A blinding flash of light accompanied the click of the camera. A lone woman stood poised on the small platform. In stark contrast with the sterile gray walls of the pocket-sized auditorium, she was tall and feminine, her features finely sculpted. Her upswept flaxen hair caught the sharp glare of overhead lights and, oddly enough, was transformed into a halo of molten gold.
Despite the businesslike hairstyle and the conservatively cut white linen suit, there was no denying that this was a woman in full bloom, a woman who would turn heads whenever she walked into a room. And her beauty was only enhanced by the aura of dignity, efficiency and control she projected.
It was an image the woman was aware of, though not one that she intentionally cultivated, at least on a conscious level. Although neither came as readily or as often as they once had, laughter and gaiety were not unknown to her.
But this cramped auditorium was really no place for either. Angela Hall had a meeting to preside over. During her six months as mayor of Westridge, Washington, she had initiated a practice of holding a monthly press conference to discuss recent events, goals and concerns. The media loved it, though Angie was the first to admit she was sometimes put on the spot.
But the meetings bolstered her reputation for frankness and openness with both the press and the community.
As she readied herself to speak, cameras whirred once more, lights blazed and recorders were hurriedly checked to see that they were still in motion. Angie's slender hands rested on the edge of the podium as she scanned the assemblage before her.
"As some of you may know," she said, enunciating her words clearly, "a citizens' committee was formed several months ago to study the feasibility of constructing a new city hall."
"Have a sudden windfall, Mayor?" someone called out.
Angie smiled slightly, not surprised at the scrutiny. Already the issue had proved to be a sensitive one. There were several council members who believed the prospect had merit while others expressed the opinion that it was a frivolous venture. Consequently, Angie suspected she would have a fight on her hands. John Curtis in particular had been rather vehement, as usual, in his support of a new building.
"No windfall," she replied, "but the city's revenue projections are certainly more optimistic than they've been the last few years. And at least we're not looking at another site, so purchase of property wouldn't be a factor."
"How do you feel about this plan, Mayor? Is it one you endorse?"
The question came from Blair Andrews, a reporter for the West ridge Bulletin. Her beat ran the gamut from city politics to a weekly social column. She and Blair weren't the best of friends; in fact, they weren't friends at all. Angie had opposed Blair's uncle in the mayoral election, and even before incumbent Bob Andrews's sound defeat, Blair had put Angie in the line of fire as often as she possibly could.
Angie took a deep breath. In her opinion, building a new city hall was an ambitious project and
an unnecessary expense. But she also felt it wouldn't be right to undermine the committee's work
by voicing her opposition before their report was wrapped up.
"First of all," she told her audience, "the committee's recommendations won't be known until next Monday's council meeting. Second, I'd like to clarify that there is no formal plan yet to construct a new building. The committee has also been looking into the cost of renovating the existing building since there can be no question about the building's historic value."
She let the words sink in before she continued. "Cost savings would be substantial, and the possibility exists for expanding some of the city's services with the excess funds." In addition to expanding the transit system and replacing a number of city buses, the creation of a women's shelter was also being bandied about. But since nothing was really clear-cut, she thought it was best not to go into too many details.
There was a hushed murmur among the group, and sensing another barrage of questions, she decided to wrap up the meeting quickly. "But the fact remains," she stated firmly, "that as far as city hall is concerned, freezing in the winter, boiling in the summer and contending with a leaky roof year-round hardly make for the best of working conditions." Her tone indicated that there was little more to be said.
But before Angie had a chance to make her closing remarks, Blair Andrews's voice rang out once more. It was smooth and silky, with an air of smugness that put Angie's teeth on edge. "Rumor has it our new police chief, Matthew Richardson, wasn't your first choice to replace Sam Nelson. Would you care to comment, Mayor Hall?"
Angie resisted the impulse to glare at the woman. Though she firmly believed in her open-door policy, she was wise enough to recognize that not everything that went on in city hall was for public consumption. But one thing was certain. With Blair Andrews always out and about, Angie had to watch where she stepped—as well as how, with whom and why.
It was, she reaffirmed on a sour note, a typical beginning of the month, thanks to Blair. Even the name Matthew Richardson dredged up an odd feeling in the pit of her stomach. An image of dark hair, surprisingly light gray eyes and tanned skin flashed into her mind. She wasn't sure how her newly hired chief would take the news that he was second choice, especially when hearing it from a secondhand source. Now it appeared Blair had left her no alternative. She was going to have to tell him herself that he hadn't been first pick.
She pursed her lips for a fraction of a second, choosing her words carefully. "Naturally, the possibilities were narrowed down to several candidates, all of whom were certainly qualified for the job. While it's true the first choice declined our offer, I'm sure Chief Richardson will do a perfectly adequate job of seeing to our police protection."
With that Angie lifted slender tawny brows and scanned the room to see if there were any more questions. When there were none, she smiled graciously and thanked the participants, but not before her eyes locked with those of Blair Andrews. The woman's generous red lips were set in the self-satisfied smirk of the proverbial cat who has swallowed the canary. Angie couldn't help but wonder about that look as she turned and walked from the auditorium.
She didn't see the man standing at the rear of the room, nor was she aware of the narrowed gray gaze that followed her graceful exit.
Matt Richardson's jaw thrust forward as he strode across the carpeted floor of the small reception area that led to his office. He briefly noted the woman sitting at the desk—what the hell was her name? Maggie? Yes, that was it, Maggie. His mind again registered her appearance, almost without his being conscious of it. He put her age at somewhere near fifty. Rather dour-looking, she was thin to the point of being downright skinny.
Yet he couldn't help but be distracted at the speed with which her long, thin fingers traveled across the keyboard of her computer. He looked on for a moment in utter amazement.
Realizing he didn't want to make a bad impression his first day on the job, he gave his secretary a cursory nod. She spared him the briefest of acknowledgments before turning back to her typing. His secretary, it seemed, wasn't any more talkative than he was—at least at the moment. But then again, she hadn't been loquacious this morning when they'd first been introduced.
His mood had softened a little by the time he entered his office and seated himself in the comfortable leather chair behind the massive mahogany desk. The chair creaked as he turned and looked through the narrow glass window behind him. From his fifth-story vantage point, Matt had a splendid view of the city and surrounding countryside.
Westridge was nestled in a rich pocket of wilderness a hundred miles south of Seattle. It spread out against the base of the foothills that led to the Cascade Mountains. Dense forests covered the gently sloping hills and sharply jutting mountains beyond, an endless carpet of lush green woodland that blended with the bright blue of the sky.
His gaze drifted to the city that was now his home. With ninety thousand inhabitants, Westridge was a bustling center for nearby timber and dairy communities, a city that was home to ranchers, farmers and businessmen alike. In fact, he'd thought more than once since he'd settled in last week that he might have been standing in the middle of a Chicago suburb if it wasn't for the profusion of cowboy hats, boots and pickup trucks that continually caught his eye.
Yes, he'd left the slums, the tenements, the countless art galleries and awe-inspiring museums—all that was Chicago—behind him. He couldn't really say when the nagging restlessness that had plagued him had started. A year ago. Perhaps more. He'd been to hell and back and quite a few places in between, and maybe it had finally taken its toll.
Or was he getting old? Edging too near the demon known as the ripe old age of forty? Maybe. He'd been tired. Bored. Burned-out was how cops and everyone else referred to the feeling.
Life had lost its challenge, and so had his job. He'd felt he was competing with a never-ending
stream of corruption and dead ends without even the smallest scrap of hope. He was used to
to fighting for what he wanted and fighting hard; it was the only way to survive on Chicago's South Side. But he'd known it was time for a change when he'd stopped looking forward to the next day ahead.
So he had packed up lock, stock and barrel and left the only home he had ever known. A tough, streetwise guy from the big city, he'd left everything behind for...what? For the wide open spaces of the West? He leaned back in his chair and grinned, almost in spite of himself. Certainly not for a peaceful, tranquil job where all he had to do was prop his feet on his desk and hobnob with the owner of the local gas station. He'd never have been satisfied with that in the first place.
Perhaps he wasn't growing old after all. He still craved a little action, a little excitement. Yes, Wes ridge was just what he wanted. Not too big, not too small.
