Protecting What’s His
a Line of Duty novel by NYT and USA TODAY bestselling author Tessa Bailey
The opportunity was just too damn delicious for Ginger Peet to pass up. The purse full of money she finds—$50,000 to be exact—could give her and her teen sister the new start they need. So she grabs the cash, her gothy sibling, and their life-sized statue of Dolly Parton, and blows outta Nashville in a cloud of dust. Chicago, here we come…
Turns out, Chicago has some pretty hot cops. Hot, intense, naughty-lookin’ cops like Derek Tyler, who looks like he could eat a girl up and leave her begging for more. And more. Tempting as he is, getting involved with the sexy homicide lieutenant next door poses a teensy problem for a gal who’s on the lam. But one thing is certain—Derek’s onto her, and he wants more than just a taste.
And as far as he’s concerned, possession is nine-tenths of the law.
Title: Protecting What’s His (Line of Duty, #1)
Author: Tessa Bailey
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Release Date: February 2013
Praise for Protecting What’s His:
“Scorching hot, and laugh out loud funny! You’ll want to read this book again and again.”
- New York Times Bestselling Author Katee Robert
★★★★ stars. “Derek is rugged, tough, and so very naughty. How he talks to Ginger is guaranteed to thrill and she gives as good as she gets. The sexy banter between the couple is hot enough to singe the pages, but the emotions remain genuine and real. Derek gives Ginger so much more than incredibly hot sex, which makes his possessiveness tolerable because it’s based on emotional need, not ownership. He also cares a great deal about her younger sister, Willa, something that means the world to Ginger.
- RT Magazine
© 2013 Tessa Bailey
To steal or not to steal, that was the question.
Ginger Peet contemplated the bottle blonde sprawled across the yellowing love seat before returning her attention to the gaping purse full of cash in the woman’s hands. Lips pinched, she waited for the proverbial angel/devil tag team to pop up on her shoulders to dole out conflicting advice.
Nothing happened. And didn’t that just figure?
Instead, her conscience wiggled out of her chest, moseyed across the room, and perched itself on the giant, unused stereo system circa 1992. It crossed its arms and shrugged as if to say, “Union break. You understand.”
Ginger cocked an eyebrow. It appeared her imagination was already overcompensating for the absence of her conscience.
She plopped down on the dingy carpet, pulled her knees up to her chest, and inhaled a shaky breath. Her night shift at Bobby’s Hideaway had been crazy as usual, what with the dueling bachelorette parties and frat guys from Vanderbilt screaming drink orders at her until 4:00 a.m. Typical night in downtown Nashville.
Most nights, she screamed right along with them. Playing the part. Laughing at jokes she couldn’t even hear above the honky-tonk music. Giving as good as she got. Was it pure coincidence that tonight, when she’d been unable to muster a single smile for her good ol’ boy regulars, she came home to find a pile of cash waiting for her?
Furthermore, their mother hadn’t darkened their door in months, but had picked tonight of all nights to stop by and catch a nap. The last time Ginger spoke—okay argued—with Valerie, she’d been stripping to make a living. If you called passing through life in a drug- and alcohol-induced haze living. At least she’d managed to pass out with dignity and not wake Ginger’s seventeen-year-old sister, Willa, in the process. Willa tried valiantly to hide her depression over their mother’s habitual absences, but Ginger knew it cut her deeply.
Ginger didn’t take kindly to anyone hurting her sister. Mother or not.
She narrowed her gaze once more at the cash-filled purse. No way had Valerie pulled in this much cash twirling around a pole. She sifted through the bulging rolls of hundred-dollar bills held together by rubber bands. What she wouldn’t give to have this much money. The pile of cash in front of her represented freedom. Change. A chance to pursue something other than pouring drinks to support herself and Willa.
This could be Ginger’s one and only chance to get her sister away from this broken-down heap called a house. Away from the danger of the strange men her mother brought home when she actually came home. Away from the fate of ending up passed out on a thrift-store couch while your twenty-three-year-old daughter debated ripping you off.
And. Yet. Ginger knew with absolute certainty that if she took this money, just walked out the door with it, it would come back to take a chunk out of her ass. Moreover, it occurred to her that this one poor decision moved her one giant step closer to her biggest fear.
Becoming her mother.
