Tyler has sworn off women, especially redheads with killer curves who poke their noses into his clients' private lives. Still, he can't deny the attraction any more than he can deny that some of Zoe's crazy story makes sense. But when she becomes a hit man's target, this cold case starts heating up. Suddenly, Tyler will do anything to protect Zoe-even risk his heart.
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Learn more at CCHunterBooks.com or www.christie-craig.com.
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Blame It on Texas
“WHY ARE YOU SO SAD, Tio?”
Tyler Lopez looked down at his six-year-old niece. Her brown eyes were so warm they could… They could persuade a grown man to make a complete idiot out of himself.
Pinching the red ball rubber-banded to his face, Tyler dropped his clown-suited ass on the picnic bench beside the birthday girl. When the real clown canceled late last night, his twin sister, Samantha, had called him in desperation. Anna will be so disappointed. Tyler adored all his nieces and nephews, but there was something about Anna—quiet and a bookworm like himself—that made her his favorite. And that made the thought of disappointing her impossible.
“I’m a clown. Clowns aren’t sad.” He looked out at the twenty or so family members mingling together at the other picnic tables in his sister’s backyard. Two of his brothers were pointing and laughing at him. If Anna wasn’t sitting right in front of him, he’d have shot them the bird. The Texas humidity, almost unbearable even in September, made the clown suit cling to his skin. The sudden pain in his right leg didn’t help his disposition.
“Da… dang it!” he muttered, and scooped up the little orange kitten who had mistaken his leg for a climbing post. Bringing the spirited, blood-drawing feline on top of the table, he knew he couldn’t complain too loudly or Anna’s mother would be over here to give him hell. Especially since he’d given the kitten to his niece last month as an early birthday present. And according to his sister, the animal was a reincarnated demon. Hence the kitten’s name, Damien.
“Some clowns are sad,” Anna said. She closed the book she’d been reading and gave Damien a purr-inducing scratch behind the ear.
“Not this clown.” He told himself it wasn’t a lie. Tyler gave the cat an under-chin rub. That led to the kitten jumping into Tyler’s lap and curling up. No doubt the feline remembered who’d snatched him up from the middle of I-10 before he got smeared on the freeway. And he’d better remember it—Tyler had almost become an oil spot in the road himself in the process.
“You remember my friend, Austin?” Tyler asked Anna. “Well, this is his suit, and he specifically told me it was a happy clown.” Austin, one of the partners at their private detective agency, had purchased the costume to do an undercover gig. As fate would have it, he hadn’t gotten around to tossing it out yet.
“But when you walked in, Mama told Tia Lola, ‘Here comes the sad man behind the clown face.’ ”
Tyler inwardly flinched but continued to smile. It was something he’d gotten good at doing—putting up a front. A skill he’d mastered during his year and a half in prison.
“Do you believe everything your mama says?” he asked in a teasing voice to hide his frustration. He loved his seven siblings, but a big family came with a big price. Having them poke around in his personal business was part of that price.
“I do.” Anna’s dark brown pigtails, tied with bright red ribbons, bounced around her face as she bobbed her head up and down. “Mama doesn’t lie. She says it’s a sin.”
Okay, that hadn’t been the right thing to say. “I think she was just joking.”
“She wasn’t laughing. Then Tia Lola said you were sad because you missed Lisa.”
Tyler’s chest tightened. He didn’t miss Lisa. How could he miss someone who turned her back on him when he needed her the most? Someone who—
“And then,” Anna continued, “Leo walked into the room and said it was probably because you picked up a bar of soap in prison.” Her tiny brows pulled in confusion at the same time Tyler’s gut pulled with fury. “I don’t understand that, Tio.”
“Leo’s full of…” Tyler caught himself just in time.
“Full of what?” Anna asked, a half smile pulling at her lips.
Tyler’s gaze shot to the piñata hanging above the tree. “Full of candy.”
Anna snickered. “Mama said he was full of shit.”
Tyler grinned. “Well, like you just said, your mama doesn’t lie. But… we all have… excrement in our insides.”
“Excrement?” He could see the child figuring out the word’s meaning and filing it away in her knowledge-hungry brain. “That’s gross.”
“I agree.” Tyler’s smile came easier.
“Almost as gross as how babies are made,” she said.
That little announcement came out of left field, and Tyler’s jaw fell open.
Anna stared at him with the same face she’d made at dinner a few weeks ago when her mom made her eat a bite of broccoli. “I read a book about it.”
“What book?” he managed to ask.
“The one Mama bought me after I told her I didn’t believe the stork brought my baby brother.”
“Oh,” he said, not sure what else to say. But his smile lingered as he thought about his sister dealing with her inquisitive daughter. He smiled until he saw Anna’s full-of-shit stepfather walk out of the patio door and snag a beer from one of the coolers.
Leo Medina, his twin sister’s second husband, was a jerkwad, right up there with Anna’s deadbeat daddy. While Tyler tried to overlook his sister’s ghastly taste in husbands, ignoring Leo was hard. And for damn good reasons, too. First and foremost, Tyler didn’t like the way Leo treated his sister and ignored Anna. Then there were the other reasons, or suspected reasons.
“Did you and Lisa want to have a baby?” Anna asked.
Tyler swallowed, searching for words. “We… we weren’t married.”
She made another funny face. “I’m not getting married.”
“Me, either,” he told her honestly. After living with the result of his parents’ dysfunctional relationship, he’d always had reservations. Lisa had made him throw caution to the wind. Unfortunately, that wind blew up a hell of a lot of heartache. Thankfully, he was smart enough to avoid that mistake again.
“I liked Lisa,” Anna said. “She was pretty. She told me I was going to get to be the flower girl in her wedding. Why are you and her not getting married anymore? Is it because you think making babies is gross, too?”
He nearly swallowed his tongue. “Lisa married someone else.”
“Maybe if you told her you were sorry, she would get a divorce like Mama did with my daddy. Then Lisa could marry you.”
Sorry for what? For being framed for a crime he didn’t commit? “I don’t think so.”
“Saying you’re sorry works. It worked on Mom when Leo hit her. And she was mad.”
“What?” Tyler felt like his blood pressure shot up a good twenty points. He hadn’t needed another reason to dislike Leo, but damn if he didn’t have one. “Leo hit your mom? Are you sure?”
“Yeah, but he said he was sorry. So if you apologize to Lisa—”
“Excuse me, Anna, but I need to… I have to do something.” He passed Anna her cat and gave the girl’s pigtail a teasing yank, hoping his rage didn’t show through his painted clown face.
“Okay.” The innocence on her face was the opposite of everything Tyler felt.
He stood up and looked around for Samantha. When he spotted his twin sister setting food out on a table, he realized her large sunglasses meant something other than protection from the glare. It meant protecting her son-of-a-bitch husband.
Moving in, Tyler gently caught her by the arm. “We need to talk.”
“I’m getting the food out,” she protested. Her long black hair shifted around her shoulders. While they shared their light olive skin and dark hair—both inherited from their Hispanic mother—Anna had also taken her mom’s petite build. Tyler’s six-foot frame came directly from his father. He hoped to God it was the only trait he’d inherited from the SOB.
“Food can wait.” He pulled off his multicolored wig and his red ball nose, and he walked her inside the house and guided her past the kitchen, not stopping until they stood in the enclosed laundry room, which smelled like clean clothes.
“What the hell is up with you?” She snapped her hands on her hips. Her movement reminded him of their mom so much. His chest tightened. While his mother had been dead for four years, he still missed her—and it always made family get-togethers bittersweet.
“Take your sunglasses off, Sis.”
“You heard me.”
She frowned. Carefully, he removed the shades. He held his breath, afraid of how bad it was. Thankfully, it wasn’t as bad as he feared. As an ex-cop, he’d seen women so battered that he’d puked. But it was his childhood memories that were the worst. Sam hadn’t just inherited their mother’s build and coloring; she’d inherited their mother’s knack for choosing losers. Staring into his twin’s face, there was no mistaking the light bruise under her left eye. Then he remembered she’d missed the family’s mandatory Sunday breakfast last week. The bruise had had time to fade, which meant it must have been nasty when it was fresh.
