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Renée Sweeney stood defiantly in front of the ten-ton wrecking ball and glared at the crane operator inside the cab. The man's mouth twisted from side to side, but she couldn't hear a word over the rumbling engine probably a good thing. No doubt he was spewing cuss words.
Too bad. If she had her way the 1892 Screw & Bolt Factory Warehouse along the historical Detroit Riverfront would stay standinglong enough for her to come up with a plan for the six little problems taking refuge inside the marked building.
The brisk December wind shoved her off balance, but she locked her knees and managed to remain upright. A moment later, the squeal of the machine's grinding gears ceased and an eerie silence reverberated through the air. Thank goodness.
The operator climbed from the cab and jabbed a meaty finger in her direction. "Hey, lady! What the hell are you doing?"
Wasn't it obvious? She stared at the man without answering.
"I'm calling the cops," he raged, pulling a cell phone from his coat pocket, then trudged out of hearing range.
If his wild arm gestures were any indication, the 911 operator was receiving an earful.
Renée snuggled deeper into her white ankle-length goose-down coat. In her rush to reach the Riverfront, she'd grabbed her scarf but had forgotten her gloves. The day's high of thirty-eight was losing ground fast against the projected overnight low of ten degrees. She hoped she'd accomplish her mission before all ten of her digits blackened from frostbite. At least the scarf prevented her ears from curling up and dropping off her head.
With watery eyes she searched for a windbreak, but the few barren trees that called the concrete parking lot home were useless. She was tempted to take shelter in the giant holly bushes that hid the first floor of the building, but feared the crane operator would set the ball swinging at her retreat. Once in a while her job as a social worker required creative action to protect children at risk, but challenging a wrecking ball was a bit extreme and Renée doubted her boss would approve.
Across the parking lot a handful of construction workers huddled inside their vehicles, smoking cigarettes while their boss dealt with this latest interruption. A hot coffee from the men would have been a nice thank-you for shortening the end of their workweek.
Her stomach grumbled, reminding her that she'd skipped lunch. She glanced at her watch. Four o'clock. In a few minutes the cops would arrive. Hopefully by the time the police sent her on her way with a warning, it would be too dark to proceed with the demolition.
The crane operator snapped his cell phone shut, tossed a furious look over his shoulder, then proceeded to make another callprobably the fire department in the event Detroit's finest were engaged in more important activities such as apprehending real criminals. She wiped her runny nose on the back of her coat sleeve and stared at the river across the street. This time of year few boats navigated the chunks of ice floating on the water, turning the Riverfront into a nautical ghost town. The Screw & Bolt building sat in the middle of the warehouse district among several turn-of-the-century structures.
The area was desolate, and she questioned the sanity of the fool who'd purchased the derelict property between the Renaissance Center and Belle Isle. A short while ago she'd chatted with her brother, a Detroit police officer, and he'd mentioned seeing the demolition equipment as he'd patrolled the area. In a panic, she'd rushed to the warehouse, praying she'd arrive before disaster struck.
Rocking forward on the balls of her feet, she added another inch to her five-foot-five height and braced herself for round two as the crane operator marched toward her, the stub of an unlit cigar bobbling between his fleshy blue lips. Eyes narrowed, he paused several feet away. His yellow hard hat left his ears exposed and they glowed the same bright red color as the bulbous tip of his nose.
"I don't know what your cause is, lady. Don't much give a shit. I've been paid to demolish this building and haul the rubble away by the end of next week. If I miss that deadline, I lose a lotta money." He motioned to the group of idling trucks. "You wouldn't want those guys going without pay, seeing how their kids are expecting gifts from Santa under the tree in a few weeks."
Renée had a soft spot for childrenwhy else would she do a fool thing like take on a construction crane in the bitter cold? If the workers went without a paycheck, their kids might not receive every item on their Santa wish list, but at least they'd have a roof over their heads and a warm meal on Christmas daywhich was more than she could say for the kids she hoped to protect from Bob the Builder and his demolition crew.
Police sirens whined through the air, saving her the trouble of responding. A squad car screeched to a stop and two officers stepped from the vehicle. Drat! Her brother, Rich, and his partner, Pete, had taken the call.
"Hi, guys," Renée said when the cops drew within hearing distance. She wanted to offer her brother a reassuring smile, but feared her bottom lip would split open and drip blood onto her white coat.
