Death, Taxes, and Hot Pink Leg Warmers
By Diane Kelly
St. Martin's Press Copyright © 2013 Diane Kelly
All rights reserved.
Nothing like taking a baseball bat to the head to ruin a girl's faith in herself.
Yep, I'd recently let my guard down, assumed a mild-mannered granny posed no threat to me. Unfortunately, when I informed the woman she'd violated federal law by unwittingly helping terrorists funnel money overseas, she'd panicked. Even more unfortunately, an official major league baseball bat signed by none other than Texas Ranger Josh Hamilton had been in close reach behind the counter of her pawnshop. She'd grabbed the bat, swung for the seats, and — Crack! Lights out for me.
My confidence had been shattered along with my skull, but I was trying hard to be positive. At least my injuries hadn't been bad enough to require a steel plate in my head. Then again, with metal covering my brain, aliens from outer space wouldn't be able to read my thoughts or exercise mind control. A steel plate could also come in handy if I ever needed to head-butt someone.
I was lucky she'd only struck me once and that I'd survived the ordeal. Looked like all those times people had called me hardheaded hadn't been solely a comment on my stubborn personality.
How's that for looking on the bright side?
On another very positive note, after weeks of yearning on my part, Nick Pratt and I were finally free to explore our mutual attraction and take our relationship for a test-drive.
Nick was my coworker at the IRS, a senior special agent, and my partner in the big investigation on which we were preparing to embark. As far as I was concerned, he was also the reason why the sun rose in the morning and the stars twinkled at night, not to mention the reason why I continued to shave my legs even though it was now early November and my pasty calves wouldn't see the light of day until spring hit Dallas four months from now.
With any luck, my freshly shaved legs would soon find themselves wrapped around Nick's firm backside. His kisses were hotter than a Texas summer, so I could only imagine how steamy sex with Nick would be. I couldn't wait to find out!
While I'd been in the hospital recovering from my head injuries, Nick had approached my then-boyfriend Brett and asked him to step aside, at least temporarily, so Nick and I could determine whether we'd be a better match. Brett had agreed, admitting to me that he'd been attracted to a female chef at a country club in Atlanta where he'd been working on a landscaping project. Looked like the saucy chef had not only stirred up some delicious dishes, but she'd stirred up some feelings in Brett, as well.
Though Brett and I hadn't yet been certain whether the other was the one, we had a pretty good thing going and didn't want to recklessly throw what we had away. We'd left the door open for a reconciliation if our new relationships didn't work out. If either of us wanted to get back together, that person would go at noon on the Saturday after Thanksgiving to the Arboretum in Dallas, the place where we'd first met. If we both showed up, we'd reconcile, no questions asked. If neither of us showed, we'd move on. If only one of us turned up, well, I suppose that person would feel like an idiot, huh?
We'd agreed to a couple other stipulations, too. First, there would be no communication between the two of us during the trial breakup period. If we were going to take a chance with other people, it needed to be a real chance without the complications that would inevitably result from maintaining contact. Second, neither of us could engage in full-fledged nooky with the new love interest. Reconciliation would be impossible if either of us crossed that critical line.
Nick hadn't liked the restrictions imposed on us, especially the no-nooky clause, but he'd acquiesced, certain once I'd had a taste of his charms he'd ruin me for all other men. He'd maintained his membership with the Big D Dating Service, though, as a subtle reminder to me that if our trial run didn't work out he, too, was poised to jump right back into the dating pool with both feet.
It was less than the ideal way to start a relationship, but we'd all been around the block a few times and knew pairing off at our ages was no longer a matter of simply looking for a good time. It was about finding the most suitable partner. At twenty-seven, my biological clock had begun to tick, though the tick was still slow and faint. I was in no immediate rush, but I didn't have years to dawdle, either.
"Here we are." Nick pulled the white government sedan, what we agents referred to as a G-ride, into the parking lot of the Dallas Police Department headquarters on south Lamar Street.
Nick was built like a slightly scaled-down version of Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson and had eyes the same amber color as Johnnie Walker Black Label scotch. Like the scotch, Nick had been aged to perfection, with smooth, rich flavors and complex character. He could also be just as habit-forming. I wasn't sure yet whether indulging in too much Nick would leave me with a headache and dry heaves the next day, but I was willing to find out.
I cocked my head, eyeing the dark, thick mustache Nick had grown in order to change his appearance for our upcoming undercover case. The ridiculous thing tickled when Nick kissed me. Not that I minded, really. It was hard for me to notice much of anything when Nick's mouth was on mine. The instant our lips touched my mind melted into a blissful oblivion. "That mustache makes you look like a seventies porn star."
Nick cupped his hands behind his head and undulated in his seat. "Bow chicka bowwow."
