Daring the Detective, Restitution League Series, Book 3
by Riley Cole
He’s everything she disdains. She’s nothing he admires.
But love has its own delightful logic.
Whether bartering with Barbary pirates or angry Gypsy kings, Zadie Whitlock lives by her wits… and the business end of her parasol.
Detective Caleb Burke lives to right wrongs. He can’t abide Zadie’s daring, impulsive ways, especially after she leaves him bound to a library shelf with his own handcuffs.
Still, he can’t ignore the passion the damned woman ignites.
Nor can Zadie dismiss his smoldering allure. Which is troublesome in the extreme, because Caleb Burke isn’t the man for her. He’s too honorable, too loyal, and far too likely to follow the rules.
Dazzled by her indomitable spirit, Caleb makes a fateful choice that sets the two of them on a hunt for lost Viking treasure. Failure will see his career in ashes, and Zadie on trial for her life.
Pursued by deadly forces, they’ve got the power of the Restitution League on their side… and their own stubborn hearts in the way.
Restitution League Headquarters, London
The moment Meena Crane introduced her to the tall, quiet man in the shadows, Zadie Whitlock’s knees went weak. Her reaction had nothing to do with his glorious physique or those penetrating brown eyes. Unfortunately.
It was the badge pinned to his jacket that sent her spinning. Who would have guessed the League included a blasted detective?
Though her intuition screamed at her to leave, she curled her fingers around the haft of her parasol and allowed her hostess to finish the introductions and shepherd her toward the sitting area at the back of the impressive offices.
If it weren’t for the crusher glowering at her from the corner, she would have been impressed. The League’s offices were even grander than she’d expected. All polished wood and modern business machinery, the space crackled with energy. And the members themselves outshone their workspace. Bright and engaging, Meena Crane and her crew appeared capable of tackling the direst of cases. But despite the favorable impressions, Zadie ached to make her excuses and back straight out of the building.
Zadie smiled at her very pregnant hostess and tried her best to pretend that Caleb Burke didn’t exist, but that was a losing proposition. Lean and powerful, he exuded the cynicism of a man who’d seen every form of deceit. Perhaps if he weren’t watching her like a hawk outwaiting a mouse, her stomach wouldn’t ache so. She’d heard the League was composed of confidence artists and thieves, all reformed now, of course. But she hadn’t expected them to include a man with a badge.
That could change everything.
And the man sensed it. His casual pose didn’t deceive her. He was gathering up every crumb of information she offered. And many she didn’t mean to reveal.
Zadie continued to avoid his gaze, wishing she could dismiss his presence as easily. As if any woman alive could ignore that beautiful mouth, or the broad shoulders stretching his light wool jacket to its limit. But looks aside, it had taken her only seconds to realize he possessed the type of quiet confidence that made a man extraordinarily dangerous. He wouldn’t hesitate to toss her in jail should she give him the least opportunity.
But Aunt Margaret had gone missing, under the worst of circumstances, and Zadie had no idea where to begin searching. She could steal a diamond stickpin straight off a man’s tie, face down the roughest crew of smugglers, or authenticate an Egyptian vase at a glance.
But finding one slender, gray-haired treasure hunter had her at a loss.
As if she could read Zadie’s thoughts, Meena paused, teapot poised above a cup, and smiled reassuringly. “How can we help you, Miss Whitlock?”
It was a simple question, with a simple answer. As with most things in life, though, it was the part in between that was bloody complicated. Zadie returned the woman’s smile, pretending she wasn’t tempted to tear straight out of the building.
With a grace amazing in a woman so obviously increasing, Meena leaned across the table and offered Zadie a cup. She sipped the excellent Darjeeling and nodded slowly, buying a last few seconds before she had to make up her mind about confiding in this Restitution League.
“My aunt has disappeared.” The words rushed out before she could reconsider her course of action. “I have cause to believe she’s in danger.”
Meena stilled. “Surely the police could assist you?”
“They are investigating, but they’re not looking in the right place.” She gestured helplessly. They’d interviewed her several times since the housekeeper had reported her aunt missing. But she hadn’t volunteered anything that would really help. She didn’t dare. And now, with a detective looming over her, she was treading a fine line again.
