Michele Albert @ inkalicious.com

Chapter One

Monday afternoon, Philadelphia

The sharp click of high heels on Champion and Stone's plank flooring was his first warning that she'd arrived, but Vincent DeLuca knew it was her before he turned to look, before she spoke, before her heavy floral perfume invaded every pore of his skin. He knew because a rush of hot lust swept over him at the exact same moment hairs prickled along his arms and the flesh between his shoulder blades crawled.

Only one woman had ever had such an effect on him.

Vincent stepped back into the main room to face her, since ignoring Claudia Cruz wasn't an option. Everything about her dominated and demanded, and her sinuous strut kicked him into a sensory overload of breasts and hips straining the seams of a red suit, brassy curls, cinnamon-red lipstick so glossy it looked as if she'd just licked her lips, and cold black eyes that met his almost on the level.

"Special Agent DeLuca." Even her voice, low and a little raspy, sent mixed signals of sweet and rough. "I knew I'd find you here."

Here being the wrap-up of his investigation at an art gallery in Philadelphia's tourist-heavy Old City. He'd unlocked the door a few moments ago to admit a FedEx driver, and she must've been outside, watching and waiting for an opportunity to slither inside.

At this point, however, she couldn't cause any trouble. Or at least no more than usual

"Not surprising, Ms. Cruz," Vincent said. "I'm usually at work when I'm working."

"And hard at work, I'm sure," she murmured, smiling, then trailed a manicured red fingernail down his tie.

The unexpected touch startled him so much that he didn't even think to push her hand away. The rest of him responded quickly, though; his belly tensed before her finger had reached halfway to his belt buckle.

Just as he narrowed his eyes, she stepped out of reach, a humorless smile still curving her lips. "Has anyone ever told you that you're a walking, talking cliche, Mr. FBI Man? Tall, dark, and ever so grim; the black suit and tie; that steely-jawed look, and the stick-up-the-ass posure, it's all --"

"What are you doing here?" His sharp tone made the detective filling out forms by the cash register glance up.

"As if you have to ask." Her gaze moved past Vincent's shoulder to the nearest gallery annex, and she frowned slightly. "Hmmm, is that the manager? It looks like she's been crying. I hope she's not having hysterics, because I'm not too handy with hysterical women."

"That would require compassion, and compassion isn't high on your boss's list of job skills when he hires people like you."

Claudia sent him another slow, maddening smile. "Oh, now, Vincent. You make it sound so...ugly."

Her hair was longer than when he first met her four months ago, with the loose corkscrew curls styled in an artful disarray, as if she'd just been fucked on an office confrence table.

Vincent squelched that thought -- and its accompanying visuals -- and moved between Claudia and the others, blocking both the curious detective and the gallery manager. Lowering his voice he said, "Ugly about covers it. And every time you shove your way in where you don't belong, I get more determined to take you down."

"Take me down where?" She feigned innocence. "I'm not that kind of girl, you know."

"Yank my chain one time too many, Ms. Cruz, and you'll find out. This is the third time I've warned you and your kind to keep clear of my investigations, and it's the last."

Something sparked in those dark, assessing eyes, and it wasn't fear or shame or anything remotely remorseful. "Big talk, no action. Ain't that just like a Fed?"

For a moment longer, she held his gaze. When he raised a brow and shrugged, she turned and headed toward the manager. The detective -- a competent, fiftyish man named Matherson who had pale eyes and thinning brown hair -- followed the swing of hips in that tight skirt. Vincent couldn't blame the guy; he'd never managed to look away, either

After joining Vincent, Matherson leaned over and whispered, "Who the hell is that?"

Vincent didn't reply, since any answer would require a long explanation. The investigation was over for now, and as fun as it would be to sic Matherson on Claudia Cruz and watch the fur fly, it still wouldn't be half as entertaining as watching the woman in action.

"Did you hear what I -- Vince? You feeling all right?"

Vincent took a deep breath, then ran a hand through his hair, wiping away the perspiration along his upper lip with his sleeve as he did so. "Yeah, I'm good. Just a fever i can't shake."

"Maybe you should see a doctor about it," Matherson said in all seriousness.

"Maybe," Vincent agreed, holding back a smile.

Against a backdrop of expensive paintings, Arnetta Gallagher stood beside an empty display case off the main entryway, only a fraction calmer than when Vincent had arived. As Claudia touched her arm, Arnetta visibly relaxed, assuming she was in the prescence of a sympathetic female, an ally.

People were so gullible.

"I had this cousin once who couldnt get rid of a cold." Matherson's voice broke across Vincent's thoughts. "And then one day he dropped dead."

Vincent finally looked away from Claudia. "Thanks for the advice, but this isn't the kind of fever that'll kill me."

Unless a bad case of blue balls suddenly turned fatal. But after four months of dealing with this woman shadowing his thoughts and prowling through his dreams, he doubted the problem could get much worse.

"I hear your day got off to a bad start." Claudia's voice was warm with false concern, and Vincent, brows arched, slipped his hands in his pockets and settled back to watch the show.

Arnetta let out a shaky sigh, then dabbed at her mascara-smudged eyes. She was a stately, gray-haired woman who'd worked for Champion and Stone for twenty years, and, as she'd repeatedly told Vincent, nothing like this had ever, ever happened to her before.

"I can't belive this," Arnetta said. "Nothing like this has ever, ever happened before. It was there last night, and this moring it was gone and that toy left in its place. No alarms, nothing on the cameras -- it's as if they slipped in like ghosts!"

Claudia gave Arnetta another comforting pat on the shoulder of her impeccably tailored tan suit. "I hope it's not too fragile."

"Oh, God, the bronze is so very delicate...you can't cart around something that's twenty-five hundred years old like it's part of some Halloween costume. And to make matters worse, it's the only Corinthian helmet we've had in stock for over four years. Ms. Stone is going to be simply furious!"

