by Stacy Lynn Miller
Newly minted San Francisco police detective Manhattan Sloane lets no one get close. Especially lovers.
Sloane has her reasons for keeping the world at arm’s length. But then her first childhood crush, DEA Agent Finn Harper, reappears and changes everything. Harper has arrived in San Francisco to investigate a new street drug weaving its way into the city—a drug that has personal ties for Sloane. The two find themselves thrown together as they team up to take down a ruthless cartel lord. Soon sparks fly as old feelings surface, forcing Sloane to face her past in order to build a new future.
Out of the Flames is the breakout debut novel by Stacy Lynn Miller. This is the first novel in the Manhattan Sloane romantic thriller series.
A Manhattan Sloane Thriller.
|Publication Date||April 16, 2020|
|Cover Designer||Judith Fellows|
Check out the book trailer for Out of the Flames.
FROM THE AUTHOR
"Out of the Flames began as a fan fiction story set in the world of Showtime’s The L Word. I’m a devoted TiBetter, who would rather forget the sixth season ever happened—other than Bette & Tina’s happy ending. Flames was the fourth novel-length piece I posted on LesFan.com, home of the world’s most extensive collection of B&T tales. I approached each fan fiction story by re-inventing my favorite couple. I threw them in a new location and gave them careers, friends, and drama much different from the original series. In other words, they were my own stories and characters with a built-in fan fiction readership.
At the heart of Flames is Manhattan Sloane, a kickass San Francisco police detective. Is she anything like me? Other than her East Bay Area roots, criminal justice degree, and several years as a cop and investigator (mine in the military), I’d have to say no. My friends tell me otherwise. They point out that, like me, Sloane faces tragedy but comes out the other side stronger and more determined. I say that’s every woman I know. In essence, Sloane is every fierce, loyal, yet flawed woman in my life.
Sloane’s greatest fear is fire and the destruction it brings. It’s also one of mine. When I was growing up, wildfires threatened our family home twice, once trapping our town in a fiery ring. We escaped both times without a scratch, but that heightened sense of fear never left me. Don’t even think about giving me a candle for Christmas.
Why San Francisco? I grew up in the East Bay Area at a time when San Francisco was depicted in television and movies as the fantastical center of counterculture and social reform. And all of that was right in my backyard. The City became this mythical place like Dorothy’s Oz—shiny, magical, and unreachable. Now, with all the awareness that comes with adulthood, San Francisco is beautiful and dirty, cultured and uncivilized, and a home I don’t recognize. In Manhattan Sloane’s world, I created a version of San Francisco that transported me back to childhood, yet had a footing in reality."
—Stacy Lynn Miller
Manhattan Sloane had a secret: all the other thirteen-year-old girls fawned over two male classmates, Hotty Scotty and Beefcake Jake, but she didn’t. In grade school, boys were fine to play with, but none ever made her want to do silly things to get their attention. At every opportunity, like tonight, she hung around Finn Harper, a cute tomboy who made her heart hammer so hard her chest hurt whenever she looked her way.
Why her and not a boy? Something had to be wrong. Right? Should she tell anyone? A resounding “no” screamed in her head. Whatever you do, don’t let Finn find out.
Most girls from her junior high honor choir had already filed out of the well-lit auditorium through the side door and gone down the steps to go home with their parents. All except her and Finn. In the adjoining classroom, Sloane stalled as long as she could at the semicircle of student desks by primping her long brown hair and fumbling with the contents of her book bag. Out of excuses, she slipped on her prized dark blue jean jacket, slung her backpack over her right shoulder, and ambled toward the door. She hoped to hear Finn’s voice or catch a glimpse of her hazel eyes as she left.
As Sloane reached the exit, Finn’s sweet, silvery tone stopped her in her tracks. “Looks like we’re the last two again.”
Sloane’s heart fluttered, waking the butterflies in her stomach. She didn’t expect anything more than Finn’s casual smile and “see ya,” followed by their mutual post-practice stair counting. Making it worse, as Finn strained to put on her cropped brown leather jacket, it pushed out her blossoming chest. Sloane thought she’d faint. What’s wrong with me?
Finn extended her hand, inviting Sloane to take it. “Walk out together?”
Sloane had daydreamed at least a dozen times about holding that hand, though, in her dreams, she didn’t have the sweaty palms she had tonight. When she took it, its warmth and softness reminded her of her blanket fresh out of the dryer. Then in an instant, her eyes rounded like hockey pucks—she had a crush. Those butterflies swarmed harder, churning the chicken nuggets and shoestring fries from lunch.
Finn tugged, but after Sloane inhaled the citrus scent of her short blond hair, her feet froze to the floor. She’d conjured up rows of orange trees in her head and wanted to breathe them in for hours. Say something you idiot, she told herself, but Finn had her tongue tied in a knot the size of one of those oranges in her brain.
“You okay?” Finn looked into her eyes.
With one glimpse at those hazel eyes, the taste of breaded chicken bubbled up in her throat. Before she recycled her lunch on the tips of Finn’s denim blue sneakers, she snapped out of her stupor. Think of something. Anything.
“Can we wait a few minutes?” Sloane shuffled her feet. “I gotta go out with my parents tonight, and these dinners always end in disaster.”
