Only in Texas
By Christie Craig
Forever Copyright © 2012 Christie Craig
All right reserved. ISBN: 9781455526888
“IT’S THE RIGHT THING. It’s the right thing.”
At five o’clock on the dot, Nikki Hunt drove past the valet parking entrance to Venny’s Restaurant and turned into the one-car alley lined with garbage Dumpsters. She eased her car over potholes big enough to lose a tire in, and parked her Honda Accord. “It’s the right thing,” she repeated then rested her forehead against the steering wheel. After one or two seconds, she squared her shoulders and mentally pulled up her big girl panties. Letting go of a deep breath, she stared at the Dumpster adjacent to her car and hoped this wasn’t a foreshadowing of the evening.
Though no one would guess it—other than that one bill collector, her bank, and the McDonald’s attendant who’d waited for her to dig out enough change to pay for her sausage biscuit this morning—Nikki couldn’t afford valet parking.
Her local gallery barely made enough money to cover the rent. Who knew that a little downturn in the economy would prevent the general population from appreciating art?
Okay, fine, she knew. She was financially strapped, not stupid. And yeah, she’d also known that opening the gallery had been risky. But at the time, she’d had Jack to fall back on if things got tough. Good ol’ Jack, charming, financially stable, and dependable—dependable, that is, as long as one didn’t depend on him to keep his pecker in his pants.
She pulled a tube of lipstick from her purse, turned the rearview mirror her way and added a hint of pink to her lips.
Please, Nikki, meet me at Venny’s. I made some mistakes, but we can fix it.
Jack’s words skipped through her head.
Was Jack really going to ask her for a do-over? Was she really contemplating saying yes? And was saying yes the right thing? The questions bounced around her brain, hitting hard against her conscience.
Rubbing her lips together to smooth the pink sheen on her mouth, she looked at the back of the restaurant—probably the most expensive restaurant in Miller, Texas. The one where Jack, the man she considered the love of her life, had proposed to her four years ago. This wasn’t the first time she’d heard from Jack since the divorce. The flowers he’d sent had gone to her grandmother’s retirement center. Someone should enjoy them. The messages where he begged her to take him back went unanswered. She hadn’t even been tempted. Until today.
Today he’d called the gallery right after Nikki had received a call from the retirement home, reminding her that her grandmother’s cable bill was due. Right after she realized she was going to be short paying Ellen, her one and only part-time employee. There’d been desperation in Jack’s voice and it had mimicked the desperation Nikki felt in her own life.
She focused on the rearview mirror again and gave herself a good, hard look. She fluffed her hair, hoping her thick, blond curls would appear stylish and not impoverished. Nana’s cable trumped her regular clip job. Her grandmother had spent thirteen years taking care of Nikki, so the least she could do was allow the woman to watch the cooking network.
And Ellen—how could she not pay the woman who’d become her best friend? The woman who singlehandedly dragged Nikki out of the done-wrong slumps kicking and screaming.
Nikki stepped out of her car. The heat radiating from the pavement assaulted her. She could almost feel her hair frizz. Humidity thickened the air, making it hard to breathe. Or maybe that was just the anxiety of seeing Jack, of making a decision to reenter the holy union—a union that turned out not to be so holy for him.
Passing the Dumpster, she wrinkled her nose and walked faster. The ring of her cell brought her to a stop. She grabbed the phone from her purse, and checked the number.
“You’re my one call,” Nana said.
“Shoot.” Nikki hurried her steps to escape the garbage smell. Common sense told her Nana was playing the timed crossword game with her Ol’ Timers Club. A game that allowed the participant a single one-minute call to someone who might be able to help. But the first time Nana had used her one-call line, she’d been in jail. Sure, Nana had only been arrested once, but bailing your grandmother out of the slammer was not something one tended to forget.
“Name of the club you join when you get it on at high altitudes, twelve letters,” Nana said.
“What kind of crossword puzzle is this?” Nikki asked.
Figures. The Ol’ Timers Club members, on average, had a better sex life than Nikki did. “Mile High Club. Not that I belong.” She cut the corner to the restaurant, welcoming the warm scents of Venny’s menu items.
“You should,” Nana said.
“Gotta go,” Nikki said before Nana started ranting about Nikki’s less-than-exciting social life.
“You’re coming to the dress rehearsal tonight?” Nana asked.
What dress rehearsal? Then Nikki remembered. Her grandmother and several of the Ol’ Timers had gotten parts in a small neighborhood theater show.
“I can’t, but I’ll come to the show.” If she could afford the ticket.
“Where are you?”
“About to walk into a restaurant.”
“A date?” Nana sounded hopeful.
“No.” Just possibly coming to get proposed to for the second time by the man I used to love.
Used to? Nikki stopped so fast she almost tripped. Didn’t she still love Jack? Weren’t there still feelings underneath the pain of his infidelity? Because if she didn’t really have feeling for him then…
“Who are you meeting?” Nana asked.
It’s the right thing. “No one,” she lied, flinching.
In the background, Nikki could hear Nana’s friend Benny call out, “Five seconds.”
“Gotta go,” Nikki repeated.
“Nikki Althea Hunt, do not tell me you’re meeting that lowlife scum of an ex—”
“Love ya.” Nikki hung up, dropped her cell back into her purse and tried to ignore the doubt concerning what she was about to do. Instead, she wondered what the hell her mother had been smoking when she named her Althea. Then again, figuring out what her mother was smoking when she’d dropped six-year-old Nikki at Nana’s with the request that Nana raise her was a much better puzzle. And not one Nikki liked to think about, either.
Walking into the restaurant, pretending she belonged in the rich, famous, and lawyer circle, Nikki was embraced by the scents of beef burgundy. Her stomach gave one last groan, then died and went to heaven without looking back. The biscuit she’d scraped change together for this morning was a forgotten memory.
“Meeting someone?” the hostess asked as Nikki peeked into the dining room.
“Jack Leon.” Nikki spotted him sitting at the table—the same table where he’d proposed to her—talking on his cell phone.
“This way.” The hostess started walking but Nikki caught her arm and yanked her back. The woman’s eyes rounded.
“Just a second, please.” Nikki continued to stare at Jack and waited. Where was it? Where was the heart flutter when her gaze landed on him? A light flutter would do. That’s all she was asking for.
No flutters, damn it. The only emotion bumping around her chest was residual fury at finding him in her gallery office, on the sofa, banging her hired help.
Not a good memory to be hanging in her mental closet tonight. Not if Jack was going to propose. Because if she said yes, then she might be the one banging her ex.
“Crappers,” she muttered and her heart did a cartwheel, hitting the sides of her ribs. Nikki had no problem with sex. Not that she’d had any pleasure in a long time. A really long time. Like… since Jack.
The truth rained down on her. She wasn’t here because she loved Jack. If she went back to him it wouldn’t even be for pleasure. It would be for money. Sure, the money was to pay Nana’s cable, to pay Ellen, and to keep her gallery afloat, but still… the hard fact was she’d be having sex for money.
“Oh shit!” Could she stoop that low?
My name is Nikki Hunt, not Nikki Name Your Price.
“I don’t think I can do this,” she muttered and tightened her hold on the hostess’s arm.
“You don’t think you can do what?” asked the hostess.
“Oh hell. It’s not the right thing.”
“What’s not the right thing?”
Nikki stared at her feet. “How important are the cooking shows anyway?”
“Which one?” asked the hostess, still mistaking Nikki’s muttering for conversation. “I like Rachael Ray.”
