by Marianne Stillings
2007 Holt Medallion Finalist!
It was a night of slow dances, heated looks, and for detective Taylor McKennitt, the Earth moved.
Unfortunately, so did the lovely Claire . . .
. . . right on out the door. Not that it wasn't the hottest night of her life. In fact, the memory of Taylor's kisses, his touch, his . . . everything makes Claire want to leap right back into the sexy detective's bed. But the last thing she needs is to fall in love with a man in blue, even if he is irresistible. And determined.
Then just when Taylor thinks he's close to getting her back into his life, a deranged killer targets Claire. Now it's Taylor's duty to protect her. And in the process, he'll win her resisting heart or die trying -- which is suddenly a very distinct possibility.
Partial Preview of Chapter 1
Port Henry, Washington
Blue sky . . . tree tops . . . straw hat . . . breasts.
With a touch of his index finger, he caressed the focus knob as though it were the soft curve of her shoulder. After a brief mental tussle between his better angel and his devil of a conscience, both sides concluded it wouldn't harm the taxpayers any if he allowed himself a moment or two of reverent reflection on the wonders of . . . nature.
Detective Taylor McKennitt popped his gum, then fine-tuned the focus on his binoculars. Under his breath, he murmured, "Claire Hunter, you are still one very fine looking woman." Then he grinned, and blew out a short breath.
Thank God he'd gotten over her. A lesser man would have been captivated at the sight of her in those blue jeans and white knit top. But he'd moved on. She was simply an assignment now, and he was free to appreciate her attributes from afar without getting his knickers in a twist.
Good thing, too, since he hadn't anticipated seeing her here. Originally, his intent had been simply to check out the farm, see if all the ducks were in order, so to speak. He'd expected to catch a glimpse of Sadie Lancaster, Claire's aunt, but not Claire herself; not today, anyway.
He sharpened the image and his grin widened. Damn, he loved this job.
Shifting position, he jammed his hand under his jacket, into his shirt pocket and withdrew his cell phone, punching the autodial with his thumb. As he waited for the call to ring through to his brother, Claire turned, bent, and lifted a cardboard box.
His gaze followed her every move as his mind drifted to the night they'd spent together eight months ago. He felt his chest warm remembering what had happened between the two of them, and the sultry, sensuous things she'd whispered to him in the dark . . . .
". . . hit by a bus, or just plain stupid? Hello?" His brother's impatient voice jolted Taylor out of the land of ancient history.
"Sorry," Taylor growled in response. "I'm working. Got a little . . . distracted."
"So, what's the haps? Where are you?"
"Doing a little recon." Since the recon had morphed into ogling his brother's wife's best friend, Taylor felt it best to keep the details and the locale to himself. "Where are you?"
"On the road," Soldier said. "Spent the day at the precinct in Seattle gathering all the data I could on our new case. Heading north on 101 now. ETA in Port Henry's about fifteen-thirty."
Taylor checked his watch. "That's in an hour. You stopping by the PHPD, or going straight home?"
"Straight home into the arms of my beautiful wife."
"If only," Soldier said dryly. "Mostly I need to mow the lawn before it gets dark. Hey, you staying with us tonight? We can start going over these files. Betsy's getting your usual room ready."
"Can't do it until tomorrow night," he said, his eyes locked on Claire. "Today, uh, threw me a few curves. I'm hip deep in forms and figures, and looking a little behind." He adjusted the focus as she turned around.
"Sounds like you're looking at a righteous bust," Soldier quipped.
Taylor snapped his gum and smiled. Yeah, I'd like to stay on top of this one, he thought but did not say. Banter and innuendo with his brother were one thing, but this was Claire . . . .
"Listen, Jackson," he said instead. "I've got to hand my cases off to Atherton and Stewart and meet with the Lieutenant, so I won't see you until around noon tomorrow."
Detective J. Soldier McKennitt - Jackson, to his brother - gave a grunt of acknowledgement.
Taylor popped his gum and peered through the binoculars as Claire carried a cardboard box to the faded green Ford pick-up parked in the barnyard. She set the box inside the bed of the old rattle trap, leaning in to adjust its position.
