Authors: Linda Castillo
Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Romantic Suspense, #Contemporary Fiction, #Nonfiction
rin McNeal had always liked the taste of adrenaline. But as she stared at her partner lying on the floor with his hands bound and a pistol at his nape, it sat in the back of her throat in a bitter pool. He knew better than to get himself into a situation like this. She sure as hell knew better than to follow him into this godforsaken warehouse. But not even the caution instilled by nine years of law enforcement experience was enough to keep her from going in after him.
Heart thundering, she slipped her service revolver from the holster at the small of her back, praying she wouldn't have to use it. She didn't want to get into a firefight with two men wielding semiautomatic weapons and displaying a complete lack of conscience. But the cop in her wouldn't allow her partner to die simply because she was outgunned two to one.
Never taking her eyes from the men, she eased the hammer back with her thumb. She'd radioed for backup, but knew her counterparts wouldn't arrive in time to stop the inevitable. She figured her partner had about a minute left to live—if he was lucky. That gave her about thirty seconds to come up with a plan.
"You gonna tell us who your snitch is, cop, or do we get to beat it out of you?" said a man in an ill-fitting suit.
was too far away to recognize the thug, but she could tell by his calm demeanor and steady hand he'd murdered before. Probably more than once, judging by the anticipation resonating in his voice. Where the hell was her backup?
got all night," the second man said. "Do him."
The man in the suit raised his gun. "Last chance, cop." Moving out from behind the forklift where she'd taken cover,
raised her revolver and leveled it on the man in the suit. "Police! Drop your weapons and put your hands over your heads!"
The second man pivoted, his right hand slithering into his jacket. "What the—"
shifted her aim to the man reaching for his gun. "Get your hands where I can see them!"
The two men exchanged looks. A sinking sensation rippled in her gut. In that instant she knew they weren't going to go down without a fight—not to a woman.
Her partner raised his head, drawing her attention.
saw fear in his eyes. She felt her own like a raging beast in her chest. She was outnumbered, and they all knew it. Not the kind of odds she wanted to stake her life on, not to mention someone else's.
Damn, this wasn't working out the way she'd hoped.
Panic threatening, she dropped into a shooter's stance, with legs apart, pistol cocked and level, but not quite steady. "Drop '
!" she said, barely hearing her own voice over the roar of blood in her ears.
In her peripheral vision, she saw movement from above. Surprise jolted her when she saw a figure on the catwalk. Dark clothes. Tinted glasses. A glimpse of blue steel.
Terror fused with adrenaline and cut a path through her belly. She swung her weapon upward—and felt her blood turn to ice. The man on the catwalk was too
to be aiming a gun at a cop. Her police training told her to fire, but her finger froze on the trigger. An instant later, the sound of a gunshot rocked her brain.
The bullet slammed into her shoulder with the force of a cannonball. She reeled backward. White-hot fire seared down her arm to her fingertips. The ensuing pain sent her to her knees.
Through a haze of dizziness, she raised her weapon and fired twice in quick succession. The figure on the catwalk tumbled over the rail and hit the concrete with a sickening thud.
Another gun blast reverberated through the warehouse.
screamed her partner's name, but she knew it was too late. She'd seen the bullet hit its mark. She tried to stand, but her legs refused to obey. An animal-like sound tore from her throat as she sank to the cold concrete. Her vision blurred, but she didn't lose consciousness. Through a haze of shock, she heard sirens wailing in the distance. Angry shouts. The shuffle of shoes against concrete.
Twenty yards away, her partner lay silent and still.
Rage and disbelief mingled with grief. Pain slashed her with brutal force, but it was nothing compared to the guilt exploding in her heart.
Please, God, don't let him die.
As the darkness caved in around her, she silently prayed her partner would live. In a small corner of her mind, she prayed he would be able to forgive her for what she'd done. As unconsciousness overtook her, she prayed she would someday be able to forgive herself.
rin McNeal pulled her car up to the parking meter outside the
department and stared at the two-story brick building, a sense of dread gathering in her chest like a thunderstorm.
"You can do this," she said aloud, ordering her fingers to release their death grip on the steering wheel. But the words did little to ease the rapid-fire beat of her heart or the suffocating clenching in her chest.
The realization that she was nervous sent a bitter laugh to her lips. She'd dealt with some of the toughest criminals on the street during her nine-year career with the Chicago Police Department. Yet here she was, reduced to a mass of frayed nerves over a job interview with the police chief of a town half the size of the beat she'd once walked.
But that was all over now, she reminded herself darkly. She was no longer a member of the Chicago Police Force. She was no longer the only woman who'd gone from beat cop to tactical officer to narcotics detective in the span of nine years.
