Susannah's head snapped around hard enough to give her whiplash. Fortunately, Grace's giggle camouflaged the groan of dismay she couldn't suppress. Heat rushed to her face. How had the dratted man opened the door to the Sheriff's inner sanctum without even a squeak of the old hinges? Susannah swallowed hard. She refused to act as embarrassed as she felt.
As usual, weirdness accompanied D. E. Hogan into a room. That had to be the explanation since all the oxygen seemed to dissipate leaving her breathless. Her pulse beat harder, faster. Her senses heightened. She caught the scent of coconut that made her think of suntan oil on naked skin, heated by the summer sun.
"Grace and I were just, uh, just discussing. . . ." Her voice trailed off into nothingness. When he was near, her brain went into meltdown. It always took a few seconds for her to muster up an attitude. The kind of attitude designed to keep him at arm's length. Cool as can be, she lied, "Actually, I was just transcribing your notes."
The impediment to her peace of mind leaned against the doorframe. All six feet plus of tanned majesty. He could be the poster boy for tall, dark, and too yummy for her peace of mind. But she'd step barefoot on a jellyfish before she let anyone, especially him, realize how she felt.
As usual, he wore ragged cut-off jeans, a white tank, and a Hawaiian shirt. Today a red one adorned with palm trees. Running shoes that looked as if they'd seen their fair share of miles completed his ensemble. He might not know fashion, but he sure knew how to strike a pose.
"Transcribing my notes? Sounds like you were trashing me. I'm wounded." He faked a pout. Then he smiled in a way that made her insides feel as if they were in a blender.
"Wounded? I'd like to wound you." She muttered. Hoping the chill in her voice countered the heat in her face, she asked, "Don't you have somewhere to go?"
"Don't you have something better to do than stare?"
Susannah glared at him. "Well, look in another direction."
Hogan met her blistering gaze and wished looking in a different direction was all it took to get the woman out of his head. The truth was that he'd thought of little besides the prickly deputy since he'd met her. Even though he knew she was off limits, he still spent way too much time thinking about her. About kissing her. Stroking her. Getting her into his bed. Like that was going to happen.
She wouldn't even acknowledge his existence outside this office. He'd called her at home. She'd hung up as soon as she'd heard his voice. After that, he got the answering machine until he'd given up. He'd tried to talk with her on the street. With cold amusement gleaming from her green eyes, she'd whipped out her ticket book and pen.
She made him feel like a bumbling high school idiot. He'd been a Special Agent with the Federal Bureau of Investigation for a decade and had handled every kind of crisis, but he couldn't handle his attraction to Susannah Quinn. Nor could he figure out what to do about the ridiculous situation he found himself in.
Hell. He was an idiot. And it was his own damn fault. He never should have approached her that night when he'd known who she was. But the tears sparkling in her eyes had made him ignore common sense. As a result, he found himself playacting in a farce that, unlike a movie, had no possibility of a good ending. All because of his family. First Vonnie. Then his uncle.
Damn that photograph. No matter how he'd tried, he couldn't get Walter to give up his grand plan. Walter Bofco was his favorite uncle. Most of the time. At the moment, the man was a major irritant. He'd left Hogan with only one course of action. Make Susannah detest him so much that she wouldn't agree to play a part in Walter's scheme. He just hadn't realized making himself persona non grata with her would bother him so much.
"Why don't you go get another of Aunt Opal's cinnamon rolls while I finish your report?" Susannah asked in a low voice.
"Why?" Hogan lowered his voice. "Am I bothering you? Making you think about me instead of the job?"
"Actually, I don't think about you at all." Susannah's eyes stayed on the keyboard.
"Really?" Unfortunately, he couldn't say the same. Why wouldn't she at least talk to him?
"I have more important things to do." Susannah started typing again.
Hogan knew he should go. But he was tired of getting stonewalled. "Hey." When she looked up, his eyes locked with her cool green gaze. "You're a liar."
His challenging words incensed Susannah. She didn't care if he was right. Her temper soared. Her fingers stilled. "Don't call me a liar."
The phone rang, shattering the tension. Susannah jerked her gaze from his blue eyes. She barely heard Grace's voice as the dispatcher answered the call. Why wouldn't Hogan leave her alone? She couldn't fall for him. She wouldn't. Or had that train already left the station?
"Don't call you a liar? Liar, liar. Pants on fire. What are you going to do about it?"
Though her poor heart hammered, with anger, she tried to tell herself, she couldn't think of a blessed thing to do about the situation. She told herself that his voice, pitched just loud enough to make a woman's pulse throb, was too practiced. Maybe it worked on other women, like the rich divorcees in the Cove, but it had no effect on her.
She'd lost her rose-colored glasses at the age of seven. Everyone in town knew that. He needed to learn it too. She refused to allow his low-voiced purr sweep away her hard-won disdain. If her pulse did throb, she reassured herself, it was from anger with the man who knew just what to say to rile her.
Hogan settled a hip on the edge of her desk. Softly, he asked, "Do I haunt your thoughts as much as you haunt mine?"
In a voice, carefully dripping with boredom, she drawled, "Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but not every woman in the county is obsessed with your rather unexceptional charm."
"You're a hard woman, Susannah Quinn." He grinned. "That's okay. We're evenly matched because I'm a hard man."
She snorted. "I wouldn't touch that line with a ten foot–." Her mouth snapped shut. Color blazed in her cheeks. When Hogan leaned toward her, she snapped, "Haven't you heard of the concept of personal space?"
Lazily, he stood. "It'll be interesting to see who wins this battle of wills."
"There is no battle." Susannah scowled. "Was there something else you wanted?"
"Something else I wanted? Hmmm." He swept her with a hot gaze.
When Grace giggled, Susannah snapped, "Clerically, that is."
Grace whooped with laughter. Susannah's face burned. Her eyes retreated to the monitor.
"Clerically, I wondered if you'd finished my report."
She stared at the words on the screen, refusing to look up. "It'll be ready by the time Mayor Bofco arrives if you'll quit bothering me."
As if his gaze had been a physical touch, as tangible a connection as flesh to flesh, she knew the instant his eyes left her. She heard a soft click when the door to her uncle's office closed behind him.
Relieved that he'd departed without further comment, Susannah exhaled loudly. She felt as if she'd run the hundred meter dash in full uniform. Boots, gun, cuffs, and all.
"Whew!" Grace fanned her face with her paperback book.
Why did Hogan always make her want to forget her rules concerning the obstinate sex?
"Glad I wasn't standing between you and Hogan. Talk about hot! A body could get singed by the electricity flowing between you two."
"Don't be ridiculous," Susannah protested. "The only thing between that man and me is animosity. Unless you count his enormous ego."
Grace giggled. "Yeah, I think he likes you too."
The corners of Susannah's mouth turned down. "And I think you've been reading too many romance novels."
"Yeah, yeah. You're not interested in him or any man. All you want's a career." Grace sighed dramatically. "You and Paula are two peas in a pod. A very lonely pod, I'm afraid."
At the mention of Grace's daughter, the desire to confess all to her best friend hit Susannah. If anyone knew how to handle Hogan, it was Paula. The girl had been born with man-handling skills encoded in her DNA.
"I just don't understand you girls nowadays. Instead of dating men, you want to be friends with them. Or in your case, enemies. Y'all need to get interested in romance."
"I'd say you're interested enough for both of us."
"Well, someone needs to lend a hand. Otherwise, you'll both end up as old maids still talking about achieving your life goals."
Susannah didn't bother asking what was wrong with being an old bachelorette. She knew Grace would tell her. Instead, she asked, "What's wrong with goals?"
"Nothing, but why do you have to plan every step of the way? Whatever happened to just enjoying what life may bring?"
"We discovered it brings nasty surprises." Susannah didn't care if she sounded as if she'd sucked on a lemon or two.
"You think by setting goals and writing five-year plans, you'll eliminate life's nasty surprises?" Grace hooted.
"Enough, Grace. I want to be a good cop, and I want to get ahead. What's wrong with that? I'll tell you. Nothing. I will be respected as a member of the law enforcement community. I worked hard to get my criminal justice degree, and I'm not going to let it go to waste."
"You can be taken seriously without being a stick in the mud. To use your own phrase. Lighten up. Life's too short. Have some fun with Hogan."
Susannah ignored her and resumed typing. Fun? Ha. There was little chance of that. That would be like having fun with a stick of dynamite. How dare Hogan turn his well-practiced charm on her, and in front of Grace too. Men like Hogan dispensed charm as easily as false promises.
Her flying fingers hit a wrong key for every right one. The computer beeped endlessly as it signaled misspellings. Susannah grumbled and backspaced to correct the typos. There was only one answer. She had to make Hogan stay away. She had to quit typing his reports. Since Uncle Barney had volunteered her services, she couldn't tell Hogan to take a hike. She had to make him want her to quit. Her fingers froze over the keys. The error beeps stopped.
"You know. I think you're right." Slowly she began to type, deliberately making mistakes. The machine started its crazy beeping again. "I think I do need to have some fun with Mr. D. E. Hogan." Grinning, she inserted a few asterisks in the next word and chuckled. "You know, Grace? I've seen the light. I feel better already. Let's see how Hogan likes this report."
Susannah started to hum the Kelly Clarkson song, "Miss Independent." She smiled smugly. "After today, I bet Hogan won't even ask me to type a grocery list."
Her mood lifted at the prospect. Before the unsettling man had dropped in, everything had been going her way. After last night's storm, the first of August had dawned with cooler temperatures and lower humidity. For a Texas county bordering the Gulf, low humidity promised a good hair day which was a blessing for her because her naturally curly hair had developed a mind of its own since she'd chopped off the length when she'd returned from that disastrous Houston trip.
She planned to talk to her uncle again and demand he let her be a real deputy, not a secretary in a shapeless uniform. She wanted her share of patrols. She was tired of being stuck with all the paperwork. If that didn't work, well then, she'd cry and beg. Barney Drummond, her mother's much older brother, was a sucker for tears. Her macho uncle might be Alton County's oft-elected sheriff, but he was a total marshmallow when it came to a crying niece.
A woman had to use the weapons at her disposal, she reasoned. That was female empowerment whether people on the outside looking in saw it that way or not.
The phone rang again. Three calls in less than an hour. Susannah heard Grace say, "Raynelle, of course Red has crab beignet on the menu tonight. It's Wednesday, isn't it?"
Susannah shook her head in disgust. Life was too predictable when you knew the entree offered each day of the week at Sunset Red's, the only restaurant in Vance open after dark.
Protect and serve? In this county, it seemed the Sheriff's department served up information rather than protection and law enforcement.
The desire to flee her hometown welled inside her. That wasn't going to happen. But she could at least be a real deputy and take pride in her job. Uncle Barney just had to let her start doing something other than be a glorified secretary, or she was going to go completely stark, raving crazy.
"I got one question for you, hon?"
Susannah hit the print button. "What's that?"
"You really don't think Hogan's cute?"
Susannah checked over her shoulder to make sure the man wasn't again lounging in the doorway. "Maybe he'd be passable if he didn't always look as if he needed a shave."
"Oh, honey." Grace batted her eyes comically. "Couldn't you just imagine his five o'clock shadow abrading the tender parts of your anatomy?"
"Now I know you need a reality check. Getting your tender parts scraped by beard stubble is not appealing." Not that Susannah knew from experience. Her few romantic adventures had been, well, less than adventurous. She was tempted to say sex was even more overrated than romance, but she imagined she'd only get another lecture from Alton County's version of a sex therapist. Instead, she asked, "Now what would Hank say if he heard you?"
"Oh, pish. Who cares what he'd say? Just because I've been married since the pioneers came over in covered wagons doesn't mean I don't appreciate a good-looking hunk like Hogan."
"Then you think it's all right for Hank to appreciate a good-looking woman too?" Susannah teased, thinking of Grace's equally round husband, the town's only dentist.
"Honey, as long as that woman is me, it's perfectly all right. And, let me tell you. He does appreciate me. Every pound and every curve."
Susannah blushed. She'd walked in on Grace and Hank Collier one day when she'd returned early from lunch. Hank's exploration of his wife's mouth hadn't been a search for cavities. And she didn't even want to recall where the dentist's hands had been located. To see her best friend's parents carrying on like that had given her pause.
"Take it from me, honey. You gotta let a man chase you until you decide to catch him. Then you grab him and hold on tight."
"I don't want any man chasing me, and I certainly don't want him getting a choke hold on me. I'm like Mom. I'm perfectly happy going through life alone."
"Puh-lease. You know even less about Rory than about yourself."
"What are you saying? Mom doesn't want a man in her life."
When Grace made a rude sound in reply, Susannah protested, "She's content in her own little world. She really is."
"There's a difference in content and happy."
Susannah frowned. "I meant happy. She's happy. I'm happy. We're both happy, damn it! Quit trying to confuse the issue. Mom doesn't need male companionship to make her feel complete or to be happy. And neither do I."
Grace leveled a look that spoke volumes. Susannah didn't want to talk about that any more. "So you think it's okay for you to look and appreciate, but not okay for Hank? Isn't that a double standard?"
"Okay. I'll let you change the subject. For now. And, yep, I do believe in the double standard when it favors women. We need every advantage we can get in the battle of the sexes."
"Battle of the sexes? That's kind of archaic, isn't it?"