Releasing the hostess’s arm, Nikki turned to go, but stopped short when a waiter carting a tray of yeast-scented bread and real butter moved past. He left a wake of warm tantalizing aroma.
Crapola. She wouldn’t have sex with Jack. She wouldn’t remarry him, but could she sit through a dinner for some mouthwatering food? Yup, she could stoop that low.
Call it payment for defiling the much-loved antique sofa in her office. No way could she have kept it after seeing him and her employee going at it doggy-style on the piece of furniture.
Mind made up, Nikki swung around and, without waiting for the hostess, shot across the dining room and plopped down at Jack’s table.
Still on the phone, Jack looked up. His eyes widened with what appeared to be relief, and he nodded. Dropping her purse at her feet and, not waiting for a bread plate, she snagged a hot roll and smeared a generous amount of sweet butter on it. Her mouth watered as the butter oozed over the bread.
“No,” Jack snapped into the phone and held up an apologetic finger to her.
She nodded, smiled, and took a bite of the roll. Her stomach growled as if it were saying bread alone wouldn’t silence or satisfy it. She noticed a bowl of gumbo sitting in front of Jack. She’d kill for gumbo. Too bad Jack had a thing about sharing food.
“Fuck, no!” Jack seethed. “I can’t do this.”
The F word brought Nikki’s gaze up from his gumbo. Jack, a refined lawyer trying to make partner and always concerned about public decorum, seldom cursed. Amazingly, from his viewpoint, screwing your wife’s part-time help wasn’t considered bad manners.
“Listen to me,” Jack muttered.
Nikki recalled Jack taking offense at her occasional slip of “shit,” “damn,” and “hell”—a habit she’d obtained from hanging out with Nana and the Ol’ Timers. Jack had almost broken her of it, too. Then, staring at his Armani suit and his hundred-dollar haircut, Nikki had an epiphany.
Jack had spent the entire two years of their marriage, not to mention the year they’d dated, trying to turn her into someone else—someone who would look good on the arm of a partner of the Brian and Sterns Law Firm. Don’t say this. Say that. Wear this. Do you have to spend so much time with your grandmother?
Glancing down at her black pants and knit top, she knew he wouldn’t approve of her wardrobe. How odd that she hadn’t even considered dressing up for the event. Or maybe not odd. It should have been a clue that their reconciling was a joke. Seriously, she hadn’t even put on sexy underwear. Her gaze shot back to his gumbo.
Screw Jack’s apparel approval and his no-share policy. She reached for the bowl and, suddenly feeling lowbrow and proud of it, dunked her roll in the roux and brought the soupy mess to her lips.
Spotting a floating shrimp in the cup, and not lowbrow enough to use her fingers, she went for Jack’s spoon.
He slapped his hand on top of hers and frowned—a disapproving, judgmental frown that pulled at his brown eyes.
Big mistake on his part.
Slipping her hand from under his, she fished out the shrimp with two fingers and ate it. Even made a show of licking her fingers. Jack’s mouth fell open at her lack of manners. Not that she cared. Considering the way things were going, the gumbo and rolls were all she’d be having for dinner. She might as well enjoy them.
A tuxedo-wearing waiter ran up and placed a spoon in front of her. Nikki smiled at his pinched, disapproving look, which matched her husband’s frown.
“Thank you,” she said, proving she wasn’t totally lacking in the manners department.
“Something to drink?” the waiter asked, his expression still critical of her lack of etiquette.
“A Budweiser, please.” She didn’t like beer, but it fit her mood. And just like that, she knew why. All this time—even after she’d caught Jack bare-ass naked with her employee, even after she realized how badly he’d screwed her with that prenuptial agreement—she’d never given Jack a bit of comeuppance. And why? Because she’d been more hurt than angry. Now, realizing she’d stopped loving him, the hurt had evaporated and she was just angry. And it wasn’t altogether a bad feeling, either.
Jack stood up. Frowning, he pressed his phone to his shoulder. “Order for us,” he said. “I’ll be right back.” He snatched up his gumbo and handed it to the waiter. “And she’ll take a glass of Cabernet.” He took off.
Nikki tightened her hands on the edge of the table and considered walking out, but another waiter walked by with a plate of chicken marsala. She inhaled and eyed the waiter clutching Jack’s gumbo as if afraid she might fight him for it. And she might have but suddenly, she got an odd aftertaste from the gumbo. “Bring us one beef burgundy and one chicken marsala. And my beer.”
After one disapproving eye roll, the waiter walked away.
She’d already sipped from the frosty mug and devoured another roll when Jack returned. He sat across from her and frowned. She snatched another bite of bread, pretty certain her free meal had just come to an end.
His frown faded. “You have no idea how glad I am that you came.”
Nikki nearly choked on her bread. What? No condescending remark about her lack of manners? Jack was playing nice. Jack never played nice unless he really wanted something.
Did he want her back that badly? It wouldn’t change anything, but whose ego couldn’t use stroking?
He picked up his linen napkin and dabbed at his forehead where she’d just noticed he was sweating. Sweating was right up there with playing nice. Jack didn’t sweat.
Her pinching gut said something was up and it had to do with more than just her. She leaned in. “What’s going on, Jack?”
Dallas O’Connor walked into the building that housed both his business and apartment. Stopping just inside the doorway, he waited. Five seconds. Ten. When Bud didn’t greet him, Dallas looked over at the coffin against the nearby wall. Someone had opened the dang thing again.
He growled low in his throat, “Get out of there.”
One soulful second later, Bud—short for “Budweiser”—raised his head from inside the coffin and rested his hanging jowls on the edge of the polished wooden box. The pain of being chastised flashed in his huge bug eyes. Bud, an English bulldog, hated being chastised.
“Out,” Dallas said, lowering his voice. “It’s not a doggy bed.”
The prior owners of the building, which had been a funeral home, had left the damn casket when they moved out six months ago. Dallas had called and left numerous messages asking them to remove the dang thing, but no response. The last time he’d told them they had one more week, and he was going to sell it on eBay. He was tired of having to explain the casket to his clients.
The dog leaped out of the coffin and barreled over to Dallas. After one swipe over the dog’s side, Dallas glanced at his watch and shot back to the office. He found Tyler, one of his Only in Texas Private Investigations partners, listening to the police scanner as he watched the television. Tyler’s expression had worry stamped all over it, too.
“He hasn’t called yet?” Dallas removed his gun from his holster and placed it in his desk—a habit he hadn’t broken from the seven years he’d worked for the Glencoe Police Department. Seven years he wished he could get back. The only good thing that had come from those years was the friendship of his PI partners, Tyler and Austin.
Tyler glanced away from the television. “Not a word. Any luck at the park?”
“There were two female joggers, but neither of them fit the description Nance gave.”
Frowning, Tyler leaned back in his chair. “I’m afraid we’re not going to get anything to save this kid. He’s going to go down for robbery.”
“It’s not over.” No way would Dallas let that innocent boy do time. But right now, both he and Tyler should be worried about one of their own. Dallas motioned to the police scanner. “Have the cops been called out yet?”
Tyler nodded and concern pinched his brows, making the two-inch scar over his right eye stretch tighter. “Thirty minutes ago.”
“Shit,” Dallas said. “Why the hell hasn’t he called?”
“You know Austin,” Tyler said. “He’s a lone wolf.”
“That’s not how we operate,” Dallas said, but in his gut he knew they were all lone wolves. Life had taught them that was the only way to live. Getting set up by a lowlife drug dealer named DeLuna and then having almost everyone you believed in turn their backs on you—not to mention spending sixteen months in the slammer—well, it did that to you. It made you feel as if the only one you could trust was yourself.
