Alex pushed her little cart with the squeaking wheels down the tight aisle in the Circle J convenience store. She arched her back, pressing on the small tight knot to the right of her spine as her enormously huge belly bumped into a stack of raviolis, knocking a few to the floor.
“Sorry about that!” she called out to Mr. Henry, the nice old man behind the counter.
He gave her a small frown. “Young pregnant women should not be out alone shopping this time of night. Your husband should be doing this,” he said in a strongly ethnic accent.
She rubbed her belly thoughtfully. Husband? Not a chance in hell. She liked being on her own, even if it was at two a.m., chatting with Mr. Henry from the Circle J. She glanced outside the windows when the cars pulled up. Two dark BMWs parked behind the store, joining the candy apple red Chevrolet Corvette that had been there for twenty minutes, and seven sets of male legs stepped out into the quiet shadows.
Things were about to get interesting. She shimmied her hips around, trying to alleviate the dull ache in her back and hips. Maybe she should have stretched a bit more before yesterday’s one-on-one basketball game.
Five minutes later, she was slowly refilling her cup of blueberry slushie when a gun-wielding maniac with dilated eyes and a high-pitched, “Gimme all your money, old man!” entered the store. He gave a nervous giggle and pointed the gun right in Mr. Henry’s face.
Well, shit. This was a definite change in her plans for the evening. “Get the hell out of here before I kick your ass, shit-head!” she yelled and knelt down, grunting as her big belly hit her knees. Stupid fat stomach! She fumed and reached into the waistband of her sweatpants. As she fumbled around, her belly tipped over the display of Cokes, and sprays of dark soda went sliding and popping everywhere.
“Who’s there?” Maniac turned around and shot a few rounds just above her head, causing slushies to explode around her.
She slipped and fell on her back. Ow!
Maniac was headed straight for her when the doors burst open.
“Drop your weapons! Police!”
Maniac turned toward the plainclothes cops and prepared to fire from behind the aisle of feminine products.
Alex pressed down on her belly, hissing quietly as she removed the object that was now the bane of her existence—a pink WNBA basketball, hidden under her t-shirt. She palmed the ball and flung it straight at her target. Maniac’s weapon sailed through the air, out of his reach.
“What the hell?” he screeched and turned toward her and her now very flat belly. He pulled a knife out of his pocket and advanced. But she was quicker, cartwheeling out of the way and giving him a quick kick in the chest, sending him toppling into the slushie machine.
“Freeze, scumbag.” She pulled her pistol out of her waistband and trained it on the man.
“Damnit, Makowski, you only had one job.” The other cop walked over and cuffed the groaning man.
“Come on, that was funny.” She snorted. “Freeze. Ya get it? He fell in slushie and I said—”
“Makowski!” A red-faced man in a suit barreled in. “What the hell was that?” Holy crap, Johannes looked like he would explode.
They all stopped and listened to the loud screech of tires racing from the parking lot. There went the department’s sting—over five hundred man-hours, red tape, and a year of work for the undercover task force.
Another plainclothes cop flashed his badge and started taking the witness report from the store owner, while two more took pictures of the scene. The other part of the team was probably outside reporting back to Captain DiMarco from the rickety old minivan they had parked in the old house across the street.
Alex put her weapon on safety and placed it in her holster at her waist. Not an easy feat now that her baby bump was gone and she was swimming in extra material. “Sorry, Johannes—”
“Sergeant Johannes, now, remember?” he interrupted.
“Yeah, yeah, Sergeant, sorry. What did you want me to do? Let the store owner get killed or robbed?”
“We were working on the biggest drug bust of the century. That was the big fish that just got away!” His eyes almost bulged out of his head, and his face got even redder. “You ruined it to save fifty dollars from this man’s register!” he bellowed. “You weren’t even supposed to be here. If Rollings hadn’t gotten pregnant…”
“Jeesh.” She bent down and picked up her favorite basketball. “Protect and serve, dude. I thought that was our motto.”
“It’s also to follow orders, Pip.” Connor Doyle, her father’s former partner shook his head in frustration. His dirty blond hair curled at the ends due to its longer than police regulation length, hanging unevenly above his shoulders. In dark-washed jeans and a black t-shirt, he looked like a combination of a frat boy and a bad boy. One who could take down a perp with one hand tied behind his back.
When had he walked in? He had been out in the middle of the buy as an undercover enforcer for Marcone Dalaneo—the big fish as Johannes had called him—just moments earlier. He was also supposed to be the ‘heat’ car. His flashy Corvette with the white racing stripes would go screaming down the highway, distracting highway patrol, while the ‘bad guys’ escaped—and brought the money right back to their hub and, hopefully, to their anonymous, wealthy partner.
The disappointment in his gaze was almost enough to make her cry. Clenching her fists tightly, she turned to him and masked her emotions. “What the hell are you doing in here? You are going to ruin your cover if you’re not in cuffs and in the back of a squad car in thirty seconds.”
“Just checking on you. We’ll talk soon.” They handcuffed him quickly and led him out to the squad car that had just pulled in, lights flashing, sirens muted. If they were lucky, Connor would remain on the inside circle, where he’d been for the past four months. If not, they’d have to get someone else in and start the whole process over. God, she hadn’t realized how bad this was.
“She doesn’t know how to follow orders,” Sergeant Johannes grumbled. “Three years of her screw-ups, and I’m ready to give up the force, just to get away from her.”