"Speaking of good looking women," Soldier said. "How you doing in the girlfriend department? Been seeing anyone special?"
As he watched, Claire continued loading boxes into the truck, unaware Taylor's eyes followed her every move.
"I'm seeing someone special right now," he muttered under his breath, his gaze held in thrall by the woman who's fawn brown eyes had mesmerized him the day they'd met, and who's fire had turned to ice the morning they'd parted.
"What was that?" Soldier said.
With a hard blink, Taylor filed away his memories of that night with Claire in the mental folder marked Finished Business - in front of the time he'd paid back Ronnie Sherwood in the second grade for that black eye, and just behind the day he'd discovered Paula had been unfaithful . . . the first time.
With renewed enthusiasm, he asked, "You say you picked up all the case files?"
"Tell me a little about Mortimer. What exactly are we dealing with here? Any Feds looming on the event horizon?"
As Soldier began addressing the details of the case, Taylor listened as he carefully scanned the scene below.
The Lancaster farm was set in a deep and lush little valley that seemed to cup the woman he watched in its rustic hand. The centerpiece of the tableau was the century old two-story farmhouse. Faded blue with peeling white trim, it matched the barn standing back against a cluster of towering firs. In the yard between the two buildings, a trio of brown chickens bobbed and pecked at the hardpan, while an enormous goose waddled about, beak in the air, honking orders to the indifferent clouds.
That was the extent of her protection? Three chicken dinners and a goose down pillow on the wing? No other houses or farms close by. Not a good thing for two women alone . . . .
". . . but no FBI," Soldier was saying. "After you and I go over the case files, we can talk to Mrs. Lancaster, see if she knows anything."
"What do you think? Is the Lancaster woman in any kind of danger? Is Claire?" His heart skittered a little at the thought.
There was a moment of silence, then, "I hope not, but from what I've read so far, I just don't know."
Down in the barnyard, Claire finished loading boxes, then twisted, raising her arms in a lazy stretch. As she did, the screen door at the back of the house eased open, and for a moment, Taylor expected to see a man emerge, a boyfriend maybe. His fingers froze on the binoculars.
But it wasn't a man who appeared, just a mostly white calico cat. Taylor resumed chewing his gum and relaxed his grip on the binoculars.
Oh, yeah. He'd forgotten about her snooty cat. The feline in question slinked down the steps, blinking as though the sunlight were a personal affront.
What in the hell was that damn thing's name? Princess? Fluffy? Happy? Dopey? No, wait. Those were dwarves. It was Ag-something. Agatha? That was it.
". . . going to be okay with this," Soldier was saying, "since it's Claire, and you two have a sort of a history?"
"Not a problem."
"You're sure." His voice carried a note of caution in it. "Because, Betsy and I, well, we thought maybe you and Claire--"
"Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, bad fit, donated it to Goodwill. The End."
"Well, as long as you're sure," Soldier drawled.
"I am. Tonight, e-mail me what you can on Mortimer."
"Copy." There was a hint of defeat in his voice. Then, "Okay, apparently this whole thing got started from a tip. A woman. She called from a pay phone in Port Henry, wouldn't give her name."
"Possibly, but there's no evidence to support it. However, if this woman's accusations are valid, Mortimer's involved in conspiracy, fraud, maybe even homicide."
"They're playing our song."
"Yeah," Soldier said. "Let's see if we can catch this guy with his hands in the cookie jar before somebody gets hurt. Uh, Tayo?"
"If you ever do want to talk about it . . ."
As Taylor jammed the cell phone back in his pocket, Claire shoved the last box farther into the bed of the truck and brought the tailgate up, slamming it so hard, the screech-and-bang echoed through the clearing to where he lay hidden in the high grass on the hill behind the farm. Turning, she went back into the farmhouse.
In the time he'd been on flat on his belly watching the place, the sun had rolled down from the top of the sky and into the August mist drifting above the horizon like a windblown veil. It was a nice summer afternoon, just the kind of day a man liked to spend laying naked on cool sheets - with a woman.
Speaking of whom, the kitchen door swung open, and Claire stepped out, walking down the steps to the truck. She tossed her leather handbag through the open window and onto the passenger side, then removed her hat and set it in the huge wooden wheelbarrow resting under an apple tree near the driveway. Turning in his direction to fluff her hair, he finally saw her face full on.
