It was a Friday, half past three in the afternoon.
Sporting a pair of cheap sunglasses I’d bought for a buck at the local flea market, I climbed out of my old pickup truck and stepped directly into the scorching Georgia sun. Beads of sweat broke out along my brow and down the length of my spine.
“Lord have mercy, it’s hotter than Satan’s toenails out here,” I mumbled to myself, slamming the truck door shut with more force than necessary.
Wearing a pinched expression on my face, I squared my shoulders, hoofed it across Main Street and climbed the concrete steps that led to the entrance of the Toluca PD, the small-town police station I’d begun to refer to as Hell on Earth. I dreaded stepping a single foot into the dang place, but I didn’t have any other choice. Much as I hated to admit it, I needed the police on my side.
When I reached the top of the steps, I pushed through the building’s front door. Cold air blowing from an overhead vent danced across my skin, and a bell chimed, signaling my arrival.
Across the empty lobby, Officer Williams—a man I’d come to loathe over the last few months—didn’t bother to look up from the stack of paperwork he held in his hand to see who’d just walked in. Thirty or so seconds of silence ticked by before he finally barked, “How can I help you?” in a tone one would use when speaking to a dog.
The man had no social skills whatsoever.
Sliding my sunglasses to the top of my head, I placed my hands on my hips and waited for him to lift his head and personally acknowledge me. I was so damn tired of him and the rest of the inept buffoons that worked at Toluca PD. They never showed me any respect, and I was at the end of my rope with each one of them.
It’s a miracle I haven’t strangled one—or all—of them by now.
When the asshole still didn’t bother to look up, I cleared my throat and began to tap my sandal-covered foot against the tiled floor. His head jerked up at the sound, and his bloodshot eyes met mine.
It looks like somebody stayed up all night drinking.
With a flick of his wrist, he tossed the paperwork he held clutched between his fingers to the desk. “Well, Mrs. Mason.” He looked annoyed as could be. Whether that annoyance was from the hangover he was likely sporting or the fact that I was standing fifteen feet in front of him, I didn’t know. “What can I help you with today?”
With a fake smile plastered across my face, I dropped my hands from my curvy hips and sauntered over to the front desk where he sat. The yellow sundress that I wore twirled around my thighs, pulling Officer Williams' gaze from my face to the bare expanse of my smooth, tanned legs.
Pervy old bastard.
“Well, good afternoon, Officer Williams. I’m doing just fine,” I replied to his non-existent question in a saccharine sweet voice. “How are you on this lovely summer day?”
He thinned his lips and gritted his back teeth together. “Fine, Mrs. Mason.” His left cheek twitched with each word he spoke. “I’m doing just fine.”
I placed my elbows on the desk and glared at him through narrowed eyes. “That’s good.” No longer able to see my legs, his eyes flitted to my chest. The man may have hated me, but he sure didn’t mind ogling my body every chance he got. His lecherous stare made my belly churn with disgust.
The man makes me so damn sick!
“Soooooo”—I drummed my fingers along the top of the mahogany desk—“I suppose you’re wondering what I’m doing here, huh?”
He didn’t respond.
No surprise there.
“Well,” I said, shifting my weight between my feet, “seems I have a little issue that needs resolving.”
Before I could say another word, the wooden door behind the front desk opened and Officer Ryan, another man I was all too familiar with, stepped into the room with Officer Williams and me. His hard eyes met mine, and a lone expletive spilled from his chapped lips. “Shit.”
I quirked a brow. “Well, I’ll be, Officer Ryan. Tell me, is that how you greet all concerned citizens or am I just extra special?”
He slid his hands into his pockets and looked at me with a bored expression plastered across his acne-riddled face. “What seems to be the problem today, Mrs. Mason?”
My drumming fingers ceased all movement.
“It’s Ms. Mason,” I spat in a less than friendly tone. “And my problem—” I cocked my hip to the side and paused for emphasis “—is this department’s complete incompetence when it comes to doing their damn jobs and protecting the good citizens of Toluca County.”
At my harsh words, both officers' backs straightened.
Offended, are we? Good!
“Incompetence?” Officer Williams asked in disbelief. “How in the world do you figure we’re incompetent?” Eyes bulging, he looked at me with disdain. “In case you haven’t noticed, our county has one of the lowest crime rates in the state. That statistic in itself proves we are far from incompetent.”
