Undercover Baby, page 1
For my editor, Malle Vallik, and senior editor, Birgit Davis-Todd, who continue to make it a joy for me to
write for Harlequin Temptation.
IT WAS LATE, after ten in the evening, yet heat still radiated from the pavement beneath Sam Perry’s weary feet. He tried to remember the last time it had rained, but failed. He could almost taste the dry dust hanging in the air.
Another August in the South. Why couldn’t he have moved up north when his parents had a few years ago to escape the heat?
It hadn’t been a good day. Beginning with his aging car’s mechanical meltdown, it had gone downhill from there. He’d been hit, yelled at, had coffee spilled on him and had a drunk throw up on his shoes. Some days, it just wasn’t worth getting out of bed.
At least he was almost home. His unpretentious apartment building stood in front of him like a safe refuge from the mean streets.
“Hey, honey. Lookin’ for a little company?”
A woman leaned against the plain brick wall of his building, barely illuminated by the streetlight half a block away. Through the shadows, he could see riotous blond curls that tumbled around bare shoulders, a black-and-white-striped tank top that molded itself to full breasts, a skintight, black Lycra skirt so short as to almost be unnecessary, and legs that seemed to stretch for a couple of miles before ending in torturous high heels.
Hell, he thought. Did he really have to put up with this crap right outside his own apartment?
“Whatsa matter, sweetie? Cat got your tongue?” Without waiting for an answer, she murmured provocatively, “You’re looking kinda lonely, sugar. How about a party?”
Sam felt the weight of his badge and weapon lying heavily beneath his sweat-damp clothing. This wasn’t the first time he wished he could ignore them. “Go away. This is a decent neighborhood,” he muttered crossly.
She only stepped closer. A soft white hand tipped with long, red nails reached out to stroke his arm beneath the short sleeves of his pullover shirt. “My, aren’t you a strong one,” she cooed. “We could have ourselves some kinda fun, cupcake. Want to ask me up to your place?”
“I’d rather spend an hour locked in a room with a nest of rattlers,” he said and meant it.
Brilliant blue eyes, framed in ridiculously long and thick false lashes, laughed up at him. “Why, sugar. I’m crushed.”
Sam had had enough. He was tired, hot and hungry. All he wanted was to lock himself into his apartment, make a sandwich, grab a cold beer and crash in front of the TV for a couple of hours before going to bed—alone. He had just turned thirty. Too damned young to feel this damned old. The realization made him grouchier than usual.
“Knock it off, Sanders,” he growled. “Tell me why you’re here and then get lost. I’m off duty.”
She sighed deeply, then dropped her hand from his arm. When she spoke again, her voice was still husky, but brisk. “Lieutenant Brashear sent a message. He wants to see us both in his office first thing in the morning. Eight o’clock.”
“I’m on assignment tomorrow. He knows that.”
She shook her head, making her synthetic blond curls dance around her shoulders. “Not anymore. Something big has come up. Looks like we’re going to be partners again, Perry.”
She lifted her chin. “I’m not exactly crazy about the idea, either. Not after you screwed up our last assignment.”
“I screwed it up? Who’s the one—”
“Keep it down, will you?” She glanced around quickly to make sure his outburst hadn’t drawn attention. “See what I mean?” she muttered. “You have no self-control. If you hadn’t gone crazy during that bust—”
“If I hadn’t ‘gone crazy,’ you’d be dead now,” he reminded her bluntly.
“I could have handled it. I was handling it, until you charged in like the Lone Ranger on steroids and blew my cover.”
“Hell, Sanders, if I’d waited another ten minutes someone would have been zipping you into a body bag and delivering you to your grieving mama. I never expected undying gratitude, but—”
She snorted in a decidedly unladylike manner. “Yeah, right. Who took care of the guy who was about to blow your brains out your ear, hmm?”
“If you’d only—”
She lifted both hands and took a step back from him, farther into the shadows. “Enough. I’m as tired as you are, Perry, and I’ve still got a couple of hours to pull. You have a problem with this, take it up with Brashear.”
“I’ll do that.”
“Fine.” She turned away. Sam figured she had a car stashed somewhere nearby, maybe another cop waiting impatiently behind the wheel.
She glanced over her shoulder. “Yeah?”
“You look like a slut.”
Her eyes flashed, but her crimson mouth curved into a feline smile. Her voice became liquid seduction again. “I’m paid to look like a slut, Perry. But I think I do it well, don’t you?”
She reached out suddenly to shape his right buttock with her palm. And then she squeezed.
Sam jerked away from her, feeling his face warm even as the curse hissed from between his teeth. She’d done it again, damn it. Caught him off guard. “Keep your hands to yourself, Sanders.”
Her laugh was victorious. “It’ll be tough, but I’m sure I’ll manage somehow,” she purred. “Sweet dreams, sugar.”
Sam glowered after her as she walked away. Well, no. She didn’t exactly walk. She undulated. Whether the performance was for his benefit, or a natural result of five-inch stiletto heels, he wasn’t sure, but he was male enough to waste a minute or two admiring the motion of that microscopic excuse for a skirt.
