Cover of the new book "Stand by Your Man"

Stand by Your Man


Excerpt from Stand by Your Man

Chapter 1

Corporal Karen MacLean grabbed the bag holding two bottles of bubbly and jumped out of her truck. Yesterday, she had helped put away a drug-dealing murderer who also happened to be a chauvinistic pig and, worst of all, a dirty cop. Today’s paperwork at the Caribou Crossing RCMP detachment had felt like hammering nails into Sergeant Miller’s coffin. Her former boss was going to jail and he’d stay there a very long time.

Satisfaction and adrenaline gave a bounce to her step. As did, let’s face it, anticipating some off-duty time with Sergeant Jamal Estevez. That man was seriously hot.

As Karen approached the gate in the white picket fence, Brooke Kincaid emerged through the open front door of the country cottage.

Karen’s trained eye snapshotted the picture: well-maintained green and white bungalow, bright flower borders, comfy porch furniture, and the smiling blonde who’d turned this rental cottage into a home. Sudden wistfulness made Karen’s hand fumble with the latch. The place was so different from her own functional half duplex in town. Brooke’s place was the kind of home Karen had grown up in and dreamed of one day having herself. If she ever found that special man who wasn’t put off by her corporal’s uniform, and who shared her determination to make a difference in the world.

It wouldn’t hurt one bit if that man loved Caribou Crossing as much as she’d grown to in the four years since she’d been assigned here. The town, which dated back to the 1860s gold rush, was picturesque, with its historic buildings and small businesses that catered to both locals and tourists. The countryside was a gentle feast for her eyes, with its rolling hills and ranch land. The townspeople were, for the most part, friendly and law-abiding. Karen had acquired a few friends, a horse, and a German shepherd, but her love life was pretty much nonexistent.

She shrugged off a momentary sense of yearning and focused on the here and now. Yesterday, she and Corporal Jake Brannon had collared a true scumbag with the help of Brooke Kincaid. The buzz of excitement returned. She answered the blonde’s smile with one of her own and hurried to join her. Slender and fit in a denim skirt and a sleeveless shirt that matched her greenish-blue eyes, Brooke looked closer to Karen’s thirty-two years than her own forty plus.

Karen bounded up the steps and wrapped her free arm around the shorter woman’s shoulders. "We did it!"

Brooke made a sound of surprise, reminding Karen that they barely knew each other, then returned the embrace. "You and Jake did."

"Nope. Couldn’t have done it without you." Karen was firmly against involving civilians in police operations. However, circumstances had dragged Brooke into the middle of this one a week before Karen found out what was going on. Brooke had provided Jake, an undercover cop, with his cover story as her visiting cousin. When Karen busted that cover two days ago, Jake had filled her in and they’d hatched the scheme that had resulted in Sergeant Miller’s arrest.

Karen teased Brooke, "We should make you an honorary member of the force."

"No thanks. I’m too risk-averse. A little bit of excitement every now and then is all I can handle."

The attractive woman was almost five years sober, taking meds for bipolar disorder, and, despite her young age, a grandma. Karen figured Brooke was stronger than she gave herself credit for. She’d done a great job building Jake’s cover despite the fact that Brooke’s true relationship with the rugged undercover cop was anything but cousinly. Karen winked at her hostess. "You can handle Brannon, and I’m guessing that’s more than a little excitement."

A flush tinted Brooke’s cheeks. "You haven’t told anyone? I don’t mind you knowing, but . . ." She shrugged.

Caribou Crossing had that small-town "thing" where everyone minded everyone else’s business. Jake and Brooke wouldn’t be able to keep their powerful mutual attraction a secret much longer. But Brooke’s reaction almost suggested that they were breaking up. Surely that wasn’t true.

"Your private life is your private life," Karen said slowly. "But do you mean you’re not going to keep seeing each other? You’re perfect for each other."

"Far from it. But it was fun while it lasted. No, we have no plans to see each other again."

Although the pair had met not much more than a week ago, it seemed to Karen that their connection went much deeper than casual sex. She was certainly no expert on relationships, but she wouldn’t be at all surprised if the couple’s "plans" changed and they kept dating. Keeping that opinion to herself, she said, "Something smells great." She hoisted the bag she’d carried in from the truck. "I brought champagne."

