Mid-Month Novel Excerpt: The Perfect Man
Once per month, I’ll publish an excerpt of one of my novels, and I hope you’ll be intrigued enough to buy the rest of the book. I began this practice in February. Unlike the free fiction I put up every Monday, the novel excerpts will remain on the site. If you want to read the opening to the previous eight novels, click here.
This month, I’ve excerpted The Perfect Man, which is, so far, my only Kristine Dexter novel. There will be more, I promise. Those of you who like the Grayson books should like this novel as well. You’ll find ordering information at the end of this post.
Here’s the back cover copy, followed by the excerpt and the ordering information:
RICK CHANCE IS THE SEXIEST MAN TASHA MORGAN HAS EVER SEEN. BUT RICK CHANCE HAS A SECRET.
Rick and Tasha meet at a wedding and fall for each other quickly. Rick has just returned to Portland under mysterious circumstances. Tasha has lived there all her life. Her wealthy family hates her job as a cop. Rick finds it intriguing.
But Rick doesn’t tell Tasha about his stalker. Rick moved from Chicago to evade the stalker, but after the wedding, Rick discovers that the stalker has moved from Chicago too. Only the stalker leaves presents for someone else at Rick’s house—a woman named Jessamyn Chance. A woman no one in Portland has ever seen. A woman who might or might no live in Rick’s basement. A woman Rick might be keeping prisoner.
Is Rick’s stalker a crazed nutcase? Or is he a hero out to rescue a trapped woman? Tasha must find out quickly. Lives could be at stake. Including her own.
The Perfect Man
Copyright © 2011 by Kristine K. Rusch
Published by WMG Publishing
First published in 2008 by Five Star Books
Rick Chance sat on the front steps of his new house, and watched as the neighborhood came alive. He had moved to an upscale development in Portland’s West Hills. The homes were large and only ten years old, and they all looked the same.
Most of the people on this block worked nine to five. As the chill of evening approached, cars showed up, people returned, and leisure time began.
A cup of coffee cooled in his left hand. He felt comfortable for the first time in years.
He liked the rhythm of this place. It calmed him and almost made him believe he could belong.
The alarm on his watch beeped, and he sighed. He set his coffee down, then turned his wrist, shutting off the alarm.
The only bad thing about his move to Oregon was that he now lived near his family. And tonight would be the first big family gathering since his return. He wasn’t ready for all the questions, the comments, the sideways looks.
He would have turned Gerald down if it weren’t for Jane. Rick’s big sister had been his only support and comfort during his years away. She had begged him to take part in family events, which he would do until it got too uncomfortable for her. And it would. He wasn’t about to defend himself to these people. He wouldn’t explain himself either.
Rick picked up the mug, downed the last of the coffee, and went inside the house. Time to find something to wear. Since he was the family’s black sheep, he figured it was only right to dress the part.
Natasha Morgan stood knee-deep in garbage. Her khaki pants were ruined and so were her shoes. Good thing she didn’t spend much money on her work clothes.
The stench—a mixture of rotting meat and sour milk—was incredible.
Tasha resisted the urge to wipe her nose. She’d done that once already and it had been a mistake.
The sun reflected off windows of parked police cars. Tasha had to be careful which way she faced so that the light wouldn’t blind her. She glared at the precinct itself—a white brick building that had faded to gray—wishing some other detective would come out here and help, even though she knew she wouldn’t dig through garbage to assist another team.
Her partner, Lou Rassouli, used his gloved hands to take another bag of garbage off the pick-up truck. Lou was a barrel-shaped man with biceps the size of her thighs and strong hands, scarred from years on the street. His face was lined—compassion lines, she called them because they could ease into the most sympathetic features she’d ever seen.
The bag was a self-tie white plastic, and he was having trouble opening it. Finally, he ripped out the bottom of the bag and dumped the contents onto the precinct parking lot.
“How much more do we have?” she asked.
“Half the truck.” Lou sounded discouraged. They had found the garbage at Damon Pfeiffer’s building, but had been unable to determine which bags were his. So they’d had to take the entire Dumpster load.
Even so, Tasha had a horrible feeling this would be a dead-end. It seemed that nothing they did could tie Pfeiffer to his brother’s murder.
“What do you think we’re going to find?” she asked.
“If we’re lucky, a note Pfeiffer wrote to his brother, threatening to kill him. It would be really nice if he signed and dated it.”
Lou grabbed another bag, then grinned at her. “That’s the nice thing about garbage. You never know what you’re going to get.”
