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Beckett's Convenient Bride
By Dixie Browning
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2003 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLeaning forward, Carson Beckett removed the weights from his ankles and flopped back onto the exercise mat, exhausted and depressed. It was taking too long to regain his strength this time. And hell, he was still in his prime. Chronologically, at least. He knew of guys who reached retirement without ever having suffered so much as a hangnail. Not many, but a few. At the rate he was going, about all he'd be fit for was dusting a desk chair with the seat of his pants.
The occasional patch-up job was to be expected; he was a cop, after all. But a concussion, a black eye, a total of eleven broken bones counting arms, legs, fingers and ribs, all within the space of less than three years? That was pushing it.
At this rate he might even reconsider taking up that offer of a teaching post at the university. According to Margaret, the woman he was planning to marry as soon as he was up and running again, a degree in criminology was wasted on a policeman.
Carson poured himself a glass of water. Tap water, not the other stuff. Better the enemy you know, as he always told Margaret, who was never without her bottle of designer water. "Do you know where that water's been?" he would tease.
Nine times out of ten she would frown and glance at thelabel. The lady had a lot going for her - looks, talent, ambition - but her sense of humor was notoriously deficient.
All the same, Car told himself as he stretched and flexed his lean six-foot-two body, it was time to toe up to the marriage mark. Neither of them was getting any younger. Margaret was a year and a half older than he was, but looked five years younger. She'd made it plain that children were not an option, as she had her career to consider, but then, his mother would be happy enough to see them married. She would go on hoping for a grandchild as long as she was capable of hoping for anything, but after awhile ...
In the bathroom that had been added on after he'd bought the old shotgun-style house outside Charleston, Carson peeled off his sodden sweats and stepped under the shower, flinching as he adjusted the head for nail- driver pressure. Nothing like a hard stream of cold water pounding down on his scalp to jump-start the brain.
It was several minutes before he realized that not all the pounding was water. Someone was at his front door.
Wrapping a towel around his waist, he barefooted it down the hallway and opened the door a crack, expecting the pizza he'd ordered earlier. He'd been practically living on the stuff for weeks.
"Hey, man, I was about to give up on you. Got a message from the chief." The voice was hoarse, the face familiar.
Shivering as the rain-laden March wind streaked past him into the house, Carson stepped back and let his friend and partner inside. "You look like hell, Mac."
"Look who's talking," the younger man croaked.
"Come on in, there's still some coffee in the pot." The two men had joined the force the same year and had worked together on numerous cases, sharing too much stress and bad coffee.
The stocky, redheaded policeman flung the rain off his hat and ducked inside. He opened his mouth to speak and sneezed instead. "Jesus, Car, I'm sorry."
"Bless you. Sounds like you need something stronger than coffee."
"Can't. On duty." Mac McGinty dragged forth a soggy handkerchief and blew his red nose. "What I came for, Chief says you might as well stay out another week." Carson had been out for the past three weeks on disability.
"Everybody's got this flu thing, or whatever it is. Miserable stuff. Makes you feel like you been kicked all over."
The cop looked down at the fresh scars visible under the towel on his buddy's bare legs, and swore. "Yeah, well ... like I'm saying, you come back now, you'll be laid up another month."
"Didn't you take your shot last fall?"
"You know me and needles. I figured if all the rest of you guys got shots, there wouldn't be nobody for me to catch it from."
Carson shook his head. "Tell me something, man - how'd you ever pass the physical? When they X-rayed your skull, didn't it register empty?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah, so I sneezed on you. All I've got is a cold. It's those other jokers you got to watch out for. I mean, Eddie, he's been out since last Thursday, running a fever, coughing his head off." The redheaded policeman forked back his hair, replaced his hat and reached for the door.
"Sounds like I'm needed."
"No way. Some of the first guys to go down are already starting to come back. Chief says your immunity system's probably compromised or something."
"Or something," Carson Beckett said dryly, watching his friend dash out to the unmarked car.
Glancing at the relentlessly gray skies, he shut the door and turned toward the kitchen to see if he had any canned chicken soup on hand. Just in case. The pizza, when and if it was delivered, would do for breakfast.
As guilty as he might feel about being out on disability for so long, the chief was probably right. Whatever bug was going around, Carson couldn't afford to risk it. He didn't know about his immune system, but tangling with a drug dealer armed with a two-ton truck, followed a few months later by having his unmarked car creamed by a kid riding a chemical high was about all he could handle at one time. He was beginning to feel like that old Li'l Abner character - the guy with his own personal black cloud hanging over his head.
He missed work. Missed the boredom of routine calls and paperwork, the adrenaline rush of closing in on a tough case, and most of all, missed the camaraderie of guys he'd worked with for years, even those he didn't particularly like.
It was his life, dammit. It was what he did - who he was.
He found a can of chicken noodle soup, opened it and dumped it into a pan. Adding garlic salt and black pepper, he debated his options. He could report in tomorrow and catch up on some of the paperwork that was part of being a cop these days.
Or he could use the rest of his downtime constructively. He had some pressing personal business he'd put off for too long, starting with Margaret.
It had always been more or less understood in both families - hers had lived next door for at least a generation - that unless something better came along for either of them, they would end up together. The Becketts were big on family. Strong ties, deep roots. Margaret was his mother's goddaughter, and Kate, his mother, was increasingly fragile, in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Both he and Margaret had agreed that they owed it to her to marry while she could still be a part of the festivities.
Carson had a habit that had developed into a policy over the years. On any to-do list of more than three items, he always tried to shorten the list by first tackling the one that could be finished the quickest.
Which meant that before he got caught up in wedding prep - in his family, marriage was a big deal - he needed to fulfill a promise he'd made to his grandfather before he died. A promise to clear up a generations-old debt owed by the Becketts to a family named Chandler.
Ever since a cowboy from Oklahoma named Chandler had handed over an undisclosed sum of money to an earlier Beckett, asked him to invest it, and then disappeared, the debt had gone unpaid. The Becketts had thrived. No one knew what had happened to the original Chandler, but a bundle of stock had been handed down through the Beckett family, with each subsequent generation intending to track down the Chandler heirs to make restitution.
Excerpted from Beckett's Convenient Bride by Dixie Browning Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.