P.J. Rutherford cocked back her chair and flung her boot on top of the table in front of her. She adjusted her straw cowboy hat so her eyes were barely visible and stared over the smoke-filled room to the band setting up along the far wall.
The waitress thumped a bottle of beer on the table next to P.J.’s boot and then sashayed away, her attention reserved for the male customers she flirted with and chatted up.
P.J. wasn’t a chatter. She’d never spoken to anyone in all the time she’d been coming here. She couldn’t be called a regular, but yet, in all her irregularity, she was.
This was her place to unwind between missions. It wasn’t what most would consider a place of rest and relaxation, but for P.J. it worked to throw back a few beers, inhale some secondhand smoke, go deaf from listening to bad cover songs and watch a few bar fights.
She winced when the guitarist riffed a particularly bad chord and then ground her teeth together when the mike squealed. These guys were amateurs. Hell, it was probably their first live gig, which meant she was going home tone-deaf and popping ibuprofen for the headache she’d be sure to have.
But it beat spending the evening alone in her apartment with jet lag. Although she wasn’t even sure it could be considered jet lag. She’d been three days without sleep, so truly she could sleep at any time, but she was wired and still buzzed from adrenaline the last mission had wrought.
She was wound tighter than a rusted spring and there was no give in her muscles tonight.
The big, happy mush fest that had gone on at the Kelly compound, complete with double weddings and enough true love and babies and bullshit to make her green around the gills, hadn’t helped.
Not that she was a cynic when it came to romance. She had her romance novels and she was fiercely protective of them and against anyone giving her shit over reading them.
But sometimes the Kelly clan was a little overbearing in the sheer sugary sweetness of all that unconditional love and support. Did no one ever get pissed off and start a fight?
The truth was, she just felt out of place, which was why she’d rather stick to her own team, let Steele take the orders from Sam or Garrett Kelly and she’d follow her team leader. The day Steele became embroiled in all that happy, bubbly shit was the day she hung up her rifle and called it quits.
She liked Steele. She knew where she stood with Steele. Always. He didn’t sugarcoat shit. If you f**ked up, he called you on it. If you did your job, you didn’t get any special accolades. Not for doing your f**king job, as he put it.
And she liked her team, even if Coletrane was one giant pain in her ass. But he was a cute pain in the ass and he was harmless. Plus he was a perfect target for cutting jokes and egging on. Easy. Too easy. He rose to the bait on too many occasions for her to count.
She was the better marksman. She knew that without false modesty. But it didn’t stop a healthy rivalry between her and Cole when it came to sniper duty.
It pushed them both, made them better at their jobs and made the relationship between them easygoing and casual. Just the way she liked it.
The current song ended, and she sighed in relief. The band looked to be taking a short break, but her ears were still roaring from the deafening sounds of just moments earlier.
She was reaching for her beer when she saw a group of three men walk through the door. Her hand shook, nearly knocking the bottle over. Her stomach plummeted like a rock, and she briefly considered making a break for the restroom.
Just as quickly, anger replaced the sudden panic. What the hell was she contemplating hiding for? She hadn’t done anything wrong. Her ex-lover and his buddies had hung her out to dry. Not the other way around.
She forced her gaze away, pretended interest in an object across the room and hoped they wouldn’t notice her. From her periphery, she saw the moment Derek looked her way and recognized her.
He went completely still and then he nudged Jimmy and Mike and pointed in her direction.
Fuck. They were walking this way. Just what she goddamn needed on a night she just wanted to be left alone.
She was still staring ahead when Derek stepped in front of her, blocking her vision. She slowly looked up, making sure her expression was cool and unruffled.
“So is this where you’re hanging out now, P.J.?” Derek drawled. “Didn’t figure you one for trolling this kind of place.”
The insulting tone grated on her nerves.
“Get out of my space, Derek.”