Ginger had to believe the pile of skin and bones on the couch had once possessed dreams and ambitions of some sort. Then one misguided choice landed her in a G-string and pasties shaking it for some trucker named Dirk to a played-out eighties anthem.
If Ginger could just be a good enough person for long enough, she could flip the script for Willa, though. Willa, who’d skipped the sixth grade, swore like a sailor, and took photographs that could make Ginger cry, would have a chance at becoming something. Someone.
She glanced around at the peeling paint, stained carpet, and twice-pawned television set. Without the responsibility of playing parent to her sister, Ginger would have lit out a long time ago, leaving Nashville in her rearview mirror. The thought of falling asleep in her squeaky twin bed in the room she shared with Willa, only to wake up tomorrow and complete the same bleak routine—riding the bus into town to work a double shift, then still struggle to put dinner on the table and make rent, all the while looking out for her sister—made her feel nauseous.
I can’t see past tomorrow anymore and that ain’t good.
As her idol Dolly Parton once said, “If you don’t like the road you’re walking, start paving another one.” Hell, she was going to need a fleet of cement mixers.
And for that, she’d need some cash.
Ginger fanned the money in front of her face, inhaling the musty scent. Surely the guilt would appear any moment and she would stuff the purse back into the crook of Valerie’s arm and pretend she’d never seen it in the first place. She could then fall asleep with a clear conscience and the false hope that her mother had turned over a new leaf and would use the money to feed Willa, move her sister into a nicer home.
Or she could seize the opportunity fate was dropping in her lap and get the heck out of Dodge…
As Ginger picked up the purse and slung it over her shoulder, she learned something very important about human nature. Oftentimes people make questionable decisions. And even though they already taste the fat regret sandwich headed their way, they do it with a smile.
She gave her trembling, wide-eyed conscience the finger and went to pack.
From his position above the bathroom sink, Lieutenant Derek Tyler stared into bloodshot eyes. Oh, right. That’s why I don’t drink whiskey on an empty stomach.
Derek didn’t appreciate the reminder of his own stupidity, nor did he have time to reflect on it. He had under an hour to make it to Saint Luke Cemetery, so he quickly tossed back three extra-strength pain relievers and adjusted the tie of his wrinkle-free uniform.
Chicago PD would bury one of its own today. One of his own. Hence his drinking binge the prior evening. Derek had never lost a man in the line of duty before, and that he’d lost one in last week’s raid on Chicago’s most dangerous crime syndicate burned in his stomach like battery acid.
Unlike Derek, the officer had a family. A family with whom Derek would come face-to-face in under an hour.
As a homicide cop, he knew the likelihood of similar tragedies occurring more than once on his watch was high, especially since he’d only recently turned thirty and had a long career ahead of him. He hoped he never got used to it.
He’d just left the bathroom to retrieve his uniform hat from the closet when his ears were assaulted by high-pitched laughter from outside the apartment building. Derek frowned. He’d specifically chosen this building, a sprawling brick colonial in Hyde Park, for its distance from the constant activity downtown. He preferred the quiet. Especially today, when he felt like an ice pick was firmly lodged in his skull.
“Pick up the end! I can’t carry the whole thing, skunk-vag!”
“Fuck off! You’re only using one hand!”
“That’s because I’m using the other one to flip you off.”
“Well, I can’t argue with multitasking.”
“You would argue with the pope’s mom.”
Christ. These girls, whoever they were, could give the rowdy men in his department a run for their money. Too bad he didn’t allow his men to swear while on duty.
Did he just hear one of them call the other donkey-queef?
Derek ground his head against the wall to suppress the pounding in his frontal lobe. He would never drink whiskey again. Normally, the Chicago Cubs were his only vice and that usually proved punishment enough.
With a curse, he strode toward the open window in his sparsely and functionally decorated living room. Thanks to the demands of his job, he spent very little time at home and a couch, television set, and neatly ordered desk completed the space.
From his vantage point at the window, Derek caught sight of a teenage girl pulling a lava lamp from the bed of a rusty, flatbed pickup truck. Her thick black hair hung down well past her shoulders, obscuring his view of her face. Black knee-high combat boots were laced up over purple fishnet stockings.
Judging by the furniture and household items lining the sidewalk, these girls who could curse a blue streak were moving in. The one female he could see certainly did not fit the building demographic. Most of the residents worked in town and kept reliable hours. No loud music or parties. He wondered how these two managed to slip through the cracks.