Tasha shook her head as Lou dumped the next bag. When she had gotten promoted to detective she somehow hadn’t imagined herself sifting through someone’s garbage. Some silly part of her had expected to solve crimes in less than sixty minutes with the help of her trusty partner and a sudden flash of insight.
Actually, the insight came often. She had a knack for this job. But the problem with insight was that it didn’t stand up in court. She needed evidence too. And in this case, especially, evidence was particularly hard to find.
The sun went beneath a cloud, sending a chill across the lot. It was getting late. Tasha sighed as Lou threw more bags onto the pile. Not only would they have to search, but they’d have to clean up this mess as well. The lieutenant wouldn’t appreciate losing a corner of the precinct parking lot to a mountain of garbage.
Lou tossed the last bag in the mix, then put his hands on his back and stretched. “Most of this stuff is going to be pretty easy to sort through. Food scrapes, coffee grounds, things like that. It’s the other stuff we gotta keep an eye on.”
She sifted through a stack of magazines, all of which were addressed to an apartment below Pfeiffer’s. She picked them up by the corners and shook them. Little subscription cards fell out, but nothing else.
“People don’t believe in recycling any more,” she said.
“Any more?” Lou asked. “Like they ever did.”
He kicked aside some beer cans and started on the outer edge of the pile. Then he looked up at her. “Say, Tash, don’t you have a thing?”
She had just tossed aside an unidentifiable ball of slimy material. “A thing?”
“Tonight. Don’t you have a family thing?”
She froze. “What time is it?”
He had to push aside his glove to read his watch. “Almost five.”
Tasha swore. “It’s not just a family thing, Lou. It’s Brooke’s rehearsal dinner, and I’m covered in garbage. Oh. My. God.”
Lou gave her a sympathetic look. He knew how much trouble Tasha had with her family. They had never understood her—particularly her desire to take such a challenging job. They would hate it if she canceled. She’d be in trouble if she were late, and they’d never let her forget it if she showed up covered with filth.
But she had no choice. She had to stay here.
“I’ll cover for you,” Lou said.
She shook her head. “This mess—”
“Won’t be that hard to go through, especially if you send one of those desk jockeys out here on your way out.”
He grinned. There was a yellow dab of something stuck to his chin. “You’ll owe me.”
“I’d rather stay here.”
“I know, Tash. But you don’t dare miss this one.”
She knew it. She had even told him to push her if she balked. In a fit of weakness, she’d agreed to be Brooke’s maid of honor. It had been a big mistake. She’d been forced to attend showers and girl parties. She’d even had to host one herself, which would have been a nightmare if it weren’t for Lou’s wife who volunteered to help her.
Tasha simply wasn’t good at girl things. She had never placed a priority on them, and for the most part, she didn’t enjoy them. She hadn’t been kidding when she said she would rather be sorting through garbage than going to the dinner.
“Tash,” Lou said. “You made me promise to get you there. I’ll drive you if I have to.”
She nodded. “I’m going. I’m sorry, Lou.”
“It’s all right,” he said. “I’ll think of suitable payback.”
She had no doubt about that. She had a hunch she’d be paying for this one for a long, long time.
It had taken Herbert Beebe two days to find the house. The streets in Portland ran on a grid pattern, but the house was in a neighborhood filled with oddly named housing developments. The streets in those places shared names: Paradise Drive, Paradise Avenue, Paradise Court. The house numbers didn’t run in order either.
The place was a delivery man’s nightmare.
Beebe finally located it on a quiet block. The house was large and beautiful. From the outside, no one would be able to see the horrors that happened inside.
He took a deep breath. His hands were shaking.
“I’m here, Jessamyn,” he whispered, hoping she could feel his presence through the locked doors, the thick walls. “I’m here, and I’m finally able to help.”
Tasha paused outside the Harborside Yacht Club, trying to compose herself. She had raced home, taken a hot shower, and dried her hair. Nothing had completely taken the stench of garbage out of her nose. She applied perfume, something she usually avoided, more for herself than for anyone else.
Her blond hair was already flying out of its neat bun, and her feet ached. She wasn’t used to high heels at all. She felt ridiculous in the pale green gauze dress she bought a few days before. She was more comfortable in her work clothes. This dress made her feel like someone she wasn’t. Someone her family wanted her to be.
There was nothing more she could do about her appearance. Considering how filthy she’d been at five o’clock, just the fact that she made it here looking slightly presentable was a victory.
