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RAIN ON ME
(Book 1 of Shelter From the Storm ~ An Erotic Bondage Romance Series)
RAIN ON ME
(Book 1 of Shelter From the Storm ~ An Erotic Bondage Romance Series)
I. THE STAKES
Anticipation crackled in the hallways of Piedmont Division like the air before a summer cloudburst. The profiler entering the chief’s office made a point to look away, as though meeting my eyes would tell me which squad was going to get the nod to investigate the source of the seven hundred and sixty-three illegal poker machines confiscated off an anonymous tip three weeks ago.
As the state police agency, we provide backup and support services to local law enforcement. But a few things are the exclusive province of SLED, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Granting firearms licenses, inspecting bars, convenience store, and liquor stores for compliance with liquor laws. And investigating corruption in government. Enough poker machines to open a casino screamed of a public official on the take.
I was sick—every undercover officer I knew was sick—of going out on methamphetamine investigations. Soon as we took one lab down, three more sprang up. Every law enforcement agency’s budget was groaning under the strain and the rank and file were just groaning. My lack of enthusiasm for sniffing around stinking meth labs run by eighth-grade dropouts wasn’t why I wanted to sink my teeth into the poker machine inquiry.
The back door to the chief’s office was open, so I pretended to read the notices stuck to the bulletin board in the hall. I couldn’t care less who was retiring from the Cold Case Division on June twenty-third. I’d show up, drink warm punch and eat cake, unless I was on assignment. I wanted to know if my squad might get to investigate the poker machines.
Not likely. I was hardly a favorite of the big brass. Too outspoken.
Peering around the doorjamb, I studied two photos taped to the white board, both of middle-aged white guys. I recognized the man on the left from his campaign posters, the man suspected to be behind the seven hundred and sixty-three illegal gambling machines we’d just confiscated.
I believe all politicians are crooks, so the rumor we were about to open an investigation into Brice Hammond, duly-elected South Carolina District Solicitor, didn’t shock me. Neither did the fact he was running for Congress. Since this part of the Upstate is his district, I’d seen the campaign poster plastered everywhere.
What better way to fund an election than by taking payoffs to look the other way while illegal video poker dens spring up in his jurisdiction?
The photo of the other guy held my attention longer, though I couldn’t say why. His eyes, maybe. Beautiful blue eyes, vivid in a tanned face, gave him the kind of pure masculinity Sean Connery exudes.
What better way to ignore the orange flyers posted everywhere, reminding that the state was changing insurance carriers July first, than to study those scurrying into Chief Bannock’s office, and ogle pictures not meant for my eyes?
We find illegal poker machines from time to time, of course. Some convenience store owner will risk sticking three or four in a back room in return for the easy money, but seven hundred and sixty-three? That’s a slap in the face. The bust had been all over the news, but despite the public outcry, the powers that be were dragging their feet about starting an investigation.
Those two photos suggested the brass was finally taking action.
I was so intent on the second photo that I jumped when the chief’s florid face appeared in the slender crack and he slammed the door closed. I continued my trek to the transportation bay, where the illegal machines were on lockdown. The court order authorizing their destruction had come down last week.
I’d stake my badge on the fact there hadn’t been this many poker machines in this state for the last fourteen years. Not since Nadine Hollister crossed the state line on August fifteenth, 1999 to get her “five minute fix” of video poker and got so sucked into the game, she left her week-old infant, Yvonne, unattended in the back seat of her car. It was a hundred and three degrees that day. I’m sure of my facts because August fifteenth is my birthday.
Nadine made sure her car windows were rolled up and the vehicle locked.
You know, so no one stole her baby.
Instead, she just let that baby smother. In the aftermath of the infant’s death, the people of South Carolina and the state’s politicians united to grab the gambling lobby by the back of the neck and throw ‘em out. We’re the only jurisdiction in the world to have allowed video poker, then made it illegal—an unprecedented act of unity. Voters didn’t care about the lost tax revenue. State government hadn’t regulated the machines well, so there wasn’t much to lose, but to me, the repeal was proof people knew these things weren’t benign entertainment.
I knew that, for sure.
Little Yvonne Hollister is who I think about whenever we tear up these video terminals. I wasn’t a cop when she died. I was fourteen at the time. Spent my after-school hours pacing sidewalks in front of convenience stores, tapping strangers on the shoulder and asking if they’d buy me beer.