"But this is one hell of a way to start a new job," Matt grumbled aloud. His grin faded as he thought of Angela Hall's statement. I'm sure Chief Richardson will do a perfectly adequate job of seeing to our police protection. A wave of indignation swept through him. Seventeen years on Chicago's police force had taught him to do much more than an adequate job.
But was that what was really bothering him? No. Instead, it was the knowledge that he'd been second choice. That was something he hadn't known, nor had he even considered the possibility. The city's police chief had retired. Westridge had offered him the post; he'd wanted it and he'd accepted. It wasn't as if he'd wanted to be king of the hill, but nonetheless, the realization that Mayor Angela Hall had thought someone else more capable than he was rankled.
"Hell," he muttered, then repeated it. "Hell!"
He got up and paced around the office, then finally dropped back into his chair and pressed the button on the intercom, feeling the need to hear a voice other than his own. Even Maggie's. "Maggie?"
The voice, when it finally came, was rather stilted. "The name is Margie, sir."
"Margie," he echoed, then cleared his throat. He was a little embarrassed that he hadn't remembered her name. "Margie, would you please get me a copy of last year's annual report to the city council?"
This time there was little pause. "There's a folder on your computer, sir. And there's a hard copy of the annual report, sir, is in the filing cabinet next to your desk. Filed under—"
Matt reached out his other hand. "I see it. Uh, thanks, Margie."
He released the intercom but made no move to retrieve the document he'd requested. He already knew most of the statistics and information detailed in the report, anyway. He'd made it a point to know what he was getting into before he'd accepted the job. Instead, he just sat there, his big hands resting for a moment on the desktop.
Damn! Why was it he suddenly felt like a kid on his first day of school? Strange. Alone. Out of place. He got up and paced around the office again. He halted, his eyes sweeping upward to linger reflectively on the stained and yellowed ceiling tile. Matt guessed the entire building must date back to the thirties, if not earlier. It was old, a little on the dilapidated side, but city hall, like the rest of the town, had a kind of rustic appeal.
At least his office was quiet and roomy, a far cry from his quarters in Chicago. There he'd shared a cramped hole-in-the-wall with the second-in-command of Missing Persons. He'd gone home more times than he could count with his ears still ringing from the steady drone of voices the paper-thin walls failed to shut out.
Was that what this feeling was? Transplant shock? One corner of his mouth turned up wryly at the thought. He was, after all, thirty-eight years old and not a six-year-old on his first night away from home.
He eased back into his chair, then finally picked up the annual report and thumbed through it. He'd no more than idly flipped it open to the first page than the intercom buzzed.
It was Margie. "Yes?" Absently he toyed with a pencil.
"You have a staff meeting in the conference room in ten minutes. And at three this afternoon a meeting with the mayor. I just wanted to remind you." ^
Cool and efficient, just like Mayor Hall. An image of Angela as she'd appeared that morning flashed into his mind, and he experienced a spurt of irritation. There could be no doubt that she was one extremely attractive woman, but she seemed so cold, so formal. Unless he was mistaken—and thankfully that wasn't often—she was a woman who had business on her mind and little else. But fast on the heels of that image was another—the malicious triumph he'd glimpsed on the reporter's face when she had divulged that he'd been second choice.
He threw the pencil down on his desk. Mayor Hall. That damn reporter. Magg—Margie. Did all the women in this town have ice in their veins?
"Thanks, Margie." He paused. "I don't suppose there's any coffee around?"
The mild inquiry had no sooner been voiced than her response came, short and sweet. Sweet? Who the hell was he kidding? "There certainly is," she informed him stiffly. "Down the hall, past the records section, first door to the right in the lunchroom... sir."
In other words, get it yourself. Matt quirked an eyebrow as he levered himself up from his desk once more. As he ambled past Margie, a faint touch of dry humor colored his thoughts as again he wondered just what he'd gotten himself into. His boss was a lady, a lady that he knew instinctively didn't particularly care for him, even though she'd hired him. The same went for his secretary, a woman who was clearly independent as hell. Well, maybe he should have expected it. This was, after all, the twenty-first century. And hadn't he wanted a change?
Contrary to what he'd encountered already that morning, the staff meeting went off without a hitch. Former Chief Nelson, it seemed, had been a capable administrator, and Matt decided he was content to let things ride for the time being. The last thing he wanted was for his staff to think that as an ex-cop from Chicago his only intent was to show them the ropes. No, he didn't want to earn a reputation as a mover and shaker and end up inspiring a lot of discontent and morale problems.
Matt was, in fact, feeling rather pleased when he returned to his office an hour later. Surely he could handle his secretary, and even his new boss, by whatever means it took. He'd been a cop long enough to learn that strong-arm tactics weren't the only way to pull someone over to the other side of the fence. He perched on the edge of Margie's desk and smiled at her.
Margie stopped her busywork and looked at him as if he were an annoying speck of dust on her desktop.
"Over thirty years, sir."
The reply was brief, even terse, but he detected a hint of wariness in the tilt of her chin as she looked up at him. "That's quite a while," he observed. "All that time for the police department?"
He whistled. "You and Chief Nelson must have gone back a ways."
Matt ignored her waspish tone and gave an encompassing glance around the office. "To tell you the truth, things were a lot different there. The people were different," he mused in a deliberately casual tone. "There were a lot of times when you had to watch out for yourself because no one else would do it for you." He noticed from the corner of his eye that she was listening intently.
Margie's head bobbed up and down in agreement. "I had a friend who moved to Chicago years ago. I went to visit her once." She sniffed disdainfully. "I've never seen a more uppity bunch of people in my life!"
Uppity? Matt had to resist the urge to laugh. At least he hadn't lost his sense of humor. Not only was his own private version of "uppity" sitting right in front of him, the name Angela Hall came immediately to mind, as well.
"You know, you're right," he agreed. "Why, in the week I've been here, I've wished more than once I'd moved here years ago." He flashed his most disarming smile. "To tell you the truth, Margie, I could use a friend. What do you say you show me around the department, and then the two of us can go to lunch?"
"Lunch?" She looked astonished at the suggestion.
Matt shrugged. "Why not? I imagine it'll be close to noon by the time we're finished. And I can't think of anyone more qualified than you to show me the ropes."
Margie's look of surprise changed to one of beaming pleasure. "Why, thank you." She flashed the first genuine smile he'd seen. "I think I'd like that. But, Chief—" she waved a finger insistently "—only if we go Dutch."
Having come this far, Matt wasn't about to argue- especially since he'd progressed from "sir" to "Chief." He liked the sound of it too much. Though he'd never considered himself the least bit chauvinistic—he wouldn't have accepted a job working for a woman if he was—he hadn't pegged Margie for the women's-lib type. But at least she wasn't immune to a little old fashioned male charm.
He was reminded of his meeting with Mayor Angela Hall that afternoon. One down, one to go, he couldn't help thinking. Would the same tactic work with her? At the thought a wry smile curved his lips.
Where Angela Hall was concerned, he had the feeling it wouldn't hurt to sharpen his ax.
As much as he wished he could blithely brush aside the incident that morning, Matt experienced a twinge of annoyance every time he recalled that he hadn't been the number one choice for police chief. He knew it was his pride chafing. He also knew that he wasn't going to feel a damn bit better until he'd gotten the whole issue off his chest once and for all.
So it was that there was a certain tension in the air as Matt entered Angie's office early that afternoon. The steely eyes that rested on her were keen, a little too penetrating for her peace of mind. Angie couldn't help but be aware of them as she rounded her desk to clasp Matt's hand in a brief handshake, a move she made graciously if reluctantly.
Their fingers merely brushed; she deliberately made the contact minimal. Yet it was oddly unsettling that he removed his hand first.
She moved back to her chair, wishing she weren't quite so conscious of his stare drilling into the slender lines of her back.
"I can't tell you how glad everyone is to have you on board," she told him, schooling her features into a faint smile as she sat down. "Westridge is very lucky to have someone with your experience."
He inclined his head. "I was just thinking the same thing not long ago."
A hollow silence followed. As polite as his tone was, there was something less than friendly about the way he'd said the words, just the slightest suggestion of sarcasm. She couldn't help but wonder if he had something else on his mind, a bone to pick with her perhaps.
