Monday, June 3, 2019

#NewRelease on June 26th-- #Tirgearr Publishing #RomanticSuspense-- set in Hawaii

Bittersweet Alliance is up for pre-order on Amazon.  On June 26th, release day, it's free on Kindle unlimited and 99 cents to buy.

Below is a blurb, followed by an excerpt:
Will a snap decision change their lives forever?

Bizarre kidnappings stun the Big Island of Hawaii, pulling Danker Donahue back into the game and forcing him to partner with Jolene Kualoha, the woman who left him seven years ago when his DNA showed up in paternity lawsuit. The prejudice-motivated hate crimes are the wildest anyone has ever seen. Victims are being poisoned then released once the ransoms are paid, many losing their lives.

In the shadow of Jolene's success as a helicopter pilot, a troubled woman develops a fixation on Jolene and imitates her appearance. Matters turn dark when the copycat is shot dead. Was Jolene the target? Threats mount when she barely survives an accident after her brake cables are severed.

When these crimes threaten her sanity, Jolene is forced to trust the one person she thought she’d lost forever, Danker. Instantly, sparks fly between them, and as much as she wants to rekindle their relationship, she must protect her heart.

An old enemy, Seamus McGinn, breaks out of a maximum-security prison and invites Danker to a meet-up. Surprisingly, the kidnapper joins forces with McGinn along with his sick fans. McGinn trumpets his ‘murders by ice pick’, and it’s up to Danker to stop him. The whole island is on edge with a live feed from the maniac’s website.

In a stolen moment, Jolene shows him hope, and he makes a snap decision that will change their lives forever. Will he make it back to show her?

Chapter One
Seven years since their breakup, Jolene Kualoha spotted Danker Donahue, ambling from the parking lot toward the store. She recognized him by his height and long gait. Wind from the north ruffled his hair and brought a bone-biting chill to her heart. Nuts, here he was, ducking his head to miss the bell overhead. It tinkled, and a strange twisting sensation hit her in the stomach.
This happened at the Kalua-Kona Food Emporium on a Sunday morning in July. She stared from where she stood near the avocados. His dangerous edge drew her in, but she turned her back to him. Her body reverberated like when her cellphone was on vibrate in her pocket. Stunned with minor electric shock, she froze.  Maybe he wouldn’t see her.  Wouldn’t recognize the back of her head or the once familiar shape of her ass.
Was someone waiting for him in the parking lot? Someone like Louella, the baby’s momma who’d summoned him for an immediate DNA test? For a split second, she craned her head around but didn’t see her with him.
She and Danker were a couple when the test confirmed his fatherhood. Her heart ached at the memory. Love hurt, but that wasn’t all. Loneliness hurt. Losing someone hurt. Decision-making hurt when you force yourself to do the right thing.
She’d pulled away, giving him space to work on his previous relationship for the sake of their child. The most shameful thing a woman can do is take parents away from a baby, and this began her year of stubborn steadfastness.
I did the breakup rituals. Got the dramatic haircut. Engraved a piece of jewelry he got me with a new message. Deleted the photos that made me cry.
To have been his woman was like living where the air flowered with jasmine, and the weather day after day was flawless, but the forecast was a hurricane.
Older didn’t mean wiser. All this time she’d dreaded running into him, sometimes dressing in expectation of it. If she did see him again, she wanted to look good. Today she looked like crap, but what did it matter? His reason for being on the Big Island had nothing to do with her, not in a personal way. Tomorrow they’d meet at the FBI field office to collaborate on a serial kidnapping case. She’d wear a sleeveless linen dress, open-toed pumps, and bring the accordion file full of notes and newspaper clippings she’d gathered.
The perpetrator targeted wealthy Hawaiians with social capital, the kind of people seen on television or featured in newspapers when they donated money to charities. The latest missing person, Pua Iona, owned Iona Hawaiian Rugs and was an acquaintance of hers. Not that they shared the same social strata, but they’d volunteered together at an artisans’ market to boost Hawaiian crafts. After Pua went missing and fit the criminal’s modus operandi, Mayor Billy Kim, frustrated with police progress, contacted Jolene’s former boss from California, FBI Agent Gary Guhleman, cowboyish in dress but wise in judgement.   