Whenever anyone wants to know why I’m such a hard ass about these “harmless machines,” I describe watching paramedics trying to revive the tiny body I never knew was gasping for breath less than ten feet from me.
That last part’s a lie, of course. I wasn’t anywhere near the place Yvonne died that day but I get paid to lie, and like any skill, practice makes perfect.
It’s close enough to the truth, and the story tends to shut up those who yap about gambling being a victimless crime.
Yanking open the door to the transportation bay, I grabbed one of the sledgehammers leaning against the corrugated metal wall and snagged a pair of safety goggles off a nearby shelf. Over the rows of flat-bed trailers, each stacked high with video lottery terminals, I spied one head of prematurely-white hair and one shaved, black one.
Breathing deep, I wished the rain would start so I didn’t have to listen to Deion, the newest guy in our unit, run his big mouth. Detective Kimmie Baker had a doctor’s appointment and Detective Walt Kinston was taking his wife for her six-week postpartum checkup. I supposed my fellow detectives were trying to get their money’s worth out of their insurance policy before the changeover.
My co-workers dislike this duty, except me and Ennis, the white-haired dude. Ennis Moorehouse, my sergeant, likes busting up poker machines because he gets to show off his muscles. He can demolish ten of these fuckers while I gnaw my way through one. But my one means there’s one less out there picking pockets, and I relish the chore.
The eight-pound sledgehammer slipped in my palm. “Fuck, forgot to bring gloves,” I muttered. SLED doesn’t provide gloves for this duty, only hammers and goggles. Asking either of the guys if they have a pair I can use is a bad idea. Male cops are either brutal on what they perceive as weakness in their female compatriots, or so busy being protective, they can’t see our capabilities. Deion was the former. Ennis, the latter.
I’m not weak. I’m also not asking.
“Saved you a little one, Superstar.” Moorehouse darted a grin in my direction when I sidled up. He dropped his sledgehammer and heaved a tabletop model off the closest trailer. “Just your size.” Dropping the machine at my feet, he made an exaggerated bow.
“Do I fucking look like Goldilocks to you?” I growled.
“I keep telling you, you look like my first wife.”
Ennis is married to his badge. I suspected this flirting routine was to see how Detective Deion Saluda would react. Deion’s new to our unit, and black like me. That’s Moorehouse. Always damn playing with people’s heads.
Gripping the handle, I slung the hammer over my shoulder, inhaled, and let fly. The blank screen exploded with a satisfying crunch. Shards of glass pelted my pants and something stung my arm. “Dammit.” I dropped the hammer and yanked my sleeve up, glaring at the welling blood.
Moorehead looked like he was holding a tack hammer, though we wielded the same weapon. He swiped a forearm across his crisp, white goatee. The cheap fluorescents overhead gave the mermaid tattooed on his massive bicep a bad case of seasickness. Cocking a snowy brow, he barked, “Jackson, you okay? There’s an art to this you ain’t big enough to master.”
His way of challenging me. Motherfucker’s always challenging everyone. Mentally, I extended a middle finger. These garish games make a god-awful racket, but whisper a siren song of easy money, promising if you have the skill, you can win. Doesn’t take much skill to figure out the game’s programmed to keep a helluva lot more money than it gives, but every gambler believes he’ll be the one to beat the odds.
And I can to do anything I set my mind to.
Teasing the shard out of my arm with a nail, I muttered, “Fine.” I’d say I was fine if I was bleeding out, but Ennis knew that.
“Go see a nurse,” he barked, making me look up in surprise. “No telling what kind of fucking germs are on these things.”
I collapsed against the trailer, spluttering. Ennis’ face went red and blotchy. He knew damn well why I was laughing. We’d provided back-up for a local sheriff on a meth bust five days ago. The man put his two-forty of solid muscle into a strung-out meth-head wielding a butcher knife without thinking twice, but as soon as he slapped cuffs on the perp, he left the asshole twitching on the ground and ran for the car. Tears formed while I recalled him ripping off his shirt and bulletproof vest.
I thought he’d been shot at first, but the man took what my mama’d call a whore-bath, right in the middle of all the sound and thunder of the arrest. I’m wrestling a pissed-off, mouthy crack hoe into the back seat and Ennis is standing by the driver’s side door, scrubbing his bare tummy with little white tissues. Used an entire canister of disinfectant wipes. I know because I helped pick them up. The sergeant swears the guy bit him, but all I saw that addict bite was concrete and gravel.