“I can’t. My dad will kill me if I’m late again.” Finn squeezed Sloane’s hand, signaling her heartfelt apology.
Though the euphoric moment would soon end, she held on to the hope they’d have another chance to hold hands after tomorrow’s practice while they talked about this and giggled about that. Then a lump formed in her throat. How could she hide the fact she liked Finn the way other girls liked boys? Ugh. Something is wrong with me.
“I get it.”
Soon they emerged from the auditorium and stood at the top of the concrete steps. Good, no Dad, Sloane thought. No doubt tonight’s dinner with her grandmother had Sloane’s father all worked up. From the lone lamppost illuminating the area, Sloane’s mother waved her over.
“I gotta go.” Finn waved at her father as he gestured to her from several feet away. “Count?”
“Sure.” A surge of boldness spurred Sloane to give Finn’s hand a squeeze of her own. Simultaneously, she and Finn stepped down and counted each stair. “One, two, three, four, five, six.”
At the bottom. Finn released Sloane’s hand. “See ya tomorrow, Sloane.”
“See ya, Finn.” Sloane’s chest tightened when their fingers slipped apart. After Finn walked away, she wished tomorrow were already there. “Tomorrow,” she whispered to herself.
“You certainly took your sweet time, Manny.” Sloane’s mother hunched her shoulders through a button-down thigh-length dark wool coat.
“I hate it when you call me that.” Sloane rolled her eyes at the root of her insecurities. Her first name brought on endless teasing about her boyish clothes and mannerisms from the seventh-grade ruling class. To get through it, she counterpunched, pointing out that when those girls were older they were going to have to have regular liposuction to satisfy their inevitable middle-aged vanity.
“I’m sorry, honey. I’ve been calling you that since the day you were born. It’s a hard habit to break.”
“But all the girls call me a tomboy, and that nickname makes it worse.”
“Would you rather I call you Manhattan?”
“God, no. That’s ten times worse.” Sloane rolled her eyes again. The fact she was conceived in Times Square on New Year’s Eve would haunt her for the rest of her life.
“I’m sorry, honey. I’ll work on the Sloane thing, I promise.” Her mother chuckled when she rubbed Sloane on the shoulders. “We better get going. Your father will be furious if we’re late.”
The uneasiness of the night to come replaced the exhilaration of Finn’s hand in hers while she walked to the family sedan. “I bet he’s already smoking in the car.”
“You know how he gets before these evenings with his mother. It helps him relax.”
“I know. Let’s get this over with.” Sloane groaned at the prospect of an evening of polite awkwardness when her mother hurried her along.
Sloane had predicted correctly. Inside the family car, the pungent smell of fresh cigarette smoke filled the cabin. The gift on the front seat forecasted an obligatory birthday dinner with her grandmother filled with faked friendly greetings, superficial pleasantries, and a shouting match as the main attraction. One thing puzzled her, though. Sloane never understood why her father disliked her grandmother so much, nor why she saw her only twice a year. All they told her was that he grew up without a father. During nights like this, Sloane was glad her mother had no other family and no opportunity for full-on drama.
After he doused his Marlboro, Sloane braced herself for his short temper. Luckily, he turned to her mother. “There was an accident on the freeway.” He glared at Sloane in the rearview. “And we’re already late.”
Hello to you, too, Dad. Geez. Instead of firing back, Sloane matched his glare and shot daggers at the salt-and-pepper hair cropped tightly around his ears. The school had scheduled choir practice on her grandmother’s birthday, not her, and arguing would only make him mad—something to avoid tonight.
“It’ll be fine, Daryl.” Her mother placed a calming hand on his arm. “Take the back road and catch the freeway at the Dam Road in San Pablo. We should make it to San Francisco in time, but I’m sure they’ll hold our reservation if we’re a few minutes late.”
After a few grumbled words, he drove off. Its many twists and turns made the back road tricky enough to drive during daylight. Tonight, the fog had settled into the hills and hung on every curve, the absence of streetlights making the way murky. Her mother had taken this road at night dozens of times, but not this fast. When her mother gripped the passenger grab handle after a sharp turn, Sloane considered asking him to slow down but thought better of it.
After minutes of tense silence, her mother turned in her seat toward Sloane in the backseat. “How was practice? Will you girls be ready for next week’s concert?”
Sloane relaxed. Thank God. With something to take her mind off her dad and the upcoming evening, she perked up and replied at a fast clip. “It was great. Me and Finn are singing ABBA’s ‘Take a Chance on Me,’ and we’re really good.”
“Ooh, I love that song.”
“Sing it with me, Mom.”
“Sure.” A warm smile formed on her mother’s lips.
Sloane loved hearing her mother’s melodic voice. Her mother had told her as a toddler that singing soothed her to sleep at night and eased her awake the next morning. By the time she entered school, Sloane had sung along with her every day before her father came home from work, making it their special time.
“You take the background on the first verse. On three.” Sloane counted down and began the verse. Her mother joined with the mesmerizing background lyrics.
Her father squirmed in his seat, not unlike his reaction whenever their singing interrupted his concentration when he brought work home. Before they finished the first verse, he glanced over his shoulder at her. “Enough!”
Sloane hushed and glared at him. Geez, it’s only singing.
