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"Dude, I can't believe your luck with women."
"That's not luck, my friend. That's an abundance of charm," Detective Diego Sandoval offered with a wicked grin. "And the simple fact that I love women."
And with a few painful exceptions, women loved him right back.
Something that came in handy when he was charming information, and a cast-iron frying pan, out of a three-hundred-pound mass of quivering fury.
"I've never seen anyone so pissed, though. When you arrested her old man, I thought she was gonna knock you on your butt. By the time you left, you had her ready to testify against the dirtbag, handing over evidence and offering to make you a bologna sandwich."
Diego shrugged. He was a cop. That was his job, his focus, his entire life. He did whatever it took to break a case. "Try chilling a woman down while she's aiming a sawed-off shotgun at your goods."
Following Diego up the steps of the large brick building that housed the Central California Sheriff's Field Operations Bureau, Chris Carson shook his head. In admiration or in disdain, it didn't matter to Diego. He was all about the job and he devoted 100 percent to it. He didn't have time to worry about other people's opinions or doing the buddy thing. That's what made him one of the best.
"Someday, Sandoval, you're gonna meet a challenge you can't charm your way through," Chris said as they strode down the hall toward the patrol and investigation offices.
Diego's grin slipped a notch.
"Someday" had happened at birth. Diego had heard tell over the years about such a thing as motherly love, but he'd never experienced it himself. Hell, his mother had barely tolerated him. His learning to talk had been her breaking point. At three, he'd begun the loser shuffle between the rigid disapproval of his uncle Leon's house and the dismissive foster home's revolving door. Every couple of years, his mom would feel the guilt and haul him back. But those dance breaks never lasted.
No matter. That was then. Diego only cared about now.
"Most women don't need weapons," he told the younger man, leading the way through the bullpen. "Mother Nature made sure they were born armed and dangerous."
Before they reached Diego's desk, one of the other cops shouted his name.
"Captain called down a half hour ago, Sandoval. He wants to see you."
"Yeah?" Diego tossed his leather jacket over the back of his chair, then lifted the stack of file folders off the corner of his desk to find one that Chris had been looking for before they left earlier.
The room chilled. Chris grimaced, glancing around for an escape route.
Diego flipped through folders anyway. He wasn't oblivious to the potential drama. He just didn't give a damn. The case was what mattered and he was sure he had one that tied in with the bust they'd just made. If Chris moved on it, they could nail this drug dealer for twice as long.
"I can get the file later," Chris muttered. "Kinnison hates waiting."
"He's waited a half hour. Two more minutes isn't going to matter."
The chill in the room turned antsy, nervous.
Diego kept right on flipping files. For a bunch of seasoned cops, these guys were way too intimidated by the new brass. Captain Kinnison had been on the job for three months, but it'd taken him only two weeks to institute a new order in the station house. An order heavy on rules, regulations and protocol. And politics. All things Diego didn't give a rat's ass about.
Something that hadn't earned him any points with his new boss. Despite that, though, word had come down two days before that he was up for a coveted transfer to the San Francisco Sheriff Department, complete with a promotion to Homicide.
For the most part, Diego was the cocky, lone wolf his uncle claimed him to be. One who didn't look for back pats, didn't see the promotion as a big deal. But a little, rarely acknowledged part of him was like a kid on Christmas who'd just found his secretly dreamed-of present under the treeproof that while he might not be the favorite, Santa still thought he was on the right list.
The move to San Francisco was ideal. Fresno was getting claustrophobic, like the small towns Diego had hated when he was growing up. The promotion to Homicide validated everything he'd done, everything he was. And he was up for it because he was a damn good detective with the highest close rate in Fresno County. Not because of ass kissing and cronyism. Ironic that by insisting on doing things his way, he'd garnered a file full of commendations and a fast-track to big-deal promotion. He'd finally done something that disproved his uncle's and uptight cousins' assertion that he'd never amount to jack.
"Sandoval, in my office. Now."
The command was quiet. Intense. And seriously pissed.
"Good luck," Chris muttered, knocking a chair into Diego's desk in his rush to get away.
"Hey," Diego called before he could get too far. The deputy grimaced, shooting a quick glance over Diego's shoulder before taking the file folder he held out.
Diego tossed the rest of the stack on his desk, ignoring its precarious slide toward the edge. Then he turned to face the captain's stony stare.
"On my way, sir."
Diego had a brief vision of walking the plank toward a very large, very hungry shark. Then he shrugged it off. What was the worst the guy could do? Take a bite out of his ass? Diego stepped into the office. The captain, already seated behind his large desk, inclined his head toward the door. Shutting it behind him, Diego took a seat. Good. Ass bitings were always better done in private.
His face as hard as the oak of his desk, Kinnison didn't waste time with games.
"The D.A. has some issues with yet another of your cases, Detective Sandoval. Since we've had similar chats so often over the past few months, I'm sure you're aware of how much I dislike hearing that you didn't follow procedure. Again. By not playing by the rules, you've compromised the prosecutor's chances of getting a conviction. Again."
A dozen arguments ran through Diego's mind, but he clenched his jaw shut and waited.
