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MOUTH TO MOUTH
By Erin McCarthy
BRAVA BOOKSCopyright © 2005 Erin McCarthy
All right reserved.
Chapter One"He's not going to show."
Russ Evans didn't even spare fellow detective Jerry Anders a glance, eyes trained on the coffee shop and the woman inside sitting alone. "Ten more minutes."
Jerry didn't protest, but Russ felt him shift in agitation, the heels of his shoes crunching in the hard-packed snow. Russ knew Jerry was cold, because he was, too. Hell, cold was an understatement. His nuts were completely numb. January winds were creeping in under his nylon jacket, and his fingers were stiff wrapped around the binoculars he was using to watch the door of the coffee shop.
But discomfort was part of the job, and he wasn't going to be hanging his badge up anytime soon. In fact, he loved being in Special Operations, got a kick from the watching and the waiting and the thinking-cold nuts or not-because in the end there was nothing like slapping the cuffs on slimeballs.
"He's standing her up."
Thoughtful, Russ scanned the nearly deserted parking lot. Nothing. Their target, petty con artist and first-class bastard, Trevor Dean, was nowhere to be found and it didn't add up. There was no reason to think Dean had figured out the cops were waiting for him, but it wasn't like Dean to pass up a chance to meet a woman.
Women were Dean's source of income, and he liked to live well beyond his means.
"Not his usual type, is she?" Russ took another hard stare at the petite woman sitting in the shop with a cup of coffee in her hand, a thick pink scarf wrapped around her neck. The view of her face was obscured by the glass, the coffee steam, and the rich blond hair that fell over her cheek, but Russ could see enough to feel the prickles of intuition tripping up his spine. Something was off here.
"You mean she's not butt-ugly?" Jerry cupped his hands and blew into them.
Russ laughed. "No. Look for yourself." He handed over the binoculars. "And Dean's women aren't ugly, they're just ... plain."
"Just plain ugly, maybe." Jerry studied the blonde. "But this one's not bad. Good hair, tight sweater-I'm liking it. Hey, she just licked her lips, did a little nervous tongue thing. Do that again, honey."
"Glad you're enjoying yourself." Russ stamped up and down a little to get the blood flowing in his legs.
"Well, my pants are warmer anyway."
"But don't you think it's strange that this woman looks so different? I don't like it when a con changes a pattern without reason. He's been going after plain women, earning their trust. Letting them think he's in love with them, then stealing everything they've got-and it's been working. That we know of, he's hauled off a hundred thousand bucks so far. And there's probably been more. So why do anything different?"
Binoculars still stuck to his eyes, Jerry murmured, "Maybe this one isn't for business. Maybe this one is just for pleasure."
Russ hauled himself off the brick wall of the bookstore across the street and pitched the cigarette he'd been holding down into a snowdrift, where it sizzled. He'd been hanging onto the thing just in case they were spotted. It would look less suspicious, like he'd just stepped outside the store for a smoke. He dug a cinnamon disk out of his pocket, unwrapped it, and popped it into his mouth.
Crunching on his candy, Russ said, "Like a girlfriend, huh? A real one?" He bent over and picked the butt back up once it stopped burning and dropped it in the pocket of his jacket. "You could be onto something, Anders."
"What can I say? I'm a deep thinker."
"Bullshit." Russ grabbed the binoculars off of Jerry's face. "Pick your tongue back up off the ground before it freezes to the concrete."
"So if Dean's got a girlfriend, why's he standing her up?"
"Because you can stand up your girlfriend. 'Sorry babe, I got held up' and all that shit. You can't do that with a woman you're trying to con." You don't piss off the meal ticket.
Jerry snorted. "Maybe you can stand up your girlfriend and get away with it, but Pam would rip me a new one if I did that. Of course, you don't got a girlfriend, because nobody will put up with your ugly mug."
"I don't have a girlfriend because I don't want one. I'll stick to casual sex. You can keep all that other crap that goes with a relationship." Russ didn't have time for it. Between his job and raising his little brother, Sean, he barely had time to go to the john. And he'd never met a woman yet who didn't make things more complicated than they needed to be.
"You're a cold man, Evans. But someday you're going to get knocked on your ass by some woman and I'm going to be there taking pictures."
Russ only half-heard Jerry razzing him as he puzzled over the blonde waiting for Dean. If this woman was Dean's girlfriend, was she in on the con? What did she know? And could she be coerced into talking?
Stuffing the binoculars in his pocket alongside the cigarette butt, he started across the street.
"Where the hell are you going?"
"Stay here a minute, Anders. I'm going in the shop, get a better look at this chick. I've got a feeling about her ..."
"Yeah, I just bet you've got a feeling," Jerry grumbled. "Fine, leave me out here freezing my ass off while you check out the blonde. I'm waiting in the goddamn car."
Russ grinned over his shoulder. "Don't be such a whiner, Jesus. If you're quiet, maybe I'll even bring you a coffee."
"Do that, Evans. So I can spill it on your lap."
