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Authors: Tamara Hunter

PaintedPassion

BOOK: PaintedPassion
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Painted Passion

Tamara
Hunter

 

Trella’s upcoming art show is her primary focus until she
uncovers information that causes her to question circumstances surrounding her
husband’s death. She contacts his former partner in spite of the danger he
poses to her peace of mind.

Ex-cop Carlos owns a successful investigation firm, having
left the Phoenix Police Department after the murder of his best friend. Carlos’
life is uncomplicated—at least until he receives Trella’s call. Despite his
misgivings at seeing the only woman who ever made him think of settling down,
he agrees to help.

Trella’s probing for answers lands them both in a sticky,
suspenseful situation. Carlos moves in to protect her, but he can’t fight his
attraction. Soon he’s in her bed and she’s in his heart.

Can he convince her that loving him is her passion?

 

A Romantica®
romantic suspense erotic romance
from
Ellora’s Cave

 

Painted Passion
Tamara Hunter

 

Dedication

 

To my best friend, who has always been—and continues to be—supportive
and understanding. I always wanted to love a man who makes me laugh and you
accomplish that feat on a daily basis.

 

 

 

Acknowledgements

 

I want to thank my critique partners: Betty, Carol, Dana,
Judy, Vonda, Pamela, Randy and Terry. Your encouragement over the years means a
lot and I value the knowledge I’ve gained from our interaction.

To Jill Noelle, you have my sincere thanks and gratitude for
helping make this story richer and more deserving of carrying the Ellora’s Cave
name.

 

Prologue

 

Slow and steady
. Detective Carlos Diaz repeated the
refrain with each quiet step along the cement floor of the warehouse, his gaze
sweeping for any sign of the suspect they’d chased inside. His partner, Louis
Arnold, mirrored his movements between the parallel lanes created by towering
stacks of dusty barrels. With each calculated movement, Carlos fought the urge
to sneeze. He clutched his Glock, the cool, reassuring metal an extension of
his muscles.

The cloying, overwhelming heat inside warred with the dry
desert heat outdoors and won. A trickle of sweat raced down his underarm as if
heading for the finish line. Perspiration soaked into his undershirt, which was
already plastered to his skin.

The lanes merged, and he noted his partner’s similar stance.

“He’s here. He didn’t disappear,” Carlos whispered.

With a nod, Louis indicated an area to the right. Carlos
shadowed Louis as they made their way toward the closed door.

Louis knocked on the shiny steel surface at odds with the
dilapidated, unused appearance of the structure. “Police, open up!” When the
door remained closed he turned the knob. “Locked,” he whispered.

A rustling sounded behind them. Carlos whirled. He retraced
his steps a few feet back and around another stack of barrels. A mouse scurried
in front of him, scrabbling across an old, yellowed newspaper. A momentary
sense of relief rippled through him, yet his muscles refused to loosen.

Carlos blew his breath out in a soft whoosh, hoping to ease
the oppressive feel of doom weighing on him. He wiped at the sweat on his
forehead. Lights but no air. Wonderful.

“What the—?” Louis’ words ended abruptly.

A shuffling noise drew Carlos’ attention.

Crack
! The sound rang out, reverberating off the
walls as it echoed through the building.

Carlos’ boots slapped against the concrete in staccato
beats. He skidded to a stop where he’d last seen his partner. Louis lay on the
floor. His tan shirt darkened to a deep, sinister red. The closed door now
stood wide open. Carlos radioed for help as he ran inside the room. Only an old
desk and a torn leather chair occupied the area.

He rushed back to Louis’ side. The pool of blood widened,
causing assorted scraps of gum wrappers and faded pieces of newspapers to
float. He dropped to his knees amid his friend’s life’s blood. “Hang on, man.
Help’s coming.”

Carlos’ vision wavered with the influx of moisture. He
ripped his shirt, holding it against the entry wound on Louis’ lower right
abdomen. The heavy, metallic odor settled into Carlos’ pores like an unwelcome
enemy.

Louis grimaced. “Keep an eye on Trella for me.”

Please don’t let him die. Carlos hadn’t been to Mass in
years but he prayed to every saint he could recall.

“Trella.” Louis dragged in a breath. “Take…care of her.
Should have told you…” Louis’ eyelids fluttered closed.

“I promise. Stay with me.” Where was the damn ambulance?

