Michele Albert @ inkalicious.com

Chapter One

Nursing a vicious hangover--and inexcusably late for work, judging by the captain's glare dogging his heels--Bobby Halloran ran the office gauntlet of ringing phones, clacking keyboards, and yakking detectives to the sanctuary of his office desk.

Without bothering to remove his sunglasses, he sank onto his chair, wincing at its grating creak, then raised the steaming take-out cup of coffee in his hand, gulped half of its contents down in one swallow, and shuddered.

Nothing like kicking off a brand-new day to the bitter taste of burnt coffee laced with a chemical chaser of Styrofoam.

Unfortunately, neither the caffeine jolt nor his slightly scalded tongue did a damn thing to send his headache packing, much less dull the stale, ashy taste in his mouth. He'd given up cigarettes five years ago, but still slipped in a smoke when he was shit-faced or deep in a funk.

He wanted to be home in bed with a pillow over his face, and just to make matters worse, the greasy smell of the egg and sausage McMuffin he'd bought on his way in made him queasy. Grabbing a bite to eat had seemed like a good idea at the time, and now he couldn't shove the bag out of his way quick enough.

What the hell had he been thinking last night? Drowning his sorrows in booze had never worked, and if he'd had a reason to believe drowning his guilt would work any better, he couldn't remember it in the light of day.

As clipped, determined footsteps cut across his thoughts, Bobby cautiously looked up--and groaned inwardly.

Well, hell, now his rotten morning was complete: Earnest Emma had arrived in all her perfectionist glory to make him feel even more inadequate than he'd been feeling just five seconds ago.

She slowed as she approached, and regarded him with that same flat, dispassionate look she always wore, a look that said she found him as appealing as something she'd just scraped off the sole of her shoe. "Late night?"

Not in the mood for small talk, he only grunted. And downed more coffee.

"Looks like you fought the bottle, and the bottle won." She moved to her desk. "You're not going to throw up, are you? Because it's really way too early in the morning for me to deal with that."

"I'm good."

Barring bright lights, loud noises, or sudden jostles. Or a whiff of that McMuffin.

"I've got Tylenol, if you need it."

"I'm already on that part of damage control." Then, belatedly realizing she'd thawed enough to offer him help, he added, "But thanks."

She'd already dismissed him, though, and didn't bother acknowledging his thank-you as she sorted her phone messages, presumably by priority, and then tapped them into a tidy square.

Most cops were control freaks, but Detective Emma Frey took the freak part of it soaring to whole new levels.

In a rare moment of whimsy-or maybe just a burst of temper over his latest fuck-up-the captain had assigned the newly arrived Frey to the desk next to Bobby's. He didn't know much about Frey, beyond that she'd relocated from the LAPD's Hollywood Division, and she'd barely registered on his radar so far. He hadn't talked much with her since she'd started work a little more than a week ago, and every time he ran into her, she looked exactly the same: crisp, cool, and relentlessly serious in brown suits that fit right in with her brown-haired, unobtrusive looks.

But even with his morning-after impaired powers of observation, he couldn't miss the chip on her shoulder the size of the Superdome.

"Hey, look who finally decided to grace us with his presence. Glad to see you put your detecting skills to good use and managed to find your way to work this morning, Halloran."

Bobby looked up to find Captain Derrick Strong, head of the First District Investigation Unit, staring at him with an undisguised irritation.

"Sorry. I got tied up in traffic." Which was mostly true; because he'd been running late, he'd missed the ferry, got on the Pontchartrain Expressway instead--and ended up ensnarled in rush-hour congestion.

"Right. Which is why you're still wearing your sunglasses."

Reluctantly, Bobby removed his dark glasses and slipped them into his shirt pocket. The hard fluorescent light lanced clear through his eyeballs, which jump-started the throbbing in his head, then triggered an uneasy lurch in his belly.

Strong took in the reaction, and his dark, thick brows pulled together in a straight line. "You missed the morning briefing, but Frey can fill you in. We had a busy weekend."

Nothing new in that. The First District encompassed some of the roughest parts of New Orleans, including the Lafitte and Iberville housing projects, always fertile grounds for sprouting all sorts of weedy, pernicious vices.

"And you're also just in time to catch a case."

"Jesus, I hope it's not a murder. My stomach's not up to blood or brains yet. At least not before one more cup of coffee."

"Then consider this your lucky break for the day." Strong tossed a file on Bobby's cluttered desk. "An apparent burglary with heavy property damage in the Esplanade Ridge area. Delgado started the preliminary work, but she's going on maternity leave tomorrow, so I'm transferring the case over now. You two can pick up where she left off."

Bobby straightened from his slouch, suddenly wary. "What do you mean, 'you two'?"

"Take Detective Frey with you. Show her the ropes, seeing as how she's new."

Bobby turned toward Frey, whose thin-lipped look of displeasure revealed she wasn't exactly bursting at the seams with excitement at this unexpected development, either.

"Captain, I believe I can manage this alone." Frey shot to her feet, then obviously thought better of it. She hesitated, but instead of sitting down again, she parked her trim behind on her desk's edge, her every muscle so taut Bobby half expected her to go twang when she moved. "I'd like the chance to show you what I'm capable of. And as you recall from my interview file, I grew up here. I know the area, I can -"

"I appreciate the fact you're eager to make a good impression, and since you're so gung-ho to prove your credentials, here's your chance. It's your case." Strong fixed his gaze on Frey, and her face blanked. "But I'm the one giving the orders here, and you either take Halloran with you, or you can spend another thrilling week reading procedure manuals and helping out everybody else with their overloads."

A sudden, faint edge of hostility hummed between Strong and Frey. Intrigued, Bobby leaned forward and waited as his captain and his new "partner" stared each other down.

Frey looked away first. "Yes, sir. I understand."

Bobby thought she put a slight, bitter emphasis on the word "understand," but he didn't have time to dwell on it, as Strong had turned back to him. "There's a small problem, though. The reason I said it's an apparent burglary is that we don't really know if anything was taken. The renter seems to have pulled a disappearing act. She was hanging around when the responding officer arrived, but while he was on the radio, she booked. And since you know this chick, Halloran, you can save time by smoking her out of her usual haunts and get her in here to make a statement. Or at least tell us if anything was stolen."

"Who is she?"

"Chloe Mitsumi." Strong grinned. "Remember her?"

Bobby rubbed at his eyebrows. "She's hard to forget."

"I bet." Strong turned to Frey, who was frowning. "Chloe Mitsumi, our victim, is a party girl whose brother is serving a life sentence in Angola for a whole list of badness, among them drug trafficking and murder. Halloran helped put him there, and the sister was something of a pet project with him for a while. You know where to track her down, right?"

The question was directed back to Bobby, who nodded as he took a quick sip of his coffee. "Yeah. She lives for the bar and club scene. I'll find her."

"What else do we know about her?" Frey asked, all brisk and businesslike, although plainly not happy that he already had the edge in "her" case.

"She's a hot mama Asian cupcake who's five feet and ninety pounds' worth of trouble." Strong's grin turned wolfish. "And she likes flashy clothes and high heels."

"She's not trouble," Bobby said, too tired to keep the edge of irritation out of his voice.

The captain shrugged. "If you say so, but I think we can at least agree she's ninety pounds of pure attitude."

Frey arched her brows. "Actually, I was asking what we know about her convictions or charges, not her fashion sense. Or lack of it."

"Oh." Strong looked amused. "Well, let's see...she's been arrested a few times on misdemeanor charges, including possession of narcotics -"

"She smokes a little weed now and again," Bobby cut in. "Stays away from the hard stuff."

"Still protecting the lady?" Strong cocked his head at Bobby. "Presumably she isn't in any trouble at the moment; she's just a swinger living for the good times and the nightlife. But what we don't know is if she still has ties to her brother's former associates, which might account for the break-in. According to Delgado, the place was trashed."

