Nightshade, p.8
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       Nightshade, p.8

         Part #3 of Night Tales series by Nora Roberts
 
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  there’s one more thing.” He raised their linked hands, studying the contrast of texture, tone and size. “Sooner or later, we’ll be going off the clock.” His gaze shifted to meet hers. “Then we’ll have to deal with other things.”

  “Then we’ll deal with them. But you may not like the way it shakes down.”

  He caught her chin in one hand, kissed her hard, then released her before she could do more than hiss. “Same goes. You be careful out there, Lieutenant.”

  “I was born careful, Nightshade.” She walked away, shrugging into the blazer as she went.

  * * *

  Ten hours later, she parked her car in her building’s garage and headed for the elevator. She was ready for a hot bath pregnant with bubbles, a glass of icy white wine, and some slow blues, heavy on the bass.

  As she rode to her floor, she leaned against the back wall and shut her eyes. They hadn’t gotten very far with the bartender, Leo Dorsetti. Bribes hadn’t worked, and veiled threats hadn’t, either. Althea didn’t doubt he had connections with the pornography ring. Nor did she doubt that he was worried that the same fate might befall him that had Wild Bill.

  So she needed more than a threat. She needed to dig up something on Leo Dorsetti. Something solid enough that she could drag him downtown and into interrogation.

  Once she had him, she could crack him. She was damn sure of that.

  She jingled her keys as she walked through the open elevator doors and into the hall. Now it was time to put the cop on hold, at least for an hour or two. Obsessing over a case usually equalled making mistakes on a case. So she’d pack it away into a corner of her mind, let it sit, let it ripen, while the woman indulged in a purely selfish evening.

  She’d already unlocked the door, pushed it open, when the alarm went off in her head. She didn’t question what tripped it, just whipped out her weapon. Automatically she followed standard entry procedure, checking in corners and behind the door.

  Her eyes scanned the room, noting that nothing was out of place—unless she counted the Bessie Smith record currently playing on the turntable. And the scent. She took a quick whiff, identifying cooking, something spicy. It made her mouth water in response, even as her mind stayed alert.

  A sound from the kitchen had her whirling in that direction, ending in the spread-legged police stance, her weapon steady in both hands.

  Colt stopped in the doorway, wiping his hands on a dishcloth. Smiling, he leaned back against the jamb. “Hi there, darling. And how was your day?”

  Chapter 6

  Althea lowered her gun. She didn’t raise her voice. The words she chose, quiet and precise, made her feelings known with more clarity than a shout could have.

  When she’d finished, Colt could only shake his head in admiration. “I don’t believe I’ve ever been cussed out with more style. Now, I’d be obliged if you’d holster that gun. Not that I figure you’d use it and risk getting blood all over your floor.”

  “It might be worth it.” She slapped her gun back in place, but her eyes never left his. “You have the right to remain silent… .” she began.

  Wisely, Colt stifled a chuckle. He held up a hand. “What’re you doing?”

  “I’m reading you your rights before I haul your butt in for nighttime breaking and entering.”

  He didn’t doubt she’d do it. She’d have him booked, fingerprinted and photographed without breaking stride. “I’ll waive them, providing you listen to an explanation.”

  “It better be good.” Shrugging out of her blazer, she tossed it over the back of the chair. “How did you get in here?”

  “I, ah … Through the door?”

  Her eyes narrowed. “You have the right to an attorney.”

  Obviously humor wasn’t going to do the trick. “Okay, I’m busted.” He tossed up both hands in a gesture of surrender. “I picked the lock. It’s a damn good one, too. Or maybe I’m getting rusty.”

  “You picked the lock.” She nodded, as if it were no more than she’d expected. “You carry a concealed weapon—an ASP nine-millimeter …”

  “Good eye, Lieutenant.”

  “And a knife that likely exceeds the legal limit,” she continued. “Now it appears you also carry lockpicks.”

  “They come in handy.” And it was something he preferred not to dwell on when she was in this sort of mood. “Now, I figured you had a rough day, and you deserved coming home to a hot meal and some cold wine. I also figured you’d be a little testy coming in and finding me here. But I have to believe you’ll come around after you’ve had a taste of my linguine.”

  Maybe, she thought, maybe if she closed her eyes for a minute, it would all go away. But when she tried it, he was still there, grinning at her. “Your linguine?”

  “Linguine marinara. I’d claim it was my sainted mother’s recipe, but she never boiled an egg in her life. How about that wine?”

  “Sure. Why the hell not?”

