MAX SMELLED HER perfume. Voodoo Love.
The scent drifted to him on the balmy night air long before he heard the sound of a big block engine rumble through the security gates. He inhaled deeply, drinking it in, letting it tease his senses as Charlotte came closer, up the driveway, into the house, then her footsteps in the front hall, and up the curving stairs. Slow, weary steps. He lay in the darkness, letting her come to him.
She moved quietly about his room, fumbling without the lights. He watched her undress, the efficient movements not as quick as they usually were. Her gun, her shield, her ankle piece, her cuffs, her cell, laid out along the dresser top in a no-nonsense row. She paused with a sigh, then began to lever out of her boots.
“I’d planned to meet your flight.”
She gave a slight hop of surprise, and was silent for a moment too long. No sassy reprimand for startling her?
“I had a change of plans at the last minute. I left a message for you.” Defensive and cool. Not exactly the reunion he was expecting.
“I got it.” Short and uninformative: Change of plans. I’ll be back late. “I wanted to pick you up, but I didn’t know what time you were getting in.”
“I took a cab. No big deal.” She started down the buttons of her shirt. His shirt. She’d said the feel of silk against her skin would make him seem closer while she was away.
“I was looking forward to welcoming you home.”
“Sorry.” Still prickly.
“No big deal.” His reply was inflectionless, as if it really wasn’t.
“I was only gone four days.”
“They were very long days. And very lonely nights.”
“It’s not like I didn’t call you.” Defensive and now almost irritated, she turned her back on him.
Yes, and their conversations had been as brief and impersonal as her message. He’d learned more from the tone of her voice than from her Spartan words.
She let the shirt slide off her slumped shoulders, then shimmied out of her jeans, leaving both on the floor. He’d missed the unintentional mess she left in her wake, unthinkingly rather than thoughtlessly. She made a long, tough silhouette. Lean muscle, dangerous curves, and sleek bronze skin. The need to touch her, to have her, spiked like a fever, but her cool mood made him careful.
“It’s not the same thing, talking across time zones.” He thought that sounded reasonable enough to slip in a little gruff emotion behind it. “I like you here, with me.”
“I’m here now.” There was just enough bite in that to make him frown.
“No,” he corrected, his voice low and seducingly soft. “You’re over there.” He patted the bed beside him. “Come over here to me.”
She hesitated, then approached the sheets they shared more often than not. Her walk was full of prideful, independent attitude, which made him smile. If she made things easy for him, he wouldn’t crave her quite so desperately.
She paused at the side of the bed, fists on her hips, her tone confrontational. “Close enough?”
“No.” He put out his hand. “Down here so I can welcome you properly.”
Whatever had her so edgy didn’t keep her from seeking him out in the darkness. Her fingers slid across his palm. He enfolded them gently, bringing them to his lips before tugging on them. She sank down onto the mattress into a kiss that greeted her with sweet familiarity, wooing her into temporary compliance. He didn’t try to stop her when she straightened. If she needed the separating space, he’d let her have it. For the moment.
“I missed you, sha. I wish I could have gone with you.”
“Big deal. So you said. Still, I wanted to be there for you. I would have canceled my meetings if you’d asked me to. I was worried about you being alone.”
“Is that why you sent an emissary in your place?” Her question jabbed like a thin, sharp blade between the ribs. Then she let her temper slip. “How dare you, Max? How dare you send someone to spy on me? If you can’t trust me out of your sight—”
He touched his fingertips to her lips. “That’s not why. I just wanted to make sure you were safe.”
“So you sent some clumsy goon to follow me? I was on to him before the plane left the ground. Give me some credit, please.”
“I do, detective. I wanted you to know he was there. Just in case.”
“In case what? I was mugged during the funeral?” She tunneled a hand through her short, spiky hair in exasperation. “It’s warm and fuzzy of you to be so paranoid, but totally unnecessary. Stop it. Okay?”
His mild reply didn’t convince her for an instant. “I can take care of myself. I don’t need or want you to handle things for me.”
“Can I just handle you, then?”
A soft laugh, an improvement. “You drive me crazy, Savoie.”
“And you love that about me.”
