It was nearly eight o’clock before the massive front door of the colonial mansion opened and Shannon Reichert stepped onto the front porch. Halfway down the block, Valerie Parker snapped to attention, adjusting the side mirror of her van just enough that she could watch the woman sashay down the sidewalk toward her late-model Lexus. She wore her red hair upswept in a wild, cascading style, complemented by a skimpy scarlet dress that was so hot it practically set the shrubs on fire.
Red dress, red heels, red lips, red hair. Bingo. A man-hunting ensemble if Val had ever seen one.
If only Shannon’s husband could see her now.
Shannon got into her car and started it. As soon as she pulled away from the curb, Val waited a few moments, then made a U-turn with her van and followed at a discreet distance.
The Lexus made its way down Augusta Drive, a swirling ribbon of road that ran through the heart of posh Waverly Park. They passed one extravagant home after another, all testimonies to just how lavishly one could live if one could swallow the price tag that went along with that lifestyle.
Shannon turned left onto Russell Road and headed east. The Friday-night traffic in Tolosa, Texas, made surveillance in a moving vehicle a challenge, but the bumper beeper Val had slipped onto the Lexus, while not the world’s most accurate apparatus, would at least help her zero in on the direction the car was traveling if she happened to lose it along the way.
Every mile Shannon drove took her out of her home territory of exclusive shops and four-dollar cups of coffee and moved her closer to a neighborhood Val swore she would have avoided at all costs. White collars became blue, Porsches became pickups, and the ethnic mix became obvious because there actually was one.
To Val’s surprise, Shannon pulled into the parking lot of a bar called the Blue Onion, one of those working-class establishments with a red neon sign out front, a trashy alley out back, and a considerable amount of after-hours relaxation going on in between. Val had been there only once, tracking down a deadbeat dad who was known to spend his child-support money on alcohol and women. She knew people came to places like this for three reasons only: to play pool, get drunk, and get laid. By the way Shannon was advertising herself tonight, Val could only assume she was heavily focused on number three.
Yes, Shannon was definitely going slumming. But for what purpose? To meet a current boyfriend, or to find a new one? That remained to be seen. Val had bugged the Reicharts’ land line, but she hadn’t recorded a single call. That wasn’t surprising. What were the odds of Shannon using it to plan a rendezvous with a lover when she had a cell phone? Unfortunately, she literally slept with that cell phone, so Reichert had told Val that installing spyware on it would be impossible.
Val cruised along behind the Lexus, following its driver into God-knew-what situation. The games rich people played were positively amazing. Of course, Shannon was rich only by the grace of Jack Reichert, her fifty-eight-year-old husband. She had exactly the kind of hot body that would trip the trigger of a man who had enough money to buy just about anything he wanted except his youth back. Marrying a twenty-something woman was his way of reassuring himself and the rest of the world that his equipment was still intact and functioning, since the Porsche 911, the big-game hunting, and the hair-replacement surgery hadn’t done the trick. And for Shannon, marrying a rich older man was her way of reassuring herself that she’d always have plenty of what she wanted most in the world: money.
Then two days ago, Reichert coughed up some of that hard-earned wealth and instructed Val to find out what kinds of activities his young wife was engaging in whenever he was out of town on his frequent hunting trips. Reichert, like most men with gold-digging wives, felt he had a right to know if she was handing out to other men for free what he’d bought and paid for.
In her relatively short life, Val had discovered that people betrayed each other right and left, and she found it more than a little ironic that she’d ended up in a career that threw her right into the heart of the very thing she hated the most. But, at least most of the time, she had the satisfaction of ensuring that morally deficient people paid for what they did to those who trusted them. If there was dirt to be had, she never stopped digging until she came up with it. Tonight, as always, failure was not an option.
Shannon slid her Lexus into a parking space and stepped out. She turned on the charm as she headed for the bar, and by the time she reached the door, three men who had just arrived were fighting over who got to open it for her.
Val could either stay out there and wait for Shannon to emerge with the man of her dreams, or she could go inside and observe the process up close and personal. She opted for the latter. Even if Shannon didn’t stray from her wedding vows tonight, she still might exhibit the kind of bad behavior that would keep her husband shelling out more money to keep the case alive.
Val waited for a minute or two, then stepped out of her van. She was dressed in faded jeans and a T-shirt, wearing almost no makeup, with her long spirals of dark hair hanging loose around her shoulders. She’d blend right in with the crowd. Shannon, on the other hand, was clearly out to be noticed.