I rolled my eyes. Truth be told, though, even when Nick was acting goofy he was sexy as hell. And I had to admit that while I preferred Nick clean shaven and less pornified, the facial hair went a long way in disguising him. I'd had my stylist dye my usual chestnut hair a raven color and give me a spiral perm. Having a new look was fun, though learning how to care for the curls had been a challenge. I'd finally realized the best thing to do was leave them alone and let them do their thing.
Disguises could be difficult, but they were necessary. Between Nick and me, we'd put away quite a few bad guys. If there were only six degrees of separation between everyone and Kevin Bacon, it was even more likely someone we'd run into before could resurface at the strip club we planned to investigate. The last thing Nick or I needed was for some target we'd arrested in an earlier case to recognize us.
As I gathered up my purse and briefcase, Nick reached over and tugged on the end of a curl near my ear, stretching the hair out straight, releasing it, and grinning as it sprang back into place. "Boing."
"Hey!" I patted my locks. "No messing with my hair."
What a liar. I loved it when Nick touched me and he knew it. I only wished my belief in myself could spring back as easily as my curl had. If our new case went well, though, maybe I'd regain the confidence that had been knocked out of me by that damn baseball bat.
"The curls are cute." He slid me a sly look. "I can think of some ways to really make them bounce."
My nether regions clenched at his suggestion. "Don't tempt me."
He leaned toward me, putting a finger under my chin and lifting my face until it was mere inches from his. "If I can't tempt you," he said softly, his breath like a feather across my lips, "can I at least kiss you?" Without waiting for a response, he leaned in and put his lips to mine.
Mmm. Even Nick's chaste, closed-mouth kisses sent my mind and heart reeling and set my body aflame with a hot, desperate yearning. Ugh! Why had I agreed to that stupid no-nooky clause? Brett was a wonderful guy, sure, but the first time Nick had kissed me I knew there'd be no going back.
This was going to be a damn long month.
We climbed out of the car, a crisp fall breeze greeting us. Jack Frost wasn't yet nipping at our noses, but his advance team was in the vicinity, caressing our cheeks with cool air, warning of the weather to come as the winter holidays approached.
Nick and I made our way through the parking lot and entered the modern police headquarters building. Our boss, Lu "the Lobo" Lobozinski, had assigned me and Nick to work with an agent from the DEA and a cop from Dallas PD's sex crimes unit. Together, the four of us would attempt to take down those involved in a drug distribution and prostitution ring being run out of a local topless bar. We had a meeting scheduled this morning with an informant who'd quietly blown the whistle about the shady goings-on at Guys & Dolls. The file we'd been given earlier contained the nitty, but this morning we'd get the gritty.
Why was the IRS involved in a drug and sex-for-money sting? Because the sleazeballs who committed these types of crimes rarely reported their earnings. Tax evasion gave the government attorneys another crime to charge the bad guys with, a chance to add a few years to their sentences, and a backup plan for nailing the scumbags if the other charges fell through.
Working on cases with Nick was fun, though admittedly I found it hard to keep my mind totally on work. At least ten percent of my brain was mentally undressing him at any given time. Good thing I was a smart cookie and could still function reasonably well at ninety percent of my mental capacity.
We checked in with the uniformed officer manning the information desk.
The cop consulted a log and pointed upward. "Second-floor conference room. Lieutenant Menger should be there now."
We took the stairs up one flight and arrived at the room to find Aaron Menger, the officer from the sex crimes unit, standing at the plate-glass window, looking out at the city that was his beat. Menger had golden-blond hair worn in a short burr cut, making his head look like the soft fluff of a baby chick. The hard look in his ice-blue eyes contrasted sharply with his downy head. He appeared to be in his late thirties, making him the oldest member of our four-person team. Though he had only an average build, I knew from the information we'd been provided that the guy was a triathlete and fourth-degree black belt. Not a man to be trifled with, despite the soft, fuzzy chick head.
"Hi, Tara. Nick." DEA Agent Christina Marquez was seated in one of the faux-leather chairs. With her tall and curvy build, generous makeup, and shiny black tresses, Christina looked more like America's Next Top Model than a top-notch DEA agent. But looks could be deceiving. Christina was smart and resourceful, a woman who could not only think on her feet but also bring hardened criminals to their knees. She gestured to my new curls. "Cute do."
"Thanks." I enjoyed the carefree curls, though not the verbal jabs from my office mates. Given my mad weapons skills, they'd often referred to me as the Annie Oakley of the IRS. Since the perm, however, they'd expanded the moniker to Little Orphan Annie Oakley. I'd countered by singing, "The guns will come out tomorrow." Once they'd endured my vocal assault, the teasing had ceased immediately.
Christina and I had worked together on two previous cases and had become friends off the clock, too.