"Come on into the kitchen." Brooke led the way.

The room was homey, yellow walled, and neat as a pin, its counters bare of cooking mess. Brooke’s cat, a marmalade named Sunny, leaped from the windowsill and strolled over. Karen, who’d met the cat two nights ago, stroked him, then took the two bottles of nonalcoholic bubbly from the bag.

Brooke’s brows rose in apparent surprise. Had she thought Karen would bring alcohol? Brooke’s sobriety wasn’t exactly a secret in this town.

"You’ve got to drink the toasts too," Karen said.

"Thanks." A smile curved her mouth. It widened as, from outside, car tires crunched gravel. Jake had arrived. Brooke rushed toward the front door.

Karen’s pulse jolted and her breath quickened. Jamal Estevez, the supremely hot Jamal, would be with Jake. She lingered in the kitchen to collect herself. Since the moment she’d first laid eyes on Jamal, he’d attracted her the way no man had in a long time-or, let’s face it, ever.

The sergeant, who’d run the Royal Canadian Mounted Police investigation from Vancouver, had traveled up last night with a team of officers. The Caribou Crossing detachment was under investigation to determine whether any other members had been involved in Sergeant Miller’s drug trade. Karen, thanks to her work with Jake, was the one member who’d been cleared.

Her fingers-rock steady yesterday when she’d aimed her service pistol at Miller and ordered him to drop his weapon-trembled as she smoothed back her dark brown hair. Tonight it hung loose to her shoulders rather than being confined in the bobby-pinned knot she wore on the job. Though she’d never been the "girly" type, she did have a feminine side and wished she was wearing something fancier than jeans and a gold tee. Unfortunately, her couple of dresses and skirts lay crumpled in the laundry hamper.

She straightened her spine, took a deep breath, and moved into the living room. Jake and Brooke were hugging inside the front door. The tall black-haired man and the curvy blonde looked so right together. Surely they wouldn’t throw away something so special. Karen felt a momentary twinge of the same yearning she’d experienced earlier at the sight of Brooke’s cozy home. But then her gaze moved past the embracing couple to the man standing on the threshold. She stopped a few yards away, in the shadows, where he wouldn’t notice her, and enjoyed the view.

Jamal Estevez took her breath away. Probably in his midthirties, she guessed him to be half black and half Latino. His skin was a warm coffee-brown, his features boldly masculine, his eyes and wavy hair so deep a chocolate as to be almost black. He was tall-a couple of inches taller than Jake, she’d peg him at six feet three-and had the same kind of lean, well-muscled build, currently molded by a navy tee and faded jeans.

A distinctive man, yet she could imagine him with dreads or a shaved head, facial hair, fake tattoos, gang clothing-or with an expensive haircut, a designer suit, and a Rolex watch. Like any good undercover cop, the man could be anything from a CEO of a multinational corporation to an aspiring rapper to a drug-dealing biker.

The sergeant was watching Brooke and Jake and hadn’t yet seen Karen.

She kept to her shadowy corner and tried not to fantasize about peeling that tee and jeans off his supremely ripped body. Oh my, but he put a zing in her blood.

A number of times today she’d felt his gaze and glanced up to see something in his eyes. Something charged, heated. Or was that her imagination? As a cop, she was good at reading people, but when it came to her dating life, she kind of sucked.

Jake had mentioned that Jamal wasn’t married, but it hadn’t seemed appropriate to ask if he had a girlfriend. Hard to believe that he wouldn’t, but policing-and particularly the undercover work that Jamal sometimes still did-was hard on relationships.

Being a female cop was even tougher. Men were intimidated, or they thought she was butch, or they couldn’t handle being with a woman who risked her life daily. Or-she shuddered, remembering one particularly icky first date-they wanted her to handcuff them and play weird sex games. After having used handcuffs on countless perps, sex was not what she associated with those tools of her trade.

Other sex games, though . . . the less kinky kind, with the right man. A man like the one standing in the doorway. Jamal was still staring at Jake and Brooke, an odd expression on his face, almost as if he too felt a twinge of envy.

Brooke finally tore her attention away from her lover and turned to Jamal. "Nice to see you again, Jamal."

