Chance Buckner: A tough-as-nails undercover cop dangerously close to the edge.
Shea Austin: A sultry nightclub singer with a big heart and shady connections.
Long ago, undercover narcotics cop Chance Buckner paid the ultimate price for his work. Now there was nothing inside of him but slow-boiling rage. His anger would help him destroy the drug dealer he was after...and keep him from falling for Shea Austin, whose voice threatened to heal his soul. And even if she was guilty as sin, Chance would protect her. Because he knew what could happen to delicate songbirds....
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"Am I boring you?"
Chance Buckner's hands stilled, and he looked casually sideways at the man in the gray suit who stood before him, hands on where his hips would be if they were detectable.
"You would be," he said lazily, "if I was listening."
Unconcernedly he went back to the informational sheet the speaker had handed out. Almost right, he thought, holding it up for a sighting, then lowering his hand to make a minor adjustment to one of the wings of the paper airplane.
Out of the corner of one eye he saw the livid flush rising above the older man's collar, and had to smother a grin. He heard a cough but didn't dare look at his partner. He knew that if he locked eyes with him, his laugh would break loose; he and Quisto had a way of communicating without words that got them into trouble nearly as often as it saved them.
"Perhaps you can explain to me, Detective Buckner," the man said in barely suppressed fury, "just why you are here?"
In one smooth, fluid movement, Chance levered his lean, muscled body away from the wall he'd been leaning against. He drew himself up to his full six-foot-two height, topping the shorter, older man by at least six inches.
"I'm here," he said with slow emphasis, "because you guys blew it. I'm here because you guys can't find your butts with a map. I'm here because you guys couldn't make a case on a guy you had under your thumb for two damned years."
"You son of a—"
The man broke off, sputtering. He whirled toward the fourth man who had been sitting at the head of the long table that sat in the center of the conference room, quietly observing.
"If this is an example of this department's discipline," he spat out, "then we haven't got a chance of nailing Mendez!"
"You had your chance, in Miami."
The man's red face snapped around to glare at Chance's partner, the source of the comment, a compact, wiry, dark-haired young man with flashing brown eyes who was seated at the other end of the table. Quisto looked back, totally untroubled. The gray-suited man spun back toward the man at the head of the table.
"I was told we would have complete cooperation, Lieutenant!"
A pair of dark eyebrows rose over an inscrutable pair of brown eyes. "I was told," the lieutenant said mildly, "to listen to what you had to say, and do whatever you asked. I don't recall you asking me to maintain order for you."
Chance managed to convert his burst of laughter to an apparent fit of coughing, but at a warning glance from Lieutenant Morgan he stifled even that. Quisto wasn't quite so lucky, and drew another furious glare.
"If you can't control your own men—"
"I have no problem with my men, Mr. Eaton. They know their job, and they do it well. But perhaps we can speed things up by setting down some basics. As a result of your office's investigation—"
"We chased Mendez right out of Miami," Eaton said smugly.
"Yeah," Chance said caustically. "He was so scared he barely had time to pack up his whole operation and move it here."
"Listen, pretty boy—"
"Gentlemen," Lieutenant Morgan interrupted, in a tone his men had come to know meant they were pushing the limits of his considerable patience. "Let's get on with this. As I was saying, as a result of the federal investigation, Paolo Mendez has taken up residence in Marina del Mar. So regardless of how or why, he is now our problem. As is—" he paused and opened the file folder in front of him on the table "—the establishment he intends to open."
Eaton looked blank. "Establishment?"
"He's taken out a lease on an empty building on Marina Boulevard. He's already remodeling. Word is he intends to open a club of some sort."
Lieutenant Morgan handed out a sheet of paper to Eaton, whose crimson face did not fade a bit as he read the report.
When he had finished, he cleared his throat and spoke reluctantly. "Well, er, yes. Good information."
"Thank Detective Buckner. He had it within twenty-four hours of Mendez's arrival, despite the fact that he is using the name Paul de Cortez."
Eaton's expression told everyone in the room exactly what he thought of the idea of thanking Chance Buckner for anything, short of dropping dead. Quisto smothered a snigger, and got a third glare.
