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Tempted by a Touch
An Unlikely Hero
By Kris Rafferty, Vanessa Mitchell
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2016 Kris Rafferty
All rights reserved.
It was a sunny summer afternoon as Detective Lucas Sullivan drove onto Harper MacLain's street. His stomach tightened when he saw her up ahead ... through his windshield, sitting on her porch stairs. He had to force himself to focus on his driving when what he really wanted to do was feast on the sight of her. He felt like a starving man promised a meal. Last time he'd seen her, her face was pressed to his chest, her sobs shaking them both. Circumstances were little better now, and he knew if Harper had her way, he'd be back in Boston. Where she'd left him a year ago. Reason told him he should have stayed there, but when Harper's life fell apart, and the tragedy happened ... he found he didn't have much use for reason. He took the promotion and came to Manchester to be near her. Not that he'd ever tell Harper that.
As his car drew closer, he could see it caught her attention; her posture tensed, and she averted her gaze. Harper knew what his car looked like. There weren't many restored Chevy Chevettes driving Manchester's suburbs. She had to know it was him.
He felt his palms grow damp. She'd rebuff him. It's what she did. He regretted not warning her that he was coming.
Forcing himself to concentrate on parking without jumping the curb, Lucas released a sigh he hadn't known he'd been holding and then took the keys from the ignition. He was losing his cool. This is Harper, for shit's sake. Sweet, kind, wouldn't-hurt-a-flea Harper. This last year, when he was with her, there were always others around ... others who took the onus of conversation off their shoulders. It allowed him and Harper to pretend the room didn't sizzle when they were together ... it forced Lucas to play nice and not remind her what she'd given up. This was going to be their first time alone since she left him, and he had no idea what to expect. Though his body was already hinting what it wanted.
When he climbed out of the air conditioned car, a hot breeze rustled his blond hair, and the heat of the day oppressed him. Adjusting the holster at his hip, he made sure it didn't break the line of his suit jacket — better to disguise its presence, thwarting onlookers' curiosity about why he was here, who he was. Then he wiped his sweaty palms on his gray suit pants, and blamed their dampness on the heat, rather than his nerves. A final check on his purple paisley tie, making sure its knot was centered on his neck, had him ready.
There. Good as he got.
Sitting pretty in a green shirt, skinny jeans, and flats, Harper still pretended not to notice his arrival. Lucas took advantage of the moment and stood by his car. Looking at her. It was a luxury. Used to be a common one, like her time, her touch, her affection. Lucas was the one who ended relationships with women ... until Harper. A year later, he still wasn't sure how to handle these feelings she'd left him with. His body tightened as he looked at her, aching with a desire undeterred by rejection.
Her curly red hair was fiery under the sun, spilling over her shoulders. He remembered how soft it felt, how he loved to have it drag against his belly when they made love. Lucas could tell she was nervous, because she was hiding behind it; chin tilted down, draping curls over her right eye and cheek. It was her tell ... Harper peeking out from behind its weight, bracing herself against the next thing that wanted to hurt her. Understandable.
She was a MacLain. Shit happened to that family.
He stepped up to the curb and then approached the fence's gate, stopping at its edge. They were estranged. He wasn't sure what the protocol was for ex-lovers who pretended each other didn't exist. Should he approach or wait for permission?
"I'm here to bring you to the precinct." He waited to see if she'd invite him into the yard. Instead, she peered at him, a delicate frown marring her brow. "Unless you've changed your mind." Did he sound too eager? Because he was. Her frown deepened, but he felt too strongly about this to back off. "Change your mind, Harper. Please."
She scrunched up her face and closed her eyes. "Stop it, Lucas. We've been over this a million times."
"No." When she opened her eyes again, her gaze revealed fear and determination. And anger. "Say another word and I'll call a cab." Breathy, shaking with emotion, his Harper was freaked. "Does Dane know you're here?"
"He doesn't know about the meeting. The lieutenant wanted as few people involved as possible."
Harper's back straightened. Her eyes flashed with umbrage. "Joe killed Dane's wife. I'd think Dane deserves a heads-up, at least. He got you the evidence you needed to bring down the extortion ring."
"Your brother is technically the perp's victim." No one, least of all Harper's brother, Dane, wanted to give Detective Joseph Folsom grounds to file for a mistrial. "He's going to be pissed, but he'll understand." Folsom had promised a verifiable list of MPD police officers and officials who colluded with an extortion ring. Once Lucas had that in hand, the feds would take over. Seemed too easy ... a big, fat bow on an otherwise messy case.
