The radio in Connor Donovan’s unmarked car crackled to life. “Prowler outside a home at 1744 West LeMoyne Avenue. Who is close?”
A few moments later, another cop said, “I’ve got it. On my way.” The female cop sounded exhausted. And very familiar.
Connor pushed a button on the radio. “Mia? That you?” What the hell was his sister doing in her squad car at three in the morning? She was supposed to be off shift at eleven PM.
“Con?” Her voice was rough. As if she’d been talking for hours.
“Yeah. Why are you still working?” He’d been going back to the precinct, but turned left and headed toward the address.
“Caught a domestic. Spent a long time talking the guy out the door.”
“Yeah. He’s in lock-up. I was heading home.”
“Keep going. I’ve got this.”
“What? No! What do you think I am, twelve? I’m not letting my big brother handle my calls.”
“Mia, go home. I’ve got this. Probably a raccoon. I’m five minutes away.”
“Detectives don’t do prowlers, Con.”
A tiny victory smile flickered over his face. Mia was too tired to argue with him the way she normally would. “Consider this a one-time deal. Now go back to the precinct. I’ve got it.”
“Thanks, Con,” she sighed. “The guy is a frequent flier. Peter Northrup calls at least once a week. No one ever sees anything. But it has to be checked. I owe you.”
“Yeah, you do. And I’ll collect when you least expect it. Talk to you later.” He turned onto LeMoyne and drove down the darkened street. There had been a lot of tear-downs on LeMoyne, and the McMansions looked out of place next to the much smaller bungalows. One of the ostentatious houses was lit up. Had to be the one who’d called in the prowler.
He slowed when he reached the house with the lights, but saw nothing. Damn it. He’d hoped to find a fat raccoon rooting around in the flower bed, looking for some newly planted bulbs.
Cars were bumper to bumper along the curb, so he double-parked and slid out of his car. As he did, a short, slender figure moved out of the shadows in front of the house and began to jog in the opposite direction.
The guy was hard to see on the darkened street. All Connor could make out were black pants and a black hoodie, pulled low over his face.
Looked like a kid.
The boy didn’t look over his shoulder. He kept jogging with an easy gait, as if he was out for a run at three freaking AM. Like he hadn’t seen Con get out of his car.
“Hey,” he called as he started after the kid.
The runner didn’t speed up, but he didn’t slow down, either.
Connor jogged after him. “Stop,” he called when he got closer. “Police.”
At that, the kid picked up the pace. Okay, not someone out for an innocent jog. Resting his hand on his gun, Connor ran after him.
The kid was surprisingly fast. Connor gained on him, though, and when he got close enough, he reached for the kid’s hoodie.
It slid off the boy’s shoulders like it had been greased, and the kid kept running. Connor tossed it aside, narrowed his gaze and sped up. The prowler’s hair was covered by a stocking cap, but that was no boy. The snug black pants outlined feminine hips and an ass he would have appreciated a lot more if he hadn’t been chasing it.
“Stop,” he said as he got closer. “Don’t make me pull my weapon.”
At that, the woman spun around. Her face was a blur as she lifted one leg and delivered a kick directly to his chest.
He windmilled backward, stumbling on the uneven sidewalk and falling sideways into a tree on the parkway. When he got his feet back under him, the woman had disappeared.
He searched between the houses and up and down the dark alleys. After ten minutes, he was certain she was gone, but he kept going for another half-hour. Part of it was stubbornness.
Part of it was the sting to his pride of being bested by a woman almost half his size.
Part of it was curiosity. Who the hell was she? How had she managed to throw that kick? That blow to his chest had been hard enough to unbalance him, but not hard enough to hurt him.
When he finally admitted he wasn’t going to find her, he grabbed her abandoned hoodie and tossed it into his car. Then he drove slowly up and down the silent neighborhood streets. The streetlights cast dim shadows on the pavement and illuminated a tiny patch of ground every block or so. Otherwise the streets were dark and still.
