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He arrived late to the wedding reception, but that was par for the course for Hudson Vale. He would probably be late to his own wedding, in the unlikely event he ever got married.
A young valet with frizzy brown hair and big black glasses took the keys to his Z, whistling in appreciation. "Awesome. You restore it yourself?"
"Every square inch."
Ordinarily, Hudson took pleasure when someone complimented his ride. But these days, it was hard to take pride in anything. He'd been officially stripped of the one thing he was really proud of. Without the gun and the badge, he was just another guy. No, not just another guy. Another suspect. Scum, in other words.
One week after his scuffle with Franklin Mandalay, Internal Affairs was still investigating.
Hudson headed for the massive front door of Daniel Logan's River Oaks mansion, which looked like the manor house of an English village, not an oil billionaire's home smack in the middle of Houston. He hadn't really wanted to come to the wedding. He barely knew the bride, Daniel's former assistant Jillian, and had only met her groom, Conner, once. But his friends at Project Justice had wangled him an invitation. They'd also made him promise to come, knowing he needed to get out of the house. Knowing he needed distraction.
Now he wished he hadn't listened to them. He wasn't fit company. He'd quickly pay his respects to the bride and groom, say hi to his friends, then make his escape, thereby convincing everyone he was doing okay. Which he wasn't.
The front door opened by itself, and a butlertype person gestured him inside a cavernous foyer every bit as opulent as Hudson had heard. A trickling fountain that would have been right at home in ancient Rome echoed against the marble floor and walls, and a stained-glass window cast colored bits of light like confetti over the far wall. From somewhere in the distance he heard faint strains of a country-and-western band, but this room was an oasis of quiet and dignity.
A plump young woman sat at an antique side table guarding the doorway leading to the rest of the house. She silently handed Hudson a pen adorned with a big white feather and pointed toward the guest book. The book was almost filled.
He smiled at the girl out of habit, because he always smiled at young women. She looked down and blushed. He wondered what her story was; had she been stuck behind the guest book because she was the awkward ugly duckling, or had she chosen this job because she wouldn't then be forced to mingle?
Hudson felt a fleeting urge to ask her. But his insatiable curiosity about peopleespecially womenoften got him into trouble he didn't need.
Case in point: when he saw two people arguing in a parking lot, when he was sick and off duty, he could have looked the other way. But no, he just had to get involved. Not that he could see himself reacting any differently. He couldn't stand to see a woman being bullied, and as a cop it was his job to uphold the law, on or off duty.
He bit his tongue and walked past the girl into a living room that could have housed a couple of Sherman tanks. A few people sat on plush white sofas and chairs in this serene room, talking in low tones, but live music beckoned from outdoors. A roving waiter with a tray of full champagne glasses offered Hudson his choice, but champagne wasn't his deal, so he passed and headed through a Spanish-tiled solarium to the flagstone patio, where most of the guests had gathered to eat, drink and dance.
"Hudson! Over here!" A cool blonde in a pale turquoise dress waved madly at him.
Grateful not to have to wade through oceans of strangers trying to find someone he knew, he quickly made his way to an umbrella table where Dr. Claudia Ellison sat with her husband, Billy Cantu, a Houston cop.
Hudson hoped Claudia didn't have matchmaking in mind for tonight.
She threw her arms around Hudson and kissed him on the cheek, a rather effusive show of affection from the normally reserved psychologist, but since his suspension she'd been trying extra hard to show him and everyone else that she was on his side.
"How are you feeling?" she asked.
"The cold's gone." He didn't comment on anything else, because everything else sucked.
Billy stood and shook Hudson's hand. "Glad you could make it."
"I knew you'd want to see this place," said Claudia. "Isn't it amazing?"
"I guess. Listen, I'm going to find the bride and groom, pay my respects, then"
Claudia put a melodramatic hand to her forehead. "No, you can't leave so quickly. We haven't even had a chance to catch up."
"You don't really want to know."
"Of course I do."
Billy pulled out a chair. "Have a beer. They got the biggest selection of microbrews I ever saw. Not that I'm really into designer beer, but this Dogfish Head Chicory Stout is pretty good stuff."
"Look, y'all don't have to be so nice. I'm not falling apart.
I'll get through this just like I've gotten through every other damn thing in my life, okay?"