She sighed and opened the large glass doors. Immediately the restaurant’s view caught and held her, just like it was supposed to. The walls facing the Columbia River were made of nothing but glass. The setting sun glinted off the water, and shone whitely on the mountains beyond. For a moment, she didn’t even see the yachts docked at the edge of the pier or the patrons sitting under umbrellas outside. For a moment, all she saw was her beautiful city, stretched out like a jewel on the river’s edge.
“Nice, huh?” The voice in her ear was rich and masculine, so deep and resonant that it made her shiver. She looked over her shoulder at the man standing just behind her. In fact, she had to look up to see his face—and she rarely looked up at anyone.
He had rugged features, square jaw, prominent cheekbones, and dazzling blue eyes. His dark hair was a little too long, and his dark mustache was too shaggy for modern style. But on him, it worked. He looked like a poster boy for a Western—a man who would be as home in chaps and spurs as he seemed to be in his faded blue jeans, tailored white shirt, and expensive corduroy blazer.
“The view,” he said as if she hadn’t understood him. “It’s nice.”
“Um, beautiful,” she said, wondering if pretty dresses made her act like the imbecilic debutante her mother had always wanted her to be.
“I think the view’s the best part about this restaurant.” He sounded regretful.
She wouldn’t know. She’d never eaten here before. She’d managed to avoid the place.
He smiled. It was a self-deprecating look that changed his ruggedness into something close to movie-star handsome. “Not used to talking to strangers?”
Sure she was. She talked to them all the time. Interrogated them was more like it. She wondered what this man—this yacht club member—would do if she told him she was a cop.
His smile would probably chill, then he’d say something polite and disappear into the restaurant. Men did that to her when they found out what her job was. They seemed to think it made her some kind of leper. Or they asked to have their parking tickets fixed, which annoyed her even more.
His smile faded. “I’m sorry. I’m embarrassing you.”
“No,” Tasha said. “I’m the one who should apologize. It’s been a long day, and I was just trying to get my bearings before going into the fray.”
“The fray?” he asked.
She waved toward the private room her family had rented. “Rehearsal dinner. I’m not good at these things.”
“I prefer the bachelor parties myself,” he said.
At that moment, so would she, but she bit that comment back. Her cousin had asked her to be on her best behavior for the wedding. Tasha suspected “best behavior” also applied to the showers, rehearsal dinner, and other events before the wedding itself.
“But at least rehearsal dinners have food.” He held out the crook of his arm, as if he expected her to take it. “Shall we?”
She frowned. “Are you going to a rehearsal dinner?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“The same one I am?”
“Probably, given that this place only has one private room large enough for friends and family.”
“You’re going to the Halliwell dinner?”
“Actually,” he said in a conspiratorial tone, “I’m going to the Flesner dinner, but I suspect they’re one and the same.”
She felt a blush warm her cheeks. How long had it been since she blushed? Her first day in the precinct, years ago, when she’d been a rookie. She’d learned then that blushing only resulted in more teasing and a general lack of respect. Somehow she’d learned to control the blush, so it was a surprise that it had returned.
“You’re a friend of Gerald’s?” she asked, ignoring the man’s arm.
“No,” he said. “He’s my nephew.”
Tasha frowned. “But you look like you’re the same age.”
The man raised his eyebrows, seemingly startled. “I’m four months younger,” he said in mock indignation.
“And he’s your nephew?”
He shrugged, apparently used to this. “My sister—his mother—is twenty years older than I am. I was, as my parents put it, a surprise.”
“I’ll bet.” Tasha glanced across the crowded restaurant. Silverware clanged and something fried smelled sinfully delicious. No one had seen them yet, not even the maitre d’. She wondered if she could hide in the entry all day.
Then she realized what the good-looking man beside her had said to start the last interchange.
“What’s wrong with Gerald?” she asked.
“Gerald. I asked you if you were his friend, and you said, ‘No’ in a tone that implied if you weren’t related, you wouldn’t speak. What’s wrong with Gerald?”
He dropped the crook of his arm. Apparently she had gone into interrogation mode. No one expected it from a tall willowy blond in a suit, let alone one wearing gauze.
“Before I put my foot in it farther,” he said, “who’s he marrying? Your sister?”
“A close cousin?”
Tasha glanced toward the door leading to the private party. She couldn’t see inside, but she knew Brooke was in there, waiting. They had been close once, as little girls playing Barbies. But as Tasha got more athletic and interested in the law, Brooke had watched her as if she were a subspecies of bug.