Edison Sweet, the bear of a man sitting next to the typewriter, flicked a glance at Burke and snorted. “Now we’re getting down to it.”
The pretty blonde at his side, Briar Sweet, punched him in the arm. “Let her speak, you great lout.” Then she gestured at Zadie. “Pardon my brother. He often speaks without consulting his brain first.” She sent him an arch look. “Not that it would help.”
The playful banter eased the tension in Zadie’s shoulders. Still, the question remained: how much should she tell them? Too little information would hamper the search for her aunt. Too much could land her straight in jail.
Spencer Crane, a legendary thief in his own right, took his wife’s hand, twining his fingers with hers as he studied Zadie. “You said she’s in danger. What makes you so certain?”
Pain began to pulse behind her right eye. “It’s all rather complicated.”
Crane grinned wickedly. “Good stories generally are.”
Zadie risked another glance at the detective. His features were carefully schooled, revealing nothing. She sighed. “I came home two nights ago to find the house tossed and my aunt missing. The window in her study was open, and I found this.” She dug in her pocket for the emerald necklace and held it up for the group to see.
The Cranes leaned close, studying the way the gems shifted from light green to dark as they swung in the light.
“They’re exquisite,” Spencer Crane acknowledged. “Worth a small ransom.” He winced. “I beg your pardon. A poor choice of words.”
Zadie waved away his apology. It was nothing but the truth. “A large one, I would think. But their sentimental value is even higher. They were a gift from the love of her life.” She stuffed the piece back into her pocket. “I’ve never seen my aunt without them, but I found them wrapped around the fingers of the skeleton she keeps in the corner of her study. She meant for me to find them. I’m certain of it.”
Nelly, the little office girl, scrunched up her nose. “Wot’s she doin’ with a skeleton?”
“My aunt is a physician. Long retired, but she still sees the occasional patient.”
Briar Sweet straightened the sleeves of her severe black dress. “Whatever happened, she had time to leave you a sign. You said she’s a treasure hunter. Is she after something valuable?”
Zadie rolled her eyes, and immediately wished she hadn’t as a shaft of pain shot through her forehead. “She would say so, but I fear it’s a fantasy. She’s spent the last ten years trying to locate a lost Viking temple, but I doubt it exists. She hasn’t found so much as an old nail.”
Meena nodded thoughtfully. “But if someone else believes she’s on to something valuable…”
She shrugged, acknowledging the unspoken possibility.
Like a great bird suddenly taking wing, Burke pushed away from the wall and swooped toward her before perching on the arm of the other sofa. “But there’s more to the story, isn’t there, Miss Whitlock?”
This time, she met his eye. Determined to ignore the way her head throbbed, she forced herself to take another sip of tea. It was now or never. Take the plunge and hope he’d overlook her recent…activities…or remain silent and hamper the League’s ability to find her aunt.
When she considered it that way, there was no choice.
“Indeed.” She focused on the Cranes. “I suspect whoever took my aunt—or frightened her away—is after me.”
Burke’s warm voice sent a dark shiver down her spine. “And whatever you’ve done isn’t exactly legal, is it? Which means you’ve been less than candid with the police.”
Zadie raised her chin. “I suppose that would depend upon one’s interpretation of legal.”
“How about a magistrate’s interpretation? Would that do?”
Zadie clasped her hands in her lap, all the better to avoid smacking the smug detective across the face.
The rest of the group was quiet now, watching the two of them as if they were opponents in a boxing ring, circling each other, fists raised.
She clamped her teeth together. The thought of all that masculine power took her breath away. Why couldn’t he be a fellow thief? A minor lord? A fishmonger or a chimney sweep? Anything but a bloody crusher.
Burke cut in to her thoughts. “When we got your note yesterday requesting our assistance, we looked into your shop. You don’t sell stolen goods…as far as I can tell.”
“I don’t,” she agreed. “I sell Egyptian décor. Most of it is of modern manufacture, but I also handle antiquities. Only those of known provenance, naturally.”
The detective ignored her assurances. “You just said you believe your aunt was taken to get back at you. I doubt a customer dissatisfied with a reproduction bauble would go to such lengths.”