Two diffused beams of light emerged around the corner in the misty fog. The oncoming lights moved into their lane, or vice versa, she couldn’t tell, but they were on a collision course.
He whipped his head around and jerked the steering wheel. Their car launched into a fishtail, throwing Sloane against her door with a forceful thud. She clawed the air for her mother’s hand. After her father slammed the brakes, the car turned on itself.
What’s happening? Every detail came into sharp focus. Her eyes fixed on nothing, yet everything at the same time. Oddly, motion around her slowed as if someone had flipped a strange switch. Her eyes focused on her window while it scraped the road surface. There must have been a screeching sound, but she couldn’t hear it.
The world turned again, and the road disappeared. The top of the car hit the asphalt in a dull thud, but she didn’t hear it either. While her hands braced her fall to the roof, her backpack joined her hands there. It made no sense—the outside world had turned upside down.
Everything bent again, and the road reappeared. She twisted her head so her eyes could follow her mother’s long brown locks and necklace as they floated in the air. Glass shattered, but Sloane couldn’t hear the crack. The chunks of glass and contents of her mother’s purse joined the hair and necklace in a midair dance.
Something held Sloane in place when the car rolled again and kept her from sliding. Nothing made sense except that the world had turned upright.
The ground fell out beneath them, and everything slanted downward. When the dancing glass fragments flew back toward her face, she blinked to dodge them.
Then came a jolting stop.
The seat belt hugged her. A sharp pain radiated across her chest and abdomen and forced air from her lungs. When she inhaled, a severe ache radiated in her chest, forcing her to take shallow breaths. She winced.
Sloane tried to get her bearings, but her heart pounded in her ears and reverberated with every beat. She recognized the copper taste of blood in her mouth. Then the faint scent of gasoline reminded her she was in a vehicle. Though the car pointed almost straight down, something had suspended her in midair. Her mind was still fuzzy; it made little sense.
Seconds later, a dim glow from the engine compartment provided enough light to see her seat belt held her in place. The car had come to rest in a deep trench not wide enough for it to lay flat. In the front seat, her parents’ heads slumped forward.
“Mom…Dad?” When no one answered, she cried out again, this time meeker than the first, “Mom…Dad?”
Her father groaned and raised his head.
She hoped. She prayed. “Dad? Is Mom…?” But she couldn’t say the words too horrible to think.
Her father stretched out a bloody hand toward her motionless mother. When he nudged her, she groaned. When he shook her shoulder, she moaned again and raised her head. Alive. She was alive.
“Cathryn?” Blood dripped from his lips.
“Manny?” her mother slurred.
When Sloane took in a rattled breath, her throat constricted. “I’m okay, Mom.”
“Can you move?” Her father struggled to push up the steering column.
After slinging her legs to one side, Sloane tugged at the seat belt holding her in place. “Yeah, I can move.”
“See if you can get your mother out.” His wince signaled considerable pain. “I’m pinned in.”
Bracing herself with one hand against the front seat, she released the seat belt with the other. Once free, she pushed her upper body over the top of her mother’s seat. She gasped at the sight of her mother’s legs trapped by pieces of metal. Flames had peeked out from the wrecked engine, shedding more light on her surroundings. She discovered her father’s legs were similarly pinned.
“Oh, God.” Sloane ripped at pieces of metal near her mother, slicing her hands on the sharp edges.
Her mother, more alert now, glanced toward Sloane. “It’s no use, Manny.”
Heat rose from the flames. Sloane’s heart pounded in her ears as she tried again to free her mother from the tangled sections of plastic and metal. “I can do it. I can do it.” Blood streaming from her hands, she pushed and pulled.
Shards of glass protruded from her mother’s hand; blood oozed down her arm. “Listen, Sloane. It’s no use. Go. Save yourself.”
The flames grew. Sloane needed to get out, but she couldn’t leave without them. “I can’t, Mommy, I can’t.” She pulled again on the mangled pieces. “I can’t leave you.”
“She’s right, Sloane. Please go.” Her father turned soft eyes on her.
Sloane blinked. They’d both called her Sloane.
She tried the passenger door and then another. Neither budged. The forward window on her mother’s side had shattered, making it the only means of escape. Reality set in. She kissed her father on the forehead. “I love you, Daddy.”
“I love you, sweetheart.”
It broke her heart. This was the first time she’d said those words to him in years. Either he was always working or she didn’t care enough to say them. Now it was too late. One tear after another rolled down her face when she turned. She’d told her mother those words every time they said goodbye. Now they seemed not nearly enough. Sloane’s lips quivered as she kissed her mother’s forehead. “I love you, Mommy.”
The flames grew more substantial as heat and smoke filled the cramped space.
“Hurry, Sloane. Hurry,” her mother pleaded.
Sloane pulled herself over her mother’s trapped body and through the rough opening. When she reached for her mother again, she choked, and the billowing black smoke blinded her for a moment.
“No, baby, get away. You have to get away.” Her mother pushed her back.
“Run, Sloane. Run!” Her father’s scream served to push her further back.
She glanced once more at her mother to memorize the smile on her face. Even through the blood and torn flesh, her mother’s beauty left her speechless. Then as the smoke rolled heavier, her mother mouthed the words, “I love you.”