"It's hardly your fault," Claudia said, soothingly. "I'm sure you've done nothing wrong."

Fishing for information, but carefully enough that Arnetta would never realize it. Claudia had gambled that talking with Vincent first -- even playing up their hostile familiarity -- would validate her presence.

The gamble paid off: anger, bewilderment, then worry crossed Arnetta's face before she said, a shade defensively, "I checked over the inventory before I left last night, activated the alarms, and locked up like I always do. I have absolutely no idea how they got inside!"

Claudia's gaze darted toward Vincent then away again when she verified he wasn't making any move to stop her. He had no intention of doing so; he'd had enough experience with this woman, and others like her, to know that he had to pick his battles.

She danced at the very edge of his last nerve, and as much as he wanted to believe he tolerated her intrusions because he was biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike, it wasn't his only reason.

"Maybe Mr. DeLuca will find something useful on the security data." Claudia paused. "Providing he remembered to take the recordings into evidence."

"Oh, he did. He's a very thorough young man."

"I never doubted it," Claudia said mildly, glancing back at Vincent again and giving a little shrug, as if to say, "Oh, well, I had to ask."

As if he'd let her walk out the door with evidence. Still, her response -- and the faint irritatioin underlying it -- almost made him laugh.

Another fifteen minutes passed as Claudia produced more supportive comments designed to prompt Arnetta to spill her guts. Once Claudia had determined that she'd milked the situation for all it was worth -- and that Arnetta would be of no real help -- she smoothly disengaged and headed back his way, hips swinging, a small smile curving her mouth again.

At her approach, Vincent asked, "Did you get what you wanted, Ms. Cruz?"

"For the most part, Special Agent DeLuca," she answered, matching his mocking, exaggerated politeness. "If I need a little something more, though, I'll be sure to come find you."

As she headed toward the door, Claudia gave Matherson a polite nod, and the detective frowned. Good instincts; the man knew a carnivorous interloper when he saw one, despite a breathtaking distraction of breasts and hips.

Vincent should've just let her walk out the door, but allowing her the last word galled him too much.

"Nice suit there, Ms. Cruz, and I noticed the classy touch with the make-up. I thought you people were supposed to downnplay your presence."

Matherson opened his mouth to speak, then snapped it shut at Vincent's warning glance.

Claudia turned, and if the dig had offended her, it didn't show. "We people are given a broad range to work with, but the sensitive jobs usually go to the sensible, boring guys like Tiernay."

Vincent rubbed the stubble along his jaw. "That would be the sensible, boring guy who blew up a factory and a couple people outside Boston a few months ago, right?"

"I wouldn't know anything about that," Claudia said, demurely.

"Of course not." She'd been there, though. Vincent had cecked into the situation -- as best he could with the Boston cop who'd dodged his more pointed questions.

"It's been great talking with you, Mr. FBI Man, but I gotta go. You have a lot of paperwork to do now, right? Me, I'm off to catch a thief, seeing as how I don't got to deal with all that bureaucratic stuff."

He'd noticed that whenever she was feeling cocky, the barrio came out more clearly in her voice -- and her comeback jab put them at a stalemate. Again.

"Give it your best shot," Vincent said. "I'll be watching to see if you can deliver, or if you're all flash and no substance."

Suspicion flared, then narrow-eyed annoyance. Then she blew him a kiss and walked out, heels clicking and a little extra swish in those hips.

Heat rolled over him, and he let out his breath, hoping no one noticed he'd been holding it in the first place.

"Who's that young woman?" Arnetta demanded. "Isn't she one of your people?"

Vincent imagined her reaction if he told her the truth: "That young woman is the human equivalent of a shark. She works for a soulless sonofabitch who thinks he's above the law because he's stinking rich and has powerful friends all around the world. He owns a travel agency that's just a cover for a bunch of mercenaries who also think they can run roughshod over every law in every country. Only these days they call themselves private contractors, not mercenaries."

Instead, he said, "Nope."

"Oh." She blinked. "Somebody about the insurance, then?"

The woman's distress and confusion radiated off her in waves, pricking his conscience. His day had been lousy, but hers had been much worse, so why was he being such an ass?

"No. She's what you might call a freelancer in art theft recovery."

Arnetta Gallagher wasn't stupid, and every line of her body stiffened with anger. "Then she shouldn't have been here. Why did -- You should've stopped her!"

"From doing what, Ms. Gallagher? Listening to you talk? She never once asked you a question. Technically, she's not interfering."

Not enough for him to waste valuable time by causing a situation that would end in another reprimand. He'd discovered the hard way that Cruz might be a handful, but her boss's lawyers posed far more trouble.

"I'm already going to have to explain to Mr. Champion and Ms. Stone that their prized Greek Corinthian helmet has been stolen from under the noses of a senior employee and one of the best security companies in Philadelphia." Anger sharpened Arnetta's soft, refined voice. "I hope you had a very good reason for your actions, and that this woman's presence won't cause me any further trouble."

"It won't." Not for Arnetta; for himself, he couldn't be so sure.

"So why didn't you stop her at the door?" the gallery manager demanded. "You're a federal law enforcement agent. You have the authority."

Matherson's frown deepened, but he kept his mouth shut.

"It's nothing you need to worry about. She's on your side. Solving specialized crimes like this often takes a cooperative effort from many investigators, including those in the private sector."

It sounded good, big words and all, and more dignified than explaining the FBI sometimes had to deal with the devil it knew in order to catch the devil it didn't.

Guilt pricked again, and he added gently, "Look, it's been a rough day for you and we're done here. You should have a cup of tea or something before locking up. Try to relax. We'll be in touch if we have any more questions, and we'll keep you posted if anything turns up. That's about all we can do right now."

Arnetta nodded, then reluctantly moved away, still looking a bit lost and frantic. Vincent supposed that if he'd had a chunk of bronze worth nearly two hundred grand disappear on his watch, he'd be a little green around the edges, too.