"Trust me, hon. Ain't no new millennium going to change the battle of the sexes."
Susannah collected the pages from the printer. Anticipation filled her as she stuffed them into a manila envelope. "Let me tell you something, Grace." She waved the envelope. "This is a preemptive strike against the enemy which I predict will bring a swift end to this war between the sexes."
"War? I said battle, not war."
"As far as I'm concerned, this is war. And it's a war I'm going to win."
"There you go. Turning into a stick and throwing yourself in the mud. You're getting more like your cousin Judy Anne Palmer with every day that passes."
"I'm not like that professional virgin."
"Professional virgin? That's a terrible thing to say. And don't try to change the subject this time. You don't know anything about men. A battle of the sexes is fun and games, not war."
"This little muddy stick disagrees with you. This is war. I'm not about to let Hogan get the best of me. Besides, winning is lots of fun. It's one of my favorite things."
She walked to the door separating her uncle's inner sanctum from the rest of the office. Hogan was still closeted with her uncle, but it wasn't as if he actually had business in there. He showed up at the same time every Wednesday morning since that first Wednesday when he'd happened to be here when Uncle Barney had brought in a container of cinnamon rolls.
Homemade cinnamon rolls, warm from the oven, and dripping with icing. Aunt Opal baked three dozen of the luscious creations every Wednesday morning for her book discussion group. She couldn't even blame Hogan. Legend had it that Uncle Barney had proposed within minutes of her serving him one of the sweet rolls, hot from the oven, with a big pat of butter melting on top.
If Walter Bofco, the Murphy's Cove Mayor, was on his way over, she knew the men would end up playing three-handed gin the rest of the day and filling up on coffee and cinnamon rolls. It was amazing that Hogan didn't have love handles sprouting beneath that tight tank top.
She rapped on her uncle's office door then entered without waiting. The office smelled like a coffee shop with the aromas of cinnamon and strong, rich coffee perfuming the air. Hogan stopped talking in mid-sentence. Both men looked at her. "Excuse me, Sheriff." She always made it a point to be proper when someone else was present.
"What is it, Sugar?" Barney Drummond asked.
Hogan snickered. Susannah signed in exasperation.
"I meant Deputy Quinn." An apologetic grin creased a face baked as brown as quarry tile by six decades in the Texas sun. "Sorry, you can't teach an old dog new tricks, and this old dog has known you since you were in diapers. I'll just never get the hang of thinking of you as Deputy Quinn no matter how much you scold me."
Susannah laughed. "Well, at least that's honest." Her uncle would never change. And that was okay. She adored the man just the way he was.
Hogan stretched. "Looks like Susy Q finished my report."
Her eyes followed his brawny, tanned arms. His shirt flapped open. He wasn't carrying, she noted. There was no room beneath the tight tank top for a shoulder holster. Her breath caught as she watched the white ribbed tank expand with the muscles in his chest. Curly dark hair peeked above the deep neckline.
"Finished?" His grin told her he'd caught her looking at his assets.
She ignored any possible double meaning and silently handed him the envelope.
I don't want him. I don't.
Susannah kept up the silent chant even as her pulse beat hard and heavy in a place she didn't even want to think about with him just inches away. It was impossible not to glance again. She'd felt the crinkle of his curling chest hair against her skin when he'd held her. She wet her lips. Her fingers tingled. She wasn't attracted. She was just practicing her observation skills.
Susannah hated the assortment of nicknames he called her, but she beamed at him. "You are more than welcome." Anticipation hummed inside her. She knew she must look like a cat that had dined on canary. She walked away. Her hand was on the doorknob when Hogan stopped her.
"Just a minute, Susy Q."
Susy Q again. She scowled and turned. "Yes?"
He shook the pages. "You made quite a few typos in this."
She smiled for real this time and opened her eyes wide in pretended innocence. "Really? Now that you mention it, I'm not really surprised."
"You're not?" Hogan sounded puzzled by her frankness.
"No. After all, I majored in Criminal Justice. Not typing. Maybe you should get someone more skilled than I to type your reports next time."
"Ah. I think I get the picture." His grin reappeared.
Irritated that he looked so cheerful, she snapped, "Good. I'm glad you do. Finally."
Again, when she started to open the door, he stopped her. "Just another minute, Susy Q."
She gritted her teeth. What kind of creative solution was needed to make him stop calling her that? She crossed her arms and tapped her foot impatiently. "What?"
"I just bet you are," she muttered.
"This report is full of mistakes. Yet, the first ones you typed were perfect. Not a single error. Tell me, Susy Q. How do you explain that?"
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