- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Ross Fortune stood beside a canvas awning-covered booth at the art fair of the Red Rock Spring Fling, keeping a careful eye on the rough-looking kid with the eyebrow bolt and the lip ring.
The kid seemed out of place in the booth full of framed Wild West art—photographs of steely-eyed cowboys lined up on a weathered fence, tow-headed toddlers wobbling in giant Tony Lamas, a trio of horses grazing against a stormy sky.
Yeah, he might be jumping to conclusions, but it didn't seem like the sort of artwork that would interest somebody who looked more wannabe rock star than cowboy, with his inky black hair, matching black jeans and T-shirt, and pale skin. But as Ross watched, the kid—who looked on the small side of maybe fourteen or fifteen—thumbed through the selection of unframed prints like they were the most fascinating things in the world.
Ross wouldn't have paid him any attention, except that for the past ten minutes he couldn't help noticing the kid as he moseyed from booth to booth in the gathering twilight, his eyes constantly shifting around. The punk seemed abnormally aware of where the artist-vendor of each booth stood at all times, tracking their movements under dark eyelashes.
Until the western photographs, he hadn't seemed much interested in whatever wares the artists were selling. Instead, he had all the tell-talesigns of somebody casing the place, looking for something easy to lift.
Okay, Ross was rushing to judgment. But something about the way the kid's gaze never stopped moving set all his alarm bells ringing. Even after the crowds started to abate as everybody headed toward the dance several hundred yards away, the kid continued ambling through the displays, as if he were searching for the perfect mark.
And suddenly he must have found it.
As Ross watched, the kid's gaze sharpened on a pink flowered bag somebody had carelessly left on a folding chair.
He moved to take a step forward, his own attention homing in on the boy, but just at that moment somebody jostled him.
"Sorry," muttered a dark-haired man in a Stetson who looked vaguely familiar. "I was looking for someone and wasn't watching where I was going."
"No problem," Ross answered. But when he looked back, the kid was gone—and so was the slouchy flowered bag.
Adrenaline pumped through him. Finally! Chasing a shoplifter was just what he needed right now.
He had been bored to tears all day and would have left hours ago and headed back to San Antonio if he hadn't been volunteered by his family to help out on security detail for the Spring Fling, which was Red Rock's biggest party of the year.
At least now, maybe he might be able to have a little something to relieve the tedium of the day so he couldn't consider it a complete waste.
He stepped out of the booth and scanned the crowd. He saw his cousin J.R. helping Isabella Mendoza begin to pack away the wares at her textiles booth down the row a ways and he saw the Latino man in the Stetson who had bumped into him standing at a corner of a nearby water-color booth.
He also spied his despised brother-in-law, Lloyd Fredericks, skulking through the crowd, headed toward a section behind the tents and awnings, away from the public thoroughfare.
No doubt he was up to no good. If Ross wasn't on the hunt for a purse snatcher, he would have taken off after Lloyd, just for the small-minded pleasure of harassing the bastard a little.
He finally spotted the kid near a booth displaying colorful, froufrou dried-flower arrangements. He moved quietly into position behind him, his gaze unwavering.
This had always been his favorite moment when he had been a detective in San Antonio, before he left the job to become a private investigator. He loved that hot surge of energy before he took down a perp, that little thrill that he was about to tip the scales of justice firmly on the side of the victim.
He didn't speak until he was directly behind the boy. "Hey kid," he growled. "Nice purse."
The boy jumped like Ross had shoved a shiv between his ribs. He whirled around and shot him a defiant look out of dark eyes.
"I didn't do nothing. I was just grabbin' this for my friend."
"I'm sure. Come on. Hand it over."
The boy's grip tightened on the bag. "No way. She lost it so I told her I'd help her look for it and that's just what I'm doin'."
"I don't think so. Come on, give."
"You a cop?"
"Used to be." Until the politics and the inequities had become more than he could stomach. He didn't regret leaving the force. He enjoyed being a private investigator, picking his own cases and his own hours. The power of the badge sometimes had its privileges, though, he had to admit. Right now, he would have loved to be able to shove one into this little punk's face.