Once Arnetta was out of earshot, Matherson cleared his throat. "Okay, I'm not sure what just happened here, but that hot little number in red wasn't someone you know?"

"I know her."

The detective shot him a look of exasperation. "But she wasn't authorized personnel."

Matherson had no reason to know about Avalon, Claudia's employer, and he was better off remaining ignorant. People who knew too much occasionally ended up dead. Or simply disappeared. "Somebody's contracted her services. That's all the authorization she needs."

"So she's like a private investigator?"

"You could call it that."

Annoyance flaring, Matherson asked, "So why did you really let her walk in here and do whatever the fuck she wanted?"

Vincent shrugged. "Because I've got nothing to work with. She's not one of us, so she doesn't have to operate like us. Maybe she'll get lucky -- and when she does, I will."

"Ah-hah." Matherson drew out the word, nodding in understanding. "You're tailing her."

"There's no place her sweet ass goes that I don't hear about it. So that's the plan."

Or half of it; the other half was that he wanted to catch this woman in an illegal act -- anything would do, no matter how petty -- so he could make an example out of her. That high-handed bastard in Seattle needed to learn an important lesson: no one was above the law, not even the obscenely rich and powerful.

Next to catching this annoying little shit of a thief he'd been chasing up and down the East Coast for months, there was nothing Vincent wanted more than a chance -- just one chance -- to show Avalon they could no longer ignore the FBI.

Her floral scent still lingered, bringing to mind warm skin and lush female curves, a mouth in wet red lipstick and hair he could grab in both fists.

He blocked the image. Nope, there was nothing more that he wanted. And if repeated it often enough, he might even start believing it.

Chapter Two

Claudia took her time crossing the busy street, hardly noticing the stares of men in passing cars and ignoring a few catcalls. Long gone were the days when she'd kick a car window or bust a nose over some disrespectful attitude from those with tiny brains and tinier dicks.

The only troublesome matter on her mind now -- besides teleporting thieves and snake-eyed Feds -- was the perspiration gluing her lace bra and thong to her skin, no matter how many times she pulled at them, manners be damned.

Philly in August was oven-hot, baking the asphalt and concrete and steel. Everyone she passed looked wilted, harassed, and in a damn big hurry to be back inside air-conditioned offices or cars.

Claudia pointed her remote at her rental car, unlocking it with a chirp. The inside was stifling, and she let out a small huff of annoyance. After she started the car, she flipped the air-conditioning fan to High...and noticed the light trembling of her fingers.

She wanted to lay the blame on a breakfast of Twinkies and Pepsi, but getting up close and personal with Mr. FBI Man hadn't helped matters. Scowling, she kicked off her heels, then peeled off her stockings.

The smug bastard was tailing her. He'd all but admitted it, and that was the only explanation for why he'd be so...reserved. When Vincent DeLuca was shouting at her, threatening her, or when his dark eyes burned with loathing and fury, she had nothing to worry about. When he was quiet and polite, that meant big trouble was brewing.

It was much too hot for trouble. Any kind of trouble. Why didn't anyone ever pull art heists in Antarctica, anyway? Antarctica sounded sooo good right now.

After digging through the bags and boxes scattered along the backseat, she retrieved a bottle of water and her work clothes. Not caring who might be watching, she wiggled out of her tight skirt and into a pair of shorts. She unbuttoned the suit coat with a sigh of relief and tossed it into the back. As she pulled a T-shirt over her head, tires squealed close by, followed by furious honking.

A woman shouted angrily, and Claudia flipped her off. "Like you never seen boobs before, sister. And I am wearing a bra."

It wasn't even see-through, for God's sake. Then she grinned, a sudden thought coming to her. If Vincent was having her watched, she hoped one of his flunkies had gotten an eyeful and reported every salacious little detail to his big, bad boss man. She'd bet a week's vacation that DeLuca would waste no time in giving her shit over it. The man was all too predictable.

Well, he was FBI and couldn't help himself, poor thing. His type always came equipped with a self-righteous ego big enough to match any surplus of testosterone. And one look at the man told her he had plenty of testosterone to spare. Back in April, when they'd first crossed swords and territorial boundaries, she'd known he was going to be trouble even before he called her "Sheridan's little bitch."

That had seriously pissed her off. At five nine, she wasn't little, thank you very much -- and why did so many men need to call a strong-willed woman a bitch? Vincent had her on the first part, though. Ben Sheridan owned her soul, and she owed him more than she could ever repay.

Thinking back on that first meeting with Vincent, Claudia recalled how his eyes had gone from watchful neutrality to contempt when he recognized her. The average Fed wouldn't have ID'd her, but he was with the FBI's new Art Squad, and they knew all about Avalon. They were competing in the same territory, so she understood the hostility. She didn't even hold it against him, because she knew what really chapped Mr. FBI Man's self-righteous ass: Avalon had been at this game for years, and the FBI was still scrambling to match its efficiency.

Those art databases everyone was so proud of? Avalon had one as early as the 1920s and had computerized it a full decade ahead of any others. Then there was the fact that Ben had a wide, international net of contacts. Claudia suspected whoever used Ben as their front man were the ones who actually knew people, and they told Ben who to talk to and when. Avalon sometimes struck her as an old, exclusive men's club, but whatever it was, it worked.

Most of the time. Avalon didn't have exclusive bragging rights on bagging bad guys, and they lost almost as many fights as they won. Art thieves were notoriously difficult to catch, and prosecuting them often proved even more difficult.

Claudia drained the last drop from the water bottle and pitched it into the seat beside her. Rummaging through her purse for a hair tie, she kept an eye on the bright red door of Champion and Stone, framed by hanging baskets of colorful petunias, and wondered how long Vincent would stay inside.

God, she wanted a look at the security camera data, but he'd only laugh in her face if she asked. Dealing with the FBI was such a pain in the ass. Too bad the local cops weren't handling this theft. She could work a local cop angle to her advantage, even if it took a little time and patience, but not the FBI.