"This is obviously going to be his cover for his drug activities." Eaton slapped the report down on the table. "We will begin the surveillance immediately, of course. We already have the necessary court orders."
"You mean we will," Chance muttered, knowing all too well that it was unlikely that the federal agents would be the ones doing most of the tedious stakeout work.
"You have a problem, Detective Buckner?"
"Yeah. Something's making me sick." The look Eaton gave him made his glance at Quisto seem like a loving gaze. Chance waited just long enough to make it obvious what—or who—his problem was, then said easily, "Must have been that burrito at lunch. It was too…heavy."
Eaton's color deepened, but Chance's innocent expression never wavered, and Eaton had to let it pass.
"Why don't you tell us what you have in mind for the stakeout?" Jim Morgan threw Chance another warning glance as he spoke to Eaton. Chance shrugged and, pulling a chair from the table and placing it against the wall, sat down.
The agent's voice hadn't improved since he'd begun. It still had the annoying, buzzing timbre of the fly trapped in the upper corner of the office window. The hum of the insect seemed infinitely more interesting as the man elaborated on procedures any first-year cop would know. And it had been a long time since Chance Buckner had been a first-year cop.
He glanced at Quisto, who rolled his eyes. Restraining a grin, Chance sat back in the chair, fiddling with the rubber band he'd found on the floor. He wound it around his fingers, snapped it a couple of times, and was just wondering how close he could get to that fly when another, much more tempting target presented itself.
Eaton had walked between Chance and the table, inadvertently exposing his considerable backside to attack. Chance drew back the elastic band until it refused to go any further, and zeroed in on the broad expanse of gray.
Quisto suddenly tapped the table in an odd rhythm. Chance glanced up to see his partner's gaze fastened on Lieutenant Morgan, who was looking at Chance pointedly. With a sheepish grin, Chance eased off the tension on the tiny weapon, and with exaggerated conspicuousness dropped it to the floor. Only then did he catch Eaton's last words.
"—expect an improved attitude from your detectives, Lieutenant."
"I'm sure we can handle this investigation in a spirit of mutual cooperation."
Lieutenant Morgan rose, closing the file folder. Seeing the signal they'd been waiting for, both Chance and Quisto got rapidly to their feet and headed for the door.
"Detective Buckner." The lieutenant's words forced Chance to turn back. "My office."
Chance smothered a sigh, then nodded. He heard an odd sound, and turned to see Eaton's face wearing a satisfied smirk. He throttled the urge to deck the man with a well-placed fist, and with an elaborate bow, held the door open.
"So what did he say?" Quisto asked. "I'm fired."
"Gimme a break, Buckner. The jerk had it coming. What did he want you for?"
"A startling revelation. Eaton doesn't like me."
"Well, that's understandable."
"Thanks a lot." Chance took a swipe at his partner, who dodged agilely away. Quisto grinned.
"Hey, if I looked like him, instead of my classic macho, Latin self, I wouldn't like you, either."
"If his ego was as secure as yours, he wouldn't care," Chance said dryly.
"And who else but someone with a secure ego could work with you? I mean, it gets kind of old, my man, watching all those ladies throwing themselves at you all the time."
"They don't throw themselves at me," Chance muttered, although he supposed there was something in what the young Cuban said. He would never understand what there was in the arrangement of his features, in the aligning of the parts that made up Chance Buckner, that made women look twice. He only knew that, to his embarrassment, they did. And often came back for a third look.
"It's those piercing blue eyes," Quisto said dramatically, "and all that sun-bleached California hair."
"My hair's from Iowa, just like the rest of me."
His answer was automatic. They'd been through this teasing routine many times. So was the gesture of his hand as he ran it through the tangled mass of the gold-streaked brown hair. He would be grateful for that if nothing else when he left this assignment to narcotics, he thought. He hadn't had his hair off the back of his neck in four years.
"Besides what are you complaining about? I send 'em all to you anyway."
"Ah, yes, and I teach them that every wonderful thing they've always heard about Latin lovers is true. But you, my friend, don't you think you're carrying this solitude bit a little far?"
"You worried about my social life, Quisto?"
"I'm worried," the younger man said frankly, abandoning the formal tones, "about your libido. You haven't even had a date since Sarah died, let alone anything more…strenuous."