The warm air from the shop hit Russ as he opened the door, enveloping him in the scent of coffee beans and chocolate. The bell announced his entrance and the spike-haired guy working the counter glanced over, gave him a head nod. "Hey, how's it going?"
"Good." Russ waited for the blonde to look up, but she didn't. She was reading a magazine, a strand of her hair wrapped around a finger and pulled across her lips.
She didn't look capable of theft. She looked sweet and innocent, her fleece scarf making her look like an overzealous Old Navy employee on her coffee break. But Russ knew looks were deceiving. He'd seen the most evil hearts lurking behind pretty faces.
His fingers were still frozen, so he went to order himself a coffee. Then he would feel the blonde out, see where she fit in this puzzle so he could track down Dean. The chalkboard menu was riddled with flavors and blends, iced and hot, mochas and javas and lattes, and he gave up trying to read it. "I just want a cup of coffee. Black."
The guy wiped his hands on his green apron. "What kind of bean? You can pick from these." He pointed to the case of seventeen different bean flavors.
"Oh, Jesus Christ." Scanning the variety of French this, vanilla that, winter roast-whatever the hell that was-and hazelnut, he said, "Just give me something with no flavor. Something that just tastes like coffee."
The clerk smirked a little. "You know, there's a Perkins down the street. They have that bottomless coffeepot deal going on."
Wiseass. Russ was debating flashing his badge to scare the little punk when he heard someone call, "Russ!"
Startled, he turned to see the blonde rising from her table, a welcoming smile dancing over her face. "I'm so glad you made it, Russ! I've been really looking forward to meeting you."
What the ...
Knock him over with a fucking feather, the woman knew his name.
She reached him, took both of his hands and squeezed. She knew his name, looked pleased to see him. He was holding hands with Dean's girlfriend and didn't have a clue what was going on. "Hi," he said.
Wow, that was really thinking on his feet.
"Maybe she can pick a bean for you," the coffee clerk said.
Russ turned and shot a glare at the guy, who just shrugged.
"Oh, go ahead and get your coffee, Russ. I'm sitting right over there when you're done." She pointed to her table, gave him another squeeze and smile, then let go.
How the hell did she know his name, he wondered as he watched her walk. And how had she poured herself into those black pants? That was one beautiful backside. Which was probably the point. Maybe her job was to lure him, confuse him, distract him with sex.
It wasn't going to work. Or at least not completely. He was only slightly distracted.
"Give me any damn coffee you want," he told the clerk.
If the woman was Dean's girlfriend and knew he was a cop, why would she acknowledge him? To throw him off balance?
The coffee boy handed him a cup with a gripper wrapped around it and punched buttons on the register. "Three twenty-six."
"For a cup of coffee?" That pulled him out of his jumbled thoughts. "That is a total rip-off."
"Perkins, man, I tried to tell you."
Russ paid reluctantly, figuring that worked out to about a quarter a sip. Anders wasn't going to be getting any coffee at three twenty-six a cup. The blonde was folding up her magazine, tucking it into an enormous oatmeal-colored bag. To buy time, since he didn't exactly know what to say to her, he walked slowly then set his cup down on her table.
She tucked her hair behind her ear. "Did I mess up the time? I can't keep track of anything it seems, but I thought we said seven."
So she was Laurel. They had known nothing about this woman, just that Dean's latest victim had found a note among the scattered junk he had abandoned before skipping out with a cool ten grand that didn't belong to him. The department investigating Dean had lucked out when the victim had come forward. Most were too embarrassed, but this one had been willing to divulge all she knew, including the note Dean had written.
Laurel Wednesday 7 @ Starbucks, 117th
They'd been waiting outside based on that, hoping Dean would show and they could take him down to the station for a few questions. Then slap his ass in a cell.
But there was no Dean, and who was this woman?
Russ decided to play dumb for a while and see what information he could get from her. He didn't want to give her the upper hand if she was Dean's partner, though his gut was already screaming that didn't fit. Something was way off, and he had to figure out what it was.
Studying the red-and-purple cubic art print to the left of her head, he rubbed his jaw, proceeding with caution. "You're right. It was seven. Sorry I'm late."
She touched his hand on the table, gave it a soft stroke before letting go. "Can you face me when you speak? I'm deaf, remember?"
Deaf? No, he didn't remember that. He'd never known that. Jesus. Russ snapped his jaw shut. For a split second he wondered if she was lying, but then he realized she had the flat, nasal voice that characterized deaf speech.
Her hand moved across the side of her face in a sign language gesture he didn't understand. "I can't read your lips when you're turned."
Due to quick wit and good reflexes, he only sat there blank-faced for twenty seconds or so. Then even though he didn't know if he was coming or going, he forced a smile onto his face. "I'm sorry, I wasn't thinking. And I'm sorry I'm late." He gave a little laugh that sounded more demented than charming, but he was trying, despite feeling poleaxed. "This isn't a good first impression, is it, Laurel?"