"She probably pissed off another one of her loser boyfriends." Bobby pushed himself to his feet, then swallowed, fighting back a spurt of nausea. "Okay. We're on it."

"And don't screw up. I need you functioning on all fronts, Halloran."

Catching his supervisor's skeptical expression, Bobby nodded gingerly. "I'm good."

Strong's stance eased, and he sighed. "Look. You've got over fifteen years of police work behind you, so I shouldn't have to remind you that you're a cop, not a missionary. Or a miracle worker. Get over it."

A tense silence followed, and Bobby could feel Emma Frey's curious, weighing gaze on him. Well, hell. If she stuck around long enough, she'd hear all the dirt. The old, the new, and the really juicy stuff.

Then Strong turned to Frey, and she pushed away from her desk, suddenly wary. "As for you, don't make trouble, and remember what I said. You're the primary, but you defer to Halloran's judgment until I say otherwise. You clear on that?"

"Yes, sir."

After pinning them both with a scowl, Strong spun and walked away. Several seconds passed before Frey turned to him. "So, Halloran...let's go find your party girl."

Despite never having passed more than fifteen minutes in her presence at any one time, he noticed the woman had an uncanny knack for rubbing him the wrong way. Man, he so did not look forward to sitting with her in a car or working with her for hours on end.

He donned his sunglasses again, then drank the last dregs of his coffee and tossed the empty cup, along with the breakfast sandwich, into his trash can. "She's not my anything."

Flashing him a cool look, she snatched the report off his desk. "That's not what it sounded like to me, but whatever. It's not like I really care one way or another."

"A word of warning here, Frey: I'm not in a good mood, so don't yank my fucking chain and we'll get along just fine. "

She didn't so much as blink. "What did Captain Strong mean by that miracle worker remark?"

"None of your damn business." He walked toward the door, trusting her to follow, and trying not to wince at the renewed assault on his senses: burnt coffee, rattling casters, slamming file drawers, the rise and fall of voices and laughter, humming printers, and the tappity-tap of fingers on keyboards.

God, it was going to be a long day.

Frey caught up with him within seconds, easily matching his stride. Bobby gauged her height at around five-ten, and considering her athletic build, he was willing to bet those pants hid a great pair of long legs. Earnest Emma might not be exactly hot babe material, but the way she wore her brown hair, pulled back in a ponytail, emphasized her keen dark eyes, full mouth, and smooth, fair skin. She had to be in her early thirties, but he assumed the lack of smile lines meant she wasn't the chirpy type. Nor was she the chatty type; she didn't say a word during the walk to the garage, and he didn't feel a need to change that.

When he stopped at his assigned unmarked car, Frey asked, "Do you want me to drive? I'm not entirely sure where we're going, but I can -"

"I'll drive. I know where Chloe lives--it's a house off Esplanade, near Bayou St. John." Without thinking, Bobby opened her door, only realizing he'd done so when surprise flashed across her face. Pretending not to see it, he walked to the driver's side, climbed into the car, and started the engine.

As he'd expected, the drive was awkward, the silence broken only by the static buzz of conversation from the radio. He listened absently to it, through his hangover haze, and concentrated on the traffic while his companion stared straight ahead, hands folded in her lap, back straight.

Not that her aloofness mattered. Making nice with Emma Frey would be as much fun as humping a razor-sharp barbed-wire fence, and he didn't need any more of that kind of fun.

Still, he knew what it was like to be the odd man out, and taking out his problems on her wasn't right, no matter how shitty he felt or how much she rubbed him the wrong way.

The silence--and his guilt--gathered steam until he couldn't stand it any longer. "Look, I'm sorry for jumping all over you back there. The mother of all hangovers is banging around inside my head, and I'm... It's been a bad week. It's not like I have anything personally against you."

She made another one of those little shrugs. "Forget about it."

Fine. He'd do exactly that.

By the time he turned onto Esplanade, though, she'd managed to annoy him all over again. She'd looked over Delgado's report at least three times, and made several calls. Definitely a Type-A, workaholic personality. The kind that put the anal in "analyze."

Hell, yes, she was everything the perfect detective should be, and Bobby could see how Strong might find it entertaining to team them up.

Since it looked as if he'd be spending a lot of time with her, he'd be doing himself a big favor by turning on the charm and persuading her to thaw a little and open up--but right now he was too weary, still riding too close to the edge of last week's fallout, to muster the energy to even try.

Bobby shook off another spurt of guilt--and the flash of images it brought. Several minutes passed before he glanced her way. "I heard you worked in Hollywood."

"That's right."

"What was it like, with all the movie stars and tourists? We get plenty tourists here in New Orleans, but not many big-name celebrities."

"It's not that much different." Her expression remained aloof, but she spoke carefully, as if choosing each word. "Except sometimes we'd arrest people with higher profiles than your average wife-beater, drunk, or junkie."

"Did you ever bust any movie stars?"

"Yes."

He waited for her to elaborate, but when it became clear she wouldn't, he changed his tactics. "So why'd you come to New Orleans?"

Frey smiled, and it surprised him to realize she had really pretty eyes--even if the emotion he glimpsed inside them wasn't friendly. "You haven't heard? I find that hard to believe."

What the hell? "I must've missed the memo. Care to fill me in?"

"I testified against several officers, who are now serving time in prison. You could say I wasn't feeling the love in the workplace, and so I decided it was time for a change of scenery." She stared out her window, as houses and trees flashed by. "And that's all I'm going to say about it. If you want details, go talk to Strong."

Great, a rule-book-thumping do-gooder; just what he needed to further complicate his life. Strong had to be laughing his ass off right about now, no doubt about it.

After a short silence, Frey turned toward him. "I know about you. A few of the guys were quick to bring me up to speed."

For some odd reason, her abrupt change of subject amused him. Or maybe it was her defiant tone; he wasn't sure. "And did it scare you?"

Frey made a noise of annoyance. "Cut the crap, Halloran. You know what's going on here."

A couple of possibilities had already occurred to him, but he wasn't feeling particularly magnanimous this morning. "Maybe. Tell me anyway."

Again, her finely curved brows shot upward. "Some old-timers are having a little fun with the new girl, and they think it's worth a few laughs to throw us together and see what happens. I'm a rules-and-regulations kind of cop and you...you're the guy who's known for his ability to finesse the rules."

She put a slight emphasis on the word "finesse."

"A friend of mine describes my approach as creative law enforcement. I like the sound of that better." Bobby glanced over his shoulder, pulled into the passing lane, and hit the accelerator. The engine purred with power, speeding past other cars. "And you're probably right. Even if they were dirty, you ratted out fellow cops. That's not going to automatically put you on the top of the blue brotherhood's favorite persons list."

"I'm well aware of that." Her voice was quiet, controlled-and vibrating with anger.

Officially, hazing and initiations weren't supposed to happen, but they did anyway. Nobody would ever fess up to it, but she'd been handed a test. Would she meet expectations without complaint? Act like a man about it, so to speak, suck it up and take it on the chin? Or would she make like a crybaby, kick up a fuss, and stir up trouble like a poor, weak little girl?

Bobby didn't envy her situation; either way, she was fucked. And, now that he thought about it, he didn't like being used in such a prank. Sure, he messed around and played practical jokes as much as anybody else, but something about this struck him as mean-spirited.

Then again, maybe if she'd come across a little friendlier, less remote and prickly and defensive, she might've met with a warmer reception.

"For what it's worth, I didn't know anybody was planning on giving you a hard time."

"I am so tired of this shit." He could hear both frustration and annoyance in her voice. "I left L.A. so I wouldn't have to keep proving over and over that I'm a good cop. All I want is to do my job, and for once I wish people would just look at me and see -"

Aware she was perhaps revealing more than she'd like, Frey cut herself off with a sigh. "It doesn't matter. And let's get something straight, Halloran. I'm not playing along. This is my problem, not yours, and since I really don't need help to work a burglary or find some bimbo who's probably sleeping off her latest drunk on a girlfriend's couch, if there's something you'd rather be doing, don't let me hold you back."

