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Three customers ahead of him, one window over in the lobby of the Cattlemen's Bank in the heart of downtown Kansas City.
Detective Eli Masterson didn't need the eye for detail he possessed to notice an attractive woman when he saw one. Her mocha-colored suit, a few shades darker than her short blond hair, hugged some prime feminine curves. The light wool skirt stopped just short of hiding the dimple at the back of her right knee. The sensible brown pumps that matched her leather shoulder bag didn't detract from the long arch of her calves. Even in heels, Ms. Tailored Professional Lady barely topped Eli's shoulder, putting her at average height. But he'd bet a good part of her was legs.
Long, fit, curvy legs, capped by that sweet butt. Very nice.
Eli breathed deeply, savoring the quickening rhythm of his pulse. A good, lustful look was about all he had time for these days. So he waited patiently and enjoyed his wayward private thoughts before he had to move to the front of the line and deal with reality again.
He'd taken the morning off because he had Jillian's hearing at ten o'clock. Today he was transferring what was left of his parents'insurance money into his checking account. His baby sister might be fined for possession, or more likely, she'd be sent straight to rehab again. Eli intended to be able to sign on the dotted line and drive her there himself. Maybe this time they could get her off her cocaine habit and make it stick. Lord knew he'd run out of ideas about how to keep her safe from herself.
He moved forward in line as the skinny kid at the front thanked the teller and turned. Despite the sunglasses and hoodedsweatshirt, a passing glance revealed that the man at the front of the line wasn't a kid so much as a thirty-something who needed to lose the saggy pants and accept that gangsta was a look few people over sixteen could pull off without drawing undue attention to themselves. Of course, that was probably the point.
Eli's gaze slid back to the blond chick. He'd much rather pay attention to her more subtle charms.
She didn't seem to mind the early-morning crush of customers, hurrying in to take care of business before they had to report to work themselves. She stood out from the others in line the way a froth of cream cooled his morning coffee.
He liked a woman who was calm and sophisticated, and buttoned up tight like her conservative suit. Women like that played relationships the way they conducted business. There were always rules to follow, barriers to respect. A man couldn't get in too deep with her, which suited him fine.
Intelligent conversation was good. Shared interests even better. Mutual lust was a bonus. But Eli knew enough about getting burned by emotional connections that once he detected any hints of personal commitment going on beneath the suit of a pin-striped pinup, he walked away from them as fast as his size thirteens could carry him.
Hmm. Not just a nice bod. She was observant, too. Blondie had noticed the over-the-hill rapper wannabe as well. She hesitated as she approached the teller window and turned her head ever so slightly to watch his departure.
Eli caught a glimpse of her profile and a spark of recognition tried to catch hold inside him. But she smiled and turned away at the teller's greeting before a name could click into place.
What did register was that she was older than he'd suspected from the rear view. But she wore it well. The fringe of hair that framed her face had blended into the clean contours of her jaw and cheek. And the hints beside her eye and mouth that she might be closer to fifty than forty hadn't appeared until they'd crinkled into view with her smile. Pretty as she was, Blondie probably had a successful husband, two-point-three kids and a house in the suburbs to go home to.
Ah, yes. Reality. Though certainly not his.
Time to tone his interest down a notch.
Another teller reported for early-morning duty at a third window, and Eli used the shifting of the waiting patrons to adjust his silk tie and find something new to study. The man with the gangsta look slipped into the elevator instead of exiting through the brass-trimmed glass doors. Maybe there was a problem with his account, and he'd been told to take it to one of the offices upstairs.
Eli rolled his neck against his crisp white collar. That scenario didn't sit right. The guy had been too friendly with the teller. A man with a problem would have raised a stink.
A second man, who stood out from the suit-and-tie crowd as much as over-the-hill gangsta had, swooped into Eli's peripheral vision at the new window. The tension in Eli's neck crept out across his shoulders. This guy wore a regulation business suit like almost everyone else, but he'd topped it with a long black trench coat. The calendar might say autumn, but it was still early enough in the season that the air hadn't crisped yet. There was certainly no chill to chase away on a sunny morning like this one.
Trench coat man wore a pair of mirrored Ray*Bans that he left on as he struck up a flirty conversation with the young woman who was still setting up her cash drawer. An internal sensor, borne of fourteen years on the force and a lifetime of cleaning up other people's messes, blitzed across Eli's nerve endings, warning him that something was wrong with this picture. Two men in sunglasses early in the morning? Eli shook his fists loose down at his sides and squeezed his left arm against the Glock holstered inside his jacket.
He slid his gaze back to the front door to the uniformed guard who had checked his badge and cleared his gun before allowing him to enter the bank. The young black man was focused on something out on the front sidewalk rather than on the six, seven--Eli silently counted them off--make that ten customers and staff here on the first floor. A second guard, as close to retirement as the other was to his rookie year, strolled through the lobby, chatting with customers and staff.
