"Oh, Susy Q, wait for it," Hogan drawled. "You're going to love this."
"You'll be posing as Hogan's wife," the Sheriff and the Mayor chorused in unison.
"Hogan's wife?" Susannah echoed the words in a tone that matched the horrified expression on her face.
She looked as if she'd been told she had an advanced case of bubonic plague. Hogan suppressed his laughter, but it wasn't easy. He should be insulted, but it was so damned comical. Unfortunately, he didn't have time to appreciate the humor. He should have known Walter would take the matter into his own hands when Hogan had refused to involve Susannah.
Damn his uncle. He had to figure out a way to get her to refuse this cockeyed sham assignment. He pasted as smarmy a leer as he could produce on his face. If he'd had a moustache, he'd have twirled the ends like an old school cinema villain. "What do you say to that, Mrs. Hogan?"
Susannah shot out of the chair and was nose to chin with him before he could blink. In a voice so low he knew no one else could hear, she hissed, "I wouldn't be your wife if you were--."
"Pretend wife," he interjected, grinning.
"The last heterosexual male in the entire solar system," she finished as if he hadn't interrupted.
"So, I guess that's a no?" God, he hoped so.
"Not just no. Hell no."
Hogan breathed a sigh of relief. He didn't think he could have stood five days and nights of temptation alone in a hotel room with her.
Susannah sidestepped him. "Sheriff," she said brusquely. Then she stopped. In a softer, sweeter voice, she said, "Uncle Barney."
Hogan grinned at her lightning-quick change in strategy. He had no choice but to admire her though he thought it a bit unethical for her to play the uncle card.
"Uncle Barney, wouldn't it be better if we used one of our guys? Like Carl? We know him and the way he thinks. Surely that's important for two partners on an assignment like this?"
"Well, now, sugar, Carl's got vacation scheduled, and I don't think Noreen would take kindly to his canceling it. She's been looking forward to this trip to Branson for six months."
"Oh, no, Susannah," the Mayor chimed in. "It has to be Hogan. He's the man for this assignment, just as you're the woman for the job. If you don't want to be partnered with him." He frowned. "Well, that kind of throws a monkey wrench into the plan. You see, you've got a, uh, special quality that's needed for this job."
"It's not that I don't want to be partnered," she paused, "with Hogan."
Hogan knew she'd nearly choked on his name. He tried to think of something more obnoxious to say, but nothing came to mind.
"It's just that. . . I mean," Susannah floundered. "Did you consider one of the police officers from the Cove? A real cop not just a consultant?" Her face brightened. "I know Luke Orland. He's a good man. Smart. And he's single so there's no wife to complicate matters. Luke and I get along great."
Hogan's smile faded. She got along great with Orland? What the hell did that mean? Luke Orland was a player if he'd ever seen one. He doubted that guy ever slept alone on a Saturday night. Surely Susannah wasn't one of his conquests?
"No," the Mayor vowed. "It's got to be Hogan."
Hurriedly, Susannah scrambled for excuses. "But surely he's too busy with the demands of his consulting position to tie up his days."
"And nights," Hogan interjected, though he was annoyed at her insistence on partnering with Orland. Annoyed and something else that didn't bear scrutiny.
Susannah directed a look at him that would probably have melted lesser mortals into puddles of testosterone at her feet.
"Believe me, Luke would be perfect for this job." Susannah rattled on about how wonderful the hometown boy was.
Hogan's grin remained fixed even though his amusement at her attempt to oust him had begun to fade. He hadn't wanted to get Susannah involved. He'd known scaring her off would be difficult. She was acting like a stray dog with only one bone between her and starvation, and she didn't intend to lose that bone. Trouble was, the more she sang the praises of Orland, the more his focus shifted from scaring her off to making sure that if she ended up in a hotel at the Cove with a man, he was going to be that man. Not Orland.
"But Luke is already on the payroll, and he's perfect for the job."
Hogan's jaw hardened. Perfect? In what way was Orland better than himself? There was no way in hell he was going to throw Luke Orland and Susannah together. For anything. Derisively, he snorted. "Luke doesn't have the experience for this."
Walter pursed his lips and nodded. "Hogan's right. Luke's a good man. He'll go far in the Cove's police department, but he doesn't have the background Hogan has. I want someone with experience."
"Background? Experience?" Susannah looked at Hogan. Her head tilted to the right as if she were seeing him in a new light. "What kind of background and experience could he possibly have? He's just a consultant."
"Walter," Hogan broke in. It was no use. He knew nothing that was said would change Walter's battle plan so he might as well end the useless discussion before Walter revealed his true identity. "I'm sure Deputy Quinn isn't interested in my past."
Oh, but he could tell she was. He could see the wheels spinning in her pretty head as she chewed on the tidbit Walter had tossed her way. He'd have to do some fancy tap dancing to shift her attention.
"As far as being too busy, let me assure you, Deputy Quinn, I've finished my work with the police department in the Cove. It's a well-oiled machine, and Orland is a good cop. He's needed to keep things running smoothly. I'm comfortable leaving everything in his capable hands so I can help the Mayor with his little project as my last official duty for this consulting job."
