Authors: Debbi Rawlins
Cassie finished with a throaty groan for the benefit of anyone who might be listening in and blinked up at him innocently.
Dalton realized he had been holding his breath, and let it out slowly. “You do that too well. It's damned scary.”
She smiled. “Most women can. You know, it wouldn't hurt for you to make some noise, too. Make our roles more believable, if nothing else.” Her voice took on a husky tone. “After all, we're supposed to be distracted right now. By each other.”
He was distracted, all right. His gaze drifted downward, lingering on her nipples as they strained against the lace of her bra.
This business-only thing isn't going to work.
“Cassieâ¦” His voice came out ragged and broken. “I hope you know what you're doing.”
With that she pushed up against him, her breasts rubbing his naked chest and her tongue touching his lips. She gasped but didn't resist when he began stroking her breast with one hand while the other toyed with the silky edge of her panties.
A slow smile curved her lips as his hand slid lower. He was determined to make her moan again, but this time it would be
I have to admit I was nervous at first about writing for Blaze. I'd written drama for Harlequin American Romance, comedy for Duets and suspense for Intrigue, all involving a comfortable level of romance for me. But out-and-out sexy? Hmmmâ¦
Well, this is my third Blaze title, and I'm hooked. I love the mix of sexy sophistication and comedy combined with the line's fast pace. In
, Cassie and Dalton sprang from my imagination as if they'd been waiting at the gate. I immediately felt as if I'd known them for years and wanted to help them realize they were meant to be together. I hope you enjoy their journey as much as I did!
P.S. Don't forget to check out www.tryblaze.com!
IN HIS WILDEST DREAMS
THE SWINGING R RANCH
WHOSE LINE IS IT ANYWAY?
HARLEQUIN AMERICAN ROMANCE
HIS ROYAL PRIZE
TO LOVE AN OLDER MAN
BY THE SHEIKH'S COMMAND
This is for Susan Pezzack,
for her keen eye and patience of a saint.
Thank you for being a true writing partner and
helping to keep me on the straight and narrow.
you'd decided not to take that kind of case.” Cassie York made herself comfortable across the desk from her new boss, Jennifer Rodriguez Madison.
The phone rang before Jen could respond. She gave Cassie an apologetic smile and grabbed the receiver. “Madison Investigations.” She paused. “Today?” She didn't bother checking her full calendar. “How about tomorrow afternoon, say around three?” She rubbed her eyes and yawned away from the phone. “Sorry, that's the soonest I can meet with you, Mr. Rice. I'm squeezing you in as it is.”
While Jen got the potential client's details Cassie got up and went to peek at Annie in her portable crib. Her chubby round face looked angelic, but that was because she was sleeping. When she was awake, she had a pair of lungs that could be heard all the way to Dallas.
With operating the new agency, being newly married and raising a child, too, Jen sure had her hands full. Cassie envied her in some ways. Jen not only had it all, but she was making it work, adapting along the
way, balancing her time and responsibilities to suit both her career and her family.
Eventually Cassie would get to that place, but first she needed to prove herself. And Jen was about to give her the perfect opportunity.
“Sorry.” Jen hung up the phone. “Where were we?”
“You were about to explain Marianne Cummings's case.” Cassie returned to her seat.
“Oh, right.” Jen pulled out her side drawer, leaned back in her chair and swung her legs up to rest her heels on the drawer. “I have to keep my feet up so they won't swell like two balloons.” She rubbed her rounded tummy. “This baby wants out already.”
“Don't you have two months to go?”
She nodded, making a funny face.
Cassie laughed. “Sounds as if it's mama who wants that baby out.”
“That, too.” Jen's lips lifted in a wry smile. “Okay, the Cummings case. This one's important to me, Cass. Marianne is a dear friend, and I personally think the slimeball she married is out for her money and then it'll be
hasta la vista.
why you're taking this kind of case.”
Jen shrugged. “I have no problem with the decoy tactic. If a guy is happily married and not looking, he won't take the bait. I only turned down the last one because I didn't have enough staff.”
At least Jen didn't say she now had a dumb blonde to fit the bill as decoy, Cassie thought. Of course she wouldn't. They'd known each other for three years,
and Cassie knew Jen respected her abilities beyond working as a secretary for a rival agency. She was just being touchy. Her experience with Chet had left her that way.
Jen smiled. “I know this is a disappointing case being your first one with us. You were probably looking forward to something meatier, but I really appreciate you jumping in. Like I said, I think Marianne is being taken for a ride. I'm glad she's finally starting to get suspicious of Robert.”
“Why? What's he done?”
“Long periods away from home. Says he's on a business trip, but doesn't show any income, secretive about phone calls, and she thinks he has a private mailbox. He's never asked her for money, though, which is a bit of a puzzle.”
