Meet Detective Marcus Hale!
So, I love this book (and hello, that cover!) The hero is hot, the heroine is quirky smart, and it's fast-paced, fun, sexy, and sweet read. What more could a girl ask for?!
Scandal Police Detective Marcus Hale is on a mission to bring down one of the city's most dangerous drug lords, but when a beautiful civilian is caught in the crosshairs, he begins to realize the job isn't all he needs.
Lilly Grace Cabot admits to a string of bad luck, but she doesn't for one second believe her life is in danger. Until a sexy detective saves it - twice. Will she continue to deny what is between them or will she dare to fall?
Detective Marcus Hale scanned the crowded bar, assessing each patron before moving on to the next. It was more habit than interest. His true focus was across the street, on the King’s Den—a club known for bar fights, shootings, stabbings, prostitution, and general malcontent.
Static hummed low and steady in his earpiece, a tie to the rest of his squad stationed and waiting. Though tonight was to be surveillance only, they were prepared to move at a moment’s notice.
This assignment was months in the making, and they’d still be chasing their own asses in the dark if not for one of their informants, known as Five, working behind the scenes to set up the meet-and-greet between two of Scandal’s most powerful drug lords.
Scandal was a small town with a big drug problem. Situated on the edge of Durham, North Carolina, it attracted a lot of nefarious activity.
It was rumored one of the dealers had a connection to a terrorist uprising in the Middle East. Supposedly, he was shipping arms taken off the street to his comrades overseas. Rumored, because the guy was paranoid and cagey as hell, and no one could get close enough to verify the facts, much less gather evidence.
Tonight would turn the tides in their favor. Marcus’ unit, which investigated high profile drug cases, was under a lot of pressure from the higher ups in the department. As if that wasn’t enough of a burden to work under, the mayor’s office had started calling the chief every few days.
If the mission went as planned, it would give them the evidence they needed to turn one dealer into an informant on the other. If not, Marcus, the rest of his team, and their informant would be sporting targets on their backs—from the department andthe dealers.
Marcus lifted the full bottle to his mouth and pretended to take a swig for the millionth time in the last hour, using the movement to search the crowd. Again. The meeting was supposed to go down forty minutes ago. That it hadn’t set him on edge.
“Hale!” His sergeant’s shout boomed in his earpiece. The man had yet to learn his indoor voice. Good sergeant, great man, but damn, he spoke every word as if issuing life-and-death orders through a bullhorn.
Casually taking another pretend sip, Marcus muttered, “Yeah,” against the mouth of the bottle.
“We have an issue,” Sergeant Niman barked. “Pick up your goddamn phone.”
He also had the social graces of a honey badger.
No sooner had he issued the command, Marcus’ phone trilled. Digging it out of his pocket, he swiped his thumb across the screen and then lifted it to his ear.
“Hello, gorgeous. I thought we had a date tonight.” Marcus smiled as he spoke on the off chance anyone was paying attention. Not that anyone could hear his words over the noise. Old habits and all that.
“Your datejust called the emergency number. He arrived at the pick-up point, found the door kicked in, and blood everywhere.”
The plan had been for Five, the unit’s informant and a “business colleague” of their first target, dubbed T-one for Target One, to accompany said dealer to the meeting with T-two, the dealer with terrorist connections. It should have been an easy stakeout with no interception on their part.
“Ah, fuck.” Marcus could practically see their operation swirling the drain. Tucking his chin into his chest to mute his words, he asked, “Body?”
“No. There was a trail of blood leading to the parking lot at the back of the apartment complex. Our best hope is that he made it to his car. Our worst, that he was shoved into someone’s trunk.”
With T-one missing—either dead or on the run—their shot at getting eyes on T-two’s operation was vanishing quicker than a puff of smoke in a stiff wind.
“What’s your take?” he asked, his mind buzzing with one possible fallout after another.
A moment of silence. “Don’t know yet. We’re stepping back. Homicide was called to the scene, offline of course, but there will be no hiding that they’re there. Hold on,” he said. The scrape of his hand over the speaker sounded. A beat later, Niman came back with, “Pack up. Tonight’s over.”
Dead air filled the line.
Marcus inhaled deeply, let it out on a long sigh, tucking his phone into his pants as he did.
Months of work gone in a phone call. Cops and criminals got along like ex in-laws, but he hoped T-one had gotten away, because no matter who you were or what you had done, murder was an ugly end.
With Homicide on the case, his squad would have to back off, at least for a while. Backing off meant even more pressure from department and city officials. “Might as well lube up and bend over right now,” he muttered, lifting the bottle to his lips for an actual drink.
