“Well, Winston. What do you think about Texas?” Edward drawled in his soft Georgia accent as he cast a sidelong glance at his best friend and constant companion.
Winston, a six-year-old English bulldog, didn’t answer. He was far too busy hanging over the edge of the passenger door, his face in the wind, pink tongue lolling from the side of his gaping mouth as Edward drove down the rural blacktop at sixty-five miles per hour.
“We’re definitely not in Georgia anymore.” Edward sighed. “I’ve never seen so much livestock in all my life.” He shuddered. Another field of black cows dotted the rolling hills. “Although, I’ve always wanted a brown and white cowhide Louis Quatorze chair. It would be très chic, n’est-ce pas?”
Winston eyed him sadly.
“The only good thing about Texas is the cowboys. I do love me some cowboy.” Edward gave a low “yum yum yum,” and wiggled his eyebrows at Winston.
Winston favored him with a soft woof then returned to flying his tongue in the wind.
“You like them too, huh? Maybe you’ll find a cow dog.”
“Honestly, you’d probably have better luck out here than I would.”
Edward picked up the map he’d folded, laid it on the steering wheel of his Miata and glanced at it. Spring Lake had been circled in red and the road they were on had been highlighted in yellow.
Who’d ever heard of a Farm to Market Road? He’d exited I-10 westbound and turned south onto the two-lane road, all the while wondering where the market was or if he’d come to the farm by following the road to its end.
The idea of being on a farm gave him the heebie-jeebies. He was so not a Country Living kind of guy. More like Metropolitan Magazine. Sleek leather, minimalistic window treatments, grass-mat flooring. No livestock in the house.
Not lace curtains, tacky multicolored chintz and those god-awful oval rugs from the fifties. So ‘Lucy and Desi move to Connecticut’.
He shuddered again.
But duty called. Well, not exactly duty, but his mother, Lillian. When Lillian Rawlings Beauregard bellowed, Edward Paul Beauregard the Third answered with a controlled, if tight-lipped, “Yes, Mother.”
And if Edward valued his trust fund—and he did—he did what he was told. He gave a silent but respectful “Fuck you” to his late father for requiring Edward to reach forty before he inherited. As if at thirty, or now at thirty-five, Edward didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life or that he’d outgrow being gay. Never mind that he’d never finished college or that he’d had numerous careers, each one more exciting than the last.
Who made the stupid rule that you have to do one thing for your entire life? Or even for a few years? Life is meant to be lived, not to wallow in a rut.
He’d have been the first to admit he’d led an unconventional life. A wild life, even. Scads of parties, beaucoup champagne, madcap friends, overseas adventures and numerous lovers. For his father, that was right where it had begun and ended.
Like his latest debacle. No, he didn’t always pick the best men. Okay, he never picked the best men.
“Can I help it if I’m drawn like a moth to the flame whenever there’s a bad boy within reaching distance?” he asked Winston.
Edward glanced at his dog. “You did not just roll your eyes at me.”
“Since when have you started channeling my father?”
Edward gave a long-suffering sigh.
With the gay half of Atlanta buzzing over Edward’s latest spectacular breakup, and oh yes, they always had to be spectacular—this time in the middle of the dance floor at the season’s gay black-tie ball—Edward needed a quiet place to lick his wounds. Hurt and embarrassed, Edward had crushed his slice of seven-layer chocolate Doberge cake in the face of that cheating bastard Derek, whom Edward had taken into his heart and into his condo.
Secretly relieved to get out of town, Edward had made his excuses for the rest of the social season, packed his matching Louis Vuitton travel bags and hopped into the convertible. Then he bee-lined it to Houston from Atlanta, with instructions from his mother to visit his grandmother and find out what was ailing her.
And heal her.
* * * *
Chief of Police Jack Whittaker had the mother of all headaches. Again.
Sitting in his white unmarked patrol car, he rubbed his forehead as he leaned back against the headrest. He’d almost run off the side of the road when his vision blurred.
“Shit.” This was the third time in the last two weeks. Whatever was kicking his ass was getting worse, not better. Now his sight was being affected.
Fear crawled into his belly and scratched at his insides. A blind man couldn’t be a cop, much less chief of police, and he was nowhere near old enough to retire. Hell, he wasn’t even forty-five yet.
Jack glanced at his reflection in the rearview mirror. Deep blue eyes. Deeper lines around them. A touch of gray at his temples.
There was no getting past it—he looked older.