He suspected Harper would agree. It would explain why her thick-lashed green eyes were shuttered, attempting to hide her fear. But there were things she couldn't hide. Beneath her freckles, she was too pale. Her fine-boned fingers trembled as they nudged a curl off her high cheekbone. Delicate and small, at five feet four inches, she'd nonetheless always seemed larger than life. Now ... not so much. She seemed afraid, and the combustible, bubbly personality he'd known had worn away, leaving her wounded. Delicate. He wanted to fold her into his arms and tell her everything would be okay, but those days were gone. She'd moved on. He wished he could.
His hands clutched at the white picket fence gate until the wood cut into his palms. The sun was baking him, causing him to sweat. She still hadn't invited him into her yard, still had difficulty looking him in the eye. Damn. This shouldn't be happening.
The lieutenant never should have asked Harper to meet with the perp, and stubborn, brave Harper never should have agreed. Last night he'd called her, demanded she not go. A year ago she would have listened, trusted his advice, but that was before she'd left him with a hug, explaining she wanted marriage, kids, and a happily ever after, knowing fully well that was not a future Lucas could sign on to. Harper might as well have asked for Tír na nÓg, because happily ever after with a cop was a mythical future. And being a cop was who he was.
"You didn't have to come," she said. What she was really saying was she wished he hadn't. Well, tough.
"I saw your brother this morning," he said. "We had coffee. He said your car was in the shop. I knew you'd need a ride."
"I was just about to call a cab."
"Now you don't have to." He tapped the top of the white picket fence, a subtle reminder that it and twenty feet of white petunia-edged walkway stood between them, that she needed to stand so they could head out, or she had to invite him in to join her in the shade. Harper ignored his hint.
"Why is my brother talking to you about me?"
"Like I said. We had coffee. He knows we were living together back in Boston. It would have been weird if I didn't ask how you were doing." Lucas saw her hackles rise and knew this was a battle he couldn't win, so he changed the subject. "Be happy I didn't send a cruiser."
She avoided his gaze, probably searching for a polite excuse to call a cab anyway, but they both knew he wouldn't put up with that nonsense. Their meeting with Folsom was in forty minutes. He'd arrived early hoping to change her mind.
Glancing left and right, he wondered how many neighbors were witnessing Harper interrogate him outside her garden gate, as if Lucas were an intruder or a salesman. He saw her neighbor's drape pull to the side. It galvanized him to step through uninvited, niceties be damned, and head toward the porch before the gate could swing back and hit him on the ass. He didn't know her neighbors, but knew Harper. People liked her. They were protective. He waved to another neighbor, an elderly lady who smiled back as she watered her flower garden, and made sure to project nothing to see here vibes.
He whistled with appreciation. "Nice yard."
It was, in fact, spectacular. Blooms everywhere. He'd known she was good with plants and everything, but wow. The house was nice, too. Small and white. The cape's exterior and gardens were ... really, really nice. Pretty. Like Harper. Dane had told him that the house had been his late parents' home, and that it was Harper's now. It explained how she, a recent graduate from Boston College, could afford it.
Roses were everywhere, woven into the white fencing, splayed along the porch railing. The white and pink blooms were fragrant under the hot summer sun. The lawn was green and robust, and copious flowers lined the brick walkway to the granite steps of the porch. Care had been taken to make everything visually appealing. Homey. For a guy used to spartan accommodations, it was a pleasure. He'd missed flowers in his life. When she'd moved out of their place in Boston, it hadn't taken long for her plants to wither. Soon thereafter, everywhere he turned, dead things greeted him ... in this nook and that cranny. Moving had been a relief, if only to get rid of the constant reminder that he couldn't even keep plants alive. No matter how much he'd watered them, they'd yellow and die. And she'd wanted to have kids with him? He'd done her a favor by taking that off the table.
"I like that." He waved his hand to indicate a vine wrapping around the stair's railing. "The purple flower things."
"Clematis. It's from the Buttercup family."
Her trembling hand nudged the curls near her cheek, so now he could see both eyes, her fear and uncertainty. Uncertainty he could work with. A glance at his watch told him they had time before the meeting, especially if it meant Harper was using it to talk herself out of attending. So he sat next to her, happy to wait, and took a moment to enjoy the shaded porch, the breeze, and the company. She smelled good but not familiar. He supposed she must have changed her shampoo. He didn't approve. When he thought about Harper, everything about her was distinct and memorable, from her curls to the curve of her waist. That she'd changed in any way was unsettling. More proof that she'd moved on from what they'd had together.
He didn't know how to approach the subject of bailing on the meeting again without her biting his head off, so he sent out a few feelers; trying to catch her gaze, nudging her knee with his. No response. "You always did have a green thumb."
Harper nodded politely but didn't seem interested in taking him up on casual conversation. He found consolation in her company, silent though it was, and turned his attention toward the oak and maple trees lining the street. Their leaves rustled as the breeze picked up, casting needed shade over the kids playing hoops two houses down. Skateboarders wove street to sidewalk and back again, seemingly content to master this move or that trick. It was an old neighborhood and well maintained. The white or taupe colonials and capes were built close and sectioned off by picket fences or thick honeysuckle hedges. He found the view relaxing.