To Brooke’s credit, she had tried to understand. And she had always included Tasha, even though the inclusions were torture. Like the time she had chosen Tasha to be a member of her homecoming court.
Like this wedding.
“A close cousin?” Tasha repeated. “I guess so.”
His magnificent eyebrows met in the middle. He had obviously noticed her pause. “Bridesmaid close?”
The blush hadn’t completely faded. Or if it had, it was making a return appearance.
“Maid-of-honor close,” Tasha mumbled.
“Wonderful.” He let out a sigh and looked away. The sun was glinting off one of the yachts, sending a stab of white light into the restaurant.
“You were going to tell me about Gerald.” She didn’t want this conversation to end. She was enjoying it. If Lou were here, he’d say she was flirting.
Which was nonsense of course. She never flirted. She left flirting to Brooke.
“Gerald.” Her companion sounded like he wished he’d never heard his uncle’s name. “He’s not a bad sort. He’s probably the marrying kind. He’s stable, reliable—”
“Dull,” Tasha said.
He looked back at her. In just a few moments, she had forgotten the power of those blue eyes. “You know him?”
“No,” Tasha said. “But you’re implying that there’s something wrong with stable and reliable.”
He sighed again, clearly a man who was trapped. “Listen, I got stuck with Gerald my entire childhood. I’m sure he’s a great guy. He’s just not . . .”
His voice trailed off.
“What you consider a great guy?”
He ran his hand through his dark hair. It caught the light, then fell slightly out of place. Carelessly attractive. So few men could actually pull that off, but he could.
“He was, you know, the kind of kid who got hit with the ball instead of catching it.” Her new friend sounded exasperated. “I know that guys like Gerald are taking over the world right now, and I suppose it’s their revenge for being picked last at baseball, but every time the family got together—and that was once a week whether we needed it or not—I had to spend time with Gerald. I tried to teach him how to shoot baskets. I tried to teach him how to play catch. I tried to teach him how to run, for godsake. He couldn’t even do that.”
Tasha laughed. “Then he and Brooke are suited. Because I tried to teach her all that stuff too, and she didn’t want to sweat. ‘It’s icky,’ she used to say.”
“You’re not the best man, are you?” Tasha asked.
“Best man for whom?” he asked, his eyes twinkling.
“The guy Gerald chose as his best friend,” she said deliberately misunderstanding his misunderstanding.
“You mean the guy who gets to walk you down the aisle?”
“The guy who gets to dance the first dance with you?”
“The guy who is supposed to be at your side all day tomorrow?”
He grinned. “I’m just an usher.”
Tasha felt a spark of disappointment. To hide it, she looked at her watch. Now she was officially late. “We’d better get in there before someone notices we’re missing.”
“We can’t be missing,” he said, “if we haven’t arrived yet.”
“You like to play with words,” she said.
To her surprise, his smile faded. “I never play with words.”
“I work very hard at them.”
She smiled again. But she felt that some of the lightheartedness had left the conversation. She wasn’t quite sure why.
“Since we know everything else about each other,” he said, “maybe we should add names. I’m Rick. Rick Chance.”
“Tasha Morgan,” she said.
“Well, Tasha,” he said, holding out his arm. “Shall we march into the fray?”
She took the offered arm. His skin was warm and smooth, but she could feel the muscles beneath. “I guess we’d better.”
And together they walked to the back room as if they’d known each other all their lives.
Only two seats remained when Tasha and Rick arrived, and those seats were side by side. The table filled the private dining room, which had once been a small patio overlooking the pier. Someone had encased it in glass, and placed large ferns against the only wooden wall. The table was polished oak, and the chairs were so heavy that Tasha felt she could get a workout just by lifting one.
There was a large bare spot of floor between the kitchen and the table, and Tasha looked at it with alarm. A piano, a drum set, and instruments stood in a corner.
No one had told her there would be dancing later. Usually Brooke warned her about these things.
Of course, when Brooke warned her about dancing, Tasha always found a reason not to show up. She wasn’t a dancer. Her feet got in the way of each other and usually landed on her partner’s, much to his chagrin. Or she ended up slow-dancing with someone she didn’t like, who pawed at her and sweated on her and whispered clichéd nothings in her ear.
Tasha looked away from the dance floor and finally faced the group. Relatives she knew all too well, friends of Brooke’s, and strangers who bore a faint resemblance to Rick shouted greetings. Tasha smiled and let Rick lead her to the open chairs in the center of the table.