“It ain’t the years, boy, it’s the miles.”
He’d seen a hell of a lot of miles, for damn sure.
Jack blinked, his vision cleared, but the headache pounded on. He opened his glove box, and pulled out a bottle of extra-strength pain relievers, popped two and chased them down with a swig of cold black coffee.
He wouldn’t have been sitting out on this road if he didn’t have so many men out with the flu. Having them come in and work their shifts had only spread it faster through the ranks. But whatever Jack had, it wasn’t the flu.
On days like today, he hated his job.
When he’d pulled over, he’d been on his way back to the station at Spring Lake from a vandalism call that had turned out to be nothing more than a high school prank. Not to mention he had a budget meeting with the mayor this afternoon.
As he’d sat there, the road had been as empty as his stomach. He put the cruiser into gear and checked for traffic in his rearview. A car appeared over the hill. His heart kicked up a notch, that familiar rush of the chase grabbing his gut. He waited, watching it eat up the road.
As the bright red Miata convertible passed him, its wind trail rocked his car. The guy had to be doing sixty—maybe sixty-five. In a forty-five.
With a growl, Jack flicked on his lights, hit his siren, slammed his foot on the gas and fishtailed onto the road in pursuit.
“Hell and damnation!” Edward flicked his gaze to the rearview mirror.
A large white car with blue and red flashing lights followed him and he heard the wail of a siren. For a moment, he thought about not stopping but decided Texas wasn’t the place to try to elude the cops. Don’t they use cattle prods here?
“You don’t think that’s the welcoming committee, do you?”
“I didn’t think so.” Edward slowed down and eased off the road as far as he could without going into a ditch big enough to eat a Buick.
He reached over, picked up his jacket and fished out his wallet. After taking his proof of insurance and the registration papers from the glove box, he sat back and waited, drumming his fingers rhythmically on the wheel.
“You don’t think Barney Fife was using gaydar, do you?” Edward chuckled as he watched the cop car pull behind him.
Winston scratched at the door.
“You need to go walksies, Winston?”
Edward grabbed Winston’s leash, dug under the red bandanna that decorated Winston’s neck and clipped the end to a leather collar. He swung open the door and got out. He pulled on the leash and Winston hopped down.
A deep, irritated voice came out of the air. “Driver. Get back in your vehicle.”
Edward waved at the cop to let him know it was all right and walked around the car with Winston. “Pay no attention to that man behind the curtain, Winston,” he intoned as the dog, head down, nose in action, sniffed his way along the grass at the side of the road.
“I said get back in your car. That’s an order.”
Good Lord, there’s no need to get pissy about it.
Edward called over his shoulder as the dog pulled him farther away, “My ID is on the seat if you need it. I just need to walk my dog.”
“No. No. No,” Jack muttered. This was not happening to him. He’d given that guy a direct order, and he wasn’t used to being disobeyed. Jack shook his head and the motion started the pounding again.
“Fuck!” He opened the car door, got out, slid his hat onto his head and put his hand on the butt of his semiautomatic. There was no way in hell he was going to take this crap from some… He stopped, doing a double-take at the young man and his dog.
The man and his pet wore matching red bandannas tied around their necks. Jack blinked. The dog, one of those ugly-as-hell bulldogs, waddled down the side of the road. Immense balls swung with every step as he pulled his master after him like a cowboy holding on to a stubborn cow headed for the barn.
His owner wore the tightest dark blue jeans Jack had ever seen cover a man’s behind. His ice-blue shirt was western cut but the piping had brown leather fringe. At least, Jack thought it was leather.
“Oh my God.” Jack held back a snicker. Was this guy for real?
Jack headed to the car, leaned over the door and picked up the packet of papers.
“Get over here. Now,” Jack ordered as he scanned each form. After checking the name, Jack tossed the registration on the seat. It matched the name on the insurance card, which he added to the pile.
He picked up the leather wallet. Soft, supple, it reeked of Italy and money. He had no idea how much it cost, but it was probably more than he’d spend on a good leather jacket. He watched the driver approach and come around the car with the dog pulling hard on the leash and growling.
Jack stared at the dog and frowned, then glanced up to the man’s face. Early thirties, five feet ten inches, short black hair and deep brown eyes that stopped Jack in his tracks.
The growling grew closer, louder, then white-hot pain erupted as the dog chomped down on Jack’s ankle and shook his leg like a…well, like a dog with a bone.
