Last Shot

Last Shot

Eve Gaddy

April 2015 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-5-980

Love is a dangerous choice.

 
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Synopsis | Reviews | Excerpt

Back Cover Blurb

Murder is the last thing homicide Detective Nick Sheridan wants to deal with when he retreats to the small, coastal town of Freedom, Texas. His last case—possibly his last ever—was the most horrific he’d ever seen. No, he wants to drink, forget, and find a warm, willing woman.

The Last Shot Bar & Grill seems like the perfect place to do that.

Della Rose, single mother and waitress at the Last Shot, is anything but warm and willing. Della has baggage; she pegs Nick as a cop the moment she sees him, and no matter how hot he is, she’s not interested. When her boss, Charlie Banks, is murdered and the local police chief writes it down as a robbery gone bad, Della is forced to turn to Nick for help.

Soon, Nick is unwillingly drawn in to the mystery of why Charlie was murdered and what the gunmen wanted. As Nick and Della enter a red-hot affair, Nick falls hard for Della, but Della has no intention of a serious relationship.
Della and her family are in danger. Nick’s instincts are to protect and serve, but Della’s are to push away anyone who might hurt her. Even him.

Can they catch a murderer and solve the mystery without Della’s life being torn apart once again? And can they put aside their past long enough to trust their love?

Eve Gaddy is the best-selling award-winning author of more than eighteen novels. She was nominated for a Romantic Times Career Achievement Award for Innovative Series romance as well as winning the 2008 Romantic Times Career Achievement award for Series Storyteller of the year. Eve’s books have sold over a million copies worldwide and been published in many foreign countries.

You can find Eve at her website: evegaddy.net or on Facebook: facebook.com/EveGaddyAuthor, or email her at eve@evegaddy.net


Reviews

"Enjoyable [with] a nice balance of suspense and romance, and the storyline was interesting.” -- Christa Pitcock, Goodreads

"Last Shot is an emotional roller-coaster that I can only strongly recommend that you pick up, find some time to get lost in Della and Nick’s story and experience for yourself." -- Marsha Spohn, Keeper Bookshelf



Excerpt

Chapter One

CRAP, HE WAS BACK.

Della Rose scowled at the dark-haired man taking a seat at the corner table near the kitchen. The same guy who’d been in every night for the past week. Each night, when he first came in, he’d asked her to have a drink with him after work. Each night, she’d turned him down, but damn, she’d been tempted to take him up on it. A temptation that both annoyed and confused her.

Della had to admit he was hot. Brown hair, so dark it was almost black, fathoms-deep blue eyes, a strong jaw stubbled with beard, and shoulders broad enough to take on the woes of the world guaranteed him a second glance. And a third, and a fourth.

He waved at her and she cursed silently, realizing he’d caught her staring. Hell, he was bound to be used to it.

She glanced over to the bar at her boss. Charlie Burke was a soft touch. Everyone in Freedom, a flea bite of a town on the Texas Gulf coast, knew it. Charlie’s inability to turn away a person in need wasn’t the only reason the Last Shot was a favored local hangout. The food was good, the drinks decent, and it was one of the few places in town that stayed open past ten p.m.

No one knew more about Charlie’s generous heart than Della, since he’d given her a job and a chance for a new life eight years be­fore. Which was why she wasn’t worried when she marched over to her boss, squinted through the haze of cigarette smoke, pressed a hand to the small of her aching back, and glared at him. "I’m not waiting on him. Do it yourself.” She didn’t have to identify him. She and Charlie had gone around about it all week.

"Oh, for—just go take his order,” Charlie said, his voice grating harsh from years of chronic abuse. Grinding the butt of his cigarette out in the orange plastic ashtray beside the cash register, he shook his head, shaggy gray hair falling over his forehead. "What’d he do, pinch your butt last time he was in?”

Della scowled. Charlie looked out for her, but he’d been known to say that any woman with a world class ass like hers ought to expect an occasional pinch. Della didn’t buy it, as many a customer had found out. "No, he didn’t grab my butt. Or any other part of me. But I don’t want to wait on him.”

"Last I looked, you were the waitress here.” He shuffled across the floor to draw a draft, shoving the handle back as cold beer streamed down the outside of the mug. Setting it down on the counter with a bang, he stabbed a gnarled finger at her. "Get your sweet fanny over there, or I swear to Mike, I will fire you.” He glared at her a mo­ment. "What is your problem, woman?” he asked, sounding more ex­asperated than angry.

Glancing over at the subject under discussion, she saw him wave at her again and gritted her teeth. "He’s a cop.” She picked up the mug to take it to old Pete Tripper, the only other customer in the place. They didn’t do a lot of business at eleven-thirty on a Wednesday night.

Rubbing his chin thoughtfully, Charlie looked at the man in ques­tion, then back to her. "How do you know? Did you ask him?”

"No.” He’d told her his name was Nick, but he hadn’t said much else, other than to ask her to have a drink. He’d been nice, pleasant, and if he hadn’t been a cop, she might have broken down and accepted the offer. She shoved her fingers through her bangs, brushing them back from her forehead as she always did. She wore her brown hair in a messy pixie, which suited her just fine. She didn’t have the time or inclination to fuss with it. Her jaw muscles twitched, tight with irrita­tion. "I didn’t have to ask. I can smell a cop from half a mile away.”

