I can’t even begin to count the number of times my grandmother told me that she would die a happy woman if only I’d join the Order of the Benedictine Sisters of Guadalupe and live a chaste and holy life.
To which I always nodded, smiled, and said, “I want you to die happy, Abuela, pero I’m not going to become a nun.” There were several problems with me and a pious life. If you asked my mother, she’d say I’d sinned over and over and over again, beginning with premarital intercourse [which she suspected but had no actual proof of], and ending with my job. In my mother’s eyes, being a detective necessitates questionable actions and an ‘ends justifies the means’ philosophy.
Which is not actually my philosophy. I do things by the book, and let my conscience be my guide. I was God-fearing so I tried to toe the line, but I was also a driven, independent woman walking a tightrope between modern American culture and my parents’ old-fashioned male-oriented Spanish culture so my conscience didn’t always know which way to go when I hit a fork in the road.
Case in point. It was a brisk Friday night, downtown Sacramento was lit up with twinkling white lights, I was all dressed up, and even though I had no one to go salsa dancing with, joining those crazy Benedictine Sisters still never entered my mind. The nuns might enjoy their celibacy, but I was one hundred percent positive that I wouldn’t embrace a lifetime of abstinence. Hell, I’d just spent the better part of two hours photographing acrobatic sex in a back ally [which had left me un poquito hot and bothered]–all in the name of being the best private investigator I could possibly be–and I was okay with my decision.
I was almost to Camacho and Associates, the small PI firm where I worked. I dialed Reilly Fuller, the Jill-of-all-trades secretary of the office–and my homegirl. I wanted to go out dancing tonight and I knew I could count on her to have my back.
She picked up on the third ring, breathing heavy and almost out of breath. “Lola!”
“Hey, chica. How’d you know it was me?”
I frowned. The phone company had effectively destroyed kids’ innocent prank call fun–not to mention obsessed stalker-girls calling and hanging up on a guy just to hear his voice [not that I’d had any experience with that type of juvenile behavior].
“Lola, I’m in the middle of something,” she said. She panted. “I’ll call you back, okay?”
I’d never known Reilly to willingly break a sweat, so I was curious. I checked the time. 8:40. An odd time to be using the treadmill–if that’s what she was up to. “Are you exercising?”
But electric blue-haired Reilly couldn’t answer me because she’d already hung up.
Huh. My long night loomed ahead of me and dancing wasn’t going to be part of it. Looked like it was going to be me, a container of Mapo Tofu from Schezwan House (my favorite restaurant of all time, coincidentally right next door to Camacho and Associates), my camera hooked up to the office computer, and a whole lot of sex pictures uploading. One at a time.
I turned onto Alhambra and immediately spotted my boss’s truck in the parking lot. I slid my little red CRV into a space right beside it. Apparently Manny Camacho didn’t have plans for Friday night, either. Hard to believe. He was puro Latino machismo Greek God material–dark and brooding and scary in an I-could-do-things-to-you-and-make-you-scream-for-mercy kind of way.
I couldn’t help sneaking a quick peek in the rearview mirror. Low cut filmy dress, Victoria’s Secret Ipex cleavage, clear olive skin, salon-highlighted copper strands framing face, MAC O lips. I would not be put out to pasture because of a roguishly sexy reporter who disappeared for days on end and who I did not want to think about right now.
I grabbed my cell phone, the Nikon, my note pad with the Zimmerman case information, and my new favorite accessory– courtesy of Ebay–my Sexy Señorita drawstring bag. Shoving the notepad into the coral-colored purse, I headed toward the office.
In your face, Callaghan. I had options. Dark and brooding suddenly held a new appeal.
Just as I reached the office, Manny pushed open the door. “Dolores?”
My wedge heels teetered on a crack in the sidewalk. Maybe appeal was the wrong word. Dark fascination? Sadistic curiosity?
Fact is, Manny flustered me without even trying. Not many people could do that. I’d solved my first big case as primary investigator a few months ago. I chided myself. It was way past time to get over the nerves that shot through me when I was around him.
He looked at his watch, then back at me. “¿Que onda? Are you working?”
I nodded. “The Zimmerman case.”
He held the door, apparently waiting for me to continue.
I held up my camera. “Got some great pictures.” Especially if I had contacts at Playboy or Penthouse, which, unfortunately, I didn’t.
“Of Mrs. Zimmerman, um, making-out with her personal yoga instructor.” Making out might have been understating Mrs. Zimmerman’s activities, but it was the safest answer.
“How’d you get them?”
“I followed them after yoga class.”
Manny’s eyes narrowed as he looked me up and down. “Are you supposed to be undercover?”
My dress was a far cry from yoga-wear, but there was nothing wrong with in looking good on a surveillance job. “They changed after class then went to dinner. Lucky for me I’m a yoga junkie and very flexible–” Maybe not as flexible as Mrs. Zimmerman, but her sexual creativity was in a class by itself– “and have decent cargo room in my car.”
Manny seemed to ponder this, his expression unreadable. “And the photos?” he finally asked.
“After dinner they went around the corner from the restaurant.” Totally classless. Who screw–er, got down and dirty–out in public? “I was across the street. Excellent telephoto capabilities on this camera, by the way.”
He let the door to the office close while I accessed the pictures on the digital camera. I froze when his arm brushed against my back. The touch had been as light as a breath, but any physical contact from Manny Camacho could send a woman into premature orgasm. He moved behind me to look over my shoulder. A zing shot through my body and I gulped. Looking at X-rated pictures with my boss was muy uncomfortable.
