To Love A Cop
Harlequin Superromance #1968 (April, 2015)
She's sworn to protect her heart
After what Laura Vennetti and her son have been through, she's avoided all contact with the police. Then her son brings detective Ethan Winter into their lives. Despite how appealing—and gorgeous—he is, it's safe to say Ethan isn't her dream man.
Immediately, though, Laura can see how different he is from her late husband. Ethan is thoughtful, considerate and a good influence on her son. Add in the intense attraction between her and Ethan… The temptation to give in is irresistible. To her surprise, Laura feels the wounds of the past healing, making her wonder if she could love this cop forever.
"Will you look at this," a complete stranger said reverently.
Only a few feet away, among the crowd in the aisle between vendor tables at this opening day of the gun show, Ethan Winter couldn't resist taking that look, even if the guy hadn't been talking to him.
The price tag caught his eye first. $12,500. He had to shake his head, even if it was a Perazzi MX3 ORO twelve-gauge shotgun with original case lying there. Engraving, gold inlays, damn near mint condition.
Still nothing that would tempt him. After a moment, Ethan wandered on, leaving a cluster of men staring covetously at the shotgun and listening to the vendor expound on its virtues. His gaze continued to rove the exhibit hall, and he half listened to the buzz of conversation around him, picking out snippets here and there.
He wasn't a collector, and wasn't in the market for a new weapon. Like many in law enforcement, he carried a fourth-generation Glock .40 caliber and was accustomed to its feel at the range and on his hip. He had friends who liked to upgrade more often than he replaced his vehicles, and, sure, there were some nice handguns out there. Once in a while at the range, he'd try out something new and always handed it back without any inclination to whip out his credit card. His Glock had saved his life, and that was good enough for him.
He was here today to keep an eye on the crowd, not the merchandise. It was something of a personal mission he'd taken on the past few years, after watching and reading coverage of too many mass shootings, the weapons purchased at gun shows like this. He hadn't told anyone else what he was doing. Odds were against him ever witnessing anything significant. Big as this exhibition hall at the Portland Expo Center was, a deranged individual could be buying an armory worth of weapons right this minute two aisles away without him seeing a thing.
Still…there hadn't been anything special he'd wanted to do today. And you never knew.
To avoid standing out, he needed to look at something besides faces, though. He actually enjoyed studying some of the antique guns. In fact, a minute later he was contemplating a Confederate revolver, imported from England into New Orleans in 1861. He knew the A.B. Griswold revolver was often carried by Confederate officers. This one was in good enough condition to have a price tag of $9,500. He winced again.
"Man, that is so cool."
He turned slowly, his attention caught by how youthful this voice sounded.
And, yeah, it was a kid standing at the next vendor, looking down at a semiautomatic rifle. Ethan carried a similar one in his police vehicle. The one for sale was equipped with a fixed sight. It looked, and was, lethal, manufactured for the tactical professional. The kid's expression was eager enough to bother Ethan.
"You don't look old enough to be shopping for anything like this," the vendor said easily, and to his credit. Plenty of people brought their kids to gun shows, but Ethan didn't see a parent nearby.
"Huh?" The boy lifted his head. "Oh, my dad's around. I was just getting bored."
"Ah." The vendor, a middle-aged, balding man, started talking about the DDLE duty rifle's effectiveness and versatility. The kid seemed to be drinking up every detail.
Ethan drifted on, but not far. He wondered a little about the boy, who, at a guess, might be thirteen, fourteen at the oldest. Hard to tell, when some boys shot up way younger, and others lagged. This one was skinny, five foot seven or eight, with dark hair and eyes. Seemed early for him to be out of school, but middle schools and high schools did let out pretty early in the afternoon. Still, Ethan didn't see any other kids yet. Today was Friday, and the show had opened at noon. Right now it was—he checked his watch—barely two thirty. Most of the business would come on Saturday and Sunday, although the crowd so far was respectable and he'd seen a few sales taking place already.
The boy moved on, too. He appeared uninterested in the antique weapons, although he paused briefly to study a World War II "Liberator" .45 pistol, a strange looking, stubby weapon made by General Motors to be air-dropped to Resistance fighters in Europe. Maintaining a little distance between himself and the boy, Ethan paused to look at that one, too.
Mostly, the kid was fixated on semiautomatic handguns. The Heckler & Koch VP9, a new Be-retta, the oversize Desert Eagle, an HK polymerframe pistol with a barrel threaded to accept a suppressor.
