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Scott Logan had things on his mind and a crick in his neck, both courtesy of having spent the better part of three days hunkered down in the front seat of an aging Ford Escort on an insurance fraud investigation. Despite the mental preoccupation and physical discomfort, he felt good about the successful completion of another assignment and satisfied that he'd done his job well.
His former colleagues couldn't understand why he'd walked away from the police force for this kind of work, and Scott didn't know how to explain that the job that had once meant everything to him had meant nothing after Freddie was killed.
His family, who had never comprehended his wanting to be a cop in the first place, understood his new job even less. Not that they criticized his choices so much as they were clearly baffled by them. In a family comprised of mostly whitecollar professionals, Scott had always been the odd man out.
You can do anything you want to do was Lawrence Logan's favorite mantra, and one which he repeated at every opportunity to each of his four sons. It was the kind of positive and nurturing approach he'd advocated in the self-help books that had brought him so much fame and fortune. His encouragement and support were genuine, his pride in his sons' accomplishments sincere.
He'd flown to New York to help LJ settle into his new apartment when his eldest son had accepted a position with a prestigious public relations firm, had been sitting in the front row when Ryan graduated with his architectural degree, and cried tears of joy when Jake was accepted to medical school. But when Scott announced his intention to go to the police academy, the renowned psychologist hadjust shaken his headas he'd done frequently over the thirty years of his youngest son's life.
Scott hadn't been deterred by his father's lack of support because there had been no other options for him. He'd wanted only to be a copto uphold the laws, put the bad guys in jail and help make the world a safer place. Of course, when his partner was killedgunned down in pursuit of an armed suspect who was later acquitted on a technicalityScott's faith in the system was shaken.
He banished these disquieting memories to the back of his mind as he pushed open the door to Darlene's Diner. The bell tinkled, announcing his arrival, and Darlene herself glanced up from the counter she'd been wiping down to greet him with a smile.
"How are you, Darlene?"
"Hanging in," she told him. "How about you?"
"Desperately needing my daily dose of caffeine." She was already reaching for a large foam cup.
"You haven't been in the last few days."
"Assignment," he said simply.
She glanced up at him again as she filled the cup. "You been sleeping in your car again? You look like hell."
"I haven't been getting much sleep," he admitted.
"Regardless of where I spend my nights."
"You need a good woman, sugar. A reason to go home at night." She set the coffeepot back on the element and winked at him. "And lots of steamy hot sex that wears you out so good you can't help but sleep."
"Is that an invitation?"
Darlene threw back her head and laughed.
"Sugar, you wouldn't know what to do with me if I said yes."
"How will we ever know, if you don't give me a chance?"
She snapped a lid onto the cup and slid it across the counter to him as the bell tinkled over the door again and another customer entered.
"Because despite your broad shoulders and tough-cop scowl," she told him, "you've got a heart softer than the yolks of sunny-side up eggs, and I eat guys like you for breakfast."
He frowned at that. "You must be confusing me with someone else."
"Actually, I was thinkin' it was an appropriateif somewhat bizarreanalogy," another female voice piped in from behind him.
Scott turned to see Aster Cooney, proprietor of the local salon and spa, slide onto a stool at the counter. Her hair, pink and purple today, was sticking out in tufts around her face, her eyelids were covered in glittery lime-green shadow and her lips were painted orange. In a denim miniskirt that hugged her round hips and a lime green T-shirt, she should have looked ridiculous. But somehow she managed to appear almost stylish, if a little flamboyant.
"Good morning, Aster," he said, inwardly cursing himself for lingering to flirt with Darlene.
Not that he didn't like Aster. On the contrary, she was one of his favorite people in the worldopen and honest and incredibly gutsy. And he usually enjoyed her company, but he felt at a distinct disadvantage now, knowing that she and Darlene would gang up on him over some issue or another.
"You're gettin' an early start today," Aster said. Then she turned to Darlene. "Decaf vanilla latte and a toasted cinnamon raisin bagel with cream cheese, please."
"I've been out of the office for the last three," he told her, as Darlene turned away to take care of the new order. "Lots of paperwork to catch up on."
"You look tense," she said, not unsympathetically. "I could squeeze you in for a massage around three, if you want."
"I'm fine," he said.
"I was just telling Scott how he needs a woman's hands on him," Darlene told Aster, then grinned.
"Only I wasn't talking about a back massage."
Aster nodded her agreement. "That might be just what he needsbut only if it's the right woman."
Today, the topic of their interest was his personal lifeor rather his lack of one. He admittedly hadn't dated much since breaking up with his longtime girlfriend a couple years earlier, but that was his own choice. And he had no intention of sticking around for their diagnosis of his dating problems because he was perfectly content with his life.