Once inside, Val spotted Shannon on a stool at the bar, so she moved across the room and found a secluded table along the wall beneath a neon Budweiser sign. People were laughing too loudly, drinking too hard, and smoking as if the Surgeon General had never even addressed the subject. The twang of country music filled the air.
A waitress approached her, a tall, busty woman whose coarse blond hair showed an inch of dark roots.
“What can I get for you, sweetie?”
“A beer. Whatever you have on draft.”
“Coming right up.”
“Tell me something,” Val said. “That redhead over there. Does she come here often?”
The waitress turned toward the bar and eyed Shannon. “Nope. Never seen her before.”
Okay. Shannon was new around here. But Val still couldn’t say for sure why she’d chosen this particular place.
“Do you know her?” the waitress asked.
“No. But it’s hard to miss her, isn’t it?”
The waitress leaned in. “Just between you and me, I wish she’d pick some other place to strut her stuff.”
“Peacocks like that one always cause problems. The women customers hate them because the men won’t stop looking at them, and the waitresses hate them because the men get all hung up with the view and forget to tip.”
Val gave her a phony sigh. “I hear you. I’m meeting my boyfriend for a few beers. If he gets an eyeful of her, I might as well not even be here.”
The waitress shook her head sadly. “What is it with men, anyway? They can have good, quality women like ourselves, and instead they make fools of themselves over ones like that.” She huffed with disgust. “Morons.”
“Yeah,” Val agreed. “Morons.”
“I’ll get your beer so you can drink to that. And believe me, sweetie, if I wasn’t working, I’d be drinking to it right along with you.”
A moment later, the waitress brought Val her beer. Val left it untouched in front of her and settled back in her chair, waiting for Shannon to make a move.
An hour later, she was still waiting.
Shannon’s antennae seemed to be up and fully operational, but all she did was watch the crowd, turning away the countless men who tried to buy her a drink, sipping the one she’d bought for herself instead. She did glance toward the door occasionally, though, which led Val to believe that maybe she was supposed to meet somebody there and had gotten stood up. Then again, she didn’t look the least bit annoyed. If the average woman had waited an hour for a man who hadn’t bothered to show, she’d be in a major snit by now.
In the meantime, Val had been forced to fend off a few guys herself, ones who weren’t drunk enough yet to think they could approach a showstopper like Shannon. Fortunately, they’d been easily dissuaded by her “I’m waiting for my boyfriend” line.
A couple of times in the early days of her career, she’d tried “No, thank you, I’m a lesbian,” hoping to shut down any male hormone activity in the vicinity, only to discover that instead of discouraging men, it turned them on. The last time she’d said, “No, thank you, I have gonorrhea,” the guy got a big smile on his face and said, “So do I.” That had been it. She’d sworn off the smart-ass remarks forever.
Okay. So every profession had a few built-in hazards.
Actually, Val could put up with the negatives as long as enough positives flowed her way. Unfortunately, tonight it looked as if the positives were going to be few and far between. Evidently Shannon had painted on her red dress, teased her hair, slipped into stiletto heels, then planted herself on that bar stool because she needed a drink or two and enjoyed breathing secondhand smoke. It was the only explanation for her presence there, because it sure didn’t look as if she intended to cheat on her husband. Or maybe she was just an old-fashioned girl. One who didn’t cheat unless she found Mr. Right.
Since the waitress thought the guy Val was supposedly meeting hadn’t shown up yet, she reiterated her opinion that men were morons and offered her something even stronger than beer. Val bitched a little about her imaginary boyfriend to make things look good, but since she was still on the job, she declined the drink. She sighed with disgust, feeling absolutely certain that her surveillance tonight was going to be a complete bust.
Then Alex DeMarco walked through the door.
For a long, tense moment, Val sat frozen in her chair, staring in disbelief. Her heart kicked wildly, then settled into a hard, thudding rhythm.
Her reaction to him was swift and unrelenting, putting every one of her senses on alert. For several seconds she held her breath, feeling as if the world had suddenly jolted to a halt. It had been five years since she’d seen him, but he hadn’t changed one bit. He was still six feet three inches of rock-solid cop, who looked as if he could take on the entire criminal element of Tolosa, Texas, with both hands tied behind his back.
Tonight he was dressed down in jeans, boots, and a denim shirt. Tall and broad-shouldered, he was still in top-notch physical condition, radiating an aura of superiority that only a man with such a physically imposing presence could. And seeing him now made her feel as if the last five years had never happened.
She remembered the first day he’d walked into the police academy classroom and stood at the podium. Her visceral reaction to him then was just as she was having now—a breathless, heart-stopping feeling that he was a truly extraordinary man. And now, for just a few moments, she forgot everything that had happened between them and succumbed to that attraction one more time. No matter how much she resented the inner man, she’d admire the outer one until the day she died.
