Book VII of the Knights of the Board Room series
Release Date March 2015
Celeste has worked her ass off to establish her freelance blog as a source of accurate crime news for the Baton Rouge area. Being a workaholic, focusing solely on her career, was her choice. Five years ago, she had a life-changing experience in a BDSM club that made it clear she is a submissive, but she believes her past makes embracing that path impossible. Then Sergeant Leland Keller walks into her life. He’s the Dom she’s always feared and hoped she’d meet, and he recognizes her as what he’s been looking for as well. But she fights submission as much as she longs for it.
Leland always thought he was looking for a docile, sweet-natured sub, but Celeste captures his attention in a way no other submissive has. He can tell Celeste is aching for love and surrender. Having served in the military and now as a patrol sergeant in one of Baton Rouge’s most dangerous districts, he doesn’t shy from a challenge.
His job is to protect and serve. He’s not going to let her down.
© Copyright 2015 - All Rights Reserved
“Going home to watch ESPN and jack off, Sergeant Keller?”
“Not my fault, Jai. Sometimes I’m just so pretty I can’t resist myself. These nachos you sell are aphrodisiacs. They should come with a warning.”
Celeste bit back a snort of laughter. She was tucked in the back corner of the convenience store, studying the scant selection of frozen entrées. Even in her stiletto-heeled boots, she wasn’t tall enough to see over the aisles of snack options, but she could still hear the exchange. Since her sense of humor had been stomped somewhere south of her ass since early afternoon, it was a pleasant surprise to find she could still retrieve it.
She’d walked away from the crime scene perimeter, away from the reporters fighting like starving dogs to jam their cameras and mics as close as possible to the weeping parents of Loretta Stiles. Fortunately, the uniforms had folded the grieving couple into a car, probably taking them to the home of a friend or relative. No need to go to the coroner to identify their teenaged daughter’s body, because they’d come home from a Sunday lunch with friends and found her.
The uniforms manning the barricade hadn’t had time or patience for her own questions, not that Celeste could blame them. The official statement had been that Loretta Stiles was the victim of a homicide. They hadn’t said “brutally murdered”, but Celeste was pretty sure that was the case. She’d also bet good money there’d been evidence of rape. From working the crime beat in New Orleans and here in Baton Rouge for the past few years, she’d learn to pick up cues from body language. Loretta’s mother looked as if she needed a dose of Valium to keep her catatonic for the next decade. Her father’s face was pale and suffused with helpless rage, even as his hunched, protective posture toward his wife suggested he was being beaten with an invisible claw hammer.
Even if Celeste hadn’t seen the parents, the police’s own body language would have given her the nature of the crime. The uniforms manning the barrier and the detectives on scene had a more-than-usual flatness to their eyes. Their tight mouths, their general state of pissed-off, was higher than the norm, and the carrion circling the scene hadn’t helped.
She would have returned home to do some research, make some calls, giving her as much of a jump on the prep work as she could get before an official statement was made, probably tomorrow, but a lead for another story had panned out. She’d been building a series on the drug trade in the Baton Rouge and New Orleans areas, and a source had some new lead for her. The one catch was she had to meet him in the crowded conditions of his favorite grunge club. Grunge being a comment on the location’s hygiene, not its theme. So as not to stand out, she'd blended with an outfit of tight jeans, a sassy bolero jacket and the boots that made her feel like she’d shoved her feet into a garlic press. Big hoop earrings that made the sides of her neck itch and overdone makeup clogging her pores completed the look. She'd been born with a youngish face, so though she was cruising around mid-thirties, she could pull off a twenty-something in the right lighting.
Fortunately, the aggravation had been worth it. Neil had given her a name that put her closer to the nexus with one of the major suppliers in the area. He’d stabbed the air with his cigarette, held with surprising elegance between long, skinny fingers, and pinned her with eyes so deep in their sockets she wondered that they didn’t fall down his esophagus and get lost. “You talk to Stucco at the March club. You tell him Neil sent you, so he’ll know you aren’t trying to get him in trouble. And watch your fine ass, because he don’t hang out anywhere near as nice as this.”
She might need to update her tetanus shot before she met the man named after a wall paste. She’d given Neil a couple bills, resigned to the fact he’d use them on another fix rather than a healthy, nourishing meal, though she planted the suggestion to make herself feel better. She told him to take care of himself.