He shook his head and snapped his gum.
Yeah, it was a damn good thing he was over her all right. As a professional, there was no way in hell he'd let his personal feelings interfere with a case, especially when it could turn deadly. They deserved his vigilance and instincts because they were probably unaware of Mortimer's proclivities, and with so much at stake, it put them in a world of danger.
Claire set the last cardboard box next to the first three she'd plopped onto her best friend's Oriental carpet, then eased back and let her body settle into the velvet cushions of the camel-back sofa.
"There you go, my dear," she said to Betsy. "These old books and magazines should keep you company on those long nights when your husband leaves you to go traipsing all over the Northwest looking for bad guys."
Claire watched as Betsy McKennitt, radiant in her eight month of pregnancy, surveyed the four boxes bunched next to the coffee table. Moving her swollen body toward the adjacent wing chair, she attempted to sit, but given her advanced state of pregnancy, performed what appeared to be some kind of reverse-thrust docking maneuver.
Resting her hands on her tummy, she huffed out an exhausted breath and panted, "No lung . . . capacity. I'll be glad when the baby drops . . . so I can breathe . . . again."
She moved her right hand around to her lower back as she stretched the left toward a pink Depression glass candy dish sitting on the coffee table. Stirring the peanut M&Ms noisily with a straight index finger, she finally found the one she wanted, plucked it out, and tossed it into her mouth. Munching happily, she glance at Claire. "Cute earrings. Are they new?"
Her fingertips went to her earlobe as she tried to recall which pair she'd put on that morning. Ah, the beaded dangles. "Thanks. They're my new faves."
Betsy tossed another candy into her mouth. "What do you have now, like ten bazillion pairs? You are such an earring slut."
"Pity me," Claire sighed. "I'm an addict. Some women collect shoes, some collect handbags, some collect men. Me, I'd sell my body for a cute pair of earrings."
"You staying at the farm tonight, or going back to Seattle?" The candy dish rattled again.
"Seattle." Claire glanced at the clock on the mantel. "It's almost six," she said, thinking of the three-hour drive that lay ahead of her. "I'm not on rotation at the hospital until Tuesday, so I'm taking advantage of the weekend off and painting the master bathroom. Once the roofers come next week, the place will finally be ready to put on the market."
Since she didn't live there - and hadn't for twenty years - and since Zach certainly never would, what was the point in hanging on to the old place? She'd only kept it this long because she couldn't bear to relinquish the part of her childhood the house represented. The part where she'd been young and innocent, had a whole family, and had known no fear.
But she was older now, maybe old enough to let her parents, and her memories, finally be at rest.
Betsy crunched another candy. "New topic. How's your love life?" Betsy's hazel eyes narrowed on her.
"What love life?"
"Guess that answers that." She searched the bowl of M&Ms, snared a red one. "It's Friday night, Dr. Hunter. You're young and beautiful, and that's no joke. And very, very single." She sent Claire a look of exasperation. "Any men in your life at all, even in your wildest dreams?"
"If there were, you'd be the first to know."
Her friend's lips quirked into a wry grin. "Maybe you should try one of those online things. Don't they have one for doctors? Hot-docs-dot-com or something?"
Claire snorted a laugh. "I'm not a hot doc, and I think those sites are, well, not for me is probably the most diplomatic thing I can say."
"But aren't you looking for one? A hot doc, I mean?"
"I'd have more luck with a hot dog," she said dryly, "if you get my drift."
Betsy snorted. "Oh, come on. You're just not trying hard enough. Men fall all over you. I've seen it happen."
"Been too busy."
Betsy looked like she wanted to expand on the topic, but wisely kept chewing. Swallowing, she eyed the candy dish again and plucked another victim from the bowl. "Okay. Different subject. How's Aunt Sadie?"
Claire leaned back against the cushy softness of the couch. "I haven't seen much of her since she got engaged to old Mortie."
Betsy blinked. "Aunt Sadie's getting married? At her age? What is she now, a hundred?"
"Very funny. I swear, though, she acts like a teenager sometimes." Claire shook her head. "I hope I have that kind of . . . enthusiasm for the opposite sex when I'm her age."
