Women are disappearing in Adobe Creek, Arizona, and it's up to Detective Meg Flores to stop it. But when New York detective Tico Butler is called in to take over the case, Meg feels threatened. Will he also take over her job? She's prepared to hate himbut she's not prepared for the intense chemistry between them!
From the moment Tico arrives, Meg is struck by his bad-boy good looks and his smooth-talking charm. She may not have wanted him here, but he's proving hard to resist. And when they go undercover together, the desert isn't the only thing getting hotter .
About the Author
Kathleen Pickering is second oldest of eight siblings and a lover-of-life. She travels to research books and draws stories from life experience. If she meets you, beware. You may wind up in one of her novels!
Kathleen lives in south Florida, loves to swim with dolphins, dances to any music that moves her, sings karaoke and is a social media junkie. Most of all, Kathleen loves to write and hopes her stories bring you back to what matters over all: the power of love.
Read an Excerpt
Detective Tico Butler stood outside a stable in the scorching southern Arizona heat, more out of his element than a scorpion in a snowbank.
His gaze slid from the dust-covered silver Har-ley Road Glide he'd ridden across the country to the strong, brown, wild-eyed stallion he'd rented to take him the final mile to his destination: the two-bit town of Adobe Creek.
He'd only been on a horse a few times as a kid in New York. It was something his father seemed to think was important, but the horses they'd ridden were from a local riding stable and docile. This horse looked much more muscled than the mounts Tico remembered and way too unmanageable.
The stable hand holding the reins eyed Tico's leather vest and fake sheriff's badge, letting his gaze rest on the cowboy hat as black as Tico's hair. Shaking his head, the old man beckoned Tico closer. "Well, Sheriff. This here is Diablo. You good with animals?"
"Deal with 'em every day." Tico didn't want to mention the animals he dealt with were the twolegged kind and usually fleeing a crime scene in Brooklyn. "Are you Charlie Samuels?"
"Nope. Charlie's off today. I'm Seth." He held out the reins. "Diablo was out this morning. Gave him a good run. He should be a pussycat now."
The grin on Seth's face didn't match the horse's agitation; the animal threw his head back as Tico approached. Tico used two fingers to push his hat back on his forehead. "Got anything tamer?"
Seth shook his head. "You said you wanted to look like the Lone Ranger. Diablo is the closest I got to big and white."
"This horse is brown!"
He spit a wad of chewing tobacco into the dirt. "Yep. Closest I've got."
Tico took the reins. He wasn't getting anywhere with this guy, and he was running late for his meeting at the Adobe Creek Police Department. The horse sidestepped as Tico put his foot into the stirrup.
"Hey! Easy, fella."
Diablo continued to move away from him. With one foot in the stirrup, Tico had to hop on the other to keep from falling.
The stable hand chuckled. "Don't worry. If Diablo tosses you out there, he'll know his way back."
The horseman's gibe was all Tico needed. He grabbed the saddle horn and leaped into the seat, coming down hard on the horse's back. Diablo bucked once, then bolted. Tico almost went flying.
Tico kept his seat, but the hard landing jammed his back something awful. Seth yelled, "Bring 'im back by five. He gets ornery without his dinner oats."
The horse ran for a good quarter mile in the dirt along the two-lane highway that led into Adobe Creek. Tico bumped his butt for most of the ride until something clicked. He got a better grip with his legs, leaned forward and found a rhythm with the horse's gallop. Reins wrapped around his hands, he continued to cling to the saddle hornthe only thing that saved him from falling on his ass when the horse had bucked. He wasn't about to let go now. No telling if Diablo would buck again.
It was nothing short of a miracle that he was still in the saddle, and a sense of excitement zinged through his system. Riding those narrow paths in the reeds along Brooklyn's shores as a kid had never offered the power and freedom of galloping in the open, barren desert. The sun was hot on his shoulders, and the air filling his lungs was cleaner than anything he'd known. It felt as if his Judumi blood was waking up. Not a good thought. If his father hadn't been such a dirtbag, maybe Tico might have liked the idea of being half Indian.
No need for that nonsense now.
The unexpected flash of emotion about his Ju-dumi heritage left him unsure whether he'd made a good decision taking this job or using this horse to break the ice with his hosts. He'd already gotten feedback on how the investigating team in Adobe Creek had blown a gasket when they'd learned he'd been brought in as a consultant. Opinions flew. Ex-gang leader.
Strings pulled to place him in police boot camp.