Everybody’s got some fear holding them back, I reckon, but picturing the big man’s panicked, public bath, I couldn’t stop giggling. His scowl stopped scaring me years ago. The man’s a teddy bear.
“Fuck me.” Despite the weak lighting in the transportation bay, Saluda’s forehead gleamed. “Gotta lay a beat-down on seven hundred and sixty-fucking-three of these bitches, and for what?” Saluda turned toward me, but his glare was directed at the rows of trailers crammed full of video terminals. Cocking a crowbar like a golf club, he took a half-hearted swing, putting a U-shaped dent in the metal cabinet at his feet. “Haven’t had a decent pay hike since they made these motherfuckers illegal.”
“Sick of nurses.” I muttered, low enough that Ennis wouldn’t hear. Didn’t want another one of his lectures.
Yanking my sleeve down, I grabbed the hammer again and scowled at Saluda. “Every squad’s taking a turn on this, Deion. Quit’cher bitchin’.”
We’ve never had a court order to destroy this many machines at once in all the years I’ve been with SLED, so the system we use was woefully inadequate. The brass decreed every squad would spend an hour every day, swinging a sledgehammer, until the last one was destroyed, but it sure looked like my sergeant was the only one taking that memo seriously.
“Come in an hour early just to bust up something don’t hurt nobody.” Deion tapped the cabinet again. “What’s the damn difference between these and those scratch-off games? Nothin’.” He drove his boot into the gaping hole where the screen had been. Circuit boards crunched. Pieces of green plastic skittered across the floor. “Man wants to gamble, he’s gonna gamble. Oughta make ‘em legal, tax the piss out of ‘em, and give us a raise.”
Deion’s a pretty boy, but he’s the whiniest man I know. He did have a point about the lack of pay hikes, but I’d known all about doing more with less before I entered law enforcement.
The walk-in door opened, making a weak rectangle of light across my boots. “Sergeant Moorehouse, you in here?” someone bellowed.
“Yep.” Ennis smashed his sledgehammer into the cabinet and grinned at me like that damn machine just paid out.
“Chief wants to see you right away.”
“’Bout damn time.” The sergeant tossed his hammer on the trailer and picked up his shirt. “Bet you fifty, we’re gonna get the assignment to track down the source of these machines. Bet you a hundred, we’re headed for Charleston. Pack your bikini, Zin. Blue’s my favorite color on you.” He gave me a wink and a leer. It was like being ogled by Santa.
Maybe Moorehouse inhaled too many meth fumes last week? If a police department or sheriff’s office in the lower part of the state needed SLED’s assistance, why not assign Lowcountry Division, rather than send Piedmont?
“You’re on.” Deion must’ve had the same thought.
Watching Moorehouse’s broad shoulders disappear through the door, I realized I was exactly where I didn’t want to be—alone with Deion when we don’t have assigned roles to play.
I don’t date cops I work with. I wouldn’t date Deion if he was the last man left. He’s everything I hate. Narcissistic and emotionally bankrupt. Gorgeous to look at, but more sugar than steak. If a woman needed his emotional support, he’d melt away. Always betting, but would never gamble his heart.
He’d never have to. He’s black and beautiful and he’s a hard worker, if he is a whiner. A regular paycheck and no arrest history? Every woman’s dream. So the women who date him settle for the fantasies a well-trained vice cop knows how to provide, no doubt. That’s what we do. We play make-believe for our living and we’re all good at the game, because that’s how we stay alive.
“Gambling’s a disease. Putting these goddamn things in convenience stores, between the bread and milk? No different than handing out crack at an elementary school. You’re free to play ‘em, if you’re willin’ to make the drive to Cherokee.” Plenty of poker machines at the Indian-owned casino just across the North Carolina state line.”
He blew out a long breath. “No one’s free, not even you, Superstar. But do you wanna know what freedom means to me?”
I hated when he called me that name. I’d earned Moorehouse’s confidence long before I earned my badge. “Screwing without having to buy the little lady dinner first?” I smiled, watching my jibe strike home.