The fact of the matter was that
was out of a job. The deputy position with the Logan Falls PD was the best prospect in sight, especially for a cop with a bum shoulder, a tarnished reputation and a duffel bag full of personal baggage. Small town or not, she'd damn well better make a good impression.
Her nerves snapped like lit dynamite fuses as she got out of the car and approached the august portals of the police station. Her purse slung over her good shoulder, she clutched her résumé in one hand, raised her chin and took two deep breaths. The ritual should have calmed her, but it didn't. The laugh hovered in her throat again, but she didn't give in to it. Six months ago, bursting through the door of a deserted warehouse with an armed suspect holed up inside hadn't scared her this much. Of course, back then she'd had that addiction to adrenaline and the knowledge that she was damn good at what she did to back her. Now, with her confidence shattered and her career down the proverbial drain, she figured she'd be lucky to get through this with her dignity intact.
Vowing not to let the past interfere now,
put on her cop's suit of armor and headed toward the door, praying the man on the other side wasn't particularly discerning.
* * *
Police Chief Nick Ryan brooded over the résumé. On paper, the career of ex-detective Erin McNeal left no room for disappointment. Two department commendations. The Blue Star Award. The Award of Valor. She'd come recommended by Commander Frank Rossi of the Chicago PD—a man Nick had called a friend since his academy days. A man to whom Nick owed a favor.
was a good cop, Frank had assured him. Streetwise. Tough. A little too confident. A little too cocky. Well, up until the night she'd botched a sting operation—and her partner paid the price. Frank had been forced to take her off the street. She had ended up resigning in disgrace.
Hell of a note that the situation had ended up in Nick's lap. He needed a damaged cop working for him about as much as he needed a tornado ripping through his town. Why didn't Frank just ask him to jump off the bridge down at Logan Creek?
Nick had been looking for a deputy for nearly a month. Tarnished reputation or not, Erin McNeal fit the bill. The fact that she was Frank's niece pretty much sealed the deal. Damn Frank for calling in the chips now.
Nick stared at her résumé, troubled and more than a little annoyed by the situation. He knew better than to get involved in this woman's plight. He didn't care about Erin McNeal or her problems. He didn't care that she'd once been a good cop. McNeal had committed the ultimate cop's sin: she'd frozen up at a crucial moment. In Nick's book, a cop who couldn't back up her partner didn't deserve to be a cop.
But Nick owed Frank. Frank had been there for him after Rita. He'd been Nick's best man when he'd married her. Twelve years later, Frank had been a pallbearer at her funeral.
Blowing out a sigh, Nick leaned back in his chair and raked his fingers through his hair. He didn't want to deal with this. He didn't want to take a chance on a damaged cop, even if
"Heck of a résumé." Hector Price, Nick's only other full-time deputy, whistled. "Best
've seen, Chief. This guy has credentials out the
. Six years on patrol. Two on the tactical team. A year in narcotics."
"McNeal is a woman," Nick said irritably.
Hector looked dumbstruck. "Shoot,
. A black belt in karate. Holy cow, her marksmanship is better than yours. She's good." Catching Nick's dark look, Hector added, "I mean, for a woman."
Good by a man's standards, too, Nick thought sourly. Too good, in fact. He wondered what she had to prove, who she needed to prove it to. He wondered if all those skills had anything to do with guilt.
He'd known her partner, Danny Perrine, from his days in
. He'd heard the rumors about the shooting. The night Erin McNeal forgot about her marksmanship, her black belt in karate and everything else she'd learned at the academy. Danny had paid a steep price because of her.
"As long as she doesn't mind putting those fancy credentials to use down at the school crosswalk," Nick said.
"We've never had a woman cop in
Nick could do without the interesting part. He could damn well do without the headache. He hadn't even met the woman and already disliked her on principle alone. He knew it wasn't fair, but he didn't care about that, either. Of course he didn't have to
her to appease Frank—just put up with her until she figured out small-town police work wasn't to her liking.
The bell on the front door jingled. Nick looked up. Something went soft in his chest when he saw the woman standing at the door looking as if she'd just walked into a lion's den—and wanted to personally kick him out no matter how big his fangs. Her expression was an odd combination of raw nerves and do-not-mess-with-me tough. McNeal wasn't due for another two hours. Besides, he would know a cop on sight. This woman wasn't a cop, but a piece-of-fluff civilian. He wondered what she was selling, and if this was her first day on the job.
She wore a nicely cut pantsuit that sacrificed curves for style. Even with low heels, she was tall, just a few inches short of his six-foot-two frame. Nick could tell by the way she moved that she was athletic. He groaned inwardly when he imagined her lugging in a
of office supplies and offering him the deal of a lifetime.
Not bothering to rise, he made eye contact. "Can I help you with something?"
"I'm here to see Nick Ryan."
