Detective Raylan Hunter set his coffee mug on his cluttered desk and plopped into his squeaky chair. Kelly Thompson, the only other person in the office, focused on her computer screen.
He released a heavy exhale, leaned back, and welcomed this moment of semisolitude. He needed to unwind after spending several hours in court. His emotions had been in tatters following the horrendous argument with his daughter this morning, and he was thankful for the distraction of his job.
He rocked forward, picked up his mug, and took a cautionary sip. As a professional, he'd learned to turn off his personal life when duty called. His job as a detective gave him a sense of accomplishment, which went a long way in salving his less than stellar fathering skills.
His wife hadn't cared much for his career choice, which he regretted. But Stacey had been gone for a while now, leaving him to raise their only child alone.
"Raylan," Kelly interrupted his rumination, "your daughter's on line two."
His stomach lurched. Speak of the devil. He glanced down at his watch. She'd be home from school. Wonder if she's still pissed at me. Their relationship was more strained now that she'd turned sixteen and had gained a measure of independence along with that dreaded driver's license.
"Thanks, Kelly." He drew a deep breath, braced himself for the worst, and picked up the receiver. "Ashley."
"Hi, Dad." Ashley spoke with a tone of civility, if not downright cheerfulness.
If she could pretend everything was normal, so could he. "Hello sweetheart, what's up?"
"Um, can I go to the mall with Courtney?"
Raylan gave a hard blink, ground his molars, and leaned back in his chair. No mention of their argument or the trouble she'd gotten into at school.
His shoulder muscles tightened. He glanced at Kelly, who peeked at him beneath lowered lashes. Tension snaked across his neck, and he rubbed at the knot. "Aren't you supposed to be grounded?"
Kelly's lips twitched in a knowing smile, and his heart tripped. It had been a long time since his body reacted to sharing a moment with a beautiful female. He enjoyed the sensation.
Tamping awakened lust, his attention returned to his daughter.
"Dad-dy," Ashley whined, "haven't I been good all day?" Not giving him a chance to answer, she barreled ahead. "Her mom's meeting us. We'll be with her the whole time. Courtney needs to buy a dress for her uncle's wedding."
Dubious, his gut twisted. "You cheated on your math test. I don't believe one day is an adequate penalty." He combed his fingers through his hair. "Besides, you know how disrespectful you were this morning."
Her temper crackled over the phone line. "Oh! You are so mean." She couldn't stop there, inflicting another blow to his solar plexus. "I hate you!"
In his opinion, such hysterics were unwarranted. But what did he know? He groaned inaudibly. "Now you're grounded for an additional three days. Before you say another word, I suggest you lose the attitude unless you enjoy staying home."
He hadn't been prepared to handle a teenage girl by himself. Too bad they don't come with a manual was his favorite mantra of late.
"You don't understand. I wish Mom were here. She wouldn't be so mean..." Her voice broke and she began to weep, frustration coming through.
Oh, God, not those heart-wrenching tears. He couldn't take the waterworks. "Ashley, please calm down." Now he whined. "I'm not trying to hurt you. Believe it or not, I'm on your side. But there has to be a consequence for cheating." He took a deep breath. "My job is to teach you right from wrong. One day you'll understand." Raylan swallowed past the lump in his throat. "I'm sorry your mom isn't here for you to talk to." He heard agony reflected in his tone, revealing his own frustration. "You can't imagine how much I wish she were."
The crying escalated. He wanted to weep too. "Ashley?"
"What?" Her response was snappish over a loud sniffle.
"Maybe we can talk about a way for you to earn back some of your time. Does that sound reasonable?"
You're a sucker. She's got you wrapped around her little finger, said the annoying voice in his head.
Like turning off a spigot, her crying jag ended. "Are you serious?"
Aware the tears had been a manipulation tactic didn't lessen their impact on his heart. He couldn't stand to see his daughter unhappy. She'd suffered more than her share of emotional distress.
"Yes, sweetheart. You need to prove to me you've learned your lesson, though. I can't get any more phone calls from school informing me my daughter's a cheat."
"Okay." She hiccupped. "Will I earn points by doing a load of laundry and cooking supper?"
Raylan chuckled. "Maybe. But finish your homework first. I'll help you with your math if you need me to. We'll have a nice, long talk over dinner."
She groaned. "Oh, do we have to?"
"We do if you want to leave the house before you're thirty."
"Don't 'oh, Dad' me. You're turning my hair gray," he teased.
After a moment of silence, Ashley spoke. "Dad?"
"I--I don't really hate you." Her voice broke with remorse.
His heart tumbled. "I know you don't," he replied, his voice husky. "We'll talk tonight."
She groaned. "Okay. Bye, Dad."
They hung up and he let out a frustrated sigh. Stacey, bless her soul, had taken care of disciplinary matters. Of course, Ashley hadn't been a teenager then. It had been five years since he'd lost Stacey to cancer. He blinked back the familiar sting. Some days proved more difficult than others.
He shook his head and rubbed a hand over his face. What a job, raising a daughter. One of his greatest fears was Ashley suffering permanent damage due to his ineptness as a single parent.
He glanced at Kelly. She was bowed over a stack of papers next to her keyboard. Long, silky blond hair flowed down the front, concealing part of her face. She sat with one leg bent and pulled up in her chair, her stocking-clad foot tucked beneath her knee. Her rucked up baby-blue skirt showed a firm thigh. He swallowed as his tongue swelled and his pulse accelerated.
Her desk sat kitty-corner to his, giving him the perfect view of her perch behind the computer arm of her workstation. Only a few rolls of his chair would take him next to her.
She must have sensed his perusal because she lifted her head and gifted him with another one of those killer smiles. Two cute dimples decorated her cheeks at either side of her mouth. Her peaches-and-cream complexion reminded him of a porcelain doll.
"Problems?" She turned to face him, pushing one side of her hair behind a delicate diamond-studded ear. It seemed to be a nervous quirk of hers.
Raylan, his partner Adam Sinclair, and Frank D'Angelo, the state attorney, were all large men, compared to Kelly's small frame. She was a kitten in a den full of tigers. Though he had a strong inkling she wouldn't have any trouble holding her own.
He rubbed the back of his neck. "Yeah, my daughter's sixteen going on twenty and more than a handful."
Kelly chuckled. "I have a six-year-old son." She rolled her eyes. "Believe me, I can relate." Her love for the boy shone in her eyes.
"Our situation is exacerbated by the absence of her mother." He frowned and leaned back in his chair, gripping the arms on either side of his hips. At Kelly's curious glance, he expanded. "She died. Life's been difficult for us since losing Stacey."
Sympathy reflected in her expression. "Oh, I'm so sorry. How tough that must be for both of you."
Raylan stood, his body cooled by the sudden change in subject. "Yeah, but she's in a better place. She suffered for three long years. Death came as a blessing, at least for Stacey."
Kelly gave an uncomfortable nod. "How long ago did she pass away?"
"Five years. Seems like yesterday." He clipped his phone on his belt, adjusted the holster on his hip, and donned his jacket. "I'm meeting Adam. We're going to interview Glenda Fontaine's daughter, get some background on our black widow."
Kelly nodded. "Okay."
"Will you be all right working in here by yourself?" They'd just moved into a vacant office space across the street from the Justice Center. He, Kelly, and Adam shared the small unit, working together with D'Angelo or one of his assistant prosecutors.
"Yeah, I don't mind working alone." She grinned. "In fact, I'll enjoy the peace and quiet. I've got to match up these telephone records. It'll go a lot easier without distractions."
"Are you trying to insinuate we're a disruptive bunch?" He gave her a teasing grin.
She blushed. "No, but you're--" She paused, seeming to search for the appropriate description. "Animated, I guess is the right word."
He chuckled. "I get your point. You're a little sprite." He shook his head. "Don't let us bother you. I believe you'll have no problem handling this crew."
Her face glowed rosy. "You think so?"
Laughing outright, he said, "Oh, yeah, I have an inkling we'd be wise not to let your small package fool us into thinking you're a pushover." He stepped toward the door.
"I'm locking this. I don't want anyone off the street to walk in on you." He shoved the glass door open and turned the inside lock. "Will you keep it locked when you're in here by yourself?"
Vagrants often approached people for drug and alcohol money. The Salvation Army stood close by to provide food and shelter to those in need, but he didn't want Kelly put in a precarious situation while she worked alone in this isolated office. There hadn't been any space at the big building for them to set up this small task force, so they'd had to move in here.
Kelly nodded. "Yeah, I'll keep the door locked. Thank you, Raylan."
"No problem." He tapped the pouch on his waist. "I've got my cell if you need me."
She nodded. "I'll see you tomorrow if you're not back by five."
He winked. "Sounds good. Have a nice evening."
She blushed again. His body reheated and his cock stirred. Somehow Raylan knew he and Adam were in trouble. This little darling aroused feelings he'd assumed were long buried.
He slipped out the door and sauntered down the sidewalk, wondering if she inspired the same reaction in Adam she did in him. He wasn't certain why the thought disturbed him.
The girl was probably happily married. She'd said she had a son. Besides, don't be a pervert. She's way too young for you. He'd be wise to get his head, including the one in his pants, off Kelly's delicious package.
Oh, my goodness.
Kelly picked up a manila folder and fanned her face. When Raylan winked at her, a bolt of electricity shot straight to her pussy. She pressed her legs together against the lingering sensation.
He'd gotten close enough she could have reached out and touched him. The heat had emanated off his powerful body.
Whew... Talk about distractions. How's a girl supposed to work in this environment?
She'd thought D'Angelo a force to be reckoned with. Damn, he had nothing on Detective Raylan Hunter. Adam was pretty hot too. All three of these men could steal a woman's breath. They each packed a wallop with their dark good looks, but none did it for her like Raylan.
Well over six feet tall, built solid without being too muscular, he walked with a confident swagger. His skin was tanned and smooth, with just a touch of stubble by the end of the day. Beneath his left eye, a tiny freckle sat high on his cheek. She licked her lips, having the strongest urge to kiss the sexy little dot.
His dark hair gleamed like polished mahogany. The man had the sexiest copper-colored eyes ever gifted to mankind. His big, strong, sexy hands made her wonder what they'd feel like caressing her body. It gave her a hot flash, and she was only twenty-nine. She fanned herself again.
Of course, she didn't have a lot to base this rampant attraction on. She'd only met him three weeks ago. But he called his daughter sweetheart and appeared to be serious in his role as a father, unlike her deadbeat ex-husband.
Raylan smiled on a regular basis, and teased, and winked. That wink did funny things to her insides. Nothing turned her on more than a man's wink, especially when paired with a teasing grin. A hint of Southern drawl laced through the sexiest voice she'd ever heard made her think the naughtiest things.
Kelly imagined that voice lowering to a seductive whisper as he nuzzled her ear and murmured sexually explicit words while they made love. Ahhh. She shivered and fought the fog of arousal brought on by her overactive imagination.
She inhaled his lingering scent of clean masculine soap and warm-blooded heat. Her nipples tingled, womb clenched, and her eyelids grew heavy.
Brrrnnnggg! The phone blared loud in the quiet room.
Kelly jumped a foot off her chair, so caught up was she in her salacious thoughts.
Damn, girl, you've got it bad. Get a grip!
Something told her she had her work cut out for her. At least she didn't have to worry about being bored in her new job. She picked up the phone and got back to business.