Sloane stumbled down the path of the trench as fast as she could, but sobbing and pain slowed her down. Every step from the hot twisted mess took her one step closer to becoming an orphan.
She clawed her way up the edge of the embankment toward the pavement. She glanced up the highway. Maybe there’d be a passing car. Where was the other driver?
Horrid, high-pitched noises pierced the air, sounds like nothing she’d ever heard before, like an animal trapped in sure death. Sloane glanced back as flames engulfed the car. Her mother’s arms flailed to the beat of her screams. In an instant, fire consumed her.
Sloane shrieked. “Mommy!”
After advancing a few steps, she stumbled and lifted her head, horrified at seeing her mother’s fiery silhouette thrashing back and forth still. An explosive ball of fire concussed toward her and hurled bits of metal into the air. They turned into pinballs bouncing off the trees. Heat scorched her skin, and bright light forced her eyes shut to the horrible truth.
When she shook off her daze, only fragments remained of the burning car, leaving nothing identifiable as human. Another image of her burning mother choked the air from her lungs. A second explosion sent another wall of heat toward her. She scurried back up the embankment and slumped to the ground.
“Don’t leave me, Mommy,” she whimpered, and her wet tears fell to the charred earth.
Eighteen years later
Ends of long, tousled, bleached-blond hair tickled Sloane’s nose awake along with the rest of her. The rare warmth in the air reminded her that a few weeks remained of San Francisco’s tepid summer. Her eyes fluttered open to a dark apartment bedroom furnished with only a rickety dresser, the bed she had stretched across, and the tall, naked blonde next to her. As she extended her long legs across the lumpy mattress, a predicament became clear. Should she ignore her engorged ache or the words whispered into her ear right before falling asleep? She decided on neither.
Sloane had a type, and this one fit the bill perfectly, ideally suited to quench her physical needs and nothing more. Or so she had hoped. After a month of hookups, Sloane thought Michelle knew the score—no commitments, no emotions, just sex. Saying “I love you” broke the rules.
Maybe it had been said in the heat of the moment, or perhaps it was the alcohol talking. If so, they’d be able to return to their unattached entanglement. If not, Sloane’s only option was cutting her loose. But not before she took care of her immediate problem.
She ran a finger up the edge of Michelle’s toned leg, hoping that would be enough to wake her. When that didn’t work, she went for the gold, dipping a hand between that leg and the other to find the patch of short, coarse hairs she’d delighted in hours earlier.
Michelle’s legs opened wider. A naughty grin appeared on her face, though her eyes remained closed. “Again?”
Sloane hoped this wouldn’t take long. “Gotta start my first day as a detective off right, don’t I?”
Michelle’s eyes popped open. “Not before I know we’re on the same page.”
“I think we are.” Sloane inched her own tall, athletic body lower until she could take in Michelle’s musky scent. “You go first. Then me.”
“Not that.” Michelle sat up against the headboard, her chin dipped to her chest. “I’m falling in love with you, Sloane. I need to know I have a chance with you.”
And there it is. Sloane released a heavy sigh into the rumpled sheets. Every time she found great sex, this happened.
After joining Michelle against the headboard, she picked at the options of how to say goodbye this time. Should she choose the “I warned you this would happen” approach? Or should she go with her tried-and-true “settling down” line? One would leave no room for Michelle to mistake it was over, and the other would let Michelle down gently so Sloane could still frequent her neighborhood tavern in relative peace.
“I’m not ready to settle down, Michelle.” Sloane bent her knees up and dangled her forearms over them.
Michelle slapped a section of the mattress and flung her feet to the floor. “Uncle Dylan warned me this would happen.”
“He did, huh?” Until now, Sloane wasn’t sure if those two talked beyond family and the daily operations of his pub.
Michelle scurried to find her clothes. “He warned me you were unobtainable.”
Sloane pulled her back to bed. When Michelle crossed her arms and pulled out her pouty face, Sloane decided a conciliatory tone was called for. “He knows me and that my job makes it impossible to consider settling down.”
Even that was a lie. No one knew the real Manhattan Sloane. She let no one get close enough to find out, especially lovers. She was a magnet for heartache and death, so avoiding deep connections seemed like a prudent thing for everyone. Dylan, her only friend and primary bartender—one having everything to do with the other—only knew what Sloane let him see: an aloof orphan accustomed to being alone who married her job the first day she pinned on the badge.
“He knows you better than his only niece,” Michelle harrumphed.
“What do you expect? I live a block away and have seen him almost every day for the last eighteen years.”
Michelle raised her chin toward the ceiling as if searching for a better explanation. “Was the sex not good enough?”
“God, no.” She and Michelle had kept it interesting by weaving daring into the lineup. The image of Dylan’s now broken office chair snuck up on her, along with a mischievous grin. “Sex is great with you, but I can’t give you anything more.”
“I blew my chance with you, didn’t I?”
“That’s just it.” Sloane pulled Michelle’s chin toward her. “No one has a chance with me.”
“It’s time for you to leave, Sloane.” Michelle’s nostrils flared before she jerked her head toward the window.
Sloane considered giving Michelle a gentle touch or a soft apology but feared she’d lose an arm for her effort. Instead, she dressed and closed the door behind her, thinking she should have gone with “I warned you this would happen.”