Dallas glanced at the silent television. “Any media coverage?”
“Not yet,” Tyler said. “But the cops called for another unit to help hold them back, so they’re there.”
“Have you tried to reach him?” Dallas dialed Austin’s number.
“He’s not answering.” Tyler grabbed the remote and ramped up the volume. “We got something.”
Dallas glanced at the redheaded reporter on the screen, but listened to his cell until the call went to Austin’s voice mail and he hung up. The camera closed in on the reporter as she announced a breaking news segment.
“God, she’s hot,” Tyler said.
Dallas studied the redhead as she held a microphone close to her lips. “You need to get laid.”
“Okay,” Tyler said. “You want to give my number to that hot brunette I saw leaving here last week? Or tell your ex to pay me a visit. She could leave her underwear at my place, too.”
“Funny,” Dallas said, and regretted telling the guys about his screwup with his ex. Then again, he hadn’t told them. His dog had. Bud had come traipsing into the office the next morning with a pair of red panties hanging from his jowls. Thankfully, Suzan—aka, the hot brunette—was careful to take her underwear with her when she left his bed. And she didn’t expect—or want—more than he was willing to give. The perfect relationship—pure sex. Twice a month, when her ex got her kids for the weekend, she showed up at his place. Most nights, she didn’t even stay over. Sex and the bed to himself—what more could a guy ask?
The news reporter started talking. “We’re here at the home of Blake Mallard, CEO of Acorn Oil Company. An anonymous caller said Mallard’s dirty shenanigans, both with the company and his personal life, were about to be made public.” The reporter paused.
“He had to have gotten out.” Tyler traced his finger over the scar at his temple. He’d earned it during their stint in prison. While Tyler never talked about the fight, Dallas knew the guy who’d given Tyler the mark hadn’t walked away unscathed. Rumor in the pen had it the guy hadn’t walked away at all, but had to be carried out on a stretcher. Jail time was never a walk in the park, but Dallas suspected Tyler had had a harder time behind bars than both he and Austin.
The reporter started talking again, and a smile threatened to spill from her lips. “According to sources, Mallard was found handcuffed to his bed with a call girl. The missing files Mallard swore were stolen from his office were found in the room. We’re told the cops were called to the residence by Mallard’s wife, who was worried someone had broken in.”
After a few beats of silence, the reporter continued. “We’re told the girl found with Mallard is claiming a guy dressed in a clown costume handcuffed them to the bed and pulled the files from Mallard’s private safe.”
“Did y’all try to call me?” Austin’s voice came from the doorway.
Dallas glanced up. “You…” Words failed him.
“I love it,” Tyler said and laughed.
“You mean this?” Austin motioned at his bright red-and-blue polka-dotted clown suit and multicolored wig. Whipping off the wig, he tossed it up and caught it.
Dallas shook his head. “You love theatrics, don’t you?”
“Theatrics? Are you kidding? This was brilliance. It’s a gated community. I had to get past security. A birthday party was happening next door to the Mallards. They wouldn’t let in a guy wearing a ski mask, but a clown? Not a problem.” Austin looked at the TV. “Did I make the news?”
“Oh, yeah,” Tyler said.
Austin tossed his wig on his desk. “It’s not every day we get to solve a cheating-spouse case and a real crime at the same time. It felt good. And now we can put this case to bed and I can focus on proving Nance is innocent.”
Dallas raked his hand through his hair. “I’ll bet a hundred bucks my brother will be calling me within five minutes, wanting to know if we’re behind this.”
Austin dropped his clown-suited ass into a chair. “Tell him Miller PD owes me a beer for solving their case.”
The reporter appeared on the screen again. Austin looked at the television. “She’s hot.”
“That’s what I said.” Tyler grinned.
Austin looked back at Dallas. “Did you get anything at the park?”
“Nothing,” Dallas said.
“I’m going to try a few different parks around here,” Austin said. “Maybe the chick swaps off and jogs at different places.”
“Maybe,” Dallas said.
“Did you hear from Roberto?” Austin asked Tyler.
“Yeah,” Tyler answered. “None of his leads point to DeLuna.”
“Then tell him to get some new leads,” Austin said, his frustration clearly showing at having so much time pass since they’d had anything on DeLuna.
Dallas’s cell phone rang. He checked the number. “See,” he told Austin. “It’s my brother.”
“I thought pissing off the guys in blue was our goal.” Austin crossed his arms.
“You’re wrong.” Dallas stared at the phone. “Pissing off the lowlife drug runner DeLuna is our goal. Pissing off the guys in blue…” He looked up with a grin. “Well, that’s just an added benefit. My brother being the exception, of course.”
As his partners chuckled, Dallas answered the call. “What’s up, Tony?”
“Damn, Dallas, tell me that wasn’t you,” Tony demanded.
“What wasn’t me?” Dallas shot Austin an I-told-you-so frown.
“Why do I think you’re lying?” Tony came back.
“Because you’re a suspicious son of a bitch.”
Tony sighed. “Can you meet me for a burger at Buck’s Place in half an hour?”
“To eat,” Tony said.
Dallas wasn’t buying it. Not that he and his brother didn’t do dinner. They had weekly dinners with their dad. But something told Dallas that Tony wanted more than a burger and fries. To confirm it, Dallas asked, “You paying?”
“Sure,” Tony said.
Yup, Tony wanted something. His brother never agreed to pay.
Nikki watched Jack rearrange his silverware in an attempt to avoid her question. “What’s going on, Jack?” she asked again.
He shook his head. “Just trouble at work.”
“What kind of trouble?”
He shifted his arm, knocking the linen napkin off the table. Scooting back in his chair, he reached to collect the cloth. Falling into old habits, she signaled for the waiter to bring a clean napkin.
“It’s okay,” Jack said, sitting up.
That’s when she knew something had to be seriously wrong. Jack, a germ freak, would never use a dropped napkin.
“Look, the reason I asked you here is… I need a wife on my arm.”
“A wife?” Had she heard him right? He didn’t need her. He needed a wife. Anyone would do. As long as they were trainable and, damn it, she’d proven she was. Only not anymore.
“I realize I slipped up.”
“Really, you think screwing my part-time help was a slipup?”
He frowned but before he could answer, his phone buzzed again. He looked at the caller ID. “I have to take this.” He put a hand on his stomach and swayed when he stood up. Even though she was furious, she almost suggested he sit down, but then he grabbed her beer and set it down on a table that a busboy was cleaning.
Damn him! She popped up, tossed her napkin on the table and went to rescue her beer. Eying the busboy, she grinned. “I think I lost this.” Then she plopped back down in her seat. She wasn’t Jack’s to train anymore and when he returned she would, for the first time, tell him exactly what she thought of him. After, she enjoyed her dinner of course.
Five minutes later, dinner arrived but Jack still hadn’t. Considering manners were optional tonight, she started without him. She even enjoyed some of Jack’s beef burgundy. She’d been so involved in savoring the food, she hadn’t realized so much time had passed.
“Is he coming back?” the waiter asked.
“Of course he is.” Panic clenched her stomach and she nearly choked on the steak. “He has to.”
She waited another twenty minutes, even had the busboy check the bathroom, before she accepted the inevitable. Jack wasn’t coming back. The waiter returned with the check and eyed her suspiciously as if to say any woman who would stick her finger in her date’s soup was thoroughly capable of the eat-and-run offense.
Glancing at the check, she muttered, “I’m going to kill him!”