“She has a lot of it I take it?”
“More than she'll ever be able to spend. Her first husband passed away two years ago and she was left with three homes, a healthy investment portfolio and too much free time to feel sorry for herself. And then up popped Robert Bask, twenty years her junior and as smooth as chocolate silk pie.”
Cassie shook her head. The age thing alone wasn't a big deal in her mind, but the rest added up to trouble. “I'll see what I can do. I assume you have some information on his routines and personal habits.”
“Right here.” Jen picked up a file folder and laid it in front of Cassie. “Of course he hasn't been totally forthcoming about his whereabouts, but she does know he favors this one bar outside of town.”
“I'll read this over and start tomorrow.” Cassie stood. “Thanks for giving me this chance to join the team, Jen.”
“Are you kidding? It's me who should be on my knees thanking you. But I'm sure you'll excuse me if I don't get up,” she said with a wry grin and a hand on her tummy.
Annie chose that moment to wake up and let out a huge wail. Jennifer briefly closed her eyes and groaned. “On second thought,” she muttered, struggling to her feet.
“I'll get her,” Cassie offered.
“Thanks but it's feeding time and that makes me the most popular person in this little lady's life.” She made a shooing motion with her hand. “Anyway, I want you to go get started on the case.”
“You've got it, boss.”
“Call me tomorrow.” She picked up her daughter and the baby immediately quieted. “Let me know how you're going to handle the documentation. A wire would probably be best, but I'll let you decide how you want to work it. Although frankly, I think your word will be enough for Marianne to give him the boot.”
“Let me think about it, but I'll probably use a wire. I know they haven't been married long, but just in case they end up in court.”
“Good thinking.” Jen got ready to feed Annie, and Cassie headed for the door. “I'm so glad you've joined us.”
Cassie stopped with her hand on the doorknob, pride
filling her chest. She'd do the best damn job possible on this case. Jen would never be sorry she took her in as a rookie. And everyoneâChet, her father, her brotherâthey'd all see that she was more than just a pretty face.
did the new assignment suck, but it had landed J. Dalton Styles in this little Podunk town outside of Midland, Texas. Penance. That was what this was about. For having the balls to get the job done no matter what. And politics. His boss wanted a promotion so bad he could taste it. Just wait till Hector needed a favor. Screw him. He'd have to ask another investigator to do his dirty work.
Dalton took a sip of warm beer. He'd ordered it for show, that's what all the cowboys in the bar seemed to be drinking. But he was on the job, which meant no alcohol. One of the few rules he did adhere to. He'd seen enough good federal investigators lose their careers over drugs or booze.
And women. Bad marriages. Not him. He'd gotten out first.
Shit, who was he kidding? Linda left him for another guy. She'd claimed Dalton worked too much. Hell, he didn't care. Good riddance. A wife and kids would be a burden. He'd been crazy to think he could swing it. That wasn't his scene.
Neither was this assignment.
He drummed his fingers on the bar and looked at
his watch. He'd already been here an hour, sporting this ridiculous Stetson, trying to blend in with the decor. Wearing the cowboy boots was no hardship. He wore one of the three pairs he owned all the time. The guys back in Chicago razzed him. He didn't give a rip. He'd gotten used to them early in his career during his first Texas assignment.
That had been a hell of a good case. His first major bust. Two guys holding a woman hostage at a meth lab near the Mexican border. Dalton had taken them down before the hostage negotiator even arrived.
Eight years and three commendations later, he gets stuck with this fluff assignment. How ironic that he had to expose a con artist who bilked wealthy women out of their divorce settlements. Dalton figured if the women were that stupid to fall for a smooth-talking snake like Robert Bask, they deserved to be left penniless.
Let those rich ladies work for a living. Let them know what it's like to push themselves for long hours, hoping to build a nest egg, telling themselves it was worth it, that someday they could start a family without worrying about making ends meet.
Linda hadn't understood. She was a taker, not a giver. In fact, she'd taken everything but the coffee-maker when she left. And only because the thing didn't work worth a damn.
The front door opened and he casually slid a look at the new arrival. Early thirties, and well-heeled judging by the guy's seven-hundred-dollar snakeskin boots and the gleaming gold Rolex on his wrist. Same yuppie
type, but this guy wasn't his boy. Bask had blond hair and stood half a foot shorter.
Dalton rubbed the back of his neck. His source had assured him that Bask stopped here for a shot of tequila most evenings. It would be just Dalton's luck that tonight the guy decided to hop on the wagon.
“How long you gonna nurse that thing?” The bearded bartender threw a towel over his shoulder, put both hands on the bar and leaned forward, staring at Dalton.
