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Authors: Tara Taylor Quinn

Dare to Love

BOOK: Dare to Love
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Dare to Love
Tara Taylor Quinn
CONTENTS

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER ONE

A
NDREA
P
ARKER FORCED
a smile when she entered the eighth-floor hotel suite. The men waiting inside did not smile. Six superb male bodies, in the prime of life, roamed the room like caged tigers.

“Good evening, gentlemen.”

Clutching DARE Bear beneath her arm, Andrea stepped carefully into their midst, asking herself if she really wanted to do this, if there wasn't some other way to atone for past negligence.

Several half-mumbled replies fell stiffly into the silence. The men stopped pacing. They stood in various positions throughout the room, watching her warily from hooded eyes.

Andrea ran her fingers through her short blond bob as she passed the conference table and headed toward an armchair. She felt like she was on display, like the regulation shorts she was wearing, which only moments before had been standard attire, now were far too short.

She sat down, perching DARE Bear between her legs on the cushioned chair, and braced herself for the thoroughness of the men's suspicious scrutiny.

“Come. Have a seat.” Her voice was gentle and welcoming.

She waited as all but one man slowly complied. In her peripheral vision Andrea saw this last figure move to a round table along the back wall of the room. She wasn't surprised by his actions; she understood that he was merely keeping his back covered. But the weeks ahead would certainly be easier if he would trust her enough to come forward like the rest.

The men were all there of their own free will. They'd all agreed to the intimacies that were about to follow. But that didn't necessarily mean they'd be easily tamed.

“I'm Andi Parker.” She spoke to the room at large.

Someone had turned the air-conditioning up full blast since Andrea had been in to unlock the room an hour before.

“Welcome to DARE, gentlemen. I know you've all heard unsettling things about this session, but I hope the next two weeks will be rewarding for all of us.”

“Was it for you, the first time?” a sandy-haired man, the shortest of the group, asked.

“Yeah, but it was as bad as I'd heard it would be, too.”

“Was it worth it?” The question came from a big redhead with a booming voice. He sat on the couch with his arms folded across his chest.

“Every minute of it.”

“Did you ever regret your decision?” a tall, skinny man asked, watching her through narrowed eyes.

Andrea didn't like being on the hot seat. “Lots of times, but never enough to want to change it. I hope it's the same for all of you. My job over the next two weeks is to smooth your way as much as I can.”

She smiled at the five men sitting around her. One by one, they looked away.

“The first thing you need to know is that any personal confessions that may come about during the course of the next two weeks will remain completely confidential.” The tension in the room seemed to escalate. She wasn't surprised. She was going to be becoming emotionally intimate with these men. Men didn't usually like that.

But it was time to get started. Her gaze came to rest on the dark-haired loner at the back of the room, whom she planned to call forward. Shock sent adrenaline flowing from her neck down to her toes. The man had an attitude a mile long. He was wearing skintight black jeans, a T-shirt with the sleeves ripped out, black boots and a black leather wristband with silver studs. His nose looked like it had been broken at least once, he had a jagged scar running outward from his left temple and his biceps were bulging. But it was his eyes that knocked the breath out of Andrea. The cynical, aged, disillusioned look shocked even her. Had she not been a cop, in a room full of cops, she would have been frightened. Who was this man? Why was he in the suite? And where was her sixth officer?

“May I help you?” she asked, her voice quiet but authoritative. She set DARE Bear behind her.

The man shrugged, his arms folded lazily across his chest. “I doubt it.”

He met her gaze head-on, his dark look challenging.

“Who are you?” she asked, her muscles poised to move quickly. She'd all but forgotten the other men in the room. She was a police officer first and foremost, and she sensed danger.

“Doug Avery. Officer Douglas Avery.” The words were laced with the challenge she'd read in his eyes. Andrea heard the “you wanna make something of it?” almost as surely as if he'd said the words aloud. And for a split second, she did want to make something of it. She wanted to accept his challenge and throw one right back at him. Then she remembered who she was, the job she was there to do. She caught her control just before it slipped away.