"If you ain't a cop, then I got nothin' to say to you. Back off."
The kid started to walk away but Ross grabbed his shoulder. "Afraid I'm not going anywhere. Hand over the bag."
The kid uttered a colorful curse and tried to break free. "You got it wrong, man. Let me go."
"Sure. No problem. That way you can just run through the crowd and lift a few more purses on your way through."
"I told you, I didn't steal nothin'. My friend couldn't remember where she left it. I told her I'd help her look for it so she could buy some more stuff."
"Sure kid. Whatever you say."
"I ain't lyin'!"
The boy wrestled to get free, and though he was small and slim, he was wiry and much more agile than Ross had given him credit for. To his chagrin, the teenager managed to break the grip on his arm and before Ross could scramble to grab him again, he had darted through the crowd.
Ross repeated the curse the kid had uttered earlier and headed after him. The punk might be fast but Ross had two major advantages—age and experience. He had chased enough desperate criminals through the grime and filth of San Antonio's worst neighborhoods to have no problem keeping up with one teenage boy carrying a bag that stood out like a flowery neon-pink beacon.
He caught up with him just before the boy would have slipped into the shadows on the edges of the art fair.
"Now you've pissed me off," Ross growled as he grabbed the kid again, this time in the unbreakable hold he should have used all along.
If he thought the boy's language was colorful before, that was nothing to the string of curses that erupted now.
"Yeah, yeah," Ross said with a tight grin. "I've heard it all before. I was a cop, remember?"
He knew he probably shouldn't be enjoying this so much. He was out of breath and working up a sweat, trying to keep the boy in place with one arm while he reached into his pocket with the other hand for the flex-cuffs he always carried. He had just fished them out and was starting to shackle the first wrist when a woman's raised voice distracted him.
"Hey! What do you think you're doing? Let go of him right this minute!"
He shifted his gaze from the boy to a woman with light brown hair approaching them—her eyes were wide and he briefly registered a particularly delectable mouth set in sharp, indignant lines.
He thought she looked vaguely familiar but that was nothing unusual in a small town like Red Rock, where everybody looked familiar. Though he didn't spend much time here and much preferred his life in San Antonio, the Fortune side of his family was among the town founders and leaders. Their ranch, the Double Crown, was a huge cattle spread not far from town.
The Spring Fling had become a large community event, and the entire proceeds from the art festival and dance went to benefit the Fortune Foundation, the organization created in memory of his mother's cousin Ryan, that helped disad-vantaged young people.
Ross was a Fortune, and even though he was from the black-sheep side, he couldn't seem to escape certain familial obligations such as weddings and funerals.
Or Spring Flings.
He might not know the woman's name, but he knew her type. He could tell just by looking at her that she was the kind of busybody, do-gooder sort who couldn't resist sticking her lovely nose into things that were none of her business.
"Sorry. I can't let him go. I just caught the kid stealing a purse."
If anything, her pretty features tightened further. "That's ridiculous. He wasn't stealing anything! He was doing me a favor."
Despite her impassioned words, he wasn't releasing the boy, not for a moment. "I'm sure the Red Rock police over at the security trailer can sort it all out. That's where we're heading. You're welcome to come along."
He would be more than happy to let her be somebody else's problem.
"I'm telling you, he didn't do anything wrong."
"Then why did he run from me?"
The slippery kid wriggled more in his hold. "Because you wouldn't listen to me, man. I tried to tell you."
"This is my purse!" the woman exclaimed. "I couldn't remember where I left it so I asked Marcus to help me find it so I could purchase some earrings from a folk artist on the next row over."
Ross studied the pair of them, the boy so wild and belligerent and the soft, blue-eyed woman who looked fragile and feminine in comparison. "Why should I believe you? Maybe you're in on the heist with him. Makes a perfect cover, nice-looking woman working together with a rough kid like him."
She narrowed her gaze, apparently unimpressed with the theory. "I'll tell you why you should believe me. Because my wallet, which is inside the bag, has my driver's license and credit cards in it. If you would stop being so cynical and suspicious for five seconds, I can show them to you."