Guhleman didn’t need to tell her Hawaiians resisted outside intrusions. “You know everyone,” he’d said. “Witnesses will share what they know.” The agent and his wife had retired, rather semi-retired, here in Kona. Soon after she and Guhleman had spoken, he called in Danker Donahue to consult. “You remember him, right?”
“Gosh, let me think.” She and Danker went hot and heavy after the Long Beach case that ended with the arrest of mobster Seamus McGinn.
Just then Danker spoke to someone with his rich Midwestern drawl, typical of California transplants. It was the first time she’d heard his voice in seven years after hearing it every day for ten months. She hardened like a turtle on a rock except for a slight turn of her head. He removed an earbud from his right ear and placed it in a protective case.
His longer dark hair, broad shoulders, and square jaw evoked an intense mix of emotions. A car crash of desire. There was nothing more frightening than desiring a freefall. It wasn’t just the sex. Her heart had burst with happiness making a her believe love conquers all. It hadn’t.
In profile, the skin of his face was not as smooth. His craggier appearance reflected who he was, a loner with little concern about his well-being. The work he’d chosen reinforced his inclination toward secretive and wary, trusting few people. 
She sighed at his detached beautiful elegance.  So beautiful in a manly way, and he was once was hers.
She’d let him go.
No, she’d pushed him away and cut all ties. The right thing to do was the hardest thing. She expected Danker to be different, not just older but still having an immensely handsome face.  Worst case, with the risks he took, she expected he’d be dead. What she saw was what she’d hoped for. Alive.  Succeeding as a top investigator called on by the FBI. She also hoped he’d found happiness with the child he’d fathered.
He was looking around for whatever it was he came for.
Her hands trembled, and she turned back toward the produce rack. She ran her hand over dark and shiny avocados, distracted with their various shades of green and texture due to degrees of ripeness. She placed several in her shopping basket next to a ready-made beet salad with goat cheeses and a shortbread cookie for being good about getting the salad. When she moved the handles to the crook of her elbow, the basket wobbled from her nervous freaking.
Earlier she’d exchanged niceties with a couple of surfer buddies, but they faded into the background.  Her awareness went only to him, his broad shoulders and chest.
He meandered toward an end-aisle coffee display.  After speaking to the store manager, they headed off.
She couldn’t see them but heard him right across the store. If only she hadn’t stopped here on her way home from the beach. She shifted her weight and gazed down to her knee-length sarong. Should she flounce over to him in this faded pink and teal rag with sand in her hair and ask, “Buying coffee today?”  That lame question fit if her heart rejoiced at hearing his voice but didn’t if it sorrowed with anger. She needed more than a split second to come up with something smooth on the surface, but then, if he thought about it later, her cutting words would drip blood.  
It didn’t make sense to bolt, and her wish to be glib faded. She had no food at home except for wilted spinach and baby carrots. She shopped for food when necessary even though she liked to cook. Cooking for one reminded her she was just that. One. Singular, alone, and she wasn’t the type to concoct a delicious meal just for herself while sipping wine in her kitchen overlooking the surf with candles burning and then serve her meal on gorgeous stoneware. Why waste energy when she could pick up a freshly made salad and eat it out of its plastic container?  Then she’d read a book or maybe phone her parents whom she supported in Honolulu. Eventually, she’d go to bed.  Alone. The good part was waking up the next morning and flying a helicopter for tourists bent on viewing the erupting volcano.
An experienced pilot, thanks to military training, she narrated while flying guests over the most awesome terrain and geological features in the world. Fire and Ice Tours did it all with views from rainforest to desert, active volcanoes spilling over the shore, sea cliffs and valleys, ancient ruins, and historic towns. She showed off the Big Island with the pride of a local.
Often on her drive from the company’s helicopter pads near the airport to home, she’d envision ways to change up her routine. She envisioned more evening walks or going to those Pilates classes at a studio just down her street, but mostly she liked to surf.
A few times she’d set up girls’ nights out with friends and had put on a pretty dress. They’d hit the swanky bars along Ali’i Drive. Seeing a man look at her made her smile, talk, and even accept a date if he asked. Going on that date sparked comparisons. Comparisons with him.