“You’re going to make it. We had plans to open our own
security agency, remember?” Carlos’ throat tightened, and his chest compressed
with an unseen weight. Louis was supposed to have many more years left to spend
pulling pranks on Carlos and the other squad members. Years to grow old with
Trella, Louis’ wife. Years period.

In the distance, sirens announced the ambulance’s arrival.

Tears rolled unchecked down Carlos’ face. The hand Carlos
clutched slackened, as life seeped from his childhood friend’s body.

“Please, no.” Carlos gripped tighter, squeezed harder, as if
he could delay Louis’ departure.

He had witnessed death in his occupation before, but this
was different. This time, he was the one shaking with the rage, the pain, the
hurt.

“No!” The word demolished the quietness.

Chapter One

Two years later

 

Carlos Diaz drove below the speed limit as he approached the
house where Louis and Estrella Arnold resided during their four-year marriage.

Carlos eased his vehicle into the driveway, slowing to a
crawl as he parked his Jeep beside a late-model silver Mercedes SL convertible.
The sun was at its zenith, and the persistent desert heat settled on him like
his own damn shadow.

The rambling stucco and stone home with its circular,
cobbled courtyard looked the same as it had the last time he’d been here. White
and pink oleander bushes formed a privacy fence, while towering cacti and
banana trees bore signs of being regularly tended. Two majestic fan palms in
gigantic ceramic planters flanked the double wood doors.

He blew out his breath in a rush. When Trella announced her
plan to leave the state, Carlos had insisted she hire a bodyguard. He didn’t
have the will to watch her grieve while wading through his own minefield of
loss. She’d resisted the idea at first, but he convinced her by mentioning how
Louis constantly talked of hiring someone to be with her. A lie but a necessary
one. He’d wanted to be honest, but she would’ve asked question after question,
and he hadn’t possessed any answers. Trella finally relented. She hired Miguel
as her bodyguard, while Carlos spent hours with a psychologist dealing with
survivor’s guilt.

He cut the engine. Last week, when he received Trella’s call
saying she’d returned and wanted to see him, memories of his partner’s death
came rushing back. He climbed from the vehicle, leaving an overnight bag on the
passenger seat. After Louis’ funeral, Carlos had resigned from the force and
moved to Vegas. Memories proved easier to bury amid the constant lights and
nightlife.

With each unwilling step bringing him closer to the house,
the prospect of facing reminders of more joyous times filled him with dread.
Coming here to this house again caused his chest to tighten. He swallowed,
feeling as nervous as a teenager on a first date. Before he could touch the
bell, the door swung open.

Trella’s short curls were gone. A band the color of carrots
held longer, mahogany-colored hair off her face, making her look younger than
her thirty-four years. Her chestnut-brown eyes no longer held a ready sparkle.
She was slimmer, the curves still evident but not as generous as they had been.
Before he could open his mouth, she barreled into his arms, stealing his breath
and making him aware no one else in his life would greet him this way. Her
scent, light yet earthy, tickled his nose. The cotton of his shirt failed to
mask the weight of her breasts.

Why wasn’t she wearing a bra? Carlos cleared his throat as
he forced his arms to release her. He jammed his fists into the pockets of his
jeans, hopefully masking the stirring of activity south of his belt.

“Nice to see you again.” Her voice possessed warmth,
reminding him of hot summer nights and even hotter sex.

“Same here.” He schooled his features so as not to show his
inner turmoil. “How are you?”

Her haunted gaze lifted to his. “Doing as well as I can.”

She ushered him inside, the cool blast of air-conditioning
doing nothing to dissipate the haze of need ripping through him.

“I still can’t fathom Louis is gone.” She led him beyond the
foyer.

He struggled to keep his attention above her neck, but the
hypnotic sway of her hips in white jeans drew his attention like a mosquito to
bare skin. He chuckled to himself as he recalled Sister Mary Frances, his high
school teacher, warning him countless times about how he was going to hell
because of his inordinate interest in the female body. Right about now, he was
inclined to believe her, because the sudden itch to know what lay beneath Trella’s
jeans rattled him.

Carlos rubbed a hand down his face. In Vegas, he saw the
female form all the time—nude and clothed—yet he never reacted like a
fifteen-year-old boy. If his current female friend had taken him up on his
offer to stop by last night, he’d be relaxed instead of at the mercy of the
restless energy flowing throughout his body.

