Knock Me Off My Feet

Susan Donovan

St. Martin's Paperbacks

CHAPTER 1
Detective Stacey Quinn stood in the shadows of the television studio and watched her. She glowed in a proper pink suit jacket that reminded him of frosting on a party cupcake. Her hands were folded primly on the desk in front of her.
That voice, however, came from a full, luscious mouth that was anything but prim and proper, and he listened to the flow of it—honey-smooth, rich, and god-awful sexy.
With those lovely lips, she spoke of the best way to remove water spots from glassware, and the detective felt his pulse quicken.
Could it be that here she was at last—the woman of his fantasies, the woman his brothers claimed could not possibly exist? Could it be that this woman under the studio lights was one part Martha Stewart to one part Carmen Electra?
“Unfortunately, the spots may be tiny pits in the glass itself.” She smiled sadly, sharing the heartbreak of scratched stemware with her fans. “So if this trick doesn’t work, then I assure you, nothing will.”
Detective Quinn swallowed hard.
With a little tilt of her head and a friendly grin, she held the camera’s gaze. “And as always, thank you, viewers, for another wonderful week of handy comments and suggestions.”
“And thank you, Helen! We’ll have more Homey Helen next Monday. Stay with us, Chicago. We’ll be right back after the break.”
The anchorwoman flashed a smile until they were off the air, then turned to her guest. “Nice segment, Audie. Good luck tonight. Who’re you playing?”
“The Sun-Times, and we’re gonna kick some serious butt, let me tell you.” She unclipped the tiny microphone from her lapel. “What time is it?”
“Five fifty-four.”
“Crap!” She popped up from behind the long curved desk, jumped off the platform, and ran across the studio, shouting good-bye to the news anchor and crew.
The detective watched as she did a header over a cable and landed flat on her face, giving him ample opportunity to notice that Autumn Adams—“Homey Helen” to the rest of the world—wasn’t wearing a skirt with that jacket.
She wore a pair of baggy black soccer shorts, shin guards, thick socks, and cleats.
The detective looked down. OK, so maybe she wasn’t exactly the fantasy, but she’d just skidded to a stop spread-eagled, her nose at the tip of his polished tassel loafer, the soccer shorts riding up her rather extraordinary bottom.
“Watch out for that loose wire,” he whispered.
Autumn let her forehead fall to the floor and closed her eyes, pausing to gather her wits and what remained of her pride. She had a feeling she’d need both when she met the owner of that gravelly, smug voice.
“Need a hand?” He reached for her, and Autumn looked up, scanning him from the tips of his fingers, up the long arm, all the way to the green eyes sparkling with suppressed amusement.
The face was just as smug as the voice.
“No thanks.” Autumn hoisted herself up and gave an indelicate yank on her shorts. With a huff she began to walk past the man, but he placed a hand on her arm.
“Miss Adams, I’m Chicago Police Violent Crimes Detective Stacey Quinn. I believe you were expecting me.”
Autumn’s mouth fell open and she snorted. “But that’s a woman’s name! They said Stacey—I was expecting a woman!”
Detective Quinn was unfazed. “Yeah? And I expected you’d be wearing a skirt. We’ll call it even.”
She blinked at him, stunned. watching as a corner of the policeman’s mouth curled up in delight. It was completely involuntary, but she smiled back.
“OK. Mister Detective Stacey.” she said. laughing. “You get twenty minutes, but you have to take a ride with me because I’m late. Can you drive a stick?”
Detective Quinn followed the pink suit jacket through the lobby of the WBBS-TV station. but his eyes were riveted to the woman beneath it. Two parts of her, to be exact: the nape of Autumn Adams’s slender neck, where delicate question-mark curls clung to the damp skin under a neat twist of hair, and the identical globes of her butt, swooshing full and firm beneath the soccer shorts.
They walked through the double glass doors, out onto the sidewalk, and into the sweltering parking lot. She suddenly turned to him. and Stacey Quinn got his first real close look at her face.
“Whoa.”
“What?”
She looked like she would be nice to touch. Silky. Her hair and her eyes were the exact same shade of rich brown—smooth like milk chocolate or coffee with cream. Her skin was a dark peach, and those lips—Holy God, those lips!—they looked plump and juicy and he bet they tasted like some kind of rich, sweet fruit.
The little pink jacket didn’t suit her at all, he decided. She should be in leopard print underwear. In his bed. To hell with spotted stemware.
“Here. Drive.” Autumn tossed him the keys while she grabbed a gym bag from the trunk of the Porsche convertible. “Lakeview High School, Irving Park, and—”
“I know where it is.” He got behind the wheel. “But why am I driving?”
Autumn plopped down in the passenger side and smiled at him. “Don’t you want to drive my Porsche? I was under the impression that all men like Porsches.”
He turned the ignition and felt the sports car rip and rumble to life beneath him. As he pulled onto Walton Street, he retrieved his shades from inside his sport coat and slipped them on one-handed.
“I didn’t say I minded driving, Miss Adams. I just asked why.”