Unable to connect the second voice to its owner, he started to turn back into the apartment—
The black-haired menace leaned on the truck’s horn, startling a scream out of the second girl and causing Derek to smack his head against the window frame. The ice pick in his skull twisted and he literally saw stars winking behind his eyelids.
Before he could stop himself, Derek barked out the window in his sternest lieutenant voice, “Hey! Not everyone needs to be in on your moving day adventure!”
All chatter ceased from below. With a satisfied grunt, he slammed the window, scooped up his hat and keys, and headed for the door. His apartment was located on the second floor, down at the end of a long hallway, and as he locked his door, he noticed the apartment across the hall from his stood empty. The door had been propped open by a giant porcelain statue of a blond woman with massive breasts.
Dear God, please don’t tell me…
“Move to your other left, you crackhead!”
“Ow. Ow! Put it down. My hand is falling off.”
He turned to find the horn-wailing, black-haired menace staggering down the hall under the weight of what appeared to be a dining room table, looking half-perturbed, half-amused.
Derek’s attention swung to the girl carrying the other end of the table, walking backward toward him. He couldn’t see her face, but he was immediately riveted by the most beautiful ass he’d ever seen.
Wearing jeans so low-cut they should be illegal, the girl had long, perfectly formed legs that were stuffed into brown leather cowboy boots, immediately searing the image of her riding him like a mechanical horse onto his brain.
Please, please don’t let me be getting a hard-on for a teenage girl. Be legal, at least, so I can sleep tonight knowing I’m not a raging pervert.
Derek very nearly had a coronary as she bent over to set down the table and purple lace peeked out over the waistband of her painted-on jeans. His mouth went dry, his vision blurred, and both his hat and keys dropped to the floor.
Surprised by the sudden noise, the girls jumped and yelped, the girl in cowboy boots spinning to face him. And holy hell, if Derek thought he’d been in trouble seeing her from behind, he’d just blasted past the Danger: Road Ends Ahead sign and was hurtling over the cliff.
At least I’ll die happy.
Her cloud of chestnut-colored hair flipped over her shoulder as she turned to face him and he was lost. Bright hazel eyes, almost golden in color, landed on him and narrowed over high cheekbones. Pouty lips pursed in displeasure. A sprinkling of freckles dusted her nose, making her a cross between sex goddess and girl next door.
An apparently dangerous combination if Derek’s reaction to her counted as any indication.
Against his better judgment, he allowed his gaze to dip for exactly three seconds to her flat stomach and tease of cleavage above the tight white tank top she wore. An inch of skin lay exposed above her waistband and in that brief moment, he wanted to drop to his knees and open-mouth kiss that spot below her belly button with an intensity that rattled him.
She was sex incarnate and moving into the apartment across the hall. The situation felt suspicious, like someone was playing a joke on the poor, hungover cop, and if he could manage to look away from her for long enough to check, certainly he’d find a camera crew waiting to let him in on the prank.
He knew in that moment that his peaceful existence had been shattered. With her living across the hall from his formerly quiet respite from work, he’d be forced to walk past her door each day, knowing exactly what lay on the other side.
His eyes landed once more on easily the most striking face he’d ever seen. She arched a single eyebrow at his blatant ogling. Derek decided it had been worth it.
“Did that asshole upstairs actually call the cops on us?”
As he watched those fantasy lips move, revealing a hot little country twang, he drew a blank. Then the situation came back into sharp focus. He stood there in full police department regalia because he’d be attending a funeral this afternoon. And she thought he was there for a noise complaint.
Guilt and irritation swept through him. She’d distracted him at a time when he should be thinking about his fallen officer. How selfish could he be? A man lay dead and all he could think about was dragging Ms. Low-Rider Jeans inside his apartment to assuage the growing ache in his pants.
Pull yourself together, Tyler.
“I am that asshole from upstairs.”
Well, dang. They’d gone and moved in right across the hall from a cop. A hot cop, if you liked the whole uptight, sexually repressed vibe he had going on. And she’d just called him an asshole. Perfect.
Personally, she didn’t care for the belligerence on his freshly shaven face or the way he stripped her bare in one sweep of his dark green eyes. Someone should clue him in that a smile never hurt when you were looking at someone like you wanted them for dinner.
