Authors: Cathy Perkins
Long before she was ready, she reached the first members of Marcy’s family. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she repeated to each adult she passed. Some nodded. Others murmured,
or Thanks for coming.
Showing up, trying to find words, was the right thing to do, but it felt woefully inadequate. As Holly made her way along the receiving line, it hit her how far the impact of Marcy’s death reached. She’d been daughter, sister, cousin, and aunt as well as friend. All these people loved her and had been part of her life. Holly glanced around the crowded visitation room. She hoped they’d told Marcy often enough that she was loved while she was still alive.
Holly shook more hands and murmured words.
She dreaded the thought of a relative’s death and receiving these words from strangers. The finality of Marcy’s death smacked her. She knew she wasn’t immortal—no longer had that childish perception. But the knowledge usually dwelt deep in her subconscious.
She was close enough now to see Mrs. Ramirez. Holly’s maternal drive was still dormant, but she had friends with children and realized how lucky she was to be close to her own mother. She couldn’t begin to image the horror of identifying your child’s body. Of having to deal with that level of loss.
Finally, she reached Mrs. Ramirez. The older woman sat before the vestiges of her daughter’s life. Her eyes were dark, shadowed pools. Suffering draped her figure with the dignity of a Madonna. The quiet grief reminded Holly of Michelangelo’s
, the grief-stricken mother cradling the broken body, not of a prophet or a saint, but of a beloved child.
Holly spoke from the heart. “I’m so sorry. Marcy was my friend and I’ll miss her.”
For a long moment, Holly worried she’d offended her. Then Mrs. Ramirez gravely tilted her head.
“I’m sorry for your loss,” she said, feeling like a not very bright parrot.
Mrs. Ramirez looked up, her gaze drifting past Holly’s shoulder.
The older woman’s expression changed. Recognition flashed through her dark eyes and color flooded her cheeks. “
¿Qué estás haciendo aquí?
” What are you doing here?
Holly blinked in surprise. “I wanted to say how sad—”
The older woman’s eyes narrowed and anger puckered her mouth.
“Si hubiera hecho su trabajo, mi Maricella estaría vivo.”
If you’d done your job, Marciella would still be alive.
Holly gaped at her. “Mrs. Ramirez?” What was she supposed to have done?
The woman rose, four and a half feet of fury.
Holly took a quick step back—straight into a solid body. Her high heels tangled with big feet and she would’ve fallen if arms hadn’t reached around and caught her. Warm, hard hands gripped her, even after she regained her balance. They held her like they meant to hug her for the next lifetime.
They also carried the most amazing man-smell.
She knew this touch, this smell.
She forgot about the past few days, the worry and the grief, and relaxed into his protective embrace. Her body ignored her brain’s “
” and instead shifted slightly, tucking perfectly into his shoulder. His warm body and subtle cologne wrapped her in a seductive blanket.
This feels so right.
About the time she was ready to purr like her mother’s cat, she remembered she was at a wake, in a crowded public place, being yelled at for some reason by an irate Hispanic matron, while practically being cuddled by a man who—
Holly bolted upright and whirled around. He seemed reluctant to release her, but she could’ve imagined that along with the rest of the embarrassing episode. Cheeks flaming, she focused her attention on putting some space between them.
“You okay? You sorta tripped there.” His warm brown eyes locked onto hers and another jolt rocked her insides.
“You changed cologne.”
If possible, her cheeks burned hotter.
. That statement had spoken volumes. And he knew he’d gotten to her. She could see it in the satisfied expression on his face, the arrogant jerk.
“A lot’s changed. Not everything, though.” The corner of his mouth turned up in a private smile. “I’d still hate to see you get hurt.”
What was that supposed to mean? She’d had it with his one-liners and innuendo. She nearly snarled something choice, but her grown-up half reminded her,
Handle it later. This isn’t the time or place.
“I’m fine.” Her tone could have produced ice cubes. “Thanks for catching me. Of course, you shouldn’t have been standing so close.”
If she’d tripped, it had been over his big feet. She ignored the immediate impish reminder correlating big hands, feet, and other body parts. Why did JC have the ability to turn her into an idiot without uttering a word? He wasn’t even looking at her. His attention was focused on the furious woman behind her.
Mrs. Ramirez pushed Holly aside. Tipping her head back to look at the tall detective, the diminutive matron punctuated the outpouring of angry words with fierce stabs of her finger at his chest.
Ah. She’d been yelling at JC the whole time.
.” JC mangled even the simple phrase. He threw a beseeching glance at Holly before returning his attention to the tiny woman in front of him.