Autumn shrugged indifferently. “I need to change my shirt in the car.”
She began pulling pins from her chic French twist and tossed them one-by-one into the ashtray. She used her fingers to ruffle up her shoulder-length waves.
Next, Autumn Adams yanked off her pink suit jacket, wadded it into a ball, and shoved it under the car seat.
Quinn laughed as he turned north onto Lake Shore Drive. “I hope you got a secret way to get wrinkles out of linen.”
“As a matter of fact, I do. It’s called the dry cleaner.” Autumn leaned her head back and turned her face to the evening sun. “God, I love Chicago in the summer. Don’t you?” She was in the middle of a long sigh when she suddenly shot him a suspicious glance. “Hey, how did you know it was linen?”
“I notice things.”
She’d noticed a few things herself—like how Detective Quinn didn’t talk much or fidget at all. She got the feeling he was saving up for later—for what, she had no idea.
Autumn ran her fingers through her hair and let her arms rise above her in the wind, her sleeveless white blouse rippling around her ribs. She always seemed to be rushing somewhere. There was never enough time just to be—like this—the sun on her face and the air on her skin.
She sighed deeply and pulled the blouse up over her head.
It was safe to say that when he woke up that morning, Stacey Quinn never imagined he’d be behind the wheel of a Porsche convertible while a gorgeous. rich, and famous woman stripped to a sports bra in the seat next to him. That’s what he liked about this job. Quinn thought—something different every day.
He risked a quick glance at her. “I could arrest you for indecent exposure.”
Her face opened up in laughter just as she pulled a soccer jersey down over her head, and her chuckle was muffled by the red mesh fabric.
“Please, Detective. More of me is on display every time I go to Oak Street Beach.” She abruptly thrust out her hips to tuck in the shirt, then reached down to adjust her shin guards. “Go ahead and ask your questions, Mister Stacey. I’ve only got a couple minutes.”
Quinn was wondering how he’d manage to get out to Oak Street Beach more often when he saw her bend and twist in her seat again. Now what? Didn’t the woman sit still for a second?
She surfaced with an elastic band and haphazardly bunched and twirled her thick hair into a heap at the back of her head. Those little damp curls appeared on her neck again, and he had to turn away.
“I read all of the letters you dropped off, Miss Adams. Sixteen notes in all, beginning last summer, right?”
“Unless I got another one today. I haven’t been to the office to check my mail.” Autumn crossed her arms over her chest and looked out at the calm summer-blue water of Lake Michigan.
“All were sent to your office on Chestnut Street, is that correct?”
“Right—which I don’t make public. I tell readers to write in care of the Banner.” Autumn jolted up again and rooted around in the gym bag at her feet. She produced a little pot of lip balm and dipped her finger inside. With eyes heavy-lidded in concentration, she ran a slick pinkie over lips that formed a perfect O of wet, soft flesh.
Quinn couldn’t watch. His chest hurt. “And you reported that before the letters there were other incidents? Slashed tires, the delivery of dead flowers?”
“Yep. Dead roses. Creepy. It started right after my mom died last spring.”
“And you have no idea who is doing this to you?”
She tossed the lip balm into the gym bag and gave him a sassy shake of her head. “That’s your job, isn’t it? I tell people about one hundred and one uses for dryer lint. You solve crimes.”
The dark cop sunglasses hid his expression, but Autumn could see his face strain to suppress an outright smile.
“You know, Miss Adams, you’re not exactly what I expected.”
She groaned. She’d heard that one before.
Wrigley Field now loomed over them and Autumn turned in her seat as they drove by, feeling a huge silly grin spread over her face.
The crowds were already milling around Clark and Addison for the night game. She could smell the roasting peanuts. The doors to the neighborhood taverns were flung wide, and raucous music and the sharp tang of draft beer floated out into the streets.
Autumn closed her eyes and breathed it all in, letting herself remember.
The spring afternoons she had spent at Wrigley Field with her father were by far the happiest times of her childhood. Her dad would skip work at the Chicago Mercantile Exchange and take her out of school to catch a Cubs game, a forbidden thrill made all the more thrilling because Helen never once found out. They used to giggle together the whole way home to Winnetka.
Autumn giggled with pleasure now—because the smells and sounds of Wrigley Field still made her happy.
“You can call me Audie,” she said, turning back around in her seat as they drove past the ballpark. “And puh-leeze don’t tell me you don’t know I inherited the column from my mother, the real Homey Helen. It’s not exactly a secret.”
“I knew. I just didn’t expect . . . well . . . you.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” she snapped.
Detective Quinn didn’t respond. How could he? Everything he wanted to say would sound ridiculous, because, Holy God in heaven, she didn’t disappoint him at all. She just amazed him.
He wanted to tell her he couldn’t remember the last time that fifteen minutes with a woman had left him unhinged. He wanted to tell her he could barely prevent himself from reaching over and letting his fingertips brush the back of her neck. And most of all, he wanted to tell her that he was her biggest fan, that he kept many of her columns in a recipe organizer in his kitchen, sorted by date and topic.
