The Case of the Mesmerizing Bossñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
I really can’t express how flattered I am and also how grateful I am to Harlequin Books for releasing this collection of my published works. It came as a great surprise. I never think of myself as writing books that are collectible. In fact, there are days when I forget that writing is work at all. What I do for a living is so much fun that it never seems like a job. And since I reside in a small community, and my daily life is confined to such mundane things as feeding the wild birds and looking after my herb patch in the backyard, I feel rather unconnected from what many would think of as a glamorous profession.
But when I read my email, or when I get letters from readers, or when I go on signing trips to bookstores to meet all of you, I feel truly blessed. Over the past thirty years, I have made lasting friendships with many of you. And quite frankly, most of you are like part of my family. You can’t imagine how much you enrich my life. Thank you so much.
I also need to extend thanks to my family (my husband, James, son, Blayne, daughter-in-law, Christina, and granddaughter, Selena Marie), to my best friend, Ann, to my readers, booksellers and the wonderful people at Harlequin Books—from my editor of many years, Tara, to all the other fine and talented people who make up our publishing house. Thanks to all of you for making this job and my private life so worth living.
Thank you for this tribute, Harlequin, and for putting up with me for thirty long years! Love to all of you.
The prolific author of more than one hundred books, Diana Palmer got her start as a newspaper reporter. A multi–New York Times bestselling author and one of the top ten romance writers in America, she has a gift for telling the most sensual tales with charm and humor. Diana lives with her family in Cornelia, Georgia.
Visit her website at www.DianaPalmer.com.
The Case of the Mesmerizing Boss
RICHARD DANE LASSITER stared down at the city of Houston from his office in the exclusive high-rise building, with eyes that didn’t really see the misting rain in the streetlight-dotted darkness. He was wrestling with a problem that wouldn’t go away.
Any minute now he was going to have to go into the outer office of his detective agency and chew out his secretary. Actually, she was almost a relative. Tess Meriwether was the daughter of the man his mother had been engaged to.
Their respective parents had been killed just days shy of their wedding. So Tess wasn’t really related to him, but he’d felt responsible for her for years, anyway. It was why he’d given her this job, why he was so protective of her. There were wounds between them that might never heal, but that didn’t in any way diminish his feelings for her.
It could have been love, if he hadn’t been so determined to send her running from him. He’d had a failed marriage and he’d been shot to pieces in a gun battle while he was still a Texas Ranger. The shooting had changed him as well as his life. He’d had to give up police work, so he’d founded this detective agency and robbed the local police departments to staff it. He had a reputation for being one of the most thorough and discreet private investigators in the business, and he was very successful. But his personal life was a mess. He had no one, really. No one except Tess, and she backed away whenever he came close. He felt guilty about that sometimes. She didn’t know, could never be told, that it hadn’t really been anger that had triggered his physical demands on her. She thought he’d been trying to frighten her away. That was funny. The truth was that on that afternoon so long ago, he’d been out of control for the first time in his life.
He turned away from the window, a tall, lithe man with a graceful way of moving and an arrogant tilt to his head. He looked like he’d had a Spanish ancestor from whom he’d inherited his dark eyes, his black hair and the olive tan of his skin. He was a handsome man, but he was unaware of it. These days, he had little use for women.
His own mother had despised him because he reminded her too much of his father, who’d deserted her when Dane was only a child. He’d wanted to love his mother, but she never had time for him. Her attitude had scarred him deeply. He’d married while he was still one of Houston’s policemen, before he became a Texas Ranger, but his wife had only been attracted to his uniform. His life with Jane had been a rocky one. She’d wanted something he could not give her. It had taken very little time for her to decide that she’d made a terrible mistake. She didn’t want him in bed at all, and very quickly decided that she didn’t want him out of it, either. She just didn’t want him. When he got wounded, she walked out on him while he was still in the hospital. If it hadn’t been for Tess, he wouldn’t have had anyone at all throughout that nightmarish time.
Ironic, he thought, that Tess had been in love with him. She’d been only a teenager, just barely out of school, when they first met. Her father, Wyatt Meriwether, had neglected her, just as Nita Lassiter had ignored Dane. Wyatt had left Tess to be raised by her grandmother while he pursued his promiscuous lifestyle. Tess was innocent and gentle, and she attracted Dane as no other woman ever had. Even now, thinking about how it had been between them during his recuperation could make him ashamed of what he’d inadvertantly done to her.
