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'Yes!' Tash flung up the lid of the washing machine, bunched up a T-shirt and lobbed it into the dryer. A pair of shorts followed and then another T-shirt and a pair of tracksuit pants. 'Oh, yes, and she's going for the record ' A rolled-up sweatshirt sailed through the air and into the dryer without touching the sides. She grinned. As soon as she switched that baby on, her holiday officially started.
One glorious week.
Just to herself.
She did a little dance. A week! A whole week.
A knock on the front door pulled her up mid-shimmy and the next T-shirt sailed past the dryer to land in the laundry tub. She turned to glare.
No, no, don't glare. Holiday, remember?
She let out a breath, reaching for her customary languor and shrugged it on. As soon as she was out of Sydney she could carry on with as much uncool excitement as she pleased, but until then she had no intention of ruining her tough-customer image.
Bored facial expression?
At seventeen it had taken her weeksmonths!to perfect that particular attitude. Now she could slip it on at will.
She strode down the hallway, determined to get rid of whoever was on the other side as quickly as she could. Throwing open the door, she glanced at the figure outlined on the other side of the screen and everything slammed to a halther feet, her mind, her holiday mood. Screaming started up inside her head. Air pressed hard against her lungshot, dry and choking.
She swallowed to mute the screaming and folded her arms to hide the way her hands had started to shake from the surge of adrenaline that flooded her. Every stomach muscle she possessedand her weekly Judo class ensured they were all well-honedclenched up hard and tight until they hurt.
Officer Mitchell King stared back at her like some upright holy warrior. From the top of his close-cut blond hair to the tips of his scrubbed-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives boots. Even out of uniform he looked as if he should be wearing one. Everything about him shouted clean-cut herothe strong square jaw, the not quite even teeth and the direct blue of his eyes. A man on a mission. A man who knew right from wrong. No shades of grey here, thank you very much.
Tash didn't reach out to unlatch the screen. She didn't break the silence.
'May I come in?' he finally asked.
She let her attitude prickle up around her like razor wire. Kinking an eyebrow, she leant one shoulder against the wall. 'Are you here to arrest me?'
His eyes narrowed. She knew their exact shade of blue, though the screen guarded her against their potency. Sort of. Her stomach clenched so hard she thought it might cramp.
'Of course not.'
'Then no, I don't think so.'
She started to close the door. He kept his voice even. 'It wasn't really a question, Tash. If you close the door in my face I'll break it down.'
She didn't doubt that for a single moment. As far as Officer Mitchell King was concerned, the ends always justified the means. For sheer coldblooded ruthlessness, nobody else came close.
Without a word, she unclasped the door and then turned and hip-swayed down the corridor into the kitchen. She added the provocative sway to her hips because it was more dignified than thumbing her nose. And because without her usual uniform of jeans and work boots she felt vulnerable. A hip-sway distracted most men Not that Mitch King was most men.
She turned, hands on hips, when she reached the kitchen, but the sun flooding in at the windows reminded her it was summer and that she had big plans for this week.
Just as soon as she got rid of her unwelcome visitor.
'How can I help you?'
The twist of his lips told her he'd read her animosity. As she'd meant him to. She'd lived in the same suburb as Mitch for most of her twenty-five years, but they hadn't spoken once in the last eight.
And if it'd been another eight it would've been too soon.
He didn't bother with pleasantries. 'We have a problem and I'm afraid you're not going to like the solution.' He planted his feet, but his eyes gentled. 'I can't tell you how sorry I am about that.'
He might look like an angel, but the man could probably deceive the devil himself.
She shook the thought off, refusing to allow soft summer eyes or firm lips that promised heaven to sway her. She wasn't seventeen years old anymore. 'I'm not interested in your sentiments.'
His mouth hardened.
'What's this problem? If it's anything to do with the pub then you'll have to speak to Clarke.'
'It's not about the pub.'
For the last three years Tash had managed the Royal Oak, a local establishment that serviced the factory workers in the area. It wasn't a genteel or trendy establishment by any means, but it was clean and generally free of trouble and Tash had every intention of making sure it stayed that way. She folded her arms and stuck out a hip. 'Well, if it isn't about the pub ?'