Charlie laughed, a wheezy, asthmatic sound. "Someday, honey, you’re gonna tell me that story.”

Oh, no I won’t. Not even for you, Charlie.

Wiping down the bar and grunting for emphasis, Charlie contin­ued. "But for now, I don’t care if he’s the Queen of the Nile in drag, he’s still a customer. And closing time’s not for half an hour. So get your butt over there and take his order.” He gave a bark of laughter and added, "It ain’t like he’s gonna arrest you for doing your job, even if he is a cop.”

Della cussed him under her breath but she went. If Esther, the other waitress, had been there, she’d have been glad to take it for Della. In fact, Esther would have been on the guy like cocktail sauce on shrimp. But she’d been out all week with a nasty virus, which left Della working double shifts.

Reaching his table, Della held her tray in front of her like a shield and looked down her nose at him. "What’ll you have?”

She knew she sounded cranky. Hell, she had reason. Her feet hurt, her back ached, her head pounded, and she had a bill due that was go­ing to take a big chunk of change. Her daughter had called earlier to tell her she’d ripped a hole the size of the Gulf of Mexico in her best pair of jeans—the non-holey variety—and Della’s budget wouldn’t stretch another millimeter, much less spring for replacing them. To top it off, hunk of the year here had to pick her to fixate on.

He didn’t push when she turned him down. No, the sneaky bas­tard just looked at her and smiled. And damn, what a smile. Every time he came in, he gave her that smile. The one that made her wonder just what she was missing.

Maybe her internal radar was wrong, for once. Nah, it didn’t mat­ter either way. She had no time for men. Especially not a tourist pass­ing through town looking for an easy lay. Which is what she figured he wanted, even though he’d only asked her to have a drink with him. Men, in her experience, were one hundred percent predictable.

"Hi, sweet thing, I’m back,” he said, his deep, husky voice sending ripples of awareness zinging up her spine. "Did you miss me?”

She had to clamp down on her lips to keep them from twitching. He took rejection well, she gave him that, not getting obnoxious when she shot him down, and not making free with his hands, like so many men. She’d thought he wasn’t coming tonight, and had told herself it was a good thing. So why had she felt that ridiculous flash of pleasure when he’d shown up an hour before closing time?

"Desperately,” she drawled. "Last call. What do you want?”

His gaze ran over her, lingered on her legs for a moment, raised to her face. Dressed in denim shorts and a loose maroon T-shirt, Della couldn’t think why he seemed so appreciative of her. Or why the way he looked at her didn’t piss her off more.

"I want a lot of things,” he said, and smiled at her. "Doesn’t look like I’ll be getting any of them anytime soon, though.”

Della tapped her foot. "To drink. What do you want to drink?”

He shrugged. "A draft.” Before she could leave, his fingers wrapped around her wrist, but gently. "Have a drink with me. Come on, Della, what can one lousy drink hurt?”

"What makes you think I’ve changed my mind from the last time you were in here?” she asked, her voice huskier than she liked. She didn’t mind his fingers touching her, and she should have.

His smile widened, an easy, sexy smile. Her pulse picked up and she cursed silently. "Hope springs eternal,” he said with a laugh. "Why are you such a hard sell, Della?” he said when she didn’t respond.

There was a question she could answer. "Not hard. Impossible.”

"Why?” His thumb circled her wrist as he held her gaze.

Because you’re dangerous, she started to say, staring down at him. The sincerity in his eyes sucked her in, asked her to believe he was on the level. That all he wanted was a little time with her. Della didn’t like the way that made her feel, didn’t like the way she found it hard to catch her breath, and she especially didn’t like the fact she enjoyed feeling the soothing rasp of his fingers over her skin.

Before she could sink any deeper into those eyes, raised voices broke the spell. Della turned toward the bar to see two new custom­ers—lowlifes, both of them—had come in and were having what looked like a deep discussion with Charlie. She didn’t like the vibes she sensed. She liked what they were saying even less. Tripper, the only other customer, must not have liked it either. He was nowhere to be seen.

"Where is it, old man?” the one with a face like a bucket shouted, banging a fist on the counter. "We know Leon’s been here. So just hand it over and make it easy on yourself.”

"Hand what over? I got no clue what you’re talking about,” Charlie said, annoyance stamped on his face. "Or who you’re talking about, either.”

"Leon Rivers,” said the other dirtbag, the one who had a face like a shark. "Don’t act like you don’t know him. You and him go way back.”

Charlie hesitated briefly before he shrugged and spoke. "Yeah, I knew him. Twenty years ago. And that’s the last time I saw him, too.” He threw his towel down on the bar and jerked his head toward the door. "Beat it. I don’t need your kind in here.”

Della started toward Charlie, but the fingers locked around her wrist tightened. Impatiently, she yanked her arm, but he didn’t loosen his hold. She looked down at him to demand he let her go but her words failed at the sight of his face. Intent, implacable, he was staring at the scene at the bar, and he looked like a man she didn’t want to cross.

"Be still,” he said, so softly she almost didn’t hear him.

"But—”

"Shut up.” Again, he said it quietly, but his tone meant business.

Bucketface reached across the bar and grabbed Charlie by the shirtfront. "Goddamn it, you tell me where it is! Don’t fuck with me, old man.”

Charlie reached beneath the bar. Della’s stomach tightened with fear, and though she’d never been a big believer, she started praying. Bucketface released Charlie, who brought up his hand, holding the 9mm he kept close to the cash register for just this kind of occasion.