They entered the living room, and a man rose from a chair
near the massive stone fireplace.

Carlos recognized Hector Rodriguez. Barely five-ten and
tanned within two minutes of well-done, the city councilman wore a black, no
doubt designer, suit.

Smiling, Trella patted Carlos’ arm. “Councilman, this is
Carlos Diaz. He was my husband’s partner.”

“Nice to meet you, Diaz.” The shorter man flashed teeth so
white one would have no trouble seeing him at night.

Trella smiled. “Councilman Rodriguez—”

“Hector, I insist.”

Nodding, she smiled. “Hector stopped by to check on me.
Wasn’t that thoughtful?”

Carlos barely concealed a smirk, as the politician preened
under her praise.

Rodriguez displayed his best vote-for-me smile. “I don’t
want to overstay my welcome. I’ll have my assistant add your gallery showing to
my calendar. I certainly don’t intend to miss it.”

Trella nodded. “Thank you. The more city officials attend,
the larger the crowd. It is an election year.”

The man nodded in Carlos’ direction. “Nice meeting you,
Diaz.”

Carlos attached his keys to his front belt loop. “Same here,
Councilman.”

He stayed behind as Trella escorted the man out.

While he waited for her to return, he wandered to the bay
window. Rodriguez walked behind Trella, the man’s intense stare focused where
Carlos’ own had been minutes before. His jaw tightened. He didn’t know why it
bothered him the councilman found her attractive. Her personal life was none of
his business.

He studied photos of Trella and Louis arranged on the mantel
and bookcase. They’d made a handsome couple. Framed photos of Louis and the
rest of their squad were strategically placed on several shelves.

“Nice of the councilman to stop for a visit,” Trella said
from somewhere behind him.

Carlos turned to face her. “Didn’t know he made house
calls.”

“He said he noticed the moving truck parked on the street.”
Carrying a laptop in her arms, she took a seat on the gray leather sectional
and patted a plush cushion beside her. “I thought at first it was my nosy
neighbors again. They stopped by before breakfast.”

He joined her as she set the computer on the coffee table.

She flashed him a smile, but her eyes retained their
sadness. “Who’s your new partner?”

He swallowed. “I left the force after we lost Louis.”

Shock crossed her face. “Miguel never mentioned it. What do
you do now?”

“Joined my uncle’s security agency. I bought him out last
year.” Carlos tried but couldn’t keep pride from creeping into his voice. After
his parents’ untimely deaths, he’d used only as much of the insurance money as
necessary to survive. The rest he’d invested, putting his college finance
courses to work.

She placed her hand on his arm. From the heat of her touch
searing his skin, he wouldn’t be surprised if a brand of her palm burned onto
his flesh.

“Do you miss the force?” she asked.

He grinned. “Truth is, I don’t have much time to think about
it. Lucrative casino contracts keep me and the agency pretty busy.”

“Do you ever see the other guys?”

“Not as much as I’d like.” Along with Louis and himself,
Donovan Wilson, Jackson Reed and Jose Aguilar had been known as BB5, Bad Boys
Five.

“You guys were a crazy bunch.”

“Where’s Miguel?” Carlos changed the subject, feeling pretty
certain she was about to cruise down memory lane, and he had no inclination to
accompany her on the trip.

“I gave him the day off since you were coming.” She brought
the laptop out of sleep mode. “We need to talk about my having a bodyguard.
Despite what Louis wanted, I don’t feel it’s necessary. People don’t recognize
me on the street.”

He frowned at her indifference. “Your paintings hang in
homes across the country and overseas. I heard the president commissioned one
for the White House residence. Trust me, people know your name.”

“Exactly my point. My name, not my face.” She pounced on his
words. “I’ll keep Miguel on through the end of the summer.”

“Trella—”

“If you want him to have a job, hire him yourself.”

Carlos kept silent, allowing her to believe she had the last
word in the matter. But until a suspect was convicted in Louis’ death, Miguel
would remain on his post.

“What did you want to talk about that was too important for
a phone call?”

Her fingers danced over the keyboard. A file appeared on the
screen with the words “Immigrant Work Program” in bold. A bulleted list of
questions appeared beneath the heading.

“What’s this?”

She sighed. “I was hoping you’d tell me. Louis and I had
matching laptops. I was cleaning up some files on mine when I found this. I
didn’t create it, so Louis must’ve used my computer by mistake.”