I tried not to think about how flexible he might be and whether his slight limp or his cowboy boots would interfere with the Kama Sutra position in photographs three, twenty-seven or thirty-one.
When we’d gone through all the pictures, I stepped away, trying to ignore the charged silence. “Open and shut,” I said. “She’s clearly cheating on her husband.”
“Good work.” His voice sounded strained. I shoved aside the idea that it might be because of the photos, particularly what Mrs. Zimmerman had been doing in shots ten through eighteen.
My PI gene kicked in. Why didn’t he have plans on a Friday night? He had the hottest girlfriend this side of the Rio Grande. Maybe this side of anywhere. Her only competition was the phantom ex-wife who nobody had ever laid eyes on.
Neither were in sight. “You’re here late,” I said casually. “Where’s Isabel?” I pronounced the name in Spanish: Ee-sa-bel.
“Not here.” The corner of his mouth notched up. “Where’s Callaghan?”
There was a good chance that Manny Camacho, ex-cop-turned-super-detective-who-seemed-to-know-everything, knew exactly where Jack Callaghan. Then again, maybe not. He wasn’t psychic, after all, and I hadn’t let on that Jack had been MIA for almost a week now. “Not here,” I said, then quickly changed the subject. “I’m going to upload the photos and write my report for Mr. Zimmerman.” Which brought to mind something else. “I’m ready for a new case.”
Manny pressed a button on his key ring. Two beeps sounded from his truck, a white, lifted kick-ass 4×4. It wasn’t the most unobtrusive vehicle on the road in Sacramento, but it certainly had style. “The report can wait until Monday. We’ll talk about the caseload then.”
I started to stick my phone into my purse and to retrieve my set of office keys. The straps slipped off my shoulder and the bag fell. Manny was right. Uploading the pictures could wait till Monday, but since I had nothing better to do tonight, there was no reason to put it off. “I like to finish what I start,” I said as I bent down to grab the straps of my bag. “I’ll do the report tonight.”
As I straightened, he gave me another slow once over. “Callaghan’s a fool.”
A shiver swept up my spine and I shifted uncomfortably. Reality bit me. I didn’t think I could cross the line into fraternizing with my boss after all and I certainly wasn’t ready to write Jack off, even if he had a few secrets and the annoying habit of disappearing. He probably had a very good reason for dropping off the face of the earth. Again.
He’d better, damn it.
“I said you’re going to break your phone.”
I started. He had? I was? I loosened the death grip on the device, but dropped my purse in the process. “I, um, need to call my mother. See if she needs anything.”
“¿Por qué, mi poderosa? ¿Qué pasa?”
Ay, ay, ay. Manny had taken to calling me “strong woman”. Now he was calling me his strong woman? I gulped and stumbled back a step. I might be a good Catholic girl, but I wasn’t immune to temptation. “She’s home sick. I, um, think I should buy her some medicine and Ginger ale.”
“Can I help?”
Manny as nurturer? It didn’t compute. “No, no, no!” I just wanted to go upload the Zimmerman pics and go home to my empty flat. Above my parents’ house. That I shared with my brother. “I mean, I’m fine. I can handle it.”
He pressed the button on his key ring again, reactivating the truck alarm. “I have some more work I can do. I’ll stay with you.”
My hackles went up. I thought about jabbing him in the chest and reminding him that my Salma Hayek curves didn’t mean I wasn’t Xena, Warrior Princess, through and through. I didn’t need a protector–or a babysitter.
Thankfully–since it wouldn’t have been a good idea to chastise my boss–or touch his chest–I was stopped by the sound of a horn blaring behind us. A sporty silver Volvo pulled into the parking lot. Jack! My heart immediately slammed in my chest and I caught my breath. ¡Mi amor!
He stepped out of his car, all tousled brown hair and swarthy Irish complexion. His gaze swept over me and an angry dimple pulled his cheek in. My heart lurched again. I could imagine what he thought. I was dressed for a night on the town and Manny wore black and gray, his burnished skin and onyx eyes contemplating Jack with harsh scrutiny.
I took a small step to the side, putting space between Manny and me. No need to stoke the fire.
Not that it mattered, I reminded myself. Jack had up and left for a week–without a word. If he had issues with Manny, that was his problem. You snooze, you lose. I side-stepped back to where I’d been.
“Hasta la vista, Dolores.” Manny’s voice had turned gruff.
“Right. See you later.”
His black alligator-skin cowboy boots clapped unevenly against the sidewalk as he walked to his truck.
Jack came toward me. He dipped his head in an almost imperceptible nod at Manny as they passed, and then his eyes flicked to the bodice of my dress.
They lingered and his face tightened, not in the I want to ravish you kind of way I would have liked, but more in a what the hell are you wearing around him kind of way.
Catching my reflection in the window pane, I immediately saw what had caught his attention. It was my 34Cs–in the midst of a wardrobe malfunction. My dress was askew and part of my right breast plumped out of my demi bra. ¡Ay caramba! No wonder Manny had given me a slow burning look after I’d picked up my purse.
I straightened it as Manny pulled out of the parking lot. Shit! Manny had gotten an eye-full of my assets, and he hadn’t uttered a word.
From the way Jack looked from me to Manny’s truck and back, I suspected that he was thinking the same thing. “Purple, huh?” he said when he steadied his gaze back on me. His voice had that low, sexy tone that created instant yearning in the pit of my soul.
“It’s called Lavender Ice,” I said cooly.
“Well, it’s not like you’ve been around, Callaghan.” I ran my hands down my front in full temptress mode. Jack’s gaze smoldered as it followed my actions. Slow torture. God, sometimes it was so good to be a woman.