“We’ll need to discuss who you might have offended, Miss Adams, who it is that might hold a grudge against you. I’ll need a list of husbands and boyfriends, current and ex-.”
Autumn burst out laughing. They were driving north on Ashland Avenue now. almost at the school. It took several moments for her guffaw to die down.
“Sure, Detective. No problem.” She pursed her lips and frowned. “Let’s get right to it. Never was a husband, and at this rate there never will be. There’s no current anything. And how do you want the others—would alphabetical work for you? Or how about according to the way I got the bad news—E-mail, beeper, voice mail, answering machine, or telepathy!”
She perked up a bit and waved her hand in the air. “Wait! I know! How about I organize the names by the man’s neurosis—fear of commitment, fear of boredom, inability to stop lying. unclear sexual orientation, like that?”
Detective Quinn pulled up alongside Lakeview High School and cut the engine. He methodically removed his sunglasses and tucked them inside his jacket pocket. He waited for her to turn to him. and when she did, he saw tears in her eyes.
Despite the attitude, she was scared.
“Someone is threatening to hurt you, Miss Adams. I need to ask questions if I’m going to find him. Do you think we can work together on this?”
Autumn nodded slightly and brushed the tears away with a quick sweep of her hand. “I’m sorry for the snide comments. I’m just so incredibly pissed about this whole thing.”
“About the letters or the boyfriends?”
Autumn exhaled sharply and noticed that his uneven grin had returned. “Both, since you asked.”
It startled her when he reached inside his jacket and offered her a crisp white handkerchief.
“Thanks.” She blew her nose with enthusiasm. “Look, Detective, I don’t have a very good track record with men, OK? Nothing ever lasts very long. It’s like after seven or eight weeks some green slimy and hairy thing with eleven eyeballs suddenly jumps out of the top of my head and the men start running for the nearest exit.”
She sniffled and sighed and rubbed her forehead. “But I don’t think I ever did anything to make any of them mad at me. They all seemed pretty glad to see me go.”
“Uh-huh. Green and slimy, you say?”
She cast him a sideways glance—he was scribbling in a small notebook. Was he laughing at her? “Hairy, too.”
He nodded soberly.
Autumn looked down at her hands. She’d been biting her nails again. “I think I scare men,” she sighed. “I’m kind of a spaz.”
“Really?”
“Look, I’ve got to go warm up. You can stay for the game and I’ll take you back to your car after, if you’ve got time. Maybe we can talk more then?”
“I’ve got time.”
She cocked her head and looked at him closely. “You’re not much of a conversationalist, are you?”
What color were those eyes? she wondered. Hazel? That word hardly did justice to the complexity of color there—an olive green iris with a sunburst of gold around the pupil. They were dazzling.
The rest of him was way above average as well.
Detective Quinn had a head of straight, neatly trimmed light brown hair that the sun had kissed near his forehead and temples. His face was handsome as much for its self-assurance as its strong, even features and wily grin. He was probably a good four inches taller than she was, and she could see the outline of his solid body beneath the lightweight sport coat.
“Everything’s relative,” he said.
“Meaning I talk too much?”
“I didn’t say that.”
“Right.”
“Audie?”
She stopped before she opened the door. “Yeah?”
“You did say I can call you Audie?”
“Yes, I did.”
“Then please call me Quinn. My friends call me Quinn.”
“Not Stacey?”
“Nope.” The grin was back. “Stacey’s a girl’s name. I’m not a girl.”
Autumn laughed. “You know, I think I noticed that at the TV station. See you after the game.”
She didn’t fall once. Quinn noticed. In fact, she ran with speed and grace. soared over toppled bodies. bent and twisted to get a good angle on her kicks, and pivoted with quick and sharp agility.
And the whole time, Autumn Adams was smiling.
She scored again and. with two other women, jumped high into the air to slap hands—a sight he found amusing. These women were all professionals from the thirty-and-over Chicago Parks and Recreation Women’s Soccer League, yet they were running around like a bunch of boys.
“Go. go, go!” Audie screamed a few moments later as her teammate slashed the ball through a tangle of legs and into the net.
“Yes!” Audie punched her fist into the air and jumped into the middle of a cluster of women hanging on one another like monkeys. Quinn watched Audie’s hair fall out of its tether as she bounced around on a teammate’s back.
He stepped farther from the sidelines and tried to put some distance between himself and Autumn Adams.
Who the hell was this woman? How could he reconcile what he’d seen and heard today with the public persona of Homey Helen, the world-famous household hints columnist?
Quinn had to laugh. He knew too well how whacked-out celebrities could be. For the last few years, he’d been working mostly celebrity cases out of District 18, which encompassed Chicago’s Gold Coast, Michigan Avenue, and the ultrachic towers of black glass and steel along Lake Michigan. Talk show queens lived there, as did professional athletes, politicians, and film stars, and he’d handled stalking or harassment cases on a bunch of them.