He’d grinned, showing rotted teeth. “I always take care of myself, reporter girl.”
One day, he’d disappear, no one really remembering how or when. Or he’d OD, probably in a toilet stall of a club like this. Celeste did short write-ups on Jane and John Does delivered to the morgue here and in New Orleans. Most weren’t technically unidentified, since people on the street usually knew the deceased, but by whatever name they’d assumed out there, not what had been written on a birth certificate. She remembered one teenage hooker, LucyLou, who’d had a little gold bracelet with a teddy bear charm. Celeste included that detail in her obit, as well as her street name.
At least twice in the past few years, Celeste had discovered a person on the slab she’d used as a source. It made her think of the motto painted on the wall of a halfway house she’d visited. “God cares about everyone. God forgets no one. People forget God.”
Footsteps drew her out of her thoughts. Since the only people in the store right now, besides her, were Jai and the man he’d been razzing, the other customer was headed her way. Based on his solid tread, he had to be a big man. She was going to find out, since she was where the nachos were, her hips propped against the self-serve food counter. Behind her, hot dogs glistened on metal rollers behind Plexiglas, sandwiches and salads nestled in a bed of ice, and yes, pre-packaged nachos were stacked in a tower. They were placed next to sterno pans of meat, beans and cheese, everything necessary to make nachos as gooey as desired. Next to them were bins of surprisingly fresh-looking diced tomatoes, shredded lettuce and jalapenos.
She hadn’t heard the telltale radio chatter that went along with a uniformed cop, but when Sergeant Keller came into view, she would have made him for one in an instant, and not just because of how Jai had addressed him.
Anyone projecting an attitude of composed vigilance as Sergeant Keller did usually carried a badge. Or had a military background that included active duty in a war zone. Or both. She guessed both for this guy, because cops with an armed service background often emanated an extra dose of that watchfulness and an even deeper anchor point of calm.
Baton Rouge had four police districts. This one, District 1, was the roughest, especially this part of it, where businesses kept bars on the windows and walk-in 24 hour operations like Jai’s were rare or nonexistent. She was sure Jai had a panic button, handgun or both readily within reach, because his clientele could include the furtive, belligerent, or just plain up-to-no-good types. She wondered if a drug dealer with a gun tucked into his baggy jeans and an attitude as big as his perception of his genitalia was far more predictable, even reassuring, to a police officer who’d dealt with slippery insurgents and IEDs.
She could do an article comparing police from military backgrounds to those without. What skillsets each brought to the table, what complemented or clashed with the job. The personal interest piece would be good when the crime section of her blog had a lull. She had enough friendly contacts in the districts now, it was doable. She tucked that into the back of her mind to put on her idea list, because a more immediate priority presented itself.
Whether or not he had meant it as a joke, this man was awfully pretty. But pretty wasn’t the right word. You couldn’t use the same word used to describe flowers and girls with pink ribbons to describe him. Instead, she thought of a sleek muscle sports car revving its engine, a summer lightning storm filling the air with electricity, or a single drop of water meandering down powerful biceps.
He had skin like butterscotch and golden-brown eyes, light enough to suggest mixed race somewhere in his ancestry, maybe a grandparent. He kept his hair in a close crop, but the black had tints of gold that reminded her of a grizzly bear’s coat.
She’d done a feature on a roadside zoo whose attractions included a caged bear sitting outside in the parking lot. The owner had been charged with animal cruelty. When the bear was transferred to a much more humane facility, she’d visited him to do the follow up. It had been a pretty day, so she’d indulged herself for a couple hours, sitting on a rock outside his far more natural habitat, watching him move ponderously, sniff the air, study her. She expected if Sergeant Keller let his hair grow out, he'd have burnished curls in the same molasses-touched-by-sun tones as the bear had, particularly around his remarkable face. Celeste had characterized the animal’s expression as a mix of nature’s majesty and old man puzzlement with the vagaries of the human world.
