I can’t even begin to count the number of times my grandmother told me that she would die a happy woman if only I’d join the Order of the Benedictine Sisters of Guadalupe and live a chaste and holy life. To which I always nodded, smiled, and said, “I want you to die happy, Abuela, pero I’m not going to become a nun.” There were several problems with me and a pious life. If you asked my mother, she’d say I’d sinned over and over and over again, beginning with premarital intercourse (which she suspected but had no actual proof of), and ending with my job. In my mother’s eyes, being a detective necessitates questionable actions and an “ends justifies the means” philosophy.
Which is not actually my philosophy. I do things by the book, and let my conscience be my guide. I was God-fearing, so I tried to toe the line, but I was also a driven, independent woman walking a tightrope between modern American culture and my parents’ old-fashioned male- oriented panish culture, so my conscience didn’t always know which way to go when I hit a fork in the road.
Case in point. It was a brisk Friday night, downtown Sacramento was lit up with twinkling white lights, I was all dressed up, and even though I had no one to go salsa dancing with, joining those crazy Benedictine Sisters still never entered my mind. The nuns might enjoy their celibacy, but I was 100 percent positive that I wouldn’t embrace a lifetime of abstinence. Hell, I’d just spent the better part of two hours photographing acrobatic sex in a back alley (which had left me un poquito hot and bothered)—all in the name of being the best private investigator I could possibly be—and I was okay with my decision.
I was almost to Camacho and Associates, the small PI firm where I worked. I dialed Reilly Fuller, the Jill-of-all-trades secretary of the office—and my homegirl. I wanted to go out dancing tonight, and I knew I could count on her to have my back.
She picked up on the third ring, breathing heavy and almost out of breath. “Lola!”
“Hey, chica. How’d you know it was me?”
I frowned. The phone company had effectively destroyed kids’ innocent prank call fun—not to mention obsessed stalker-girls calling and hanging up on a guy just to hear his voice (not that I’d had any experience with that type of juvenile behavior).
“Lola, I’m in the middle of something,” she said. She panted. “I’ll call you back, okay?”
I’d never known Reilly to willingly break a sweat, so I was curious. I checked the time. 8:40. An odd time to be using the treadmill— if that’s what she was up to. “Are you exercising?”
But electric-blue-haired Reilly couldn’t answer me, because she’d already hung up.
Huh. My long night loomed ahead of me, and dancing wasn’t going to be part of it. Looked like it was going to be me, a container of mapo tofu from Szechwan House (my favorite restaurant of all time, coincidentally right next door to Camacho and Associates), my camera hooked up to the office computer, and a whole lot of sex pictures uploading. One at a time.
I turned onto Alhambra and immediately spotted my boss’s truck in the parking lot. I slid my little red CRV into a space right beside it.
Apparently Manny Camacho didn’t have plans for Friday night, either. Hard to believe. He was puro Latino machismo Greek God material—dark and brooding and scary in an I-could-do-things-to- you- and- make- you- scream- for- mercy kind of way.
I couldn’t help sneaking a quick peek in the rearview mirror. Low-cut filmy dress, Victoria’s Secret Ipex cleavage, clear olive skin, salon-highlighted copper strands framing face, MAC O lips. I would not be put out to pasture because of a roguishly sexy reporter who disappeared for days on end and whom I did not want to think about right now.
I grabbed my cell phone, the Nikon, my notepad with the Zimmerman case information, and my new favorite accessory—courtesy of eBay—my Sexy Señorita drawstring bag. Shoving the notepad into the coral-colored purse, I headed toward the offi ce.
In your face, Callaghan. I had options. Dark and brooding suddenly held a new appeal.
Just as I reached the office, Manny pushed open the door. “Dolores?”
My wedge heels teetered on a crack in the sidewalk. Maybe appeal was the wrong word. Dark fascination? Sadistic curiosity?
Fact is, Manny fl ustered me without even trying. Not many people could do that. I’d solved my first big case as primary investigator a few months ago. I chided myself. It was way past time to get over the nerves that shot through me when I was around him.
He looked at his watch, then back at me. “¿Que onda? Are you working?”
I nodded. “The Zimmerman case.”