He touched his sister’s cheek under the evidence. “Leo do this?”
“No,” she snapped, proving her daughter wrong. Sam did lie. She just wasn’t good at it.
But holy hell, why did she put up with this crap? The answer rolled over him like an overloaded concrete truck. Because their no-good father had treated their mom the same way. Tyler had studied it in college.
Statistically, the odds of her choosing men just like dear ol’ Dad were great. The odds of him becoming his dad were greater. And considering the rage he felt now for Leo, the odds might be right.
He turned to leave, and Sam caught his arm. “Don’t do it, Tyler. I beg you.”
He gently cupped her face in his palm. “If you knew someone was hurting me, would you stand by and let it happen?”
“No, but…” Tears filled her eyes, and seeing those watery eyes did something to his gut.
“He was drunk,” she continued.
“Isn’t that what they said about dear ol’ Dad?” That crowd of emotion in his gut shifted up into his chest and formed a knot—a knot of anger, hurt, and an unrelenting need to protect his sister the way he’d needed to protect his mom all those times.
“Please,” she muttered.
“I love you, Sam. I know you’re going to be pissed at me, but he needs to know he can’t do this.”
He didn’t stay around long enough to hear her pleas or to see the tears slip from her lashes onto her cheeks. That would have broken his heart, and Tyler wasn’t sure his heart could take any more breaking. So, he plopped his wig and rubber nose back on, and shuffled his clown ass out to teach his brother-in-law a lesson about hitting girls.
Hesitating in the kitchen for a minute to collect himself, Tyler stepped outside. He went to the cooler, figuring Leo wouldn’t be too far from the alcohol. He pulled out two beers, uncapped one and drank half of it in one swig, then looked around for Leo. He spotted him chatting with Tyler’s oldest brother’s wife. And damn if he didn’t see the man eye his sister-in-law’s breasts when she wasn’t looking.
“Leo?” Tyler held up the two beers as if to say, “Come join me.” When Tyler saw the man coming, he stepped through the backyard gate and moved between Sam’s house and the neighbor’s. He heard the gate shift behind him.
“What’s up?” Leo asked.
Setting the two beers on top of an air conditioner that hummed as it cooled his sister’s house, Tyler faced Leo, who stood so close that the man’s beer-laden breath filled Tyler’s airspace. He didn’t waste any time getting to the point. “You hit her.”
Leo stepped back, or he started to. “It was just a tap.” But before his foot hit the ground, Tyler’s fist punched the man’s nose and knocked him flat on his ass.
“Christ!” Leo reached for his nose.
“It was just a tap,” Tyler growled, but he knew Leo’s nose had to be hurting like hell because Tyler’s fist did. And he saw his knuckles bleeding where he’d obviously loosened a couple of teeth.
“You fucking jailbird clown! You broke my nose!”
Jailbird was the word that almost did Tyler in.
Leo started to get up, no doubt to give what he’d gotten, and Tyler almost let him. Almost chose to let go and enjoy this. But taking a deep breath, he pulled his emotions back and moved in to tower over his slimeball of a brother-in-law.
“Don’t do it, Leo. If you get up, I’m going to hit you again. I know you think you want to hit me back. It’s only fair, right? But it wasn’t fair when you hit Sam. And I’m not planning on fighting fair now.”
He rubbed his fist in his other hand and continued, “If you get up, and if you even get one punch in, I’m going to yell for my four brothers, and when I tell them what you did, every one of them will help me beat your ass to a pulp. Consider yourself lucky you faced only me this time.”
Leo wiped his bloody nose and stared up with hatred in his eyes. But the man was smarter than Tyler gave him credit for. He didn’t get up.
A damn shame, too. “Oh,” he added, “if I see one bruise, one little bruise, on my sister, I won’t come alone next time.” Pulling off the red rubber nose, he tossed it at Leo. “Since I broke yours, have this one.”
“Spiders. Definitely spiders.”
“Don’t forget snakes.”
“Trust me, it’s clowns.” Zoe Adams removed her waitress apron and added her two cents to the conversation the other waitresses of Cookie’s Café were having about their biggest fears. She plopped down on one of the stools lining the breakfast counter and pulled out her tips to count. She hoped she had enough to pay the rent. Looking up at the other diner employees, she added, “And considering my regular gig is that of kindergarten teacher, I’ve had to face that fear more times than I care to admit.”
“I’d take a clown over a spider any day,” said Jamie. Like Zoe, she was in her mid-twenties.
“I can step on a spider,” Zoe said, looking at the other waitresses she’d worked with for two weeks. Crazy how in just two weeks she’d felt a part of something. A part of Cookie’s Café.
“Clowns are too big for my size sixes.” She held up her foot. “I don’t know what it is, but I see one and it’s like I hear scary music and my mind starts flashing Friday the 13th images.” In truth, clowns weren’t her biggest fear. Small, dark places scared Zoe more than anything. Not that she’d share that with her co-workers, or anyone else for that matter.
Some things Zoe didn’t talk about. Especially the things she didn’t understand. And for the last three weeks, her life was filled with a lot of those things. Crazy how watching that episode of the TV series Unsolved Mystery Hunters had turned her life upside down, and brought her from Alabama to Texas in search of the truth.
“Flying roaches. I hate ’em,” Dixie Talbot said, joining in on the conversation. In her sixties, Dixie was the matriarchal cook, waitress, and part-owner of Cookie’s Café. “Years ago, I stood right over there by Booth Two, and one of those nasty creatures flew into my shirt.”
Zoe stopped counting her money and laughed. “Yeah, Fred told me about the striptease you pulled, too.”
“Honey, he’d better be glad that roach flew off my right boob once the top came off, or I swear to everything holy I’d have been standing there naked as a jaybird.”
“Was that the day he proposed to you?” Zoe asked.
They laughed. It was the laughter, the camaraderie of Dixie and the other diner employees, that kept Zoe from looking for a higher paying gig while she was here. God knew she could use the money. Kindergarten teachers didn’t rake in the big bucks.
Oh, it was enough to get by, but not enough to fund this research trip to Miller, Texas, when she had to pay for two apartments. Not to mention the entire month off from work—a month she only got because the principal had been friends with her mom. But more than money, Zoe needed companionship. When her mama died two years ago, Zoe had not only lost her last living relative, she’d lost her best companion. Then, last year when her live-in boyfriend had decided he’d rather date a stripper than a kindergarten teacher, Zoe had spent too much time alone.
Hey, maybe she should get Dixie to teach her a few moves. Not that Zoe wanted Chris back. Nope. For four years, she’d given her heart and soul to that man. She’d already had names picked out for the two kids they’d have together, thinking any day he’d pop the question. And he had popped one. It just wasn’t the question she’d expected. “Do you mind if I bring home my stripper girlfriend to live here until you can find another place?”
Okay, he hadn’t actually worded it like that, but he might as well have. He’d taken Zoe’s heart and returned it, along with her self-esteem, in a big mangled mess. Not so much of a mess that she hadn’t reminded him that she’d been the one to rent the apartment, and he could just grab his stuff and get the hell out. Oh, he’d accused her of being so unfair. Didn’t she realize it wasn’t his fault he’d fallen in love with someone else?
What she understood was that she’d been played for a fool—paying most of the bills, being his personal housecleaner, trying to be the perfect housewife. Even a year later, it still stung like a paper cut right across her heart.
Zoe’s cell phone rang. Considering she’d gotten only two calls in the two weeks she’d been in Texas—one from her principal back in Alabama confirming she’d be at work on September 25, and the other a wrong number—a call was a big thing. Zoe checked the number. Unknown Caller.
“Hello?” Zoe answered. While she hated it, there was a part of her that hoped it would be Chris, wanting her back, telling her he’d screwed up. Not that she’d take him back, but it would be nice to know he missed her.
She heard someone breathing, but nothing else. “Hello?”
“Leave,” the whispery voice said.
“WHAT?” ZOE SAID, unsure if she’d heard correctly.
“You okay?” Dixie asked.
