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Authors: Susan May Warren

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BOOK: Double Trouble
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Whatever it took to complete the mission.

Phillip boxed up the holes and the bismark, took the ten, and honest Abe that he was, headed to the front to make change. He stopped short at the threshold to the front parlor. “It’s my boss,” he whispered. He turned and, for a guy already sorta pasty, went even whiter. “Hurry, please . . . go out the back.”

She’d never been kicked out of a bakery before. But to save her new hero . . . she turned and pushed on the metal door, letting it swish shut behind her.

PJ was standing in the back alley next to a Dumpster, a beat-up red Honda, and a pile of old, broken pallets, holding the donut box and giving serious contemplation to digging in right there, when she spied him
 
—Rudy Bagwell, sneaking out a back window of the Windy Oaks Motel.

Oh, she was good at this job.

From this angle she watched Rudy hit the ground and skirt along the back of the motel unit, on the way to freedom.

Sneaky. But not too sneaky for her, the Panther.

PJ hiked the box under her arm and crossed the road, hoping Jeremy saw her angle toward her quarry. Even if he couldn’t spot Rudy from his angle, a guy with an eye out for his donuts should know to wake up and grab his camera.

Rudy had stopped at the edge of the motel, leaning away from the wind to light a cigarette.

She slowed her pace and strolled up to him as if she’d just been out early for a donut run. “Hey there.”

He glanced at her, and for a second she wondered if he would recognize her
 
—after all, she did have one vivid recollection of a wild high school beach party when he’d passed out and she and Boone had buried him to his waist in sand.

He grunted at her and blew out a long stream of smoke.

“Beautiful morning.”

He grunted again, rolling the cigarette between two fingers. He didn’t look like a man who’d spent the night in the arms of his beloved high school sweetheart. In fact, he had a rather ugly welt on his chin, and also, if she looked closely
 
—although she didn’t make it obvious
 
—a splatter of blood down his white shirt, maybe from a bloody nose. Or his lip
 
—it looked a little puffy.

She took a step back, glancing toward Jeremy. Movement in the VW parked in the shadows across the lot was too difficult to discern from here. But Rudy would have to cross in front of the motel to retrieve his Camaro. Jeremy could get the shot then.

So why had Rudy come this way
 
—around the back, away from his wheels?

“Is there something you want, babe?” Rudy cocked his head at her. “Don’t I know you?”

She shook her head. “No, I
 
—”

His eyes widened. “PJ Sugar.” He said it slowly, with a hint of a snarl
 
—maybe he did remember the beach party
 
—and pushed himself away from the building. “I’d heard you were
back in town. Cynthie said she saw your picture in the paper. You solved Hoffman’s murder . . .” His gaze went from her to the parking lot.

“Want a donut?” She shoved the box toward him.

Rudy turned back to her, his smile now gone. “What are you doing here?”

“Getting donuts.” Only it came out more like a question. Oops, she’d have to work on her lying.

He took a step toward her . . . and that’s when she saw it. Right above the waist of his jeans, small and black, hidden by the leather jacket that, despite the chill in the air, didn’t belong in an August wardrobe.

A gun. As if it had claws, it tore at her gaze and PJ couldn’t wrench it away.

A gun.

Blood on his shirt. A bloodied lip. A crime of passion? She added up the facts as quickly as it took Rudy to move another step toward her and snake out his hand to grab her.

But he wasn’t the only one with a weapon. She shoved her hand into the box just as Rudy’s grip closed around her elbow.

With everything inside her, PJ slammed the bismark into his face. Pudding squished between her fingers as she crammed it into his eyes. Then, clutching the box to her chest, she yanked her arm from his grasp and ran.

“Jeremy!”

Footsteps slapping the pavement behind her made her dig into the box again. Her hand closed around a donut hole, and she pitched it behind her as she raced across the parking lot. “Jeremy!”

Another hole, followed by an expletive from behind her.
Thankfully, Jeremy had finally come alive, because he emerged from the Bug, staring at her as if she’d lost her mind.

“He’s got a gun! He killed her! He killed Geri!”

Another naughty word from Rudy and the footsteps changed direction. She turned to see Rudy flinging himself toward his Camaro. He Bo Duke’d across the hood and climbed in the window, turning the engine over even as PJ threw another hole at him.

It landed with a splotch of sugary goo on his windshield.

He gunned the hot rod across the parking lot.

PJ dropped the box, her breath wheezing out of her even as she watched him escape.

Or maybe not. As Rudy mowed over a parked Kawasaki and smacked against a Ford Fiesta, she heard another car gunning to roadblock him.

She turned too quickly, wishing she had more time to brace herself.