"You threatened Geoffrey Leeds with" the captain made a show of looking at the paper in front of him, even though they both knew he didn't need to "an offer to wrap his large intestine around his throat and choke him with it."
"Offer being the operative word, sir," Diego pointed out.
"I didn't threaten. I offered."
"And the difference is?"
"He could have said no. He didn't have to tell me the details of the porn ring he and his buddies were running in the high school gymnasium."
Captain Kinnison's stare could have made a polar bear shiver. Before the older man hauled out his lecture on semanticsagainDiego inclined his head toward the file.
"Didn't the D.A. read the letter Leeds signed, stating that he was volunteering the information of his own free will?"
"He read it. But he feels, as do I, that the defendant might have signed under duress," Kinnison said, a small, tight smile puckering his thin lips. "Which puts yet another open-and-shut case in question, thanks to your methods, Detective."
Kinnison had no interest in hearing a defense, so Diego kept his mouth closed and waited.
The captain didn't make him wait long. He set the file down, then held up a letter. With the morning sun shining through the window behind Kinnison, the logo of the San Francisco Sheriff's Department was visible through the thin paper.
He'd seen enough of them to recognize a job assessment form.
"Detective Sandoval, you're up for a promotion and transfer."
Damn. Diego tried to tell himself that not getting the promotion wasn't a big deal. He wasn't looking for a ladder to climb. His ego didn't ride on outside kudos.
But, he acknowledged with an inner grimace, he wanted that job. Wanted the challenge of working Homicide. Wanted, intensely, to get the hell out from under Kinni-son's watch. Wanted it all so bad he could taste the bitter disappointment as he watched it slide out of his grasp.
"You have a strong record with the department," Kinnison mused, running the letter through his manicured fingers in contemplation. "Your peers respect you. The commissioner feels that your close rate is high enough to offset the cases lost by your roughshod style and disregard for regulations. Captain Ferris in SF Homicide is willing to consider your promotion based on my recommendation."
"But?" There was always a but.
"But there are some issues. The first being that you're not a team player. Add to that your lack of respect for protocol, your inability to follow orders and the way you blithely dance all over procedure. I can't, in good conscience, give you a positive evaluation."
Fury and frustration churned in Diego's gut. It was one thing to lose a promotion because he wasn't good enough, wasn't smart enough or just didn't have what it took. But to lose out because he didn't dot his freaking i's and put tidy crosses on his t's? Screw that.
"So you're going to, what? Withhold recommendation?" The mental image of Diego's uncle, wearing the same smug, arrogant expression as the captain, flashed through his head. The old man had always said that Diego's rebellious attitude would be his downfall. Maybe he should drop him a note, let him know he was still right.
"No. Denying you recommendation might be appropriate in this situation, but it wouldn't serve me in the long term."
In other words, while Kinnison would love to screw him out of the promotion as a punishment, he'd given up on making Diego toe the line. So he'd rather get him out from under his command. He just wanted to mess with him before he did.
"Then what's the deal?" Diego asked, wondering how the guy was going to reconcile the two.
"You're going on special assignment."
And there it was. His punishment. And his last chance. That promotion was close enough to taste. And it tasted mighty sweet. But even more appealing was the chance to work under a different captain.
"What assignment, sir?"
"You'll be reporting to the mayor of Diablo Glen in the morning to investigate their little crime wave."
Diablo Glen. Tiny town, nestled in the foothills of Sequoia National Park. Too small to have its own police force, towns like that usually rented out a deputy now and then or had a low enough crime rate that they could rely on the occasional sheriff patrol.
"I don't do small towns," Diego stated, his throat tight. The truth was, he hated small towns. Close-knit, judgmental and unyielding. "My skills are better suited to cities. There isn't a whole lot of vice in the boonies."
"Oh, you'd be surprised." His smile about as friendly as a shark's, the Captain leaned forward to hand a file across the desk. Smelling a trap, Diego hesitated for a second before taking it.
"Diablo Glen has need of your services, Detective. This crime is right up your alley. It seems they have a series of rather odd burglaries."
"My specialty is vice, not burglary."
"The line is blurry in this case." The captain inclined his head again, this time toward the file.
Trapped, Diego opened it. Thirty seconds later, he shook his head. "No way. Absolutely not."
"You're refusing a direct order from a commanding officer, Detective?"
The older man didn't have to voice the threat. It hung there over their heads like a swinging blade, glinting right over Diego's neck. As much as he wanted Diego out from under his command, the guy would veto the promotion if he didn't get his way. Fury and frustration battled for supremacy in Diego's belly as he glared.
"I have no choice at all?"
"None," the captain verified with a smile as wide and satisfied as a cat in a fully stocked mouse house. "You are now assigned to the tiny little town of Diablo Glen until their mayor is satisfied that you've solved this case. And you will solve it by the book. No hotdogging, no skirting the system. To do so, you'll have to play nice with the locals. And you'll have to show the utmost respect for the department's rules and procedure."
Diego's jaw ached from the effort to hold back the furious rant. Finally, when he was sure he wouldn't spew swearwords and abuse, he inclined his head. "I'm going out on a limb here and guessing that my closing this case, your way, is mandatory if you're going to sign off on my promotion."
"Exactly, Detective. You want your promotion, you need to catch a panty thief."