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|Publisher:||Paper Dragon Publishing|
|Series:||Crossing Forces , #2|
|Sold by:||Barnes & Noble|
|File size:||3 MB|
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The paper airplane sailed down the long hallway, heading toward Chief's office.
Pete cringed as the click of high heels registered at the same time as the feminine yelp.
Ethan dashed around the corner, and he hurried to follow.
"Hey, squirt, slow down," he called, but his partner's son was already out of sight.
Nikki, his boss's administrative assistant, squatted in front of the little boy. Ethan's copper curls were several shades lighter than hers, but the woman's hair was as natural as the kid's. Usually neatly coiffed at the back of her neck, today her locks were loose and flowing.
"What d'you have there?" she asked.
"I'm sorry," Pete said.
As she straightened, Nikki had a smile on her face.
"Didn't realize I'd get that kinda air."
Ethan retrieved the paper creation and slid a small hand into one of Pete's, looking up at both of them.
"It's no problem, it just startled me. Not like a paper collision could do much damage." She glanced at the little boy, then met Pete's eyes.
"Yeah, except for maybe a paper cut?" He shrugged.
Her smile slid into a grin and he got swept into the deep pools of her big brown eyes. She shoved her hair over a shoulder and he had to swallow.
The soft, wavy sea of red begged for a touch. A light floral scent tickled his nose with her pleasant perfume. It made her more intriguing.
How had he never noticed before?
"Somehow I think I'll live." Nikki laughed.
The sound was sweet and he found himself grinning back.
Like a besotted idiot.
"Unca' Pete. Did you see? It went faaaaaaar," Ethan piped up, tugging on his hand and jumping up and down. He veered the plane back and forth with his free hand.
"I did, squirt."
The kid grinned, his blue eyes wide and bright. "What's your name?" the four-year-old asked Nikki.
Her white billowy skirt moved as she bent down and offered her hand. The fabric stopped at her knees.
Damn, she had killer legs.
Pete averted his gaze from her asset-hugging lilac top and the cleavage peeking out as she moved to the child's level.
"I'm Nikki. You're getting big, Ethan! I know your mommy. She's my friend."
"My daddy is Cole!" He tugged his hand out of Pete's and shook Nikki's outstretched one.
A smile played at Pete's lips.
"I know him, too. We all work together."
Ethan eyed her up and down. "Where's your gun?"
"I work for Chief Martin, so I don't have a gun. I'm not a detective like your parents and Detective Crane," she explained.
"C'mere, squirt," Pete said, hauling his partner's son onto a hip. "Hungry?" His shoulder didn't even twitch.
Never could tell when his year-old bullet wound would bother him.
How much of that's in your head?
"Yeah," Ethan said, nodding.
"How'd you get little guy duty?" Nikki asked, those mocha eyes dancing. As she squared her shoulders, her light purple top hugged her breasts more.
His stomach fluttered. He must be hungrier than he thought. He was too old for her, even if he didn't consider her off limits. Unlike his partner, he didn't date — or marry — at work. "Andi went into labor this morning."
"Ah, I hadn't heard."
Shifting his feet, he met her gaze. "Yeah, and Cole's with her, of course. Bella, his normal babysitter, is a camp counselor for the rest of this summer down south in Livingston, and Andi's mom is on her way. She moved to Ohio a few years ago when she remarried. Cole's sister's even coming in from Seattle later today. But for now, I'm it. I don't mind, really. Me and Ethan are cool."
Her eyes widened as she took in all the info he'd thrown at her.
That soliloquy was probably the most he'd ever spoken to her. He cleared his throat.
"My cousins are coming," Ethan announced.
"That's nice," Nikki said, an easy smile back in place.
Pete had never noticed the dimple in her chin before. He tried not to stare.
"My mama's having a baby," his partner's son continued.
She ruffled his hair. "You're gonna be a big brother?" He chuckled as the little boy nodded. Couldn't help looking at her slender hands. She'd been close enough to touch his face. What would that feel like?
Her skin against his —
Jesus, what is wrong with you?
Lusting after a kid. What was she, twenty-five?
"I'm gonna be the bestest big broder ever!"
Her laugh jolted him.
It was as tempting as she was.
"I bet you are," Nikki told Ethan, holding up her palm.
The little boy slapped a loud high-five.
The buzz of Pete's phone offered him the excuse he needed to tear his attention away from the chief's lovely admin. He gestured to his device and whirled away, then admonished Ethan to hush while he brought the phone to his ear. "Crane."
"How's Ethan?" Cole asked.
"Howdy to you, too, bud." He hiked the little boy up higher on his hip. Kid was getting heavy.
His fellow detective's sigh was all the answer he got.
"Everything okay?" Pete asked his partner's husband.
"Yeah, I guess."
"Isn't your wife, I don't know, having a baby or something?"
"Not yet. I just wanted to call and check in," Cole said.
His bullshit meter lit up like a Christmas tree. He set Ethan on his desk in the Criminal Investigations Division — the room where all the detectives officed — and handed his partner's son the foam apple he kept around to squeeze when he was stressed.
