Once I was in my apartment, curled up on my old but comfy sofa, I began to work in earnest. However, my internet search netted me only a brief company history, a list of famous clients (the governor wasn’t among them), and booking information for the band “Bowlers and Pins”. So, if I wanted to speak with Mr. Estes – and I did – I had four options: send an e-mail to a generic account and hope someone would hook me up with Estes; spend tomorrow driving over to Norfolk and coerce a meeting with the man; forget the whole thing and hire Bowlers and Pins for a “screw it” party; or call Gail and ask her to finesse a number from the World Wide Web.
As tempting as the party sounded, I was going to have to beg another favor. I was really racking up those favors, and the corresponding payback. That was the thing about asking for help – no one did anything for free, and said help always ended up costing far more than it was worth. I didn’t have much choice, though. My stomach muscles twisted in knots as I dialed.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
I jumped at the sudden pounding on my front door. What the hell? I never had visitors. Never. I disconnected the call and peered through the peephole. The knock had surprised me, but what I saw on the landing shocked me senseless. It took several seconds for me to recognize the large form standing under the overhead fixture. The dim bulb emitted only enough light to cast a golden halo around his devilishly handsome features, making him look like some wicked combination of sinner and saint. Little tingles of anticipation danced up my back and across my arms, even as I thought about turning off the lights and hiding under the bed.
What was he doing here? Anxiety knotted my insides. Whatever the reason, it couldn’t be good.
Finally, I could stand the suspense no longer and threw open the door.
Green eyes widened in surprise, Anders just managed to pull back the fist he had been preparing to hammer against the wooden obstruction.
“Geez!” I yelped as I jumped out of his reach.
“Sorry,” he said, taking a step back. “I wasn’t expecting you.”
“It’s my apartment,” I said. “Who were you expecting?”
“That’s not what I meant. Look, can I come in?”
“Let me grab my wallet and we can go get some Chinese downstairs,” I suggested.
“This won’t take long,” he said, stepping around me and into my home.
“By all means,” I sighed, sweeping my hand in a welcoming gesture, even though he was already on the opposite side of the room.
I might as well take advantage of the moment, I decided. If I wanted to learn more about Detective Anders, I wasn’t going to have a better opportunity.
“So, what brings you to my humble abode?”
“I’m sorry,” he said, running his hand over his hair, making it stand up in crazy spikes, “I just . . . I don’t know. I guess I just wanted to check on you. Make sure you’re okay.”
“You mean make sure I’m okay after you threw me in jail?” I asked, already feeling my hackles go up.
“I warned you what would happen if you kept messing around in my investigation,” he said, his own anger rising to meet mine.
But then I saw him force his emotions down into some invisible box and slam the lid. “I didn’t come here to argue,” he said.
“Then why did you come?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted, not meeting my eyes, looking my place over, instead. He froze, his face turning hard, his gaze planted on my kitchen counter.
“What the hell is that? Why do you have a blowtorch in your kitchen?”
“It’s a culinary torch,” I corrected him. “It’s used for making desserts.”
“You make desserts?”
I was offended by the look of absolute amazement on his face.
“Yes,” I replied, hearing a defensive edge to my voice.
“And you do it with a blowtorch?”
“Culinary torch. And, yes, sometimes I use open flame making dessert.”
“You seem surprised,” I couldn’t resist prompting.
“That you cook, yes. That you use a torch, not so much.” The corners of his wide mouth curved upward.
“You should see what I can do with a chainsaw,” I said, and enjoyed the flare of unease in his eyes that told me he wasn’t sure if I was kidding.
He walked over and picked up the device, turning it over and over in his hands, studying it from every angle.
“How long have you been into cooking?”
“I’m not really,” I said. “I’m more into baking.”
Now he was looking at me, the torch back in its resting place.
“So how long have you been into baking?”
“I don’t know,” I said with a shrug. “Since I left home, I guess. Something about it is therapeutic. It settles my nerves.”
“Did your mother teach you how to cook?” he asked.
A very unladylike snort escaped before I could catch it. The idea of my mother in the kitchen was hysterical.
“The golden goddess?” I said.
“That’s what everyone called her. She was always dressed like a freaking Oscar.”
“Tell me more.”
“She’s dead. Not much to tell.” I said.
“That can’t be true.”
“Fine,” I relented. This topic was not a comfortable one for me, but I felt a strange compulsion to talk. “She died in a fire six years ago.”
I hadn’t believed I felt anything at all regarding my mother, so I was surprised by the frisson of something that almost felt like sadness ripple through me. Sadness, not for the loss of Gloria Welling, but for the loss of the mother she never could have been.
