There he was again.
July Johnson peered out her second-story kitchen window at the scruffy fellow in a worn leather jacket lounging against her brick apartment building.
Underneath his black cowboy hat, shaggy dark hair six months past the point of needing a trim curled down his collar.
His faded jeans were threadbare; his shabby cowboy boots were caked with mud, and several days’ worth of beard growth ringed his jaw.
He’d been lurking around her small apartment complex in Rascal, Texas, for several days. She spotted him each morning when she woke up, then again before she went to bed at night.
July frowned. Perhaps she should call someone’s attention to the situation. Unfortunately, the apartment manager didn’t live on-site.
There was sweet Mrs. O’Brien who lived below her, but July didn’t want to alarm the elderly lady. And the Kirkwoods, a young married couple, occupied the apartment next to hers, but they both worked early-morning shifts as nurses at the hospital.
Running a hand through her short curls, July considered going downstairs and across the courtyard to knock on the new tenants’ door, but something about those two men bothered her.
The Stravanos brothers weren’t very approachable. They rarely returned her greetings and never smiled. Often, she’d seen them arguing. They kept late hours and entertained a parade of unsavory characters coming and going at odd times.
Come to think of it, maybe the lurking cowboy was a friend of theirs. He seemed their type—broody, dark, unpleasant. But why hang out in the alleyway? Was he homeless?
July stood on her tiptoes, planted both palms on the counter, and leaned forward for a closer look, her nose pressed flat against the windowpane. Despite his down-on-your-luck appearance, the man was undeniably gorgeous.
The way he carried himself intrigued her. He moved with the controlled grace of an athlete—fluid, confident, unflappable. Heck, he even slouched sexily.
The November wind gusted, swirling debris into the air. The man turned up his collar and his profile. Something about him put July in mind of her favorite country singer, Brad Paisley.
Her heart beat a little faster. Oh, come on, she couldn’t be attracted to him, for heaven’s sake. He was homeless, or worse…
July Desiree, you of all people should know you can’t make snap judgments. Everyone deserves the benefit of the doubt.
The cowboy cast furtive glances around the alley, looking first left, then right. Finally, he ambled over to the dumpster that was wedged near the chain-link fence and disappeared from view.
Hmm, where had he gone?
Placing one knee on the kitchen counter and boosting herself up, she had to crane her neck at an odd angle to see him.
He looked around again, apparently satisfied no one was watching, then climbed into the dumpster and rummaged inside the garbage bin, giving July a glimpse of his butt.
My goodness. July gulped and laid a palm across her chest. What a glorious tushy.
He searched for several minutes. Finally, shaking his head, the man straightened, dusted his hands against the seat of his jeans, and climbed out of the dumpster.
What was he looking for? Was the poor cowboy so hungry, he’d been reduced to pillaging for discarded food?
Her heart wrenched, and her natural crusading instincts kicked into overdrive. Nothing captured July’s interest quicker than a worthy cause. And this guy had “cause” written all over him in neon letters.
Talk about a diamond in the rough. Despite his disheveled exterior, July saw something special shining through. Shave him, shower him, dress him in new clothing, and July would bet her last nickel he’d make a male version of Eliza Doolittle.
He raised his head and squinted up at her window.
Their eyes met.
Startled, July jumped, lost her balance, and tumbled forward into the sink. Her elbow smacked into the liquid soap dispenser and knocked it to the floor. One leg flailed wildly in the air. Her breast brushed against the water faucet, accidentally turning the handle.
“Oh, oh.” She gasped as cold water soaked the front of her sweater.
Teeth chattering, she shut off the faucet and climbed out of the stainless-steel sink. Muttering under her breath, she sopped up spilled soap, then stripped off her sweater and dropped it into the laundry basket outside the kitchen door.
Earlier, before she’d spotted the stranger, she’d been headed down to the laundry room to wash a load of clothes before starting her nine-to-five as a social worker at Hope Springs, an addiction treatment facility. Padding into the bedroom for a clean sweater, July kept thinking about the cowboy.
He had taken her by surprise, catching her watching him. Their gazes had fused, and whoosh, for one brief second, they’d forged an instant connection.
A connection so unexpected, it sent her head reeling. Even now, remembering his intense eyes, she felt slightly breathless.
“It’s the cold water, you ninny. That’s all. Snap out of it.”
So why did she hurry back to the kitchen and sidle over to the window again?
Curiosity, July assured herself. Nothing more. She wanted to know who this man was and why he was lurking in her alley.
Curiosity killed the cat, July.
If she had a dime for every time her family or friends had teased her with that phrase, she would be a wealthy woman.
“Satisfaction brought him back,” she said out loud, inching aside the yellow lace curtains and peeking out.
The alley yawned emptily.
The man had vanished.
* * *
Disgruntled undercover detective Tucker Haynes swore under his breath and jammed his hands into his jacket pockets.
Hunching his shoulders against the wind and tipping his Stetson down low over his forehead, he stalked down the alley. The trash his targets had thrown away thirty minutes earlier contained absolutely nothing useful to his investigation.
