Beneath the Badge (First Responders)

Dedication

To Heidi, for being impossible to say no to.

Chapter One

Jake’s Pub was busy for a Thursday night. It had been unusually hot for mid-June, and Jake’s brand new patio area was crammed with people enjoying good food and cold drinks in the early evening sunshine. Lindsay had shown up too late to get an outside table with an umbrella, so she made do with a seat inside. Right now she was biting into one of Jake’s few concessions to vegetarians—a savoury Portobello burger on a toasted ciabatta bun. She put down the sandwich and took a healthy sip of iced tea, wishing it was a cold glass of Pinot Grigio instead. But she was driving tonight, so iced tea was as adventurous as she was getting, at least until she got home.

She’d thought to treat herself to a meal out, especially after her long day at the clinic. The last appointment had been at five forty-five, and by the time she’d finished that and then looked after her charts and checked on the animals one last time it had been close to seven. Ten hours on her feet with only a twenty-minute break for lunch had left her feet aching and her stomach growling.

But there was something about sitting at a pub eating alone that made her feel overly conspicuous and, well, pitiable. Her social life sucked lately. Instead of being relaxed, now she just wanted to finish her meal and get out of here.

Laughter came from the area around the bar and Lindsay instinctively looked up towards the sound. Jake Symonds, the owner, was behind the dark wood counter pouring a glass of beer and grinning. In front of him was a small group consisting of three very young, very pretty women and the latest addition to the local RCMP detachment, Corporal Matt Parker. He was out of uniform, dressed tonight in faded jeans and an old T-shirt that was molded to his broad shoulders like an old friend.

Clearly the girls thought he was something if the adoring looks they threw his way were any indication. He said something else and everyone laughed, and then he raised his glass of draft and took a long drink. One tanned arm leaned against the bar and then to Lindsay’s embarrassment he turned his head and looked directly at her, catching her staring.

Lordy, his eyes were blue. Heat infused her cheeks as she lowered her gaze and reached for her iced tea, anything to keep her hands occupied. Didn’t matter though. She could still see his face in her mind. A little bit of stubble, crisply shaped lips, straight nose and the most gorgeous set of bedroom eyes she’d ever seen. The kind that could suck a girl right in and make her believe just about anything that came out of his mouth.

When she chanced a look up again, he was facing the bar once more, talking to Jake. Relieved, she took another bite of her sandwich. She needed sustenance. Then a hot shower and maybe a book before falling into bed and doing it all again tomorrow.

A waitress came over and put a glass down on the table. “Hey, Lindsay. A glass of white for you.”

Lindsay frowned. “But I didn’t order any wine.”

The waitress smiled. “It’s from Matt. You know, Corporal Parker.”

She’d called him Matt first. Barely a month in town and he was on a first-name basis with people. Wasn’t he just charm itself? “Thanks, but I’m driving tonight.”

“He said you’d probably refuse, and told me to leave it with you anyway. If you don’t want it, just leave it on the table, Lindsay. It’s already paid for.”

Lindsay couldn’t help it. Her gaze shifted to the bar again and found Matt Parker watching her. A small smile played on his lips and he raised his glass a little in her direction before turning away.

The heat that had flooded her cheeks now seemed to radiate through her chest and down her limbs. “Thanks,” she told the waitress. “I’m nearly done, so you can bring the bill when you get a chance.”

“Sure thing.”

When the waitress was gone Lindsay eyed the wine. Condensation fogged the glass just the tiniest bit…she bet it was cold and crisp and tart. When had a man last bought her a drink in a bar? She gave a dry chuckle. Not in months. The town was small and the pickings slim sometimes. Besides, her friends had ended up with a good portion of the hunky population. Jake behind the bar had married Kendra Givens, and her friend Ally had reunited with Chris Jackson, who was hot enough to ring anyone’s bell. Not to mention Gabe Brenner, who was a little less flashy in the looks department but had a certain something about him that women responded to. Yep, her friends had done well in that department.

Lindsay, though, had been too focused on getting the clinic established.
Fun Lindsay
hadn’t come out to play very often since opening the clinic doors.

And Matt Parker was a stranger. Sure, everyone in town seemed to know who he was already. He had an easy charm about him that was irresistible. People smiled when he walked by. When he told a joke, people laughed. When he pulled people over, they didn’t seem to mind the ticket so much because gosh darn it, that nice young officer had given it to them.

And now he’d bought her a glass of wine. She should be grabbing on to this opportunity with both hands. Except…

He was too perfect. And boy, that set alarm bells pealing madly in her head. Appearances were seldom what they seemed.

Everyone had a dark side. She knew that from experience. And she expected a cop probably carried a fair amount of baggage considering what they had to deal with day in and day out.

She dipped a sweet potato fry in her curry mayo and focussed on finishing her meal, determined to ignore him.

A plate appeared across from hers on the table, the dish making a small thunk on the heavy wood. “Mind if I join you?”

She raised her gaze. Oh Lord, it was him. Up close she realized he had to be six feet or maybe a little taller. The fit of his jeans and T-shirt had made him appear lean from a distance but now, up close and personal, she could see that every curve and dip was formed from pure muscle. Did the man have any body fat at all? His eyes were so blue she wondered for a moment if he wore tinted contacts, and her breath seemed to squeeze in and out of her lungs as she struggled to say something.

“Um, I’m nearly finished.”

He pulled out the chair and sat down. “That’s okay. I just thought…you’re sitting alone, I’m alone, Jake could use the space at the bar, you know?”

