“I’ll only be gone a couple of days, Mom. I’ll drop by when I get back. I know. I’ll think about it.”
Detective Jessie Foster heard the click when her mother ended the call without a goodbye. Again. She paused, then slapped the receiver in its cradle. Two seconds later, she flung a pencil across the room where it ricocheted off a corner of the cushioned cubical wall before it landed on the other desk.
Her mom could turn a good day into a bad one in a heartbeat.
“Whoa, there, Texas. What’s got your panties in a wad this time?”
The question from Seth Hamilton, her partner and co-habitant of this padded cell, reminded her she wasn’t alone. “Can it, Hammer. I’m not in the mood.” She sighed and tugged the red scrunchy from her ponytail, tossed it on the desk, then leaned back and raked slender fingers through dark, shoulder-length curls. A tension headache crept up the back of her neck. Perfect. Just damn perfect. “And stop calling me Texas. And Tex.”
“I would, but I hear bitch isn’t politically correct these days.”
Despite her anger, she snorted. “You’re such an ass.”
“Says you.” He sauntered over and rested his hip on the corner of her desk. “She still after you to take that job with the feds?”
Before she could reply, he continued. “And in Dallas, no less. You hate the traffic.”
“A desk job is a place to start.” Even as the lie slid off her tongue, her inner voice chided, ‘Coward,’ and she caught herself before she blurted out the hard truth. It’s killing me to work side-by-side with you every day and not tell you how I feel.
“You like working in the field, Tex. A desk job isn’t for you, and you know it. So, what gives?”
She didn’t address his comment. She also knew he wouldn’t let it go. “I’m a damn good cop whether I’m behind a desk or out in the field.”
She ignored the teasing snicker from Seth. He delighted in getting her riled. Today, she refused to take the bait.
“I have my last interview with them next week.” She stood and scanned her work area. Small, crowded, and noisy, it was nonetheless a decent space. The police force in Walker, a quiet town southeast of Dallas, was a small, tight-knit group. Granted, most called her names behind her back, mainly because she refused to take any crap from them, but if push came to shove, they’d be there for her. Did she really want to start over somewhere else?
Or was she simply running away?
“They don’t deserve you,” said Seth. “And we’d miss you here.”
She grunted. “Yeah. Right.”
He had the audacity to laugh. The throaty, masculine sound made her stomach quiver. Aw, hell. I’ve worked side-by-side with him for over a fricking year, and now my stomach flutters when he laughs. Or winks.
Just shoot me.
If she were honest with herself - which she always tried to be – he was nice-looking, handsome even. Five years older than her at thirty-eight, he carried his age well. Cognac-colored eyes framed by long, dark lashes she silently envied, and heavy brows were the first thing she noticed about him.
The second was his mouth—those lips. Women paid a fortune to fake what God gave him free gratis. Even a slight overbite and crooked nose didn’t detract from his rugged good looks. From the top of his military cut, salt and pepper head to the souls of his cowboy boots, he was six feet three inches of blatant masculinity coupled with a compelling sex appeal hard to ignore, but she managed.
Well, most of the time.
Lately, not so much.
One whiff of his cologne, coupled with a provocative man-smell, was enough to send rational thought straight to the gutter.
It took determination to get her wayward mind back on track. “You’re just playing nice cause you think you’ll get lucky.”
“Yeah, right. I relish the idea of sex with a buzz saw.”
She flinched and buried the hurt his comment elicited; defensive walls shored and braced. She knew him so well and knew he liked to tease, but still, it gave her pause. Had the job finally robbed her of all femininity? Desirability?
Is that how he saw her?
Suck it up, buttercup. It is what it is. “Time to rock and roll,” she snapped and gave herself a mental shake. Focus on their detail—pick up Jack Walls in Denver and bring him back to Walker to stand trial. Suspected of killing two of his former girlfriends, Jess couldn’t prove the first one, and by the time they got the evidence needed to arrest him for the second, he vanished without a trace. Until now.
“With any luck,” continued Jess, “we can get there before midnight tonight and be back late tomorrow night.”
The grueling fourteen-hour drive was just another part of the job. Hours alone with her partner presented issues she did not want to dwell on.
Seth smirked. “What’s your hurry, Tex? Hot date?”
“The sooner this is over with, the better.”
He stood, grabbed his jacket off the rack, and draped it over one arm. “Personally, I can’t wait to spend the next three days trapped in a car with Miss Congeniality and a deranged sociopath.”
She lifted the paperwork and her purse off the desk, grabbed her go-bag, and headed for the hallway. “Wonder why you got stuck with me for a partner.”
“Obviously, somewhere along the way, I spit in someone’s Cheerios.”
Jess shook her head. An anomaly, Seth always spoke his mind. She liked that about him, though he sometimes goaded her to no end. For whatever reason, they clicked from the start, probably because they were more alike than different. Neither of them liked all the hoops they jumped through daily to get the bad guys, and both sported a wicked sense of humor not everyone could handle. Plus, they each tended to call a spade a spade without apology.
