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Tess Meriwether sighed hugely, feeling stiff all over from the tension of waiting for the ax to fall. She glanced ruefully toward Dane's closed office door. Today had really been one of those days. She'd blown a stakeout and gotten the cold shoulder from Dane all day for it. She hoped she could sneak out at quitting time without being seen. Otherwise, she was going to catch it for sure.
Dane Lassiter was her bossthe owner of the Lassiter Detective Agencybut he was also more. She'd known him for years; their parents had almost gotten married. But a tragic accident had killed them both, and the only one Tess had left in the world was Dane.
She carefully put away her equipment with a quick glance at the clock and reached for her trench coat. The coat was her pride and joy, one of those Sam Spade-looking things that she adored. Working for a detective agency was exciting, even if Dane wouldn't let her near a case. Someday, she promised herself, she was going to become an operative, in spite of her overprotective boss.
"Going somewhere?" he asked, suddenly appearing in the doorway, a cigarette smoldering between his lean fingers. He looked like the ultimate private investigator in his three-piece suit.
She had to drag her eyes away. Even after what he'd done to her three years ago, she still found him a delight to her eyes.
"Home," she said. "Do you mind?"
"Immensely." He motioned her into his office. Once she was inside, he half closed the door and came closer to her, noticing involuntarily how she tensed when he was only a few feet away. Her reaction was predictable, and probably he deserved it, but it stung. He spoke much more angrily than he meant to. "i told you not to go near the stakeout."
"I didn't, intentionally," she said, nervously twisting a long strand of pale blond hair around one finger. "I saw Helen and I waved. I thought the stakeout you mentioned was going to be one of those wee-hours-of-the-morning things. I hardly expected two professional detectives to be skulking around a toy store in the middle of the afternoon! I thought Helen was buying her boyfriend's nephew a present." Her gray eyes flashed at him. "After all, you didn't say what you were staking out. You just told me to keep out of the way. Houston," she added haughtily, "is a big city. We didn't all used to be Texas Rangers who carry city street plans around in our heads!"
He didn't blink. His dark eyes stared her down through a cloud of smoke firing up from the cigarette in his fingers. She coughed as the smoke approached her face. Loudly. He smiled at her. Defiantly. Neither moved.
A timid knock on the door startled the tall, rangy, darkhaired man and the slender blonde woman. Helen Reed peeked around the half-opened door.
"Is it all right if I go home?" she asked Dane. "It's five," she added with a hopeful smile.
"Take your ear with you," he said, referring to a piece of essential listening equipment, "and go with your brother. Nick needs some backup while he stakes out our philandering husband."
"No!" Helen groaned. "No, Dane, not four hours of lewd noises and embarrassing conversation with Nick! I hate Nick! Anyway, I've got a date with Harold!"
"You were supposed to tell sweetums here" he nodded toward a glaring Tess "where and when the stakeout was going down, so that she wouldn't trip over it."
"I apologized," she wailed.
"Not good enough. You go with Nick, and I'll reconsider your pink slip."
"If you fire me," Helen told him, "I'll go back to work for the department of motor vehicles and you'll never get another automobile tag registration off the record for the rest of your life."
He pursed his lips. "Did I ever mention that I spent two years with the Texas Department of Public Safety before I joined the Texas Rangers?"
Helen sighed. She opened the door the rest of the way and made a huge production of going down on her hose-clad knees, her long black hair dragging the floor as she salaamed, her thin body looking somehow elegant even in the pose. She studied ballet and had all the grace of a dancer.
"Oh, for God's sake, go home," Dane said shortly. "And I hope Harold buys you a pizza loaded with anchovies!"
"Thanks, boss! Actually, I love anchovies!" Helen smiled, waved, and then vanished before he had time to change his mind.
He ran a restless hand through his thick black hair, disrupting a straight lock onto his forehead. "Next the skip tracers will be after paid vacations to the Bahamas."
Tess shook her head. "Jamaica. I asked."