The heat in his eyes changed to a different sort. “Yeah, keep it up. Pretend you don’t like me. Keep holding out for that rich white guy who’ll treat you like a princess and be afraid to slap you on the ass and pull your hair.”
“I could use the money from a sexual harassment suit,” I snapped. “Keep running that mouth, Saluda.”
“No witnesses here, woman.” His smile was slow and he raked a bold gaze over my body. “What’re you afraid of? That you’ll go crazy from trying to take all of me in?”
Grabbing the sledgehammer, I angled my blow so bits of motherboard pelted the jerk.
He laughed, pretending to rake off the debris as an excuse to run his hand over his muscular chest. “Uh huh. Chicken-shit, like I thought. So as I was saying, freedom’s the right to choose what you’re a slave to, long as no one else gets hurt.”
A tiny throb started in my temple. “Sounds to me like you need to move your liberal ass to California.”
“Sounds to me like you need to get laid.”
He had a point. No witnesses here.
I positioned my hands about a foot apart on the handle of my sledgehammer before spinning. I crouched, leaped, and slammed the thick oak spindle against his throat before he realized what was happening. My momentum carried us into the trailer at his back. The handle bit just below his Adam’s apple. I watched his eyes go wide with a sense of exultation. When he grabbed my wrists, I brought my knee up—hard—smiling when my kneecap struck soft tissue.
Instinct made Deion jerk forward, which in turn forced his windpipe harder against the handle. Using the seductive whisper that has caused many a crook to confide something to land his dumb ass in court, I warned, “Don’t do that again. I’m your senior officer and I take that shit from nobody. Got it?” I stepped back, pulling the handle off his throat, but wished I could hold it there a little longer.
“You got an attitude problem, Jackson,” he gasped, falling to his knees. “Ain’t my fault your sister’s got cancer.” Of course he’d think I was the problem. It was almost amusing, watching him try to decide which injury to rub first. He chose his balls.
I turned my back on him, but that impending-cloudburst feeling intensified, wondering when and how he’d retaliate. The door opened again and I heard a whistled version of the Batman theme song. Grinning, I watched Walt pick up a sledge hammer and stroll over. You’d have to be good to make Walt Kinston for a cop. He looks like a high school science teacher. Slight paunch, receding strawberry-blonde hair, six-feet-two of geek who never seems to know what to do with his hands.
“How’s Macey?” His wife’s family owned a small line of cruise ships that sailed out of Charleston, but you’d never know they had money. The man’s shirt sleeves and pants were always a half-inch too short.
His goofy grin and pink cheeks let me know his cute little wife had been cleared to resume sexual activity. “Doc said she’s great. Thanks for asking, Zin.”
Deion was still on his knees, but he pulled out his wallet and tossed something to Walt. Walt laughed and stuck the small square into his pocket, but I glared at the prophylactic. I despise a crude man. We got through the next forty minutes without having to listen to his mouth. My arms felt like rubber bands and blisters popped up on my palms, but my mood improved every time Deion flinched whenever I shifted positions.
The door opened a third time, just as I took a hard chop at the cabinet. The Formica-covered particleboard didn’t crack. “Jackson. They want you in the chief’s office.”
Giving Deion a triumphant grin, I dropped my hammer and goggles, and turned for the door.
“Fuckin’ Superstar,” he growled.
Chief Bannock has been with SLED since the agency’s inception. He has the manners of a politician and the heart of a reptile. Jabbing a finger at the only empty chair, he barked, “Not going to pussyfoot around, Detective Jackson. You have one chance to decline this assignment. I hope you’ll take it. I’m not in favor of what’s being proposed here.”
His terse words told me if he had a better plan, my ass wouldn’t be in this seat. “Yes, sir. I understand.” It also told me we were running a honey trap. It’s an old term, meaning if I have to use sex to get the information needed, I’d better be willing to do just that.
I’d fuck the Devil to keep those machines off the street.
Moorehouse was hunkered down in a chair to my right. To my left, the division’s best profiler leaned forward. “Detective, the man we’re after is a sexual sadist. He fancies himself an expert in something called shibari. Ever heard of it?”
“Shibari means “to tie or bind”. It’s an ancient Japanese custom of tying a prisoner with rope. That culture’s obsession with saving face led to the development of elaborate knots and ties as a way to indicate the stature of the captive. Nowadays, the term is almost exclusively used to describe a method of tying a sexual partner.”
