She had the soft, sweet mouth of a woman. And as she bent slightly at the waist, peeking out the front window of the quaint grocery shop, he inspected her bottomand found it equally sweet. His palms itched, and he wasn't certain if it was with the need to caressor swat.
Maybe she was a cross-dresser. Or she just had really bad taste in clothes. But she was definitely female, of that Harry was certain. He hadn't even noticed her until she'd gotten too close to him, and then he'd picked up on her scent. It made him feel like a buck in mating season, it hit him so hard. He stared, unable to help himself, until she noticed he was staring. Then she gave him a sour look and moved away.
And still he stared. The battered brown leather jacket was a couple sizes too big, ripped at one shoulder seam. And the flannel beneath it was baggy and hanging loose over ill-fitting, patched jeans. Scuffed, low-heel boots with chains on the back gave the impression she was trying for a bad-boy biker look. Absurd. Even her slicked back, glossy dark hair, held in a short blunt ponytail at her nape looked more female than rebel male. She had only one pierced ear, a small spent bullet dangling from the tiny silver hoop.
She kept her hands in her back pockets and a sneer on her face. Harry wondered what she'd done with her breasts, for they weren't noticeable through the bulky clothing. Of course, maybe she was naturally small. He wouldn't mind. He was a bottom-man himself, and he liked petite women, he
Harry drew up short, appalled at the direction his wandering mind had taken. He wanted nothing to do with the woman, absolutely nothing.
Whatever her excuse for aping a man, she didn't need to be here now, at this precise moment, possibly screwing things up for him, definitely distracting him.
Harry Lonnigan eyed the unfortunate female with annoyance, now dividing his attention between her and the two men working their way to the cash register. He had a job to attend to. Yet there she was, trying to saunter like a man, trying to sneer in a manly way. Harry snorted, then despite himself, he breathed deeply, trying to detect her sweet scent again. Not the smell of perfume, but the smell of warm woman, a smell proven to drive men crazy.
He wanted to ignore her, but couldn't. Who was she and what was she up to with her outrageous costume and bizarre acting? Only a complete imbecile would believe her to be male.
But just then one of the two men turned, eyed her, and gave credence to her costume by dismissing her without so much as a raised eyebrow. Harry was stupefied.
He came out from behind the rack of chips and strolled casually forward, in no hurry to draw attention to himself, but the female was getting entirely too close to the two men, trying it seemed, to keep surveillance out the front display window without being seen. Whatever she was up to, she apparently wasn't aware of the danger. Harry had no claims on being a hero, far from it, but he also wasn't callous enough to watch a woman get injured, not if he could stop it.
Harry halted, then blinked. The little impostershe barely reached his shoulderhad hissed at him out of the corner of her mouth. How had she known he was behind her? He hadn't made a single sound!
The two men looked up. They were cocky and obnoxious young men, overly confident because they'd been running their scam in this area for far too long, at least that's what Harry's friend, Dalton, had said. He owed Dalton, and stopping these ruffians from their petty extortion would be adequate compensation, but it was a nuisance. Especially if some stray with a weird agenda was determined to interfere and complicate matters.
One of the men turned to face them, propping his elbows on the counter and giving them both an assessing look. "What are you doing?"
Harry pretended not to understand. He stared at a shelf filled with canned goods, finally selecting some potted meat. He shuddered. Nasty looking stuff, potted meat. The little female remained frozen beside him.
After an extended silence where no one seemed willing to move, Harry looked up. "Hmm? You were talking to me?"
The guy pushed off the counter and started forward through the narrow, crammed aisles. His blond hair was long and greasy, like the rest of his body, and his eyes were a pale, washed-out blue, red-rimmed and with lashes so light they were nearly invisible. Scraggly whiskers dotted his chin, a discredit to every manly beard ever grown. His partner, heavier and darker, also turned to watch while the proprietor, a man close to seventy, seemed to grow more agitated by the moment.
"Yeah, you. Who did you think I was talking to? The kid?"
Harry smiled. So the guy was a dolt, believing she was a man. Or rather a boy. Was he myopic? Couldn't he smell her, for God's sake? Harry cocked an imperious brow. "I didn't hear the question."
Irritation flashed on blondie's face as he struck an insolent pose, one hip thrust out, his arms crossed on his narrow chest. "I asked what the hell you're doing."