He stood by the door for a moment, scanning the bar with an intense, vigilant expression that said he could instantly become more dangerous than any situation he found himself in, a characteristic that made other men instinctively wary of him at the same time it made women swoon. When he moved through the crowd in the direction of the pool tables, women’s heads turned like dominoes falling. And Alex wasn’t one of those self-deprecating men who didn’t realize the impact he had on the opposite sex. He knew. With every move he made, every breath he took, he knew.
Once he glanced vaguely in her direction, and Val ducked her head. She waited until he turned away again, then reached into her purse, grabbed a barrette, and pulled her long, dark hair into a low ponytail. Then she pulled out a pair of amber-tinted glasses and put them on. She wasn’t taking any chances that he might recognize her. She wished she didn’t give a damn one way or the other, but she’d never been one to lie to herself. Alex DeMarco was the last person on earth she wanted to talk to.
When he reached the pool tables, one of the three men standing there lobbed him a cue. He said something to a waitress, who immediately handed him a beer, giving him a smile that said the special this week was a free waitress with every drink. Alex merely nodded his thanks for the beer and racked up the balls.
The men he was with actually smiled and even laughed once in a while, displaying none of the intensity Alex radiated with every heartbeat. Were they friends of his? Other cops? Val didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about him at all anymore, except that he was a totally uncompromising man with a code of behavior that was impossible for any mortal to live up to, and that she’d once been foolish enough to think she was desperately in love with him. He’d had more power over her than any man ever had—the power to shatter her dreams and break her heart all in one swoop.
He’d done both.
Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world …
No. She had to stop that. It was behind her now. Said and done. Ancient history. If she still couldn’t be in the same room with him after all this time without coming unglued, she had more problems than she’d ever be able to deal with.
Then Val realized a good five minutes had passed during which she’d failed to glance even once in Shannon’s direction. She turned and looked toward the bar, and she almost wished she hadn’t. Whatever ambivalence the woman had shown only minutes before had vanished. She’d turned on her stool and was gazing across the room toward the pool tables. She was quite a distance away, but still there was no question which man had finally gotten her attention. She sat up straighter, eyeing Alex with the tense, hyperaware look of a sleek, hungry leopard who’d spotted its prey and was preparing to attack.
Val had been on the right track. Apparently Shannon never cheated unless she found Mr. Right.
And Mr. Right had just walked through the door.
* * *
“Hey, DeMarco,” Botstein said. “Blaylock says he can pick up that redhead at the bar. I told him to put his money where his mouth is. You wanna get in on some of that action?”
No. What Alex wanted to do was play a few games of pool, have a couple of beers, then go home and forget this god-awful day had ever happened. But curiosity made him turn to check out the woman in question.
Blaylock didn’t stand a chance.
Blaylock was a nice guy, after all, and when it came to women like that, nice guys finished last. She sat at the bar wearing a nearly nonexistent dress, and the pose she struck—her body turned outward toward the crowd, her legs crossed provocatively, and her breasts thrust forward—indicated that she was looking for something more tonight than meaningful conversation with a member of the opposite sex.
A man-eater if he’d ever seen one.
He started to look away, then realized that she was looking back at him. She held his gaze for one second, two, then shifted casually on her stool to allow her skirt to inch farther up her thigh. She looked away for a moment, running her fingernail around the rim of her glass, then flicked her gaze back toward him again. This time she raised her chin a notch and tilted her head, indicating that she was looking for a response.
Subtle, but to the point. And Alex wasn’t the least bit interested.
Not that she didn’t make him think twice before discarding the idea. Women who dressed to thrill generally made sex a breathtaking experience without a lot of strings attached. When he was younger, that had worked for him. Often. But now that he was well past the thirty mark, he was more discerning about the women he kept company with. Quick rolls in the hay with predawn departures didn’t hold the same appeal for him as they once had, especially with women who had razor-sharp edges like that one.
He turned away from the woman and reached for the rack so he and Ford could get a game of pool under way.
“If I were you,” he told Blaylock, “I’d let that one go.”
“Are you kidding?” Botstein said. “She’s the hottest piece of ass ever to walk into this place!”
It usually didn’t take long for Botstein to grate on Alex’s nerves, but tonight he’d set the record.
Alex liked Ford and Blaylock just fine. Ford was a balding guy in his mid-forties, a steady cop who dug in deep to the job and wore it like a second skin. Blaylock was younger, in his late twenties, friendly and congenial, but he didn’t have a problem getting serious fast when the situation called for it. They were guys Alex could depend on, guys he’d trust with his life, guys who could shut up long enough to play a decent game of pool.
