Cop By Her Side
Harlequin Feature Author (June 17, 2014)
Does she put her trust in him again?
Lieutenant Jane Vahalik is done with Sergeant Clay Renner. He messed up their romance when he dished out too much male swagger. She gets enough of that on the job to put up with it in her personal life—regardless of how hot Clay may be.
Then her niece is kidnapped, and suddenly he is the only cop Jane trusts to lead the search. The rush of attraction sizzling between them surprises her. So does his determination to prove she's wrong about him. It could be just the tense situation—or it could be Clay—but Jane's feelings for him are growing. Maybe they deserve a second chance?.
Lieutenant Jane Vahalik's skin prickled from her awareness that she was being watched. She didn't have to look around to know who had his eyes on her.
It seemed an excellent time to fade away into the early-evening darkness, circling behind her big black SUV to change clothes in preparation for tonight's assault. Others had been taking turns to do the same; earlier, two designated officers had returned to town to collect the additional weaponry the group would need, as well as body armor and black clothing. Much as Jane had hated the idea of a fellow law enforcement officer—male, of course—letting himself into her apartment and pawing through her drawers, there hadn't seemed to be a good alternative. Her GMC Yukon was one of the more conspicuous vehicles collected out here, and going and returning unnoticed was essential. Besides, any of the guys might have hated having her in his home as much as she did the other way around. And did she want to know that a detective under her command had an impressive porn collection or decorated his living room with a beer-can pyramid or had a kitchen or bathroom so filthy it would turn her stomach? Really, really, no. At least her place was clean.
The Yukon was currently backed into a dirt turnaround, shielded from the main road by a thicket of scrubby trees and blackberries. Rusting barbed wire, only a few feet away, marked the beginning of a pasture holding a couple of horses, one obviously elderly and swaybacked, and, of all things, a donkey. Now she heard a few far-off rustles, followed by a whuffle from the darkness. Animals. They would be supremely uninterested in seeing her seminaked.
Knowing how brief her privacy might be and listening for human footsteps, Jane hastily shed the clothes she had been wearing for two days now, since she'd learned that police chief Raynor's nephew was being held hostage. Her nose wrinkled in distaste as she bundled them up. She'd managed a shower this morning at Raynor's house, but had had to put the same clothes back on. Even if she'd been comfortable asking, she couldn't have borrowed from Julia Raynor, the police chief's sister-in-law and the boy's mother; Julia had a slender dancer's body, while Jane?did not.
She had stepped into the black trousers first and was tugging down the hem of a long-sleeved black T-shirt when she heard the crunch of a footstep.
She closed her eyes for a moment in resignation. "Sergeant."
There was a brief second of silence. She had no doubt Clay Renner's jaw was clenching in annoyance. An attempt to distance herself, her formality was bound to irritate him, and he surely wouldn't like any reminder that she outranked him, even if they were from different law enforcement agencies.
He stepped around the fender of the Yukon. The night wasn't quite ink dark yet, but getting there. The moon, only a sliver in the sky, was their friend. Given virtually no cover during the approach, getting half a dozen people in place around the barn where they believed the thirteen-year-old boy was being held hostage would have been a heck of a lot more challenging under the bright silver light of a full moon.
Jane could make Clay out, barely. He was really just a darker bulk against the indistinct background, but she didn't need to see him to picture him. She'd dated Clay Renner half a dozen times almost a year ago. He was big, athletic and surprisingly light and agile on his feet given his impressive muscles, with a roughcast, angular face that was very male without being handsome. Blue eyes that were too observant. His light brown, sun-streaked hair always looked as if it was in need of a haircut, but felt like the heaviest of silk slipping through her fingers. At thirty-six, he was two years older than she. Idiot that she was, she still remembered his birth date.
"Are you trying to prove something?" he asked, voice low and intense. "That you can do anything the rest of us can do?"
This was why she'd quit seeing Clay.
"I can do anything the rest of you can do," she said levelly. "And damn well, too."
He made an exasperated sound in his throat. "You know what I mean."
Unfortunately, she did. "No, I don't," she said perversely, reaching for the vest.
The weight settled on her shoulders. Of course, the blasted thing didn't fit the way it was supposed to. Tactical vests and body armor that actually fit women's bodies were being manufactured. Unfortunately, the Angel Butte Police Department had yet to purchase any. Of course, a vest that accommodated her inconveniently large breasts was otherwise way too large and too long. She consoled herself that her abdomen was covered.