They’d experienced a tenderness toward each other that was overwhelming in its intensity. He’d fought it at first. He didn’t trust or like women, and Tess was altogether too young. But she got under his skin. He’d never been loved like that, before or since. He’d thrown it all away in a moment’s passion, and had frightened Tess so badly that she still backed away from him.
He ran an angry hand through his hair. He really had to stop looking back. It did no good.
Now Tess wanted to be an operative. He wouldn’t let her. It was dangerous work sometimes. Dane didn’t even like sending Nick and Nick’s sister, Helen, out on assignments, like the stakeout that Tess had inadvertantly interrupted. He was going to have to give her hell for it. She hadn’t blown their cover, but she’d come close. That couldn’t be allowed. Besides, he didn’t want Tess out in the field. He didn’t want her at risk, ever. She kept pestering Helen to teach her things, to show her some martial arts throws, to show her how to use a gun. He usually managed to break up any tutorials, but Tess’s persistence disturbed him. He couldn’t bear the thought of having her in danger. She was relatively safe in the office, being his secretary. Out of it… Well, thank God, he didn’t have to worry about that, now.
As for her interference with the stakeout, that was something he did have to worry about. He remembered the first time he’d met her, at a restaurant where their parents had invited them to get acquainted. Dane had tried to make her think he’d disliked her on sight. Actually, she’d appealed to him instantly. He almost seemed to know her, which was really disturbing, because he was married and had had his reluctant wife with him that night. Jane had been alternately sarcastic and obnoxious until he’d sent her home in a cab. Tess, on the other hand, had been quiet and shy and very curious about him.
His body began to tauten at the memory. He’d wanted Tess then, and the wanting hadn’t stopped during all the years in between. He was resigned to living alone these days. He had a reason for not seeking commitment, for not ever wanting marriage. He couldn’t tell Tess what it was. But it was devastating to his masculinity.
With a grimace he started toward the door that separated his office from the waiting room. Putting off the confrontation was cowardly, something he’d never been. It was just that Tess could look so wounded when he scolded her. He hated giving her more pain. Over the years, God knew, he’d given her more than enough.
But she had to learn that rules were meant to be obeyed. If he overlooked this infraction, he might put her at risk in the future. He couldn’t have that.
Resignedly, he reached out and opened the door.
TESS MERIWETHER SIGHED HUGELY, feeling stiff all over from the tension of waiting for the ax to fall. She glanced ruefully toward Dane’s closed office door. Today had really been one of those days. She’d blown a stakeout and gotten the cold shoulder from Dane all day for it. She hoped she could sneak out at quitting time without being seen. Otherwise, she was going to catch it for sure.
Dane Lassiter was her boss—the owner of the Lassiter Detective Agency—but he was also more. She’d known him for years; their parents had almost gotten married. But a tragic accident had killed them both, and the only one Tess had left in the world was Dane.
She carefully put away her equipment with a quick glance at the clock and reached for her trench coat. The coat was her pride and joy, one of those Sam Spade-looking things that she adored. Working for a detective agency was exciting, even if Dane wouldn’t let her near a case. Someday, she promised herself, she was going to become an operative, in spite of her overprotective boss.
“Going somewhere?” he asked, suddenly appearing in the doorway, a cigarette smoldering between his lean fingers. He looked like the ultimate private investigator in his three-piece suit.
She had to drag her eyes away. Even after what he’d done to her three years ago, she still found him a delight to her eyes.
“Home,” she said. “Do you mind?”
“Immensely.” He motioned her into his office. Once she was inside, he half closed the door and came closer to her, noticing involuntarily how she tensed when he was only a few feet away. Her reaction was predictable, and probably he deserved it, but it stung. He spoke much more angrily than he meant to. “I told you not to go near the stakeout.”
“I didn’t, intentionally,” she said, nervously twisting a long strand of pale blond hair around one finger. “I saw Helen and I waved. I thought the stakeout you mentioned was going to be one of those wee-hours-of-the-morning things. I hardly expected two professional detectives to be skulking around a toy store in the middle of the afternoon! I thought Helen was buying her boyfriend’s nephew a present.” Her gray eyes flashed at him. “After all, you didn’t say what you were staking out. You just told me to keep out of the way. Houston,” she added haughtily, “is a big city. We didn’t all used to be Texas Rangers who carry city street plans around in our heads!”
He didn’t blink. His dark eyes stared her down through a cloud of smoke firing up from the cigarette in his fingers.