Marcy’s mother continued her tirade.
“Mrs. Ramirez,” he said in the calm tone of voice all cops seemed to use on hysterical people. With a flash of irritation, Holly remembered hearing it from an assortment of uniformed men on Sunday afternoon. “Let’s settle down. Talk this through. What can I do for you?”
He stopped talking, letting Mrs. Ramirez rant, even as people noticed the altercation.
¿Por qué no detenerlo?
“Why didn’t you stop him?” Holly automatically translated. Stop who, from doing what?
More heads turned and silence rippled away from the epicenter of Mrs. Ramirez’s wrath. Holly raked a look across the crowded room. The older women surrounding Marcy’s mother watched with crossed arms and pursed lips. The men appeared ready to jump in if JC so much as twitched in the wrong direction.
Holly turned back to JC. Somehow, he was lowering Mrs. Ramirez’s volume, taking control of the situation, even in a language he didn’t speak. Mostly he let the older woman vent, but he interjected a phrase—in English—whenever she paused for breath. It was his tone as much as his words. His body language helped. His posture said, “
I’m not a threat
,” while simultaneously staying ready for any hint of violence.
He leaned in Holly’s direction. “Jump in any time.”
“You talking to me?” Holly tried to step back, but a solid wall of bodies blocked her retreat.
JC gripped her arm and pulled her closer. His eyes never left Mrs. Ramirez and he continued to nod occasionally. “What’s she saying?”
“Most of it isn’t very nice.”
He turned his head at that. A smile lit his face, and her heart-rate—damn its traitorous hide—picked up. “I got that. Trust me, I’ve heard those phrases before.”
“The rest is variations of, ‘If you’d done your job, Marcy would still be alive.’”
A brief grimace clouded JC’s face. “Uh-huh.”
Mrs. Ramirez turned to Holly. “
Silencio. Mostrar respecto.
” In rapid Spanish, she berated Holly’s rudeness for interrupting.
She waited for the older woman to take a breath. “
Lo siento. Él no habla español
.” Sorry. The detective doesn’t speak Spanish.
Mrs. Ramirez turned a furious glare on JC. “
Él no intenta
He didn’t try.
Holly kept her comments to herself. JC
tried to learn the language. Years ago, she’d helped him pass Spanish 101. She wasn’t sure if Mrs. Ramirez meant his dismal language skills or whatever she thought the police should’ve done to prevent Marcy’s death. Either way, Holly figured she was out of there. People were staring and this was
not her problem.
She took one step and again felt JC’s warm hand circle her arm. His mouth moved close to her ear. Heat spread, turning her awareness up another notch.
“Don’t leave,” he whispered. “I need you.”
Holly quirked an eyebrow at JC.
He held onto her arm.
Oh, those imploring eyes…
A hum of attraction started in her head and worked its way south. JC’s hand on her arm, the whisper of his words across her ear, his scent, everything about him set off bottle rockets inside her. She gave her imagination the tiniest bit of free rein.
What she was feeling must’ve shown in her expression, because something hot flashed through JC’s eyes before he pulled on a cop-face—serious, boy scout, you-can-depend-on-me, I’m-a-professional.
Whoa, whoa, whoa
. With a quick inhale, she scrambled to raise her own defenses. This was JC.
So not going there
“Please tell Mrs. Ramirez, on behalf of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Department, I want to offer our condolences,” JC recited. “We’re sorry for her loss.”
She turned to Marcy’s mother. She hated to upset the woman again. Figuring JC’s statement didn’t go far enough, she embellished as she translated.
By the end of her speech, Mrs. Ramirez looked mollified. At least she wasn’t still glaring at either of them. A few of the surrounding relatives even nodded approvingly. The crowd wasn’t openly staring, and normal conversation sounds had resumed.
Holly was feeling rather pleased with herself when she heard JC’s quiet, “Whew.”
That simple release of tension sent ripples down her spine. He lifted his hand, cupped her shoulder, and pulled her close. The casual intimacy lulled her; his distinctive scent caressed her. She wanted to slide her arms around his waist and melt into his embrace. Shivers shimmied across her breasts and clenched her belly muscles in a wave of pure desire.
She lifted shocked eyes to meet JC’s gaze and saw the same physical reaction in his expression.
He released her like she’d burned him.
Reality smacked her in the face. She felt as confused as the village simpleton.
Was she still seriously attracted to him?
Not the casual, if you can forget all the bad karma, we had great sex back then, but I’ll never,
, follow up on it fantasies she’d secretly harbored. But the
whoa, this guy totally turns me on
kind of attraction.