A humorless chuckle spilled from my perfectly glossed lips. “I’m not sure if you’re delusional or just plain crazy. Though my money is riding on crazy.” I tossed him a sarcastic wink, and his eyes narrowed in response. Apparently, he didn’t like to be challenged. That sucked for him because I was itching for a fight. “That line may work on the mayor, but it doesn’t fly with me.” Hooking my thumb over my shoulder, I pointed out the door behind me. “In case you haven’t noticed”—I parroted his words back to him—“Toluca has a bit of a meth problem.”
“Ms. Mason—” Officer Ryan tried to interject.
I, however, cut him off.
“No,” I barked, holding up my hand to halt whatever staunch denial he was about to sling my way. “Don’t even try to argue with me. The average citizen may not realize what’s going on around here but I sure as hell do. And the fact that you’re going to stand there and try to deny it while simultaneously looking me in the eyes only serves to piss me off further.”
On a roll, I slammed my right hand down on the top of the desk and continued my tirade before either of them got a word in edgewise.
“Every single day I witness a handful of drug dealers set up shop within a hundred yards of the shelter. Not to mention”—my voice rose with each word—“I’ve had to run off a pimp named D-Boy from loitering at the front gate twice within the last week. My best guess is the son of a bitch was there to recruit a few of my residents.”
My eye twitched at the thought.
“Despite all of that, you want to know what I haven’t seen?” Neither officer responded, so I kept speaking. “What I haven’t seen, not once in the last week, is a single damn patrol car!”
At this point I was irate. Thinking about D-Boy and the vile words he’d spewed all over me when I’d confronted him standing outside the Toluca Battered Women’s Shelter where I worked made my blood boil. It was bad enough we had meth dealers opening up shop all around us but add in a pimp or two, and I was ready to start running people over with my truck.
The problem needed handling.
Like, right the hell now.
“Ms. Mason,” Officer Ryan said in a placating tone, “I understand your concern. However, you should understand that the shelter where you’re employed is a magnet for less than stellar activity. You have residents who—”
My head snapped back as if I’d been slapped. “You have got to be shitting me!” I hollered loud enough to make everyone’s ears ring. Allowing myself a moment to get my crazy under control, I closed my eyes and sent up a prayer to a higher power.
Lord, grant me patience because if you give me strength I may just end up on the five o’clock news for beating a man—or two—to death.
I inhaled through my nose and opened my eyes. My gaze met Officer Ryan’s, and he withered under my scathing glare. Pointing a lone finger at him, I barked, “Listen, Deputy Dawg—” I giggled at the insult “—you better not be about to tell me it’s my residents' fault for the increase in crime. Because if you are, then I’m warning you now—this will turn ugly, really fricken fast.”
Officer Ryan held his hands up in a placating gesture. “I didn’t mean to imply that it was any of the residents’ fault. All I’m saying is that places like shelters are beacons for criminal activity.”
My head began to spin, and I swear my brain was seconds away from exploding. “Beacons for criminal activity…” I repeated his words in a hushed whisper. Tilting my head to the side, I squinted. “And why do you think that is?”
“I…” His mouth opened and closed in rapid succession as he floundered for something to say. “I’m not sure. I just—”
The bell above the front door chimed, cutting off Officer Ryan’s words. His eyes moved from me to whoever had just walked in. In a flash, his face dropped, and his eyes hardened even further. The annoyed expression he’d been shooting my way morphed into something darker, something more hateful. “Moretti,” he said with a curt nod.
The person behind me didn’t reply.
I moved my gaze to the right and noticed that Officer Williams’ facial expression mirrored Officer Ryan’s. Lips pinched into a thin line, his eyes filled with something akin to malice.
Wracked with curiosity, I removed my arms from the top of the desk, hefted my purse higher on my shoulder and prepared to turn on my heel. I wanted to see who had caused such a strong reaction from Deputy Dawg and his sidekick, Officer Dickhead.
That’s when I pivoted in place and came face to face with him for the first time.
Lord have mercy, I thought. This man can’t be real.
For a moment, I thought I must be hallucinating because standing less than ten feet away from me was the most gorgeous man I’d ever laid eyes on. He was tall, maybe an inch or two over six foot. He had light brown, curly hair that was cut short and styled perfectly. His skin was olive toned, and he had a chiseled jaw. His cheekbones were high, and his lips were full and firm.
The man reminded me of a Greek god.
He was panty-melting perfect. If I were any other girl, perhaps one who hadn’t sworn off men indefinitely, I would’ve been all over him. Moving my gaze from the top of his head to the tips of his shoes, I allowed my hungry eyes to trace every inch of him. I didn’t even bother to hide my unrelenting stare.