He tossed her name in to confirm what he was already certain of-that it belonged to her. Her lack of reaction to it now told him she really was Laurel. Being this close to her also made it obvious she wasn't plain like Dean's other victims, not by any stretch of the imagination. And as far as he knew, none of the other women had been deaf either. He wasn't sure if that was relevant, but he wanted to know.
If she was a victim, that is.
"You're taller than I pictured," she said, her hands gesturing while she spoke. "And cuter."
Somehow she didn't make it sound like a compliment. Yet she was smiling coyly from under long, thick lashes. There was something about her ... an innocence, or naïveté, that made him uncomfortable. Which was freaking ridiculous. For all he knew, she was as big a con as Dean. Innocence could be faked.
Deciding to test it, he pushed back the bill of his baseball hat and readjusted it. "Thanks. And you're much more attractive than I expected."
It was true, even though he said it to gauge her reaction.
Laurel didn't blush or stammer or smile flirtatiously. Instead she just looked pleased. And it made him ninety-nine percent sure she was a con artist's wet dream, not his girlfriend.
The situation was worse than any Russ could have envisioned. She wasn't butt-ugly at all. In fact, she was downright hot, and it aggravated the hell out of him. He was trying to think, to concentrate on sorting this new development out, and he was completely distracted by the fact that her leg kept knocking into his. There were showy pretty women, and model-gorgeous women, and then there were women like Laurel. Sweet and soft and sexy, with an innocent sensuality radiating off her pink skin. She was beautiful, damn it.
Her hair was the color of split pine, with lots of darker and lighter streaks running through it, making it interesting to look at. Eyes like lake water, and rich cherry-red lips that jutted forward in a permanent pout. That off-white sweater she was wearing hugged a couple of really nice breasts, and despite the coffee aroma hanging in the air, he could swear he could smell her. Sweet and sugary, like a fresh bag of cotton candy.
If he were scum like Dean, he would string this woman along for a long, long time, taking everything she had to give-emotionally, physically, financially-enjoying every second along the way. So where was the bastard?
"Well, I wanted to e-mail you a picture of me, but I was too chicken. Which wasn't fair of me, since I knew what you looked like. I looked you up in your high school yearbook."
Russ lifted an eyebrow. This just got weirder and weirder. "How did you get a hold of my high school yearbook?" And damn, what had he looked like back then? Bad hair and acne, probably. Arms that looked like they'd gone through the taffy pull, thin and rangy, like his thirteen-year-old brother, Sean.
"Michelle Ganosky gave it to me. Remember Michelle? She's the one who saw your name in the reunion chat and suggested I introduce myself."
"Michelle?" Russ couldn't remember women he'd dated two weeks ago, he sure in the hell wasn't going to remember a girl from high school. Unless he'd slept with her, but he couldn't exactly ask Laurel about that.
Then his memory jogged. "Oh, Michelle Ganosky. Wasn't she that ..." he trailed off, realizing he'd been about to say "deaf girl." He cleared his throat and unzipped his jacket, uncomfortable. Could he fit his size twelve feet in his mouth?
"Deaf? Yes, Michelle's deaf. That's how I know her. We went to college together for a year before I had to come back home. But I didn't tell you I knew Michelle because I didn't want you to know that I'd started talking to you intentionally, which I did. And I guess now I've told you anyway." She laughed, pushed her hair off her shoulder.
Russ was starting to get a clearer picture of what was going on here. Laurel had met someone in a high school reunion chat room. Trevor Dean. Not as Trevor Dean, but using his name, Russ Evans, the slimy motherfu ...
"Did you know I'm a cop, Laurel?"
She blinked. "Cop? Is that what you said?"
"Yes, did you know I'm a cop?"
Tense, he waited for her answer. Up to now, they'd had no reason to think Dean knew they were investigating him.
"Yes, you told me." Laurel's answer shot that assumption out of the water. His anger rose. Dean was playing with the department, dicking them around-or, more specifically, him. And dragging this woman into it.
"You told me a lot of things, Russ." Her smile was flirtatious.
He could only imagine. Infuriated at Dean, Russ shifted and hit Laurel's leg again. He jerked it back quickly, aware of her sharp intake of breath.
"Laurel, I'm not the man you've been talking to online. I don't even own a computer." He'd probably throw the thing out the window if he did. He had trouble sitting still and no patience for technology.
Laurel just frowned at him.
"Do you know Trevor Dean?"
"Who?" She fiddled with the ends of her scarf, over and over, her fingers always moving. They flowed in sign language when she spoke, and when she wasn't talking, they were still wiggling, plucking, fluttering.
He wanted to draw those fingers into his mouth and suck them.
Russ rubbed his eyes. That was nice and inappropriate. Jesus.
"I don't know anyone named whatever Dean, and I don't understand what's going on here."
Russ did. Laurel wasn't a sophisticated con artist's girlfriend. She was either fun on the side for Dean, to flirt with online, or she was his next target.
Russ wasn't about to let that happen.
Not on his watch.
Not to this woman.
And maybe Laurel could help him catch a thief.
Excerpted from MOUTH TO MOUTH by Erin McCarthy Copyright © 2005 by Erin McCarthy. Excerpted by permission.
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