"You're going to get stuck going through that goddamn window," Clay snapped. "That's what I mean."
"I'm smaller than the rest of you."
"Except for your, uh, chest."
The mealymouthed description surprised her. "Don't you mean tits?" she said, the heat of anger searing her cheeks. "Or— No, it's a rack, isn't it?"
She was pretty sure she heard his molars grinding this time.
"I told you it was nothing but stupid male posturing and I was sorry."
Like she could forget the way she'd overheard him talking about her to some of his buddies, all fellow cops.
The anger disappeared as fast as it had risen, leaving her feeling?hollow. She shook her head, even though he probably couldn't see her. "The fact that you're given to stupid male posturing is enough in itself, Clay. Let's drop it. I'm a cop. I have breasts. Get over it."
"You don't give anyone a second chance, do you, Jane?" His voice was rough.
"You know what I heard was just the icing on the cake. The fact is, you'd never be comfortable having a relationship with a woman cop. I don't suppose you raised a champagne glass to me when you heard I'd been promoted, did you?"
"Didn't think so." She tossed her discarded clothing into the back of the SUV, holstered her .38 Ruger and closed the rear door as quietly as possible. "You'd better get changed, too. Your white shirt kind of stands out."
That wasn't a lie, even if mostly she was trying to get rid of him. Earlier she'd seen he had on well-worn jeans and a snug-fitting white T-shirt that revealed powerful biceps and pecs. The better to advertise, she'd thought cynically.
"Listen to sense, will you? You being there will distract the rest of us. We'll all be worried about keeping you safe."
Was she supposed to be touched? she wondered wearily. "No, Clay, you won't all be distracted. Astonishingly enough, Captain McAllister and Chief Raynor, at least, respect my abilities. And you know what? I'd really like it if you wouldn't worry about me."
He made an inarticulate sound of frustration, snapped, "On your head be it," and stomped away.
Jane didn't move to follow him immediately. Instead she gazed toward the dark pasture and struggled to center herself. Pictured the small window she had studied earlier through binoculars. Began to walk herself step-by-step through what she had to do. Shatter the glass. Toss in a flash bang. Sweep the shards off the frame. Hoist herself—
"Is Sergeant Renner going to be a problem?" asked Captain Colin McAllister from only a few feet away.
She gasped and swung to face him. "Damn. I didn't hear you coming."
"I can see why," he said drily.
It was Colin who last year had promoted her to lieutenant, heading the investigative division directly beneath him. Colin, a man who bore some physical resemblance to Clay Renner, enough to, on occasion, push her buttons.
Well, he'd never looked twice at her, not that way. The upside was he treated her with unwavering respect for her abilities. Downside? She was thirty-four years old and had yet to meet a man who treated her with respect and wanted her as a woman. She'd begun to suspect it wasn't happening.
And was that so bad? She loved her job, and the relationships she'd tried to have had left her pretty sour on men anyway.
"Did you hear all that?" she asked.
"Afraid so. I didn't want to interrupt. Sorry. When you recommended Sergeant Renner for this team, I didn't realize you had a history."
"Not much of one." She shrugged to suggest how little she cared. "Impulse on both our parts. As you may have gathered, he's a sexist pig."
Colin chuckled. "Or intensely protective of you."
She felt like a cap had been pulled out of a bottle of champagne—or a bottle rocket. "So protective," she said fiercely, "I walked into the squad room to hear him describing my, er, attributes and telling everyone in earshot what he intended to do to me."
She could make out his grimace. "Yeah, that would do it."
Feeling sick, Jane said, "Now, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have told you that."
"I assumed you took some guff, being a woman in a field that's still primarily male and testosterone driven. Let's say I'm not surprised. Disappointed in Sergeant Renner, though." He shook his head. "He's been strictly professional here."
"I wouldn't have suggested we call him if I hadn't been confident he would be."
Colin pushed a button on his watch and it briefly lit up. "Less than an hour. You okay with your role?"
"You mean, going in the window? Sure."
"Good enough." He nodded and melted away, leaving her with a whole lot of regrets involving both men. Why couldn't there be one man who both wanted and respected her?
Clay wished he'd been feeding Jane a load of crap, but the truth was, he didn't think he was going to be able to turn off his awareness that she was one of the first members of the assault team in. Maybe the first member.