Angie hesitated. She hadn't been looking forward to this meeting, not really. Even before the incident with Blair had come up this morning, something about Matthew Richardson made her uncomfortably aware of each and every thing about him. Shimmering June sunlight shone through the glass window beside him, casting the roughly carved features before her into stark relief. High cheekbones accented a strong jaw line, a thin but firmly contoured mouth. Dark brows arched over flinty gray eyes. It didn't take a second look to ascertain that beneath the navy suit were lean but extremely well-developed muscles—and Angie was trying very hard not to be quite so conscious of the fact. It reminded her of days gone by . . . days that were best forgotten.
But she had learned over the years to know exactly what she was dealing with. Matthew Richardson possessed an intensely masculine aura, an aura that hinted of controlled strength. This was a man who would be at ease, yet in control, of any situation.
Strangely enough, however, intimidating was not a word Angie would use to describe him. Exciting? To other women perhaps. But not to Angie Hall.
When she had scheduled this meeting, Angie intended to talk dollars and cents about the police department's budget. But when she tried to summon the statistics and figures that always came so quickly to mind, they were hardly the ones she expected. Six foot. Narrow hipped with the shoulders of a linebacker. She had to mentally shake herself to quell the renegade meanderings of her mind. She dealt with men on a professional level every day. Was this one really any different? They both had a job to do, and it was time she did hers.
"So," she said finally, "I assume you've had a chance to review the budget material we sent you." The police department's budget was coming up for ratification by the city council in mid-July, some six weeks away.
"Indeed I have, Ms Mayor."
Ms Mayor? Angie had been called a few things during her term, some nice, some not so nice, but his address was slightly irritating.
Business as usual, she reminded herself. Brushing the feeling aside, she clasped her hands on the desktop in front of her. "Any changes or recommendations you'd like to make?"
Matt lifted an eyebrow. "Is it too late to plead for more money?" Her brisk, no-nonsense manner didn't surprise him. It was on a par with the way she'd handled the press conference that morning. He had brains enough to recognize an intelligent woman when he saw one, and he had no doubt she would demand as much of someone else as she did of herself. Everything neat, tidy and in its place.
Exactly the way she looked. Even now, at three in the afternoon, there wasn't a hair out of place, not a wrinkle in her clothing, not even a shine on her delicately formed nose. The perfect woman. For just a moment he was reminded of Linda, whom he hadn't thought of in years.
But to his surprise Angie laughed. The sound was pure and sweet, and so unlike the impression he'd just formed in his mind that for a moment Matt was startled.
"That," she commented dryly, "is a question I think I've heard from every department head. And the only answer I can give is that the city's budget has been increased over and above last year's already. Any further increase and I'm afraid we'd have a tax revolt on our hands."
It was no more than he'd expected. But Matt could live with the budget as it was, though he planned to do a little juggling before it was submitted to the council in final form. The dispatching system could stand to be further automated, and he wanted to increase public awareness of crime prevention through security surveys and neighborhood watch associations.
"Sam did his best to make the proposal something the next chief could live with," she added.
The next chief? Her choice of words reminded Matt once more that he wasn't the one she had wanted in the position. "Sam seems to have done an excellent job," he remarked. "Very well liked, I'd say." He shifted in his chair, aware of the speculative blue eyes focused on his face. "It was thoughtful of you to send me the budget proposal in the first place," he continued. Just to throw her off balance, he gave her a slight smile. "But no one likes having the bomb dropped on him at the last minute."
There it was again—the feeling that this conversation was double-edged. Angie's eyes narrowed. She wasn't the type to avoid a confrontation—if that's what the two of them were having. She had the distinct impression it was.
Raising fine arched brows, she leaned back in her chair. "Is there something else on your mind?"
The directness of the question caught him off guard, but Matt was growing accustomed to her cool, calm tone. Somehow it only reinforced his impression that she had about as much warmth in her veins as an iceberg at the North Pole. He seriously doubted that Mayor Angie Hall had a loving bone in her body!
Not that he'd known an overabundance of that emotion himself, Matt thought dryly. He certainly hadn't while he was growing up on Chicago's South Side. He suspected he'd known even less while he was married to Linda. Still, although he'd grown rather cynical over the years, he'd never thought of himself as being incapable of loving. He wasn't sure who was worse—the woman sitting primly in front of him or the old battle-ax who stood guard outside her door.
"We can't all be top dog like you, Ms Mayor," he said mildly, crossing his long legs at the knee, he gave her back stare for stare. "But politicians are generally known for their ability to do quite well at double-talk."
"So I've heard." Her tone was flat. "You're not looking at one, however."
Angie began to steam. She could almost suspect that he knew
"Your point, Chief Richardson," she said through tightly compressed lips. "You do have one?"
Chief Richardson. Somehow it didn't sound nearly as satisfying coming from her lips as it had from Margie's. Matt shrugged and looked up into his boss's snapping eyes. On one plane of thought, he realized that it was getting harder for him to think of this cold but lovely creature as the mayor of Westridge, let alone his boss. On another, it occurred to him that, as a cop who'd indulged in more than a few brawls and heartily enjoyed it, there was nothing he liked better than a good fight. Good, but fair.
He straightened abruptly. "I was at your press conference this morning," he said evenly. "Needless to say, I was there when a certain reporter started asking a few questions about your new appointment to police chief."
There was no need to go on. Matt could see from her expression that she understood him perfectly. Perfect. It was a word that came to mind rather often with her around.
He could also see he had discomfited her, and he derived a grim satisfaction from that.
"I see," Angie said slowly. And she did. Matt Richardson wasn't the type of man who would like coming in second. Until Blair Andrews had brought up the subject this morning, she really hadn't planned to tell him. But after the press conference she had realized it couldn't be avoided unless she wanted him to learn about it in the morning edition of the Bulletin. And she'd planned to let him know casually at the end of this meeting, to lead into it as gently as she could. Much as she didn't think she liked Matt Richardson as a person, she didn't want him to quit after only one day on the job.
"I had no idea you were there this morning," she said finally. She mulled over her words a few seconds longer, thinking grimly that once again Blair Andrews had succeeded in making waves. "I didn't tell you earlier because I didn't feel it had any bearing on the job. As for now.. .well, I just didn't have the chance. But I can assure you, the fact that you weren't my first choice has no reflection on your qualifications."
"I've no doubt about that," Matt intoned quite pleasantly. "I am, however, rather curious about the man who beat me out."
Angie's gaze sharpened. The expression on his face was indeed curious, but there was also a steely demand reflected in his eyes that set her on edge. She couldn't deny he'd been polite to a fault from the moment he'd walked into her office, but beneath the civil facade lurked a very tough, hard man. And wasn't that why she hadn't chosen him in the first place? Angie credited herself with being professional enough to put her personal feelings aside and concentrate on choosing the best person for the job. But the fact remained she really hadn't liked Matt Richardson from the start, and she was beginning to understand why.
"Beat you out?" she repeated dryly. "That's an odd way to put it when you're the one who got the job."
"I think you know what I mean, Ms, Mayor."
This time there was no denying the harshness of his tone. Angie had the strange sensation she was being interrogated—and Matt Richardson would be a master at getting whatever information he wanted. He'd spent years as a homicide detective for the Chicago Police Department.
She tapped a pencil on her desk for a few seconds. "All right," she said suddenly. "I wanted to hire an undersheriff from Marion County in Oregon. The county seat there is much the same size as Westridge, and like Westridge, it's surrounded by a largely rural area. The budget there is on a par, as well. We may be a growing center of business, but we have a number of residents who have lived in the area for generations. I felt we needed a certain—" she hesitated, searching for the right word "—camaraderie with the people. An ability to relate to the community."
Matt's mouth twisted. "And that's where I fell out of the running."
Angie bit her lip. The explanation hadn't come out quite the way she'd intended. She had sounded just a little lofty, and she really hadn't meant to. It wasn't as if he had fallen out of the running precisely. He'd just dropped one rung down the ladder.
"You have to admit Westridge and Chicago are worlds apart."
So he'd heard, and only that morning from Margie. In a town like Westridge, big-time cops from Chicago just didn't fit in. Matt opened his mouth, but before he had a chance to speak, he heard her voice again.
"The fact remains," she was saying, "that I wouldn't have hired you if I hadn't thought you had your nose to the ground in Chicago."
While hers was turned up in the air here in Washington? He recalled thinking something only that morning about hobnobbing at the local service station. He'd seen Angela Hall pull into the city lot driving a Mercedes this morning shortly before her press conference. Yet here she was, sitting before him in a suit that might well have come from a fashionable boutique on Michigan Avenue and obviously living high on the hog, telling him she was afraid he'd have a communication problem! He wasn't sure if he was more angry or amused.