“Kill who?” the waiter asked.
“Who do you think?” She peeked at the bill and moaned. A hundred and eighty without tip, then there was the fee the bank would charge her for overdrawing her checking account.
Her stomach roiled again, this time in a bad way. Snatching up her purse, she found her debit card. Thankfully, she had overdraft insurance. With anger making her shake, she handed the card to the waiter. Her stomach cramped. She considered complaining that something she’d eaten had upset her stomach, but she knew how that would look.
“Yup, he’s as good as dead!”
“I’m killing him,” Nikki muttered fifteen minutes later as she pulled out her already overdrawn debit card again.
The grocery store cashier scanned the Pepto-Bismol, Tums, Rolaids, and antidiarrheal meds before looking at Nikki. “Kill who?”
Why did people think just because she was talking, she was speaking to them? Was she the only one who talked to herself? Nevertheless, with the cashier’s curious stare, Nikki felt obligated to answer. “My ex.” She placed a palm on her stomach as it roiled.
Holding her purchases in a plastic bag, Nikki couldn’t escape quickly enough. She darted out the door. The ball of orange sun hung low in the predusk sky. Her eyes stung. She almost got to the car when the smell of grilled burgers from the hamburger joint next door washed over her and the full wave of nausea hit. A woman with two kids dancing around her came right at Nikki. Not wanting to upchuck on an innocent child, she swung around in the opposite direction, opened her bag and heaved as quietly as she could inside it.
Realizing she’d just puked on her medicine, she lost her backbone, and tears filled her eyes. Only the weak cry. The words filled her head, but damn it, right now she was weak.
She rushed to her car, wanting only to get home. Tying a knot in the bag, she grabbed her keys, hit the clicker to unlock the doors and then popped open the trunk.
Tears rolled down her cheeks. Her stomach cramped so hard her breath caught.
She got to her bumper, was just about to drop the contaminated bag into the trunk when she saw… She blinked the tears from her eyes as if that alone would make the image go away.
There, stuffed in the back of her car, was a body.
She recognized the Armani suit first. Then she saw his face. His eyes were wide open, but something was missing.
Jack was dead.
Jack was dead in the trunk of her car.
Her vision started to swirl.
She tried to scream. Nausea hit harder. Unable to stop herself, she lost the rest of her two-hundred-dollar meal all over her dead ex-husband’s three-thousand-dollar suit.
“BUT HERE’S THE best part.” Dallas picked up his coffee and eyed his brother over the rim of the cup. “The wife came out of the bathroom and started beating him with a toilet brush. A toilet brush!”
Tony smiled, something he seldom did lately. Then his humor faded. “And this is what you want to do for the rest of your life?”
“We only take on a few of those. We’re working real cases, too.”
“Like the Mallard case?”
“Mallard?” Dallas feigned innocence, hoping to avoid lying, and looked out the window as a patrol car, lights glaring, pulled into the parking lot next to the restaurant.
“Okay, let’s talk about the case you’re not even getting paid for,” Tony said.
“What case?” Then Dallas remembered telling his brother about the Nance case last week over beers. He probably should be less forthcoming—especially since it was a Miller PD case. Not that robbery was his brother’s division.
Tony stirred sugar into his coffee. “Detective Shane called me.”
“So you’ve been sent to tell me to back off.” Dallas congratulated himself for knowing something was up.
“He’s a good cop. He’s certain he has the right guy.”
“You’re not even getting paid for this case, so I don’t—”
“You think this is about money?” Dallas, Tyler, and Austin had all gotten a fat check from the state of Texas—as if the state could ever buy back their mistake. Not that they wanted to blow through the cash, but they’d all agreed that stopping another innocent man from going to prison came before getting paid. And Eddie Nance was innocent. Dallas would bet his right testicle on the fact.
Dallas leaned in. “The only thing Nance is guilty of is being black and wearing gray sweats like the guy who robbed who convenience store.”
Tony dropped his spoon on the table. “The clerk pointed him out in the lineup. And the kid was picked up less than two miles from the store an hour later. He has priors.”
“One eyewitness doesn’t make a case. I’ll bet there were fifty black men wearing gray sweats in that two-mile radius. And his one prior is for a fight with his buddy over a girl. He’s not a criminal. The kid had a scholarship to go to college. Had!”
Tony shook his head, but didn’t argue. Dallas wanted to believe it was because his brother knew he was right.
“I can’t believe you really want to do this kind of work when you could be doing the real thing,” Tony grumbled and pulled his coffee closer.
“It’s real. We’ve even managed to get about six of DeLuna’s drug runners off the street.”
Tony’s frown deepened. “That’s why you’re doing this whole PI shit, isn’t it? To get DeLuna?”
Was his brother just now figuring that out? The way he, Tyler, and Austin saw it, if they kept poking at DeLuna’s dirty little operation, sooner or later the drug lord would get mad enough to crawl out from the rock he’d hidden under and face them. When he did, they’d be ready.
“It’s not the only reason.” That was true, too. Dallas leaned back in the booth. Making sure others didn’t get screwed by the system—the same system that had let him, Tyler, and Austin down—mattered as well. And as Austin mentioned earlier, if they managed to piss off the guys in blue, the men who had stood there and watched three of their own get sold down the river, well, that was okay, too.
“You’re gonna get yourself killed. And when you do, I’m going to be fucking pissed!”
A second police car, siren blasting, whipped into the parking lot next door.
“Dying’s not on my agenda,” Dallas said. “Justice is.”
“Damn it, Dallas. If you want to go after DeLuna, get back on the police force.”
Dallas set his coffee down. “Yeah, well, cops and I don’t get along anymore.”
Tony pulled out his badge and slammed it down on the table in front of Dallas. “What do you think I am?”
“You’re a pain in my ass, but you’re family.” Dallas wished he could say he didn’t miss the job. He did—part of it. But the political bullshit that came with the job… well, they could shove it up their asses. Working cheating-spouses and missing-poodles cases was better than going back to a system that let three of their own get tossed to the wolves. And after all, he and his business partners could turn down the wacky cases. Hell, they did turn down most of them, but they had agreed that the small cases could lead to bigger cases. Plus, it kept some cash flow coming in and gave them something to do besides play spider solitaire.
Dallas’s attention went back to Tony. “Besides, you’re Miller PD, not Glencoe.”
“Then come to work at Miller PD. I could get you on.”
“You’re as stubborn as our old man, you know that?”
“Funny, that’s what your wife said about you yesterday.”
Dallas waited for Tony’s reaction. He wasn’t disappointed. Tony nearly came out of his seat. “You saw LeAnn? When? Is she okay?”
Dallas had dreaded mentioning his sister-in-law, but Tony would be pissed if he found out Dallas had seen LeAnn and hadn’t said anything.
“She had some car trouble about a block from the office. She looked fine.”
“Why didn’t she call me?”
“Like I said, she was about a block from the office. Turned out to be a loose battery cable. I fixed it and she went on her merry way.”
“You should’ve called me. I’d have done it. Maybe she would have finally talked to me. Did you know she won’t return my calls?”
Yeah, Dallas knew. It was practically all Tony talked about when he wasn’t chewing Dallas out about his newfound profession. But if he’d called Tony, LeAnn would have been pissed. Not that his loyalties went to LeAnn, but…“Weren’t you the one who preached to me about finding closure with Serena? About just breaking ties?”
Tony’s expression hardened. “That was you and Serena. LeAnn and I are different.”