Sorry, but I’m not looking to lend you this particular cup of sugar, neighbor.
Still, she could certainly do much worse if she was so inclined. His uniform jacket did nothing to hide his broad chest and powerful build. This was the kind of man who could pick you up and throw you over his shoulder with very little effort, although the sensual tilt of his upper lip contradicted his overall ruggedness. With that steady gaze of his, he practically radiated physical awareness, as if conscious of his obvious appeal, but disinclined to use it.
Should she be worried about living next door to a cop? A young, stand-too-close-and-you-might-get-burned cop at that? No, Ginger decided right away. Despite the circumstances surrounding their departure from Nashville, she knew alerting the cops would be the last course of action Valerie would consider. If she knew her mother, that money hadn’t been come by legally, and explaining where it came from to the police would definitely cramp her style. Valerie’s relationship with the boys in blue tended to be hostile, at best.
No, she had nothing to worry about from this man. Unless she counted the way his heated inspection of her belly button made her toes curl in her boots.
Ginger put a little steel in her spine, refusing the urge to shield herself from his interested gaze, then frowned, wondering why Officer Needs-a-Nap elicited such an odd reaction from her. She’d never shied away from being checked out before, having accepted at a young age that men liked the look and shape of her face and body. A fat lot of good it had ever done her.
But then his eyes snapped up to hers. And determinedly stayed there.
She flashed him her best smile. “Sorry to disturb you, Officer. We didn’t think there’d be anyone at home, being that it’s the middle of the day and all.”
“Well, here I am. And it’s Lieutenant.”
Ouch. She shoots, she misses. Ginger could practically feel Willa’s sarcastic oh, you don’t say! expression aimed squarely at the lieutenant even though her back was turned to her sister. Ginger was having a difficult time keeping the same expression off her own face. If her teeth were slightly clenched behind her smile, surely Lieutenant Cranky Pants didn’t notice.
“My apologies, Lieutenant,” she countered stiffly. “And that’s my second and final apology for the day.”
Ginger gave him her back once more to lift the end of the table, catching a hint of amusement on his face as she turned. Not that she gave a damn.
The cell phone in her front pocket vibrated for the umpteenth time today. She knew who called and why. She also knew she wouldn’t answer, or listen to the subsequent voice mail message. First chance she got, she’d cancel the plan and get new cell phones for herself and Willa.
With a nod in her sister’s direction, they picked up the table with the intention of continuing into the apartment.
“What the hell is that?”
Ginger dropped the table and faced the questioning lieutenant, making Willa shout a four-letter expletive at the ceiling. His annoyed green gaze flicked to Willa before inclining his head toward the statue propping open the door.
Both she and Willa looked toward the statue, then back at him.
Ginger answered slowly, as if speaking to the town idiot who also happened to be hard of hearing. “I assume you meant, ‘Who the hell is that?’ and to that question I say, who are you? Who are any of us?”
“I don’t follow.”
“That, Lieutenant, is the Smoky Mountain Songbird herself.”
“The Backwoods Barbie,” Willa chimed in angrily.
The man looked completely confused, so Ginger decided to take pity on him. “Dolly Parton.”
“Dolly motherfucking Parton.”
“Language, Willa. Honestly.”
Ginger waited for a reaction and felt far from satisfied when he merely shrugged his broad shoulders as if to say, “Should I know who that is?”
And that was the final straw.
“Willa, darling, you mind waiting for me inside the apartment?”
She felt rather than saw her sister’s eye roll, but heard her comply noisily, stomping inside the apartment. Then Ginger stood alone in the brightly lit hall with the scowling Lieutenant Von A-hole.
Twice he’d made her apologize after blatantly giving her the once-over, shot her little sister a dirty look, and then shrugged, shrugged at the mention of the Queen of Nashville. And this was after he’d yelled at them like a lunatic from his upstairs window.
Ginger couldn’t let it stand.
She sauntered forward, coming to a stop a foot away from his tall frame, and had the satisfaction of watching his eyes narrow warily. Up close, she saw his green eyes were rimmed with red and recognized a hangover when she saw one. Having skimmed his starched, navy blue uniform all the way up to his ruthlessly shorn, dark brown hair, something told her tying one on wasn’t something he did on a regular basis. No, despite his overtly masculine appearance, his reserve suggested he would be the type to order a glass of milk at the bar.