She coughed as the smoke approached her face. Loudly.
He smiled at her. Defiantly. Neither moved.
A timid knock on the door startled the tall, rangy, dark-haired man and the slender blonde woman. Helen Reed peeked around the half-opened door.
“Is it all right if I go home?” she asked Dane. “It’s five,” she added with a hopeful smile.
“Take your ear with you,” he said, referring to a piece of essential listening equipment, “and go with your brother. Nick needs some backup while he stakes out our philandering husband.”
“No!” Helen groaned. “No, Dane, not four hours of lewd noises and embarrassing conversation with Nick! I hate Nick! Anyway, I’ve got a date with Harold!”
“You were supposed to tell sweetums here—” he nodded toward a glaring Tess “—where and when the stakeout was going down, so that she wouldn’t trip over it.”
“I apologized,” she wailed.
“Not good enough. You go with Nick, and I’ll reconsider your pink slip.”
“If you fire me,” Helen told him, “I’ll go back to work for the department of motor vehicles and you’ll never get another automobile tag registration off the record for the rest of your life.”
He pursed his lips. “Did I ever mention that I spent two years with the Texas Department of Public Safety before I joined the Texas Rangers?”
Helen sighed. She opened the door the rest of the way and made a huge production of going down on her hose-clad knees, her long black hair dragging the floor as she salaamed, her thin body looking somehow elegant even in the pose. She studied ballet and had all the grace of a dancer.
“Oh, for God’s sake, go home,” Dane said shortly. “And I hope Harold buys you a pizza loaded with anchovies!”
“Thanks, boss! Actually, I love anchovies!” Helen smiled, waved, and then vanished before he had time to change his mind.
He ran a restless hand through his thick black hair, disrupting a straight lock onto his forehead. “Next the skip tracers will be after paid vacations to the Bahamas.”
Tess shook her head. “Jamaica. I asked.”
He turned and tossed an ash into the smokeless ashtray on his desk. The entire staff had pitched in to buy it. They’d also pitched in to send him to a stop-smoking seminar. He’d sent them all on stakeouts to porno theaters. Nobody ever suggested another seminar. Dane did install big air filters, though, in every office.
Dane was a renegade. He went his own way regardless of controversy. Tess might disagree with him, but she had to respect him for standing up for what he believed in.
She watched him move, her eyes lingering on his elegant carriage. He was built like a rodeo cowboy, square shoulders and lean hips and long, powerful legs. When he was tired, he limped a little from the wounds he’d sustained three years ago. He looked tired now.
She watched him, remembering how it had all begun. When he’d opened the detective agency, he’d remorselessly pilfered the local police department of its best people, offering them percentages and shares in the business instead of salaries until the agency started paying off. And it had thrived—in record time. Dane had been a Houston police officer years before he made it to the Texas Rangers. He’d been a good policeman. He had plenty of clout in intelligence circles, and that assured his success.
Being a Texas Ranger hadn’t hurt his credentials, either, because in order to be considered for the rangers, a man had to have eight years of law enforcement experience with the last two as an officer for the Texas Department of Public Safety. Then the top thirty scorers on the written test had to undergo a grueling oral interview. The five leading candidates to pass this test were placed on a one-year waiting list for an opening on the ninety-four-member force. Dane had been one of the lucky ones. He’d worked out of Houston, ranging over several counties to assist local law enforcement. A ranger might not have to fight Indians or Mexican guerrillas, but since Texas had plenty of ranchland left, a ranger had to be a skilled horseman in case he was called upon to track down modern-day rustlers. Dane was one of the best horsemen Tess had ever seen. Despite his injuries, he still was as at home on the back of a horse as he was on the ground or behind the wheel of a car.
She was awed by him after all the years they’d known each other. But she was very careful these days not to let him know how awed. One taste of his violent ardor had been enough to stifle her desire for him as soon as it had begun.
“You never send me out on assignments.” She sighed.
He glanced at her, his expression guarded. He seemed to make a point of never looking too closely, or for too long, as if he found her very existence hard to accept. “You’re a secretary, not an operative.”
“I could be, if you’d let me,” she said quietly. “I can do anything Helen can.”
“Including dressing up like a hooker and parading down the main drag?” he mused.
She shifted restlessly, averting her face. “Well, maybe not that.”
