The Guardian
Linda Winstead Jones

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She glanced at the tag and felt her insides drop. “Yes. But seriously, we don’t have our own fingerprinting facilities, and by the time the state lab gets around to something like this, whatever crime has been committed will be well beyond the statute of limitations.”

“I’m not sending it to the state lab,” he said as he returned the bra to the box. “I work for a top-notch private firm, when I’m not doing one family member or another a favor. The Benning Agency has a more than competent facility and crew. They can handle a little fingerprinting.” He looked down at her. “The undergarments will all be ruined in the process.” His knife blade entered the box again, and he came out with an absurdly insubstantial pair of panties that matched the demibra. “So if you’d rather keep these…”

“No!” she responded hotly, stepping away from Dante and the box. “I’m not going to wear underwear that’s been left on my doorstep by a pervert who obviously has some kind of fetish.”

He returned the panties to the box and came up again with an emerald-green bra no more ample than the red one. “A fetish and very good taste.”

Dante dropped the green bra into the box. So far this was the most interesting crime he’d investigated since coming to the small town of Tillman, Alabama. Just last week he’d nabbed a thief who’d tried to make his getaway on a riding lawn mower. Even when the moron had realized he was being followed, he hadn’t stopped, not even to dump his pillowcase full of loot. There had been a nasty fight at the barbershop over a really bad haircut, and a tussle over a prime parking spot in front of the drug store.

And now this. For his newest assignment he’d be hunting down a creep or creeps who stole underwear and replaced it with sexier stuff. Not that he’d seen what had been stolen from her clothesline, but judging by what little he remembered of Sarabeth Caldwell—now Sara Vance—he suspected her drawers—of the furniture sort—were filled with sensible and sturdy underwear that held everything firmly in place. Personally, he liked a little jiggle. Lovely extra pounds aside, Sara looked as if she avoided jiggling at all cost.

It had been a real shock when she’d looked at him just so and pursed her lips and the past had come rushing back. In his mind Sarabeth—Sara—had remained seventeen, skinny and young and timid. To see her in this woman, to instantly have that part of his life come rushing back, had given him a jolt. Fortunately he was much better at hiding his emotions than he’d been at seventeen.

Jesse deserved an ass-whoopin’ for this one. When he’d handed over the slim file on this case, he could’ve warned his unsuspecting cousin that the mayor was the young, beautiful woman Dante had once made out with in a ’72 Camaro that had not afforded him nearly enough maneuvering room, as he remembered. He had heard that the mayor was a widow, and with a common name like Sara he had suspected she’d be an older woman, one who’d taken up local politics in retirement. No wonder the other investigators didn’t want this job. How could any red-blooded man look at Sara Vance and talk about her bras and panties and not get, well, a bit flustered?

Dante didn’t fluster easily, not even when he had to face down a pretty woman who stammered when she said underwear, who looked naturally sexy with her dark blond hair in a thick ponytail and her T-shirt stretched over nicely shaped breasts encased in what appeared to be, from his vantage point, a very sturdy bra, who had changeable and smart blue eyes that revealed everything. Surprise, annoyance, anger…even a woman’s reluctant interest in a man. He’d seen her interest, as well as her disapproval as her eyes had fallen on the curling end of the tattoo that crawled across his shoulder and partway up his neck.

Pretty or not, Sarabeth Louann Caldwell Vance—how many names did any one woman need, anyway?—was not the kind of woman he’d tangle with. This house and her demeanor screamed old money, her position in politics screamed old power. The set of her mouth and the glint in her eyes screamed, “Interested or not, I don’t fall easily, not anymore. If you think you’re going to feel me up again, you are sadly mistaken.” No, she wouldn’t fall, not into bed, not into relationships, short or long. Dante was definitely into easy, at least where women were concerned.

The thought sounded shallow and callous, even to him, but it was honest enough. He hadn’t fought for anything or anyone that wasn’t assigned by the Benning Agency for a very long time.