It was one hell of a great bod, he thought, feeling the heat of his skin rise a couple of degrees. Too bad Dallas Sanders lived in it.
* * *
SAM’S MOOD HADN’T significantly improved by 8:05 the next morning. He’d cut himself shaving, his car was still in the shop, so he’d had to bum a ride to work, and it was already ninety degrees outside. He didn’t even want to know the humidity. Probably a hundred and fifty percent.
Lieutenant Brashear was talking on the phone when Sam strolled into his office. A woman sat in one of the two leather chairs arranged on the other side of Brashear’s desk. She was reading a report, but glanced up when Sam entered. She had glossy brown hair, cut in a chin-length bob, bright blue eyes and a deceptively soft mouth. She wore a minimum of makeup, which made her look young and natural and wholesome. Her clothing was almost prim—a pale rose blouse beneath a short-sleeved gray jacket that matched a straight, knee-length skirt. Her feet were encased in sensible gray pumps with a two-inch heel. She could have been an office worker or a teacher. Maybe a librarian.
Ten hours earlier she’d been a hooker.
Sam nodded curtly to her. “Sanders,” he muttered in greeting.
“Good morning, Sam,” she said, her husky voice annoyingly friendly. “Rest well?”
He knew he looked like he’d spent a rough night—which he had. How the hell did she look so fresh and bright-eyed after working until midnight? He ignored her question.
Brashear concluded his call and hung up the phone. “Good morning, Sam.”
“Marty. What’s going on here? You know how close we are to cracking the Perkins case. Another couple of days and we’ll nail the jerk.”
Brashear gave what Sam had alway
“We’ve got enough on Perkins to pull you off,” Brashear assured Sam. “The other guys can wrap it up from here.”
Sam hated to leave a job unfinished, but he knew Marty wouldn’t pull him without good reason. “What have you got?”
“A possible baby-selling scam down in the west end. Nothing solid, but enough to warrant an investigation. You and Sanders will be on loan to the west precinct. We’re figuring it’ll take a couple of weeks to establish your cover—another couple of weeks to wrap it up. If all goes well, of course.”
Sam groaned. “I’ve got to work with Sanders for a month? Maybe longer?”
“This isn’t exactly my idea of paradise, either, Perry,” Dallas snapped.
“You just better hold up your end this time,” Sam warned her.
“You can kiss my end,” Dallas retorted, her eyes challenging. “Of all the—”
Brashear chuckled. “This is exactly why I want the two of you to work together on this one. You’re the perfect team.”
Sam and Dallas both turned to him in bewilderment.
“You’re going to be a couple in crisis,” he explained. “Two tempestuous lovers being torn apart by unfortunate circumstances. The stress will start to show in noisy fights and tears and bitter recriminations loud enough for the whole neighborhood to hear.”
He beamed at his own cleverness. “Like I said, you’re the perfect team for this one.”
Dallas and Sam only glared at each other as Brashear began to elaborate on the assignment.
* * *
THEY WERE GIVEN THE weekend to take care of everything that needed doing to clear them for their lengthy assignment. Sam had been told to pack his oldest, blue-collar clothing in pasteboard boxes. Nothing fancy or expensive—which wasn’t a problem for him. As often as he went undercover, he had twice as many ragged clothes as suits.
He smiled to himself as he thought of the costume that had been ordered for Dallas. She hadn’t been pleased.
Two plainclothes detectives broke into enormous grins the minute they caught sight of Sam on Monday morning. Nick, a short, chubby Irishman, and Walter, a burly African-American, had been partners forever and found special pleasure in the trials and tribulations of their co-workers. They were well-known for their warped senses of humor.
Sam eyed their gleeful expressions with wary curiosity. “Okay, let’s have it. What’s got you two so happy this morning? Have I been fired and don’t know it yet? Someone suing me or charging me with brutality? What?”
Nick widened his pale blue eyes in exaggerated innocence. “Hey, nothing like that, buddy. We just wanted to wish you luck on your new assignment. We think it’s going to be real—uh—interesting.”
Sam figured they were ragging him about working with Dallas again. Everyone knew Sam and Dallas had had a few problems getting along during the past year, ever since Dallas had first transferred into the department where Sam had worked for seven years.
He sighed. “Okay, have your fun. So I’m working with Sanders. We’re both professionals. We can put the past behind us and get the job done.”
Walter nodded, his expression much too serious now to be believable. “We’re sure you’re right, Perry. You and Sanders make a great team.”
Walter ignored his partner as he asked, “Uh—you seen your partner yet today, Sam?”
“No. I’m supposed to meet her in Brashear’s office.”
Nick seemed to be overcome with a spasm of what might have been giggles in someone who wasn’t a tough police detective.
Walter’s dark eyes were gleaming when he said, “She’s looking particularly lovely today.”
Now Sam knew something was going on. Yeah, okay, Sanders wasn’t bad looking—she was damned good-looking, to be honest, especially if you didn’t know her as well as Sam did. But they’d all seen her dressed as a hooker, a bag lady, a drugged-out teenager, a prim-and-proper career woman. She must really look interesting today to cause such a stir with these two.