Sergeant Keller’s close crop made the most of his rock-strong facial features. He wore a placket shirt embroidered on the left breast with the gold and blue Baton Rouge PD shield. The shirt outlined formidable shoulders, strained over smooth pectorals and curved biceps. When her gaze swept down, she hitched there an extra moment, no apologies for it. The strong thighs and denim creases around the groin area drew a woman’s eyes like the dessert bar at a steak house buffet.
How many appalling double entendres could she pull out of that little visual?
She’d initially started her crime reporting career with a New Orleans paper and had come back to Baton Rouge as a home base in the past year or so. While she was getting fairly familiar with the patrol officers, sergeants tended to appear where needed for their assigned unit and weren’t always at the crime scenes she visited. She was surprised she hadn’t crossed paths with him yet, because she certainly would have remembered him.
Another reason she would have known he was on the job, his shirt notwithstanding, was because of the mental slap she could tell he gave himself for not noting her presence earlier. She didn’t think he deserved bad marks for it, though, since her position wasn’t an easy angle for the security cameras. On top of that, she’d been pretty motionless for the past few minutes, leaning against the counter. Those black and white monitors Jai had up front had a grainy black and white feed.
He gave her a nod and the quick once-over that told her he was evaluating who she was, what she was. Since he had a Y chromosome and she was dressed sexy, she could tell he liked what he saw, but he was also all cop. Giving her own self a final look in her mirror before she headed out had made her wonder what the difference actually was between hooker wear and current club fashion. On top of that, in this part of town, she tended to keep a look on her face that said “get in my way and I will fuck you up--or call my boyfriend to do it so I don’t break my nails”.
If she had to guess what was going through this officer’s mind, it was probably that she had a light-handed rap sheet, punctuated by things like cat fights or sassing an officer. About twenty years ago, that would have been true. Fortunately, she’d survived her teenaged years.
The polite look on his face said she’d be treated with professional courtesy unless anything nudged him to be a little less relaxed around her. A smart cop rarely relaxed around someone they didn’t know. She decided to rectify that situation. Every friend she made in the department was a potential source of information, after all.
Straightening off of the counter to give him room, she gestured to the nachos. “Never get in the way of a man and his trans-fat aphrodisiacs.”
His lips twitched. The man had a good mouth. A nice full bottom lip that made a woman want to take a bite, the upper one firm, and the whole tempting shape of it a smooth mauve-brown color with hints of dark rose, suggesting velvet.
She was all too aware of the “no one is ugly at closing time” trigger. This man was far from ugly, but the mantra was a reminder that, once past midnight, human judgment was impaired by the desire not to face those lonely pre-dawn hours without company. The dingy wall clock showed them closing in on two-thirty a.m, well into that dangerous territory.
Humans were social animals, no matter how much they tried to convince themselves otherwise. She’d done one night stands, because occasionally every single woman needed something warmer to the touch than a vibrator. Limited investment, limited chance for letdown. But this guy was way outside the safe parameters of that kind of pickup.
Plus, she considered police, firemen, EMTs and other members of the press co-workers in a sense. She didn’t shit--or fuck--where she worked. A casual fuck could turn to serious shit in no time. The sad truth was that everyone she’d dated in the past five years, pretty or not, had been a giant loser letdown.
Despite the twinge of regret about her dumbass ethics, she returned her attention to the frozen food case. The lasagna looked promising. It came with a side of broccoli, so she could put that with a fruit cup at home and feel like most of the food groups had been represented. She hadn’t eaten since her quick late lunch, consumed in her car while waiting for an official statement from the Mayor-President on budget adjustments that would impact mental health facilities in the area. The Stiles event and the grunge club had pretty much soured her appetite until now.
“The lasagna doesn’t suck,” he said behind her. She heard the sterno rattle, the waft of grilled meat smell telling her his selection. Then came the noise of the pump bottle as he chose his nacho cheese. “Jai has some fresh tomatoes up front. One of the ladies who lives nearby, Bev, has a window garden. She barters tomatoes for cigarettes. If you cut them up over the lasagna, add a little salt, they’ll give the lasagna more of a home-cooked taste. If you’ve got a good imagination.”
She looked over her shoulder at him. Closing the lid of a sturdy cardboard container over a copious amount of meat, cheese, lettuce and tomato, he stacked two sealed packages of nachos on top of it. When he straightened and turned toward her, she found herself sandwiched between a cool refrigerated unit and a warm large male. The contrast was stimulating and the proximity…unsettling.
