create dissension by sneaking away to visit the woman.

The men exchanged chitchat for a few minutes while the women eyed each other in silence. For some reason, Allison Platt seemed to be enjoying the scene with a great deal of pleasure. After a bit, the mayor stood and held a hand to Rory who rose. The couple bid them good evening and returned to their table. Luke and Allison resumed their flirting, and she and Hogan stared at each other in silence.

Susannah pressed her hands to her temples. Her head pounded. This was turning out to be the longest day of her life. She could barely make sense of everything that had happened. And she was so angry at her mother. How could her entire world have been turned topsy turvy in such a short time?

She needed to talk some sense to her mother, she decided. She excused herself and went to the ladies room, purposely passing the table where her mother sat. When Rory looked her way, she jerked her head, indicating that she should follow.

Susannah made sure no one else was in the bathroom. Then she leaned against the vanity, arms crossed, foot tapping impatiently against the marble floor. Finally, her mother pushed through the door. Susannah pounced. “Okay, what the hell is going on?”

Rory’s lips tightened. “I thought I might see you tonight. Maybe that was why I agreed to come here instead of someplace outside the Cove.” She smiled gently. “Getting caught in the act was easier than just calling and telling you.”

“What are you talking about? Tell me what?” Susannah couldn’t shake the chill that seemed to be seeping into her bones.

“I guess I should explain.”

“Please do,” Susannah snapped. Then she held up her hand. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to sound like that.” Her shoulders sagged. Tiredly, she went over and sat on the tapestry-covered settee in the corner and leaned her head against the high back. Her eyes closed. “Just tell me what’s going on. The truth please.”

Until last month, she’d thought she could depend on her mother to always be truthful. Now she wasn’t so sure.

“I know I owe you an explanation. It’s just that it’s as hard as I thought it would be. The truth is Walt and I are, well, I told you we were dating.”

Susannah opened her eyes and saw Rory, clutching her beaded evening bag as if it were a life preserver and she was in danger of drowning. “Dating?”

“Actually, it’s more than dating.” Rory’s nervous fingers began to work on the gold chain on her evening bag, twisting and untwisting it.

Susannah stared at the gold chain and felt as if she were being bent and twisted like the metal links. “More than dating? Exactly what does that mean?”

Before Rory could answer, Susannah gasped and looked up. “You don’t mean?” She couldn’t say it. She couldn’t even think it. She shook her head vigorously. “No. Oh no. You can’t be.”

Rory’s hands stilled. She straightened her spine and looked her daughter directly in the eye. “Sleeping with Walt? Not yet, but, I’ll be honest. I want to. I’m going to.”

“But why? I don’t understand.” Susannah just couldn’t picture her mother as a sexual being. Rory was her mom, for heaven’s sake. “Have you lost your mind?”

“No. I finally found it a few years ago.” Rory laughed ruefully. She sat next to Susannah and spoke softly. “This isn’t a conversation I thought we’d be having in a bathroom.”

“This is as good a place as any to have a conversation about your affair with a man you know absolutely nothing about.”

“That’s not what I want to talk to you about. I’m sorry, sweetheart, but I don’t feel the need to justify myself or discuss my love life with you.” She laughed. “Love life. I can’t believe I actually said that.” She shook her head. “I can’t even believe I’m planning to have one.”

Planning to? Susannah’s brain worked franticly. So her mom really hadn’t gone to bed with Walter yet. There was time to avert this disaster. Cautiously, she asked, “Then what is it you want to talk about?”

“You, sweetheart. I want to talk about you. I probably should wait until you finish your job, uh, assignment, here, but I have this nagging feeling that I shouldn’t put this off another day.”

“Well, what’s so important that you have to come down here and turn my world upside down?”

“I’m not trying to disrupt your world. Well, perhaps I am. Maybe it’s like a jigsaw puzzle where the pieces have been forced into positions they don’t belong in. I guess I’m trying to put the pieces back where they should be.”

“Mom, you aren’t making a bit of sense.” Susannah pressed her hand on her breast to still the panicked beating of her heart.

“Bear with me. I think it’ll begin to make sense. First, I want to tell you how much I regret your childhood.”

“My childhood?” Susannah forced a laugh. “Are you sure this is going to make sense?”

Rory nodded. “I’ve realized since you moved home that you’re blind to certain things. For instance, you don’t see me as I am now. You see me as the bitter, depressed mother of your childhood. I can’t undo the past and give you back the childhood I took from you.” She held up a hand to keep her daughter from interrupting. “No, you don’t have to deny it to make me feel better. I just want you to open your eyes and see what’s real now. Not what happened in the past. I’m different.”

“I’m the same as I’ve always been.” Susannah stood abruptly. She was afraid suddenly. “I don’t want to talk about this now. Mom, just go home. When I get back, we’ll talk.”

“I’m afraid it might be too late then.” She threw her hands up in disgust. “I’m making a mess of this. Look. I’ll be blunt. You know how I used to warn you about the complications men bring? Well, I was bitter. Vindictive. I told you never to fall in love. To always maintain a distance. Keep your perspective.”

“Yes. So?”

“Well, I was wrong to do that. I was so wrong.”

“Why can’t this little mother-daughter talk wait?”

“Because I don’t want to wait another minute to set the record straight. When you entered high school, I realized what I’d done when I saw how you were with boys. I knew I had to change because I realized, for better or worse, that I was your model for behavior. I didn’t want you to end up the same way. Bitter, lonely, and alone. I should have told you the truth then, but I was afraid.”

Susannah started to speak, but her mother shushed her.

“I keep telling myself that you’ll fall in love, but that hasn’t happened. Every time you meet a man, you keep him at a distance. You’ve never let anyone into your heart. If a guy forces the issue, you drop him so fast it makes my head spin.”

Rory reached out and grabbed Susannah’s hand. “You’ve never been in love because you’re too afraid to give your heart away. And that’s my fault. I have to tell you the truth now. And this isn’t going to be easy for me to tell or you to hear. But I have to wipe the slate clean. Your father never really loved me. It was me. It was all my fault.”

Susannah wanted to cover her ears so she wouldn’t have to hear. She knew what her mother was going to say. She’d heard it from her father last month. Tears pooled in her eyes.

“Oh, God, this is so hard.” Rory’s gaze dropped to her hands then jerked up to look directly in her daughter’s eyes. “I tricked him, Susannah. I loved him so much that I couldn’t stand the thought of him going away to college. I wanted to get pregnant so he’d have to marry me. I seduced him, not the other way around. And I kept at him until, well, until you happened.”

Rory’s voice dropped to a whisper. “I’ll spare you the details, but I got what I wanted.” She exhaled a long breath. “His parents forced him to marry me because that’s the way it was then. But he hated me for it. He lost his scholarship, and he died a little bit every day. I saw it happening, but I didn’t know what to do. You’d been born. I thought he would love you the way I did, but I think every time he looked at you, he thought of what I’d done. I don’t blame him. He stayed until he couldn’t take it any more. When his parents were killed in the car accident, he took off.”

Susannah thought her heart would burst from the pain. It was all she could do to hold in the tears.

Rory collapsed back against the settee and closed her eyes. “There. I finally said it. I forgave him long ago for leaving, but I couldn’t forgive myself. That’s the true source of my bitterness and depression. Self-loathing.”

Silence fell between the two women. Finally, Rory opened her eyes and looked at her daughter. “I was afraid to tell you the truth. I was afraid you’d hate me. It was easier to let you blame him for everything than to take the blame myself for screwing up my life, his life, and your life. I made stupid mistakes, but I don’t want you to make an equally stupid mistake by refusing to love and be loved.”

Susannah hardly breathed. She’d had a month to get used to the knowledge that her mother had lied to her all her life. She wanted to be compassionate, but hurt and anger consumed her.

“I know it’s a shock. Can you forgive me?”

No, Susannah wanted to scream. Instead, she said, “I already knew.” She shook her head and clamped down on the raw emotions coursing through her. “I don’t think I believed it though until now.”

“But how?”

“It’s not important. I don’t want to talk about this any more. Not now. When I get home, we’ll talk. In the meantime, you tend to your love life more carefully, and I’ll tend to mine.”

“What love life? You don’t have one. You meet a guy and then dump him after three or four dates. Or you try to make them friends when that’s not what they want. Brian Nguyen’s the only exception, and he’s stayed your friend because he kept hoping you’d change your mind.”

Defensively, she said, “I’ve told Brian to move on.”

“I know. This isn’t about Brian. It’s about you. Wake up, Susannah. You’re young. Don’t let love pass you by.”

Unbidden, Hogan’s image came to her. She shook her head as if to dislodge his face from her thoughts. He might be the right man, for a short while, but she had no delusions about anything beyond this week. “Who are you to tell me anything about love or men or life?” She blurted out, releasing her anger.

Rory looked sad. “I want you to let go. Lose control. Let yourself fall in love. I have.”

“Oh, is that what you’ve done? Fallen in love?” Susannah nearly vibrated with her anger.

Rory blushed but replied calmly. “When I met Walt, I wasn’t planning on that. I’ll be honest though it will probably shock you. I thought maybe I’d have an affair with him. Instead, I’ve fallen in love with him.”

Susannah bounded off the settee. “That’s crazy.” She threw her hands up in disgust. “You can’t be in love with Walter Bofco. You just met him.”

“I know, but,” Rory’s voice softened. “I am. Even though it’s been years, I recognize the feeling.” She looked up and met her daughter’s incredulous gaze. “Except this time the feeling isn’t hormonal puppy love. This time I’m mature enough to know what love is, and how rare it is. I also know that it may all be one-sided on my part, and that it may go no further than a brief affair. But I won’t do anything crazy to get him to love me back. And I won’t regret having him in my life either.”

“This is absurd. You can’t suddenly fall in love with the first man you’ve dated in years. The first man you’ve ever dated.” Susannah turned around and wet a towel with cold water and pressed it to her throbbing forehead.

“It does sound crazy. But it’s true.”

“No, it’s not. It can’t be. I know how you hate being alone. You know I want to leave Vance. You think if you convince yourself you’re in love you won’t be alone when I leave.”

Rory laughed softly. “I told you I know you’ll leave eventually. You haven’t noticed, but I finally grew up after you went away to college. I expect you to live your own life whether that’s here or some place else. The world is yours, my darling. Go out and make your dreams come true. Maybe it’s not too late for me to make some of mine come true as well.”

Susannah dropped to the couch. She wanted to weep. She wanted to crawl onto her mother’s lap and let Rory comfort her for a change. “But I thought you wanted me to stay in Vance so you wouldn’t be alone?”

“No, Susannah. I want you to stay in Vance because you’re my daughter, and I love you.”

“Oh.” She felt as if someone had knocked the breath out of her. She couldn’t take any more revelations. She had to think about all this and try to assimilate it. Everything she thought she could trust, everything she thought was true, had changed. Maybe her mother had also changed, but that didn’t mean the woman wasn’t about to make a huge mistake.

She tried calm logic. “Mom, I can understand that you’d be flattered by the mayor’s attention. He’s an attractive man, but that isn’t the same as being in love.”

“How would you know the difference, Susannah?” Rory asked quietly. “You’ve run from every relationship you’ve ever had.”

Anger sank its talons into her again. “We’re not talking about me. We’re talking about you.”

“I’m sorry this is upsetting you,” Rory whispered, putting her arms around her daughter.

Susannah refused to yield to the softness of her mother’s embrace. She felt hollow, empty, Rory sighed. Her arms fell away. Susannah heard the quiet rustle of silk as Rory stood.

“I’ll see you when you get home, dear.”

The door opened. Susannah finally spoke. “Mom?” Her voice, even to her, sounded cold and distant.

“Yes, dear?”

“Don’t say anything or do anything you’ll regret. We’ll talk about this when I come home.”

“There’s really nothing more to talk about, Susannah.”

“Just promise me you won’t do anything rash.”

“Yes, dear, I promise I won’t do anything without giving it a lot of thought.” She hesitated and added, “Whether you believe it or not, I do know what I’m doing.” She left.

Her mother was wrong. When it came to desire, no woman knew what she was doing. Susannah had only to think of the confusion Hogan incited in her to prove that.

When she thought she had her emotions under control, Susannah rose and checked her appearance in the mirror. To her surprise, she looked unchanged. She found that very odd.

The three-piece combo had been joined by a woman who sang a love song with a slow Latin beat. Susannah saw two couples on the small dance floor. To her relief, McConnell had left.

The table where her mother and Walter had sat was vacant. Good. She didn’t think she could have faced them again. The next time she talked with her mother, she intended to know everything there was to know about Walter Bofco. She’d make her mother see the man was just using her for his own purposes. Whatever they might be. Sex. Fun. Whatever. Rory was being played for a fool. Somehow, she’d make her mother see that. Just as she faced up to the prospect that maybe Hogan was playing her for some kind of fool too.

As she approached her table, she saw Allison’s feet, minus the silver high heels, resting in Hogan’s lap. That was the spark needed to detonate the anger that had been simmering since her mother’s confession. Her mother was wrong in her newly-found enlightenment. She should have held onto her bitterness. Men couldn’t be trusted.

Hogan, in deep conversation with Luke, had the woman’s feet in his lap the way he’d held Susannah’s feet that afternoon. True, he wasn’t giving the blonde a foot rub, but still the feet rested on his thighs when he should have dumped them to the floor.

Susannah stalked over and yanked Allison’s chair. The woman nearly fell out of it. “If you want to play footsy with someone,” Susannah snapped, needing an outlet for the anger simmering inside. “Then pick on Luke. He’s single. But you keep your red-toenailed feet out of Hogan’s lap.”

Luke burst out laughing. Hogan leaned back. A grin slowly lit his face, replacing the grimness that had characterized his features most of the evening. Susannah wanted to bean him with the bottle of bubbly.

“I assure you I didn’t mean anything.” Allison laughed as if she found Susannah’s reaction hilarious.

“Well, I don’t like it.” Susannah declared, eyes flashing. She wanted to hit something and wished she’d brought some work out clothes so she could go to the fitness center. There was bound to be a body bag there she could pound. “If I see you touch him again, I won’t be responsible for the amputation of whatever appendage is guilty.”

Then she whirled on Hogan. “And you!”

“Me?” Hogan held up both hands to ward her off. “What did I do?”

“You didn’t stop her. You’re a man who’s supposed to be my husband.”

“You tell him, girl,” a woman at another table called out.

Susannah suddenly realized she was the center of attention. She’d forgotten that Thomas McConnell might still be at the bar. She took deep breaths and tried to get control of her emotions.

The combo picked up the beat and the singer launched into another love song. Hogan stood and grabbed her hand. “Come on. Let’s dance.”

“I don’t want to dance. I want to go.” She resisted as he tugged her hands.

“I have some news.” Hogan pulled her to the dance floor, and she reluctantly followed, and, even more reluctantly, went into his arms. Still angry, she kept her face averted, looking over his shoulder rather than up at him.

Hogan guided her easily, and she followed. They moved as if they’d been dancing together for years. “I apologize. I’m so used to Allison’s games, I didn’t realize how it might appear to someone else,” he said quietly. “By the way, thanks for putting her in her place. God knows I’ve been trying for years to do that. But she really is harmless. Especially to me.”

“Just doing my job. That is, just playing the role of the wife. Apology accepted,” Susannah managed to say. Slowly, she began to relax. His arms brought her a few minutes of sorely needed comfort from the storm of emotions lashing her. “Now what news do you have?”

“Nothing. I just thought you needed some quiet time away from Romeo and his latest target. Are you all right?”

Susannah didn’t know if she’d ever be all right again.

Hogan pulled back and studied her face. “You look as if you’re about to cry.”

“No. I’m fine. I’m not a cryer.” Then to her surprise, she felt a tear trickle from the corner of her eye.

Hogan reached up quickly and caught the tear on his finger tips. “I see that.”

“It’s nothing. Just allergies. Probably to the perfume your friend Allison is doused in.”

“Right.” Hogan’s hand moved in slow soothing circles on her back. He pulled her tighter to him until her head rested on his shoulder. “Go on and cry if you want to,” he soothed. “I’ll still respect you in the morning.”

Tears blurred her eyes, but Susannah refused to let them fall. She had her pride. That’s all she’d had, even as a child, to keep her back straight and her head high when other kids made fun of her garage sale clothes or when she overheard one of the women at church gossiping with the rare newcomer about her mother.