She’d rehearse the sad things, the reproachful things, the angry things she hadn’t said. The words of anguish and disappointment. The unspoken words of fury over their situation. But now in Kona-Kalua Emporium, she was mute. She wanted to rest her head against a refrigerator door and cry. Cry forever.  She could begin crying right here by the avocados. Her eyes might wander as they blurred, over the dried nectarines and chocolate-covered ginger slices.  She observed fancy chutneys and honeys in their square jars.  She winced at their unique design implying privilege. Her acquaintance, Pua Iona, was privileged but now missing as if a silent spider dropped down from a web for all the notice he gave.
 What kind of problem did Pua face, hour by hour? Jolene jolted from self-absorption. How frivolous to be nervous about meeting Danker Donahue while looking ratty. She had a job to do, serving as a local coordinator while Danker partnered with agent Gary Guhleman.
Jolene squared her shoulders, strode in the direction of the coffee aisle, and peered around the corner. He wore the T-shirt when they were sky-high in California. Her stomach turned over and over like a chopper spinning in a nosedive.
Get me the heck together. The only way she could do that was to put on her professional cool, the armor designed to keep the world at bay. She’d taken a leave of absence from her helicopter job for this new responsibility.
Assisting the FBI weighed heavy.  Many eyes would scrutinize her work and her conduct. She dug her nails into the palms of her hands. Her nails were groomed and long these days, all the better to bite into her skin. She welcomed the pain that helped her focus, helped her center herself.
Don’t be a coward. She passed by the store manager who’d finished speaking with Danker.
The sun poured through a skylight. The combination of the sun and harsh fluorescent lighting of the market drew out shades of tawny and deep gold in his shaggy dark hair. He dumped coffee beans in a grinder and pushed a button. It rattled and whirred. She whiffed the nutty fragrance of local Kona coffee. The cotton of his shirt stretched over shoulders that would have done a gladiator proud. His jeans hung low on his hips.
Her heart twisted as she remembered that broad back, that lean waist, that dark hair turning gold in the light. He’d been thinner back then, more greyhound than Rottweiler. His hair had been clipped shorter. He’d toughened up, beefed up. She dug her nails deeper, welcoming the pain to focus once more.
Still handsome with the strong line of his jaw, now rough with deep-gold stubble and high sculpted cheekbones. Straight nose and a deeply sensuous mouth. She knew his eyes were blue.
The whir-whir-whir of the grinder stopped, and she whiffed the pungent aroma. He bent to package the grounds.
He looked different with lines around his mouth and eyes, lines that hadn’t been there before, probably not all due to age. It was something more.
He looked up and chuckled. “Jolene. You’re watching me. I’ll watch you back.” One of his eyes looked completely black, his pupil enlarged. His iris, a thin ring of blue, circled it.
She stared in astonishment like a fool. Seeing his changed state hit her like a wrecking ball. The acid in her gut roiled. She had no idea what to say. Say something, you idiot. “Your eyes earned you a reputation as a man to be reckoned with. One eye remains unwavering and will make everyone shiver.”
“Ha.” His good eye became focused in the intensified way a sniper locks onto a target. It was unnerving, even frightening. Danker had never frightened her before.
She cleared her throat to find her voice. “Well, you’re still human.”
“Yeah, but normal and I parted ways long ago.”
“That’s what pushes you.” She wished her voice didn’t sound so pathetic and scratchy. “Your duty is to help others.” Before, she’d have launched herself into his arms for a hug. “Have you been filled in?”
“Somewhat.” His voice was coarser, nearly abrasive, but otherwise the same. “Guhleman mentioned issues between the mayor, police, and locals. I hope my taking over doesn’t stir up resentment.”
“Don’t worry,” she whispered. “The mayor will make sure you have access to the crime records.”
He laughed dryly. “More with you than them. I’d like you and Ime to be solid. My job here isn’t to make friends with them.” The creases in his forehead deepened as if it pained him to upset her. He leaned closer and handed her the brown bag of ground coffee. “An olive branch for you. Still a caffeine addict?”
“Afraid so.” She took the bag while thinking about his condition with the iris sphincter. Damaged muscles or severed nerves led her to ask,  “What jabbed your eye?”
“Shrapnel. I was on a watch-only assignment. A sick fuck detonated a bomb.”
“Frack,” she blurted. She wished she were there with him when it happened. “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry enough to recommend a place to stay? I’m not seeing residence inns like the Marriot. Or any typical motels. Guess they don’t exist here.”  Hands on his hips, his mouth in a tight line, he swerved away, reluctant to pay over-budget.