The little boy mimicked a motor as he steered the paper airplane around, then rammed the apple into it, making explosion noises.
Pete grinned, but told himself to focus on the call. "What happened?"
"What d'you mean?" Cole asked.
He might have only known the guy for about a year, but it was obvious his buddy was trying to come off as innocent. Maybe it could work — on someone else. "How's my partner?"
"She's ... fine."
"Okay, quit hedging. You're starting to worry me. Is something wrong?"
"Sorry." The word was dejected. "Everything's fine. Really."
"What'd you do?"
Cole sighed. "Andi's ... in a mood."
"Well, hell, she is having a baby."
"She ... asked me to leave the room." The guy's whisper was guilty.
Pete couldn't hold the laugh back. He shook his head, though his friend couldn't see him, ignoring Cole's growl. "Do you want me to come up there?"
"I can handle my wife," he shot back.
He held back another laugh. Damn good thing Andi couldn't hear her husband's declaration. "Want to talk to your kid?"
"Ethan, your dad's on the phone."
The little boy's face lit up even before he handed over his cell. "Daddy!" It was odd considering someone other than Iain as Andi's son's father. Her first husband had never got the chance to be a father to Ethan, but Cole was a great dad.
The former FBI agent was equal parts fantastic husband and hell of a cop, too. Stubborn, like Pete's partner, but they were made for each other.
Iain would have liked the guy, as odd as that was to contemplate. A fellow cop and good friend, Iain had been killed in the line of duty over four years ago, leaving a six-week-old baby and a devastated wife to cope without him.
Pete had been out of commission when Cole had come to town after a human trafficker. The slimy bastard had put two bullets in him, actually.
The FBI agent had turned Andi's life upside down. But they'd solved their case and fallen for each other. It was satisfying to see his partner happy again. She'd always meant the world to him, and Cole was a good guy.
He heard the steady hum of the man's voice. Pete smiled as the kid babbled away about the paper airplane and Nikki.
Her carefree laugh bounced around into his mind and he sat straighter in the chair.
Get her out of your head, dude. You've bigger things to worry about than a chick you can't have.
Pete snapped back to attention when Ethan handed his phone over.
"Pete?" Cole sounded far away as his fumbling fingers brought the cell back to his ear.
"Well, I'm not. I need to go. Nurse's hollering."
"Maybe." His tone kicked up a notch from normal.
Pete smiled. "It'll be okay. Go have a baby. Keep us posted."
"You got it. Cass is gonna grab E-man later."
His buddy disconnected, and he glanced at the little boy sitting on the edge of his desk.
Ethan was still making motor noises, flying the pliable fake fruit and his paper airplane around in circles.
God, he was growing up. Not a tiny baby anymore.
Hell, not a baby at all.
Pete had held him and changed his diapers, fed him so many times in the middle of the night he'd lost count. Almost like Ethan was his kid.
Andi had needed that. He loved her like a sister. It wasn't a chore to be more than just her partner at work.
But not now. She had a new love, a new life.
He was happy for her. But he'd been ... displaced. They'd been partners for years. More than that, they'd been best friends.
Still best friends, dammit.
Now that she had Cole in her life, they saw less and less of each other outside of work.
Pete needed to get a life.
And isn't that pathetic?
His text alert went off and he glanced at his cell.
We need to talk. Do you have time for me tonight?
Sucking in a breath, he looked at Ethan and pocketed his phone. Didn't have time for the lovely blonde attorney. "C'mon, squirt. Let's go to Dixie's and get some grub."
Pete grinned at the kid's enthusiasm and swung him into his arms.
Liz would have to wait.
Nikki tried to tear her eyes away from Detective Crane as his tall lean form moved down the corridor with the little boy on his hip. Probably headed to CID, as most of the PD called it.
She'd always thought he was good-looking, but she'd never noticed just how green his eyes were before today. He'd stared at her, hadn't he?
He hadn't talked to her often, but he had a quick wit. Pete was always making someone laugh about something. He gave off the impression of being carefree and easy-going.
It wasn't odd to see him with his partner's son. Before Andi had remarried, Pete and Andi had seemed forever attached at the hip. Hell, most of PD had assumed they were more than just partners. Of course, rumors of who was sleeping with who always ran rampant at the police department anyway, so she tried disregard whispers.
Nikki knew the truth about Andi and Pete — since she and Andi were friends — but she'd always been curious as to why Pete wasn't married. Or ever hinted at being in a relationship. There was nothing wrong with being a private person, but she'd never heard Andi talk about her partner dating, and he'd never brought a woman other than his mother to department functions, like the annual Christmas party or family picnic held every spring.
A man who looked like Detective Pete Crane, with those gorgeous eyes, high cheekbones and sculpted body, could likely have any woman he wanted.
So what was wrong with him?
Shaking herself, she sucked in a breath and headed back to her desk in the smaller room of Chief Martin's executive suite. She needed to check on Gram.