He turned and tossed an ash into the smokeless ashtray on his desk. The entire staff had pitched in to buy it. They'd also pitched in to send him to a stop-smoking seminar. He'd sent them all on stakeouts to porno theaters. Nobody ever suggested another seminar. Dane did install big air filters, though, in every office.
Dane was a renegade. He went his own way regardless of controversy. Tess might disagree with him, but she had to respect him for standing up for what he believed in.
She watched him move, her eyes lingering on his elegant carriage. He was built like a rodeo cowboy, square shoulders and lean hips and long, powerful legs. When he was tired, he limped a little from the wounds he'd sustained three years ago. He looked tired now.
She watched him, remembering how it had all begun. When he'd opened the detective agency, he'd remorselessly pilfered the local police department of its best people, offering them percentages and shares in the business instead of salaries until the agency started paying off. And it had thrivedin record time. Dane had been a Houston police officer years before he made it to the Texas Rangers. He'd been a good policeman. He had plenty of clout in intelligence circles, and that assured his success.
Being a Texas Ranger hadn't hurt his credentials, either, because in order to be considered for the rangers, a man had to have eight years of law enforcement experience with the last two as an officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Then the top thirty scorers on the written test had to undergo a grueling oral interview. The five leading candidates to pass this test were placed on a one-year waiting list for an opening on the ninety-four-member force. Dane had been one of the lucky ones. He'd worked out of Houston, ranging over several counties to assist local law enforcement. A ranger might not have to fight Indians or Mexican guerrillas, but since Texas had plenty of ranchland left, a ranger had to be a skilled horseman in case he was called upon to track down modern-day rustlers. Dane was one of the best horsemen Tess had ever seen. Despite his injuries, he still was as at home on the back of a horse as he was on the ground or behind the wheel of a car.
She was awed by him after all the years they'd known each other. But she was very careful these days not to let him know how awed. One taste of his violent ardor had been enough to stifle her desire for him as soon as it had begun.
"You never send me out on assignments." She sighed.
He glanced at her, his expression guarded. He seemed to make a point of never looking too closely, or for too long, as if he found her very existence hard to accept. "You're a secretary, not an operative."
"I could be, if you'd let me," she said quietly. "I can do anything Helen can."
"Including dressing up like a hooker and parading down the main drag?" he mused.
She shifted restlessly, averting her face. "Well, maybe not that."
His dark eyes narrowed. "Or listening to intimate conversations in backalley motel rooms? Taking photographs of explicit situations? Tracing an accused murderer across two states and apprehending him on a bail-bond forfeiture?"
She let out a long breath. "Okay. I get the point. I guess I couldn't handle that. But I could be a skip tracer, if you'd let me. That's almost as good as going out on cases."
He put out his cigarette angrily, a terse but controlled stab of his long fingers that made Tess uneasy. He was a passionate man, despite his cold control. She very rarely allowed herself to remember how he was with a woman. Just thinking about those strong, deft hands on her body made her go hot and shaky, but not with desire. She remembered the touch of Dane Lassiter's hands with stark fear.
He glanced at her suddenly, his eyes piercing, steady, as if he felt the thought in her mind and reacted to it. She went scarlet.
"Something embarrasses you?" he asked in that slow, lazy drawl that intimidated even ex-policemen.
"I was thinking about having to follow philandering husbands," she hedged. She clutched her purse. "I'd better go."
"Heavy date?" he asked with apparent carelessness.
She'd given up on men some time ago. He wouldn't know that, or know why, so she just shrugged and smiled and left.
The streets were dark and cold. The subdued glow of the streetlights didn't make much difference, either. It was a foggy winter night, stark and unwelcoming. Tess pulled her trench coat closer around her and walked toward her small foreign car without much enthusiasm. Tonight was like any other night. She'd go home to an empty apartmentan efficiency apartment with a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, a combination living room and bedroom, and a sofa that made into a bed. She'd watch old movies on television until she grew sleepy, and then she'd go to bed. The next day would be a repeat of this one. The only difference would be the movie.