“Nothing under three hundred a night. Not even an AirBnB. But, hey, let me help. I’m managing my parents’ condo. It’s unrented and next door to mine.”
“Your parents were sick, right?” More relaxed, he clasped his hands loosely.
“Thanks for asking, they’re better. Would you believe they think their assisted living apartment is a residence hotel?” She winked to keep the conversation light, but her parents weren’t as sharp as they once were.
“Didn’t they own a poke’ restaurant?”
“You said poké with perfect pronunciation.”
“I did, ma’am. You poked me once for pronouncing it wrong.” A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth.
Poké deserves respect. Our raw-fish salad is like the hamburger on the mainland.”
“Allow me to recite your spiel.” He drew in a breath. “Poké is served at every social event across the islands.”
“Correct.” Remorse for what her parents had done filled her in a rush, leaving a bitter taste in her mouth. They’d stopped buying sushi-grade fish to increase profits. Consuming their own poke’, they’d ignored early symptoms of fatigue and abdominal discomfort. “I lost my appetite for poke’.”
“No way. Why?”
Regret sent a spike into her heart. “I wish I’d told them to pay more money for raw fish.” In the next few minutes, she explained everything, how larvae migrates to parts of the body, eats away at the liver, eyes, heart, and even the brain. She shuddered and looked away.
“Damn.” After a pause, his voice broke the silence. “Did your folks retire to Honolulu?”
“More like tarred, feathered, and run out of town. I visit often.” She took a breath and leaned to the side.
His expression softened. “At least they’re not in the slammer.” He hesitated. “This wasn’t your fault.” He leaned down and kissed her forehead.
Stay up there where you belong. That man attached to that voice made her deprived of oxygen. Dizzy, she took a deep breath.
“Umm, well, I’d like to get settled,” the voice went on. “Tell me about your parents’ former condo.”
“It’s a two-bedroom, two-bath. You can spread out.”
“How about I rent a bedroom in yours?”
“While I’m on man-time-out?” She looked for a gold wedding band on his finger. There wasn’t one, and a faint lift winged through her and then sank. He could still be in the relationship where baby made three. It didn’t matter. This wasn’t her business. He’d stopped being her business years ago. Her choice. She’d sent him packing.
“I don’t know how long I’ll be here. Not that I thought we’d pick up where we left off.”
“Not that I give a flying Donald Duck.” She waited for a response and received one.
“Oh, but you do.” He reached to adjust the mirrored sunglasses on the top of his head. His squinting eyes turned to ice. After a full minute passed, he said, “Whatever you charge for rent, I’m sure it’s fair.”
“Thirty a night. Deal?”
“Deal.” His one-eyed gaze swept from her eyes to her breasts, not that there was much cleavage revealed, but remained there.
Assessing her? Hair stood up on the back of her neck. Not appreciating him staring at her chest, she crossed her arms to obstruct his view. He was a player. The most dangerous kind. Sexy. She didn’t need a reunion heartbreak. She forced her mind to land on the topic at hand. “Did you read Guhleman’s file about—”
“—the pattern?” He kept his voice low. “Robbery, kidnapping for ransom, and then after being returned home, the victim becomes sick.” He shook his head.
She’d heard rumblings about a mysterious illness. “What’s the primary diagnosis?”
“Intestinal but nonspecific. The first victim died last night.”
“No!” She tried to swallow with her mouth as dry as cotton. “What the hell.”
“The family refuses to release the body for an autopsy.  Can you believe that?” He leaned back against the coffee rack.
“I can. So far, only Hawaiians are targeted. They’ve always worried about genocide. Maybe imagining an ethnic bioweapon,” she murmured. “Not that there is one.”
A scant foot separated them when he added, “That’s where you come in.”
She hoped she could ease tensions. “I’ll try.”
“Only an insider can make sense of this strange modus operandi.” He took her basket of avocados, salad, and the package of coffee. “Let’s head to check out.” A brief look of agitation crossed his face before he turned toward the shortest cashier line. “Guhleman said you know the missing woman.”
Pua Iona. I’m scared for her.” She shivered and stepped ahead of him.
He brushed against her and sighed. “There’s so much I have to tell you. Just general stuff,” he said, seemingly unaware of her upset.