His windows were down, but the only sounds he heard were the occasional barking dog and the distant hum of traffic on Addison. Finally, when he got a call about a body found in an alley fifteen minutes away, he was forced to give up the search. He called dispatch, asked them to call the citizen who’d dialed 911 and explain what happened, then threw on his lights and sped away.
As he drove, he went over and over every detail of the woman with the great ass and the controlled kick to his chest. Nothing popped. When he arrived at the scene, he forced the memory out of his head and tried to concentrate on the new case.
Somewhere in the back of his head, though, her memory flickered like the shadows on the street.
“You owe me for this, Jennings,” Connor muttered as he stepped into the park district field house at four o’clock that afternoon.
“Yeah, yeah,” his fellow detective said. “I hear that a lot.”
“Anyone ever collect?”
“Not yet. But tell you what – when you organize a team of underprivileged kids to participate in a sport, I’ll be first in line to go to their games.”
He scowled. “I’ll remember that, Saint Alex.”
Damn it. He should have gotten out of the locker room when he saw Jennings coming, but he’d been too damn tired to move that fast. Jennings had caught him.
The precinct sponsored the tae kwon do club at the nearby school, part of the new neighborhood policing policy. It gave the seventh and eight grade girls a chance to get to know their local cops. A chance to see the police as supportive and friendly instead of hostile. Make the kids less reluctant to call the cops when they needed help.
Jennings had set it up, but he brought a different cop with him to every match.
So here he was, at a park district field house that smelled just like the one he’d spent so many hours in when he was a kid. The faint scent of dirty socks and teen-aged sweat permeated the walls, underlain by the fainter aroma of over-ripe bananas.
He had no idea why gyms smelled like bananas. They all did, though.
The yellowed hardwood floor that squeaked and the thumps emanating from the gym brought back a lot of memories.
“There damn well better be bleachers in there,” he said to Jennings as they walked into the gym. He was almost asleep on his feet.
“Sorry, Donovan. No bleachers.” Jennings sounded way too cheerful. “Folding chairs, though.”
Thank God. Chairs were better than bleachers. He could zone out and pretend to watch the girls from Spencer Elementary school participate in a tae kwon do match. With any luck, it wouldn’t take too long. Then he could escape to his apartment and fall into bed.
Alone, unfortunately. But after a twenty-two hour shift, he wouldn’t have the energy for anything more than sleep, anyway.
The memory of the prowler from the night before snuck into his head. If she was available, he’d have the energy for…
He closed his eyes and tried to kick the memory out of his brain. God! He was fantasizing about criminals now. Time to find a willing woman and use his bed for more than sleeping.
He stopped inside the door, almost swaying on his feet, and watched the two groups of girls on opposite sides of the blue wrestling mats that lined the floor. All the girls wore the traditional white martial arts uniform of white coats and pants. Most of them had white belts, but a few were yellow or green.
He stumbled after Jennings and dropped into a chair. The girls from Spencer were warming up right in front of him. They spun and kicked and leaped through the air. A smaller group stood apart from the rest, going through elaborate, graceful routines that almost looked like dancing. The only sounds were the slaps of bare feet against the mats and the occasional grunt. Every girl had a focused, alert expression on her face.
“They’re serious about this,” Connor said.
Jennings scowled. “‘Course they are. You think we’d sponsor some half-assed program?”
“Knowing you, Jennings? Yeah.”
“You’re a dick…” he glanced toward the girls, “jerk, you know that, Donovan? These kids work damn hard.”
Connor opened his mouth to continue the trash talk, but his attention was caught by a slight woman in the middle of the girls. She looked barely older than her students, but she held herself with the authority and confidence that marked her as in charge. Her fluid grace as she moved among the girls was a vivid contrast to the awkwardness of the teen-agers.
Connor couldn’t tear his gaze away from her. Her short blond hair was a little spiky, as if she’d run her fingers through it more than once. As he watched, she put a hand on one girl’s arm and murmured something, then moved the girl’s feet into a different position. She watched the girl kick, then smiled and patted her on the back.