He held the door, apparently waiting for me to continue.
I held up my camera. “Got some great pictures.” Especially if I had contacts at Playboy or Pent house, which, unfortunately, I didn’t.
“Of Mrs. Zimmerman, um, making out with her personal yoga instructor.” Making out might have been understating Mrs. Zimmerman’s activities, but it was the safest answer.
“How’d you get them?”
“I followed them after yoga class.”
Manny’s eyes narrowed as he looked me up and down. “Are you supposed to be undercover?”
My dress was a far cry from yoga-wear, but there was nothing wrong with looking good on a surveillance job. “They changed after class then went to dinner. Lucky for me I’m a yoga junkie and very fl exible—” Maybe not as fl exible as Mrs. Zimmerman, but her sexual creativity was in a class by itself. “—and have decent cargo room in my car.”
Manny seemed to ponder this, his expression unreadable. “And the photos?” he fi nally asked.
“After dinner they went around the corner from the restaurant.” Totally classless. Who screwed—er, got down and dirty—out in public? “I was across the street. Excellent telephoto capabilities on this camera, by the way.”
He let the door to the office close while I accessed the pictures on the digital camera. I froze when his arm brushed against my back. The touch had been as light as a breath, but any physical contact from Manny Camacho could send a woman into premature orgasm. He moved behind me to look over my shoulder. A zing shot through my body, and I gulped. Looking at X-rated pictures with my boss was muy uncomfortable.
I tried not to think about how fl exible he might be and whether his slight limp or his cowboy boots would interfere with the Kama Sutra position in photographs three, twenty-seven, or thirty-one.
When we’d gone through all the pictures, I stepped away, trying to ignore the charged silence. “Open and shut,” I said. “She’s clearly cheating on her husband.”
“Good work.” His voice sounded strained. I shoved aside the idea that it might be because of the photos, particularly what Mrs. Zimmerman had been doing in shots ten through eighteen.
My PI gene kicked in. Why didn’t he have plans on a Friday night? He had the hottest girlfriend this side of the Rio Grande. Maybe this side of anywhere. Her only competition was the phantom ex- wife nobody had ever laid eyes on.
Neither were in sight. “You’re here late,” I said casually. “Where’s Isabel?” I pronounced the name in Spanish: Ee- sa- bel.
“Not here.” The corner of his mouth notched up. “Where’s Callaghan?”
There was a good chance that Manny Camacho, ex-cop-turned- super- detective- who- seemed- to- know- everything, knew exactly where Jack Callaghan was. Then again, maybe not. He wasn’t psychic, after all, and I hadn’t let on that Jack had been MIA for almost a week now. “Not here,” I said, then quickly changed the subject. “I’m going to upload the photos and write my report for Mr. Zimmerman.” Which brought to mind something else. “I’m ready for a new case.”
Manny pressed a button on his key ring. Two beeps sounded from his truck, a white, lifted kick-ass 4 × 4. It wasn’t the most unobtrusive vehicle on the road in Sacramento, but it certainly had style. “The report can wait until Monday. We’ll talk about the caseload then.”
I started to stick my phone into my purse and to retrieve my set of office keys. The straps slipped off my shoulder and the bag fell. Manny was right. Uploading the pictures could wait till Monday, but since I had nothing better to do tonight, there was no reason to put it off. “I like to finish what I start,” I said as I bent down to grab the straps of my bag. “I’ll do the report tonight.”
As I straightened, he gave me another slow once-over. “Callaghan’s a fool.”
A shiver swept up my spine and I shifted uncomfortably. Reality bit me. I didn’t think I could cross the line into fraternizing with my boss after all, and I certainly wasn’t ready to write Jack off, even if he had a few secrets and the annoying habit of disappearing. He probably had a very good reason for dropping off the face of the earth. Again.
He’d better, damn it.
“I said you’re going to break your phone.”
I started. He had? I was? I loosened the death grip on the device, but dropped my purse in the process. “I, um, need to call my mother. See if she needs anything.”
“¿Por qué, mi poderosa? ¿Qué pasa?”