“Yeah. Wrong number.” Stashing her phone in her apron, she looked up at Dixie. “Can I use your computer?”
“You betcha. Just stay off those porn sites,” Dixie teased.
“Just can’t help myself.” Zoe scooted her butt off the stool. “It’s been a month of Sundays since I’ve known bliss.”
“I could remedy that,” offered Juan, the fry cook.
“I’ll consider it as soon as you get written permission from your wife.” She shot him a smile, knowing he was only kidding because she’d seen him light up when his pregnant wife stopped by earlier.
“Heck,” Juan said, grinning back. “I was only offering to make you some French toast.”
While all the employees snickered, Zoe grabbed her bag that held a change of clothes and went to the office.
Ten minutes later, Dixie brought two big bowls of chicken and dumplings into the office and set one in front of Zoe on the oversized and time-worn oak desk. “Eat before you go.”
Zoe smiled. It had been forever since she’d had anyone looking out for her. She was going to miss Dixie when she left.
“Thanks. I’ve smelled these cooking all morning.” She dished a spoonful into her mouth and moaned as the savory taste exploded on her tongue. “My mama used to make these.”
“Mine are better,” Dixie teased, and dropped into the desk chair beside Zoe and started eating. After a minute of silence, Dixie asked, “You miss her—your mama?”
“Like the dickens. She was special.” But if Zoe’s suspicions were true, her mama wasn’t the person Zoe had always thought she was. In the pro/con list Zoe had made before she decided to actually come to Texas, uncovering any ugly secrets about her parents had been the only con.
Dixie’s gaze shifted to the computer monitor.
Zoe reached for the mouse to delete the screen. Quickly realizing it would be rude, she moved her hand and spooned another dumpling into her mouth. Besides, Dixie had already gotten a peek at Zoe’s research last week when she’d gone for a potty break and forgot to close the screen. When she’d returned, Dixie was reading the article Zoe had found at the library and had downloaded onto a flash drive.
“The Bradfords again?” Dixie asked. “Is there a reason you’re so intrigued with that rich family?”
Zoe glanced at the screen. She couldn’t divulge everything. People would think she was crazy—hell, sometimes she considered the possibility herself. But she could tell Dixie part of it. “There was a story about them on that Unsolved Mystery Hunters show three weeks ago. I guess I love a good puzzle.”
“About the murder of that kid?” Dixie asked.
Zoe nodded and her chest constricted.
“I remember that. They never did find out who killed her. Sad stuff.”
“Yeah.” Zoe spooned another bite into her mouth and stared at the picture of Thomas Bradford. It was as if Zoe felt by staring at the man, she could discover the truth. But no such discovery came.
“I heard that old man isn’t doing so well. The kids and grandkids are fighting over his inheritance. Lucky for me, all I’ve got is this run-down café, and neither of my kids wants it.”
“It’s not run-down,” Zoe said. “Best food in town.” She spooned a big chunk of stewed chicken into her mouth.
Dixie chuckled. “That’s because you’re not a citified gal like my kids. My son ran off to California to learn to talk like they do on the six o’clock news. Works for a radio station out there. Boy’s ashamed of his southern roots. And my daughter—you wouldn’t catch a dumpling within six feet of her lips. Says she’s allergic to carbs.”
Zoe frowned. “I haven’t met a carb I haven’t loved. Guess it shows, too. I’ll bet I’ve gained five pounds since I started working here.”
“And you’re wearing it well, too, honey. You should see the guys checking out your butt.” Dixie looked back at the computer screen. “If you’re real curious about the Bradfords, you should ask those PIs who come in for my chili cheeseburgers on Tuesdays. They do work for the Bradfords, I think.”
Zoe’s interest was piqued. “What PIs?” She didn’t have money to hire a private investigator, but if they had knowledge about the Bradfords, she could at least ask them some questions. How much would they charge just to talk to her? Nothing, she hoped.
“Those three hunk-a-hunk men, two dark haired and one blond. All of them drool-worthy. They own that PI agency, Only in Texas.” Dixie shook her head. “Are you seriously telling me you haven’t noticed them?”
Zoe tried to think. “They only come in on Tuesdays?” While she didn’t recall them, she mentally stored away the agency’s title.
Dixie dropped her spoon in her bowl. “Girl, you are either blind or a lesbian not to have noticed them.”
“Neither. Self-preservation. Just mending a broken heart,” Zoe said. “I’m not sure men are worth the risk, so I’ve trained myself not to notice things like sexy bedroom eyes or broad shoulders.” But she was getting a little breathless just thinking about it. Maybe she should reconsider dating again. If for no other reason than to have someone call her, and make her cell phone worth its monthly charge.
“Oh, honey, those boys would be worth it. Then again, ’cause I like ya, if you noticed them too much I’d reel you in so fast you’d leave skid marks on my linoleum.”
“What’s wrong with them?” Zoe tried to feign only a mild curiosity while she pushed another dumpling around her bowl. But on the inside she felt her excitement growing by leaps and bounds. This might be her big break. The one that answered the questions Zoe had been looking for all her life.
God knew all of her other plans had seemed to fail these days. Phone calls to the Bradford businesses, and even a couple of drop-in visits to the mansion—not that she’d gotten past the security gate. The last time, she’d been told by one security guard that if he saw her there again, he was calling the cops.
Heck, last week, she’d even tried following the limo when they’d left the house, and got herself a nice little ticket for running a red light that she didn’t run. The cop who gave her the ticket suggested she go find another old fart to seduce because Mr. Bradford wasn’t in the market for an Anna Nicole.
“Nothing wrong with those three guys if you like suspected murderers.” Dixie arched her painted brow.
“They’re murderers?” Zoe asked.
“I said ‘suspected.’ They used to be cops. Supposedly, they got involved in some seedy drug deals, and then they got arrested for brutally murdering this couple. Practically decapitated the woman.” She ran a finger across her neck. “Then they got convicted and went to jail.”
Zoe touched her neck. “And what? They escape every Tuesday just for your chili cheeseburgers?”
Dixie laughed. “Hey, my cooking’s that good. But actually, they got let go.”
“So, they’re not guilty?” Zoe hoped that was the case. If she was going to look them up, and you could bet she was, she’d like it if they weren’t murderers.
“Well, that depends on who you talk to. You know small towns—folks around here get one thing in their mind, and changing it is about as easy as chewing glass. My neighbor has a son-in-law who works for the Glencoe Police Department where they worked. According to him, they had those three down and dirty. But then they got themselves… What do you call it when the governor lets someone go?”
“Pardoned?” Zoe asked.
“No, the other word. Exonerated. That’s it.”
“Dixie,” someone called from out front. “Getting busy.”
“Guess I’m on again.” Dixie stood up and pressed a hand on Zoe’s shoulder. “Don’t know why, kid, but only after a couple of weeks I decided I like you. I know you said you were only here for a month to say you’d done Texas, but I really wish you’d stick around and become a full-fledged Texan.”
Emotion filled Zoe’s chest. Reaching back, Zoe put her hand on top of Dixie’s. “I like you, too. But I’ve got a job and a life waiting for me in Alabama.” A lonely life. The thought whispered across her heart.
“Well, if you change your mind. You got friends here.” With a wink, Dixie walked out of the room.
Zoe sat there a few minutes, savoring that wonderful feeling of hearing Dixie’s words. Nothing like feeling someone cared about you.
Shifting her mental gears, she wondered if she should wait until Tuesday and hope the PI threesome showed up, or if she should take matters into her own hands. Impatience stirred inside her; she had less than a month before she was expected to be back at work. She hit the Google search engine. Typing in the agency name, she whispered, “Come to Mama.” Then she touched her neck again, hoping her impatience didn’t lead to her losing her head. Figuratively, of course.
Less than thirty minutes later, Zoe parked in front of the Only in Texas office. The sign in the window read they were open. The fact that her Google search informed her that until recently their place of business had housed a funeral home almost seemed absurd. Convicted—albeit exonerated—murderers had bought an old funeral home to house their business. Was there not something slightly off about that? Maybe three angry ex-cops making a point to the townsfolk who’d judged them unfairly?