A hard-ass cop who lost a partner in a drug raid.
Tico had been cleared of any wrong, but rumor on the force was that Tico had betrayed his partner to the gang they were breaking. Nobody except his mentor and the two remaining men on his team trusted Tico anymore. He was bone weary from having to prove himself over and over again. Even as a gang leader he hadn't been all bad, just angry. He'd learned the difference a little too late.
So this time, he wanted to take the Adobe Creek team totally off guard. No doubt they expected a tough, opinionated, half-Judumi outcast to ride in and throw his weight around. Instead, Tico had decided to ditch his Harley for a horse and use comedy to make the team think twice before judging him. He didn't have time to earn their trust. Too much was happening too fast on this case. He needed to win them over, complete this assignment and get his tail out of Dodge as quickly as possible. He had a job to do. It didn't help that Adobe Creek was his father's hometown and a place where Tico claimed he'd never step foot.
Now it was time to take control of this damned animal if he was going to make his joke about being the lawman-to-the-rescue and get this frustrated team to work with him. The profile picture of the team leader rose in his mind. Meg Flores. Something about those dark brown eyes, the determination in her jaw, had him thinking she'd be just as stubborn as this damned horse. He sensed a kindred spirit there, and the idea had bothered him for the entire ride across the country. But he wouldn't jump to any conclusions until he met her in person.
He focused his attention back on the horse, gently pulling both reins to slow Diablo, but the damned fiend bucked again. In a blink, Tico flew out of the saddle, giving him a bird's-eye view of a police cruiser heading toward him before he hit the desert floor hard.
So much for being one with the animal. Good thing Tico was in shape. The momentum from the blow to his left side sent him rolling onto his feet. The fall had knocked his hat off. Half his hair had been pulled from his ponytail. With every inch of him aching, he watched the horse run toward the police cruiser. The car stopped. An officer leaped from the passenger side to intercept the horse. The animal slowed to a walk as if to greet the man.
"What the ?" Tico picked up his hat and slapped it on his leg. That damned horse liked everyone but him. Why should a horse be any different than anyone else he knew?
Taking a step, he felt as if he'd suddenly become bowlegged. He could already feel where the bruises would rise on his left hip. He made himself take shorter strides to keep from limping. The officer who detained the horse wore sunglasses, so Tico couldn't read his eyes, but from the way his mouth twitched, the burly man was trying to keep from laughing.
Tico waved a hand. "Yeah. Thanks. We just met and aren't getting along."
The cop gave a pointed look at the sheriff star pinned to Tico's vest. "Did the outfit come with the horse?"
Tico chuckled. This guy had a sense of humor. His police badge said Quinto. Tico turned his gaze to the mountains in the distance, doing his best John Wayne. "Never been out West. Trying to get a feel for the area."
"You staying in Adobe Creek?"
"For a little while." Tico put his hat back on his head to shelter his eyes from the glaring sun. "Been hired to work with your detective squad."
The officer didn't even flinch. "The expert from New York?" Tico held out a hand. "Tico Butler. NYPD. I'm better with investigations than horses."
Ignoring his offered hand, the officer gestured to the desert. "What are you trying to do, kill yourself out here?"
No surprise, the guy wouldn't shake his hand. Wiping his palm on his pants, Tico stared at the unruly horse. "Thought I'd have a little fun before work. Didn't think my horse would mind as much as he does." He scratched his chin. "He sure seems to like you."
"Horses have keen senses. If you're afraid to ride, he'll know."
"I'm not afraid. Just been a long time since I've ridden."
"Well, I'm sure you'll earn the horse's respect by the time you get into town."
Tico shook his head. "Can horses be bribed to behave?"
Not quite suppressing a grin, Quinto glanced at the horse. "This is Charlie Samuels's mount. I'd say not a chance in hell." He handed Tico the reins. "It's about twenty minutes to the station. Good luck."
Tico stared Diablo in the eye. "No more games, buster. We've got a job to do."
This time, the horse let him mount, then stood there. Tico made sure his feet were secure in the stirrups. He flicked the reins. "Giddyap!"
The horse didn't move.
Officer Quinto had already climbed back into the patrol car. Tico could see the driver shake his head slowly as Quinto no doubt explained to him what was going on.
Yeah. He looked like a clown to these guys. He didn't mind, but he needed this damned horse to cooperate.
He kicked the horse's flanks with both heels, and Diablo took off. "Whooooooaaaaa!"