Her hand squeezed his. “Yes, I do.” She glanced around the dark room curiously. “What’s that smell? It’s really nice.”
He snapped on the light, and she stared at the spectacular bouquet of deep crimson roses mixed with other tiny fragrant blossoms on the nightstand.
“Are these for me?” Her voice was small and a bit shaky.
As she reached out to touch the velvety petals, a sudden tightness filled his chest. He cleared his throat and tried for nonchalance. “I was going to give them to you at the airport, and probably would’ve gotten all misty and emotional. Thank you for saving me from that embarrassment.”
She glanced at him, all misty. “No one’s ever given me flowers before.”
Trying to keep from getting what she cynically called gooey, he shrugged. “I’ve never given them. I wasn’t sure if you’d like them.” Her arms whipped about his neck, her face burrowing into his shoulder, and he held her. “I guess you do.” He breathed her in on a satisfied sigh. “Welcome home, Charlotte.”
“I’m so glad to be here.” Her shoulders gave a suspicious hitch.
He drew her in closer, his cheek rubbing against her hair. He figured she was ready to let it out, and started gently. “Was it very difficult?”
“I hadn’t seen or heard from her in over twenty years.”
Twenty years since her alcoholic mother had abandoned her child and her cop husband. It took a fatal heart attack to bring them back together—a little too late.
“That’s not what I asked.”
She squirmed but still answered. “I didn’t expect to feel anything except maybe anger. I don’t know what I would have said to her if I’d made it there in time. She had another family. A husband in insurance sales, stepkids, grandkids.” She choked a little. “I met them. They were nice. They wanted me to stay at their house, but…it felt a little too strange. I wish I’d asked you to go with me.”
That reluctant admission came hard, and there was no way he was going to let her regret it. He kissed her brow tenderly.
“Next time you won’t have to.”
“I’ve run out of family to bury, Max.” She took an unsteady breath and he could feel her reining in her amazing control. Not quite managing. “I’m so tired.” And finally, the extremely gratifying, “I missed you.”
He turned off the light, then cradled her against him. He’d thought of nothing for days but a passionate homecoming, had hungered for it and for her. But that would have to wait now. She was a tough, tightly wrapped woman, not one to let go of very much. So when she buckled, even slightly, he was quick to console her. Just being there for her, having her arms curled about him and her breath feathering against his throat, was enough. He’d waited twelve years to have her the first time. He could wait a few more hours.
“Close your eyes. I’ve got you.” As she relaxed, he kissed the top of her head, whispering, “Sleep well.”
And as she slept deeply and dreamlessly, he lay awake and alert, dividing his concentration between the feel of her beside him and the sounds of the night.
Because his caution was much more necessary than Detective Charlotte Caissie knew.
IF COMING HOME was falling into Max Savoie’s arms, returning to work was her grounding back to reality. A grim, often brutal reality, but the only one she’d ever known. Charlotte endured all her colleagues’ condolences, then focused gratefully on work. She understood death a lot better than she related to the living, which was why she was so good at her job. The New Orleans Police Department had somehow managed to get through four days without her, and she didn’t know whether to be relieved or a bit insulted. The city was only slightly less demanding than her lover, and she was fiercely possessive of both.
Leaving Max asleep under the covers was a sacrifice she hoped the Eighth District appreciated.
Her desk was buried under an avalanche of paperwork and a sad little plant someone had left with a sympathy card but no water. Before her butt even hit her chair, her phone was ringing.
“Charlotte, it’s Dovion. I’ve got something down here that might interest you.”
FROM DEVLIN DOVION’S intriguing John Doe, whose brain seemed to have exploded without any physiological cause, Cee Cee was drawn into a parade of nonpressing but time-consuming matters. She touched base with several informants, talked to the team that had taken the call on Dovion’s gray-matter scramble, and stopped into her commander’s office to get the all-clear for firing two rounds into an escaping murderer. She was meeting her partner, Alain Babineau, after lunch to shuffle through their caseload, then her only goal was to slide under those soft sheets again and get naked with a certain criminal element.
As she entered the squad room, she was so surprised to see Max Savoie sitting on the corner of her desk that she simply stood there, her jaw hanging open.
