Copyright ©2019 by Julie Miller
Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.
On sale January 15th in print; February 1st in digital
(available earlier to Harlequin subscribers and on the Harlequin website)
Things are heating up at the wedding reception between KCPD Detective Conor Wildman and bridesmaid Laura Karr...
Laura Karr might be the one person here who’d treat Conor like the guy next door he’d always been—not like the prodigal son returning home, or some poor lost soul who needed to be saved.
“And I always thought that big, bad Conor Wildman was a rule-breaker. It was one of the tenets that my teenage adoration of you was based on.”
He grunted a laugh at the idea he’d been any teenage girl’s fantasy. “There are rules. And then there are laws. One of those, I don’t break.”
“Plus, there was that whole dating my big sister thing. That would have been awkward.”
Yep. There was that.
She inclined her head toward the line dancers shuffling their direction again. “I’m old enough to dance with you now.”
Had he imagined the hushed invitation in her voice just then? He knew he hadn’t imagined that little gut-kick of interest stirring in the pit of his stomach at that surprisingly grown-up, completely feminine tone. Conor hoped she’d been unaware of just how provocative she had sounded. She was putting him on, right? That had always been their routine—hug, laugh, listen, tease. He was the one who was screwed up, who’d been screwed over by life. There was no way Laura’s offer to dance was meant to sound like a proposition for something more. He’d been celibate and grieving, angry and heartbroken for too long to trust anything his flirt radar was trying to tell him. This was Laura. Same freckles. Same sass. Same smile —sans the braces. The comfort in that familiarity was what he needed to focus on. Not this whole weird awareness of the pretty bridesmaid he was experiencing tonight.
Conor remembered the easy banter between him and Laura. He didn’t remember any verbal innuendo or the voluptuous frame she’d poured into that candy-pink gown. And while it was a relief to find something normal about this long evening, he remembered he wasn’t the only person in this conversation. There were tactics to her rambling. “You changed the subject. What were you and Isaac arguing about?”
“I’m probably being paranoid.” Unlike Lisa, who fit snugly under Conor’s chin, the top of Laura’s head barely reached his shoulder. And that was in the heels she was wearing. Still, he had to admire that the differences in their heights didn’t deter her from tilting her chin to make direct eye contact with him as she spoke. “Isaac dates a good friend of mine, Chloe Wilson. Well, he used to. They’ve been on-again, off-again for a year or so. She lives in the apartment above me. I introduced them.”
“I take it, by the static I felt in the air between you two, that it’s off again?”
Laura nodded. “Chloe was invited to the wedding, too. In fact, she was supposed to help, but she never showed. I’ve called and texted, but she doesn’t answer. Isaac was ignoring me before the ceremony, but I finally caught up with him. He said they broke up for good this time—that she’s seeing someone else. Although, I hate to think about the guy she might have dumped Isaac for.”
“This new guy put up a red flag for you?”
Laura made a derisive sound that was more snort than laughter. “I wouldn’t call him reliable, that’s for sure. I’ve only met him a couple of times. He always has one or two other guys with him, like an entourage. I never spoke with any of them.”
“He’s a party guy?”
If it’s his own party. He shows up when Chloe’s working. Makes her change plans when they don’t suit him. Maybe she didn’t come to the wedding out of respect for Isaac’s feelings. But she’d have called Lisa or me to let us know she wouldn’t be here. I’d bet money that Vinnie didn’t want her to come.”
“Vinnie’s the new guy?”
Nodding, Laura braced her hand on Conor’s arm and stretched up onto her toes, scanning through the crowd. Conor automatically followed suit, checking the diners and dancers, even though he didn’t know who he was looking for. “You don’t see a blonde about my size wearing ridiculously high heels, do you? I proudly accept that I’m never going to top five-three, but she overcompensates by wearing killer heels all the time. Even to run to the grocery store.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen anyone like that tonight.” To be honest, he realized that he’d been so focused on his own inner demons that he hadn’t paid much attention to any women younger than his late mother, besides Lisa and her sisters. A quick scan of the dance floor and dining area now didn’t reveal any young blondes tottering around on scary heels. When Laura pulled her hand away, Conor wondered at the imprint of heat that lingered on the skin beneath his jacket. What was wrong with him tonight? There wasn’t anything that felt right or normal about this long overdue trip home except for Laura. And now he was blowing this reprieve because she’d gone and grown up on him, and he couldn’t get comfortable in his own damn skin around her.