Her cousin Brooke sat at the head, looking radiant. But then Brooke always was radiant, with her short cap of red hair, her dainty features, and her peaches-and-cream complexion. She wore a sea-green dress that made Tasha’s green gauze look as if she had accidentally put on a robe for the evening.
Gerald sat next to Brooke. He had a square sort of Clark Kentish build, but without the muscles. When his metabolism slowed down, he would have the soft, squishy belly and flabby arms of a man who never exercised or even went outside. Still the jacket he wore suited him, and the pale peach shirt he wore brought out what little color his skin had. Obviously Brooke had been dressing him, and doing a good job of it.
Brooke and Gerald didn’t notice that Tasha was late—they were too wrapped up in each other—but Tasha’s father shook his head slightly as she entered. Her mother glared at her, and Tasha’s brother collected a five dollar bill from Brooke’s brother Elliot.
Rick saw the interchange too, and he put his free hand over hers, giving it a squeeze before they separated to take their seats.
The rehearsal dinner proceeded through toasts—hers was inane, Rick’s elegant—salads, wine, and food as bad as Rick had predicted it would be. Midway through the dessert (chocolate cheesecake, the only edible part of the meal), the band members filed in and began tuning up.
“Can we leave now?” Tasha whispered to Rick.
“You’re the maid of honor,” he said. “You’re supposed to stay to the bitter end.”
She groaned. Why had she agreed to this? It had already forced her to buy two dresses—the one she was wearing tonight, and a pink hooped thing that made her look like a petit four. Not to mention the matching shoes, purse, hat, and earrings. Or the hair appointment at the preferred salon, which was going to be another sixty dollars out of her very meager pocket.
She would be damned if she asked for any of the family money to pay for her part in this ridiculously expensive wedding. She’d declared her independence too long ago to crawl back now. Besides, her parents didn’t need to know how badly a thousand dollars broke her budget.
The band was poised and in position. Fortunately, someone had decided to make another toast with the after-dinner drinks.
“No one’ll notice if we just fade away,” Tasha whispered.
“If I fade away, maybe,” Rick said. “But you have to dance.”
He seemed to be relishing her discomfort.
“Why do I have to dance?”
“Bride and groom first, followed by the maid of honor and best man, then the attendants.”
“I thought that was after the wedding.”
“And this is rehearsal,” he said. “You don’t think they’ll follow the same traditions here?”
“How come you know so much about this stuff?”
He leaned back in his chair and took a sip from his long neck bottle of beer. He held the bottle between two fingers, and tilted with practiced ease.
“You go to enough of these things,” he said after his sip, “you figure them out. This is one of the traditional ones. They’re the easiest to predict.”
“How many have you been to?” she asked.
“Enough.” He still wasn’t looking at her. Apparently something in the marina had caught his eye.
Brooke stood up. She had a bit of color in those delicate cheeks, and her eyes were a little glassy. “We need to dance!” she said, and swept her arm toward the band.
The band glared at her. Tasha had a hunch this was not the introduction they’d wanted. A piano player, a drummer, a guitarist, and, of all things, a trombone player. All of whom were male and all of whom looked like they had seen better days.
But, obligingly, they launched into their first song, and it was a pop-swing thing that had “dance to me” in every beat. Tasha was surprised. They were very good.
Brooke and Gerald slipped onto the dance floor. The other attendants were standing. Rick nudged Tasha.
“You’d better get up,” he said.
“Not until I know who the best man is,” she said.
“Weren’t you at the rehearsal?”
“They had it in the afternoon. I had to work.”
“Oh, well. Your weekend’s date is over there.” Rick nodded to the only blond man at the table. He was pudgy, and too short to make the pudginess look good. He wore glasses that didn’t fit his face. When he caught her looking at him, his eyes lit up and he smiled.
He seemed harmless enough, but she was terrible at small talk and she didn’t like dancing with strangers.
Although she wouldn’t have minded dancing with Rick.
“Side by side,” Rick said, “for the entire wedding.”
“You’re enjoying this too much for a man whose just met me,” Tasha said.
“Believe me it’s nothing personal. Usually I’m the only person who is uncomfortable at a wedding. It’s nice to meet someone else who shares the feeling.”
The best man had worked his way around the table, and bowed before her. The tips of his wispy hair fell forward as he did so. He looked as nervous as Tasha felt.