“Give me something else.” Dalton pretended to study the bottles of booze lined up against the mirror. “How about a shot of that tequila?”
“You got it.” The bartender got out a glass and poured a hefty portion of the amber liquid. He set it in front of Dalton. “I've never seen you in here before.”
“Nope.” Dalton pretended to take a sip, and stopped the guy when he started to remove the beer.
“You waiting for someone?”
“You writing a book?”
The man put both his hands up and stepped back. “Just trying to make conversation, mister.”
“Hey, no problem. I'm just a little edgy.” Dalton didn't need to piss the guy off. Bartenders were often a good source of information.
The bartender chuckled. “Must be woman problems.”
Dalton shrugged. “Something like that.”
“I can always spot a rebound a mile away.” He nodded smugly as if he'd just solved the crime of the
century. “I'm Jerry, by the way. I got a good ear for listening.”
Man, he wished the guy would shut up. But then again, maybe he had a big mouth to go with that good ear. “Get me another shot.”
Jerry eyed the glass Dalton hadn't touched yet, but shrugged and went to get the bottle of tequila. As soon as he'd turned his back, Dalton emptied the liquor into his beer.
“Whoa! That was fast.” Jerry set the clean glass aside and refilled Dalton's empty. “You must be having big trouble with the wife.”
He smiled and scoped out the pool table in the corner. Two guys played eight ball while getting shit-faced, even though the tall red-haired, lanky one looked too young to drink. “This is kind of a strange place.”
“The bar or the town?”
“Yup.” Jerry set the bottle of tequila aside and rested both elbows on the bar, leaning closer as if he had a big secret to tell. “This town is made up of the super rich and the poor slobs who made them that way. And nothing in between.”
“Odd for such a small town.”
“Not really. Lots of big cattle ranches and oil around here. Folks who owned the right piece of property got to be millionaires practically overnight. Most of them are still good ole boys. They've bought themselves fancy cars and boots, but they still come in here to drink beer on tap.” Jerry's gaze darted to the newest
customer who flirted with the busty waitress, and his voice lowered. “A few got their noses so high in the air it's a wonder they don't get nosebleeds.”
Lots of money. Rich widows. Rich divorcÃ©es. Perfect breeding ground for Bask. Now it made sense why he'd landed out here. Dalton brought the tequila to his lips and took a small sip for Jerry's benefit. “Guess you don't get many strangers around here.”
The bartender shrugged. “Some high-fallutin Dallas types looking to buy oil or beef.”
Or con artists.
Damn, he wished he could come up with a way to swing the conversation toward Bask without raising a red flag. Jerry could probably give him an earful.
Jerry frowned suddenly. “What kind of business did you say you're in?”
Dalton started to dish out his spiel when the door opened, drawing the bartender's attention. Something inside Dalton jumped. It was Bask. Call it instinct, whatever, but he knew it.
“Wow! Never seen her before.” Jerry straightened. “What a looker.”
Dalton twisted around. A blonde in tight black jeans and a low-cut black T-shirt stood inside the door and looked around the bar. “Shit,” he muttered, and turned around to stare into his beer. He'd been so sure it was Bask.
Jerry narrowed his gaze at Dalton, and then let it wander back to the woman. “You know her?”
“What?” Distracted, Dalton took a sip of the te
quila. This sucked. How much longer would he have to sit here?
“Excuse me.” The soft feminine voice was somewhere to his left at the other end of the bar. He caught sight of her out of his peripheral vision and started to turn toward her, when she said to Jerry, “I'm looking for a Robert Bask.”
Dalton froze, and then he pulled his hat down lower over his eyes and angled the opposite way. Who the hell was this woman? Bask's next target? An accomplice?
“Well, ma'am, I know a Robert but I don't know his last name. I believe he should be showing up at any moment.” Jerry was all southern charm. “Can I get you something refreshing to drink while you wait?”
“No, thank you. Oh, waitâ¦maybe a diet cola.”
“With a squeeze of lime. And a cherry, if you have one.”
Dalton slid off his chair as the woman amended her order twice. He headed toward the bathroom, looking for a back door or window. He needed to find out who she was before Bask arrived. Whether she was a mark or about to join the party, Dalton didn't need her screwing up his investigation. Better he knew her role in Bask's scheme.
Opposite the men's bathroom was a door that led out to a short alley. Dalton let himself out quietly and then headed in the direction of the parking lot. Half a dozen cars he recognized. They'd already been there
when he arrived. The black Lexus and the red Toyota had to belong to the yuppie and the blonde.
He glanced around, and then laid a hand on the hood of the Lexus. Only moderately warm. Luckily, the Toyota was at the far end of the lot, away from the bar and the street. As he'd suspected, the engine had just been turned off. Had to belong to the blonde. He checked over his shoulder, saw that it was clear, and broke into her car in less than two minutes.