But angry men or not, she wanted answers. She grabbed her purse, climbed out of her silver Chevy Cobalt, and went to see if she could wrangle herself up some answers. Stopping at the large redbrick building door, she released her shoulder-length auburn hair from her ponytail and shook it out. Her hair, a tad too thick and too curly, usually caught a man’s eye. And if it took letting her hair down for a bit to encourage one of these men to talk with her, she wasn’t above doing it.
All she had to figure out was how much to tell the PIs. Sooner or later, she was going to have to trust someone. She just wasn’t sure who or when. Stepping inside the business, leaving the bright sunshine for a dark room, she allowed her eyes a second to adjust. And when they did, her gaze caught on the only piece of “furniture”—if you could call it that—in the room. She took a quick step back. A coffin, yup, an honest-to-goodness coffin with a raised lid, bracketed the back wall.
“Hello?” she muttered in the dead silence. And it did feel dead. Like a funeral home felt. She’d been in too many already in her life. First her dad when she was sixteen, her best friend who’d been killed in a car accident their senior year of high school, and then her mom. Personally, she preferred to never visit another one.
A noise, a slight moan, echoed from the room. No wait… not from the room, from the casket. Shit! Her heart started racing. Her eyes shot back to the casket, and her hands jerked behind her, feeling for the doorknob. Then another snortlike noise came from the coffin. Suddenly, a big canine face popped up and rested its round head on the coffin’s wooden edge.
Zoe chuckled. “A vampire dog, huh?”
The dog stretched its neck—what little neck it had—and leaped out of the casket and came sniffing around her feet.
“So, you’re the official door greeter?” She knelt to pet the English bulldog as it started sniffing her up and down. “You smell Lucky on me? Or is it the Slam Dunk, Three-Egg Dollar Ninety-Nine special you smell?” It took two or three shampoos every night to get the smell of bacon from her hair. After a couple of seconds of giving the animal attention, she stood up.
“Hello?” she called again.
And again no one answered. She walked down the hall. The dog followed, his paws clicking on the wood floor, but the lack of noise filtering into the building seemed louder than the clickity-clack of his paws. The first door to the left was a large office. Three unmanned desks filled the room. She stepped inside.
A sign hanging from the front desk said, “If no one is here, press the button.”
Zoe looked for the button. Various files and papers covered the desk. Was the button under those? Moving in, she looked around the desk. She lifted a big pile of files when a name on one of the folders caught her eye. Bradford.
The same Bradford?
Zoe reached for the file, then pulled her hand back as if it might bite. Then she reached for it again and pulled back just as quickly. Yanking her purse higher on her shoulder, she stood there while her conscience played tug-of-war with her desire for answers. She gave the room a good look-see for anyone who might tattle if she… took a small peek.
Looking down at the dog, she asked, “You wouldn’t tell on me, would you?”
When he shook his head back and forth, she laughed.
Finally, her desire for answers won out. She flipped open the file. Less than a dozen sheets of paper resided there. The first one looked like a resume. She picked it up to read it, when the sound of a door opening filled the quiet office.
The dog barked and took off running.
She dropped the papers back on the desk and slapped the file closed. She stepped away from behind the desk, but in her haste, her purse knocked the folder off, and the file and all dozen or so papers scattered on the floor.
“Damn.” She dropped to the floor on her hands and knees to gather the evidence of her wrongdoing. She heard footsteps moving closer, and her heart pounded.
Snagging the folder and papers, she threw them on the desk and was about to stand up when she heard those footsteps enter the room, followed by the sounds of clicking paws.
Now all she had to explain was why she was down on all fours behind someone’s desk. Her heart did another flip-flop when she remembered she was possibly dealing with angry ex-cops, now ex-cons, who’d been accused of murder.
The dog pranced around the desk and licked her right on the lips, then started sniffing her bacon-scented hair. Those footsteps moved closer still, and her mind raced right along with her heart.
The deep masculine sound of a man clearing his throat came from behind her. “Nice view.”
“Oh, I was just…” She looked back over her shoulder, praying she’d come up with a good excuse for being in this ridiculous position. But the moment her gaze landed on the clown, the only thing she came up with was a scream. A loud one.
DIOS. TYLER WATCHED the shapely jeans-covered butt disappear around the desk. He did a side step so as not to lose the view and watched her crawling at an amazing speed toward the door. It wasn’t every day he found a woman on her hands and knees behind his desk. So he jumped into action and planted his clown feet in front of the door.
The woman, long red hair hanging free and swishing around her arms, came to a dead stop about a foot from him. She raised her face. Her blue eyes, wide with what looked like panic, stared up at him. As soon as he got over the sheer terror he saw in her eyes, he realized the view from this side was just as nice as the one from her backside. Maybe even better. Her green scooped-neck T-shirt hung low, providing a nice view of her tan, lacy bra and ample breasts. Damn, she was hot.
“Hello,” he said. Then, somehow sensing the costume might have something to do with her fear, he yanked off the wig and without meaning to, his gaze shot back to her bra, or rather at the size Cs that were close to falling out of it.
Clearly seeing where his gaze had fallen, she slapped a hand to her chest. Balancing on one hand and two knees, she attempted to stand up. Apparently still shaken, she almost fell. He reached for her, but she lurched back. When she was finally on her feet, he summed up the package. Maybe five-four or-five in height, ample breasts, and a round ass.
“Nice,” he said without meaning to. “… to meet you.”
Alarm remained clear on her face—a face that would have been appealing if not for the fear. A face that stirred a slight flash of recognition, too.
“Do I know you?” He ran his hand over his swollen and bloody knuckles.
“I was…” She swallowed. “The… my purse hit it. I was…” She stopped jabbering and gazed at his injured hand.
He stopped trying to make sense of her mumbo-jumbo and shrugged. “Had to teach someone a lesson.”
She drew in a breath and stepped away from him as if thinking she might be next in line.
“He deserved it.” He studied her face again. “Who are you?” And just like that, he remembered Dallas saying he’d hired a receptionist. He looked back at the stack of files on his desk, then at her.
“My contact…” She slammed one eye closed. “My contact fell out.”
“You’re the new receptionist,” he said, and let himself give her another glance up and down. “Nice… to meet you,” he said again, but sexy, hot, and stacked were the words that came to mind.
Damn, he could kiss Dallas. She’d make a breathtaking addition to the office. Of course, it was going to be hard to focus on anything but her. Hard being the key word. And a certain southern part of his anatomy had already twitched its approval. Which was a bit bothersome. He usually had better control. Thank goodness he had room in the costume.
“I’m Tyler.” She didn’t answer, just stared.
He frowned. “You don’t like clowns, do you?”
“No.” She gasped, trying to get oxygen down her lungs.
He hid his battered hand behind him. “Don’t worry, I’m a friendly clown. And I don’t run around in costumes all the time.” And he could get really friendly if she was so inclined. “My niece’s clown canceled and—”
“Contact.” She blurted out again, as if she hadn’t been listening. Then she slammed her left eye shut and opened again. “I lost it. Got some extras in my car.” She started forward, stopped, and backed up, as if scared to get close.
He stepped back, giving her room to pass. With only one eye open, she stared at the small space, then back at him. He took another step back and she scooted past—quickly, too. For a second, he could swear he got a whiff of bacon, but that couldn’t be right. Stepping through the doorway, he watched her hotfoot it down the hall.
“When you get back, let’s introduce ourselves,” he said. Her hips swayed back and forth with her quick steps. Things below the belt did another twitch and almost gave her a standing ovation as she passed through the front door.
Still smiling, opening and closing his swollen fist—and mentally preparing a list of questions about the new receptionist—he remembered he had a change of clothes in his car. Moving down the hall, he walked out the front door just in time to see a silver Cobalt with Alabama tags speeding out of the parking lot.
He stared after her. Hadn’t she said she had contacts in her car? So, why was she—?
“Hey,” Dallas O’Connor said from behind him. “I thought I heard someone come in. You’re back early. How did the party go?”
Tyler turned around and scratched his head. “She left.”
“The new receptionist.” Tyler ran his left hand over his swollen knuckles again.