Botstein, on the other hand, never shut up. He’d finally retired a few years ago at the age of sixty-two, which was a real plus for the city of Tolosa, since he hadn’t done an honest day’s work in years. If only he’d do everybody one more favor and move to Florida, Alex would help him pack his bags. Instead he stuck like glue to the cop hangouts, telling stories about those glorious days when police officers got respect, as if he’d ever actually earned any himself.
“Don’t listen to him, kid,” Botstein told Blaylock. “No guts, no glory, right?”
“If you get tangled up with that one,” Alex said quietly, “you’ll get a whole lot more than you bargained for.”
“More than I bargained for?” Blaylock said with a smile. “Sounds good to me.”
The other men laughed along with Blaylock, but in the end he listened to Alex. He kept his money in his pocket, ordered another beer, and contented himself with admiring the woman from a distance.
Alex racked up the balls for a game of nine-ball. Ford won the lag for break, then fouled right off the bat by missing the one ball, proof positive that he’d already had a couple of beers too many.
Alex started his inning by quickly sinking three balls in a row. Playing Ford right now was like shooting fish in a barrel, but given how his day had gone, a little mindless entertainment was fine by him.
The morning had begun in fine fashion. He’d found out that the crime lab had lost a semen sample from a rape case he’d investigated. Just lost it, as if it were a set of car keys. All Alex had left now was a little he-said/she-said testimony that was never going to cut it, and one more rapist was going to walk.
Then around noon he’d learned that Richard Murdock, a murderer he’d arrested six years ago, had walked out of prison last week on parole. The guy had ended up with only a manslaughter conviction, and after six years of incarceration, the parole board had apparently decided that he was no longer a threat to society.
Yeah, okay. I killed somebody. But you can trust me. After all, I haven’t stabbed another inmate or taken a swing at a guard in over two years now.
Alex banked the four ball off the head rail. It smacked the side pocket so hard that it nearly bounced out again, but he felt the need to take out his frustration on something. Paroling a murderer for good behavior. Good God—what kind of logic was that?
Blaylock came up beside him. “Heard you had a little problem with a shooting down on Carver Street this afternoon.”
Alex frowned. That was the third thing that had happened to really make his day.
“Damn rookie didn’t secure the crime scene,” he said. “By the time I got there, a couple of reporters had stomped all over it. I handed the kid a roll of yellow tape and told him where the next one was going to go if he didn’t learn how to use it.”
Actually, he’d wanted to take the kid by the collar and kick his ass all the way down the street, but of course that wouldn’t have been professional.
“I suppose you’ve already written him up,” Ford said.
“First thing tomorrow.” Alex leveled his cue and sent the six ball into the corner pocket with a resounding clatter. An official reprimand. Now that was professional.
“Why don’t you give the kid a break?” Ford said. “We all had our screwups in the beginning.”
“DeMarco didn’t,” Botstein said, tossing a handful of peanuts into his mouth, then talking as he chewed. “From what I hear, he’s Superman. X-ray vision, flying, superhuman strength—the whole nine yards.”
“No kidding,” Ford said.
“It’s true,” Botstein said. “You guys notice that whenever we see Superman, DeMarco’s never around?”
Blaylock turned to Alex with a grin. “I think he’s got you there.”
That was just what he needed right about now—for Ford or Blaylock to start agreeing with Botstein. Alex just shook his head. Why the hell did he keep coming to this place? It was a bad habit he was going to have to try real hard to break.
A few minutes later, Alex sank the nine ball into a corner pocket, then informed Ford that he owed him ten bucks. Playing him was really no sport at all. Even when he was sober, he didn’t give a damn about the outcome, while Alex never played any game he didn’t intend to win. He collected his money, downed the rest of his beer, then decided he’d call it a night.
“It looks to me like you need some real competition.”
He turned at the sound of the female voice, only mildly surprised to find a certain redhead standing behind him. She was holding a pool cue, twirling it lightly between her fingers. Her red dress was even more spectacular up close, a glittery sheath with a zipper from her cleavage to her navel. And judging by the way her nipples protruded through the clingy fabric, she didn’t find undergarments to be the least bit necessary.
“I’m not looking for anything right now,” Alex said. “In fact, I was just leaving.”
“Actually, I lied,” she said. “I’m the one who’s looking for some real competition.” She pulled a hundred-dollar bill out of the side pocket of her purse and laid it on the edge of the table.
“And I think you’re just the man who can give it to me.”