also writing as
The Unlucky Bride Rescue
Who Private Investigator East Whitlock REALLY dealt with at the Bloom Where You're Planted cleaning service...
TEXAS HOTLINE, Book #11
You’ll never make it on your own.
Yeah, East Whitlock had heard that line before. Too many times. Yet here he was, proving everyone wrong. As of this morning, he’d owned and operated his own security firm for the past three years. One of the perks was that he was currently steering an armored Ford Raptor toward the plaza strip where the Bloom Where You’re Planted cleaning service was headquartered. It was a few minutes shy of midnight, well past business hours, but he’d called in a favor. That meant somebody should be manning the front desk when he arrived. Or so he hoped, because he urgently needed to borrow a cleaning cart, uniform, and employee badge from them.
Since it was the company that cleaned the elite search and rescue training center on the outskirts of Dallas, going undercover on the night shift would be the perfect way to watch the back of a friend in need who was attending there on a scholarship — a former coworker in the Texas Ranger Division. The same guy he was hoping to talk into becoming his business partner in the not-too-distance future.
That was the ironic part about him making it on his own. His rapid rise to success meant he’d have to start turning away clients soon if he didn’t recruit some help. If he played his cards right, his one-man show was about to become a two-man show.
But first, he had to save Texas Ranger Seven Colburn’s hide. It sort of blew East’s mind how much trouble the guy was in. On the other hand, it was turning out to be the coolest criminal case he’d ever been involved in, since the guy was being targeted by a world-renowned loan shark as revenge for putting her son behind bars.
Because of the trail of bodies she’d left from coast to coast, she’d landed herself a spot on the FBI’s most wanted list. She was dangerous and, at the moment, nobody knew her exact location. That was why East was going undercover. Now. Tonight. Before she struck again.
His GPS led him to a rental storage facility instead of the plaza strip he’d been expecting. You have got to be kidding me! He squinted down at the electronic map lighting up the screen on his dashboard. Yep, the address was correct. His expectations of the company were not. Their home office was little more than a hole in the wall. Literally.
The presence of a white van in the parking spot directly in front of the door — emblazoned with the Bloom Where You’re Planted logo — was further proof that he was in the right spot.
As he braked beside the van, East shook his head at the cartoonish looking flowers with faces that comprised the logo. Okay, then. He could only hope that Operation Friend Rescue didn’t require wearing a uniform with those same stupid flowers silk-screened across it. Then again, the look on Seven’s face in the morning would be all the more priceless after he got an eye full of East’s latest undercover gear.
Grinning at the thought, he leaped down from his silver dual-cab truck and locked it with his thumb pressed to the print reader on the door handle. The glow of a ceiling light beyond the tinted glass door of the otherwise windowless building alerted him to the fact that somebody was inside.
So far, so good. East stepped over the curb onto the sidewalk and approached the glass door. Raising his hand to knock, he was surprised when it was yanked open.
A curvy redhead was standing on the other side of the threshold. Her grass green smock provided a stunning backdrop to her creamy complexion and sprinkle of freckles across her nose and cheeks. The shiny silver pistol she was gripping with both hands made the picture absolutely perfect.
East resisted the urge to wolf whistle. Now that’s hot! There was nothing like a woman holding a loaded gun to get his motor revving. Yes, ma’am. All day long.
“Evening!” He reached up, intending to tip his Stetson at her, but she gave a squeak of warning.
“Keep your hands where I can see them,” she ordered in a voice that held a faint tremor.
“No problem.” He held his hands up, palms facing her so that she could see they were empty.
“I’m also going to need to see some ID,” she added in a firmer voice.
His eyebrows shot upward. It was hard not to laugh. “Your second request might be a bit of a challenge, ma’am, considering your first request.”
“Right.” She rolled her eyes, flushing slightly.
His grin slipped. “You should never roll your eyes while holding someone at gunpoint,” he admonished severely. “That’s all the time a guy with my skills would need to disarm you.” At her sharp intake of breath, he added, “If I wanted to, which I don’t.”
“Your name,” she demanded crisply.
“Easton Whitlock. My friends call me East.” He grimaced. “So do most of the jokers who don’t like me.”
