Strength Under Fire

Strength Under Fire

by Dana Nussio

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781488006555
Publisher: Harlequin
Publication date: 02/01/2016
Series: True Blue
Sold by: HARLEQUIN
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 384
Sales rank: 466,319
File size: 375 KB

Read an Excerpt

"There's our hero."

Ben Peterson froze in the squad room doorway as a collage of smiling faces and uniform sleeves reached out to haul him in by the shirt collar. The cheers, the thuds of applause—a wolf whistle thrown into the mix—squeezed the cramped space even tighter. Insides pleading for retreat, Ben crossed the room as if he didn't mind being right there at center stage. Even a goldfish had no choice but to keep on swimming when its bowl turned cloudy.

"No, Lieutenant Peterson is my hero," Vincent Leonetti called out in a flawless falsetto, a grin splitting his already ugly mug.

Once a class clown, always a class clown. Even if Bozo had been promoted to sergeant.

"Yeah. Yeah. Yeah." Ben gestured downward with his hands, wishing he had a mute button. "Knock it off, Vinnie."

"Admit it. You done good."

Ben shook his head, but finally he shrugged as he faced the dozen afternoon-shift troopers spaced around the room's perimeter and huddled on the desks at its center. They were already in their navy uniforms, silver ties knotted, heavy jackets at the ready for their trips out into the frostbitten southeast Michigan January. These were the men and women of the Brighton Post. His teammates. His friends.

Maybe it had been too much to expect that they would leave him alone to do his job today, but that hadn't stopped him from hoping. Didn't they see that yesterday's events still felt more like fiction to him than any facts reported on News 3 Breaking Live? And didn't they know by now that he preferred to stay in the background? He was good at it. Until he'd stepped inside that bank and shot the delicate balance of his professional life to hell and then some. The chances of getting back to his safe little norm appeared to be slim to forget it, buddy.

Pushing his glasses up on his nose, he crammed his sweaty hands into his pockets. "Thanks, everyone, but—"

Lieutenant Scott Campbell stepped close and rested a hand on Ben's shoulder.

"We all know that this guy enjoys being singled out about as much as getting a root canal, but moments of heroism like his deserve recognition." Scott gestured toward him. "So on behalf of the Michigan State Police Brighton Post, I would like to congratulate Lieutenant Ben Peterson on a job well done."

Ben opened his mouth to try again, but the other lieutenant raised a hand to stop him.

"Even on his day off, Lieutenant Peterson single-handedly took down two suspects in a bank robbery attempt, and at the same time he—" Scott paused, winking "—made a deposit into his interest-bearing checking account."

"Are you kidding? Interest-bearing?" Vinnie's eyes were as wide as his grin.

"Thanks for protecting the greenbacks," someone called from the back of the room.

"Can you get me a preferred rate on a sixty-month CD?" another chimed.

As the punch lines continued pinging around the room, Ben finally let go of the breath he'd been holding. Compared to the awkward accolades his coworkers might have given him for those thirty terrifying minutes at Brighton Bank & Trust, this gentle ribbing was a gift.

When the laughter filtered down to chuckles, he jumped in. "Thanks again. But I was only doing my job. Just as any of you would have done."

"But would we?"

Scott's words cut him off and ended the other conversations in the room. "We want to believe we'll be ready if called upon to act, even when off duty. And Lieutenant Peterson was ready. Good to know, especially for those of us who drive desks more often than patrol cars."

He gestured toward Ben to indicate whom else he included in that sedentary us.

"Glad you remembered to show off your good side on Channel 3," Vinnie started again.

"Thanks." Ben winced at the memory of last night's interview and the others he would have to endure for the benefit of the post. The media attention hit too close to a home he never planned to visit again by choice. Not that he'd chosen it the first time, either.

"You're one lucky asshole," Trooper Grant Maxwell called out.

"That coming from a guy who narrowly escaped a bullet last spring," Vinnie quipped. "Now there's some luck."

"Just another day on the job," Grant said with a smug grin. "Anyway, I'm not the one who's gonna get his own comic-book character. He leaped right into hero mode without breaking a sweat."

"I'm no hero." Ben's words were automatic. A reflex. He cleared his throat. "I mean, I just did what I had to do."

