The Guardian
Linda Winstead Jones

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She’d quickly said yes because she hadn’t wanted to go back into the party and let the others see her cry. The fact that he had seen her crying hadn’t seemed to matter. He had been temporary. In a few weeks he’d be gone, and it wasn’t as though there had been anyone of importance that he could have told about her embarrassment. He’d known that and hadn’t cared. There was no way he could’ve left her there, alone and miserable, hiding and suffering.

He’d taken Jesse’s keys and promised to be back in a matter of minutes. The flat tire could not have come at a better time.

Dante had changed the tire, and Sarabeth had quit crying. She’d gotten angry and accused him of causing the flat tire. He’d laughed at her and she hadn’t liked that at all. These days he could easily arrange a convenient flat tire, with some planning and the right tools, but back then he hadn’t had a clue. He hadn’t had a clue about a lot of things, truth be told.

Somewhere along the way, he’d kissed Sarabeth. It hadn’t been his first kiss, or hers, but he could still remember kissing her and feeling as if he was falling into nothingness, like nothing else mattered. She’d been a spoiled rich kid who would never have looked his way if she hadn’t needed him, and he’d suspected that the kiss was a revenge of sorts for the cheating boyfriend. None of that had mattered, however, and that kiss had changed everything.

Only one other time in his life had he found himself attracted to a woman who was so totally and completely wrong for him. Whatever contentment he’d found in thinking of the old days with Sarabeth disappeared in a flash as he stared at the house before him and let go of old memories.

Things hadn’t worked out well for Serena. Not at all. Dante didn’t waste his time on women like her—or Sara—anymore. He wasn’t so foolish as to think that he could bring a woman into the world he lived in and then let her go unscathed. Or worse, never let her go at all.

The women who came into and out of his life on a regular basis knew who he was and what he wanted and that he wouldn’t be sticking around for long, and they didn’t care. They lived for the moment, for the night. Four years after her husband’s passing, Sara Vance remained faithful. She likely could not even imagine living for the night, giving herself to a man who wouldn’t stay, throwing herself into the moment strictly for the fun of it. For the pleasure.

Even eighteen years ago she’d been cautious. They’d kissed plenty, and he’d snaked his hand up her blouse more than once, but that had been it. He’d thought he’d die if he didn’t have her, if he didn’t get inside her, but she would have none of it. They’d come close, very close, but in the end Sarabeth Caldwell had been the one to get away, the one female he’d wanted to distraction and had not had. Maybe that was lucky for her.

Around ten-fifteen, the light in her bedroom was switched off. A moment later, the lace curtains at that window moved, very slightly. Was she watching him, now? Did she realize or care that he was keeping an eye on her?

The curtain fell, and he waited. Knowing Sara, she was likely to come storming out of the house in a thick, ugly bathrobe, still managing to look sexy as all get out. She’d order him off her street. She’d order him to go back to his lonely little duplex and get some sleep. When that didn’t happen, he waited for his cell to ring. She was the mayor, after all, and getting his cell number from Jesse wouldn’t take her more than a few minutes.

But no one came running out of the house, and his phone didn’t ring. Maybe she hadn’t seen him after all.

It was after midnight when Dante finally headed toward his rented duplex to grab a few hours of sleep. He was restless, unsettled. It had been a while since he’d thought about Serena. As he drove down the deserted Tillman streets, he wondered if he’d dream of colorful silk and creamy skin, or slit throats and unheard screams.

When the door to her office opened without warning, Sara’s head snapped up. After yesterday evening’s disturbing events, she was more than a little on edge. Jumpy. She was downright jumpy. She was relieved to see her friend Patty walk in, bearing two tall disposable cups of coffee. Dressed for work in a conservative blue suit, with her long dark hair pulled back into a sleek bun, Patty looked very much the professional. There was no hint of the wild child she had once been—not outwardly.

A couple times a week, Patty stopped by on her way to work at the bank. They had coffee and talked for a few minutes. Now that Patty was married, they didn’t get to spend as much time together as they had when Patty had been single and sworn off men, and Sara had been widowed less than a year and newly relocated to Tillman. Sara would never begrudge her friend happiness, but she did miss those days when they’d spent so much time together. Much of that time had been spent convincing themselves that they did not need or want male companionship of any sort. She’d actually believed that for a long time.

“The highlights look good,” Patty said.

Sara patted her tightly restrained hair. “I had it done Friday afternoon. You don’t think it’s too much?” For years she’d worried more than she should about her image. As a Caldwell, as a Vance, as the wife of an assistant district attorney—as mayor. She wore conservative suits that never felt quite right and fashionable shoes that too often pinched her toes. It came with the job, she told herself.