“The Doug Avery who appeared out of nowhere to save a sergeant's life last year?” she asked, her surprise carefully cloaked. She'd assumed one of the five men in front of her was the highly acclaimed Officer Douglas Phillip Avery. Though he was only thirty years old, the man's professional record was filled with commendations. He was reputed to be afraid of nothing. He was also the only Columbus, Ohio resident in the room besides herself. Until that moment, Andrea had been looking forward to meeting him.

Avery shrugged again. His eyes were still dull and cold, and Andrea's stomach filled with dread. No matter what kind of record he had, no matter how good a cop he was, he was going to have to make a mammoth attitude adjustment before he'd even begin to fit into the DARE program.

Doug Avery didn't look like he would instill trust in anyone, let alone elementary-school children. His very presence seemed threatening. He was the furthest thing from soft that Andrea had ever encountered. He wasn't role-model material. She wanted him out of the program.

“Would you please join us over here, Officer Avery?” she asked.

Her imperious tone of voice was not lost on him, Andrea noticed, for his eyes narrowed and his chin lifted just a fraction. He pushed himself away from the table and loped slowly forward, and Andrea half expected him to continue walking right past her and out of the suite. She would have liked nothing better.

He plopped down in the chair directly to her right, stretching out until he was half sitting, half lying in it. His head rested on the back of the chair. His fingers unsnapped and resnapped the strip of leather at his wrist before his hands came to rest along the cushioned armrests. He gave every appearance of a biker settling back for an afternoon of televised sports.

Andrea looked away. “Kids can't be scared straight anymore, gentlemen....”

She tried to continue her opening session as if nothing had happened. But as she launched into the speech she'd rehearsed, she caught a whiff of Avery's musky after-shave and felt another unsettling jolt in her stomach, lower down this time. A softer jolt. A sweeter one. A much more dangerous one. Stunned, Andrea paused to catch a breath. She could hardly believe what was happening to her. She was getting turned on by a hoodlum.

“You're going to have to reach out to your students....” She pulled DARE Bear back up onto her lap, holding him close against her. She hadn't felt desire for a man in more than four years. The feeling had no place in her life—it was that simple. She didn't look Doug Avery's way again.

“...care about your kids, gentlemen, or you'll lose lives.”

The big blond man seated in the armchair to her left choked and tried to turn it into a cough. Andrea didn't think he had something stuck in his throat—more like in his craw. She looked at him, all too aware of the opposition she would be facing over the next two weeks as a training officer in the Drug and Alcohol Resistance Education program.

The pencil in his fingers snapped in two.

“You must be Sven Johnson,” she said, placing DARE Bear on the table beside her. She leaned over to shake the man's hand.

The big officer, obviously of Swedish descent, engulfed her small hand in his and nodded. He met her gaze squarely, honestly. He would do fine. Her skin felt hot as she imagined Doug Avery's eyes behind her, boring into her.

“You like children, Sven?” she asked, her voice carefully modulated.

“I wouldn't be here if I didn't. I've been working with a camp for latchkey kids in Cleveland for years. But aren't you overdoing this caring thing just a little? No offense, ma'am, but we aren't the ladies' circle here.”

She saw him glance at DARE Bear and then look quickly away.

“We're not out to amuse children here, guys. We're out to affect the rest of their lives. Most of the kids you're going to be facing during your career with DARE are as street-smart as you are. You can't convince them that someone cares if you don't. It's that simple.”

The air in the room was growing thicker. Andrea could almost feel the men struggling to draw breath into their lungs. She ached to turn her head, to find out how Doug Avery was reacting to her words, but she couldn't allow herself to look his way—not until she could trust herself to remain completely unaffected by him.

“Tenderness is nothing to be ashamed of.”

The rest of the men sat stiffly, bouncing a knee or thrumming fingers on a thigh while attempting to appear completely relaxed.

