The attractive blonde sitting on the chair beside Jon Blackhawk's desk in the San Antonio FBI office was as irritating as most of the prospective brides his wellmeaning mother threw at his head. He was impatient and half out of humor already, with testimony on an upcoming court case awaiting him. This woman's fascination with the latest trend in hairstyles was leading him to think of bars. And he never took a drink.
"See, mine was done by Mr. James at Sherigan's," she continued, indicating her haircut, which looked quite frankly as if someone had put her head in a blender. He bit his tongue trying not to make the comment out loud. "He could do wonders for you. That long hair is so retro!"
There was a perfunctory knock at the door and his administrative assistant, Joceline Perry, stuck her head in the door. "Excuse me, Mr. Blackhawk, but you're due in court in ten minutes."
He nodded, forcing himself not to dance on the desk with glee. It would have been totally out of character, but the past thirty minutes of fashion information had left him feeling brainless.
He got to his feet. "It was good to see you, Charlene. Please give my love to my mother when you see her."
"I'll be seeing her tonight, since we're going to the theater together. It's a production of that romantic comedy that Shakespeare wrote, in a modern setting," she enthused. "Your mother has three tickets to it," she added with a hopeful smile.
He cleared his throat and tried desperately to think of an excuse.
Joceline, her blue eyes twinkling, interjected, "There's that meeting with your informer tonight at seven," she lied.
"Oh. Oh, yes, thank you," he said, trying not to sound as relieved as he felt. "Another time, perhaps," he told Charlene.
She shrugged. "I suppose your job requires you to do things at odd times," she said. "You might think about another profession," she said with a thoughtful frown. "I mean, if you get married, you won't have time for these evening jobrelated thingies."
His black eyes glittered. "I have no plans to marry."
She gave him an odd look. "Your mother said you were ready to start a family," she said blandly.
The glare darkened. "My mother has plans of her own. They are not mine," he added firmly.
Charlene gave him a charming smile and touched the sleeve of his gray suit jacket with a wellmanicured hand. "Well, most men don't want to marry and have a family, until they realize how nice it is."
He didn't bend an inch.
Charlene sighed. "Rome wasn't built in a day," she ventured.
"It was, however, sacked by Charles V and his forces in one of the most violent attacks in military history," Joceline said with a sigh. "The Pope was forced to flee for his life." Her blue eyes went dreamy in their frame of short, straight black hair that just covered her small ears. "Charles V was the fatherinlaw of Mary Tudor, who was the sister of Elizabeth the First. Mary was in her thirties and Philip II was in his twenties when they married. It was a very strange match. But royalty in the sixteenth century was somewhat different in attitude." She smiled. "Do you study history?" she asked Charlene.
"Ugh," Charlene said, and shuddered dramatically. "What a sick and horrible subject. Old dead people."
Joceline's eyebrows arched. "The past determines the future," she said. "For instance, did you know that in seventeenthcentury America, women were accused of witchcraft and hanged for any sort of misbehavior?" She cocked her head. "That blouse you're wearing would have landed you in a river in Massachusetts in no time. You see, there was a common belief that only witches floated when thrown into bodies of water," she added helpfully. She smiled again.
Charlene gave her a blank look. "This is the latest fashion," she pointed out. She glared at Joceline's neat black skirt, smallheeled black shoes and blue buttonup blouse. "You might have been jailed for having such awful fashion sense," she countered with contempt.
"No, no, they didn't jail people for that," Joceline replied smoothly. "They put them in stocks, but not for being conservatively dressed." She cocked her head again. "However, women who cheated on their husbands were branded with a large letter A."
Charlene cleared her throat and glared even more. "I am separated from my husband and we are in the process of a divorce."
"Really?" Joceline asked, all eyes. "Well, isn't it lucky this is the twentyfirst century?" she asked.
"I did not cheat on him!" Charlene raged.
Joceline's blue eyes were innocent. "I never insinuated such a thing!"
Charlene's face flushed. Beside her slender hips, against the expensive fabric of her slacks, her manicured hands were clenched. "The gentleman in question and I were merely having supper together after the theater! It was all lies!"