Claire thought for a moment about her aunt, a woman who had shelved a fabulous career to be both mom and dad to her and her twin brother Zach when their parents had died within a year of each other.
"So who's her boyfriend?" Betsy asked. "Did he used to be in show biz, too?" She put the bowl down. "I need water. All this chocolate's making me thirsty."
"I'll get you some. Stay put."
When Claire returned from the kitchen, glass of water in hand, she said, "Mortie isn't an actor. He runs a thriving business." Handing the glass to Betsy, she said slowly, "Well, maybe thriving isn't the right word."
"Aunt Sadie's engaged to a ne'er do well?" Betsy said. "How long--"
"No," Claire interrupted. "No, he's enormously successful. What I meant was, he's uh, well, he's a . . . now, don't laugh. He's a mortician. Mortimer's Mortuary. You know, down on Taft."
Betsy's blond brows shot up to her hairline. Then, quirking her lips, she said, "That Mortimer? Aunt Sadie's engaged to a mortician?" She snorted a laugh, then covered her mouth. Solemnly, she said, "I hear that's a serious undertaking."
"I should never had told you."
"Mortimer's is very popular. People are just dying to get in."
Claire flatted her mouth. "You can stop now."
"Marrying into the family, he'll get free medical care, right? So, he can come to you if he starts . . . coffin."
"Not another word, I swear--"
"Competition's pretty stiff, I bet." She grinned broadly. "Speaking of sex."
Claire laughed. "We were not speaking of sex!"
"Well if we weren't, we should have been. So." She slid a calculated look at Claire. "Heard anything from Taylor?"
Claire stopped laughing and clamped her mouth shut.
Undeterred, Betsy said dryly, "You remember my husband's brother, don't you? Tall guy, athletic, dark hair, blue eyes, hunky, sexy, available, and interested in you?"
"Vaguely," Claire murmured.
"Claire . . ."
"Betsy . . ." Claire scowled. "I knew it was only a matter of time before you got around to Taylor. Yes, he is attractive, and as hunky as they come."
"Any sentence that contains the words hunky and come has my approval."
"For a woman in such an advanced state of pregnancy, you sure have a one track mind."
"Honey, have you seen my husband?" She fanned her face with one hand. "Hello. If you had a husband like Soldier, you'd have a one track mind, too." Slapping her own cheek, she widened her eyes as though something had just occurred to her. "Oh, wait. You could have a husband like mine if you got involved with his brother." She slapped her cheek again. "Oh, wait. You did get involved with his brother, but you chickened out."
"You can stop slapping yourself now. Your eyes are starting to cross." Resting her head against the back of the sofa, she groused, "I'm not blind, for God's sake. Taylor is handsome, not to mention--"
"--Smart, funny, compassionate, responsible, sweet," Betsy finished for her. "Yeah. I can see why you can't stand him. When was the last time you had sex?"
"Like I said, I've been very busy."
"There is no too busy for sex, my dear," Betsy corrected. "What you haven't done is made time for finding a partner. I know for a fact that men come on to you constantly. You've got to be horny as hell." Taking a breath, she said softly, "What's wrong?"
When Claire didn't respond, Betsy shook her head and sent her a look of sympathy. "You know, both Soldier and I thought you and Taylor really had something good going. You two are perfect for each other. Listen, I care about you. I want you to be happy. You really think it's over between you and Taylor?" She looked thoughtful for a moment. "Avoiding him is not the same thing as being over him. I think you still have feelings for him. I can see it in your eyes when you talk about him. I think he still has the hots for you, too, and--"
"Great," Claire laughed. "He can look me up on hot-docs-dot-com."
Betsy arched a brow. "You know, I'll bet they have one for detectives . . ."
Claire grinned. "Hot-dicks-dot-com?"
"Sounds like a porn site."
"I'm leaving now," Claire laughed. Grabbing her purse, she pulled out her car keys. "Look, I'm ready to get married, and as soon as some nice guy comes along, I'll walk down the aisle, and then make a baby or two. But it won't be with Taylor."
"And nothing could ever happen to change your mind."
Claire flattened her mouth. "Nothing."