She stepped ahead with a soft snort and turned her head away, as if she weren’t dying to hear every detail. As if he’d ceased to exist.
“Have lunch with me.” A twinge of regret sounded in his voice. He caught up to her, and they went through the checkout line. He placed the items on the counter.
Jolene smiled at the checker in her starched green uniform. “Aloha, Ana.”
“Aloha right back at you, Jolene,” came the acknowledgement of their homeland.
The middle-aged woman, Ana, totaled up the sale. “Thirty-five dollars.”
Danker swiped his credit card.
Ana bagged the items and stifled a gasp. “If you don’t mind me asking—”
“I do mind.” He winked at the cashier. On the way out, he said, “Let’s head next door for hamburgers and fries. Ono Loa Grill.”
“You know about this place?” she asked while they strolled through the parking lot. She clicked the button to open the rear hatch, placed her groceries next to her shortboard and shut it.
He patted the roof. “Fits inside. Subaru Outback gets it to the beach and back.”
“Rooftops expose goods to thieves. Stowing it inside is good, and I liked the color. Crimson they called it.” Sniffing the air coming from across the street, her mouth watered from the scent of juicy burgers. Quality meat from Parker Ranch was served on soft Hawaiian rolls.
“Remember my cousin, Grady?” He nodded in the direction of the crossing, grabbed her hand and led her through a line of palm trees and bushes. They waited for a green light.
“I do. Your cousin, the lawyer. Grady Fletcher.” A woman and two reddish-brown poodles sprinted past them. The dogs raced against each other. One spunky dog leaped in the air to catch a butterfly fluttering around but failed in its effort. Hit and miss, just like Danker and her. She said, “I remember his son.  And his girlfriend.”
“Tori. They’re married now.”
“They’re good people.” Back then, Jolene had flown a helicopter for the FBI. That day, Irish mobsters had shot down her helo. “Tori found her cousin, Vivienne.” In so doing, Tori’d led the FBI to the mobster’s hideout. Danker and Guhleman took down the most ruthless mob in Long Beach.
“Grady, his son, and Tori vacationed here about a year ago. “So crazy.”
“What’s crazy?” Jolene asked.
“Tori thought she saw her cousin. Same tattoo, unique.”
“Vivienne. Where?”
“Picking up take-out at that very window.” He tipped his head toward it. “Dangerous bitch with a box cutter.  If a guy came up short, off went one of his fingers.”
“Ugh. Well, I didn’t see her. My helicopter went down in the ocean. Everybody said Vivienne was strong but bone-thin.” Jolene recalled Tori’s shock and disappointment. “Tori searched for the person her cousin once was.”  
“Except she wasn’t. Wasn’t who she thought she was.” The musky scent of his aftershave filled the air in their outdoor seating area. He pulled out a chair next to his and patted the seat. “Anyway, Vivienne’s look-alike took off in an instant.”
Jolene eased herself onto the seat. “Her cousin joined the ranks.” She shivered at the thought. “Vivienne took on the role of mob enforcer. Seemed to relish in the torture she doled out.”
His brow furrowed. “Sadistic as hell. They all were.”
“Yup. I remember a building blowing to smithereens. Then Vivienne and some other guy zoomed off in a boat.”
“Timothy Noonan. I can’t imagine they’d make their way here.”
“Unlikely,” she agreed.
“All I know is Tori was pretty sure.”
She set her tote on the cement. “Sometimes we think we see someone. Someone we’d been thinking about.”
“I know.” He stood up and walked to the window to order.
What on earth was happening? She stared after him and admired his long, muscular back. Again. She shook her head as if to clear it. She had a serial killer to help find and a reputation to safeguard. Her attention went to a couple seated next to her.
“Pinch me,” a twenty-something redhead squealed. “We’re visiting the world's most active volcano. Is there a zipline tour?
“Not over a live volcano,” her guy huffed.  “We’re flying over it.”
Jolene angled toward them. “The aerial view is spectacular at night.” She smiled, thinking about how warnings increased the tourist attraction. Or any attraction for that matter, and she detested her heart jumping a little faster with Danker here.
“Do you know about the old trail?” the guy asked Jolene. “It runs along the lava cliffs.”
“Well, yes, but molten lava covers it now,” she answered. “From above, you’ll see waves slam against the cliffs. Look for double rainbows in the drops that fall back into the sea.” Her mind reveled at the excitement of new land being formed from the active volcano.