He wasn't lying. He did think Orland was a good cop. At least Orland was smart enough to be discreet. The Mayor had personally selected the man to assist in Hogan's pretense as a consultant which hadn't involved much except looking busy and creating phony memos and reports. Which the lovely Deputy Quinn had typed for him.
He tried one last tactic. "Look, Barney, she'll be in over her head. I can't guarantee her safety. How can I take care of this matter appropriately, as we discussed, Walter, when I have to keep an eye on her all the time?"
"Guarantee my safety?" Susannah stared hard at Hogan. "I'll have you know I can take care of myself."
"Yeah, right." Hogan plowed on. There was always the chance if he might still alienate her enough to make her back away. "You don't look like you could take care of a herd of gnats, Susy Q. No offense."
"None taken," she grated.
Resignation settled over Hogan. He didn't need a crystal ball to realize when the intriguing Deputy Quinn learned what was really going on, she'd probably plug him with her service revolver. Glumly, he tried to think of a solid reason to exclude her, but Walter's pigheaded attitude would make every argument null and void. Hell. No wonder Walter's only daughter couldn't be under the same roof with her father longer than twenty-four hours before they butted heads.
"Actually, Mayor Bofco, I'm perfectly capable of taking care of myself." Her smile held little warmth as she glanced at Hogan. "I have a black belt in Aikido, and if Mr. Hogan would like a quick demonstration, I'd be more than happy to oblige."
"No, no, that won't be necessary," Walter said. "I think we're straying from the point here. There won't be any danger, Hogan. You said so yourself. She'll never be out of your sight."
"But I still think Luke Orland would be better on this job." Susannah added. "You'll get recognized in the Cove. People know you were working for the police department."
At the mention again of the Murphy's Cove cop, some part of him, obviously the part of his anatomy that controlled his thought processes when he was around Susannah, forced Hogan to rebut her point. "I kept a very low profile. Hardly anyone in the Cove knows me."
"What about the other officers and the civilian employees of the police department? Are you saying they don't know you? How can that be?"
"Well, sure, they know me, but they won't talk. Chances are we won't even see any of them while we're closeted together in a hotel room."
"Closeted together?" Susannah echoed. In a frantic voice, she said, "But, there's another problem. You look like a beach bum. I don't mean to criticize your appearance, Hogan, but it's a definite problem. You don't look like a workaholic successful businessman. Not by a long shot."
"Not a problem." He rubbed his stubbly chin. The soft rasp was easily heard in the room. "I do own a razor. I'm pretty sure I remember how to use it."
Susannah opened her mouth to protest further, but Hogan quickly added, "And I actually own some decent clothes. You can check my closet for yourself, Deputy Quinn."
Susannah looked as deflated as a leaky helium balloon. Hogan took a deep breath and ignored the traitorous part of his brain that whispered he'd have her all to himself for a week. He was a professional, and he damn well better start acting like one. From this point on, it was hands off. Business not pleasure. Not even any thoughts about what might have been.
Hogan knew Susannah wanted this just as he knew Walter wouldn't change his mind. He looked at Susannah. Aw, hell. He threw in the towel "Okay, Walter. You're the boss."
Walter Bofco beamed. "Wonderful. Let's tell Susannah everything."
With a sigh, Hogan began, "McConnell's had a long career, but he's been inactive for the last decade, or he's been lucky. He hasn't had an arrest since he came out of prison ten years ago. The ladies like him." He shrugged. "Maybe he's so smooth women chalk it up to an expensive good time when he rips them off."
"You may be right," Walter interrupted. "Yvonne had a change of heart right after she told me about him. She wants me to just drop it. She doesn't want him arrested. Says she won't press charges. But those jewels he took are family heirlooms. Damn it all. I want them back even if she doesn't."
"Weren't those things insured?" Barney suddenly asked.
"Of course, but I'd have to file a police report in order to get the insurance money. I don't want the money. I want the black opals. They've been in our family over two hundred years."
"We're really not going to arrest him?" Susannah asked, frowning.
"Sorry, Susy Q," Hogan quipped. "No arrests." He couldn't resist adding, "Not even a ticket to write. Why waste your time?"
"Because it's my time to waste."
"Despicable though his thievery is, he's never harmed his victims," Walter said. "It's unlikely he'd change his habits now. I really wouldn't present this to you, Susannah, if I truly thought there was any danger. So she's going to be your wife, Hogan, and there's nothing you can do about it but get used to the idea. Let's move along."
"Fine. No problem," Hogan said. Somehow he'd find a way to keep her out of his hair. And off his brain. He hated complications. With Susannah involved, his job, not to mention his life, was going to be one massive pile of complications.
She wanted to be an undercover agent? He'd see how well she took orders. "Okay, Deputy. Welcome aboard." Somehow, he'd keep his hands off her and still do what he set out to do. He just hoped she didn't end up hating him too much when this was over.
"Thank you so much for your faith in me, Mr. Hogan," Susannah said, sarcasm dripping from her words.
His eyes narrowed. He'd like to kiss the sass out of her. But if he was going to survive this, he'd better start treating her like one of the guys. He wasn't known for being a stern, detail-oriented team leader, but maybe that was the best way to handle her. It would certainly keep her mad at him and at arm's length. If he was lucky.