He gave a quick grin, all traces of his previous expression vanishing. "You too, Brooke." He added teasingly, "Or babe, as some may call you." Karen had heard Jake use that term.

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She moved out of her shaded corner and Jamal said, "Hey, Karen." Was there something different, something sexually charged, in his smile now, or was that wishful thinking?

"Jamal." The voice that had yelled at Sergeant Miller came out breathy and feminine. Her gaze locked with his. She couldn’t look away and he didn’t seem in any hurry to.

Brooke said, "Karen brought champagne. Nonalcoholic, so I can drink it."

Now Jamal did break the eye lock to glance at the blonde. "Sounds good. Karen, why don’t you pop that cork, and let’s start celebrating?" His deep voice didn’t have a specific accent, but it flowed as thick and rich as molasses, heating her blood.

Karen led the way to the kitchen. Yes, she liked his looks, his voice. In fact, from what she’d seen throughout the day, there was nothing not to like. He was efficient, decisive, patient, and had a teasing sense of humor. Jamal had shown her absolute professional respect, which wasn’t something she’d always had from male colleagues, including that pig Miller.

Whom she’d never have to work with again! Happily, she eased the cork out of the first bottle and poured the faux champagne into juice glasses Brooke provided.

Jamal hoisted his glass and glanced around at them. "To your good work. You took a major bad guy off the streets."

After everyone drank the toast, Brooke said, "Sit down, and I’ll put dinner on the table."

They ended up with the men at opposite ends of the table and Karen between them. She glanced from striking, dark-skinned Jamal to equally strong, handsome Jake with his neatly cut black hair and smoky gray eyes. Truth to tell, she was a little blown away by the tough undercover guys, but she was determined not to let it show. She was a cop too. True, she spent a lot of time giving warnings to teens drinking beer at the lake, or returning ninety-year-old Mr. Morton-an escape artist with dementia-to the care home. But those tasks had value, and so did dealing with domestic abuse, bar fights, drunk drivers, petty theft, and vandalism. As did the law and justice workshops she gave free of charge at the community center, and her work on the board of the women’s shelter. She did her part in making Caribou Crossing a safe, happy community.

Deftly, Brooke set food on the table: a bowl of salad with mixed greens and slices of yellow pepper, tomato, and cucumber; a steaming pan of lasagna; and slices of Italian bread in a woven basket.

"Man, that smells good," Jamal said.

Jake touched his lover’s hand. "Brooke’s a great cook." His tone was smug, almost possessive.

Yes, their relationship was new and there were definite issues, like living in different places, Jake’s dangerous job, and Brooke’s risk-averseness. Still, it seemed to Karen that if you found something as special as their connection, you’d be a fool not to fight for it.

The four of them served themselves and dug in. The crusty bread was warm and soft on the inside, and chilled butter complemented the slightly yeasty taste. The salad was crisp and fresh, the dressing light and tangy. And the lasagna was rich, meaty, a little spicy. "If you ever want to leave Beauty Is You, you could open a restaurant," said Karen. Brooke was a beauty consultant at the salon.

"Thanks, but I love my job," she said. "And now I want to hear about yours." She glanced around at the three RCMP members. "How did things go today?"

Karen left it to Jake and Jamal to decide what information they could share. She listened, ate, and thought how nice this was, the four of them at the dinner table, almost as if they were two couples. Aside from the occasional crappy date, her usual social life consisted of hanging out with a couple of girlfriends, or married friends where she was the third wheel, or a platonic guy-pal like Dave Cousins, who owned the Wild Rose Inn. If she and Jamal dated . . .

No, she couldn’t imagine that working: a Caribou Crossing woman who yearned for a home and family, and a tough Vancouver cop who headed off on undercover assignments. Sex, though, she could definitely imagine. But she shouldn’t; she wasn’t the kind of woman who was into cheap sex. No matter how great it might be-and instinct told her it would be pretty damned great.

She forced her attention back to the conversation in time to hear Brooke say, "He should be locked up for life. Dealing drugs to children, and killing that poor girl."