Pete's gaze swung from the crane to the construction foreman to Renée. Rich leveled a what-have-you-gone-and-done-now glare at her, then stood sentry at her side. A silent laugh shook her chest when the cigar tumbled from the foreman's mouth and bounced off the top of his steel-toe work boot.
Over the years, she'd developed friendships with several Detroit policemen. Often she required their assistance in removing children from abusive homes and placing them into protective custody. The officers understood and turned a blind eye when Renée bent the rules to do what was best for the child. She prayed her brother and his partner would cut her some slack this afternoon.
As dusk shrouded the parking lot like a heavy cloak, concealing the water, piers and moorings along the river, a chorus of revving truck engines erupted and the work crew left.
"What's going on?" Pete asked.
Grabbing at straws, she said, "I'm not sure this gentleman has obtained the proper permit to demolish this building."
Rich gaped at her as if she'd lost her mind.
Pete came to her rescue. "Mind if I see the paperwork?"
The foreman stomped his boot like a two-year-old throwing a temper tantrum and demanded, "Who the hell is this woman?"
"Watch your mouth, mister," Rich warned.
Sputtering, her adversary returned to the crane, crawled inside the cab, flung things around, then stormed back across the pavement. Hot air spewed out of his nostrils, forming a misty cloud above his head. "Work orders." He shoved the papers at Pete.
A twinge of empathy for the irate man caught Renée by surprise, but she pushed it aside. She needed the warehouse more than the foreman needed to swing his wrecking ball.
"Appears official," Pete said.
"Then she's gotta haul ass and get out of the way, right?" A fleck of spittle at the corner of his mouth froze into a white ice ball.
"On what?" The man's gaze dropped to Pete's gun holster.
"Whether the permit is on file at city hall."
"How the heck should I know? That's the property owner's responsibility. My job is to demolish this hellhole."
"Tomorrow's Saturday," Rich cut in. "City hall is closed. We'll verify the permit first thing Monday morning. Until then you'll have to shut down."
"What seems to be the problem here, Mr. Santori?"
Renée jumped inside her skin at the deep, throaty rumble and spun. Tall, broad shouldered, wearing a sheepskin jacket and a cowboy hata ridiculous choice of headgear for freezing weatherthe stranger joined the group. Her gaze traveled the length of his long jean-clad legs, stopping at his snakeskin boots. He was no ordinary cowboy who'd wandered in off the range. This roper reeked of money. Renée immediately disliked him.
"Mr. Dalton, this broad"
Rich cleared his throat nosily, and Mr. Santori amended, "this lady planted herself in front of the crane and refused to budge. What was I supposed to do? Bean her in the head with twenty-thousand pounds of steel?"
The cowboy grinned and Renée wished she had an object to bean him with. "No, we certainly don't want any harm to come to ?" His sexy voice trailed off and a few seconds passed before she collected her scattered wits.
Duke? What kind of name was that? Sounded like a moniker one would give a bulldog or porn star.
Mr. Dalton's large, bare grip swallowed hers, and she held on longer than necessary, soaking up the heat from his calloused fingers. After he shook hands with Pete and Rich, a tense silence followed.
Disgusted, Mr. Santori nodded at her. "This one's all yours, Mr. Dalton. Unless I hear otherwise, I'll be back with my crew bright and early Monday morning." Muttering under his breath, the grumpy man headed for his truck.
Renée turned to Mr. Dalton. "You are aware this is Detroit?" The hair peeking out from under his cowboy hat was a rich brown color with a few auburn strands thrown in for contrast. "Texas is west of the Mississippi."
Pete and Rich chuckled.
Stone-faced, the cowboy ignored her sass. "What organization are you representing?"
Organization? "I'm not. This building" she pointed behind her "has historical value and shouldn't be touched." In truth several of the warehouses along the river had historical significance, but that didn't guarantee they'd stand in place forever.
"There's not much left of the building worth saving," Mr. Dalton said. "I investigated the possibility of restoring the structure, but the cost was prohibitive. Cheaper to build new."
Surprised the man had done his homework, Renée struggled to respond. She suspected the bitter temps had caused the neurons in her brain to misfire, impeding her ability to speak. Pete nudged her shoulder. Neither cop would depart until she did. Time to end the standoff. But how? A blast of wind seared her chaffed face and caused her teeth to clatter.