Was he as interested in her, or was he just trying to get her attention and realized he’d invaded her personal bubble?
him to be attracted to her again?
Before she could even begin to sort it out, JC asked, “What did you say to her?”
She blinked, again two beats behind. Wait a minute. She was an intelligent professional.
Take a breath and get centered
“You still can’t speak Spanish?”
Oh, that was brilliant.
One corner of his mouth curled. “I thought that was rather obvious.”
She punched his chest. “Hush. You know what I meant. Let’s get out of here while we can.”
“Now. While none of Marcy’s relatives are upset with us.”
JC slammed his arms into obstinate male mode. “I need to talk to Mrs. Ramirez.”
“Are you crazy? This isn’t the time to question the woman. Talk to her tomorrow.”
. “Except the funeral’s tomorrow. Can’t it wait?”
“No. She wants me to figure out who killed her daughter. How am I supposed to do that if nobody will tell me anything about the woman?”
“Didn’t you talk to Marcy’s parents already?”
He blew out an exasperated breath. “I tried. When I got to their house on Sunday, there must’ve been a hundred people inside. Half of them took one look at me and vanished. The rest sat and glared. All I got was Marcy was a saint and nobody wanted to hurt her.”
Of course. He’d had to tell her parents about finding Marcy’s body.
Suddenly, she had a blinding insight.
It was Mrs. Ramirez’s perfume on his coat
. “Damn, I recognize it now.”
“What are you talking about?”
“When you came by my house Sunday afternoon.” Double head-smack. “Never mind. Look, all you’ll do tonight is make everybody mad again. Get a copy of the guest register and talk to them later.”
JC was watching Mr. Ramirez practically sob on the shoulder of an older man. JC’s own shoulders sagged an inch. “Finding them again will be the problem.”
“How hard can—” she began, and then closed her mouth. She knew nothing about the Ramirez clan. Marcy had moved out of her parents’ neat bungalow, but the extended family could be scattered across eastern Washington. Add in their friends, and the crowd really could be anywhere by tomorrow.
“What was I supposed to be doing, anyway?” JC asked, almost as if he were talking to himself.
The press of the crowd kept her uncomfortably close to him. Fatigue tightened the skin around his eyes, as though he hadn’t slept since she and Alex found Marcy’s body. He’d missed a small place on his jaw when he shaved. Obviously, he’d cleaned up for the wake, but the tiny patch of stubble made him human.
She wanted to run her finger over the spot. Memories tangled with the present reality. Who was this man? He’d matured into a ruggedly handsome adult. Her gaze shifted along his cheek to his mouth. He had firm, masculine lips. His neck and shoulders were nice—strong and muscular, without becoming one of those no-neck bodybuilder types. In spite of his fatigue, he exuded an aura of strength. He was also standing straighter now, as if he were aware of her inspection and maybe wanted to make a good impression.
. This just kept getting weirder. She turned away and locked eyes with Alex. He stood beside his mother, watching her and JC intently.
He looked seriously pissed.
What was she doing, checking out JC when the guy who was technically sorta her boyfriend was in the same room?
her boyfriend. They were just friends, hanging out together. Of course, JC didn’t know that. And from the expression on Alex’s face, he’d conveniently forgotten that, too.
JC touched her arm, reclaiming her attention. The resulting tingle was entirely inappropriate.
“Thanks for your help tonight. One session of standing there taking it from Mrs. Ramirez was enough to last a lifetime. Whatever you said at the end helped settle her down.”
He was just doing his job. His fingers caressing her arm didn’t exactly fit with that explanation, but she wasn’t sure he was even aware he was doing it.
was so aware of
she was ready to explode. In the middle of the crowd, she could isolate his unique blend of soap, citrusy aftershave, and testosterone-laden male. The combination was driving her nuts. “That was nice.”
JC raised an eyebrow and smiled, turning her statement into something else.
“What you did,” she explained.
His smile deepened.
“For Mrs. Ramirez.” Heat climbed her cheeks. “Letting her vent.”
He just watched her, his damned dimples distracting her.
Words kept tumbling from her mouth. “Sometimes guys don’t understand. All women really want them to do is listen while we get it out of our systems.”
JC leaned closer. She could’ve sworn he was smelling her hair. And liked what he smelled, because he was definitely crowding her personal space more than the surrounding people required.
“We really don’t want you to do anything,” she continued, “fix it, explain it, or anything else.”
She was babbling like an idiot.