Okay, he should have thought of that. Maybe two years away from the job had softened him more than he wanted to admit. Still, he wasn't about to let down his guard long enough for her to prove him any more of a fool.
He tossed the purse at her. "Fine. Show me."
Her look would have scorched through metal. She scooped up the purse and pawed through it, then pulled out a brocade wallet, which she unsnapped with sharp, jerky movements and thrust at him.
Sure enough, there was a Texas driver's license with a pretty decent picture of her—a few years younger and with slightly longer hair, but it was definitely her.
Julie Osterman, the name read under her picture. He gazed at it for a full ten seconds before the name registered. He had seen it on an office door at the Foundation, next to his cousin Susan's. And he must have seen her there, as well, which explained why she looked slightly familiar.
"You work for the Fortune Foundation, don't you?"
"Yes. I'm a counselor," she tilted her head and looked more closely at him. "And you're Ross Fortune, aren't you?"
He should have recognized her. Any good cop—and private investigator—ought to be more tuned in to that sort of thing than the average citizen and be able to remember names and faces.
"I don't give a crap who you are," the wriggling teenager in his grip spat out. "Let go of me, man."
He was still holding onto the punk, he realized. Ross eased his grip a little but was reluctant to release him completely.
"Mr. Fortune, you can let go anytime now," Julie Osterman said. "It all happened exactly as he said. He was helping me find my purse, not stealing anything. Thank you so much for your help, Marcus! I'm so relieved you found it. You can go now."
Ross pulled his hand away, surrendering to the inevitable, and Marcus straightened his ratty T-shirt like it was two hundred dollars' worth of cashmere.
"Dude's a psycho," he said to no one in particular but with a fierce glare for Ross. "I tried to tell you, man. You should have listened. Stupid cop-pig."
"Marcus," Julie said. Though the word was calm enough, even Ross recognized the steel behind it.
Marcus didn't apologize, but he didn't offer more insults, either. "I got to fly. See you, Ms. O."
He ambled away, exuding affronted attitude with every step.
When he was out of earshot, Julie Osterman turned back to him, her mouth set in those tight lines again. He was so busy wondering if she ever unbent enough to genuinely smile that he nearly missed her words.
"I hope you haven't just undone in five minutes here what has taken me weeks to build with Marcus."
It took him a few more seconds longer than it should have to realize she was wasn't just annoyed, she was fuming.
"What did I do?" he asked in genuine bewilderment.
"Marcus is one of my clients at the Foundation," she said. "He comes from, well, not an easy situation. The adults in his life have consistently betrayed him. He's never had anyone to count on. I've been trying to help him learn to trust me, to count on me, by demonstrating that I trust him in return."
"By throwing your purse out there as bait?"
"Marcus has a history of petty theft."
"Just the kind of kid I would send after my purse, then."
She fisted her hands on her hips and the movement made all her curves deliciously visible beneath her gauzy white shirt. "I wanted him to understand that when I look at him, I see beyond the mistakes he's made in the past to the bright future we're both trying to create for him."
It sounded like a bunch of hooey to him but he decided it might be wise to keep that particular opinion to himself right now, considering she looked like she wanted to skin him, inch by painful inch.
"Instead," she went on in that irritated voice, "you have probably just reinforced to a wounded child that all adults are suspicious and cynical, quick to judge and painfully slow to admit when they're wrong."
"Hey, wait a second here. I had no way of knowing you were trying for some mumbo-jumbo psychobabble experiment. All I saw was a punk lifting a purse. I couldn't just stand there and let him take it."
"Admit it," she snapped. "You jumped to conclusions because he looks a little rough around the edges."
Her hair was light brown, shot through with blond highlights that gleamed in the last few minutes of twilight. With those brilliant blue eyes, high cheekbones and eminently kissable mouth, she was just about the prettiest woman he had seen in a long, long time. The kind of woman a man never got tired of looking at.
Too bad such a nice package had to be covering up one of those save-the-world types who always set his teeth on edge.
Excerpted from Fortune's Woman by Raeanne Thayne Copyright © 2009 by Raeanne Thayne. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 23, 2010
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