“Talk. It’ll do you good.” Hogan whispered. “Tell me what your mom said. Tell me anything that’s on your mind.”

Susannah shuddered. Why not? Finally, she said, “When I was sixteen, I found my father and went to visit him. He wouldn’t see me. I had this insane idea that if I worked really hard and put myself through college and graduated with honors, I’d be a daughter to be proud of. He’d want me in his life.”

“I waited until I’d graduated from college. I took my diploma and all my certificates of achievement and went again last month. I called him, but he wouldn’t let me come to his house. He met me in a coffee shop. A lousy coffee shop with bad coffee and stale doughnuts.”

“Why did you tell me that night I met you that your father had died?”

“He’s dead to me. He told me not to come again. Ever. I was part of the past that he didn’t want to remember. I guess he thinks he fulfilled his responsibility by paying child support until I was eighteen.” She shuddered and took a deep breath. “He told me that my mom had tricked him into getting her pregnant. I called him a liar. I told him my mom would never do anything like that. We were the victims.” She ached inside. In a whisper, she finished, “My mom admitted it just now that he was telling the truth.”

The song changed. They stayed on the dance floor, moving slowly around the room. Susannah couldn’t seem to stop the flow of words. Maybe if she got it all out, she could get beyond the anger and hurt. “He didn’t know I followed him home. I parked where I could see his house. As he parked his Mercedes in the driveway, a cute little red sports car pulled up next to him. A teenage girl got out of the red car. Pretty. Dark hair. Even from across the street, I could tell that she looked like me.”

Susannah pressed her lips together and willed her anger to return. She could handle anger better than the feeling of desolation. “She called him dad. He kissed her on the forehead and hugged her. She’s his daughter. My sister. I have a sister,” she whispered brokenly. “But she’ll never know about me because I’m just a mistake he made when he was a kid. And he doesn’t want me to mess up his perfect suburban life.”

“You’re not a mistake,” Hogan said vehemently. “He’s got problems or he wouldn’t have dumped all that on you. If he doesn’t want to know you, he’s an idiot. One day he’ll regret it.”

“You sound so wise,” she scoffed. “So unlike your usual self.”

“Well, I’ll try to insult you in a minute if it’ll make you feel better.”

“Thanks.” In as matter of fact a voice as she could manage, she said, “I could handle him rejecting me. But how do I deal with the fact that my mom lied to me all these years?”

“Don’t you think it’s a little unrealistic to expect her to have sat you down and told you the tale of how you were conceived?”

Susannah bit her lower lip. “I guess.”

“If you didn’t have this knowledge, how would you feel about your mother’s love for you? Would you question it or her honesty, her integrity?”

“No,” Susannah said without hesitation. Unable to instantly put it behind her, she said, “But why didn’t she tell me the truth? Why let me think everything was his fault? How can I believe anything she says?”

“Mitigating circumstances,” Hogan whispered. “One lie doesn’t make her incapable of honesty. Have a little faith in her. Trust her.”

Trust. She was beginning to hate that word. She was quiet for several minutes as she tried to get a handle on her anger. Finally, she told him about her mother and Walter Bofco, and that just renewed her anger.

“Wow. Now that’s a bombshell.”

“She’s being a fool.”

“Why? Because she’s in love?”

Scorn dripped from her voice. “Love. See where it got her before?”

“She was a kid. She’s a grown woman now.”

“I don’t care. She can’t be in love.”

“Why not?”

“Because love is nothing but a figment of the imagination.”

He laughed softly. “Do you really believe that?”

“Damn right I do.” Stewing, she stared over his shoulder and tried to make her mind blank. She was tired of thinking.

When Hogan’s arms tightened, pulling her even closer, Susannah didn’t resist. Her face flamed. He was aroused. In a flash, everything that had happened in the elevator came rushing back to her, heightened by the raw emotions roiling inside her. He stopped and held her as they swayed to the music. Heat rushed through her veins. She burned where they touched. There was no doubt in her mind that there was even more to him now than a moment ago. She noticed that he noticed, and her blush deepened.

“Sorry to be so transparent. Men are at such a disadvantage,” Hogan murmured. “Women can hide when they’re aroused, but with men it’s there for all the world to see. You could be at arm’s length, and you’d have the same effect on me.”

His admission confused and excited her. She savored his honesty as much as the feel of his hardness against her aching emptiness. Their eyes locked. The singer finished and the combo began a slow song with a steady rhythmic beat that seemed to seep into her bloodstream and pound through her veins. Slowly, they danced. The sweet torture of his body rubbing against hers made her throb in an echo of the way his heart pounded against her breasts.

* * *

When the music stopped, Hogan leaned down and brushed his lips against her temple. He wanted to protect her, soothe her. He wanted to take her to bed and love her. Teach her that she could trust him. But first he had to tell her everything. He feared if he did, he’d just prove her point that men lied and couldn’t be trusted at all.

Now, he could have told Yvonne that he knew why it was different with Susannah. Why it mattered what she wore, what she did, who she saw. The answer was simple. He was in love with her.

He’d been prepared to keep his hands off Susannah, but that little scene with Allison showed she was jealous. Guessing – hoping – her reaction meant she felt more for him than she was letting on, encouraged him. She had to care. Even if she wouldn’t admit it. That changed everything.

Life was too short to spend any more time denying his feelings for her. Feelings that had shocked him, but he’d lived with them long enough that he’d accepted them. Somehow, he’d win her over. He’d tell her everything. He had to before they took the next step.

Unfortunately, he was having a hard time convincing his body they needed to talk first and love second. Every part of him wanted to forget the talking and head straight for a bed. In fact, he rationalized, maybe it would be better to first love her so thoroughly she’d have no doubt they belonged together. Then he’d reveal all.

Softly, he asked, “Isn’t it time we retired for the evening, Mrs. Hogan?”

Chapter 15
Walt Bofco was worried about Rory. Since they’d left Murphy’s Cove, she’d been silent and resisted his attempts at conversation. They’d made the drive from the resort town to Vance in silence.

When they turned onto Rory’s street, she finally spoke. “I wanted to offer Susannah my hard-earned wisdom. Instead, I made a mess of things. I’ve probably scarred my daughter for life.”

“Did you tell her everything?”

“Yes. She probably hates me now.”

“I’m sure that’s not true. Don’t be so hard on yourself.” Walt reached over and took her hand, brought it to his lips and kissed her fingertips. “Susannah is a great girl. She’ll be fine.”

“I know she’s attracted to Hogan. Probably what she feels for him is deeper than she suspects. I’m afraid if she does realize how much she cares for him that she’ll run in the opposite direction.” She looked over. “Should I call her and try to apologize again? What do you think I should do?”

“Just do what any parent does. Just love her. Be there for her when she needs you. She’ll figure the rest out for herself.”

“How wise you are.”

“Well, you know where wisdom comes from.”

“And where is that?”

“From making stupid-ass mistakes. I’ve made a ton of them in my life. Witness my completely dysfunctional relationship with my daughter.”

“Sounds as if you’ve got something on your chest to get off too.”

“You are as perceptive as you are beautiful.” He sighed. “I don’t even know where to start, but I guess I’d better start with my daughter.” He pulled into her driveway and parked next to her minivan. “I haven’t been completely honest about my little under-achiever. Actually, I haven’t been honest about a lot of things that you need to know. I think I’d better tell you about it all now because you might not want to see me again when you know what’s going on.” He hated to do anything to cause a rift between them, but Rory had a right to know everything.

Rory frowned. “If that’s the case, I don’t know if I want to know. Ignorance just may be bliss.”

Walt got out and went around to help Rory out. Silently, he followed her up the walk. At the door, she handed him her house key. He unlocked it and pushed the old fasioned door open. He hesitated in the doorway, waiting for her to kiss him on the cheek and tell him goodbye, the way she had every time they’d been out.

Rory beckoned him in then she closed and locked the door.

“Let me get this off my chest first, Rory.”

She smiled. “The only thing I want off your chest is your shirt.” She grabbed him by the tie and tugged gently.

He didn’t resist. She led him down the short hall and into her bedroom. Lamps on either side of the old-fashioned double bed glowed in the darkness. Walt looked at the bed with the covers turned back to reveal pale pink sheets, and the desire he’d carefully controlled all evening flared to life.

He should tell her about his daughter. About Hogan. But everything he should say vanished when Rory put her arms around him. Her mouth sought his. With a low guttural cry, he matched her kiss for kiss. When their lips separated, they were both gasping for air. “I thought you were going to let me court you?” Walt murmured.

“I’m too old for a long courtship. I want to move straight to the sex,” Rory whispered, pulling his shirttail out and beginning to unbutton his shirt. “If that’s all right with you?”

“Forget the buttons,” he muttered, jerking on the two halves of the shirt. Buttons flew while Rory laughed. To his delight, she reached out and grasped him through his trousers. He groaned. “I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”

“This isn’t heaven. This is Texas.” Rory squeezed him again before sliding her hands up to his belt buckle. “I guess you’re thinking I’m rather brazen for an old broad.”

“I’m thinking I’m the luckiest man in the world right now.”

Walt wanted to make love to her, but he swore silently that he’d go slow if it killed him. It had been a long time since Rory had been with a man. That thought humbled him and made his ego swell with pride. He’d have to take it slow and do it right. He didn’t want her to have any regrets. He shucked his shoes then his pants and socks. Last, he removed his briefs. His erection sprang forward to be captured by Rory’s hands. Walt groaned. “Rory.”

She laughed softly. “How very formidable you are.”

“Let’s get you out of this dress before you drive me crazy.” He turned her around and briskly unzipped the dress. It fell to her feet. Surprised that she wore panty hose, he stripped them down. She kicked the pile of clothes away. Walt looked at her standing there in a plain beige bra and panties. “You’re beautiful.” He held her gaze while he reached around and unfastened her bra.

“No. I’m middle aged.” Rory held the cups of the bra in place. “I’m suddenly very nervous.”

“I’m middle aged to. And you really are beautiful. For any age. Don’t be scared. I’ll stop any time you want me to.” He kissed her and went on kissing her until she tossed the bra away and clung to him with her beautiful, naked breasts pressed against his chest and his hard-on burning against her stomach.

Rory moaned and broke away. “I have to do this before I lose my nerve,” she gasped, whisking the panties down and stepping out of them.

“Rory,” Walt murmured reverently. He reached for her and bent her over his arm and did what he’d fantasized about doing since he’d first seen her. He took her nipple into his mouth and sucked hard on it. Rory cried out. Her hand reached up and clasped his head, holding him to her. Then his mouth moved to the other breast. When he took the hardened nub into his mouth, he made her cry out again.

He began to shake all over. He placed her on the bed and prepared to lie next to her, but she opened her legs in invitation.

“I don’t have time to be coy,” she whispered and pointed to the table by the bed. “Our condoms are in that drawer.”

A thrill pierced Walt. “Our condoms,” he repeated with a smile, retrieving one. He handed it to her. She tore it open and handed it back. As she watched, with her eyes glazed with need, he sheathed himself. Her eyes darkened.

“Like I said, I don’t have time to be coy. I want you inside me. Now.”

His eyes locked with hers as he positioned himself between her legs. “I know it’s been a long time for you.”

Rory pulled him to her for a kiss. While they kissed, he stroked downward and found soft curls. His fingers probed. She was ready. Her hips lifted, beckoning him.

“I don’t know if I can control myself. I’ll try to go slow.”

“I don’t want slow.”

He plunged into her. Her arms tightened around him. He’d never felt anything so good before. Suddenly, he realized Rory was crying. Horrified, he started to withdraw. “Are you all right? I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t you dare leave me!” Rory wrapped her legs over his.

“Oh, Rory. I’ll never leave you.” Walt began to move, and Rory moved with him.

* * *

Susannah thought they’d never get away from the lounge. She didn’t miss the speculation in Allison’s and Luke’s eyes as she and Hogan said goodnight. She was fairly certain the sexual tension buzzing between her and Hogan was apparent to everyone.

In the elevator, her emotions simmered. There was no kissing and fondling like earlier in the evening. For once, they shared the elevator with other people. But Hogan held her hand. And that was a first. Her hand felt warm and secure. Their hands fit together as if made for each other. She wondered whether they’d fit together equally well in bed. Impatience made her heart beat faster.

Finally, they arrived at their suite. Silently, Hogan opened the door. He’d left the lights on.

“I think I’ll just turn these off,” she said, quickly turning all of them off. Moonlight seemed more suitable for what she knew would happen next. Silently, she walked to the balcony, opened the door, and took a deep breath of fresh air. Her heart hammered. Every nerve ending in her body seemed in a state of anticipation.

The breeze off the Gulf ruffled her curls and caressed her face. Soft footsteps approached. She smelled Hogan’s unique scent. Then his hands were on her shoulders. She released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding and leaned back, braced against his solid, warm body. Solid and hard. She smiled, part of him was very hard.

“Finally. Alone.” Hogan pressed his lower body against her buttocks.

She couldn’t help herself. She rotated her hips against him and smiled at the ragged exhalation she drew from him. Her head fell back.

“You’re a tease,” he whispered, accepting the invitation to kiss the soft skin below her jaw. His lips trailed down. When he bit the sensitive cord at the base of her neck, Susannah was the one who moaned. She turned. Seeing him in the moonlight before her made her shiver with some unidentified emotion. She moistened her lips and watched his eyes follow the movement of her tongue. Then she sought his mouth.

She planned to tease and torment him and make him feel as crazy as she felt. She traced the shape of his mouth with the tip of her tongue, tasting him. Her lips skimmed along his jaw and down his neck where she mimicked what he’d done.

He reached out and lifted her head, bring her mouth back to his. When his tongue thrust inside her mouth, she forgot her strategy. His kiss was the kind that took your breath away. Hard. Deep. Ruthless. He made no pretense of being gentle. He invaded and conquered. And she gloried in it.

His hands plunged into the low neckline of the dress, capturing her breasts. Her head fell back. His mouth burned kisses down her neck. Pleasure stabbed her when he took her nipples, rolling them between thumb and forefinger. His hands abandoned her, but his mouth was on her breast then, kissing, licking, teasing his way to the aching swollen nipple. She nearly fainted when his mouth closed over the hard tight nipple.

“I think I’m going to fall,” she gasped, knees shaking as she held onto his shoulders.

“Then I’ll fall with you,” he said, his voice low and harsh.

Somehow he got her out of her dress. Still in her heels, she stood in front of him, swaying like a trembling leaf in a storm, clad only in a black lace thong and a black strapless bra. For a moment, Hogan just stared at her.

Susannah reached out and touched his chest. His heart galloped like a stallion in a race.

“You’re beautiful,” he said, bending to graze the mounds of her breast with his kisses.

“And you’re overdressed.” Susannah tugged at his shirt.

He jerked it over his head and tossed it. When she reached for his belt, he placed both hands over hers. “No. Not yet. I don’t think I could control myself if we were skin to skin.”

His mouth came down on hers. One hand cupped her breast and tormented the nipple. His other hand glided down her body and slipped beneath the black lace of the thong. His lips pulled away a fraction of an inch. “You’re wet,” he said. “But not as wet as you’re going to be.”

A bolt of heat shot through her. His fingers moved against her. Her pulse pounded there. She could hardly stand the intense pleasure. His fingers danced away. He kissed her again, thrusting his tongue into her mouth and withdrawing. Anticipation built.

He removed the scraps of black lace and swept her into his arms and headed for his bedroom.

Naked, clad only in the black high heels, Susannah didn’t even feel awkward. She clasped her arms around his neck and kissed him with all the longing and desire pent up inside her.

Hogan dropped her on the bed. Unerringly, her hands reached out and clasped his rock-hard erection through his pants. She felt him pulse beneath her fingers. Her mouth went dry at the thought of having him inside her.

He kissed her and murmured words about her body that no man had ever said to her. Susannah knew she’d never forget this night. He touched and stroked and kissed as if he were staking claim to her body. And she let him.

When she was at a fever pitch and thought she would scream if he didn’t give her more, he pulled her thighs over his shoulders, and spread her legs wide. Then his hot, hungry mouth was on her. Her cries filled the darkness as her fingers clawed the gold comforter on the bed. She climaxed violently. After what seemed an eternity, her legs relaxed and slid weakly from his shoulders. She hadn’t been aware that Hogan had moved, but he was lying next to her, stroking her forehead, pushing the perspiration-damp curls away from her face.