A tall blond girl lost her balance while trying a kick and tumbled to the mat. The woman helped her up, positioned the girl’s body carefully, then demonstrated a kick. Although she was moving slowly, the woman soared through the air as if she had wings. When she landed, she nodded at the girl.
The girl jumped again and extended her leg further, and the woman’s face lit up. The girl’s kick was ragged and short, but as the woman spoke to the girl, the child beamed.
“That’s Raine Taylor.” Jennings voice startled him. Connor was so wrapped up in watching the woman that he’d forgotten the other cop was next to him. “She’s the coach. Amazing woman.”
Raine. He liked the way it felt on his tongue, soft and smooth. He imagined whispering it to her in a darkened room, his hands learning her body, her hands moving on him.
Raine Taylor moved fluidly among the girls, saying something to each of them. She had expressive hands and sparkling eyes. Connor wondered what color they were, and how they’d look when she was kissing a man.
He wanted to know what she tasted like. He wanted to see the body hidden beneath her bulky white uniform.
“Roll up your tongue, Donovan.” Jennings’ elbow connected with his side, making him grunt. “Don’t go there. She won’t be interested.”
“What are you talking about?” Connor said, tearing his gaze away from the coach.
“You know how many cops have sat here with their tongues hanging out, just like you? And you know how many she’s gone out with?”
“I’m sure you’re going to tell me, Jennings.” His gaze drifted back to Raine, who was standing in a small huddle with her students.
“Zero. Zip. Nada. She’s not interested.”
“She dating someone?”
“Not as far as I know.”
“Then what’s the problem?”
“Doesn’t like cops, I guess.”
“A shame.” Connor watched her touch each of the girls on the shoulder, say one more thing, then step away from the huddle and sit down. The girls jostled each other for the chairs next to their coach, finally settling into the rest of them when the two prized places had been claimed.
The match lasted an hour. Each girl faced a girl from the other team, and an older Asian man acted as a referee. No matter how her girls did, Raine hugged them and spoke to them as they left the mat. The girls who’d lost look disappointed but determined as they took their seats. And every girl gave the match her complete attention.
After all the members of the Spencer team had taken their place on the mat and faced an opponent, they stood in unison and bowed to the referee. Then they bowed to the other team. Only then did they begin to chatter like typical teen-aged girls.
As the girls put on socks and sneakers, Raine padded over to Jennings in bare feet. They were slender, with bright red toenails. He surged to his feet an instant before Jennings.
He wondered if he could make her break her ‘no cops’ rule.
“Alex.” She reached for Jennings and hugged him, and only then did Connor realize how short she was. She’d seemed much taller when working with the girls. “Thanks for coming.”
“Haven’t missed yet,” he said, sliding his fingers down her arms and squeezing her hands. Connor wanted to rip his friend’s hands off.
Jennings let her go and slapped Connor on the back. “This is Connor Donovan. He’s a detective at the precinct.”
“Nice to meet you, Ms. Taylor,” Connor said, extending his hand. Her gaze locked on his. She reached for his hand slowly, barely touched him and let him go immediately.
A current sizzled up his arm. Had she felt it, too? Is that why she’d let him go so quickly?
Her scent drifted over him, a mixture of lemon and something that reminded him of a prairie, and he frowned. It was familiar. He didn’t know why, though.
“I’m impressed by your team,” he managed to say. He felt like a kid, tongue-tied and awkward. “They look very serious about tae kwon do.”
Her face lit up as she smiled. Thank God he’d been paying attention to Jennings and didn’t say karate or judo or something equally stupid.
“Thank you for coming, Detective. The support from your precinct is amazing.” Her low voice rippled over his skin like a caress, and his cock stirred. He swallowed once, forcing himself to think about last year’s White Sox team. A sure-fire libido killer.
“From what Jennings tells me, you’re really helping the girls.”
“I hope so. I want them to become strong, confident women. And I get as much out of this as they do.” A shadow crossed her face, but it passed so quickly he thought he imagined it.
Before he could answer, she turned to the girls. “Come over and meet Detective Donovan.”
The girls nodded to him, but he saw the reserve on their faces. In spite of Jennings’ work, they still weren’t sure about the cops.
“You all looked amazing out there,” he said easily. “I could tell you work really hard at tae kwon do.”
A slender blond girl who looked younger than the rest nodded. She didn’t speak, though. Her gaze slid away from him.
Connor’s gaze touched each of the girls. “You’re dedicated athletes.” He glanced at Raine. “Looks like you have a good teacher, too.”
To his surprise, a faint blush stole up her neck. “Takes good students to make a good teacher.” She turned to her team. “Get your stuff together. Detectives Jennings and Donovan will drive us back to school.”
She glanced over her shoulder. “Nice meeting you, Detective.”
Something about the position of her head jogged his memory. But as she ushered the girls to a pile of athletic bags on the sidelines, it slipped away from his tired brain. Then he remembered what the coach had said.
He turned to Jennings. “What the hell? Drive them back to the school?”
Jennings rolled his eyes. “Jesus, Donovan. Keep up. I told you we drive them back afterwards.”
“The hell you did.” No wonder Jennings had made him take his own car.
Jennings shrugged. “You think we can afford to rent buses? We barely scrape together enough money to pay for their uniforms and gym bags and the fees to use the field houses.”
“Can we drive them back to the school? Aren’t there liability issues?”
“Their parents all signed waivers. And the school isn’t far.” He grinned. “Should be a piece of cake for you – you have all those siblings. You must know how to deal with a bunch of kids in a car.”
“I was the one causing the trouble, not dealing with it,” he said, his gaze tracking the coach. She slipped on a pair of running shoes, slung an athletic bag over her shoulder and dug around in it. She came up with a set of keys and held them up.
Connor pulled on his sport coat, which he’d taken off in the warm gym. “You’re a pain in the ass, Jennings.”
The other cop didn’t hear him – he was watching Raine Taylor herd the girls out the door. Connor followed his gaze and his blood heated. Even in the loose white uniform, she had an amazing ass.
Watching the bunch and flex of her rear end, Connor asked, “How did you meet her?”
“Tae kwon do match. We got paired up accidentally. She’s got horrible handwriting and they thought it was Ray.”
Knowing about someone’s handwriting was the kind of intimate detail that only good friends shared. Connor scowled again as tiny flames of jealousy licked at him.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. He was an idiot. A completely irrational idiot. If he wasn’t so tired, he’d say ‘cute story’ and let it go.
Instead, he was going all cave-man on Jennings.
“Snap out of it, Donovan.” Jennings slapped his back, a little too hard. “I know you’re coming off a long shift, but you’ve got to drive a few girls back to the school.”
Good thing Jennings just thought he was tired. He didn’t think his friend would appreciate the way he’d been thinking about Raine Taylor.
When he walked out of the field house, he found Raine and the girls standing next to an old Toyota minivan. The rear bumper was dented in the middle, there was a ding on the left rear fender and a rust spot on the side had metastasized into several smaller spots trailing up to the front of the van.
“She have kids?” Connor asked, nodding at the minivan.
“Only the ones in her class and on her team.” He jerked his head at her van. “She told me she bought it so she could ferry the girls to and from their meets.”
“Driving a minivan in the city? That’s dedication.”
“That’s Raine.” He nudged Connor as he began walking toward the van. “Let’s get our assignments.”
Jennings didn’t answer, so Connor followed him. When he got there, the coach was calling out names, followed by, “You’re with Detective Jennings. The rest of you are with Detective Donovan.”
The three girls he’d been assigned looked liked the oldest girls. He smiled at them, and they all nodded to him. None of them smiled back. “What were your names again?” he asked.
The tallest girl, who looked biracial with creamy skin and braided hair said, “I’m Renata. This is Katya,” she touched another tall girl’s shoulder. Katya was blond and equally straight-faced. “And this is Bella.”