“Sounds special,” the woman said and explained they were from Atlanta.
“Your home is leafy paradise,” Jolene said. “Every place has its own character and depth.  She ended the conversation and leaned back.
Danker returned, but instead of sitting opposite her, he moved the chair and sat beside her. “I ordered cheeseburgers, pineapple coleslaw, fries, and iced tea.”
“Yum.” For a moment their gazes held, sending her pulse into hyper-speed and spreading warmth throughout her body. Good thing looks couldn’t kill. Otherwise, she’d be dead. She took a long, slow breath, forcing herself to appear nonchalant by asking a casual question. “Tell me about your daughter.”
“My second grader? Emily…Emmy,” he said. “She rarely, if ever, shuts up. Unless I want to know something from her.” He grinned with pride. “She’s our resident artist.”
Our artist, did he say? “Does Emily take painting classes?”
“Just started. Tori takes her to Artsmart Studio.”
“Tori takes her?” She wondered why Emily’s mother, Louella, didn’t.
“Emmy’s staying with Tori and Grady.”
“While you’re here,” she said while picturing Danker’s cousin, Grady, his son, and Tori. The Donahue Cousins’ support for each other extended to their significant others. “Are art classes a reward while Daddy is away?”
He nodded. “Clever, aren’t I? Anyway, Grady’s son, Shane, dabbled there.” Danker moved his chair into the shade so that his challenged eye was in the shade. He groaned. Even with sunglasses, the optic nerve had to sting in bright light. 
“Shane must be in middle school by now.” A sigh escaped her, uncomfortable with the passage of time.
A waitress placed a tray with iced teas and food in plastic baskets with hamburgers wrapped in aluminum foil.
“Mahalo,” she said, using the Hawaiian term to express gratitude. Although curious about Louella, she’d rather chew aluminum foil than ask.
“About Shane,” he said with a determined set of his jaw. “So far, he doesn’t whoop and shout or trash-talk. He’s more aware of his surroundings than my cousin was at that age.”
“Grady was dense? I can’t imagine him like that.”
“I can.” A chuckle rasped from his throat. “Anyway, Emmy and I live three doors down. We’re trying to put down roots.”
“In Long Beach?” she asked.
“Uh huh, I’m renting a California Craftsman with an option to buy. It’s not as big as theirs, but just right for the two of us,” he said. “Emmy’s growing up too fast.”
“Blink of an eye stuff?”
“Here’s the thing. Either you can’t stand the thought of your kid growing up, or you can’t wait.”
“Which camp are you in?”
“I’m in the former camp.”
“Aww. A pampered child grows up digging treasures.” Jolene had benefitted with two doting parents. They’d always taken care of her. Now she watched over them.
“How about you?” he asked.
“Things in life are always changing. My routine is peaceful. At times downright fulfilling,” she lied. Stagnant was more like it except for flying a helicopter with tourists.
“What helo do you fly?”
“A Whisper Star,” she said, not needing to elaborate about the ultimate sight-seeing helicopter with wide plexiglass windows and elevated rear seats for visibility. “Room for me and six passengers.
“Six, huh? Weight is limited.” He paused. “Passengers check backpacks and purses prior to boarding, I take it?”
“Always,” she said, “and with the weight restriction, passengers over the limit buy two seats. Last week the owner of a ring company scheduled a tour, and only four people went up.”
“You wouldn’t want to nose dive into a live volcano.” He put his elbows on his knees and glanced at the endless horizon, blue and calm.
She leaned closer and put her arm against his forearm, warm from the sun. “Residents near Kilauea Volcano evacuated.” Volcano activity had slowed some. At shelters, evacuees discussed when they would be able to return home. If they had no homes to return to, recovery was harder. Empathy surged through her.  She shook her head and crossed her arms.
“Earthquakes continue around the vents, I’ve read.” He let out a breath. “What a shake-up on the lower East Rift.” As he spoke, she studied his mouth. Full and symmetrical, the upper lip made two defined points. Lines curved at the corners when he smiled. The lines were deeper, but he was older by seven years.