Claudia waved away his diatribe with a careless hand. "Get over yourself. We're not being any nicer than usual. Now sit down, shut up and drink heavily of free booze. Logan has limos lined up for anyone who overdoes it."
Hudson was about to object again. That was when he saw her, the stunning brunette standing near the edge of the pool with a martini glass in her hand. She was tall, made taller still by silver stiletto heels. Her dress shimmered like liquid silver, clinging sinuously to her curves. Her black hair was piled on top of her head in an artfully casual way that had probably taken hours to achieve.
Hudson might not have paid her that much attention, except that she was looking right at him.
Without meaning to, he sank into the chair Billy had offered moments ago. Who is she? And why is she smiling at me like that?
"See something you like?" Billy asked.
Hudson forced himself to break the almost-hypnotic stare-off with the woman. Her eyes were a deep ocean-bluehe could tell even at this distance.
Claudia took an immediate interest in the object of his attention. "She's a friend of Jillian's, a sorority sister, I think. Can't remember her name."
Hudson stole another glance at her. She was on the move now. Walking. Toward him.
Billy punched him on the arm. "Dude, she's coming over here."
And she did. She came right to their table, striding boldly like a runway model. But she switched her gaze from Hudson to Claudia. "Hi, you're Claudia, right? I remember you from the bridal shower. I'm Liz."
"Hi, Liz, it's good to see you again."
"Would you all mind if I joined you? My date seems to have gone missing."
"Sure, here's a chair," Billy said, nearly spilling his special beer as he pulled out the fourth chair for her. A waiter stopped by to see who needed drinks, and Billy insisted he bring Hudson a Fishhead, or whatever the hell the beer was called.
Hudson would have objected. But the woman had so gobsmacked him, he'd been struck speechless.
"This is my husband, Billy," Claudia said, "and our friend Hudson."
"Pleased to meet you, ma'am," Hudson said with his best polite Southern-boy manners.
The brunette took a sip of her martini, then somehow fished the olive out with just her tongue in a way that was totally sexy and classy at the same time.
Hudson's mouth went dry.
When the waiter brought his beer, he chugged down a third without even tasting it.
"You knew Jillian in college?" Claudia asked, trying to get the conversation rolling.
Hudson wasn't that interested in conversation. He just wanted to look at Liz, though her voice was a pleasing blend of smooth honey over six miles of rough road.
"I did, but we weren't good friends until more recently when we worked on a charity event together."
So, Liz obviously came from high society. Ivy League college, sorority, charity events. She oozed class. So not his type. Or rather, not the type who gave a sheriff's-department detective a second look. A suspended detective, accused somewhat convincingly of police brutality.
So why was she staring at him?
"Have we met?" he asked bluntly.
"I don't think so. I'd remember."
Then she'd probably seen his picture in the paper or on TV. His case had drawn much too much unwanted publicity. The Mandalay name had a lot of cachet in the Houston area.
Claudia gasped. "Oh, Billy, I love this song. Let's dance."
Hudson recognized a ploy to leave him and Liz alone, but he didn't object. He'd just keep staring at her until she got tired of it. It wasn't as if he had anything to lose. He'd probably never see her again after this night.
"How about it, Hudson. Want to dance?" Liz raised one eyebrow playfully.
"Me? Not much of a dancer."
"Oh, come on. Anybody can dance."
"Sure, right." He let her drag him to his feet. What the hell. Didn't matter, really, in the grand scheme of things, and holding her in his arms didn't sound like such a bad deal. All he had to do was move his feet a little, or at least pretend to try to dance.
A parquet floor had been laid out over the flagstone patio for dancing in the shadow of the band, which had switched from country-western to big band. Hudson dredged up some long-ago memories of a ballroom dance class he'd taken to please an old girlfriend. He'd forgotten her name, but maybe he could at least remember how to get into hold.
He took Liz into his arms. As other couples twirled and dipped around him, he shuffled his feet back and forth.
Amazingly, she moved right along with him, graceful as a swan. In her tall heels she met him eye to eye. Now he could examine those amazing inky-blue eyes up close. Little gold flecks shimmered in the irises like rays of sunshine on the surface of the ocean, and a pleasurable tingle wiggled down his spine.
