Authors: Taylor Lee
Tags: #Idesire Publications
Annika was stunned that Corcoran had revealed himself in such an ugly manner. She folded her napkin and placed it on the table.
“If by ‘some uppity guy’s son’, you mean Commander Carter, you are correct. The commander’s father is the Chief Justice of the California Supreme Court.”
Corcoran missed her aversion and sneered, “Yes, so I heard. Wonder how that happened? How many qualified white men he stepped over to get to that position?”
As if seeing her distaste for the first time, he dropped his mask. Drilling her with a hard reproachful glare, he asked, “May I presume that disapproving look means that you don’t share my views about black men and their ‘unusual’ paths to success? Or can I presume that you and the c
have had a ‘go’ at it?” His lips curved in disgust. “That’s not surprising. You young girls are easily swayed by the exotic, the forbidden. No matter how distasteful such behavior is to the rest of us.”
Annika rose with as much dignity as she could muster, willing her voice not to shake. “You are seriously out of line, Mr. Corcoran. Thank you for lunch. If I have additional questions—and you can be sure that I will—I’ll inform your office what time you should be at the police station for the interview. Good day.”
“Nate wanted to see you when you got back, Lieutenant. He’s in his office now with the Commander. I’ll let them know you’re on your way.”
Annika clicked off her phone and groaned. Oh great. Just what she needed, to make a bad day worse. First the ridiculous brush-off she gave Sam, then the smarmy little insurance drone, and to top it off her luncheon interview with Corcoran. But Detective Stryker’s secretary hadn’t given her a choice. Now she’d have to answer to the big guy. Try to explain why she’d agreed to interview her prime witness/suspect over a private luncheon date. Ugh! She doubted Stryker would think much of her excuse that the visiting Commander had her so tied in knots she couldn’t think straight. She could only imagine Nate’s disgust when Sam told him what she’d done. But hell, what could they expect from a woman—and a blonde one at that?
Resting her elbows on her desk, Annika held her head between her hands and scrubbed at her temples trying to release the tension. But it was going to take a lot more than that to ease the strain she was feeling. Wonder if the Motel 6 has an outcall masseuse? One who has about four hours available to work on a pitiful stressed-out woman? But, damn, one look at the tension knots on her neck and shoulders and any masseuse worth his salt would run for the woods. No, she may as well get used to it, accept it. This is just how it’s going to be. Tension headaches. A roiling gut. And shaky legs whenever a certain tall, lean, gorgeous guy comes within ten feet of her. With a sigh, Annika stood, took a deep breath, squared her shoulders and headed off to face the two most intimidating men she’d ever met.
Nate stood when she came to the door, and waved her over to the small conference table in his office. Sam was already seated, but rose when she entered. She nodded to him then turned her attention back to Detective Stryker. Nate pointed to the chair across from Sam then settled back in his place at the head of the table.
“Sit down, Lieutenant. Sam and I were just talking about you. I was hoping to catch you when you got back. I understand you were interviewing Brennan Corcoran. He’s a piece of work, isn’t he?”
Annika swallowed hard past the lump in her throat. She didn’t know how to answer. Was the detective setting her up? Just waiting to pounce on her?
She took a deep breath and shrugged.
“He is that, among other things.”
Nate frowned. “What’s your read? I know it’s early but what’s your gut telling you? Anything? Was he at all forthcoming or just his usual schmoozing-assed self?”
“To tell you the truth, he spent more time discussing the menu than he did the two fires that wiped out over a million dollars of his property.”
Nate raised a surprised eyebrow. “You had lunch with him?” He added with a frown, “That’s an unusual strategy. Did it work?”
Annika looked down and tried to gather her composure. She didn’t dare look at Sam. It was hard enough trying to reconcile the fact that he hadn’t tattled on her to Nate. God, the man was so damn confusing. She couldn’t figure him out. Focusing on Nate’s question, she didn’t suppress a small sigh.
“Let’s just say, it wasn’t the wisest choice of venues. He’s a challenging man and definitely is hiding something. Probably a lot of somethings. I don’t have enough information at this point to figure out what it is, but I’m working on it. I need to spend more time at the fire sites. I’m not satisfied with the reports I’ve received from Sgt. Baker. They’re incomplete at best.”
Nate leaned his forearms on the table and steepled his fingers under his chin.
