Cops And ...Lovers?(2)

By: Linda Castillo

The realization that she was nervous sent a bitter laugh to her lips. She'd dealt with some of the toughest criminals on the street during her nine-year career with the Chicago Police Department. Yet here she was, reduced to a mass of frayed nerves over a job interview with the police chief of a town half the size of the beat she'd once walked.

But that was all over now, she reminded herself darkly. She was no longer a member of the Chicago Police Force. She was no longer the only woman who'd gone from beat cop to tactical officer to narcotics detective in the span of nine years.

The fact of the matter was that Erin was out of a job. The deputy position with the Logan Falls PD was the best prospect in sight, especially for a cop with a bum shoulder, a tarnished reputation and a duffel bag full of personal baggage. Small town or not, she'd damn well better make a good impression.

Her nerves snapped like lit dynamite fuses as she got out of the car and approached the august portals of the police station. Her purse slung over her good shoulder, she clutched her résumé in one hand, raised her chin and took two deep breaths. The ritual should have calmed her, but it didn't. The laugh hovered in her throat again, but she didn't give in to it. Six months ago, bursting through the door of a deserted warehouse with an armed suspect holed up inside hadn't scared her this much. Of course, back then she'd had that addiction to adrenaline and the knowledge that she was damn good at what she did to back her. Now, with her confidence shattered and her career down the proverbial drain, she figured she'd be lucky to get through this with her dignity intact.

Vowing not to let the past interfere now, Erin put on her cop's suit of armor and headed toward the door, praying the man on the other side wasn't particularly discerning.

* * *

Police Chief Nick Ryan brooded over the résumé. On paper, the career of ex-detective Erin McNeal left no room for disappointment. Two department commendations. The Blue Star Award. The Award of Valor. She'd come recommended by Commander Frank Rossi of the Chicago PD—a man Nick had called a friend since his academy days. A man to whom Nick owed a favor.

Erin was a good cop, Frank had assured him. Streetwise. Tough. A little too confident. A little too cocky. Well, up until the night she'd botched a sting operation—and her partner paid the price. Frank had been forced to take her off the street. She had ended up resigning in disgrace.

Hell of a note that the situation had ended up in Nick's lap. He needed a damaged cop working for him about as much as he needed a tornado ripping through his town. Why didn't Frank just ask him to jump off the bridge down at Logan Creek?

Nick had been looking for a deputy for nearly a month. Tarnished reputation or not, Erin McNeal fit the bill. The fact that she was Frank's niece pretty much sealed the deal. Damn Frank for calling in the chips now.

Nick stared at her résumé, troubled and more than a little annoyed by the situation. He knew better than to get involved in this woman's plight. He didn't care about Erin McNeal or her problems. He didn't care that she'd once been a good cop. McNeal had committed the ultimate cop's sin: she'd frozen up at a crucial moment. In Nick's book, a cop who couldn't back up her partner didn't deserve to be a cop.

But Nick owed Frank. Frank had been there for him after Rita. He'd been Nick's best man when he'd married her. Twelve years later, Frank had been a pallbearer at her funeral.

Blowing out a sigh, Nick leaned back in his chair and raked his fingers through his hair. He didn't want to deal with this. He didn't want to take a chance on a damaged cop, even if Logan Falls was a small town where the crime consisted of petty theft and the occasional domestic dispute. But he'd promised Frank he'd keep an eye on her. Keep her out of trouble. Give her a chance to get back on her feet. Nick figured he'd probably live to regret it. But then, he was good at living with regrets. What was one more heaped atop a pile that was already sky-high?

"Heck of a résumé." Hector Price, Nick's only other full-time deputy, whistled. "Best one we've seen, Chief. This guy has credentials out the bazoomba. Six years on patrol. Two on the tactical team. A year in narcotics."

"McNeal is a woman," Nick said irritably.

Hector looked dumbstruck. "Shoot, Chief, she's good. A black belt in karate. Holy cow, her marksmanship is better than yours. She's good." Catching Nick's dark look, Hector added, "I mean, for a woman."

Good by a man's standards, too, Nick thought sourly. Too good, in fact. He wondered what she had to prove, who she needed to prove it to. He wondered if all those skills had anything to do with guilt.

He'd known her partner, Danny Perrine, from his days in Chicago. He'd heard the rumors about the shooting. The night Erin McNeal forgot about her marksmanship, her black belt in karate and everything else she'd learned at the academy. Danny had paid a steep price because of her.

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