“Ellen was here?” Dallas asked. “She said it would be around three.”
“Is that her name?” Tyler asked.
“Yeah, it’s Ellen Wise. You met her. Nikki’s friend. The one who was stabbed at the gallery.”
“Not the blonde?” Tyler asked.
“Yeah. She needed a job and we needed a receptionist. But I’m telling both you and Austin that she’s off limits. No screwing with—”
“That wasn’t Ellen,” Tyler interrupted.
“Who wasn’t Ellen?”
“The sexy redheaded chick I found on her hands and knees under my desk.”
Dallas laughed. “You must have been dreaming.”
“Seriously, she was…” Tyler walked back to the office with Dallas and his dog Bud following. Stopping at the office door, Tyler looked at his desk. “She was there.” He noticed a piece of paper on the floor and picked it up. It was one of the resumes they’d taken to fill the new position for the Bradford security job. He dropped it on the desk and continued to rub his fist.
“What happened to your knuckles?” Dallas asked from the doorway.
Tyler looked up. “My brother-in-law’s teeth got in the way when I broke his nose.”
“So the party went that well, did it?”
“Yeah.” Tyler glanced away, not wanting to think about Leo or how pissed his sister was at him. Or the fact that he might have ruined Anna’s party. So instead, he remembered the redhead’s face. Remembered how she’d looked familiar.
“How bad is your hand?” Dallas asked.
“Not as bad as his nose,” Tyler answered.
“Did you confront him about the glass with your prints that the cops found at the crime scene?”
Tyler tightened his sore fist. Funny how he’d forgotten all about his suspicions that Leo had been one of the people who had framed him and his partners until now. His suspicions hadn’t gone away—his sister was just more important. But now he knew how low Leo could go, and Tyler’s suspicions grew even stronger. His prints had gotten to the crime scene somehow. The fact that they had been found on a glass just like the one his sister owned made him wonder. No way in hell would Tyler ever suspect anyone in his family; but Leo? Oh, yeah.
“No, I confronted him about hitting my sister.”
Dallas frowned. “And you didn’t break his neck?”
“That’s next time,” Tyler said. “She was going through our files.”
“What files?” Dallas asked.
“The Bradford file, I think.”
“You’re serious? There really was someone here?”
He looked up at Dallas. “Yes, a redhead.”
“On her hands and knees behind your desk?” Dallas asked.
Dallas picked up the file and thumbed through it. “She couldn’t have been here long. I was in the apartment less than five minutes.” He looked around. “Maybe she was just some mixed-up kid looking for change.”
“She wasn’t a kid. She was full grown.” Tyler held out his hands in front of his chest and flinched when he tried to move his right fist.
Dallas chuckled. “Then maybe she was looking for Austin.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Why not?” Dallas chuckled. “Wasn’t she hot enough?”
“Hot, yes, but she didn’t look slutty enough,” he said, suddenly feeling annoyed. Annoyed that Austin got all the action, annoyed he couldn’t bring himself to play the game the way Austin did. And the way Dallas had played it before he’d met Nikki.
Dallas grinned. “He does like ’em cheap and dumb, doesn’t he?”
“Yeah,” Tyler said, still unable to laugh. The fact that his body had reacted so strongly to the mysterious guest meant one thing: He needed to get laid.
Getting laid wasn’t the problem. Finding someone who would keep it as simple as he wanted it kept was the issue. When his last three “simple” relationships turned complicated and ended badly, he decided to cease and desist until he figured out what he was doing wrong. If Austin and Dallas could do this, he could do it, too.
Tyler was smart enough to see patterns, and as soon as he figured out what mistake he kept making, he’d fix it. But it looked as if he needed to fix it fast.
“You actually caught her going through this file?” Dallas asked.
“Not exactly. I think she got scared and hid behind the desk when I walked in.”
Dallas looked up from the file. “There’s nothing in here but resumes. You sure it was this file?”
“Not sure of anything.” His mind created the image of her again, both the rear view and the front view. “Except…”
I need to get laid. He didn’t answer.
“Did you get a look at her car and the license number?” Dallas asked.
The sound of her voice tiptoed through his memory. Even her voice had been familiar. “It was a silver Chevy Cobalt. I didn’t get the number. But it was an Alabama tag. And I know her.”
“Not sure. But it’ll come to me. Sooner or later.” And he wasn’t going to have a moment of peace until it did.
“Shoot!” Why hadn’t she just admitted the truth? Why hadn’t she just told him? Maybe he’d have given her some information or gotten her in contact with the Bradfords. Why had she acted like a scared, guilty rabbit?
She white-knuckled the steering wheel and kept checking her rearview mirror for a car driven by a broad-shouldered clown with chocolate brown eyes and black hair.
Why had she run? The question bounced around her head again, but this time the answers spurted back from her still panicked brain. You ran because of the clown suit, because the clown had admitted to “teaching someone a lesson” with his fists. Because… because he might have decided to teach you a lesson for snooping. Because he’d been ogling your girls as they were about to fall out of your bra.
It could have been worse. He could have been staring at her neck. You ran because you were a scared, guilty rabbit snooping through his files.
Stopping at a red light, concentrating on not hyperventilating, Zoe’s cell phone rang. She dug it out from her purse and looked for the number. Unknown caller. “Crap!” Was it the clown? He was a private detective. He found people for a living.
It couldn’t be. He couldn’t have found her that fast. Could he?
No. Plus, she’d already had a call earlier from Mr. Unknown Caller. She remembered the whispered voice, Leave. Just a wrong number. “Hello.”
Just like the earlier call, she heard only breathing.
“At least ask me what color my underwear is,” she snapped at the same time her patience did.
The whisper came on the line again. “Get the hell away before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” Her question was answered by the silence of a dead line.
“That’s just rude,” she muttered as the ominous click from the phone seeped into her chest.
She tossed the phone in the passenger seat and went back to white-knuckling the steering wheel. Just a wrong number. Why would someone threaten her? Unless… unless someone had figured out the reason she was here. But why? Who? How? She hadn’t told anyone… yet.
Maybe she should. Tell someone, that is. But who could she trust?
Certainly not a clown who used his fists to teach people lessons.
Tyler stared at his recently written list of questions. List making was his slightly obsessive/compulsive way of organizing his thoughts. Not that he really liked admitting he was slightly OCD, because he wasn’t… well, not really.
Six of the questions related to redheads he’d met in the last couple of months, three related to his sister Sam, and one on why he couldn’t find the right kind of woman to have casual sex with. When he heard the front door to the office open, his gaze shot up. While he knew it was unlikely to be her, he sat there, hoping a sexy redhead would appear in the doorway. That would take care of at least seven of his questions.
The footsteps neared and a figure appeared.
Not the redhead. Just Rick Clark, a detective with the Miller PD, and a recent part-time security guard they’d hired to secure the Bradford place.
While security wasn’t really the agency’s gig, after a recent break-in at the Bradford mansion that appeared to be an inside job, Mr. Bradford’s lawyer had hired them to find the culprits. They had, and then he requested they handle hiring the replacements for the three guilty guards.
When Tyler had recommended hiring Rick—who had a great resume and came recommended by Dallas’s brother Tony—Dallas hadn’t been thrilled.
Supposedly, there was some grudge between Dallas and Rick, but Dallas had conceded that it had nothing to do with his work ability and had backed down. So Rick got the Bradford job.
While penning his list of questions to be answered, Tyler realized Rick might have some info on the redhead. It was a long shot, but Tyler had discovered most answers stemmed from long shots, so he generally looked there first. Especially since no matter how hard he tried to remember where he’d run across the sexy redhead, he’d come up empty. And he wasn’t used to that.
“What’s up?” Rick said.
Tyler motioned to a chair. “How’s the Bradford gig going?”
“Boring, why?” His brows tightened. “Someone complain about me? Fuck, I don’t need this job that bad.”
“No, you got a thumbs-up. I was just… curious if you’ve hit any snags.”
Tyler considered how to answer and then just said it. “Sexy redheads?”
“My kind of snags.” Rick laughed. “But you know, someone did mention having to run a pretty redhead off at the gate.”
