Love Under Suspicion [MultiFormat]
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eBook by Sondra Quinn
eBook Category: Romance/Mystery/Crime
eBook Description: She Thinks He's Married, He Thinks She's a Crook... Freight pilot Abby Tarleton's life has suddenly become very complicated. Her black sheep stepbrother is camped on a couch in her living room, her phone rings constantly with wrong numbers from strangers demanding that she cut or increase their orders of who knows what, and to top it all off, she can't keep her eyes off her ruggedly handsome, and very married, next door neighbor and tenant, Sloane Jameson. Sloane is encountering a few complications of his own. An undercover narcotics agent, he and his partner Connie are on assignment, posing as a married couple. Their job is to find evidence that will link Abby to her ex-husband's drug ring. At first Sloane thinks the assignment will be a cinch, especially when he witnesses what he thinks is a huge pay off between Abby and a known drug dealer. What he doesn't bargain for is his own feelings for Abby. How can he possibly complete his investigation when he has fallen in love with the chief suspect?
eBook Publisher: Swimming Kangaroo Books, Published: 2006, 2006
Fictionwise Release Date: June 2007
15 Reader Ratings:
How have you been? Things are going pretty well here, in fact, there's a chance I may be out as early as next week. Early release for good behavior. Ha! Ha!
The grapevine has it that you've been keeping the family business alive and thriving. I'm looking forward to coming home and seeing what you've done. Also hear you've kept up with our old contacts and acquired some new ones. I knew I could count on you. Hope there will be a place for me in your new scheme of things.
Ever lovingly yours,
Sloane Jameson read the letter with barely a flicker of his cobalt blue eyes and slid it across the table to Connie. She picked it up with manicured fingertips and scanned the lines, her eyes snapping with lively interest. Then she handed the letter back to their supervisor.
"Well?" The supervisor invited comment.
"Suggestive, isn't it?" Sloane looked questioningly at Connie.
Connie pursed her lips, today painted a fire engine red. "I presume we've investigated her."
The supervisor tapped a folder at her elbow. "As you can see, her file is this thick. There's nothing we could really call evidence, but there's plenty of cause for suspicion."
Sloane pulled the folder over to himself and studied the cover photo. A fine-boned woman with reddish-blonde hair and sparkling green eyes smiled out at him, a wholesome-looking, girl-next-door type. The last person in the world you would expect to be involved with drugs. Sloane opened the folder and rifled through the sheath of papers inside. Then he shoved the folder back to his supervisor and cleared his throat. "Joe Tarleton is getting out?" There was a brittle component to his voice.
The supervisor looked pained. "Yes. Apparently he's been a model prisoner, and what with overcrowding..." She spread her arms wide in a gesture of helplessness. "That is why you two are here."
"Yes?" Connie leaned forward, her eyes narrowing with interest.
"This may be our chance to get to the man in charge."
"Of the entire drug ring?" Sloane's voice had an edge on it. "We know that the drug ring Tarleton worked for supplies drugs all over Texas and the southwest, but we've never been able to pick up anybody but some two-bit dealers. Joe has been our biggest catch to date, and we believe that once he is released, he will return to his involvement with the gang."
"So you want us to trail Joe Tarleton?" Connie asked slowly.
"Not exactly. We'll put someone else on that. We want you to carry out a surveillance on his wife."
"His wife?" Sloane's eyes returned to the photo of Abby Tarleton.
"Actually his ex-wife," the supervisor allowed. "She divorced him soon after the trial. But our reports from prison indicate that Tarleton is still in love with his wife and plans to return to her when he is released. When he does, I want you two to already be in place. Your mission will be two-fold. First, you are to get any information you can about the leaders of this drug ring. And second, if there's any proof that Abby Tarleton is involved, you are to get it so we can nail her. So far she's managed to elude us. I want that to end with you two." The supervisor issued Connie and Sloane a challenging look.
Sloane and Connie took a long look at each other and then nodded. "Understood," they said simultaneously.