He lifted an eyebrow and quirked the corner of his mouth up in a sneer. “That’s not what you used to say. Of course that was before you decided to shit on your team. Where are you working these days, P.J.? Surely not here. You don’t quite have the body to pull this gig off.”
The old P.J. would already be in his face and would have knocked him on his ass. The new P.J. . . .
Fuck it. There was nothing wrong with the old P.J.
She rose from her chair, tipped back her hat and leveled a cold stare at the three. Back in the day they’d been tight. All four of them. She and Derek had been lovers for two years. They’d hooked up almost immediately after P.J. had joined the S.W.A.T. team and they’d managed to keep their relationship a secret, hiding behind friendship. Friendship they genuinely shared with Jimmy and Mike.
Derek smirked, almost as if he figured she’d turn and walk out. Because that’s what she was good at. Running.
Not this time.
She pulled her hand back and slugged him right in the nose.
His hand flew up as his head whipped back and he staggered backward several steps.
His fingers came away bloody and he charged forward. She held her ground, refusing to be intimidated by the ass**le.
“What the f**k was that?” he roared.
“Something I should have done a hell of a long time ago,” she said calmly. “Listen up, pencil dick. I don’t have time for your bullshit. I don’t give a shit about you or your lame sidekicks, so do us both a favor and leave me the f**k alone.”
“Once a bitch always a bitch, huh, P.J.?” Mike said with curled lips.
“You think what you want, Mike,” she said in a calm, measured voice. “I walked away with a clear conscience. Can you say the same?”
He flushed red, and anger bristled visibly from him. He started toward her but Jimmy stuck out his arm.
“What the f**k, Mike? You going to start a fight in a public bar with a woman?”
“Feel free,” P.J. said sweetly. “I’m more than happy to kick his ass.”
“What happened to you?” Derek demanded. “You didn’t used to be so cold.”
“Forgive me for not rolling over and taking the ass f**king you gave me so well. I wasn’t the one who was dirty. That’s on you and your buddies. You expected me to look the other way, and when I didn’t, you hung me out to dry. Fuck that and f**k you. Now get the hell out of my space.”
She was so focused on her former teammates that she didn’t notice the newcomer until a strong arm wrapped around her waist and hauled her up against his side.
“Sorry I’m late, darlin’,” Cole drawled. “Who are your little friends?”
She stiffened in shock, her mouth falling open. Cole covered her lapse by pressing his lips to hers and giving her a long, lingering, toe-curling kiss.
She was so flustered and flabbergasted over his sudden appearance that she could do little more than stand there while he ravished her mouth.
What a silly word. She’d read the word a lot in her old-school romances, and when she was a teenager, she’d giggled over the idea of being ravished, but holy hell, there was no other word that came to mind as he thoroughly tasted every inch of her mouth.
He drew away, amusement sparkling in his blue eyes. His hair had gotten a little longer than his normal neat cut, so it was spiky on top, aided no doubt by what looked like hair gel. She’d have to give him shit over that later. Right after she found out what the hell he was doing here in her bar when he was supposed to be across the country in Tennessee.
When he pulled away, she got a better look at him and nearly laughed out loud. He was still dressed in fatigues, black shirt and his combat boots. He looked like he’d come here straight from the last mission, and, well, she supposed he had, since he was here and not in Tennessee.
She had to admit, he looked like a total badass. He dwarfed her and was a good two inches taller than Derek, who was the tallest of his trio. And his biceps bulged and strained against the tight short sleeves of the T-shirt.
She couldn’t have planned this any better. His timing was impeccable.
“Cole, this is ass**le number one, two and three.”
Cole lifted his brow and his eyes gleamed with amusement. “Is there a problem, gentlemen? Because the way I saw it across the room, you didn’t look friendly. In fact, it looked very much to me like you were trying to intimidate someone much smaller than yourselves, and a woman, to boot.”
“Fuck this,” Derek snarled. “You’re welcome to the f**king ice queen. She nearly froze my dick off.”
