Judd Sanders couldn’t believe it when the beautiful, wide-eyed woman he rescued from some drunk hoodlums started poking her gorgeous little nose into his business. She was obviously a menace to herself — not to mention to his libido. Worse, she’d blow his cover. For little did Emily Cooper know that Judd was really a cop — whose cover left him a little too “uncovered” for his liking.
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She had the biggest brown eyes Judd had ever seen.
She also looked innocent as hell, despite the ridiculous clothes she wore and the huge, frayed canvas tote she carried. Did she actually think she blended in, just because her coat was old and tattered, her hat a little ratty? Did she think anyone would ever believe her to be among the homeless? Not likely.
So what was she doing here at this time of night? The lower East side of Springfield was no place for a lady like her. She strolled past him again, this time more slowly, and her eyes were so wide they could take in everything in a single glance. They took in Judd.
He felt a thrill of awareness, sharper than anything he’d ever felt before, then she looked away. But not before he detected the faint pink blush that washed over her fine features. That blush had been obvious even in the dim evening light with only the moon and the corner street lamp for illumination. She had flawless skin.
Dammit. He had enough trouble to worry about, to be aware of, without some damned Miss Priss trying to fob herself off as a local. Judd had only stepped outside the bar to get a breath of fresh air. The smell of perfume inside was overwhelming, and enough to turn his stomach.
He could hear the music in the bar pick up beat and knew the dancers were coming on stage. In less than ten minutes, he’d have to go back in there, baring himself in the line of duty.
Damn. He hated this cover. What decent, hardworking cop should have to peel his clothes off for a bunch of hungry, grabbing women? For nearly two weeks now he’d been entertaining the feminine masses with the sight of his body, hoping to uncover enough evidence to make a bust. He knew for a fact the upstairs of the bar was a sight for business meetings, yet there hadn’t been hide nor hair of a damned gun deal. Clayton Donner was laying low.
It was discouraging, but he’d never give up. He was now, at thirty-two, completely alone and in his prime, more fit than ever. Not only did he meet the necessary requirements to pull off such a ludicrous cover, he had a vested, very personal interest this time.
He would definitely get Donner, but that didn’t mean he enjoyed displaying himself nightly.
Each of the strippers had a gimmick. He thought his was rather satiric. He played out the tough street cop, complete with black pants held together with strategically placed velcro. They came off with only the smallest tug. He even had Max’s original leather jacket, a prized possession to be sure, to add to his authenticity. The women loved it.
He wondered if old Max had known how sexy the cop personna was to females. Or if he would have cared.
God, he couldn’t think about Max — not and still do his job, which was to appear unscrupulous to the point of being available to Donner. Clayton always needed new pigeons to run his scams. Judd intended to be the next pigeon. It was the only way to get close enough to make a clean bust.
And the last thing he needed now was a distraction with big brown eyes. Despite his resolve, his gaze wandered back to the woman. She loitered on the corner beneath the street lamp, holding that large, lumpy bag to her chest and trying to look at ease. Judd snorted. That old coat was buttoned so high she damned near strangled herself. What the hell was she doing here?
He’d just about convinced himself not to care, not to get involved, when three young men made notice of her. Judd watched as they approached her, watched as she started to back away, then evidently changed her mind. She nodded a greeting, but it was a wimpy effort, and totally wasted. Hell, the men looked determined, with no need for provocation, and she looked ready to faint.
Walk away, he thought, willing her to move. But she stood her ground. He sensed, then he absolutely knew, she was getting in over her head. His body was already tensing, his eyes narrowed in expectation of the trouble to come. They seemed to be talking, or more to the point, she was trying to speak to them. She gestured with her hands, her expression earnest. Then one of the men grabbed her and she let loose with a startled screech. In the next instant, those huge brown eyes of hers turned his way, demanding that he help.
The little twit thought he was a regular street cop and would blow his cover with very little effort.