Tucker smelled of garbage, and to top things off, some nosy Rosy in that upstairs apartment had been spying on him.
He’d seen her for just the briefest of moments, but it had been long enough for Tucker to realize he’d been spotted. His impression was of a wide-eyed young woman with a short cap of sandy-brown curls, big green eyes, and a small, pert nose.
Their gazes held for a second, and then she’d disappeared from the window. Had he blown his cover already?
If he had, his boss at the El Paso Police Department, Lieutenant Petruski, would be seriously pissed. Petruski had singled Tucker out for this special undercover assignment that had taken him over two hundred miles outside of El Paso County jurisdiction. It was a hush-hush assignment. Petruski’s pet project.
Tucker’s mission? Stake out the Stravanos brothers, who were trafficking in counterfeit passports and driver’s licenses. They’d been arrested in El Paso but fled after getting released on bail. Petruski had tracked them down to this minuscule apartment complex in Rascal, Texas, but the lieutenant didn’t want to bring them in just yet.
Bucking for promotion, Petruski wanted to feather his cap by capturing the head of the operation. He had cherrypicked Tucker for the undercover assignment because Tucker hadn’t been involved in the original case, and the Stravanos brothers didn’t know him.
Mainly, Tucker’s job was to keep tabs on the brothers and provide Petruski with a daily log of their activities. Tucker had been in Rascal for three days, and absolutely nothing had happened.
Well, other than the nosy Rosy spying on him.
Tucker glanced up at her window again, but she wasn’t there. He crossed his fingers inside the pocket of his leather jacket.
Maybe she would believe what he wanted her to believe—that he was a homeless man digging for discarded treasures in the dumpster—and go about her business. In the meantime, common sense urged him to get out of the alley.
Tucker rounded the building.
An apartment door slammed.
He stopped cold and pressed his back against the brick wall. Slowly, he inched forward, his ears attuned, muscles tensed.
Angry male voices buzzed in a low hum.
Tucker clenched his jaw and moved closer, straining to hear the conversation.
“That’s no excuse,” said one of the angry men.
“What do you want me to do about it?” The second speaker had a deeper voice. More gravel and gall.
“He’ll be here in three days,” said the first man. “We have to be ready. No more excuses; no more bullshit.”
“Don’t take that tone with me, little brother. You’re the one who got us exiled.”
Tucker curled his hands into fists. Could they be talking about their boss? Was the head of the counterfeit ID crime ring coming to Rascal? Was the ice finally starting to thaw?
He needed to see their faces to gauge what was going on. Tucker kept inching forward until he reached the edge of the building. Steeling himself for flight if he was seen, he quickly poked his head around the corner.
Two men stood arguing in the courtyard thirty feet from where Tucker hid. Big, beefy, ugly. Ruddy complexions, massive hands, and wide feet.
The Stravanos brothers.
The older Stravanos, Leo, waved a burly fist underneath his brother’s bulbous nose.
“Don’t threaten me,” Mikos Stravanos growled.
“It is not a threat, little brother; it is a promise. Get things in shape, or it’s your skin.”
Tucker smiled. Good. He wanted the brothers at each other’s throats.
“Ahem.” A gentle hand touched his shoulder. “Excuse me.”
Tucker leaped a foot and plastered himself flat against the wall, palms splayed across the cold bricks, his heart galloping.
A petite woman with sandy-brown hair stood in front of him, smiling.
Good gosh almighty, the woman had snuck up on him! What kind of detective was he, letting his concentration slip?
“What do you want, lady?” he growled, struggling to regain his composure.
Her wide green eyes grew even rounder. “Why, to help you, of course.”
Did she know something about the Stravanos brothers? Surprised, Tucker just kept staring.
“I saw you digging in the dumpster,” she explained, sympathy written on her heart-shaped face. “And I wanted you to know that I understand.”
Ah hell, the nosy Rosy.
“I appreciate your concern.” He forced a smile. “But it’s completely unnecessary.”
He had to get rid of her fast and find out what was going on with the Stravanos brothers. Cocking his head, he listened. They were still arguing about whose fault it was that they’d ended up in Rascal.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she continued, her voice soft and gentle.
“You think I’m ashamed?” Tucker shifted his attention back to her.
“Falling on hard times can be a blow to the ego, but don’t let it make you bitter. Anyone can overcome a bad experience. All it takes is one step in the right direction.”
“Me? Bitter?” He raised an eyebrow and smirked. Who was this inquisitive little sprite?
A blast of air whipped her hair into a mad tousle, giving her a sexy, wind-blown appearance. The twin hard bumps rising beneath her sweater signaled she was cold.
Tucker had a sudden urge to wrap his arms around those slender shoulders and warm her.
“Everyone needs a helping hand now and then.” She gave him a peppy cheerleader smile.
“Excuse me, lady, but what do you want?” he asked, trying his best not to stare point-blank at her chest.
“Would you like to have breakfast with me?” she invited, her grin engulfing her whole face.
“In my apartment. I’m making steel cut oatmeal and scrambled eggs. You look hungry.”
“Lady, I’m a stranger to you.”
Her gaze swept his ragged clothes. She pursed her lips.