Ordinarily, she might go out to a movie with her friend Kit Morris, who worked nearby. But Kit's boss was overseas for two months and Kit had had to go with himeven though she'd groaned about the trip. The older girl was a confidential secretary who got a huge salary for doing whatever the job demanded. Tess missed her. The agency did a lot of work for Kit's boss, hunting down his madcap mother, who spent her life getting into trouble.
With Kit gone, Tess's free time was really lonely. She had no one to talk to. She liked Helen, and they were friends, but she couldn't really talk to Helen about the one big heartache of her lifeDane Lassiter.
She looped her shoulder bag over her arm and stuffed her hands into her pockets. Her life, she thought, was like this miserable night. Cold, empty and solitary.
Two expensively dressed men were standing under a streetlight as she appeared in the doorway of the office building. She stared at them curiously as one passed to the other an open briefcase full of packets of some white substance, and received a big wad of bills in return. She nodded to them and smiled absently, unaware of the shock on their faces as she walked toward the deserted parking lot.
"Did she see?" one asked the other.
"My God, of course she saw! Get her!"
Tess hadn't heard the conversation, but the sound of running feet caught her attention. She turned, conscious of movement, to stand staring blankly at two approaching men. They looked as if they were chasing her. There were angry shouts, freezing her where she stood. She frowned as the gleam of metal in the streetlights caught her attention. Before she realized that it was the reflection of light on a gun barrel, something hot stung her arm and spun her around. Seconds later, a pop rang in her ears and she cried out as she fell to the ground, stunned.
"You killed her!" one man exclaimed. "You fool, now they'll have us for murder instead of dealing coke!"
"Shut up! Let me think! Maybe she's not dead"
"Let's get out of here! Somebody's bound to have heard the shots!"
"She came out of that building, where the lights are on in that detective agency," the other voice groaned.
"Great place you picked for the drop Run! That's a siren!"
Sure enough, it was. A patrol car, alerted by one of the street people, came barreling down the side street where the office was located, its spotlight catching two men bending over a prostrate form in a dark parking lot.
"Oh, God!" one of the men exclaimed. "Run!"
The sound of running feet barely impinged on Tess's fading consciousness. Funny, she couldn't lift her face. The pavement was damp and cold under her cheek. Except for that, she felt numb all over.
"They shot somebody!" a different voice called. "Don't let them get away!"
She heard more pops. Black shoes went past her face, as two policemen went tearing after the well-dressed men.
She didn't recognize the voice at first. Dane was always so calm and in command of himself that the harsh urgency of his tone didn't sound familiar.
He rolled her gently onto her back. She stared up at him blankly, in shock. Her arm was beginning to feel wet and heavy and hot. She tried to speak and was surprised to find that she couldn't make her tongue work.
He spotted the dark, wet stain on her arm immediately, because the bullet had penetrated the cloth of her coat and blood was pulsing under it. "My God!" he ground out. His expression was as hard as a statue's, betraying nothing. Only his eyes, glittery with anger, were alive in that dark slate.
One of the policemen was running back toward them. He paused, his pistol in hand, kneeling beside Tess. "Was she hit?" the policeman asked curtly. "I saw one of them fire"
"She's hit. Get an ambulance," Dane said, his black eyes meeting the other man's for an instant. "Hurry. She's bleeding badly."
The policeman ran back down the alley.
Dane didn't waste time. He eased Tess's arm out of her coat and grimaced at the gaping tear in her blouse and the vivid flow of blood. He cursed under his breath, whipping out a handkerchief and holding it firmly over the wound, even when she cried out at the pain.
"Be still," he said quietly. "Be still, little one. I'll take care of you. You're going to be all right."
She shivered. Tears ran down her cheeks. It hadn't hurt until he started pressing on it. Now the pain was terrible. She cried helplessly while he wound the handkerchief tightly around the wound and tied it. He shucked his topcoat and covered Tess with it. He took her purse and used it to elevate her feet. Then he turned his attention back to the wound. It was still bleeding copiously, and what Tess could see of it wasn't reassuring. He seemed so capable and controlled that she wasn't inclined to panic. He'd always had that effect on her, at least, when he wasn't making her nervous.
"Am I going to bleed to death?" she asked very calmly.