She folded her hands in front of her on the desk and spoke crisply. "You have an impressive record, Chief Richardson, one that you can be proud of." Angie mentally reviewed his accomplishments. He hadn't earned the rank of lieutenant merely walking a beat. He'd worked in homicide, internal affairs and the organized crime division in Chicago. He'd also been appointed by the superintendent to serve on several special task forces and he'd been decorated several times.
But there was no denying she'd felt Matt wasn't quite right for the job, which was why she had wanted to hire Undersheriff Dennis Morgan. It was all water under the bridge, however. Now it seemed she and Matthew Richardson were stuck with each other since Dermis Morgan had ultimately decided working for a woman wasn't his cup of tea.
Almost as if he could read her mind, Matt voiced the question. "Your undersheriff turned you down, I take it?"
"May I ask why?"
He could ask, but that didn't mean he would receive. The sharp retort almost slipped out, but then she suddenly remembered what he'd said about politicians and double-talk.
"He decided he didn't want to work for a woman," she told him shortly. "A problem you obviously don't have."
"Obviously." His reply was bland, but Matt had actually harbored a few reservations before he'd finally accepted the offer. During his seventeen years on the force, he'd never had a female partner and hadn't really wanted one, either. Only the certainty that Angela Hall was just as capable of handling her own job had convinced him that the sex of his boss shouldn't influence his decision. He'd wanted a change; a change was what he got. So he couldn't complain, could he?
At least she'd been honest in her reasoning. He couldn't fault her for that. Yet there was something, some small scrap of pride, that made him rise to his feet and say, "At any rate, maybe I should be glad you decided I was better than nothing."
The slight sarcasm in his tone wasn't lost on her. Angie's eyes flashed upward. Her usual calm deserted her when she snapped, "We obviously had to have a police chief."
His laugh grated on her further. "I'm surprised you didn't take on the job yourself. You strike me as the type of woman who can handle just about anything."
"You've decided not to tender your resignation, then?" There was a definite coolness in her tone. Her blue eyes followed him as he moved across the room toward the doorway.
There he paused, one big hand resting casually on the doorknob. "Oh, don't worry," he said with a shrug. "I've never been one to scare easily. So like it or not, Ms Mayor, you're stuck with me. And you can rest assured I won't disappoint you." The smile directed over one broad shoulder might have been beguiling under any other circumstances—and to any other woman. "Who knows?" he added conversationally. "I may even buy a pickup and a pair of cowboy boots."
Angie was too busy gritting her teeth to think of a snappy comeback. Maybe he was right, she thought with vexation, staring at the closed door a moment later. Maybe she should have taken on the job of police chief.
She had the feeling Matthew Richardson wasn't going to make life any easier for her; in fact, he had a rather unpleasant effect on her. It reminded her of a pill stuck in her throat—necessary, but not very easy to swallow.
It wasn't the best way to begin a working relationship, but Angie had little time to think of Matt Richardson during the next few days. There were the usual day-to-day meetings and activities, a luncheon address at the Women's Civic Club on Wednesday, the dedication of the new wing of the children's section at the city library.
Most people would have said that serving as mayor wouldn't leave much room for a personal life, but Angie was very careful to squeeze the most mileage out of her workday. Over the past three years she had learned to stand on her own two feet. As a widow with two young daughters she'd had no other choice. From the time she had started working outside the home, she did her best to keep her career separate from her home life. Granted, there were a few times when she was up doing paperwork at midnight, long after Kim and Casey had been tucked into bed for the night. And occasionally her presence was required for an evening appearance, but she tried her best to keep them to a minimum, and for the most part she succeeded.
But this particular Friday was not one to be sidestepped, as she soon discovered.
It was just past one when Georgia opened the door and came in, carrying a cup of tea and a sandwich. Angie's assistant was in her forties and just this side of plump. The half lenses she wore would have given her a studious look if she didn't perpetually have them arched precariously on top of her head. They were rarely in place at the end of her nose where they should have been. Angie often thought with amusement that the glasses served a better purpose keeping Georgia's wiry brown hair off her forehead.
"Eat," the woman grunted in her familiar gritty voice. She set the plate on the desktop, then remained where she was, her arms crossed over her ample breasts, eyebrows raised threateningly.
Angie hid a smile and pushed aside the cumbersome budget printout she'd spent the morning poring over. The age difference between herself and Georgia wasn't all that much, yet the older woman treated her with a gruff but motherly concern.
As usual, Georgia's clothes were a mess. The sleeves of her blouse were rumpled from repeatedly being thrust above her elbows. There was a run in her nylons, and the toes of her shoes were scuffed and worn.
Angie loved her dearly. Despite her haphazard appearance, she was sharp as a tack. Managing the office and keeping track of all the mayoral concerns was no small task, but Georgia pulled it off without a hitch. In Angie's eyes she was invaluable. More, she was a friend.
When the last bite of sandwich had been eaten, the last drop of tea drained from the cup, Georgia's ominous expression softened. "That's better," she said briskly. In a rare moment of relaxation, Georgia sat down in the comfortable leather chair. "At least I don't have to worry about you eating tonight. Not with the spread they'll have at the Sheraton."
Angie was used to Georgia clucking over her like a mother hen. She'd even gotten rather good at tuning in what was important and tuning out what wasn't. "Now, Georgia," she began, "you know I always make sure the girls and I eat a good dinner—" Suddenly she stopped short as Georgia's words finally penetrated. "The Sheraton?" she echoed, then frowned. "What's going on at the Sheraton?"
Georgia's eyes contained a measure of surprise. Slip-ups by Angie were few and far between. "Don't tell me you forgot. There's a big bash tonight at the Sheraton. In honor of our new police chief."
This last piece of information was added with a sidelong glance at Angie. Though the public saw the image of a beautiful but successful and hardworking individual, Georgia knew the woman beneath the elegant exterior, the woman of integrity and very real emotions. Once, those feelings had been clearly visible. Now, though they were still there and thriving, they were much more insulated, far less exposed. Life had taught her well, Georgia sometimes reflected, a little too well.
The two women had been through a lot together. She'd seen Angie grow in strength, self-confidence and esteem. She had witnessed the private torment she had undergone when she lost her husband, a torment that Georgia somehow suspected wasn't solely due to grief.
But even Georgia didn't know everything about Angie.
She had started to work for Angie almost four years ago when Angie had joined the investment firm Georgia was with. Though she was in her late twenties, it was Angie's first real bout at tackling the career she'd spent years preparing for. Georgia had thought it was a shame that a woman with Angie's abilities had been sitting at home with a husband and two children since shortly after college. She and Angie had taken to each other like ivy to an oak tree, and Georgia sometimes reflected that perhaps it was because she could see a part of herself in Angie.
No two women could have been more different in physical appearance, but they were, in fact, alike in a number of other ways. Neither one found it very easy to display her inner feelings, though Georgia admitted her own were a little more volatile and vocal. And like Angie, she, too, had cherished hopes and dreams and aspirations. Unlike Angie, Georgia hadn't had the education to build those dreams, and as the years passed, they faded. These days they surfaced only seldom.
Neither one had the support of a husband. Georgia had never even had a husband. As for Angie... well, Georgia sometimes thought she'd have been better off without him.
Oh, Angie had never said so in so many words, but Georgia had known. She'd recognized the signs, but even if she hadn't, her intuition would have told her. There had been days when Angie's smile had been too bright, her laughter a little too forced. As her career had taken off and thrived, the situation at home had disintegrated.
It was, Georgia had long ago decided, the reason Angie was so determined to keep her professional life separate from her home life. Mayor Angela Hall was a far cry from mother Angie Hall. Even Georgia wondered how Angie managed to balance both career and home.
Secrets of the heart? Yes, Angie had a few. But Georgia, like Angie, had learned her own lesson from life and knew when not to pry.
After all this time she also knew what she could get away with and what she couldn't. She'd seen the furious glint in her boss's eyes after her meeting with the new police chief the other day. She'd also heard a few drawers being rattled and slammed. She'd held her peace until today, though.
"Don't see how you could forget about tonight," Georgia commented. Getting up, she pulled a cloth from Angie's bottom drawer and began to idly swipe at the desktop. "Not when it's in honor of our illustrious new police chief," she continued. A rare smile lit her face. "Now there's a man not many women could forget."