Dallas started to argue, but the pain in his brother’s eyes had Dallas pulling back. Tony and LeAnn’s situation was different. Heartrendingly different. Dallas wasn’t sure that meant they had a chance in hell at reconciling, but what did he know?
Tony leaned in. “Did she ask about me?”
“Yeah, I think she did.” She hadn’t. But Dallas had told her that Tony had been in a piss-poor mood, that he probably missed her. Another police car whipped into the lot next door. “I wonder what’s up,” Dallas said more to change the subject than because he was interested in the drama.
“Don’t know, don’t care.” Tony’s frustration about LeAnn sounded in his voice. “If it’s a homicide they’ll call me. What did LeAnn—” Tony’s cell rang. He snatched his phone from his belt loop and looked at the number. “Shit. It’s a homicide.”
Nothing like a little murder to help digest a hamburger. Dallas walked with Tony to the grocery store parking lot. They were met by Juan Bata, a patrol cop a few years younger than Tony. Dallas and Tony had grown up with Juan in the neighborhood a few miles north of town.
“You’re fast,” Juan said.
“I was next door at the restaurant,” Tony answered. “What we got?”
“A no-brainer,” Juan said. “Ex-wife.”
He waved at a woman sitting on the asphalt in the middle of a parking spot. She had her arms wrapped around her calves, and her head down on her knees. Her curly blond hair spilled over her legs.
“And dead ex-husband.” Juan waved to the car with the open trunk. “Another case of marital bliss.”
Tony and Juan moved in and Dallas followed.
“Nasty,” Tony said. Dallas stared at the body covered in vomit. Peeking from under the man’s expensive suit coat was a white shirt. Or what was once a white shirt. Blood always did a number on white cotton.
“CSU on the way?” Tony asked Juan.
Juan nodded. “Supposedly Blondie puked on him.”
Tony took his pen out and lifted the suit coat up to inspect the wound.
“Looks like a knife wound,” Dallas said.
“Yup.” Tony looked at Juan. “Does Blondie have a name?”
“What we got?” Rick Clark, another homicide cop and one of Tony’s friends, walked up. Dallas nodded. He didn’t care much for hanging out with cops, but they were his brother’s friends so he tolerated them.
“Looks like a stabbing. Found him in the ex-wife’s car. And her name is…” Tony looked back at Juan.
Juan opened a pad. “Nikki Hunt. Dead guy is Jack Leon.”
Jack Leon? The name bounced around Dallas’s head and hit some familiar bells.
“She copping to it?” Tony asked Juan.
“Swears she doesn’t have a clue how he got there. Said she had dinner with him at Venny’s. That’s a high-priced place that people like us can’t afford. Supposedly, hubby skipped out and left her to pay the bill. Claims she left the restaurant and came here. But get this… she was talking about killing him with the cashier inside the store.”
Tony glanced at the suspect. “I do love it when they make it easy for us.”
Juan continued to stare at the blonde. “Why are the pretty ones always guilty?”
“She didn’t do it,” said Clark, sounding almost cocky. “Look at her angel eyes. A woman with those eyes—”
“Forget the eyes, check out that body,” Juan said. “Black widows are always hot.”
Dallas looked at the woman. She’d raised her head and her round blue eyes seemed to stare at nothing. Her shirt clung to curves. Juan was right. She was hot. Dallas envisioned another hot-looking woman with angel eyes. Betrayal hardened his gut when he recalled arguing with his ex last week.
“The eyes can fool you,” Dallas said. “They can suck you in and then stab you in the back. And never even blink with guilt.”
Clark looked at him and pulled out his pad. “You ready to put your money where your mouth is?”
“Money on what?” Dallas asked.
“On her guilt,” Clark answered.
“Wouldn’t be a very fair bet. Everything here points to her being guilty,” Dallas countered.
“Everything but me,” Clark said, and tapped his forehead.
“That’s not the head you’re thinking with right now,” Dallas said.
“Maybe.” Clark smiled, and let his gaze shift back to the blonde.
When Dallas didn’t have a comeback, Clark continued. “Give a guy a chance to win back some of the money you walked away with last weekend in that poker game. I’ll make it easy—if we still consider her the main suspect in twenty-four hours, you win. If we’re seriously looking into new leads, I win.”
“Count me in,” Juan said. “I’ll go twenty.”
“We got a job to do here.” Tony, his professionalism showing in his actions, walked over to talk to the suspect.
“You in?” Clark asked Dallas, tapping the pen to the pad.
“You really want to give away your money?” Dallas’s phone rang. He checked the number—Austin.
“Come on,” Clark said. “You didn’t mind taking my money during the poker game.”
“Twenty?” Clark asked.
“Fine.” Stepping away, he took the call. “What’s up?”
“I’m so damn good,” Austin said.
“What? You got another clown gig?” Dallas teased and rolled his shoulders to get the tension he felt just from being back on a police scene.
“I found the girl Nance said he’d talked with the night of the robbery. She also jogs at Oak Park. She remembered Nance, confirms his story, said they talked a good twenty minutes.”
“Freaking fabulous,” Dallas said. “Is she willing to go to the police?”
“Said she was. I got her info. We’re getting this kid off. Damn, that feels good.”
“Hell, yeah.” Victory stirred in Dallas’s chest. Deep down, he knew this wouldn’t completely prove Nance innocent. The DA would argue the kid had time to get from the store to the park, but it would give his lawyer something to work with.
An ambulance pulled into the parking lot, sirens roaring. Obviously, someone hadn’t explained that the situation wasn’t urgent.
“Where are you?” Austin asked.
“Would you believe a murder scene?” Dallas gazed back at the blonde.
“That’s one way to round up business.” Austin laughed. “Who’s dead and who’s being unjustly accused?”
The realization hit his conscience and went south, and Dallas felt as if it made a direct thump on his balls. He was doing to Blondie what everyone had done to Nance. What everyone had done to him. Hell, he’d even bet a twenty on her guilt.
“Damn,” he muttered.
“What?” Austin asked.
“Gotta go.” Dallas disconnected. He turned around to see Tony talking to the woman. She’d stood up and had her arms wrapped around her middle as if she was about to fall apart. Maybe it was because she’d killed her husband—maybe it was because she was being accused of a crime she didn’t commit.
“Oh God.” The blonde swung away from his brother.
Tony moved in front of her. “I asked you a question.”
Blondie sprinted five steps, and ran smack-dab into Dallas’s chest. When she bounced back a few inches, he grabbed her arms to steady her.
Her tear-filled baby blues met his gaze and, for some crazy reason, all Dallas could think about was how soft her skin was under his palms. They stared at each other, one, two seconds.
“You okay?” he asked, reading all sorts of panic in her expression.
“No.” She shook her head and her curls bounced around her face. Then she doubled over and puked all over Dallas’s shoes.
Stunned, he stared at his Reeboks and, before he came to his senses enough to move, she puked again—making a direct hit in the middle of his chest.
A WHILE LATER, Nikki lay back on the hospital bed and stared at the IV pumping fluids and meds into her veins. Her mind reeled. She glanced around for her purse, wanting to call Ellen, needing a bit of moral support. Then she looked at the clock. Ellen had already closed shop. Gone to teach her yoga class.
Gone. Gone. The word stuck in her head.
Jack was gone. Jack was dead. The image of his body being pulled out of her trunk flashed in her head. She remembered the blood and her stomach roiled.
She was probably going to have to get new carpet laid in the trunk of her car. When she’d first spotted Jack curled up in her trunk, she’d missed the blood. But when the coroner had gotten Jack’s body out…
The image flashed again. Her stomach threatened to revolt. Not that it had anything left to revolt with.