In her field, she dealt with a variety of alpha males. If the man in question copped an attitude, she might go balls-out aggressive with him, or shoot calm logic his way, depending on the personality or what she was trying to learn. Once a rapport was established, banter was typically the best way to go, a little on the rough side, so they grew more comfortable around her as the professional relationship progressed. Being seen as “one of the guys” also made her less of a pick-up target.
However, there was one alpha personality type that could knock her off her stride. She couldn’t describe it in words, because when she came up against it, her reaction was purely gut level. She’d experienced it firsthand only one night, but since that night was stamped forever on her memory, she had a physical and emotional reaction to the quality that was all out of proportion with what it should be. It intrigued her, unbalanced her, scared her.
She was pretty sure the reason her dating life was merely the occasional meaningless hook-up was because of that night. Whether it stemmed from the fear that she’d find it again and not know how to handle it, or a fear that she’d look for it and find it had been a fluke, she didn’t know.
Yet when she met Sergeant Keller’s gaze, she saw that quality there. Unmistakable Dom, whether he actively embraced it or not.
“Your clothes don’t match you,” he said. He had a southern accent, but she didn’t think it was that of a Louisiana native. However, Baton Rouge and New Orleans were melting pots of southern transplants, so it was often hard to pinpoint the natives. His baritone was infused with such natural authority she expected he’d be the top choice for any situation where people needed to believe that someone was in charge, in control, keeping them safe. Or to assure them they were facing someone capable of kicking their asses. Like a Daddy who knew just when a trip to the woodshed was needed to teach the offender the three most important rules about self. Self-control, self-respect, self-discipline.
Crap. It really was late, if she was letting her mind creep into that area. But instead of escaping to the front of the convenience store, she pivoted on her torturous heel so they were toe to toe.
“That’s rather presumptuous,” she said. There really wasn’t a lot of room between the end of the counter and the freezer case.
Since she hadn’t detected any suspicious looks at the grunge club, she surmised his comment showed he was exceptionally good at his job, not that she was poor at hers. What was curious was why he’d decided to confront her about it. His tone reflected curiosity, not interrogation, though a lot of cops didn’t realize there was supposed to be a difference between the two.
Keller did, even if it was after the fact. A rueful amusement crossed his expression. “Sorry. Being nosy.”
She lifted a shoulder. “It’s your job to take a second look at something that doesn’t quite fit. If you live around here, you watch after things. Like women who trade cigarettes for tomatoes.”
As she blinked, the weight of her lashes reminded her of the excess mascara she was wearing. She regretted not washing it off before coming into the convenience store, but she reminded herself that didn’t matter. Cop. Sergeant. Not a fuck buddy. It was important for a career girl to remember her priorities. Whether he had “that” quality or not was irrelevant. Besides, if she pursued it and found out her craving for submission had been a fluke, it would make that long ago memorable night a lie. She wasn’t in the mood for that kind of reality check.
She focused past that onto something more important. Being the best at her job. “You picked up on it pretty quick,” she said. “What gave me away?”
“Body language. Vocabulary. The way you wear your clothes. They’re a costume, not a fashion statement.”
“I’m undercover,” she said. “Slutty tough chick gave the source I was meeting better street cred than earnest Lois Lane with her recorder, trying to nail down details about the latest drug buys.”
Some reporters tried to pretend to be someone else to get information out of cops. She’d followed such unsound advice only once, early in her career, and quickly learned whatever juicy tidbit earned was far outweighed by the permanent destruction of a potentially useful relationship. So she made a habit of letting them know as soon as possible. Best case, wary courtesy; worst case, open hostility.
She’d received plenty of reactions from both ends, so when his gaze went cool, that lush mouth tight and firm, it wasn’t unexpected. But it did sting more than she’d anticipated. “I imagine so,” he said. “Good night, ma’am.”
Picking up his nachos, he moved toward the beverage cases. “Well, fine,” she muttered. “Fuck off to you, too.”