“Chloe doesn’t always make the best choices,” Laura went on. “I worry. I mean, Isaac wasn’t exactly trippin’ her switch, but he was steady, nice.”
The fading red mark on Laura’s hand made him question what kind of temper Royal was hiding behind that geeky façade. But he’d go along with her for now. “In other words, boring. Let me guess, the new guy drives a fast car, spends a lot of money on her and looks like the lead in the newest superhero movie franchise.”
Laura laughed. “You’ve met Vinnie Orlando?”
“He sounds like a cartoon character.”
Laura butted her shoulder against Conor’s arm, smiling at how he must have nailed the description of a handsome party boy who could turn a woman’s head. “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that she wants to date someone else. Isaac can be a little...controlling. With his budgets and schedules. Chloe’s a free spirit. She’s an artist. She paints some, but mostly sculpts in clay—animals, human figures, busts. She makes ends meet by waiting tables. She’s got a big heart, but she wants what she wants.”
“That doesn’t sound like a recipe for a successful relationship.”
“I always thought it was an ‘opposites attract’ kind of thing for her and Isaac. She brought him out of his shell. He offered her security. Her home life isn’t much to tell about. Her dad’s been MIA for years, mom’s in prison.” Laura’s sigh was audible above the pounding beat of the music. “Still, I thought she’d come today. She is a friend of the family.”
“It’s awkward when things don’t go the way you planned with the person you love.”
Hazel eyes swiveled up to his. “That rings a little too close to home, doesn’t it? I’m sorry.”
“It’s not your fault, Squirt.” Conor shrugged. “I’m not the man your sister needed. And try as I might to change things, we were never going to be. I wish I’d figured that out sooner. Could have saved a few dings to my heart and my pride.” He tilted his head down to her and winked. “She wants what she wants, too.”
Laura’s hand moved back to that spot on his arm, and Conor felt the squeeze of compassion through the layers of worsted wool and cotton he wore. Then she linked her elbow through his and leaned against his side in what he could only describe as an arm hug. When had Laura Karr become such a toucher? Or had he just never noticed that natural way she made contact with those around her before? “I’m sure today is hard for you. Lisa was so worried you’d crawled off into a dark hole after she announced her engagement to Joe. So soon after losing your mom? People here worry about you.”
He was well aware of that fact. “People? You mean Lisa? She wants everything in her world to be organized, neat, pretty. Breakups aren’t pretty.” He nodded to the hallway where Isaac had disappeared. “Ask your friend.”
The song ended and was momentarily replaced by the buzz of conversations across the reception hall before a slower tune started. Conor retreated to the nearest table, pulling Laura out of the way as dancers who weren’t coupled up filed off the dance floor. Several more guests left their seats, moving forward to take advantage of the sultry jazz melody.
Laura’s arm was still linked with his, the scent of her hair filling up his head, and as the crowd thinned they could nudge a little space between them again. “You and Lisa were friends long before you two were an item. We were all friends. Family, practically. That’s why she was so worried.”
“A guilty conscience will do that.”
He raised his hands in surrender, breaking the last of the connection between them, admitting that was a low blow. “Sorry. Sarcasm is my go-to when I don’t know what to say. I don’t know if I’m ready to be buddy-buddy again, but I’m hardly living in a dark hole.”
Laura faced him. “You ran away to Kansas City.”
“My job took me to Kansas City,” he explained for the umpteenth time that night. “I was protecting a witness. We damn near lost her because of my supervisor’s wheeling and dealing.”
She was squeezing his arm again. “Is that why you changed jobs? Because you lost a witness? Is that why you stayed?”
“We didn’t lose her—thanks to some help from her boss and his family, all local cops there, the Watsons and some close friends of theirs. We arrested the killer who was targeting her.” The Watson family had turned out to be better allies than the unit he’d been working with at the Marshals Service. “I like KC. I like the people. I trust the friends I’ve made there.”