Tico worked to keep his seat while the horse galloped along the road into town. He'd be one sore son of a gun when this was over, but he had no choice. It was taking Tico years to regain the respect of his New York peers with his hard-nosed, unflinching approach to detective work, but he didn't have time to prove his worth here. He had to win over the Adobe Creek team. While humor had been his intent, he wanted to make his new colleagues laugh, not make a goddamn fool of himself.
The horse had taken to the pavement from the desert. He'd slowed his pace to a brisk walk but was hogging the center of the road. Tico used the reins as he remembered, but nothing he did convinced the horse to move over. From the way the traffic was being held up behind him, then passing him with dirty looks, it seemed that this freaking horse would sabotage his plans. He was losing to Diablo by the minute. Best he could do was pretend he wanted his mount to be unruly.
Tico let out a breath as he viewed the footprint of the small town nestled in the foothills. The mountains in the distance framed what looked like something out of an old Western mining town. From the elevation in the road, he could see Main Streetthe busiest part of town. Not one high-rise dotted the vista. Just low adobe structures and wood-front buildings painted brown and white, or yellow or barn-red, with shutters on windows and signs over the doors.
In the foothills, the whitewashed adobe enclave of the Quarry sprawled like a wedge of Hollywood among the tumbleweeds. He'd read all about this celebrity hot spot in his review of the case. The Quarry, a now defunct silver mine, had been backfilled, landscaped and rebuilt into a spa community that managed to attract the rich and famous who wanted anonymity and seclusion. Celebrities owned private homes there, but vacation haciendas were available for anyone with means to pay the outrageous rent.
Tico used his sleeve to swipe the sweat off his brow. Damn climate roasted around here. He wished he'd thought to bring a canteen of water to round out his outfit. He looked like a goof in his City Slickers cowboy costume.
Softening his tough-guy reputation for the detectives of Adobe Creek had seemed like a good idea while driving across country. Especially for Meg Flores, who was the squad leader and hadn't asked for Tico's help. He'd been called in because the task force leader in that area wanted to make sure level heads led this sting. Once Meg Flores discovered who specifically had requested his help, she'd like him even less. That wouldn't do when he needed everyone's cooperation to get the job done.
Tico didn't underestimate the loyalty investigative teams held for each other. He'd learned that fact early on through the gangs he'd once known all too well. He'd also learned that the way into enemy territory was easiest when your adversaries thought you were harmless. From the line of carsincluding the police cruiserfollowing him now, he'd say he was achieving the desired effect. The derogatory comments flying from drivers' windows were proof enough.
The procession on the two-lane road grew longer and agitated the horse even more. With every sounding horn Diablo grew more skittish. Thankfully, the Adobe Creek Police Department, the only modern facility in this currently one-horse town, was a stone's throw away. And look there. A welcome committee stood in the shade of the carport by the front door, watching him. The woman standing between the two men was Meg Flores. And no surprise, she looked better in real life than in her photoeven from this distance.
Tico concentrated on maneuvering Diablo under the overhang. He pulled the reins to the left, leading them toward the entrance, when the stallion reared unexpectedly, came down hard, then reared again. Arms flailing, hat flying, Butler landed flat on his back in a cloud of dirt. Passersby in cars yelled for him to trade his horse for a car and sped on. Folks on the sidewalk clapped and hooted with glee.
Tico lay with his eyes closed, trying to catch the breath that had been knocked out of him. Meg Flores's laughter blended with the guffaws of her two teammates. Her voice penetrated his mind like a double shot of whiskey. If she spoke the same way she laughed, the girl had one sexy voice. He would have laughed, too, if breathing wasn't so difficult. Inwardly, he grinned, despite his discomfort. He'd gotten the reaction he wanted, although not exactly how he'd intended. If only it didn't feel as though he'd just broken every bone in his body.
With eyes still closed, he absorbed the jokes flying at his expense. His senses homed in on the sound of footsteps coming toward him. A cowboy-boot stride with attitude. He'd bet a month's pay he knew who the boots belonged to. Wondering if she'd act the part of rescuer, he kept his eyes shut. All expectations dashed when, still chuckling, she whispered to his horse, "Good job for throwing this bozo, fella."
He opened his eyes in time to see the sole of a cowboy boot press down on his chest. The curious stare of one Meg Flores flattened him more than he already was. Damn, she was smoking hot! The reins dangled from her right hand. Diablo glared at him from over her shoulder.