Blondie was curiously assessing her surroundings, too. Her movements slowed as she stuffed a bankbook into her purse and angled her head toward Mr. Trench Coat, watching him stride across the geometric designs of the carpet and disappear into the public restroom.
Eli was more suspicious than most cops. And those suspicions were eating at him now, making him fidgety inside his skin, though he allowed no trace of his thoughts to show. His instincts were to follow Mr. Trench Coat and verify that he knew something about the weather forecast that the rest of them did not. Though he prayed the man's unusual appearance had such a benign explanation, Eli's suspicions warned him otherwise. He tried to catch the guard's eye again to find out if the younger man had taken note of the two outof-place customers.
"Good morning, sir. May I help you?" The teller's bright blue eyes smiled a greeting as she drew Eli's attention back to the teller's station. But Eli zeroed in on the three-piece-suited man behind her who shuffled out from the vault area with an expanding folder tucked under his arm. He stuffed his hand into his pocket, pulled out a white handkerchief and mopped at the perspiration dotting the top of his balding head. Then he nearly jumped out of his oxfords when the older guard greeted him from across the room.
Baldy managed a nod and a vague response. But the guy was sweating. In the air conditioning. The pasty skin from forehead to pate indicated the man was either having a heart attack or...
Damn. Eli's growing tension clenched through every muscle, then dissipated, leaving an icy chill of certainty in its wake.
Do not rob this place this morning.
He had to get to court. He had to be there for Jillian. He didn't have time to be right about this.
Eli jerked his head from side to side. Elevator to the north. Bathroom to the south. Baldy behind the counter. A perfect triangle surrounding the customers, the guards and the money inside the tellers' drawers.
Glancing over his shoulder, Eli tried to catch the guard's eye at the front door.
Damn. Damn. Damn. "Sir?" The teller's voice demanded action.
Eli leaned across the counter, pulling open the front of his jacket to flash his badge and whisper into the startled girl's ear. "Hit your silent alarm. Now."
He didn't want to start a panic if he was wrong, but his gut told him he was right. Something was going down.
Blondie sensed it, too. She'd pulled her cell phone from her purse and was walking straight toward the older security guard. She touched the man's arm, urging him to mask his stunned expression. Blondie turned and faced Eli full-on, but she was pointing past him toward the public john.
What the hell?
Eli wasn't the only cop in the building.
Recognition did him little good now. There was no time to identify himself. No time to do more than to warn the teller to get off her stool and seek shelter down behind the counter. "Hit the ground. Now!"
The bathroom door swung open. The elevator dinged. Guns came out of billowing coats and saggy jeans. A thunderclap exploded outside and a blast of shattered glass and flying metal rained down inside the lobby. The young guard went down. A deadly staccato of semiautomatic gunfire erupted over their heads.
The older guard's hand never reached his gun. With a startled gape, he grabbed his chest and sank to the floor, taking Blondie with him. Eli glimpsed the red blooming beneath her hands as she crouched over the fallen guard and tried to staunch his wound.
"Take cover!" Eli shouted over the screams and chaos, grabbing the startled black man beside him and shoving him to the carpet. Others ducked behind the counter. In one fluid movement, Eli dove and rolled toward Blondie. He rose up on his knees, slung his arm around her shoulders and dragged her to the floor, tucking her beneath his long body as bits of ceiling and light fixtures and bullets crashed down around them.
"Eli Masterson." He ground the words against her ear.
"GET OFF ME!" Shauna Cartwright ordered between tightly clenched teeth. She didn't know which angered her more--the senseless violence that left a man bleeding to death just beyond her reach, or the tall, muscular detective who'd wrapped himself so thoroughly around her that she could feel his holster jammed against her shoulder blade and smell his love for coffee on his breath.
His broad shoulders masked her view of the scene and absorbed the brunt of the debris raining down on top of them. Masterson had gone all macho to protect the perceived "little woman" while innocent bystanders cowered unguarded beneath the hail of intimidation shots. As though she couldn't take care of herself!
She'd spotted the body armor beneath the trench coat of the man who'd disappeared into the john. She'd alerted the guard, paged 911 and kept her head low when the bullets started flying.
Shauna squirmed beneath the immovable weight of the determined detective and repeated the command. "Get. Off."
But she went still beneath his surrounding warmth when the bullets abruptly stopped. She recognized the sound of the thieves switching out their ammo. Would they fire again? Choose more living targets this time? Could she reach her gun in her purse? Where was her purse? Was there any way to get to the two wounded guards and help them? The eerie silence after the deafening barrage of gunfire made her thoughts seem loud inside her head.
At the whisper against her ear, Shauna caught her breath, thinking for one crazy moment that she'd uttered her thoughts out loud and given herself away. She might have trembled as fear found a chink in the adrenaline charging through her system. And Detective Masterson's arm might have tightened imperceptibly around her, offering reassurance as well as protection.