Karen nodded vigorously. "Especially when he was a cop whose job was to uphold the law. I hate dirty cops. They’re the lowest of the low." Frowning, she put down her fork and confessed to something that gnawed at her, the only sour note in Miller’s takedown. "Maybe I should have realized. I knew he was a sexist pig, a homophobe, a racist. He drank too much; he was a shitty role model. But you don’t want to suspect a member of something dirty even if he is a major jerk."

She swallowed hard. "If I’d trusted my instincts, maybe I could have stopped him before he killed that poor girl." The victim, a teen runaway, had been an addict and a prostitute in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

Brooke touched her hand. "It’s not your fault. Of course you wanted to trust your superior officer."

"Shit happens to all of us," Jake said. "Point is, you learn from it." He glanced at Jamal.

Their gazes locked for a moment, and then Jamal gave a curt nod. "That’s the truth."

A weight lifted from Karen’s conscience. Her colleagues hadn’t excused her; if they’d tried, she wouldn’t have bought it. What they had done was to normalize her experience. They’d been there themselves. She wondered what kind of shit had happened to Jamal and Jake. In undercover work, it could be virtually anything.

"I always liked my job," she said, "but the detachment will be so much nicer without that ass Miller."

"Who’ll be taking over for him?" Jamal asked.

She shook her head. "Don’t know yet. But I’m going to be the acting commander."

"Congratulations!" the others all said.

She shrugged, trying not to act too excited. "Well, I am the only one they’re relatively sure is clean, who knows the community."

"It’s still a compliment." Jamal gave her an approving nod before he dished out a second helping of lasagna. "It’ll look great on your record. Though I suppose in the long run they’ll want a sergeant."

His approval gave her warm tingles, but she tried not to let on as she answered matter-of-factly, "Yup. Replace a sergeant with a sergeant."

"How long’ve you been a corporal?" Jamal asked. "Enough to write your sergeant’s exam?"

"Not yet. But I’m studying. I want that promotion." She wanted to run things her way rather than kowtow to idiots like Miller.

Jamal shot a pointed glance at Jake. "Unlike some folk."

"Hmm?" Brooke raised her eyebrows.

"I wrote the damned exam." Jake scowled at Jamal. "Got tired of you hounding me."

"And you passed with top marks, God knows how. But now you won’t apply for a sergeant’s job."

"I like what I’m doing. Not everyone wants to be a desk jockey." He gave his friend another scowl. "Old man."

The two men reminded her of her and her brother: affection and respect, a shared secret or two, and issues they had no qualms about poking at.

"You’ve lost me," Brooke said.

Karen explained. "Generally, as you rise through the ranks you do less active duty. You coordinate others rather than doing the street work yourself."

"And you’re in less danger?" Brooke asked.

"That’s usually true," Karen said. At least if the member didn’t keep going out undercover the way Jamal still sometimes did.

"If a promotion means being tied to a desk," Brooke said, "I can see why Jake wouldn’t want it." She sent a humorous glance in Jamal’s direction. "Though I’d hardly call you an old man myself."

"Nor I," Karen agreed. There were a lot of adjectives she’d apply to Jamal Estevez. Smart, responsible, sexy, perceptive. "Old" was nowhere on the list.

He glanced at her, an eyebrow cocked, his dark eyes gleaming.

Her breath caught and she couldn’t look away. She was so freaking naïve about male-female signals, but she’d swear-almost swear-this man was interested in her.

This man, who was so damned hot and fascinating that he made her want to strip off her tee and jeans, toss her undies after them, and jump his bones . . .

A corner of his mouth kinked up knowingly as if he’d read her mind.

"Dessert?" The question, spoken softly and almost seductively, came from Brooke.

Oh yeah. Bittersweet chocolate, all hers to nibble from head to toe. And in between.

"I made chocolate-mint layer cake."

Mmm-hmm, chocolate . . . No, wait, what was that? Layer cake? Grateful that she’d never been a blusher, Karen quickly said, "Sounds delicious."

"Delicious," Jamal echoed. With his gaze focused on Karen’s mouth, he murmured in that rich molasses voice, "I confess I have a sweet tooth."

Karen blinked at the subtle undertone that seemed intended for her. Was he talking about cake? Did she want him to be talking about cake? Flustered, she pushed back her chair and jumped to her feet. "I’ll clear the table while you get dessert, Brooke."

Jamal’s chuckle was a low, knowing rumble.