“Looks like you got company, Caissie.” Junior Hammond, who was always snapping at her heels in search of a grade raise, bumped her in passing. “I’m on my way to check for outstandings, to see if he’s wanted for anything other than some afternoon delight. Might as well take advantage of a bird in the hand.”
“I’m gonna take my hand upside your head, Junior. Besides, I don’t think you’re his type.”
A slow, close-lipped smile spread across Max’s face, warming his expression. Aware that every eye in the place, from glowering watch commander to beat cops passing through, was on her and her unlikely visitor, Charlotte moved casually toward her desk. But her gaze devoured him.
With hard, angular features and a long slant of cool green eyes, he wasn’t attractive so much as wickedly compelling. Danger always stirred behind his steady stare. He was the genuine article, as terrifying an individual as one could imagine. He’d killed for the first time when he was just a child, with an instinctual viciousness that earned him a place growing up behind one of the Crescent City’s most infamous mobsters, Jimmy Legere. After Jimmy’s violent death he’d gone from knee breaker to deal maker, taking over the vast criminal empire to become a powerful influence in his own right. And because he was more interested in her than he was in his mentor’s ill-gotten gains, most of those endeavors leaned toward legal now.
But that’s not all he was.
He wore her black tactical vest emblazoned NOPD, probably to keep himself from getting shot here in the station, over a white tee shirt and jeans. A red high-topped foot swung indolently. Sleek, dark, and controlled…and hers. She wanted to latch on to that smugly smiling mouth in the worst way, which made her tone testy.
“What are you doing here, Max?”
“Just thought I’d see if you wanted to have lunch. Since we missed a chance for breakfast.” His stare smoldered, intimating what he was hungry for.
“You should have called.”
“I was in the neighborhood.” He ran his fingertip across the framed photos on her desk. Her father. Charlotte and her best friend, Mary Kate Malone. “Why don’t you have a picture of me?”
“I suppose I could pick the most flattering from your mug shot collection to display. No new ones since I’ve been gone, are there?”
He continued to smile. “Muffuletta from the Central Grocery sound good? Or is there something else you’d rather sink your teeth into?”
“I’m busy, Savoie.”
“I’ve missed you, detective.” His hand skimmed the curve of her waist, and she brushed it away. “If you’re not hungry, we could go to an interrogation room and close the blinds. I think Two is open. That’s always been my favorite; such an intimate, coming-home feeling about it. Surely you can spare five minutes from your busy schedule. I managed to fit you into mine.” His voice lowered to a husky rumble. “And now I want to fit myself into you.”
Her gaze flew about to see who might have overheard, but everyone nearby was pretending to be occupied. Her face flamed. Her body grew hot and moist. “I’m at work here,” she growled.
“I love to watch you work, detective. I could sit here all day.”
Sighing, she jerked out her chair. “All right. Let me make a call first.” She lifted the receiver, then eyed him pointedly.
“I’ll just go over there and see if anyone I know is posted on the Most Wanted board.”
She watched him stroll through the room as if oblivious to the fact that every officer there was measuring his wrist size for handcuffs. A bold, aggravating man, a wolf stalking through the hen house as if he didn’t know he was going to cause feathers to fly.
“You make me hot, Savoie,” she whispered softly.
Across the room, he paused, she didn’t have to see his face to know he was grinning.
Standing by the wall with a relaxed posture, pretending not to feel a dozen barbed glares, Max waited for Cee Cee to finish up and join him. The sweat slicking his palms had nothing to do with the hostility bristling around him and everything to do with the woman he couldn’t wait to spend time with.
He’d taken a huge risk bracing her in her lair, and he knew it. Her professional world was offlimits. She’d invited him into every other aspect of her life but that one. He was too smart to push, but too honest to pretend the exclusion didn’t bother him.
He glanced up to see Alain Babineau with a lovely young woman at his side. He and Cee Cee’s cover-boy-pretty partner had a wary tolerance for one another. “Detective. So surprised? It’s not like you’ve never seen me here before.”
“Not without restraints. Waiting for your attorney?”
“Waiting to take Detective Caissie to lunch.”
He didn’t imagine the sudden pique of interest in the petite brunette’s eyes. She smiled at him rather shyly. “Are you a friend of Cee Cee’s?”