“Susannah, I’ve spent the last few weeks slowly going out of my mind with wanting you. I love everything about you. Your smile. Your eyes. Your hair. The way you smell. I even like it when you wear that excuse of a swimsuit.”

Susannah didn’t speak. She felt a chill descending into her soul.

“That’s why I left the suite each day. I had to walk out because I couldn’t control myself. If I’d stayed another two minutes, you’d have been in my arms, and I’d have been on my way to this bed. I want you.” He kissed the corner of her mouth. “I want you all night. Every night.”

He wanted her. He hadn’t said he loved her. He wanted. What? A week-long affair? Her euphoria vanished. She was a fool. Why had she expected more when she was the one who claimed not to believe in love? Wasn’t she the one who preferred lust over a deeper emotion?

“Why, Hogan? Why me?” She closed her eyes and tried not to think. She didn’t want to think. She only wanted to feel the hot desire again, not this painful need for something she claimed not to believe in.

“I don’t know. Fate?” He laughed softly. “All I know is I’ve never wanted a woman more than I want you. Even if you’re too infuriating for words.” He kissed her softly. “Even when you argue, it turns me on.”

“You’re infuriating too,” she said trying to smile and pretend that everything was all right.

“But you’re also intriguing and interesting. And I want you in ways I can’t begin to describe.”

“Then stop talking and show me. Show me now.” Susannah ruthlessly forced her pain aside and blocked out all but the way he made her feel. That’s all she wanted right now – to feel.

“Your wish is my command,” Hogan said as he stroked her breasts.

Her heart started beating in the now familiar rhythm. His hand slid down to the apex of her thighs. His fingertips lightly brushed the soft, damp curls. She did want him. She needed him in ways she didn’t want to acknowledge. His touch felt wonderful. His hands reached hers. He laced his fingers with hers then placed her hands on his chest.

The phone rang. Susannah jumped. It rang again. She placed her hands over her ears and waited for the ringing to stop, but it went on and on until she thought she’d scream. “Maybe we should answer?”

Hogan cursed softly and grabbed the phone. “What?” he barked. “Oh, uh, yes, ma’am,” he said, his tone altered to apologetic. “Just a minute please.”

He held the phone out to her.

In the dim light, she could see his wry grin.

“It’s your mother.”

Susannah completed the free fall back to reality. She felt very naked and suddenly realized she still wore the black stilettos. She sat up and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. There was nothing she could cover herself with except her old standby – pride. “I’ll get it in my room.” She pressed the hold button and all but ran.

Embarrassment burned her fair skin like the hot Texas sun as she awkwardly gathered her clothes and hurried to her room. Inside, she closed the door and turned the lock. She leaned against the door for a moment to gather her thoughts. Then she dropped her clothes and went to the bathroom for one of the oversized white towels.

Wrapped in the it, she sat on the edge of the bed, lifted the receiver, and released the hold button. “Hi, Mom, I didn’t expect to hear from you so soon. You must have gone straight home.”

“Yes. We did. I was so upset that I forgot to tell you Paula called this afternoon. She said it was important that you call her right away. Your cell phone goes straight to voice mail, and for some reason, she didn’t want to call you at the hotel in case Hogan answered.”

“I forgot to add minutes to my phone so it’s turned off. Thanks. I’ll do it right now.”

“Are you. . . all right, sweetheart?”

Susannah assured her she was fine.

“I love you, dear. If you need me, I’m just a phone call away.”

“I’m fine.”Susannah replaced the receiver. Fine? That was debatable. She’d had the most mind-blowing sexual experience, and she wanted to feel Hogan inside her. Just the thought made her toes curl. She wanted him with a desire that left her frightened. That was far from fine.

She should be grateful she’d been interrupted before she’d shared that final intimacy with him. She’d been about to add folly on top of folly. She should be grateful. But she wasn’t. Instead, she felt like crying.

Susannah clenched her fists and willed the heat inside her, a heat that had nothing to do with embarrassment and everything to do with the man in the next room, to just go away.

With a sigh, she picked up the phone again and called Paula.

“Susannah. Thank God you finally called. I’ve been trying your cell, but I kept getting voice mail.”

“Sorry, I’m nearly out of minutes so I turned it off. Did you find out anything yet?”

“Did I ever. You won’t believe what I found out about your Mr. Hogan.”

Her heart hitched. “I’m not going to like this am I?” Susannah kicked her shoes off and sat cross-legged on the bed.

“Well, that depends. I know you’ve dreamed about being an FBI agent so how do you feel about being undercover with one?”

“What? Hogan’s FBI?” Susannah bounced off the bed. Surely she hadn’t heard Paula correctly.

“That’s right. Your D. E. Hogan is a special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He lives in Virginia and is currently on vacation. Not due back for another two weeks.”

“You’ve got to be kidding.” Susannah’s world wobbled on its axis. “Paula, that’s crazy. Why would he pose as some kind of police consultant? Why not just say he’s with the FBI?”

“It probably has something to do with his stepmother.”

“What could his step mother possibly have to do with this?”

“Wait for it. This is seriously weird. The esteemed mayor is exactly what he seems to be, retired Army colonel, independently wealthy, so on and so on. Hogan and Bofco are old acquaintances, as in relatives. You see, Bofco’s sister Yvonne was married to Hogan’s father.”

“You mean Yvonne, the one whose jewelry was ripped off, is really Hogan’s stepmother?”

“Right. Everything you were told about her is true. I checked even though you didn’t ask me to. Anyway, Hogan and Yvonne seem to have a close mother and son relationship. I found several pieces of property they own together as well as stock and other things. Weird huh?”

“Not so strange when you know all the facts.” Susannah’s temper began to simmer. “I think I’ve been set up. Hogan isn’t here to get the goods on Thomas McConnell. I bet you anything he’s here to steal the jewelry back for his stepmother.”

“Wow. You think?”

“Yes. It all makes sense. Bofco didn’t want a scandal. He wants the jewelry. Yvonne wanted the jewelry too so she got Hogan to retrieve it for her. No arrest. No scandal. So the Mayor figured Hogan had the talent to do it. I even know why they wanted me along.”

“And that is?”

“Because I look like McConnell’s dead daughter. They used me as bait. I guess what they wanted was for me to get him out of his rooms so Hogan could break in and find the jewelry.”

Paula giggled. “Tell me, is it illegal to steal something that’s already stolen?”

“Get serious, Paula.” Susannah ran her fingers through her hair, tugging at the curls as if that would ease the pressure building inside her head. “And guess who’s in this same hotel?”

“I give.”

“Yvonne the stepmom. I guess she wants to personally pick up her jewelry once Hogan gets it.”

“So they used you?”

“Precisely.”

“Bummer.”

“Yeah. I wonder if Hogan’s already been in Thomas’s place looking for it?”

“That’s definitely against the law even if stealing stolen goods isn’t.”

“You know what really bothers me about this whole situation? I don’t know if Thomas really stole Yvonne’s jewelry.”

“You think they’re after the wrong man?” Paula whistled. “Wouldn’t that be a kicker?”

“That’s what I’ve got to find out. In the meantime, see what you can find on Thomas McConnell.”

“Will do. Watch your step with Hogan,” Paula warned. “He might be charming enough to fool my mom, but don’t let him get to you. He’s definitely not shooting straight. Maybe his real motive in luring you down to the Cove was so he could have his wicked way with you.”

When Susannah didn’t laugh, Paula asked, “Hey, are you all right? I didn’t mean anything by that. I was just joking.”

“I’m wondering now if his seeming objections to having me as a partner were just a sham. Maybe some kind of reverse psychology to make me fight to come along.”

“You think?” Paula asked.

“I don’t know.” Susannah brushed her hair back. “I do know that damned Luke Orland is in on this.” She groaned. “By now, I don’t know what to believe. Hogan could have decided to take advantage of the situation. You know, seduce the hick deputy? Or maybe he wanted to seduce me to keep me from learning the truth about who he is and what he really plans on doing. As you said, breaking and entering itself is against the law. Take your pick. Neither of the choices is very flattering.”

“Something happened. Tell me. Tell me. You might as well because I’ll worm it out of you.”

With a sigh, Susannah filled her in on the big picture without giving any details.

“Wow. You finally fall for a guy, and he’s scamming you.”

“I didn’t fall for him,” Susannah protested.

“Hey, this is me, your best friend Paula. Remember? I know you too well so save the disclaimer for someone else.” Paula’s voice softened. “Seriously, I’m sorry he turned out to be such a jerk. What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know. He’s in the other bedroom right now.” Her voice hardened. “Waiting for me to fall back into his arms. At the moment, all I feel like doing is tossing his lies back in his face, but that probably isn’t the wise thing to do.”

Paula chuckled. “Are you sure that’s all you want to do?”

Susannah frowned unhappily. “Unfortunately, it’s not. But I won’t get involved with him any more than I already am.”

“Shoot. Why not? Especially since you know the score. Forewarned is forearmed. Love him and leave him. Men do it all the time.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why not? Give me one good reason why a woman shouldn’t take her pleasure with a good-looking man and then dump him. Strike a blow for all the women who’ve had that happen to them.” Paula laughed but there was no amusement in the sound.

“Sounds like I’m not the only one with a man problem,” Susannah said gently. “What happened?”

“We’re talking about your problem, not mine. Let’s just say, I wish I’d used the good professor instead of the other way around, but I’ve learned my lesson. Go get him, girl. Give him what he deserves.”

“Don’t tempt me. I just may do that.”

“Like I said, men do it. Why shouldn’t we?”

On that provocative question, Susannah said, “I’ll think about it. Call you tomorrow.”

She replaced the phone just as Hogan tapped on her door. A storm of mixed emotions flooded her. She stared at the door.

“Susannah?”

Just listening to his voice made her nipples harden. What was worse was his low, tender voice made her ache to feel his arms around her. She squeezed her thighs together and tried to ignore the pulse pounding low in her belly.

Where the heck had her hormones been when she’d been in high school or college? Had they been hibernating during her previous relationships, just waiting to booby trap her life? She’d never felt this way before, and she didn’t particularly like it. Why did her darned body pick now to make its needs known? And why with Hogan?

“Are you hiding from me?”

“No.” Maybe Paula was right. Why shouldn’t she give in to her desire for him? She moved toward the door and laid her palms flat against it as if she could feel his heat through the wooden panel. Play with him for a while like Paula said. She suspected that’s what Hogan was doing. Just toying with her.

What if she used him for her pleasure instead of the other way around? Men did it all the time. Why shouldn’t she? She ached to be with him. To join her body to his.

“Are you all right?” When she didn’t answer, he tapped softly again.

Susannah jumped back. She forced herself to reply. “Yes. I’m fine.” Her heart pounded so hard she thought it would leap from her chest. She covered her eyes with her hands. Think. Think. What should she do?

She couldn’t take Paula’s bold suggestion. That way lay insanity not reason. “I find that I have a really bad headache.” She cringed at voicing the oldest excuse in the world.

“A headache?”

She heard the humor in his voice and in her mind’s eye, she saw his face and the sexy, crooked grin that usually accompanied his teasing voice.

“I think I could cure what ails you if you’ll open the door,” he suggested. “In fact, I know I can.”

She resented the effort of will it took to resist the temptation he offered. “It’s not becoming for a grown man to beg,” she said, testily. Silently, she added, Take that, you lousy FBI agent.

“Some things are worth begging for.” After a moment, he said, “If you change your mind, I’ll be in the other bedroom. It’s just down the hall from here. Remember? I’ll leave a trail for you to follow so you won’t get lost.”

“Don’t bother. I won’t be changing my mind. Not ever.”

“Not ever? Never’s an awful long time. My dad always taught me to never say never.”

“My dad taught me something important too.”

“Yeah, I’m aware of that. But you’re not a hurt little girl any more, Susannah” When she didn’t say anything, he finally said, “Goodnight.”

“Goodnight,” Susannah replied, relieved that he’d given up.

The tension drained out of her body, leaving her limp and exhausted. Feeling older than her years, she returned to the bathroom and scrubbed the makeup from her face and slipped into a sensible night shirt. She left the pile of clothing where she’d dropped it, too tired to be neat. Then she turned the covers back and crawled into bed. Alone. Incredibly alone.

Unfortunately, Susannah found she was too tired, maybe too emotionally upset, to sleep. Her thoughts circled, always coming back to one subject. Hogan. Exhausted, she forced herself to think about the theft of Yvonne’s jewelry. Had Thomas really taken it? If so, where was it?

The more Susannah stewed the worse she felt. She’d been so naive from the beginning. Surely Uncle Barney hadn’t known all the details or he wouldn’t have let them make a fool of her. Just wait until she told him how his good friend Walter had played them for suckers.

And D. E.– trust me – Hogan? What had he planned? A little bonus roll in the hay with the local deputy to top off his larcenous vacation? How funny he must have found her ambition. She punched her pillow into submission. She knew what had to be done.

Exhausted and with a decision made, she fell asleep. Even in her dreams, she couldn’t escape him. She found herself taking Paula’s advice, seducing Hogan, again and again. Each time before they joined their bodies together, she awoke, heart pounding and body trembling in frustrated desire. Despite everything, she still wanted him. Finally, in the early hours of morning, Susannah asked herself the dreaded question.

Was she in love with Hogan?

Chapter 16
Susannah awoke feeling like an armadillo who’d got smacked by a car while crossing a Texas farm road. She refused to dwell on the question of her love for Hogan. Instead, she focused on what she had to do. The need to take immediate action on her plan forced her out of bed. She padded over to the balcony. Peering through the drapes, she saw the sun peek over the horizon and tint the sky rose gold. It was beautiful, but the lovely sunrise brought no peace to her troubled soul.

Across the way, she saw Thomas out on his balcony doing what appeared to be tai chi. She chose to view the fact that he was an early riser as a good omen. The possibility she could find the jewels and make the case against McConnell existed. She had only to decide if she wanted to ignore Hogan’s edict about the situation and take matters into her own hands which meant arresting McConnell. The bottom line was if she could bring the case to some conclusion, any conclusion, she could go home gracefully. That beat running away like a scared child.

Going home a winner, if she didn’t count losing her heart to Hogan, held a lot of appeal.

Ironically, solving the case didn’t thrill her as much as it once had. Somehow, she’d find out the truth from Thomas, get the jewelry back, and teach Special Agent Hogan a much-needed lesson. Then she could head back to Vance and begin the process of forgetting the insanity of this week.

An hour later, dressed in a turquoise bikini with a flowing ankle-length sarong tied at her waist, she slipped on cork sandals, dropped her sunglasses into her straw bag, and grabbed her unwieldy hat.

Only silence greeted her when she opened the bedroom door. Luck appeared to be on her side. She stepped out and immediately tripped over something on the floor. She looked down. Her breath caught. She picked up the navy slacks Hogan had worn last night. Unable to resist, she cradled them for a moment to her breasts. Realizing mooning over him wasn’t making her feel any better, she dropped them back to the floor.

Two steps away lay his belt. Slowly she walked through the living room. There was a sock. And another. What was it he’d said last night? He’d leave a trail for her to follow? She peered down the hallway. Right outside his door lay a pair of charcoal gray briefs.

Despite herself, Susannah was amused. Damn. He was doing it again. Teasing and flirting. Trying to charm her into bed. And he wasn’t even standing in front of her! It wasn’t fair, she fumed. Angry at her reactions to him as much as at him, Susannah stalked out of the suite.

When she reached the lobby, she placed a call to Thomas’s suite then went to the pool-side buffet to wait.

A few guests were already cruising the long linen-covered tables which boasted every variety of fruit, from guava, pineapple, and star fruit to Texas-grown melons. Baskets of golden brown rolls and muffins, platters of gooey pastries, and huge silver buffet dishes of bacon, ham, and sausage completed the arrangement.

A chef stood behind the portable gas cook top taking special orders for eggs. A woman carefully kneaded balls of masa harina, the corn meal mixture used to make tortillas. The woman then flattened the masa harina balls with a heavy steel press into perfectly round corn tortillas. Another woman took the tortillas and dropped them on a stone griddle. Susannah watched but couldn’t dredge up an appetite. She settled for coffee and a vacant chaise lounge.

Rusty, the cute waiter from yesterday, walked around with carafes of coffee and tea for refills. When he stopped to fill her cup, she managed a smile.

“No breakfast?” He frowned.

“Just coffee. I’m on a diet.” Susannah tried to smile at her own feeble joke.

Rusty shrugged. “You’re kind of skinny, I mean slender. You could stand a few calories if you don’t mind my saying so.”