“She intentionally set the hotel room on fire, although I’m not sure if she intended to die. Oddly enough, my father paid for that information to be buried, even though he didn’t exactly have a pristine reputation to protect.”
The bitterness in my voice was a dead give-away that I wasn’t as nonchalant about the whole thing as I wanted him to believe.
“Maybe it wasn’t his reputation he was trying to protect,” he said softly. “Maybe it was hers.”
“She certainly didn’t deserve it,” I snapped.
“Maybe not, but he thought she did. And maybe he was protecting you a little bit, too.”
“He should’ve done that a long time ago.”
I was done with this conversation and I decided to maneuver it back on him. Finding out about him was the point, after all.
“Your turn,” I said. What do you do to relax?” I wanted to lighten the tense mood that had descended.
“I don’t have time to relax,” he said.
“Not even to watch the annual ‘Secrets of Ankelo’ marathon?”
I had surprised him again, and he stared at me, horrified, as if I had physically dragged out his innermost secrets.
“How did you know about that?” he demanded.
“Isn’t it what all the sexy bachelors in Louisiana watch in their spare time?”
I observed with pleasure the flush that burned up his throat and across his broad cheekbones.
“You saw that?”
“I did,” I said with a grin. “But don’t worry; you won’t see anything about it in tomorrow’s paper.”
“Thank God for small favors,” he said with a rueful smile of his own.
It wasn’t until I smelled the musky, erotic scent of his cologne that I realized he had stepped closer to me during our exchange. Goosebumps danced over my arms and a tickle of heat crawled up my belly as his hard, calloused palm caressed my cheek. The touch was soft, hesitant, but stoked the heat into a blaze. He wasn’t just looking at me, now. He was staring into me and I couldn’t look away, couldn’t escape the pull of those emerald eyes.
“Jessie,” he whispered, and the brush of his breath against my flesh made me shiver.
He lowered his head and the feel of his mouth on mine, the fiery sweep of his tongue, brought to life a desperate hunger that crowded out all but the need to touch every inch of him. Any hint of uncertainty vanished as I tasted the soft fullness of his lips, the rasp of stubble on his jaw, the smooth skin of his throat. The contrast in textures was more arousing than anything I had ever experienced.
His strong fingers gripped my waist before skimming beneath my top and over my back, branding a trail up and around to my breasts. The air burst from my lungs as he slipped under the lace of my bra and traced my sensitized nipples with the pads of his work-roughened thumbs. He sampled my neck with small, torturing kisses, making me at once both hot and cold.
Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” began to play in my head. Where the heck did that come from? In my haze of desire, it took a moment for me to register that the music wasn’t brought on by lust, but by Anders’ cell. He must have figured it out at the same time, because he pulled away from me, his breath coming in short, shallow gasps.
“Your phone,” I panted, shaken by what had just happened.
“Merde!” He checked his phone and shoved it back onto his belt without answering.
The spell had been broken, however, and my ardor was ebbing, replaced by a growing sense of panic. What had I done? More importantly, why? I felt suffocated by his closeness and took a couple of steps back to allow myself some air.
“You need to go,” I said.
“That was just my landlord – nothing urgent.”
“Doesn’t matter. You need to go,” I insisted.
I couldn’t think straight with him in my apartment, couldn’t wrap my mind around what I had come so close to doing. The last thing I needed was to complicate a situation that had already turned me inside out. Thank you for the wake-up call, Patsy!
I sidled past him and opened the door.
“Wait, Jessie,” he pleaded. “We need to . . .”
“Go,” I interrupted. “Please.” I was desperate for him to leave, to have some solitude to regain my equilibrium.
He looked at me long and hard for a second, once again lighting little fires in places that were still quivering with need. Thankfully, he smoothed back his messy hair, turned on his heel, and left without another word.
Jason threw his head back against the warped vinyl siding of Jessie’s upstairs apartment, hoping he wouldn’t be visible if she chose to look out the small rectangular window to his left. Coming here had been a mistake. He had wanted to see Jessie for himself, make sure that she really was okay after her incarceration. Maybe even apologize. He had hoped doing so would allow him to set her aside. Just the opposite had happened. His heart was still racing from that kiss, and she was very much front and center in his thoughts. If Jacob hadn’t picked that moment to discuss the remodeling he wanted to do, who knew how far things might have gone.
What was wrong with him? Why was he torturing himself like this? There was absolutely no way in hell he was letting another woman into his and Dalia’s lives, and especially not one as unpredictable as Jessie Wells. The best thing to do, he decided, was to get back to work. If he filled his head with the case, there would be no room left for steamy kisses or crazy women.
With renewed energy, he jogged down the steps and into the light rain that had begun to fall. He had a murder to solve.