"I'm certain that it was," Joceline said with a bland smile.
Jon had been enjoying the repartee, but he quickly collected himself. "Ms. Perry, aren't you working on a case?" he asked deliberately.
She blinked. "A case, sir?" she asked.
"Followup interviews in my kidnapping court case?"
"The court case. Right." But she didn't leave.
Charlene was more irritated than ever. She grabbed her purse. "I see that it's an inconvenient time for us to talk," she told Jon. She went close to him, enveloping him in expensive perfume that made him cough. "I'll talk to you again later, in a more
personal environment, okay?"
He cleared his throat. He wished to goodness that she'd just leave. "KK," he said, using a gamer's abbreviation for "okay."
She glared at him. "Those abbreviations are silly. You play those stupid video games, too, like your brother, don't you?" she demanded. "Well, that's another thing you'll have to work on. No woman is going to tolerate a man who games in every free minute!"
"Unless she's a gamer, too," Joceline said, smiling sweetly. "So many of us women are, these days."
Jon gaped at her.
Charlene glared at her. "It figures," she said curtly.
Joceline kept smiling. She stared pointedly at the other woman's haircut. "My goodness, did your head get caught in a blender or something?"
Jon coughed enthusiastically, trying to conceal laughter.
"I'll have you know I paid a hundred dollars for this styling cut!" Charlene raged.
Joceline held out a hand. "Please lower your voice, ma'am," she urged. "This is a federal office. No verbal outbursts are allowed."
Charlene glanced from one of them to the other with exasperation. "I will never come here again! I'll see you at Cammy's house, when you have time for civilized conversation," she said haughtily.
Jon didn't answer her. Joceline pointedly held the door open and smiled vacantly.
"Have a nice day," she told the departing woman.
Charlene was muttering to herself as she reached the outer office.
Jon let out the laugh he'd been concealing. "That was rude," he told Joceline.
She gave him a blank stare. "Was it, really?" She glanced toward the door. "Should I call her back and apologize?" she asked innocently.
"You do, and you're really fired," he threatened.
She shrugged. "Jobs aren't that hard to get for a woman who knows how to type and give free video game advice," she said. She smiled.
He waved a hand. "Go work on that brief. And what meeting do I have with an informer tonight?" he added with a frown.
"I could arrange one, if you like."
He let out a rough laugh and went back around to sit at his desk. "Cammy's driving me nuts with these prospective brides," he muttered. "I don't want to get married!" he added firmly and glared at Joceline, in the doorway.
She held out both hands. "Don't look at me! I don't want to get married, either. So if you were thinking of asking me," she added outrageously, and with a haughty look, "don't bother. My son would be devastated if we had to try to fit a third person into our Super Mario battles," she added, naming one of the more popular games.
"No worries, there, I like militarythemed games."
"And that MMORPG you play with your brother," she told him, referring to federal agent McKuen Kilraven.
"Massively multiplayer online role playing game," he translated and smiled. "I never would have suspected you of being a closet gamer."
She sighed. "Me, either," she replied. "But Markie loves them."
Her son. She had never married, but she'd been going out with a soldier who shipped out to the Middle East and never came back. It had surprised Jon that she'd had a child out of wedlock, when she was such a conservative, religious person. She never spoke of the child's father, and rarely of the child. She kept her personal life as private as Jon kept his own.
Joceline was aware of his curiosity about her. He was dishy, she thought, staring at him unconsciously, with that long, thick black hair in a ponytail down his back and that tall, lean, elegant physique. Women found him attractive, but he was standoffish. Gossip was that he'd never had a woman in his life. Both he and his brother were arch conservatives in just about everything, and neither of them had ever been known for licentious living.
Joceline put that thought out of her mind. She knew things about him that others didn't. In the five years she'd been with the office, watching him work in the field office's Violent Crimes Squad, she often held her breath when he went to work on the kidnapping cases that were his specialty. He had a special interest in human trafficking, particularly of children. He was a bulldog when he was working a case. It was one of many things Joceline admired about him.