The security data for this one was probably a lost cause. The best she could do now was wheedle or trick some shred of information about its conents out of Vincent. Hell, even a shred would be better than what she had.

Ben was getting impatient at her lack of progress with the series of thefts; she could tell by how his questions and their conversations kept getting shorter. Claudia hadn't been the least surprised to find that under her boss's classy cool bubbled a temper, a temper she respected and was careful not to trigger.

Too bad she couldn't show the same restraint with Vincent DeLuca. Recalling the look on his face when she'd run her finger down his tie, she laughed softly. The man was a jerk, but damn, he was fine. Still, best to keep her focus on what she was getting paid to do do.

Since Vincent most likely knew she was waiting, and was deliberately making her sweat it out, she might as well put the time to good use. She pulled her PDA out of her purse and reviewed her notes, adding details from this morning's theft. Nine confirmed hits, all on the East Coast: New York, South Carolina, Massachusetts, Virginia, Maryland, and the first theft in Philadelphia back in April at the Alliance Gallery. Nothing for weeks, and now Philly again.

Random, except for these most recent three within the Philadelphia and Baltimore areas. The items taken had nothing in common beyond having been replaced by cheap replicas to delay discovery. So far, the thieves had made off with a colonial sampler, a rare atlas, several small paintings, a Japanese mask, a pair of nineteenth-century dueling pistols, a collection of Civil War-era photograph negatives, a French medieval chalice, and now a Greek Corinthian helmet.

If someone was trying to make money by supplying for a select clientele, then a few of these items should've surfaced by now. Thieves were usually greedier than they were smart, and not known for their patience.

Maybe sending the law dogs running around in circles was a deliberate plan, rather than sheer luck. If so, the plan was working. Telling Ben she expected the next heist to occur on the east or southeast coast wouldn't earn her any bonus pay.

She turned on the car radio, searching stations until she found a Nelly Furtado song she liked, then sat back, tapping her fingers on the steering wheel to the beat.

Not all art thieves were greedy, unimaginative, or spur-of-the-moment types. Some were eccentric, some brilliant, and a daring few -- like Rainert von Lahr -- even played games with the authorities. Several Art Squad agents were headquartered in Philly, so maybe the last three hits were an intentional slap in the FBI's face. That might explain why Vincent was more bad-tempered than usual.

"And if it isn't the devil himself," Claudia murmured as the door of Champion and Stone swung open and a familiar figure stepped outside: six feet of edgy, dark-haired, dark-eyed, black-suited male aggression, framed by little pink petunias. The whimsical contrast made her smile, even more so because he was completely unaware of it.

He shrugged out of his suit coat, holding it and his briefcase in one hand while he tugged his tie loose and undid the upper buttons of his shirt. By the time he reached the sidewalk's edge, he'd pushed up his sleeves, displaying strong forearms with a dusting of dark hair and the prominent veins of a man with a lean, mean build who worked out regularly.

Sexy as hell...the heat low in her belly didn't lie, no matter how much she wished she could pretend she didn't want to corner that man in a dark room, shove him up against a wall, and explore every inch of him. Preferably every hot, slick, naked inch of him.

The way he dressed always reminded her of grainy black-and-white news footage from the 1960s, and she'd come to think of the look as Mission Control Cool: Slim black suit, white button-down shirt, and skinny black tie. Nothing about this man indicated he was the type who would pay attention to style, yet he must've made a conscious effort with his looks. Did anyone even sell ties like that anymore?

All thoughts froze as Vincent stepped off the curb toward her, grinning.

Oh, shit.

Showing that much tooth meant he was up to no good -- or else he finally had enough evidence to break the case wide open. To keep her anger and frustration from showing, Claudia waggled her fingers and grinned back.

Did he have something? God, she hoped not. More than likely he only wanted her to think he did, in order to throw her off or panic her into doing something reckless.

Exactly the kind of dirty trick she'd try.

Vincent jogged across the street, adroitly avoiding traffic. Her heart pounded with every footfall, as much from anticipation of a duel of insults as from purely feminine appreciation of a mangificent male animal moving directly into her target zone.

Resting his hands on the car, he leaned down and grinned. The bare forearms were even sexier up close, and the perspiration-dampened white cotton emphasized the long, lean line of his chest. A feathering of hair was visible where he'd unfastened the buttons over his undershirt, and Claudia unabashedly admired the view. The man had a very sexy neck, one that practically begged her to run her tongue up its salty, warm length to his jaw, and then kiss her way back to that hollow between his collarbones.

Vincent hadn't missed the quick survey -- which she'd made no attempt to hide -- and that toothy, predatory grin widened. Oh, yeah...dark, disheveled men with persistent five-o'clock shadows and broody eyes made her weak in the belly. But she'd be damned if they'd make her weak in the head, too.

Vincent rapped his knuckles against the window, interrupting her reverie. Claudia hesitated, then lowered it. "What?"

"My people tell me you stripped down in your car."

Hearing him verify that he was watching her somehow made it more...stimulating. "Disappointed to hear that I'm not carrying concealed?" As his brow arched, she couldn't resist adding, "Or are you just sorry you missed the show?"

"Is that what you think?"

"I could always arrange for a private showing, Special Agent DeLuca."

His grin faltered, signaling she'd scored a hit.

"You do that again," he said mildly, "and I'll have the locals take you in for indecent exposure. I warned you, Ms. Cruz. And you know there's nothing I'd like more than to toss your interferring ass in jail."

Excitement sizzled head to toe and she flicked her tongue over her lips, pleased beyond all civilized decency when his gaze briefly dropped to watch. No matter what he said, what he wanted wasn't her ass in jail but in his bed. Or against any reasonably stable surface.