“What the fuck!” Jack jumped back, dropped the wallet and drew his weapon.
“No! Don’t hurt Winston!” the guy yelled, lunged forward and grabbed Jack’s weapon arm.
Jack’s mind screamed ambush and his adrenaline kicked into overdrive. He hopped backward as he jerked his arm away from the man and tried to kick the dog off his leg at the same time. Everyone was growling and everyone had a piece of him.
“Let go of me!” Jack shouted. “Stop it, or the gun might go off!”
“Don’t shoot!” The man’s grip tightened on his arm, now more frantic than before. Jack flexed his biceps and pulled the guy into him, his gun pointed at the sky.
Through gritted teeth, Jack said, “If you let me go right now and get this mutt off me, I won’t shoot you both.” They weren’t quite chest to chest—the guy was shorter than Jack by a good four inches. Jack wanted to kill the son of a bitch right then and there. Then the damned dog.
“Promise?” Breathy and soft, that one word shivered down Jack’s spine and held him in its grip.
“I promise.” He had no idea why he was making promises to this man. He didn’t have to promise a damn thing—he was the law.
The man let go and stepped away just as the dog shook Jack again, its massive head snapping from side to side. Jack hopped backward and his arms pinwheeled in the air. He lost his footing, went down on his side, hit his head on the ground, and a new wave of pain erupted as his elbow jammed down on the blacktop.
The gun went off.
The front tire on the car hissed and flattened.
The man grabbed the dog, cooed to it and the dog released his death grip on Jack’s leg.
No one was going to believe this. Thank God, his patrol car wasn’t one of the ones that had the new dash video cameras and that this moment wouldn’t be captured. And shared among all his men for them to laugh at him.
If it were up to him, no one would know about this either.
Standing over Jack with the dog in his arms, the man glared down at him. The bulldog licked around its mouth as if savoring the taste of Jack’s flesh and blood, looking very pleased with itself.
From his spot on the ground, Jack said, “You’re lucky I didn’t shoot you.”
He shoved his gun back into the holster and pushed himself up to sitting. After pulling up his leg, he rolled up his cuff, scrunched down his black sock and examined the bite. Two puncture wounds just above his ankle leaked blood, his pants were shredded and his dignity was shot to hell.
Would it be murder? First degree or manslaughter? How much time would I have to do?
“I’m going to have to impound your dog. He doesn’t have a tag.” Jack grabbed his hat and shoved it back on.
“You can’t do that!” The man clutched his dog to him and stepped back. “Winston can’t go to jail.”
“Yes, I can. I’m the fucking chief of police. I can do anything I fucking want to. And if you give me any more lip, I’ll toss you in a cell and throw away the fucking key.” Jack got to his feet. “Now, put the dog back in your car.”
Finally, the guy did what Jack told him to do. The dog hopped in and, as the man shut the Miata’s door, he murmured to the dog, “Stay right there, Winston.”
Jack glared at the dog then said, “Now, hands on the car and spread your legs.”
Jack grabbed the man’s arm and spun him around. “I said, spread your legs,” he growled as a flash of power and control shot through his body. Uh-uh. Not good.
“But I hardly know you. I’m really not that kind of guy,” he drawled over his shoulder.
As the bulldog kept his eyes on Jack, probably waiting for a chance to bite again, Jack slid his hands over the guy’s back, hips and down his legs, lingering on firm muscles, absorbing the heat of the younger man’s body. “Anything you want to declare?”
“Just my sexuality, Officer.”
“That’s Chief of Police.” Unfortunately, he was clean. Jack had hoped he’d find something on the dude, just to add to the list of charges. “Put your hands behind your back.” Jack pulled out his cuffs.
“I said, ‘Put your hands behind your back.’”
“Am I under arrest?” This time the younger man did as he was told. Jack slapped the handcuffs over his wrists then walked him by the arm over to his patrol car.
“This is for your protection and mine. I’ll take them off if everything checks out.”
Jack caught a flicker of fear in his brown eyes—then it was gone. Jack didn’t answer. Instead, he said, “Stay here—don’t move.” Jack leaned him against the bumper.
After he slid behind the wheel, he picked up the radio and took a deep breath. The man had made him so mad Jack had lost his professionalism, kissed goodbye to his control and had cursed. Not cool.
Christ, Jack had been so rattled, he hadn’t followed procedure. For all Jack knew, he could be wanted in three states. That shirt alone should get the guy arrested.
