“Dammit!” Jason exclaimed as he stomped out Cara Montgomery’s front door. He had made a point of warning Jessie to keep out of the investigation, and she’d gone ahead and poked her nose into it anyway. God, he hated reporters! What kind of woman used her own father’s murder for a story?
“It could’ve been worse,” said Dillon, interrupting his inner tirade. Intelligent and wiry as a coat-hanger, he had been Jason’s partner from the time he joined the VSP four years ago.
Jason glared at the smaller man. “How?” he demanded.
“Well, she is a school teacher. She could’ve sent you to the principal’s office.”
Jason ignored his partner’s lame attempt at humor, his brain throbbing with questions. How the hell had Jessie learned about her father’s girlfriend? She had probably lied about searching the house before the police arrived – surprise, surprise. She had undoubtedly checked the call log on the cell phone, just as he, himself.
“It really wasn’t that bad,” Dillon insisted. “I mean, sure, she handed you your ass on a platter, but she eventually told us what she could.”
“Which wasn’t a whole hell of a lot,” Jason argued.
“She did point us in a new direction. We were already thinking the murders had something to do with the governor’s shady past, but we figured it was someone he had cheated or wronged in some way.”
“Yeah, well, who’s to say she isn’t sending us on a wild goose chase?” he said.
“Why would she do that?” Dillon asked.
“I don’t know,” he said with a sigh. “Who knows what kind of deal Jessie made with her.”
“Miss Wells,” he corrected.
“You know her?” his partner asked, eyebrows lifted at Jason’s familiar use of her first name.
“Of course not!”
“Easy.” Dillon held up his hands in mock surrender. “What’s got you so riled up?”
“It’s Jess… that woman! I don’t like her and I certainly don’t trust her. This is a big case and she’s going to make the Misère, mark my words.”
“I don’t speak Cajun,” Dillon reminded him. “I have no idea what you just said.”
“She’s going to cause us a whole lot of headaches,” he translated.
“Geez, Jase. We’ve dealt with reporters before.”
“I know, but they were never personally involved like this one.” And there was just something about her that set him on edge. Maybe it was because she made him think of Dalia’s storybook. Beauty and the Beast, all rolled into one. Or maybe it was just because she was so damned aggravating.
“Well, there’s not a whole heckuva lot we can do about her.”
“Oh, yes there is. If I find out she’s tampered with any more of our witnesses, she’s going to find that pretty little butt of hers in jail for obstruction of justice.”
“That’s a tad extreme,” Dillon said.
“Not if it means we’ll be able to close this case,” Jason said, smiling at the thought of Jessie behind bars where she couldn’t cause any more trouble. “Now, come on. We’ve got an old case to reopen.”
I flopped down on the once cream-colored sofa in my dingy apartment and sat a bag of Chinese take-out on the small faux-mahogany coffee table at my knees. After opening and mixing cartons of white rice and Hunan chicken, I added two packages of soy sauce and propped my chopsticks up in the meal. I knew I’d give up halfway through and resort to a fork, but I always liked to give them a try. Next, I flipped open my laptop and situated myself so that I could work and eat simultaneously. I hadn’t followed the governor’s trial, having no interest in the public misdeeds of a man who had committed so many private ones in my presence. Therefore, I was at a serious disadvantage when it came to looking into his past. Good ol’ Google was the best place to start, so I pulled it up. For some reason, though, I found myself typing “Jason Anders” into the search bar. Apparently, my brain had called it a night and turned control over to my hormones.
The only local story I discovered was a short, four-year-old piece welcoming the new detective to the VSP. He had relocated from New Orleans with his infant daughter. I stared at the screen in disbelief. I couldn’t imagine the big, gruff, sexy-as-hell cop with a baby, but then I remembered the crack he made comparing me to his daughter. There was no mention of a wife, and an unbidden little trill of pleasure danced along my nerve endings. Then I thought about the little girl with no mother to care for her and felt guilty for my reaction. I knew only too well what that was like.
I wasn’t surprised when newer memories hit like a slap to the face. It happened less frequently these days, but they were always hanging around just waiting. The fear and guilt churned in my gut as I let myself wonder about the little girl I had handed over to be raised by strangers. Was she growing up with loving parents? Did she have a kitten to squeeze? Maybe she had some brothers and sisters to play with.
No! I slammed the door on those particular memories and sealed it with a padlock. Nothing good could come of dwelling on things I couldn’t change, even if I had wanted to – which I didn’t.
I did another search, this time focusing on the New Orleans area and unearthed a story about an officer who had heroically charged an armed gunman and saved the life of the fifteen-year-old hostage. The policeman had been shot, but had recovered and received a commendation for his bravery. That lawman was my very own Jason Anders. I located several more stories about the superhero cop and a few references in articles about different cases, but no personal information. I was about to give up, when I happened upon a piece devoted to the sexiest bachelors in Louisiana. Lo and behold, there he was, splendid in dress blues. His hair was longer and he appeared to be slightly less muscular, but the most shocking differences were his broad smile and beautiful eyes that, even in the computer image, were warm and sparkling with humor. He showed no trace of the hard, haunted look I had assumed he’d been born with.