Tyler jotted down the question: Who was the redhead at Bradford’s place? “Did they get any info on her?”
“All I was told was that they thought she was an Anna Nicole wannabe, thinking if she screwed Old Man Bradford a few times before he passed, she might get her greedy hands on his money. You know women, they think what they got between their legs is—”
A loud clearing of a throat echoed from the office door. Tyler looked up.
Ellen Wise, their new receptionist, stood there. She held her hands over the ears of a little blond girl who looked to be around the same age as Tyler’s niece, Anna.
“Sorry,” Tyler and Rick said at the same time, and Tyler realized they would probably have to clean up their act a bit once Ellen came on board. Not that it hadn’t already been polished with Nikki hanging around.
“I swung by to pick up the paperwork I needed to fill out,” Ellen said.
The little girl pulled her mother’s hands from over her ears. “I’ve heard bad words before. Yesterday at school, Mark got put in time-out for telling the teacher she had the face of a puckered butthole.”
“And if you repeat it again, you’ll get a time-out.” Ellen sounded every bit like a mother.
Tyler bit his cheek to keep from smiling. “Ellen, this is Rick Clark. He’s—”
“We’ve met.” Rick grinned at Ellen.
Ellen tilted her head as if confused. “We have?”
“I worked with Tony O’Connor on your case.” He smiled. “Saw you at the hospital.”
Ellen’s face brightened to a shade of embarrassed pink. “You’re not one of the guys I…”—she covered the girl’s ears again—“ ‘propositioned,’ are you?”
“You mean I wasn’t the only one?” He slapped his hand over his heart. “Now, I’m offended.”
“It was the drugs talking,” she said, and then her eyes widened as if she realized what she’d said. “Not drug drugs. The morphine they gave me after the surgery when I was stabbed.”
The little girl pulled her mother’s hands from her ears again. “Why can grown-ups say dirty words but kids can’t?”
“I didn’t say a dirty word,” Ellen said. “It was a grown-up word.”
“What’s a grown-up word?” the girl asked.
“I’ll tell you when you’re a grown-up,” Ellen said.
Tyler stood, found the papers on Dallas’s desk, and handed them to Ellen. Then he held out his hand to the little girl. “I don’t think we’ve met. My name’s Tyler.”
“My name is Britney Wise. I’m six,” she said with pride. She took his hand and gave it a good shake. Then her eyes went to Rick. “My mama was stabbed.”
“Yes, I know,” Rick said. “That was awful, wasn’t it?”
“Not really.” Britney looked back up at Tyler. “She got to eat a lot of ice cream.”
Rick laughed. “I’ll bet she shared it with you.”
“Some,” Britney said.
Tyler chuckled. “I have a niece who turned six today,” he said, but his smile had to be forced when he thought about Anna and her mother and the possibility that they were both pissed at him. He needed to call his sister and let her tell him what a terrible brother and uncle he was. Let her get mad so she could start getting over it. And she would get over it. But probably not in time for him to attend breakfast tomorrow. Which meant, he couldn’t go. But being a no-show to the family breakfast was a criminal offense.
“Thank you.” Ellen held up the papers, making Tyler realize he’d gotten lost in his thoughts again—a bad habit of his. “I’ll see you on Monday.”
“I look forward to it,” Tyler said, and he did. Ellen was attractive, but he’d been a lot happier when he’d thought their new receptionist was the redhead.
Tyler watched Ellen gaze toward Rick. “Nice to meet you… again.”
“You, too. Oh, I’ll see you around. I’m in and out of here,” Rick said, and Tyler didn’t miss the way he said it with interest. Ellen nodded and walked out. Rick wheeled his chair to the door to watch her move down the hall. When he looked back at Tyler, he grinned. “Damn, I’m gonna have to take her up on her original offer.”
“She’s a mother,” Tyler said. For some reason, women with kids were off limits for him. He liked kids too much and could remember with detail how he felt about the boyfriends who’d come calling for his mom.
Without warning, Tyler found himself hoping the sexy redhead didn’t have a kid.
“And how do you think she got to be a mother?” Rick asked.
Tyler frowned. “Word of warning. She’s friends with Dallas’s fiancée. I’d be careful.”
“I’m always careful.” Rick grinned.
Tyler suspected his warning had fallen on deaf ears.
Rick’s cell rang, and he pulled it out and looked at the number. “Damn.”
“You need to take it?” Tyler asked.
“No, I’ll deal with it later.” Frowning, Rick tucked the phone back in his pocket.
“About the redhead. Can you ask around and see if anyone’s got anything on her?”
Curiosity sparked in Rick’s green eyes. “I can, but why?”
Tyler debated telling Rick, but remembered Dallas’s brother vouching for the man. “Don’t mention it, but I found a redhead snooping around the office, and it appeared as if she might have been interested in the Bradford file.”
Rick leaned in. “What was in the file?”
“Nothing. That’s why I don’t want you mentioning it. I’m just curious. And seriously, keep it low key, if you know what I mean.” Tyler didn’t want to stir up anyone’s suspicions, especially when he wasn’t a hundred percent sure the redhead had anything to do with the Bradfords.
“I’m working second shift this evening. I’ll ask around.”
The redhead’s face filled his head again and so did the certainty that he knew her. He wanted answers, and he wanted them now.
“They were nice.” Britney skipped out into the parking lot.
“Yes, they were,” Ellen answered, and ran a hand over her daughter’s soft blond hair. But she was having second thoughts about accepting the job. Noel would give her hell. She could already hear his list of reasons ringing in her ear.
Do you know what kind of people walk into a PI office?
What kind of mother works in a place like that?
You’re working for a bunch of ex-cons. Are you trying to get yourself stabbed again?
How Noel could blame her for getting stabbed was beyond her. But being a lawyer, and one that seldom lost a case, he had a way of twisting things to work in his favor. He’d twisted her, hadn’t he? Like a pretzel, leaving her heart mangled.
Then again, Noel would give her hell no matter what job she took. And she was tired of making life choices just to avoid pissing him off. However, the price of pissing him off could be too great.
She glanced at Britney. While her daughter looked more like her, she could see Noel in her, too. The dimple in her chin, the way her smile was a bit crooked. Funny how the biggest mistake in her life had given her the best thing in the world.
“I thought we were going to see Nikki,” Britney said as they got into their car.
“I said we might. She must still be helping Mr. O’Connor pack up his things. But we’ll see her later.” Ellen started the car.
“Can I have my book now? Pleeeasssse.”
“Sure.” Ellen looked in the backseat.
“You put the bag in the trunk.” Britney made a pleading face.
A sucker for her daughter’s “pleases,” Ellen cut the engine off, then popped the trunk. Moving to the back of the Honda, she reached for the bag that had slid deep into the trunk. Leaning her knee on the back of the car, she half-crawled into the trunk.
“Can I help you?” a deep voice asked.
Ellen shot up so fast she banged her head on the trunk lid. “Ouch!”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you.” A deep chuckle followed the words.
Looking over her shoulder, she saw Rick Clark, the man whom supposedly she’d begged to have sex with her. Ellen blamed it on the morphine, but even now she felt herself being lured by his sexy laugh. She also felt his gaze on her extending ass.
“Just getting Britney’s book.” Snatching the bag, she crawled out and smiled cautiously. LeAnn, whose husband was Rick’s partner, had warned Ellen that Rick was a bit of a player. Not that Ellen would have been tempted to carry through with her proposition.
Meeting the man’s soft green eyes, she amended her last thought. She might have been tempted, but she wouldn’t go there. She’d been played by a player once. Never again.
When she closed the trunk, the bag holding the books split in two, and the contents hit the pavement by her sandals.
Rick knelt down and picked up Britney’s books. “Is she reading already? How old is she?”
“She’s six and already a bit of a bookworm.”
“Like her mom?” he asked, eyeing the books.
“Guilty.” She shot up.
He stood up, too. “What age do kids start reading?”
For a second she believed he was interested, but wasn’t that what players did? Pretend to be interested in something you liked? Get you thinking they were a nice guy so they could sleep with you, get you pregnant, and then tell you they were married? Or was that just Noel’s mode of operation?
