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Conversations stopped and heads swiveled toward her as Erin Powell walked into the meeting room on the third floor of the Lakewood Police Department. Since she was the first citizen to arrive for the Citizen's Police Academy program, the people staring at her were men and women "in blue." The Lakewood, Michigan, police department, however, wore black uniforms, which she believed matched one particular officer's soul.
Despite all the stares, her gaze was drawn to his. Sergeant Kent Terlecki's steely-gray eyes must have been how he'd earned his nickname Bullet. She had asked the blond-haired man a couple of times for an explanation of his moniker, but he had shrugged off that question, just as he'd shrugged off most of her others. Some public information officer he'd proved to be for the department a media liaison who wouldn't deal with the media.
Ignoring the unwelcoming looks and the awkward silence, Erin squared her shoulders and walked across the room toward where all the officers stood against the far wall. She dropped her organizer onto a table, the thud echoing in the large space.
As if he intended to cite her for disturbing the peace, Terlecki stalked over to her. His long-legged strides closed the distance between them in short order.
"Speak of the devil," she murmured.
"I'm not, but that doesn't stop you from demonizing me," he accused as he held out a folded section of the Lakewood Chronicle.
Satisfaction filled her as she stared down at the article she had writtenabout him. She wanted everyone to see Kent Terlecki as the fraud he really was, and so she had titled her article, Public Information Officer's Desperate PR Ploy.
"Did I hit a nerve?" she asked, tipping up her chin to meet that hard gaze of his. While she was above average height, he was taller, with broad shoulders. But he didn't intimidate her, although she suspected he tried.
"You'd have to actually write a grain of truth to hit a nerve, so I don't think there's any chance that you'll ever do that, Ms. Powell."
Ignoring the sting of his insult, Erin smiled and asked, "If you think I'm such a hack, why did you let me into the class?"
The paper rustled as he clenched his hand into a fist. "Despite what your article claims, I'm not in charge of the Citizen's Police Academynot as a desperate maneuver to improve the department's image or my own. Neither needs improving."
"Really?" She lifted a brow skeptically. "According to the last poll in the Chronicle, the public believes the Lakewood PD could use some improvement."
"That poll was hardly fair," he griped. "There was no option for 'no improvement necessary.'"
"Of course you would think no improvement was necessary."
He lifted the paper. "Instead of writing about me, you should have written about the true purpose of this program."
"And what is that?" Although she had signed up to participate, she wasn't entirely certain what the academy did offer.
"Watch Commander Lieutenant Patrick O'Donnell started the program three years ago so that interested members of the community could learn more about the department, about police procedure and about the challenges officers face while doing their job."
His words grated her nerves. Whenever Terlecki actually deigned to speak, it was always in the form of a press release. To irritate him, she arched a brow and scoffed, "You have challenges?"
He sighed. "I have you, Ms. Powell."
"Oh, so if it was up to you, I wouldn't be here." She had already guessed as much.
The sergeant planted his palms on the table between them and leaned forward until his face nearly touched hers. With his square jaw clenched, he lowered his voice and murmured, "If it was up to me "
Erin drew in a shaky breath and braced herself as a rush of adrenaline quickened her pulse and warmed her skin. It had to be adrenaline; she could not be attracted to this man.
"If it was up to you?" she pressed.
His pupils widened until black swallowed the gray irises. "I'd"
"I hope I didn't miss anything," a woman interrupted as she rushed up to join them.
Sergeant Terlecki stepped back. "Not at all. Class hasn't started yet," he assured her, before turning and walking back to his fellow officers.
Erin released the breath she'd been holding, as the other woman emitted a lusty sigh.
"Oh, I think I did miss something," the newcomer insisted, staring after Terlecki.
Erin pushed her organizer farther down the table and settled onto a chair away from the younger woman. Erin was the one who'd missed somethinghearing about whatever Sergeant Kent Terlecki wanted to do to her. But given the articles she wrote about how inept he was at his job, at keeping the public informed, she could guess .
He wanted to wring her pretty little neck. Kent relaxed his fingers, which had clutched the Chronicle so tightly the newsprint had torn. He tossed it on the table behind which most of the officers were talking amongst themselves, as the citizens filed in for class.