“Gee, guess the diet’s working.” Susannah gave up her weak effort at humor and leaned back, closing her eyes. She heard his muttered “whatever” then his footsteps told her he’d left. She’d certainly made a bad impression on poor Rusty. Yesterday, she’d made him think she was on the prowl. Today, he probably thought she was anorexic.

She saw Thomas McConnell the moment he arrived. He waved and walked over to the buffet table. Susannah smiled and waited for him.

“Good morning.” McConnell placed his cup and saucer on the table and gave her a jovial smile. “I say, you look tired, my dear. Have a late night?” His eyes twinkled.

“Sort of.”

To her chagrin, McConnell chuckled. “Ah, a full moon and an ocean. There’s nothing like that combination to bring out the romance in one’s soul. I take it you and your possessive husband worked out your differences?”

Susannah bit back the desire to cry on his shoulder and merely shook her head in reply. The pressure behind her eyes increased until she had to blink rapidly to keep the tears at bay. What was wrong with her? She’d puddled up more in the last few days than she had in years?

“Oh, dear. Perhaps you didn’t.” Thomas pulled his chair closer, leaned over, and patted her on the shoulder. “Want to tell an old man your troubles?”

Susannah looked at him and felt even more miserable. He was a sweet man, and she had set her snare just to catch him and get him to confess. “No. It won’t do any good. I’ll be okay.”

“Are you sure? Sometimes I find sharing the load halves it. Heaven only knows there’ve been plenty of times in my life when I wish I could have distributed my burden to a willing listener.”

Susannah really felt like crying now. Did he have to be so caring and compassionate? Resolved, she swallowed her tears. There would be plenty of time later to release them and lots more. “No, I’m fine. I appreciate the offer though. Thank you.”

He patted her hand. “Not at all, my dear. If there’s one thing I’ve found, it’s that the need for friends doesn’t diminish as we get older. It only increases.” He frowned. “Believe me, if I’d had someone around to give me a good talking to last month, I might not have acted like a foolish young hothead.”

He sounded so dejected that Susannah’s heart went out to him. She knew he must be referring to his theft of the jewelry. Though she’d planned to get him to confess, she found herself half hoping he wouldn’t say anything else.

His mouth drooped and his shoulders sagged. “I shouldn’t burden you with my problems.” He snorted. “My stupidity. I should make you laugh to forget your cares.”

Damn it. She liked him. He needed a friend. Not a cop. “I didn’t know you last month, but I’d be happy to listen now. Want to share your burden, Thomas? It’ll take my mind off my problems to listen to yours.” She smiled gently. “Tell me what happened.”

He stared at his hands for a moment, then he said, “I’m afraid I did something I’m ashamed of. It’s bad enough my action was rash and stupid, but by committing that action, I betrayed myself.” His sigh sounded as if all the pain in the world lay inside him. “What is even worse is that I betrayed someone I love very deeply.”

A myriad of emotions, sadness, compassion, satisfaction, but most of all regret, surged through Susannah. She wished she were back in Vance cleaning up the dusty files. Anywhere would be better than sitting here with this poor miserable man who didn’t even know he was being targeted.

“Wow, that’s a heavy load of guilt.” She watched him turn his cup around and around on the saucer. “What happened?”

“Betrayal is the worst thing you can do to someone you love, my dear Susannah. It’s an invisible point of no return. Even if you make amends, there’s no going back.”

His hand trembled when he lifted the coffee cup, but his voice was steady, though filled with regret. “There’s no chance in this case to go back to the way things were anyway.”

“I can tell whatever you did is eating you up. Talk to me. Tell me, Thomas.”

He set his cup down. “All I ask is that you remember I did this because I was hurt. Deeply hurt. I’m not a bad man. I changed over the years. Reinvented myself, and I liked the person I had become. I was just,” he paused and smiled before finally saying, “in love. For the last time in my life.”

He had to be talking about Hogan’s stepmother. Thomas was in love with the elusive Yvonne? The woman whose jewels he’d stolen? Did Hogan know?

“I had proposed to Yvonne.” He looked up. “That’s her name.” His smile was tinged with sadness. “I thought she loved me. No, I knew it. She did love me. But she rejected my proposal. Threw it back in my face without warning. Then, she broke it off with me, and immediately began dating this chap who belonged to my golf club.”

His pain was palpable. Susannah sat up and reached out to him, covering his hands with both of hers. “I’m so sorry.”

He took a deep breath. “I shouldn’t have done it. God! It’s so true jealousy is a sign of insecurity. It was rash. Stupid. It countered everything decent I’ve done in the last ten years and wiped it all away in an instant.” He shook his head. “I lashed out and tried to hurt her as deeply as she hurt me.”

Quietly, sadly, Susannah asked, “What did you do, Thomas?”

“I took something from her. Some black opals that were pieces of an heirloom suite. I just wanted her to see how it felt to be betrayed. To hurt her the way she’d hurt me. As soon as I left her home, I knew I’d done something unforgivable.”

After he finished talking, Susannah was silent while her brain raced. She understood why Thomas had taken the jewels. Passion, love, had the ability to make one completely insane. Finally, she said, “Maybe it can be fixed.”

“I’ve tried to fix it. I’m still trying. But I don’t think it will make any difference.”

She didn’t want to see him go to jail. He’d made a mistake. She could well imagine his outrage and his pain when Yvonne so callously rejected him. That didn’t make what he did right, she knew, but it did make it understandable. “Maybe I can help.”

He looked at her. “Maybe you can. Could I give the jewelry to you? You could see that it’s returned to her properly? Would you do that for me?”

* * *

Hogan jerked awake. Bright sunlight streamed into the room. He’d lain awake half the night, waiting, hoping that Susannah would come to him. He wasn’t surprised that he’d overslept. He listened intently, but only silence greeted him.

Exasperated that he’d awakened alone, he bounded out of bed. It was time to close the book on this ridiculous assignment. He’d get Luke Orland to get a search warrant. Then he’d go to McConnell and give him a chance to give the jewels back. If he cooperated, then he could go free. If he didn’t, Hogan planned to use the search warrant to persuade him. Once he got the jewelry back, McConnell was free to go.

In any event, Yvonne would get her jewelry, and she wouldn’t have McConnell’s incarceration on her conscience. Jewelry back without scandal, and Walter would be happy. It was a winning situation for all parties.

Then Hogan could tell Susannah everything. In the short time he had left before returning to Washington, he planned to use every minute to convince her that she should continue the role of Mrs. Hogan. For real.

After he was dressed, he rang McConnell’s suite but got no answer. Maybe the man was still at breakfast. Since Susannah had already left the suite, he had a sneaking suspicion that he’d find the woman he loved with that over the hill thieving Romeo.

* * *

“Old Harold has served me well in ways you don’t suspect,” Thomas said, pressing one of the rivets on the knight’s shield.

Susannah heard a soft click. She watched as Thomas rotated the upper torso of the miniature suit of armor and lifted the section off. He reached inside and pulled out a plastic bubble-wrapped package and handed it to her.

“Oh, my goodness.” She was at a loss for anything more articulate to say. He’d confessed, and now he’d handed her the stolen jewelry. This was the point in her fantasy where she arrested him. But, she’d changed, she suddenly realized. The spit-polished, rule book toting Susannah would have done just that. The new Susannah who understood mitigating circumstances just couldn’t do it.

“Open it.” Thomas turned away and walked over to stare out the sliding glass doors at the ocean beyond.

Gingerly she did as he commanded, revealing an old-fashioned suite of jewelry consisting of black opals in heavy, ornate gold settings. On the coffee table, Susannah lined up the brooch, a bracelet, a necklace, and a ring. Looking at them, she felt sadness engulf her. She lifted the brooch and watched the play of color, fire red, electric blues and greens, as she rocked it side to side to catch the light. “The gems are exquisite.”

From his position by the glass doors, Thomas said, “I’m so disgusted with myself I can’t stand to look at them.”

“I think you’d better start at the beginning and tell me the rest. How did you get them away?”

“I broke in when Yvonne went to dinner with the new man in her life.” Bitterness colored his words. Then, he stopped and cleared his throat. In a more neutral voice, he continued, “The wall safe in her boudoir was a joke. Even though I hadn’t cracked one in over ten years, it only took minutes to open.”

“Did you take anything else?”

“Just those. They were important to her for family reasons.” He shoved his hands in his pockets and began pacing.

Susannah stared at the flashes of intense color in the dark depths of the stone. How like the secrets that lay hidden in people. “What did you intend to do with them?”

“I don’t know. That’s just it. I didn’t think. I acted like a hurt child and lashed out to hurt her in return. I don’t want the damnable things. I never wanted them. I just took them to hurt her as badly as she’d hurt me. I hope you won’t think any less of me for being abominably stupid, but I’ll understand if you want to leave right here and now. I can only plead temporary insanity. Do you think a jury would believe that and let me off?”

Susannah sighed and laid the piece on the coffee table. “Thomas, all you need to do is return the jewelry.”

“I tried to send it back. I had it boxed up the very next day and an overnight delivery service waiting. When I called Yvonne to make certain she or the maid would be there to sign for the package, there was no answer. I tried the next day and the next after that. I don’t know where she’s gone. Her house is closed up. I know it’s silly, but I half-hoped she’d show up here. That’s why I really came to Murphy’s Cove. We’d talked about vacationing here so I could meet her brother. He’s the mayor here. I supposed I could give them to him. But I wanted, no, I needed, to apologize to her personally when I return the pieces.”

Poor Thomas. He’d obviously cared for Yvonne far more than Yvonne had cared for him. Without even having met the woman, Susannah decided she didn’t like her very much. What kind of woman breaks up like that, with a man who’d been her lover? Who’d proposed marriage? A man who’d professed his love? Love was more a curse than a blessing in too many cases it seemed.

“Did Yvonne know about your past?”

He nodded. “I was straight with her. I told her everything. She accepted me. We’d been together six months, and had planned to spend the rest of the summer here at the Cove.”

Thomas looked around and sighed. “She’s right. It is a lovely place. We’d have had a good time here. Together,” he added wistfully. He waved his hand at the jewelry. “I know this burned my last bridge with her. She’s got to know I took the pieces.” He walked back to the couch and slumped onto its silk cushions. “Now you know my deepest, darkest secret. So tell me, what do I do now?”

Susannah took a deep breath. “We give the jewelry back to Yvonne. She’s here, Thomas, in Murphy’s Cove. Probably in this very hotel.”

“Yvonne?” He sat up, suddenly looking more alive than he had all morning. “Here?”

“That’s right. In the flesh, though I haven’t seen her yet.”

He frowned. “I’m sorry, my dear. I’m afraid I don’t understand. If you haven’t seen her, how do you know she’s here. More to the point, how do you know Yvonne at all?”

“You’re not the only one with a confession to make, Thomas.”

When she finished telling him what she was doing at the Cove, he laughed. The sound wasn’t particularly pleasant. “I don’t believe it. I pick a deputy sheriff to confess my sins to. I really have lost my touch.”

He shook his head ruefully then held out both hands in the traditional posture of surrender. “Slap on the cuffs, Deputy. I’m ready to go. Actually, it’s a relief.”

“Put your hands down, Thomas, you look ridiculous,” Susannah said. “And don’t call me Deputy. I’m probably the poorest example of a law officer to ever pin on a badge.”

As he lowered his hands, he said, “Oh, I wouldn’t say that. You got me to confess.”

“Yeah, but you didn’t think you were confessing. You were just confiding in a friend.”

“Is your Mr. Hogan expecting to arrest me? Is that why you’re not doing the honors? You’re going to let him have the pleasure?”

“He’s not my Mr. Hogan, and no one is arresting anyone. All Hogan wanted was to steal the jewelry back for his stepmother.”

“How very unorthodox. So your Mr. Hogan is Yvonne’s stepson, the famous FBI agent?”

“If you don’t quit calling him my Mr. Hogan I might change my mind about arresting you.”

“I remember Yvonne talking about him. She always called him Sweetie. She showed me a picture of him, said it was her favorite, but it was taken years ago when he was very young. He had on karate pajamas and was hoisting a trophy bigger than he into the air.” He shrugged. “No wonder I didn’t recognize him. He was doing this for Yvonne, was he? A personal favor with no official sanction?”

“That’s right,” she said.

“If you’re not arresting me, what do you plan to do?”

“I’ll find Yvonne. We’ll return the jewelry, and that will be that. She gets her jewelry. You get your freedom. Hogan gets his stepmother’s satisfaction, and he gets to return to Washington.”

“And you, my dear? What do you get?”

“I get to go home and try to figure out what to do with my life. I’m doubting law enforcement is for me.”

“What makes you think it isn’t your forte?”

“Frankly, I might be in this for the wrong reason. I don’t think being an upholder of justice will help that seven-year-old girl of my memory.”

“I’m sorry. I don’t follow, but I do disagree about your suitability for law enforcement.” He winked. “Take it from me, I’ve had a lot of experience with the police. Too much. The best ones are those who can blend wisdom with rules. Just like you’re doing.”

She smiled. “Thanks. I’ll take that into account.” She kissed him on the cheek. “Take care, Thomas McConnell. Try to get back on that straight and narrow path and stay there.”

“You can count on it, my dear.”

“Good. Now, hide this stuff until I find Yvonne.”

“Perhaps you and I should team up. After all, you can’t recognize her if you’ve never seen her, now can you?”

Susannah frowned. “You do have a point.” She stood and walked to the door. “But I know someone who knows her.” She nodded slowly. “Other than Hogan.” She glanced at her watch. “Let me see if I can locate my old friend Luke.”

She opened the door and peered out and was relieved not to find Hogan lurking there. Wary of running into him, she decided not to hang around the hotel. Instead of phoning Luke, she’d go straight to the police department. Face to face, she’d have an easier time persuading him to reveal Yvonne’s whereabouts.

By the time she arrived at the red brick building that housed the Murphy’s Cove Police Department, she was hot and thirsty. Though not a great distance from the hotel, there were more pleasant things to do than walk eight blocks on a scorching August day.

The tile-roofed building was cool and quiet. Her cork sandals muffled her steps on the marble floor as she walked into the lobby of the police department.

“May I help you, ma’am?” asked the policeman behind the high counter, his pen poised above the paper he’d been writing on when she walked in.

“Yes, I’m looking for Luke Orland. Is he in?”

“He just ran over to the cafe. Should be back any minute. Would you like to have a seat and wait?” He gestured toward the chairs lining the wall behind her.

“Thank you.” Susannah took a seat but didn’t lean back. She felt too sweaty and sticky to press her back against the vinyl chair.

“Hot day, isn’t it?” The policeman asked, smiling at her instead of returning to the form he’d been filling out.

“It certainly is. Too hot.”

“Yes, ma’am. I heard that.” He pointed. “There’s a water fountain and some vending machines down the hall and to the right if you’d like something cold to drink.”

“Oh, thank you.”

The water refreshed her. Just as she patted her mouth, she heard hard-soled shoes on the marble floors. She started back. Just as she started to turn the corner, she heard a man laugh. She froze. She knew that laugh.

Susannah peeked around the corner and saw Hogan and Luke. The two men made no effort to keep their conversation quiet so she had an easy time of eavesdropping.

“I’m tired of this pretense,” Hogan said. “One way or another, I’m finishing this business today.”

“What about Susannah?” Luke Orland asked.

“Leave Susannah to me.” The he asked, What do you think she’ll do?”

“Probably plug you with her service revolver,” Luke replied cheerfully.

“Thanks a lot. That’s encouraging.”

“Hey, anytime.” Luke laughed.

It felt odd to hear these two rats discuss her. Susannah stayed perfectly still so as not to call attention to herself. She hoped they didn’t come her way.

“You’re sure we should go against what the Mayor said and do it this way?” Luke asked.

“Yeah. I should’ve had you arrest McConnell instead of wasting all this time playing Walter’s game. You’ve got the warrant so meet me at the hotel in an hour.”

“Won’t your stepmom get upset if you arrest him?” Luke asked.

“Probably. She just wants me to forget the whole matter, but she’s the one who set this train in motion.”

Luke whistled softly. “I don’t know Hogan. She told me and Walter at lunch that she didn’t want us to do anything about McConnell. Said she’d hire a lawyer for him if we even tried. She and Walter really got into it over him.”

“I’ll handle Vonnie,” Hogan said. “You just grab Susannah if you see her. Don’t let her come back to the hotel until I give you the word.”