Abby Tarleton hung up the phone, nibbling discontentedly on her lower lip. For a moment she stared sightlessly out the kitchen window. Perhaps she should have told Ned no, he couldn't come over. Not now, not ever again. She didn't want him around, didn't want the contact with his friends, the constant reminders of a time of her life that she would just as soon forget. Drumming her long fingertips on the butcher-block table, Abby sighed. Whether she liked it or not, Ned was family, even if he was just her stepbrother. Family helped family when they were in trouble. He had helped her out years before, after her husband's arrest for drug dealing.
Shaking her head, Abby reflected wryly, "Yeah, and I've been repaying that debt ever since." She glanced at her son's bedroom door. He was starting to stir, but she ought to have just enough time to give the other side of the duplex a final inspection before the new tenants arrived. She stood up slowly and slipped outside to go next door.
As she stepped out, she braced herself against the onslaught of the Texas heat that was always a shock after being in the air-conditioned indoors. Squinting her eyes against the afternoon sun, she glanced across the street and froze, a cold chill gripping her despite the ninety-eight-degree weather.
The old red Nova was still there, its driver obscured by a newspaper, the license plate muddied beyond readability. He had been parked there for the past three weeks, and off and on, Abby had the impression that he was peering at her over the top of his paper. Once he had even followed her to the airport, but had dropped the tail as soon as she had driven through the gates. Abby stared at him, trying to discern any recognizable features, but his face remained well hidden. She wondered if she should call the police, but with a sigh, decided against it. He hadn't actually done anything, and as far as she knew, there was no law against parking in a public street.
Puffing out her cheeks with an exhaled breath, she crossed the yard and entered the other side of the duplex. As she moved through the empty rooms, she critically examined every nook and cranny, opening doors and drawers and running her fingers over the moldings. She drew on the memory of the much dreaded military housing inspections her mother had gone through each of the many times her army father had changed stations. The military inspectors were notorious for nitpicking, yet Abby knew that this side of the duplex would have no trouble passing a military inspection.
The duplex was an empty duplicate of the half she lived in. She had bought it just before Adam was born, after her husband's arrest. Between the rent from the duplex and her tiny airfreight business, she was able to keep her head above water and the wolf from her door.
Abby ran her fingers through her reddish-blonde hair. Her blood still did a slow boil when she thought of how Joe had deceived her, although even after she had learned the truth, she had acted the part of a good little wife and stood by him. She'd hired the best lawyers, unflinchingly put up bail money, and sat tirelessly in court under the misguided belief that one didn't kick a man when he was down. Only after Joe had been convicted and sentenced to prison had she filed for divorce. She looked at it as coming to her senses, although she knew Joe and Ned saw it as abandonment.
Never one to do things halfway, once Abby had decided to put Joe out of her life, she did it completely. She sold their house and furniture and used the money to purchase the duplex. Except for a formal note when Adam had been born, she did not communicate with Joe, and refused to open or acknowledge any of his letters. She immersed herself in her son and her business, and at twenty-eight, felt satisfied with her life the way it was.
Now she looked critically at the empty duplex. Cream-colored walls surrounded the brown-carpeted floors in the living room, while the surprisingly large kitchen sported blue and white checkerboard tile on the floor and white Formica countertops.
Abby mentally reviewed the state of her finances. Hopefully when these tenants moved out, barring unforeseen catastrophes, she should have enough to repaint both sides of the duplex. At last. satisfied that everything was clean and ready for her new tenants, she went back to her side of the duplex. Airplane noises came from Adam's bedroom. She poked her head around the door, and he gave her a cheery smile that lifted her heart. He was the one good thing that had come from her ill-fated marriage
"Ready to get up, Adam?" Abby held out her hand.
Adam hopped out of his airplane bed that he had just received for his third birthday, replacing the battered old crib he'd slept in since birth. "Cookies?" he asked hopefully.
"Graham crackers. And juice," Abby said firmly. "Come on. Let's get you cleaned up before the new tenants arrive."
She had just finished tidying up after Adam's snack when the doorbell rang. Abby flung the dishtowel over a chair and grabbed Adam's sturdy hand. "Come on, Tiger. Let's go play landlord."