“I’ll keep that in mind.” His voice was low and intimate.
He studied her face. She could almost see the debate going on behind his eyes.
Intensely regretting her verbal oversharing, she braced for his next maneuver.
“I didn’t try to fix anything, but I did talk to a friend at the Seattle PD,” he said.
She frowned. “Why? Were you hoping I’d done something terrible in Seattle? That the only reason I came back was because I was running away?”
Dimples flashed again. “The possibility occurred to me.”
She folded her arms, dislodging his hand, and tapped a foot. “Why’d you really call them?”
“I found something disturbing.”
She froze. Disturbing combined with the Seattle police department meant only one thing to her—Officer Frank Phalen. Even
the name left a bad taste in her mouth.
“I found your protective order.”
“Bully for you.” She felt violated all over again. First by Frank, then by the Seattle PD’s refusal to take the harassment seriously, and now by JC’s knowing about the whole damn mess. And she couldn’t even complain about his reading the order because it was a public record and anybody who wanted to could look it up.
JC scanned the group behind her. “I thought you might want to know. Phalen was reprimanded by the department after you complained.”
“Reprimanded.” Phalen had flat-out stalked her. “He got his hand slapped for harassing me, camping in front of my house, following me—”
“In the official report, he claims you two were dating and you didn’t handle the breakup well.”
Holly’s mouth dropped open. Shock and outrage left her sputtering. And naturally JC believed the rumors, what the other cops told him. “
didn’t handle rejection well? We went out a couple of times and he wanted to buy wedding rings. I didn’t.”
His gaze swung back and pinned her in place. His brown eyes carried a message she couldn’t interpret.
“You think just because our relationship ended badly, I made this stuff up?” she said between clenched teeth. She couldn’t remember the last time she was this angry. “Screw you, JC.”
She pivoted on her heel, but JC grabbed her arm. “Hey! Wait a minute.”
He tugged her back. “I never said that. You need to know he pulled the same stunt with another woman. She raised a bigger stink than you did. They fired him.”
She jerked her arm free and gave JC her best squinty-eyed stare. “Frank Phalen reinforced every bad thing I ever heard about the ‘thin blue line.’”
“There are all kinds of officers. Some are like him. Ones who don’t understand that kind of behavior isn’t acceptable.”
“You’re avoiding the issue.”
His tone went hard and flat. “I don’t like the idea of some guy, especially an officer, harassing women.”
She caught her breath at his intensity. Forget the theoretical. His expression said he didn’t want anyone harassing
, Holly Price, specifically. She swallowed. “Sounds like we finally agree on something.”
He glared down at her. “I want to know if Phalen contacts you.”
She didn’t need JC telling her how to run her life. Trying to control her life had been one of Frank’s horrible habits. “I doubt that will be necessary.”
She hoped it wasn’t necessary.
“He’s going to blame you for getting fired. That kind of guy won’t admit it was his own screw-up that caused his problems.”
Like JC or her father admitted theirs? Yeah. Got that.
“I’ve handled Frank all by myself this long.” Even if it did include moving.
And speaking of moving, a graceful retreat sounded like a brilliant next move.
Clearly, she wasn’t getting any information from Marcy’s relatives tonight. Time to find Laurie and leave. She scanned the room, but didn’t see her friend’s blue hair, which should’ve stood out in the sea of brunettes.
“Gotta go,” she told JC and dodged between two people before he could say another word.
So much for graceful.
She angled across the room. She felt Alex’s glare and JC’s knowing gaze following her. At the doorway, she risked a glance over her shoulder. JC wasn’t just watching her, he was measuring her in that blatantly male way that made her aware of every inch of her on-fire skin. She felt as though she was wearing her sexiest piece of barely there lingerie instead of the most conservative black suit she owned. For a second, she was glad she’d worn high heels that made her legs look a mile long and lifted her butt into something that from the right angle might be considered a booty.
The next instant she wondered what she was doing—strutting for a guy she’d sworn never to think about again, much less help, talk to, flirt with, or whatever it was she was doing. A man she needed to deal with strictly on a professional basis.
She turned around and found Alex’s glare had intensified to a laser of death. What was
problem? He was pissed because she wouldn’t go over there and subject herself to his mother’s snubs? Newsflash—the floor crossed two ways. Alejandro could grow a pair and come to her.
“Screw this,” she muttered. She didn’t ask to get caught between two competitive Neanderthals.
She moved into the foyer and looked around for Laurie. Raised voices caught her attention—along with most of the people in the room. Heads turned.
There was a commotion at the front door.
That damn reporter.