The Guardian
Linda Winstead Jones

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Sara opened the door wider and invited him into the foyer, where Vance antiques that had been collected over many years indicated money and influence. Decent money and local influence, at least. She’d inherited everything here, and none of it really felt as if it was hers. She was a keeper. A guardian. “It’s nice of you to stop by to introduce yourself. I’m so grateful that you agreed to join us until we can rebuild the department. The chief and I both appreciate your time and sacrifice. This is a difficult time for our city, but we’ll soon recover and be all the better for it.”

Dante looked confused. His eyes narrowed slightly, his nose wrinkled, and she could see the bewilderment on his face. He had always been so easy to read. For her, at least. His eyes gave away so much. “You’re…”

“Mayor Vance.” Sara offered her hand, the one that didn’t continue to clutch a walking shoe. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I was just on my way out for a walk.” She sat in a foyer chair, which was upholstered in a striped fabric, where she slipped on her other shoe and then bent to tie them both. It was good to break eye contact for a moment; good to take the opportunity to take a deep, calming breath. Even after all these years, Dante made her nervous. She could swear that the very air in the house had changed, grown thicker and warmer the moment he’d entered.

As she stared at her shoelaces and pulled one more snugly into place, she said, “If you have any questions about your job here, or if you have any suggestions about the department, please feel free to stop by my office anytime.”

It was a dismissal, one anyone in their right mind should recognize, but he didn’t move. After a painfully long moment, he said, “I’m not here to introduce myself, Mayor Vance. I’m here about the theft.”

Sara took another long, deep breath, but it did nothing to calm her. Great. Not only had some pervert stolen her underwear, she now had to discuss the matter, in detail, with a man who made her nervous. With a drool-worthy guy who’d once had his hand up her blouse and had apparently forgotten. How unflattering. How humiliating. Again she said, “Come by my office in the morning and…”

“Did the crime take place at your office?”

“Of course not,” she responded.

“Then why would I want to interview you there?”

Interview. Of course. Dante had come to ask her about the bras and panties that had been stolen from the clothesline in her backyard. It made sense, she supposed, that he would want to question her here. She should’ve simply replaced the missing garments and moved on.

“It was no big deal,” she said. “Really. I’m sure it was nothing more than a practical joke played by bored kids. There are lots of middle-school-age kids in the neighborhood, and it’s just the sort of prank they might think was amusing, stealing the mayor’s…underthings.”

Dante didn’t agree with her and leave her in peace, as he should have. He didn’t take another look at her face and ask, “Don’t I know you?” The annoying man took a small notepad from his breast pocket and flipped it open. “Three bras and four pairs of panties,” he said without blushing or stammering, “valued at four hundred and twenty-five dollars.” He flipped the notebook closed with the same grace and ease with which he’d opened it. “That’s some fancy underwear, Mayor Vance.”

Her face grew hot. She’d been raised in a conservative household, and while she had grown up in an age where almost anything was acceptable and she did not exactly embrace the conservatism of her grandparents, she also didn’t feel comfortable discussing her underwear with just anyone. She hadn’t seen Dante in eighteen years and he had forgotten her, so he was in fact, not much better than a stranger. “It was good quality, not fancy,” she responded, proud of herself for not stuttering.

“I’m pretty sure I haven’t spent that much on underwear in my entire life.”

Sara blinked hard. Too much information. “Actually…” She stood, feeling uncomfortable sitting while Dante—what was he these days, anyway, six foot three?—towered over her. “There’s no reason to discuss this any further. I’ve decided to drop the matter.”

“Why?” he asked simply.

“It’s not worth the trouble, and I feel terrible that city time and expense has been wasted on such a trivial matter. I suppose I panicked a bit when I called the police after my housekeeper discovered the…the…”

“Underwear,” he replied when she faltered.

“Was gone,” she finished, annoyed to realize that he could have just as easily supplied the word theft.

“This incident is a nuisance, not worth wasting your valuable time.”

That got a very sexy half grin out of Dante. He was older, bigger, harder, but the grin had not changed. “The way this city pays its officers, at the present my time’s not all that valuable. Mayor Vance,” he added belatedly.

Again, he was out of bounds. “While I do appreciate your help, Sergeant Mangino, the city budget is not something you and I should be discussing,” she said primly, even though getting more money for the city’s employees was high on her wish list. The problem was, she couldn’t fabricate the money required out of thin air, and making budgetary changes was more complicated than she’d thought it would be. She’d been in office not much more than two months, and so far it was slow going. Not that she’d explain any of that to Dante Mangino.

Two things happened at once. Dante turned his head and she got a glimpse of a tattoo creeping out of his starched shirt collar. That was new. Tattoos were pretty much mainstream these days, but they weren’t exactly commonplace among Tillman’s city employees. To have one on his neck…

And the doorbell rang. She walked past Dante to answer, staying well out of his way, happy for the chance to walk away from him for a moment so she could regain her composure. Not much rattled her these days, and she needed to get over this silly reaction to a man who was nothing more than an old boyfriend. An old boyfriend who had forgotten her. As Sara reached for the doorknob, she hoped for the band candy or cookies she had expected when Dante had rung the doorbell.

She threw open the door, and at first she saw nothing. No neighbor, no child selling overpriced fundraiser treats she always felt obligated to buy. Then she glanced down and saw the package sitting on the welcome mat. The smallish—no more than eight inches square—package was pretty, wrapped in bright pink paper and accented with a large silver bow and a stripe of matching ribbon. She bent and picked up the box, wondering if a delivery had mistakenly been made to the wrong house. The package was very light, she noted, but was a little heavier than an empty box of this size should be. As she turned she glanced at the small card attached to the bow. No mistake. Her name—Mayor Sarabeth Louann Vance—was written there in a neat script.