“Yeah, Lieutenant, I’m not surprised. That’s why I called you in. I want to discuss Sgt. Baker’s role. Sam told me what happened yesterday and we had a short conversation with Baker last night. Sam reprimanded him for his attitude toward you and I smacked him hard. But at this point he has more information on the fires than anyone, and we didn’t want to leave you hanging. Sam thought you should be in this conversation before we make any firm recommendations. I agreed.”
Sam spoke for the first time.
“It was more than his rudeness to you that bothered me, Lieutenant. First, I was astonished how few of your questions he could answer. But most troubling was his behavior with Corcoran and vice versa. In similar circumstances the guy who has been heading up the investigation would have chaired that meeting. But the sergeant didn’t say a word and Corcoran didn’t so much as acknowledge him. It was clear to me that Corcoran doesn’t respect him and that Baker is intimidated by the big Irishman. An untenable situation.”
“I agree with you, Sam. The person at the head of this needs to be able to push back against the Irishman or he’ll have the whole damn bunch of us running in circles.” Nate turned to Annika. “Here’s my suggestion, Lieutenant. Start to ease Sgt. Baker out. Baker doesn’t want to be there, help him see why he doesn’t belong. You do
thing and let us know what you need.
Nate stood and pawed through the cabinet refrigerator along the wall.
“Either of you want a water?” Without waiting for an answer he pulled out three bottles, put one in front of Annika, and slid the other over to Sam. Sinking back in his chair, he nodded to her.
“By the way, Sam told me that you applied to the ATF. That’s a big fuckin’ deal Lieutenant. Have you heard anything yet?” When she shook her head, he continued, “Don’t worry. They’ll take their own sweet time. Most of those guys are prima donnas, think they walk on water.” He grinned at her, aware he was describing himself. “Yep, those guys think that they own the world. Some of them damn well do. Tell you what Lieutenant, do well here and Sam and I can help ensure you get the position.”
Annika wished she’d taken the time to drink some of that water, swallowing was an effort. She replied as evenly as she could, given the anger ricocheting in her gut. Damn, these bossy men. They always thought they and they alone could make things happen. Her annoyance chased away her earlier concerns that Nate brought her in to reprimand her and made her voice as crisp as her words were curt.
“Thanks, Detective. That won’t be necessary. I prefer to think that my record as a whole will ensure my acceptance—or prevent me from being chosen.”
The words weren’t out of her mouth before she wished she could drag them back.
Nate’s eyes narrowed and flashed dangerously. He stared at her, studying her like she was a biology experiment. Annika made another unsuccessful effort to swallow and snuck a surreptitious glance at Sam. Her breath caught in her throat. His deep frown and rigid jaw confirmed that she’d seriously overstepped.
When she dared to meet Nate’s gaze again, he responded casually, but didn’t hide the steel girding his words. “I repeat, Lieutenant, if you’re looking for a reference, we’ll be happy to oblige.”
Knowing how ridiculous she sounded turning down a recommendation from two of the super-star cops in the country, Annika tried to explain.
“I… I don’t mean to be rude.” Annika took a hearty breath, gathering herself further. “It’s just that you barely know me and I haven’t… solved the case, yet. And… and frankly, I’m accustomed to doing things on my own.”
Nate cocked a brow. His tone was thick with sarcasm.
“Well, at least I could let them know how well you respond to supervision.”
Annika felt the heat flood her cheeks. She looked down, clenching her hands in her lap, determined not to let him see the sudden rush of tears threatening in her eyes.
Nate was silent for a moment, then softened his tone.
“Relax, Lieutenant.” He paused for a moment. “A little unsolicited advice. Take it for what it’s worth. I always thought I had to do everything on my own until Erin and hotshot here wised me up. Life isn’t such a bitch when you share the burden.”
When she continued to look down, Nate changed the subject, his tone all business. “To reiterate: Sam and I are here if you need us. Every resource we have is at your disposal. All you have to do is ask. If you can’t find me, ask Sam. Or better yet, ask him first. Christ, in two months he knows more about this place than I do. He’s a born manager, not a fucking show-boater like someone I know.”
Nate grinned his infectious grin and Annika relaxed for the first time since she arrived. She gave him a small smile in return. Her ease was short lived and came to a dead stop at Nate’s next words.
“Sam can babysit you until you get your feet wet, can’t you, hotshot?”
Sam shook his head and grinned back at Nate.