Everything she said made sense, but his own dark mood, coupled with the snotty tone of her voice, pissed him off anyway. "You have something against me?"

"As I said, I've already heard the lowdown on you, and maybe your lone gunman style works well for you, but that's not how I operate. My charges stick because I don't take shortcuts, and I don't hotdog."

Anger surged, but he held it off. "That sounded an awful lot like a 'yes' to me, darlin'."

"I need to make a point by clearing this case, and prove I'm competent and trustworthy. I'm not jeopardizing it by having you do something impulsive or questionable. I may be the butt of a departmental joke, but you can bet I'll be the last one laughing. Are we clear on this?"

Bobby turned onto the street where Chloe Mitsumi lived, a block off Esplanade. "Sure."

He didn't blunt the edge in his voice, and she took in a long, slow breath, the stiffness in her shoulders easing slightly.

"Really, I don't have anything against you." She sounded a little less icy. "I'm sorry for coming across as such a hard ass, but this is important to me. More important than I can ever begin to explain."

Points to the woman for being direct; he admired that. And as his mother always said, if you tried hard enough, you could find something nice to say about anybody.

If Frey had been a man, he'd have given as good as he got. Unfortunately--or fortunately, depending on how a body looked at it -- his mother had also brought him up with a heavy dose of old-fashioned manners when it came to dealing with women. Not even fifteen years as a cop had completely cured him of his protective habits toward women, including those who didn't need even an iota of protecting, and who'd sooner bust his balls than accept his help.

Like Earnest Emma, sitting right here next to him.

Wonder of wonders, in spite of his aching head and foul mood, he still managed to keep that lid on his temper. "I can deal with that."

Frey regarded him with surprise and suspicion. "So no hard feelings?"

"That you don't want to go slummin' with me?" He pulled up to the curb in front of an old double-gallery house that had been converted into apartments. Turning to her, he flashed his widest, most harmless smile. "Darlin', I'll be so good you'll think I'm a goddamned choirboy."

Chapter Two

As Emma briskly walked up the sidewalk to the old house, with its peeling white paint and genteel air of decline, she shot a surreptitious look at the man ambling along beside her, his hands shoved deep into the pockets of his black leather coat.

Choirboy?

No chance of that, even if he had the looks for it--pretty in a way only a man could be pretty and still wholly, potently male. It almost made her teeth ache, all that golden blond, ooey-gooey goodness.

The day she'd met Halloran, her knee-jerk response was that he probably skated along on his physical appeal, because it didn't seem likely he'd been gifted with intelligence as well as a face that would've given Botticelli wet dreams. And, as she'd quickly noticed, his taste in clothes didn't exactly scream "take me seriously," either.

Halloran stopped abruptly, interrupting her musings, and Emma turned as he brought his hand close to his mouth, blew out a breath, and then inhaled.

"Oh, man." Grimacing, he looked at her. "Got any gum?"

Resisting an urge to roll her eyes, she patted her blazer's pockets. Finding a half-empty pack of cinnamon gum, she tossed it over to him.

He caught it neatly, again flashing a wide, disarming grin that was an odd mix of sweet and bad-boy sexy, especially with his blondish beard stubble and the visible ravages of one humdinger of a hangover. "Thanks."

"I'm sure anybody you question this morning will thank me, too."

She continued toward the house, but not before sneaking another peek at Halloran, faintly resentful at how he made her feel like a plain sparrow fluttering along beside a strutting, glorious peacock.

Most men in his shape would be lucky to match their socks, but Halloran looked as flamboyant as ever in casual black pants, a shirt sporting a retro bowling print in electric shades of red, blue, and yellow, and a skinny red silk tie. His short leather coat, which nicely accentuated his broad shoulders, concealed his shoulder rig, but not his detective shield.

Good thing, because without it he didn't come across very coplike. The majority of detectives she'd known were understated types who blended into the woodwork, and she'd been advised early on in her career not to dress to draw attention to herself. Obviously, Bobby Halloran had skipped over that part in the rule book.

Or, more likely, he didn't care, which just underscored the doomed nature of this "partnership." On top of all that, Emma found the entire physical package completely distracting, and, good God, distractions were the last thing she needed right now in the craze-o-rama that was her life.

Since she couldn't get around working with him, she might as well strike up a conversation. "So this is it?"

"Yup. And that must be the landlord. What did you say his name was again?"

"You should've looked over Delgado's report," she said tartly, sizing up the beefy, seedy-looking man on the porch.

"No disrespect to Rosie, who's a damn good cop, but I'm here to form my own opinions. So what's his name?"

"Herb Demaris."

"It don't look like Herb's happy to see us."

True enough, and the landlord, wearing an expression ripe with annoyance, tapped his foot on the porch as she and Halloran climbed the steps, which creaked with their every step.

"Hello, Mr. Demaris." Emma motioned to her badge. "I'm Detective Frey. We talked a short while ago on the phone."

Demaris, wearing paint-splattered jeans and a ragged Mardi Gras sweatshirt, was a middle-aged man with a barrel chest, bushy gray hair, and an old-time handlebar mustache. He peered at her as if his eyes couldn't quite focus, then at Halloran, and frowned. "Who's he?"

"Detective Halloran. We're both here to look at the vandalized apartment."

"I don't understand. The cops were here for hours yesterday."

"The case was transferred to us this morning. We need to quickly look over the scene for ourselves."

"And will this be it? Because I've got a hell of a mess in there that'll take days to clean up. And the repairs are going to cost me plenty, too. I need to get started as soon as possible."

"We won't be long. We really appreciate your help," Emma politely assured the man, cuing in to his stiff posture and obvious discomfort.

Guns and badges did that to people. Early on in her career, it had been a heady rush to have that kind of power and intimidation. Now it was just another part of the job she took for granted.

"So you don't mind if we take a look around?" Halloran asked, more out of courtesy than any real need for permission.

"No, but make it quick." The man scowled. "I'll show you the way."

With Halloran close behind her, Emma followed Demaris inside. It had started out as the home of a wealthy family back in the days when rich plantation owners built summerhouses in the city. Remnants of antebellum elegance still existed in the architectural details, high windows and ceilings-and the curving staircase where hoop-skirted Southern belles had once descended, faces flirtatiously hidden behind fans, to meet their waiting beaux. Similar to many older buildings in New Orleans, it wore a patina of age and smelled faintly musty, with a hint of dust and mold.

The Mitsumi apartment comprised the northwest half of the first floor. Not that she could miss it, as the mangled door hung off its hinges and fingerprint powder liberally smudged the beige paint on either side of the doorframe.

"Guess we can narrow down the method of entry to a crowbar and heavy boots," Halloran said dryly, poking at the splintered gash by the doorknob and plate.

"I was going to nail a tarp over it until I can get the door fixed," the landlord offered, standing aside.

Emma nodded, although not really interested in his repair plans, and gingerly pushed the door aside, hoping it wouldn't crash to the floor. She became aware of an unpleasant odor, and as she stepped into the apartment, the stench of spoiled food hit her full on.

She glanced at Halloran, hoping the smell wouldn't send him running for the azalea bushes outside. He paled, lips thinning and nostrils flaring slightly, but other than that he showed no signs of distress.

Probably because he'd had lots of practice working crime scenes the morning after a bender.

"You came down to the apartment after receiving a complaint of loud music, is that correct?" Emma pulled out her notebook and pen, and turned to Demaris, who stood poised at the threshold, as if afraid to cross it.

"Right; nothing out of the ordinary. So I came downstairs to tell Chloe to knock it off, and found the door like this. I went inside, saw what had happened, and turned off the music. Then I called the cops."