Chance's face closed up in silent warning, but the wiry young man kept on.
"You walk around looking like the poster boy for the wrong side of the tracks, women drool on themselves trying to get to you, and you ignore them all."
"Quisto." His tone was the equivalent of the look that had shuttered his face.
"And you're going to volunteer for all the night shifts on the stakeout, aren't you? Just like last time. Damn it, Chance, when are you going to—"
Chance had stopped dead, turning to fix his partner with a steady, forbidding gaze. Quisto shrugged and gave it up.
"Okay, amigo. I was just worried about you." He grinned suddenly, a brilliant flash of white teeth against perfect olive skin. "Hey, maybe that's the secret. Ignore 'em, and they flock to you. I'll have to try it."
"You, ignore women?" Chance accepted the unspoken apology easily. "That'll be the day."
Chance thought of Quisto's words again that evening as he sat in the surveillance van outside the building Mendez had leased. He had been wary of the effusive young Cuban at first, especially after the quiet, laid-back man who had been his partner for his first three years in the division.
But Marty Thompson was gone now, the unruffled exterior having hidden the ravages of burnout that had surfaced abruptly and finally one day beneath the brilliant California sun. That funeral had frightened him as no other, filling him with the eerie sensation that he was looking at himself, and he wondered if someday, somewhere down the hard, sometimes dirty road, he too would walk out onto the golden sand of this paradise and blow his brains out. It was a question he'd always been able to say no to, until Marty. And Sarah.
"All set, Chance?"
He glanced at Jeff Webster, the detective who was monitoring the equipment. The redhead nodded, and Chance looked up at the man who had turned around in the driver's seat of the van.
"Yeah, Todd. Go ahead."
With a nod, the other man turned, slid out of the van and shut the door, locking it from the outside. He would, Chance knew, walk casually toward an expensive shopping area two blocks down, linger there long enough to be sure he hadn't been followed, then pick up the car that was parked in the lot and return to the station. In about four hours he would be back to do it all in reverse, while a few miles away, the driver of a nondescript panel truck that was parked near Mendez's house would be doing the same. The two vehicles would trade places, and then it would begin again.
The system would work until someone realized that the same vehicles always showed up in the area, and perhaps even after, if the drivers could pass themselves off as locals with legitimate business in the area. And when the federal vehicle arrived, that would give them one more to play with, he thought, leaning forward to adjust the recording level on one of the machines.
That was one good thing about working with the feds, he thought wryly. They had a lot more leeway when it came to permits for wiretapping and any other kind of surveillance. And the bugs that Quisto, doing his near-perfect migrant-worker imitation, had planted, were working beautifully.
"You stand out too much," Quisto explained with a superior air. "Me, I just blend, like a chameleon."
"Okay, Mr. Lizard, get on with it," Chance had said, smothering a laugh.
Yes, Quisto had gradually worn down that wall of wariness, mostly, Chance admitted, through sheer persistence and a stubborn refusal to be ignored. He had—
The sharp rapping on the back doors of the van cut through his thoughts. Damn, what the hell? He glanced at Jeff, who shrugged his shoulders in bewilderment. The rapping came again, louder, and Chance scrambled to the back of the van and peered through the mirrored, one-way glass.
"That stupid son of a bitch!"
Jeff jumped, both at the sudden exclamation and at the suppressed fury in Chance's voice. "What…?"
"Eaton," Chance spat out as the pounding came again. "He pulled up in a damned government car, complete with labeled plates."
Jeff gaped at him. "What is he, some kind of a nut?"
"Worse. He's stupid."
The door handle rattled, and they heard a muffled voice. "Come on, Buckner! I know you're in there!"
With a snarled curse, Chance braced himself against the roof of the van and reached for the door. With a swift movement he threw it open, reached through with one leanly muscled arm and yanked the startled Eaton into the van. Despite his bulk, the man flew through the opening as if catapulted, and Jeff Webster stared in awe.
"What do you think you're—"
"Why the hell don't you just hang out a sign?" Chance snapped, cutting off Eaton's protest.
"Get off it, hotshot! Mendez left here an hour ago."
