Authors: Amy Leigh Simpson
“Hi,” was all he managed to get out.
“Hi.” Her smile was tight, forced. She was practically humming with nervous energy. Was she afraid of him? Despite himself, he felt the corner of his lips twitch in amusement.
She turned to Sal—the idiot boasting an asinine telltale smile—and extending her tiny hand. “I’m Sadie Carson.”
“Nice to meet you, Dorian Salivas. Everyone around here calls me Sal.” Sal’s elbow jabbed Archer’s kidney. “I’ll, uh, see you over there.”
“Nice to meet you, too.” Sadie called after a retreating Sal.
Archer watched her intently. Her body was tense, though she didn’t fidget. She was bold enough to brave solid eye contact but then let her eyes shift to the movement on the city sidewalk around them.
“I’m meeting my mom for lunch down the street, and I thought I’d drop off your phone at the front desk. Figured you might need it. I found it in my couch this morning, and I didn’t have another phone number to reach you at so …” She trailed off, her flitting gaze colliding with his for a long beat before she shoved the phone into his hand.
Archer grinned, satisfied to watch her squirm and thankful to have some of the power back in his grasp. “Thanks. I stopped by today when I was done next door, but you weren’t home. Oh, and thanks for the heads-up about Charlie’s place. Not that I wasn’t still surprised, but the warning softened the blow. We’ve got our work cut out for us over there.”
Her lips tugged in a wry grin, some slight measure of stress peeled away. “Been there, but at least it’s mostly confined to the office and the basement. Charlie and I had been working on going through all that junk for years, but lately he seemed even more determined to organize his life.” She paused, her face pinching in question, probably to match his. “What? Why are you frowning at me now?”
“When we were there today, everything was piled in the entrance and the living room. I mean, stacks of stuff everywhere, taller than you are.” Archer noted the genuine surprise on her face as her delicate eyebrows jumped up toward her hairline, making her eyes appear impossibly large.
“That’s weird. Normally the house was pretty clean except for all the stuff we boxed up in the basement and all the newspapers and books in the office.”
Sadie’s cell phone rang out a jazzy tune he didn’t recognize. She apologized and answered quickly. “Hey, Mom. Sorry. Tom was late picking up Elsie for her doctor’s appointment today, and I got a little caught up … I know, I’m still coming … You already told me it’s a nice place …”
Turning away, she lowered her voice just above a strained whisper. “No, I’m not wearing my Converse.” Her eyes flicked with an agitated roll. “Mom! I’ll see you there in like five minutes … Okay. Bye.”
Sadie swept her hair back, though none had seemed out of place. A surge of color crept up her neck. “I guess I’m running a bit behind. I should probably go before she sends out a search party.” She stepped away, retreating to her impressive ride.
“Thanks.” She tossed the words over her shoulder. Her fingers thoughtfully grazed the hood as she walked around to the driver side, slipped behind the wheel, and drove away.
adie, your date’s here.” Sadie’s mother called up the stairs.
“Be down in a sec.”
This is it
. Sadie breathed in and exhaled slowly, turning to inspect the finished product.
Taken aback by her reflection, she smiled, not seeing a single trace of tomboy and knowing she’d picked the perfect prom dress. Layers of golden tulle pulled artfully around a strapless corseted bodice woven with iridescent beads and crystals. The A-line skirt cascaded down with the same shimmering fabric.
Glossy hair shined back at her, swept half up in curly tendrils that trailed to her mid-back. Her mother had even given her Grandma Alma’s gold and diamond locket to complete the look.
She descended the stairs as gracefully as the four inch, you’ll-be-sorry-in-an-hour heels would allow, meeting her date at the front door.
Derrick Albright cleaned up pretty nice, she thought, and leaned in to tell him when she caught a whiff of—what—alcohol, on his breath? “Are you serious?” was all she could muster at first.
With a curt laugh he leaned closer, parallel lines forming between his sandy brows like he was confused about something. Then he blinked his eyes a second too long. “You ready to go, babe?” His words slurred and his muscled body swayed toward her.
She slapped a hand to his chest. “OHHHH, NO! I am not your babe, and I’m certainly not going anywhere with you! Did you drive here?” She didn’t wait for him to answer. “Lesson one, you drunken idiot, don’t drink and drive. Are you trying to do get yourself killed? And do you honestly have that little respect for me that you thought you could slip one by me and endanger my life too?
“Lesson two, don’t show up for a date with booze on your breath. Bad form. Not only do you smell like crap, but you’ve thoroughly insulted me and ruined my prom night.”
His eyes went glassy and started to wander. Sadie snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Focus, Derrick! Lesson three, pray. Not only for forgiveness, and possibly a fully functioning brain, but for safety from the wrath that you’ll encounter from me if you don’t call your parents right now and get the heck out of my house!”