"And the apartment was empty when you entered?"

"Yes, thank God. It never occurred to me the guys who did this might still be around. I still get the shakes when I think about what could've happened if I'd surprised them."

"Right. Keep that in mind if you encounter a similar situation again." Emma noticed Halloran slowly circling the room--still wearing his sunglasses. Turning back to the glum-faced landlord, she asked, "Have you heard from Ms. Mitsumi since yesterday?"

"For the third time, no." Demaris sounded more weary than impatient. "As I keep telling you people, Chloe's a big girl. She doesn't check in with me. And she doesn't exactly keep regular hours, anyway."

"And to the best of your knowledge, she wasn't living with anybody at the time?"

"Not that I was aware of, and she's never been the discreet type, if you know what I mean."

"I don't. Could you please explain?"

A dull red slowly tinged the man's cheekbones. "She's a screamer."

Okay; image coming through, loud and clear.

Emma glanced at Halloran, curious to see his response, since he allegedly knew the woman. But he was hunkered down beside a toppled-over curio cabinet, unmindful of the glass shards beneath his polished black shoes, and peering over the top of his sunglasses at scattered knickknacks.

She turned her attention back to Demaris. "I looked over the statement you made yesterday. You provided the names of several of Ms. Mitsumi's friends, as well as contact information on her place of employment. Is there anything else you'd like to add at this time? Either about the victim or the break-in? Anything you might've remembered later, or forgotten to tell Detective Delgado?"

"Nope. I don't socialize with my renters. All I care about is if they pay their rent on time. I don't keep track of their social calendars or sex habits."

He sounded certain enough that she didn't see any need to question him further. With a perfunctory smile, Emma handed him her card.

"Thank you, Mr. Demaris. I appreciate your taking the time to talk to us again. If you should hear from Ms. Mitsumi or happen to think of anything else that might be useful to us, no matter how minor it seems, please give me a call."

Understanding that he'd been dismissed, the man backed out, his relief palpable. After his footsteps faded away, Emma gingerly made her way through the debris toward Halloran.

"What are you looking at?"

"Nothing much. Whoever hit this place had a good time busting up things." He held up what looked like one of those little ceramic cherubs her mother liked collecting--except this one was headless. "They're not worth much, she couldn't hide anything inside one, so why break them?"

"Good question."

Emma surveyed the wreckage of the living room, still sensing the lingering shreds of fury in the air, the frustration that had driven the intruders to destroy the apartment. No piece of furniture had been left untouched; even the curtains had been slashed. Books and CDs had been dumped from their shelves, and the TV screen was shattered. The stereo, because it had been used to disguise the sounds of destruction, was untouched, although the speaker covers had been dismantled and crushed.

"It's a good thing she wasn't home when these guys broke in, otherwise we'd be responding to a homicide. Or at least a nasty assault." Emma pushed a wisp of hair from her eyes. "I take it you've been here before. Give me a tour."

Yes, she was fishing--and not being subtle about it--but she really wanted a better idea about Halloran's past relationship to Chloe Mitsumi, although from the captain's hints, she figured it had been an intimate one.

Halloran smiled, which pretty much confirmed her suspicions, and stood. "No call for a tour. It's an apartment, not a palace. There's no more than the usual: living room, kitchen, bathroom, bedroom."

Nodding, Emma moved to the center of the living room, looking around, but nothing in the mess provided any obvious red flags or clues. Yet she was still very aware of the heat of Halloran's body beside her, and the expensive, spiced scent of his cologne she could smell even with the sour stench wafting from the kitchen.

Halloran finally took off his sunglasses and hooked them on his shirt pocket. "Yessiree, somebody wanted something real bad. Let's see what the rest of the place looks like."

Together, they walked into the kitchen, where drawers and cupboards had been emptied, and a few plates and glasses broken. After another quick, wordless survey, Emma picked her way over the scattered remains of congealed liquids and spoiling food, and headed into the bathroom. It looked just as bad, with makeup, styling products, and tampons scattered across the floor, countertop, and tub. Packages of birth control pills--and hey, the same brand as hers--had been opened and dumped. On an apparently artistic whim, one of the intruders had smeared lipstick over the white tile walls in vivid slashes of crimson, rose, and dark purple.

"Somebody had a sense of humor." Halloran motioned at a smiley face drawn on the mirror. "Kinda warms the cockles of your heart, don't it?"

Pursing her lips, his solid presence still uncomfortably close behind her, Emma headed to the bedroom, which seemed to have sustained the most damage. Somebody had slashed all the clothing--and it was expensive clothing, too. Leathers, silks, linens...even the dozens of shoes and boots hadn't escaped damage. The ripped mattress had been shoved aside, and hundreds of photographs lay scattered across the floor, along with the wilted remains of potted plants and dirt.

She picked up the photo of a woman in a little black dress, who radiated a blatant come-hitherness even in a picture. Small-boned and exotic, with her hip-length black hair, full mouth, and dark, upturned eyes, the woman had the whole Oriental-mystique and Dragon-Lady-femme-fatale routine down pat.

Emma showed the photo to Halloran. "Chloe Mitsumi?"

"The one and only."

Emma pocketed the photograph, wondering at his droll tone, then looked around again. The room's two tall windows, both liberally dusted with fingerprint powder, caught her attention. "The windows are closed."

Halloran stepped up beside her. "Yeah, so what? It's January."

"Delgado's report said the north window was open." She looked over at him. "Somebody must've closed it."

"The landlord, or one of the uniforms. Probably to keep out insects and animals, considering all that food in the kitchen."

"Or somebody came back in here after our guys left."

Emma picked up a purple leather skirt from off the floor and traced the holes in the slashed lining. Halloran likewise examined a pair of jeans that had the pockets turned inside out. Putting it aside, he hooked the strap of a red lace bra on his finger and held it up. "Look at this."

"Slinky." Emma arched a brow. "Not your color, though."

"Pay attention, Detective Frey." Halloran made a tsk-tsk sound. "The cup linings have been slit."

At that, the significance behind all this damage suddenly made sense, and she met his gaze over the ruins of the bed.

"You thinking what I'm thinking?" he asked.

His long-voweled, deep drawl washed over her like warm caramel, thick and sweet. More than a little unnerved by her reaction, Emma looked away, shaking off the feeling, and dropped the leather skirt to the floor.

"They were searching for something small enough to hide in a bra, the lining of a skirt, or in a package of food." She sighed. "Great. I was sort of hoping they were after a multi-ton pink elephant. I could use a lucky break."

To her surprise, Halloran gave a short bark of laughter, quickly followed by a wince. "Hey, don't make me laugh. It hurts."

"It could be somebody she knew," Emma added. "Somebody with a grudge. She sounds like the kind of girl who might easily get on somebody's bad side."

"She's no Miss Manners." Halloran tossed the bra aside. "She runs with a wild crowd, but generally keeps out of serious trouble."

"Unlike her brother."

Halloran shifted his focus directly to her, and for the first time she noticed how bloodshot his eyes were--and that he looked deeply, heavily tired.

A rush of sympathy washed over her, quickly followed by guilt that she'd been so sharp with him earlier. It hadn't been necessary, and it wasn't as if her bad luck were his fault. What would it hurt now to be a little nicer to him?

"He was one mean sonofabitch, but he was a good brother," Halloran said, interrupting her little burst of self-reproach. "He took care of his sister, and always kept her clear of his business. For her part, Chloe had an impressive set of blinders where her brother was concerned. I don't think she's involved in anything illegal, unless it's petty shit like smoking a joint or two."

"You're sure of this?"

"Nothing in life is ever absolute, darlin', but I'm pretty sure."

Since Halloran called even the grandmotherly cleaning woman "darling," Emma ignored it the same way she ignored his lapses in grammar, which she suspected were as much of an act as the pretty-boy schmoozing.