I blinked. I was supposed to volunteer to be restrained? And just how did the whole sadist thing factor in? Tied and tortured? I could picture about fifty ways for that to go wrong.
But only if someone made me as a cop. That’s never been done. I tried to get my heartbeat under control by picturing those trailers stacked with poker terminals. Plenty of people think like Deion. The gambling lobby’s always probing for a weak spot, eager to regain lost ground.
The chief grabbed a sheaf of photos, dealing the top one across the desk. “You recognize Brice Hammond?”
“Yes, sir.” This wasn’t the campaign photo. Hammond’s straight, dark hair was shot with silver. I could see how some might find him attractive. His gray eyes radiated sincerity. Or maybe I was reading too much into the setting. This shot had been taken in a courtroom. His suit looked custom-tailored to his frame. He seemed to be exhorting a jury.
“He’s seriously our target? He’s supposed to be one of the good guys.”
Anger crackled in the chief’s eyes. “He is. He’s also dismissed fifteen cases on his docket brought against these machines. There were legal reasons to do that, but it looks bad. Our informant says Hammond knew the machines were on his property. Before I take the word of a snitch that this man’s dirty, we’re going to either catch him red-handed or exonerate him.”
Any corruption investigation is dicey. We work with these town-and-city cops and prosecutors every day. When we have to investigate one, you can bet your hat, ass, and overcoat, that person has a friend in the department. I had a hunch Hammond’s friend was the chief. That would explain why the brass dragged their feet so long before beginning this investigation.
If I was right, I’d be tiptoeing through a big, old pile of shit. If I arrested Hammond and he turned out to be clean, or even if he just managed to wriggle out of the charges, the chief might put me on the street to cover his own ass. Arresting a prosecutor’s a lot like tap dancing on ice.
On the other hand, how’d that old joke go? Canada got the French, Australia got the criminals, and America got stuck with the Puritans. South Carolina was one of the original thirteen colonies. Some of the first settlers staggered ashore only a few hours from where I sat. Their conservative mindset persists to this day, so if a jury got one whiff of this guy’s personal life, odds were he’d be doing time. All I had to do was find solid grounds for an arrest.
“Hammond’s the sole owner of the offshore development corporation that leased the warehouse where we found these illegal machines.”
Possession of gambling paraphernalia might put an ordinary citizen in jail, but not a guy with connections. He could claim someone else had stored the machines there without his knowledge, and unless we could prove otherwise, he’d get the benefit of the doubt.
“How’d we find them?” Might as well get the official version.
“Anonymous tip. Three days later, the informant stepped forward. He worked for Hammond.” The chief yanked open his desk drawer and pulled out a small box of mints, as though admitting the lawyer deserved to be investigated put a nasty taste in his mouth.
Cops like to think we’re good judges of character. My unease receded a little. If I could prove Hammond was dirty, the chief would turn on his friend with vigor, because he’d feel his judgment was in question. I hoped.
Basically, this deal stunk worse than a meth-cooking shed.
Chief Bannock spun another photo toward me with the aplomb of a blackjack dealer. I scrutinized the man who’d caught my attention earlier. His brown hair was clipped neatly, and the way it receded at his temples was more asset than flaw. The trait kept him from being a pretty boy. His eyes were the color of a Van Gogh sky. Just touching the photo made me want to wipe the testosterone off my hands.
He was bare-chested in the picture. His sculpted torso might be why Ennis’ hazel eyes looked so green. My sergeant spoke up. “Ray Casey. Calls himself a kinbaku master. If you take this assignment, he’ll teach you to blend in with the sexual bondage crowd Brice runs with. If Hammond’s the mastermind behind this poker cabal, we think the one place he might be likely to brag is inside his circle of fellow sexual deviants.”
And Ray Casey was going to drag me into that circle by my hair? Revulsion skittered across my skin. I swallowed hard, picturing a roomful of white guys in leather pants and studded chest harnesses. Holding whips. “Do they have a club somewhere?”