Remembering their assignment, he started to grin. “Where is she?”
Nick and Walter were only too happy to tell him.
* * *
“ARE YOU SURE I’VE GOT this thing on right?” Dallas fretted, tugging at the front of her cheap flowered top. “It looks weird.”
Sergeant Leon Kauffman, the precinct’s property supervisor, nodded his balding head enthusiastically. “You have it on exactly right. And it looks perfect. Even more realistic than I’d expected when I first saw it.”
“It weighs a ton,” Dallas muttered. “And it pinches.”
Her best friend, Officer Brenda Pennington, laughed. “I can’t get over how funny you look.”
Dallas sent her a withering glare. “Thank you so much.”
Brenda tossed her long dark hair over her shoulder and grinned. “Just wait until Sam gets a look at you.”
Dallas groaned and covered her face with her hands.
From behind his desk, Lieutenant Brashear made a note on an official-looking form, then glanced up at Dallas. “Speaking of Sam, where is he?”
“I haven’t seen him yet.”
“Sam’s always late,” Brenda reminded.
“And always grouchy,” Dallas added in a mutter.
“If there’s nothing else you need from me, I have to take some inventories this morning,” Kauffman said.
Brashear waved him out. “If you pass Perry, tell him to get in here. We’re waiting for him.”
“Yes, sir.” Kauffman nodded again and rushed out, typically in a hurry.
Brashear glanced at Brenda. “Is there anything in particular you want, Pennington, or are you just loitering on the job?”
“You know I’m only hanging around to be close to you, Lieutenant,” Brenda answered, giving him a melting smile.
He grunted, taking the comment as one of her characteristic wisecracks. Dallas suspected that it was absolutely true. She’d been wondering for several months if Brenda was developing a thing for their boss.
Brenda was thirty-four and single; Brashear, forty-one and widowed for two years. Dallas thought it might be a good match, if they could overcome the awkwardness that would surely result from a personal involvement between them. Not that something like that would stop Brenda, who claimed she was just looking for an excuse to get off the streets and into some man’s kitchen. Dallas had scoffed at the words, but Brenda had looked completely serious.
“Haven’t you got work to do?” Brashear asked Brenda.
Brenda grinned and shook her dark head. “Uh-uh. Ain’t no way I’m leaving this office until Sam has a look at Dallas.”
“Go away, Brenda. Catch a criminal or something. Quit harassing your fellow officers,” Dallas grumbled. As fond as she was of Brenda, there were times when the other woman could be very annoying. This was one of them.
There was a quick, sharp rap on the door and then it opened before anyone could respond. Sam strolled through, yawning and scratching his unshaven chin. His sandy hair was rumpled and his grubby shirt and jeans as wrinkled as if he’d just crawled out of bed after sleeping in them. “Sorry I’m late. I—”
He stopped, his jaw dropping.
It started slowly. First Sam’s hazel eyes crinkled at the corners, digging little furrows into the tanned skin. His firm, usually frowning mouth tilted upward on one side, then the other. The laughter began as a low rumble deep in his chest, and then he held his sides and let it out.
Brashear sighed. Brenda just sat back and enjoyed the
Dallas watched the display in a smoldering temper. Damn it, she’d known he would react this way! Why couldn’t her costume for this assignment have been a backless leather minidress or a bag lady’s smelly rags? Anything but this!
“Laugh it up, Perry,” she snapped. “You don’t exactly look like a GQ model, yourself.”
Sam wiped his eyes with the back of one hand. “Oh, man, Sanders, you should see yourself.”
“I have seen myself. I look like the Goodyear blimp.”
He made a production of slowly circling her, his eyes fixed on the large bulge filling out the front of the cheap and ridiculously ruffled maternity top. And then he chuckled again. “How old are you, Sanders?”
“Twenty-five,” she answered warily. “Why?”
“You look like a sixteen-year-old who got knocked up in the back of an old Ford pickup.”
Her reply should have singed the five o’clock shadow right off his stubborn jaw.
Brashear interceded, his tone patient. “Knock it off, you two. We have things to go over before you leave. Pennington, go earn your pay.”
Brenda pushed herself off the corner of his desk and sketched a snappy, impertinent salute. “Yes, sir.” She touched Dallas’s shoulder on her way out. “Keep your guard up, Sanders.”
Dallas responded to the traditional farewell with the same answer she always gave. “Watch your back, Pennington.”
Brashear didn’t even wait until the door had closed behind Brenda before going over their cover one final time, making sure Dallas and Sam had their roles straight, their procedures agreed upon. The story was that they were a down-on-their-luck unmarried couple moving into the very low-rent district after having been thrown out of another apartment for failure to pay rent. Sam was to act disgruntled about the imminent arrival of a baby for him to support, making it clear to everyone they encountered that the pregnancy had been an accident, and not a pleasant surprise. His dissatisfaction was to make him surly, and their quarrels were supposed to be noisy and audible to anyone within hearing distance.
Dallas had no doubt that Sam could carry off the role of surly jerk. She just wasn’t at all sure about her own part. She was supposed to adore the creep, make it clear to all observers that she would do anything to keep from losing him.
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