Dark-haired Bella was shorter, but she narrowed her eyes at him. “You a safe driver?”
Connor swallowed a smile. “I am.”
“You better be.” Bella glanced at Raine. “‘Cause Ms. Taylor will kick your ass if you have an accident with us in the car.”
“Bella,” Renata growled. “Knock it off. You know what Ms. Taylor said.”
What did she say? He wanted to ask. Badly. Instead he opened the rear door of his car and stepped back so the girls could slide in. “Bella’s right,” he said easily. “From what I saw at your meet, Ms. Taylor could kick my ass into the middle of next week.” The thought made him frown, and he glanced at Raine Taylor again. She stood at the side of the minivan, waiting for all the girls to climb inside. She was the right size and shape.
He was interrupted by Bella, yelling, “Shotgun.”
“Sorry, Bella. Back seat,” he ordered. The girl scowled, and he added, “Computer’s on the front seat.”
Along with the hoodie that belonged to his mysterious prowler.
Bella stared him down. “I’ll hold it on my lap.”
“Sorry. Back seat.”
Connor focused on the girl more closely. Her scowling gaze challenged him. It piqued his interest. “Because I’m a cop. We don’t let passengers ride in the front seat.”
“So we’re like your prisoners.” The girl’s voice was too angry for such a simple reason, and he wondered why.
“Nope. Because we have lots of equipment up here. Stuff we might need to get to in a hurry. I don’t want you to get hurt.”
As he slid into the car, the faint fragrance that clung to the material drifted up to him, and he froze. Lemons and that odd prairie fragrance.
No. That was an impossible coincidence. He glanced toward the minivan, but Raine was already in the driver’s seat.
If it walked like a duck and squawked like a duck…
He barely noticed when Bella slammed the door of the car.
There was complete silence in the back of the car as he pulled away from the curb and followed Jennings’ cruiser. Taylor’s minivan was in front of Jennings. He finally glanced in the rear view mirror and said, “How long have you all been doing tae kwon do?”
“Two years,” Renata said.
“Me, too,” Bella said. The girl was staring at him as if she wanted to show him her moves personally.
“Katya?” he asked.
“I started this year.”
Katya was the girl who’d fallen to the mat during practice. “You must be proud of yourselves. Tae kwon do looks like a hard sport to learn.”
“Aren’t you going to say we looked great?” Bella challenged him.
“I don’t know enough about the sport to say that. I do know that you all looked like you work very hard.”
Silence again. He glanced in the rear view mirror to see all three girls exchanging glances, as if silently communicating their next move.
Ahead of him, he saw Jennings pull to the curb in front of a school building. “Looks like we’re here.”
Before he was completely out of the car, all three girls had exited. Bella and Renata sprinted away, while Katya smiled shyly at him. “Thank you for the ride, Detective Donovan.” She glanced at her friends. “They’re angry because they wanted to ride with Ms. Taylor. But it wasn’t their turn.”
“You take turns?”
Katya nodded. “Ms. Taylor has a chart.”
The woman was organized. About everything? Did she have a regular jogging schedule? Would she go past Northrup’s house again? Or would she stop when she got there?
He blinked and smiled at Katya. “Sounds fair to have a chart.” He nodded to her. “Maybe I’ll see you at another meet.”
“Probably not. Detective Jennings is the only one who’s come more than once.” She turned and darted away.
Instead of driving away, Connor leaned against his car and watched Taylor talking to Jennings. They waited as several of the girls got into cars and the rest headed down the sidewalk, clearly walking home.
“Good meet,” Jennings said. “See you at the next one, Rainie.”
“We’ll be there,” she said. She walked Jennings to his car, then turned to Connor. “Thanks again for coming.” She smiled, and he noticed her eyes were a deep, clear green. “We all appreciate everything your precinct does for us, Detective.”
“Glad I made it today, Ms. Taylor.” He watched her carefully. “I’d like to talk to you. Want to grab something to eat?”
“No thanks.” Her gaze flickered away from him. “I need to get going.”