A few minutes later, Hogan left. Susannah didn’t dare walk back to Luke’s office. When she was certain the coast was clear, she slipped around the corner and raced down the hall toward the back entrance. She had to warn Thomas. There had to be some place she could stash him and the jewelry until she located Yvonne.

She ignored the heat and the humidity as she dashed along the hard-packed sand. The cork sandals had rubbed blisters on her toes but she disregarded the sting of perspiration in the wounds and reached the hotel in record time. She went around to the parking garage and used the freight entrance to get to the lobby. She was pretty sure Yvonne was in this hotel, but she knew the desk wouldn’t give her the woman’s room number.

If Yvonne didn’t want Thomas arrested, and Thomas was wanting to return the jewelry, then all she had to do was put the two of them together.

Susannah hurried to the hotel flower shop. She’d seen this work in an old movie. Hopefully, it would work for her. Now, what had Hogan said Yvonne’s name was? Rizzoli?

“Hi,” she said cheerfully to the girl behind the counter. “I want to order some flowers.” She pointed to an irridescent white vase filled with what looked like two dozen long-stemmed American Beauty red roses. “How about that?”

“That’s three hundred dollars,” the girl said.

“Three hundred dollars?” Susannah gulped. “I mean that will be fine.” She signed Hogan’s name and the room number to the bill.

“I want these delivered immediately to Yvonne Rizzoli here in the hotel. They have to be there within the next half hour.” Her pen poised over the bill. “There’s a big tip in this if you can guarantee delivery.”

“Oh, yes, ma’am.” The girl smiled delightedly. “I have someone who can take them up immediately.”

“Great.” Susannah added a hefty tip and charged it all to the suite. When she left the flower shop, she found a chair in the lobby, obscured by a large potted palm. She waited. Minutes later, a delivery man holding the vase crossed the lobby. She hurried after him. He was alone when he stepped into the same elevator. She watched the numbers glow as she tracked his upwards progress, noting where it stopped.

Gosh, this was as easy as it looked in the movies, Susannah thought, stepping into the other elevator and pressing the number for the same floor. She felt quite proud of herself for her ingenuity.

Moments later, she stepped out and saw the man down the hall. She ambled down that way, intending only to locate the room number. All she needed to know was which suite was Yvonne’s then she’d come back later with Thomas and the jewelry.

The bellman stopped at a door that had a small black sign. Gulf Breezes East. Susannah walked past then realized the hall was a dead end. There were no more doors. There was only the one room. The penthouse, of course, she realized. Panicked, she turned around and started back. The man with the flowers stared at her.

Just as she drew even with the penthouse, the double doors were opened by an elegantly dressed woman. She was blond and very thin. More importantly, she was about Thomas’s age. Susannah glanced up. Their eyes met. Susannah hurried on. From the corner of her eye, she saw the woman take the flowers. Then the woman sneezed.

Just then Susannah heard Yvonne call out. “Young woman.”

The delivery man passed her, glancing curiously at her as he continued to the elevator. Susannah felt a hand on her shoulder. She sighed and turned.

“You have amazing green eyes,” the woman said, catching her off guard.

“Why, thank you,” Susannah said, cautiously.

“What’s your name?” the woman asked, staring at her oddly.

“This wasn’t the way I had planned this,” Susannah said. She held out her hand. “I’m Susannah Quinn. You’re Yvonne?”

The woman nodded. Her grip was surprisingly strong for such a fragile-looking woman. “Come with me. I think we have quite a lot to talk about,” Yvonne said. She ushered Susannah into the penthouse. “Those roses are from you, not Hogan.” She gestured toward the arrangement setting in the middle of an ebony grand piano. Yvonne laughed. “I’m not psychic. Hogan knows I’m allergic to roses.”

“I wanted to talk to you, and I didn’t know which suite was yours so I ordered the flowers and followed the delivery man. I should have guessed you’d be in the penthouse.”

Yvonne grinned. “Hogan’s right. You are clever.”

“He said that?” Susannah asked, nonplused.

“Along with a lot of other things.”

“Like what?” Susannah couldn’t help asking.

Yvonne laughed. “Why don’t we have tea and then we can exchange girlish confidences?”

“I’d love to, but I don’t know if this is the time or the place. You see, Yvonne.” She broke off. “I mean Ms. Rizzoli.”

“Yvonne’s fine.”

“Yvonne. I have a problem. Hogan’s on his way to arrest Thomas.”

“No, he wouldn’t dare.” Yvonne’s eyes rounded with shock.

“Trust me. He’d dare. He’s got a warrant. He and Luke Orland of the police department intend to arrest Thomas.”

“We’ve got to get Tommy out of here,” Yvonne exclaimed. “Will you help me?”

Chapter 17
Hogan was anxious to get the whole convoluted mess over and done with. When he and Luke Orland reached McConnell’s suite, Hogan rapped on the door and waited, but no one answered. Loudly, he called, “Open up, McConnell. I know you’re in there. This is Hogan. Look, I’m Yvonne’s stepson. I just want to talk.”

When the man still didn’t reply, Hogan rapped again. Exasperated, he shouted, “McConnell?”

“Maybe he’s hiding?” Luke suggested.

After a minute, Hogan heard a sound. Then the door slowly opened.

“Susannah.” Hogan gaped at her. His eyebrows snapped together in a scowl. “What the hell are you doing here? Didn’t I tell you to stay away from here?”

“Yes, you did,” she acknowledged, backing away from him.

Hogan looked around. “Then what are you doing here?”

She shrugged. He pushed past her then did a quick walk-through of all the rooms. “Where is he?”

“Lunch?”

Hogan snorted. “That sounds more like a question than a declarative sentence.” He halted. “What’s going on?”

Susannah couldn’t lie to him. “I told him you were coming to arrest him. He’s gone.”

“You what?”

She started to smart off and say that sounded more like an exclamation than a question, but she didn’t think he’d appreciate her attempt at humor. She’d promised Thomas and Yvonne that she would stall Hogan as long as possible. Diplomacy might be smarter than antagonism.

“Aw, Susannah, why’d you go and do that?” Luke asked, disgusted. “This would have been a felony arrest for me. Do you want me to put out an alert for him?”

Hogan’s eyes flashed fire at Susannah. She was surprised there wasn’t smoke coming out of his ears.

“Guess not. Uh, I’ll see y’all later.” Luke beat a hasty retreat.

When she was alone with Hogan, he said, “I don’t believe this. What kind of cop are you?” He shoved his hands through his dark hair.

“A good cop. One who reads people.” Susannah picked up her sun hat from Thomas’s coffee table. “I think I’ll go pack now.”

“You just hold on. You’re not going anywhere until you tell me every detail.”

She ignored him. At the door, she stopped and turned. “He didn’t steal from Yvonne. Not the way you think.”

“I didn’t know there were different ways to interpret theft.”

Susannah hurried out, knowing he would be forced to follow.

“Come back here and explain,” Hogan demanded, going to the door.

She kept walking down the hall. “I can explain just as easily in our suite.” Her heart hammered painfully. It was really over now. She just hoped she could keep her dignity while she said goodbye.

Hogan caught up with her. “Okay. But this better be good.”

They were silent as they returned to their suite. As soon as they were behind closed doors, Hogan crossed his arms and planted himself in front of Susannah. “Now give. Let’s hear why you thought you should let our suspect get away.”

Susannah thought about tossing those words, our suspect, back in his face. Mustering a little outrage of her own, she coolly said, “Why don’t you fix me something cold to drink while I shower. I’m hot and sweaty and tired. Then you can tell me everything that you’ve done today, and I’ll return the favor.”

“You’re stalling.” He didn’t move.

“Actually, I’m not. I really want a shower and a cold drink.”

After a moment, he agreed. “Okay, but hurry.”

She turned to go then stopped. “Hogan, what’s D. E. stand for?”

“Why do you want to know that now?”

She shrugged, feeling a bit silly. “I just do.”

The intensity of his gaze shook her. “I’d planned to tell you last night, but you ran away. Again.”

She flushed. “Never mind. Forget I asked.” She hurried to her room, closing and locking the door behind her. She took her time in the shower then took more time carefully applying moisturizer all over her body before slipping into white panties.

She pulled on an ankle-length white cotton dress and tied the ribbon straps at the shoulders. She studied herself in the mirror while she thought. Her heart pounded. Deliberately, she lifted her skirt and removed the panties.

Refusing to think about what she intended to do, she padded barefoot to the living room.

Hogan was stretched out on the couch. He snored softly. She picked up the soda he’d fixed for her. The ice cubes were mere slivers floating in the dark cola. She sat on the opposite end of the sectional and sipped the diluted cola. Her eyes kept drifting to him.

A light beard shadowed his face. She thought about what Grace had said about five o’clock shadow abrading a woman’s tender parts. She’d laughed at the suggestion, but after last night, she knew how it felt. Longing lanced through her. Hogan had lied to her, but all she could think of was that she’d never see him again. Even if she were willing to overlook the way he’d used her, he’d never forgive her when he found out how she’d helped Thomas and Yvonne run away together.

Paula’s words echoed in her mind. Why shouldn’t a woman take a man for pleasure? Men do it all the time.

What was the harm in fulfilling a desire of the flesh? What harm could one night with him do? One night with everything she wanted from him.

Susannah set her glass down and rose. Her hands felt clammy and her heart pounded with equal amounts of fear and excitement. Knowing she couldn’t do this in the bright glare of the afternoon sun, she walked over and closed the drapes.

Gingerly, she placed her right knee next to his thigh and eased herself down. As soon as her hips touched his, Hogan’s eyes flew open. His blue gaze bored into her as she braced herself on her forearms and lowered her breasts to his chest and stretched out on top of him.

“What are you doing?” Desire vibrated in his low, husky voice.

“If you have to ask, I must be doing something wrong,” Susannah said just before she closed her eyes and pressed her lips to his.

With a harsh exclamation, his arms came around her. His hand cupped the back of her head, holding her as he ravaged her mouth.

Susannah loved it. She wanted to be swept away. The one thing she didn’t want right now was to think of all the reasons why she shouldn’t do this.

Hogan broke the kiss with a gasp. He drew in deep drafts of air, but he didn’t release her. “Are you sure about this?”

“Yes.” She tried to capture his lips again but he turned his face away.

“You’re not going to run away again, are you?”

“No.”

“Why are you doing this now?”

“Just because,” she whispered.

He wouldn’t let her get away with that lame excuse. “Why not last night?”

Truthfully, she said, “I wanted to, but my second thoughts overruled me. Just like that night in Houston.”

“You know, that night? I didn’t intend for that to happen. I’m not into one night stands.”

“I didn’t intend for it to happen either.”

“But you’re okay with this now?”

“No second thoughts,” she vowed.

Love ’em and leave ’em. Maybe Paula was right. Maybe she’d get him out of her system this way. Then she’d be the one in the power position. She’d walk away rather than being left behind.

“I think we should talk first.” He smiled and tugged at the silky curls on the crown of her head.

“I don’t want to talk. I want to feel.” She rotated her hips against him and was rewarded by his hands sliding onto her skin. Heat flared in his eyes. “You’re quite the temptress, aren’t you?” He pushed upward against her.

She felt his rock-hard erection. “I want you inside me.”

He groaned. “Don’t even talk. I don’t know how much control I’ve got after last night.”

“I’ve been in control all my life. Now, I want to be wild. Make me wild, Hogan.”

Hogan took her mouth in a long drugging kiss, fueling her desire. He whispered against her lips, “I think this is inevitable. It’s just been waiting to happen since the day I met you.”

“On that we agree.” Susannah smiled, pleased by his acknowledgment of mutual desire. “Come on, Hogan,” she whispered. Her tongue flicked out and teased the corner of his mouth. “Let’s be wild together.”

“Your wish is my command,” he said. Suddenly, he flipped their positions. His body pressed her into the cushions. He lowered his head and captured her mouth again. Susannah felt an urgency she couldn’t fight. Didn’t want to fight. “Take me to bed.”

He didn’t speak. He rose and lifted her into his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Beads of sweat glistened on his forehead. His arms trembled as he leaned over her. “I promise, sweetheart. You won’t regret this.”

She raised up on her knees and said, “Take your clothes off.”

He didn’t argue. Instead, he probably set a speed record for undressing. She smiled, enjoying her moment of power. “Lie down next to me.”

He did, not saying a word, just branding her with his gaze.

She reached out with both hands and stroked over his chest and down, down, drawing a groan from him. “You did this to me to me, remember?” Her fingers trailed along his belly and circled the hard staff that visibly throbbed. She put both hands around him and squeezed. He grew harder. Thicker. He groaned as if in pain, but his eyes never closed. She wanted to make him cry out the way she had. She lowered her head and took him in her mouth.

He jerked and cursed, his voice harsh with strain. “No! Stop.” His hips bucked, and his hands pulled her away.

She raised up and ran her tongue over her lips. “Salty,” she whispered.

The pupils of his eyes were so dilated that his blue eyes seemed black. Suddenly, he sat up and jerked her dress over her head. She heard it tear, but she didn’t care.

She’d succeeded. This was what she wanted. Wild abandonment. No thinking. No rationalization. No excuses. Hogan tossed the torn dress to the floor.

His voice was a breathless whisper. “No bra? No panties? You tease.”

“What can I say? I’m shameless.”

“Thank God.” His hands slid along her shoulders, down her arms. “Beautiful.”

And Susannah felt beautiful.

Then he kissed her, and his hands went to her breasts. And she wanted to weep with joy at the now familiar sensation.

“Exquisite.”

“I want to go slow,” he murmured. “But I don’t think I can.”

Susannah felt his hands tremble. He strung kisses down her throat. Then his mouth closed over a rigid nipple.

Susannah bit down on his shoulder to keep from crying out. Her hips jerked. Blood thundered through her veins and beat in a frantic pulse between her thighs. When she thought she couldn’t stand it another moment, his mouth left her breast.

“You have perfect breasts,” he said as his index finger traced lazy circles around her throbbing nipple then he lowered his head to her other breast.

His hungry mouth suckled until she thought she would melt. Hot wetness pooled between her legs. Mindless with sensation, she pounded his back with both fists. “Forget slow. I want you inside me.”

Hogan’s hand slid down her body. His fingers slipped through the swollen folds. She cried out as he slid one finger into her cleft. “Is that what you want?”

Her head tossed side to side. She gritted her teeth and vowed not to beg.

He slid another finger into her, stretching her, making her crazy. “This?”

By now, she couldn’t have spoken if she’d wanted to. She could only gasp for breath.

Hogan maneuvered over her, his gaze locked with hers. His fingers slid inside her then out, caressing her, spreading the slick wetness. She moaned. She couldn’t help it. Her eyes closed. His fingers pulled out. Her hips lifted in protest.

Then nothing. When she heard the sound of plastic tearing, she opened her eyes and saw him sheathing himself in a condom. She didn’t think it possible that her heart could beat any harder, but it did. “Now?”

Instead, his fingers slid into her again. Oh, it felt so good, but she wanted, “More.”

His fingers slid out even more slowly than before. This time he spread the moisture he’d gathered over his hard shaft. He was beautiful. Her legs opened in invitation.

“There’s something I want more precious than the gift of your body.” Hogan said, moving between her outstretched legs. His hands cupped her breasts, thumbs tormenting the throbbing nipples.

“What?” Susannah gasped even as Hogan guided himself into her.

“I want your body,” he whispered, “but more than that, I want your trust.” He plunged into her, burying his shaft deep inside her.

Hogan’s mouth covered hers. His tongue plundered her as his hips bucked against hers. She met him, stroke for stroke. With each stroke he seemed to get harder. Thicker. Faster. The tension built inside her. Such exquisite torture. She held him as if she’d never let him go. A moment later her body stiffened. Hogan pumped faster, harder. Susannah felt the contractions start, squeezing around him. She cried out, and he hammered into her willing body until he was spent.

She wanted the feeling to go on and on. She wanted only this, to be in his arms and to have him inside her.

Hogan collapsed on her, his body as slick with sweat as hers. Gasping for breath, her heart still thundering, she whispered, “Again.”

Hogan half-laughed, half-groaned. “Give me about a half hour to catch my breath, okay? I’d kiss you, but I don’t have the strength.”

Susannah kissed him. Opening her mouth, she sucked his tongue into her mouth. Her hands stroked his buttocks. His tongue joined hers, mimicking what their bodies had just done.