His beer had nearly reached room temperature, which added insult to injury as far as he was concerned. A failed objective and warm beer? God hated him.
Just as he decided to toss the beer and call it a night, the door opened and in walked a tall, slender woman with long, blonde hair. He paused to appreciate the sway of her hips as she sashayed across the floor. She carried the confidence of a woman who knew the room was hers to command.
Her head turned to glance over her shoulder, and Marcus got a flash of deep red and an abundance of curls. And then the tall blonde sidestepped, and his stomach dropped as if he had fallen off a cliff.
No, not fallen—it was as if someone had gotten a running start and shoved him.
The woman was small. Petite, even, yet despite her size, she overtook the room. Men stepped aside to let her pass, their gazes dragging over her with appreciation. Women noticed too—from the honey-colored mass of curls to her smooth, caramel skin—and shot her envious looks.
He froze, and then cocked his head to the side. What the hell, Hale?She wasn’t, and wouldn’t be, his. He planned to finish his beer and then go home. Alone.
The rungs of the chair dug into his spine when he angled back to keep her in his sights as she and her friend made their way to the bar, oblivious to his growing fascination. Which made no sense—the tall blonde was the epitome of his ideal woman—slender but curved in all the right places, gorgeous, and sophisticated—yet, it was the cute sprite next to her, caught somewhere between a fairy and a siren, that called to him?
The blonde leaned over the varnished top to speak to the bartender and then walked down the hall to the ladies’ room, leaving his lady in red alone.
He had a sudden and inexplicable urge to pour his drink on the floor, giving him an excuse to order a new one. At the bar. Next to Red.
He scrubbed a hand over his face, acknowledging he’d put in way too many hours that led to long, lonely nights. What did long, lonely nights lead to? Messed-up impulses, that was what. The woman was here with her friend and showed no signs of trying to pick up a man for the evening. Not that he wanted to be picked up. He’d just… love to go home with her.
Dragging his gaze to his beer, he focused on finishing his drink so he could get the hell out of the place. It hadn’t miraculously gotten any colder and tasted like ass, but hey, beer was beer.
From the corner of his eye, he watched her converse with a guy on the stool next to her. Judging by her expression, it wasn’t a love match in the making.
Get a grip, Hale.
He couldn’t. Instead of walking out, the best thing he could do for them both, he found himself turning in his seat to catch another glimpse of her. The dick on the stool spun around, hitting her in the process. She stumbled sideways and shot off something he couldn’t hear.
Her gaze crashed into his before he could point his eyes in another direction.
He took a physical kick to the guts. Thank God, it hadn’t struck lower.
Her eyes were the color of warm amber and lined by thick, dark lashes. If it were possible to drown in someone’s gaze, he had just stepped into the abyss. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew he should do something—whether it was run out the door or acknowledge her in some way. Anything but continue to stare at her as if he’d never seen a woman before.
Apparently, she wasn’t as gobsmacked as he was, because rather than stare like a mental patient, her full lips curved into a smile that put the stars to shame.
Fuck me out the door.
Had he thought her only cute? He must have been blind.
His hand set the bottle on the table. His legs pushed him to a stand. The thought of leaving without speaking to her was unacceptable. That he would most likely make an ass of himself was an afterthought behind the fear of her slipping through his fingers.
The realization she may already be involved bashed him upside the head. His gaze dropped to her left hand. No ring. He breathed a little easier.
Just as he decided it was now or never, her friend returned from the bathroom, and they immediately fell into conversation. He hesitated. Red sipped from her glass and then started to follow her friend across the room.
She slowed, confusion passing over her face before giving way to alarm. Her drink fell from her hand, and she lifted a glassy, distant gaze.
“Jen?” she said, voice whisper-thin and raspy. In the next blink, she went down hard.
Marcus rushed forward, shoving people aside, but she was already sprawled on the floor, unconscious, by the time he reached her.
Training kicked in, and he knelt beside her, pressing his fingers to her carotid. The delicate pulse against his fingertips was weaker than he would have liked. Marcus gently turned her over, searching for an injury or a clue as to what had taken her down. Other than her skin being sallow and growing paler by the second, there wasn’t a mark on her.
Shit.What the hell happened? One minute, she was chatting and laughing, and the next, she was unconscious?
“Louie!” blasted into his right ear.
“Christ,” he barked, shooting the owner—Jen?—a quelling look. Her returned scowl wasn’t what he’d call happy, but at least she wasn’t howling in his eardrums.
“Is your friend allergic to anything? Diabetic?” When she merely stared at him, he snapped his fingers under her nose. “Does she have a medical condition?”
“No.” Worry pinching her brows, she pushed him aside to brush her hand over Red’s forehead.
“God, she’s so clammy.”
Marcus left that unanswered as he searched for the dropped glass. It landed on its side a few feet ahead of her, its liquid splattered on the floor. Surprised the glass hadn’t shattered on impact,
Marcus scooted forward, dipped his finger in one of the puddles, and licked it.
Tart and sweet. Then an astringent flavor hit his tongue. It was far too bitter to be part of the drink.
“Shit,” he said, gathering her into his arms. “She got a drug problem?”
The unconscious female was broadcasting the classic signs of an overdose—shallow, irregular breathing, thready pulse, and ashen complexion. If his calculations were correct, they didn’t have much time before her system shut down.
Had she taken a hit of something before entering the bar? He knew she hadn’t after because his eyes had been supernaturally glued to her since she walked in. He would have seen her pop something into her mouth.
“No, she doesn’t do drugs,” Jen said. If her tone hadn’t conveyed her vexation loud and clear, the up yours glint in her eyes sure as hell did.
He ignored her irritation. Maybe she was correct, maybe she wasn’t—no one really knew the private thoughts and impulses of another person. What he did know was that this woman was dying.
He started to push to his feet, cradling Red against him, when Jen clamped down on his arm. “What the hell do you think you are doing? Call nine-one-one. She needs—”
“There’s no time,” he said, cutting her off. In the few minutes it would take to dispatch an ambulance, she could die. “Look, I’m a cop. If you pull down the collar of my shirt, you’ll see the badge hanging around my neck. Check quickly if you must.”
Glaring a beat, she started digging into her purse. She pulled out a cell phone with a snapped, “It could be fake. I’mcalling nine-one-one. If you’re not a cop, I’ll stab you in the throat with my stiletto.”
Having gotten a look at the shoes in question when she waltzed in, he wasn’t too keen on her embedding one in his neck. Bulldozing his way through the crowd, he called over his shoulder, “Tell them you’re with Detective Marcus Hale, badge number one-five-five-eight-zero. Let them know her symptoms and that we are on the way to Kinsey Hospital.”
He cleared the door, and cursing the necessity to park at a distance for the mission tonight, he kicked up his pace to a jog. Good thing he ran every morning or, small woman or not, he’d have a heart attack before he reached his vehicle.
He hustled a block up the street and then another over, before coming to the paid lot. Jen’s conversation with dispatch, as she ran to keep up in her weaponry footwear, was a vague drone in his head as he crossed to his car.
He turned at the back passenger door. “My keys are in my right side pocket.”
An uneasy expression took her face, and he added, “I’m not trying to get you to go pecker fishing. Just unlock the damn door.”
After a second, she said, “Hold on a sec, please,” into the phone, and then shoved her hand into his pocket. Since neither was interested in a hand job at the moment, it was about as clinical as it could get. She yanked out his keys, fumbled with the fob, and then finally managed to find the right button. The doors unlocked with a loud thwack.
Marcus braced one foot on the passenger floor and then slid her across the seat as gently as possible. Still, with the odd angle, it was akin to shoving her over the leather like a sack of potatoes. Using the blanket he kept for emergencies, he covered her and tucked in the ends so it would stay put.
“Is she going to be okay?” Jen asked, waiting a millisecond for him to get out of her way before climbing into the seat with Red. Apparently, dispatch had cleared his badge number since she wasn’t wielding a shoe. Phone pressed against the side of her head, she stared expectantly.
His chest tightened. The cop in him wanted to reassure her because it was part of his job to keep people calm in stressful situations. If she lost her shit, he’d lose his shit, and then they’d all be sitting in a pile of shit. Never a good thing. On the other hand, his gut told him to make no promises.
Rather than answer, he moved around to the driver’s side and climbed in. Flipping on his blue lights with one hand, he thrust his other into the back seat. “Give me the phone.” As soon as she did, he wedged the phone between his ear and shoulder, and started toward the hospital. “This is Hale. Who’ve I got?”
“Hey Marcus, this is Julie.”
Relief coursed through him. Dispatchers had different shift hours than cops, so it was anyone’s guess who was manning the center most nights. Plus, the job was high stress and had a higher than average turnover rate. Julie was damn near a vet as she’d been at dispatch since he was just a beat cop.
“I’ve got an unresponsive female, mid-to-late twenties, looks to be in good health. No known medical condition. I suspect some kind of overdose, either taken before she arrived, or someone slipped it in her drink.” He eyed Jen in the rearview mirror. “Did she take anything?”