Briar Sweet thrust her finger against the haft of a fine throwing knife, sending the weapon spinning about on the desktop. “It would have to be someone very angry.”
“Or very desperate,” her brother added.
The weight of Burke’s gaze pressed down on her, but he said nothing, letting the silence stretch until it rang through the room, cold and accusatory.
Zadie stared back, unwilling to let him see the turmoil roiling inside her. She was at the edge of the cliff now. Nothing for it but to jump straight off and let the consequences be what they would. Her aunt’s safety trumped all. She took one last, deep breath. “I retrieve things,” she admitted.
“Ah.” Burke smiled, but it held no warmth. “The more valuable the better, I imagine.”
“Well, that’s no surprise,” Briar pointed out. “Who’d pay to get their dodgy old bric-a-brac back?”
Nelly sparked to life again. “It weren’t in the news, but my friend Angie swears the Templar’s ruby was stolen from ’er employer. Are you the one who got it back?”
Rather than answer, Zadie took a long sip of tea.
Burke crossed his arms over his chest. “I don’t think Miss Whitlock would care to answer that.”
“O’course.” Nelly ducked her head, but not before she sent Zadie an approving wink.
Zadie swallowed, trying to think her way through this tricky pass. If she didn’t admit to any specific crimes, Burke would have no standing to arrest her. Most likely. She cleared her throat. “Companies—legitimate concerns—hire me to retrieve stolen jewelry and art.” The smugglers and crime lords that availed themselves of her services needn’t be discussed.
“Fair enough,” Burke said, but she could tell by his expression he only half believed her. “But legitimate or not, the people you repossessed things from might not be so understanding.”
Zadie nodded miserably. “That is exactly my concern.”
Meena set her cup aside. “Is your aunt involved in your business?”
“No. As far as she is aware, my only source of income is Frobisher and Franks.” Despite the moniker, the shop was all her own. The imaginary male proprietors existed only to reassure the curio-buying public that two upstanding men were behind the venture. Even two years later, she still congratulated herself on the deception from time to time.
“And she disappeared the day before yesterday?”
Zadie nodded. “She was gone when I got home from the store.”
Spencer Crane glanced at the clock on the wall. “So it’s been almost three days.” He looks at the group. “The sooner we get started, the better.”
Burke slapped his thigh. “Miss Whitlock must have enemies scattered about Greater London. Where would you suggest we begin?” He tossed the question at Zadie.
Anger flamed in her chest, overriding her fear. She threw up her hands. “Isn’t that your job, Detective?”
Meena Sweet swirled the last bit of tea in her cup. “If someone absconded with Miss Whitlock’s aunt because they wanted revenge—”
“Or the return of an item she retrieved,” Briar Sweet added.
“Or that,” Meena acknowledged. She locked eyes with Burke. “Hiding a hostage is tricky business. The longer one keeps them, the worse the danger. If someone’s holding her aunt hostage, wouldn’t they have contacted Miss Whitlock by now?”
Burke gave Meena a smile so grand, it made Zadie’s toes curl. “That is an excellent point.” The grin faded as quickly as it bloomed. He turned his attention back to Zadie. “Though I’m not inclined to dismiss the idea completely.”
Though she prided herself on her extraordinary composure, Zadie’s cheeks burned. “Of course not. We should examine every possible avenue.” Even if it meant confessing to theft.
She straightened her spine and met his gaze, willing him to understand just how desperate she was to see her aunt safely home. Though she prayed Meena’s reasoning was correct. If Aunt Margaret’s silly treasure hunt was to blame, her heart could stop aching with guilt.
Meena and Burke traded a long look. She had the sense that her request hung in the balance. By the time Burke nodded, her fingers ached from balling them into fists.
He stood and planted his hands on his lean hips. “We’ll take your case.”
Relief propelled Zadie to her feet. Thank God. They’d help her. And Burke didn’t seem inclined to toss her in jail. Yet.
She nodded to each of the crew. “Thank you. Thank you all.”
Every one of them smiled back, except Burke. He was staring off over her shoulder. “Whether we’re dealing with a mess of your own making or not, I’ll need to examine your aunt’s study.”