The watch commander, Lieutenant Patrick O'Donnell, glanced up from marking notes on index cards. "So what's her deal with you?" he asked, nodding toward Erin Powell. "Did you break her heart?"
Kent snorted. "I doubt she actually has a heart. Or a soul."
Paddy, as he was called by his friends, chuckled. "How do you really feel about her?"
Kent wished he knew. She was so damn infuriating, yet she fascinated him, too. "I think I need my head examined for agreeing to let her join the academy."
Paddy narrowed his eyes, which were nearly the same reddish brown color of his hair, and scrutinized Kent. "I left it up to you. I would have been happy to decline her application."
Paddy had begun the Lakewood Citizen's Police Academy before he'd been promoted to watch commander, but even after his promotion, he continued as lead instructor. The program was his pet project and meant a lot to the lieutenant.
"I'm sorry about her article," Kent murmured.
Paddy shrugged. "Why? You can't control what she writes."
No, he couldn't, despite his best efforts. She always found something wrong with his press releases about accidents or shootings. She always accused him of hiding something from the public no matter how open he was with information. "She didn't give you the credit you deserve."
The lieutenant chuckled again. "I'm perfectly happy with her not writing about me."
"That's why I okayed her joining," Kent admitted. "I'd hate to think what she would have written if you'd turned down her application." Chances are she would have accused them of conspiring against her.
He glanced over, to find her scribbling something on her ever-present pad. Since class hadn't started yet, he doubted she was jotting down notes on the CPA. She was probably working on another article about how incompetent he was in his undeserved position.
A lock of silky brown hair slid across her cheek until she pushed it behind her ear. Her eyes were the same chocolate-brown. And her figure it was tall and slender, with curves in all the right places. How could she be so damn pretty, yet such a witch?
"I'm really not worried about her writing about me," Paddy assured him. "She seems pretty focused on you"
"Too focused." Since Erin had been hired at the Chronicle a year ago, Kent had often been the subject of her articles. She was young, ambitious and obviously trying to make a name for herself, so he tried not to take it personally, but he couldn't help thinking that it was personal.
Again he looked toward the table where she sat. While the young girl who'd interrupted them waved, Erin glared at him. "I don't know what I could have done to her," he murmured.
Paddy followed his gaze. "You're sure you didn't break her heart?"
Kent shook his head. He would have remembered if he'd ever dated Erin Powell. Her dark hair skimmed the edge of her delicate jaw, emphasizing those wide brown eyes and sharp cheekbones. She was really beautiful, but he'd rather date one of the K9s than her. The police dogs were less likely to bite.
Frustration set Erin's nerves on edge. She hadn't expected much from the Citizen's Police Academy, since she was convinced that Terlecki had started it to promote the glowing image he constantly tried to sell of the police department. He had some reporters convinced he was great and wonderful; the local television networks fawned over him.
Erin had intended to make the most of joining the program, but even when the district captains and the chief had introduced the officers of the Lakewood Police Department, the public information officer had been the one who'd answered or evaded her questions.
"Chief," she called out as she followed the giant of a man down the corridor leading away from the conference room. After the chief had given his speech, the watch commander had called for a break.
Chief Archer stopped midstride and glanced at Erin over his broad shoulder. "Ms. Powell, can I help you?"
"Yes," she said, some of her frustration easing now that she had him alone. "You can answer some of my questions."
Archer grinned the infamous trust-inspiring grin that had probably helped him earn the top spot in the department at a relatively young age. "You have more? It seems Sergeant Terlecki answered everything you asked during class."
"Not the ones about him," she pointed out.
The chief tilted his head, studying her. "What would you like to know about the sergeant?"
"How did he get his cushy job as your public information officer?"
The chief's grin faded. "He earned it, Ms. Powell."
"How? What did he have to do to become your golden boy?" she persisted. The nickname she'd given Terlecki fit him more aptly than Bullet. "How many innocent people did he have to arrest?" Besides her brother.