Emma turned back toward the living room. "I think we've seen enough. I'll wait to hear if any prints come back, though I'm doubting there'll be much to work with. It sounds like half of New Orleans partied here at one point or another, and Delgado was sure the intruders wore gloves. Let's go."

"Where to?"

"I want to talk to the other tenants and neighbors again, but first we need to find Chloe Mitsumi. What do you think? Should we try the boutique on Magazine where she works?"

Halloran caught up with her in the hall outside the apartment. "At this time of the day, that'd be my first choice."

"Hope she gets a hell of a discount, because she's going to need a new wardrobe." Emma took a final look around her, at the door hanging off its frame, the slightly shabby elegance of the old house. "The uniforms and Delgado already contacted most of the neighbors and tenants. We'll come back to them later. You can follow up with the neighbors, I'll take the other tenants."

One side of his mouth--a nice mouth, with a full lower lip--curved in a smile. Then he popped his cinnamon gum. "Sounds good."

Considering that it would take days to contact all of the woman's acquaintances--having Halloran might not be such a liability after all--her first priority was to find Mitsumi, verify her safety, and then question her.

Solving the case would be easier if she could establish not only a motive, but whether or not anything was stolen. Also, there had to be a reason why Mitsumi up and disappeared after discovering her trashed apartment.

"Does it concern you that this woman's gone missing?" Emma asked as they walked down the porch steps.

Again, he popped his gum in a steady rhythm. "Chloe can take care of herself."

If that wasn't a provocative statement, she didn't know what was. "Really?"

"Really." Halloran winked--winked?--at her. "But I agree we need to find her. Otherwise, we ain't got shit to work with."

As she neared the car, Emma headed for the driver's side, but Halloran swiftly maneuvered his way there first, to her annoyance.

"Remember, you defer to me," he said. "That means I'm driving, and you're not arguing."

Since he hadn't left her a choice, Emma headed back to the passenger's side, yanked the door shut, and buckled her seat belt as he hit the accelerator and muscled his way into traffic. From what she could hear on the radio, the bad guys were hopping today, and she listened to the transmissions--until she suddenly realized that Halloran was taking a strange route toward Magazine.

When Armstrong Park whizzed past her window, she asked, "What are you doing?"

"I'm taking a quick detour to the Iberville projects. There's somebody I need to see over there first."

"Halloran, we need to find Chloe Mitsumi. That's our -"

"This won't take long. Promise." Again, he flashed that beguiling half-smile. "Just make sure your badge and gun are visible. It can get a little rough down here."

He drove with a sureness that told her he knew exactly where he was going, and she tensed, more alert, as they passed through run-down blocks of public housing. She and the angelic-looking Halloran didn't exactly blend in with the project's predominantly black residents. Even the youngest children, playing in the streets or on patchy bits of lawn, could pick out an unmarked police car, and stopped what they were doing as Halloran drove past. Older residents watched from porch steps or lawn chairs, sometimes nodding a greeting. Clusters of young men and women stood on street corners or next to parked cars, rap music blaring from boom boxes, and Emma could almost feel their stares as the car passed them. A squad on routine patrol drove by, and Halloran raised a hand in salute to the other officer.

Finally, he pulled up before a square, multistory brown brick apartment building indistinguishable from those surrounding it. Poverty and hard times hung over the place like a cloud, despite the bright morning sun.

"What's going on?" she demanded as he turned off the ignition.

"A follow-up on a domestic assault. Just wait here." He slammed the car door shut behind him, and walked toward the complex's main door with long, unhurried strides.

Emma quickly got out of the car. Like hell would she stay behind. She was his partner--no matter how reluctantly, and if only for a short time--and partners watched each other's backs. Period.

Ahead, Halloran reached the front door as it swung open to reveal a short, thin black man who was talking over his shoulder, presumably to someone behind him.

Halloran stopped short. "Hey, Raymond. Just the man I've come to see."

The man whipped his head around, eyes widening. "Goddammit!"

Immediately, he tried to slam the door shut, but Halloran lifted his foot and kicked it open, hard.

For a split second, Emma was too startled to react. Then, as Halloran disappeared inside, she swore under her breath and ran forward, taking the steps two at a time.

Back him up back him up...

With that litany pounding urgently in her head, her gun almost clear of its holster, she stepped into the entryway and quickly scanned the scene.

Halloran had Raymond by the front of his shirt, and two other men stood to the side, frozen in place. Raymond was loudly cursing and protesting, spittle flying, neck corded in rage.

Behind them and down along the hallway, several doors opened as curious tenants poked their heads out to see what was going on.

Emma held up her shield, shouting, "Police. Stay inside!"

The sound of slamming doors and clicking locks immediately echoed down the hall as Raymond struggled uselessly in Halloran's white-knuckled grip, glaring. "What the fuck you doing, man? You got no business -"

"Shut up," Halloran said pleasantly--then he hoisted the man up into the air, ignoring his choking gasps and kicking feet, and threw him into the opposite wall.

Raymond hit with a meaty thud and a grunt of pain before sliding to the floor, head drooping.

Too stunned to do more than stare, Emma didn't react until Halloran lunged forward. She grabbed the back of his coat, but he effortlessly shoved her aside and against the wall. With a wince at a stinging pain in her shoulder, she quickly regained her balance and moved toward him again.

And...now what?

She had no idea what was going down here, but every instinct told her to at least act as if she were supporting him, to show a united front with not even a whiff of weakness.

Raymond, his eyes rolling in fear, saw her come up behind Halloran. "Get him off me!"

"You have a problem following orders, don't you? I said, shut up." Hunkering down, Halloran grabbed the man's shirt again and yanked him forward until they were eye to eye.

Emma hovered uneasily at Halloran's back, her gaze darting between the scene in front of her and Raymond's two friends, who still hadn't moved a muscle. For a brief moment, an eerie quiet filled the hall, except for the sound of labored breathing and the distant, muffled wail of a baby.

"Now listen up, because I'm only gonna say this once." Halloran smiled, deep dimples creasing his face as he continued in a soft, growling drawl. "She dies, you sonofabitch, and I promise I'll be coming after you."

After releasing Raymond, who flopped back against the wall, Halloran stood, briefly catching Emma's gaze. Cold fury glittered in his eyes, and a dark, violent current of tension radiated outward from every rigid line of his body.

A tingle of fear slithered up her spine, and the angry protest on the tip of her tongue died away.

Halloran turned, breaking the uneasy moment, then straightened his tie, smoothed back his hair, and walked past her as if nothing of consequence had just transpired.

As he headed out the door, Emma faced the man sprawled on the floor, still spitting curses, and his two companions, who watched her in silence, flat-eyed and sullen. She slowly backed toward the door, hand on her gun, not turning her back on them until she'd cleared the building. Even then, she kept checking over her shoulder as she followed Halloran.

She caught up with her sunny-haired lunatic as he reached the car, and snapped, "What the hell were you doing back there?"

"Just taking care of business. Forget it." Avoiding her glare, he slid into the car, cranked the ignition, and the engine roared to life.

Emma stalked around to the other side, and after buckling her seat belt, she leaned toward him. "Forget it? I don't think so. You kicked in a door and roughed up some brother, who's probably going to call down to the station house and -"

"Raymond won't be calling anybody. Don't concern yourself. It's a personal issue."

"Nothing's personal when you're on company time-and especially not when you involve me!"

Halloran pulled away from the curb, looking far too relaxed for someone who'd just thrown a man into a wall. In fact, it looked as if that burst of violence had left him feeling one hundred percent better. Color had returned to his face, and a renewed vitality seemed to shimmer around him, like a glow.

"I told you to wait in the car," he said calmly. "If you'd listened to me, then you wouldn't have been involved, right?"

Emma didn't argue that particular point, suspecting it would do her little good. But the second they returned to the station, she'd ask Strong to cut her loose from Halloran.