“I’m going for my walk, now,” Sara said, her voice almost prim as she dismissed him and the box. “If I don’t hurry, I won’t get home before dark.”

“Wait one minute while I get a pair of gloves from the car.”

She sighed as if waiting for such a short period of time would be an imposition, and then curtly nodded her head in agreement.

When Dante returned, white gloves on so he could handle the box and wrapping paper without leaving his own prints, he could tell that Sara had gathered herself more staunchly together. Whatever interest might’ve once been visible in her eyes was gone, and her chin and mouth seemed to be set more staunchly—more mayorlike. Even her spine was a bit straighter, a bit harder. She had her house keys in one hand and wore an expression that said, Thank you for your service, now get out.

Was she always so unyielding, or was this attitude just for him? They’d shared a few weeks of teenage passion years ago, but he was not the same person he’d been at seventeen. Neither was she.

They exited the front door together, she, locking the door behind her, he, gingerly handling the evidence. She was right: the state lab would laugh at his request if he asked them to print all of this for a panty thief. Bennings, however, had a fairly new and not badly equipped lab, along with a couple of geeks to play with all the toys.

Still, explaining this one wasn’t going to be easy.

He carefully stored the evidence in the trunk of his city-issued unmarked car, a boring, dependable, burgundy Crown Vic. Sara remained close by, tapping her toes, as if anxious for him to leave. Now that they were out of the house, she didn’t have to remain with him until he left, but she seemed compelled to do so. Some “good manners” thing, he supposed.

Dante slammed the trunk and then caught her eye. Crap. She was probably right about this, too. The man he was looking for was likely a perv who was into the new mayor and didn’t know any other way to express his affection, such as it was. The crime, his first real investigative case in Tillman, was creepy but probably perfectly harmless.

Probably. He often worked as a bodyguard for the Benning Agency, so he’d dealt with more than one stalker, more than one perv whose actions went above and beyond what any sane person would think of. It was a mistake to believe that those on the other side of the law would always think and behave rationally. They didn’t, and the results could be—had been—deadly. It had been a long time since he’d seen the world through naive eyes.

“You walk every day?” he asked.

“Yes,” she said in a polite but emotionally distant voice.

“Same time every day?”

“Close enough,” she said, her brow wrinkling.

Dante looked her up and down. “I don’t suppose I could talk you into skipping your walk today.” It would soon enough be dark, and while the neighborhood appeared to be peaceful, someone had just dumped a box full of sexy underwear on her doorstep and then run from the scene.

“No,” she answered sharply. “This is all very strange, but I won’t be scared into hiding in my house. Besides, I need the exercise.”

“I’ll buy you a treadmill.”

She laughed, and then apparently decided she’d stuck around long enough in the name of courtesy. Sara turned away and headed down the sidewalk, her step brisk, her head back, her hips set into intriguing motion.

“Still want to drop this case?” he called after her, his eyes focused on the sway of her hips.

“I suppose not,” she answered reluctantly, not slowing down, not looking back.

Dante sighed and got behind the wheel of the Crown Vic. He’d rather be in his own pickup truck, but Jesse had insisted. The job came with rules that required a haircut, a suit, a tie and this old woman’s car. Jesse was doing a lot of insisting these days for someone who had asked for such a huge favor.

The mayor didn’t look back, not even when Dante cranked the engine. He watched her for a moment, mentally marking Sara as trouble of the worst sort, mentally cursing Jesse for throwing him into this case without warning, mentally undressing the staid politician and wondering what she’d look like in that green silk bra and matching panties. Yes, she’d been a skinny teenage girl when last he’d touched her, but she’d filled out in all the right places.

Dante cursed succinctly, and then he rolled down the street, following the woman who steadfastly refused to look back.