Ay, ay, ay. Manny had taken to calling me “strong woman.” Now he was calling me his strong woman? I gulped and stumbled back a step. I might be a good Catholic girl, but I wasn’t immune to temptation. “She’s home sick. I, um, think I should buy her some medicine and ginger ale.”
“Can I help?”
Manny as nurturer? It didn’t compute. “No, no, no!” I just wanted to go upload the Zimmerman pics and go home to my empty fl at. Above my parents’ house. That I shared with my brother. “I mean, I’m fi ne. I can handle it.”
He pressed the button on his key ring again, reactivating the truck alarm. “I have some more work I can do. I’ll stay with you.”
My hackles went up. I thought about jabbing him in the chest and reminding him that my Salma Hayek curves didn’t mean I wasn’t Xena, Warrior Princess, through and through. I didn’t need a protector—or a babysitter.
Thankfully—since it wouldn’t have been a good idea to chastise my boss—or touch his chest—I was stopped by the sound of a horn blaring behind us. A sporty silver Volvo pulled into the parking lot. Jack! My heart immediately slammed in my chest and I caught my breath. ¡Mi amor!
He stepped out of his car, all tousled brown hair and swarthy Irish complexion. His gaze swept over me and an angry dimple pulled his cheek in. My heart lurched again. I could imagine what he thought. I was dressed for a night on the town and Manny wore black and gray, his burnished skin and onyx eyes contemplating Jack with harsh scrutiny.
I took a small step to the side, putting space between Manny and me. No need to stoke the fi re.
Not that it mattered, I reminded myself. Jack had up and left for a week—without a word. If he had issues with Manny, that was his problem. You snooze, you lose. I sidestepped back to where I’d been.
“Hasta la vista, Dolores.” Manny’s voice had turned gruff.
“Right. See you later.”
His black alligator-skin cowboy boots clapped unevenly against the sidewalk as he walked to his truck.
Jack came toward me. He dipped his head in an almost imperceptible nod at Manny as they passed, and then his eyes flicked to the bodice of my dress.
They lingered and his face tightened, not in the I want to ravish you kind of way I would have liked, but more in a what the hell are you wearing around him kind of way.
Catching my reflection in the windowpane, I immediately saw what had caught his attention. It was my 34Cs— in the midst of a wardrobe malfunction. My dress was askew and part of my right breast plumped out of my demi-bra. ¡Ay, caramba! No wonder Manny had given me a slow burning look after I’d picked up my purse.
I straightened it as Manny pulled out of the parking lot. Shit! Manny had gotten an eyeful of my assets, and he hadn’t uttered a word.
From the way Jack looked from me to Manny’s truck and back, I suspected that he was thinking the same thing. “Purple, huh?” he said when he steadied his gaze back on me. His voice had that low, sexy tone that created instant yearning in the pit of my soul.
“It’s called Lavender Ice,” I said coolly.
“Well, it’s not like you’ve been around, Callaghan.” I ran my hands down my front in full temptress mode. Jack’s gaze smoldered as it followed my actions. Slow torture. God, sometimes it was so good to be a woman.
His gaze finally found its way back to my face. “I go away for one week and you start dating your boss. Nice, Cruz.”
I kept my gaze steady. “You went away without a word. That was not nice, Callaghan.”
He stood like a statue, then like a blip during a fi lm, he shrugged. “I had something I had to take care of, that’s all. It’s no big deal, Lola, really. Sorry,” he added with a contrite smile.
Not a big deal to him, but it had been a pretty big deal to me. I waited, thinking he’d offer more of an explanation, but he gave me nothing. Finally I jammed my hands on my hips and stared him down. Fine. I was just going to have to drag it out of him. “What kind of thing?” I should have left it at that, but damn it if my mouth didn’t have a mind of its own. “You might as well spill it. You know you can’t keep secrets from me.” I pointed at myself. “Private investigator, remember?”
“How could I forget?” he muttered, and he took a small step toward me.
His musky scent. His six feet of hard body. His tousled hair. His crooked little smile. Ay, caramba. Jack Callaghan sent me into a tailspin. Rooting out his secrets could become one of my favorite pastimes if he didn’t infuriate me so much.