"And just where do you suppose his right-hand man is right now?" Chance bit out. "He's inside and, unless we're luckier than you deserve, calling Mendez to tell him there's a government car sitting in front of his new business. Which means he'll be looking for one at home. Congratulations, Eaton, you may have burned two stakeouts at once."
He opened the door again and practically threw the agent from the van. Chance followed him and shoved the man into the plain gray car that stood out like a sore thumb. "Now get the hell out of here!"
Eaton was furious, but something in Chance's eyes made him stamp down on the accelerator. Staring in disgust as the car sped away, Chance called lowly to Jeff through the door of the van.
"I'm going to see if I can tell if they made us."
The tap from the inside told him Jeff had heard him. He turned on his heel and strode off, still fuming. He'd go to the building next door, he thought. It was a large office building, and they'd discovered a spot on its roof that gave a bird's-eye view of what was apparently being converted into an office.
Damn, he thought, I should have grabbed the binoculars from the van. But I was so damned mad, I didn't even think of it. God, I hate working with the feds. The troops are good, but the generals are just—
Chance barely kept himself from going down; he didn' t know how the person he'd just crashed into had stayed upright. He flushed as, muttering an apology, he knelt to pick up the book that had bitten the dust—or the concrete sidewalk, in this case.
Poetry, he noted as he lifted the thick volume. He dusted it off and began to straighten up to give it back. And stopped dead before he'd moved an inch.
There before him were the most beautiful legs he'd ever seen. Small feet were encased in short, bright red socks and pristine white tennis shoes, the ankles were slender and delicate, the calves bare, smooth and shapely. Even the knees were lovely, and the thighs…
He gulped, aware that he seemed to have forgotten how to breathe. Where the reality of that long stretch of golden leg ended at the edge of a short white skirt, his imagination had kept right on going.
After a long moment he managed to make his reluctant muscles respond and bring him upright by telling them that it was safe; the rest couldn't possibly match those legs.
He was wrong. He knew it the moment his eyes slipped over the white skirt to the fluffy, bright red sweater that topped it. The soft plushness did little to disguise the full, feminine curves beneath the cheerful color, and Chance found himself gulping again. He didn't want to look any further, but he wasn't sure if it was because he was afraid the rest wouldn't be as incredible, or afraid that it would.
He looked anyway. It was.
He didn't realize it at first. Her face was shadowed by the brim of the cheerful red-and-white cap she wore, covering what appeared to be dark silky hair. Then she tilted her head and took his breath away again.
Her mouth was a little wide by classic standards, but her lower lip was so full and soft he barely noticed. Her nose was small and pert, her skin creamy and smooth, but once he saw her eyes he forgot everything else. They were huge, framed by thick dark lashes, and deep, smoky gray. And at the moment, those eyes were looking at him with a mixture of wariness and amusement.
"Uh, sorry," he mumbled again, still staring.
"I hope you're coming from and not going to."
He blinked. "Huh?" Oh, brilliant, Buckner. But damn, what a voice. Husky. Silky. Sexy.
"Whatever turned you into the original raging bull."
He flushed again, then wondered what the hell was wrong with him. "Whoever," he said hastily.
"A whoever I don't envy."
Amusement was winning in the gray eyes, and Chance felt himself responding with a speed that startled him.
"I promised myself I'd wait until tomorrow to kill him. If he's lucky, I won't want to by then."
She looked him up and down consideringly. Contrary to Quisto's earlier comments, he wasn't at all sure the total she came up with was favorable. What he was even less sure of was why he cared.
"Why am I not sure you're kidding?"
His mouth twisted wryly. "Maybe because I'm not sure."
She smiled suddenly, and took his breath away for the third time. The wide, full mouth started a pulse beating somewhere deep inside him, and the sparkle that had turned her eyes to a glittering silver made it begin to race.
"I'll have to remember not to read a paper tomorrow," she said in the silky voice that was a feather up his spine, "in case he's not lucky."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
If you haven't read anything by Justine Davis before, this is a good book to start with. High intensity action blends well with characters you can't help but care about. This book introduces characters that appear in her Trinity Street West series.
Love it. This is a perfect Justine Davis story.