She opened the door, a ready smile on her face. "Hi," she said. "I'm Abby Tarleton." Her voice trailed off uncertainly. Standing before her, tall and straight like a towering spruce, was the sexiest man she'd seen in a long time. His black, unruly hair fell casually across his forehead, and the blue of his eyes was like a cold wave.
"I'm Sloane Jameson," he said with a deep timbered voice. "I believe you've met my wife, Connie." His flesh met Abby's in a warm clasp.
Abby hastily drew her hand away, shaken by her response to the brief contact. "Yes, of course." She turned to his wife, resolving not to look at him any more than was necessary. "Nice to see you again, Mrs. Jameson." Her voice stayed low and calm, giving no hint of her inner turmoil.
"Thank you. My husband and I are eager to get moved in as quickly as possible." There was just a tinge of frost in Connie Jameson's voice, which wasn't surprising, Abby told herself, since her new landlady was busy making eyes at her husband.
Abby dug into her pocket and pulled out a key ring. With an unfamiliar spurt of self-consciousness, she found herself wishing she'd dressed up a little. Suddenly her faded cut-offs and tattered tank shirt seemed woefully shabby next to Connie Jameson's perfectly coifed look. Even in the stifling heat, Connie seemed cool and crisp in a business-like suit, stockings, heels, and beauty parlor hair. Abby reflected ruefully that this woman certainly didn't need to worry about competition from her landlady. Her banker's veneer outclassed Abby in every way. Lifting her chin somewhat defensively, Abby said, "Let me just take you over and make sure everything's okay."
Gripping Adam's hand tightly, she walked with fluid strides to the other side of the duplex and unlocked the door. Sloane pressed past her and stood in the doorway, his broad shoulders filling it completely for an instant before giving a decisive nod of approval and stepping inside. He and his wife moved through the empty rooms, their voices echoing hollowly. Abby and Adam stood awkwardly in the living room. Abby tried not to listen in on the conversation, but couldn't help hearing Sloane Jameson's enthusiasm as he checked out his new home.
"This is just perfect, honey!" he called to his wife from the larger of the bedrooms. "It's much better than the apartment. Can you imagine?" he directed at Abby as he came back into the living room, his eyebrow quirked questioningly. "The two of us crammed into a tiny efficiency apartment? It will be great to have some room to spread out."
Abby tried not to be caught staring at him. "I hope you'll be happy here. It's a nice neighborhood," she said politely. She reached deep in the pocket of her denim shorts and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. As she handed it to him, her fingers brushed his and she had the wildest urge to jump back. "This is a list of phone numbers you might find helpful. Mine, of course, if you need anything. The numbers you call to set up your utilities, and the number for all the local papers. And, last but not least, the number for the best pizza in town. Free delivery!" Abby winked at him broadly.
Sloane turned his smile up a notch. "That is important," he agreed with a full-throated laugh.
"Oh," Abby reached one more time into her pocket and drew out a set of keys, which she dropped, into his outstretched hand, careful not to let her fingers touch his. "Your keys. Please let me know if you need anything." She grabbed Adam's hand and edged toward the door. "I'll see you later. Bye!" She slipped outside and made good her escape into her own side of the duplex.
What on earth had come over her? She'd never acted like that around any man, much less a married one. Especially with his wife standing right next to him. Maybe Ned was right, and she should start dating again. She'd had no shortage of offers, especially from the other pilots she worked with who were drawn to her leggy good looks, long straight hair, and emerald green eyes. Abby maintained an easy friendship with all the guys, but was careful not to get too close to any of them. After her experience with Joe, she wasn't in any hurry to get involved with a man again.
The doorbell rang again. Abby whirled around, half expecting to find Connie Jameson outside, demanding to know what her intentions were toward her husband. But it was only Ned, leaning against the wall of the porch. "Hi, Sis." He aimed a kiss in her direction, but Abby adeptly deflected it with the ease of many long years of practice.
"What is it this time?" she asked.
Ned slouched inside and gave her a look of pure indignation. "They raised my rent," he said. "It's just too much. Not worth it for that dump. So I need a place to hang out till I find new digs."