"Always so serious. All work, no play --"

"You want to play, Ms. Cruz?" A breeze drifted inside her car, bringing with it the smell of city traffic, hot asphalt...and him. He didn't wear cologne, but the scent of soap, perspiration, and warm skin was heady enough. She shifted restlessly on the seat.

"Do you?" She matched his cool tone. "Because I don't play so nice."

His smile faded, lips settling into a thin, grim line. "Neither do I -- although I won't corner you in an alley and shoot you in the back."

That he'd sink so low as to bring up ancient history irritated her, but defending herself, or pointing out he shouldn't believe everything the media chose to report, would be useless. He'd made up his mind about her months ago.

"And that's exactly why your people always lose and my people always win," Claudia said flatly. "You're just not mean enough."

The window let out a low, electric hum as she raised it, shutting him down before he could respond. Not that it looked he would; he only glared at her, the sinews of his forearms and neck tight with the effort to control his anger. She tracked him as he stalked away, and pulled out into traffic once he'd turned the corner.

Mr FBI Man wanted to play rough, did he?

"Gloves are off, cabron," Claudia said softly. "You asked for it, you got it."


 

Vincent spent the remainder of the day at the Arch Street office, drinking coffee and chewing pen caps as he went over the case notes, photographs, and surveillance data. Nothing stood out in the Champion and Stone camera feed, but it had been a long day and he was tired and restless...best go over them again later.

He'd made numerous calls to other detectives and agents working the cases, and by the time he'd emailed a brief update to his supervisor and called it quits, his mood had deterioratd from bad to worse.

Despite reams of reports, tons of files and photos, massive megabytes of recorded data, and the combined brainpower of experienced detectives and the FBI, he still had nothing. When he stepped outside, he irritably scrubbed his palms over his tired, stinging eyes and swore under his breath as the heat hit, thick with humidity.

He needed a shower and a beer -- and sex, considering his lingering reaction to the morning's run-in with Claudia Cruz -- but the chances of getting the first two were a hell of a lot better than the likelihood of getting the last one. His sex life was in a sorry state when it was easier to score a cold, satisfying beer than a hot, satisfying woman.

Traffic on 676 was slow despite the hour, and Vincent paid minimal attention to the radio news as he mulled over this case. Once off the highway, he stopped at a small market to pick up beer, frozen pizza, and a package of chips, then drove home through quiet streets lined with trees and brown brick houses.

He lived in an older part of town, an ethnically mixed, middle-class neighborhood that was mostly empty between 6:00 AM and 6:00 PM. Now lights and TV screen glowed behind curtains and blinds, and his neighbors were out jogging or walking dogs. Vincent drove with the windows down, clearing the office stink from his head, and over the sounds of crickets, car engines, and barking dogs, he could hear children laughing.

It lifted his mood, and he waved to his neighbor as he pulled into his driveway. The flare of the headlights showed how badly his grass needed mowing and that his sorry-ass flower garden needed watering. A red rubber ball was wedged in the bushes by the porch, which meant the kids had been using his yard as a soccer field again.

"Hey, Vinnie!"

He turned, shutting the car door with his heel, plastic grocery bag and six-pack in one hand, briefcase and suit coat in the other. Jennie was an attractive divorcee in her forties, and she waved at him from where she sat on her porch steps, smoking a cigarette and temporarily escaping her four hyperactive sons.

Vincent suspected she wouldn't mind getting a little friendlier with him, but as much as he liked her, the consequences of sleeping with a woman who had four fatherless boys kept him well out of her range. "How's it going, Jennie?"

"Ain't melted yet. And you? Catch any terrorists today?"

She knew he chased art thieves, but she liked to tease him about it. He couldn't really blame her; chasing terrorists sounded a hell of a lot more glamorous. "Nope, no terrorists in downtown Philly, unless you count taxi drivers. It was a quiet day."

Her laugh followed him inside his house, and he sighed with relief at the cooler air. He took a quick shower while the pizza cooked and the beer chilled to perfection in the freezer, and by the time he'd shaved and pulled on a pair of shorts and a T-shirt, dinner was done.

Vincent clicked on the TV, flopped back onto the couch, and grabbed a slice of pizza. As he opened his mouth to take a bite, his cell phone went off. Scowling, he searched for it under the pile of mail and newspapers on the coffee table. "Yeah?"

"Vinnie, it's me. Steve."

Th agent he'd assiged to follow Claudia Cruz. "What's up?"

"Not much. Just checking in."

"Where's Claudia?"

"Sitting in her car, down the street from your place."

What the hell? This was a new tactic for her. Vincent headed to the living room window and separated the slats of the venetian blinds, peering out. Through the trees and bushes, street signs and fire hydrants, he glimpsed a familiar sporty Pontiac rental, the fading light shining along its white paint. " I see her."

"She followed you home," Steve added, unnecessarily.

A tail that he'd failed to notice. Then again, he hadn't expected her to follow him. The day's itchy, restless anger flared, and he snapped, "Jesus Christ! Isn't anyone trying to catch the bad guys here? You follow her, she follows me, and I'm --"

Drinking beer and eating pizza.

Anger ebbed, leaving behind guilt. But it was stupid to feel guilty about taking the time to eat a home-cooked meal -- or as home-cooked as it ever got, these days. Maybe he should've listened to his mother and gone into teaching. Little kids terrified him, but the older ones weren't so bad.

"You want me to get rid of her, Vinnie?"

"No."

He tried locating Claudia inside the car but couldn't get a clear view. Then, a sudden, unpleasant thought came to him. "Have you seen any movement in the car?"

"Yeah."

"You're sure?"

A pause. "Uh...there's a lot of branches in the way, but I'd see her if she got out of the car."

Vincent let the slats drop back into place. "And you can't clearly see the passenger side, can you?"

"No." Again, a brief silence. "Is something wrong?"

"We'll find out. Meet me by her car."

Vincent disconnected, cast a regretful look at his beer, making a small puddle of condensation beside his congealing pizza, and then walked outside.