“That makes sense. I can take you there now, if you like.”
“Before we begin, I have several conditions,” he said. “They’re nonnegotiable.”
“Of course.” The words tumbled from her lips, but inside, she froze. He wanted her to confess to the thefts she’d hinted at. She squared her shoulders and prepared to pay the price.
“You’re not to leave my sight,” he ordered. “I don’t trust you. I want you at my side for the duration of this case. And second…” He paused. The glint in his eye stole her breath. “You will obey my every order.”
Zadie nodded, but she couldn’t seem to form words. Too many naughty, delightful images were flashing through her brain. His too, if the current of energy crackling between them was any indication. If they weren’t in a crowded room, in the middle of the day… She shook off the enticing possibilities.
Besides, she had a stipulation of her own. “Agreed. But you must promise you won’t arrest me for theft.”
He hesitated so long, she worried she had overplayed her hand, but finally, he shook his head. A small smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, telegraphing his answer. “I’m not interested in your retrieval service. I promise I won’t arrest you for whatever thefts you may have committed.”
The air left her lungs in a great whoosh. She grinned so hard, her cheeks ached. “Good enough.”
Burke ran a hand over his jaw, and suddenly, he looked disconcertingly tired. “I have a murder case I need to follow up on, but I should be able to collect you in a few hours.”
With her husband’s help, Meena struggled to her feet. “You’ll probably be more comfortable waiting at your shop. Briar and Nelly can keep you company. Henry can drive you. Take the clarence.”
The two younger women looked pleased with Meena’s suggestion. Zadie was too. The unexpected support left her lightheaded. And dangerously foolish.
She eyed the rugged detective. She wanted to kiss him. Wanted to know if the skin above the stubble dusting his cheeks was as soft as it appeared.
And why not? Her throat dry, she struggled to swallow. Once they got Aunt Margaret safely home, they’d never cross paths again.
“Thank you,” she said, and before she could talk herself out of it, she leaned in, pressing her lips to his cheek.
It was soft. Delightfully so.
She wanted to kiss him again, but even in her delirious state, she realized that would stretch the bounds of propriety beyond the breaking point.
She pulled away, steeling herself for his reaction. Would it be shock? Distaste? A whisper of disgust?
In the end, his response was far more disturbing. White teeth flashed in a feral, wanting grin that made her knees wobble.
She bit down on a surprised gasp. The man had a wicked, wicked center.
It was a good thing she had pressing plans. Plans that would see her halfway around the world once her aunt was safe. Plans that would occupy her long after thoughts of a certain police detective faded away.
Irritated beyond all reason, Caleb stalked into the study Zadie’s aunt used as an office, eager to find whatever clues he could. He needed to solve Dr. Whitlock’s disappearance and get far away from their newest client. Quickly. His sanity demanded it.
The hansom ride to her house had been excruciating. She took up too much space, too much air, too much of his psychical energy. He couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t think.
She was a charlatan, an opportunist, and a stunningly attractive woman who wouldn’t hesitate to wield all the skills at her disposal to flummox any man foolish enough to enter her orbit. He knew the sort. She’d take on any job, with no regard for legalities, or her own safety, as long as the fee was high enough.
But then she’d kissed him. Caleb scratched his cheek. It hadn’t even been a real kiss. But it did make him want another, a deep, breathtaking kiss that would leave both of them gasping for air.
He jerked his head back, startled by the direction his thoughts were taking. He didn’t even like her. And yet that one feather-light kiss had sent him ass over teakettle.
Impatient with his own imaginings, he focused his attention on the room, straining to make sense of the scene. She’d described it accurately. Papers were flung about as if someone had made a hasty search. Before touching a thing, he stood in the center of the space and breathed. He couldn’t have articulated what he was after. It was too ephemeral to name. He only knew he did it at the scene of every crime. He wanted to see it as the criminal, and the victim, might have seen it.
And here, he sensed urgency. There was no blood, no torn draperies or overturned furniture. No indication of a struggle. Either Zadie’s aunt had been threatened with a weapon, or she’d fled of her own accord.