His reaction was why she’d worked her ass off to establish her own news blog, weaning herself off of working for a paper. It had taken five years and an absurd amount of hours, but now she had enough subscriptions and advertisers to give her more freedom in what kind of stories she’d write, and for whom. And she’d done it purely on faith. The faith that most people wanted news, not a selectively editorialized piece to promote sensational slants or a story released half-baked just to say she reported it first. It had been hard to do at first, but typing “I’ll tell you more when I know more” had paid off. Her audience knew they might have to wait a little longer, but when she wrote the story up, it would be thorough, unbiased and accurate.
It was a fierce source of pride to her, and she’d strive to keep it that way. No matter how many armpits she had to visit in the middle of the night, or how many hot-looking cops treated her like shit until they learned she was different.
She chose the lasagna and a small side salad and went up front, picking out a tomato from the basket by Jai’s cash register. A reporter was only as good as her network, and the value of that network depended on creating solid relationships. She’d made a lot of those connections in this neighborhood, Jai being one of them. The middle-aged pot-bellied man of Asian Indian descent had been born in Chicago. He owned the store and occasionally did the late shift on the nights his wife was working her 3-day, 12-hour rotation as an ER nurse. When he worked the graveyard hours, he did it with the door unlocked, but on the nights he didn’t cover that shift, he had the counter rigged for window service only to protect his employees. He had two daughters in college, one fanatically pursuing a medical degree. The other was in her first year at LSU and majoring in partying, if his exasperated but always loving comments about his youngest were any indication.
As she put down her choices, he gave her a considering look. “Rough day?”
“Eh.” She shrugged, thought of Loretta’s parents. “Lot worse for others.”
He nodded. “Had the TV on and saw you in the background at that Stiles thing. You didn’t ask any questions.”
“No. Wasn’t any chance to tag anyone useful for a quick off-the-record to start filling in the blanks. I left when the reporters started being even bigger assholes than usual.”
“I thought that’s how they get things done.” He was teasing her to get her to smile. She obliged him with a faint curve of her lips, but talking about it brought the anger back.
“They want to get the parents to talk about their daughter, cry on camera. ‘How do you feel?’ How do you think they feel, you fucking morons? When it was clear they weren’t going to give the reporters shit, a couple of them are shouting out things like ‘don’t you want people to know how much you loved your daughter?’ They’ll probably figure out a way to drag them on air in the next couple days and orgasm behind their cameras if they can trick Mom into blaming a public official, the second amendment, or the size of soft drinks for her daughter’s death.”
She took a breath as Jai shook his head. One of the things she liked best about the storeowner was how emotionally connected he was to his community, which was reflected now by the flash of sorrow in his eyes, as well as some of the anger Mr. Stiles himself probably felt. Jai’s youngest daughter wasn’t much older than Loretta, after all.
“If I’d been Mr. Stiles,” she declared, “I’d have sprayed them with buckshot.”
“That would be a felony.”
She started. She hadn’t expected Keller to be behind her. Either he’d moved that quietly, or she’d been too caught up in what she was telling Jai.
“Or a public service,” she retorted. “Just depends on your perspective.”
She won an easing of that hard mouth, his eyes studying her a little differently now. “Some of my unit were doing crowd control at that circus.”
“They deserve a medal for not opening fire.” Taking a breath, she stuck out a hand. “Celly Lewis. Celeste.”
She frowned. Even though she thought of herself as Celeste, she gave people her sassy, shorter byline name, because it went better with the image she projected. But under his steady gaze, she’d added it without thinking. “I do a news blog for the New Orleans and Baton Rouge areas. And occasionally I do freelance work for those ratings-driven fuck heads that made you dislike me on sight. The reason I do a news blog is because it lets me be a journalist, instead of a collection agent for inflammatory sound bites.”
“She’s smart, isn’t she, Leland?” Jai said with a smile. “And pretty. Girls are pretty. Girls are good.”
Leland gave him a narrow look, putting his nachos down to withdraw his wallet and hand the storeowner a crisp twenty for his meal. Sergeant Leland Keller. Celeste made a note to look him up on the BRPD organizational chart. Maybe he had a social media page with photos of him shirtless. Hey, they were in a riverfront community, right on the Mississippi River. It was possible.
Yeah, right. He looked like the type of cop who’d jump at the chance to share personal info about himself through social media. Not. He put the change Jai handed him back into his wallet without glancing at it, because his eyes were back on her.
