Katie Prentiss was running up the lush pathway of the Rascal Botanical Garden, her ankle-length taffeta bridesmaid dress swishing between her legs, when a man leaped from behind a maze of shrubbery and lunged for the silk purse clutched loosely in her hands.
Recognizing a mugging in the making, Katie swerved to the right but stumbled in her four-inch heels over a bed of pink geraniums lining the sidewalk.
The predator jumped in front of her, barring her way. He wore a ski mask, which struck her as incongruous in the sticky heat. Growling, he snatched for her purse.
Run, cried Katie’s instincts.
But another part of herself, the part she thought of as Tess Dupree, the heroine of her favorite mystery series and ultimate role model, hollered, fight!
Tess wouldn’t surrender without a fight, and neither would she.
Throwing off years for her own shy, timid identity, Katie channeled Tess, gritted her teeth, and kept a firm grip on the beaded handle. For one curious moment, she and the mugger stood in an odd tug-of-war, her delicate, peach-colored purse the coveted prize.
“Give it up, sister,” the mugger growled. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Help!” Katie yelled. “Robbery! Purse thief!”
The designer handbag cost her more than her monthly electric bill, and Katie refused to let go. They tussled. The mugger twisting one way, Katie the other.
“Let go,” the mugger growled.
“No.” By golly, she wouldn’t let this petty thug make off with her purse.
A whistle blasted, followed by the echoing ring of metal horseshoes striking pavers. A mounted policeman galloped toward them. “Police! Stop!”
The thief gave a mighty tug, and the purse popped from Katie’s hands.
The force knocked her backward into the flower bed, her palms stinging from the impact.
Tucking his prize in the crook of his arm, the mugger sprinted for the dense shrubbery like a Super Bowl running back headed for the end zone.
The officer urged his mount faster. Moving as one, horse and rider whizzed past Katie in pursuit.
From the ground, she gaped.
The thief hit the thicket inches ahead of the horseman. He wriggled into the underbrush and disappeared from sight. The policeman reined in his horse and changed direction, forced by thick foliage to go around.
Katie struggled to her feet and glanced down. Grass stains and smears of moist black earth dirtied her bridesmaid dress.
Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. She was running late, and she should already be at the Rascal Arboretum, half a mile farther up the road, preparing to walk down the aisle in front of her little sister, Jenny.
Instead, she stood grimy, purseless, and guilty.
Futilely, she brushed at the stains. How could she have been so thoughtless? If she’d been on time, she wouldn’t have had to park in the farthest lot.
When will you ever learn?
She had a bad habit of perpetually running five to ten minutes late. Her father, the psychologist, claimed it was an unconscious act of rebellion and a power play. Her mother, the socialite, insisted it was just plain rude. Tess Dupree, the rule-breaking, fictional role model from an out-of-print mystery series Katie adored as a teen, gave her a thumbs-up and whispered, Carve your own path.
The sound of returning horse hooves drew her attention. Katie raised her head. The sun, filtering through the park’s massive oak and pecan trees, silhouetted the rider in a rosy glow so mystical Katie wondered if the heavens had opened and deposited the mysterious horseman to rescue recalcitrant maids of honor.
She caught her breath and placed a hand to her heart. Goodness!
This guy was sexier than Tess’s husband, Zack. If Tess was the perfect woman, brave, intelligent, with moxie to spare, then Zack Dupree was the perfect male—handsome and witty, with a killer grin that busted down walls. Private detectives by trade, Zack and Tess made the ultimate crime-fighting team.
And this cowboy cop, sitting astride the tall Appaloosa, reminded Katie of Zack. Then she saw he was empty-handed, and her heart dipped to her feet.
“Where’s my purse?” she asked him.
He reined the horse in beside her and shook his head. “Got away. On a motorcycle parked behind the hedges.”
“Oh, dear.” Her cell phone, keys, credit cards, and driver’s license were in that purse.
The cowboy swung down from his mount and sauntered closer. Dressed in black jeans, boots, and a black shirt that had Police stenciled in white block letters across both front and back, he made her heart skip a beat. The silver whistle around his neck glinted in the dappled sunlight. A holstered gun hung at his hip. Thick, straight hair the color of raw honey was visible beneath a white Stetson. His piercing hazel-eyed stare captured her gaze and held her steady.
Katie’s lungs flailed, sucking in desperate air, and her stomach fluttered. Something about the man struck her as familiar.
“You hurt?” he asked, his voice professional and soothing.
“No.” She shook her head. “Just disgusted with myself and humanity.”
“We’ve had purse snatchers and pickpockets in the park this summer.”
“You shouldn’t have resisted. He could have hurt you. In the future, let the purse go.”
“I don’t intend on being mugged in the future.” She notched her chin up. “I’m signing up for self-defense classes.”
One corner of his mouth quirked up, amused.
“I hate being a victim,” Katie muttered. “I’ve had enough of being picked on.”
“Better to lose a purse than your life. What if the perp had a history of violence? You never know.” He swept off his Stetson, giving her full view of his face.
Recognition dawned. She blinked, unable to believe her eyes. Here stood the object of her teenage unrequited love. “Truman West?”
“Yes?” He squinted. “Do I know you?”
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