Angie darted her a sharp look. It wasn't so much a matter of forgetting as simply not wanting to remember. Instead of replying to Georgia's statement she asked, "Since when have you started taking inventory of every man who walks in and out of this office?"
"I'd do it a little more if they all looked like him," Georgia told her brashly. "To tell you the truth, if I were twenty years younger . . ."
Angie snorted. Matt Richardson might be passably good-looking...well, perhaps more than passable. There were probably some women who would find his roughly hewn features quite compelling. But Georgia? Angie had never known her assistant to look twice at any man since she'd known her.
"Who are you trying to kid!" she exclaimed. "Why, you're no more interested in having a man in your life than I am."
Georgia's grin faded, and her hand stilled for a second. "Maybe you should be. When you get to be my age, things start looking pretty lonely," she said slowly. She stood in front of Angie, her arms akimbo on her hips. "Maybe you should be," she repeated.
Angie said the first thing that popped into her mind. "If I did ever want a man in my life again, it wouldn't be Matthew Richardson!"
This time it was Georgia's turn to snort. "Who, then? That smart-aleck Todd Austin who's always sniffing around your heels?" The way she rolled her eyes heavenward expressed her feelings more clearly than words.
Angie sighed. Todd Austin was the Westridge city manager. She'd met him shortly before Evan's death when she had served as a member of the district school board, and it had been at Todd's urging that she had decided to run for city council a year later. Since that time Todd had accompanied her to various official functions, and she'd always appreciated that Todd respected her for her intellect. Of late, however, he'd made it clear he would like to deepen their relationship, a desire she didn't share.
Her body cramped from the long hours in her chair, she got up and stretched, then walked to the window nearby. She stood for a moment, looking down at the deep pink rhododendrons and leafy foliage that edged the sidewalk.
"Todd and I are friends," she said after a brief pause. Unfortunately, the same couldn't be said of Georgia and Todd. From the first they had taken to each other like oil and water. "No more, no less," she told her assistant firmly. "Just friends. And as for our new police chief, I'm much more interested in the way he does his job than the way he looks."
Georgia said nothing. Glancing over her shoulder, Angie saw that Georgia's thin lips were tightly compressed as she began collecting the cup and plate and loading them onto the small tray.
Angie turned around. "Are you coming tonight?" she asked softly.
She sighed. She hadn't expected Georgia to say yes. As the older woman always put it, she preferred to leave the "woman of the hour" and social duties totally in Angie's hands. Angie didn't really mind since Georgia was so dependable in other ways. But the last thing she wanted was a rift between herself and her assistant, no matter how small. Especially one sparked by the new chief of police.
"You're going to let me face the hungry masses all alone?" she chided gently.
This earned a reluctant smile. Georgia turned to face her, tray in hand. "You, Mayor Hall, can handle just about anything."
Angie laughed, relieved to note the familiar sparkle was back in Georgia's eyes. "With one hand tied behind my back?"
"Not quite," Georgia retorted airily. "Even you need a helping hand once in a while." Turning, she began to leave.
Angie couldn't resist calling after her, "What would I do without you, Georgia?"
She heard a crackling laugh from the outer office. "Starve," came the muffled response a second later. Angie smiled and shook her head. She could tell Georgia was once again buried in her work. Her assistant could talk all she wanted. She had no more room in her life for a man than Angie did.
Georgia wasn't the only woman who had seen Angie through a drastic period of change in her life. Janice Crawford had known Angie for nearly eight years. When they had first become neighbors, Angie was in her sixth month of carrying Kim, and Janice had just delivered a daughter. Janice was the one Angie had always come to when she wanted to borrow a cup of sugar, or when she simply wanted to talk.
But Angie hadn't done much talking the last year of her marriage. And as Janice sometimes told her husband, Bill, there was much that Angie held inside—too much. The Angie the Crawfords had first met hadn't been terribly outgoing, but her warmth and enthusiasm showed in the sparkle of her eyes. The woman they knew now was the same and yet somehow different. This Angie was much more protective of herself and her children.
It was almost three o'clock when Janice walked into her kitchen to find Angie's slim figure just stepping through the back door.
"Hi," she greeted her. "Take off early?"
Angie nodded and stopped for a second. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath.
Janice laughed as she saw her sag against the doorframe. "Tea?" she asked knowingly.
"Sounds great." Angie opened her eyes and smiled at Janice. She dropped her purse on the bench in the breakfast nook. "Just let me say hi to the girls and I'll be right back."
"They're in the yard," Janice called after her, running water into the teakettle. "Playing in the pool."
Angie smiled as she stepped into the enclosed backyard. The small plastic pool had been upended and leaned against a tree, and the children had turned their attention to spraying each other with the hose instead.
Four-year-old Casey was the first to spy her. "Mommy!" she squealed and ran over. She threw her arms around her mother's legs. When Angie bent down to hug her, she planted a wet kiss on her cheek before running off once more. Kim did the same, as well as Janice's daughter, Nancy.
Sixteen-month-old Eric had apparently decided he'd had enough of the water and pandemonium. Eric had the same round face and dark hair as his mother. At the sight of a familiar, sympathetic adult face, his hands lifted in a pleading gesture, and he toddled toward her.
"What! Are they drowning you?" Angie laughed. Lifting him onto her hip, she turned to go back into the house.
"Oh, no!" Janice's eyes grew wide, and she rushed over to retrieve the baby. "He'll get you all wet!"
Chuckling, she gave him back into his mother's care, unmindful of the wet spots on the cap-sleeved dress she wore. "Wash-and-wear has been around for some time now. It will dry, you know."
After Janice had put Eric in dry clothes, she settled the baby in his high chair and sat down across from Angie. "All ready for the game tomorrow?" Janice laid a graham cracker in front of Eric, who wasted no time stuffing it into his mouth.
Angie nodded, a smile touching her lips. Kim and Nancy had both joined a girls' summer softball league. Baseball was one of the few things that quiet Kim grew excited over, and it warmed Angie's heart to see her happy and eager again. Both she and Janice were coaches for the team, and like the girls they supervised, they brought a good deal of enthusiasm, if not know-how, to the team.
But she shook her head at the thought of what would come before tomorrow. "What I'm not ready for," she mused aloud, "is tonight."
Janice spooned a generous amount of sugar into her tea. "What's going on tonight?"
"There's a dinner for the new police chief," Angie told her. "I'd rather sit through a dozen chamber of commerce luncheons, but I'm afraid if I didn't go, Blair Andrews would have a field day with it." At Janice's inquiring look, she explained how she'd been put on the spot, both at the press conference earlier in the week and later that same day when Matthew Richardson discovered he hadn't been her primary choice.
When she had finished, Janice rested her chin on her hands, her brown eyes sparkling merrily. "Just think— a cop from the big city here in Westridge! It's like having Kojak in town or something!"
"Kojak!" Against her will, Angie felt her lips twitch as she thought of Matt Richardson's dark good looks. Her mother had adored the series. As for possessing the suave, smooth manner of the TV detective... well, that remained to be seen. But Kojak had been a little on the tough side, too, she recalled. Maybe it wasn't such an inappropriate comparison after all.
She turned her attention back to Janice. "Anyway," the other woman was saying, "I can't believe you'd rather stay home than go to a party—"
"Party?" Angie recalled the brief encounter she'd had with Matthew Richardson earlier in the week. If it wasn't for the fact that dozens of other people would be present, she might even consider the dinner something of an ordeal. "I can guarantee this isn't going to be 'Some Enchanted Evening,'" she told Janice with a slight smile. "All anyone does at these functions is talk shop."
"Then make something happen! With all the local big shots in attendance, I can't think of a better place to snag a rich husband!" The words were delivered with Janice's usual zeal. Her short dark curls danced as she bobbed her head emphatically. Janice was very open and honest, unafraid to show her feelings.
Angie's eyes grew wistful. She had once been like Janice, though perhaps never quite so buoyant. But that had been a long time ago.
"You know I don't need the money, Jan," she said with a shake of her head. She had made some excellent investments during the past few years, and she was thankful that she had no financial worries. But there was a time, and not so long ago, when money had been both a curse and a blessing. "As for finding a husband—" her laugh was forced "—I'll leave that to someone else." Rising, she busied herself with pouring another cup of tea.