“No. She isn’t a druggie, Detective,” she spat. “We were out to celebrate my new job, not get high. Or drunk.” If her anger wasn’t tempered with worry, he suspected his hair would have caught fire.
Returning to Julie, he said, “Friend says she didn’t take anything, so either she has an unknown medical condition, or she was drugged.”
“Rohypnol?” the dispatcher asked, her voice sounding over the clickety-clack of her fingers on her keyboard.
“No, it hit too fast. Her skin is waxen and pale. Her pulse is weak, too slow.” He shot another look in the mirror. “She’s still breathing, right?”
Jen’s head dipped in a jerky nod. “It’s rough, though. She looks… bad.” Her chin quivered, and she pressed her lips together in a tight line.
“I’m hanging up. Alert the hospital that we’ll be there in five.” He didn’t bother to disconnect or say good-bye, just reached into the back and dropped the phone on Jen’s lap.
“What’s her name?” he asked, more to keep her from freaking out than his need to talk. He rarely needed conversation.
“Louie?” Incredulity had his head whipping around. “Who names a girl like that Louie?”
She made a pshff sound. “Her parents named her Lilly Grace. She likesLouie.”
He gave a noncommittal grunt. Lilly Gracewas a beautiful name, perfect for a beautiful woman.
Louie brought to mind a fat electrician with a bad back and a worse case of halitosis.
“I can’t believe this is happening. Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to good people,” she said, her voice raspy with, he hoped, suppressed tears. The last thing he needed was a wailing woman on this carnival ride.
“Unfortunately, bad things happen to good people all the time. It seems to be some sort of horrific law that keeps the universe spinning.” The world had a habit of taking its hostility out on the good people. Nearly every report he’d ever written as a cop was proof of that.
He took a corner too fast, and the SUV fishtailed. He corrected and pressed down on the gas.
“Yeah, but it’s different for her. It’s like she’s in a weird Twilight Zone episode or something. One bad thing sets off another,” she said, and then added, “She just can’t catch a break.”
Asking for clarification was on the tip of his tongue, but the hospital’s emergency entrance came into view and all concerns but getting her inside fled.
The SUV jumped the curb and came to a screeching halt at the doors. Almost forgetting to put it in park, Marcus jumped out to get to his passenger. Red, er, Louie, hadn’t moved. Not that he had expected her to pop up and sing show tunes, but her utter lack of responsiveness concerned him.
Brushing tangled strands of curls off her neck, he searched for her pulse. It took longer than he liked for the vein to beat against his fingertips. The knots in his ribcage unwound enough for him to breathe a sigh of relief. Feeling the weight of Jen’s questioning gaze, and he nodded that she was alive.
Getting her out of the backseat was as awkward as getting her into it, but he managed to gather her limp body into his arms and then headed toward the doors. The sliders parted before he reached them, and a team rushed out, one member pushing a gurney.
The hospital staff operated as one, each person working as a different limb of the same body to bring order to chaos. They took Louie from him, strapped her to the gurney, and before he could tell them what had happened, rolled her into the hospital and out of sight.
“Which of you two can fill out paperwork?”
Marcus tracked the voice to a diminutive older woman with short hair that had gone straight past gray and into white. She looked like anyone’s grandma with a white shawl over her purple scrubs. Where the hell had she come from? Half a dozen personnel had come out to collect Louie—the same number had gone back in with her.
“I don’t have all night, hunk chunk. Can you give me the goods or not?” she demanded, and any thoughts of frailty he might have harbored melted under the glare she bounced between him and Jen.
“I can,” Jen offered, stepping forward with a wave of her hand. She started to follow the militant grandma inside but paused beside him. “I’m sorry I thought you were a pervert. If you hadn’t been there, I don’t know what would have happened.” Her long, shaky exhale fogged in the cool night air. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Don’t apologize for trying to protect her. You’re a good friend to question my motives.”
“Apparently not good enough because this stuff keeps happening to her.” Before she turned to go, she said, “Too bad you’re not for hire. She could use a bodyguard.” She offered a wry smile, then tossed, “Have a nice night and thanks again,” over her shoulder on her way inside.
Bodyguard? What other stuff?
“Wait.” He hustled to catch up to her. “What other stuff, and why would she need a bodyguard?”
Get in your car and go home, Hale. Not your problem—none of your business.
All very true. He had done his job, gotten her safely to the help she needed, and now it was time for him to call it a night. There was nothing left for him to do. Right?
So why the hell was he waiting for answers to questions he shouldn’t have asked in the first damn place?
Jen cocked her head to the side as if it were the most obvious conclusion in the world.
“Because someone is trying to kill her.”