Joceline wondered what Jon thought of her morals, knowing that she had a son and no husband. Markie had been a surprise; a shock, really. He was the one beautiful thing in her world, but news of his existence had not been good news at the time. She had told everyone that his father had been a good friend, home on leave from the military, and on the outs with a longtime girlfriend who'd dumped him. Joceline had commiserated with him. They frequently went out together in a platonic way, but that night they'd both had too much to drink. That was her story. But it wasn't quite true.
Joceline had been unsettled and uncertain about going through with the pregnancy at all. There were so many reasons why she should have ended it. But her love for the child's father, who would never know about him, made it impossible to go to a clinic. Such a dangerous, explosive secret she kept.
"I said," Jon repeated impatiently, "do you have the case files downloaded into my notebook computer for the court appearance?"
She blinked. "Sorry. What court appearance?"
He scowled. "The one you said I was going to be late for, the Rodriguez child abduction case. I thought it was next week."
"It is next week," she told him, with pursed lips.
He shook his head. "Just as well," he replied. "Another five minutes of discussion on new hairstyles and I think I'd have gone to the window and jumped out."
She gave him a bland look. "We're on the first floor," she reminded him.
"I meant, I'd have jumped out and hit the ground running," he amended.
"Isn't that what Detective Sergeant Rick Marquez did, when a thief stole his laptop?" she recalled, chuckling. "And he got a citation for indecent exposure because he didn't put on any clothes when he went after the man?" She shook her head. "I understand the police department is still riding him high about it."
He chuckled, too. "Marquez is a conundrum. He'll make lieutenant one day, mark my words."
"I believe it."
The phone rang. She smiled, went out and closed the door.
The next morning, Joceline was almost half an hour late for work. When she came in, there were dark circles under her eyes and stress lines in her young face. She
was only twentysix, but she looked much older. She put her purse in her drawer and looked up as Jon appeared, impatiently, in his doorway.
"Sorry, sir," she said in a subdued tone. "I overslept."
His black eyes narrowed. "I haven't said much about it, but this is happening pretty often lately."
She flushed. "I realize that. I'm very sorry."
She was conscientious. She wouldn't do menial tasks, like bringing coffee, but she was the most competent paralegal he'd ever known. She did her job, she never goofed off and she did whatever the work required, even staying late without pay if it came down to it. It wasn't like her to party, so if she overslept, it had to be for another reason.
He came to stand in front of the desk. "What's wrong, Joceline?" he asked in a tone so gentle that tears stung her eyes.
She bit her lip to contain them. "Personal problems, sir," she said huskily. She held up a hand when he started to speak. "I can't
discuss them. I'm sorry. I'll try very hard to be on time from now on."
He wondered if her problem was a new man in her life. He didn't like that thought. Then he was surprised that he was thinking it. Joceline was his assistant. Her private life was none of his business. Except that they'd been together for several years and he was concerned about her.
"If you need help," he began.
She smiled stiffly. "Thank you, sir, but I manage very well."
"What do I have on the agenda for today?" he asked, and cleared the way for business.
He was getting ready to leave for lunch with his brother, McKuen Kilraven, when Joceline came to the doorway. She wasn't smiling.
"What's up?" he asked.
She hesitated. "They cut Harold Monroe loose this morning."
He rolled his eyes. "Is my life insurance policy current?" he drawled.
She shook her head. "It isn't funny. I mean, Monroe manages to fumble everything he does, but he did attack a policeman with a Bowie knife when you had him arrested."
It was ironic that another man who'd made terrible threats to Jon earlier in the year had died of a heart attack in prison the day before he was due to be released. Joceline had thought her boss was safe, and had breathed a sigh of relief. But it didn't last. A few days later, Monroe was arrested for human trafficking and charged and swore vengeance against the people who had landed him in jail, including Jon.
"Monroe came at the policeman with a Bowie knife, tripped on the carpet, went headoverheels and stuck the knife in his own leg," he reminded her with twinkling black eyes. "Then he tried to have the policeman prosecuted for assault."