“What would you have asked?” he said, picking up the soda he’d bought and twisting it open with a short hiss. “If you could have asked the parents something?”
“Not a thing.” She rolled her eyes. “They have enough to deal with right now, and the lead detective needs them focusing on vital details for him. He’s the one I’d love to interview. Not that the detectives usually give up much of anything. You have to figure stuff out on the periphery.”
“How do you do that?”
“Trade secrets, Sergeant.” She gave him a bland smile. “Research. Networking. Vocabulary. Body language. That kind of thing.”
He snorted at that, offered her the Dr Pepper before he took it to his own lips. “Want a sip?”
“Yeah, sure.” Their fingers brushed, and she saw the flicker in his eyes as he registered the contact. His fingers had heat in them, and she bet his hands were impossibly strong. Gentle. She cleared her throat. She attributed the tingle under her breastbone to the fizz of the soda.
“But if I could ask him something, I’d want to know if it was a crime of opportunity or personal. Do they think it was someone she knew or was she just a type he preferred? Do we have enough on the suspect to put out a description so we can help catch him?”
“Are you asking me for that information?” He got that tight look again, as if he’d walked into a trap.
“No. You asked me what I would ask. I’m just answering you. I figure we’ve both had a long enough day.” Handing the soda back to him after the quick swallow, she glanced at Jai. “How much?”
“Nothing.” Jai tilted his head toward Leland. “He just paid for both of you.”
Leland looked surprised at that, and Celeste suppressed a chuckle. “If your local Mini-Mart employee is matchmaking for you, you haven’t had a date in a long, long, long time, have you?”
“One or two more ‘longs’ would be necessary,” Jai said.
“I’m sure there are some code violations in here,” Leland muttered. “Those tomatoes haven’t been through an FDA inspection. Keep it up.”
“Hey, I’m from Chicago. You don’t scare me, copper,” Jai said, beefing up the Windy City accent.
Another knot of customers arrived. Celeste guessed them to be three men carpooling from the night shift at one of the petroleum plants. From the way Jai greeted them, they were regulars, so Celeste took her cue for departure. Jai had kindly packed her dinner up in a paper bag the same way he had for Leland. While they were talking, she’d seen the storeowner add extra packets of parmesan cheese and her preferred salad dressing, as well as some crunchy roasted bell peppers. He’d dropped packets of extra sauce into Leland’s bag.
Leland gave Jai a nod and followed her out, holding the door for Celeste with one long arm. “I think he has every kind of condiment or topping you could ever want behind that counter,” she said as the door settled closed behind them.
“He says he keeps it there to prevent sticky fingers from grabbing more than their share, but I think he likes adding them himself. That personal touch.”
She nodded, stopped in front of her car. She hadn't had to furnish her car a disguise for her visit with Neil. The battered and ancient Honda in a faded blue color like old jeans looked exactly like what someone going to a club with a low sanitation rating would drive.
She shot Leland an amused look, though her radar was on alert. He’d stopped with her, rather than giving her a polite nod and going on his way. “So you haven’t had a date in an exponentially long time?” she ventured. “What’s that about?”
“I haven’t found what I’m looking for, and I got tired of fishing.” He shifted. “You like sports?”
“That’s pretty general. Are we talking baseball or curling?”
“The only sport that means anything.”
He had a breathtaking smile, especially when the golden-brown eyes warmed. She glanced around and only saw Jai’s car and the one belonging to the three men. “Are you on foot?”
“I only live about a half mile that way.” He nodded. “Good to have police living in some of the rougher spots. Makes it a little safer for folks, and shows the kids we’re not the enemy.”
“I did a story on that in New Orleans. It’s a good idea.” She hesitated, then admonished herself to get in her car. Now. “Well, I’ll see you around.”
“Would you like to come back to my place and watch some recaps?” he asked. “I usually tape a few game highlights and watch them or ESPN to unwind. Gives you a place to eat your salad. I have a microwave that can handle that lasagna.”
“You’re offering to let me use a microwave and watch dated sports news with you.” She pursed her lips. “I’m starting to see the problem with your dating life.”
He chuckled, and that baritone did marvelous things to it. She wondered what a full-throated laugh would sound like. Her abused toes wanted to curl.