Della stood frozen, unable to move even without the steely fingers restraining her. A gun appeared in the second man’s hand. His arm jerked just as Charlie’s gun spit fire, and one loud crack of an explosion followed another and another. Then there was nothing but blood, blood everywhere.

A freight train hit her, and she slammed into the ground, rolling over and over the hard tile floor until she crashed into something and came to a stop. A man lay on top of her and she fought to catch her breath, struggling and beating her hands on his arms.

"Get off, get off, get off!” she shouted, thrashing beneath him as hot terror flooded her mind. She couldn’t think, could only feel. Fear, pain, helplessness.

The heavy weight lifted. She sat up, gasping for air. A woman screamed, high-pitched and terrified. Screamed and screamed and screamed. Della wished she’d shut up and then realized it was her. Somebody—the freight train—clipped her across the mouth.

She stopped making noise abruptly and gulped, staring at the man now gripping her arms.

Disoriented, she looked around, realizing that instead of being in the bar, she and Nick had somehow rolled into the kitchen, through the swinging doors. In the kitchen, away from the danger. He hadn’t been attacking her, he’d been protecting her.

He shook her, hard. "Is there a gun in here?”

Mouth agape, Della stared at him. "Charlie?” she croaked in a shaky whisper. "Where’s Charlie?”

His eyes were so blue, and so empty. "Dead. Or if he isn’t, he will be soon. Now, where the hell is something I can use as a weapon?”

She shook her head, unable to think, or grasp what he said. Charlie was... dead? How could that be?

Nick cursed viciously and left her. She watched him stalk around the kitchen. His hand settled on a long, wickedly gleaming steel knife, Charlie’s knife. The one he used to filet fish. But Charlie wouldn’t be using it anymore. Her eyes closed, her breath caught on a sob, but she didn’t cry. She hadn’t cried since she was fifteen years old.

He came back over to her. "Get away from the door. We don’t have more than a couple of minutes until they figure out where we are. I’d tell you to go out the back, but they probably have someone watching it.” He must have seen something in her face that caused that inhuman mask to slip for a moment. "Find someplace to hide, Della. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it.”

She crawled to the corner, pulled her legs up to her chest and curled into a tight ball of fear. Charlie’s dead, Charlie’s dead, Charlie’s dead. The words chanted in her mind but they didn’t make sense.

Della heard someone shouting, though she couldn’t make out the words. Oh, God, what if he comes in here? she thought, smothering a scream. She knew this feeling, though it had been years since she’d felt it so strongly. Helplessness. She hated it, couldn’t tolerate it. Desper­ately grasping for calm, for control, she drew in a deep breath, then another. At last, her mind functioned, the crippling terror and despair receding as anger took hold.

What was she doing hiding in the corner, a victim waiting for something to happen to her? She’d sworn long ago she’d never be a victim again. Never again.

Della was a survivor. She had learned it the hard way. She would fight, or by God, die trying. Anything would be better than that para­lyzing terror and loss of control.

She grabbed the only weapon she could find, a large cast-iron skillet, and crept back to the swinging doors, halting as she reached Nick.

"Goddamn it, I told you to hide,” he snarled in a harsh whisper when she touched his back to let him know she was behind him.

"No,” she whispered back. "I can help.”

"More likely get us both killed,” he said.

"How do you know he—they’ll come in here?” she asked. "Maybe they left. Ran away.”

He shot her a get real look. "We just witnessed a murder. At least one of them is alive. What do you think they’ll do?”

The gunman came in fast, through the swinging doors with his gun drawn. He got a shot off as Nick hit him low, rolling with him over the floor, crashing into the stove and the grill. Skillet raised, Della ran over to them but couldn’t tell who was winning. All she could see was a tangle of arms and legs as they struggled for possession of the gun. It was a silent fight, both men too intent on gaining control to waste time on breath or talking.

Sharkface came up with the gun.

Della shouted, hoping to distract him so Nick could do some­thing. Instead, Sharkface swung around and aimed the gun at her.

Great idea, Della, she thought. Her gaze locked with his for a split second.

He pulled the trigger just as Nick lunged in front of her.

She dove to the side, hearing the crack of the gun as she went down. Her head hit the tile floor and she lay for a moment, dazed. She shook her head to clear her vision, wincing at the pain, and struggled to sit up.

Nick and Sharkface were on their knees, their hands straining to­gether, again grappling for the gun between them as blood streamed down Nick’s right arm.

Still grasping the heavy skillet, Della scrambled to her feet and ran to them. Fighting a wave of dizziness, she brought her hands up, fin­gers gripped tight around the handle, and swung down as hard as she could. It connected with the gunman’s head with a dull thud. For a horrified instant, she thought she’d hit Nick, but then Sharkface slumped and pitched forward.

Nick rose, gasping for breath and holding the gun. "If he moves, hit him again.”

"You’re welcome,” she said, as he headed for the swinging doors.

Nick didn’t respond, but pushed the doors open just enough to peer into the other room, then went in. When he returned only minutes later, she knew what had happened to Charlie. The answer was plain on his face.

"Call nine-one-one,” he said grimly. "But first, I need some rope so I can tie up this one.”

Knowing the answer, she asked anyway. "What about Charlie? Maybe I can help—”

"No.” Staring down at Sharkface, Nick shook his head. "No one can help him now.”