The two-hundred-dollar dinner was long gone. She was down to dry heaves and felt certain she’d blown a lung in the process.
Jack was dead.
Now she wasn’t sure if it was panic making her sick, or Venny’s chicken marsala.
Finding out meant her overdrawn account now topped the thousand-dollar-mark. Yeah, she’d opted for the high-deductible insurance. Nikki seldom ever got sick. Plain and simple, she couldn’t afford to be sick.
But she was sick now. So sick, she’d barfed all over her stomach medicine, all over her ex-husband’s body, and all over the guy she’d collided with at the parking lot. Had he been a cop or just a bystander? The question rolled through her head as another wave of nausea roiled through her stomach. Clutching the pink plastic tub the nurse had given her to use if she got sick again, Nikki fought the desire to throw up.
She closed her eyes and could see the stranger back at the parking lot looking down at her—his blue eyes were darker than hers. But his dark brown hair and olive complexion made his eyes more noticeable—strikingly noticeable. And she’d noticed the look in those eyes—concerned and almost apologetic—even when she’d obviously been the one needing to apologize. But she didn’t have a clue about the etiquette required in this situation. She’d never thrown up on anyone before.
First, she’d gotten his shoes. And then… Oh Lord, she didn’t want to think about the mess she’d made of his shirt.
Or the look on his face. Or the laughter she’d heard in the background.
“Don’t think about it.” Her mind flashed to Jack’s shirt—to all the blood.
Dead. Jack is dead. “Don’t think about it.”
Her chest ached. She hadn’t felt one flutter for her ex when she saw him at the restaurant, but for almost three years she’d loved him. Adored him. Her world had revolved around him, trying to make him happy, trying to be the wife he wanted, and then he broke her heart. “Don’t think about it.”
“Don’t think about what?” a male voice asked from the door.
Dallas, shirtless, parked between Austin’s and Tyler’s cars in front of the office. Grabbing his hurled-on shirt from the floorboard, he hurried inside. Bud, his tongue hanging out and his whole short and stocky body wagging in joy at his master’s return, met him at the door.
“Hey, Bud.” Kneeling, he patted the dog. “No!” Dallas said when the canine went straight for his shoes as if he smelled something appetizing. In a hurry, Dallas stood and walked toward the office where he’d heard voices. Bud followed—his paws clicking against the hardwood as they went, and his nose still sniffing the air.
Popping his head in the office door, Dallas said to his partners, “Do me a favor and Google a Nikki Hunt and give me the highlights of what you find. Then get me the address to Venny’s Restaurant while I take a really, really fast shower.” He met Austin’s gaze. “Good job on the Nance case. I owe you a beer.”
Tyler tapped into his computer. “Nikki Hunt, come to Papa.” He looked up. “What’s up? Did the woman steal the shirt off your back?”
“Not quite,” Dallas said. He’d tell them later and give them a good laugh—not that he thought it was all that funny. But the guys at the scene hadn’t stopped laughing when he left. Frowning, Dallas headed down the hall with Bud following. Home, sweet home.
When Dallas had found the building and approached Tyler and Austin about opening Only in Texas, their own PI agency, both guys had flinched at the price of the building. Dallas remedied that by paying the extra fifty thousand and having a portion of the building converted into a small apartment.
Stepping into his bathroom, he started to toss his shirt into the dirty clothes but tossed it in the garbage instead. Kicking off his shoes, he set them up on the counter, away from Bud. Undressed, not even waiting for the water to warm, he popped into the shower, lathered, rinsed, and then grabbed a towel.
Half-dressed moments later, he opened the door that led into the hallway back to the office. “Get anything?” he called.
“There’s two Nikki Hunts,” Tyler called back. “One’s a dancer at a men’s club—very hot—the other’s an artist and almost as hot. Which is she?”
“You know which one we’re voting for, don’t you?” Austin called out.
Dallas slipped a shirt over his head and envisioned the woman back at the parking lot. She’d been hot, but was she the stripper kind of hot? Were strippers that soft?
“I don’t know,” he answered and ran a hand through his wet hair. “They both local?”
“Almost,” Austin answered. “The stripper’s in Houston.”
“Blond?” Dallas offered.
“Both blond.” Tyler’s laughter rang out. “Wait, I know. Is she a C or double D?”
“C,” Dallas answered.
“The artist wins,” Tyler answered.
“Damn,” said Austin. “I was hoping you knew the other one and would introduce me.”
“Like I wouldn’t keep her for myself.” Dallas grabbed his keys and walked back down the hall, stopping at the office door. “What else did you get?”
Tyler looked up. “She has a gallery—sells her work and that of a few other artists in a shop on the square.”
“Is this connected to the murder case you crashed?” Austin asked seriously.
“Not the victim?” Tyler glanced back at the computer with sympathy.
“Nope. Her ex’s body was found in her trunk.”
“Did she do it?” Tyler asked.
“Not sure.” Dallas mentally flinched when he remembered how he’d condemned her. “Did you get the address to Venny’s?”
“Yeah, it’s 2234 Walters Street. But you better put on a tie. It’s upscale.”
“I don’t think I’ll be dining.” Something clattered at Dallas’s feet. He looked down to where Bud had dropped his food bowl. “Is food all you think about, boy?”
“It wouldn’t be if you let him get a little,” Austin kidded.
“As soon as he proves he knows how to use a condom, I’ll let him do that.” Dallas started out.
“You need company?” Tyler asked.
Dallas looked back. “Nah. But could you walk and feed Bud? I might be late.”
“Oh, speaking of Bud.” The humor from Tyler’s voice faded. “I forgot to tell you, you got some papers from Serena’s lawyer.”
“Shit!” Dallas spun around, walked into the office and snatched the envelope from Tyler’s hand. He ripped it open and read the first few lines. “She’s fucking doing it. Can you fucking believe she’s actually doing it? Joint custody, my ass!”
Tyler leaned back in his chair. “It’s you she wants, not the dog.”
“You shouldn’t have given her a taste of the good stuff,” Austin said, smiling.
“It was revenge sex,” Tyler piped in. “I wouldn’t mind having a shot at revenge sex with Lisa. Screw her hard then tell her to go screw herself.”
“It was a damn mistake.” One Dallas sorely regretted, too. He’d just gotten the apartment finished and had a few guys over for a poker game to christen the place. The guys had left, and Dallas was finishing off the last beer—two past his limit. When Serena showed up claiming she wanted to check on Bud, he’d been just drunk enough to let her come in. Just drunk and horny enough not to fight off her advances. Though he clearly recalled telling her, “If we do this, it doesn’t mean a thing.”
He’d no more than rolled off her when he remembered the ring on her finger and realized he’d been wrong. It had meant something. It meant if Serena was capable of sleeping with him while she wore Bill’s engagement ring, then maybe she’d been capable of sleeping with Bill, her boss for the past five years, when she’d worn his wedding ring.
When he’d confronted her about it, she’d admitted they’d had a one-time fling but, of course, she assured him that it hadn’t meant anything at the time.
He’d been pissed. And not even because she’d cheated. But because not once during his marriage—and damn if he hadn’t turned down some nice-looking ass—had he cheated on Serena. And why? Because he’d been a friggin’ idiot.
Dallas stared at the papers. He started to crumble them in his fist when the lawyers’ names at the bottom of the stationery caught his eye.
Jack Leon. That’s why the name had been familiar. The dead guy in Nikki Hunt’s trunk was part of the hotshot law firm Serena had used to get her divorce and was now using in a custody battle for Dallas’s dog.