“May I have this dance?” he asked.
Tasha had promised Brooke. So she gave the best man her best smile. “Sure.”
She didn’t look at Rick as she took the best man’s hand and let him lead her onto the dance floor.
His hand was damp, but his grip around her waist was surprisingly sure.
Right away, she apologized for her lack of dancing skill.
“It’s not a problem,” he said as he expertly guided her across the floor.
“I’m sorry,” she said as she caught her breath. “I don’t remember your name.”
“Howie. Howie Klatch.” He adjusted his glasses, as if he were trying to see her better. When he put his hand back on her waist, the glasses slid down his nose.
“I know.” He smiled at her. His smile made seem rounder, but pleasant somehow. “It’s okay. We were never properly introduced and you couldn’t come to rehearsal.”
The floor was filling up with the rest of the attendants. And after they straggled on, so did the parents and the other couples. She couldn’t see Rick.
“What do you do?” she asked Howie.
“I run an internet startup. We went public a few years ago. Maybe you’ve heard of us—”
“The same company that Gerald owns?” she asked.
Howie nodded, then his smile turned into a grin. Now he looked impish and almost cute. He apparently liked it when people figured out he was rich. “We started it together. We never expected it to go so well, but we’re not complaining.”
“I guess not.”
He was leading her pretty well. Her feet hadn’t gotten tangled yet, and she’d managed to avoid stepping on him. He was still looking at her, and so was Brooke—casually, over her shoulder. Tasha got a scary feeling that she and Howie had been matched in this wedding for more than one reason.
This song seemed like it was going on forever. She glanced at the clock and realized that the song had been going on forever. Five minutes at least with no end in sight. Damn Brooke for hiring a jazz and swing band.
Howie was still smiling at her. Actually, he was smiling up at her. He was short enough to make her uncomfortable.
“So,” he said, “Brooke tells me you’re pretty good with computers.”
“Computer crimes,” Tasha said.
“Oh?” His eyebrows went up. “You’re a hacker?”
She laughed and was about to correct him, when she saw Rick loom up behind him. Rick tapped Howie’s shoulder, and said, “Mind if I cut in?”
Before Howie had a chance to answer, Rick swept him aside and took Tasha in his arms. His grip was firm, his hands were dry, and he was the perfect height for her.
“Thank you,” she said.
“My pleasure.” His voice was deep and low, and in her ear. “I’ve never danced with a hacker before.”
“You’re not dancing with one now.”
“You told him that to impress him?”
“He misunderstood me.”
Over his shoulder, she saw Brooke frown at her.
“I think Brooke and Gerald are trying to fix me up,” Tasha said.
“With him?” Rick sounded surprised. “Don’t date much, huh?”
“Don’t like dating,” Tasha said, not wanting to get into it. If she wasn’t careful, she would confess to him what her job was, and she didn’t want to do that. Not tonight. It would only ruin a lovely evening.
“Enjoying yourself yet?” Rick asked.
“I’ve got to admit, you’ve made this a lot nicer evening than it would have been.”
He pulled her even closer. She had never danced with a man who made her feel small. Maybe that was why she always tromped on them.
“You’ve made it nice for me too,” he said. “I was afraid that I’d spend the entire evening fending off polite queries about my work. You know, the old ‘have you figured out yet what you’re going to do with your life?’ question.”
He smelled faintly of woodsmoke. His shirt was soft against her cheek. She had no idea how her head found its way to his shoulder, and she looked up at him abruptly.
“That’s a familiar question,” she said. “It comes when you’re not working or when you’re working at a job that the people in your life don’t approve of.”
“Sounds like you’ve heard it a few times.”
“Too many.” She winced again. The next question would be “so what do you do?” and she didn’t want to answer that. So she said rather quickly, “Want some punch?”
“Not really.” He eased a hand up her back. She could feel the warmth of his palm through that silly gauze. “I’m enjoying the dance.”
She was too. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been held like this. The music had slowed down and she hadn’t even realized it. She put her head back on his shoulder, and he wrapped his other arm around her.
How could she feel so close to someone she didn’t even know? Maybe one of her fantasies was finally coming true. A handsome man, a wonderful flirtation, a great dance. Nothing had to go beyond this night. Maybe nothing should. After all, reality was always worse than the fantasy. If her job had taught her anything, it was that.
The music stopped, rather abruptly.
She and Rick kept dancing, but he turned so that he could see the band. Then she noticed that everyone else stopped too. She felt self-conscious, and she pulled away.