The sense that he was being watched was so strong that the hair on the back of his neck stood up. Of course someone was watching. They all were. But he had no doubt that one individual would be studying this scene more carefully than the others. Sure enough, a petite brunette stood at the edge of the activity, always as an observer, but never quite a participant.

Trooper Delia Morgan couldn't have looked more uncomfortable, her posture as stiff as the unforgiving bun she always wore in her hair. Though a competent, by-the-book new recruit and a skilled, left-handed sharpshooter, from the start she hadn't fit in well with the Brighton Post team, and she'd made no effort to change that.

Deep blue eyes, heavily lashed and so huge that they seemed to see everything and more, caught Ben's gaze and gripped tight. Of course Trooper Morgan would be suspicious of him now. For months, he'd preached teamwork to her like a televangelist, and here he was basking in the spotlight of individual praise.

"Congratulations, Lieutenant," she said after what must have been the most pregnant pause known to mankind.

"Uh. Thanks."

Strange, she'd been obliged to say something nice, and yet she'd almost sounded sincere. That couldn't be right. She was the last person he'd expect to get caught up in this hero nonsense. Did Delia see him differently now? Would he enjoy it if she did? As Ben pushed away those disconcerting thoughts, Delia tilted her head and a tress of shiny hair escaped its clip, falling across her jawline. It came to rest along the fair skin of her neck.

The impulse to test the feel of those silky-looking strands struck him so fast that his hand reached out before he had time to get his thinking straight. He stuffed his hands back in his pockets, blinking several times, his mouth suddenly dry. What was that? Never mind that the woman was clear across the room, nor that this particular woman would have slugged him for getting too close. Thankfully, she must have missed his idiotic move because she reached up and shoved her hair out of the way herself.

He swallowed. What was he doing focusing on Delia like that anyway? Make that Trooper Morgan. Even if the overly independent officer had been an enigma to him since she'd been assigned to the Brighton Post nearly a year before, now wasn't the best time for him to try to figure her out. He had no business thinking of her in any way other than as a fellow officer, either. Especially not as an attractive woman.

"Well, I wonder who's out protecting the citizens of Michigan this morning."

Ben straightened like a teenager caught scoping out a girl during a bio quiz, which was especially awkward since he was thirty-two and Delia was twenty-six. Luckily, none of the other officers had noticed his gawking. They'd turned to the far doorway where Captain Lou Polaski stood, his beefy arms crossed, his expression stern. But then the hard line of his mouth curled, and he started clapping, setting off another round of applause.

"Well done, Lieutenant Peterson."

"Thanks, Captain."

With a nod, the post commander shifted to face the whole group.

"Yesterday's events offer the post some positive PR in a time of state belt-tightening and post closures," he said. "But they should also serve as reminders that we always need to be prepared to react. Even while off duty.

"We are first responders. Period." Polaski swiped a hand through the air to emphasize the finality of that point. "The requirement for us to carry our weapons at all times is not just a suggestion. We must always be ready. Lives depend on it."

The flash of panic that Ben had experienced inside that bank lobby rose again like bile in his throat. His pulse thrummed now as it had then, while he'd frantically tried to recall whether or not he'd strapped on his ankle holster before running errands. If he'd forgotten just that once, the post might have had little to celebrate today.

The squad room fell silent at the gravity of Polaski's words. Was Ben the only one whose insides quaked at the thought of flags flying at half-mast? Who worried that his mistakes could have grave consequences and leave grave markers in their wake? These troopers put themselves in harm's way every day. They did it for their fellow officers, who were like family, and they did it for people they'd never met. Yesterday's incident only reminded them of what the stakes were. And how high.

"So on that note, everybody get back to work." Polaski pointed with his thumb to the steel door that led to the parking lot. "The state isn't paying you to stand around, patting each other on the back."

Ben breathed a sigh of relief. The rodeo show was over. At least for now. The normal din of the squad room returned as troopers shrugged into their coats, grabbed their radios off chargers and started for the door. Some of the higher-ranking officers drifted down the hall, but Ben waited for the last few troopers to leave on patrol.

Instead of rushing out to her car to be first on the road the way she usually did, Trooper Morgan took her time collecting her things. When the door closed behind the others, she turned back to him.