After unabashedly gawking at him for a good minute, I looked back up.
When striking steel-grey eyes met mine, the world around me shifted.
The floor beneath my feet seemed to roll, and I could’ve sworn the walls were beginning to close in on me. My respiration increased; the air surrounding me grew thick. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t seem to suck in a breath. It was like my traitorous lungs had decided to go on strike and were refusing to function. Not to mention, my poor little heart was pounding so hard I feared I was moments away from having a heart attack.
If I pass out, please let him be the one to give me CPR.
I blinked, completely taken aback by the ridiculous thoughts running amuck through my head. Never in my life had anyone—much less a man—invoked such a reaction from me. It was ridiculous.
Calm the hell down, you nutjob, it’s just a guy.
A very hot guy but still … just a guy.
The man slid his hands into his pockets. He turned to face me fully, and I couldn’t help but notice his broad shoulders. “Can I help you, Miss...” His deep, accented voice—Is he from New York?—trailed off as he looked over my shoulder to the two asshats standing behind me. I was working on pulling myself together and answering him when Officer Williams—the bastard—spoke on my behalf.
“Mason,” he snapped in a pissy tone. “Her name is Shelby Mason, and she was just paying us one of her bi-weekly visits.”
His damn voice grated on my nerves. It was worse than nails on a chalkboard.
I turned my head and looked at him over my shoulder. “You may not think much of me, Officer Dickhead, but I'm plenty capable of speaking for myself.” I paused and bit the inside of my cheek. If I didn’t get a handle on my anger, I was bound to get arrested for assault on a police officer. “And if you doughnut chasing jackasses would just do your jobs, I wouldn’t have to drag my rear end in here twice a week.” He opened his mouth to speak, but once again, I cut him off. “Because, trust me, numbnuts, I don’t want to be here any more than you want me here. I’ve got better things to do than spend my afternoons arguing with a man who reeks of stale booze and body odor.”
With that, I turned my attention back to him; the man Officer Ryan had called Moretti. “Do you work here, sugar?”
It was a stupid question considering the circumstances, but the man wasn’t wearing a police uniform so I didn’t know who he was. Yeah, he had a shiny police badge clipped to his belt, but I’d never seen him before. And trust me, I wouldn’t have forgetten a face like his. It didn’t matter if I’d committed myself to a life of celibacy, I still would have noticed him.
Hell, I doubted there was a woman on Earth who wouldn’t notice him.
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied, taking a step closer. “Been here about a month.”
He held out his hand for me to shake.
Butterflies took flight in my belly as I closed the space between us and placed my small hand in his much larger one. When his warm skin touched mine for the first time, electricity zinged up my arm. Startled, I ripped my hand from his and jumped back. Clutching my hand to my chest, I stared at him with wide eyes.
What in the absolute hell was that?
Tilting his head slightly to the right, he looked at me with curious eyes. I briefly wondered if he’d been zapped too. I wasn’t sure if I should apologize for shocking him or—
“It’s nice to meet you, Ms. Mason. I’m Detective Anthony Moretti.” He ceased speaking for a moment but continued to stare at me with an unyielding gaze. It made me feel funny, and I couldn’t help but squirm on the spot. At my obvious discomfort, the corners of his mouth curled up into a smile that was so dang perfect it should’ve been illegal. “I work in homicide, but I’d be more than happy to hear whatever concerns you may have.”
Homicide? In Toluca? We had like five murders a year, though I had no doubt that number would grow if something wasn’t done about the increasing drug issue.
“Alright,” I replied in an unsure voice, “sure.”
Why in the hell is my voice shaking?
I pointed at the two idiots eavesdropping behind me. “I don’t think I'll get anywhere with dumb and dumber back there, so at this point, I’m willing to give it a shot.”
With a quick nod, he pointed toward a door along the far wall. “Follow me. My office is through there.”
With a nod of my own, I turned to follow him as he headed for the door.
One of the two idiots still standing behind the desk snickered, but I wasn't sure which one it was. So being the mature young woman that I am, I crossed my arms behind my back and flipped them both off.
Fly, birdie, fly.
“That was unnecessary, Ms. Mason,” Officer Williams fussed in an angry tone. “Absolutely and completely unnecessary.”
I smiled at his outburst.