"Sorry for pushing you back like that," he said after what seemed like hours, although it couldn't have been much more than five or ten minutes. "I didn't hurt you, did I?"

"No." Her hands were shaking slightly, more from shock than fear. That violence had exploded from out of nowhere, taking her completely by surprise, and part of her still couldn't believe he'd thrown a man into a wall. "And you're just damn lucky they didn't kick your ass or shoot you before I got there. God, you scared me half to death."

She dies, you sonofabitch, and I promise I'll be coming after you...

That threat, along with the captain telling Halloran earlier to "get over it," provided a fairly clear reason behind the hallway incident. She hesitated, then asked, "So who'd he beat up?"

Emma studied his profile while waiting for an answer, amazed all over again that beneath his handsome, stylish fa├žade lurked a capacity for such casual brutality.

"C'mon, Halloran. You owe me that much."

He shrugged, unperturbed. "His girlfriend. It's your usual domestic battery situation, and it's not the first time. Me and Raymond, we've had more than a few confrontations. Guys like him, the only language they listen to is violence--and it's the only thing they respect."

"That doesn't justify a use of force. What you did back there goes against everything we stand for. We're the good guys, remember?"

Halloran didn't respond. Instead, he rolled down the window to let the January air rush through the car's interior. Registering the welcome relief of the cool wind, it dawned on her that she was, quite literally, hot with anger, and a quick peek in the side mirror showed her flushed cheeks.

It surprised her that he'd noticed--and quietly done something about it. Not that she'd thank him, considering he was the reason for her rocketing blood pressure, and since it appeared Halloran had closed the subject, Emma let the car fill with her silent disapproval, figuring he'd get the message without her having to say another word.

The remainder of the ride passed in an awkward silence, but she'd calmed herself down by the time they reached their destination on Magazine Street, a shopping mecca that bustled with traffic and people.

Chloe Mitsumi worked in the Wild Orchid, a trendy and expensive boutique that was definitely the place to be seen--unless, apparently, you were Chloe Mitsumi.

"I'm sorry," said the store's manager, a sleek, forty-something woman named Leena Bondurant. "Chloe called me at home early this morning and told me what happened. She's terribly upset, as you can imagine. She asked if she could take the next few weeks off, to find a new place and take care of matters with the police, her lawyer, and her insurance company. I'm sure she's terribly overwhelmed, so of course I agreed. It's the least I could do."

The woman's words added weight to Emma's suspicion that Chloe was deliberately making herself scarce. She glanced at Halloran to see if he'd caught that bit of disturbing news, but he wasn't listening. He was far too busy checking price tags on a rack of slinky evening dresses.

Maybe if the situation at hand didn't involve destruction, death, or threatening bodily harm, it wasn't worth his full attention.

Turning back to the manager, Emma pulled out her notepad. "She said she was going to contact the police, her lawyer, and her insurance company?"

Bondurant nodded. "Something like that. It was early, and I wasn't exactly taking notes."

"So you have no idea where she is right now?"

"No. I'm sorry. If I did, I'd tell you. Why? Is something wrong?"

"We need to talk to her, and we're having a little trouble contacting her to leave a message." Emma took out a business card and handed it to the woman. "If she calls again, or if you see her, can you please tell her to contact me immediately?"

"I certainly will." The manager paused. "She's not in any kind of trouble, is she?"

Picking up on the caution, Emma asked mildly, "Why do you ask?"

"I know she likes to have fun, but I wonder about the people she parties with. Don't get me wrong, I like Chloe very much. She's been with us over three years, and she's an excellent worker. She's great with customers, rarely calls in sick, and she's always on time and willing to do extra little jobs. But sometimes I worry... You know about her brother, right?"

"Yes, I'm aware of that situation. Do you believe she is in some way involved with his prior criminal activities?"

Bondurant shook her head, looking shocked. "Oh, no. No. Chloe hated her brother with a passion."

This was news. She'd assumed, from Halloran's earlier comments, that the two had been close.

"Every once in a while these young men come in to see her." The woman shrugged, looking a little uncomfortable. "Maybe it's nothing, and I've only seen them around a few times since Chloe's been with us, but I noticed because they're not the kind of people you'd normally see in a store like this."

"What do you mean?"

Halloran had asked the question. Without Emma noticing, he'd moved in close behind her--apparently he'd been paying attention, after all.

"Well...let's just say they appeared to embrace a rougher kind of lifestyle."

"How many were there? Do you remember what they looked like? Were they in any way dressed the same? Any distinctive tattoos?" Halloran's interest was plainly piqued, which in turn piqued Emma's. "Would you recognize any of them if you saw them again?"

Bondurant blinked, flustered by his rapid-fire questions. "There's two or three of them, and they're usually black, but every now and again there's this Asian-looking guy with them. They're full of attitude and loud, like they want to cause trouble. They made me nervous, and the other customers, too. But I don't remember details, and I don't know that I'd recognize them if I ran into them on the street. Sorry."

Emma jotted down the information. "When was the last time they came by to see Ms. Mitsumi?"

"Last Tuesday. It was the first instance in at least six or seven months."

"How did Ms. Mitsumi act around these men?" Emma asked. "Did she seem comfortable with them? Afraid? Angry?"

"She was pleasant enough, but in a distant kind of way. I never got the impression she considered them friends, just people she knew in passing."

"Did you catch any names?" Emma persisted.

"No, I'm afraid not. I kept my distance. They made me nervous."

"That's fine. You did great." Halloran smiled at the manager, who smiled back, her demeanor suddenly less reserved, her expression softening--almost flirtatious, in a discreet sort of way. The woman inched closer to him, cutting in front of Emma to do so, as if she'd completely forgotten her presence.

Note to self: From here on out, have Halloran question all the women...

"You've been very helpful, Ms. Bondurant." In his drawl, "Bondurant" sounded melodic, seductive.

From behind the manager, Emma tipped her head to catch Halloran's attention, injecting as much skepticism into her look as possible. In response, he cranked the charm even higher.

Emma almost laughed, and she had a sneaking suspicion that was his intent. Aware he'd upset her, he wanted to coax her out of her bad mood.

Unfortunately for him--though fortunately for her--she was mostly immune to schmoozy charm.

"If you do talk to Ms. Mitsumi and pass on Detective Frey's message, would you also mention to her that Detective Halloran would like to talk to her? She knows how to contact me."

"I certainly will, Detective. Can you leave me your number just in case?"

No doubt to make note of it for her own purposes.

Then, as if suddenly remembering Emma's existence, the manager turned, looking a little sheepish, and Emma managed to blank her "I'm gonna puke" expression just in time.

"And thank you, too, Detective Frey. I hope you'll help Chloe straighten out this mess. That poor girl. After all the grief she's been through, she hardly needs this."

Emma nodded, then signaled Halloran to follow her out the door.

"So what's the plan?" he asked as they crossed the street to where he'd parked the car--illegally, if they'd been anybody but the cops.

"I thought I'd make a few calls to see if someone knows where she is, check back on the prints, then write up my notes."

"I'll drop you off at the station. I have a couple other appointments this morning."

Emma eyed him. "Does it involve beating up any more people?"

If he was offended by her question, he didn't let it show. "Nope."

His nonchalance didn't sit right with her. It was as if he'd completely moved on after what he'd done: out of sight, out of mind.

Well, she didn't work that way. This man was trouble waiting to happen, and she could not--would not--open herself up to that kind of pain again

When they were in the car and on their way back to North Rampart, Emma turned in the seat toward him. "I told you I testified against bad cops, and yet you roughed up that guy in front of me anyway. I don't doubt he had it coming to him, and then some, but..."

Her voice trailed off as she watched for a reaction, even a glimmer of remorse, but saw nothing.

Frowning, she quietly got to the point: "Aren't you even a little concerned that I'll go to Strong and report what you did?"