Charlie’s dead. He’s really dead. She didn’t want to believe it... but she did. She wanted to cry. Wanted to scream. But she did neither. No one knew better than Della how useless tears were.

Instead, she sucked it up. She pulled some twine out of the pantry and gave it to Nick. Then she called the cops, watching Nick efficiently tie up Sharkface. Nick’s expression had settled into harsh, determined lines. Business as usual.

"Is Bucketface dead?” she asked when he’d finished.

"Bucketface?”

Della shrugged. "The other guy. He has a face like a bucket.”

Nick snorted. "Yeah, he does. And yes, he’s dead. Why didn’t you call nine-one-one?”

"Since they’re in town, the cops are quicker, though that’s not saying much. Emergency comes from twenty miles away, in Bay City. Once the cops get here and see what’s going on, they’ll call for EMS.”

Nick started through the double doors once again. Della followed, but Nick blocked her way. "I don’t think you want to—”

"Charlie was my boss and my friend. I’m going to see him. Don’t get in my way.”

Nick shrugged and let her through.

Della didn’t spare a glance for the gunman lying on the floor in front of her. She crossed to the bar, braced herself, and walked behind it. Charlie lay crumpled on the planked floor; gun still in hand, his eyes glassy. There was a small hole in his forehead from the bullet that had killed him. Blood trickled down his cheek. After one glance, she didn’t look at the back of his head. God knew his face would haunt her dreams as it was.

The blood she’d seen earlier must have come from the other man. Della knew a moment’s savage satisfaction that at least one of the bas­tards had already paid for killing Charlie.

Her throat hurt, her heart felt numb. Della touched Charlie, leaned down close to him, laying her cheek against his, wishing she’d thought to tell him how much his friendship had meant to her. He’d known, but knowing it wasn’t the same as hearing it. Neither of them ever had been great with words, so her feelings had gone unvoiced.

"Don’t move him,” Nick said from behind her. "In fact, you really shouldn’t touch him. The crime scene should be preserved.”

Della didn’t respond. For the first time in a long time, she wanted to cry, but she couldn’t. Tears wouldn’t come, only a fuzzy unreality that this couldn’t have happened. She drew back and looked at Charlie again, at the gun in his hand. "Oh, Charlie, why did you have to reach for the gun?”

"I doubt that mattered. They’d have killed him anyway. They wanted an answer he apparently didn’t have. Or didn’t want to give.”

What could the gunmen have wanted? Wanted enough to kill for?

Della couldn’t force herself to stand. She heard the scraping of a chair on the wood floor and realized Nick had left her, giving her a chance to grieve in private. She didn’t know how long she sat there, dry-eyed with her heart aching. Finally, she got to her feet and walked around the bar. Eyes closed, Nick sat in a chair, blood welling through the fingers of his left hand where it covered his right arm. The arm that had been shot when he jumped in front of her and taken the bullet in­tended for her.

He didn’t move. The lines had deepened in his face and he looked weary, hurt. Just what she needed, to be indebted to a stranger. And not just any old debt. Indebted for her life.

She couldn’t help Charlie anymore, but she could help Nick. She owed him that much. "Let me see to your arm. You should have said something.”

His eyes opened and his gaze caught hers. "It’s nothing. I’ll get the EMTs to check it out when they get here.”

"Don’t hold your breath. They’re slow as molasses at the best of times. Meanwhile, you’re bleeding to death.” She grabbed a couple of towels from the bar and wet one before she advanced on him. "Come on, macho man, let me see it.”

She pulled a chair up beside his and shoved his hand aside, giving him the clean, wet towel to wipe his hand with. The bullet had gone through the fleshy part of his arm, just below the short sleeve of his white Dallas Mavericks T-shirt. Blood dripped down and puddled on the floor. Unwilling to risk throwing up, she didn’t look closely at the wound. Instead, she wrapped the towel around his wound as quickly as she could.

A corner of his mouth lifted. "Know anything about gunshot wounds?” His voice was husky, and surprisingly, held a note of amusement.

Her gaze dropped back to her handiwork. "No, but I’ve got a kid. I know enough to hold pressure on things that bleed. Here, put your hand on this and hold it while I tie this other one around it. That should work until EMS gets here.”

He did what she told him, then said, "You’re awfully calm to have just seen your boss blown away. Things like this happen often around here?”

She raised her eyes to meet his ironic gaze. "Sorry, I don’t do hysterical. Not once I’ve figured out what’s going on,” she added, re­membering screaming like a maniac when it first happened.

"Besides, freaking out won’t do Charlie any good.” Later. She’d think about Charlie later. Because it dawned on her that any minute now, the cops were going to come through that door. Oh, God, cops. And she was going to have to talk to them, deal with them. Fear skit­tered along her spine. Nausea bubbled in her stomach.

"You’re tough.”

Yeah, right, she thought. "I’ve had to be.” But was she tough enough to face the cops without flipping out? She almost wished she’d been hurt, preferring the hospital a thousand times over to the cops.

Using his uninjured arm, Nick reached out and touched her swol­len lip, very gently. His hand fell away. "I’m sorry I had to hit you.”

She shrugged, wishing he weren’t so close. Wishing he’d take that piercing blue-eyed gaze of his someplace else. "Why? Don’t get your jollies from hitting women?”