And fixated was the word. He looked at every one of those damn guns with a hunger that disturbed Ethan. This kid could care less about .22 rifles, hunting rifles, BB guns. Nope, he was fascinated by handguns designed for the sole purpose of killing human beings.
And Dad was nowhere to be seen.
Nothing and no one else caught Ethan's attention, so he kept wandering at roughly the same speed the boy did. Finally, curiosity overcame him and he stopped right next to the boy, who was currently studying a FNH FNP-40, another polymer handgun.
"I've fired that one," Ethan said with a nod. "Nicely balanced."
The kid looked at him eagerly. "Really? At the range?"
"Yeah, friend of mine has one. He says it felt like his best friend the first time he shot it." Ethan was careful to keep his posture relaxed to avoid any hint of threat. He was a big man, towering over the kid.
The boy's gaze slid to his holstered weapon. "That's a Glock, isn't it?" He was hungry still, but there was an extra hint of heat in those dark eyes taking in the butt of the Glock. It was as if he was looking at a favorite food that had made him sick the last time he'd eaten it.
Or maybe I'm imagining things, Ethan thought.
"It's a Glock 22," he agreed.
"Are you a cop? Lots of cops carry those, don't they?"
"They do, and I am." Ethan held out his hand. "Detective Ethan Winter, Portland Police Bureau." They shook hands.
"So you don't wear a uniform anymore? Or is this your day off?"
"It is my day off, but I don't wear a uniform on the job, either, except for special occasions."
"Do you work homicide?"
Ethan shook his head. "I may request a transfer there someday, but I'm currently part of the unit that investigates assaults and bias crimes."
"What are you talking about, bias crimes?"
"We're plugging up the works here." Ethan nodded. "Let's get out of the way so we're not blocking the table."
The vendor nodded his appreciation. "Can't interest you in this FNP, Detective? Since you liked the feel?"
"I'm happy with what I carry. Familiarity is important."
The man smiled and shrugged both. "Can't argue with that."
"What do you mean, familiarity?" the boy demanded as they stepped out of the way of traffic. They'd been close to the end of an aisle, and weren't far from an exit.
"We don't draw often except at the range," Ethan explained. "You don't want to fumble or hesitate when the moment comes you need to. The more you've used a particular weapon, the less you have to think about it, which allows you to focus on the situation."
"Oh." He frowned. "So how come you're here, if you don't want a new gun?"
Ethan gave his standard response. "I like to keep up on what's out there."
"'Cuz cops aren't the only ones with guns."
Feeling the rueful twist to his mouth, Ethan scanned the ever-growing crowd filling a hall that had to be sixty thousand square feet or more, packed with weaponry and shoppers. "You could say that."
"Have you ever been shot?"
Ethan shook his head. Shot at, yes. Which wasn't the same thing. "Hasn't happened yet. I try not to make myself a target." He raised an eyebrow. "You have a name?"
Alarm flickered in the boy's eyes. "Oh. Um, yeah, but…my dad says I shouldn't tell strangers my name. You know." He started shuffling backward. "I should go find Dad now anyway. He might worry. I'll, um, maybe see 'ya."
The clear subtext was, But not if I see you first.
He awkwardly flipped a hand and melted into the crowd. Only he didn't wander slowly and browse this time. He walked fast, casting a couple of looks back over his shoulder.
Ethan went down the next aisle, keeping pace. If the kid thought he'd lost him—
But one of those darted glances back spotted Ethan, who cursed his height, and not for the first time.
Alarm segued into panic, and the boy began pushing through the crowd, his eye fixed on the doors that led outside. He was quick, and small enough to squeeze between people where Ethan had to bull his way, so he reached the exit first.
So much for the fiction of a father elsewhere in the exhibition hall.
Ethan stepped out and momentarily failed to see him. More people were streaming in, either from the parking lot or the covered walkway that led—
Oh, yeah, there he was, and running now.
Ethan broke into a run, too, unsure why he was so determined to get his hands on this kid, but set on it anyway. The boy couldn't possibly be old enough to drive, which meant a bus or the light-rail.
Sure enough, he was headed for the light-rail station. Ethan didn't see a train, but knew they ran often between the expo center and downtown, something like every fifteen minutes.
Eight or ten people waited beneath a shelter. No restroom to disappear into. The boy tucked himself behind a family group as if he thought Ethan would assume he belonged.
When he saw Ethan's jog settle to a purposeful stride, he took a few steps back, his head turning in panic, but, with the rails behind him, there was nowhere to go.
"Excuse me," Ethan murmured as he sliced through the cluster of people.
