Authors: Nora Roberts
When Alex Stanislaski mistakenly arrested daringly bold soap-opera writer Bess McKnee for soliciting, she decided the sexy detective was absolutely perfectâfor her research and for herself. Now all she had to do was convince him she was rightâ¦.
For Pat Gaffney,
to even things out
he curvy blonde in hot-pink spandex tottered on stiletto heels as she worked her corner. Her eyes, heavily painted with a sunburst of colors, kept a sharp watch on her associates, those spangled shadows of the night. There was a great deal of laughter on the street. After all, it was springtime in New York. But beneath the laughter there was a flat sheen of boredom that no amount of glitter or sex could disguise.
For these ladies, business was business.
After popping in some fresh gum, she adjusted the large canvas bag on her bare shoulder. Thank God it was warm, she thought. It would be hell to strut around half-dressed if the weather was ugly.
A gorgeous black woman in red leather that barely covered the essentials languidly lit a cigarette and cocked her hip. “Come on, baby,” she said to no one in particular, in a voice husky from the smoke she exhaled. “Wanna have some fun?”
Some did, Bess noted, her eyes skimming the block. Some didn't. All in all, she thought, business was pretty brisk on this spring night. She'd observed several transactions, and the varied ways they were contracted. It was too bad boredom was the byword here. Boredom, and a defiant kind of hopelessness.
“You talking to yourself, honey?”
“Huh?” Bess blinked up into the shrewd eyes of the black goddess in red leather who had strolled over. “Was I?”
“You're new?” Studying Bess, she blew out smoke. “Who's your man?”
“Myâ¦ I don't have one.”
“Don't have one?” The woman arched her ruthlessly plucked brows and sneered. “Girl, you can't work this street without a man.”
“That's what I'm doing.” Since she didn't have a cigarette, Bess blew a bubble with her gum. Then snapped it.
“Bobby or Big Ed find out, they're going to mess you up.” She shrugged. After all, it wasn't her problem.
“Girl, ain't nothing free.” With a laugh, she ran a hand down her slick, leather-covered hip. “Nothing at all.” She flicked her cigarette into the street, where it bounced off the rear fender of a cab.
There were dozens of questions on Bess's lips. It was in her nature to ask them, but she remembered that she had to go slow. “So who's
“Bobby.” With her lips pursed, the woman skimmed her gaze up and down Bess. “He'd take you on. A little skinny through the butt, but you'd do. You need protection when you work the streets.” And she could use the extra money Bobby would pass her way if she brought him a new girl.
“Nobody protected the two girls who got murdered last month.”
The black woman's eyes flickered. Bess considered herself an excellent judge of emotion, and she saw grief, regret and sorrow before the eyes hardened again. “You a cop?”
Bess's mouth fell open before she laughed. That was a good one, she
thought. Sort of flattering. “No, I'm not a cop. I'm just trying to make a living. Did you know either of them? The women who were killed?”
“We don't like questions around here.” The woman tilted her head. “If you're trying to make a living, let's see you do it.”
Bess felt a quick ripple of unease. Not only was the woman gorgeous, she was big. Big and suspicious. Both qualities were going to make it difficult for Bess to hang back on the fringes and observe. But she considered herself an agile thinker and a quick study. After all, she reminded herself, she'd come here tonight to do business.
“Sure.” Turning, she strutted slowly along the sidewalk. Her hipsâand she didn't for a minute believe that her butt was skinnyâswayed seductively.
Maybe her throat was a little dry. Maybe her heart was pounding a bit too quickly. But Bess McNee took a great deal of pride in her work.
She spotted the two men half a block away and licked her lips. The one on the left, the dark one, looked very promising.
“Look, rookie, the idea's to take one, maybe two.” Alex scanned the sidewalk ahead. Hookers, drunks, junkies and those unfortunate enough to have to pass through them to get home. “My snitch says that the tall black oneâRosalieâknew both the victims.”
“So why don't we just pick her up and take her in for questioning?” Judd Malloy was anxious for action. His detective's shield was only forty-eight hours old. And he was working with Alexi Stanislaski, a cop who had a reputation for moving quickly and getting the job done. “Better yet, why don't we go roust her pimp?”
Rookies, Alex thought. Why were they always teaming him up with rookies? “Because we want her cooperation. We're going to pick
her up, book her for solicitation. Then we're going to talk to her, real nice, before Bobby can come along and tell her to clam up.”
“If my wife finds out I spent the night picking up hookersâ”
“A smart cop doesn't tell his family anything they'd don't need to know. And they don't need to know much.” Alex's dark brown eyes were cool, very cool, as they flicked over his new partner's face. “Stanislaski's rule number one.”
He spotted the blonde. She was staring at him. Alex stared back. Odd face, he thought. Sharp, sexy, despite the makeup she'd troweled on. Beneath all the gunk, her eyes were a vivid green. The face itself was all angles, some of them wrong. Her nose was slightly crooked, as if it had been broken. Some john or pimp, he figured, then skimmed his eyes down to her mouth.
Full, overfull, and a glossy red. It didn't please him at all that he felt a reaction to it. Not knowing what she was, what she did. Her chin came to a slight point, and with her prominent cheekbones it gave her face a triangular, foxlike look.
The clinging tube top and spandex capri pants showed every inch of her curvy, athletic little body. He'd always been a sucker for the athletic typeâbut he reminded himself just where this particular number got her exercise.
In any case, she wasn't the one he was looking for.
Now or never, Bess told herself, feeling her new acquaintance's eyes on her.
“Hey, babyâ¦” Though she hadn't smoked since she'd been fifteen, her voice was husky. Saying a prayer to whatever gods were listening, she veered in on Alex. “Want to party?”
“Maybe.” He hooked a finger in the top of her tube, and was surprised when she flinched. “You're not quite what I had it mind, sweetie.”
“Oh?” What next? Combining instinct with her observations, she tossed her head and leaned into him. She had the quick impression of pressing against steelâhard, unyielding and very cool. “Just what
you have in mind?”
Then, for a moment, she had nothing at all on hers. Not with the way those dark eyes cut into her, through her. His knuckles were brushing her skin, just above the breasts. She felt the heat from them, from him. As she continued to stare, she was struck by a vivid image of the two of them, rolling on a narrow bed in some dark room.
And it had nothing to do with business.
It was the first time Alex had ever seen a hooker blush. It threw him off, made him want to apologize for the fantasy that had just whipped through his brain. Then he remembered himself.
“Just a different type, babe.”
In her heels, they were eye-to-eye. It made him want to rub off the powders and paints to see what was beneath.
“I can be a different type,” Bess said, delighted with her inspired response.
“Hey, girlfriend.” Rosalie strutted over and slipped a friendly arm around Bess's shoulders. “You're not going to be greedy and take both of these boys, are you?”
Pay dirt, Alex thought, and shifted his attention to Rosalie. “You two a team?”
“We are tonight.” She glanced from Alex to his partner. “How 'bout you two?”
Judd searched for his voice. He'd rather have been facing a gunman in an alley. And he simply couldn't put his hands on this big, beauti
ful woman, when a picture of his wife's trusting face was flashing in his head like a neon light.
“Sure.” He let out a long breath and tried to emulate some of Alex's cocky confidence.
Rosalie threw back her head and laughed before she stepped forward, bumping bodies with Judd. He gave way instinctively as a dark red flush crept up his neck. “I believe you're new at this, honey. Why don't you let Rosalie show you the ropes?”
Because his partner seemed to have developed laryngitis, Alex took over. “How much?”
“Wellâ¦” Rosalie didn't bother to look over at Bess, who had gone dead pale. “Special rate tonight. You get both of us for a hundred. That's the first hour.” She leaned down and whispered something in Judd's ear that had him babbling. “After that,” she continued, “we can negotiate.”
“I don'tâ” Bess began, then felt Rosalie's fingers dig into her bare shoulder like sharp little knives.
“I think that'll do it,” Alex said, and pulled out his badge. “Ladies, you're busted.”
Cops, Bess realized on a wave of sweet relief. While Rosalie expressed her opinion with a single vicious word, Bess struggled not to burst into wild laughter.
Perfect, Bess thought as she was bumped along into the squad room. She'd been arrested for solicitation, and life couldn't be better. Trying to take everything in at once, she grinned as she scanned the station house. She'd been in one before, of course. As she always said, she took her work seriously. But not in this precinct. Not downtown.
It was dirtyâgrimy, really, she decided, making mental notes and
muttering to herself. Floors, walls, the barred windows. Everything had a nice, picturesque coat of crud.
It smelled, too. She took a deep breath so that she wouldn't forget the ripe stench of human sweat, bitter coffee and strong disinfectant.
And it was noisy. With every nerve on sensory alert, she separated the din into ringing phones, angry curses, weeping, and the clickety-clack of keyboards at work.
Man, oh, man, she thought. Her luck was really in.
“You're not a tourist, sweetheart,” Alex reminded her, adding a firm nudge.
The vibrant excitement in her eyes was so out of place that he stared. Then, with a shake of his head, he jabbed a finger toward a chair. He was letting the rookie get his feet wet getting the vitals from Rosalie. Once they had her booked, he'd take over himself, using charm or threats or whatever seemed most expedient to make her talk to him about her two murdered associates.
“Okay.” He took his seat behind his battered and overcrowded desk. “You know the drill.”
She'd been staring at a young man of about twenty with a face full of bruises and a torn denim jacket. “Excuse me?”
Alex just sighed as he rolled a form onto his typewriter. “Name?”
“Oh, I'm Bess.” She held out her hand in a gesture so natural and friendly he nearly took it.
Instead, he swore softly. “Bess what?”
“McNee. And you're?”
“In charge. Date of birth.”
His eyes flicked up, arrowed hers. “Why what?”
“Why do you want to know?”
Patience, never his strong suit, strained. He tapped a finger on the form. “Because I've got this space to fill.”
“Okay. I'm twenty-eight. A Gemini. I was born on June the first.”
Alex did the math and typed in the year. “Residence.”
Natural curiosity had her poking through the folders and papers on his desk until he slapped her hand. “You're awfully tense,” she commented. “Is it because you work undercover?”
Damn that smile, he thought. It was sassy, sexy, and far from stupid. That, and those sharp, intelligent green eyes, might have fooled him. But she looked like a hooker, and she smelled like a hooker. Thereforeâ¦
“Listen, doll, here's the way this works. I ask the questions, you answer them.”
“Tough, cynical, street-smart.”
One dark brow lifted. “Excuse me?”
“Just a quick personality check. You want my address, right?” she rattled off an address that made both of Alex's brows raise.
“Let's get serious.”
“Okay.” Willing to oblige, Bess folded her hands on the edge of his desk.
“Your address,” he repeated.
“I just gave it to you.”
“I know what real estate goes for in that area. Maybe you're good.” Thoughtful, he scanned her attributes one more time. “Maybe you're better than you look. But you don't make enough working the streets to pop for that kind of rent.”
Bess knew an insult when it hit her over the head. What made it worse was that she'd spent over an hour on her makeup. And she happened to know that her body was good. Lord knew, she sweated
to keep it that way by working out three days a week. “That's where I live, cop.” Her temper, which had a habit of flaring quickly, had her upending her enormous canvas tote onto his desk.
Alex watched, fascinated, as she pawed through the pile of contents. There were enough cosmetics to supply a small department store. And they weren't the cheap kind. Six lipsticks, two compacts, several mascara sticks and pots of eye shadow. A rainbow of eyeliner pencils. Scattered with them were two sets of keys, a snowfall of credit-card receipts, rubber bands, paper clips, twelve pensâhe countedâa few broken pencils, a steno pad, two paperback books, matches, a leather address book embossed with the initials
a staplerâhe didn't even pause to wonder why she would carry oneâtissues and crumpled papers, a tiny micro-cassette recorder. And a gun.
He whipped it out of the pile and stared at it. A water gun.
“Careful with that,” she warned as she found her overburdened wallet. “It's full of ammonia.”
“I used to carry Mace, but this works fine. Here.” Pleased with herself, she pushed the open wallet under his nose.
It might have been her in the picture. The hair was short and curly and chic, a deep chestnut rather than a brassy blonde. But that nose, that chin. And those eyes. He frowned over the driver's license. The address was right.