“Six. I should… go.”
“Did you encourage her to read?” He thumbed through the book and then smiled up at her.
She had to reach deep to remember not to be fooled by smiling sexy eyes. “I read to her.” She motioned to the books he held, hoping she didn’t come off rude, but she didn’t want to encourage him.
“Later.” He handed her the books.
She turned away, applauding herself for escaping before he did something like…
“Would you like to do dinner sometime?” he asked before she got the door open.
She looked back. “Uh… I kind of got a lot on my plate right now.”
“Seeing someone else, huh?”
“Sorry.” It was easier to lie. Or to let him assume.
“He’s a lucky guy.” He didn’t seem offended. She gave him credit for making it easy.
“Thanks,” she said.
“Take care.” He started backing away.
“You, too.” Oddly enough she wondered about LeAnn’s assessment of him. Not that it mattered. Romance was out of the question right now.
TYLER WOKE UP at his usual six a.m. time for Sunday morning and debated pulling the covers back over his head. He’d tossed and turned most of the night, trying to remember how he knew the redhead. Not that it hadn’t been fun at times. He’d played mental paper dolls, where he stripped the redhead naked and dressed her in different uniforms, hoping it would help him remember where he’d met her. He’d tried a nurse’s uniform, a sexy cocktail waitress getup, and a prim and proper librarian outfit.
Though his mental exercises hadn’t solved the puzzle of the redhead’s identity, it might have answered part of his relationship problems.
As Dallas had pointed out yesterday, Austin liked his women cheap and probably not college educated.
Of all the outfits Tyler had mentally dressed the redhead in, the one that landed him in the shower at one this morning had been the librarian. He obviously had a thing for women with IQs larger than their breast size.
He was smart enough to know that when a person repeated a mistake, it meant they were following a pattern. And since he’d found himself with someone who wanted more than he did and things had ended badly a few times now, he had to accept that his pattern must be falling for the wrong kind of woman. Apparently, exceptionally smart women were less likely to participate in casual affairs.
So all he had to do was change the type of woman he asked out. And perhaps, he’d already gotten a head start. The redhead hadn’t made a lick of sense, and he’d certainly appreciated her other assets.
Five minutes later, Tyler walked to the kitchen of his two-bedroom apartment and poured himself a cup of coffee. After a couple of sips, he looked at the clock. He’d told Dallas he would meet him at his dad’s house around ten thirty to help move his dad’s things into his new place. Dallas’s dad had finally decided that remaining in his old home was making it hard to move past the loss of his wife. So he was moving into the adult retirement community where Nikki’s grandmother lived, and Dallas and Nikki were going to move into Dallas’s dad’s house. Which meant the apartment at the office was going to be empty. And since Tyler practically lived there already, moving in just made sense.
Looking at the empty boxes he’d gathered a week ago, he wondered why he kept postponing the packing. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to move.
Hell… maybe the move would shake him out of his rut. A new place to live. A new type of woman to fall for—one that just wanted to have some fun. A better attitude so his family would stop thinking he was depressed.
Taking another sip of coffee, Tyler opened the refrigerator as if food might magically appear there. It didn’t.
What he wouldn’t give for a plate of huevos rancheros—the kind being served in about thirty minutes at his sister’s place. But when Sam wouldn’t take his calls last night, he’d left a message and said he was skipping breakfast. If Sam was mad, and she obviously was, he knew she wouldn’t go if she thought he was going. With a new baby and an asshole of a husband, she needed the family more than he did. So he’d give her a week to get over being pissed.
Shutting the fridge, Tyler tried to recall if he’d ever seen huevos rancheros on the menu at Cookie’s Café. But instead of envisioning the menu, his mind produced an image of the pretty waitress who…
“That’s it!” He abandoned his coffee and grabbed his keys, remembering how it pissed him off that the waitress would never make direct eye contact. Not that she lacked service skills, but because she was pretty enough that a man wanted her full attention.
The thrill of seeing her again, and making direct eye contact this time, surged through his blood. He told himself the thrill was all about solving the puzzle of her identity, and not about the instant lust she’d brought out in him, but when he almost left the apartment without his shoes on, he called himself a liar. Only lust made him forget clothing items.
When Tyler spotted the silver Cobalt with Alabama tags parked around the back of the diner, the thrill shot through him again. Pulling out his phone, he typed in her license plate number and then e-mailed it to his cousin who was a Texas Highway Patrol officer.
After parking, Tyler took a minute to figure out how best to approach her. Finally, he decided to play it by ear. Inside, he immediately spotted her waiting on an elderly couple. As he took his first step inside, his phone rang.
He checked the number. Ramon, his oldest brother—no doubt calling to give him an ass-chewing for not showing up for breakfast. And it wasn’t as if Tyler could explain. If Ramon knew Leo had hit Sam, shit would hit the fan.
“Hi, brother,” Tyler said.
“Hey,” Ramon said. “You wanna explain why you aren’t here? You and Sam are both missing. We made a pact, brother. You don’t miss our family breakfasts.”
“Sam’s not there?” Tyler asked. “Have you called her?”
“She says the baby’s running a little fever. Lola went over to check on him. What’s your excuse?”
“It’s work.” He watched Red taking an elderly couple’s order. She laughed at something the old man said.
“Work comes before family? That’s bullshit.”
Ramon was a hardass about keeping the family together, but Tyler couldn’t blame him. Ten years Tyler’s senior, Ramon had quit college and gone to work in construction to keep the family together after their father had died. In so many ways, Ramon had taken over as head of the household.
“We all got together yesterday at Anna’s birthday.”
“You left early and didn’t even say good-bye. What the hell was up with that?”
“You know me, I had something on my mind and was halfway down the road before I realized I hadn’t said good-bye. Besides, I’m doing what I can,” Tyler said.
“Well, do more.” Ramon hung up.
Tyler looked up at the redheaded waitress. Her hair was up in a tight bun, which explained why he hadn’t recognized her. Her dark auburn hair was her best feature, but pulled up in that tight bun, her hair almost appeared brown.
His gaze did a quick up and down of her shapely body. She filled out the white skirt and top to perfection, and he almost conceded that her hair came in second. Not that her face was bad. He watched her smile and make direct eye contact with the couple. So she didn’t avoid eye contact with everyone. Maybe it was just men she deprived of her attention.
“Have a seat anywhere,” the elderly waitress said as she passed with a tray of food balanced on one hand.
He nodded, then, after studying the table setup, he surmised which tables would be Red’s. When she moved to a dirty table, pocketed the tip, and started stacking dishes, he moved forward.
“Mind if I sit here?” He waited for her to look at him, anticipating her reaction.
“No problem.” She barely glanced at him as she cleaned the table. “I’ll have it cleaned in a sec.” Her soft southern drawl came through.
He remembered he’d been wearing the clown costume the previous afternoon and had to bite back a smile. When she leaned over to clean the far end of the table, his gaze shifted to her ass and he recalled watching her crawl across his office floor.
“Coffee?” She gave the table two more swipes, her hips moving with the circular motion.
“That would be fine.” When she straightened from wiping the table, he sat down. “Thanks.”
He waited to see if she’d meet his gaze. Clown costume or not, he hoped for a flash of recognition, but like in the past, she didn’t look at him directly. He watched her step away. She snagged a cup and filled it with coffee. As she started away from the counter, a bell rang. She turned back and placed the coffee on a tray loaded down with three plates of food.
She moved toward him and set the coffee on his table while balancing the tray with her other hand.
“Got some cream?” He continued to stare at her.
“Yup.” She dug into her apron and pulled out a few creamers.
As she set the creamer down, he asked, “So you found your contact lens?”
Her gaze shot to his face, and her blue eyes finally widened with recognition.
He grinned and winked, enjoying it a tad too much.
She didn’t move, but one of the plates on her tray did. She adjusted the hand holding the tray as if trying to prevent the disaster, but it was too late. Tyler saw it happening, but there was nothing he could do to stop it. The white plate flew off the tray, heading right at his head. He dodged the plate, but the warm grits and scrambled eggs made a direct hit with his face.