"No. You’re the first.” His fingers brushed her mouth again. "Is that why you hate men?”

The wail of a siren split the air. For once in his worthless life, Police Chief Brumford Hayes from the Freedom PD had shown up at the right time. "I don’t hate men.” Her gaze fastened on his blue eyes, so calm, so knowledgeable. "Just cops.”


 

 

Chapter Two

CHIEF HAYES surveyed the scene from the doorway of the bar. With his oval-shaped head, burred haircut, and plump pink cheeks, he reminded Della of a watermelon, except he was anything but sweet. His belly lapped over his belt, his khaki pants cinched up so tightly she wondered he didn’t bust a gut right there.

Holding the mangled remains of an unlit cigar clamped between his teeth, he glanced around. Della could almost hear him mentally cat­aloging what he saw. Two dead, two alive, and another—Sharkface must have come to—screaming bloody murder in the kitchen.

"Robbery,” he pronounced, taking the cigar between two stubby nicotine-stained fingers.

"No,” Nick muttered, his voice considerably weaker than the last time he’d spoken.

"This man needs help,” Della said, afraid by his sudden pallor that he was going to pass out.

"EMT is on its way.” Hayes advanced to their table, then turned to the patrol officer, Kingston Knight. "Kingston, go see what that hollering’s about.”

"It’s the other—the other gunman,” Della said. "He’s tied up in the kitchen.”

Officer Knight looked at her with concern. "Are you hurt?”

Della shook her head, and with a last look at her, he left. Knight had hit on her when he first came to town a few months ago. He was tall, dark-haired, good-looking. Like Nick, though they looked nothing alike other than coloring. But Knight was a cop, in uniform yet, and Della could never see a cop in uniform without her stomach turning over. He was okay, she had to admit, but something about him didn’t ring true.

At least he wasn’t as disgusting as Hayes.

Hayes snorted and pulled up a chair. Ignoring Della, he stared at Nick. "I’m going to need to take a statement.”

Nick sucked in his breath as Della’s hand tightened on the pad she held over his wound. "Can’t you see he’s hurt? Ask him your stupid questions later.”

"No, that’s okay,” Nick said, shooting her a glance.

She swore she saw a flash of amusement in his eyes before they flicked back to the chief.

"I can give you a statement now, while we’re waiting.”

"Appreciate it. You can wait over there,” he said to Della, mo­tioning to the opposite corner of the room. "I want to hear your ac­counts separately. I’ll take your statement after Mister—” he paused, with an inquiring look at Nick.

"Nick Sheridan.” He paused and added, "Detective Nick Sheridan, Dallas PD.”

"Detective? Got any credentials to prove that?” Hayes sounded skeptical, but Nick had just confirmed Della’s suspicions.

Nick’s answer was to pull a wallet out of his back pocket and flip it open. Then he pulled what looked like a badge out of the same pocket and laid it beside the wallet.

After studying the IDs, Hayes grunted, then looked at her. "What are you waiting for? Go on over there,” he said, jerking his head to­ward the corner. "I’ll get to you in a bit.” He paused and said sarcas­tically, "After I take DetectiveSheridan’s statement.”

Making sure Nick could hold pressure on his wound, Della left them to it, choosing a seat with her back to the bar. She didn’t want to look at the grim scene. She didn’t want to think about the shooting, about Charlie’s death, at all. But of course, she did. Charlie’s face just before gunfire broke out. Charlie lying on the floor, crumpled, glassy-eyed. Dead.

To distract herself, she watched Hayes and Nick. Judging by the scowl on the chief’s face, he didn’t like what Nick was telling him. Probably because he’d made up his mind about what had happened within seconds of getting here. It wouldn’t matter what they told him. The fact Nick was a cop wouldn’t affect the chief, and he could even more easily ignore what Della said. Della doubted that even direct word from God himself would change Hayes’s mind.

A few minutes later, he called her over. She went, resenting with every reluctant footstep that he had the authority to order her around. She knew he enjoyed it. Ever since she’d rejected his clumsy overtures when she first came to town, he’d given her a hard time every chance he got. And he hadn’t let that or any rejection since stop him from looking her over like a piece of meat. She shuddered, thinking about it. Even if Hayes hadn’t been a cop, he would have made her skin crawl. His profession just strengthened her aversion.

Turning her attention back to Nick, she realized he was fading fast. His eyes were closed, his skin had taken on a grayish cast. At the rate EMT was going, he’d be lucky not to bleed to death.

"Somebody tied him up good,” Knight said, emerging from the kitchen with the second gunman in tow. "He claims he’s injured.”

"Put him in the patrol car until we can transport him to the jail,” Hayes said.

"Jail, my ass,” Sharkface said. "I got the right to go to the hospital. That bastard must’ve slammed my head into something. I think I got a concussion.”

"There was a skillet beside him,” Knight interjected, his gaze darting to Della.

"A skillet?” Hayes looked at Della and Nick. "Did one of you hit him with a skillet?”

"I did,” Della said.

"Bitch!” He lunged for her, but Knight jerked him back before he reached her.

"Sue me,” she said. She thought she heard Knight laugh but couldn’t be sure.

"Here’s EMT now,” the chief said at the sound of a siren. "They can decide if the suspect needs to go to the hospital. If he does, you’ll have to go with him, Kingston. Otherwise, take him in and book him.”