Standing with one hand on her hip she slapped the other down on the table next to her, grabbing a cell phone and thrust it out to him.
He ducked, as if she was going to chuck it at him. Honestly, she’d thought about it, but ultimately had no desire to pay for his dental work. Recovering and wide eyed from her sobering rant, he numbly grabbed the phone and dialed his parents.
“That’s my girl.” Sadie’s dad grinned from the doorway to the kitchen.
“Will you see to it that Jim Beam here gets home okay, I think I’m gonna go for a walk.” Kicking off her shoes—gorgeous, torture devices that would now never make their debut—she dropped her clutch by the front door before slamming it behind her. As she started down the middle of the empty street, tears swam in her eyes and slipped down her pink cheeks, ruining her perfect makeup. Not that it mattered now anyway.
“Hey, wait up.” Glancing back, she saw Ryan jogging to catch up.
She turned and kept walking. “Not right now, Ryan, okay?”
He grabbed her arm and swung her around to face him. “Oh geez, what happened?”
Angry laughter sputtered from her rarely painted lips, tears soaked lines into the canvas of her face. “Well, Albright came to pick me up for prom wasted. Derrick Albright! The same Derrick Albright who goes to our church. The class president—Derrick Albright—who helped raise money for the Mothers Against Drunk Driving campaign and wooed all the PTA moms last semester. Boy, I am some judge of character. He probably even booked a room for tonight. What a jerk!”
Ryan’s thumbs smoothed away the tears on her cheeks before rubbing the excess on his Pink Floyd T-shirt. “Well, there’s only one thing left to do.”
Sadie sniffled, looking up at his adorable boyish grin. “Slash his tires?”
“Nope.” His deep, hearty laugh held no trace of his adolescent chuckle.
“Saran Wrap his car?”
She huffed. “You’re no fun. Can we at least Vaseline his windshield?”
“No, Sadie.” His eyes lilted at the corners. Such nice eyes. Standing up tall, he pantomimed the act of straightening a tie and offered his arm. “We’ve got much more important things to do. Let’s go tear up the dance floor.”
Sadie exhaled a burst of laughter and blotted the last of her tears. “All right, Footloose, let me go fix my face and we’re outta here.”
Ten minutes later she walked out to meet Ryan by his car. “Wow, Ry, lookin’ sharp.” She whistled as he held his arms out and did a full turn, looking very James Dean in a simple black suit with a thin black tie. He’d even gelled up his shag of dirty blonde hair.
Shooting her with overly cheesy fake hand guns, he winked. “Right back at ya.”
They both laughed as they climbed in to head to the prom. “The car’s looking better. You been putting in a lot of time on it lately?”
“Yeah, been trying to. I’m tired of it looking like a bucket of rust. It’s getting there.”
“I can’t wait till it’s all cherry red and ripe for cruising.”
“I told you Sadie, no red. I haven’t decided yet. Maybe black? Or silver? Yellow’s kinda lame but with stripes it might be cool?”
“You’re chronically indecisive.” Scrunching her nose, she grinned at him. “And annoying. Like a four-year-old with a license. Heaven help us.”
He poked out his tongue in reply.
Once at the prom they danced the night away, barely stopping to catch their breath. Ryan always hated to admit how good he was. His mom was a dance teacher, so he could swing and jive with the best of ’em.
As the night drew to a close the last slow song blasted from the stacks of speakers. “You ready to get outta here?” Sadie asked, giving him an out while Eric Clapton’s “Wonderful Tonight” serenaded the crowd.
“I think I‘ve got one more dance in me.” His face lit, mischief sparked in his deep blue eyes. “Plus, its Clapton, we have to.”
As he took her in his arms all the joking and laughter for the night faded. She melted against him, laying her head on his chest, swaying slowly with the strong rhythm of his heart.
Only a handful of heartbeats and the song was over. After a delayed moment they broke their embrace. Ryan shoved his hands in his pockets looking fidgety. He was usually so carefree and hopelessly obvious, but in that moment she had no idea what he was thinking.
“Let’s get you home.”
The conversation was scant at best on the drive back. “Thanks for tonight, Ry. I had the best time,” she said, meaning it.
He shrugged. “Well, sorry about your date. But hey, there’s always next year.”
“Meh, I say we ditch prom next year and do one of our famous movie nights instead.” Sadie wiggled her eyebrows at him, drawing out a smile. “You can have first pick, and I’ll bring the popcorn and M&M’s. Do we have a deal?” She stretched out her hand.
Reaching out he grabbed it and held tight, his thumb tracing so slightly over her skin she could have easily missed it.
But she hadn’t.