“I’m her boyfriend.” He grinned because Babineau had suddenly gone rigid. He put out his hand. “Max Savoie.”
She placed hers into it with a lack of hesitation that proved she had no idea who he was. “Tina Babineau.”
“Ah. I should apologize for keeping your husband away from home so much.” At her confusion, he lifted her hand to touch a light kiss to her knuckles. “I’ll let him explain.”
She blushed prettily, not drawing her hand away until he released it. “Alain and I were just stepping out for a bite. Would you two like to join us?”
It would almost have been worth saying yes, just to enjoy Babineau’s glare of irritation a bit longer. But the temptation of possibly getting very up close and personal with Charlotte was too great.
“Maybe another time, Mrs. Babineau. I appreciate the offer.” And he did, surprisingly enough.
“How about Saturday? We’re having a housewarming party. Cee Cee has the address.” She smiled with genuine pleasure at Charlotte, who had just arrived. “Cee Cee, I was just telling Max he was more than welcome to come with you on Saturday.”
“Really?” She exchanged a look with Alain. “To your house?”
Tina touched Max’s sleeve hopefully. “Say yes. We spouses and significant others rarely get a chance to mingle socially.”
There was a slight catch in her voice, an unexpected plea that touched him as delicately as her small hand, because he recognized it for what it was. Loneliness.
“I’d be happy to, if Charlotte doesn’t have any objection.”
He glanced at her, seeing objection aplenty in her narrowed eyes. “Sure. If you really want to.” Implying he’d be a fool if he did. When he continued to smile, she gripped his arm. “Let’s go. Nice to see you again, Tina.”
“I look forward to seeing you both on Saturday.”
Max sauntered leisurely at her side, letting her fume silently until they exited the building. She shrugged off the arm he tried to drape about her shoulders with a quarrelsome, “Not here.”
“Let me know when we leave the ‘Hands Off’ zone, detective.”
“Max, are you aware that everyone at that party will have either arrested you or wanted to kill you at one time or another?”
“So have you, darlin’—but I don’t let that stop me from wanting to suck that frown off your face.” She looked alarmed, as if he might attempt it right on the steps of the station. “Don’t worry, I’ll behave. It’ll make for an entertaining afternoon.”
Charlotte continued to scowl as they walked down the busy sidewalk, trying to hang on to her annoyance with him, because she was so aware of him next to her that her whole body was humming. Every seemingly innocent touch deepened that urgent vibration. The brush of his hand against hers. The nudge of his hip. The stroke of his fingertips on the small of her back when they stepped aside to let a tourist family pass. Calculated torture, after four very long days and lonely nights.
“So,” he began, “what exactly does one do at these events? Make shoptalk?”
“You’ll be terribly bored. And most likely, the topic of conversation.”
“How flattering. How could I find that boring?”
“Mostly there’s eating, drinking, and softball.”
“I know how to eat without using my fingers, so I won’t embarrass you there. I don’t drink, so I won’t make a fool out of myself. I’ve never played a team sport. I think I might enjoy it.”
“We already have teams.”
Because her tone was stingy and uninviting, he merely smiled. “Then I’ll sit on the sidelines with the spouses and significant others to cheer you on and talk, what, knitting and child rearing?”
She almost smiled back, imagining him wedged in between the cop wives. “Like you know anything about those things.”
“I can learn. I’m very open-minded. Unlike you, detective.”
She glanced up at him in surprise. “What do you mean?”
They walked in silence until Max stopped before one of the Quarter’s exclusive hotels in the heart of the old district. Pale rose-colored stucco and wrought-iron charm sat above a busy café. “What do you think?”
“About what? You want to eat here?”
He smiled. “We could order off the menu, or you could let me get lucky with some à la carte upstairs.”
A bolt of pure desire shot to her loins. “You got a room?”
The key dangled. “I’m an optimist, detective.” He stepped closer, the heat of his nearness burning like a thousand suns.
“Can I have a sandwich, too?” Her hands slipped under the vest, curving around to the back pockets of his jeans to tug him against her.
“You can have anything you want.”
“I want you, Savoie. Right now.”
He grinned. “We might want to step off the sidewalk first.”
© 2010 Nancy Gideon