He stole a look at his prisoner, decided it was time to pull himself together and act like the cop he was, put down the mic, and got out of the car. He strode over to the Miata, picked up the driver’s license and wallet lying on the ground then gathered the other papers.
Jack stared at it. “Edward Paul Beauregard the Third? Are you joking?”
“No.” The man stood straighter.
“The Third?” Who puts that on their license? Senior, junior, maybe, but the little III behind the name seemed so pretentious.
“Yes. I’m Edward Beauregard, of the Atlanta Beauregards,” he drawled, as if it should mean something to Jack.
“Well, Mr. Beauregard, I’m going to call in your license and see if you need to be sitting in the back with that crazed mutt of yours.” Sitting in the car again, he picked up the mic and read off the numbers to his dispatcher. If it came back positive, he’d put the guy in the back of the car. With his damn dog.
“He’s not a crazed mutt. He’s registered.” Beauregard tilted his nose upward.
“Registered as a lethal weapon?”
“Lethal weapon. Cute. I had no idea sheriffs were so funny.”
Jack let the ‘sheriff’ comment slide. “Does he always attack people?”
The man looked Jack up and down, then purred, “Like me, I guess he can’t resist a man in uniform.”
Jack stared at Beauregard and opened his mouth to respond, but before he could put his big foot in, dispatch came back. “He’s clean. No record. No warrants.”
“See.” He gave an exasperated shrug. “I’m not a criminal escaping justice.”
How the hell am I going to explain this?
“Jesus, give me strength,” he muttered, his finger on the button.
“Come back, Chief? What’d you say?” his dispatcher replied.
“Dispatch a tow truck to mile thirteen on FM 123 and pick up a red Miata. Have them take it to Smith’s to have the tire fixed.”
“Everything all right, sir?” The voice crackled back at him.
“Just peachy-damn-keen.” He slammed the receiver on the hook, leaned back against the headrest and closed his eyes.
His head pounded, he’d been dog bit and he’d lost a fight with the gayest man he’d ever seen in his life.
“Officer, are you all right?”
Jack stared into the man’s worried face as he looked through the windshield.
“Against my better judgment, I’m going to release you.” He fought the urge to shoot someone, including himself. Instead, he got out of the car and opened the rear door, then uncuffed Beauregard.
“Put the dog in, sir.”
“But…” The man bit his pink, full, bottom lip. Men shouldn’t have such plump lips—there should be a law. And he certainly should not be noticing such things.
“Now.” Too tired to argue, Jack stared him down.
He nodded, got the dog from his car and led him back to the cruiser. “Get in, Winston. Don’t worry. I’ll get you a lawyer.”
The dog hopped in, climbed onto the seat and sat back. His owner fastened the seat belt over the dog’s broad chest, gently closed the door and stared through the window at the beast.
“You’re not going to hurt him, are you?”
Jack looked down into brown eyes surrounded by thick lashes that matched the younger man’s short black hair.
For some reason Jack absolutely did not want to explore, he softened his tone. “You’ll have to prove he’s had his shots, see the judge and pay a fine. But no, I’m not going to hurt him.” That would be up to their animal control officer, if it went that far. “Get your stuff from the car. You’re coming with me until I get this all straightened out.”
Jack watched as Beauregard and his incredibly firm ass walked back to the car, opened the trunk and pulled out a suitcase and a duffel bag. He’d seen a set of bags like those in the mall in San Antonio, at one of the upscale shops. Leather, maybe, and if the guy’s wallet was any indication, they probably cost more than Jack made in a month. Maybe two months.
The young man shut the trunk then came back to the patrol car. He placed the luggage on the ground in front of Jack as if he were supposed to stow them away, then he turned and went back to the wounded Miata. The familiar smell of leather came from the bags, reminding Jack of saddles and tack. Heady. Manly.
They didn’t seem to match the man. At all. Maybe they were borrowed.
The dog’s owner leaned over the door, giving Jack another eyeful of ass, then scooped up a worn brown leather jacket and returned.
He pointed to his bags. “Those need to go in the trunk, Officer.”
“I’m the chief of police,” Jack gritted out.
“Of course you are,” he said, then walked to the passenger side, opened the door and slid into the seat with nary a by-your-leave.
“Jesus.” Jack looked at the sky. “Don’t give me strength. I’d just kill him with my bare hands.” Then he picked up the bags and put them in the trunk of the cruiser.