After waiting in the doorway, allowing him space, Zadie joined him in the study, moving close enough that her fragrance radiated over the few inches separating them. Sweet, with a bite of spice, it called to mind exotic locales shimmering with heat.
He clenched his jaw, willing away the distraction, and forced himself to focus on the room itself, soaking in the details, letting his mind imagine the scene. Like the other rooms in the house, it was tastefully furnished. There was the desk, of course, and the chair opposite, where he imagined her aunt’s occasional patients sat. A skeleton stood in the corner, suspended from a black wire stand. The skull regarded him with detached interest.
Zadie pointed at it. “That’s where I found the necklace.”
He stepped around the desk, careful not to tread on the papers littering the floor. She was right to dismiss robbery as a motive. Too many items of value remained in plain sight. Shelves of finely bound volumes lined the wall behind the desk, and a silver ink set and letter opener sat, untouched on an expensive-looking leather blotter.
Zadie scooped a blank paper from the floor and held it out to him. “Here’s something.”
He held it up to the light from the window next to the desk. A dark footprint covered most of the surface.
She picked up another sheet. “Here’s another.”
Caleb compared the two prints. “Same boot.” So they were after a single intruder. The lugs were thick, the heel worn almost away. “Work boots. Large ones.” He examined the rest of the papers but saw no other prints. “Do you have any male servants?”
“No.” She thought for a moment. “I can’t think of the last time a man was in the house, actually.”
He rolled the pages into a tube and stuck them in the inside pocket of his jacket. “Probably our intruder, then.”
“Oh no.” Zadie brushed past him to pick up an ancient book, its pages yellowed with age. “Her treasure map. She kept it in this volume.” She thumbed through the pages, then held the book by its spine and shook it. Eyes wide, she looked up at him. “She must have taken it with her.”
Caleb squinted at the bookcase behind the desk. Old books, new books, thick tomes, and sheaves of journals crowded the shelves. Clearly, only the one volume had been removed. Whoever had grabbed the book knew what they were after.
Zadie was right. Her aunt had probably removed it herself.
But had she been coerced? He refrained from voicing that dark thought, though the prickle between his shoulder blades didn’t bode well. If someone believed the treasure existed, a map could be worth killing over. “You’re certain no one else knew about it? Not the housekeeper or one of the maids?”
Before he’d completed the question, Zadie was shaking her head. “I’m the only person she confided in. She worried that it would put people in danger.” A pained look crossed her face. “I used to laugh at that.”
A pencil poised to roll off the edge of the desk caught his attention. He snatched it up and tapped out a rhythm on the blotter while he let his imagination sift through the evidence at hand. Best to start with what they did know…or could reasonably surmise. Whatever his motives, the intruder had rushed up the steps, kicked in the door, and barreled in. A glance would have told him the front parlor was empty. Less than a second, and he’d have been in her study.
Not enough time for her aunt to remove her necklace, grab a map, and get out.
She’d had some warning. But how?
The answer smacked him between the eyes. Zadie’s aunt had seen the intruder walking by on the street below.
He inched forward, gaze on the quiet view outside. “It was someone she recognized, or someone—”
“Who didn’t fit,” Zadie chimed in.
“Exactly.” He paced the office, clasping his hands behind his back. “It’s the only way she would have had time to get her map and leave you the necklace.”
Zadie seemed to be thinking through the scenario as well. “That makes sense.”
“But it’s not the only explanation that fits the facts,” he cautioned.
“I know.” She twisted her fingers together. “And it doesn’t explain the intruder’s motives.”
“No, it doesn’t.” He gave her a small smile, trying to ease her guilt. And then he thought of a marvelous distraction. “Are you up for an experiment?”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Let’s assume your aunt was at her desk.” He pointed at the desk chair and pulled the drapes wide. “When you see me walk toward the house, pretend to grab the map, then put the necklace where you found it. I want to see if you can evade me.”
“What makes you think I want to try?”
The heat in those few words was enough to make him hard. Painfully, achingly hard. Despite their dissimilarities, their opposing temperaments and the way she was able to anger him with the smallest shrug, he smiled. Grinned, actually. “You should try, Miss Whitlock. Because when I do catch you, you’ll find yourself in more trouble than you can handle.”