She felt him stir, getting hard again as he lay inside her. “I don’t think you need thirty minutes,” she whispered.

“I think you’re right.”

To her delight, she was.

Desire filled the room again with its musky perfume. Her nails dug into his back as her hips rotated against his, asking for what only he could give. And he gave and gave until the moon rose over the ocean.

When they were too tired to love any more, they lay together, sated like lovers of long standing, her head resting on his shoulder. And that’s when the enormity of it hit Susannah. She felt utterly lost and alone.

“Tell me what you’re thinking,” Hogan said suddenly, brushing a curl from her forehead.

“I’m too tired to think about anything,” she lied.

“You don’t regret this, do you?”

“No. Not at all. If I’d known it could be like this, I’d have stayed that night in Houston,” she teased, refusing to let him see how she really felt.

“Ah. Houston. I’m glad you left me that night. I wouldn’t have wanted you to link your first time with me with the other emotions of that day.” He raised up on his elbows and forced her to look at him.

“I really don’t want to talk about that.” Susannah blinked rapidly. She felt so lost. After a minute, she said, “Thank you for then. You were incredibly sweet. Listening to me. Holding me when I cried. Letting me leave without trying to stop me. And thank you for tonight.”

Then she said pleaded exhaustion and turned on her side. Hogan held her and lay spooned against her. She couldn’t stop the tears that streamed from her eyes as she cried silently. Maybe some women could use men for sex without consequences. But she wasn’t one of those women.

After a few minutes, she felt Hogan move. He left the bed. She heard him in the bathroom then he returned to the bed. He reached for her.

Hastily, she wiped her face with the hem of the sheet.

“Hey, what’s the matter? Don’t cry.” He reached to stroke away a tear that clung to her eyelashes.

Susannah couldn’t be with him another minute. Knowing that she’d never see him again, it hurt too much to stay.

She had to make him leave.

“Oh, I always get so emotional afterwards,” she said, aiming for a worldly, sophisticated tone. “You know how it is when you have really great sex.” She faked a smile.

Hogan frowned and his fingers stilled. “Great sex? Was that what we had?”

She affected a yawn. “Of course. What else would it have been?” She hated the way she sounded, but it was the only way she could protect her heart.

His frown intensified. Did he expect her to declare her undying love? So he could laugh when he left her?

“I see.” He fell silent. After a minute, he sighed and got back in bed, turned on his side, and pulled her against him. Susannah lay with him curved around her. She closed her eyes and pretended to sleep. So much emotion filled her that she felt as if she would choke. She felt his lips on the side of her neck.

“I’m too tired,” she whispered just as his hands cupped her breasts and began to stroke the sensitized nipples. His hands were sure as he fondled her, stroking and lightly tugging on the swollen peaks.

Like an arrow, desire pierced her. His hand drifted downward. His fingers fondled her. She couldn’t stifle her gasp or the instinctive movement of her hips.

His breath was soft against her neck. “Are you sure you’re too tired?”

Susannah rolled onto her back. Her arms clasped him fiercely. “Maybe I was mistaken. I don’t think I’m too tired after all.” The damage was done.

What difference would it make if she loved him one more time?

Chapter 18
Sometime before dawn, Susannah stirred. Hogan sprawled next to her on the tangled sheets. Beard stubble shadowed his face. She suspected she had some evidence of the abrasive five o’clock shadow on various parts of her anatomy. She wished she could engrave his image on her heart.

If only she were as sophisticated and blasé about the past night’s adventure as she’d pretended to be. The more she looked at Hogan, the more she felt as if she might shatter into a million pieces. A bubble expanded inside her. Suddenly, it burst, and she knew its contents without a doubt. Despair. She choked back a cry and carefully disentangled herself.

Sadly, she realized why most women didn’t indulge in the same dogged pursuit of sex as men did. When a woman gave herself to a man, there was often more at stake than pleasure. Too often, women risked their hearts. Just as she had. Walking away, once you’ve given your heart, isn’t so easy.

Hogan stirred and reached out, encountering the pillow where she’d laid her head. He snugged it to him. When she could stand the pain no longer, she knew it was time to leave.

Silently, she gathered her clothes from the floor then backed out of the room, watching to make sure he didn’t wake. She didn’t think she could stand it if he opened his eyes and looked at her before she’d armed herself against him. She had to leave before then.

After a quick shower, she packed only her personal items. The clothes, the accessories, all the expensive things that had been bought for her, could stay here and rot. They weren’t hers. The Mayor had paid for them so he could have them.

What a fool she’d been. She stretched. She was sore, and her breasts were tender, a reminder of last night that would haunt her for a few days. Then, hopefully, she’d forget. No wonder sex made people crazy and love made people act as if they were brainless. She snapped her makeup case closed.

Susannah wrenched the gold band from her finger and left it lying on top of the suite’s key card on the coffee table. Then she lifted her bag and quietly slipped away.

When she stepped out of the elevator and into the lobby, she nearly collided with Allison Platt. Susannah’s eyes raked her from her tousled blond hair to her bare feet. She wore a red sequin cocktail dress. Matching red satin sandals dangled from her fingertips. Her feet were sandy.

“Long night?” Susannah didn’t even try to repress the censure in her voice.

“Why, Mrs. Hogan.” Allison grinned. “Very long night.” Her eyes glanced to Susannah’s makeup case. “Traveling light?”

“Excuse me, I’m in somewhat of a hurry,” Susannah said stiffly, pushing past her.

“Where’s Hogan?” Allison trailed after Susannah.

Irritated, Susannah stopped and turned. “I assume he’s upstairs asleep. Why don’t you go wake him?”

“Oh, so that’s how it is? The honeymoon is over. The bloom is off the rose. The. . . .”

“Stuff it.” Susannah walked away, without a backward glance, toward the pay phone.

Still Allison followed. “Who are you calling?”

Susannah raked her with a scathing glance from her tousled hair to her sandy feet. “Don’t you have some man to seduce or something?”

Allison grinned. “Not at the moment. The only one worth bothering with is upstairs asleep. And he’s not someone I could ever seduce.”

Susannah’s brows snapped together in irritation. “If you say so.”

“So who are you calling?”

“If it’s any of your business, I’m calling my friend Paula so she can come pick me up.”

Allison balanced on one foot while she slipped on first one shoe and then the other. “Don’t wake your friend. Come on. I’ll drive you where you need to go.”

“Why would you do that? More importantly, why do you think I would possibly want to ride with you?”

“Hmm. Good questions. First answer, I’m bored. Second, I’ve got a fast car, and you look like you want to shake the dust of this place as fast as possible. Am I right?”

Susannah hesitated, even though Allison was right on all counts. “I couldn’t think of imposing.”

“That’s a fake answer. But if you’re really concerned, let me assure you that you won’t be imposing. I’m still wired. I get like this and can’t shut my brain down.”

Susannah eyed her suspiciously. “You’re not on anything are you?”

“Just high on life.” Allison grinned.

Having Allison drive her home would solve her most immediate problem. She wasn’t exactly keen on waking the Colliers at this hour. Even though they wouldn’t mind.

“Come on, Mrs. Hogan.”

“Okay, but only if you quit calling me that.”

“Deal. So where are we going?”

Susannah told her as they waited for the parking valet to bring Allison’s car around. At that hour of the morning, it only took a few minutes to get it from the parking garage.

“Thanks, Miguel,” Allison said to the valet as she slid into the driver’s seat.

Susannah stared at the red Porsche. The Boxxter looked exactly like the one she’d arrived in. She settled into the other bucket seat as Allison let the top down. She looked over at Allison. “Wait a minute. You don’t have your wallet.”

“So?”

“Well, you don’t have a driver’s license.”

“So?”

Susannah looked at her pointedly. “You can’t drive without a license.”

“Sure I can. I just can’t drive legally.” She threw the car into gear and peeled away, laughing at Susannah’s expression.

After a minute, Susannah laughed. The laughter took some of the pain away. “I never thought of it that way, but you’re right. I guess you can drive. Just not legally.”

Allison looked over at her and grinned. “I have to admit that you surprise me.”

“Why because I have a sense of humor?”

“Hmm. Maybe.”

They drove in silence for a few minutes. Once they’d cleared the arch at the entrance to Murphy’s Cove, Allison said, “I remember I saw a diner just outside Vance. Do you think it’s open this early?”

“It should be.”

“Good. Let’s stop for some breakfast. I need coffee. Okay?”

Susannah shrugged. “You’re the driver.” It mattered little whether she got in at six in the morning or later. At least she was away from Murphy’s Cove. Away from Hogan.

Allison cruised at the speed limit much to Susannah’s surprise. “Did you arrive by car?” Susannah probed, curious about the coincidence of the car.

“No. I flew in and rode down to the Cove with some friends. This isn’t my car. It belongs to my father.”

“Oh, your dad lives in the Cove?”

“Sure does. In fact, you know him.”

Susannah looked at her doubtfully. “I don’t think so. I’m sure I don’t know anyone named Platt.”

“Platt’s my married name.”

Surprised, Susannah stared. “You’re married?”

“Was. Past tense. Usual story of being too young and stupid to marry. I was young. He was stupid. End of marriage. End of story.”

The way she said it, so dryly, so without rancor, surprised another laugh from Susannah. “So who’s your dad?”

“The esteemed mayor.”

“What?” Susannah’s smile transformed to a scowl. So Hogan and Walter had fooled her in ways she hadn’t even begun to comprehend.

“Why? What’s wrong with that? Don’t you like my father?”

“I thought I did, but your father is one of the reasons I’m in this mess.”

“What mess exactly are we talking about?” Allison braked quickly, turned the wheel sharply, and pulled into the parking lot in front of the Busy Bee. She glided to a stop next to a huge eighteen wheeler. She turned to face Susannah. “I want to know everything. So start with the mess.”

“The mess of me being with Hogan in Murphy’s Cove. The mess of my mother thinking she’s in love with your father.” A look of horror crossed Susannah’s face. “Oh, my God! Please tell me your father doesn’t have a wife tucked away somewhere.”

Allison sighed. “I wish he did, but Mom died when I was fourteen.”

“Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.” Tiredly, she rubbed a hand across her forehead. “In fact, I’m so tired I’m probably not making a bit of sense.”

“Come on. Some high octane caffeine will fix you right up.” Allison climbed out of the car.

Susannah followed. “Aren’t you going to put the top up and lock the door?”

“Why bother? It’s as safe here as it is in the garage. That’s one thing I love about this part of Texas.” She spread her arms wide. It’s like stepping back into the fifties. People still respect your property. You don’t have to worry about getting carjacked or mugged down in this little corner of Texas.”

Susannah considered. “You know, you’re right. I’ve spent so much of my life scheming to get out of this part of the world that I overlook its good points.”

Allison grinned as she opened the door. A bell jingled. “I’ve found people often don’t know how good something is until it’s gone.”

The Busy Bee had black and white tile floors, red leatherette booths, and red Formica-top tables. Only a half dozen customers at that hour of the morning were scattered throughout the cafe. Steel guitar music of the kind her grandparents’ generation had listened to blared from the juke box.

Allison and Susannah settled into a booth. A middle-aged woman with bleached-blond hair and three inches of dark roots put white stoneware coffee cups in front of them. With her pencil poised above her order pad, she asked, “Leaded or unleaded?”

“Definitely leaded.” Allison pointed to the woman’s name tag. “Dottie.”

“You got it,” Dottie answered.

“What’s that music on the juke box?” Allison asked.

“I can tell you’re not from Texas. That’s Bob Wills and the Light Crust Dough Boys. I’ll get your coffee.”

“Who’s Bob Wills?” Allison asked Susannah.

“The king of western swing. I grew up listening to that kind of music as much as to alternative, pop, and all the other stuff.”

“That’s the owner’s private collection of records filling that juke box,” Dottie called from the coffee station. “You can’t find music like that anymore.”

Susannah fell silent and listened to Allison and Dottie. What she heard made her reevaluate Allison’s personality. Apparently, the blonde had never met a stranger.

“I can believe that.” Allison smiled and patted the table top with her fingertips in rhythm to the music.

“That’s a gorgeous dress.” Dottie pointed at Allison. “When you get tired of it, give it to me.”

“You got it, Dottie,” Allison said. “When I toss it, it’s yours.”

“I’ll hold you to it.” Dottie grinned. “In the meantime, what can I get you for breakfast?”

“Check back in a few. We’ve got some girl talk to do,”Allison said.

By the time they’d downed a mug of the fragrant black brew, Susannah had sketched out the events of the last few days. She’d left out the sexual olympics with Hogan.

“Gee whiz. I miss all the exciting stuff. I wish I could have shacked up with Hogan for a week. I’d have that man begging for mercy.”

“I thought you said he was off limits. He is your cousin, isn’t he?” Susannah found it hard to keep her jealousy in check.

“Only by marriage,” Allison said with such aplomb that Susannah couldn’t help but laugh. At least laughter kept her from crying.

Allison drained her cup and motioned for more from Dottie. “Now I want the juicy details. Come on, tell your Auntie Allison what really happened. Did Hogan manage to withstand your charms?”

Susannah shook her head. “Nothing to say. I plead the fifth.”

“Oh, come on. You can’t leave me hanging like that. I bet you’d planned to tell Paula.”

“Well, yes, but I’ve known Paula forever.”

“So you haven’t known me that long. Yet.” Allison’s eyes twinkled. “But we’ve bonded over coffee, haven’t we?”

Susannah laughed. “You’re really something. How on earth does your father deal with you?”

Allison’s smile faded. “Actually, not very well. We tend to end up in shouting matches. I’m surprised your mother would want anything to do with him. He’s stiff and unyielding and doesn’t know how to have a good time. Usually. Last night, he was like a different man with your mother.”

Susannah rubbed her forehead. “I was shocked. My mother. And a man. Any man.” She frowned. “I’m pretty sure I wasn’t very nice.”

Allison looked at her. “I can tell that it bothers you. My dad dating your mother.”

“No. It’s not that. It’s my mother dating any man.”

“But why?”

Susannah shook her head. “I don’t even know how to explain it. All my life my mother warned me about falling in love. Unlike you, I didn’t rebel. I listened and worked hard to keep every guy I was ever interested in at a distance.”

“Gee, must be hard to have sex at arm’s length.”

“Oh, shut up.”

“Sorry. I couldn’t resist. How old were you when your father left?”

“Seven. One day he was there. The next day he wasn’t.”

“Ouch. That must have hurt.”

“More than I realized. I never knew how hard it was for me to trust a man just because of that. It sounds simplistic, textbook psychology, but it’s still true.”

“With my mom it was the same way, but I knew it wasn’t her choice.”

The two women fell silent, each consumed with their thoughts.

“So tell me then how you really feel about my father dating your mother?”

“I’m afraid he’ll hurt her.”

“Not my dad,” Allison scoffed. “He’s never been this interested in a woman. Any woman. If he’s after your mom, it’s for keeps. By no shape, form, or fashion is he a player.”

Susannah stopped to consider. Finally she said, “Even if he does hurt her, it’s her life. She has to live it. I shouldn’t try to sway her though that’s what I’d planned to do when I got home.” Susannah set her cup down. “Okay. You. How do you feel about your dad dating my mother?”

“I think it’s a great idea. Daddy needs someone to soften him up. I’ve never seen him like he was last night. He’s always a perfect gentleman, but he seemed so tender, so gentle around your mother. I’m so used to our fights that I think I’ve forgotten that he’s been lonely for a lot of years.”

Over their breakfast of hash brown potatoes, crispy bacon, and fried eggs, Allison tried to get Susannah to open up about Hogan.

“Allison, I don’t care if you are my new best friend. I’m not talking to you about Hogan.”

“But, he’s almost my cousin, Susannah. You know I was just teasing by flirting with him don’t you?”

“Yes. It’s not that. I just don’t want to talk about him.”

“Okay.”

Susannah was amazed at Allison’s easy amiability. She chatted with anyone who came over, and several did, with joking comments about the red cocktail dress she wore.

Finally, Allison pushed her plate away and yawned. “Let’s get this show back on the road.” After another yawn, she said, “I may have to nap at your house before I start back.”

“You’re welcome to.” Susannah covered her own yawn. The events of the past few days had caught up to her with a vengeance.

By the time they pulled into her mother’s driveway and parked next to Old Reliable, both women were drooping. Susannah led the way onto the porch.

Allison took one look at the porch swing piled with pillows and headed for it. “Wake me when it’s dark.”