In other words, thought Abby tiredly, he got evicted for failing to pay the rent again, and plans to try to move in here for as long as he can possibly get away with it. "Well, you can stay here for a few days," she said. "But you know I don't have room for anything longer than that."
"The other side is empty, I noticed." Ned looked at her hopefully.
Abby smiled with satisfaction. "The new tenants are moving in today. Besides, you couldn't possibly afford what I'd charge you for that place."
Ned sighed. "Oh well, guess I'll stow my gear." He started to head back to the bedrooms, but Abby shook her head.
"This is only a two bedroom duplex, Ned," she reminded him. "And both rooms are taken. You'll have to sleep on the couch."
"Why can't I have Adam's room? He has a bed now."
Abby stifled a giggle at the thought of Ned sleeping in Adam's airplane bed. "Adam's too old to sleep with me," she said firmly. "The couch will be fine. Especially since you are only staying a short while."
Ned gave in and deposited his suitcases over in the corner.
"What's for supper?" was his next question.
Abby was sorely tempted to tell him that meals were not included in the deal, but she relented at the puppy-like look in his eyes. Like him or not, he was her stepbrother, and out of deference to the memory of her stepfather, whom she had adored, she would be nice to him. "I thought I'd make spaghetti," she said, knowing it was one of his favorites. "Why don't you play with Adam while I get it on the table?"
Ned nodded eagerly. Whatever his faults, he was a devoted uncle, and Adam worshipped him. Abby left them happily playing with Adam's toy planes on the floor of the living room while she got supper ready. As she walked past the living room window, she caught a glimpse of the Jamesons unloading furniture from a U-haul. Sloane had pulled off his shirt, and she watched, enthralled, as his powerful, well-muscled body moved with easy grace carrying the heavy boxes and furniture. Beads of sweat glistened on his bronzed back, and he exuded masculinity. He effortlessly slung a large carton onto a dolly and straightened up, looking directly at her, his eyes piercing the distance between them. His whole face split into a smile, and she swiveled, quickly turning her back, feeling a warm flush overtake her face.
Abby hurried into the kitchen, wondering how long he'd been aware of her watching him. She knew one thing; she didn't want to meet Sloane Jameson again any time soon. She found his presence much too disturbing.
Sloane surveyed his living room, newly furnished with a casual jumble of bargain basement specials and scrounged up cast-offs. He critically arranged a brass lamp just so on a glass-covered end table by the puffy gray sofa. "What do you think, Con?" he asked.
Connie shuffled wearily into the room and slumped onto the couch. She brushed a strand of curly dark hair out of her eyes and sighed heavily. "What do I think about what? And where's the number she gave us for that pizza?"
Sloane wedged a hand into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out a folded slip of paper. "Maybe our landlady will bring us a casserole like the old days."
"Yeah, you'd like that, I'm sure."
"She is rather pretty," Sloane rubbed his sandpapery chin thoughtfully, giving Connie a rakish grin out of the corner of his eye.
"She could barely keep her eyes off you, you know," Connie said as she hung up the phone after ordering the pizza. "That could be useful to us."
"Perhaps. I don't really fancy it though." Good as he was at his job, he'd never been able to stomach seducing a suspect, even to get essential information. He could never let himself forget that his brother had died because of drugs. That memory was sufficient to kill any attraction he might have felt for any of the people involved in his investigations.
Sloane moved over by the window and looked out. Dusk was falling as the hot Texas sun slipped over the horizon. The street outside was empty, except for someone sitting in a beat-up red car, everybody else evidently inside enjoying their dinners. It appeared to be a nice, quiet neighborhood full of nice, quiet people. Only goes to show you, Sloane thought, curling his lip in disgust, how appearances could be deceiving.
"You okay, Sloane? You're awfully quiet tonight." Connie's words called him back to the present.
Sloane shrugged and let the curtain fall back into place. He didn't feel like explaining how his brief encounter with Abby had left him feeling slightly unsettled inside, had stirred up feelings he didn't want to acknowledge. With a grunt, he changed the subject. "Is the listening gear set up?"
Connie motioned to the bedroom. "Yeah, I thought it would be best to keep it out of sight in case she's the neighborly type."