Mitch didn't even glance at her hip and she couldn't have said why, but it irked her. A tic did start up at the side of his jaw, though. He wasn't as calm as he'd like her to think.
'Have you spoken to Rick Bradford recently?'
It took every muscle she possessed to not let her jaw drop. When she was sure she had that under control she let rip with a short savage laugh. 'You have to be joking, right? The last time you and I spoke about Rick, you arrested him. Unfairly, I might add. If you think I'm going to chew the fat with you about Rick then you are an unmitigated idiot.' She put all the feeling she could into that unmitigated. It was a nice big word for a girl like her to know.
One of Mitch's hands clencheda strong brown hand. He leaned in towards her, his eyes chips of ice, all warmth gone. 'So nothing's changed? You still see him through rose-coloured glasses?' His lip curled. 'What is it with women and bad boys?'
She lifted her chin. 'From memory, it wasn't the bad boy I fell for.'
He froze. He glanced away. So did she, wishing she could take the words back. It grew so silent the only sounds she was aware of were the low hum of the refrigerator and one of her neighbours starting up a lawnmower.
Mitch cleared his throat and from the corner of her eye she saw him reach into his pocket. He pulled out a packet of photographs and held them out towards her. 'We believe Rick is responsible for this.'
She didn't want to take the photographs. She wanted to slap his hand away, herd him back down the hallway and shove him out of her door. Mitch had always considered Rick a troublemaker. When she and Rick had been in school, if anyone had been caught shoplifting then, according to Mitch, Rick must've been behind it. If there'd been a fight in the playground then Rick must've instigated it. If there was graffiti on the train station walls Rick must've put it there. She snorted. Crazy! And yet it had always been Rick's grandmother's door the police had come knocking on first.
And when kids in the area had been caught smoking pot, Mitch had been convinced that Rick was the supplier.
Mitch had been wrong. Oh, so, wrong. But that hadn't stopped her best friend from going down for it all the same. He'd served fifteen months in prison. And she'd unwittingly helped put him there.
But not again. She'd learned some smarts in the last eight years. She knew better than to trust any man. Especially the one standing in front of her.
She reached out and took the photographs. The first one showed a house gutted by fire. She tossed it onto the counter. 'Rick is not, nor has he ever been, an arsonist.'
The second showed a crashed car. She glanced up and raised an eyebrow.
'The brake lines on the car were deliberately severed. The woman was lucky to get out of it with nothing but a broken collarbone and a concussion.'
She threw it to the bench to join its partner. 'Rick would never hurt a woman.' Rick protected women. She didn't bother saying that out loud, though. Mitch would never believe her.
The third and fourth photos made her stomach churn. 'And he certainly wouldn't senselessly slaughter animals. That's ' The photographs showed a field of sheep with their throats cut. One of them was a close-up. She slammed it face down to the bench. Acid burned her stomach. This was just another of Mitch's witch-hunts.
'That's what's happened to Rick's last three girlfriends.'
'I'm sorry, Officer King, but I'm afraid I can't help you with your enquiries.'
'Have you spoken to Rick recently?'
He'd rung her two nights ago to tell her he was coming to town.
'No.' She kept her face bland and unreadable. She'd practised and practised that skill until she had it down pat. 'I haven't spoken to Rick in months.'
His eyes narrowed. 'I'm not sure I believe you.'
She lifted a shoulder and let it drop. 'I don't care what you believe.' She paused and forced herself to complete an insolent survey of all six feet two inches of honed male flesh. Mitch still had a great body. She kinked an eyebrow when she met his gaze again, keeping her face bland. 'But it has to be said, you used a smoother approach last time.'
And, just like that, the air shimmered with unspoken tension. As if it hadn't been shimmering enough before!
'You're never going to forgive me, are you?'
'I was trying to protect you.' 'Liar.'
She spoke so softly it almost sounded like an endearment. He took a step back, shrugged his official demeanour back on like a second skin. 'We have it on fairly good authority that Rick is headed for Sydney.'
She kept her mouth shut.
'And we think you're next on his hit list.'