Before he even reached Claudia's car, he knew she was gone. Steve was waiting for him, looking both incredulous and angry as he began to explain.

Holding up a hand, Vincent said, "She knew you'd assume she was here to watch me. If I'd been you, I would've made the same mistake."

"So she parked here to distract us and took off?" Agent Steve Auckland was a stocky man with a florid face; pale eyes; thinning, reddish hair; and a thick neck. He looked every inch the ex-collge football star.

"Exactly."

"She ditched us," Steve said, flatly. "What the fuck? Where's she going?"

"Beats me, but she'll have to come back for the car." Vincent tried the door, and wasn't surprised to find it open. Afer all, she'd parked in a nice neighborhood and across the street from an FBI agent. She'd even left the keys tucked under the visor.

An invitation? Even if not intended as such, it was one now.

"You can call it a night," he said, glancing back at Steve. "Go on home. I'll wait for her to come back."

"You sure?"

"Yeah. Live and learn. We'll know better next time."

Vincent waited until Steve's black SUV drove away before he locked Claudia's car and took the keys back inside with him. Hours passed as he finished his dinner, then worked on his laptop while cable news played out in the background, and through it all he waited for her to ring his doorbell.

After the night turned pitch black, he grabbed his cell phone and her car keys, then crossed the now-quiet street, listening to the buzzing of insects as they circled the lamppost and still feeling the day's heat in the air.

As he unlocked Claudia's rental car and sat inside to wait, something like unease hovered on the edge of his thoughts, though he tried to avoid facing it directly.

She was a big girl, and one who'd ended her career with the Dallas police department after shooting an unarmed man in the back.

Hell, yes, she could take care of herself.

Chapter Three

The apartment lock clicked, then the door creaked as it swung open.

About damn time, too. After hours in this aromatic pigsty, Claudia's eyes were accustomed to the darkness, and she raised her gun, aiming with a steady, two-handed grip at the stocky figure illuminated in the doorway by the hallway lights.

"Don't move. I'm armed and bored outta my mind from waiting for you to haul your sorry ass home, Digger Brody."

Brody couldn't see her, but even his reptillian brain knew when to freeze. Then he snapped, "Who the fuck --"

"I'm not the cops. I'm not here to cause trouble," Claudia interrutped. "I just have a few questions to ask, and I can make it worth your time to answer them. Now shut the door...slowly."

"Yeah?" He slammed the door shut instead. "Worth my time in what way?"

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if Brody gave her trouble. Her mood had been ugly before waiting hours for a guy who might not even be of any use to her, and she needed to work out the snarling tension that had been snapping at her heels all day.

But she couldn't afford the trouble, she reminded herself. "In the way your kind likes best, Brody, so lose the sleaze. Keep your hands where I can see them, and don't turn on the light."

"How do I know you got a gun if I can't --"

Claudia fired, the silencer making a muffled, metallic sound. The bullet hit the wall above his head, and he flinched, letting loose a stream of curses as white plaster dust showered down.

"Believe me now?"

She could sense his red-hot rage from across the small room, but he raised his hands and didn't turn on the light. "Who the fuck are you?"

"Nobody interested in your personal affairs. What you do to keep yourself in such fine comforts is between you and the Philadelphia cops, not me."

"I don't know what you're talkin' about. I got no problem with the --"

"You fence stolen property for the mob, Brody. I've been asking questions, and your name keeps coming up regarding the kind of property I'm interested in. I need information about the theft at Champion and Stone, and the one a few months back at the Alliance Gallery."

"I don't move that kind of shit."

"Let's not get off to a bad start with lies."

The scent of Brody's sweat wafted her way on air-conditioned currents -- an air conditioner that rattled and wheezed like it smoked two packs a day. She wanted the lights off to keep Brody from seeing her face, but she also didn't want to look at the piles of fuzzy dishes and trash.

"I don't know who hit those two places. It wasn't local business," Brody said, his voice heavy with sarcasm and resentment. "So how come you want to know? And what's in it for me if I talk with you? Not promising you answers, understand, but I'm willing to listen to what you got to offer."

Back in the day, shen she'd worn the badge, she'd have gladly taken down a bottom-feeder like Brody. But those days were over and done. "I hear you had some buddies working over a crack dealer in that part of town, and that they saw something."

"Maybe they did."

He hadn't moved and kept his arms in the air as she'd ordered, but she still didn't trust him. The man looked like he could wrestle a bull and win. She kept the gun aimed right at the center of his chest.

"Let's cut to the chase," Claudia said flatly. "A thousand dollars for what your friends saw last night, and there's more where that comes from if you keep me informed and play nice."

A brief silence. "Five."

"Brody, don't make me shoot you outta pure irritation." Good. She had his attention. " A thousand's all I got on me at the moment."

Even without being able to see him, she knew what he was thinking. He wanted to take her out and grab the money, but a healthy respect for her gun kept him from making a move. There was also the greed: why settle for a grand if he had a chance to con more out of her? It was a game, and they both knew how it worked.

"If you ain't the cops, who are you?"

"You could say I'm working for someone with a lot of money. So did these friends of yours see anything or not?"

Greed won out, as she'd expected, and he answered, "Nothing that will help you much, just some chick in the back alley by the Dumpster. She was carrying a box. Probably worked for the cleaning crew."

"What did this woman look like? How big was the box? Did she leave in a vehicle?"

"How should I know? I wasn't there."

Claudia sighed loudly. "Little Otis told me you were, so we can cut the 'friends' shit now, too."

"Little Otis?" Brody laughed softly. "I don't believe it."

"He only needed a little extra persuasion to talk." Of the monetary sort, but she let Brody assume the worst of her.

"You serious?" Brody demanded, his tone incredulous. "You beat him up?"

"There's a reason they call the man 'little.' Answer my question."

"And if I change my mind cuz I don't like how you treat my associates?"