"Why don't we discuss this over dinner," Mr. Dalton suggested.
There were worse things than sharing a meal with a citified cowboylike becoming a human Popsicle. "The Railway Diner is a few blocks over. Let's meet there."
Ignoring her brother's we'll-talk-later look, she shuffled on numb feet to her car. Once inside the wagon, she cranked the engine and blasted the heat, which made her nose drip like a faucet. While Rich detained Mr. Daltonno doubt to impart a warning to behave himself around hershe pressed her hands against the air vents until her knuckles thawed enough that she was able to bend her fingers and grasp the steering wheel.
Although she appreciated her brother's concern, she trusted her instincts. Reading between the lines and deciphering truth from lies was a necessary skill in her line of work. A gut feeling insisted that beneath the cowboy persona, the man meant her no ill will or harm.
He may be decent, but he's not a pushover.
Renée feared she'd need a miracle to persuade him to hold off on his plans for the building.
'Tis the season for miracles.
Maybe Duke Dalton would turn out to be Renée's Christmas miracle.
Duke watched Renée Sweeney drive off in her 2005 silver Ford Focus station wagonnot the kind of vehicle he'd have expected a woman with a feisty personality to drive. He pictured the spitfire in a red Mustang.
When Santori had phoned about a disturbance at the work site, Duke had expected to find a group of protesters chained to the building door, not a pint-size woman going toe-to-toe with a wrecking ball.
"She's one of our city's most popular social workers," the cop named Pete boasted.
The blonde was a social worker? She'd looked more like an avenging angel in her long white coat and matching scarf. The woman intrigued Duke and he was eager to learn her reasons for delaying the demolition of his building.
"Renée's special." The gleam in the other officer's eyes told Duke to mind his manners. The cop had to be in his fifties and the social worker hadn't appeared to be a day over thirty. Were they a couple? Duke hadn't made friends since moving to Detroit a month ago. He would have enjoyed becoming better acquainted with Ms. Sweeney, but he refused to trespass on another man's territory.
"You mess with Renée, you mess with us. Got it?" the old guy threatened.
"Understood." Duke hustled across the lot, eager to escape the cold. The below-freezing temps that had blanketed the state the past week had him second-guessing his decision to move his business from Tulsa to Detroit. He'd take an occasional paralyzing ice storm any day over the below-zero temperatures of this Midwest meat locker.
Once inside his truck, he revved the engine and flipped on the heat. Even though the policeman had made it clear that Renée Sweeney was off-limits, anticipation stirred Duke's gut. Having eaten alone since arriving in the Motor City, he was ready to engage in conversation with someone other than himself. And he expected the social worker had plenty to say. He'd caught the way she'd summed him up with a cold, hard stare and he anticipated changing her uncomplimentary opinion of him.
When Duke pulled into the parking lot of the Railway Diner he recalled his Realtor suggesting the burger joint months ago when he'd been in town signing the closing papers on the warehouse property. He parked three spaces away from the silver wagon. Leaving his hat in the truck, he hurried toward the entrance where Renée stood inside the door.
"How long for a table?" He leaned closer to hear her response in the crowded waiting area and detected a hint of perfume in her haira nice change from the smell of fishy river water and wet decay that saturated the air along the Riverfront.
"Five minutes or less."
He slipped out of his coat, then offered to help Renée with hers, but she scooted aside and shed her own jacket. If she was averse to his touch, why had she shaken his hand in the parking lot? Better yetwhy had her fingers clung to his so long?
The hostess rescued them from further awkward conversation, and they ascended the steps to the dining area. Halfway through the car, grilled onions and frying beef assaulted his nose. He'd have to send his clothes off to be laundered tonight if he hoped to prevent his hotel room from smelling like fried hamburger.
Duke waited for Renée to scoot into the booth, then he sat across from her. A waitress named Peggy arrived with menus and water glasses. "Half-price burgers on Fridays," she announced. "Coffee?"
"Please." Renée's smile knocked the wind from Duke. The woman had dimples in both cheeks and beautiful, straight white teeth.
Peggy cleared her throat and his neck warmed at having been caught gawking. "Make that two coffees." When the waitress disappeared, he said, "Smile."