Plush, lovely lips at that, Tucker noticed.
“We’re all brothers in God’s eyes,” she murmured.
Whew boy, he’d drawn himself a real goody-two-shoes. Tucker was just about to tell her to get lost when he heard the Stravanos brothers walking from the courtyard toward the parking lot where he and the girl stood.
He could not afford to get spotted. Suddenly, her invitation seemed like a godsend.
Tucker grabbed her elbow. “Breakfast? Sounds great. Which one is your apartment?” He cast a worried glance over his shoulder, then searched the row of windows above them as he guided her toward the alley.
“We could go through the courtyard,” she offered, gesturing in the opposite direction. The direction toward the Stravanos brothers.
“I’d rather go in the way you came out.” He tugged her into the alley and breathed a sigh of relief.
“Okay. Follow me.” She led him up the back alley.
Edgy, Tucker ran a hand along the back of his neck. He trailed behind her as she climbed the stairs. Her hips swayed enticingly, and he couldn’t help noticing how her blue jeans molded to her well-portioned fanny.
Knock it off, Haynes. This isn’t the time or place to get wound up.
“By the way,” she chattered, stopping on the landing and pulling keys from her pocket. “My name’s July Johnson, what’s yours?”
“Tucker Haynes,” he replied before realizing he probably shouldn’t have revealed his real name. Too late now.
“Well, Tucker, it’s a real pleasure to meet you.” She smiled so widely, he wondered if the action hurt her mouth. Looping the key ring around her left index finger, she extended her right hand in a confident gesture of camaraderie.
Caught off guard by her friendliness, he shook her hand.
Her palm was warm and soft.
He noticed that she did not wear a wedding band. His heart lightened while his gut tightened, and he wanted, suddenly, to take care of her.
How did she do it? he wondered. Offer a stranger unconditional acceptance? Not smart. But he couldn’t let himself be charmed by her guilelessness.
Disguised as a homeless man as he was, Tucker had been on the receiving end of some harsh responses. Most people turned up their noses, refusing him service in restaurants, calling him derogatory names or worse. He didn’t expect anything else.
The treatment wasn’t much different from what he’d grown accustomed to as a kid. Tucker, just another punk from the wrong side of the tracks. As a result of the slings and arrows he’d suffered in his childhood, Tucker had trouble taking things at face value. He’d learned the hard way that people could not be trusted.
On the plus side, cynical skepticism served him well in his job.
Apparently, July was one of the lucky few. She had not yet rubbed up against life’s ugly lessons.
She was too trusting. No innocent young woman should invite a strange man into her home. Ever. Under any circumstances. And he wouldn’t have come up to her apartment if he hadn’t been desperate to avoid the Stravanos brothers.
“Here we go,” she chirped, opening the door to her apartment and standing aside for him to enter.
Feeling as nervous as a rookie cop policing his first political protest, Tucker walked a few steps into the apartment. His gaze swept the living room, sizing up its occupant in a quick once-over.
The couch was upholstered in a rose tapestry material and adorned with a handmade afghan. Pink, heart-shaped throw pillows decorated the rocking chair. A darker pink floral rug covered the hardwood floor. Figurines lined a glassed-in hutch—kittens, puppies, pigs, elephants, giraffes, lions—a real glass menagerie.
Opposite the window stood a brick fireplace. Thanksgiving decorations adorned the mantel in jubilant fall colors. Orange, brown, yellow, red. Plastic fruit spilled from a horn of plenty. Straw pilgrim dolls sat beside paper turkeys.
Tucker shifted his gaze. He’d never been one for holiday celebrations. To Tucker, the holidays meant only one thing—drunken family brawls that more often than not led to violence, mayhem, and bloodshed.
He batted the thought away and continued his catalog of July’s apartment. A large bookcase housed hundreds of romance novels and a lot of DIY, self-help psychology books.
An ornate Victorian-style lamp sat on a solid oak end table, cream-colored tassels dangling from the shade. Different varieties of dried flowers protruded from various vases placed strategically around the room, and dozens of framed snapshots hung on the walls.
She has a lot of friends, he thought, noticing how many different people were featured in the photographs and how happy they all looked.
He thought of his own apartment in El Paso, bare of pictures, and blinked against the sadness moving through him. July’s place was cozy, romantic, friendly. The sort of home that made him jittery.
“Come on in. You can hang your hat and coat on the rack,” she invited, moving past him into the kitchen. “You can clean up in the bathroom down the hall while I get breakfast started.”
Tucker cleared his throat. An incredible awkwardness stole over him. He took off his Stetson and hung it on the peg by the door, but not his jacket. He had his duty weapon in a shoulder holster underneath his coat, and he didn’t want her to see it.
On his way to the bathroom to clean the stench of garbage off him, he edged to the window, parted the rose-colored draperies and peered down at the courtyard below.
The obstinate Stravanos brothers were still standing by the gate, arguing. Tucker wondered how they ever managed to pull off the complex crimes they’d committed. They didn’t seem to be all that bright and fought constantly.
He wished they would move on so that he could escape this place before he overdosed on cheerfulness.
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