Bells jingled as a customer started in, then jingled again as the woman took in the situation in a glance and hurried back out. Obviously the denizens of this area were well aware of what went on. They were all simply too old or too wary to stop it on their own. Harry wasn't old or wary. He stared down at the man with utter disdain.
"I'm shopping. What concern is it of yours?"
Blondie's face darkened and he straightened slightly. "You've been hanging around since we got here. Why haven't you bought anything yet?"
Harry raised both brows. Pushy little bastard. "I'm selective."
The young man scowled, his pale eyes going even paler, then he obviously decided not to pursue it, probably given the fact that Harry stood a good six foot five, nearly half a foot taller than him. Though Harry dressed like a gentleman, few people ever thought of him as one. It was something, they said, to do with his eyes, though he tended to disregard such nonsense.
"Well, get done and get out. I don't like you hanging around."
Harry was willing to play alongup to a point. Right up until the punk turned to the girl and poked her in the chest with his finger, almost knocking her over. "Same goes for you. Beat it."
Harry wasn't a hero, he truly wasn't, but he detested bullies. Beyond that, he couldn't tolerate violence of any kind toward females, regardless of the fact the fellow was too dense to realize she was a female.
When he started to add an additional poke, snickering at the way she'd stumbled, Harry dropped the potted meatno big loss thereand snatched the fellow's finger into his fist. Harry squeezed.
A loud wail of outraged pain filled the store.
Unconcerned, Harry asked, "Now, why would you want to inflict abuse on someone smaller than yourself?"
The guy's knees were starting to give way as Harry ruthlessly tightened his grip. Blondie stared up at him, his face pinched in a grimace. "He's almost as tall as I am!"
"Not an adequate excuse. You're obviously older. And moreover, I've decided I don't like you." Using a deft movement of his own hand, Harry twisted the hapless finger, attached to an equally hapless arm, until the man was forced to go on tiptoe, high-pitched curses winging from his mouth.
Pandemonium broke out.
The little female overflowed with umbrage. "I don't need your help, you pompous ass!" The men either ignored her, or didn't hear her.
The bully's dark friend rushed forward. "Floyd!" he called out, as he pulled a gun from his pants. His gaze lifted to Harry, narrow-eyed and mean. "Turn him loose before I shoot your head off!"
The hard nose of a gun barrel poked into Harry's ribs. He cast a wry expression on the friend. "Now, that'd be rather difficult, with you aiming there. My head's a bit higher up."
His ill-advised insult got the gun immediately raised, and now he felt the cold metal against his ear. This comedy of errors was getting out of hand. Slowly, he loosened his grip.
Floyd shook his hand and cursed, then shook it some more. He looked up at Harry with red-rimmed eyes. "Shoot him."
"Damn it, you heard me, Ralph! Shoot him."
Harry said a quick prayer. The girl, finally showing some small signs of intelligence, began inching her way nonchalantly toward the door.
"Get back here, damn it." Floyd wasn't about to let her, or rather him, get away. "I think you two are working together to distract us. Who sent you here?"
The little female blinked and her smooth cheeks were suffused with color. "No one sent me! And I never saw that guy before in my life."
Harry waited for a gasp, waited for the recognition because her husky voice had obviously been that of a female's, despite her efforts to lower it accordingly.
He waited in vain.
"We can't jus' shoot him, Floyd. You know what Carlyle said. Keep it tidy. Besides, it'll be easier if we jus' let him go. He's nobody."
"Then what was he buttin' his nose in for?"
Ralph lowered his brows in thought, all the while keeping the gun steady on Harry's head.
Trying to placate them, Harry shrugged and said, "I simply can't abide a bully."
The gun smacked against his head, making his ears ring. "You can abide anythin' Floyd tells you to! That's how it's done in these parts."
Floyd grinned, and Harry was amazed to see he had fairly even, white teeth. "So you didn't like me pushing the scrawny runt around?"
Knowing he'd handed Floyd his revenge on a silver platter, Harry almost groaned. Damn his mouth anyway. He started to speak, his brain searching for words to defuse the situation, and in that instant Floyd backhanded the woman. She went sprawling, landing with a clatter in a stacked display of canned tuna.