"Be ready to leave Saturday morning at seven. Think you can handle that?"
"A cocker spaniel could handle that," she said with a smirk.
Hogan closed the distance between them and leaned toward her. His gaze flicked to her lips. Softly, he asked, "Anyone ever complain about your smart mouth?"
Her smile tightened even as her voice dropped to match his in softness. "Why, no. Anyone complain about yours?"
"No woman ever has." At that, her grin disappeared. Hogan would have given a year's salary right now to feel her mouth against his again. To feel her softness pressed to him. "You know what happens to little girls with smart mouths?"
"My mouth is none of your business." Her auburn brows snapped together in a frown.
He swore he could feel the heat from her body. In a voice full of promise, he said, "They get them closed in the most interesting ways."
"Is that a threat?" Susannah's stuck her chin up and didn't retreat an inch.
Hogan admired her for not backing down. "No, that's a promise."
For the first time, he thought he'd got the better of her. Her gaze dropped for an instant, but only an instant. Then she looked up. He read her message loud and clear. Touch her, and she'd make him pay dearly. It was a dare he willingly accepted. For the hundredth time he wondered why he couldn't have found a nice, uncomplicated woman.
Nah. Too boring. No challenge at all.
"What's the matter? Cat got your tongue, Susy Q?"
"No, but if I'm lucky, next time you have dinner with Uncle Barney, Aunt Opal's tabby may think yours is an hors d'oeuvre."
"Let's get one thing straight right now. You follow my orders to the letter. Understood, Deputy?" She didn't like being bossed, but she'd better get used to it. He planned to do a lot of it.
Susannah snapped him a sassy salute. "Yes, sir, Mr. Hogan."
"When I say jump, you don't bother to ask how high. You just start jumping like you had springs on your feet."
Susannah mocked him with another salute. "Yes, sir, Mr. Hogan." Defiance sparkled in her green eyes.
The Sheriff said, "Hogan's right, Sugar. You follow his orders."
Hogan sighed. This had disaster written all over it.
Susannah smirked at Hogan's long-suffering sigh. She looked at her uncle. "Of course, Sheriff." She had brains and guts and determination. One way or the other, her uncle, and Hogan, would recognize that. "How long will the assignment last?"
"Probably only a week," Bofco said.
A week. Seven days. And nights? A week of twenty-four/seven with Hogan? In close quarters? Doubts assailed her. She hadn't been able to stand seven minutes with him since he'd arrived in town. How was she going to tolerate seven days?
"Still want to tackle this, Deputy Quinn?" Hogan asked.
Susannah detected no antagonism in his voice. She looked up. He seemed serious, not patronizing. She nodded. Stuck in Alton County, this might be the only chance she'd have to do the kind of police work that advanced careers in other venues. With steely determination, she said, "I wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Good. Let's get down to business." The Mayor grinned like a victor who'd won the battle. "Have you got those copies I left with you, Barney?"
The Sheriff opened the top left side drawer and pulled out a thick sheaf of papers and handed them to the Mayor.
Bofco passed out the bound reports. "I took the liberty of creating this scenario should you say yes. Read this and learn your part well."
Susannah tried her best not to snicker at the retired military man's fifteen page scenario that read like an Army threat assessment. Her sense of humor failed her when she came to the list of clothing appropriate for the resort. Bikinis? Evening gowns? The list was long and consisted of items she simply didn't possess. She hadn't had an evening gown since senior prom. It still fit, but she didn't think mint green satin with a bouffant skirt was suitable for a sophisticated evening in a swanky club or restaurant.
Her brow wrinkled in alarm. This sounded more like a James Bond spy movie than a police department stakeout. And she was cast as the Bond girl. "Uh, excuse me, Mayor. I understand I'm just bait, but I have a problem with this." She shook the pages.
"What's wrong with my plan?" the Mayor asked, frowning. "I'm sure I've covered everything most logically and in detail."
"No, it's not that. It's a great plan. Very logical and certainly very detailed. The problem is, well, I don't exactly own evening gowns and cocktail dresses. I'm a small town girl who just graduated from college. My wardrobe is pretty much limited to jeans and tee shirts."
"Oh." Walter laughed. He sounded relieved. "That's not a problem. Since this is a personal project, I'm funding it. Just like I'll be compensating the Sheriff's department for your time. I'll take care of everything."
"He'll even look in on your mom so you don't have to worry about her. Isn't that right, Walter?" Barney asked with a gleam in his eyes.
Susannah thought the Mayor looked surprised, but he assured her he would indeed keep an eye on her mother. Then he told her he'd made arrangements with a boutique owner in Houston to supply her with the proper wardrobe and bill him.
Half an hour later, she left the trio of conspirators. She closed the office door behind her, skipped over to Grace's desk, and did a high five then told her the big news.
The dispatcher began to laugh. "Oh, this is going to be good. What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall."
"What do you mean?"
Grace wiped tears of mirth from her cheeks. "I don't know which of you I'd place my money on. It's a toss up as to whether you kill Hogan first or vice versa."
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