Love by Association(9)

By: Tara Taylor Quinn

An awkward moment she’d prefer to avoid...

“I’m getting a little warm. Do you mind if we step outside?” she asked, raising her glass to her lips at the same time to hide any telltale twinge at the side of her mouth.

“Of course.” Colin sounded as pleased as she felt relieved; he took a right and led her to a pair of glass double doors that led to a balcony.

Thankfully, there were heaters out there. She’d freeze her tail off in this gown on what had turned out to be a forty-degree January night. Wishing she hadn’t left the shawl she’d bought on her bed at home, she allowed herself to be led outdoors.

Colin went for the balcony rail. She could hear the ocean in the distance but got as close to the nearest heater as she could manage.

“I can tell you’re from New York,” he said, smiling down at her in a way that she found more than a little distracting.

While she’d had more than her share of admirers in her more than three decades of living, Chantel didn’t usually find herself being viewed with tenderness.

She was a decorated cop. The men she worked with knew that. They respected her abilities to protect them as well as they’d protect one another.

She felt naked against the tiny white glittering lights strung around a couple of potted trees on either side of them.

“My accent gives me away every time,” she said, trying to tighten her mouth a little bit more around the words—instilling as much of her accented native tongue as she could. A sound she’d worked years to lose when, with her best friend, she’d migrated from upstate New York to LA right out of high school.

Neither of them had ever looked back.

“It’s not just your accent,” he told her. “Look around you.”

She did. There were three older men, all in matching monkey suits, to her right, seeming to be hiding out from the activities going on around them. Another two, farther away, to their left, were smoking.

“I don’t get it,” she told her companion. What about these guys gave her away as being from New York?

“There are no women out here. Even with the heaters, it’s far too cold. You’re obviously acclimated to colder weather.”

Nope. But she had tough skin.

She’d missed seeing herself as the “only woman.” Probably because she was used to being the only female among men.

She was perfectly comfortable that way, but felt like she was quickly losing control of her cover.

Like maybe, just maybe, she couldn’t do this.

“Well, perhaps I’m just counting on you to keep me warm,” she said. She would do this. A memory of the picture she’d seen of Ryder Morrison, of the collage he’d made and she’d studied, had her straightening her backbone. The medical records she’d been privy to as part of a law-mandated notice sent from the hospital to the police department sprang to mind.

She pictured her friend Meri, thought of the scars she still wore so long after the brutal beating that had almost left her dead, of the way she’d been near death’s door, mostly incoherent, and had still managed to get herself out to the street...

“You okay?” Colin leaned in toward her. She breathed in his musky scent.

“Of course I’m okay,” she sputtered, covering another lapse with a small sip of wine that took a long time to swallow.

So she wasn’t quite as good at this undercover thing as she wanted to be. It was her first night out. On her first gig.

And she cared more than she probably should about the ultimate outcome. But truthfully, what cop didn’t?

She forced a chuckle. “Makes me wonder about you, though, that you’d think there’s something wrong with me for counting on you to keep me warm.”

He moved closer, put an arm around her and pulled her in close, shocking Chantel with just how good that felt. “It was your eyes, not your words, that made me wonder,” he said softly, leaning his head down toward her ear. “You looked kind of lost for a second there.”

She had a poker face. Almost always. But she took note to work on it in front of the mirror in “rich heiress” mode.

“It’s all so new,” she said now, speaking the complete truth. “All of’s nothing like my life in New York.”

“You didn’t live by the ocean, then?”

“No.” Her family, the broken fragments of it, had mostly lived in a brick house that looked like every other brick house in the row of brick houses. “And I always had friends close by,” she said, resuming character. One friend. Jill...

“I didn’t realize it was going to be so hard...not knowing anyone. Truth be told, I was kind of looking forward to meeting a whole new group of people.”

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