Nikki hadn't talked to her since early that morning, and the woman who'd raised her hadn't had much positive to say about the rehab center — or its staff. Her grandmother's doctor was making her stay at Health Solutions for another few weeks.
Then she'd have to broach the you-can't-live-by-yourself- anymore subject that she just plain dreaded. No one told Molly Jenkins what to do, least of all the woman she most certainly still saw as a child.
Worry roiled in her gut as she rolled her chair to reach for the phone. In a matter of moments, she'd memorized the number to her grandmother's private room at Antioch's one and only rehabilitation center. It'd only been open for a few years, and was close. Good thing Gram wasn't far from home.
The phone only rang twice.
Nikki smiled at familiar gravelly voice of the only family she had. "Yes, ma'am, it's me. How're you?"
"I want to go home."
She swallowed back a sigh and sat straighter. "I know. But you need to listen to Dr. Bishop this time."
"I am fully capable of —"
But she wasn't. Not anymore.
"These things take time."
"Pish-tosh. Now you sound like them, child."
Of course, all medical staff was looped equally into 'evil'. "Because I love you, Gram. Always."
"I can't get any sleep. They wake me at all hours to poke and prod me."
Nikki released a breath, cocking her head to one side. "They're doing what they need to do to make you better."
"Nothing's wrong with me."
She wouldn't contradict her grandmother with the truth. Wanted her calm, not riled. This conversation wasn't going as planned. "I'm gonna come have dinner with you. I want to see you."
"Good. I want to see you, too."
"What d'you want to eat?" The lump in her throat was sudden and unwelcome, making her query breathless, caught. Nikki closed her eyes against the image of her grandmother on the kitchen floor the morning of the stroke.
Her world had narrowed. Panic had surged and threatened to overtake her. She'd thought she was dead. That she'd lost Gram.
"Whatever you bring, baby. You cookin'?"
She cleared her throat. "I can. Or I can just grab a plate from Dixie's. Grilled chicken and the potatoes you like. Marge will make it special if I ask."
"I really do like Marge's red potatoes." Gram's voice deepened, her speech slowing.
Terror jumped up from Nikki's stomach. "Gram?"
The word was accompanied with a yawn and she screamed at herself to calm down. Her heart thumped.
Gram's fine. She's tired. It's not another stroke.
"I'll just call Marge if it's okay with you." Forcing herself to remain even, she fidgeted in her chair, biting back a curse when her knee rammed into the side of her desk.
"Good. I'll see you before six, then."
"Okay, darlin'." The familiar endearment rolled off her grandmother's tongue like normal.
Nikki smiled. Gram was going to be fine. "I love you."
"I love you, too, baby."
Her gaze darted to her boss poking his dark head around the doorframe from his office as she laid the phone in its cradle. "Yes, Chief?"
"I have a conference call until two. Can you order in lunch?"
"Sure. What d'you want?"
Chief Martin smiled, making his graying moustache twitch. "Just the daily special at Dixie's. Order something for yourself, too."
"Thanks." He disappeared back into his room.
"Two birds with one stone," Nikki murmured as she picked up the phone again.
Berto jumped as he made a grab for the cell phone vibrating across the coffee table. 'Unknown caller' flashed on the screen.
One of his daughters giggled, and he glanced in the direction of the two little girls.
He slid his thumb across the touch screen to answer, strolling to the other end of the living room. As far away from the twins as he could get.
Calm the fuck down.
"Mata," he said.
Heavy breathing greeted his ear before the raspy voice.
"Always hiding out in the open, 'eh?"
Shit. Caselli himself.
His heart dropped to his stomach and he turned his body away from the children, swallowing hard. "Go to hell," he croaked.
His old boss laughed, a cackle really that one would expect from a much older man — or a wart-nosed witch. Then Caselli inhaled, as if he was taking a drag on something. Probably a cigar. The crime boss liked his Cubans. "What did I tell you four years ago?"
Berto said nothing, but closed his eyes.
"You'll always be mine, Alberto Carbone."
"Call yourself whatever you want. You. Are. Mine."
"Fuck off, Caselli."
There was another chortle that made his spine tingle. Sweat broke out on his forehead.
The call wasn't a shocker. The three threats — promises — had arrived consecutively, starting over a week ago.
Caselli's calling card of a dozen roses — first red, then white, finally black — and a 'Thinking of You' greeting card always preceded a death.
Last warning. A phone call.
Over the years, Berto had arranged so many of the same, as well as delivered the final blow, he'd lost count.
If he was smart, he would've packed his wife and the girls up and got out of dodge. But he wasn't running. He'd been done with Caselli for more than four years — too bad the feeling wasn't mutual.
"You really fucked me over this time. Talking to the Feds? Always those brass balls."
"What the hell are you talking about?"
No way was the asshole referring to the Carlo Maldonado situation almost a year ago. Berto wouldn't have had this long of a shelf-life.
Excerpted from "Chance Collision"
Copyright © 2014 C.A. Szarek.
Excerpted by permission of Paper Dragon Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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