As he stopped for a red light, Halloran looked at her from behind his dark sunglasses and shrugged. "Truth is, Frey, I can't seem to care."

Chapter Three

Emma pushed through the station house main doors and slowly headed to her desk, still mulling over Halloran's last words to her: I can't seem to care...

It wasn't so much what he'd said, though that was disturbing enough, but how he'd said it that bothered her. Not angry or loud with puffed-up bravado. Not defensive, or even a careless, unemotional brush-off.

No, he'd sounded painfully weary, almost...resigned? Emma couldn't put a finger on the exact shade of emotion in his voice, but she couldn't stop thinking about it, either, or shake off this sense of unease and worry.

Dammit, she wanted to put as much distance as possible between herself and that man, not feel sorry for him. And the sooner she prevented any softer emotions from undercutting her instincts for self-preservation, the better.

Giving free rein to emotions led to nothing but grief. She'd seen it, over and over, in her parents' deteriorating relationship, in the selfish, nihilistic attitudes of the losers she dealt with on a daily basis, month after month, year after year-even in her own late, unlamented, and pathetically naive quest to see justice served, no matter what the personal cost.

And in the end, it had cost her plenty.

As she approached her workstation, Emma took a deep breath and strode briskly past the other occupied desks. That way, she wouldn't have to acknowledge the speculative looks, suspicion, judgment, or even flashes of pity. She'd been working hard and keeping to herself for over a week, and yet wisps of silent disapproval still trailed after her wherever she went.

On the positive side, it wasn't as bad as in L.A., where a lot of people had been downright hostile. She'd accepted that the fallout from the scandal would inevitably follow her no matter where she moved, but going home to the city where she'd grown up had appealed to her need for comfort and familiarity, her itch to wipe the slate clean and start over. With luck, a little time, and distance, she'd soon ease back into her old routines and get back to what she did best: locking up the bad guys.

Closing the Mitsumi case was exactly what the doctor ordered. If nothing else, focusing on that would keep her from obsessing too much about what people where whispering about her.

She sat at her desk, crowded with hand-me-down case reports, thick procedural manuals, her computer, phone, coffee cup, another half-empty pack of Dentyne gum, and a small vase of limp flowers with its "Welcome!" card still attached.

After opening Delgado's report, she tried rereading the notes and examining crime scene photos, but she couldn't concentrate. She was too distracted by a prickling awareness of being watched, even as she wondered if maybe, out of knee-jerk habit, she was seeing hostility and distrust where none existed.

"Frey. You're back already. How'd it go?"

Emma turned to see Strong, coffee cup in hand, perched on Halloran's desk. Despite his polite smile, she sensed he didn't much like her, but she respected him, if for nothing else than after twenty-five years of working his way up through the ranks, he ran an efficient department. He struck her as a pragmatic, reasonably fair man. In his early fifties, he was trim, attractive, and still married to his wife of thirty years.

For a cop, that was damn near miraculous.

"It went well."

Judging by the look on his face, he'd expected a different answer. "No trouble?"

She was tempted to ask a few blunt questions about her "partner." Instead, she avoided his gaze--and the actual implication in his question.

"We still haven't located the victim, but she contacted her employer this morning to ask for time off, so she's around. I've left messages for her to call me. Whoever trashed her place was after something in particular, and I'm hoping she has the good sense to come to us before they find her again."

Strong nodded. "That's what Delgado thought, too. By the way, where's Halloran?"

"He said he had a few appointments and would check in later." She hesitated, curiosity still warring with caution, then casually asked, "Does he have a drinking problem?"

"No more than anybody else in this department." Strong didn't appear concerned, or surprised, by the question. "As far as I know, anyway."

"It's just that I wasn't sure." Even to her own ears, she sounded overly defensive.

"Hey, it's okay. He was looking a little rough this morning, and I don't blame you for wondering. But you say you two hit it off, then?"

This time, Emma met his gaze. "Did you think we wouldn't?"

"I wasn't sure how you'd mix. He can be bullheaded, and you've got this sharp edge..."

He trailed off in a leading way, and Emma realized he'd handed her the perfect moment to request Halloran's removal from the case.

Do it; get it over and done with, quick and easy...

Emma hesitated, then said evenly, "Thanks for your concern, but we did fine."

Strong quirked a brow, and after a moment, he nodded. "Stay on top of this one. I don't like the sound of it. Keep me updated--and find that woman."

As Strong walked away, Emma slumped back in her chair, already doubting her impulse to keep quiet.

And where had that come from, anyway? She sure hadn't held back to protect Halloran. No, it had been about pride, stubbornness--or, most likely, a reluctance to stir up even a speck of trouble so soon after her arrival. With any luck, none of this would come back later to bite her on the ass.

Luck? As if she'd had any of that lately.

A wave of good ol' self-pity washed over her, tempting her to jump right in and wallow, if only for a teeny bit. What had she done to deserve this long streak of bad luck? She paid her taxes on time--and didn't even cheat--and sent cards out promptly for holidays and birthdays, flossed her teeth daily, always wore clean underwear, defrosted her freezer, changed her oil regularly, didn't kick puppies or pinch babies -

"Hey, girl. What's the matter? You look like you just lost your best friend."

Emma jumped, startled, but when she saw who stood next to her desk, she relaxed again and smiled.

Alycia Chatman was one of several detectives who'd made her feel welcome from the start. She was a small, slender black woman with broad shoulders, a lot of hair in tiny braids, thickly-lashed dark eyes, and a generous mouth that smiled a lot. She was also happily married to a patrol cop in the Fifth District, and had two teenage kids.

"I was just thinking that my life sucks right now," Emma admitted sheepishly. "Bad me. I know."

Alycia quirked a brow. "It didn't go well, huh?"

Figuring a number of nearby ears were tuning in, despite appearances to the contrary, Emma lowered her voice. "He's crazy. And way too pretty."

"That sounds like Bobby, all right." Then, her amusement fading, Alycia leaned closer. "Got a minute? There's something I need to talk to you about."

On a renewed sense of dread, Emma sighed. "I'm going to hate this, aren't I?"

"Most definitely. Which is why we're going outside. I need a cigarette break anyway."

Emma followed Alycia outside, where the earlier sunny weather had given way to a gray, bleak sky, and she buttoned her blazer at the first touch of cool air.

The North Rampart building was relatively new, so the "no smoking" rule was enforced with some diligence. A number of cops loitered outside in the brisk January breeze smoking, but Alycia walked past them. Finally, a few blocks away, she stopped and leaned against a street lamp, backed by a long line of cars parked curbside. She fished a pack of cigarettes from her jacket pocket, tapped one out, and lit it.

Emma watched the ritual with mild fascination. "I feel this overwhelming urge to point out that smoking will kill you."

"Yeah, but not before this bleeding ulcer in my gut gets me first. Or high blood pressure blows out the old ticker."

"Gee, I love being a cop. We're such an upbeat bunch."

"Ain't that the truth." Grinning, Alycia blew out a stream of smoke. "So let's talk about Bobby."

Not about to make the first move, Emma only raised a brow, waiting.

"Okay. I'll go first." Alycia's grin widened. "I'll be honest here. Blond, blue-eyed Southern boys don't generally trip my trigger, but I have to say he is one fine-looking man."

"No arguments from me."

"And he don't go too long between girlfriends, either." Alycia took another long drag. "Though they don't seem to stick around for long."

Ah, gossip: the most treasured pastime of every police department, large or small.

Although hugely curious, Emma did her best to act nonchalant. "His love life really isn't any of my business."

"It is when there's a betting pool based on how long it'll take him to get in your pants."

At first, she didn't think she'd heard right. But there was no mistaking the faintly disgusted expression on Alycia's face. After a brief spurt of anger, the sheer absurdity of it hit her, and Emma burst out laughing.