"I'll go and just listen in, see what they're talking about, if anything. Give me a holler when the pizza gets here."
Connie waved a hand at him. "I'm giving Ron a call."
Sloane made a quick exit to give her privacy for her phone call to her husband. Her real husband that is. Connie made a good partner, but he would never want to be married to her in real life.
He flicked a switch in the box in front of him, and with a crackle the noises in the next duplex became clearly audible. It seemed innocuous enough. Ned was playing with the baby, and Abby was fixing dinner. He could hear her humming an old folk song, could even hear the clank of her spoon against the side of the pan as she beat a soft rhythm to her song. Her voice lulled Sloane into a relaxed mood. They seemed like such ordinary people. Hard to believe they were mixed up in drugs, yet Ned could be arrested right now, should be arrested right now on the strength of the evidence they held at Headquarters. The only reason he was free was the hope that he could lead them to the man in charge.
And Abby ... Sloane wrinkled his brow. There was no real evidence against Abby at all. But she was Joe Tarleton's ex-wife. And the letter from Joe had certainly implicated her. Somewhere out there had to be the evidence that would tie her to the ring. He and Connie just had to find it.
He had a hard time thinking of Abby as a drug dealer, though. Instead he kept remembering the sea-green sparkle of her eyes, the electric warmth of her touch. He snorted derisively. He needed a vacation after this assignment. Attracted to Joe Tarleton's wife after just the briefest of encounters? He'd been working much too hard lately.
The shrill sound of the telephone cut through the peaceful, domestic setting. "Hello?" Abby said in her slightly breathy voice. Sloane pressed a button on his equipment that enabled him to listen to both sides of the conversation.
"Yeah. This is Micky. I need to double my usual. Same place. Bye." The voice on the other end growled the words so quickly that Sloane could barely understand him. Fortunately the listening equipment was set up so that all conversations were automatically recorded on tape.
"Wait a minute!" Abby's voice, high and slightly impatient, came over the line, but it was too late. The caller had hung up.
Sloane made a temple with his hands, his eyebrows creased with surprise. With a flick of a switch he replayed the conversation, nodding with satisfaction as the words unfolded. He'd not even been on the job twenty-four hours and already had the first concrete bit of evidence tying Abby Tarleton to the drug ring.
He heard the clink of plates on the table, and then Abby called Ned and Adam in to eat. Sloane closed his eyes and listened. Abby's throaty voice sent a thrill through him, and he again reminded himself that not only was she Joe Tarleton's wife but she was probably a drug runner in her own right. As such he could not be attracted to her. * * * * CHAPTER TWO
"So, what do you hear from Joe?" Ned asked as he stuffed the last half of a breadstick into his mouth, scattering crumbs all over his shirt.
Abby, the strange phone call she had received completely forgotten, evenly poured spaghetti sauce over her pasta and twirled the noodles on her fork. "Nothing," she said flatly, casting an eye at Adam.
"Nothing," Abby said with quiet emphasis.
"He ought to be getting out soon," Ned continued.
Abby shrugged. "Makes no difference to me." Her voice was cold and distant.
"Come on, Abs. He made a mistake."
Abby's voice hardened as she retorted tartly. "Yeah, he was stupid. And so was I."
Ned hastily swallowed the last of his spaghetti. "Great supper, Sis. I've got to go out. Can you give me a key? It'd save me having to wake you up when I come in."
Abby frowned but dug an extra key out of one of the drawers. "All right, but try to be quiet coming in. I have an early flight."
She flinched as Ned banged the front door. He seemed absolutely unable to go anywhere without making noise. She glanced at her watch and idly wondered what the new neighbors were doing. Maybe she should go over and check; she normally did when tenants moved in. But she really didn't want to encounter Sloane Jameson again. She found being near him just too unnerving.
Connie looked at Sloane as she grabbed the last slice of pizza, which had come just as Abby and Ned had started eating their dinner. Together she and Sloane had been eating and listening in silence to the conversation next door.
"You know," said Connie, as she swallowed. "Now would be a good time for me to go shopping and for you to get locked out of the house."