I backed up. Distance. He would not sweet talk me into forgetting why I was mad. “Where’d you go?”
“I had an emergency I had to deal with, Lola.”
The way he rumbled my name made my knees go weak and diluted my anger. “What kind of emergency?”
He took a pantherlike step toward me. “Unfortunately, it was the kind I couldn’t say no to.”
“Is that your explanation?”
“It’s the truth,” he said.
In a half-truth kind of way. “What kind of emergency couldn’t you say no to?”
He backed me up against the window of Camacho and Associates. “You really want to talk about this now?”
I breathed in. God, he smelled fabulous. Forget about dancing. The musky pheromones were sending promises of acrobatics. “Y-yes.”
“I missed you.”
“It’s going to take some serious convincing to make me believe that.” My eyelids fluttered. “You didn’t call—”
His hand slipped behind my back, a feather-light touch that sent whispers of desire up my spine. “The battery on my phone died.”
“Come on, Callaghan,” I breathed, summoning my self-control. “You can do better than that. No charger in your car? No money to buy a new one? Ever hear of a pay phone?”
“Couldn’t fi nd one, bellísima.”
Ooh. Low blow. And good memory. I’d taught him the word for beautiful, and now he was using it on me. “Pulling out all the stops, eh?” I pressed my palm against his chest. “Spill it, guapo. You can’t just sweet-talk your way into—”
The corner of his mouth crept up wickedly, and his hand moved to my hip. “Sweet-talk my way into what?”
My skirt. My heart. My . . .
Dios mío. His chest felt amazing under my hand—all hard and muscled and— What was I mad about again?
He bent his head and brushed his lips against my neck, trailing them to my collarbone.
“Mmm.” The moan slipped out. Reality or not, his charm was second to none.
“Mmm-hmm,” he echoed.
I jumped when my cell phone belted out the chorus of “La Bamba.” Reality came fl ooding back into my brain. He’d left without so much as an adiós, that’s what I was mad about.
Grabbing the phone from my bag, I flipped it open. Holding it to my ear, I tried to ignore how close Jack was to me, how the minuscule amount of air between our bodies sizzled with heat. “H-hello?” My voice croaked and my eyes fluttered closed. I dropped my purse on the ground.
The line was dead. Thank God, a misdial. My grip on the phone became limp. The camera I still held by the strap dangled loosely from my other hand. I was putty.
The heat from Jack’s mouth radiated through my body. I gasped as his hands slid up my sides and his fingers spread wide on my rib cage. His lips sought out my mouth. I wanted him. Right here. Right now. I just hoped no one was lurking around a corner taking digital photos of us.
I was going to have to go to confession for this. Maybe twice. Those Benedictine Sisters would never have me now.
“You taste like heaven,” he said.
“Mmm—” I broke off when my phone rang again. My eyelids fl ew open.
“Hold that thought,” I said, and I flipped open the phone. “Hello?”
No one spoke. Chaos echoed on the other end of the line. I tried to make out a sound. Something identifi able. Jack’s mouth settled in against my neck again, but a cry that sounded like an injured animal, followed by a primal scream, assaulted my eardrums. My nerves crackled. “Who is this?” I demanded.
The connection cut out. I pushed the end button with my thumb then pressed another button to check the phone number. I froze.
Jack’s blue bedroom eyes narrowed. “What’s wrong?”
Panic lodged in my throat. “My parents. Somebody was crying and screaming.”
I hit redial, but the line beeped incessantly with a busy signal.
I snatched my purse from the ground and fumbled inside. “I have to go.” My hands shook and I couldn’t grab hold of anything. “Where the hell are my keys?!”
Jack grabbed my wrist and pulled me toward his car. “I’ll drive.”
There was no point arguing; I didn’t think I could maneuver a vehicle in a straight line with the panic that was seizing my insides. With runway model balance on my wedge heels, I jumped into Jack’s supercool Volvo.
He gunned it out of the parking lot and raced down H Street toward my parents’ Midtown house.
Excerpted from hasta la vista, lola! by Melissa Bourbon Ramirez.
Copyright © 2010 by Melissa Bourbon Ramirez.
Published in February 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction
is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or
medium must be secured from the Publisher.