Associates? A high and mighty word for such low-life bastards. She almost snorted, trying to hold back a laugh. "Your loss. I take my money and walk out the door."

"You gonna shoot me then?" Now the tone turned mocking.

Claudia held on to her temper. "As much as I'd like to, no. I told you, I'm not here to mess with your personal business. I just want answers. The offer still stands, Brody, but not for much longer."

Silence followed as he mulled it over, drawing out the delay as long as he dared. "Okay, but you gotta understand I was, uh, busy and not paying a lot of attention. She was young; average build; short, dark hair; and she had on black pants and a shirt. I didn't wait around to see if she got in a car, called a cab, or hopped on a bus or the train. The box was..I dunno, box-sized. Not real small, but not real big, either."

"Did she look like a homeless person?"

"Nope. Clean and pretty."

"You could see that at three in the morning?"

"There's a light at the back by the Dumpster. Just a quick look, but I could tell she was clean. She was wearing lipstick. Glossy stuff."

"All right. Now what have you heard about the Alliance Gallery theft?"

"Like I said, whoever pulled that job wasn't local business."

She couldn't say for sure if he was telling the truth. Looking him straight in the eyes in full light might've helped, if he wasn't a pathological liar. Still, she finally had something more than guesses to work with -- and something she hadn't expected. Males generally way outumbered females when it came to stealing and fencing.

"Fair enough. You gave answers, so I'll pay up. Sit over there by the sink and keep your hands on your head."

"I got no gun on me."

"Don't insult my intelligence. Now move."

He did, but toward her. Expecting it, Claudia swore and ducked. Brody moved fast for a man of his bulk, and his shoulder caught her a glancing blow, rocking her back against the wall. She dropped when he came at her again, his hand snaking toward her gun.

"Stop!" She aimed at his face. "I will shoot."

Maybe it was the cold, flat tone of her voice -- or knowing it wouldn't matter much to the cops if they found one more body shot full of holes in North Philly -- but he went still, then raised his hands. "Had to try."

"Back off. Now. And keep your hands up." When he'd stepped out of reach, she ordered, "Stop."

"You gonna shoot me?" he asked again, this time with a cold, eerie calmness that matched her own.

"You ever hurt the helpless, Brody? Women? Little kids or old people?"

"No." His lip curled, as if offended. "That ain't my style."

"Good," Claudia said softly. "Then I won't kill you tonight. Take off your belt."

"Hey, hey, girl, if you want me as bad as that, and I --"

Claudia fired, then raised her voice over his curses and said, "You know, the first time I shot and killed a man, it bothered me. Second time, not so much. Now I don't even lose any sleep over it."

After letting the threat sink in, she said, "Take off your belt and wrap it around your ankles, good and tight. Then roll over and put your hands behind your head, fingers laced. You know the routine, I'm sure."

When he did as she ordered, she approached, gun steady, rammed her knee and gun into his back, and then secured his hands with a plastic tie. She rolled him to his back, moving her knee and the gun to his chest, and pulled out the wallet chained to her belt. After peeling off a wad of cash, she tucked the bills into his waistband.

"Can't say I don't keep my word. A thousand dollars, Brody, and here's my business card." Se slipped the card into the pocket of his jeans. "If you hear anything more, call me. Leave a message if I don't answer. I'll get back to you."

"Bitch," he muttered, gasping a little as she lifted her knee from his diaphragm. "Ugly-ass cunt."

Claudia sighed. "That's the first time any man's ever talked trash to me after I stuffed money down his pants. What's a lady gotta do to get a little respect, huh?" She pressed the thick, heavy sole of her shoe over his groin, hearing air rasp through his teeth as he sucked in his breath, his body going rigid. "Well, yeah, there's always that consolation prize of soul-suckin' terror. Don't try to follow me, homeboy. Not in such a good mood today."



Vincent stretched his stiff limbs as best he could, then glanced at his watch and grimaced. He was crazy as hell, sitting in a car and waiting for a woman he didn't even like. He'd already had to explain himself to one patrol cop; he didn't need to do it again.

"Fuck this," he muttered.

Claudia had probably gone back to her hotel, laughing at him all the way. Whatever he had to say to her could wait for when she finally came hassling him for her keys. He swung out of the car, and as he started to lock the door, a noise caught his attention. He tipped his head, listening. Definitely footsteps coming his way, and at this time of night in this neighborhood, who else could it be?

A moment later, a figure emerged from the shadows: tall, long legs, curves in all the right places. She wore jeans, a dark, belly button-baring T-shirt, and a sleeveless denim vest that brushed her hips. Not her usual style; even if it had been the middle of January, he'd expect more skin.

"Claudia."

"Vincent. How sweet of you to wait up for me like an overprotective daddy."

Not the comparison he'd have chosen, considering his usual reaaction to her "Philly's a rough town. Not too smart to walk around by yourself this late."

She came to a stop in front of him in the pale glow of a streetlight, and despite the sticky heat of a summer night, she looked beautiful. A puff of breeze caught a wisp of hair on the side of her mouth, and he almost reached up to brush it away.

"Were you worried about me?"

That mouth curved in a smile, and Vincet met her gaze. He considered denying it, but his pride got the best of him, and he said instead, "I don't like you, but I don't want to see you hurt while you're out trying to get a leg up on me."

Surprise flashed across her face, quickly suppressed -- but not quickly enough. He waited for a bitchy comeback, a sly dig. After a few uncomfortable seconds passed, he prompted, "Well, did you?"

"Did I what?"

Was he hearing things, or did she actually sound...subdued? "Get a leg up on me." The instant the words left his mouth he realized they were the wrong choice.

Claudia grinned, her gaze dropping down his T-shirt to his khaki cargo shorts. "If I got a leg up on you, DeLuca, you wouldn't have to ask. You'd know."

"That's not what I meant."

"No, but you'd like to know what it's like, wouldn't you?"