"Lieutenant Peterson, you did a great job yesterday."

Ben stared at her. She'd probably felt pressured to say something kind earlier, but this was overkill.

"It's what we're trained to do," he managed over the awkwardness clogging his throat.

"But you really did it."

"Uh…thanks."

The inflection in his last word made his comment sound like a question, and he recognized that it was one. Was that shock he'd heard in her voice? Or awe? It must have sounded strange to her as well because her eyes went wide. He should have looked away. It would have been the decent thing to do when she looked uncomfortable enough to fire through the floor for an escape route. But he couldn't drag his gaze from her face. Porcelain skin without a freckle anywhere, a straight nose with one of those cute tipped-up ends that women paid good money for and a mouth as close to a perfect bow as any he'd ever seen.

Why had he never noticed those things about her before? Weren't details supposed to be the bread and butter of good police work? Maybe it was because she was behaving as suspiciously as a suspect with half a dozen crack cocaine rocks in her pocket. Or maybe because she was treating him so differently today. Like she admired him or something equally unbelievable.

No matter the cause, it was ridiculous to be seeing Delia Morgan as if for the first time and, worse yet, this time he was noticing all the wrong things. As if to put an exclamation mark on that point, his gaze dipped to just below her silver badge where small breasts softened the boxy lines of her uniform. Would they be as perfect as he imagined? He averted his gaze as heat rushed to his face. He really was just a horny teenager, hiding behind a uniform and a fancy title.

The trooper must have read his mind because she lifted her chin to stare him down for his unprofessional behavior, an expression that might have been more effective if she'd been standing on the desk instead of next to him where she had to look up. Way up. Nevertheless, she was again that tough young officer, too independent for anyone's good, including her own.

"Well, Trooper—" he paused, clearing his throat "—be safe out there. Remember, call for backup when you need it."

"I will… if I need it."

Ben chose to let the comment pass this time. She couldn't take back what she'd said earlier, anyway. And if she really did see him differently now, then maybe she would finally listen to his teamwork message. Finally buy into it just a little. He could hope, couldn't he?

"Also, you should try to meet up with everybody after your shift. They're going to the Driftwood instead of Casey's Diner this time. I'm sure the others would like it if you came."

"Okay. Sure."

She didn't look at him as she said it. He made a mental note to remember how she looked, acted when she was lying. She shoved open the door, allowing the frigid air to whoosh inside, and stepped outside. Either she or the wind pushed it closed behind her.

For a few seconds, Ben could only study the exit and wonder what had just happened. Their strange conversation wasn't the half of it. Twice, in a matter of minutes, he'd checked out a female trooper, something he'd better stop doing yesterday if he planned to keep his job. What was wrong with him?

Maybe it was simply this unusual day, surreal in Groundhog Day proportions, that had made him so uncomfortably aware of her. Or maybe it was that Trooper Morgan had surprised him. Only a handful of people had ever been able to do that.

In his experience, people stayed true to form, no matter what that form was. Law-abiding citizens kept following the rules, and convicted felons became repeat offenders with tragic regularity. He understood too well the collateral damage those habitual offenders left behind, not to mention the worry over apples that fell too close to their second-rate trees.

Trooper Morgan either didn't understand the rules of the game or refused to play along. Just when Ben had begun to wonder if he'd ever find a crack in her armor of fierce self-reliance, Delia had shown him a flicker of possibility.

Somehow he had to help her become a real part of the Brighton Post team before Polaski decided that her independent streak was a bigger liability than her determination and commitment to justice were assets. But how could he convince someone like her that there was no I in team? Maybe he should become more involved in her work development, while maintaining strict professional boundaries, of course. He could do that with his eyes closed, right?

As he entered his office, giving a self-satisfied nod, an image popped into his head, unbidden and unwelcome. Delia as he'd never seen her, her dark mass of hair flowing down her back, those huge eyes shining with humor and a sexy smile playing on those perfect, kissable lips. He blinked away the rest of the image because in it, besides that smile, she wore nothing at all.

On second thought, he needed to forget about doing anything with his eyes closed. He'd better keep them wide-open, and if he had any sense, he would stretch a barrier of bright yellow crime-scene tape between him and a certain female trooper. Tape that said Police Line Do Not Cross.

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