* * *
Today, newly minted Sergeant Manhattan Sloane traded in her seven-point sterling silver badge for a gold one. For six years, she served and protected the City by the Bay, and like every other patrol officer, she’d had her share of assigned partners. She’d considered each a good cop who brought his or her own unique skills and personality to the job. The weightlifter had her back more than once during bar disturbances. The budding lawyer quoted chapter and verse for every violation to throw against a perp they didn’t care for. And the second-chancer spoke the language of every hooker and drug addict they came across. Today, she drew Eric Decker as a partner, a tall, brawny seasoned narcotics detective about three years her senior.
For her first assignment as a detective, she’d requested homicide, but the brass saw fit to send her to narcotics. Just as well, she figured. Her old beat, the Mission District, sat at the center of San Francisco’s drug world and had primed her well for it.
As she rode to her first scene in a weathered unmarked sedan, nerves didn’t bother her, but she couldn’t say as much for her uncomfortable new gear. Whenever she leaned over, despite her thin, athletic frame, the adjuster of her shoulder holster poked the underside of her breast. She must’ve tweaked it twenty times this morning. The holster differed from the Sam Browne belt she’d worn around her waist for years, and it would take getting used to. She did, however, like the variety of options now available for styling her dark brown hair. She opted to wear it today in a loose bun low on the neck—a refreshing change of pace from the high bun or ponytail required in uniform.
“Don’t wear formfitting jackets.” Eric shifted his glance from the road and then back again. “It won’t rub as much.”
She pulled at her dark off-the-rack jacket, grumbling about having to update her entire wardrobe. “This’ll get expensive.”
“I’ll introduce you to my tailor.” Eric snickered. “He knows how to let the side out just enough for your holster and still make you look good. Plus, he gives first responders fifty percent off.”
Must be a good tailor. The dark blue pinstriped suit he was wearing fit Eric like a glove and played well with his business-cut light brown hair.
Eric pulled up in front of the mid-century apartment building, one of several in the neighborhood that showed its age. The boarded-up windows, weed-lined sidewalks, and smog-stained façades housed a good swath of the city’s drug community.
He turned off the engine and rubbed his clean-shaven face. “I suggest you listen and learn. The CSIs can get a little territorial.”
Sloane’s antenna went up. Listen and learn because I’m a rookie detective or because I’m a woman? Years ago, while studying criminal justice at San Francisco State University, she first saw him at a college job fair and didn’t get the impression he would treat a woman differently from a man. As a uniformed officer, she’d run into him several times at crime scenes and considered him fair-minded and above petty notions. Maybe she’d given him too much credit.
“If you think I can’t handle myself, why’d you request me as a partner?”
“I asked for you because when I first saw you at that career fair, I saw something special in you. Was I wrong?”
“No, you weren’t.” Bragging wasn’t her thing, but she needed to set the tone.
“I didn’t think so. You’re a good cop and street smart. You know the difference between the law and justice and that the two don’t always mean the same thing.” He gently laid a hand on her shoulder like her mother used to do when she taught her a desperately needed lesson. “Look, I know you’ve worked plenty of drug labs as a uni, but I don’t want you to step in it your first day.”
Maybe she’d doubted him too soon, so she gave him a nod. “Fair enough.”
Once past the crime scene van and two patrol cars parked curbside, she approached the uniformed officer guarding the scene perimeter.
Officer Holland scanned her from head to toe before his eyes settled on the gold badge dangling from her neck chain. “Good to see you moving up in the world, Sloane.”
“Thanks.” She grinned. Rising from the ranks came with a set of responsibilities, the most important of which was to represent the rank and file with distinction. His nod of appreciation meant she’d earned his respect. “Did you roll on this?”
“Yeah, a small lab to cut your teeth on.” Holland’s chuckle turned Sloane’s grin into a broader smile.
“Nice work.” Unsure whether he’d given her a jab or vote of confidence, she patted him on the shoulder and passed by.
The call sheet said a citizen had complained about the smell, and two officers stumbled across the makeshift meth lab. Sloane had discovered at least fifty of these during her time on the streets, but instead of securing the scene and observing today, she would investigate it for clues.
She’d seen it all before. Small or large, Crime Scene Investigations approached each lab in the same fashion. Technicians donned full chemical suits and respirators and disappeared inside, while the team leader managed the command post and logged in evidence from a safe distance outside. She and Eric headed there.
“Santos, what do we have?” Eric pushed back the flaps of his suit coat and rested both hands on his hips.
Santos turned, pushing back her chem suit hood and shaking loose shoulder-length caramel-blond hair, a contrast of light brown and butterscotch streaks. “Hey, Decker. Who’s the rookie?”
“Avery Santos, meet Manhattan Sloane, my new partner.” He shifted his glance to Sloane. “While you were back in kindergarten getting your department cert, Santos transferred from Ingleside and took over the CSI Lab at Bryant.”
Sloane’s breath hitched when she looked at Avery’s eyes, hazel in color with rings of light green surrounding a cluster of rays the color of golden honey. They transported her, frozen, to somewhere in her past. I’ve seen those before, but where? When? She prided herself on never forgetting a face, and she knew she hadn’t in this case. But those eyes were a different story. Answers eluded her, but she couldn’t shake the feeling those eyes were meant for her.