Harry growled, discretion forgotten, and lunged forward to grab Floyd by the neck. The proprietor shouted. Ralph, the only one thinking at this point, snatched the woman up and held the gun on her. "Stop now or the little bastard's gonna be in some serious trouble."
Harry stopped. The woman was dazed, he could see that, a bruise already coloring her jaw, but she was otherwise unharmed. Breathing hard with his anger, Harry slowly opened his hand and Floyd stumbled back two stepsand threw a punch. Harry caught the fist an inch from his nose, then made "tsking" sounds of disapproval. "I do believe your associate said to stop."
"He was talking to you, not me!"
Harry heaved an annoyed sigh. "Look, gentlemen, you obviously had business here and it's gotten sidetracked. Perhaps you should let us innocent bystanders go and finish up whatever it was you started?" Rather than observing, as he'd wished, Harry had managed to complicate things hideously. Now he only hoped to salvage what he could.
The proprietor nodded his head in frantic, disgruntled agreement. His low, scratchy voice was that of an aged sailor, used to taking command. "Yeah, take the damn cash. But put the gun away."
"Shut up, old man, and let me think."
Harry considered that an unlikely prospect given that Floyd obviously had very little brain to work with, but he held his peace. He didn't want to rile anyone further, especially the proprietor who looked ready for violence. That would be all he'd need to tip the scales into the never-imagined.
After a considerable amount of time, Floyd nodded. "I think you're a cop."
That straightened his spine. Harry blustered. "Don't be ridiculous."
A low whistle slipped past Ralph's drooping mustache. "Now that you say it, Floyd, he does look like a cop. Check out that coat he's wearing."
Rolling his eyes, Harry said, "You've been watching too much Columbo. It's drizzling today, therefore I wore a trench coat. I hardly think it's standard dress for the police force."
"Come to that," Ralph added, "you speak damn fancy for someone from these parts."
"I'm not from these parts."
Floyd jutted his chin forward. "Then what are you doing here?"
"I was in the area on business and I remembered I needed to pick up something for my dinner. It's no more complicated than that, I assure you." "I don't believe you."
Well, hell, Harry thought, eyeing the female who now remained blessedly silent, her eyes downcast. Was he to be done in by a damn coat?
"Just to be on the safe side," Floyd said, grinning, "I think we'll take the boy with us. You call the cops, or try to follow, and I'll kill him."
The situation had gotten completely out of hand. "No, you can't do that."
Ralph tilted his head, his smile taunting. "And why not?"
The woman began to struggle. "I'm not going anywhere with you two! If you want a hostage, take him!" Her slender finger pointed in Harry's direction, disconcerting him for just a moment.
"Somehow I think you'll be easier to handle."
She kicked at Ralph's shin and he neatly sidestepped her, but Harry could see he was nonplussed by her somewhat feminine, awkward reaction. "What the hell?"
She tried to run. Harry was helpless, seeing the gun held steady, knowing any move on his part could get her injured. He wanted to curse at her theatrics, since she only complicated things further.
Floyd made a grab for her, and after his arms circled her chest, he too stopped, stunned. He released her as if burned, his eyes wide, going over her entire body in a single sweep.
"Take off your jacket."
"Go to hell!"
Floyd began to laugh. "I'll be a son of a He's not a boy at all."
Dryly, for he was tired of the whole thing, Harry muttered, "How very astute of you."
Floyd swung around to glare at Harry, his voice a sneer. "I suppose you knew?"
Ralph drew a deep breath. "I don't like you much, mister."
The woman crossed her arms over her chest. "I don't like him at all."
Of all the nerve! Here he was, trying to preserve her ungrateful slender neck, and she
"I said take off your jacket. Now. I want to get a better look at you."
Ralph held the gun pointed at her chest while Floyd did his ordering. Gently, buying some time, Harry said, "Better do as they ask."
She glared at him. "Go to hell."
Trying to be reasonable, Harry said, "There you have it, gentlemen. Surely you can see you're wasting your time."
The elderly owner, fairly bristling in outrage, slapped an envelope down on the countertop, offering it like a bribe. "Here's your damn money. Forget the girl and get the hell out of my store!"
"Be quiet, Pops. Now, even if you don't take off the jacket, I won't shoot you. That'd be too messy and would probably ruin the fun of this. And Ralph and I do like a little fun every now and ag ain, don't we Ralph?"