Well hell, he couldn’t allow her to be manhandled. He pushed himself away from the doorway and started forward. The men were obviously drunk, one of them doing his best to pull her close, but she kept sidestepping him. Judd approached them all with a casual air, his height of well over six feet immediately drawing the men’s attention.
“Here now, boys.” He kept his tone low and deep, deliberately commanding. “Why don’t you leave the lady alone.”
Judd could see her trembling, could see the paleness of her face in the yellow light of the street lamp. The man didn’t release her; if anything he tightened his hold. “Go to hell.”
The words were slurred, and Judd wondered just how drunk they were. They might believe him to be a cop, but in this area, law enforcement personnel carried very little clout and regularly drew vicious disdain. Damn.
He couldn’t get into a brawl — he might very well lose his pants if he did. Not that he wouldn’t enjoy knocking some heads together, but still. Where was a real uniformed cop when you needed one?
He turned his gaze on the woman. “Do you want their company?”
She swallowed, her throat working convulsively. “No.”
One of them shook his fist in Judd’s face, stumbling drunkenly as he did so. “She’s already made a deal with us.” He grinned stupidly at the woman, then added, “You can’t expect a little thing like her to run around here without a weapon to protect herself…”
One of the other men slugged the speaker. “Shut up, you fool.”
Judd went very still, scrutinizing her face. “Well?”
Again, she swallowed. “Well…what?”
“Why do you need a weapon? You planning to kill someone?”
Whisper soft, his question still demanded an immediate answer.
Shaking her head, then looking about as if seeking desperate escape, she managed to pique his interest. No way could he walk away now. Whatever she was up to, she didn’t want him to know. Because she thought he was a street cop?
Disgusted, Judd propped his hands on his hips, his brows drawn in a frown. “Do you want the company of these men or not?”
She peered cautiously at the drunken, leering face so close to her own. Her lips tightened in disapproval and disdain. “Ah…no. Not particularly.”
A genuine smile tipped his mouth before he caught himself. She was fine boned, petite, and everything about her seemed fragile. She was no bigger than a ten year old sickly kid, but she had gumption, he’d give her that. “There you go, fellas. The lady doesn’t find you to her liking. Turn her loose and go find something else to do.”
“I got somethin’ to do already.” Her captor’s hold loosened just the tiniest bit as he spoke, and suddenly she jerked free, then did the dumbest thing Judd had ever seen. She sent her knee into the man’s groin.
Unbelievable. Judd shook his head, even as he yanked her behind him, trying to protect her from the ensuing chaos. He couldn’t do any real damage to the men without attracting more spectators, which would threaten his cover. And the woman was gasping behind him, scared out of her wits, no doubt. But damn it all, he definitely did not want to lose his pants out here scuffling in the middle of the sidewalk with common drunks. One of the men started to throw a punch.
Judd cursed loudly as the woman ran around him, evidently not as frightened as he’d thought, and leaped on his attacker’s back. She couldn’t weigh over a hundred pounds, but she wound her fingers in his hair and pulled with all her might.
Enough was enough. A brief glimpse at his watch showed it was time for his performance. Judd grabbed the man away from her and sent him reeling with a firm kick to his butt, then stalked toward the other two, every muscle in his body tightened for defense. Too drunk to persist in their efforts, the men scurried away.
Judd turned to face the woman, and she was…tidying her hair? Good God, was she daffy then? He saw her look toward the canvas bag, which now lay in a puddle on the sidewalk, but she made no move to retrieve it.
“You don’t want your bag?” he asked with all the sarcasm he could muster.
“Oh.” She glanced over at him. “Well, of course…” She made a move toward it, but he shook his head. He could see more raggedy clothing falling out the opening, and if there was one thing this woman didn’t need, it was hand-me-downs.
He took her arm in a firm but gentle hold, ignoring her gasp and her resistance, and started her toward the bar. He automatically moved her to his right, between his body and the building, protecting her from passersby. He held his temper for all of about three seconds, then gave up the effort.