As they passed by Della, Knight smiled at her. He was always nice to her, even though she’d turned him down as surely as she had his boss. Maybe he thought if he was nice he still had a shot. Oh, get over yourself, Della. All he did was smile at you.

Knight leaned down and said something to Hayes that Della couldn’t hear. Hayes frowned, but got up. "I’ll want to talk to you again, Detective, so don’t be leaving the area.” To Della he added, "I’ll get to you in a minute,” before following Knight outside.

A few minutes later, Hayes returned, along with the EMT team. They loaded up Nick and headed out, leaving Della alone—completely alone, since Officer Knight had gone with the prisoner—in the bar with two dead men and Freedom’s Chief of Police. Not that she liked Knight much more than the chief, and she had reason to know that safety in numbers was a joke.

Her throat started to close up, and her heart began pounding in her chest. Hayes said nothing for some time, letting the silence breed and grow until Della wanted to scream at the tension. Sweat stained his uniform, and she caught a whiff of him, so strong the odor made her stomach churn with nausea. Or was it simple fear that had her stomach jumping through hoops?

She should have left with Nick, should have smeared blood on herself and claimed to be hurt. She couldn’t take this, couldn’t do it, couldn’t be questioned by a cop and not run screaming into the night. Not a cop in uniform, not like this. Not for Charlie, not for anyone.

Della rose and began to babble. "I’d better go. I, uh, I told Nick I’d meet him at the hospital,” she added, inspired. Oh, God, yes. Why hadn’t she thought of that sooner?

Hayes stared at her, his squinty eyes bright. "You know that guy? Thought he was a tourist?”

"N—no. He’s—” She twisted her hands together and bit her lips, too flipped out to care what Hayes thought of her behavior. "He’s an old friend. Look, I have to go see him.”

"He won’t be goin’ anywhere anytime soon. You know how hos­pitals are. Besides, it didn’t look like a life-threatening injury.” He glanced down at his notebook, then back to her. "Tell me what hap­pened here.”

Out of options, Della told him, including the fact the men had seemed to think Charlie was hiding something from them and they hadn’t made a move toward the cash register.

"So these two dudes just came in and started shooting?” He sounded skeptical.

"Not exactly. I told you, they were arguing with Charlie, and when he came up with his gun, the shooting started.” Her voice sounded shrill, even to her ears.

"Now I wonder what they were arguing about if it wasn’t cash?” Rubbing his chin with a beefy hand, he pinned her with a sharp-eyed gaze. "Could be something to do with a drug deal. Maybe they wanted their drugs, and your boss was hiding them. You wouldn’t happen to know anything about that, now would you, Miz Rose?”

Della clamped down tight on the nerves that were bouncing like Mexican jumping beans. Deep breath, she told herself. She was the injured one here, not the criminal. No two-bit police chief was going to pin a crime on her—especially one she hadn’t committed. Anger helped soothe her nerves. "Charlie wasn’t into that scene and you know it. Neither was anyone who worked here. He didn’t tolerate drugs, much less deal them.”

Hayes nodded, smirking a little. "So you say.” He glanced around, then jerked his head toward a table with a half-empty beer mug sitting on it. "Was there another witness?”

Pete. Ashamed, Della realized she’d totally forgotten about the old man. "Pete Tripper was here just before it happened. But he was gone by the time the shooting started.” She thought, but she wasn’t sure. "Maybe he went home.”

"Tripper,” Hayes said and snorted. "That old drunk can’t see two feet in front of him anyway. I don’t doubt he beat it before the action started. We’ll have to check it out, though. In the meantime, don’t leave the area. Not until after I’ve talked to you again.”

Hayes knew good and well that Della wouldn’t be going anywhere, not with her daughter in school and a house she owned free and clear in Freedom. She held her tongue though, unwilling to give him the satisfaction of knowing he’d gotten to her.

When he realized she wouldn’t respond, he turned his back and stepped toward the bar.

Della didn’t give him a chance to change his mind. She took one last look at the wood bar, knowing Charlie’s body lay behind it. And left.

FORTY MINUTES later, Della pulled into the lot at the hospital in Bay City[CE1]. She’d texted Mary Lou that she’d be very late, but hadn’t told her about Charlie. Her friend was used to Della’s hours, but tonight went beyond late. Mary Lou had moved in with Della and Allie shortly after Della returned to town, and she’d been taking care of Allie ever since. Della felt she had to tell Mary Lou about Charlie’s murder in person. She wasn’t about to put news like that in a text.

Charlie had befriended Mary Lou shortly before Della met him. In fact, Mary Lou had slept on his couch for a month. Then, when Della came to town, desperately in need of child care, and with Mary Lou needing a job and place to stay, Charlie put the two of them together. The arrangement had worked out great for both of them.

Tonight, Della had been so tempted to go home, curl up in bed, and try to forget the past few hours, forget the sight of Charlie’s lifeless eyes, forget Hayes’s interrogation. Her conscience wouldn’t let her. Nick Sheridan had saved her life, and the least she owed him was to see if he was all right and offer a ride from the hospital back to Free­dom. If they let him go home.

It wasn’t hard to find him, since she took the easy way and claimed to be his fiancée. The nurse gave her one of those looks that said, yeah, right, but she led Della to him. He’d fallen asleep on the gur­ney. Drug-induced, Della figured. People were shouting, screaming, and barking out orders, a voice came over the overhead speaker every other second, phones were ringing. Anybody who could sleep through that racket had to be drugged.