She had the greenest eyes he'd ever seen. Cat eyes, he thought, large and cautious and full of female mystery, all framed by lashes as dark and lush as mink. High cheekbones and a full mouth were set into a face that was a little too pale, a little too serious. Freckles dusted her small nose. Her reddish-brown hair was tucked into an unruly bun at her nape. She looked like she'd driven for a long distance with the windows down.
"You probably missed the No Soliciting sign posted on the door," he offered, hoping to save both of them some time.
"I'm not selling anything," she said. "I have an appointment."
Nick stared at her, taking in the folder in her hand, the determination in her cool green eyes, and felt a sinking sensation in his gut. He didn't embarrass easily, but the back of his neck heated. Suddenly, he found himself wanting to throttle Frank Rossi.
"You're Erin McNeal," he said.
She nodded. "I'm a little early."
"You're a lot early." He glanced at his watch. "Two hours to be exact."
"The drive didn't take as long as I thought it would." She strode forward, eyes level on his, hand extended.
Rising, he rounded his desk. "I'm Nick Ryan."
She wasn't what he'd expected the ex-detective to look like. He'd expected hard eyes that were tired from too many years of seeing too much. This woman was anything but hard. She was young and slender and way too … soft to be a cop.
"Frank said to tell you hello," she said.
Frowning, Nick extended his hand, wondering if Frank was back in
having a good laugh. But the moment her fingers closed around his, Nick's concentration wavered. The force of her grip surprised him. It was a little too quick. A little too firm. He hadn't expected to feel calluses on her palm. A weight lifter, too. How on earth could he have mistaken her for a solicitor? Soft or not, this woman had "cop" written all over her.
"I brought my résumé," she said.
"Frank faxed me a copy."
Belatedly, he remembered he was still grasping her hand and released it. Even though she wasn't standing particularly close, he caught a whiff of her scent, some exotic spice tempered with the essence of clean hair and female. How could a woman with calluses on her palms and a cop's eyes smell so good?
Realizing he was staring, Nick gave himself a mental shake and looked at Hector, who had yet to close his mouth—or take his eyes off her. "This is Deputy Price."
extended her hand. "It's a pleasure, Deputy."
"Ma'am." Hector jumped to his feet, wiped his palms on his uniform slacks and stuck out his hand.
Nick was still struggling with the fact that Detective Erin McNeal wasn't the hardened, cynical cop he'd expected, but a woman who smelled like heaven and looked like she'd just stepped off the set of some high-drama police TV show.
She wasn't beautiful in the classic sense. Her hair was too red to be brown, too brown to be truly red and struggling valiantly to break free of that bun. Her mouth was a tad full and too wide for his taste. He'd never cared for freckles, either. But she was attractive in an earthy, girl next-door sort of way—the kind of girl who'd played with slingshots instead of dolls.
She studied Nick. "Frank tells me you two are old friends."
He frowned, not liking the way she'd used the word old. Just because he felt a lot older than his thirty-eight years didn't mean it was fact. "We go back a few years," he said.
All too aware that his deputy wasn't the only one having a difficult time keeping his eyes off her, Nick cleared his throat. "Frank and I partnered up for a couple of years in
"He speaks well of you," she said.
"Only when he needs a favor."
Her gaze sharpened, and he knew she was wondering if he'd just slighted her. Perceptive, too, he thought, and felt a glimmer of hope that she wouldn't take this job, after all.
"I'm really early," she said. "If you're in the middle of something, I don't mind waiting."
Great, he'd been staring again. He was acting like a pimply-faced teenager who'd just come face-to-face with his favorite centerfold. Erin McNeal was a cop—and a bad one at that. He'd worked with plenty of female cops back in
. This one shouldn't be any different.
eyes still hadn't settled back in their sockets, Nick motioned toward his
"We can talk in here, Ms. McNeal."
She started for the door with long, confident strides. He
refusing to let his eyes peruse what he instinctively knew was a nice derriere. He didn't want to know that she was built just the way he liked. He'd just as soon not like anything at all about this woman.
Once in his office, he slid behind his desk,
watched her take the chair opposite him. Her jacket gaped slightly when she crossed her legs, and he caught a glimpse of lace and the swell of her breasts beneath her blouse. Determined to keep his mind on the interview, he forced his gaze to the file in front of him. "Your credentials are impressive," he said. "Frank gave you a favorable recommendation."
"Frank was a good commander."
"It's probably no handicap that he's also your uncle." Nick looked down at the file, wondering if she realized Frank had told him about the shooting. "You scored high on your detective's exam. You transferred out of tactical to become a detective after only two years. Says here 'because you like to think.' Your solve rate is high. Your marksmanship is outstanding." He raised his eyes to hers. "Those are some pretty remarkable achievements considering there are over thirteen thousand sworn officers on the force."