“Probably not the best choice of expressions, Nate. But, yes, Lieutenant, I’m pleased to help you get acclimated here. I’m available to answer any questions you have and see that you get the resources you need. Or if you need a ride—”
Annika leapt to her feet and glared at Sam.
“I’ll let you know if I have questions. In the meantime I’m going to work. And I won’t need any rides. I have access to a squad. As we agreed yesterday, you’re not my chauffeur.”
At the doorway she stopped and included Nate in her angry glare. By the way, I’ve never had a babysitter in my life and I don’t need one now.”
Sam waited until he was sure he heard the outer door close then turned to his friend.
“You can wipe that Cheshire grin off your face anytime, Stryker.”
Nate’s eyes widened in mock innocence.
“I don’t know what you mean, bro.”
Sam shook his head. “Like hell you don’t. You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
“Ya think? Of course I did. I wanted to see how she’d react. Apparently she isn’t into babysitters… That’s good to know, right?”
“You’re a devious bastard.”
Nate chuckled. “That I am. But, yeah, I wanted to figure out what the hell was going on between you two. Guess I don’t have to ask.”
When Sam just shook his head, Nate added, “Then I gotta ask you this, man. Did you put that stick up her butt or is that how the lieutenant is wired?”
Sam gave a dismissive snort. “Probably both.”
The lines around Nate’s eyes crinkled. “Hmm. So that’s how it rolls? Can’t say as I blame you, hotshot. That is one fine-looking woman. Knock yourself out, man. Or not. Hell, in a thousand years or so you might find someone who’s as kickin’.” When Sam merely looked down, Nate added, “Now there is that little problem with her attitude. And then there’s the question of whether all that ice she’s packed herself in is ‘meltable’.”
Sam huffed a sound somewhere between a snort and a groan as he reached down to gather up his papers. “You’re asking the right question, Nate. But my understanding is that even ice melts in fire.”
“Hell, man, if you’re up for it, all I gotta say is: Go for it, buddy.”
As Sam was heading out the door, Nate called after him.
“By the way, what the hell was that about her having lunch with that fuckin’ blowhard Corcoran? Why didn’t you stop her?”
Sam grimaced and shook his head. “Don’t ask.”
“There’s no use arguing, Annika. When Connor Lang invites you to dinner, you go. That’s the only option. Just be glad your first Lang event is at Connor’s and Kait’s. My initiation was at his mother’s. Try that when you don’t know a soul and haven’t been to a dinner party in—-well, in a long time.”
“Is that how you met Nate, Erin?”
Erin’s bright turquoise eyes sparkled with amusement.
“No, I had the ‘pleasure’ of meeting him once before. But that dinner party was where I decided I’d never met a more obnoxious, arrogant man in my life and that if I never saw him again it would be too soon.”
Erin and Annika both laughed.
“I can see how you might have gotten that impression, but you obviously changed your mind. What happened?”
Erin’s face lit up and she smiled a dreamy smile.
“Simple. Nate happened.”
Annika glanced surreptitiously at the beautiful firefighter beside her. Erin was lovely. A cascade of dark curly hair, the most amazing bright turquoise eyes and a knockout body confirmed how she had attracted the golden-haired badass detective whose reputation with women was known as far away as the Twin Cities. But thirty minutes into the quiet afternoon of focused work, Annika understood why Erin had captured the illusive ladies’ man when no one else could. As beautiful as she was physically, Erin was more. It was her spirit. Compared to Annika’s own raging spirit wracked with indecision, anger, and fear, Erin radiated peace. Annika had heard about Erin’s terrible past, and God knows she could identify with much of it. But somehow, unlike Annika, Erin had come to peace with her past and moved beyond it. Knowing that she could never be like Erin, Annika determined that she would spend as much time with her as she could. Maybe, just maybe, some of that peaceful energy would rub off. She could only hope.
They’d spent most of the day at the Fire House going over Erin’s records from the two Lakeside fires. The difference between the evidence that Erin had gathered and the slim files Garrett Baker had collected was remarkable. Annika was relieved. Baker’s files were so sketchy that she’d assumed she would have to start from scratch. But the painstaking details Erin had assembled gave Annika a picture of the month-old fires almost as good as being on site. The only thing that was missing was her intuition. The insights she got into the mind of the arsonist when she walked the fresh site. And she and Erin had agreed within an hour of conversation that the Lakeside Estates fires were no accident. They were indeed looking for an arsonist.