Ennis shook his head. “Zin, these men are educated and wealthy. A club isn’t their style. They meet in each other’s homes. The way they know whose house to show up at, or when, isn’t something our snitch is privy to. But in two weeks, one of their buddies is getting married down in Charleston. Casey’s scheduled to perform at the rehearsal dinner. He’s agreed to train you to perform with him. This is the safest way in. Ray’s show doesn’t include sexual intercourse. I’ve reviewed his tapes. He does a stage show, tying his female assistant in these ropes. It’s a stylized ballet sort of thing, showcasing the dominance of the male. Hammond and Casey have been acquainted for twenty years. Casey will let it be known in the group that you’re looking for a wealthy Dom. It’s on you to make sure Hammond takes the bait.”
Okay, that didn’t sound too bad. Except….
“How do we know Hammond didn’t offer Casey a cut of the poker scam?” Glancing at the chief made me add, “Assuming he’s dirty?”
The psychologist interrupted Ennis. “Casey’s blue-collar. He’s never been in the inner circle of this group, but they value him because of his skill with the ropes. He claims to have learned shibari from a Japanese master. He was stationed in Japan for six years while in the Navy. And, Ray might’ve thought Hammond was his friend at one time, but no longer. He’s been involved in a protracted—and expensive—court battle to keep the city from condemning his home. The development company behind the new mall that needs to build an access road through Casey’s neighborhood is owned by Brice Hammond. Which Ray’s only just learned.”
The grin on Ennis’ face left little doubt who’d told Ray his friend was screwing him. How’d that talk go? Hi, I’m your friendly neighborhood SLED agent. Just dropping off proof that your buddy’s trying to fuck you out of your house.
Some might think Casey should take the money and just buy a new house. But a home’s more than four walls. His lawsuit told me he had roots in the place. When you get yanked up out of your home by someone with more money, that wound goes deep. I know because my family lost our home when I was nine. I haven’t really had one since. Places to live, yes. A home, not so much.
And that’s no lie.
“Once the performance is over, you and Ray will stay for the wedding. Liquor will pour at the reception afterward. Make Hammond want to be your new dominant. These things are governed by written contracts. It’s within a submissive’s rights to ascertain whether a Dom can afford to keep her. I know it’s a leap, but from there, we’re counting on you to get him talking about taking payoffs from the gambling industry. If he’s willing to fuck his friend over for profit, we think the chance to take away Ray’s supposed submissive will make him bite. Then, you just do what you do Zin. Get him to brag.”
Submissive? My acting skills were going to get one hell of a workout.
I saw one more problem with their plan. “What makes you think Hammond will be attracted to me?” I frowned at Ennis. “Isn’t Kimmie more his style?” Detective Barker has blonde hair and blue eyes. A graduate of the University of Charleston, she’d fit right in with this crowd.
The profiler shifted in his seat. “What I’m about to say is likely going to be offensive, Detective Jackson. Kimmies are a dime a dozen in their world. But the chance to tie a black woman in their ropes? That’s going to fuel a power fantasy Kimmie can’t ignite.”
My stomach twisted. He shouldn’t be right, but he wasn’t wrong. Rich, white, thought he was above the law he’d been elected to uphold? Of course he’d have a plantation master fantasy. If Hammond hadn’t had one yet, the instant he saw me perform with Ray Casey, he would. My heart wanted to believe that wouldn’t happen. My head knew better.
“I’ll make sure you’re the one slapping the cuffs on Hammond,” Ennis vowed.
Like that would make up for what these guys were asking me to expose myself to? This part of the country’s infected with something more virulent than any bacteria living in the mouth of a meth addict.
“How long do I have to decide? Can I meet the Casey guy first?”
The chief slammed his desk drawer and shoved to his feet. “Casey’s a mailman. Interestingly enough, he happens to be your mother’s mailman. According to his Postmaster, he delivers to her box between three and four p.m., five days a week. He’s working his route today. You can get a look at him before he learns who you are. That’s the only goddamn reason I’m willing to ask this of you, Jackson. I need an answer by morning.”
I kept my shit together until I hit the sidewalk out front. Collapsing against the building, I sucked down gasps of humid air. Dropping my head into my hands, I was sure the rolling thunder was God, laughing at me.
My mama bitches about her mailman constantly. He lets the mail get wet. He comes too late, or too early. Two years in a row, he’s snapped off her first clematis bloom of the season before it could open. How could I trust such a man to tie me up?
On the other hand, my mother would complain about the paperwork if she won the powerball.
I sensed Ennis was the next person out the door, even before the scuffed toe of his motorcycle boot came into view.