For a moment, he continued to hold her close, then he let her slip out of his grasp. She looked at the band. Gerald was there, talking to them. And Brooke was heading her way.
Tasha cursed. She knew what was going to happen next.
“Think we goofed up somehow?” Rick asked.
“I think we ruined best-laid plans,” Tasha said just as Brooke got close.
“Tash!” Brooke gave her a quick airy hug. Her cousin smelled faintly of lilies, and she seemed perfectly put together despite the stress of the day, lateness of the hour, and her alcohol consumption. “We haven’t had a chance to talk. Excuse us?”
She didn’t even look at Rick as she said that last, just led Tasha to the bar. Friends still gathered there, but the family moved out of the way. Apparently this had been a Plan to make sure that Tasha Learned the Errors of Her Ways.
Or maybe it had been a Plan to Invite Tasha Back into the Fold. Or maybe the Plan had been to Find Tasha A Man So That She Would Stop This Nonsense.
Whatever it was, Tasha, as usual, had screwed it up.
“What are you doing?” Brooke asked in a tone which said How-Can-You-Do-This-To-Me-On-The-Night-Before-My-Wedding?
“I was dancing,” Tasha said.
Tasha shrugged. “Rick seems nice.”
“Nice? Nice? Do you know anything about him?”
“Only that he’s Gerald’s nephew and he’ll be an usher at the wedding.”
Brooke sighed theatrically. “How do you always pick the wrong men?”
It was Tasha’s turn to sigh. She was never going to live down Bobby Bailey, from high school. Bobby had been a dope-smoking musician who had seemed romantic at the time. Eventually he got arrested on a DUII and disappeared into the court system.
“I didn’t realize I’d picked anyone,” Tasha said.
“You were supposed to spend the evening with Howie.”
“I hadn’t been informed there were rules.” Tasha had to struggle to keep her voice down. She could see Rick at his spot near the table. He hadn’t sat down. He was watching them. His gaze was intense.
He saw her looking at him. Need help? he mouthed.
She shook her head slightly, then wished she hadn’t. Maybe she did need help.
“Tash, at a wedding, the maid of honor always spends her time with the best man.”
“But this is the rehearsal dinner.”
“E-yay-aaah,” Brooke said, making the word into three syllables. Whenever she did that, it meant “how dumb can you be?” Tasha was amazed at how much of her conversations with her cousin were always in this kind of code.
“I just thought we’d eat and leave. I didn’t even know there’d be dancing. Howie asked, I danced with him, and then Rick cut in.”
“You let him.”
“It’s polite to dance with the cuttee,” Tasha said through clenched teeth. “Did you want a scene?”
“It would be just like Rick to provide one.” Brooke tapped a manicured finger against her perfect white teeth.
Tasha saw the wheels move, saw Brooke’s opinion shift from blaming Tasha to blaming Rick. Brooke slipped her arm through Tasha’s and pulled her close, just like she used to do in high school when she wanted to gossip. “Listen, Tash, Rick’s not your kind of guy.”
“I thought you just said he was.”
Brooke let out a little whistle of air, her extreme exasperation sound. “He’s trouble, Tash.”
“I’m a cop, Brookie. I can handle trouble.”
“I don’t want you to blame me for it,” Brooke said. “He’s not the kind of guy you should be with.”
“Even for one night?”
“Sorry,” Tasha said, but now she was intrigued. “What’s wrong with him?”
“Everything,” Brooke said, and looked at him. Tasha couldn’t help herself. She looked too.
He smiled and waved two fingers, just as if he knew what they were discussing. It was a roguish smile. It suited him as much as the twinkles in his eyes did.
“He’s good looking,” Tasha said.
“They all are.”
“His family?” Tasha asked.
“No, silly,” Brooke said. “Womanizers.”
“He’s a womanizer?”
“He’s got a woman for every day of the week, and twice on Sundays.”
Tasha turned toward her cousin in surprise. Brooke rarely spoke in clichés. In fact, that particular cliché was the province of Tasha’s mother, who usually said that of any handsome man.
“Oh, so he likes women,” Tasha said.
“He doesn’t like them. He uses them,” Brooke said.
“He seemed nice to me.”
“Tash! That’s how they get their victims.”
“Victims?” Tasha frowned.
“You know what I mean,” Brooke said.
“No, I don’t.”
“Look, Tash, he’s a user. He can’t hold a job, so his women support him. And he’s macho. He does all those guy things.”
