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As Mason Pearce crawled along the road in his car, squinting at hotel signs on the never-ending residential street, his phone shrilled. He snatched it up. "Yeah?"
"Where are you?"
"Two minutes away. Still looking."
"Christ, I already told you, itâ€™s a blue sign with birds on. Sparrows or something."
A second voice piped up in the background. "Theyâ€™re barn swallows, you philistine. Hirundo rustica."
Mason lifted an eyebrow in amusement. "That your witness?"
"Yeah, itâ€™s him," drawled his partner. "Heâ€™s got a big mouth. How about you get over here before I strangle him? And, oh"â€”he lowered his voiceâ€”"heâ€™s kind of cute. Might be just your type."
Mason stiffened. "Mickey, donâ€™t push it." He hung up, shaking his head. Really, how unprofessional did his partner think he was?
He slammed on his brakes as he saw the distinctive swallows on the blue sign. Even he recognised the steel-blue back and forked tail combined with the red throat. Mickey really was a philistine.
Mason huffed, then climbed from the car and retrieved a bag filled with food, drinks and reading material. Night shifts in narcotics were not his thing. Especially night shifts spent looking after a junkie about to turn stateâ€™s evidence against a drug lord, when the US Marshals should have been watching him. It was co-operation all the way this time, manpower shortage and all that jazz, and Mason had drawn the short straw.
He glanced up at the hotel as he locked his car. It was a Victorian building with ivy climbing to the eaves and hanging baskets loaded with blooms. It didnâ€™t look like a safe house hiding the chief prosecution witness in an ongoing trialâ€”all power to the person who had thought it up.
He already had a key to the front door, which had been locked on police instructions. He let himself in, nodded politely at an elderly couple just leaving and headed up the stairs to the third floor.
Mickey took his time answering the door of room sixty-one. Probably drawing his gun, gesturing to the witness to get out of sight, checking the spy-hole.
"Itâ€™s me," Mason said, and stuck out his tongue.
Bolts rasped back. A key turned. The door swung open and Sergeant Mickey Saldana, six feet five of intimidating Italian, blocked out the meagre light from the room beyond.
"Come on," Mason grumbled, pushing past him. "Either you want to get home to Maria or you donâ€™t."
"Yeah, okay, who got out of the wrong side of bed today?" Mickey cuffed him over the head as Mason glanced around.
It was a small room with twin beds separated by a night table. It featured a pine wardrobe, a dresserâ€”complete with an electric kettle, two cups, a sugar bowl crammed with tea bags and instant coffee sachetsâ€”and a door leading to an en suite. The thin curtains were drawn. Sitting on the bed facing the window was a slight, narrow-shouldered man with short, dark hair.
He stood up and turned, and Masonâ€™s glance became a stare.
It wasnâ€™t like the guy was even his type. Mason liked them big, well-hung and brainless. He wasnâ€™t interested in conversation beyond â€˜Blow me, why donâ€™t you?â€™ and picked men based on looks alone. He preferred blonds to brunets and muscle to bone. He liked to dominateâ€”even better if there was a fight for domination with a guy bigger than him.
The witness was a little on the short sideâ€”barely five-foot-sixâ€”and perhaps in his late twenties. Lean and delicate in a clinging T-shirt too small for him and skinny jeans, he looked as though he needed a good meal, or as if heâ€™d stolen his younger brotherâ€™s clothes. His hairâ€”chestnut with copper highlights, shiny and poker-straightâ€”fell into his eyes in a dense fringe. His eyes were virtually black and wary, mistrustful. A rosebud mouth was drawn into a sulky pout.
Mason swallowed with heart-stopping lust. Why? he asked himself, but failed to come up with an answer.
Mickey sidled up behind him, put his mouth to Masonâ€™s ear. "Told you."
Mason turned to face him, cheeks burning. "Get gone, smart ass," he said.
His partner smiled slyly. "Mason, this is Kayden Cole. Kayden, this is your guardian angel for the evening, Detective Mason Pearce of Miami-Dadeâ€™s finest."
Mason scowled. He kept his back turned to the witness. "Go."
Mickey winked at him. "Sure. Now be a good boy and play nicely, Mason." He laughed as Mason shoved him out of the door, then slammed it shut.
Mason threw the bolts, turned the key, slotted the safety chain in place. Then, on professional autopilot, he went into the bathroom to check the access. A single window that no adult could squash through, and was locked anyway. Back in the bedroom, he had to squeeze past the witness to check behind the curtains, and Kayden shifted, a faint scent of alluring cologne following in his wake. The double window was locked, with no access to it from below without a ladder. Mason pulled the curtains firmly across.
Twilight was falling rapidly outside, and he crossed to the bedside table to flick on a lamp. The light bathed the pale, almost luminous skin of the witness in a peach glow. He stood there regarding Masonâ€”somewhat forlornly, it seemed to himâ€”in silence.