“Meaning you don’t trust your friends here anymore?”
“Not when they took comfort in each other’s arms.” For a moment, Conor wondered if the sarcasm had leaked out of his mouth again because Laura propped her fists on her hips and looked as if she was about to scold him for the uncharitable thought. Conor shook his head. The problem with old friends was that they sometimes knew him better than he knew himself. “People need to stop worrying about me. I’m a grown man. I’m not drowning my sorrows in a bottle. I’m not contemplating suicide. And I sure as hell am not running away from anything. I just...” Laura’s eyes darkened to nearly solid green while she waited for him to finish that sentence. “Truth? I did need some space. I couldn’t think here. There were too many memories. I needed to move on, but I was drowning in everybody’s sympathy and their efforts to make everything right for me again. So, when the new job opportunity came up, I took it. I don’t have any regrets.”
Laura’s shoulders lifted with a deep breath, and she nodded—as if someone around here finally understood why he’d left. “Loss changes you. You had a double whammy of it. You needed time and space to grieve. And you weren’t going to get any better here, with us.”
When he looked past the youthful dusting of freckles across her nose and cheeks, past the silly bauble in her hair, Conor could see a serene wisdom in the depths of her eyes. Maybe even a hint of sadness or regret there. Curious. “What do you know about loss, Squirt?”
Her gaze held his for a moment before dropping to the middle of his chest where she brushed away something. “Enough to know that I outgrew that nickname a long time ago.”
The bride’s familiar voice reached him a split second before he felt Lisa’s hand at his back. “Con, are you ready to dance?”
A shiver that was part pain, part self-preservation, rippled down his spine. It might be Lisa’s day, but he was done explaining himself and reassuring her. Conor captured Laura’s fingers, curved his hand around her waist and turned her into his arms. “I was just asking your little sister to.” He managed a wink for Lisa as he whisked her bridesmaid onto the dance floor in a swirl of candy-pink tulle. “When they get to the hokey pokey, I’m your man.”
It took a few steps for him to find the rhythm of the music after the abrupt start. Laura seemed to struggle for a moment, too. She stumbled over his feet, her free hand brushing against his arm, tapping the middle of his chest, then grasping his arm again, as if she wasn’t sure where to rest it. Conor caught the wayward hand and placed it on his shoulder. He tightened his hold behind her waist and pulled her hips into his so that they could match their steps without him crushing any of her toes with his big feet.
Leading her into the heart of the dancers, he dipped his mouth beside Laura’s ear. “Thanks for the save.”
“Anytime. But seriously?” She whacked his shoulder in a playful reprimand. “The hokey pokey? Avoiding my sister much?”
“A slow dance leaves too much time for talking. I’ve said my piece to Lisa.”
“But you’re okay to talk with me?”
“Yeah. I’m okay with that.” That wasn’t a lie. Something inside him eased a little bit. “If you can stand to talk to me after that whole Scott Swearingen fiasco.”
“I know it’s your go-to, but you don’t have to make everything a joke. Not with me.”
The music created a low, pulsing rhythm in Conor’s blood. Or maybe that was simply the thumping of his heart after that close call with Lisa. And maybe it had nothing to do with any woman other than the one he held in his arms. Laura stared right at the knot of his tie as they swayed together. But she did this crazy-cute thing when she spoke, tilting her eyes up to him. With his hand flattened at the small of her back, it wouldn’t take much to tug her body flush against his. And for a few seconds, his fingers tightened against the ticklish lace, wanting to do just that. Good grief. Had he not been with a woman since Lisa returned his ring? He mentally ran through his social calendar, or lack thereof, for the past two years. Hell. Had he even gone out on a date? No wonder the enticing scent of Laura’s hair was filling his head with nonbrotherly thoughts. Just entertaining the idea of moving his hand to the curve of her rump or nuzzling his lips against the shell of her exposed ear shocked him into taking half a step back and thinking analytically about Laura. She had more curves to hold on to than Lisa ever had. Laura clearly took after her mother’s side of the family, while Lisa favored their father. The crown of Laura’s dark hair had touches of gold in it that Lisa’s sable tresses lacked. The caramel highlights tipping each wave made Laura’s hair color as uniquely unpredictable as the green and gold of her eyes. “Have I ever danced with you before, Squirt—” said green-gold eyes tilted his way and he caught himself “—Laura?”