“Any other time I’d squeal like a high school cheerleader at the chance to visit the home of a total stranger who outweighs me by a hundred pounds and is a foot taller than me,” she said, “but I need to get out of these boots from hell. I don’t want you to get the wrong idea when I strip them off. You might think I’m undressing for you and be overcome with lust.”
“I can restrain my baser urges,” he said dryly. “And in defense of my dating abilities, I might like watching sports, but I know how to focus on a woman. Though if the Tigers are playing--”
“Then you better shut the hell up so I can watch,” she said. “We can talk about your feelings any old time.”
He grinned. “Nice to know you care.”
“About a man's feelings? One, you have to assume he has any worth considering, and two, no.”
“Ouch. Okay, I'm taking my nachos and my bruised feelings and going home.”
“Fine, you big pussy.” This was her groove. She traded spirited trash talk with the uniforms all the time. She tried to ignore the extra kick she experienced when his eyes twinkled, but apparently her mouth hadn’t caught up to her brain. “Maybe I better at least give you a ride to your place. Someone with your tender feelings won’t be safe on these streets this late at night.”
“Most people prefer bitchy.”
“Maybe they're not looking close enough.”
She glanced up at that. He was looking pretty close. They were standing as near to one another as they’d been at the frozen food case, though they had plenty more room behind them to widen that space. No question that they were flirting, but the way he looked at her touched those deeper things inside her. It made her hold his gaze a moment longer than was wise. His shoulder twitched, and she thought he was going to lift his hand, trace her mouth with one of those long fingers. She’d stay still as he did it, waiting for him to tell her what he wanted next.
She stepped back, broke the spell. “I’m not trying to assume anything here, but I don’t want to be misleading, either,” she said. “I don’t date people who have a good chance of being a lead or source. It’s late, and I know how these things can unfold. Going back to your apartment can easily lead to other stuff. We’re both adults, no sense denying it.”
“Okay.” He nodded, pursing that distracting mouth. “Then I’ll make you a couple promises. You will never use me as a lead or source. And no matter what, we won’t have sex tonight. I won’t take off a single item of clothing. Not even my shoes. Even if you taunt me by taking off your boots.”
The man was charming, mainly because he wasn’t trying to be charming. Despite the humor of the last statement, every sentence before it had been issued in a straightforward tone, with that unsettling direct eye contact. He was laying down the structure, the rules to dictate how it would be between them. Also a Dom thing. She couldn’t help shifting her gaze away when he did that. She tried to snap it right back, but she saw the flicker in his gaze. He’d caught it, and she had a feeling he’d understood why she’d done it even better than she did.
She tried to remain sensible, steer it away from all that. “So if I strip down naked and beg you to bang me like drum, I get nothing.”
“Nada. Though you will officially be the meanest woman I’ve ever met. Considering some of the people I’ve met on the job, that’s saying something.” His glance slid over her. “Though I can’t promise I won’t look. You can’t hold that against me.”
“I'm not going to hold anything against you.” She couldn’t go to the home of a man she only knew from a convenience store bonding experience. Especially when that was the least dangerous thing about him. Telling herself a stern no, she started to backpedal toward her car.
“Looks like you're striking out, Sergeant Keller.”
She jumped at the whine of the speaker Jai had mounted on the gas pump island and glanced through the window. Jai clicked the button again, smiling at her. “Despite what you’ve told me, apparently cops don’t get pussy whenever they want it.”
She choked on a chuckle as Leland threw a glare toward the storeowner. Jai shrugged, lifting his hands in a posture of total innocence. But he looked toward Celeste again, his expression sobering as he pressed the mic control. “He’s okay, Celly. He’s good people. I’d trust him with my own daughters. If I’m wrong, come get me and we’ll shoot him. My gun’s bigger than his.”
“But his aim’s so bad he couldn’t hit a parked car with it,” Leland muttered. “Unless he threw the gun butt first.”
The three men came up to the cash register to pay for their items, so Jai clicked off. Leland turned his attention back to her. “I’m good people,” he repeated. “So see? You can trust my word. If you get tired, not a problem. I’ve got a comfortable couch where you can sack out until daylight.”
She lifted a brow, blinked. “Do you usually ask strangers to sleep on your couch, Sergeant Keller?”