It took an effort of will not to roll her eyes. 'Besides the fact that I know Rick would never hurt a womanany womanI've never been his girlfriend. I think that rules me out, don't you?' 'No.'
It was the way he said it. It made her blood run cold. Mitch might not make the law, but he sure as heck ensured it was enforced to the letter. Regardless of the costto himself or to others. 'What makes you so sure I'm next on the hit list?'
'A crumpled-up piece of paper with your address on it.'
She went cold all over. 'Found where?'
'In that field of slaughtered sheep.'
She folded her arms, resisting the urge to chafe them instead.
'Two undercover officers from Central Sydney are on their way here now. One of them fits your description.'
We have aproblem you won't like the solution.
'And the bit I'm not going to like?'
'They're going to stake out your house to wait for Rick, and we have to get you out of here.'
She went to shake her head.
'For your own protection.'
It should've sounded ludicrously melodramatic, but it didn't. She stared at him for a long tension-fraught moment, taking in the way his mouth tightened and his shoulders tensed. 'We meaning you?'
'This is a bit beneath you these days, isn't it?' He'd progressed through the ranks of the force with a speed that was apparently a credit to him and his family. She might call him Officer, but he was a detective now. She couldn't believe he hadn't moved to a flashier suburb and wiped the dust of this working-class neighbourhood from the soles of his polished boots. She couldn't believe he was standing in her kitchen asking her about Rick Bradford again.
She pointed to the suitcase on the sofa, open but neatly packed. 'Look, I'm about to head off on holiday for a week. Up the coast. I won't be around to spoil your stakeout or whatever it is you have planned.'
'You don't understand, Tash. We need to get you somewhere safe. We don't want to risk you ending up in hospital or worse.'
'Why you?' The question burst from her, but she couldn't help it. She didn't want anything to do with this man. Ever. Again.
His nostrils flared. 'My history with Bradford is well known.' The words came out clipped and short. 'The powers that be want me out of the way.'
'So even your superiors think your judgement is clouded on the issue?'
He didn't say anything. He simply reached across and turned the photograph of the sheep over; spread each photograph out so she could experience their full impact.
She cut short a shudder. Show no weakness. Rick wasn't responsible for those dreadful things, but someone was. Someone who wanted to frame him or hurt him in some way. Someone who didn't care who they hurt in the process. She couldn't stop her gaze from flicking to the other photosthe burned-out house. How dreadful to lose all you owned in the world in one fell swoop. She glanced around her open-plan kitchen and living room. She didn't have much, but.
She glanced at the photo of the crumpled car and swallowed. Some of the questions Rick had asked her the other night made sudden and sinister senseHave any new people come to the area? Has anything unusual happened lately? He'd asked them all in such a way that he hadn't raised her suspicions, but now.
She knew her rights. She could say no. For heaven's sake, she hadn't had a holiday ever. But she owed Rick. If she could help bring this situation to a swift conclusionhelp clear himthe sacrifice of a holiday would be a small price to pay.
'Where do you mean to take me?' She didn't doubt for a moment that Mitch had an ironclad plan.
He met her gaze and just shrugged. Obviously it was a secret ironclad plan. 'How long do you think this operation is going to take?'
'No more than a few days.'
She glanced at the photographs again. Who on earth would want to hurt those women? And what did it all have to do with Rick?
A burned-out house. Severed brake lines. Slaughtered sheep. She suppressed a shiver. She might've learned some street smarts in the last few years, she might be known as someone not to mess with, but she had no desire to come face to face with whoever was responsible for all of that. She knew self-defence and she had a smart mouth, but this It was out of her league.
Self-preservation battled with pride. Common sense eventually won out. She might hate Mitch, but not enough to endanger her own life. She could put up with him escorting her to wherever it was she needed to go. 'When do we have to leave?'
'Within the hour would be good.'
She bit back a sigh. 'You said there were two officers coming? I'll make up the bed in the spare room.'
'Just leave the linen out. They can make up their own beds.'
Her hand clenched. There was nothing typical about Mitch King, and she'd do well not to forget it. 'Then I guess I'll just throw the rest of the wet things in the dryer, pack a bag and get changed.'
'Tash, thank you.' She must've looked blank because he added, 'For being so reasonable about this.'