I skimmed the brief bio. Age: Twenty-seven (which would make him thirty-five now). Height: Six-foot-three”. Weight: Two hundred pounds. Idea of a perfect date: A “Secrets of Ankelo” marathon.
I fell back against the cushions. Secrets of Ankelo was a campy fantasy television series that had been a guilty pleasure of mine during its three-year run. Wow! He was an “Ankie”. Who would’ve guessed?
I could definitely picture Anders as a superhero, but the fun, playful man in the magazine piece had nothing else in common with the man I had met. Was it facing the worst in humanity day after day that had changed him, or had something else happened? Something involving his child’s mother, perhaps?
Absorbed by my research, I jumped when my phone pinged with an incoming text.
Cupcakes. Tomorrow. No excuses.
“Crap!” I said aloud, looking at the time. Why had I wasted an entire hour on this nonsense? I was going to have to start looking into the governor’s past, as much as I wanted to avoid it. I didn’t believe for a second that I was going to find anything to exonerate him – desperately hoped I wouldn’t – but I’d be damned if I was going to run away from a potential story because of him! I squared my shoulders and prepared to immerse myself in a world I had spent my life trying to float above.
Jason ran his index finger around and around on the scarred wooden table, tracing the watery circle left by the condensation from his half-empty pilsner of Guinness. The scents of grease and hops hung heavy in the air, vying for dominance. Patsy Cline crooned the last notes of Crazy on the old-fashioned jukebox, providing a soft undercurrent for the buzz of conversation and the steady click of pool balls. He tried to ground himself, focus on his surroundings, but he found it impossible to quiet his churning thoughts. He really should be home with Dalia. She had been sound asleep when he left, true, and Tess had agreed to spend the night in the spare bedroom, but what if she got sick, or had a nightmare, or simply woke up wanting him to give her an extra hug? But he had let Dillon talk him into an evening at The Den, a small bar near the precinct that had become the preferred cop hangout with its good food and cheap beer. This was just the kind of place Jessie would like, he decided, and then immediately jerked away from the idea as he would his hand from a red-hot poker.
“What is with you, man?” Dillon said.
“What?” Jason asked, trying to figure out if he had missed something or if his friend was being his usual asinine self.
“You’ve been a million miles away, and then all of a sudden you twitched like someone had kicked you under the table. I know it wasn’t me and, seeing as how no one else is within ten feet, I’m guessing that isn’t what happened.”
Dillon studied his partner a few seconds before continuing. “After shift, I find you wailing away on the bag so I, being a really nice person and great friend, get you out so you can relax and get your mind off things. But you’re still brooding. What gives? I know you well enough to know it’s more than the case.”
What is with me? He ran a hand through his hair. Why was he wasting time thinking about Jessie Wells? Sure, she was a pain in the ass, but he’d dealt with far worse in his many years on the force. Why wouldn’t she leave him alone? She was attractive, true enough, and she had that look in her eyes, but she was no damsel in distress. Far from it. Why did she tug at him? Maybe it was a sign that it was time for him to find a woman and try his hand at a normal adult relationship – one that didn’t involve dead bodies, dive bars, or nosy reporters. Except he’d gone that route once before, and look what had happened. It was one thing for him to have his heart broken, but he couldn’t let it happen to Dalia. Not again. She had been just a baby when her mother had rejected her, wanting nothing to do with a child of Jason’s blood, even mingled with her own. She had no unhappy memories to haunt her, and he refused to allow anything into her life that might cause her heartache. No, it would be just the two of them, and Tess, of course. They would be fine.
Jason stood and pulled some bills from his pocket, dropped them next to his glass.
“What are you doing?” Dillon demanded.
“Going home to my daughter,” he said.
I juggled the cake carrier from one arm to the other, but gave up and pressed my elbow against the buzzer to the right of Gail’s apartment door. Unfortunately, I hadn’t struck it rich with the lotto, so I didn’t have a valet to carry the box for me. If it were anyone else, I would hesitate to show up at six o’clock in the morning, but I knew she would not only be up, but would also be showered and dressed after her five o’clock run. News of the homicide of Virginia’s most notorious resident was everywhere, and I had the urgent need to get away from it all as quickly as possible.
The door swung inward and Gail stood before me dressed in a black tee, leggings, and boots. She looked like a glamorous ninja from a Bond film, even with her smooth caramel skin free of make-up and her mass of golden-brown curls pulled up in a messy topknot.
“What do you want?” she said with a scowl. Then she registered the box I was carrying. “Those better be my cupcakes.”
“Lemon cream and pina colada, as promised,” I said.
“You can come in, then,” she said grudgingly as she stepped aside.