After a while, when he'd shifted his seat for the tenth time because his ass had gone numb, Lucas noticed Harper throwing him side glances. "What are you doing?" she said.
A trick question. He was either waiting for her to gather the courage to meet the evil fuck that was Joseph Folsom, a disgraced cop, murderer, kidnapper, and friend, or he was waiting to congratulate her on the decision to back out of the meeting. He supposed either wouldn't be kind to point out, so he equivocated. "Enjoying the breeze and your gardens. It's much better than waiting downtown under fluorescent lights, smelling day-old coffee in a littered conference room." He took a cleansing breath and stretched his neck. The scent of freshly mown grass was competing with the roses perfuming the air. "This neighborhood is great."
She arched a brow, clearly skeptical. "Kids playing outside? Lawn mowing? Ice cream trucks? It's a family neighborhood. Careful, Lucas, it might give you the hives."
He smiled, wondering if she were right. She could be. No one knew Lucas better than Harper. That's why it was a blow when she'd left. "Seems nice enough." Right out of a 1950s sitcom. Unreal. Glancing at his watch, he knew time was getting tight, and the porch stairs weren't becoming any more comfortable. "Ready to go?" He hoped she'd take this chance to back out of the meeting. "Or stay."
He sighed, knowing if he pressed too hard, she'd dig in and stop listening to him altogether. His best bet was to bide his time and work on her during the trip downtown. She stood, hung her leather pocketbook over her shoulder, and led him down the walkway and through the gate. As was his habit, he surveyed the neighborhood as he hurried her to the street and the passenger side of his car. He wanted to say something to ease the tension, but Harper beat him to the punch.
"I see you finally gave her a new paint job." Harper ran her fingers along the sleek lines of his Chevy, reminding him it wasn't so long ago she'd caressed him with such studied attention. He wondered if she'd triggered his memories on purpose, but then a quick study of her expression told him he was suffering from wishful thinking. She was oblivious and he was resigned and disappointed by that reality.
"The Chevy's a work in progress." The new black paint, two white stripes down the hood's center, hid delayed maintenance, but one day Lucas would make the innards as beautiful. He gripped the passenger door's handle, about to open it for her, when a breeze wafted the scent of her new shampoo toward him, distracting him long enough to morph his glance into a stare. Harper noticed, flushed, and looked away.
"Aren't we all?" she said.
"Aren't we all what?"
"A work in progress. Are you going to open the door, or do you want me to wrestle you for it?"
Lucas realized he was still holding the handle. He popped the door open and stood back, thinking it unfair only he was affected by their close proximity, only he felt the electricity in the air. His body thrummed with it. He was grateful she took care not to brush against him as she entered the car, sitting in the bucket seat. He wouldn't have been able to handle that. Closing the door with more vigor than necessity, he hustled around the car and sat behind the wheel.
"I'm surprised you agreed to meet with Folsom. I mean, considering all the danger that brings with it." He'd spent a good ten minutes on the phone last night detailing that danger. Her response was silence and it was deafening, last night and now. It tempted Lucas to start the car if only to break it, but then she glanced at him.
"The lieutenant told me what Joe had," she said. "That list of dirty cops will give my brother closure and make my family safe again. Joe killed Dane's wife, kidnapped my niece, but those dirty cops are the people who allowed Joe to thrive in the Manchester Police Department. They enabled him, hurt many others, and a day doesn't go by when I'm not afraid they'll hurt me or my family again. There is nothing I wouldn't do to stop the people on that list."
Swagger or resolve? Lucas couldn't help but wonder, because Harper's hands, so neatly folded on her lap, trembled. She'd always been a contradiction. Courageous and afraid. Sweet and salty. Innocent and naughty. What did it say about him that he'd always found that incredibly hot?
It was clear she'd made up her mind. He shrugged. "You'll meet with Folsom. He'll give up the names of the dirty cops. Then you'll never see him again. The FBI and federal marshals will swoop in, and then it's the DA's problem."
She held his gaze with such intensity Lucas suspected she was attempting to read him, or worse yet, see into his heart. He wasn't sure what she'd see, having avoided looking too closely himself, but having Harper poke around in there made him feel under threat. He didn't like it.
"I think it's a mistake to keep Dane and Marnie out of the loop," she said.
Not what Lucas expected her to say, but it was better than what he'd feared she would throw at him ... feelings and stuff. Detective Dane MacLain, Harper's brother, had been instrumental in bringing down the Whitman Enterprises extortion ring. If things were different, Dane would be here, picking Harper up ... but they weren't.
Excerpted from Tempted by a Touch by Kris Rafferty, Vanessa Mitchell. Copyright © 2016 Kris Rafferty. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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