Her expression was impossible to read. “Do you have many enemies, Mr. Whitlock?”
He shrugged. “I own a security firm. What do you expect?”
Before he finished speaking, she grated out her next question. “Who sent you here?”
“A Texas Ranger by the name of Seven Colburn. Listen, ah…” he eyed the butt of her pistol. “He’s in trouble and needs my help, so I don’t have much time.” He peered beyond her shoulder, hoping to see a spare cleaning cart. “I just need to borrow—”
“Eyes on me, mister,” she snapped, waving the pistol suggestively.
In the silence that ensued, East feared the whole pose-as-a-cleaning-guy idea might be a bust.
“Mom?” a child called shrilly from the interior of the building.
A kid? She had a kid with her? At work? In the middle of the night?
“Not now, honey.” Her voice was strained and held a note of desperation as she met East’s stunned gaze. “Lay back down. I’ll join you in a bit.”
There was another stretch of silence. “Okay,” the kid mumbled. “Just wanted to make sure it wasn’t one of the bad guys.”
East searched the woman’s gaze. Too many emotions to name swirled in her greenish-hazel eyes. “Ma’am, are you in some sort of trouble?” he asked quietly.
She abruptly lowered her gun. “Come in,” she said simply. “Then we’ll talk.”
Perceiving that he’d passed some sort of test, he stepped inside the building. “You still haven’t seen my ID,” he reminded tersely.
She hastily bolted the door shut, then turned to face him. “You are who you say you are.”
“How can you be so sure?” He dug for his wallet anyway and flipped it open to show her his driver’s license.
She barely looked at it. Lowering her arms to her sides with the pistol still in hand, she explained, “The license could be fake. The look in your eyes when you heard my son’s voice wasn’t. You were genuinely surprised and genuinely worried that I have a kid with me in the building.”
“Still am,” he shot back. “You didn’t answer my question. Are you expecting any trouble?”
“No.” The merest smile tugged at the edges of her mouth. Her lips were lush, full, and bare of lipstick. “I never go looking for trouble, but sometimes it finds me.” Before he could formulate an appropriate comeback, she held out a slender hand. “I’m Becky Pershing, the after-hours phone answering service for Bloom Where You’re Planted.”
He shook her hand and experienced a sudden reluctancy to let it go. He did, of course. Anything else would have been creepy. “Pardon me for pointing out the obvious, but most phone answering services are off site.”
It was kind of the whole point. He waved at the surrounding walls, which resembled a supply room more than a home office. Wall-to-wall shelves were stocked with bottles of disinfectant spray, stacks of cleaning cloths, and an array of dusting and scrubbing tools.
“The owner of the company is a friend.” Becky sounded sheepish. “Our presence here is strictly temporary.”
Our presence. Now that East was inside the building, he could detect the scents of coffee and popcorn. It could only mean one thing. Becky Pershing and her son were spending the night there. His desire to swiftly hit the road again dimmed beneath his desire to first ensure that the lovely redhead and her son were safe. “Coffee smells good.”
“Subtlety is not your forte, is it?” She set her pistol on a high storage shelf and turned to face him, wrapping her arms around her middle.
“Nope. I intended to borrow a cleaning cart and dash, but—”
“But now your spidey senses are tingling over the notion that you might’ve stumbled across a damsel in distress.”
“Yes.” His gaze dropped to her left arm, which was wrapped over her right arm, and followed it to her ring finger. It was bare.
Her chin came up. “I don’t need a man to protect me, Mr. Whitlock.”
“East,” he corrected absently, “and I never said you did.”
“You may as well have, East," she lifted her chin, "because I’m pretty sure I caught you looking for a wedding ring just now."
He shrugged, liking the fact that she’d used his name. “Yeah, well, there’s a kid in the back room asking about bad guys. Kind of made me hope there was a dad somewhere in the picture.”
Her face paled, making him want to kick himself for prying. There could be a ton of reasons why there wasn’t a dad in the picture, many of them not good.
Practically feeling the air grow cooler between them, he knew it was time to end their encounter. Reaching in his back pocket, he withdrew a business card. “Here.” He held it out to her. “I know you don’t know me, and whatever you have going on is none of my business, but…”
“Sounds like you’re about to make it your business, though, huh?” she challenged, arching her eyebrows at him.
“Only if you ask me to. I’m a former Texas Ranger with lots of friends in law enforcement. I also happen to own and operate a security firm, so if you ever need any help, give me a call.”
She shook her head, not reaching for the card. “I’m sure I can’t afford your services, but thanks, anyway.”
“Who said anything about charging you?” he protested.
“Uh, you didn’t have to, because that’s how it works.” She twirled around and reached for the nearest cart. Rolling it to the shelves against the wall, she filled it to the brim with supplies. “Listen, my boss wasn’t clear on whether you intend to do any actual cleaning at the search and rescue training center. Either way, I suggest you show up with a full cart.”
“Sounds like a solid plan.” He accepted the cart that she rolled in his direction.
"There's a zipper pouch in the bottom of the refuse bin. It contains a badge that'll get you inside the various buildings at the training center, plus some paperwork verifying your status as an employee."
Excellent. He shot her another grin. "Does this mean I'm getting paid?"
"Don't push your luck." Her ready comeback was a good sign. Whatever trouble she was in hadn't erased her sense of humor.
Apparently, she was tougher than she looked. He liked that. “Any chance you have an extra one of those green smocks I can borrow?”
“In your size?” She wrinkled her nose doubtfully at his shoulders.
“Preferably, since I don’t have time to lose weight between now and then,” he joked. The truth was, he didn’t have much weight to lose. It was his height and broad shoulders that were sometimes tough to outfit in standard-sized clothing.
“Sorry. Just thinking out loud here.” A chuckle escaped her. It was a tad rusty sounding, like it wasn’t something she did a lot. “Wait a sec!” Her voice became more animated as she traversed the room and yanked open the door to a closet. “There’s this guy my boss hired to play Santa last Christmas, and…” Her voice became muffled as she rummaged in the closet.
He stared at her in mock outrage as she unearthed a man-sized green smock and walked his way with it. “You think I look like Santa Claus?” He thrust out his belly and placed both hands on it, pretending to jiggle it.
“Not even.” She snorted. “You are well aware you aren’t carrying around an extra ounce of fat, you cocky cowboy.”
“Whoa!” He waggled his brows at her. “All I did was look at your left hand, whereas you seem to be sizing up the whole package.” He teasingly gestured at himself.
“You wish, East Whitlock,” she scoffed.
“That I do,” he retorted.
Her lovely features grew shuttered again. “I’m a single mother spending the night in a storage facility,” she reminded.
His heart leaped at the fact that she didn’t mention the impediment of a husband, fiancé, or boyfriend. He hoped that meant she was single and available because he was definitely interested. “One who pulled a gun on me not too long ago, which I happen to think is pretty hot.”
“Is that what this is really about?” She gaped at him. “You like the fact that I own a gun?”
“Nope. I think it would be more accurate to say I love the fact that you own a gun.” He wished every female in the universe was equipped to defend herself.
She blushed and all but shoved the large green uniform at him. Their fingers brushed in the process. He used the opportunity to slip his business card into her hand.
“Are you always this persistent?” she demanded breathlessly.
“Nope. It’s a side benefit I usually reserve for my friends.” He was only this dogged when he really wanted something. Right now, he was anxious to put Becky Pershing enough at ease with him to pick up the phone and give him a call if she needed help — which he was pretty sure she did.
“Nice.” Her voice was soft and hesitant. “But I’m not sure one meeting is enough to make us friends.”
That was fine with him, since he wasn’t gunning for the friend zone. “Either way, I can be a useful guy to have around, which you’ll find out for yourself if you call me.” Though he kept his voice casual, he searched her features for any sign that she intended to dial his number.
“I have your card, East.” It wasn’t a promise, but it was close. Plus, she’d used his name again.
Winking at her, he backed toward the front door with his borrowed cart and uniform. She followed him, presumably to lock up after he left.
“’Til next time, Becky.” He paused in the doorway to lift his hand to his ear, miming a phone conversation. He mouthed the words, call me.
“Maybe I will, cowboy.” This time, her answering smile lit up her entire face, warming the darkest, loneliest parts of his heart.