 She nodded. “For anyone in a rut, survival mode ended it.” To be honest, she’d never pulled herself out of her deep track of dullness. Never fought her way to strong. When she’d lost Danker, she’d lost the strength she might have had.  That being him. Her foundation. Added support to her backbone.  Made her safe.  Made life right.  Dang, he made life fun. Maybe part of her downward spiral was the absence of exciting missions. Recently her life had nothing to do with the FBI or law enforcement. “I’m happy to be back in the loop.”
“On the flight from Los Angeles. I thought about how you and I met.” He sighed. “At an FBI barbeque I remember your pink leather jacket.”
“You do? I remember we started talking about race-hand-release. You were on the crew, and I paddled on the Dragon Boat Race Team.” She’d asked him to come home with her that night.
 “Hello.” He started it.
“Aloha.” She’d noticed how he’d been checking her out and not hiding it. Then he came right up. She liked that. Also liked that he’d approached, not wasting time. Mostly she liked how incredibly good looking he was. Cute and edgy. Their mutual interest in rowing came much later.
He held his beer and stared down at her.
She stared up. He was cute. So cute. Jolene wasn’t talking to a snappy suit who had a life mission he’d decided on when he was ten, this being an astronaut or cancer researcher.
He was cute in a way her mother would worry about, and at times live in despair. Her father might consider committing murder, a reason why her mother would live in terror. But that night, looking into his deep blue eyes, she didn’t care what her parents might think.
She only cared that he stood close after singling her out and said, “Hello. Name’s Danker.”
Snapple-caps, he even had a cool name. Was it his first name or last name?
“Jolene. Earth to Jolene.” He snapped his fingers. “Talk to me.”
She swayed a little before he burst out laughing. The memory ended. She was back.
“Listen sharp.” He leaned forward and sank his voice to a low threat level. Never as far as she knew, was he accustomed to being ignored.
“I’m listening.” Jolene angled her straw into her iced tea.
“I haven’t been with another woman in a long time. Emmy’s mother takes her for sleepovers now and then. Louella and her new guy didn’t want the emotional overload of this kid.”
“Slow down. You and Louella were together after I took off.”
He nodded. “We tried for a few years.” He patted Jolene’s knee.  “She’s on a trip.”
“So Tori and Grady are caring for Emily in their absence?” Other questions on the tip of her tongue, more personal, formed in her throat, and then lodged in a place that made breathing difficult.
“Right.” He took a bite of his hamburger and after chewing said, “Hands down, the best hamburger I’ve ever eaten.” He paused, his back leaning against the chair with relaxed grace.
“Best ever, I agree.” Something low in her belly blossomed from his manly appeal, and she cursed him for planting that seed.  Now it was hard to view him any other way. She needed to. He was her coworker.
He released a hard breath. “You ended things on the Fourth of July. An appropriate day for fireworks.” He raised a hand to his forehead which he did when close to losing his temper. “You could have given me a fiery ending. Instead, you made an easy decision.”  
“I pondered the range of outcomes,” she said. “It came down to being responsible. Nothing changed the essential fact. I needed to go.”
“You didn’t want to stay. Do you know what Tori said?”
“No. It doesn’t matter. We were over.”
“It does matter. Tori said, ‘Jolene adores you. I see it in her face when she looks at you. And, yours, too.’” Propping his forehead in his fists, Danker closed his eyes.  “What are you doing tonight?”
She jerked. Holy crapola, was he asking her on a date?  “I…er…nothing,” she answered.
“Good, then we’re going camping. After you show me my rental, that is. Give me your new phone number.” He handed his phone to her. “Update your name with it.”
Her heartbeat quickened as she punched in numbers and gave it back with the name, Hula Dancer. Her legs felt tingly. Embarrassed, she voiced the concern that nagged at her. “You’re way too cute for your own good. Rather my own good.”
He tilted his head and murmured, “This assignment would be easier if you weren’t so beautiful.”
Their banter spiraled downward. She couldn’t afford to be stupid. Stupid was expecting rain while standing in the dessert. Soon he’d return to Southern California. “How about this, Danker. We’ll go camping after we solve this case.”
“Funny thing about you—”
“What’s that?”
“You’re not a prude but prudent.” He stood and kissed the top of her head. “This crime has everyone baffled. You baffle me, too.”
Did she hear that right, not a prude but prudent? “A slut who’s sensible.” She bit her tongue to smother a raucous laugh.
“Not true! You’re a sensuous high-class woman.”

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