"Thanks for the insights, ladies," he said, tossing a couple of bills onto the counter. "But I'm already behind schedule and really need to run."
"You should do that," Aster surprised him by agreeing. "Because the way she kept glancin' at her watch, I doubt she'll wait much longer."
"Shewho?" Darlene asked the question before he could.
"The gorgeous dark-haired woman who's standin' outside the door of his office buildin'."
Scott frowned. "She isn't waiting for me." Aster shrugged. "Even if she isn't, she just might be the one you've been waitin' for."
"Aster," he said warningly.
"Go on. You can tell me later that I was wrong" she grinned "or not."
Scott left the diner certain that Aster was wrong. He knew he didn't have any appointments this morning because he'd asked his secretary to clear his schedule for the entire week, not sure how long he'd be tied up with the insurance investigation. His only pressing concern now, and the reason for his early arrival at the office, was dealing with the paperwork and e-mails and telephone messages that would have piled up during his absence. But maybe one of the other investigators
The thought fizzled abruptly when he rounded the corner of the building and saw her standing there. And in the back of his mind came the assurance that Aster wasn't wrong about one thing: the woman was gorgeous.
His police training kicked in to make a more detailed assessment: Hispanic, five feet four inches tall, a hundred and twenty pounds, approximately twenty-five to thirty years of age. Long, dark hair tied into a braid that fell to the middle of her back, darker eyes, wide full lips, and dressed in hospital scrubs with white running shoes on her feet. It was an impartial and professional appraisal, but what came next was a purely involuntary and completely male evaluation: sensual, seductive, sexy.
She was petite, and he usually liked his women tallerlong and leggy. But she had curves that would make any man's mouth water and lips that promised a taste of paradise. Though the punch of arousal that hit low in his belly was unexpected, it wasn't unwelcome. It was always good to know dead even if his heart had long ago been buried beneath the unforgivable weight of grief and guilt. "Scott Logan?" she asked, when he stepped closer.
His hesitant response was immediately rewarded with a warm smile, and he felt a quick rush of heat through his veins.
She really wasn't his type. But there was something about her that called to him on a primal levelor maybe it was just that Darlene and Aster's teasing remarks in the diner had reminded him that it had been a very long time since he'd been with a woman.
"I was afraid you wouldn't get here before I had to leave for work," the woman said.
Her voice was as soft and seductive as her smile, and he almost didn't hear the words he was so caught up in the enjoyment of the sounds rolling off of her tongue. Then he realized she was waiting for him to say something, and he forced his brain to wrestle control away from his suddenly overactive hormones to respond to her statement.
"Do we have an appointment?" he asked, starting to question his earlier conviction that they did not. Maybe Caroline had booked it after he'd called yesterday afternoon to tell her that he'd be in the office this morning.
"No," she admitted. "But I was hoping you could squeeze me in, anyway."
He glanced at his watch, as if he were considering the request. But the truth was, he was intrigued enough by the woman to want to listen to whatever she had to say. Especially if she continued to speak in that smoothly melodic tone that made him think of steamy nights and steamier sex.
Whoa. He immediately reined in the shockingly unprofessional thought, surprisedand a little ashamedat the purely visceral reaction he was having to this woman. It was Darlene's fault, he rationalized again. He wouldn't be having such inappropriate ideas if she hadn't started him thinking about how long it had been since he'd had a woman in his bed.
"Why don't you come in?" he offered, inserting his key into the lock.
She waited until he'd punched in the code to disarm the security system before she followed him through the door. He flipped on lights as he made his way toward his office at the end of the hall, conscious of her presence behind him, wondering what had brought her here so early in the morning.
Did she want him to check up on a spouse whom she suspected was unfaithful? He hadn't seen a ring on her finger, but he knew that wasn't conclusive evidence of anything. And while securing evidence of infidelity wasn't one of his favorite assignments, it was, regrettably, a regular one. Still, he had to wonder at the stupidity of a man who could have a woman like this one in his bed and still look elsewhere for pleasure. Of course, it wasn't his place to speculate or judge, only to do the job he was hired to do.
He settled in behind his desk and pushed the stack of unopened mail aside.
"I'd offer you coffee, but this" he held up his foam cup "is all I've got until my secretary gets in. Caroline's very proprietary about the coffeepot."
She lowered herself onto the edge of one of the visitor chairs facing his desk and folded her hands in her lap. "I'm fine, thanks."
Scott took a long sip from his cup, hoping the infusion of caffeine would jump-start his brain and help keep it one step ahead of his hormones. "Why did you want to see me?"
"I need you to get my brother out of prison." The unexpected statement jolted him even more than her presence, followed quickly by a pang of disappointment.
"I'm sorry, Miss"
"Juarez," she said. "Alicia Juarez."