Unable to curb the impulse, she cast him a quick sideways glance. Immediately, butterflies the size of a roadrunner took flight in her stomach.
Probably some kind of hormonal-biological-clock thing. I am thirty-three now. It will pass. Probably like a kidney stone, but it will pass.
Disgusted with her wandering mind, she strode toward the elevator, Seth following a few steps behind. She barely managed to smother the temptation to strut a bit. What the hell is wrong with me? She gave the elevator dial a harder-than-necessary push. I don’t care what he thinks of my ass in these slacks.
The doors opened, and she walked in, pressing the garage button as she turned.
Seth met her gaze, sensuous mouth curved up in a Cheshire-cat smile. “I appreciate the show.”
It was going to be a long three days.
Seth knew he skated a fine line with Jess. The department’s stand on sexual harassment left no room for doubt. One word from her, and his ass was in a sling.
But he was just vain enough to believe she enjoyed their suggestive banter. And she gave as good as she got, too. He liked a woman who spoke her mind and didn’t get all ticked off when a man did the same.
His transfer to Walker coincided with her last partner’s move to Austin. He didn’t miss the snickers drifting among his fellow officers after the announcement of their partnership. Later, he discovered most didn’t like working with her, calling her testy, hardheaded, and bitchy. But he never saw that side of her personality. Instead, he saw a first-rate detective, intensely dedicated to the job, with a warped sense of humor to match his own.
She was also a beautiful, fascinating woman who worked hard to hide that fact from the rest of the world. And it was the woman behind the badge who captivated his thoughts these days.
Granted, he sometimes took things a bit too far, like the buzz-saw comment. The brief flash of pain he saw in her eyes tore at his conscience. Filters he found so easy to employ around others failed him completely around Jess. From day one, she took whatever he dished out and gave it back in spades. So much so, he inched further and further across that invisible line just to see how she would respond.
Lately, though, something was different. She was different. An occasional look in her eye that quickly disappeared made him wonder. What if she saw him as more than her irritating partner with a propensity for spouting out useless trivia?
What if she saw him?
That what-if kept him awake most of last night, and he vowed to use this trip to explore the prospect in depth.
After she got over being mad, of course.
Man, she was something when riled—like now. Her cheeks were a flattering shade of red, and that sexy, sassy mouth formed a tight line across her face. Her anger never lasted, so he’d just wait her out.
And try not to think about other things that could put such an enticing flush on her cheeks.
The door slid open, and she started to exit ahead of him, then stopped and scowled.
He grinned and strolled out. “How about I take the first turn at the wheel. Your driving makes me nervous.”
“Since you go into a cussing rampage in traffic, and we’ll hit the start of rush hour through Dallas.”
“Whatever. Drive.” She pitched him the keys and walked to the passenger side, throwing her bag into the back seat before buckling in.
He placed his go-bag beside hers and climbed behind the wheel of the older model SUV.
Jess dug through the paperwork and pulled out a map. “The GPS is on the fritz again, and cell service may be iffy.”
He glared at the map in her hand. “I don’t need a map.”
“Need I remind you of the last time we had this conversation?”
“That was then. This is now. I don’t need the map.”
“I swear, Hammer, you will sincerely regret it if you get us lost and drag this trip out any more than necessary.”
He put the car in gear and headed out of the garage toward the interstate through Dallas. Traffic would be horrible, the drive exhausting, but he looked forward to the hours of proximity with his feisty partner, who of late pressed every male button he possessed.
It was time he located a few of her female ones.
Jess peered out the window and huffed as boredom crept in. The Panhandle of Texas was a treat at first since she’d never been this far north, but monotony converted minutes into hours when all you had to look at was mile after mile of scrub brush, sand, and rocks.
At first, the time flew by. They discussed the assignment, the scenery and planned where they would stop on the return trip. By Wichita Falls, they were out of what she considered safe subjects, and conversation lagged. Seth appeared unusually preoccupied, and she found herself repeating things to him. Since he’d voiced no response to her last question, she tried another conversation starter. “I officially don’t like this part of Texas. Not enough green.”
He gave a half-hearted shrug. “It’s all in what you get used to, I guess.”
“Well, I’m used to pine trees and lakes.”
She cut her eyes toward him and immediately recognized his deep-in-thought expression.
Head tilted to one side, forehead creased into a frown, as one finger tapped out a staccato on the steering wheel.
Definitely something on his mind. Not the job. Something else?
She hesitated, then tried again. “That’s the third jet I’ve seen in the last half hour.”
The frown deepened, and his voice lacked any trace of interest. “Sheppard Air Force Base is in Wichita Falls.”