Sure that was what he was thinking, she thought. Especially since he’d already bought her a glass of wine she didn’t intend to drink.

He smiled at her. “I’m Matt Parker.”

“I know who you are,” she answered. Jeez, she usually wasn’t so inept. Maybe she’d been spending too much time surrounded by dogs and cats. In the clinic everyone was a pet owner and the discussions were centered around the animals’ health and medical treatments. Out here she wasn’t Dr. Swan, though. She was Lindsay. A single thirty-something out of practice with making banter. Her tongue was tied in knots and she couldn’t seem to come up with anything intelligent or witty.

“And you are?”

She picked at a piece of her bun, wondering how on earth she was going to manage to finish her dinner with him watching her every move. What if she dripped sauce on her shirt or got something on her face and didn’t know it?

“Didn’t you do a little recon at the bar before coming over?” she asked.

He chuckled. “I did. You’re Lindsay Swan, and you run the vet clinic just off of Main.”

“If you knew that, why’d you ask?”

He sat back in his chair, looping one arm over the back in a relaxed pose. “To see if you’d tell me.” He nodded at her plate. “Eat. It’s probably getting cold.”

It
was
getting cold, so she bravely gripped the sandwich in both hands and took a bite, chewing carefully and feeling utterly self-conscious the whole time. With a satisfied smile, he leaned forward, took his silverware from inside his napkin and dug into his own meal. She’d kind of imagined him a real burger-and-fries type, but his plate consisted of grilled salmon, roasted potatoes and asparagus.

“That looks disturbingly healthy,” she commented, a tiny bit more relaxed.

“Jake’s got a good cook back there,” he commented. “Besides, I can’t eat junk food all the time and keep my girlish figure.”

She nearly laughed. Nearly. Instead, she coughed and raised her napkin to her lips.

“You’re not drinking the wine,” he commented, spearing a golden chunk of potato.

“I don’t generally accept drinks from men I don’t know,” she answered, looking down at her plate.

“But see, now you do know me.” He grabbed the pepper shaker and dashed some on his vegetables.

“Yes, well, I’m also driving.”

Their eyes met again. “And one drink is too many?”

She shrugged. “It is to me.”

If it were possible, the blue of his eyes warmed even more. “That’s good,” he answered.

“Apparently you’re not from the same school,” she commented, deliberately reaching for her nearly empty iced tea.

“Oh, the beer?” he asked casually. “I’m walking. I’ve rented a place nearby. Some old warehouse space that was converted a few years back. It suits me. Nothing too fancy.”

Right, he was renting. He was only in town for a year, wasn’t he? Just until Kendra finished her maternity leave. A guy who was only passing through wouldn’t be looking for something heavy. Or permanent. Hey, she noticed the opposite sex as much as anyone else—she had eyes in her head after all, and she was a sucker for a man in a uniform. Her radar was up and running just fine.

But it was a long way from acknowledging overall hotness to looking to become the center of anyone’s universe. She never wanted a relationship that heavy. It was way too much responsibility. Which was why knowing that Matt was only really passing through actually made him more attractive, not less.

He nodded at her sandwich. “Mushroom? Really?”

She nodded. “I don’t eat meat.”

He smiled. “Now why doesn’t that surprise me?”

“What’s that supposed to mean? I look like a vegetarian?”

He leaned forward as if sharing a secret. “You, Ms. Swan, are neat and tidy. Everything a certain way. Order and control. I bet you have your sock drawer color coded.”

She flushed. She did have her socks organized according to color and then by length—ankle socks towards the back, longer ones for trousers at the front. “Doesn’t everyone?” she asked breezily, impressed with herself for the nonchalant way the words came out. That didn’t mean she was uptight.

He laughed. “That would have been far more effective if you weren’t so pleased with yourself about it.”

She put down her fork and looked up, consternation wrinkling her brow. A drink she could handle. A personal assessment was bordering on annoying. “What do you want, Mr. Parker?”

He grinned again, his ice-blue eyes mesmerizing. “Interesting conversation. A challenge.” He dropped his gaze to her lips.

She blindly reached for her glass and brought it to her mouth, desperate to cool the heat that suddenly seemed to surround her. Instead of tea, the tart bite of white wine sat on her tongue. She took a swallow and then a second. Screw it.

It was tempting. Very tempting. But despite her dry spell, she wasn’t feeling like being an easy target. “If you’re after a challenge, you’re sitting at the wrong table. Sorry.”

“I don’t think I am. Let me guess. You like your life uncomplicated without a lot of burdens or ties. Guess what? Me too. We could be very uncomplicated together.”

It irked that he was right
and
charming all at once. She toyed with the wine glass now. “Men like you are
always
complicated,” she said significantly. “You just think you’re not. No thanks.”

Something shadowed his eyes for just a moment and she got the feeling she’d struck a nerve. But then the expression cleared and the charismatic, crooked grin was back in place again. “And yet you’ve almost finished your wine. Nervous?”

She decided to be honest. “Very,” she admitted. “Look, you’re a good-looking guy who knows all the right things to say and just when to smile. But, Matt…can I call you Matt?” She didn’t wait for an answer. “I’ve been around the block enough to know that nothing is ever uncomplicated. So if it’s all the same to you, I’ll be on my way. Enjoy your dinner.”

She got up from the table, grabbed her purse and made her way to the door. Damn him for buying her that wine and then being so infuriating and distracting. She knew it was only a few miles to her house, but she had a firm drinking-and-driving policy. Besides, after her long day she already had the tell-tale numb, light sensation in her extremities that told her she was feeling the effects of the alcohol and her resolve was weakening.

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