Detective Mike Denton turned down the road to 113 Madison Drive with a feeling in his gut that warned him his life was about to change. It wasn't anything he could put his finger on; he just knew. And he hadn't made up his mind yet if it was a good feeling or not. He drove down the quiet street slowly, pulling to the curb when he spotted the house. It was a newer home with a double car garage revealing a small silver sports car inside, the name of which eluded him. A for sale sign with the bold letters SOLD written across it was standing on the immaculate front lawn.
He contemplated waiting in his squad car for the paramedics to arrive, knowing what was probably waiting for him inside. For the first time he was sorry he'd put in for the overtime; he was a homicide detective. But these days the department was running short of officers and until the new man hired the week before was up to speed, volunteers had been called on to take extra shifts. If he hadn't just returned from a two-week vacation with Melissa he probably would have passed. But let no one in the department throw it in his face later that he wasn't a team player when the need arose.
The feeling in his stomach intensified and Mike began to wonder if maybe it was the result of the high cholesterol breakfast he'd gobbled down an hour before. Somehow he doubted that was the case; he'd eaten the same breakfast many times without any complications. Taking a deep breath, he decided he'd better go inside. From where he sat he could see the front door was already open.
He slipped out from behind the wheel and strode unhurriedly to the screen door. Just as he was about to ring the doorbell a noise from inside made him hesitate. He listened, trying to determine what it could be. Was the TV on? Maybe it was the radio. He couldn't tell. He punched the doorbell and called out at the same time, "Hello, anyone there?"
Someone should be home. The call had come from somebody inside the house less than half an hour ago. However, Mike's vast experience over the years prepared him for anything. It wasn't uncommon for someone to phone in a death and then leave the scene for whatever reason, especially if it involved a loved one. There were no set rules to what kind of reactions to expect.
There was no response. Next time he rapped his knuckles against the metal doorframe, which somehow seemed louder than the doorbell. "Hello!" he hollered, testing the doorknob and finding it unlocked. "Is anyone home?" Against his better judgment he opened the screen door. Walking cautiously inside, he let his eyes scan the area as he made his way through the front foyer. Self-preservation and too many times of walking in on a bad situation prompted him to keep his hand on the butt of his revolver.
As he stepped through the large archway that led to the living room, his eyes were automatically drawn to the woman standing quietly by the sliding glass door. Her arms were folded and it was obvious she was deep in thought and staring at something outside, which explained why she hadn't heard him calling out. He moved further into the room, hoping he wouldn't frighten her. She was small, not more than five feet five, dressed in what he assumed were satin pajamas. His lips twitched with humor when he realized they were decorated with little yellow smiley faces.
Her russet hair was tumbling in disarray about her slender shoulders. From what Mike could see, her complexion was like a sun-ripened peach, smooth and healthy, almost glowing in the early-morning light shining through the glass. It was hard to tell from her profile but he gauged her age to be somewhere around thirty.
And thirty had never looked so good! She was a sexy little package he'd like to unwrap!
"Ma'am?" he called out softly. His gaze automatically searched the room for the body.
He could finally hear the sirens in the distance, and he silently thanked god. The paramedics could take over once they arrived. Soothing distraught women wasn't one of his strong points. It made him uncomfortable as hell, especially when they expected a strong shoulder to cry on while being comforted. He didn't have that problem when he responded to a homicide. Usually no one stuck around to claim the body.
The woman jumped slightly and finally swung his way, her eyes rounding with surprise and mild fear before taking in his uniform.
He sensed her calm at once, watching her body relax back against the glass door as she reached up to wipe the glistening tear tracks lining her cheeks, while looking at him with eyes that reminded him of a wounded doe. Again he scanned the area for the body. Pretty or not, he had a job to do.
"I'm Mike Denton with the Stratton Police Department, ma'am. Where's the body?" His tone was all business.
She cleared her throat before responding in a velvet voice, husky with drained emotion, "Over there." She pointed. "I'm surprised they sent a police officer though..."
Mike only half-listened, intent on locating the body. He went in the direction she indicated, halting in stunned disbelief in the doorway. There was a body all right, on the floor of what appeared to be an office. The woman had attempted to cover it up with a throw of some kind. All he could do was stand there and stare at the long, brown legs sticking out from beneath it.
There were four of them.