That offended her as a bartender and as a recreational drinker.
She took a deep, calming breath and let it out slowly. This morning, she’d woken up happy and optimistic. Ginger couldn’t remember the last time that was the case. She’d outrun the storm cloud darkening the sky above her head in Nashville and had come to Chicago for a new start. For her. For Willa. Adios leaky roof and questionable future.
After spending a week in a cheap, dingy motel, Ginger finally found an affordable neighborhood with a good high school nearby, close enough to downtown Chicago and potential work for herself. Then she’d sweet-talked the landlord into a double security deposit in lieu of the mandatory credit check. And bam! They now had themselves a sweet two-bedroom with new appliances and hardwood floors. Amenities that up until yesterday sounded like a foreign language. She and Willa had picked out furniture at thrift stores and yard sales throughout the week, pretending to be college students living off-campus. They’d had fun, dammit. Without a time limit.
And this son of a bitch was raining on their parade.
“What exactly is your problem, Lieutenant?”
He took a step forward, bringing them toe-to-toe, forcing her to look up if she wanted to meet his eyes. Damn, this guy kept surprising her. Men liked Ginger. That wasn’t arrogance talking. Okay, maybe a little, but it was mainly an observation. This man, however, seemed determined to piss her off good.
She couldn’t help the smile that spread across her face.
“You can stop calling me ‘Lieutenant’ now. It’s getting on my nerves.”
“I believe that was the point.”
A muscle in his jaw flexed. “It’s Derek from now on.”
Oh, he had balls making demands. She’d give him that. “I don’t believe I’ll have cause to call you anything at all. What do you think of that?”
He didn’t answer her question. “I assume there’s some sort of parental supervision moving in with you?”
Her smile disappeared right quick. “Beg pardon?”
Derek gestured with the patented cop-head-nod to the open door Willa had recently disappeared through. “She’s barely old enough to operate a vehicle and surely you’re not much older.”
Ginger’s left eye twitched. This little tête-à-tête had just gone from interesting to insufferable. Judging from his stoic expression, he had no idea what kind of land mine he’d just stepped on. Well, he was about to find the hell out. “I’m twenty-three years old, actually. And last time I checked, that’s old enough to vote, drink, gamble, rent an apartment, own a firearm, and explain to a grown man, police lieutenant or not, when he’s being a gigantic dickhead. And Derek, if it wasn’t clear enough already, you are the dickhead in this little scenario.” She paused for a breath. “And don’t call me surely.”
His eyes narrowed even further, completely obscuring the green of his irises. “Did you just quote Airplane! to me?”
Ginger swore she could feel steam coming out of her ears. “That’s really all you picked up on? Glossed right over the dickhead part?”
“What’s your name?”
She gritted her teeth. “Hardly matters at this point, wouldn’t you agree? I don’t think there are too many neighborly chats in our future.”
Willa picked that moment to holler from inside the apartment. “Ginger! I’m fucking starving and all we have is Triscuit crackers and strawberry frosting!”
Ah, impeccable timing as usual, sis.
Not quite suppressing his triumphant smile, Derek answered her rhetorical question. “I’d have to agree with you, Ginger. I’m not feeling the least bit neighborly toward you.”
“Well then, sugar, I’d say our association ends here.”
“I doubt that.”
“You can doubt anything if you think about it long enough. And I am done thinking about this. Good-bye, Derek. Can’t say it was a pleasure, but it was definitely an experience.”
Ginger spun around on the heel of her boot with the intention of storming into her apartment, leaving him staring after her, hopefully slack-jawed and regretful. Instead, she ran smack into the dining room table still blocking the hallway, effectively knocking the wind out of her stomach and her sails. Fighting the need to simultaneously suck in deep gulps of air and karate chop the table, Ginger straightened and skirted the table silently, refusing to turn around and gauge his reaction to her embarrassing mishap.
As she closed the apartment door behind her, she heard Derek call to her. “Aren’t Gingers usually redheads?”
“Go to hell!”
In spite of the masculine laughter passing by her door, she heard Willa approach. “Well, Ginger, looks like we finally found the one man unwilling to grovel at your feet.”
Guess they’d just have to see about that, wouldn’t they?