“What guy things? He watches too much TV? Scratches himself in public? What?”
“You sound testy,” Brooke said.
“I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve this kind of talking-to. Did you want me to spend more time with Howie?”
“Tash, Howie’s stable. He’s rich, and he’s really nice. He’ll take care of you.”
“I don’t want to be taken care of, Brooke.” Tasha slipped her arm out of her cousin’s grasp. “How come no one in this family understands that? I take care of myself.”
“Tash, you know what I mean.”
“You’ve been saying that for the entire conversation, and I’ve been saying, ‘No, I don’t.’ What does that tell you, Brooke? I’m dense. I can’t figure this stuff out sometimes.”
“Clearly,” Brooke said softly.
“Brooke, I know you mean well, but—”
“Tash, you’re going to have to get married some day. You’re right at that age, and you’re too naïve by half . . . .”
Naïve? Tasha thought. She was a police officer, for heavens’ sake. If anyone was naïve, it was Brooke.
“. . . you’ll get hurt, and I don’t want to be responsible for it.”
Tasha had missed some of that diatribe. “How would you be responsible for it?”
Brooke bowed her beautiful head. “Gerald didn’t want to invite Rick. He’s the family black sheep, you know. But I wanted everyone in both families in my wedding. You know how important family is. I really pushed for it. It would be awful if it backfired in my face.”
“Seems to me,” Tasha said, “that if I got involved with him and he was half as bad as you say, it would backfire in my face.”
“You know what I mean!” Brooke said.
Tasha sighed. Ironically, this time she did. Brooke really cared about Tasha. Brooke didn’t understand her, but she cared.
“Brookie,” Tasha said, using her cousin’s childhood nickname. “I’ll spend as much of tomorrow with Howie as I can. And I’ll be good. It’s your special day. But I can take care of myself. They train us how to do that at my job.”
“Not emotionally,” Brooke said.
“Even emotionally,” Tasha said. “You don’t have to worry about me this weekend. You have enough to worry about. Like the fact that the guests are getting confused and the band’s antsy. Don’t you want some of that lovely music you’re probably paying for?”
“Oh, damn,” Brooke said and hurried off toward the band. Gerald was still standing there, looking concerned.
Tasha turned to the bar and ordered a beer. The bartender gave her a tall glass with foam that spilled over her hand.
“I’ll get that,” a voice said behind her.
Rick. She already recognized his voice, and the feel of him against her back.
He ordered a beer for himself, then took out his wallet, only to have the bartender tell him it was part of the dinner. Still, he put a five in the bartender’s nearly empty tip jar.
To impress her? Tasha wondered. Or because he was just that kind of man?
The band started up. Tasha could feel Brooke’s gaze on her.
“How bad was it?” Rick asked, moving her to the side of the bar.
“Bad enough that Brooke would be mad if we went back out on the dance floor.”
“Because she wants you with Howie?”
“Because she says you’re not right for me.”
He sipped his beer, seemingly unperturbed. “Let me guess. She called me a deadbeat.”
“The black sheep of the family.”
“And?” he asked. “What else?”
He nearly snorted his next sip of beer. “Since when did that become a crime?”
“It’s a new century,” Tasha said. “Apparently the old ways are no longer our ways.”
He grinned. “How much of this stuff do you believe?”
“What I believe doesn’t matter,” Tasha said. “My cousin believes that if I spend time with you tonight and tomorrow it’ll ruin her wedding. So I have to respect her wishes.”
His grin faded. He glanced at Gerald and Brooke, who were dancing, but were watching them.
“Fair enough,” he said. “This is their weekend. They get to call the shots.”
He set his beer down, then took her beer and set it beside his. For a moment, she thought he was going to lead her to the dance floor—the true black sheep, thumbing his nose at everyone. Instead he took both of her hands in his.
He ran his thumbs over her knuckles. The movement sent little shivers through her. His gaze caught and held hers.
“For what it’s worth, Tasha,” he said. “You were the highlight of my evening, maybe even the highlight of my week.”
“There go those words again,” she said, teasing gently. “You bend them to your own purposes.”
“No purpose involved,” he said, “except to thank you for making what would have been an ordeal a lot of fun.”
He squeezed her hands, and then let them go.
“I should thank you, too,” she said, but he was already walking toward the door. He didn’t even say goodbye to Brooke and Gerald.
She wondered if she would have been as understanding if someone had said all those things about her.
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