"I don't believe this..." he mumbled beneath his breath. He bent to lift a corner of the blanket and frowned at what met his eyes. A Great Dane if he knew his dogs. Seeing no apparent wounds or trauma to the body, he had a gut feeling that the dog had probably died of natural causes.
This is why she'd called the police? He stood with growing irritation, trying to decipher how this could have happened. He had better things to do than waste time responding to calls about dead animals. When he rejoined her in the living room, what little anger that had surfaced quickly evaporated. There had to be a logical explanation and experience had taught him to get the story before jumping to conclusions. The look on her face told him she was devastated over the loss of her dog. She looked soft and vulnerable and in need of comfort. The sudden urge to take her into his arms came from nowhere, catching him by surprise.
Yeah Mike, like you're interested in comforting her. You just want her against you.
"Ma'am, you don't call 911 over the death of an animal." He tried to keep his voice kind. The sirens were closer now and Mike guessed he had about five minutes before they would be at the front door.
"I didn't," she rushed out, then quickly corrected herself, "I mean, technically I did but only because I didn't know who else to call. Cupid's Arrow..."
Mike frowned, almost afraid to ask. "Cupid's Arrow?"
"The dog," she explained. "I was taking care of him for a neighbor. When I woke this morning I found him like this. He was very old. I don't know how I'm going to tell the Rentschlers; this is going to kill them. They're very devoted to Cupid's Arrow; you see it's because of him they met in the first place. He's part of the fam--"
Her pouty lips were moving a hundred miles a minute and all Mike could think about was how much he'd like to chew on them for a moment. Taste what looked as sweet as sugar, and maybe further, the nectar inside.
He listened to her rambling for a moment and shook his head, trying to make sense of why he was wasting his time.
"You still dialed 911," he reminded her. He tried but failed to ignore the way her pajamas fit against her, outlining generous curves. Or how the early morning sun that was shining through the window brought out the highlights of red fire in her auburn hair.
"I explained I didn't know whom to call," she reminded him in return, smiling. "I told the 911 operator what the situation was. I thought she understood me."
Damn, she had dimples. In addition, those chocolate eyes of hers were moving over him in a way that made him think of melting ice cream on a hot summer day. Soft, smooth and creamy, making him uncomfortably warm. He doubted she was even aware of her appeal. He remained silent for a moment, trying to get his temperature back under control. Who was the dispatch operator that morning? It would be easy enough to trace. If her story didn't pan out he could always return later and give her a citation.
That would certainly give him an excuse to see her again. Maybe ask her out for a drink once the business at hand was settled. Not so fast, Mike old boy! He withdrew his pad and pen, and reminded himself he wasn't in the market for female companionship. Not the permanent kind anyway. The woman in front of him didn't look like she'd jump at a chance for a one-night stand.
"You're not going to give me a ticket, are you?" she gasped in a disbelieving tone.
Mike's gaze shot back up to hers, taking in the heightened color on her cheeks and the way she was gnawing on the inside of her lip. Damn, that bottom lip was sexy.
Why did everything about her affect him so strongly? Maybe his body was trying to tell him something. Like it was hungry for something other than work and food for a change. Something more pleasurable like a good fuck.
Aware she was waiting for a response, he said, "Not at this time, ma'am. I just want to jot down a few notes. But I'll be back if I find out you're not telling me the truth." Hearing the sudden commotion at the door, he realized the paramedics had arrived. "Excuse me for a moment."
It didn't take him long to explain the situation to them and by the time he returned to the living room the woman was gone. He swung around. A noise coming from the kitchen drew his attention. She was standing on the other side of the counter that separated the two rooms. She offered him a smile. "Would you like a cup of coffee, Mr. Denton?"
She might as well have asked him if he wanted to go to bed. The timbre of her smoky voice raked mercilessly over every one of Mike's dormant senses. It ignited a fire of need in his blood so fast that it shocked him. "It's..." He hesitated from saying detective since he was in a police uniform, and he wasn't in the mood for explanations. "No, thank you, ma'am."
When she ran her slender fingers through her wild hair, he literally caught his breath, his stomach clenching into a tight ball. What the hell is the matter with me? He made a mental note not to order the sausage at Smoky Joe's anymore, as he watched her move gracefully about the kitchen for a moment before getting back to the task at hand. After writing down a few more notes, he flipped the pad closed and slid it into his pocket.