“You unspeakable bas—” With a thunderclap that shook the building, the rain cloud finally burst. Heavy drops darkened the sidewalk. This case, this assignment, the goddamn orange fliers, all the things I didn’t want to face, were creeping out of the dark where I keep them buried, like worms coming out of the ground to sip on raindrops.
He parked a huge paw on my shoulder, but I refused to look at my sergeant. “According to you, all men are unspeakable bastards, Zin. I know why you feel that way. But I also know how you feel about these machines. About the way they hurt people. I guess you’ll have to decide what taking Hammond down is worth to you. I took the liberty of mailing a package to your mother’s address yesterday. You’ll have to sign for it. That’ll give you a chance to check him out. Just go with your gut, Zin.”
Ennis saved me. I owe him, and he never puts his hand on my shoulder unless he wants to remind me of that debt. But he knew better than to send me to my mother’s.
I dunno when the sergeant caught crazy, since I’m with his dumb ass most of the time, but the man had gone full-on nuts. Maybe he’d spent too much time with Saluda, staking out that last meth-house. I sensed the carefully-constructed partitions in my life were about to come tumbling down like a house of cards.
But why was Ennis huffing and puffing like the big, bad wolf?
The strong fingers tightened on my shoulder. “Zin, you gotta forgive your Mama. If—God forbid—your sister dies, she’s all you’ll have left.”
I didn’t bother answering. I don’t hate my mother. She hates me. She’s the one who can’t forgive. And deep down, I can’t blame her.
“Here’s Casey’s web address, in case you decide to do this. Thought you might wanna see one of his shows after you get a good look at him. He’s posted several videos online.” Ennis stuffed a scrap of paper into my clenched fist.
“Would I send you to this guy without vetting him, Zin? The entire time Casey’s known Brice Hammond, he’s been a mailman. He’s never spent more than he earns. He even declares the income off these classes he teaches. No big-ticket purchases. Brice hired him to teach him this bondage stuff. That’s it. I wouldn’t ask you to do this otherwise. We’ll be with you. You won’t be alone one minute at the wedding. All we need is for you to do what you’re so good at, act young and impressionable. Either get Hammond to tell you about crawling in bed with the gambling lobbyists, or lower his defenses enough to say something we can use to get a warrant for a wiretap.”
He’d left out one important detail. This Casey guy would know who I was if I met him in my mother’s front yard and accepted a piece of mail. Not the personalities I assume to do my job.
The real Zin.
Some cases never touch you. You go in, do the job, go home unchanged. Just padding the stats. This wasn’t going to be one of those cases. If I wasn’t careful, this one would eat me alive.
I grabbed the next batch of fliers, magazines, and bills from the crate at my side. Most folks measure their workday in hours, but mine’s metered by a creeping odometer I can’t see, since I drive from the wrong seat. Despite hard-working wipers, rain draped a steady curtain of steel across my windshield.
I edged my Subaru into the rut in front of another battered mailbox and double-checked the carton to be sure I hadn’t missed anything. Spying a postcard, I smiled. Flipping the card over, I verified the box number and scrutinized the stamp. Someone paid two Euros to send a few lines of text I didn’t bother to read, but my gaze lingered on the addressee’s name.
For the three years I’d had this route, I’d wondered if Zinnia Janine Jackson’s personality matched her colorful name. She gets more post cards than anyone on any route I’ve ever had. And post cards are just about all the mail she gets. I figured she was a kid, but nothing about the house indicated a child lived here.
Snagging a rubber band from the pile on the dash, I shoved the stack of envelopes and the post card between the pages of a magazine. I folded the glossy pages over so the bundle would fit into the box and secured the bundle with the band.
Yanking open the mailbox door, I glared at the green tendrils creeping over the top of the box. One fat bud dangled near the door.
Not again. Regina Andrews Jackson had made two complaints about me to the postmaster, both about damage I’d done to the flower vines she obstinately planted around her mailbox. One more complaint would cost me my job.
I twisted my wrist, trying to give the flower a wide berth.
Somehow, the band caught between the links of my watchband and snapped. The magazine sprang open. I stuck my head out the open window, staring in dismay. Envelopes fluttered to the ground like wounded quail. The colorful postcard landed on top of the soggy mess.