The chief's jaw grew taut. "You really know nothing about the sergeant, Ms. Powell."
She knew more than they thought she did. Even if Terlecki remembered Mitchell, he wouldn't connect her to her half brother because of their different last names. Despite the year she'd spent scrutinizing the sergeant's reports, she hadn't found the proof she needed to free Mitchell. "He didn't hold the Lake-wood Police Department arrest record before his promotion?"
"Ms. Powell, the sergeant is"
"The one who's supposed to be answering your questions," Terlecki interjected as he joined them in the hallway. "Thank you, sir. I know you're in a hurry, so I'll handle Ms. Powell."
The chief sighed. "Kent, you should just tell her"
Terlecki interrupted again with a shake of his head, then waved off his boss as if Kent was the superior officer.
"Tell me what?" Erin asked as he wrapped his fingers around her wrist and drew her down the hall.
"Nothing you need to know," he said dismissively.
Since she'd started at the Chronicle, he had been trying to dismiss her. She tugged on her wrist, but his grasp tightened. "So this is how you're going to 'handle' me?"
After leading her into an empty room, Kent closed the door, then released her. "I'd hardly risk an accusation of police brutality, Ms. Powell. I simply thought you'd like some privacy for your interview."
Shut inside a small room with no furniture, only cardboard boxes sitting about, Erin realized how completely alone they were. Terlecki stood between her and the door, blocking her escape. Unnerved, she licked her lips and repeated his last word. "Interview?"
"You were asking the chief about me," he said, his deep voice vibrating with a hint of innuendo, as if her interest in him was personal.
Which it was, but not in the way his ego must have led him to believe.
"II " she stammered, heat rushing to her face with shame and annoyance that she had let him rattle her.
"You don't want to ask me about me?" he asked, his gray eyes glinting with amusement.
"You don't answer my questions, Sergeant," she reminded him.
"Because they're not pertinent."
"That's not for you to decide," she pointed out.
"That you're impertinent?"
She bit her lip to hold in a reaction to his insult. She couldn't let him get to her anymore; he was already much too arrogant. "It's not for you to decide what the public needs to know."
"The public?" He arched a blond brow. "I don't think the public cares how I came by my cushy job." He stepped closer. "Why do you care, Ms. Powell?"
Despite the adrenaline causing her legs to tremble, Erin refused to back away. "I'm a reporter, Sergeant."
"You don't need to remind me of that." Kent wasn't likely to forget, when all she'd ever done was fire questions at him. But sometimes, noticing how her eyes sparkled and her skin flushed when she argued with him, he forgot that she was a reporter who seemed to hate his guts, and he saw her as an exciting woman.
"Being a reporter, I have certain instincts," she continued, as if he hadn't spoken, "which are screaming at me that there's a story behind your made-up position in the department."
"Public information officer?" she scoffed. "That hardly sounds like a real job."
He stepped closer, until his badge brushed her shoulder. She was tall, even without the low heels she wore, and slender, in black pants and a lightweight red sweater. Pitching his voice low, he asked, "What do you know about positions, Ms. Powell?"
Her eyes widening, Erin stumbled back. "Sergeant!"
"Positions within the department," he explained, as if he hadn't baited her, as if he didn't enjoy rattling her cage. Hell, that was the most exciting part of his cushy job. Although she was a pain in the ass, she wasn't boring. "What did you think I meant?"
"I'm never sure," she admitted. "You talk out of both sides of your mouth."
He grinned at her insult. "Then I guess I'm good at my made-up position."
"So you admit it was?"
Kent swallowed a groan. He probably shouldn't have talked to her at all, let alone dragged her into an empty room. "And you wonder why I don't answer your questions ."
"Since you're not going to, let me out of here." Erin pushed past him to open the door and step into the hall. Beyond the conference room, in the atrium, the elevator dinged. She watched the doors close on most of the CPA participants, on their way to the ground floor.
"Look what you made me do," she declared. "I missed the last part of the class."
"Just tonight's," he reminded her. "You have fourteen more to go."
"You're not going to get me kicked out of the program?"
After what he'd heard her asking the chief, he admitted, "I'd love to."