He laughed. There was no getting the better of her. Not with words, anyway.
He was still laughing as he hurried down the hall and out the door, shutting it behind him. Then he strolled off down the street. Not the way they’d come. He thought he’d try the opposite direction first. Her aunt would have seen them coming sooner from their original direction. He wanted to try this under the worst possible conditions.
The corner would do. He turned on his heel and walked back toward the house, careful to temper his stride. A seasoned criminal wouldn’t move too quickly…or too slowly. He strove to mimic the pace of a man with an agenda, but a man loath to attract attention.
He walked up the front steps at a sedate pace, then kicked softly at the broken door. Even though he barely brushed it, the door swung open hard enough to bang against the wall. He rushed in, taking only the briefest instant to scan the front parlor and the hallway toward the kitchen. It only took three steps to reach the study.
Zadie already had one leg hooked over the windowsill. She smiled at him, relief obvious in the set of her shoulders. “She could have made it.”
“Easily.” He crossed to her and held out a hand to help her back in. “It’s clear she could have—”
A harsh male voice called out from the pavement. “Hold it! Hold it right there.”
Two uniformed officers were rushing toward the house, followed by a dark-suited detective. Avery Pitcairn. The nastiest detective on the South London force.
“Miss Zadie Whitlock?” Pitcairn called out, loud enough to be heard over the cascade of footfalls behind him. “You’re wanted for questioning in the disappearance of Dr. Margaret Whitlock. It’s best for all concerned if you come along quietly.”
Holy blazing hell. He had to stop them. It made no sense, but the feeling was so strong, he couldn’t help himself. He had to prevent them from arresting her.
He yanked her back inside. “Do as I say. Exactly as I say. Trust me,” he whispered.
Her face pale, Zadie nodded.
He couldn’t turn her over. She hadn’t harmed her aunt. He didn’t know how he knew it, but he did. It was simply the way his detective brain worked. Bits and pieces of evidence coalesced into a larger picture. And the picture he had so far convinced him Zadie was innocent. Besides, if he was wrong, he could cart her off to Newgate himself. And he hated Pitcairn. A cruel little weasel of a man, Pitcairn took an outsized pleasure in the misfortune of others. Particularly women.
He couldn’t allow it. Which wouldn’t protect him from the consequences of what he was about to do.
He shoved his misgivings aside and greeted the ginger-haired officer. “You’re too late. I already have Miss Whitlock in custody.”
The shorter detective jerked to a stop halfway into the room, the whiskers of his large mustache quivering. “What?” He squinted at him. “Burke? Thought you worked out of the Yard. What the hell are you doing out here?”
“I am at the Yard. Miss Whitlock is a person of interest in a very sensitive case. I’m to take her there immediately.”
The man huffed. “More important than a possible murder? Her aunt is missing.”
“I’m aware of that.” Caleb pulled his handcuffs from his trouser pocket. “My case takes precedence. Trust me. There are people above me you don’t want to upset, if you know what I mean.”
Pitcairn’s cheeks reddened. “No, I don’t know.”
“Orders from the highest level.” Caleb tried to sound apologetic as he slid his hand down to Zadie’s wrist and snapped on the cuff.
Her gasp filled the room.
The other detective gave her a searing glare. “Did you know Dr. Whitlock’s solicitor dug up her will? Left everything to this baggage here. She’s the woman’s only living relative.”
“What?” Zadie gasped, earning her another angry look from Pitcairn.
His expression was still flat and cold when he turned his attention back to Caleb. “Didn’t mention that, did she?”
He laughed, but the sound held no mirth. “We had a bit of luck with that piece. The housekeeper knows the solicitor. Her sister’s his cook.”
He crossed to the window and squinted out at the street. “Where’s your carriage?”
“The driver’ll be right back,” Caleb lied. “Had to drop Morgan and Fitz at the Limehouse docks. We weren’t expecting Miss Whitlock to be here.”
Nor had he expected her to have such a strong motive to make her aunt disappear. Though the house was modest, it spoke of comfort…and more wealth than many enjoyed. His impassive, police officer’s expression firmly in place, he studied her, checking for any of the telltale signs of a liar. But all he saw was shock.