Susannah said she would and slipped into the house. Before going to her room, she left a note on the kitchen table for her mother, explaining who the strange young woman in the swing was and why an expensive sports car was parked in her driveway. Then she stumbled off to bed, finally too tired to be haunted by Hogan.

* * *

Hogan studied his bleary-eyed reflection in the bathroom mirror. Yesterday had been the most frustrating day of his life. It had also been the best day of his life. He hadn’t been able to find McConnell, but he’d found Susannah instead. Now he’d lost her. Somehow it was appropriate that he looked as bad as he felt. Had he meant nothing to her but a night of sex? Really, really great sex?

“You look like the son of something from the black lagoon,” Luke Orland cheerfully observed from the doorway.

Hogan concentrated on splashing cold water on his face. He had to take care of this McConnell business then find Susannah. He’d ask her straight out how she felt about him. He glanced down at the smallest finger of his left hand where he wore the gold band he’d found on the coffee table that morning. The ring would go no further than over the first knuckle. As soon as he’d seen it, his heart had sunk. He’d known Susannah was gone.

“Are you going to be much longer?”

“Keep your shirt on, Orland. And get me some coffee.”

“I’ll see if I can get room service to send up a gallon,” Luke said pushing away from the door frame where he leaned. “Maybe it’ll improve your mood.”

“There’s nothing wrong with my mood,” Hogan snapped. Nothing wrong that seeing Susannah wouldn’t improve. He turned on the shower and stepped in. The cold water cleared away the remaining cobwebs. He should have talked first and loved later last night. Explained everything. But his little head had been calling the shots.

A half hour and three cups of coffee later, he felt nearly normal. “Let’s go visit McConnell.” He held up the passkey card he’d obtained. “I have a feeling that since the lovely deputy has departed, McConnell is probably home again.”

“After you.” Luke waved the warrant.

When they got to McConnell’s suite, there was no answer. Luke drew his pistol, carefully pointing it in the air. “Okay, Hogan, you’re on,” he said quietly.

“I think you can holster your weapon,” Hogan said dryly. “McConnell has never carried a gun before.”

Luke hesitated then sighed. “Too bad.” He put the gun away as Hogan inserted the electronic key card.

Luke stepped through first. “Thomas McConnell, this is the police. We have a warrant for your arrest.”

“Chill, Orland.” Hogan thought he heard a noise in one of the bedrooms. He held his finger to his lips and motioned Luke to follow him. They crept down the hallway and stood outside the bedroom door. Someone inside the room laughed.

Hogan put his hand on the doorknob. Silently he mouthed to Luke, “On three.”

Luke nodded.

Hogan held up one finger, then two, then three. He turned the knob and flung the door open. He and Luke burst through the doorway then froze in mid-step.

Yvonne screamed and jerked the sheet that lay loosely over her chest up to cover her head. Thomas McConnell came out of the bed with a roar.

He’d have looked rather threatening, Hogan thought, if he hadn’t been clutching a long-stemmed red rose between his teeth. And if he weren’t stark naked.

McConnell spat the rose out. “Get out of here.”

Hogan and Luke beat a hasty retreat. The door slammed.

Luke looked at Hogan. “Uh, that was your stepmother, wasn’t it?”

Hogan glared at him. “You know it was.”

Luke looked down at the warrant. “Somehow I think we’re not going to need this.”

The door behind them flew open and Yvonne, wearing a man’s red plaid bathrobe, stood there glaring at them.

Hogan and Luke shuffled their feet restlessly.

“How dare you.” she hissed.

Hogan’s temper flared. “Now wait just a damn minute, Vonnie. What the hell are you doing in bed with the guy who stole your jewelry?”

Yvonne had the grace to blush. “That was just a misunderstanding.”

“A misunderstanding?” Hogan roared.

The door flew open again and McConnell, wearing only finely tailored trousers, stalked out. “Don’t you dare yell at Yvonne that way,” he snapped, getting right in Hogan’s face.

“How I talk to my mother is none of your business.”

“It most certainly is my business. I won’t have you taking that tone to my wife.”

“Your wife?” Hogan and Luke cried in unison.

Hogan shook his head. “I didn’t have enough coffee to make sense of this.”

Yvonne laughed softly. “Come on, sweetie.” She took his arm and led him to the living room. “You too, Mr. Orland. I guess I owe you both an explanation.”

She seated them on the couch. “Tommy, darling, would you make us some juice or something while I explain everything to these two children.”

Hogan glowered at her. “I have spent most of my vacation running around like the proverbial chicken with its head cut off, thinking I was helping you get back some family heirlooms. Just what the hell is going on here?”

“Sweetie, I take full responsibility for this whole peccadillo. You see,” she had the grace to blush. “After your father died, it hurt so bad I thought I didn’t ever want to love someone that much again. Then I had that disastrous marriage to Rizzoli, and, I’m ashamed to say, a series of not very nice affairs. I thought I’d become immune to love. Then I met Tommy.” She glanced over at her new husband and smiled.

McConnell brought a tray of glasses filled with orange juice on the rocks. He set it on the coffee table where everyone ignored it. Hogan noticed how her eyes softened when she looked up at the man.

“When I met Tommy, I knew I was in trouble. Then when he proposed, I was scared. I forced myself to break it off and start dating someone else. I couldn’t take the pain of loving someone again and eventually losing them.” She reached over and took his hands, interlocking her fingers with his. “Sending Tommy away just about killed me.”

McConnell took over the story. “It made me completely insane. I wanted to hurt her the way she’d hurt me. So I stole the jewelry she valued most.”

Yvonne reached over and kissed his cheek. “By the time I discovered the jewelry was gone, I had already decided I’d made a huge mistake. I didn’t care about the jewelry. I just wanted Tommy back. But I’d made the mistake of telling Walter the jewelry had been stolen. He went ballistic. I didn’t want Tommy hurt or thrown in jail. That’s the real reason why I asked you to help me, sweetie.”

“But why not just get in touch with McConnell and tell him you’d changed your mind.”

“I was afraid. I might have killed his love for me. I had to make sure he’d stolen the opals for the right reason. I didn’t want Tommy to marry me because he was afraid I was going to send him to prison.”

“This is crazy,” Hogan raked his hands through his hair.

“Love often is,” Yvonne said. “Lucky for Tommy and me that your Susannah entered the picture. She told us she’d buy us some time while we eloped. And she did.”

Hogan felt as if someone had stabbed him in the gut. “Yeah, lucky for you,” Hogan said. “What was she? The maid of honor at your elopement?”

The painful realization that Susannah had slept with him just to keep him from breaking up Yvonne’s elopement nearly crushed him. Buy them some time. Susannah hadn’t wanted him. She’d just used her body to put one over him. She’d distracted him while Yvonne and McConnell eloped. How could she have used him like that?

“Where is Susannah?” McConnell asked. “Yvonne and I would like you both to join us in a celebration dinner tonight.”

“I don’t think that’s going to be possible. She’s not here,” Hogan said stiffly.

“Oh, dear, you let her get away?” Yvonne asked.

“It’s not like I could take her into custody to keep her with me.”

“Why not?” Yvonne asked, eyes twinkling mischievously.

* * *

Three days later, that question still reverberated in Hogan’s mind. He checked his bags in at the counter outside the air terminal and tried to shake the feeling that he was making a mistake by leaving. He’d have stayed if he thought there was any chance Susannah had wanted more from him than a one-night stand. But she hadn’t. She’d never be able to trust any man long enough to let herself fall in love. He accepted that now. She’d just lusted after him. If she’d really loved him, he told himself, she would have stayed to make sure he didn’t mistake the meaning of their night together. Wouldn’t she?

He tucked his boarding pass in the inside pocket of his navy sport coat and held out his hand to Walter. “It was good seeing you again, Walter.”

“You too, Hogan. I guess I owe you an apology for getting you involved in this mess.”

“Hey, what’s family for if not to screw up your life?”

Walter grinned. “Funny. But true.”

“Did you and Allison talk?”

“Yeah. She’s off following one of her whims again.”

“Don’t be too hard on her. It takes some of us longer to find out what we want in life.”

“Speaking of that, uh, are you sure you don’t want to talk to Susannah before you go?”

Hogan’s mouth thinned. “I’m sure.” Her using him still rankled. He hadn’t been able to get beyond the fact that she’d slept with him just to distract him from what he’d intended to do.

“Well, in case you change your mind. . . .”

“I won’t.”

“She’s back at work at the Sheriff’s Department. Just a phone call away.”

“You’re wasting your breath. I don’t want to see her.” Hogan turned to enter the terminal.

“All right,” Walt called out. “I’ll tell Rory. I guess that clears the field for Susannah’s young man from college.”

Hogan stopped dead in his tracks. He turned and walked back to his uncle. “What do you mean?”

“I think the kid’s name is Brian. They dated in college. Apparently, according to my future wife, he’s been crazy about Susannah for years. Head over heels in love with her, but she’d never given him a chance or any encouragement before. Now, for some reason, she seems to have changed her mind and is welcoming his attention. If you know what I mean.”

Hogan’s frown intensified. He did know what Walt meant, and he didn’t like it at all. “I didn’t know she had a college boyfriend.”

“Well, like I said, she’d never let it get serious before, but Brian has always hung in there and hoped. Odd how he showed up in Vance just a few days ago. It’s as if he knew his time had come. He’s staying at Rory’s. She said, he’d been a, uh,” Walter cleared his throat, “a comfort to Susannah.”

“A comfort?” Hogan felt jealousy sink its talons into his heart. What did she need comfort for? He’s the one who needed comfort. She broke his heart, not the other way around. “And he’s staying at the Quinn house?”

“You know Vance. There’s not a hotel in town.”

Hogan’s gut felt as if it were tied in knots. He’d begun to suspect that he was developing an ulcer.

“Rory tells me Susannah’s a different woman since she returned from Murphy’s Cove. Not so driven. More relaxed and laid-back.”

“Good. Everybody needs balance in their life,” Hogan muttered. Surely Susannah wasn’t thinking about marrying some boy from college? She needed a man who could go toe to toe with her. Not some boy.

“So, you’ll be back for my wedding?”

Hogan shrugged. “Sure. It’s a family thing, right?”

“Right. And don’t even think about weaseling out of it.”

Hogan looked abashed. That’s exactly what he’d planned to do. It hurt just thinking about Susannah. Seeing her again might well tear him into pieces. Seeing her with another man? He didn’t like that picture at all.

The two men shook hands and clapped each other on the back and said their farewells again. “See you next month,” Walter said.

Hogan nodded and entered the terminal without hesitation this time.

Walter’s shoulders slumped in defeat. He pulled out his cell phone and punched in a number. While he waited for Rory to answer, he retrieved his car keys from his trousers pocket and jingled them as he walked to the metered parking. Feeling depressed and knowing Rory would be upset, he leaned against the fender of his Porsche.

When Rory answered, he said, “Sorry, darling. I’m afraid I failed. I thought sure I had him when I started talking about Brian, but he didn’t fall for it. Maybe I should have said Brian proposed.”

“Yeah, maybe you should have,” Hogan drawled from behind him. He plucked the car keys from the mayor’s hand. “Get in. I’m driving.”

Walter’s sheepish expression changed to a delighted grin that stretched ear to ear as he jumped into the passenger seat. “Are we going where I think we’re going?”

Chapter 19
ay after day, Susannah worked to exhaustion in an effort to be so tired that she’d have no energy left to obsess about Hogan. Banishing him from her brain was an exercise in futility.

She dragged another box from the file room and carried it to her desk. “Here’s the last one from the eighties, Allison.” Tiredly, she hoisted the dusty box onto her desk and brushed her hands together.

“Great. We’re really making some progress now,” Allison said. “This was really a two-person job, Susannah. With me sorting and filing. . . .”

“And me inputting the data,” Paula said, looking up from the computer.

“We should be finished with this before Paula goes back for the fall semester,” Allison concluded.

“Right.” Paula swung to the side to grab some papers from in front of Allison. Her waist-length black hair fell across her face. Absently, she tossed her head, flipping the black tresses over her shoulder.

“Words can’t express how appreciative I am to both of you for pitching in like this,” Susannah said.

Paula grinned. “No problemo.”

“Hey,” Allison interrupted. “I’m not doing this for you. This is a job, and I’m actually getting paid.”

“Yeah, like you need that minimum wage,” Susannah said with a wry laugh.

“You girls want me to bring back anything from the cafe?” Grace Collier asked. “Myrtle’s got lemon ice box pie for dessert today.”

“Ooh, that sounds scrumptious,” Paula said. “Get a piece for me, Mom.”

Allison rubbed her slender mid-section. “I’m starved. Get two slices for me, Grace.”

“Girl, where do you put all the food you eat?” Grace laughed. “I’ve never seen anyone consume so much.”

Allison shrugged. “Luck of the draw. I ended up with a super fast metabolism. Other people get musical or artistic talent.”

Susannah dropped into the chair next to her desk. “Why are you still here, Allison? I know Mom’s porch swing is a great place to sleep, but why haven’t you gone home?”

Allison shrugged. “I’m having fun. As long as it’s fun, I’ll stay.”

“Going through dusty old papers is fun? Not that I don’t appreciate your taking over this project, but it doesn’t make sense. You’re rich. You could be anywhere doing anything. Laying on a beach on the French Riviera sounds like a heck of a lot more fun than Alton County, Texas, in August.”

“Been there, done that. Got the tee shirt. Don’t need another.” Allison opened the box and began sorting its contents. “By the way, did you call Hogan to say goodbye?”

Startled, Susannah looked up. “Goodbye?”

Allison shrugged. “Yep. He’s leaving for Washington today.”

“I didn’t know.” She felt as if Allison had shoved a nightstick through her heart. Hogan hadn’t set foot in the Sheriff’s office since she’d returned from the Cove. “There’s no reason to call him. If he wanted to apologize, he knows where I am.”

“Maybe it would make you less miserable to see him and clear the air,” Paula suggested.

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Susannah scoffed. “I’m not miserable.”

“Oh. So crying yourself to sleep is normal behavior for you?” Allison asked.

Susannah reached into the box and pulled out a ticket. “Look at this. Here’s another citation Uncle Barney wrote for Mrs. Rojas because her sheep Ruffles ate Lucy Flores’s Easter hat.”

“Don’t change the subject,” Allison said. “Did you here that Aunt Vonnie and Thomas McConnell got married?”

A smile brightened Susannah’s glum expression. “Your dad told Mom who told me. I’m happy that things worked out for them.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of neat having a family with a famous jewel thief and an FBI agent too.” Allison glanced up. “Oops. Sorry.”

“No problemo,” Susannah echoed dully.

“What do you think about my dad marrying your mom?”

Susannah sighed and laid the old ticket aside. “I think it’s a foregone conclusion. She and I talked. What can I say? I’m convinced. I’ve never seen her this way.”

She grimaced. “Though I don’t know if I could tolerate having you for a sister. I mean, you already steal my clothes. What will you do when we’re officially sisters?”

“I’ll let you steal mine. Though I must take exception to your statement. I haven’t stolen your shirts. They don’t exactly fit,” Allison said.

“Gee, Allison. I’m sure she appreciates the reminder that you have better assets in that department,” Paula remarked dryly.

“Hey,” Allison said, “It’s quality not quantity that counts. I’d be willing to bet that my rather dense cousin didn’t complain.”

Susannah flushed. No. Hogan hadn’t complained.

“You spend all your time thinking about him. Why don’t you call him? Come on, Susannah. Give in. I’ll tell you what the D. E. stands for if you’ll call.” Allison promised.

Susannah ignored the bribe. If Hogan wouldn’t tell her, she didn’t want to hear it from someone else. “What would I say? Hi, this is the woman who . . . what? Had a one-night stand with you?”

“How about, this is the woman who loves you?” Paula suggested.

“No. If he’d wanted to talk to me, he’d have called me.”

“That’s the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard. What happened to your proactive feminist stance? Why wait for a man to call you? Come on. Act like a man.” Paula grinned. “Pick up the phone.”

“Paula, your advice is what got me in this predicament. What kind of relationship could we possibly have?” She asked, trying her best to sound light-hearted and joking. “I mean he’s a G-man from D. C. and I’m a deputy from A. C.? Alton County, Texas, is a world away from Washington. I’m not exactly the vacation-affair type.”

“I know Hogan. You should trust him,” Allison said. “He’s not the one-night stand type either. Believe me.”