“What dick?” she asked, crossing her arms over her chest.
Cole’s arm was still around her and he didn’t seem inclined to remove it anytime soon.
“Fuck you,” Derek said rudely. “Come on. Let’s get out of here. I can’t stomach being around a rat fink.”
The three men headed for the door and P.J. blew out a deep breath. That could have gotten ugly, and in this joint, there wasn’t much in the way of security. The one bouncer was balding, middle aged and had a beer gut that made him slow and clumsy. He wouldn’t be much help in an altercation.
“You can let go now,” she muttered.
Cole let his arm fall and then pulled a chair out at her table and sprawled into it, waving to the waitress at the same time.
The waitress wasted no time hurrying over. She gifted Cole with her best flirtatious smile and hovered a lot closer than necessary, affording him a prime view of her cle**age.
“Bring me whatever you have on tap, sugar,” Cole said with a wink.
P.J. rolled her eyes as the waitress all but fell for that fake charm. Cole was easy on the eyes for sure. Muddy blond hair, a newly grown goatee, which P.J. had to admit looked damn good on him. Blue eyes that could be mean as hell one moment and twinkling and carefree the next.
He was the total package, not that she’d ever tell him so. It suited her purposes to keep him down a few notches. Wouldn’t do to have his ego blow up on her. She did have to work with him, after all.
“What the hell are you doing here, Coletrane?” she demanded after the waitress had left. “This isn’t exactly your neighborhood.”
He shrugged. “Can’t a guy come in and check on a teammate?”
Her gaze narrowed. “Sure. There’s Dolphin, Baker and Renshaw, and you could always look in on Steele. I’m sure he’d looooove the company.”
“Maybe you’re just special,” he said with a grin.
“Lucky me,” she muttered.
But she couldn’t control the peculiar butterflies floating around her belly when he turned all that charm on her. Hell, she was acting like a damn girl.
The waitress returned and he tipped back his drink, taking a big gulp before he thumped it back down on the table. Behind him, the band struck up another ear-piercing song and Cole visibly winced.
“Holy shit, Rutherford. I thought you had better taste than this. What the hell are you doing in this shit hole anyway? Shouldn’t you be at home catching some R and R? You haven’t slept in what, three days?”
She cast a baleful look in his direction. “I could ask you the same question. At least I’m within a few blocks of my bed. Last time I checked you still resided in the great state of Tennessee. That’s a long-ass way from Denver.”
“Maybe I like your company.”
For a long moment they sipped their beer in silence while the music clanged and more smoke filled the air. Cole’s eyes suddenly widened when two girls in either corner hopped up on an elevated step and began to do a slow striptease.
“Rutherford, are you a lesbian?”
She choked on her beer and then sat forward, letting her feet drop off the table and onto the floor with a clunk. She tipped back her hat so she could look him square in the eyes.
“What the hell kind of question is that?”
He gave her a quelling stare. “You’re in a strip joint. What else am I supposed to think?”
“You’re an idiot.”
He gave her a mock wounded look. “Come on, P.J. Throw me a bone here. Tell me you aren’t a lesbian. Or at least crush me gently.”
“You’re ruining my downtime.”
“Well, if this is downtime, let’s do it up right. Want to do some shots? Or are you afraid I’ll drink you under the table?”
Her brows went up. “You did not just challenge me.”
He gave her a smug smile. “I believe I did. First round’s on me.”
“They’re all on you since this is your idea.”
“Okay, but I’m guessing you can’t get past three.”
“Blah, blah. I’m hearing a lot of talk and no action.”
Cole held up his hand again and the waitress walked up to the table.
“Can you set us up with some shots?” He turned to P.J. “You got anything against tequila?”
“I’ve only got something against bad tequila. Don’t cheap out on me, Cole. You better get the good stuff.”
“You heard the lady,” Cole drawled. “Give us a setup of the best tequila you have.”
The waitress looked dubious but she nodded and headed in the direction of the bar.