Pitcairn chewed the ends of his mustache while he ruminated. “Can I have her when you’re done?” he asked finally.
“I don’t see why not. As soon as the toffs running my investigation allow it.” Caleb snapped the handcuffs around her other wrist.
Pitcairn jerked his chin at Zadie. “Good. There’ll be plenty of time for us to chat once you’re locked up. Come on now, lads. Nothing else we can do here.”
Caleb waited until the lot of them had funneled out the door and back into their wagon before he allowed himself to consider what he’d just done.
Ruined his career, most likely.
Zadie turned her back toward him and wiggled her fingers, jangling the chains. “About these? You promised.”
Preoccupied with the weight of his actions, it took a moment for Caleb to process her statement. He eyed the cuffs. “I promised not to arrest you for theft. I never promised not to arrest you for murder.”
“That’s not funny. Take these off.”
It wasn’t. Not in the least. But the sight of her, helpless before him, chest heaving, lips parted, was the most erotic thing he’d ever seen.
He ran a hand over his mouth. Holy hell. He’d just tossed his career in the sewer, and all he could think about was throwing her on the nearest couch and undoing the tiny pearl buttons running down the front of her bodice.
Afraid he’d make good on his imaginings, he turned toward the window and watched the officers depart. “It’s not meant to be funny.” The consequences of what he’d just done certainly wouldn’t be humorous.
The catch in her voice pricked at his conscience. Whatever disaster he’d just made of his career, torturing her wouldn’t help. Old habit had his fingers around the key in his vest pocket before he’d even realized he’d decided to free her.
She evaded his gaze, but the strong pulse beating at the side of her neck and the way her breasts moved with the rhythm of her breathing suggested she didn’t fully trust him to unlock the things.
Nor did he. He walked behind her and rubbed his thumb over the inside of her wrists, tracing the delicate pulse. The skin of her thighs would be this soft. This warm. “I could renege on my promise.”
She shivered. “You wouldn’t.”
“How do you know? We’ve only just met.”
“I know you’re an honest man.”
Caleb snorted, trying to shake off her sensual spell. “Not all policemen are honest. Far from it.”
“You can’t know that.”
“Oh, but I can.” She tossed her head back, flinging a dark curl out of her eyes. “It’s your friends. The League. They trust you, and I trust them.”
But could he trust himself? Maybe he should steal a kiss before he released her. He considered it, thinking long and hard about how she’d feel in his arms, but propriety and a healthy dose of self-preservation won out. Toying with a woman as bright and sensual as Zadie might leave a scar.
And he had plenty of other things to worry about now. He jabbed the key in the lock. The cuffs fell away, severing the electric connection between them.
She rubbed her wrists. “They’ll be expecting you to bring me in.”
“I know.” He dropped the cuffs back into his pocket.
Something in his tone must have concerned her. She scooted back, just out of reach. “You wouldn’t.”
“Of course not.” He ran a hand through his hair. “But I’ll need to explain why you’re not in custody.”
She strode back and forth across the worn carpet, obviously considering alternatives as well. Outside, the light was fading as afternoon slid into a golden autumn dusk. He’d be expected at the station before long. There wasn’t much time to lose.
And then he had it.
It was an idiotic idea, but it was the best he could come up with. He motioned her to him and spread his legs, bracing himself for what was to come. “Hit me,” he commanded.
She backed up until the bookcases stopped her. “This is no time for jokes.”
“Hit me,” he insisted. “Make it good.”
“I can’t do that.”
He caught her gaze and smiled. “There were a couple of times at the League you would’ve loved to plant me a facer.”
Her delicate earrings swayed as she shook her head. “I was angry then. This…this is cold-blooded.”
Still giddy with panic over what he’d just done, he grinned. “I can make you angry, if you like.”
She rolled her eyes.
He turned the side of his face toward her. “Hurry.” Before he came to his senses. Before he did the reasonable thing and took her to the station himself.
Her lips parted as she drew in a fortifying breath and then, before he had time to steel himself, she balled her hand into a fist and swung.