She knew by the small silence that followed that she hadn't fooled Janice. She heard the click of the high chair as Janice lifted Eric out and set him on his feet. A second later she heard the screen door slam behind Janice as she took the baby out to his sister.
Angie was still standing motionless at the counter when Janice returned. "Evan really did a number on you, didn't he?'' she asked softly.
Angie closed her eyes. Her ten-year marriage to Evan—one that had started with endless days of sunshine—had ended in shadows. Through a will born of desperation and a very real need to save her own sanity, she had spent the first year after his death trying to forget. Even now, when she could remember without all the old bitterness and hurt creeping through her, the good memories were tainted by the bad. Evan had killed their love as surely as he himself was dead.
For just a moment the tea bag hung limply suspended from Angie's hand. It was the only sign that Janice's words had disturbed her as her mind traveled fleetingly backward.
It was four years earlier that Angie's life had undergone a radical change. She had exchanged her role as full-time wife and mother for that of full-time career woman, a move that had initially been made solely for financial reasons.
Evan had been employed by one of the local banks since his graduation from college. Over the years he had worked his way up to vice president. But shortly after Casey had been born, the bank had been declared insolvent and he had lost his job. For a man who thrived on success, it had been a deep blow—a very deep blow indeed.
"We don't have any choice," she'd reasoned with Evan as she prepared to go on her own job search. "We have a family to feed and a mortgage to pay. Besides, you'll find something else in no time. It doesn't really matter which one of us brings home the paycheck, as long as it's there."
But it had mattered to Evan. It had mattered far too much as she'd discovered during the bleak months that followed.
"Evan resented me," she finally said to Janice. She didn't bother to turn around. "After he lost his job, he resented the fact that I supported the family, and he was jealous because I had no trouble landing that job as a financial advisor with Pacific Investments. And he was jealous because I made just as much money as he ever had." When she returned to the table, her face was as expressionless as her voice had been.
"He was wrong," Janice said bluntly. "He had no right to be jealous of your success. All the while he was climbing the ladder, you were there—behind him all the way."
Her words were no less than the truth. Angie had been proudly supportive of Evan. Busy with a home to run and a small child to raise, she really hadn't had time to regret not making use of her education. And Evan had really preferred that she stay at home.
"It certainly wasn't your fault that no one wanted to take a chance on him because the bank folded," Janice continued hotly. "If anyone—or anything—is to blame, it's the economy. Is there anyone it hasn't touched? When the bottom dropped in the housing industry, everyone's been hit hard. And with cutbacks everywhere, Bill was even laid off for a while." Bill was an electrician who sub-contracted out for builders.
Angie ran a finger around the rim of her cup. "At least before he was rehired, he had enough sense to keep looking for a job," she recalled quietly. "Evan just... gave up."
It was then that the situation at home had worsened. Evan had come from an old-fashioned family, and Angie had always secretly thought of his father as rather domineering. Very much a man's man, interested in hunting, fishing and sports of all kinds, Evan had found it frustrating that he was no longer the chief breadwinner. He had become jealous and resentful of her success, bitter at the world and everyone around him.
Especially Angie—Angie whom he had promised to love, honor and cherish. The fabric of their marriage had been in tatters. Evan had become angry and surly. Countless times Angie had returned home from a hectic day at the office, nearly dropping on her feet, to find the house a mess and Evan nursing a six-pack of beer, his eyes glued to the television set. She hadn't been able to fault his care of the children, but no matter what she did or didn't say, did or didn't do, Evan had sniped at her, yelled at her, streamed at her.
Angie's nerves had begun to fall apart with the strain she was under. She loved Evan, but she simply hadn't been able to stand the present situation any longer. "Evan, this can't go on," she had told him quietly one night after the girls had been tucked into bed.
Another argument had ensued. Angie had tried to reason with him, calm him. Too late she had realized the amount of liquor he had consumed. Then it happened.
He had been as shocked as she was by what he had done. "God, Angie," he'd cried hoarsely. "I didn't mean to hit you, I swear." They had wept in each other's arms then while he begged forgiveness.
She supposed she was lucky it had only happened twice . . . Twice. Yet even if he had only struck her once, she couldn't have been more shattered.
She took a deep, cleansing breath, trying to control the sudden churning of her insides. Something of her thoughts must have shown in her face. Her eyes flickered to Janice, who watched her closely.
"I'm sorry, Angie," her neighbor said gently. "Maybe we shouldn't even be talking about Evan, especially when I know how bad things were for the two of you."
Bad? Angie fought to control a mocking laugh. That was far too mild a word to describe the hell Evan had put her through. Evan had hurt her so much, robbed her of her dignity, her sense of self-worth.
But it hadn't been just his physical abuse, the abuse she had hidden from everyone, including Janice. She'd been so eager, so vibrantly aware of her own sensuality when her marriage had begun. It hadn't ended that way—far from it. She shook off the shadow of memory and forced herself to concentrate on Janice's voice.
"There are a lot of nice men out there," she was saying.
"And I've done quite well without one for two years now." This time Angie couldn't prevent the faint note of bitterness that crept into her voice. "I'm happy with my life as it is, and I'd like to keep it that way."
They had been friends too long for Janice to take offense. And if it hadn't been for the durability of their friendship, she was aware she'd have been testing its limits with the line of her questioning. "You're old enough to know what you want, Angie," she said evenly. "But you have Kim and Casey to think about, as well."
Angie knew Janice was talking about the lack of a father figure in their lives. For a second she almost wished she could pretend she hadn't heard her. But she found her eyes drawn to the scene just outside the kitchen window.
Bill Crawford had just pulled into the driveway. A big, robust man with a thatch of reddish-gold hair, he worked as a purchasing agent at a nearby lumber mill. Apparently he had heard the commotion in the backyard. Nancy and Casey were laughing and giggling, huddling around his feet. As she watched, Eric toddled across the patio and launched himself at his father's legs.
The only one absent, as Angie had already known she would be, was Kim. Her eight-year-old body all arms and legs in her swimsuit, she had moved away to sit on the edge of the picnic table. She saw Bill smile and call out something to her, but Kim only nodded and drew her towel more tightly around her thin shoulders.
The child's shyness around men was something that hadn't appeared until after Evan's death. It bothered Angie more than she cared to admit. She supposed Janice was right: it was, in part, due to the lack of a male presence in the home. But there wasn't an easy solution.
She didn't say anything for the longest time. Then her gaze swung back to meet Janice's. "I know," she said quietly. "Casey was only two when Evan died, so she doesn't really remember him. But Kim...well, she's even shy with Bill and she's known him for years." She mulled over the implication of her words. "Can you imagine what she would do if I brought someone home and said 'Look, sweetie, here's your new daddy.' You know how she idolized Evan. I think she would resent any man who wasn't her father."
There was a sympathetic look in Janice's eyes as she nodded. Then she hesitated. "Kim and Casey aren't the only ones I'm concerned about." A frown appeared between her dark eyebrows. "What about you, Angie? I know how you value your career, but you have so much else to give. Children are fine, but sooner or later they leave the nest. I hate to think of you spending the rest of your life alone."
Angie injected a light tone into her voice. "You and Georgia must be in league together. She was telling me the same thing just this afternoon." At the concern she saw reflected in Janice's eyes, she found herself yielding. It was strictly for her friend's benefit, but she heard herself say, "Maybe someday, Jan. Maybe someday." But not now, she added silently.
And maybe not ever.
Just around the corner from the Crawfords was Angie's house. The neighborhood was an old one, though over the years the streets had been widened and sidewalks added. Dainty flowering plum trees bordered the walkway in the block where Angie lived, and in the next stately oak trees shielded the thoroughfare.
Her house was a rambling Victorian structure flanked by a wide veranda. A sun porch had been added shortly before she and Evan had purchased it, and while Evan had thought it made the house appear slightly unbalanced, Angie had thought it lent a certain charm.
"You look pretty, Mommy," a little voice piped.
"Thank you, sweetie, so do you." Angie turned to smile at the small figure perched on the side of the wide brass bed. Aside from the one blond pigtail that had escaped its confining band and the trail of spaghetti sauce at one corner of her mouth, Casey did indeed look very pretty in her pink gingham sundress, which was tied at each shoulder.
She frowned over at her youngest daughter. "Casey, didn't you wash your face after dinner?"