Sloane nodded thoughtfully. It made sense to try to develop a rapport with Abby as soon as possible. It was the way he and Connie worked--he usually gained the suspect's confidence while Connie followed the paper trail and tracked down leads. Her prickly personality made it hard for them to switch roles, yet this time he wished they could. Abby Tarleton made him uneasy for some reason.
Something about her made it difficult for him to remember her connection with the drug ring; that people were having their lives ruined every day by people like Ned, Joe, and probably Abby; that his own brother had been killed by drugs. However, he had a job to do, and he was not going to let Abby Tarleton stop him, no matter how bewitching her smile or how tantalizing her eyes. He waited for Connie to leave and then stood up, taking one final gulp of his cola. Time to go to work.
Abby made a clicking sound with her tongue as she wiped spaghetti off of Adam's face, hands, ears, neck, and even his shoes. He loved spaghetti but oh, what a mess he made! Actually, spaghetti was one of the few things she cooked well, but as she always said, it didn't take much talent to throw a few cans together and shake in some spices. As she started to clear the table, the doorbell rang. She opened the door and took a quick, sharp breath when she saw Sloane Jameson leaning casually against the outside wall. She could feel the heat emanating from his body, and she felt distinctly weak at the knees at the sight of the wisps of dark hair curled against the v-neck of his shirt.
"Oh, hello," she stammered, hoping she didn't sound as startled as she felt. Her slender hands unconsciously twisted together.
"Hi." His tone was apologetic. "I'm sorry to bother you, but I seem to have locked myself out of the house. Do you have an extra key? I'll bring it right back." His eyes moved slowly over her body, taking in her smooth bosom and her long, lithe thighs.
Abby was very much aware of his appraisal. A blush crept like a shadow over her cheeks, and she quickly turned away, letting her hair drape across her face to hide her discomfort. "I'll let you in," she said.
"I hate to put you to the trouble," Sloane said quickly, giving her a smile that sent her pulse racing. "I could take the key and bring it right back."
"No problem," Abby said firmly. "I meant to come over anyway and see how you were doing. Just let me grab my little boy. Adam!" she called. "Let's go for a walk."
The three-year-old willingly left his airplanes and thrust his sturdy hand into hers. Mother and child made a charming picture, and Sloane wondered that such a seemingly nice person could be caught up in the sordid world of drugs. With a grand sweep of his hand, he stood aside, allowing them to pass through the door. Jingling the keys in the pocket of her shorts, Abby walked next door, Sloane falling easily into step beside her.
Abby bent forward and fit her key into the lock, conscious of Sloane's eyes watching her every move. "Here," she said, giving it a deft twist. "That should do it." She straightened her shoulders and transferred her gaze to him.
For a moment his gaze held hers as he studied her intently. His eyes swept down her body, and she shivered, even in the heat of the summer evening. She licked her lips and folded her arms protectively across her chest as a slow flush started in her cheeks. Sloane noted her discomfort and broke into a leisurely smile in an attempt to put her at ease. "Thanks a lot. I'm awfully sorry to have disturbed you," he said ruefully.
"No problem. That's why I'm here. Are you getting settled in okay?" she asked in her low, dusty voice, her eyes lingering on the dark hair curling across his forehead.
In answer, Sloane motioned her inside with a sweeping motion of his hand. His fingers brushed against the bared curve of her shoulders, sending a warm tingle down her spine. "Pretty much. We don't have a lot of our stuff yet. But I think we'll be happy here."
Abby took in the spartan nature of the furnishings, and her mouth curved into an unconscious smile at the sight of the worn, old couch. "That looks comfortable," she said.
"Yeah, Connie hates it. But I've had it since I left home and just can't bring myself to part with it." His stance emphasized the force of his thighs and the slimness of his hips.
Abby realized she was staring again and quickly shifted her gaze to the pizza carton on the coffee table. "Did you enjoy it?" she asked lightly.
"Delicious. You were right, it is pretty good." Sloane looked briefly over her shoulder out the window. "Is that your husband that just pulled up?"
Abby stiffened, and the color drained from her face. She turned around to look outside and then relaxed. "No, that's my brother, Ned. He's staying with me for a while." Her smile thinned as she spoke.