No.

No!

She nearly flung her body in front of Jeremy as he screeched past her in the VW, a laser streak of lime green on course to intersect with its target.

“Jeremy, stop!”

But Jeremy didn’t know that, one, she hadn’t paid her insurance for over a month, and two, the brakes on the Bug were a little on the spongy side, because he didn’t even slow as he T-boned Rudy’s Camaro and pinned it against the metal pole hosting the Windy Oaks sign.

The sound of metal ripping and the dying whine of her beloved Bug buckled PJ’s knees. She went down hard in the
gravel, gulping a breath, watching Jeremy leap from the car, dive over her hood, and rip the gun out of Rudy’s grip before he could even clear his head.

Pinned, he screamed at the top of his lungs.

PJ slumped in the gravel of the lot. Not the Bug. Her Bug. The one remaining possession big enough to hide inside. She reached into the box and pulled out her remaining donut hole, considering it for a long moment as her mind faintly registered the wailing police sirens in the distance. Or maybe the noise came from her, from the keening inside.

Jeremy sauntered toward her, a smug smile in his evil eyes, shaking his head. “I don’t suppose there’s a bismark in that mess, is there?”

PJ leaned back, cupped her hand over her eyes, and hurled the donut hole at his arrogant smile.

CHAPTER
TWO

“Looking for trouble again, huh, PJ?”

Not at all. In fact, for the first time in her life, as far back as she could remember, she’d thought she’d shaken free of trouble and might be headed toward something shiny and new, a different kind of PJ, one who slid out of trouble’s clutches.

She refrained from glancing at her tangled, green, hissing and dripping former vehicle and continued to lick sugary glaze from her fingers as she sat on the back of Jeremy’s Harley. Her stomach growled, as if she’d only awakened the beast inside. She desperately needed a large latte with double shots of vanilla if the cosmos expected her to face Detective Boone Buckam and his pale blue, call-her-trouble eyes.

It wasn’t enough that her successful stakeout had skidded to a loud, earsplitting crunch. Now she had to face the one man who’d sent her out of her warm bed and into all this chaos in the first place.

“Marry me . . .”

“PJ?” Boone’s voice turned to concern when she didn’t look at him. When he touched her shoulder, the heat of his hand seeped through her.

She sighed, indicated her mangled Bug, and shrugged.

He offered a long, reverent moment of silence. “Please tell me you weren’t in that when
 
—”

“Jeremy was driving. It was his brilliant idea to run Rudy down with my beautiful but rather-wimpy tin can.”

The sun had given a valiant effort to burning away the gloom of the morning, but dark cumulus clouds over nearby Kellogg Lake suggested defeat. The wind rustled the poplars around the Windy Oaks Motel
 
—she had to wonder where the oaks had gone
 
—and she smelled rain hovering in the air.

A good thunderstorm just might be the perfect accompaniment to this day.

PJ shivered despite her warm sweatshirt.

Boone pulled off his suit jacket and draped it around her shoulders, and for the first time, she turned to him.

Boone Buckam, the boy most likely to drive his motorcycle down the halls of Kellogg High, had turned into Mr. All-American
 
—his bronze hair cut short, his white oxford shirt and black suit pants pressed even at this early hour, his shoulder holster and broad, thick shoulders the only hint that he might be a police detective rather than a Wall Street investor. But he still possessed the one-sided smile that drew up slowly, like the sun on a clear day. He’d been her first love, and that fire had never been truly banked.

Nope, as evidenced by Rudy and Geri and the drama at the Windy Oaks, one never forgot a first love.

She looked away from Boone, catching sight of the skinny, aproned form of her early morning donut hero heading out to bring breakfast to the men in blue. Jeremy waited eagerly as Phillip approached. Evidently, her boss had a singular thought on his mind today
 
—shortly after the police turned in to the gravel lot and the VW’s motor had shuddered to a pitiful death, Jeremy had quietly pressed an Andrew Jackson into her palm and suggested she treat herself to another bismark.

She’d pocketed the twenty. She’d need bus money.

“Babe, what are you doing out this early in the morning? What happened here?” Boone knelt on one knee beside her, his blue eyes an ocean, deep and dangerous, with sudden swells that could sweep her off her feet and carry her away.

Right back to last night.

And just like that, she was in the silky darkness, his arms pulling her into the pocket of his embrace as they’d parked along the beach, the sun long gone, the velvet sky above them, a lazy moon dragging a finger of light through the inky water. The radio crooned something romantic from one of his personal mix CDs while Boone closed in on her with his husky, summer air smell.
“Hey Jude . . .”