She dragged up a chair and prepared to wait. Since Nick was conked, and far and away the most interesting thing in the tiny cubicle, she took the opportunity to study him. He didn’t, as some men did, look boyish in sleep. No, he was definitely all grown up.

It was a gorgeous face. A shock of dark, wavy hair fell over his forehead. With a mouth designed to give a woman pleasure, a strong jaw, high cheekbones, and a no-nonsense nose, his was a face more often seen in a glossy magazine or on the screen than in real life. Not in her real life, anyway.

The floral-patterned hospital gown covered his chest, but judging from the breadth of his shoulders, she imagined it was one worth looking at bare. His arm was in a sling, but she could see the bandage peeking out from the sleeve above it, standing out starkly against his tanned skin.

Della had a feeling he didn’t get too many rejections from women. Not with those looks. She wondered if he’d pursued her out of irrita­tion that she wasn’t interested or if it had simply been boredom.

He mumbled something, turned his head toward her, and opened his eyes. They were blue enough to drown in. They stared at each other in silence before he broke it with a single word. "Shit.”

Della choked back a laugh. "Gee, thanks.”

"What the hell did they give me? It was just a flesh wound.” His words were slightly slurred, which strengthened her impression that he’d been given something for the pain.

She grinned. "You think I’m a hallucination?”

He started to sit up, swore, and sank back down when the move­ment jarred his arm. "You wouldn’t even have a drink with me. Why else would you be sitting here like some ministering angel?”

Della had never heard herself described quite like that. She kind of liked it, but his next words burst her bubble.

"Except you don’t look like any angel I ever heard of.” He mum­bled something that sounded like "sexy” and shut his eyes again.

She scowled. "I thought you’d need a ride home. The nurse said they weren’t keeping you.”

"I’ll call a cab.”

Perversely, his attitude irritated her. "Look, I said I’d give you a ride. What difference does it make to you?”

He opened his eyes and glared at her. "Who are you, Florence Flippin’ Nightingale?”

"Just call me Flo.” The more he balked, the more determined it made her to drive him home. She owed him, and by God, Della Rose paid her debts. Besides, she couldn’t imagine why he didn’t want to go with her, and it piqued her interest.

"Have you been discharged?”

"Would I still be here if I had? The doc patched me up and disap­peared. Guess they’re busy tonight.”

"I’ll see what I can do to speed things up,” she said and rose to find help. At the doorway, she hesitated and looked back at him. "Can I ask you something?”

"No.”

She ignored that and asked anyway. "Why did you do it? Why did you get between me and that bullet?”

Wearily, he scrubbed a hand over his face. "Reflex.”

"You did it without thinking about it.”

"Yeah. Look, sweet cheeks, I’m tired. Go away.”

Her fingers tightened on the doorjamb. She asked, even though she’d heard the answer earlier. "You’re a cop, aren’t you?”

For an instant, his eyes were bleak, hopeless as they gazed into hers. "I was.”

"And now?”

He didn’t speak for a long moment. "I don’t know,” he finally said. Then he closed his eyes, ending the conversation.

Great, she’d been right. He was a cop. And she owed him her life.

Bummer, she thought, and left to find the doctor.

NOTHING EVER happens in Freedom, Nick mimicked silently, shifting uncomfortably on the hard hospital gurney. He could hear his buddy assuring him that the little town south of Houston would be the per­fect place for what Nick had in mind. Drinking. Thinking. Fishing. If he was lucky, a warm, willing woman. And what had he gotten? In­volved in some kind of pseudo-robbery shoot-out, that’s what.

At first, he’d regretted leaving his weapons locked up at the apartment, but he didn’t like to carry when he’d been drinking too much. Maybe that had been a good thing, though. At least he hadn’t shot or killed one of them. That’s all he needed, another shooting in­vestigation. Especially since he was on a leave of absence from the Dallas PD.

Instead of a willing woman, he’d found Della Rose. A waitress with an attitude who had a grudge against cops. Too bad that lush, curvy body and husky drawl had been invading his dreams lately. Still, she was better than his other dream. Anything was better than his other dream.

His head swam as he sat up, and he cursed again. While he didn’t mind being minus the pain, he didn’t like the woozy feeling the drugs gave him. By the time he’d reached the hospital, his arm had been throbbing like a bitch. He thought he must have passed out when they started working on him, because he was real hazy on the details. That must have been when they loaded him up with painkillers. He’d been too light-headed to refuse.

He stood, then had to clutch at the bed to keep from falling over. His legs felt like gelatin, his head spun like a top. "What the hell did they give me?” he asked aloud.

"Hydrocodone,” the doctor said, entering the room with Della hot on his heels. "The EMTs gave you a little Fentanyl before that.”

"Yeah, well, I didn’t ask for it. I don’t like drugs.”

The doctor took a look at his chart. "You said you weren’t allergic and you were in a lot of pain.” The doc glanced at him with a half-smile. "I’d say you still are.”

"Yeah, yeah, whatever,” Nick interrupted, keeping his uninjured hand on the bed to steady himself. "It’s done now. Just find my shirt and let me out of here.”

It wasn’t the first time he’d landed in emergency with some kind of trauma done to his body. He had the scars from a knife fight and another shoot-out to remind him why he hated hospitals.