Susannah felt her anger freshen. “Trust him? Why should I?”

“Because you can’t go through life like before,” Paula said.

“I’ve had enough. That’s all I hear lately from you two. And from Mom. From everybody. Well, I’m tired of it. You two live your life your way. Which I can’t see has gotten either of you very much. Paula, you’re miserable from your last broken relationship, and, Allison, your free-wheeling lifestyle has only resulted in too many affairs and nothing long-lasting.”

“Sometimes, appearances aren’t what they seem,” Allison said. “I may not be the bimbo you think I am. Just like you’re not the hard as nails loner you pretend to be.”

Instantly, Susannah felt ashamed of her words. “Hey, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean those things. I don’t think you’re a bimbo, Allison.”

“Apology accepted.”

The phone rang. Susannah grabbed it, glad to have something to break the tension in the office. “Alton County Sheriff’s Department. This is Deputy Quinn. May I help you?”

She handed the phone to Allison. “It’s your dad.”

“Deputy Allison, what can I do you for, Mayor?” Allison grinned and winked at Susannah.

She listened, her eyes dancing mischievously. “Okay. Ten four, good buddy.”

Susannah laughed. “That’s a telephone, not a CB radio, Allison. Anything important?”

“Nope. Nothing at all. Just family business.” She fiddled with the papers in her hand for a few minutes, glancing surreptitiously at the clock on the wall. After ten minutes had passed, she said, “Susannah, shouldn’t you leave for patrol?”

Susannah shrugged. “I’ve got time before I have to relieve Carl.”

“Well, Carl’s out in the parking lot already. Why don’t you take over early?”

“Why? There’s nothing much to do on patrol except drive around.”

“Isn’t that what you wanted? To be a patrol deputy?”

“It was. Once. I’ve decided to set my sights a little higher now.”

“Well, Deputy Quinn, show a little initiative. This county needs you. Get a move on.” Allison rose and gave Susannah a push toward the door.

“All right. All right. Give it a rest. I’m going.” Susannah grumbled.

Brusquely, Allison said, “Well, move a little faster.”

“My but you’re a pain.” Susannah sighed. “I’ll see you both tonight.”

“Sure. Meet you at the courthouse square,” Paula said. “Your cousin Judy Anne said her mom and her nieces would meet us there too.”

“I can’t wait for the Mid-summer Night’s Festival,” Allison added. “I bet Vance brings new meaning to Shakespeare-in-the-park. I can hardly wait.”

“Be careful out there,” Paula said.

Susannah snapped her a mock salute. “Yes, ma’am. Tell Uncle Barney not to worry. I’ll keep it under a hundred unless I have to chase someone.”

Two minutes after Susannah left, Allison picked up the phone and called her father. “Okay, Dad, she’s on her way.”

Then she turned to Paula. “You won’t have to wait until tonight for fireworks. They’re about to begin.”

* * *

Susannah had cleared the air with her mother. She’d told Rory about her two meetings with her father. They’d cried together.

“I refuse to love anyone the way you loved my dad,” Susannah had whispered.

Rory had said, “You have no choice whether to love or not. Love comes, and it’s there for those brave enough to take it. You have to be brave, and you have to trust. If you can’t trust, you can’t love.” Rory’s eyes fell. “And if you can’t love, you’ve going to live a very lonely life.”

Those words haunted Susannah. She climbed into the Sheriff’s Department cruiser, a brand new Suburban, and adjusted the rear view mirror. She stared at her reflection then hid her haunted eyes with mirrored sunglasses like the troopers wore.

Quickly, she buckled her seat belt and pulled out of the parking lot. She should be happy. She’d got just what she wanted after returning from Murphy’s Cove. Her uncle had given her patrol duty three days a week. She drove slowly through the streets then began patrolling the stretch of highway she’d been assigned, but she couldn’t work up much excitement for the job.

She’d gone into law enforcement for all the wrong reasons. Now she had to figure out what she really wanted to do with her life. She’d been thinking seriously about going to law school, but even that didn’t excite her the way it once might have. Once, she’d thought career was the most important thing of all. Now, she realized she’d been wrong. She had a horrible feeling that her mother was right. Love was the only thing of real value. Everything else passed away, but love remained. Even an old jewel thief had discovered that.

Susannah drove the crime-free streets of Vance and tried to sort out her feelings. Knowing Hogan was leaving made her feel bereft. Alone. Maybe she should have called him. But what would she have said?

He’d lied to her. Suddenly she recalled Hogan’s face as they’d made love. Yes, he’d lied to her. But hadn’t she lied to him too? Her mother had lied yet she’d forgiven Rory. She understood the mitigating circumstances that had prompted Rory’s deceit. Just as, in her heart, she understood why Hogan had lied.

Damn it. Just because she understood didn’t mean she could trust him with her heart. Or did it? That question haunted her as she drove out the blacktop road east of town.

Angry, Susannah hit the steering wheel with her fist. “Trust him? Why should I? All men have ever done is lie to me. How can I trust any man?”

The words hung in the air. She flinched. Oh, God. She’d trusted Thomas McConnell, a thief. She’d trusted the convicted felon when no one else had. She’d believed him. If she could do that, then why couldn’t she trust Hogan?

She’d forgiven Rory. Why couldn’t she forgive Hogan?

Susannah slammed on the brakes. She’d had no problem trusting an ex-convict she hardly knew. Her instinct had told her McConnell was okay. She’d believed him and his mitigating circumstances. She had good instincts. Then why not trust her instinct about the man she loved? Couldn’t she trust herself to have fallen in love with a man worthy of her love and respect?

“Oh, dear, God,” she whispered. Suddenly, she knew that it wasn’t Hogan she didn’t trust. It was herself. She didn’t trust herself to have the strength to risk her heart and survive if it didn’t work out.

But she’d already risked her heart. She’d given it to him. And promptly run away. She’d never run away from anything in her whole life until she’d met Hogan. She’d survived too. She wasn’t curled up in a fetal position and contemplating her navel. True, she felt like crap, but she was out in the world, taking care of her responsibilities.

Could going to Hogan and telling him how she felt be a bigger risk than what she’d already done? So what if he said he didn’t love her? She was strong enough to take that gamble. Wasn’t she? She’d survived her father’s rejection. If Hogan rejected her, then she could survive that too. But she’d never know if she could have it all unless she took a risk. Just like her mother had tried to tell her.

A smile spread across her face. Not only was she strong, she was smart. Smart enough to finally realize a man could not act like Hogan, be so tender, say the things he’d said, and not love her. She just hoped she wasn’t too late because it would be a long trip to Washington D. C. if she missed him at the airport.

For the first time in days, Susannah knew exactly what to do. She U-turned the big Suburban and headed back to town. Allison was right. She should have called Hogan. If for no other reason than to make sure he was as miserable as she, she thought, grinning foolishly. Why should he get off scot free?

From the rear view mirror, she saw a red Porsche come roaring out of the east. It passed her as if she were standing still. That car looked awfully familiar. She knew it wasn’t Allison driving because Walter had taken the car back to Murphy’s Cove yesterday. And she was fairly certain Walter wouldn’t drive at supersonic speed. That left one man.

Susannah hit the siren and flipped on the flashers. Her foot stomped the accelerator. The Suburban’s big V-8 turbo-charged engine would never have caught a Porsche driving flat out, but she suspected the pseudo renegade driving that particular Boxxter would feel compelled to pull over when he saw the flashing lights.

The Porsche was a growing speck ahead of her when she glanced down and saw the speedometer reach a hundred and five. “Sorry, Uncle Barney,” she said aloud with a grin that didn’t have a shred of remorse in it.

For the first time in days, she felt happy. Excitement thrummed in her at the thought of tangling with Hogan again.

The brake lights of the Porsche came on. It grew larger in her field of vision as she raced up behind it. She braked sharply as the distance between the two vehicles narrowed.

The Porsche pulled off the road and into the parking lot of the Dairy Palace. Three other cars filled with teenagers enjoying their last days of summer vacation occupied the lot. Car doors flew open as the kids piled out to watch the show.

Susannah’s heart pounded. She’d know within minutes how he truly felt. She’d know the minute she looked into his eyes. Her hands felt clammy on the steering wheel as she pulled in behind the Porsche. Oyster shells that took the place of gravel in parking lots close to the coast crunched beneath the Burb’s big tires.

She cut the engine. She could see Hogan clearly as he lowered the Porsche’s convertible top. She could tell as she opened the door of the Suburban that he was flipping through his wallet for his license.

Susannah took a moment to adjust her mirrored sunglasses. She settled her western hat squarely on her head and stepped out onto the running board then hopped down to the shell-covered ground. She had him now. She hitched up her gun belt and gave her best imitation of her uncle’s swagger as she stepped up to the Porsche. “Going to a fire?” she asked, trying to sound as gruff as her uncle.

Hogan froze. He looked up from his wallet. “What are you doing here?”

“Keeping law breakers like you from running roughshod over us poor country folk.”

A slow grin spread over his face. “So you finally talked your uncle into letting you patrol?” His gaze devoured her.

Susannah felt something inside her ease. She pursed her lips to keep from smiling. Primly, she replied, “I’ll ask the questions, sir. License and registration please.”

“What? You’re not serious. You don’t think you’re going to write me a ticket, do you?”

“Trying to make your quota, Susannah?” one of the teenagers called. The rest burst into laughter.

Hogan worked up a scowl. “You wouldn’t dare write me ticket.”

“I guess that would make you a three time loser.” Susannah rested her forearm on the window frame and leaned toward him. She slid her mirrored sunglasses down with her index finger and looked over the rims. “You were breaking the law, sir.”

She exaggerated her Texas drawl and didn’t crack a smile. “We don’t take kindly to yankees coming down here in their fancy cars and disturbing the peace. We especially don’t like them arguing with a peace officer. Now, you’re not planning on giving me any lip now, are you?”

* * *

“Lip?” Hogan felt his insides unknot for the first time since she’d left him. A delicious feeling of triumph swept through him. Oh, baby, I’m gonna give you a lot more than lip, he thought. Enjoying her game, he affected a drawl. “Maybe you could extend some professional courtesy, Deputy. After all, I am a federal officer.”

“You are, huh?” Susannah pushed her glasses back into place and straightened. “Then you should realize that speeding is one of the five reasons for accidents in most states.”

“Is that a fact?”

“Yes, sir. That’s a serious fact. As serious as dirt.”

Hogan looked at her mouth hungrily. That mouth of hers had kissed him and teased and tormented him. He was past ready for some kissing and making up to commence. He smiled slowly, enjoying this prelude to the main event. “What are the other four reasons, Deputy?”

“Driving under the influence, failure to yield, following too close, and running a stop sign.”

“Well, Deputy, maybe you just better take me to jail now.”

“Why’s that, sir?”

Well, I’m driving under the influence of a green-eyed woman too stubborn for her own good. But then you’d have to arrest her for impersonating a woman in love.”

“Impersonating huh? Sounds like you don’t know the lady in question very well or you’d realize she wasn’t impersonating anything.”

Hogan studied her intently. A slow smile lit his face. He swallowed over the lump of emotion in his throat. It really was going to be all right. Susannah was going to be his.

“If you don’t arrest her for that, then maybe you should arrest her for failure to yield,” he suggested.

“Now I know you don’t have all the facts of this case, Mr. Federal Agent. I understand the lady in question has yielded just about everything a woman can yield.”

“Is that so? Perhaps we need to explore the facts, Deputy. Suppose you, as a representative of the county, and I, as a representative of the federal government, get together for a, shall we say, in depth exchange of information?”

“Just a moment, sir. How do I know you’re really a federal agent? Can you prove it?”

“I do have a shield.” Hogan grinned. “In my pants pocket. Would you like to come and get it?”

Susannah didn’t respond to the chorus of cat calls from the bystanders who had edged closer. “Why don’t you show it to me, sir?”

“Why don’t you come and get it? I won’t bite. Much.” His voice was like silk.

Susannah’s lips twitched. “All right, sir, but I must warn you. Don’t make any sudden moves. I wouldn’t want to have to get physical with you.”

“Oh, come on, Deputy, get physical. Please.”

Without warning, Susannah launched herself at him, diving over the door and landing cross-ways against him. Her hands clutched the lapels of his sports coat as she planted her mouth on his. The kiss burned away all the doubts between them.

In the background, the raucous catcalls from the kids continued, but neither Susannah nor Hogan cared.

After an eternity, Susannah pulled back and looked deep into his blue eyes. “What kept you, Special Agent Hogan?”

“I think Vonnie’s new husband calls it being a blockhead. What kept you, Deputy Quinn?”

“Growing pains.”

They smiled into each other’s eyes before closing them to block out the world as their lips met again.

When they came up for air, Hogan said, “There’s just one thing I need to know.”

Susannah smiled up at him. “And just what might that be?”

Chapter 20
To Susannah’s surprise, the question Hogan had asked was unexpected. The man had wanted to know when she would marry him. Not if, but when. Had she played hard to get and coquettish? Why bother? Game playing just wasn’t her style. She was an up front kind of girl who knew what she wanted.

Much later, at the Midsummer Night’s Fest, Susannah and Hogan watched the fireworks explode over Courthouse Square. Like just about everyone who attended the annual festival, they were content after a long evening of good food, cold beer, and the small town production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” which proved to be more comical than Shakespeare probably intended when the entire cast spoke with broad Texan drawls.

Hogan’s talented fingers drew lazy circles on Susannah’s shoulders, making her breath quicken and her insides turn to mush. Each time his hands slid over her shoulders and traveled a bit farther south until Susannah grabbed his hands in both hers. In a whisper, she warned, “My mother is right over there.”

“Yeah, but it’s dark over here,” Hogan whispered back. “And she and Walter have eyes only for each other.” He kissed her ear then his mouth slid down the side of her neck. He found the sensitive spot on her neck and flicked it with his tongue. He deepened the pressure with his mouth, and Susannah moaned.

His quiet chuckle held more masculine superiority than she could allow him to get away with. She squirmed away from him. “My cousin’s mother is on the other side. And she’s got her two nieces with her.”

“Yeah, but they have eyes only for the fireworks.” He pulled her back against him and went to work with his mouth. His sly hands reached for her.

Susannah managed to gasp, “What about Allison and Brian or Luke and Paula? They could look over here at any moment.”

“You worry too much. Are you going to revert to being rule-bound, prim, and proper?”

Susannah scooted back between his widespread legs. He wrapped his arms around her, and she wriggled even closer, eliciting a quick groan from him. She grinned, knowing that what she felt wasn’t his gun. His body was hot against hers. She felt like purring.

Instead, she parried his question. “Prim and proper, huh? Hmm. Let me think about that.” Hogan’s hands slid down her arms, raising the gooseflesh. Susannah reached for his hands. She knew the darkness hid them from view, but, in that moment, she really didn’t care. When he signed, she knew what he thought so she surprised him by boldly placing his hands on her breasts.

Hogan laughed and hugged her to him. “I love you, Susannah Quinn.”

“And I love you, D. E. Hogan.” With a muttered exclamation, she thrust his hands away and turned. Exasperated, she asked, “Am I going to have to go through the rest of my life calling you by your last name?”

“Well, since you’ve agreed to marry me, I guess I can trust you with my secret.”

“Is your name really gross? Something like Dork or Dweeb?”

“No, but it’s bad enough. First, let me tell you how I got the name. When my mom was a kid, she was on a dance show.”

“What fun. But what’s that got to do with your name?”

Hogan sighed. “She named me after the guy who was the star the day she met my dad who’d also come to the show. She always had a soft spot for that singer. He was singing when she first saw my dad, and she said it was love at first sight.”

“Well, it can’t be Elvis or you’d be E. P. Hogan,” Susannah joked. “I can’t imagine what D. E. stands for.”

“Duane Eddy.”

Even Hogan’s pained expression couldn’t stop her laughter. “Duane Eddy Hogan?”

He scowled. “See, that’s why I didn’t want to tell you. I knew you’d laugh.”

“I’m not laughing, darling. It’s cute. It’s adorable. Why I might eventually get used to calling you Du-ane,” she drawled, giving it two distinct syllables.

“You do, and I won’t be responsible for my actions.” He pressed her to the blanket they lay on, not caring if everyone in the world watched.

“Is that a threat or a promise, Hogan?” Susannah asked, her green eyes sparkling with a promise of her own.

“That’s a promise, Deputy Quinn, and it’s a promise I intend to keep. Trust me. ”

THE END

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