“No. It’s not as awkward as I imagined it would be.” A rosy hue warmed her cheeks, and he wondered if he’d ever seen her blush before. “Because of the differences in our heights.”
Wait. Why was she was blushing? “You imagined dancing with me?”
“Ego much, Detective?”
Conor laughed. “My ego’s taken a few hard hits lately. It appreciates even the remnants of a teenage crush.”
She glanced to the side and stiffened in his arms for a moment. Conor was about to ask if he’d offended her, when she hooked her hand behind his neck, moving in close enough for her breasts to brush against him. For a few seconds, as every sensible cell in his body rushed to those points of contact, he didn’t even hear her words. “Lisa’s glaring at us. She knows you’re avoiding her. Are you okay with that? Or are we trying to make her mad?”
After inhaling a steadying breath, Conor eased a little space between them, ostensibly so he could look down into her eyes, but mostly because his body was firing in ways he wasn’t entirely comfortable with around Laura. And he certainly didn’t want her to realize the purely male interest in her that was stirring behind his zipper. “I’m not the retribution type. I’m okay with this marriage. But I don’t have to be a glutton for punishment. I’m afraid getting too close will stir up things I’m not allowed to feel anymore.”
Or shouldn’t feel in the first place—like whatever was happening to him with Laura tonight. “Lisa loved you, you know.” She shrugged, as if apologizing for what she said next. “I just don’t think she was in love with you.”
Well, wasn’t that a painfully sharp distinction to make? Time to change the subject to anything but him. “Did you ever get a date with that track star?”
“Nope. Decided he wasn’t my type.” Thankfully, Laura shifted the conversation with him. “That was almost a decade ago. I’m not a kid anymore. You just haven’t been around to notice. I’ve earned a college degree. I have a career as an educational travel coordinator. I book and lead student tours. I’ve seen a lot of the country. A lot of the world.”
“And I thought you wanted to grow up and play professional softball. Or be a veterinarian at a zoo—you wanted to save cheetahs or something like that. Or become a US marshal like your favorite neighbor.”
Laura pulled her hand from his shoulder, laughing as she gestured to the generous swells of her breasts. “These got in the way of being an athlete. Allergy to cats precluded the vet job. And I outgrew my teenage crush on all things Conor Wildman long ago.”
Conor covered his heart, laughing with her. “I’m wounded.”
She teasingly punched his arm before grabbing his hand and pulling him back into the rhythm of the music. “All the years I would have traded anything for you to see me as more than your kid sister. Oh, well. You had your chance, big guy. I’ve moved on.”
That particular choice of words sounded a little too familiar. Moving on was exactly what Lisa had done. Years ago, it was what his father had done, too. Conor needed to save the conversation before he took a trip too far down the path of bitter memories. “I appreciate the flowers and letter you sent for Mom. That was sweet of you to recall some of the fun things we did growing up. Those were good memories. Mom treasured them as much as I did.”
“They were. I’m so sorry about Marie.” Laura stopped in the middle of the dance floor to slide her arms beneath his jacket and hug him around the waist. Conor braced his feet, absorbing a bump from the couple moving next to them. When that accidental nudge didn’t loosen her hold on him, he wound his arms around her shoulders, protecting her from the people moving around them. And, if he was honest with himself, relaxing into the curves of her body and the heat of her small form clinging to him, accepting the solace of the compassionate gesture.
“You okay, Squirt?”
He felt the hum of her groan vibrating through the cotton of his shirt. “Sorry.”
He dropped a kiss to the crown of her hair. “Laura. You okay?”
Her squeeze around him tightened. “I’m sorry I couldn’t get back for the service. But I did go by the cemetery once I was in town. The marker wasn’t up yet, but I left flowers at the site.”