Alycia flicked away her cigarette ash. "Okay, that wasn't exactly the reaction I was expecting."

"Oh, I'm pissed, all right, but please. Are they crazy? It's not as if a man like that is ever going to give me a second look."

"You're an attractive woman, Emma, so don't you go disrespecting yourself, or -"

"I'm not, but let's be real here. Halloran strikes me as a guy with a definite 'type,' and I'm not it."

Alycia fell silent, for so long that Emma started fiddling, smoothing non-existent wrinkles from her blazer, suddenly aware she had nothing to do to keep her hands busy.

"Let me tell you something about Bobby." After a final drag, Alycia stubbed out the butt and tossed it aside. "Despite what you might hear, he's a good cop, and a good guy. He's always been decent to me, so I have no issues with him. He just naturally gets along with women, and that bothers some people. I've been around him long enough to know he's the kind of man who wears his heart on his sleeve. When he's happy, you know it. When he's messed up, he tries to hide it, but you know it anyway."

This wasn't anything Emma hadn't already figured out for herself. "I'm not sure I'm getting your point."

"My point is, you could do worse than having him covering your back. Don't let a few ignorant assholes make up your mind for you. It's not Bobby's fault some of the guys resent how women are always checking him out, or think he dresses like he's queer, and so they tell stories about him to make themselves look better."

"When we were over at the projects this morning, Halloran kicked in a door and threw a man into a wall. Just because he felt like it, as far as I can tell. I'm thinking he and I are going to have a few...trust issues."

"That's Bobby. He pushes it hard to the limit sometimes, I know." Alycia nodded, her expression growing thoughtful. "But you might want to give him the benefit of the doubt."

"Why? Just because he's a cop?"

Alycia sighed. "I don't need to tell you police work can be a dirty, nasty business. We deal with shit most people can't even begin to understand, and I'm not saying wearing a badge gives us the right to do anything we want. I sure don't have to tell you that a few cops sometimes go too far and make the rest of us look bad."

No; that was one subject Emma understood loud and clear.

"But we're only human. We have bad days. We get sick and still go to work. Our boyfriends cheat on us, and we still stop a guy from smacking his girlfriend around. Our kids drive us nuts, the dog next door keeps us up all night...and we still gotta deal with some pissant creep who just beat on a baby." Alycia's voice stayed calm, and even. "Can you honestly tell me you've never said something you shouldn't have to an asshole you're arresting, or gotten a little too rough because, just for a second or two, you got so much disgust in you that you can't keep it back?"

"No, I can't," Emma admitted. "I understand what you're saying."

"Good. It helps to remember none of us are perfect."

Emma rubbed at her forehead, trying to ease the steadily rising tension. "Can I ask one more question?"

"Sure."

"Will Halloran hold back on me?"

"As much as he can get away with."

"Meaning?"

The other woman arched a thinly plucked brow. "Meaning when he's in a mood, he tends to run with scissors and not play nice with others."

"Wonderful." Emma tipped her head back, staring up at the sunless sky, then blew out a breath, cheeks puffing. "Is he dangerous?"

"Usually only to himself. A few years back, he got shot."

A chill prickled just under her skin, raising goose bumps. "I'm not sure I want to ask this, but how?"

"He got caught up in a private vendetta, and by the time he figured out what was going on, it was too late to do more than ride it out. It caused him a lot of trouble at the time, and he was suspended for six weeks for failing to follow proper procedure."

"He seems to have that problem."

"Yeah, but not always." Alycia shifted. "And in case nobody's told you yet, the guy that shot him was Jacob Mitsumi."

"Uh-oh." In an instant, her already worrisome case took on a deeper, darker significance. "My mysteriously missing victim's brother."

"Uh-huh. I thought you ought to know." Alycia pushed away from the lamppost. "You ready to go back in?"

"My blood pressure's getting a pretty good workout today, but I think it's mostly back to normal."

As the two of them strolled back toward the building, Alycia said, "I sure don't envy you having to deal with all this shit, but if you ever need to talk about it, you're welcome to come to me. Sometimes it helps to talk."

A sharp, icy breeze cut through Emma's wool blazer and cotton shirt, and she shivered. "I still can't believe somebody would be stupid enough to bet money on Halloran noticing the color of my eyes, much less getting me in bed."

"Are you gonna talk to Strong about it?"

"And tell him what, that a few of the guys are being mean to me?" Emma gave a rueful laugh. "I don't think so."

"That's exactly what those morons are counting on. You know that, right?"

Emma nodded. "But thanks for the support, and the heads-up. I really appreciate it, Alycia."

"In a lot of ways, it's still a man's world out there, and believe me, being black and a woman, I know how hard it can be. We have to work long hours, deal with all the bullshit that comes our way, and still go home and be wives and mothers, housekeepers and chauffeurs."

Catching the commiserating look Emma sent her way, Alycia smiled. "It's not right that we have to work harder and prove ourselves more, and maybe someday things will change, but for now it's how we earn respect. So I get why you don't want to say anything, but remember it's not everybody giving you a hard time, okay? My best advice is to ignore it. Eventually, these guys will get bored and find somebody else to pick on."

All good points; theoretically, she had every right to register a complaint. Ten years ago, or even five years ago--when she'd been younger, more idealistic, and less patient--she would have complained. Now she chose her battles. Maybe she'd grown more cynical and pragmatic over time. Or maybe she'd finally wised up enough to realize not every fight was won by charging headfirst into the opposition, full of all the sound and fury of righteous indignation.

Some fights weren't worth the hassle in the long run, either. Reputations were hard to live down--as she'd painfully learned--and difficulties with coworkers and frequent transfers looked bad on a personnel jacket. Promotions often depended on staying on the good side of the desk cop who happened to be your supervisor, and since she believed success was the best revenge, she intended to achieve exactly that.

And besides, a few guys acting like Neanderthals were nothing compared to what she'd endured before hightailing it out of L.A.

"You're awful quiet," Alycia said as they approached the main doors. "Are you thinking, or getting mad?"

"Not as mad as I probably should be," she admitted. "I think I'm all angered out for the day--it's actually kind of funny, if you think about it."

Seeing Alycia's narrow-eyed skepticism, Emma couldn't help smiling. "Really. I mean, in just one morning, I've been handed a case with no suspects or motive, and a victim who doesn't want to be found; the guy I'm working with is all testosterone and trouble; I'm stuck with this hazing nobody will ever admit to; and now I'm the star attraction in a betting pool on when I'll get screwed by my so-called partner. Literally. But you know what? I don't care."

And, boy, didn't that sound oddly familiar?

"Good girl." Alycia briskly patted Emma on her back. "Never let the bastards get you down."

Flushed with a renewed determination, Emma swung the door open with more force than necessary, but it felt good anyway. "What's done is done. I'll deal with what I can't avoid, and blow off the rest. I'm going to clear my case and show these pricks exactly what I can do. I'm going to be a good little cop and do my job with a big, sharp smile."

Alycia let loose with a rich, full-throated chuckle. "Now you're talking. Go get 'em, tiger."

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Off Limits

Cover

Publisher: InkBooks
ISBN: 978-1-4524-9754-9

Buy Ebook: SmashwordsBarnes & NobleAmazonKobo • Apple: US · UK · CA · FR · AU · DE

Book Description: Opposites Attract... What do you get when you mix a handsome, loose-cannon cop together with a "by-the-book" lady cop, an AWOL party girl in heaps of trouble, a couple nasty bad guys, and a bunch of naughty netsuke? Hot and heavy romance ... with a spice of mystery and adventure! (And Bobby Halloran of Absolute Trouble and Getting Her Man finally gets a book -- and a romance -- of his own!)

Originally published by Avon Books in 2003. Waldenbook's National Bestseller.

"Puts the snap-crackle-pop into the mystery-romance!" – Detroit Free Press