  “That’s the way.” He stepped back into the kitchen. Deciding she could always kill him later, Althea followed. The aromas drifting through the air were heaven. “You like white,” he said as he poured two glasses, using her best crystal. “This is a nice, full-bodied Italian that won’t embarrass my sauce. Bold, but classy. See if it suits you.”

  She accepted the glass, allowed him to clink his against hers, then sipped. The wine tasted like liquid heaven. “Who the hell are you, Nightshade?”

  “Why, I’m the answer to your prayers. Why don’t we go in and sit down? You know you want to take your shoes off.”

  She did, but she obstinately kept them on as she walked back and lowered herself onto the couch. “Explain.”

  “I just did.”

  “If you cannot afford an attorney—”

  “God, you’re tough.” He let out a long breath and stretched out beside her. “Okay, I have a couple of reasons. One, I know you’ve been putting in a lot of extra time on my business… .”

  “It’s my—”

  “Job?” he finished for her. “Maybe. But I know when someone’s taking those extra steps, the kind that eat into personal time, and fixing you dinner’s just a way of saying thanks.”

  It was a damn nice gesture, too, she thought, though she wasn’t willing to say so. Yet. “You might have mentioned the idea to me earlier.”

  “It was an impulse. You ever have them?”

  “Don’t push your luck, Nightshade.”

  “Right. Well, to get back to the whys. There’s also the fact that I haven’t been able to snatch more than an hour at a time to clear this whole mess out of my head. Cooking helps me recharge. Maria wasn’t likely to turn her stove over to me, so I thought of you.” He reached out to curl a lock of her hair around his finger. “I think of you a lot. And finally, and simply, I wanted the evening with you.”

  He was getting to her. Althea wanted to believe that it was the glorious scents sneaking out of the kitchen that were weakening her. But she didn’t believe it. “So you broke into my home and invaded my privacy.”

  “The only thing I poked into was your kitchen cupboards. It was tempting,” he admitted, “but I didn’t go any farther than that.”

  Frowning, Althea swirled the wine in her glass. “I don’t like your methods, Nightshade. But I think I’m going to like your linguine.”

  * * *

  She didn’t like it. She adored it. It was difficult to harbor resentments when her palate was being so thoroughly seduced. She’d had men cook for her before, but she couldn’t remember ever being so completely charmed.

  Here was Colt Nightshade, very possibly armed to the teeth beneath his faded jeans and chambray shirt, serving her pasta by candlelight. Not that it was romantic, she thought. She was too smart to fall for any conventional trappings. But it was funny, and oddly sweet.

  By the time she’d worked her way through one helping and was starting on a second, she’d filled him in on her progress. The lab reports were expected within twenty-four hours, the bartender at Clancy’
s was under surveillance and an undercover officer was being prepped to hit the streets.

  Colt filed her information away and traded it for some of his own. He’d talked to some of the local working girls that afternoon. Whether due to his charm or to the money that had changed hands, he’d learned that a girl who went by the street name Lacy hadn’t been seen in any of her usual haunts for the past several weeks.

  “She fits the profile,” he continued, topping off Althea’s wineglass. “Young, tiny. Girls said she was a brunette, but liked to wear a blond wig.”

  “Did she have a pimp?”

  “Uh-uh. Freelancer. I went by the rooms she’d been renting.” Colt broke a piece of garlic bread in two and passed Althea half. “Talked to the landlord—a prince of a guy. Since she’d missed a couple of weekly rent payments, he’d packed up her stuff. Pawned what was worth anything, trashed the rest.”

  “I’ll see if anybody at Vice knows about her.”

  “Good. I hit some of the shelters again,” he went on. “The halfway houses, showing Liz’s picture around, and the police sketches.” He frowned, toying with the rest of his meal. “I couldn’t get anyone to ID. Had a hard enough time convincing any of the kids that they should look at the pictures. Most of the kids want to act tough, invincible, and all you see is the confusion in their eyes.”

  “When you’re dealing with that kind of confusion, you have to be tough. Most of them come from homes that are torn apart by drugs, drinking, physical and sexual abuse. Or they got into substance abuse all on their own and don’t know how to get out again.” She moved her shoulders. “Either way, running seems like the best way out.”

  “It wasn’t like that for Liz.”

  “No,” she agreed. It was time for him to turn it off, as well, she decided. If only for a few minutes. She scraped a last bite from her plate. “You know, Nightshade, you could give up playing the adventurer and go into catering. You’d make a fortune.”

  He understood what she was doing, and he put some effort into accommodating her. “I prefer small, private parties.”

  Her gaze flicked up to his, then back to her glass. “So, if it wasn’t your sainted mother who taught you to make world-class linguine, who did?”

  “We had this terrific Irish cook when I was growing up. Mrs. O’Malley.”

  “An Irish cook who taught you Italian cuisine.”

  “She could make anything—from lamb stew to coq au vin. ‘Colt, me boy,’ she used to tell me, ‘the best thing a man can do for himself is to learn to feed himself well. Depending on a woman to fill your belly’s a mistake.’” The memory made him grin. “When I’d gotten into trouble, which was most of the time, she’d sit me down in the kitchen. I’d get lectures on behavior, and the proper way to debone a chicken.”

  “Quite a combination.”

  “The stuff on behavior didn’t stick.” He toasted her. “But I make a hell of a chicken pot pie. And when Mrs. O’Malley retired—oh, almost ten years ago now—my mother went into a dark state of depression.”

  Althea’s lips curved on the rim of her glass. “And hired another cook.”

  “A French guy with a bad attitude. She loves him.”

  “A French chef in Wyoming.”

  “I live in Wyoming,” he said. “They live in Houston. We get along better that way. What about your family? Are they from around here?”

  “I don’t have one. What about your law degree? Why haven’t you done anything with it?”

  “I didn’t say I hadn’t.” He studied her for a moment. She’d certainly dropped his question like a hot coal. It was something he’d have to come back to. “I found out I wasn’t suited to spending hours hunched over law books, trying to outwit justice on technicalities.”

  “So you went into the air force.”

  “It was a good way to learn how to fly.”

  “But you’re not a pilot.”

  “Sometimes I am.” He smiled. “Sorry, Thea, I don’t fit into a slot. I’ve got enough money that I can do what suits me when it suits me.”

  That wasn’t good enough. “And the military didn’t suit you?”

  “For a while it did. Then I had enough.” He shrugged and sat back. The candlelight flickered on his face and in his eyes. “I learned some things. Just like I learned from Mrs. O’Malley, and from prep school, from Harvard, and from this old Indian horse trainer I met in Tulsa some years back. You never know when you’re going to use what you’ve learned.”

  “Who taught you to pick locks?”

  “You’re not going to hold that against me, are you?” He leaned forward to flick a finger over her hair, and to pour more wine. “I picked it up in the service. I was in what you might call a special detachment.”

  “Covert operations,” she said, translating. It was no surprise. “That’s why so much of your record’s classified.”

  “It’s old news, should be declassified by now. But that’s the way of it, isn’t it? Bureaucrats like secrets almost as much as they like red tape. What I did was gather information, or plant information, maybe defuse certain volatile situations, or stir them up, depending on the orders.” He drank again. “I guess we could say I started doing favors for people—only these people ran the government.” His lip curled. “Or tried to.”

  “You don’t like the system, do you?”

  “I like what works.” For an instant only, his eyes darkened. “I saw plenty that didn’t work. So …” He shrugged, and the mood was gone. “I got out, bought myself a few horses and cows, played rancher. Looks like old habits die hard, because now I do favors for people again. Only now I have to like them first.”

  “Some people might say that you’ve had a hard time deciding what you want to do when you grow up.”

  “Some people might. I figure I’ve been doing it. What about you? What’s the back story on Althea Grayson?”

  “It’s nothing that would sell to the movies.” Relaxed, she rested her elbows on the table, running a finger around the rim of her glass until the crystal sang. “I went straight into the academy when I was eighteen. No detours.”

  “Why?”

  “Why a cop?” She mulled over her answer. “Because I do like the system. It’s not perfect, but if you keep at it, you can make it work. And the law … there are people out there who want to make it work. Too many lives get lost in the cracks. It means something when you can pull one out.”

  “I can’t argue with that.” Without thinking about it, he laid a hand over hers. “I could always see that Boyd was meant to make law and order work. Until recently, he was about the only cop I respected enough to trust.”

  “I think you just gave me a compliment.”

  “You can be sure of it. The two of you have a lot in common. A clear-sightedness, a stubborn kind of valor, a steady compassion.” He smiled, toying with her fingers. “The kid we got off the roof—I went to see her, too. She had a lot to say about the pretty lady with the red hair who brought her a baby doll.”

  “So I did a follow-up. It’s my job to—”

  “Bull.” Delighted with her response, he picked up her hand, kissed it. “It had nothing to do with duty, and everything to do with you. Having a soft side doesn’t make you less of a cop, Thea. It just makes you a kinder one.”

  She knew where this was leading, but she didn’t pull her hand away. “Just because I have a soft spot for kids doesn’t mean I’ve got one for you.”

  “But you do,” he murmured. “I get to you.” Watching her, he skimmed his lips down to her wrist. The pulse there beat steady, but it also beat fast. “I’m going to keep getting to you.”

  “Maybe you do.” She was too smart to continue to deny the obvious. “That doesn’t mean anything’s going to come of it. I don’t sleep with every man who attracts me.”

  “I’m glad to hear it. Then again, you’re going to do a lot more than sleep with me.” He chuckled and kissed her hand again. “God, I love it when you smirk, Thea. It drives me crazy. What I was
going to say was, when we get each other to bed, sleeping’s not going to be a priority. So maybe you should catch some shut-eye.” He rose, pulling her to her feet. “Kiss me good night, and I’ll let you get some now.”

  The surprise in her eyes made him grin again. He’d wait until later to pat himself on the back for his strategy.

  “You thought I cooked you dinner and kept you company so I could use it as a springboard to seduction.” On a windy sigh, he shook his head. “Althea, I’m wounded. Close to crushed.”

  She laughed, keeping a friendly hand in his. “You know, Nightshade, sometimes I almost like you. Almost.”

  “See, that’s just a couple of short steps away from you being nuts about me.” He gathered her close, and the instant twisting in his gut mocked his light tone. “If I’d bothered to make dessert, you’d be begging for me.”

  Amused, she tucked her tongue in her cheek. “Your loss. Everybody knows cannoli turns me into a wild woman.”

  “I’ll sure as hell remember that.” He kissed her lightly, watched her smile. And felt his heart turn over. “There must be a bakery around here where I can pick up some Italian pastries.”

  “Nope. You missed your shot.” She brought a hand to his chest, telling herself she was going to end the interlude now, while she could still feel her legs under her. “Thanks for the pasta.”

  “Sure.” But he continued to stare down at her, his eyes sharpening, focusing, as if he were struggling to see past the ivory skin, the delicate bones. Something was happening here, he realized. Something internal that he couldn’t quite get a grip on. “You have something in your eyes.”

  Her nerves were dancing. “What?”

  “I don’t know.” He spoke slowly, as if measuring each word. “Sometimes I can almost see it. When I do, it makes me wonder where you’ve been. Where we’re going.”

  Her lungs were backing up. She took a careful breath to clear them. “You were going home.”

  “Yeah. In a minute. Too easy to tell you you’re beautiful,” he murmured, as if speaking to himself. “You hear that too much, and it’s too superficial to carry any weight with you. It should be enough for me, but there’s something else in there. I keep coming back to it.” Still seeking, he drew her closer. “What is it about you, Althea? What is it I can’t shake loose?”

  “There’s nothing. You’re too used to looking for shadows.”

  “No, you’ve got them.” Slowly he slid a hand up to cup her cheek. “And what I have is a problem.”

  “What problem?”

  “Try this.”

  He lowered his mouth to hers and had every muscle in her body going lax. It wasn’t demanding, it wasn’t urgent. It was devastating. The kiss tumbled her deeper, deeper, bombarding her with emotions she had no defense against. His feelings were free and ripe and poured over her, into her, so that she was covered and filled and surrounded by them.

  No escape, she thought, and heard her own muffled sound of despair with a dull acceptance. He’d breached a defense she had taken for granted, one she might never fully shore up again.

  She could tell herself again and again that she wouldn’t fall in love, that she couldn’t fall in love with a man she hardly knew. But her heart was already laughing at logic.

  He felt her give—not all the way, not yet, but give yet another degree of self. There was more than heat here, though, sweet heaven, there was heat. But there was a kind of discovery, as well. For Colt, it was a revelation to discover that one woman—this woman—could tangle up his mind, rip open his heart and leave him helpless.

  “I’m losing ground here.” He kept his hands firm on her shoulders as he pulled back. “I’m losing it fast.”

  “It’s too much.” It was a poor response, but the best she could summon.

  “You’re telling me.” There was tension in her shoulders again, and in his. It compelled him to step away. “I’ve never felt like this before. And that’s no line,” he said when she turned away from him.

  “I know. I wish it were.” She gripped the back of the chair, where her shoulder holster hung. A symbol of duty, she thought. Of control, of what she had made of herself. “Colt, I think we’re both getting in deeper than we might like.”

  “Maybe we’ve been treading water long enough.”

  She was very much afraid that she was ready, willing, even eager, to sink. “I don’t let personal business interfere with my job. If we can’t keep this under control, you should consider working with someone else.”

  “We’ve been working together just fine,” he said between his teeth. “Don’t pull out any lame excuses because you don’t want to face up to what’s going on between us.”

  “It’s the best I’ve got.” Her knuckles had turned white on the chair. “And
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