“Thank you.” That reminded him that he needed to go by the cemetery and check the status of the headstone he’d ordered.
They were still hugging as the song ended. The DJ was encouraging the married couples in attendance to make their way to the dance floor for a competition to see who’d been together the longest. “That leaves us out.” Conor finally relented his hold on Laura. She pulled away but latched onto his hand as he walked her back to the tables. “It really is good to see you, Laura.”
“You, too, Conor. I’ve missed you.”
“I appreciate a few minutes of normal amidst all the crazy.” He chucked her lightly beneath the chin and grinned. “I don’t have to pretend to smile with you.”
When he excused himself to leave, she tugged on his tie with one hand and slipped the other around his neck, pulling him down for a kiss. What the heck? Her lips were warm, bowed and moving across his before he could close the startled O of his mouth. When he did press his lips together, they caught the decadent fullness of her lower lip between his. Whoa. Did that qualify as a kiss? Had he just kissed Laura? With a noise that sounded suspiciously like a moan beneath the pulse of the music, she pushed up onto her tiptoes, sealing their mouths together in another kiss that exploded somewhere inside his brain and lit a fuse down to his groin, prompting the instinctive need to snap her to his body and take over the embrace.
But before he could even acknowledge the desire zinging through him, she dropped back onto her heels and broke the connection between them. As he leaned over her like this, with her face tilted to his, the color of her eyes changed like a kaleidoscope, showing him tawny sparkles of glitter amidst the forest, moss and olive in her irises. The woman had beautiful eyes. “You should do that more,” she whispered.
"Kiss?” He’d been too startled to respond the way he’d wanted to, but now he was wondering if he had... He could still feel the pressure of her lips softening against his...
She rubbed her fingertips across his mouth, probably wiping off a stray glob of lipstick. But he felt the tug of that unexpected touch down deep inside him. “Smile. You’ve always been such a good-looking son of a gun when you smile.”
Was she flirting with him? How was he supposed to think brotherly thoughts when every cell of his body was standing at attention, eagerly anticipating the next touch? When every self-respecting male hormone was demanding he take her in his arms and show her that Conor Wildman knew exactly how to respond to a woman’s kiss, and not stand there like a statue.
She smoothed his tie against his chest and stepped back, maybe sensing that he’d change the way that kiss had ended if she didn’t put some space between them. “I’d better go. Try to get a hold of Chloe again.”
Right. Get a grip, Wildman. That was a goodbye kiss. Hadn’t he just been thanking her for keeping everything normal between them? He was the one putting a sensual spin on things. A nod of agreement was the best he could do right now. “Good luck.”
Conor watched her chat her way through the crowd before she disappeared into the same hallway where Isaac Royal had gone. These few minutes with Laura—their dance, that kiss—had been both the most natural and the most unsettling conversation he’d had all evening.
After enduring a couple of quick dances with Lisa, reassuring her every way he knew how that her marrying Joe hadn’t damaged him beyond repair, he finally made his exit. He’d done his time. He’d saved face, rallied a bit of his pride. But he was more than ready to loosen his tie and unbutton the collar of his shirt as he pushed open the door to a rush of damp February air and strode across the parking lot to his SUV.
Conor inhaled deep breaths of the cold, sobering air into his lungs, replaying this whole evening, replaying the last two years, actually, calculating just how quickly he could wrap up his mother’s business and get on the road to Kansas City before he got any more lost in the twilight zone of his old life. He was halfway to his SUV and mentally halfway home to KC when Laura came running out of the shadows from between two cars and slammed into him. “Whoa.” He caught her by the shoulders and steadied her in front of him to keep her from falling. “Where’s the fire?” Her bare arms were already dotted with goose bumps beneath his hands. His tone grew serious. “Where’s your
She glanced back at the reception hall and muttered a choice word. “I’ll get it later.” A cloud of warm breath obscured her face for a moment before she broke away and hurried down the line of vehicles. “Chloe’s in trouble.”
“Your friend?” Conor fell into step beside her.