Detective Moretti opened the door and stepped to the side so I could pass through. “Ladies first.” His voice was smoother than the finest whiskey. Just the sound of it made chill bumps erupt along my skin.
Straightening my spine, I stepped past him and through the door.
“Last door on the right.”
I moved down the hall toward his office in silence. At that point, I don’t think I could have muttered a single syllable if my life had depended upon it.
His voice, his scent, his body heat, all three were screwing with my head.
Get a grip, Shelby, I chastised myself. You’re acting ridiculous.
The size of his office shocked me. I’d expected it to be small, cramped. But it wasn’t. I mean it wasn’t huge, but it wasn’t tiny either. In the middle of the room sat a medium-sized oak desk that held a black laptop, a half-filled cup of coffee, various pens and two or three legal pads. Behind the desk, two grey filing cabinets stood tall against the wall, and to the left of those was a black cabinet that held a large printer on top of it. On the far right side of the room sat a small, black sofa.
He walked by me, sat behind the desk, and pointed at one of the black, plastic chairs stationed across from him. “Have a seat, Ms. Mason.”
Ms. Mason… I hated him calling me that! The name reminded me of my mother, and she was one of the last people I wanted to think about.
“Shelby,” I snapped with more bite than necessary. Forcing a smile, I sat down. “Just call me Shelby. Ms. Mason makes me feel ancient, and at twenty-four I am far too young to feel old.”
Anthony smiled, and I damn near fell out of my chair.
Again, a smile that beautiful should be illegal.
Placing his elbows on the edge of his desk, he leaned forward in his chair. “So, what can I help you with, Shelby?”
“W-well,” I stuttered before snapping my mouth closed. Embarrassment ripped through me; my face began to burn. I didn’t need to peek in the mirror to know my cheeks were redder than a beefsteak tomato.
Get your shit together, girl.
After clearing my throat, I continued. “I work at the Battered Women’s Shelter over on Sycamore Street as a victim’s advocate.” He nodded in acknowledgment. “I realize you haven’t worked here long, but there has been a huge increase in crime over the last several months and, well, it’s gotten out of hand on the streets in front of and behind the shelter.”
He pulled his gaze from mine and picked up a pen and a legal pad from the desk. “What kind of crime?”
I watched with rapt attention as he scribbled unreadable words across the lined yellow paper. Completely mesmerized by the way his forearm flexed with each stroke of the pen, I didn’t answer him.
A few seconds ticked by and he looked up. I didn’t see him look up though because my eyes were still glued to his fricken arm.
“Shelby.” He spoke my name low and soft. “Sweetheart…”
Still staring, I didn’t answer him for a second and third time.
He cleared his throat, pulling my attention from his arm to his handsome face.
“Shelby”—the smile in his voice was clear—“can you tell me what kind of crime you’ve seen around the shelter?”
“Oh, uh…” Mortification set in as my voice trailed off. “Sorry, my mind was elsewhere.”
Jesus Christ, this is embarrassing!
“Well, we’ve seen…” I tried to think, but at that point, I was having a hard time remembering my damn name. “Drugs,” I blurted out. “Mostly drugs, meth in particular.” Pressure built in my chest when I thought about the lowlife scumbags hanging out within spitting distance of the shelter’s gate. “But we’ve also had trouble with a pimp named D-Boy.” I gritted my back teeth together in frustration and clenched my hands into fists in my lap. “The little jackass just keeps coming around no matter how many times me or Evan run him off.”
He lifted his chin in the air. “Who is Evan?”
Curious if I have a boyfriend perhaps?
I smiled at the thought.
“He’s our head of security. Good guy. Scary looking on account of the pissed off expression that’s constantly plastered on his face but he’s one of the best men I’ve ever met.”
I ran my palm across my forehead. My skin was damp with beads of sweat that had formed along my hairline. I was sure I looked like complete crap.
“Have any of these people given you or any of the other shelter employees direct trouble? Or is it just their proximity to the building that you have a problem with?”
I tried not to take personal offense at his question, but my skin still bristled.
“Anything that happens around the shelter directly affects us.”
“Listen, Detective Moretti,” I said calmly, evenly, “the shelter is a haven for women and children who are going through dark times. The last thing they need is to go outside and see some dealer selling crank or a pimp loitering by the gate just itching for a chance to recruit one of them.” I took another breath. “But besides that, yes, we’ve had a few problems. Having people break into vehicles is a major one, but our shelter manager, Madelyn Davis, had her brand-new Jeep stolen right out of the parking lot. It was never recovered.” I shifted in my seat and continued my spiel. “But none of those things are my biggest concern.” I paused for emphasis and glanced down at my chipped nails.