Sloane pressed closer behind her, so close she could feel his warm breath tickling the hair on the back of her neck. Abby turned to look at him, amazed at the thrill she felt at being so close to him. He stared back at her, seemingly unaware of the effect he was having upon her. "Bet your husband likes that." Despite an odd reluctance to do so, Sloane pressed hard, needing to see her reaction to the mention of her husband.
He was disappointed however. Abby jauntily tossed her hair over her shoulder and shook her head. "I'm divorced," she said as casually as she could manage.
"I'm sorry," Sloane said, wondering if he dared push any harder. He didn't want to arouse Abby's suspicions, he told himself, deciding to back off.
"I'm not." Abby adroitly ducked behind him and turned to examine a row of framed photos, mostly landscapes, leaning against the wall, waiting to be hung up. She cocked an eyebrow. "Are these yours?"
"Yeah." Sloane held his breath as she examined his work. He needn't have worried. Abby gracefully knelt down to give the photos a closer look, then she raised her face to his, her emerald eyes sparkling with pleasure.
"They're wonderful! I remember now. Your wife said you were a photojournalist."
"Freelance." Not for the first time Sloane reflected that his journalism degree came in handy in his undercover work. He was a lousy writer, he knew, but as a photographer, he wasn't half bad.
Abby shook her head admiringly. "I'm very impressed. You have quite a talent."
"Thanks." Her unrestrained praise made him feel self-conscious, and Sloane looked wildly around for a moment, grasping for something to change the subject to. Adam ran around the room, making airplane noises. Sloane crouched down in his path, and the little boy reluctantly slid to a stop. "What's your name?" Sloane asked.
"You like airplanes, Adam?" Sloane's voice was surprisingly gentle. Abby admired his easy manner with her son.
"Yeah! When I grow up, I'm gonna be a pilot like my mommy."
Sloane stood up and turned back to Abby, pushing his hands deep into his pockets. "You're a pilot? That's interesting. I don't know many women pilots. Do you fly for an airline?"
"I fly freight out of the Robinville Airport, on the edge of town," Abby said, still examining the photos. "Strictly small planes. The jets aren't any fun to fly. It's all computerized now. I like to feel I'm really in control."
Sloane leaned back, sizing her up. "Maybe someday I could do a story on you."
Abby shook her head and smiled smoothly. "I'm really not a very interesting person." She glanced at her watch. "I'd better go now. I have an early flight tomorrow. Let me know if I can be of any further help." With a deliberately casual movement she took Adam's hand and left the duplex.
Sloane stared after her, a frown creasing his brow. He was intrigued by the smooth manner in which she gave out only as much information about herself as she wanted known and no more. Most suspects that he had investigated had been more furtive and wary. Only a few of the really good ones had developed the same easygoing way that Abby had of discouraging questions.
He watched as she and Adam walked leisurely to their own door. Abby paused halfway across the yard and looked across the street at the old red car Sloane had noticed earlier. Her stance stiffened almost imperceptibly, and then she shook her head ever so slightly and continued on her way to the door. Adam tugged at her hand and stopped to point out a grasshopper. Abby tenderly scooped the bug into her cupped hand so Adam could examine it closely.
Sloane suppressed a smile at the sight of the two golden heads bent over the insect. Abby's finger delicately pointed out parts of the grasshopper body, while Adam's brow furrowed in concentration as he listened to his mother's soft voice. After a few moments, the lesson over, Abby set the grasshopper on a blade of grass and challenged Adam in a hopping contest to the door. They collapsed, laughing, on the steps. Then Abby grabbed her son and tucked him inside the house.
Sloane remained in a thoughtful silence by the window for a moment. He cast an eye at the red car that had spooked Abby. A newspaper obscured the driver's face. Sloane automatically glanced at the license plate, noting that it was covered with mud. With a mental shrug, he went into the bedroom to check the listening equipment. A flashing light told him that someone had used the phone next door. He ran the tape and listened as Ned's voice spoke in a frantic tone to a voice at the other end.