“I have to help her. I knew she was in over her head with Vinnie. It was just a stupid, stupid plan.” She stopped beside a compact toaster of a car and sorted through the keys dangling from her fingers. Before she found the remote, she dropped her keys into the snow beneath the car.
Laura dropped down in a billow of cotton-candy pink to search for them. Conor knelt to retrieve them for her. Not only had she run outside without a proper winter coat, but the only things she’d brought with her were the keys and the phone she clutched in her left hand. Where was her purse? Her driver’s license? Conor’s fingers closed around the keys first and he stood. “You seem pretty upset, Squirt—”
“Stop calling me that. I’m a grown woman.” She snatched the keys from his hand and tried to unlock her car. She tapped the remote a half dozen times. “Why isn’t this working? Dad said to get the stupid battery replaced.”
Conor brushed his fingers along her arm, trying to calm her. “Hey, I’m not the enemy here. Tell me what’s wrong.”
“Chloe had a fight with her boyfriend.”
“You mean her fight with Isaac?”
“Vincent. The one she dumped Isaac for.” She glanced a quick 360 around the parking lot. “Isaac’s car isn’t here. Maybe she called him, too. Why would she call me if she’d already talked to him? I don’t know... She sounded wrong. She wasn’t making sense. I have to get to her. I have a bad vibe about this.”
“How bad a vibe?”
"Bad. She said she needs my help.”
Giving up on the remote, she pulled up a key to unlock the car the old-fashioned way. Conor curled his hand around hers, stopping her from turning the key. “I don’t know if you’re in the right frame of mind to drive. Have you been drinking?”
“Okay, okay. This just isn’t you. At least, the you I remember. You’re wiggin’ out a little bit.” She rolled her eyes up at him. That was a condemning look. Fine. You’re not a little girl anymore. I get that. “You’re that worried about her?”
“Yes. On the phone, when she finally called me back—she was out of breath. Like she’d been running or crying. Or she was hiding. Or hurt? She whispered everything. I kept asking her to repeat things.”
“Why would she be hiding?”
She hugged her arms around her waist, shivering. From nerves? Cold? A combination of both? “I’m not sure. I don’t think she was alone, and she didn’t want whoever was there to overhear. I could hear a man talking, but I couldn’t make out any words. Music was playing. She had it up loud.”
“What exactly did she say?”
“She said she was eloping with Vinnie—that she talked him into proposing to her. They’re driving to the airport. And then there was something about insurance and she’s counting on me to keep it safe and her mom could never find out, and she was hoping she wouldn’t have to use it.”
“Keep what safe?”
"I don’t know. She thanked me and said I was her best friend and that she had to go.”
Laura turned the key in the lock. “Stop asking me questions like you’re a cop and I’m a suspect.”
“I am a cop.” Her cheeks were pale, her whole body trembling when she glared at him a second time. Conor shrugged out of his suit jacket and draped it around her. Whether she was freezing or about to burst into tears didn’t matter. He clasped her shoulders and rubbed his hands up and down her arms, instilling what warmth and support he could through the jacket. “You’re upset. Enough that you’re scaring me a little bit. Talk to me.”
The glare was gone when she tilted her gaze to his. “Vegas. She said they’re going to Las Vegas. They’ll get the rings and everything they need there.”
“They’re not the first couple to do that. You said Chloe was impulsive. Sounds like they both are. Are you worried she’ll have regrets?”
“She asked me to feed her cat.”
And that was a problem because...? “Do you have a key to her apartment? Will the landlord let you in?” Then he remembered something she’d mentioned on the dance floor. “Are you worried about your allergies?”
“She doesn’t have a cat!” She shrugged off his touch and opened the car door.
Conor palmed the window and closed it again. Either that remark about the cat had been a coded plea for help, or they were the words of someone who wasn’t in her right mind enough to make a big decision like elopement. Laura knew that, too. Now he understood her panic, her need to act.
There was little Conor could explain about the ups and downs of all that had happened this evening. But he knew how to answer a call for help. “I’ll drive.” He captured Laura by the elbow and walked her to his car, bundling her into the passenger seat before starting the engine and cranking up the heat. “Keep calling your friend. And tell me everything you know about Chloe and Vincent Orlando."