The doc gave him an instruction sheet, a few pain pills to tide him over until he could get the prescription filled, the remnants of his bloody T-shirt, and a bunch of advice. "Yeah, I know the drill,” he in­terrupted, having heard it all before. "You can leave. And take little Miss Do-Gooder with you.”

"I thought she was your fiancée?” the doctor said. They both turned to look at Della, who’d entered the room behind the doc.

"Must be the drugs,” Della said blandly. "He doesn’t know what he’s saying.”

The doctor shrugged and left them to it.

Nick glared at Della. "My fiancée? You wouldn’t even have a drink with me and suddenly you’re claiming to be engaged to me? What gives?”

She didn’t look the least bit uncomfortable. "They wouldn’t have let me in to see you if I hadn’t told them that. Here.” She held out a scrub shirt. "Your shirt was ruined. Unless you want to wear that gown out of here, put this on and let’s go.”

"No way.”

"Why not?”

"No buttons. I’m not trying to wrestle my way into that thing.”

She dug in a huge shoulder bag full of God only knew what and pulled out a small pair of scissors. She slit the shirt from collar to hem and handed it to him again. "Here. I’d like to get home sometime in this century.” She turned away and paced to the door, waiting with her back toward him.

He tilted his head and considered her as he slipped his good arm into the sleeve and arranged the other over the sling. "If we’re en­gaged, that means we’re sleeping together.”

She shot him a dirty look over her shoulder. "Not necessarily. Be­sides, it was a lie.”

"I’d never marry someone I hadn’t slept with.” Not that he ever planned on getting married.

"Try to keep your mind out of the bedroom for ten seconds, Romeo. You need a ride and I can give it to you. Why are you making such a big deal about it?”

Because he was the one who did the caretaking, not the other way around. Because he didn’t need some bleeding-heart female fussing over him. Because, damn it, he just wanted to be left alone. "I don’t need a woman at my bedside. Now, if you want to talk about being in my bed...” he let his voice trail off expectantly.

"Sorry.” She shoved her hair out of her face and smiled. "Macho cops aren’t my thing. Let’s go.”

He was tired. So tired. She wanted to play taxi, why not let her? A few minutes later, he followed Della out of the hospital. Her hips swung in a decisive rhythm that had nothing to do with seduction. He found it sexy as sin anyway. She was a contradiction, and the cop in him liked trying to figure her out. For instance, she had the kind of body that was made for love, and yet everything about her, from body language to spoken language, shouted hands-off.

Remembering the crack she’d made earlier about hating cops, he wondered how she’d tagged him, so perfectly and so quickly. "How did you know I was a cop? You knew before I told the Chief, didn’t you?”

She shrugged, without turning around. "If it quacks...”

And how would you know that? "Seen a little trouble with the law, Della?”

"None of your business,” she said, halting in front of—

He blinked and stared at the thing in front of him. How much pain med had they given him? "What is that?”

"It’s a car. What does it look like?”

"A piece of crap,” he said truthfully. Rust spots so big you could drive a tank through them, the rear windshield cracked, another win­dow opened, he suspected permanently, vinyl seats faded, cracked, torn, held together with duct tape. The only thing lacking was a bunch of trash piled in the back seat, but she obviously kept it cleaned out.

"Yeah, well, right now it’s your chariot, macho man. Get in. No, not there,” she said when he tried to open the passenger side door.

He realized the door was wired shut. He walked around to her side and attempted a grin. "Are you sure it will make it back to Free­dom?”

Deadpan, she answered. "No, but beggars can’t be choosers.”

"I don’t recall asking for a ride, much less begging.”

"A technicality,” she said, sliding in beside him and cranking the engine.

To his amazement, the car started. Before long, they were tooling down the highway at what he estimated was a roaring forty mph. The dash lights didn’t work, and he couldn’t read the speedometer. He wondered how it passed inspection. Probably has a hole in the muffler, too, he thought, hearing the blaring roar and occasional backfires. Oddly enough, he found the noise soothing. He closed his eyes, leaned his head back, and the next thing he knew, she was poking him in the side to wake him.

"We’re almost there. Where are you staying?”

Husky, inviting, he heard the feminine voice as he swam back to consciousness. Then the pain rolled through him and he remembered.

She lifted an eyebrow when he gave her the address. "Ritzy digs for a cop.”

He might have been flying on painkillers, but he could still tell when he was being insulted. She thought he was on the take. Man, she sure had a poor opinion of cops. "Belongs to a buddy of mine.”

"Lucky you.”

Nick didn’t waste his breath arguing when she walked him to his door. By this time, he was so tired, all he wanted to do was crawl in bed and sleep for about fourteen hours.

"There’s just one thing,” she said, hesitating before she left. "If Chief Hayes talks to you again—”

"He will,” Nick interrupted. "Sometime tomorrow, I’m sure.”

"I told him—” she hesitated, bit her lip, turned away. "I told him we were old friends.”

"Why?”

"I just did. So could you go along with me on this?”

He couldn’t figure her out. Maybe tomorrow, when he was think­ing more clearly. "Okay. On one condition.”

"What?” she asked suspiciously.

He smiled and opened his door. "I’ll tell you tomorrow.”


[CE1]Earlier she said EMS comes from Bay City. A search shows Baytown and Bay City are both used throughout the book. Is this intentional?


 

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