I hesitated. I had visited many times, but always just to drop off something or pick Gail up. I’d never been inside before, and didn’t really want to enter her space now. We weren’t that kind of friends. We helped each other out, but we didn’t share confidences or have slumber parties, or whatever girlfriends did. At most, we’d have the occasional drink and bitch-fest after work.
“Oh, for God’s sake!” she exclaimed and pulled me in by the arm. “I’m not going to kill you, or rape you, or anything. Just put the freakin’ cupcakes on the table and sit your ass down so I can tell you what I overheard yesterday. I’m pretty sure it has something to do with your story,” she added with a sly smile.
That did it. I dropped the box as directed and sat said ass down on one of the four old-fashioned diner-style stools that ringed the chrome and Formica-topped island in the center of the room. Gail’s condo was expansive and reflective of her eclectic sense of style. A fifties soda-shop kitchen co-existed with a thirties safari-lodge living area. The combination was a bit unsettling. I had no idea what the bedroom or bathroom looked like, but I’m sure each was distinctively themed.
“Wow,” was about all I could manage. Your place is. . .” I wracked my brain for something nice to say, “. . . big.”
She beamed. “I know. Isn’t it awesome? It costs an arm and a leg, but I’m worth every penny.”
She chose a matching seat and helped herself to one of the treats. “Mmm,” she groaned sinking her teeth into the cake, and I was gratified to see her eyes close in apparent appreciation of my culinary talents.
“Okay,” I said, after giving her enough time to bask in sugar-infused heaven, “what do you know about my story?”
“Easy, girl,” she admonished. “You don’t rush an experience like this. You savor it.”
I waited, swiveling back and forth, until she had finished her impromptu breakfast. By the time she had licked the last bit of frosting from her fingers, I was faintly dizzy.
“That was heaven,” she said rolling her eyes. “Girl, you have a gift. What are you doing chasing cops and robbers around when you could be making these all day?”
“That’s exactly why,” I said. Baking was something I did to relax. Turning it into a career would ruin it. “If I had to spend my days making birthday cakes and cookies for little Timmy’s school party, I would kill myself.”
“Whatever,” she said dismissing both my excuse and the topic of conversation. “Anyway, I lied. It’s not directly related to your story, but guess who I overhead talking about you today?”
I felt every muscle in my body tense. Gail worked exclusively with state employees, mostly police officers. Had she run into Jason Anders? And had he mentioned me? What had he said? Okay, I needed to get a grip. She probably ran into Gerald, the crabby dispatcher who’s had it in for me since I put a small ding in his stupid pick-up with my car door. That was a year ago and he still hadn’t let it go.
“C’mon, Gail! You know I hate secrets, and you’ve tortured me enough,” I complained. “Just spill it.”
“Fine,” she said with a sigh, but her eyes were bright and she was bouncing with excitement. “Detective Gorgeous was in the gym yesterday evening punching that bag like it was all that stood between him and the last Snickers bar.”
A vision of Anders stripped to the waist, muscles bunching and shiny with sweat sent a shot of pure lust surging through places where I hadn’t had a surge of any kind for quite some time.
“Aha!” she crowed. “I can tell by the look on your face you know who I’m talking about.”
“No, you can’t,” I insisted. “We could be thinking of two entirely different people. There’s more than one hot guy on the police force.”
“Yeah, but there’s only one who told his partner he was picturing your face.”
“What?” I knew the two of us hadn’t exactly hit it off, but did he really feel such animosity toward me?
“You definitely made an impression,” Gail said. “What happened between you two?”
“Nothing.” This is why I didn’t want to come in. I had no intention of telling Gail about my encounter
with Jason, and I certainly wasn’t going to tell her that I hadn’t been able to get him out of my mind since our impromptu kiss.
“Oh, it was something,” she said with a decisive nod of her head. “That man could be made of stone for all the emotion I’ve seen him show before today. What’d you do?”
I shrugged. “I guess I’m just good at making people hate me.” I sounded nonchalant, but I was feeling strangely deflated. I had never cared what other people thought of me. Why was I upset that Jason Anders, a man I found infuriating, didn’t like me? I was being ridiculous.
“Nope,” she said. “Hate’s cold and that man was on fire. So talk.”
“There’s truly nothing to tell,” I said. “He and I are investigating the same murder. He seems to have some issues with reporters and was pretty unhappy that I was on the scene. That’s all there was to it.” I looked down so she wouldn’t be able to read the lie on my face. That wasn’t all there was to it, not by a long shot, but I didn’t want to delve any deeper. I was going to lock it up in a little box and throw away the key.
I stood as Gail was opening her mouth. “No,” I said before she could ask another question. “I’ve told you everything, and I have to get going. I found another lead I want to follow up on, and I need to do a little more research first.”
“Anything I can do to help?”
“I can’t afford your help,” I said, forcing a smile.
“Don’t think I’m giving up,” Gail called after me as I fled toward the door. “I’m choosing to humor you for now, but don’t forget I can kick your ass!”