"Are you a friend of the bride, or the groom?" she asked.
"I know both of them, but only slightly. I guess Claudia got me the invitation. She thought I'd be interested in seeing the Logan place."
"It's pretty amazing. And if there's one thing Jillian knows how to do, it's throw a party. What do you do for a living?" He knew the question would come up. "Cop. You?"
Not what he expected. If she worked at all, he'd been guessing something glamorousfashion editor, commercial real estate. "Enjoy it?"
"Aren't you scared?"
"Most of the time I'm just too busy to be scared."
"Ever been shot?"
"No. That sort of thing is very rare."
"Ever shot anyone?"
"Also very rare. I've hardly ever unholstered my weapon, much less shot at someone."
"Still, it's got to be dangerous at times."
"I imagine your job has its dangers, too. You probably deal with all segments of society. Lowlifes."
"Well, pretty troubled people, anyway. I wouldn't call them 'lowlifes.'"
The song switched to a slow number. Hudson thought the dance would be over, but she made no move to leave the dance floor. He pulled her close, resting his cheek against her hair and inhaling the scents of something clean and fruity. This was ridiculously pleasant.
An unwelcome thought appealed to him. "Are you trying to make your date jealous, by any chance?"
She laughed. "Hardly. I think he's in the cabana banging one of the bridesmaids. It was just a casual date. I don't care."
"You need a ride home?" The words slipped out.
"I might." She tickled the back of his neck with her fingertips.
Was this exotic creature coming on to him? He wasn't exactly a troll; he knew some women found him attractive. Some liked the whole idea of dating a copit was a power thing. Others liked his surfer-boy looks, or they found out he had a house at the lake and a boat and thought he had money. But not this kind of woman.
He asked himself if perhaps he was being played, but he couldn't figure out her angle. Yeah, this encounter felt off somehow. Yet he couldn't bring himself to put an end to it.
He didn't like games. But something compelled him to find out how this one would play out. He would call her bluff.
"I wasn't planning to stay long," he said. "We can leave whenever you want."
She put her lips close to his ear and whispered, "I can go anytime. But first, I think you should see the garden."
The song ended and they pulled apart. He had no interest in flowers, but the idea of strolling among fragrant roses with Liz was oddly appealing.
"I love gardens," he lied. "Lead the way."
She wobbled a bit on her high heels as they made their way around the enormous pool illuminated by dozens of floating candles. Maybe she'd had one too many martinis. He didn't want to hook up with her if she was going to regret it. And really, he had no business getting entangled with anyone, let alone a mystery woman, when his life was such a mess no matter how alluring she might be.
They were just going to look at flowers, he reasoned. They hadn't reached the point of no return. Either of them could still bow out gracefully.
She took his hand, pulling him along, wanting to go faster in a suddenly childlike way. "It's the most amazing garden. The Logans' gardener, Hung Li, is a world-renowned rose cultivator. He has some prizewinning varieties that were developed right here."
She escorted him off the patio through a fancy gate in a redwood fence. A charming path of flagstones meandered through what had to be an herb garden, given the scents of sage and lavender greeting Hudson's nose.
"The Logans' chef, Cora, uses as many homegrown fruits and vegetables as she can," Liz continued as if she were a tour guide.
Stone benches were scattered here and there, along with pieces of huge marble columns strewn about, an echo of the ancient Rome theme inside the foyer. More statues, too.
He'd heard that Daniel acquired archaeological antiquities from private collectors all over the world, and he'd made provisions in his will for the items to be donated to appropriate museums in the items' countries of origin.
It took some kind of ego to do that.
They passed an enormous greenhouse, where Hudson caught glimpses of hothouse tomatoes through the windows. Row upon row of empty garden space, waiting to be planted, surrounded them.
Finally they reached another fence, a quaint white-picket affair that called to mind a country garden in rural England. On the other side, a small plot fairly burst at the seams with roses. Houston's mild winters meant you could have flowers year-round, if you worked at it. Apparently someone here did.
Rosebushes climbed fences and trellises grew out of huge urns and directly from the ground. The garden overflowed with red and pink and white roses, peach ones, yellow ones, roses in colors Hudson had never seen before. Even in the falling dusk, the colors were so vivid they hurt his eyes.