Cops And ...Lovers?(9)

By: Linda Castillo


"Morning," he said.

"Morning." She entered his office.

"You're early. It's barely eight."

"I like to get an early start."

Even as an inner voice warned him against it, Nick found his eyes seeking out the silk blouse beneath her jacket. Before he could look away, the outline of lace and curves he had absolutely no business noticing scattered his concentration.

Silently cursing himself, he motioned to the chair opposite his desk. "Have a seat."

"Thanks."

Her eyes seemed darker today. They were the color of a rain forest, filled with shadows and secrets as mysterious as the forest itself. Taking the chair he'd indicated, she crossed her legs.

When her jacket parted, he looked down at his paperwork. "Did you find an apartment?"

"Actually, I took the one you recommended."

"Good. I think you'll find Mr. Barton is a fair landlord." Nick wasn't sure why he felt so off-kilter. In the ten years he'd been chief of police, he'd never felt awkward with his deputies. What was it about Erin McNeal that had him acting like a tongue-tied juvenile?

Disgusted by his behavior, he rose and walked to the metal file cabinet behind his desk, where her uniforms, service revolver and badge lay in a neat pile. He scooped it up and set it on the desk between them.

"You and I are riding together today," he said. "We'll be together until your probationary period is up in thirty days. I'll show you around town. Point out the trouble spots, the city limits, the landmarks. Clyde Blankenship's horses got out this morning. We'll drive by and make sure he fixed the fence. He's over ninety years old and doesn't always do a good job."

"Horses?"

Nick frowned at her, wondering if the lady hotshot cop from Chicago considered herself above such menial law enforcement tasks. "School started last week. Hector drew crosswalk duty. We'll drive by and see how he's doing."

Erin nodded.

"There's a locker room next to the water cooler," he said. "You can change there. Locker number five."

"It'll just take me a minute to change clothes."

The image of her slipping out of that skirt came to mind unbidden, but he ruthlessly shoved it away. "Assignments and shifts are posted weekly on the board above the time clock."

Rising, she gathered her uniforms, revolver and badge from his desk. "How many other deputies work for you?" she asked.

"Hector and two part-timers." Nick caught a whiff of her sweet, exotic scent—and nearly lost his train of thought. This was becoming downright annoying.

He studied her, trying not to notice the softness of her mouth or the delicate slant of her jaw. "Any questions?" he asked, rising.

"I'll just get dressed."

Rounding his desk, he started toward the main office, starkly aware that she was behind him. "Locker room's there." He motioned toward the hall leading to the rear of the building.

"I'll be five minutes."

"Take your time."

* * *

Erin's hands shook as she stepped into her uniform slacks and tucked in her shirt. Her service revolver lay on the bench beside her, reminding her that after six months and four interviews she was once again a police officer. She should have been ecstatic now that she was finally getting her life back on track. But the reality of what she faced was as disconcerting as it was thrilling. The responsibility of it pressed down on her like a lead weight. As she slipped the revolver into her holster, she tried not to think about whether she'd have the guts to use it.

Erin refused to second-guess herself. Not when she'd already passed the point of no return.

Smoothing her shirt, she picked up her extra uniform and started for the door, all too aware that her heart was pounding. "You can do this," she murmured, determined not to let the uncertainty rattle her.

The sound of a child's voice coming from the outer office broke into her thoughts. Curious, she continued down the hall and stopped on entering the main office. A little girl with hair the color of a wheat field sat at Hector's desk, tugging a coloring book from her backpack. She looked to be only eight or nine years old, but possessed the most adult eyes Erin had ever seen on a child.

Nick had come out of his office and was walking toward the girl. "Why aren't you in school, honeybunch?" he asked.

The child shrugged. "I wanted to ride with you today."

"It's a schoolday."

"I don't want to go to school today."

Stooping, he pressed a kiss to her forehead, then stood back and regarded her with an expression of stern amusement. "I thought you liked school this year. Isn't today library day?"

"Mrs. McClellan doesn't like me."

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