A jab to her ribs knocked Sloane back to the present. After forcing a smile, she took her hand, shook it, and mumbled a word similar to “hey.”
“I’ll need that back.” After several awkward beats, Avery pulled her hand away from Sloane’s as if shaking off a film of goo. “Nice to meet you, Manhattan.”
“Sloane, just call me Sloane.”
Damn it, Sloane. For once, you come across a beautiful woman who won’t run when she finds out you’re a cop, and you act like a lovestruck teenager. Just stay focused on your first case.
“Sooooo…” Avery turned her attention back to Eric, “definitely not a professional lab.”
Sloane scanned the evidence Avery had collected. Dried, dark gunk coated most of the items, and they had a distinct chemical scent. Lithium batteries, empty Pepsi bottles, lye, Drano, coffee filters, and several other items meant only one thing.
“Tweaker lab.” Sloane’s confidence spilled into a cocky smile. She’d run across enough meth-heads to recognize one of their filthy kitchens.
“Rookie’s done her homework.” Avery turned back to Eric, her voice tight with impatience. “As I was saying, definitely not a professional lab. Most likely a tweaker built it for personal use.”
Sloane had done her homework. In addition to her own personal experience on patrol, she had studied dozens of case files to familiarize herself with the local drug culture. Eager to impress, she scanned the evidence table again. “Where are the mason jars? Sometimes tweakers hide them in the walls.”
“Look, hotshot, you need to stay in your lane.” Avery’s daggers hit Sloane between the eyes. “Or do you need me to tell you that the best place to find the tweaker who built this lab is on Ellis Street?”
I’m such an idiot. Every one of her words had come across as arrogant. To be safe, Sloane mumbled some compliant response and kept her mouth shut for the rest of the walk-through.
The drive back to 850 Bryant had Sloane stewing in her juices and a grin plastered on Eric’s face. After parking in the police garage, he turned to Sloane. “I think that went well, don’t you?”
In a loud thud, she bounced her forehead off the dashboard and grunted. Never had she acted like such a fool, not as a rookie on patrol, and never in front of a beautiful woman. That was it; that performance pretty much assured that she’d blown her chance with the woman who had her spellbound at first sight.
* * *
The following day, Sloane barreled through her townhouse’s front door and thumped down the stairs to the bottom-floor bedroom.
From the living room couch, a concerned voice rang out. “Where’s the fire?”
“Sorry, Nana. I have a date.” At least she hoped it was one.
Not two hours earlier, Sloane’s heart had raced and her mouth had gone dry when Avery stopped her outside the squad room and said, “I’d like to make up for biting your head off yesterday. How about you let me buy you a drink after work?”
“O—kay.” Sloane’s response had made her sound like a pitiful tongue-tied teenager.
“How about Eddie’s?” Avery’s smile had brightened when she parted her lips, telegraphing an interest in more than drinks.
Perfect, a cop bar. Sloane would be in her element. The only hitch—she had enough time to change but not enough to shower following a late afternoon scuffle with a junkie.
After skidding across the wood floor in her room, she sifted through her closet and dresser, searching for something casual yet appealing. The moment she picked out an item, she discarded it in a huff, leaving a misshapen pile on her bed. “Too casual. Too plain. Too baggy. Too revealing. Too…just too.”
“Try your favorite Levi’s.” Her grandmother appeared in the doorway, winded from her climb down the stairs. “And that light purple sweater you wore when you took me to the movies last week.”
“Genius.” Sloane snapped her fingers and glanced toward the door, where her grandmother stood gripping her cane. That fragility accompanied by a look of determination reminded Sloane of the days following the accident. In less than a month, her fear of having to live with the woman her father had such problems with turned out to be pointless. “Nana, you shouldn’t be down here. The doctor said no stairs after your last stroke.”
“I’ve survived a lot worse, and I’m not letting a few stairs keep me from finding out about this date.”
“You’re so stubborn, Nana.” You survived because I found you in time. Next time you may not be so lucky.
Without time for an argument, she shoved at the mound of clothes and patted the corner of her bed, presenting an inviting temporary resting spot. “At least sit.”
Her grandmother parked herself at the nearest corner before taking in a restorative breath. “Now, who is this woman?”
Sloane changed in a flash. “Just someone from work.”
“She must be special if you’re already this worked up.”
Sloane paused. The women she dated in the past never had her dumbstruck at every turn, but this one did. Avery had the potential of holding her attention beyond the attraction, and now that she’d slowed down enough to consider that, it troubled her. Someone would get hurt. Her cautious side warned her to turn back, but the image of those haunting hazel eyes pulled her forward.
“It’s just a date, Nana.” Her energy now tempered to a slower pace, a quick brush through her hair, and Sloane was ready to go. She turned and posed. “How do I look?”
“Perfect, honey. Now, help this old woman up the stairs before you go.”
The short drive to Eddie’s hadn’t calmed Sloane. At the bar, Avery’s formfitting jeans and a blue and white striped button-down blouse caught her attention. Her breath hitched again at the pleasing mix of light and dark hair against dusky skin—a combination she hadn’t encountered before Avery. Get it together. It’s just drinks. After swallowing her nerves, she maneuvered through the standing-room-only cop crowd and joined Avery, who had sat at the bar.