Chapter 2

So, maybe she should’ve taken Dante’s advice and stayed in tonight. Usually, Sara relaxed completely when she walked. Usually, she didn’t think about anything but the beauty of the old trees and houses that lined the streets in this part of town, the fresh air that filled her lungs—and maybe that pair of black dress pants she wanted to get back into, and wouldn’t if she didn’t get enough exercise. Five pounds would do it. Maybe ten. Dante might think differently, but as far as she was concerned there was no such thing as the right place on her body for twenty pounds.

Of course, he wasn’t as thin as he’d once been, either, but it looked as if everything he’d added was muscle. Every change made him look more handsome, more manly. His jaw seemed sharper, his nose slightly more prominent and yet as straight and perfect as ever. There was muscle in his neck and a power to his hands that made it clear he was no longer a child. There was less softness in his face and his body, less vulnerability in his eyes. She knew no specifics, but she got the sense that life had not been entirely kind to Dante.

Just minutes after leaving her house, she wished with all she had that she’d stayed at home. In the last light of day she noticed every shadow and wondered if someone was hiding within one. She heard every chirping bird, every barking dog, every creak, and she imagined the worst. She walked a little bit faster, but that did nothing to change the shadows and the alarming noises. The hairs on the back of her neck seemed to rise up, and her heartbeat increased for reasons other than exercise.

A treadmill, Dante had suggested. Maybe that wasn’t such a bad idea.

Lydia and Patty had accused her, on more than one occasion, of being perverse. If someone said she shouldn’t do something, she had to give it a try. Robert hadn’t called her perverse, but he had more than once accused her of being stubborn as all get out. Her husband had been gone for four years, gone much too soon, and there were still times that she thought of him and it hurt like hell. She’d decided that the pain—a pain that came less often when she kept herself too busy to think about Robert and all they’d missed—would never go away.

Perverse or stubborn as all get out, those who knew her best said. So, was she walking down a deserted street at dusk simply because a man who made her anxious and twitchy had suggested that she not?

Suddenly, she was positive someone was following her. It wasn’t her imagination, not anymore. She heard a car engine, but no car went past her. The engine was almost idling, the car moved so slowly. The motor purred and whispered, instead of racing as a car engine should. Her neck and the palms of her hands itched. Her heart pounded and her mouth went dry. She listened for the car to stop at the curb. She listened for the driver to get out and walk to the door of one of the houses she walked past so she could dismiss her worry as silly and unnecessary.

No. Someone had anonymously sent her sexy underwear, in the right size no less, so her worries were not silly. Not silly at all. Had her underwear thief stolen the things that had been drying on the line simply to get her size? That indicated an unhealthy interest and determination and all the other traits one did not want from a secret admirer. Like it or not, she could not brush this incident off as nothing. Not anymore. She took a deep breath, gathered her composure as best she could and turned her head slowly, trying for a nonchalant glance back. She’d pretend to see a neighbor. Maybe she’d even look past the car to smile and wave. Surely if someone was following her they wouldn’t try anything if they knew they’d been seen.

Sara took a deep breath, slowed her step and turned her head—and was immediately relieved and incensed. How dare he? She spun about and stalked toward the car that was so obviously tailing her as if she were the criminal.

Dante Mangino smiled and lifted the fingers that had been resting on the steering wheel of his city car for a casual wave. He didn’t even have the grace to look guilty! Conservative suit and short haircut aside, he didn’t look like any police officer she’d ever seen. He was irreverent, fiery—and, after all these years, still the bad boy.

The driver’s-side window was down, allowing him to enjoy the mild March air. One arm rested nonchalantly there, his elbow jutting out of the car.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she asked.

He didn’t seem at all taken aback by her obvious annoyance. “Why, ma’am, I’m making sure the mayor of this fine town gets home safe and sound. That’s all.”

Was it her imagination, or was his subtle Southern accent exaggerated a bit for that comment?

Sara’s first impulse was to tell him that it was unnecessary, and then she admitted to herself that she was comforted to see him there, that the shadows did not seem so ominous now that she was not alone, and the noises that had moments earlier seemed out of place were suddenly ordinary and not at all alarming.
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