Texas Rascals, Book 3
“I am not working with him. It’s out of the question.” Michele Mallory, Texas State Trooper, crossed her arms and glared at the arrogant, lean-muscled male slouching on one corner of her superior officer’s desk.
Why did this man have to be devastatingly handsome with that thatch of coal black hair and those mesmerizing brown eyes? Good-looking he might be, but Michele thought “Nick” Nickerson was also the most infuriating individual she’d ever met.
“Me?” Feigning innocence, Nickerson arched his eyebrows. “ What’d I ever do to you?”
“Now, Michele,” Lieutenant Ray Charboneau began, but she cut him off before he went any further.
“Don’t patronize me, Ray. I’m dead serious. The last time I worked with this joker—” she jerked a thumb at Nickerson “He almost got me killed.”
Nick shook his head as if Michele were a wayward child conjuring up an unbelievable story. “Exaggerating a bit, aren’t you, Mish?”
If looks were darts, Nickerson would have been a sieve. “It’s Officer Mallory. And I don’t consider taking a bullet in the arm an exaggeration.”
Nick clicked his tongue. “Who disobeyed my command and went running off after the perp alone?”
“Disobeyed you? You weren’t my commanding officer. We were partners.”
“I was the senior trooper on the scene.”
“Kiss my backside, Nickerson.”
“Be glad to. You name the time and place. I’ll be there, puckered up and ready to go.” Nickerson smirked, and Michele’s fingers itched to slap his smug face.
“Over my dead body,” she growled.
“You display a great deal of animosity for such an attractive girl."
“I amnot aa girl. I’m twenty-seven years old and more woman than you could ever manage.”
“Yes, ma’am.” The sassy gleam in Nickerson’s eyes was purely sexual.
Michele gulped, remembering that fateful night last December. The night she’d lain bleeding in the truck-stop parking lot along Interstate 35. The night Nickerson had kissed her. A night she regretted but somehow couldn’t stop thinking about.
“Excuse me, but could you two put your personal differences aside while we review this case?” Lieutenant Char- boneau spread his palms, indicating the manila folder on his desk.
“But that’s my point, Chief.” Michele paced the small office, her hands moving to punctuate her words. “I can’t work with this man. He’s undisciplined, arrogant, a real loose cannon. I prize my reputation too much to be harnessed with such an irregular partner. I even lodged an official complaint against him after the Harbarger incident, but no one took me seriously and I resent that.”
“Internal Affairs exonerated Nick.” Ray Charboneau ran a hand through his thinning hair. “Michele, I realize Nickerson uses an unorthodox approach to criminal investigation, but you can’t deny he’s one of the finest undercover officers with the state police. No one can argue his arrest and conviction record.”
Michele gritted her teeth. She smelled defeat. The last thing she wanted in the whole wide world was to be paired with Nick Nickerson again.
‘‘So why send me on the case? If he’s so great, why not let Mr. Wonderful go alone?”
‘‘Have a seat, Michele,” Lieutenant Charboneau said.
Agitated, Michele perched on the edge of a stiff-backed chair in front of the chief’s desk. Chin in the air, she avoided eye contact with Nickerson.
The three weeks they’d spent together on the Harbarger investigation last December were forever etched in her brain. Three weeks tracking the truckers moving stolen merchandise from Corpus Christi to Amarillo. Three weeks drinking rot-gut coffee from paper cups and eating fast-food hamburgers from greasy sacks. Three weeks cooped up in a patrol car with Nickerson.
Not exactly her idea of heaven, but if the truth be told, it had been the most exciting time of her life, despite the fact she’d come out of the escapade with a bullet in her arm and a healthy dislike for the cocky Mr. Nickerson and his questionable police tactics.
“This is an unusual case,” Lieutenant Charboneau continued. “Involving the Racing Commission.”
“Ah,” Nick said, interest flickering in his dark eyes. “Politics.”
Michele dropped her gaze, hoping Nick hadn’t noticed her scrutiny. Much as she wanted to deny it, the man fascinated her. Something about the way he moved, so self- confident and assured, demanded her attention. Maybe that was why he irritated her. She did not wish to be intrigued by a modern-day Wyatt Earp.
“Yeah,” Charboneau said grimly. “This is coming down from the governor’s office. You were handpicked for the assignment, Nickerson.” The lieutenant paused.
“Go on,” Nick prompted.
Charboneau’s eyes met Michele’s. “That’s where you come in, Mallory. “Nick knows criminals, but you, Michele, you know horseflesh.”
True enough. As the only child of a judge with a yen for horses and a blue-blooded mother who was a retired jockey turned riding teacher, she had been able to ride before she could walk. To escape the turmoil of family strife, she’d often fled on horseback, flying free and unfettered across the dry, West Texas prairie.