"Nope." Impish blue eyes sparkled.
"And you didn't brush your teeth, either, I suppose."
The child looked at her as if she'd never heard of a toothbrush. Angie sighed and pointed her in the direction of the bathroom. "Go, young lady. And make sure you remember to turn off the water after you rinse." Two weeks earlier she had walked into the bathroom to find it nearly flooded after Casey had been inside to wash and to brush her teeth. She'd left the facecloth in the sink, and it had blocked the drain.
Five minutes later, Angie had finally managed to shoo Casey in the right direction. She braided her hair into a sleek coronet atop her head, and after dusting a light coat of powder over her face, she stopped to give herself a brief but critical glance in the mirror mounted behind the door.
The dress she wore was a simple ivory sheath shot through with silver threads. Slim, tapered sleeves fell to just below her elbow. The design was simple, almost plain, but on Angie the effect was sheer elegance. A single strand of silver gleamed against her throat, and matching studs glittered at her ears. The jewelry and the silver-heeled shoes were the only concession to her sex. She was, after all, in the business of running a city and she had chosen the majority of her wardrobe to create an effect that was more businesslike than womanly. Yet even if she wasn't mayor, she wouldn't have been inclined to buy frilly, fancy clothes.
Satisfied with her appearance, she moved to pick up her purse from the top of the bureau. It was then that she noticed Kim, dressed in shorts and a tank top, hovering near the doorway. Her eldest had Evan's thick, chestnut hair and deep brown eyes, and Angie suspected she would be tall like him, as well.
"What's on your mind, hon?" Angie crossed the polished oak floor and pressed a brief kiss on her daughter's forehead.
Kim smiled up at her. "Mrs. Johnson's here—" The sound of a cupboard door slamming downstairs brought her up short. She jumped, and for an instant there was a faint look of alarm in her eyes.
Sudden noises always affected her like that. They had for quite some time now. Angie knew better than to make an issue of it, however. She knew from experience that Kim would only clam up and retreat into that somber mood that disturbed her mother so.
Instead, she shook her head. "Casey must be into the cookies again. Try to keep her out of them so Mrs. Johnson doesn't have to do too much cleaning up after her, okay?" Mrs. Johnson lived next door and stayed with the girls in the evening if Angie had to be away. She was a spry and active sixty-year-old, the type who was there with a cloth before a drop of water could ever hit the floor. She was wonderful with the girls, but Angie worried about Casey wearing her out.
Kim nodded obediently. One bare toe nudged a braided rug in an oddly uncertain gesture that tugged at Angie's heart. She sensed that Kim hadn't come solely to tell her Mrs. Johnson had arrived.
"All right, young lady, out with it," Angie said cheerfully. She pulled Kim over to the bed, then sat down beside her.
At Kim's silence she squeezed her daughter's shoulder reassuringly. "Hon, you can tell me anything."
Angie lowered her head and added in a conspiratorial whisper, "Mommy doesn't bite like Spooky does." Spooky was the family cat, a silver tabby who was rather independent and aloof. Nonetheless, Kim and Casey adored her. When she was in the right mood, she didn't mind the girls playing with her. But when she wasn't, she didn't hesitate to let them know. And unlike other cats, instead of scratching she tried to bite.
Angie's words earned a tentative smile. Then wide brown eyes turned up to her. "Mommy, is Todd coming here to pick you up?"
Her anxious whisper wasn't lost on Angie. If Todd and Angie were going to the same social function, he often picked her up at home beforehand and drove her home afterward. Sometimes he stayed for coffee.
But the concern Angie had felt such a short time ago at Janice's surfaced once more. "No," she explained, "Todd's been on vacation all week." Knowing Kim's normal reaction to men, Angie really hadn't thought much of her behavior. But for the first time she wondered if the child hadn't been more withdrawn than usual around Todd. She almost asked her if she disliked him and why, but Kim's face had lost its worried expression.
Angie's eyes lingered speculatively on Kim as she moved from the bed. At the dressing table she picked up a bottle of perfume and shyly asked if she could use it.
"Of course you can," Angie replied readily.
When she left the house a short time later, however, she couldn't help but be reminded of the child Kim had once been—so lively and vivacious, much like Casey. But after Evan died, Kim had retreated into her own little world, a shadow of her former self. It was so bad for a time that Angie had considered taking her to a child psychologist. Then, little by little, Kim had begun to respond once again. But she wasn't the same child she'd been before Evan's death. Angie suspected much of it stemmed from the sense of loss she'd felt over losing her father. It saddened her that both of them, mother and daughter, carried scars because of Evan.
For a moment she almost hated her dead husband. Even from the grave he hadn't lost his ability to hurt her.
Matt stood in the shadows just outside the French doors that led to the terrace. There was a thoughtful air about him as he leaned one broad shoulder against the doorframe and gazed into the crowded banquet room.
He hated affairs like this; they triggered unwelcome memories of the endless parties Linda had always insisted he attend with her, parties filled with frivolous chatter and plastic people. Granted, this wasn't on the same grand scale and the people weren't all affluent Chicago blue bloods. But the fact remained: if he wasn't the guest of honor, he wouldn't have come tonight. He'd have much preferred to spend the evening lounging around at home, dressed in jeans and a sweatshirt and watching the late movie on TV, instead of being trussed up in a three-piece suit and pretending he was having a good time. And it was exactly what he intended to do as soon as he left.
But something—someone—was keeping him here. He had scarcely been able to take his eyes off her since she had first entered the room. The dress she wore highlighted her blond beauty but, if anything, made her appear even more aloof. He had no trouble picturing her driving up in her Mercedes and handing her keys to the parking valet without a word. No doubt she lived in an apartment, probably decorated in sterile whites and cool glass, something like the one he and Linda had shared for the three years they'd been married. God, how he'd hated coming home, feeling he couldn't even relax by putting his feet up on the ottoman for fear of getting it dirty.
Yet with her quiet elegance, the golden wreath of her hair and her slender gracefulness, he couldn't deny the sensual image Angela Hall projected. Nor could he repress the memory of his long-ago fascination for the ever-elusive Linda. Linda, who had promised everything ... and given nothing. She had used her sensuality as a weapon, something to be given or withheld as the mood struck her.
Apparently he hadn't learned his lesson as well as he might have hoped. He couldn't deny that Angela Hall's icy demeanor both repelled and attracted him.
His mouth turned up in a self-deprecating smile. A know-it-all psychiatrist would probably say he was regressing to his childhood, always wanting what he couldn't have.
Just as he was about to step inside, he caught her movement in the crowd once more. In a minute he told himself. Just one more minute--
Again it struck him that, even while she was talking, laughing, the mayor maintained a certain distance, a cool detachment. Yet people liked and respected her, not only for her poise and polish but also for her accomplishments during her relatively short time in office. He'd learned that much in the week he'd been on the job. The thought was still with him as he watched a man come up to her and slip an arm around her shoulders. The gesture was friendly. There was nothing overly sexual about it. She was even smiling. Then gracefully, deftly, she slipped away and turned to someone else.
Matt's eyes narrowed. His mind sharpened. She was subtle about it, so subtle he doubted anyone else would have noticed. But it slowly dawned on Matt that this wasn't the first time tonight he'd seen it happen, and he could draw only one conclusion.
Angela Hall didn't like to be touched.
Angie spent an obligatory few minutes chatting with one of the county commissioners. She felt as if her lips would crack as she continued to smile and nod politely, but at this point his voice was a faint buzz in her head. Her feet hurt from the unaccustomed height of her heels, and she could feel a headache coming on. More than ever she wished she were home.
The commissioner finally wandered off, but Angie had no sooner turned than she saw Blair Andrews coming toward her.
Under any other circumstances, Angie wouldn't have minded butting horns with her, but right now she was simply too tired. She ducked for the nearest door—in this case, two—and breathed a heartfelt sigh of relief when, from the corner of her eye, she saw someone grab Blair's arm.
The doors led to a small, enclosed terrace. Angie stepped across the flagstoned surface to rest her hands against the railing of the balcony. Inhaling deeply, she filled her lungs with the cool evening air, and, unable to resist, she bent over to free her feet from their pinched confinement.
A low chuckle sounded behind her.
Angie whirled, startled by the unexpected sound. As an unfamiliar blush stained her cheeks, she was glad for the concealing cloak of darkness—especially when she saw that the voice belonged to Matthew Richardson.