The darkness -- and the duskier skin of his Italian heritage -- hid the color flooding his face. "Would it fuckin' kill you to just answer me straight for once? Did you turn up anything or not?"

She arched an eyebrow at his dodge, her expression far too smug. "We could go inside your house and discuss it."

Vicent laughed, which surprised her almost as much as it surprised him, judging by how her eyes briefly widened. "I don't think so."

"Aw, and it's such a nice house, too. A testament to the great American dream."

He couldn't tell if she was mocking him or being sincere, but he thanked her curtly, thinking that his mother and grandmother would've approved of his politness under fire.

"I guess you don't trust me, huh?"

"No, I don't," Vincent said drily. "And I especially don't trust you not to leave behind an unwelcome accessory the second my back is turned."

"That would be rude of me, but I'm sure you'd handle the matter. You're a smart guy, even if you got no sense of humor." Her gaze lowered again. "Though you do casual a lot better than I expected."

"You're not answering my question."

Claudia shrugged. "Did you find anything on those security tapes?"

"Nothing useful." It was the truth, yet vague enough to let her think he might be holding back.

"And if I did find something and you found something but we can't find common ground to share it, then nothing gets accomplished." She moved closer, her heat brushing along the surface of his skin, and the perspiration-smudged mascara made her eyes look larger, darker...and tired. "C'mon, work with me here, Vincent. We could solve this together."

The weariness, real or imagined, made him hesitate, then he shook his head. "You're asking me to step too far into the gray. I can't do that."

"Why not?" she asked quietly. "I did, and it's not so hard to dabble on the dark side. The pay's pretty good, too."

"Claudia, I read the case file on the incident in Boston back in April. I read the coroner's report on Kostandin Vulaj's cause of death."

"What's this got to do with --"

"I know you were there," he snapped, cutting her off. "There's no question Will Tiernay put a few bullets in Vulaj, but the coroner has evidence that Vulaj was also hit twice by a high-powered rifle."

When she said nothing, he repeated, "I know you were there. Jesus Christ, Claudia, how often do you go around killing people?"

"I didn't kill Kostandin Vulaj. Tiernay didn't kill Vulaj," she said, flatly. "Vulaj was killed by a bomb he set imself, and in the process he also managed to kill his equally stupid girlfriend."

"But you don't deny you shot him."

To her credit, she met his gaze straight on. "Vulaj was a little nuts by that point. He had an assault weapon and was firing at my colleague and at an innocent woman who, through no fault of her own, got caught up in an ugly mess. That mess was our responsibility to clean up. I'm sure you also know Vulaj had kidnapped and threatened to kill this woman."

"You shot him."

She let out her breath in a huff. "Yes, I shot him -- and I aimed to disable, not to kill, which the coroner's evidence should prove. I didn't want him dead, and neither did Tiernay: Vulaj would've been more helpful to us alive. But there was the small matter of a shit-load of explosives in an old factory, and the fact that Vulaj wasn't going to be taken alive. For the record, I don't get off on putting bullets through living flesh and bone, but sometimes I don't have a choice. You got a problem with that?"

"Yeah, I do have a problem with that kind of armed force being used outside federal and state laws with impunity. You don't get to shoot people, even bad people, and then walk away. I don't get to do that. Cops don't get to do that. Nobody does."

Vincent took in a long breath, then let it out slowly. "When it comes to enforcing laws, there's no gray area for me. You either uphold them or you don't -- and if you don't, then you pay the price. If there are any gray areas, it's for the courts to decide. That's their job, not mine."

"You really do have that self-righteous stick shoved up your ass," she said softly, but again, without the bite he'd come to expect.

"Make fun of me all you want. Tell me I'm nothing but a government yes-man or a naive asshole. It changes nothing. You might think you're doing the right thing, but I know I'm doing what's right. I've got the law on my side. What do you have besides Ben Sheridan's dirty money?"

He met her gaze, refusing to feel embarrassed by his beliefs, no matter how out of step they seemed nowadays. Trusting and believing in his sense of right and wrong, of justice and fairness, was the only way he could get by in this crazy, fucked-up world. But she wouldn't understand that.

Claudia stared at him a moment longer, her expression unreadable, then shrugged. "Well, can't say I didn't try to save us both a lot of frustration. In more ways than one."

She gave him a teasing smile and a wink as she brushed past him, adroitly plucking the car keys from his hand, then swung open the door.

The streetlight gleamed on the gun revealed as her sleeveless vest caught on the holster at the small of her back.

"Nice gun," Vincent said. And it was: a no-nonsense 9 mm Beretta in basic black to match whatever the lady might be wearing.

She glanced back at him impatiently. "I'm licensed."

And no doubt she was -- to own the gun. "You licensed to carry concealed firearms within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?"

Her impatience sharpened to irritation. "I'm covered."

Not a yes. "Show me your license."

"I only have the owner's permit with me, not the license to carry concealed. I left it at the hotel."

Got you, sweet thing. Vincent grinned, though he suspected it looked more like a sneer. "It's a third-degree felony in Pennsylvania to carry concealed without a valid license. You're under arrest."

Claudia stared at him, then blinked and snarled, "What?"

« home

Her Last Chance

Cover

Publisher: Pocket Books
Date: Mar 2010
ISBN-10: 1416531408
ISBN-13: 978-1416531401

Buy: AmazonBarnes and NobleKobo

Book Description:

Hot summer in the city of Philadelphia heats up even more when Avalon operative Claudia Cruz and FBI Special Agent Vincent DeLuca clash in a battle of wills and opposing philosophies while hunting down the same thief. Not being a fan of Avalon and all it represents, Vincent is as determined to catch the thief as he is to bring down this audacious woman. There's nothing he wants more ... nothing, that is, except getting her into his bed. There's a fine line between love and hate, and as Vincent discovers how easy it is to cross that line, Claudia experiences something she's never known before: what it's like to meet her match.

Nominated for Best Romantic Suspense of 2010 in the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Awards