I really need a manicure. Like STAT.
“What terrifies me down to the marrow of my bones is the thought that one of those scumbags will find a way past the gate. We’ve already had that happen once, and Madelyn was—”
I stopped speaking as an unwelcome memory bombarded me.
“Never mind. I don’t want to talk about that. Just know that the last time a known criminal got inside the gate, something awful happened, and it almost cost us someone very important.” I swallowed around the lump in my throat. “And I’d appreciate it if y'all would take action before something like that happens again.”
Anthony continued to scribble on the pad in front of him. “About what time of day does most of the activity occur?”
I crossed my legs and sat up a little straighter. Anthony’s scorching gaze moved to my bare thighs where it lingered for a few seconds before bouncing back to my face.
Well would ya look at that? It seems I’m not the only one affected.
“Usually at night. After seven. I mean, there’s always one dealer out there but more appear when the sun sets.” Gathering my hair in my hands, I draped the long waves over my right shoulder and crossed my arms over my belly. “But that little asshat, D-Boy, comes at various times. Sometimes its morning; sometimes it’s evening. He’s unpredictable.”
Anthony dropped his pen and leaned back in his chair. His eyes never wavered from mine as he placed his hands behind his head, no doubt entwining his long fingers together. “Tell you what”—my belly warmed at the way he was watching me—“I’ll talk to patrol and have them make a few extra rounds over that way.” Dropping his arms, he laid his fisted hands on the desk and tapped his knuckles on the solid wood.
Tap, tap, tap.
“I’ll also talk to Narcotics and see what we can do to curtail the drug problem on that side of town.”
With that, he smiled again.
Lord have mercy… that smile!
“That sound good to you?”
Utterly fascinated by him, I bit my lower lip and nodded in return. If I'd tried to speak a flood of gibberish would have spilled out. God knows I’d embarrassed myself enough for one day. And this was so unlike me it wasn’t funny. I never stuttered, and I sure as shit never embarrassed myself in front of a man.
I am way out of my element here.
Moments passed, and we both sat there, silently staring at each other.
It was awkward, but I could have done it all day. For a brief second, I wondered who would be the first to break our mutual stare down, him or me.
I got my answer seconds later.
“Alright, Shelby, if you don’t need anything else, I won’t keep you.” My stomach sank in disappointment when he pulled his gaze from mine and stood up.
Call me crazy, but I didn't want to leave. Not yet anyway.
I stood up and ran my hands down my dress, smoothing out a few wrinkles.
“Thanks for listening to what I have to say, and double thanks for offering to do something about it. The good Lord knows those two knuckleheads out front haven’t lifted a finger to help me the last twenty times I’ve come in here.”
Anthony’s face darkened a smidgen. “They’re both worthless.” His words were fierce, scathing. “They’re part of the good ol’ boy system I was brought in to help get rid of.”
Whoa! Wait a minute.
“Are you telling me they may get fired?” A smile tilted my lips heavenward. “Because if so, I may just crack open a bottle of cheap red wine to celebrate.”
Anthony blinked, but he didn’t grin.
My face dropped in return.
He looked upset.
Like, may have to hide a body kind of upset.
“I’ve got a special brand of hate for men who don’t protect the most vulnerable citizens. And those two”—he pointed towards his office door—“do nothing to help anybody, much less those who need them the most.”
At his words, my heart softened a little, and before I could stop myself, I opened my mouth and asked a question that would either make me respect him or hate him, depending upon how he answered. “That special brand of hate you mentioned, does that include men who hurt women?”
He placed his palms flat on the desk and leaned towards me. “Far as I’m concerned, any man that causes harm to a woman or child should have his nuts cut off with a dull knife and be publicly hung.”
I mirrored his stance and placed my palms on the cool, wooden desk before leaning towards him. Six inches separated his perfectly sculpted face from mine. “Want to know something, Detective Moretti?” My voice was low and husky sounding.
He nodded in reply and licked his lower lip.
A chill raced down my spine.
I tipped one side of my mouth up in a wonky smile and whispered, “You just became one of my favorite people.”
Removing my hands from the desk, I turned around and headed for the door. Glancing over my shoulder one last time, I said, “Thanks for all your help.” Adding a little pep to my step, I tossed a flirty wink in his direction. “See you around, sugar.”
I walked out the door without looking back.