“Peej,” he’d whispered into her ear, his lips brushing against her neck. It still took her breath away that while she’d wandered the world for the past decade, he’d pined for her in their little hometown hamlet of Kellogg, just west of Minneapolis, a suburb time forgot. But Boone never forgot. He’d kept a weather eye on the horizon
 
—his words
 
—waiting for her and her VW Bug to sail back into town.

Last night, he’d run his thumb over the tattoo high on her shoulder
 
—the one that inscribed his name into her flesh. He
had a matching identifier on his arm, although most of the time he kept it concealed.

Hers, however, seemed destined to remind the world every time she wore a tank top, every time she donned a sundress, and especially when she, on occasion, wriggled into her bikini, whom she belonged to.

Or rather, to whom she’d given her heart.

“Marry me.”

The words seemed more of a breath than a voice, a heartbeat of desire against her neck, where Boone followed it with the press of his lips. “Marry me, Peej.”

At his words, she’d turned in his arms, stared at the starry sky, humming to the music, and pretended she hadn’t heard him, even as the question deafened her.

He hadn’t asked again.

Still, the question burned inside her, so much so that it had chased her out of her bed, down the stairs of her sister Connie’s house in Chapel Hills, and over two posh neighborhoods to stake out Rudy Bagwell, finally following him to the seedy side of town.

Across the street now, in the motel parking lot, overnight guests ogled the sticky, somewhat-bloody, definitely spittin’ mad Rudy Bagwell loudly defending his actions, among which included running after PJ with a 9mm Glock.

Boone and his pals had found Rudy’s girlfriend, Geri, in her motel room, sporting a black eye and split lip. She was currently airing
her
grievances at full volume, accessorized with colorful language, from inside crooked room number eight.

It made for a loud morning. PJ would bet another donut
hole that these two would be together again as soon as Rudy made bail. She recognized a destructive love-hate relationship when she saw it. Geri apparently thrived on drama. And Rudy obligingly provided it.

PJ would have appreciated not having her Bug be a casualty, however.

Boone still knelt in front of her. “Did Jeremy send you out on this job in the middle of the night?” It seemed he didn’t even try to keep the edge from his voice. “Did he tell you to tail Rudy?” He even shot a look at Jeremy, one that should have emitted the smell of gunpowder.

“No. I overheard Geri at the nail salon, and I’d made Cynthie a promise . . .”

“You gotta stop promising people things that just might get you killed, PJ.”

“I wasn’t in danger, Boone. . . . I followed my instincts.”

His skeptical smile had already started sliding up on one side, and she covered it with her hand. “I have them, you know. I’m very sneaky.”

He took her hand away. “Oh, I know. How well I know. And I can see that you blend into the night. . . .” He gave a nod toward her outfit as he stood and surveyed the scene across the street a long while. “But how did you know that Rudy had beat up Geri?”

“Instincts. And he had blood on his shirt.”

Boone said nothing, then sighed. “I still don’t like the fact that you were out here, knowing what he did to Geri, what he could have done to you. I don’t like fearing that one of these times, I could get a call and find
 
—”

“Uh, sorry to interrupt, but they need a statement, Princess.”
Jeremy shot Boone a look, then turned as though she should follow him.

“Is he still calling you that?” Boone’s mouth tightened in a lethal line.

“It’s just a nickname.” One she should probably tell Jeremy not to use, given that she worked for him.

She got up, starting to slip off Boone’s jacket, but he draped it back over her shoulders and touched her lightly on the arm as they crossed the street.

Jeremy turned away from his klatch of officers and watched them, his smile slowly dimming. His gaze landed on Boone, fixing there.

PJ suddenly had the sense of standing between two pit bulls eyeing one juicy steak
 
—her.

But Jeremy was her boss.
Boss
. Besides, he and Boone were colleagues of a sort
 
—or at least had been as of two months ago. She must be dreaming the tension.

She didn’t imagine the tone of Boone’s voice, however. “Please tell me you didn’t let her stake out Rudy alone.”

Jeremy’s dark eyes jabbed at her, then landed on Boone. His voice came out strikingly cool. “She’s a big girl.”

Yes, she was!
Thank you, Jer
 

“Besides, she was the one who jumped to conclusions. She came running across the parking lot, screaming murder and throwing rocks
 
—”

Wait . . .
hey
!
“They were donut holes, and I was
not
screaming.”

Boone cut her a look. “You went after Rudy with pastry?”

PJ glanced at Jeremy and tried to turn him into a pile of ash with her eyes. “I can take care of myself, Boone.”

“With what
 
—donut holes?”

She had no comment for that, mostly because he was right. If she hoped to be a super PI, she’d have to get serious about self-defense.