“Not at all. It’s cute.” Patty looked Sara up and down in that way only a good friend could, and her smile faded. “You didn’t sleep well last night.”

Sara sighed. “No, I didn’t.”

“I warned you being mayor wouldn’t be a bed of roses.”

“Many times,” Sara said with a smile as she took a sip of her coffee. She sighed in delight. The coffee from Bubba’s Quick Stop was so much better than the sludge her secretary made every morning. Patty sat in the chair on the opposite side of the desk, and Sara relaxed. This would likely be the most pleasant part of her day, so she might as well enjoy it. “It wasn’t exactly city business that kept me up half the night,” she confessed.

Something in her voice grabbed Patty’s attention. The woman’s eyes sparkled. Aah, yes, there was that hint of the wild child. Her spine straightened. Her lips curved into a smile. “What’s going on?”

Being very careful with her words, Sara told her friend about everything that had happened yesterday. She tried not to make Dante sound too interesting, or even to make him a too-important part of the story. He was ancillary, a necessary evil, no different than any other officer who might’ve been investigating her case. Patty had moved to Tillman her senior year of high school, months after the fiasco with Dante had ended, and there had been no reason to tell her—or anyone else—what had happened. So Sara told the story as if she’d never seen Dante before yesterday.

She did, however, have to end the telling with her looking out of her bedroom window late at night and seeing his car sitting on the street, and she also had to admit that she’d felt comforted at the sight.

“And you didn’t call me?” Patty asked, incensed.

“It was too late.”

“You could’ve called me long before you saw the car on the street. Someone delivers replacement undies, very nice stuff to hear you tell it, to your house and you don’t even call?”

“You have supper at your in-laws every Tuesday,” Sara argued.

“And I’m always happy to be interrupted,” Patty replied. Her eyes narrowed. “There’s more. There’s something you’re not telling me. This Dante Mangino.” She leaned back in her chair and took a sip of coffee.

“Tell me about him.”

“There’s really nothing to tell,” Sara said. “He’s Chief Edwards’s cousin. Apparently he has a lot of experience and has agreed to stay on for a while and help with training and investigations.”

“So why is he sitting outside your window late at night? Was it creepy?” Her eyes widened. “Oh, do you think he’s the underwear thief?”


“If this was a movie, he’d be the one,” Patty argued.

“He’s new in town, there’s the underwear theft, sexy stuff is delivered while he’s there, you see him watching your house late at night…”

“If it’s Dante, then who left the box and rang the doorbell while he was standing in my foyer?”

Patty grimaced. “A small detail easily explained away. Somehow.”

“Dante is just…he worries too much, I suppose.” Sara gave a nonchalant wave of her hand, doing her best to dismiss the man in every way. “He sees a shadow and he believes there’s a danger in it. He sees the worst possible scenario in everything he runs across. A couple of unhappy letters and a panty thief, and he’s got me under surveillance.” If not for him, she wouldn’t even be worried about the letters or the underwear. A little bothered, maybe, but not really worried.

Patty cocked her head. “You’re already calling this Mangino character by his first name. That’s rather interesting, knowing you and the way your brain works. Hmm. You also very quickly and decisively dismissed him as a suspect. What does he look like? Is he as hot as his cousin?”

Hotter. “I suppose some women would think he’s attractive, in a…different sort of way from Jesse Edwards.”

“Different how?” Patty could be very persistent.

“Just different.”

Patty smiled. “You like him, don’t you?”

“I do not.”

“You do. You’ve got that little twitch to your lips. It’s a dead giveaway. I haven’t seen that twitch since college!” Patty’s grin was insanely wide. “When do I get to meet him?”

Never, if I have anything to say about it. “I’m sure you’ll run into him eventually,” Sara said, cursing the ease with which her old friend could read her. A twitch? Why hadn’t anyone ever told her she had a twitch? “He’s going to be around until I can come up with more money for payroll and Chief Edwards hires more qualified men.”

Patty ignored the subject change to city business. “How serious is it? Are we talking love at first sight?”

Sara sighed and drank more coffee. It was a nice little stall but didn’t last long enough. Finally she said, “There’s nothing at all serious going on here, and even if there were, I don’t believe in love at first sight and you know it.”

“Lust at first sight?” Patty asked without pause.

Again, Sara hesitated. She didn’t believe in that, either, not for a woman thirty-five years old. Not for a woman who’d had her heart broken, first by desertion by choice and later by desertion by death. “I don’t know,” she said softly. “Maybe I was just having an off day.” Maybe, even though she did her best to dismiss it as unimportant, the theft and anonymous gift had rattled her more than she’d realized, and a capable man, any capable man, was a comfort.

Maybe she’d simply been alone too long.
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