"I don't know this man!" the boy cried. "He's been following me." He shuffled his feet, edging behind a beefy guy whose gaze first dropped to the holstered gun on Ethan's belt, then rose to meet his eyes in challenge.
Ethan dipped a hand in his pocket and held up his badge. "The boy knows why I want to talk to him."
The kid's shoulders slumped. "I didn't do anything wrong!"
They all heard the train coming. Ethan latched a hand around the boy's skinny upper arm.
"I didn't say you did. But we need to talk."
"Can't I just go home?" he begged. "All I wanted was to look."
"I'll be glad to take you home," Ethan agreed.
The white bullet-like light-rail train glided to a stop and disgorged a whole lot of people. Everyone waiting climbed aboard. Ethan turned his young captive back the way they'd come.
He deliberately dawdled so they fell behind the eager beavers headed for the expo center. He had the time now to assess the boy, who was good-looking and dressed in blue jeans, long-sleeved T-shirt and expensive, gleaming white athletic shoes. Common for his age, his feet looked too big to go with the rest of him. This was no homeless kid—somebody bought him nice clothes, kept them clean, trimmed his hair regularly. At first sight, Ethan would have guessed Hispanic, but wasn't so sure now despite the near-black hair and brown eyes.
"Why didn't you want to tell me your name?" he asked.
The boy shot him a defiant look. "Why should I?"
"Because I'm a police officer, and I asked. Because I suspect you cut school to come to the gun show."
Ethan felt like a jerk when the kid's lower lip trembled.
"Mom is going to be so mad."
"What about Dad?"
This sidelong look glittered with tears. "Dad's dead."
Truth at last. "How old are you?" Ethan asked, more gently.
The answer was a mumble. Ethan raised his eyebrows.
He blinked as he calculated. "That means you're not even in middle school."
The boy shook his head. "I'm in sixth grade. I left after lunch."
"It ever occur to you that the school probably let your mother know you'd disappeared?"
His mouth fell open in horror. "I thought since I was there in the morning when they did roll call…"
Ethan nudged him toward the parking lot. "I can pretty well guarantee somebody noticed you weren't there come afternoon."
"Oh, man." He raised desperate eyes to Ethan's. "Please don't tell her where I was! She hates guns. She'll freak!"
"What were you going to tell her if she found out you took off?" he asked, keeping his voice easy to encourage continuing confidences.
"I don't know." Back to mumbling. "Just that, like, I had a fight with one of my friends or something."
Ethan drew him to a stop beside his GMC Yukon. "Here's your ride."
His head turned back toward the light-rail station. "I'll go straight home, I swear! Please, mister. I mean, Detective."
Ethan shook his head. "We'll talk to your mom. She may be more understanding than you think she will be."
"She won't! You don't know what you're talking about!"
"In," Ethan said inflexibly, holding open the passenger door.
As he walked around to the driver's side, he watched through the windshield in case the kid tried to make a break for it. All he did was slump in defeat.
Once Ethan was in, he hit the button to lock the doors. "All right," he said. "No more dancing around. I need your name."
The kid jerked a one-shoulder shrug and mumbled again, although this time Ethan heard him. "Jake Vennetti."
"Vennetti." Oh, damn. Why hadn't he seen the resemblance right away? "Your father was Matt Vennetti."
Jake sneaked a look sidelong with those chocolate-brown eyes just like his father's. "Yeah."
Ethan opened his mouth and closed it before he could say aloud what he was thinking. Oh, shit.
Jake was right; his mother was going to freak. She had good reason to hate guns.
In fact, this boy, sitting beside Ethan, had to be the one who'd gotten his hands on his father's service weapon and accidentally shot another kid, who died. From there, the tragedy had cascaded. In the end, Portland Police Bureau Officer Matt Vennetti had ended up killing himself. Not with the same gun, but he'd swallowed a gun nonetheless. It all happened—Ethan wasn't sure. Five years ago? Six? He knew Matt's only son was a little boy and not to blame, which wasn't to say he didn't blame himself.
"I went to your father's funeral," he said quietly. Despite his rage at a man who'd leave that kind of burden on his wife and child. "Your dad and I rode patrol together early on."
Head ducked, Jake didn't respond.
Perturbed, Ethan said, "I can look up your address if I have to. Why don't you just give me directions."
"Like I have any choice," the boy spat.
Ethan started the engine. "You didn't do anything so bad today. I cut school in my time, too."
Jake turned his head sharply away. Ethan had a bad feeling it was to hide tears.
Where could he be?