Jane Vahalik, no more than five foot four. Jane, with a sweet face and an incredibly lush body. A centerfold body, not a tough-as-nails cop body.
And, goddamn it, he knew she was good. She'd spent time on the multijurisdictional drug enforcement team, so this sure as hell wasn't the first raid she'd participated in. From what he'd heard, she had played a solid part in the ugly stuff that had gone down last year in Angel Butte that had resulted in the police chief resigning in disgrace and a succession of reputedly crooked officers getting the ax. There was no way she'd earned the promotion to lieutenant by sleeping with her boss, as he'd heard suggested. If nothing else, Colin McAllister had the reputation as a straight arrow. Plus, he'd been living with another woman, one whom he had since married.
Knowing all of that didn't help. Clay had been raised to believe in traditional gender roles. His father was a domineering man, his mother gentle and clearly subservient. Clay supported equal rights and never had any trouble working with women. But he'd tended to date women who didn't challenge him in any meaningful way, and in his hazy view of the future, he saw a wife who'd stay at home with the kids, making her life about him.
He still didn't know why he found Jane, a woman who'd excelled in a macho profession, so compelling. But, damn it, she'd gotten to him from the first time he'd met her. He'd liked her. He'd been living for the chance to get her into his bed. The really shitty part was, he'd deserved to be dumped. He still winced at the memory of having let himself be goaded into talking about her as if she was nothing but another piece of ass while bragging about his own sexual prowess. That moment—when he'd turned and seen her face—was one of the worst of his life.
That was it. She turned and walked out. He'd left groveling messages on her voice mail. She hadn't returned them. Pride and his own awareness that the wrongdoing was his kept him from leaning on her doorbell. Also, as a cop, he was especially sensitive to any behavior that would smack of stalking.
He'd spotted her from a distance a few times, but when she'd seen him, she'd turned in the other direction. The closest had been one day in the corridor at the courthouse. The way her expression had gone blank when their eyes met had hit him hard.
And yes, he knew he should have kept his mouth shut tonight. He had kept his mouth shut while he, Raynor, McAllister and Jane, as the ranking officers, had planned the assault. He wouldn't embarrass her like that.
But if he had to see her go down—
Clay swore softly under his breath as he ripped off his white T-shirt and pulled on a black one followed by the vest, which he topped with a black windbreaker that said POLICE across the back.
It might kill him if he saw her reeling back, blood blossoming. If he had to watch as the light went out of her hazel eyes.
He swore again, more savagely this time. He might really die if he couldn't keep his head in the game.
And he didn't know if he could do it.
Clay never liked waiting. This time was worse than usual. Jane was at the top of his list of reasons he hated everything about this operation, but she wasn't the only thing. He had worn, with pride, the Butte County Sheriff's Department uniform every day for years. He might not wear a uniform to work anymore, but he still clipped the badge to his belt nearly every morning. Finding out at least two of the kidnappers were Butte County deputies eroded everything he'd believed about the men with whom he worked. The one that really got him was Bart Wit-ten, a detective in the major crimes unit, a man Clay had worked closely with in the past. Not a friend, but Clay had trusted him. And now it was looking as though the son of a bitch had been willing to participate in the kidnapping of a kid to put pressure on a witness in the trial of a drug lord.
It sucked to know he might have to shoot either of the men who wore the same uniform he did, but he couldn't afford to hesitate. He knew that.
This operation was high risk for a lot of other reasons, too. They weren't sure how many men were inside the barn. They'd seen four, but there might be more. Getting close without being spotted would be tricky. Three different entry points for his team meant a real possibility they'd shoot each other by accident.
The fact that Jane was lead on one of those entry points made his head swell with fury and frustration and fear.
To make it all perfect, the creeps inside were holding a kid. A vulnerable boy who could get hit by cross fire even if someone didn't try to take him out on purpose.
And, oh, yeah, Chief Alec Raynor, in charge of this whole freaking operation, loved that kid, his nephew.
"Just the way I want to make a living," Clay muttered, to nobody, but another shape near him turned.
"Nothing," he growled, identifying Abe Cherney, who was with ABPD rather than the sheriff's department. Cherney was a big guy who, with Carson Tucker, a sheriff's deputy, would be using the battering ram to break down the double doors into the barn. "You ready to go?" he asked, and Cherney gave him a thumbs-up.