That stung. Even worse than knowing she had screwed up. But how was she supposed to protect the innocent, if she wasn’t allowed to protect the innocent? Her whole life growing up had always been so black and white. Good guys save the day. Bad guys go to jail. Except in the case of her father—he had been a good guy, and he was now in a grave over at the Presbyterian Church on Main’s cemetery. She would never be able to be the cop he had been—he had been the ultimate good guy. And she bet he had never gotten confused about orders, never gave parking tickets to over fifty people after seven p.m. when they were allowed to park on Main, and never would have “completely ruined the biggest drug bust of the century.” Yeah, the words hurt, and so did the memories of trying to measure up to the hero of the city. But damned if she would let them know that. They all thought she had a chip on her shoulder the size of Manhattan. They were wrong. She just didn’t want to do something stupid like let them see the emotions on her face. The raw emotions they would attack like a pack of wild dogs. Cops don’t cry, right? Be tough, resilient. Get back up and kick ass, her father had always said. So she’d play it off like usual. An indifferent roll of the eyes or a screw you glare usually worked the best and gave her the time to readjust. “Ouch. Words hurt, man,” she shrugged. Feigning indifference as her heart beat a million beats a minute, she grabbed a cup of slushie, sucking it quickly through the straw. “Owwwwwww. Brain freeze.” She moaned and held her head.
“Who’s going to help me clean this mess? Look at this!” Mr. Henry waved his hands around wildly.
“She will.” A chorus of angry voices and hands pointed in her direction, as every cop in the store stopped what they were doing long enough to glare at her. Yep, she was a favorite among her peers, obviously.
“Right.” She rolled her eyes. “I have to get back to the station and fill out the report.”
“Not right now.” The large red-faced sergeant glared down at her. “You’re on temporary administrative leave. Hand over your badge.”
“What?” she shrieked. Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit.
“Take some time off. Go do whatever it is you need to do to get your head back on straight. I’ll call you in a week or so.”
“This sucks!” She stomped her foot.
“Here.” Mr. Henry handed her a mop. “You clean up while I get the cans restacked.”
Her police counterparts left, with Maniac in tow, grinning as she scowled and flipped them the bird.
Now what was she going to do? This was her freaking life. Obviously, she sucked at it. But this was her life. Her career. She groaned and started pitching wet, cold slush-decorated cups and paper towels into the trash can.
“Hey, little not-pregnant girl. Thank you.” Mr. Henry smiled at her. “This store is all I have. You’re a hero in my book. Be a good girl and clean up all the mess, and I’ll give you a free hot dog and slushie. On the house.”
He laughed and picked up a bag that hadn’t been trampled on or ruined in slush, and set it on the counter. “You clean first.”
Connor was already chomping at the bit to get this damn meeting over with. If Alex didn’t agree to do this mission, he’d feel a lot better, maybe lose that angry churning in his stomach. Damn. There were five other females on the force who could do this operation. He had a feeling Alex was receiving it as a punishment for being a pain in the ass one too many times. Then again, she did do good work—when she was grounded. Her shot groups were impressive, she held black belts in karate and Taekwondo, and could kick the ass of most any guy on the force—except him of course. He wouldn’t ever hurt the pipsqueak of a woman who had stolen his heart as a knobby-kneed teenager seven years ago, and then turned into a beautiful, strong woman—but he wasn’t going to go easy on her on the mats either.
Alex could hold her own, was smart, capable, and resilient. Unfortunately she had a chip on her shoulder and an ever-present need to prove herself in all situations. A combination of Napoleon complex mixed with being the only child of the town’s most decorated cop. It was a lot to live up to. And she usually did well with it. But when push came to shove, she barreled in—usually without thinking of repercussions. Like that sting last week. If she had slowed down and thought it through—not tried to be a hero—she could have quietly called for backup. But no. They had lost the biggest bust of the year, and almost lost their other undercover agent. Connor had been taken away in cuffs, along with the crazy, high asshole who had tried to hold up the store, both placed in the back of the squad car to ensure Connor’s undercover role didn’t get compromised. The dude had passed out on Connor’s shoulder, while Connor held his breath from the stench of BO and seriously bad breath—but at least the dude had puked on his own side of the car, first; probably the worst undercover moment he’d ever had. But his undercover job was over. Captain DiMarco had pulled him, and quietly sent word out that Connor was temporarily residing behind bars over in Henderson. Now he just needed to lay low for a while, and see if Tommy, their other behind-the-scenes guy could make it. Since Tommy was a convicted felon, who didn’t wear a badge like Connor, his chances were a lot better. But he couldn’t worry about that now. This mission was different.
He watched Alex fidget with her long blond braid, trying to weave in a strand that had fallen out. Sitting and waiting impatiently, her eyes straight forward, but her toes tapping a Sousa march on the tile. He ought to go over and put her out of her misery. Tell her she wasn’t in trouble with the captain. That she had been chosen for a special assignment that would warrant her unique abilities and talents. But he didn’t. Number one, she wouldn’t believe him. Ever since her father’s death, she had grown angrier, more resentful toward Connor. It could be because he had been Frank’s partner, and hadn’t been there when he had been killed—something he would never forgive himself for. Or it could have been that kiss. Damn. He wasn’t going to revisit that day. Alex hated him, and seemed to think he hated her. There was nothing to do about it, so he just kept his distance. But he did enjoy watching her get riled up at him and try to provoke him. He had played his role as the unwanted big brother/former partner for her father type, and would continue, no matter how much she seemed to despise it. Now separation was the best bet. Except for the few times he kicked her ass on the mat when he wasn’t deep under cover.
He grinned. Watching her try to get out of one of his holds while practically humping the mat had given him the best one-handed dreams. Maybe they could spar again. After this mission was over.
“Officer Makowski, Sergeant Doyle.” Captain DiMarco opened the door and ushered them inside his small office.