“Shit,” she muttered as the plate crashed to the floor.
He knocked a blob of butter from his cheek and looked at her. She jumped back as if afraid he might hit her. Her quick retreat sent the second and third plate racing across the tray, and, once again, he was the finish line. The next plate to hit had a couple of sunny-side-up eggs, wheat toast with extra butter, and what he thought was hash browns. The food came so fast he wasn’t completely sure. Well, not sure until several forkfuls of shredded potatoes, accompanied by the half-cooked eggs, plopped right in his lap.
Somehow, he’d managed to catch one plate before it hit the floor, but the other plate bounced off the table, hit the linoleum, and shattered. As a thick glob of grits fell from the end of his nose, laughter exploded from the other diner patrons.
“I…” She stared at him.
He scooted his chair back from the table and stared down at himself. She dropped the tray on the edge of his table, grabbed his napkin, and started wiping globs of still warm grits off his chest. She kept wiping, following the trail of food down to his lap. She attempted to flop one half-cooked egg from his crotch. But the yoke burst and he watched it run between his legs.
Finally, she raised her head, met his gaze, and froze. He stared into her beautiful blue eyes and the sweetest mouth he could ever remember seeing. Appearing almost as mesmerized by his gaze as he was by hers, her hand with the napkin slipped deeper between his legs. Her gentle touch came in direct contact with sensitive body parts and felt pretty damn good, too. She jumped back as if suddenly realizing where her hand was.
A smile pulled at his mouth, but, seeing panic in her eyes, he bit it back. “It’s okay.”
She continued to stare. “Sorry. Really sorry.”
She stepped back and must have stepped on a part of the broken plate, because her right foot slipped out from under her and she plopped down on her ass. The chorus of laughter filling the diner grew louder. For the first time, he frowned at the crowd.
“You okay?” He jumped up and reached out his hand—a hand partially covered in scrambled eggs.
She didn’t take his hand. “I’m fine.” She eked out the words.
Then her wide blue eyes blinked, and she covered her mouth with her palm. He didn’t know if she was crying or laughing, but then humor shone through her eyes. And damn if she wasn’t pretty with her eyes lit up like that, too.
“You’re a mess,” she said.
He glanced down at the front of his shirt, where he wore an array of breakfast foods. Chuckling, he removed a piece of buttered toast glued to his chest and other remnants of scrambled eggs from his shoulder. Then he wiped what he thought was a pat of butter from the side of his ear.
“Here.” The older waitress showed up and pushed a damp towel into his hands. When she looked at him, she cracked a smile, too.
He used the towel to remove what he suspected was congealed hash browns from the side of his face and watched as Red got to her feet. She pushed herself up, and he checked out her calves to make sure she hadn’t been cut by the shattered plates. No blood, but really nice legs.
When he raised his eyes to her face, a frown replaced her smile. She went to the counter and started calling out orders to the cooks. Not that they were listening. They were too busy laughing and peering out the open service window at him.
He sat down on the other side of the table and tried to get most of the grits off his chest with the towel, but he didn’t take his eyes off the redhead. Just in case she tried to run. Though, why she would duck out was beyond him. He still didn’t have a clue why she’d been rummaging around his desk the previous day.
The older waitress followed Red behind the counter, and they whispered back and forth. Once Red looked back and met his eyes again. But she quickly turned away.
Was she going to run again? He wasn’t sure, but he wasn’t about to let her get away this time. He pushed back his chair, just in case he had to dart after her.
Recalling what Rick said about Red being an Anna Nicole wannabe, he frowned. Then his eyes went to her curvy backside, and he had to admit she probably had what it took to follow in the late woman’s footsteps. But for some reason, he didn’t believe it.
He reached for his coffee but saw it had eggs in it, and he pushed it away. Suddenly, another cup was set in front of him. Looking up, he stared at the older waitress.
“Breakfast’s on me this morning,” she said.
He arched a brow at her and smiled. “I could swear it was on me.” He glanced down at his chest, still speckled with grits and eggs.
She grinned. Suddenly realizing that she blocked his view, and afraid she was a decoy, he rose from his seat to make sure Red was still at the counter. She was.
As if she knew what he’d been checking on, the older waitress’s grin faded. “You eat and then you leave.”
He remembered hearing someone calling the woman by her name. “Dixie, right?”
“Well, Dixie, I have a little problem. I need to speak to… Red before I go.”
She set one hand on her hip, and he could see attitude all over her. “Red’s busy working.”
“It’s okay.” Red appeared beside Dixie. She dropped a couple of creams beside his coffee. “I’ll take care of this, Dixie. Thanks.”
Dixie looked at Red and then back at him. “You see that barrel-chested man behind the counter, there?”
Tyler nodded, and she continued, “That’s my Fred. He packs heat and he’s not scared to use it.”
“IDON’T THINK HE’LL NEED TO.” Tyler chose not to tell her that he packed heat as well. Hell, if she wanted to check with Internal Affairs of the Glencoe police, located just down the road, they’d tell her that he wasn’t afraid to use it, either. Three times he’d had to use his weapon. Three times he’d been investigated, and three times it had been judged a good shoot. He didn’t take shooting someone lightly, but he didn’t dillydally when someone was about to shoot him, either.
Dixie took off. Red, towel in her hand, started cleaning the mess off his table. She paused after a couple of swipes and raised her face to stare at him. “What is it you want?”
“I think I should be asking you that.”
“I suppose that’s fair.” She bit her lip, and he could see her trying to figure out what to say. What he didn’t know was if she planned on lying. “I… I was going to talk to you guys about a case.”
“What kind of case?” he asked.
“A…” She lowered her voice. “A difficult one.”
He reached for the cream she’d given him, pulled the tab off one, and poured it into his cup. “And how does it involve Mr. Bradford?” He decided to give her a little nudge so they could get to the truth quicker. “Heard you’ve been hanging out at the Bradford place, too.”
She looked surprised. Glancing around the diner as if worried others might be listening, she leaned in. “Can we talk later? After I get off work?”
“And give you a chance to run away again?” He pulled his cup to his lips and studied her reaction.
“No. To give us some privacy.”
As crazy as it was, his mind went to the private fantasies he’d had about her last night. He pushed those thoughts away and studied her expression again. If she was lying, she didn’t give the regular twitches. But he’d been wrong before. “Don’t you get a break?”
She frowned and did a visual sweep around the room. “Let the breakfast crowd leave and… I’ll see if I can’t take a few minutes.”
He nodded and thought she would walk away. She didn’t. Their eyes met and held. “What do you want?” she asked again.
You dressed like a prim and proper librarian. Or maybe just to see a laugh light up your eyes again. “I figured that was clear. Answers,” he said.
“I mean for breakfast.”
He obviously was not at the top of his game. “You serve huevos rancheros?”
“Can you serve them on a plate so I can eat them instead of wear them?” He grinned, hoping to coax another smile out of her.
Almost. He saw a flash of a smile touch her eyes, but something held her back. And he guessed what it was, too. She didn’t trust him, and that was okay—he didn’t trust her, either.
“Huevos rancheros on a plate coming up.” She started to walk away.
“One more thing,” he said.
She turned around.
“What’s your name?”
“Zoe,” she said.
Her expression told him she wasn’t thrilled about giving it to him.
“Adams. Zoe Adams.”
He stretched out his hand. “Nice to meet you, Zoe. I’m Tyler Lopez.”
She hesitated, but he didn’t drop his hand. As he hoped, after a long second, she felt forced to comply. She slipped her palm in his. Her hand was soft, small, and felt nice against his. Somehow he knew last night’s fantasy hadn’t done her justice.
A surge of desire shot straight to his gut and then went lower. So sweet was her touch that he didn’t want to release her hand, but he felt her pull away. To hold on would have intimidated her, so he forced himself to let that soft-as-silk palm slip from his.
Reining in his thoughts, he asked, “Where in Alabama are you from, Zoe?”
“How did you…”
“Your license plate.”
“Oh.” She hesitated. “Beaverville.”
Excerpted from Blame It on Texas by Excerpted by permission.
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