"My name's Emma Stuart," she said unnecessarily, telling Mike what he already knew. "What about Cupid's Arrow?" He glanced up. "I can't move him by myself."
"I'll call Animal Control." He was surprised to find he was reluctant to leave. It was on the tip of his tongue to accept her earlier offer of coffee. It smelled a heck of a lot better than the black tar Smoky Joe's served up. Moreover, she was a hell of a lot more appealing than the missing front tooth, straggly hair waitress Joe had serving for him behind the counter.
"Thank you," she said with obvious relief. "I'm sorry for all the confusion." She sounded sincere.
"No problem," he found himself saying. "I'll be in touch if--"
Her radiant smile caught Mike off-guard again.
"If I haven't been telling you the truth."
Her smile was like the warmth of the sun on a cold winter day. The first breath of fresh air after emerging from a smoke filled bar. The water that quenched a dying man's thirst. For a long moment Mike was mesmerized; his eyes fastened on her soft mouth as if he'd never seen a smile before. He finally raised his gaze to hers once more, somersaulting headfirst into those dark mysterious pools. Swallowing with difficulty, he made up his mind then and there. He was going back to Smoky Joe's and demanding his money back!
No sooner had Officer Handsome left than the phone began to ring. The sound nearly drew a cry of fright from Emma. She reached for it, watching him with interest from her kitchen window as he sauntered to his cruiser in a sexy gait that made her mouth water. She wasn't in the market for a man, but she couldn't help admire his powerful physique. After all, she wasn't dead. Plus a man in uniform had always held a certain appeal.
Her eyes measured the way his broad shoulders filled out his navy police uniform before running down the straight line of his backside, finally settling on the stretch of material over his taut buttocks. Goodness, he had a nice body. I wonder if he's as hard as his muscles imply.
To her mortification he glanced back just as he was getting into his cruiser, to catch her ogling him! She quickly stepped back, but not before she saw the white of his crooked grin.
"Hello?" she said into the receiver while closing the blinds. And tried to ignore the sudden heat spreading through her body.
"Mom, it's me. Did someone pick up Cupid's Arrow yet?"
Emma smiled at the concern in Amanda's tone. "They're on their way." She decided not to tell her about the mix-up. They'd been talking on the phone earlier when Emma had switched to the portable so she could go in search of the too-quiet dog.
"Do you want me to come over?"
"Of course not." She smiled, wondering if Amanda knew how motherly she sounded all of a sudden. Emma could always tell when she had something on her mind. She'd been about to ask her a question earlier when finding Cupid's Arrow had cut their conversation short.
There was a significant pause before Amanda finally said, "So, what about what we were talking about earlier?"
What were we talking about? Several thoughts came to mind: the upcoming move, shopping, working out. She vaguely remembered Amanda mentioning something right about the time she'd discovered Cupid's Arrow. "You'll have to refresh my memory."
Amanda expelled a heavy sigh. "The policemen's picnic this Saturday? I asked you if you wanted to go this year."
Oh, that. Emma rolled her eyes because it wasn't the first time Amanda had asked her. In fact it seemed the topic came up every time they talked. It occurred to her that Amanda was paying way too much attention to her lack of social life lately, causing her to wonder if she had ulterior motives behind her invitation. It wouldn't be the first time she'd tried her matchmaking skills on her.
"Come on, Mom, you'll have a good time. You need to get out more; you're not an old maid," she pleaded, using a tone especially designed for getting her own way as it had many times in the past. "It's been two years," she reminded Emma, not needing to say more.
Emma knew Amanda was trying to be kind so didn't take offense at her aggressive tone or the wise crack about her age. They were sisters actually. Yet with the thirteen-year age difference and without their mother around while growing up, Amanda had started calling her "Mom" at an early age. And it had just stuck.
"I don't know." Emma wasn't completely convinced she wanted to be around a park full of men high on testosterone and attitude. She'd had enough of that to last a lifetime.
"I don't want to go alone."
"Troy will be there." He was Amanda's boyfriend. These days they hardly went anywhere without each other.
Misunderstanding her reluctance, Amanda offered, a little too eagerly, "Well, what if I hook you up with..."
Emma eyes grew round; she wasn't ready to be hooked up with anyone. Yet that didn't stop the vision of a sexy policeman's face from flashing before her eyes. Will he be there? Stratton was a small town yet they'd never run into each other before.