What is up with him? She fiddled with her tablet, then cut her eyes toward him. Cheeks like carved granite, darkened by five o’clock shadow, the bump in his aquiline nose was more pronounced from this angle but did nothing to diminish his formidable appeal. If anything, it enhanced an already striking profile. He flexed his fingers on the steering wheel, and she forced her eyes forward. Strong hands, too. She chewed her lower lip, fighting to pull her thoughts from his hands and how they might feel on her skin.
“A crocodile can’t stick his tongue out.”
After the extended silence, it took a moment for his unexpected blast of trivia to connect to her brain, still preoccupied with his hands. “A pregnant goldfish is called a twit.”
He grinned. “The glue on Israeli postage stamps is certified kosher.”
She dug through her memory for a decent counter. “It’s impossible to sneeze with your eyes open.”
“A pig’s orgasm lasts thirty minutes.”
Jess snorted and shook her head. “Fine. You win. Can’t top that one.”
His low laugh sent a delicate hum flowing through her body.
“Come on, Tex, don’t give up so easy.”
“How do you remember all this stuff?” she grumbled. “I do good to remember what I read yesterday.”
He tapped the side of his head with one long finger. “Storehouse of totally useless knowledge.”
“Useless being the operative phrase.”
“You gotta admit it helps pass the time.”
She opened her tablet. “So does playing games on this.”
“Put that away and talk to me.”
“Talk? About what?”
He glanced at her, but she couldn’t see his eyes for the aviator shades he wore.
“We’ve never really talked before. Except for work stuff. And we have a lot of time to kill.”
“Like what’s my favorite food or how I like my coffee?”
“Nah, I know that already.”
Surprised, she blinked. “You do?”
He shrugged. “I’m a detective. I detect things.”
His lips puckered and moved side to side.
The hum infusing her body kicked up a notch, along with her heart rate. Holy mother of pearl. She forced a relaxed expression and tried to concentrate on his words.
“Let’s see…your favorite foods are Mexican, but only from Tele’s over on Bowie Street, and Chinese takeout from that new place downtown. You prefer wine over hard liquor, strong coffee with a little cream, don’t like beer unless it’s ice cold. You work out like a fiend almost every day to maintain that tight body of yours; you love chocolate-filled donuts and hate cottage cheese.”
“Tight body?” She was sure he mentioned other stuff, but her brain chose to single out that remark.
He nodded, eyes straight ahead. “Yep.”
She faced forward and tried to neutralize her body’s tingly response to his comment. “You love to fish, hate broccoli, and could live on greasy-spoon burgers.” She paused. “And work out often to…stay in shape.”
His smile was positively lethal. “So, you noticed my tight body, too, huh?”
A quick intake of air carried his distinctive scent, scattering her thoughts. How could she not notice? Heat rushed to her cheeks, and she swallowed hard. “It’s forbidden to call a pig Napoleon in France.”
He glanced her way, then back to the road again. “Tell me about your family.”
Uneasy, she shifted in her seat. How many ways can you say dysfunctional? “Not much to tell. An accident took my biological dad right after I was born. Mom married Frank Cantrell when I was three. They divorced when I was ten, remarried each other two years later.” Then proceeded to make everyone miserable for the next fifteen years. “What about you?”
“Folks live in Weatherford when they aren’t checking off another place on their bucket list. Two sisters, both younger and one brother, older.”
“They live in Weatherford, too?”
“Just the girls. Jason is a Marshall in Tyler.” He tilted his head in her direction. “Your turn.”
She pulled the phone’s charging cable from her purse and plugged it in. Family was not a comfortable topic of conversation. “In Vermont, a woman has to have her husband’s permission to get false teeth.”
He remained silent for a heartbeat. “A dentist invented the electric chair.”
Seth pulled into the massive truck stop across the Texas-New Mexico border and killed the engine, desperate for hot coffee and a pit stop. He knew Texas was big but never dreamed he’d drive eight hours before crossing the state line.
He peeked at Jess, who fell asleep an hour or so ago, her head lolled toward him. Gone were the tight lines that gave her face a perpetual scowl; her impertinent mouth gaped a little, and a soft snore made him grin. Her lack of desire to talk about herself or her family was minor and not unexpected. Besides, he already knew most of it. Like the fact her stepfather Frank Cantrell was a drunk and small-time hood with a rap sheet covering decades, who fled town several years ago, one step ahead of an arrest warrant. He didn’t know much about her younger sister, Tina, but her mother, Ivy, was emotionally needy and made Jess feel like an ungrateful daughter at every opportunity. He could only wonder about her childhood with Frank and Ivy as role models, which probably explained why she shied away from permanent relationships.
He ran the back of one finger against her cheek because he couldn’t help himself. Petal soft. Just like I thought. His knuckle grazed her lower lip, and he jerked his hand back.
He took a deep breath and nudged her shoulder. “Wake up, Tex. Potty stop.”
She jerked up and glanced around. “Where are we? Why didn’t you wake me sooner? How long have we been on the road?”
The last question preceded an extended yawn and a long stretch.
It took immense willpower not to watch.