Heavily tinted windows and no security system. Man, was this his lucky day. He slid into the driver's seat, and cursed when he hit his bum knee. The seat was adjusted too far forward for his long legs. She looked to be about five foot five, while he was just over six feet.
He left it the way it was, and checked the visor and then the glove compartment for her registration. He found it stacked neatly with her owner's manual and several maps.
“Cassie York, Midland, Texas,” he murmured. Until he ran a check on her, that information did him little good. He rifled through the glove compartment again, and finding nothing helpful, he flipped open the center console.
The small cubicle looked like a survival kit. Candy bars, granola bars, a hairbrush, two tubes of lipstick, a toothbrush in a plastic baggie and a small leather business card holder. He picked it up and read the top card.
A private investigator? He looked out of the tinted
window toward the bar as if he could see the blonde. Cassie York, private investigator.
She was going to screw everything up. Bask would know his latest con was a bust, and disappear. And Dalton would be stuck following this guy for the rest of his sorry career.
No way. He got out of the car and practically sprinted to the back door. A dark blue Mercedes pulled into the lot just as he let himself in. With his luck, it was probably Bask, just because now he didn't want him to show up.
Dalton swore when he creamed his finger in the door in his haste to get to Cassie York. He had to stop her. Whatever she had planned. No matter what.
ASSIE REALLY HATED
playing the dumb blonde. But it worked. Every time. Men could be so stupid. She smiled at the bartender, and then sipped her diet cola from the straw he'd given her. Although it was more a salad bar than a soda. He'd dumped in cherries and orange slices and even a couple of green olives.
She wasn't complaining, though. She'd skipped lunch to get here on time. One flattened Milky Way was all she'd had since her breakfast of dry cereal.
Hell, she'd starve for a week to get this assignment. Her first big case. Okay, so it was her first case, period. But she'd worked as an assistant to Chet, sleazeball private detective extraordinaire, long enough to know what she was doing.
Even Jennifer Madison had faith in her. Hired her
in a heartbeat. Explained what an important case this was, how it was more than just another case, how it was personal. And Cassie wouldn't let her down. As an added bonus, once Cassie cracked the case and put Robert Bask behind bars, she'd rub Chet's nose in it.
She cringed, thinking about the one time she'd slept with him. Had she been out of her mind? Sure, he was good-looking, but he was so full of himself. Of course she'd been only twenty-two, fresh out of college and overly impressed with the well-dressed, fast-living Romeo. At twenty-four she was a lot wiser now.
“Can I get you something else, darlin'?” The bartender gave her a toothy grin.
God, she hated endearments. Especially from strange men. She gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to correct his grammar. Instead, she smiled and leaned forward.
She really hadn't meant to give him a view down her scooped-neck Victoria's Secret T-shirt. “Do me a favor, sugar.”
“Sure.” The guy eagerly leaned toward her.
She touched the end of his dark beard with the tip of her polished pink finger. “Don't tell Robert I was asking about him.”
“Not a word.”
No one else had heard her inquire about Bask. Except maybe the man wearing the Stetson who'd been sitting at the bar when she came in. He'd apparently gone to the bathroom and didn't seem to care why she was here. Good thing.
Too late it had occurred to her that she shouldn't have asked about the guy at all. She should have just waited, acted coy once he arrived, waited for him to make a move. Cassie was his type, according to his wife. He liked twenty-something blondes with long hair, not too tall or thin.
But he'd married Jennifer's friend, Marianne, who'd turned fifty-five two months ago, and had never had a blond day in her life. She had money, though, and Robert seemed to like that, too.
Cassie's job was to test his faithfulness. Not her first choice of assignment. But the case was important to her boss. And if the guy turned out to be a gold-digging lothario, Cassie would expose him. With pleasure.
She took another sip of the cola and then fished out a cherry. At the other end of the bar, the waitress placed an order with the bartender, which gave Cassie a small break. The guy had hung around like a dog hoping for scraps.
She scooped out another cherry, polished it off, and then licked the sticky sweetness off her lips. She used the cocktail napkin to blot up the rest.
Pink lipstick smeared the white paper.
Darn it. She'd have to reapply it. Plus, she hadn't checked her hair. It undoubtedly needed to be brushed. She sighed, and slid off the barstool. Some decoy she made.
She hoped the restroom was in the direction the man with the Stetson had disappeared, although he'd been gone a long time. As if her thoughts had conjured
him up, he reappeared just as she stepped away from the bar.
Someone opened the front door behind her and sunlight streamed into the dimly lit room, illuminating the man's face. Dark hair, dark eyes, rugged good looks, enhanced by the cleft in his chin.