He glanced toward the car. “I’m not sure that’s going to get you home, unless home’s across the street.”
“You’d be surprised. That car’s a lot tougher than she looks. And I do have a cell number, Dad. I can text you when I get home safe.” Which would give him her phone number, and her his. Still a mistake, but a more manageable one in the rational light of day. “It’s kind of you to be concerned, but I do know this area of town.”
“Which is why you should be jumping at the chance to find shelter until morning, when the worst riffraff crawl back into their holes.” He crossed his arms. “I wasn’t going to point this out, but you are about to be guilty of a serious code violation.”
“There is nothing wrong with my vehicle. My tags and everything are up to date.” She was pretty sure of it.
“Not that. I bought you dinner. There’s a rule that says you’re at least required to eat it with me.”
Swallowing the chuckle, she schooled her face into miffed indifference. She pulled the lasagna out of the bag and extended it to him. “A fair point. Jai has a microwave inside. I think it’s four and a half minutes on high.”
Under his bemused gaze, she settled herself gracefully on the parking curb, glad the tight jeans had spandex as she stretched her legs out in front of her, crossing her ankles and leaning back on her palms. The release of pressure on her aching arches made her want to moan. She might not get up again for awhile.
“Open air dining works best for me.” She smiled brightly. “And if we’re talking code violations, when a man buys a woman dinner, dessert is supposed to be included. A Hershey bar should work, if you’re springing for the full course meal.”
Amusement crossed his handsome face, but something else, too. Dropping to his heels, he took the frozen box from her, but not to heat it in Jai’s microwave. He slid it back in her grocery bag, nudged it to the side so there was nothing between the two of them, and reached out.
Celeste went still as he cupped her cheek. His large hand cradled her face as he studied her face. If he’d touched her in a more active manner, she would have drawn back, but that steady stare, the light hold on her face, kept her still. Mostly still. She realized her lips had parted, her breath held in a peculiar stasis. When at last he moved, it was to slide his thumb across her bottom lip, tracing it just as she’d imagined. But then he kept going, caressing a path from the corner of her mouth, along her cheek to her jaw and lower, to her neck. The solid pressure of his thumb rested on her thudding pulse briefly before he stroked beneath her chin, making her lift it to him. She should be pulling away, saying something to break the spell. They were sitting in a convenience store parking lot, for God’s sake. But she was only aware of him, the dense space between them. The way his eyes held hers as he spoke.
“You like bratting, don’t you?” His voice was a quiet rumble. “If I had to make an educated guess, I’d say how much you like it scares you, because sometimes like is just a different word for need. You think you’ll get in over your head, so you deny yourself.”
When she was interviewing someone for a story, or cultivating a source, there was a click point. That was when the person made a step toward either trusting her enough to offer truth, or retreated behind shields and blew her off or bullshitted to establish distance, boundaries past which she wouldn’t be invited if she couldn’t find that pivotal moment again.
This was such an instant. All she needed to do was react the right way. She could pretend like she had no idea what he was talking about, and back that up with affront or fake laughter, an offhand comeback to take her to safer ground. But it was late, nearly three in the morning, and that damn vulnerability was affecting her more than she wanted to admit. The best she could summon to defend herself was silence.
“What I said in there, I meant,” he said. His hand on her face was warm, his golden-brown eyes too gentle. “Come back to my place, eat your dinner, watch some TV with me. Get to know me, and let me get to know you. That’s all.”
He straightened and extended the hand that had touched her, offering to help her up from the curb. As she tilted her head, she noted he was a lot of man from head to toe. She didn’t see anything between those two points that helped her resist his offer.
“It’s not a date,” she said shortly. “It’s two people who work in overlapping fields having a friendly meal and watching some TV.”
“I gave up fishing, remember?” He closed his hand over hers, tugged her easily back up to her feet. “That’s all dating is.”
The stab of pain through her arches and cramped toes decided it for her. “I’ll probably change my mind by the time we get to your place and kick you to the curb,” she said, for form’s sake.
That easy smile crossed his face once more. Picking up both their bags, he headed for the convenience store entrance.
“Where are you going?”
“To get your dessert. If I have chocolate, you won’t change your mind.”