With his mind back on the murder, he tossed the papers on Tyler’s desk. “Do me another favor. Do a search on Jack Leon, the lawyer, and call me. And don’t forget to feed Bud.”
“What is it you aren’t supposed to think about?”
Nikki glanced up as Detective Anthony O’Connor strolled into her little curtained area. She almost thought it was the guy she’d used as a barf bag. But nope, just the head honcho cop who’d accused her of killing Jack.
Not that she was too worried. She was innocent. Only the guilty worried, right?
“Sorry,” Nikki said. “I talk to myself a lot.” The nausea pulled at her stomach and she pulled the pink tub closer and looked at the bag of fluid hanging to her left. The doctor said the meds in the IV would “eventually” calm her stomach.
“Maybe you can tell me what ‘yourself’ is saying about what happened tonight.”
There it was again—the accusation in his tone that was mirrored in his expression. His eyes tightened, his right eyebrow arched slightly, and he pressed his lips together in a thin line. If he was trying to intimidate her, he could give himself a high five. His disapproving glare was downright daunting. Had they taught him that look in the police academy?
Maybe I should be worried. “You really don’t think I did this, do you?” Her stomach roiled again. She eyed her IV. “Eventually” couldn’t arrive soon enough.
“Did you do it?”
“No.” She sat up and squared her shoulders, trying to come off as a person with strong character. Of course, that was hard to do when you wore a backless hospital gown and held a Pepto-Bismol–colored, hospital-regulation barf tub in your lap.
His arched brow said he didn’t believe her.
What could she say to convince him? Or maybe she shouldn’t say anything. She considered asking for a lawyer, but decided to just puke instead.
Or she should say, she decided to go through the motions of puking.
When the dry heaves passed, he handed her a damp cloth. She raised her eyes to his dark brown gaze, hoping the suspicion had vanished. Nope. Obviously, the detective could be nice to people he considered murderers.
“Why would I put him in my trunk?” she blurted out and used the cloth to wipe her face in case she had any residual drool from her newly acquired pastime.
His gaze grew colder. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“Why don’t you leave the room for a minute?” The nurse, a full-figured African-American woman, walked into the room. “I need to get some blood.” The nurse shot the detective a cutting look and he left.
Nikki looked at the nurse. “I didn’t kill my ex.”
“Honey, the way I see it, if your ex was anywhere near as bad as mine, or as rude as that cop was to me when he brought you in here, you did the world a favor.”
Watching the blood fill the vial, Nikki remembered Jack’s shirt and fought another wave of nausea.
When the nurse left, Nikki leaned back and closed her eyes. She wasn’t sure how much time had passed when she heard someone clear his throat. She opened her eyes and was hit again by the accusation in the detective’s eyes.
“I think you were about to explain how your ex-husband’s body got into your trunk.”
“No, I wasn’t about to explain that. Because I didn’t put Jack in my trunk. I didn’t shoot him. I don’t own a gun. Don’t even know how to shoot one.” She looked at her hands. “Shouldn’t you be doing one of those powder tests on my hands?”
He cocked his head to the side and studied her. Hard. He looked as if he was about to say something profound, something important. She held her breath and waited.
When he didn’t speak, she dropped back against the pillow. Who knew puking took so much energy?
He pulled a notepad from his pocket, jotted something down, and then raised his eyes again. “You know the grocery store cashier said you were talking to her about killing your ex?”
“I wasn’t talking to her, I was talking to myself. She just assumed I was speaking to her. I mutter when I’m upset.”
“Were you upset enough to kill him?”
“He stuck me with the bill at Venny’s. Do you know how expensive that is? So, yeah, I was furious. Furious enough to say I wanted to kill him, but… but I’m not a killer. I even use catch-and-release mouse traps.”
The crinkle in his brow confused her. Did he believe her or not?
He scratched his head. “What do you do when you catch them? Put them in your trunk?”
She blinked. “No. I take them outside and let them go.”
“Oh.” He continued to look at her. “Don’t they just come back inside?”
She recalled Nana and Ellen asking her the same thing. “Probably, but my point is I don’t kill them. Because I’m not a killer.”
He didn’t seem impressed. Obviously, using live traps wasn’t considered evidence. Glancing back at his pad, he asked, “What were you and your ex arguing about at the restaurant?”
“We weren’t arguing. He wasn’t thrilled when I used my fingers to fish out the shrimp in his gumbo, but we didn’t argue.”
“Then why did he leave and stick you with the bill?”
“I don’t know. He was on the phone when I got there. He left, then came back and told me he was in some kind of trouble. I asked what was going on, but his phone rang again and he said he had to take it. He asked me to order and walked away.”
“She’s telling the truth,” a deep, male voice said from directly behind Detective O’Connor.
Nikki had to lean a good five inches to the right to look at the face of her much-needed, much-appreciated, supporter. Not that looks mattered. If she wasn’t in desperate need of a breath mint, she would have kissed him. She really needed someone in her corner right now.
The moment her gaze met his blue eyes, her focus shifted downward to the dusty blue T-shirt stretched across his wide chest. Thank goodness he’d changed his shirt.
Detective O’Connor swung around and faced the newcomer. “Why are you here?”
“I just got back from Venny’s Restaurant, spoke to the waiter.” His blue-eyed gaze met hers again and he nodded.
“Damn it, Dallas,” the detective said. “You’re not a cop.”
Not a cop. Dallas. Taking in the information, she watched the two men face each other.
Dallas stuffed both his hands into his jeans and frowned. “But I am a PI.”
So not-a-cop Dallas was a PI. What was a private investigator doing here?
“This isn’t your problem,” Detective O’Connor insisted. “Don’t you even start messing with my case.”
“You mean helping, right? Because I just gave your boys the heads up on the real crime scene in back of the restaurant. I’m betting Ms. Hunt was parked back there.” Dallas looked at her. “Right?”
“Blood?” Detective O’Connor asked.
“Yup. There was also a set of keys, which I pointed out to your guys. I’ll bet you’ll find they belong to her ex. And if my hunch is right, you’ll find he had a key to her car.”
Both men looked at her to confirm. “He used to have one,” she said, trying to understand what this meant. “You think he was stealing my car?”
“Not necessarily,” Dallas said. “But it would explain how he got inside your trunk.”
“Fine,” Detective O’Connor snapped. “So you’ve managed to show up my men by getting to the restaurant first.”
“Actually, they were there first. They just didn’t check the parking lot in the back.”
“Just get the hell away from my case.” Detective O’Connor’s grimace deepened.
The intimidating scowl didn’t seem to affect Dallas. “Just trying to get to the truth.”
“We’ll get to the truth,” the detective said.
“Oh, like the system doesn’t make mistakes.” Now, Dallas looked mad.
Detective O’Connor didn’t back down. “This isn’t the system, it’s me. I don’t make mistakes.”
Ignoring the last statement, Dallas looked back at her. He seemed to focus on the Pepto-Bismol–pink tub in her lap. “Considering what else I found in the parking lot, it appears as if the vic was also sick. I’m thinking someone slipped something into their dinner.”
“Someone poisoned me?” Nikki asked.
“She’s not your client,” the detective snapped, ignoring Nikki.
Dallas glanced at her. “She could be.”
“Someone poisoned me?” she repeated.
Her question remained unanswered while the two men continued arguing. While she hated to be a pest, her question seemed kind of important. Didn’t the doctors and nurses need to know if she’d been poisoned?
“Are you trying to piss me off?” Detective O’Connor demanded.