He skimmed the page consisting of questions all pertaining
to the Immigrant Work Program, spearheaded by one Councilman Hector Rodriguez.
The succeeding pages contained dates, addresses and paragraphs of Louis’
observations.

He frowned. “Why was he investigating Rodriguez’s program?”

“No clue. I figured it pertained to a case you two were
working.”

Why hadn’t Louis mentioned it? “Had anything happened to
make him suspicious?”

Trella drummed her fingers against one thigh. “Don’t know.
I’ve only heard good things about the program.”

“Has anyone else seen the file?”

She shook her head. “I didn’t even show it to Miguel,
because I thought it was related to a case.”

“Good. Keep it between us.” He scrolled through the file. He
didn’t believe in coincidences, and the councilman’s appearance was too much of
one. “Wonder why the councilman really stopped by.”

The phone rang, and she excused herself to answer it.

Carlos racked his brain for any mention of Louis questioning
the validity of Rodriguez’s pet project.

Should have told you
. Louis’ words floated into his
mind. Was the Immigrant Work Program what his partner had been referring to?

He brushed a hand down his face. The brass frowned upon dragging
a public figure through the mud without cold, hard facts. If Louis discovered
shady dealings with the IWP, had he confronted someone with his suspicions?

“Wrong number.” Trella stood in the doorway. “Hey, it’s
nearly four. Are you interested in staying for dinner?”

His stomach growled, answering for him.

She laughed, the soft sound sending a tingle of warmth over
him. “Sounds like a
yes
. Carry the laptop into the kitchen with you.”

He took his time picking up the computer and following her,
wanting to avoid the torture of viewing her backside again.

When he entered the kitchen, Trella had removed a pack of
steaks, onions, garlic and fixings for a salad from the fridge.

He slid onto a barstool at the granite-topped island instead
of sitting at the round table where he and Louis had spent many nights poring
over cases. He glanced around the spacious kitchen. “Looks the same.”

“Pretty much,” she agreed. “When I left town, I rented it
out to a nice older couple.”

Carlos focused on reading Louis’ notes, but every time
Trella moved, his attention shifted to her. Hell, at the rate he kept staring
at her, he’d know every inch of her body by the time she finished cooking.

When she bent at the waist inside the pantry with her round
bottom directly in his line of vision, his breathing kicked into high gear.

He glanced back at the screen to find it filled with line
after line of the letter “k”. He pushed the undo button, immediately returning
the document to its original state.

Trella straightened, two potatoes cradled in her hands.

“How were your parents?” he asked.

Weariness lingered on her face, bearing witness to an
apparent lack of rest. She placed the vegetables in the sink. “Fine.” She
shrugged. “I barely saw them. They were constantly away visiting friends or off
on cruises. I just needed a change of scenery.”

He pushed his chair back, coming quickly to his feet. “Let
me cook?”

She paused in the act of opening a cabinet door. “Um, are
you sure?”

He smirked. “I can cook.”

She flushed. “I didn’t mean to offend.” She retrieved a
cutting board.

“You didn’t.” He averted his attention, certain if he kept
staring at her, he’d self-combust. “Lie down until the food’s ready.”

She closed the door. “I’m not tired.”

He quirked a brow as he washed his hands in the sink.

She sighed. “All right, I’ll admit it’s been stressful
coming back here.”

“I’ll call you when everything’s ready.”

She stared at him for a few seconds before nodding. “Don’t
let bossing me around become a habit.” She smiled, a faint sparkle appearing in
her eyes. “You’re a good person, Carlos.”

Happiness erupted in him, causing a grin to find a home on
his face. After she left the room, he prepared the steaks and potatoes for the
indoor grill then washed lettuce and vegetables for the salad.

While the steaks sizzled, he searched on the computer for
more information on the IWP, but everything he discovered praised its success.
Whatever had been glaringly obvious to Louis eluded Carlos.

The phone rang, and he kept working. On the second ring, he
surmised Trella must have answered, since the ringing abruptly stopped.

When the food was ready, Carlos switched off the stove. He
still had his touch, although these days, he did more eating at casino buffets.

“Trella!”

She didn’t respond. His heart paused for a second before
pounding in triple-time. He dashed from the room. Muttering curses, he checked
rooms downstairs. No sign of her. He sprinted up the stairs two at time.

BOOK: PaintedPassion
13.57Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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