“Your birthday?” Dante asked.

“No.” Sara pushed the front door closed with a gentle push of her hip, then she placed the box on an antique foyer table, carefully pushing back the flower arrangement there to make room for the unexpected gift.

“Who’s it from?” Dante asked sharply.

“I don’t know.” She carefully opened the dangling card, which bore her name. Inside was blank, and she told him so.

She reached for the bow, but suddenly a large, warm, strong hand clamped over her wrist, stilling her movements. Her heart seemed to catch in her chest, not because someone had left her an anonymous package, but because Dante Mangino had touched her.

“Not a good idea, Mayor,” Dante said in a lowered, very dangerous voice that sent a shiver down her spine. He lifted her hand away from the box and dropped it, then fetched a knife from his pocket and opened it with a flick of his thumb.

First he cut the ribbon, then he touched the blade to the end of the box where the paper gapped, barely moving the bright pink wrapping aside with the tip of steel.

“This isn’t necessary,” she said, her voice purposely tight and mayorlike. She was learning to use that tone when necessary. She used it now to push away the unexpected and unwanted physical reaction that had begun—no, that had spiraled out of control—when Dante had touched her.

“Are you sure?” he asked without turning to look at her. “Are you absolutely positive that this box was left by a well-meaning friend who dropped it on your doorstep, rang the bell and ran?”

“Of course I can’t be sure,” she responded.

“Then unbunch your panties and let me do this my way.”

Unbunch her panties? How unprofessional. How ungentlemanly! Unbunch her panties? That was the last straw. She should fire him, here and now. He was insolent and unprofessional and having much too much fun at her expense. Plus he had forgotten her, the most egregious sin of all. She tried to imagine looking Dante in the eye and telling him his services were no longer required. Somehow it didn’t turn out well, not even in her imagination. Better yet, she could call the chief as soon as Dante left her house and insist that the man be fired by someone else.

The problem was they needed this experienced man on the force until more qualified officers could be hired. Tillman needed Dante Mangino much more than he needed them. He was here because his cousin, the chief, had asked for a favor to help rebuild the department, which had been ravaged by a couple of retirements, three transfers to larger departments in the state and one heart attack.

Dante finally studied the attached card with the tip of his knife. His head rotated slowly and he pinned accusing eyes on her. “Sarabeth Louann Caldwell Vance.”

“Yes,” she said, trying very hard to remain calm. Caldwell has not on the card. At least he remembered her name. “My maiden name was Caldwell.” Her mouth went very dry. “Have we met?” The final word came out as a tinny squeak.

He snorted lightly beneath his breath. “You know damn well we have. Sorry, I didn’t immediately connect Mayor Sara Vance with the girl of many names, Sarabeth Louann Caldwell. You’ve changed.” He looked her up and down, openly appraising and seemingly approving. “Your hair’s lighter and you’ve put on twenty pounds, all of it in the right places.” He grinned, and though he was older, the smile was familiarly wicked and tempting. “The eyes haven’t changed at all. Neither has the mouth. As soon as you mentioned the city’s ‘unfortunate manpower shortage’ I knew it was you. Since you didn’t seem to remember me at all, I decided to let it go.” He looked her up and down. “You look good, Sarabeth, and I’m going to kill Jesse for not telling me exactly who the mayor is these days.”

Busted. Dante obviously knew she’d been pretending not to remember him. At least she could pretend not to be mortified. “Everyone just calls me Sara these days, and I do hope you won’t incapacitate my chief of police over a simple misunderstanding. I’m sure he doesn’t have a clue that you and I were once friends.” After all, they’d done their best to hide their short relationship from their friends and families and had done a good job until the very end. Sara had been the A student, good girl, daughter of a prominent local family and, yes, rich. Dante had been in town for the summer to stay with his aunt, uncle and cousins. He’d driven a motorcycle, worn his hair long, smoked too much and stayed out too late. They’d truly had nothing in common, except some perverted chemistry they never would’ve discovered if not for a crazy string of coincidences on one hot summer night.

“Oh, he has more than a clue,” Dante said as he returned his attention to the anonymous gift on the table.

Great. All this time and she’d had no idea that her chief of police knew about her teenage mistake. She’d made more than one, as most teenagers had, but Dante was the big mistake. Foolish of her to think no one outside a very small circle had known. Even more foolish of her to think it mattered now, after so many years.

One piece of tape at a time, the package was unwrapped with Dante’s little knife. Sara watched as he dissected the paper as if he were a surgeon and the hot-pink wrapping paper, his patient. No move was unsteady or unthinking. The work claimed his entire attention, and she was quite sure he had dismissed her entirely. She might as well have not been in the room at all.

Eventually, he revealed a square, white gift box. He listened to the box, hefted it with the tip of his knife, turned it this way and that, and eventually opened it with the same calculating blade he had used to remove the pink paper.

Fine, dark eyebrows lifted. “Oh,” he muttered as he looked down into the box.

Sara moved to stand beside him, since there was obviously no danger. She reached forward, but again Dante stopped her with that strong hand of his. “No touching,” he said. “There might be prints.”

Sara sighed. “Yes, I’m sure the state lab will be anxious to get right on that. Alert, alert,” she said, rolling her eyes. “Drop those murder cases and get right on this anonymous gift of…” she glanced into the box to spy a jumbled mixture of fine, brightly colored silk. Dante reached into the box with his knife and pulled out a demicup red silk bra adorned with a smattering of black lace. The bra dangled from the short, sharp blade.

“Your size?” he asked.
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