“No. I’m trying to help Ms. Hunt,” Dallas said.
“Hey,” Ms. Hunt said, her mind still on the possibility of being poisoned. “Was I—”
“You don’t even know her,” Detective O’Connor accused.
The PI smiled at her. “We bonded.”
“Did someone really poison me?” she repeated again.
“Was that before or after she puked on you?” Detective O’Connor asked and the PI looked back at him.
“I think it was during.” Dallas turned his grin toward her again.
“Bonded my ass. She puked on you. Next you’ll tell me you consider that your retainer.”
Dallas shifted his attention back to the cop. “Hey, that works.”
“I asked a question.” Nikki’s stomach cramped and she put a hand on her middle. She felt sick, but how sick? What kind of poison had she ingested? Was it lethal? Was she bleeding to death on the inside while these two stood by arguing about God only knew what?
A cell phone rang. Detective O’Connor grabbed the phone from his belt loop, scowled at the PI then took the call. “Hello. You’re breaking up. We have a bad…” He paused. “I know, Dallas just informed me. Get CSU down there. Hey… you’re fading out again. Let me call you back.” Detective O’Connor pointed a finger at Dallas and said, “Don’t do this to me.” Then he walked out of the curtained cubicle.
Nikki, hand still placed over her roiling stomach, watched the detective leave then refocused on the blue-eyed private investigator. “Did someone poison me?”
TONY COULDN’T FRIGGIN’ believe his brother would start this shit with him. Frustrated, he dialed Clark’s number. Cell phone pressed to his ear, Tony walked down the hall until he got to the nurse’s station. Clark answered.
“Hey, it’s me again,” Tony said. “Just get CSU there. Make sure…”
Damn! His phone started fading out again. Looking up at the glaring nurse, he snapped his phone shut and focused on her. “You need to run a tox screen on Ms. Hunt. There’s a chance she might have been given something against her will.”
“The other cop, the one with manners, already told me,” the nurse said crisply.
Tony frowned. What had he done to piss her off? He recalled getting pushy to get the blonde brought back in the ER right away. Hell, she’d already puked all over his brother, and Tony hadn’t wanted to be her next victim.
Staring at the nurse, he realized the nicer cop she alluded to had to be Dallas. Tony didn’t bother correcting her. Instead, he started down the hall to find a place where he could call Clark back. He went the way he thought would have an exit, but didn’t find it. He looked at his phone, found it had all the bars, then he spotted the visitor’s room. He had one foot inside when he heard a familiar sound.
He stopped, thinking he’d imagined it. But the lighthearted, warm-the-soul kind of laugh sounded again. LeAnn.
Swinging around, he spotted his wife standing at the nurses’ station, her back to him. He hadn’t known she’d switched hospitals. His chest grew heavy and light at the same time. Damn, he’d missed her. He ran a hand through his hair, and took a step toward her.
Her hair hung longer. The soft brown strands bounced against her shoulders, and Tony’s hands itched to touch them. He’d loved her hair long and begged her not to cut it. But she’d insisted that short hair would be less time consuming.
Had it really been nine months since he’d seen her? Not that he hadn’t tried. He left messages on her phone once a week, telling her the same thing. He wanted to talk. He could understand why she was mad. But he was so damn sorry.
She had yet to call him back. He kept telling himself she would eventually give in—that the time away was his punishment for walking away from her when she’d needed him the most. Funny how back then he’d thought time away would help things. Now, he saw it for the mistake it was. He’d fucked up but, damn it, didn’t he deserve a chance to fix it?
He almost got to the nurses’ station when he realized she wasn’t alone. A man, a doctor-looking sort, stood beside her. He stood too damn close, too. And the way he looked at LeAnn left little doubt of his intentions. Tony held himself in check. Or he did until the white-coated man touched his wife’s cheek.
Tightening his fist, Tony hurried his last steps. Thankfully, LeAnn stepped back and the man dropped his hand.
Obviously hearing his footsteps, LeAnn turned. “Can I help…” Her bright green eyes widened. “Tony.”
“LeAnn.” He forced himself to unclench his fist and smile. Though he wasn’t sure the smile came off real. At best it was probably rusty. He hadn’t had a lot of reasons to smile lately.
The doctor said something under his breath. Tony met his eyes briefly and hoped like hell the man could read his mind. Stay the fuck away from her. As if he had picked up on Tony’s thoughts—or maybe it was the murder in his eyes—the man left.
“Is everything okay?” LeAnn asked.
“It is now,” he said, pushing his frustration back and hoping to make the most of this unexpected gift. “You look… fantastic.” When she didn’t reply, he continued. “When did you start working here?”
“Yesterday. I… I needed a change.”
He nodded and, damn it, but he wanted to touch her so bad he had to stuff his hands in his pockets to fight temptation. “Dallas said you had car trouble last week.”
“Is that why you’re here?”
“No. I’m here on a case.”
“I thought you worked homicide now.”
So she’d cared enough to be curious about what he was doing. Did she also know he lived and breathed for the moment they could get back together? “I am. I have a possible suspect, but she’s sick. We found her ex-husband dead in her trunk.”
“That’s terrible,” she said, though Tony wasn’t sure if she was really interested or just needed something to say. “Do you think she killed him?”
“I don’t know yet.” He studied his wife and opened his mouth to say something about the case. Instead the words, “I miss you so damn much,” came out.
She looked away, but not before he saw frustration hit her eyes.
Damn it, he’d screwed up by moving too fast. Then he decided to go for broke. “I call and leave messages and you never call me back.”
She continued to stare down at the desk. “I know.” Opening one of the files, she studied it. “I’m not ready to deal with this yet, Tony.”
“It’s been nine months.”
She raised her gaze and when he saw her eyes wet with emotion, pain ripped at his chest.
“You promised you wouldn’t pressure me,” she said.
“And you promised me if I moved out we’d see a marriage counselor.”
“Why do we need go through this? Can’t we just let it go?”
“Not if it means letting go of us!” he said. “That’s the only reason I agreed to this separation, LeAnn, because you promised we would talk. I know I screwed up. When I took the job, I wasn’t thinking. It wasn’t supposed to last but a week, I thought a few days apart would—”
“Stop.” She held out a hand. “I don’t blame you for taking the job, okay? I could hardly stand being with myself.”
Her words hit like an eighteen-wheeler without brakes. “Damn it, LeAnn, I didn’t leave because of you. I left because…” Two more nurses walked up to the station.
“Later, okay?” There was a pleading in her eyes.
He leaned across the counter and said in lower voice, “When?”
“Soon,” she said under her breath.
Unable to resist, and realizing the nurses had their backs to them, he reached across the counter and ran the back of his hand across her cheek. “I’m off Sunday,” he whispered. “I’ll be over around ten a.m.”
The word “no” formed on her lips. He didn’t give her a chance to say it. Swinging around, he left. His heart pounded in his chest. He looked at his watch, counting the days, and hours until Sunday. He knew he’d been pushy and yet, damn, he’d been patient for nine months. He wanted his wife back and maybe it was time for him to stop being patient and go get her.
He was almost back to the ER when his phone rang. Frowning, he stopped to see who was calling. It was Juan Bata. What did Juan want?
Tony answered the call. “What’s up, Juan?” If the guy had just called to gab, he didn’t have time.
“Something strange is going on,” Juan said. “I think it’s connected.”
“Remember the barfer?” He chuckled.
“What about her?” Continues...
Excerpted from Only in Texas by Christie Craig Copyright © 2012 by Christie Craig. Excerpted by permission.
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