Matt couldn't help it. His chuckle turned into a laugh at the sight of Mayor Angela Hall, flawlessly groomed as always and clutching a shoe in each hand.
Angie tried very hard to frown, but it was rather v hard to maintain her dignity while she was standing barefoot. The humor of the situation suddenly struck her, and she gave in to a smile. "You're the guest of honor," she reprimanded lightly. "What are you doing hiding out here?"
"Getting a breath of fresh air?" he suggested.
It must have sounded like the feeble excuse it was. Her laughter came so readily and was so unlike the rest of her that Matt found himself studying her once more. There was both strength and softness in those fine- boned features, and he finally admitted to himself that there were some inconsistencies about this woman. And he couldn't have called himself a cop if he wasn't intrigued by the thought of investigating them further.
He also couldn't have called himself a man if he'd been totally unaware of exactly how lovely she really was. It both irritated and amused him that he found her desirable and alluring. To be singed by the flame once was excusable—twice was something only a fool would do. Apparently this was his day to make a fool of himself.
"To tell you the truth," he heard himself say, "I was just thinking I could use a cigarette. Unfortunately, I don't smoke."
A cigarette, not a lollipop? Angie couldn't quite hide her amusement as she thought of Janice's comparison of this man to Kojak.
She also couldn't help thinking that he seemed a little more approachable tonight than on the previous occasions they'd met—the smile softened the blunt edges of his harsh masculinity. Before she had been distinctly on edge. Now she felt she could relax—almost. What was it Matt had said? Something about tonight being a stressful situation.
"I know the feeling," she returned softly. "Unfortunately, fading into the shadows isn't always possible."
"Or expected of the city's mayor," he remarked. There was a small silence before he added almost conversationally, "I suppose you'd rather be anywhere but here right now."
She felt an odd fluttering in her stomach as she watched him slip his hands into his trouser pockets. His hands were big, dark with a generous sprinkling of hair across the wide backs, the fingers long and lean. She shivered, unable to suppress an unwelcome memory of Evan's hands, warm and tender, hard and hurting.
Evan was the last person she wanted to think about now, or any other time for that matter. She forced her attention back to the present.
Moistening her lips, she took a deep breath. "If I say yes, will you believe I don't mean that personally?" She glanced up at him, wishing she could see his face a little better. "Unfortunately, I can't pretend I don't hear when duty calls." She sighed, then added, "But I'm really not very fond of get-togethers like this."
Surely she wasn't saying she was a homebody. Matt tried not to look surprised. It suddenly occurred to him that he'd thought all along that she would be in her element at something like this, just like Linda. But for some reason he was reluctant to call her a social butterfly, either.
"At last, a kindred spirit." His tone was teasing, but his mind had backtracked to the moment before. For just an instant there had been something vulnerable in her expression. But vulnerability was a facet he found difficult to reconcile with his impression of her as diamond hard.
His eyes dropped to the shoes that still dangled from her hands. "You look like Cinderella fleeing the ball," he observed.
She smiled, a rather secretive smile, Matt decided. He watched as she moved a few steps to sink into a wrought-iron chair, putting her high heels beneath it. Her feet, he noticed, were exactly like the rest of her--small, slender, dainty.
"More like Cinderella fleeing the wicked stepmother," she corrected with a thread of amusement in her voice. Tipping her head to one side, she looked up at him. She wasn't really sure why she felt more at ease with him, but the feeling was infinitely better than crossing swords with this man. She only hoped she wasn't about to shatter the truce.
"Do you remember the reporter from the press conference on Monday?" she asked. "The one who—" She paused, suddenly not quite sure how to phrase the question.
His eyes glinted. "Oh, yes. The one who enlightened me as to my—"
"That's the one," she broke in hastily. "Her name is Blair Andrews."
Matt nodded. "Don't tell me—you're not winning any popularity polls where she's concerned."
Angie shook her head. "That obvious, hmm?" She watched as he shrugged, then angled a chair next to hers and sat down. His posture seemed inviting, so she went on. "Actually, Blair's uncle was the last mayor. He was my opponent."
"And she's carrying a grudge because he wasn't reelected?" He hoped he didn't sound uninterested. But it was hard to pretend an absorption in her words when all he could really think of was how pretty she looked with the moonlight turning that golden halo of hair into silken threads of silver. Even those incredibly blue eyes of hers were flecked with silver.
Pretty? God, that didn't even begin to describe her. Gorgeous. She was absolutely gorgeous.
"Are you married?" He didn't recognize the voice as his until it was too late. Hell! Matt thought with annoyance. It sounded as if he were making a pass—and he wasn't. At least he didn't think he was. Not for an angelic-looking temptress with a heart of ice.
"I—" The question startled her. Angie wasn't quite sure why. Maybe it was because she didn't like divulging personal details to someone who was, after all, a stranger. But she suspected it had something to do with the rather intent expression in those intense eyes that swept over her body. It was a look that was much too thorough for her peace of mind—and much too male.
Her back was suddenly ramrod stiff in the chair. "That really isn't any of your business," she coolly informed him.
That icy tone was one he was already very familiar with. It riled his defenses and made him madder than hell. But it also made him want to feel—just once— that he had gotten the long end of the stick.
"Are you?" he asked again.
She glared at him.
Matt grinned in satisfaction.
When she continued to stare at him in tight-lipped silence, he slipped his hands into his pockets. "I'm not," he offered casually. "At least not anymore."
"Do I dare ask why?" Her voice was slightly mocking. "A case of 'marry in haste and repent at leisure' perhaps?"
That was indeed a rather accurate description of Linda's actions when their marriage had ended nearly six years ago, but Matt didn't say so. Instead, he crossed his long legs, then turned so that their knees brushed.
Angie stiffened. This man had an amazing knack for putting her on the defensive. While it was a position she was used to assuming, somehow he made her feel as if she were floundering in deep, unknown waters. She knew she should get up and leave. Now. This instant. The whole conversation was absolutely ridiculous! But when a warm, faintly rough fingertip reached out to touch one of her hands where it lay curled around the thin arm of the chair, she felt a curiously debilitating sense of weakness wash over her. All she could do was focus on that long finger as it traced a random pattern over the back of her hand.
"Angela—" his voice was soft as silk and just as smooth "—you don't mind if I call you that, do you? Or do you prefer Angie?"
She flushed uncomfortably. "Angie," she heard herself confirm in a low voice.
"I was just wondering...is there anything in the city charter that forbids the mayor from fraternizing with the hired help?"
His hand still caressed her own. Caress. Why was she thinking of it like that? she wondered wildly. Even in the muted light she could see that the contrast between his dark skin and her own honey coloring was startling. Her eyes moved slightly to take in the figure next to her, but the sight that she met didn't ease the tight knot of awareness in her chest. The knee nudging her own was connected to a long, tautly muscled thigh. She felt both hot and cold, but she couldn't stop her gaze from journeying slowly upward. His hips were lean and trim; his jacket parted to reveal a broad expanse of chest.
It was almost a shock to realize that this man—infuriating as he was—touched an awareness inside her that she hadn't felt in a long, long time. She hadn't looked at a man—really looked at a man--since before her marriage. Certainly not after.
She snatched her hand from his and stood up abruptly. "Chief Richardson—" she began.
"Matt. Please call me Matt." He flashed an engaging grin. "Try to forget, just once, our differing stations in life."
He was baiting her. She knew it and she also knew she shouldn't let it disturb her. At the same instant she recalled exactly how thorough her own inspection of his blatant masculinity had been. And oddly, that thought angered her more than any of his roundabout suggestiveness.
"Chief Richardson," she stated with a calm she definitely didn't feel, "let me make one thing perfectly clear. You may be free, but I'm not interested."
With that she turned on her heel and left him sitting in the dark.
Matt watched as she stalked inside the hotel, her head held regally high. It occurred to him then that he'd been trying to get more than just a cool, passive response from her—a response of any other kind would suffice. Experience had taught him to be wary of her type, but again he found himself admitting she was one damn attractive woman. And he couldn't deny that she made him feel more alive than he'd felt in years.
Looks like you got what you wanted, old man, he thought with a smile. She's just as human as you are.
He got to his feet, and as he glanced idly down, his smile was transformed into a full-blown laugh.
Cinderella had left her slippers.