“Hey.” Sloane’s nerves manifested in a shy, soft tone.
Avery turned and scanned Sloane up and down. “Glad you made it. You look nice.”
Polite observation, or was she checking me out? No matter the case, it made her feel sexy.
“You look great too.” Appreciating the lines of Avery’s trim jean-clad legs crossed at the knee, she took a seat on the neighboring barstool.
Avery swung around, her expression turned serious. “I’m sorry I was a jerk yesterday.” Masking part of a frown, she sipped on her cocktail. “I was having a bad day. Hell, I’ve been having a bad month, and I took it out on you.”
The bartender popped over and laid a napkin in front of Sloane’s spot at the bar.
“I’ll take another vodka gimlet, and she’ll have…” Avery turned to Sloane for the answer.
“Scotch on the rocks.” After the bartender scurried off, Sloane shook her head, unwilling to let Avery take the blame. “I overstepped. Let’s chalk it up to first-day jitters.” Or more accurate, Avery jitters.
“I’m normally not that snippy.”
“Is the job testing you too?” Relieved when her much-needed drink arrived, Sloane sipped on the scotch to take the edge off yesterday’s embarrassment and tonight’s nerves.
“Nothing I can’t handle.” Avery downed the rest of her current drink before accepting her next. “Breaking the glass ceiling sometimes ruffles a few feathers. I’m bound to get cuts and scrapes along the way.”
“Been there, done that. You’re bruising the egos of the old male guard.” Before Sloane realized it, she’d squeezed Avery’s hand. “And I’m sure my weak attempt to impress you didn’t help.”
“I’ve learned to lick my wounds.” Avery sipped on her drink as if savoring its pain-relieving effects. “And outperform anyone who gets in my way.”
“Amen. I do the same.” Blushed cheeks, Sloane remembered cockiness had almost ensured that this “just drinks” didn’t happen. She lightened her tone. “Or at least I try to.”
Sloane shifted on her stool and raised her glass. “Tell you what, apology accepted.”
They clinked glasses.
Avery leaned forward until her lips settled inches from Sloane’s ear. “Thank you.” Her silky tenor hinted more at seduction than regret.
This is more than just drinks. Sloane’s stomach fluttered, competing with a tightness in her chest. You’re right, Nana. This one is special. Under any other circumstance, she’d turn and run, but Avery had captivated her since her first mumbled word. This woman would test Sloane’s resolve.
“Are you hungry?” Sloane hoped she was… No commitments, she reminded herself. “Would you like to get dinner?”
Avery checked the time on her cell phone. “I’d love to, but I have a teenage daughter at my apartment who’s helpless in the kitchen.” The creases at the bridge of her nose became more prominent as if she’d said too much for a first date.
A teenager? Avery can’t be that old. “How old is she?”
“Fourteen.” Avery released a long breath. Sloane’s curiosity must’ve been a good sign.
Fourteen for Sloane meant fending for herself with TV dinners or microwaved nachos when her grandmother worked late at the school. She couldn’t let this beautiful woman worry about her daughter on a first date.
“How about we pick up something for all three of us? My treat.” Sloane topped off her proposition with a toothy smile.
Avery matched Sloane’s smile. “I’d like that.” She suggested they stop at a deli across the street from Eddie’s and then walk the few blocks to her place. Arms filled with two bags of soup and sandwiches, they settled into polite chitchat. “Why did you become a cop?”
“When I was a teenager, my parents died in a car crash, and a police officer helped me. Bernie later died trying to save someone else, so I joined to honor him.”
Avery’s curiosity both pleased and upset her. With rare exceptions, the women Sloane dated found the exit after learning she worked as a cop and those who didn’t never stayed long enough to find out why. But Avery did. That alone made her special, though the knot in her stomach reminded her why she avoided the question. Sloane held back the fact that Bernie died trying to help her again. Death followed her. The best thing she ever did was to bury her past.
“I’m so sorry about your parents.” Avery rubbed Sloane’s arm with her free hand.
Friendly compassion or something more? Sloane couldn’t tell. She stopped her stride and met Avery’s gaze, searching for a sign of interest. Avery’s shy smile answered her question. This is a date.
“I’ve never done this with a woman.” Avery steered her eyes toward Sloane’s lips, licking her own.
Unsure if Avery was gay or experimenting, Sloane resisted the urge to kiss her. In her younger days, she’d kissed her share of thrill-seeking straight married women, but she swore off that years ago. “Tell me one thing?”
“Are you married?”
“Widowed. He died in a military training accident.” Avery kissed her on the cheek. Her lips lingered as if she were dipping her toes into a pond for the first time. After pulling back a fraction, she whispered, “I’ve always been attracted to women but never acted on it until now. And before you ask, no, I’m not looking for a one-night stand.”
“I’m not looking for anything long-term.” For her own preservation, Sloane had to say it. If her instincts were right, she would need the out.
“Let’s just see where this goes.” Avery curled her nose and sniffed. “Do I smell cherry?”
“Slushy shower with a junkie today.” Warmth flushed Sloane’s cheeks. “You like?”