However, in the next instant she shook her head with disgust. "Forget it," she broke in, panic over the thought making her heart miss a beat. "If you're planning on playing matchmaker then I'm definitely not going." Leaning her hip against the kitchen counter, she looked at the various size boxes along the countertop. She still had a lot of work to do. "I'm not finished packing and the movers..."
"I was joking and you have plenty of time for that. I'll come over and help you. Will you go or not?"
Emma smiled at the impatience and persistence in Amanda's tone. These days she had to remind herself that her little sister was all grown up and living on her own. Well, when she wasn't staying at Troy's, which was more often than not lately. She didn't understand why they just didn't move in together and make it official.
"Give me the details." It wasn't as if Amanda was asking her to take a ride over Niagara Falls or something. Emma didn't have the heart to turn her down, or the energy to think up an excuse that would justify her not going. Besides, it was time she started getting out and doing things again.
"Great! You won't be sorry."
Emma's brows rose with mild concern at the enthusiasm in her tone. It was a little over the top. "Well I hope not; this is just a picnic, isn't it? Or did you miss my little comment about not setting me up?"
"That's not what I meant," Amanda rushed out. "You're so suspicious," she went on with an obvious smile in her tone. "The policemen's picnic is always a lot of fun. The whole town turns out for it. There's a ball game, and tons of good food..."
Emma's mouth turned down, thinking about her widening waistline. She wasn't fat, but lately she'd put on a few extra pounds. The mention of tons of good food wasn't exactly what she wanted to hear. Maybe if she worked doubly hard at the gym the next couple of days she could afford to indulge a little on the weekend.
In the end she found herself agreeing to meet Amanda on Saturday. At ten, at the park behind the police station. She thought about the last time she'd gone on a picnic. At least twelve years had passed. That is if joining Amanda at school for lunch one day and eating on the playground qualified as a picnic.
By the time Saturday arrived, Emma was almost looking forward to it. However, when it came time to dress, she found herself in a real dilemma. Her picnic attire options were practically nonexistent.
Amanda had often accused her of dressing older than her age. After standing in her walk-in closet for twenty minutes she was inclined to agree with her. She scanned the row of dresses and skirts. For the first time it occurred to her that she'd been dressing to please Richard all those years. How could she not have realized it before now? Memories flashed through her mind as early as when they'd been dating. He'd always preferred her to dress conservatively and feminine.
Thinking about her ex caused Emma to pause from what she was doing for a moment. Two years had gone by since their amicable divorce. She wondered how long it would take to wipe away the memory of being with the same man for ten years. At least thinking about him and his betrayal with another woman wasn't as painful anymore. She actually hoped he was happy finally, because she certainly hadn't been able to make him happy. They'd sold their restaurant business and most of their joint holdings, splitting everything right down the middle. Once the divorce was final Richard hadn't wasted any time in marrying his little waitress, who was twelve years his senior, and leaving town. The last she heard they were living in the sunshine state.
The house was the last asset between them and Emma had been allowed to live in it until it was sold. However, that all changed once she'd signed the papers two days ago. Now there was nothing left to prove they'd even been married. She hadn't kept so much as a single photo of just the two of them together.
She gave herself a little shake, annoyed for letting Richard monopolize her thoughts again. He was history. She was looking forward to moving into her new town house down at the lake.
She reached for an old pair of jeans at the back of the closet, wondering why she'd kept them. A long time had gone by since she'd had a reason to wear them. She'd only purchased them to go on a weekend camping trip with Amanda and her class one year. Ten years and at least ten pounds ago... Doubts surfaced that she'd be able to get into them as she yanked them off the hanger. By the time she managed to work them over her hips and zip them up, she was gasping as if just running a mile on the treadmill.
She stepped out of the closet, and faced the full-length mirror on the back of the bedroom door. Her mouth turned down at the picture she presented in skintight jeans and lacy bra. Maybe an oversized shirt would help complete the look she was going for. A quick glance at the clock on the dresser revealed it was nine thirty and she was running out of time. Well, who was she hoping to impress anyway? She quickly slipped the jeans back off and took a pair of scissors to them, cutting them off at mid-thigh before grabbing the ends of her shirt and tying them together at her waist. Sighing at her reflection, she slipped into a pair of sneakers, grabbed her purse and keys and headed for the door.
Amanda wasn't going to recognize her.