Sadie rolled over to silence her alarm, noting from the dampness of her pillow that she’d been crying. Desperate to shake off the smothering dream, she got up, slipped into a T-shirt and some running shorts and hit the pavement for her morning run.
Heat beaded on her face within minutes. It was well past time for summer’s oppressive heat to let up and give in to a crisp autumn breeze, but St. Louis weather was funny like that, as unpredictable as the future.
She pushed hard to get to the park. The heavy humid air seemed to weight her legs with lead. It was always worse after taking a day off, but she’d needed the R & R after everything with Charlie. Her thoughts fractured to what Agent Hayes said yesterday about Charlie’s house. It had only been a little less than a week since she’d last dropped off some groceries next door. Everything had looked normal.
Had Charlie known something was going to happen? Why hadn’t he told her?
She was still waiting to hear back from Charlie’s son to see if he’d like some help organizing a wake or a memorial service. The aftermath of death was always difficult, but without resolution it could be destructive. Charlie’s friends would appreciate a chance to pay their respects before too much time passed.
But how long did the body of a murder victim remain in evidence before it could be released for a proper burial? She’d have to ask Agent Hayes next time she talked to him.
Common sense willed her to think of a different subject, but her stubborn heart would not be deterred. There was something in his eyes when she’d seen him yesterday. Definitely surprise, but then again he’d probably seen that mirrored in her eyes as well. It was something else she couldn’t quite pin. He seemed less suspicious of her, but he also seemed, what—interested maybe?
If he was, he needed to keep his brooding stares to himself. The last thing she needed was some arrogant
with a god complex testing her loyalties. Even if he did have the kind of eyes that could make a girl forget her name, her better sense, and probably a few items of clothing after her walk of shame the next morning. Looking the way he did, with that intoxicating danger in his gaze, that ridiculously sexy stubble, and his bad boy swagger, he probably was
But that was of no consequence to her. That was the problem of those poor, insecure women looking for validation in all the wrong places.
The real problem she had with Agent Hayes was that she couldn’t get a read on him. Most guys made their intentions, their approval, their attraction, fairly obvious, but Agent Hayes made her question what he thought of her, and she couldn’t remember the last time she’d cared about that.
She’d regrettably called upon their brief interlude on the sidewalk over lunch, while her mother regaled her with details about the charity event she was throwing for the local children’s hospital. Unlike Archer, Sadie, it seemed, was not so difficult to read. Her mother had honed in on her distraction in two seconds flat.
Tact not being one of Lorelei Carson’s strong suits, she grilled Sadie to see if she had met a guy whom she could bring to the fund-raiser. At Sadie’s swift denial and not so easily disguised blush, her mother pounced with questions and begged for details. But Sadie stuck to the facts about the case, period. Even given the details of murder, Lorelei shared an enlightened smile about her daughter and then thankfully let it go.
All right, Sadie, let’s think about something else. How ’bout them Cardinals, huh? Two games outta first?
Even with the prompting of her inner monologue, she was helpless to the memory of those entrancing eyes, that slow rakish grin, and those lips—Ehh! The man was infuriating! Another few laps of this and she’d need to consider seeking professional help.
Just as her run started to produce a euphoric calm over her mind, she saw him. Not in her mind like a few moments ago, but with her eyes.
Agent Hayes was here, near the playground talking with Barb, a woman who often brought her grandkids to the park in the morning to play. He was probably checking on her alibi, but his presence was disruptive and irritating.
Had Barb been here that morning? Hmm. Guess she’d find out soon enough.
The path would soon dump her at the playground occupied by the man who was terrorizing her brain. It was nothing but attraction. A chemical response. He was undeniably good-looking, so what? It was nothing she couldn’t handle.
, geez. She’d been spotted. Her tormentor raised his hand in a stagnant wave, and she was stuck. Aside from a blatant turn-tail-and-run maneuver, there was no escaping the inevitable.
He stepped toward the path so she slowed her pace and walked the last few feet to meet him. “Morning, Agent Hayes.” She forced the pleasantry from tight lips.
“Morning, Miss Carson.” His eyes scanned her. She shifted her weight, trying not to squirm under the heated look that made the Midwest summer seem practically tepid in comparison. “I thought you’d like to know you’ve been cleared. Autopsy confirmed the killer was male, and Mrs. Schroder saw you here during the time the ME said the body was placed in the car.”
already knew that. Shouldn’t you be doing something more useful with your time? Like pulling up those records of Charlie’s phone calls, or I dunno, looking at a suspect who might actually be dangerous?” Okay, so maybe tactlessness was an inherited flaw. Her conscience kicked in to make up for it, and guilt instantly followed.
He was just doing his job. But she’d been trying to get him out of her head all morning, and now here he stood, in all his big, brooding, manliness, interrupting her time of solace.