“I need you two to go undercover,” Ray Charboneau said. “Together.”
Nick leaned forward and rubbed his hands along his blue-jean-clad legs in eager anticipation. “Tell me more, Chief, you’re singing my song.”
Michele peeked at Nick. A shelf of ebony hair spilled down the collar of his leather jacket. The thin, straight scar riding his jawbone gleamed silver in the fluorescent lighting.
She knew he coveted a position with the Texas Rangers. Since the Harbarger bust, Nick had been promoted to sergeant, and he was constantly on the lookout for special assignments. This one had been dropped neatly into his lap by the governor himself. Too bad she didn’t share Nick’s enthusiasm for covert operations. Michele preferred uniform duty, hating the deception inherent in undercover work. She was a lousy liar and an even worse sneak, two areas where Nickerson excelled.
Ray Charboneau toyed with a rubber band. “The Racing Commission believes a new drug has been manufactured that is undetectable by blood or urine analysis—a mutant strain of amphetamine they suspect is being administered to racehorses.”
“What?” Michele got to her feet, her boots smacking against the linoleum. Scientific technology had honed drug testing to a degree so precise they could detect chemicals in even the most minute doses. She knew that if a trainer using cocaine simply touched his horse’s muzzle, the animal would test positive for the drug. Michele had assumed the sophisticated advances in detection would make doping obsolete. Obviously, she had underestimated the criminal mind.
“There have been a few incidents in recent weeks concerning several horses boarded at the Triple Fork Stables outside Rascal, Texas.” Charboneau paused. “Some of these animals were expected to finish dead last in their respective races and instead came out of nowhere to topple the favorites. As you may know, the governor owns a championship-caliber Thoroughbred who’s been coming up short against these turbocharged winners. He isn’t pleased.”
“And despite repeated testing, these horses keep coming up clean,” Nick mused. Leaning forward, he rested his elbows on his knees and steepled his fingertips.
“Where do we come in?” Michele asked.
“I’ve arranged jobs for you at the Triple Fork.” Lieutenant Charboneau leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his ample belly. “Everyone is under suspicion. Trainers, vets, stable hands, jockeys. Anyone who comes in contact with the horses.”
“Any common threads?” Nick’s expression darkened. Michele could almost hear his mental cogs whirling.
Charboneau shook his head. “No. All seventeen of the suspected horses had different owners and different jockeys. The only common denominator is the Triple Fork. That’s why I’ve set you up there.”
“You’ve got to be very careful,” the Lieutenant continued. “We don’t know how widespread this doping is. Might be local. Might include organized crime. Might even be a political backlash against the governor and the Racing Commission. Right now, we don’t have much information to go on.”
“Any other states experiencing similar problems?” Nick asked.
“None that we know of.”
“You believe the drug is being manufactured in Texas?”
“We suspect that, yes.” Charboneau nodded.
“So what’s the plan?”
“We have another team watching Mario Martuchi, the local mobster we believe is connected to the racing business. But basically, you and Mallory will be on your own. You’ll be living at the ranch, and we’ll set up a meeting place in San Antonio for weekly reports.”
“I still don’t see why you need me,” Michele interrupted.
She had to admit this case captured her curiosity. She would love being around horses. But the thought of working with Nickerson again made her want to break out in hives.
“I need a team, Mallory.”
“What about Joe Terrance? He used to be a horse trainer. Why can’t he go undercover with Captain Courageous here?” She jerked her head in Nickerson’s direction.
“Ah, well,” Charboneau hedged. “It’s a little complicated.”
“For one thing Terrance is knee-deep in another case.”
“And?” Michele stared at her boss. The hairs on the back of her neck prickled a warning. There was something awfully fishy about this setup. She didn’t like it. Not one bit.
Charboneau shifted in his seat and let out his breath in a long, slow sigh. “The Triple Fork was looking for a husband-and-wife team to serve as a ranch manager and cook, and the opportunity was too good to pass up.” Ducking his head, he dropped his gaze, suddenly fascinated by the rubber band in his hands.
Michele blinked. Surely she hadn’t heard Charboneau correctly. Forcing a smile, she cleared her throat. “Excuse me, Chief, but I must have misunderstood. I thought I just heard you say you hired Nickerson and me out as a husband-and-wife team.”
Charboneau winced. “Hmm. Well, I did.”
Michele bit down on her tongue and counted to ten. “I don’t believe this. You made these arrangements without telling me?”
“I'm telling you now, Mallory.”
“No way. I’m not doing it. I definitely will not pretend to be married to this...this...person.” Michele waved a hand at Nick.
The mere idea of it sent heat waves skipping down her nerve endings. Pretend to be Nick Nickerson’s wife? Not bloody likely!