“Which one of you is Steve Cummings?” she asked, letting them off the hook for now.

Fifteen minutes later she'd matched names and file data with all the faces. And with one exception, she was satisfied with her new team. The men were understandably defensive, but they were good guys.

“Now, before you all go, I have an introduction to make,” she said, knowing that she couldn't stall any longer. She sat her teddy bear up on the arm of her chair, spreading its arms wide until the DARE emblem on its stomach was clearly displayed. The men all glanced away.

“This is DARE Bear,” Andrea explained, persevering. “He's the DARE mascot, a symbol, something tangible to represent the warmth and security that will hopefully empower your children to make the right choices. You'll receive a replica of DARE Bear when you graduate from the DARE training program and you'll be expected to take him with you into your classrooms. Smaller versions are given to students as incentives, or rewards for classroom participation. Get used to him, guys. You're going to need him.”

Andrea studied the men around her, trying to gauge their reactions. And as she met the eyes of each, as she saw their tense nods, she felt a small thrill of victory.

But the thrill was short-lived. Her glance landed on the sixth officer in the DARE program, the man she'd been working so hard to ignore for the past fifteen minutes. He too was nodding, but not in agreement or even in understanding of the dictate she'd just issued. His chin was nodding down against his chest, a reflexive muscle reaction. The man was sound asleep!

All traces of fleeting attraction fled as rage coursed through Andrea's veins. Children were dying every day, in some cities every hour, because they didn't have access to programs like DARE, because there weren't enough trained officers to go around, because there weren't enough places in the training seminars to accommodate the qualified policemen who wanted to be DARE officers. And Douglas Phillip Avery the Great was using up one of those priceless places to catch up on his beauty sleep. The man needed more than an attitude adjustment. He needed to get out.

Calmly setting DARE Bear aside, she stood up and shook hands with the other five officers. “It was good meeting you, guys,” she said as she followed them to the door. “I'll see you for breakfast tomorrow morning at eight o'clock. If you need anything in the meantime, I'm right next door.”

* * *

D
OUG AWOKE WITH A START
and sat up as the door clicked quietly closed. Immediately wide awake and on guard, he realized even before he opened his eyes that the meeting had ended.
Damn.
He'd completely missed the last part of the session. That must have gone over well. He flung himself backward in the chair, staring at the ceiling.

As much as he was dreading the next two weeks, the next year, he did intend to get through it—awake. He had to do well with the DARE program to secure a position on the Drug Task Force. And nothing was going to stop him from getting that job—not a classroom full of kids and not Miss Compassionate herself, either.

Doug didn't believe for a minute that the warmth Officer Parker imparted was anything more than a carefully calculated plan of action. He didn't believe in it any more than he believed that she'd reached out and touched him with her smile at the beginning of the session. He was just tired. And Officer Andrea Parker was a pro.

“Oh, you mean you weren't bedded down for the night?”

Doug's head popped up. He'd thought he was alone. He must be more tired than he thought. The past three weeks of moonlighting had really taken their toll. But a special-forces officer had been putting Stan's job on the line, and Doug owed Sergeant Stan Ingersoll.

Officer Parker approached his chair as if
she
was the one who had the sixty-pound, seven-inch advantage. “So, tell me. Did you have important dreams to get to, Officer Avery? More important than the program you volunteered to serve?”

This broad was something else. Didn't she realize he could take down grown men, men that were twice her size, with one hand?

He looked up at her, letting her play her power games as she stood over him. “I don't dream.” So why in the hell did he want to see that damn smile again? Just to convince himself that his reaction to her wasn't real, that was why.

“No? Then would you mind telling me why you chose to waste an evening's session, one evening out of only fourteen allotted us, on sleep?”

Doug shrugged. “I guess I was tired,” he said.

“You were tired? And that makes it okay? What about all the information you missed?” Her voice was still soft, but it was filled with disgust.

“What about it?” The woman took this whole DARE thing too seriously.

BOOK: Dare to Love
6.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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