It would be this household’s mail I dropped. Heaving a sigh, I shoved the transmission into reverse, squinting into the rear view mirror to be sure I wasn’t about to back into an oncoming vehicle. Growling a litany of curses, I reversed a couple of feet, set the park brake, and shifted enough cartons so I could climb out of the truck.
Just when I swung the passenger door open and planted a boot onto submerged gravel, I heard a voice say, “I’ll get them!”
Everything looked washed-out today, but a circle of ruffle-edged crimson unfurled in the open door of the small Mazda parked in the drive. Next, I saw a pair of red galoshes. The boots had white polka dots; shoes a child would wear.
Rooted to the gravel at the top of the driveway, I peered through the water pouring off the bill of my cap. The boots skipped and splashed through puddles outlined by ragged grass and waterlogged dandelions. A filmy skirt swirled around lean thighs.
I know the names of everyone who lives here. I wanted the person underneath the umbrella to be the young woman who received postcards from all over the globe. Or even her sister, Delphine Marie. Definitely not Regina.
The figure raced past me, skidding to a stop beside the channel of muddy rainwater beneath the mailbox. Swallowing hard, I watched her pluck the floating envelopes out of the water with slender fingers. She spun, tilting the umbrella so I could see her face. She was beautiful and she didn’t look a day over twenty.
“Hold this for me,” she demanded breathlessly. Her voice was soft, but high-pitched.
My heart stuttered. Her eyes were so dark, I had a crazy notion of being sucked into orbit around a faraway world. My brain seized on her first and final words. An image of dragging her into my arms made me rivet my limbs to my side and clench my fists.
She gave the umbrella a shake. “Will you hold this for me, please?”
A sheen of cherry gloss clung to her lips. The urge to sink my teeth into the succulent flesh slammed into me. The thrill racing down my spine wasn’t from the water running down the back of my neck.
Her dark eyes grew wide. “Hel-lo-o?”
Heat crept up my neck. My fingers felt stiff when I tried to close my fist around the plastic handle. The curved end trapped her hand beneath mine. Our fingers tangled and her eyes grew wider. “You alright, sir?”
It was a common title, something said out of politeness, but hearing this beautiful creature call me “sir” felt like a punch to the gut. One I didn’t want to feel.
“Ray. My name’s Ray. Casey.” Sheltered by her canopy of red silk, she looked like a goddess.
“Alright, then. Ray. People call me Zin. Nice to meet you.” Zinnia tugged her hand from beneath mine. Ducking her head, she shook water off the postcard I’d completely forgotten. I studied the slender band hugging her hair and inhaled her perfume. The scent was flowery, like her name. The headband was macramé.
Those knots were the last thing I needed to see.
I dragged my gaze away. Behind her, stiff metal tines held the silk taut. Rain battered the thin membrane, driving nature’s rhythm into my blood. The images flashing through my mind made me tighten my fist on the umbrella.
God, she’d look gorgeous tied with red ropes.
I could only imagine what she might say to that.
I watched her eyelids move from side to side, seized by the urge to stroke the tight curves of her lashes. Why was I imagining her wearing nothing but that thin coat of color and my handiwork? Her dress was gauzy, unbleached fabric, revealing as much of her figure as it hid. I pictured her, tied and bound, at my feet. To my dismay, my cock began to harden.
She lifted her eyes again, but slow. I spied the flicker of heat in her gaze when she raised her head. “You must work out.”
“I work security part-time at Wofford College. They let me use the gym.” This was polite conversation, not interest. Why would she be interested in me? “I see your mama’s flower vine is up and growing again.”
“I think she’s darin’ you to break off her first clematis bloom of the season.” Her smile widened and her eyes lit with humor. She had one dimple. I ached to slide my thumb across that adorable dent. “For the third year runnin’.”
I couldn’t help but smile back. “Well, one thing’s for sure. She does have a knack for raisin’ pretty things. And that boyfriend sendin’ you postcards from all over the world sure must be jealous of this rain.” I had no idea where that last line came from. I had no fucking business trying to find out if she was seeing anyone.
She cocked her head and her smile grew wider. “Why would you say that?”
I lifted a finger to her shoulder, careful not to touch her skin. Catching one of the droplets sliding down her bare arm with my nail, I looked into her eyes. “Rain’s bound to make your man feel bad, ‘cause this drop of water’s doing what he wants to be doing, sliding over your bare skin.”