"Yeah, I'm at Abby's for a while. Don't know how long I can stay here though."
"They can find you there easy enough," the voice said.
"Yeah, I know. But they wouldn't dare bother me here I don't think."
"You're probably right. The heat's really on though. You'd better just lie low for a while."
"I won't stick my nose out. Gotta go now." With a click the conversation ended.
Sloane leaned back in his chair, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. So Ned was hiding out. But from whom? Did he think the police were on to him? Or was he hiding from someone in the gang? And if it was the gang, why wouldn't they dare to bother him while he was at Abby's? Could she possibly hold more power in the gang than they had suspected? It was hard to believe. She seemed so nice. But Sloane knew from experience that some of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet were drug dealers.
Abby heard a car door slam. Glancing out the window, she saw Connie hurrying up the steps next door, two grocery bags in her arms.
Guiltily, Abby slipped away from the window into the kitchen, afraid Connie would look straight through the walls of her house and see the lustful thoughts going through Abby's mind about her husband. Hard as she tried, she could not put Sloane from her mind. She searched through a haze of feelings and desires, trying to make sense of her jumbled emotions. Why did this man affect her so deeply? She couldn't deny the physical attraction she felt for him, but there was more to it than that. He had been so gentle with Adam; he genuinely seemed to like kids, and his admiration for her flying career had seemed sincere.
Most of the men she encountered were male chauvinists with little regard for small children--"Why don't you run along, sonny, and let me talk to your mother?"--or for women pilots--"A purty little thing like you flying one of them great big planes? Imagine that!"
Abby shook her head and nibbled on her lip. Sloane's face haunted her, a phantom that refused to leave her mind. Her face burned as she remembered the unnerving sensation that had swept through her body when his hand had brushed ever so softly against her shoulder.
She just couldn't make sense of it. What had happened to the levelheaded young woman of yesterday? Then she had been a calm, cool, collected person with no interest in men at all. Today she had been transformed into a brazen young hussy who had all but thrown herself at a married man!
Abby drew a deep breath and imposed an iron control on herself. What she was feeling was nothing more than a silly, physical infatuation, and she would just have to make an extra effort to keep her relationship with Sloane on a strictly business-like level. The last thing she needed was to get involved with a married man.
She was roused from her reverie when Ned clomped into the room. "Okay, Sis. I got Adam to bed snug as a bug in a rug. Got any beer?" Her stepbrother opened the refrigerator door and rummaged inside.
"No." Abby's nose wrinkled in distaste. "Ned, how long are you going to be here?"
"Not long. Just till I find another place," Ned said evasively.
"How long will that take? A day?" Abby faced him squarely with both hands on her hips.
"Two days?" Abby persisted, her lips puckered with annoyance.
"Don't you want me here?" Ned asked plaintively.
"Not really. The last time you were here all your friends started showing up and expecting me to feed them at all hours of the night. I won't have people like that around Adam." Abby's voice was smooth but insistent.
"Aw, come on, Sis. They're harmless."
"Maybe. But their language is filthy and they treat me like dirt. This is my house, and I won't stand for it." Her voice raised slightly.
"All right, Sis. I promise. No guests."
Abby gritted her teeth. "How long, Ned?"
"Give me a week," Ned pleaded. "Time to find another apartment."
Abby sighed. "All right, Ned. One week. Then you're out of here."
"Of course, Sis. Whatever you say."
Sloane and Connie looked at each other. Connie raised her eyebrows. "Well, it appears Momma doesn't want the baby involved in the family business."
Sloane shook his head. "Maybe Momma has bigger plans for the baby. I'm thinking Abby Tarleton may be higher up in the scheme of things than we ever dreamed. According to Neddie boy, the gang doesn't dare bother him when he's at her house."
"Oh really?" Connie nodded thoughtfully. "I wonder why not?"
"Could be they don't want to get into trouble with Abby. We've been thinking her job flying freight is just a cover for drug running.
But what if when she's flying freight, she's really visiting the dealers?"
"Could be. That would fit."
Sloane sighed with satisfaction. "I think we'd better keep a very close watch on Abby Tarleton. This could be more important than we suspected."