The four of us exchanged handshakes, Aaron's firm grip nearly crushing my metacarpals. I wasn't sure if he was showing off or testing my mojo, but when I squeezed back as hard as I could a bemused smile flickered across his lips.
"I told your boss to send me her toughest agents," Menger said. "I can see she listened."
It was nice to know the Lobo still had some faith in me. I, on the other hand, didn't trust myself anymore. I'd been stupid and it had nearly cost me my life.
Who's to say I wouldn't screw up again?
And whose life might be at risk next time?
"Officer Menger?" came a female voice from the doorway.
We turned to find a thin woman waiting in the hall. She stood around five feet seven, with a smooth, wrinkleless face that had been Botoxed into immobility, giving her a porcelain-doll look. Her body was likewise firm and pert. Anything that could be enlarged, liposuctioned, or lifted had been, probably several times over. Even her teeth looked perfect, all white and even.
Despite these obvious cosmetic enhancements, the woman was nonetheless attractive, elegant even. Her champagne-colored hair was swept high into a classy, classic updo and her makeup, though heavy, was of subtle shades. She slipped out of her coat to reveal a sleeveless black dress accented with a gold brooch in the shape of an autumn leaf. Very tasteful.
Given the surgical enhancements, her age was impossible to guess. I'd put her somewhere between forty and four hundred. She might even pass for younger if not for the slightly loose skin on her neck and under her arms. On most women the underarm flaps looked like chicken wings. On this elegant woman they seemed more like skin ruffles.
Menger waved the woman into the conference room. "Hi, Bernice. Thanks for agreeing to meet with the team."
He introduced the woman to us as Bernice LaBerge. According to the information in the file, Bernice performed at the strip club. Although she wasn't onstage at the moment, she carried herself with a grace, sensuality, and self-assurance that said she'd have a fantastic stage presence. No wonder she'd been able to continue her exotic dance career into her ... what?
As Bernice shook Nick's hand, her gaze roamed over his face and a smile played about her enhanced lips. "My, my. Don't you look like Burt Reynolds from back in the day?"
Nick returned the grin. "I'm a big fan of Smokey and the Bandit."
Bernice took a seat at the table. After Menger gave us some brief background information, she filled the rest of us in.
"I was a showgirl at Caesars Palace years ago," she said. "Long before those conglomerates moved into Las Vegas and built those tacky theme hotels."
If she told me she'd done vaudeville or worked personally with Shakespeare I wouldn't have been surprised.
Her voice took on a wistful tone as she continued. "I loved performing in Vegas. But when I tore my Achilles tendon my dance career was over, at least as far as those types of shows went. I'd grown up in Dallas so I moved back here and auditioned at Guys and Dolls. Back then the place was a dinner theater. I was a triple threat so I landed a role in nearly all of their shows."
My brows scrunched. "A 'triple threat'? What's that?"
"Showbiz term," she explained. "It means I can act, sing, and dance."
I supposed I was a triple threat, too, though in an entirely different way. I couldn't act, sing, or dance my way out of a paper bag, but I could handle a pistol, rifle, or shotgun with equal skill.
"I starred in several plays," Bernice said. "Death of a Salesman. Mary Poppins. I was even featured as Maria in a production of The Sound of Music."
I'd seen the movie at least a dozen times as a girl. At the reference, my mind instantly brought up the scene in which the Von Trapp children performed their puppet show. Great. Now I'd hear yodeling in my head the rest of the day, while still mentally undressing Nick, of course. It made for a really odd imaginary striptease. If I ever actually saw Nick naked, though, I had a feeling I'd emit some high-pitched yodel-like sounds. Yodel-ay-hee-hoo!
With the yodeling now going on in my head, my mental faculties were reduced to eighty-five percent, luckily still enough brain power to keep up with the conversation taking place in the conference room.
Bernice went on to tell us that when dinner theater went out of style, the owners of the establishment tried running burlesque shows. That worked well for a while, but then it became clear the way to eke the most money out of the place would be to perform some simple mathematics — add some poles to the stage and subtract some clothing from the girls.
"I'd danced topless in Vegas," Bernice said, "so stripping wasn't much of a stretch for me. I was their featured dancer for years. Brought in quite the crowds."
She was clearly proud of her career accomplishments. I had been proud of mine, too. Until the damned baseball bat, that is. Getting knocked out by a grandmother had been humiliating. Would I ever get over it?
Bernice steepled her long, pink-tipped fingers. "The three men who owned the place back then took good care of us girls. They paid us a generous base wage, provided health insurance, tossed out any customers who got too handsy. We had quite a few good years."
How many? I wondered. Really, exactly how old was this woman? Forty-seven? Seventy-four? (Continues...)
Excerpted from Death, Taxes, and Hot Pink Leg Warmers by Diane Kelly. Copyright © 2013 Diane Kelly. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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