See, she’d been right about the tae kwon do class.

“I should have let him get away, but she acted like he’d taken a knife to her, if not the entire neighborhood, and I just reacted.”

“And my Bug paid the price, thank you.” PJ clutched Boone’s coat tighter around her.

Jeremy’s gaze settled on her hands fisted into the lapels. His jaw tightened. “I couldn’t think of anything else, Princess. But Boone is right. Someday your so-called instincts are going to get you in over your head, and then even your donut aim won’t be able to save you.”

PJ narrowed her eyes at him. “Don’t call me Princess.” She brushed past Jeremy and stalked up to one of Boone’s investigators. She recognized him from her previous run-in with crime, a recruit fresh off the streets, holding a voice recorder and a clipboard. “Are you going to take my statement or what?”

He glanced at Boone over her shoulder, and he must have given the all clear, because the junior detective nodded and gestured for her to follow him away from the huddle.

She gave him the rundown of the events, leaving out a few of her desperate sugary lobs, focusing instead on the blood on Rudy’s shirt, the welt on his chin, the swollen lip.

Geri had moved from the motel and now leaned against the hood of a cruiser, smoking a cigarette, eyes crawling over PJ as if she wasn’t sure whether to hug her or go after her with her fresh manicure.

Which, incidentally, she’d gotten from Turbo Nails, right next to the pedicure chair where PJ got a double coat of Fuchsia Passion. Thanks to Geri’s less-than-covert chat with her manicurist, PJ had been alerted to where this clandestine tryst might take place.

Nail doctors were a society woman’s bartender.

“So, you didn’t think of just letting him walk away, maybe letting the police handle it?”

She eyed Junior. “You’re new, right?”

Junior shifted his weight and gave a crisp nod.

“Here’s the score, pal: I’m hungry; I smell like two-day-old gym socks; I live with my newlywed sister and her Russian in-laws, a goat, and my nephew, Davy, who wakes me every morning with a mind-jolting jig on my bed. My bedroom is located next door to the newlyweds, I have all of twenty dollars to my name, and I’ve just sacrificed my favorite uninsured car for the cause of justice. So do you, perhaps, want to rephrase that question?”

“Peej, I think you’re done.” Boone’s hand landed on the small of her back, and he gave a quick, precise nod to Junior, who slinked away. “How about I buy you breakfast?”

She ran a hand through her hair, now tangled and greasy, and it reminded her that her bag still sat in the snarled mess of her only valuable possession.

“I think she needs a nap more than breakfast.” Jeremy had retrieved his motorcycle and now rolled up beside them. “I’ll drive you home, uh . . .”

She knew a “Princess” dangled at the end of that sentence and gave him a glower.

“. . . Fast-Pitch.”

She raised an eyebrow.

“Seems appropriate.” He gestured to Rudy, now being tucked into a police cruiser. Yellow custard dribbled down his shirt.

“She doesn’t need a ride,” Boone said, his hand still on her back. “I’ll make sure she gets home. Without more drama and sirens.”

Oh, but she’d become so accustomed to the entourage.

Jeremy stared at her as if waiting for her response.

“I, uh . . .”

Jeremy’s cell phone rang and he dug it out of his pocket. Parking the bike, he strolled out of earshot. PJ watched the dark line of his shoulders, remembered suddenly the stricken look on his face as she’d fled across the parking lot to him, screaming his name.

Boone’s voice pitched low, carrying an edge of exasperation as she watched Jeremy nod, glance back at her, and speak into the phone. “You know, the fact is, PJ, you don’t have to do this anymore.”

“Boone . . .” How many times over the past two months had he lodged his formal complaint over her newly chosen profession? If he only knew her résumé over the past ten years included such things as large-animal feeder for the San Diego Zoo and part-time stunt girl. She risked very little but her reputation sitting outside a motel singing “All You Need Is Love
.

Well, her reputation and her own hopes that she’d actually get the job done right. Yet, despite the automotive casualties, she knew she could do this job, maybe even eventually impress Jeremy enough for him to help her become a full-time, licensed PI.

Judging by Boone’s expression, he didn’t agree. “I just know that someday you’re going to end up . . .” As if he couldn’t finish his sentence, he shook his head, looked away, ran a hand behind his neck. “I don’t want to lose you again.”

She couldn’t find an answer for that. Instead, she pulled off his jacket. He refused to take it.

“Boone, I’m not going anywhere.” She indicated her Bug.

“I hope not.” He looked down, shifted, and she knew him well enough to brace herself. “I don’t suppose you’ve thought at all about my . . . proposal.”

BOOK: Double Trouble
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