“I do.” Avery’s smile grew, and the promise of something more to come floated in the air.
* * *
The way Sloane’s jeans hugged her lean, athletic form and how her brown curls fell on her shoulders to frame her high cheekbones had caught Avery’s eye during their “just drinks” date two weeks ago. Except for the long hair, her features resembled those of her dead husband. Man or woman, she realized, she had a type. As if her looks and matching cool and sexy tomboy fashion of jeans and tees weren’t enough, Sloane’s mix of playfulness, intelligence, and kindness had her hooked. Being hooked didn’t mean she was ready for Sloane to reel her in though.
Despite six dinner dates, including two at little cafés and taverns only locals knew about and just as many coffee dates, Avery was still waffling. At least a dozen times her and Sloane’s blood-pumping near-kisses had her wondering if she’d ever forget her upbringing and dive in. Sloane deserved a medal for her patience and her unending reassurances—“It’s okay, whenever you’re ready…”
With each passing day, goodbye kisses on the cheek had gotten longer and more dizzying and light caresses on the arm had turned into increasingly long, full-body hugs. Each time, Sloane’s body had buzzed with arousal. Every inch of Avery’s had too, especially at their last encounter, but her Catholic guilt had her running for the door before she could succumb to it.
Endless fantasies about women since adolescence had Avery convinced that she was going to hell. This thing with Sloane, though, had her thinking hell was a small price to pay to make all her fantasies come true.
Sloane had introduced her to the Tap days ago. Its faded Formica tabletops created a far from trendy atmosphere, but Sloane was enamored with it and called it her second home. The cluttered walls plastered with light wood paneling and mirrored beer signs made the place cozy. If Moe’s Tavern on The Simpsons ever existed in real life, this would be it. However, the distinct smell of cooking grease reminded her the Tap offered food as well as liquor. Dylan’s lunch and dinner menu offered several dishes she wanted to sample, and tonight, she had his Southwestern egg rolls on her mind.
Dylan delivered their shared plate and wiped his hands on his lightly stained white apron. “Since you’re the only ones left, I’m getting ready to close up for the night, ladies.”
“Would you prefer us to take it to go?” Sloane asked. Avery hoped he’d say no. Alone was perfect for what she had in mind.
“Take your time.” He waved his hand as if her suggestion was preposterous. “I already turned off the sign. I’ll be in the back cleaning the grill. When you finish, close the door behind you, and I’ll put the bill on your tab.”
“You’re the best, D.” Sloane gave him a wink.
Avery rubbed her hands. “Ooohhh, I’ve been thinking about this all day.”
“Me too.” Sloane’s wistful voice made it clear food wasn’t the only thing on her mind.
Last night’s goodbye kiss on the cheek had Avery imagining Sloane’s lips against hers, guessing what flavor she’d find when she dipped her tongue in for the first time. The corners of her mouth inched up, hoping that first taste would be Southwestern egg roll.
They dug into the food. While Avery’s eyes widened at the spicy combination of tastes, Sloane’s first bite resulted in an epic struggle with a long string of cheese, drawing giggles from both.
“Here, let me help.” Avery reached up and broke off the end of the cheese closest to the egg roll. In midair, she rolled it around her index finger until she reached Sloane’s lips. “Open wide.” Her tone turned husky.
Their laughter came to an abrupt stop.
When her gaze settled on Sloane’s eyes, she recognized a sexual hunger, the same one overwhelming her. It made her feel like a virgin, begging for that first magical kiss. After Sloane opened her mouth, she eased her finger in and grazed her tongue, sparking a sudden pulse between her legs. Sloane wrapped her lips around the finger, causing her to shudder at the warm, moist sensation. All the teasing and flirting of the last few weeks had come to a head. By the time she removed her finger, shallow breaths had dizzied her. She didn’t have to hope Sloane felt the same; she saw it on her face. Her whole body ached to feel Sloane’s lips against hers.
Avery brushed her lips against Sloane’s. In that fleeting moment when their lips met, all her childhood teachings melted away. All the fantasies she had about kissing, touching, and making love to a woman were on the brink of coming true. What would Sloane’s kiss feel like? Would it be like a man’s, forceful and possessive, or would it be like her own, tender and trusting?
Air couldn’t fill her lungs fast enough. She pressed her lips against Sloane’s, expecting her to take control. But she didn’t. Sloane relinquished it. The kiss was on Avery’s terms. Pressing harder, she moaned at the electricity lighting her body and thought she heard Sloane moan too.
She’d wanted to taste her for days, but only now found the courage. Caressing Sloane’s cheek, first with one hand and then two, she parted her lips a fraction and gave light brushes and tender licks. Kissing never felt like this before, had never curled the toes in her sneakers. And it obviously was supposed to.
Sloane wrapped a hand around the back of her head and pulled when she opened her mouth further. The moment their tongues bumped against one another, blood rushed to Avery’s center, producing a powerful ache. Hell, my ass. This is heaven.
Their tongues danced, sharing the taste of egg roll, for how long, she couldn’t be sure, but when she ended the kiss, different music was playing in the background. She fluttered her eyelids open and whispered. “Wow.”
“Wow is right.” Sloane still had her eyes closed, but the look of pure satisfaction on her face had Avery wanting another kiss.