“Of all the stupid, harebrained…lady, what the hell did you think you were doing back there?” He wondered if she could be a journalist, or a T.V. newswoman? She most certainly wasn’t used to living in the alleys, or going without. Everything about her bespoke of a generous upbringing. Even now, with him hustling her along the walk, she had a certain grace, a definite poise, that didn’t come from being underprivileged.
She glanced up at him, her head only reaching his chin, and he noticed she smelled nice, too. Not heavily perfumed like the women in the bar, just…very feminine. Her wavy hair, a light brown that looked as baby-soft as her eyes and ended at the top of her shoulders, bounced as he hurried her along. She was practically running, but he couldn’t help that. He was going to be late. He could hear the music for his number starting. Pulling his clothes off was bad enough. He didn’t intend to make a grand entrance by jumping in late.
She cleared her throat. “I appreciate your assistance, officer.”
Without slowing his pace, he glared at her. “Answer my question. Who are you? What the hell are you up to?”
“That’s two questions.” He growled, his patience at an end. “Answer me, dammit!”
She faltered in her step, then glared up at him defiantly. “That’s really none of your business.”
Everything inside his body clenched. “I’m making it my business.”
Digging in her heels as he tried to haul her through the front door, she forced him to slow. “What are you doing?”
There was a note of shrill panic in her voice as she took in her surroundings. Judd had no time to explain, and no time to consider her delicate sensibilities. Everyone in this part of town – everyone who worked in and frequented this particular bar – thought of him as a money hungry, over-sexed, willing exhibitionist. It was a necessary cover and one he wasn’t ready to forfeit. Donner would show up again soon, and once he decided Judd was a familiar face from the area, he’d make a move to utilize him. It would happen. He’d make it happen.
Still gripping her arm, Judd trotted her toward the nearest bar stool. “Stay right here.” He stared down at her, trying to intimidate her with his blackest scowl. The music was picking up tempo, signalling his cue.
She popped right back off the seat, those eyes of hers accurately portraying her shock. “Now see here! I have no intention of waiting–”
He picked her up, dropped her onto the stool again, then called to the bartender. “Keep her here, Freddie. Make certain she doesn’t budge.”
Freddie, a huge, jovial sort with two front teeth missing, grinned and nodded. “What’d she do?”
“She owes me. Big. Keep your eye on her.”
“And if she tries to pike it?”
Judd gave Freddie a conspiratorial wink. “Make her sorry if she so much as flinches.”
Freddie looked ferocious, but Judd knew he wouldn’t hurt a fly; it was why they had not one, but two bouncers on the premises. But the little lady didn’t know that, and Judd wanted to find out exactly what she was up to, why she’d been hanging around downtown, and why she’d tried to disguise herself. Gut instinct told him he wouldn’t like what he found.
Suddenly the spot light swirled around the floor. Cursing, then forcing a grin to his mouth, Judd sauntered forward into the light. Women screamed.
In the short time he’d been performing here, he’d discovered a wealth of information about his gun dealer…and become a favorite of the bar. The owner had promised to double his pay, but that was nothing compared to the bills that always ended up stuffed in his skimpy briefs. He refused, absolutely refused, to wear a G-string. His butt was not something he showed to more than one woman at a time, and even those exhibitions were few and far between. But his modesty worked to his advantage. The women thought he was a tease, and appreciated his show all the more.
As he moved, he glanced back over his shoulder to make certain the lady was still there. She hadn’t moved. She didn’t look as though she could move. He held her gaze, and slowly, backing into the center of the floor, slid the zipper down on the leather jacket. He actually saw her gasp.
Her intent expression, that of innocence and curious wonder, annoyed him, making him feel more exposed than he ever had while performing. That he could feel his face heat angered him. He was too damned old, and too cynical now, to actually blush. Damn her.
Purposefully holding her gaze, determined to make her look away, he let his fingers move to the top of his pants. As he slowly unhooked the fly, one snap at a time, teasing his audience, teasing her more, she reeled back and one dainty hand touched her chest. She looked distressed. She looked shocked.
But she didn’t look away.
End of Excerpt
is available in the following editions:
Out of Print Editions
April 1, 1997
August 1, 2003