His dark eyes narrowed. “Or listening to intimate conversations in back-alley motel rooms? Taking photographs of explicit situations? Tracing an accused murderer across two states and apprehending him on a bail-bond forfeiture?”
She let out a long breath. “Okay. I get the point. I guess I couldn’t handle that. But I could be a skip tracer, if you’d let me. That’s almost as good as going out on cases.”
He put out his cigarette angrily, a terse but controlled stab of his long fingers that made Tess uneasy. He was a passionate man, despite his cold control. She very rarely allowed herself to remember how he was with a woman. Just thinking about those strong, deft hands on her body made her go hot and shaky, but not with desire. She remembered the touch of Dane Lassiter’s hands with stark fear.
He glanced at her suddenly, his eyes piercing, steady, as if he felt the thought in her mind and reacted to it. She went scarlet.
“Something embarrasses you?” he asked in that slow, lazy drawl that intimidated even ex-policemen.
“I was thinking about having to follow philandering husbands,” she hedged. She clutched her purse. “I’d better go.”
“Heavy date?” he asked with apparent carelessness.
She’d given up on men some time ago. He wouldn’t know that, or know why, so she just shrugged and smiled and left.
The streets were dark and cold. The subdued glow of the streetlights didn’t make much difference, either. It was a foggy winter night, stark and unwelcoming. Tess pulled her trench coat closer around her and walked toward her small foreign car without much enthusiasm. Tonight was like any other night. She’d go home to an empty apartment—an efficiency apartment with a tiny kitchen, a bathroom, a combination living room and bedroom, and a sofa that made into a bed. She’d watch old movies on television until she grew sleepy, and then she’d go to bed. The next day would be a repeat of this one. The only difference would be the movie.
Ordinarily, she might go out to a movie with her friend Kit Morris, who worked nearby. But Kit’s boss was overseas for two months and Kit had had to go with him—even though she’d groaned about the trip. The older girl was a confidential secretary who got a huge salary for doing whatever the job demanded. Tess missed her. The agency did a lot of work for Kit’s boss, hunting down his madcap mother, who spent her life getting into trouble.
With Kit gone, Tess’s free time was really lonely. She had no one to talk to. She liked Helen, and they were friends, but she couldn’t really talk to Helen about the one big heartache of her life—Dane Lassiter.
She looped her shoulder bag over her arm and stuffed her hands into her pockets. Her life, she thought, was like this miserable night. Cold, empty and solitary.
Two expensively dressed men were standing under a streetlight as she appeared in the doorway of the office building. She stared at them curiously as one passed to the other an open briefcase full of packets of some white substance, and received a big wad of bills in return. She nodded to them and smiled absently, unaware of the shock on their faces as she walked toward the deserted parking lot.
“Did she see?” one asked the other.
“My God, of course she saw! Get her!”
Tess hadn’t heard the conversation, but the sound of running feet caught her attention. She turned, conscious of movement, to stand staring blankly at two approaching men. They looked as if they were chasing her. There were angry shouts, freezing her where she stood. She frowned as the gleam of metal in the streetlights caught her attention. Before she realized that it was the reflection of light on a gun barrel, something hot stung her arm and spun her around. Seconds later, a pop rang in her ears and she cried out as she fell to the ground, stunned.
“You killed her!” one man exclaimed. “You fool, now they’ll have us for murder instead of dealing coke!”
“Shut up! Let me think! Maybe she’s not dead—”
“Let’s get out of here! Somebody’s bound to have heard the shots!”
“She came out of that building, where the lights are on in that detective agency,” the other voice groaned.
“Great place you picked for the drop…. Run! That’s a siren!”
Sure enough, it was. A patrol car, alerted by one of the street people, came barreling down the side street where the office was located, its spotlight catching two men bending over a prostrate form in a dark parking lot.
“Oh, God!” one of the men exclaimed. “Run!”
The sound of running feet barely impinged on Tess’s fading consciousness. Funny, she couldn’t lift her face. The pavement was damp and cold under her cheek. Except for that, she felt numb all over.
“They shot somebody!” a different voice called. “Don’t let them get away!”
She heard more pops. Black shoes went past her face, as two policemen went tearing after the well-dressed men.
She didn’t recognize the voice at first. Dane was always so calm and in command of himself that the harsh urgency of his tone didn’t sound familiar.
He rolled her gently onto her back. She stared up at him blankly, in shock. Her arm was beginning to feel wet and heavy and hot. She tried to speak and was surprised to find that she couldn’t make her tongue work.ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî