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She had the biggest brown eyes Judd had ever seen.
She also looked innocent as hell, despite the ridiculous clothes she wore and the huge, frayed canvas tote bag she carried. Did she actually think she blended in, just because her coat was tattered and her hat was a little ratty? Did she think anyone would ever believe her to be homeless? Not likely.
So what was she doing here at this time of night? The lower east side of Springfield was no place for a lady like her. She strolled past him again, this time more slowly, and her eyes were so wide it looked as if they could take in her surroundings in a single glance. They took in Judd.
He felt a thrill of awareness, sharper than anything he'd ever felt before. She looked away, but not before he detected the faint pink blush that washed over her fine features. That blush had been obvious even in the dim evening light, with only the moon and corner street lamp for illumination. She had flawless skin.
Dammit. He had enough to worry about without some damn Miss Priss with manicured nails and salon-styled hair trying to fob herself off as a local. Judd had only stepped outside the bar to get a breath of fresh air. The smell of perfume inside was overwhelming, and enough to turn his stomach.
He could hear the music in the bar grow louder and knew the dancers were coming onstage. In less than ten minutes, he'd have to go back in there, baring himself in the line of duty.
Damn. He hated this cover. What decent, hardworking cop should have to peel off his clothes for a bunch of sex-starved, groping women? For nearly two weeks now he'd been entertaining the female masses with the sight of his body, hoping to uncover enough evidence to make a bust. He was now, at thirty-two, in his prime, more fit than ever and completely alone. Not only did he meet the necessary requirements to pull off such a ludicrous cover, he had a vested, very personal interest this time. He knew for a fact the room above the bar was the site for shady business meetings, yet he hadn't seen hide nor hair of a gun deal. Clayton Donner was lying low.
It was discouraging, but he wasn't giving up.
He was definitely going to get Donner, but that didn't mean he enjoyed displaying himself nightly.
Each of the strippers had a gimmick. He thought his was rather ironic. He played out the tough street cop, complete with black pants held together with strategically placed Velcro. They came off with only the smallest tug. He even had Max's original leather jacket—a prized possession, to be sure—to add to his authenticity. The women loved it.
He wondered if old Max had known how sexy the cop persona was to females. Or if he would have cared.
God, he couldn't think about Max and still do his job, which was to appear unscrupulous enough that Donner would think him available. Clayton always needed new pigeons to run his scams. Judd intended to be the next. It was the only way he could get close enough to make a clean bust.
And the last thing he needed now was a distraction with big brown eyes. Despite his resolve, his gaze wandered back to the woman. She was loitering on the corner beneath the street lamp, holding that large, lumpy bag to her chest and trying to fit in. Judd snorted. That old coat was buttoned so high she was damn near strangling herself. What the hell was she doing here?
He'd just about convinced himself not to care, not to get involved, when three young men seemed to notice her. Judd watched as they approached her. She started to back away, then evidently changed her mind. She nodded a greeting, but it was a wimpy effort. Hell, the men looked determined to get to know her, without any encouragement on her part. She, on the other hand, looked ready to faint.
Walk away, he thought, willing the woman to move. But she stood her ground. He sensed, then he knew for certain, she was getting in over her head. His body was already tensing, his eyes narrowed, waiting for the trouble to start. They seemed to be talking, or, more to the point, she was trying to speak to them. She gestured with her hands, her expression earnest. Then one of the men grabbed her and she let loose a startled screech. In the next instant, those huge brown eyes of hers turned his way, demanding that he help her.
The little twit thought he was a regular street cop. At this rate she'd blow his cover.
Well, hell, he couldn't allow her to be manhandled. He pushed himself away from the doorway and started forward. The men were obviously drunk. One of them was doing his best to pull her close, but she kept sidestepping him. Judd approached them all with a casual air.
"Here now, boys." He kept his tone low and deep, deliberately commanding. "Why don't you leave the lady alone."
Judd could see her trembling, could see the paleness of her face in the yellow light of the street lamp. The man didn't release her; if anything, he tightened his grip. "Go to hell."
The words were slurred, and Judd wondered just how drunk they were. They might believe him to be a cop, but in this neighborhood, being a law enforcement officer carried very little clout and regularly drew vicious disdain. Damn.
He couldn't get into a brawl—he might literally lose his pants. Not that he wouldn't enjoy knocking some heads together, but still…. Where was a real uniformed cop when you needed one?
He turned his gaze on the woman. "Do you want their company?"
She swallowed, her throat working convulsively. "No."
One of the men shook his fist in Judd's face, stumbling drunkenly as he did so. "She's already made a deal with us." The man grinned stupidly at the woman, then added, "You can't expect a little thing like her to run around here without a weapon to protect herself…
One of the other men slugged the speaker. "Shut up, you fool."
Judd went very still, scrutinizing the woman's face. "Well?"
Again, she swallowed. "Well…what?"
"Why do you need a weapon? You planning to kill someone?" Whisper-soft, his question still demanded an immediate answer.
Shaking her head, then looking around as if desperately seeking a means of escape, she managed to pique his interest. He couldn't walk away now. Whatever she was up to, she didn't want him to know. Because she thought he was a cop?
Disgusted, Judd propped his hands on his hips, his eyebrows drawn together in a frown. "Do you want the company of these men or not?"
She peered cautiously at the drunken, leering face so close to her own. Her lips tightened in disapproval and disdain. "Ah… no. Not particularly."
A genuine smile tipped his mouth before he caught himself. She had gumption, he'd give her that. She was no bigger than a ten-year-old sickly kid. The coat she wore practically swallowed her up. She was fine-boned, petite, and everything about her seemed fragile. "There you go, fellas. The lady doesn't find you to her liking. Turn her loose and go find something else to do."
"I got somethin' to do already." Her captor's hold seemed to loosen just a bit as he spoke, and taking advantage, she suddenly jerked free. Then she did the dumbest thing Judd had ever seen. She sent her knee into the man's groin.
Unbelievable. Judd shook his head, even as he yanked her behind him, trying to protect her from the ensuing chaos. He couldn't do any real damage to the men without attracting more spectators, which would threaten his cover. And the woman was gasping behind him, scared out of her wits from the sound of it. But damn it all, he definitely did not want to lose his pants out here scuffling in the middle of the sidewalk with common drunks. One of the men started to throw a punch.
Judd cursed loudly as the woman ran around him, evidently not as frightened as he'd thought, and leaped onto his attacker's back. She couldn't weigh over a hundred pounds, but she wound her fingers in the man's hair and pulled with all her might.
Enough was enough. A glimpse at his watch told him it was time for his performance. Judd grabbed the man away from her and sent him reeling with a firm kick to the rear end, then stalked the other two, every muscle in his body tensed. Too drunk to persist in their efforts, the men scurried away.
Judd turned to face the woman, and she was… tidying her hair? Good God, was she nuts? He saw her look toward her canvas bag, which now lay in a puddle on the sidewalk, but she made no move to retrieve it.
"You don't want your bag?" he asked with all the sarcasm he could muster.
"Oh." She glanced at him. "Well, of course…" She made a move in its direction, but he shook his head. He could see more raggedy clothing falling out the opening, and if there was one thing this woman didn't need, it was hand-me-downs.
He took her arm in a firm but gentle hold, ignoring her resistance, and started her toward the bar. He automatically moved her to his right side, bringing her between his body and the building, protecting her from passersby He held his temper for all of about three seconds, then gave up the effort.
"Of all the stupid, harebrained… lady, what the hell did you think you were doing back there?" He wondered if she could be a journalist, or a TV newswoman? She damn well wasn't used to living in alleys, or going without. Everything about her screamed money. Even now, with him hustling her down the sidewalk, she had a certain grace, a definite poise, that didn't come from being underprivileged.
She glanced up at him, and he noticed she smelled nice, too. Not heavily perfumed like the women in the bar, just…very feminine. Her wavy shoulder-length hair, a light brown that looked as baby soft as her eyes, bounced as he hurried her along. She was practically running, but he couldn't help that. He was going to be late. He could hear the music for his number starting. Taking off his clothes in public was bad enough. He didn't intend to make a grand entrance by jumping in late.
She cleared her throat. "I appreciate your assistance, Officer."
Without slowing his pace, he glared at her. "Answer my question. Who are you? What the hell are you up to?"
"That's two questions."
He growled, his patience at an end. "Answer me, dammit!"
She stumbled, then glared up at him defiantly. "That's really none of your business."
Everything inside his body clenched. "I'm making it my business."
Digging in her heels as he tried to haul her through the front door, she forced him to slow down. She was wide-eyed again and he noticed her mouth was hanging open as he dragged her into the bar. "What are you doing?"
There was a note of shrill panic in her voice as she took in her surroundings. Judd had no time to explain, and no time to consider her delicate sensibilities. Everyone in this part of town thought of him as a money-hungry, oversexed, willing exhibitionist—Clayton Donner included. It was a necessary cover and one he wasn't ready to forfeit. Donner would show up again soon, and once he decided Judd was a familiar face in the area, the gun dealer would make his move. It would happen. He'd make it happen.
Still gripping her arm, Judd trotted her toward the nearest bar stool. "Stay right here." He stared down at her, trying to intimidate her with his blackest scowl. The music was picking up tempo, signaling his cue.
She popped right back off the seat, those eyes of hers accurately portraying her shock. "Now see here! I have no intention of waiting—"
He picked her up, dropped her onto the stool again, then called to the bartender. "Keep her here, Freddie. Make certain she doesn't budge."
Freddie, a huge, jovial sort with two front teeth missing, grinned and nodded. "What'd she do?"
"She owes me. Big. Keep your eye on her."
"And if she tries to pike it?"
Judd gave Freddie a conspiratorial wink. "Make her sorry if she so much as flinches."
Freddie looked ferocious, but Judd knew he wouldn't hurt a fly. That was the reason they had not one, but two bouncers on the premises. But the little lady didn't know that, and Judd wanted to find out exactly what she was up to. Gut instinct told him he wouldn't like what he found.
Suddenly the spotlight swirled around the floor. Cursing, then forcing a grin to his mouth, Judd sauntered forward into the light. Women screamed.
In the short time he'd been performing here, he'd discovered a wealth of information about his gun dealer… and become a favorite of the bar. The owner had promised to double his pay, but that was nothing compared to the bills that always ended up stuffed in his skimpy briefs. He refused, absolutely refused, to wear a G-string. His naked butt was not something he showed to more than one woman at a time, and even those exhibitions were few and far between. But his modesty worked to his advantage. The women customers thought he was a tease, and appreciated his show all the more.
As he moved, he glanced over his shoulder to make certain the lady was still there. She hadn't moved. She didn't look as though she could. Her eyes were even larger now, huge and luminous and filled with shock and disbelief. He held her gaze, and slowly, backing into the center of the floor, slid the zipper down on the leather jacket. He saw her gasp.
Her intent expression, of innocence mixed with curious wonder, annoyed him, making him feel more exposed than he ever had while performing. That he could feel his face heat angered him. He was too old, and too cynical now, to actually blush. Damn her.
Purposefully holding her gaze, determined to make her look away, he let his fingers move to the top of his pants. As he slowly unhooked the fly, one snap at a time, teasing his audience, teasing her more, she reeled back and one dainty hand touched her chest. She looked distressed. She looked shocked.
But she didn't look away.
Oh, Lord. Oh, Lord. This can't be happening, Emily! It's too outrageous. There can't possibly be a large, gorgeous man peeling his clothes off in front of you.
Even as she told herself she was delirious, that the scene in front of her was a figment of her fantastical imagination, Emily watched him kick off his boots, then with one smooth jerk, toss his pants aside. She wouldn't have missed a single instant of his disrobing. She couldn't. She was spellbound.