Heaven Can't Wait
Heaven Can't Wait
Heaven Can’t Wait Linda Turner
To my Great Uncle George Dawson, who really is a great uncle. Thanks for letting me pick your brain about construction. You’ll never know how much you helped me. Hopefully, I didn’t make too many mistakes.
And to Barbara Caitlin for the title. It’s perfect.
They stood hand in hand, two lovers who had withstood the test of time, the love they shared for each other setting their hearts and auras aglow with a golden light that could be seen in the outermost realms of Heaven. Staring down at them, his own affection for them making it impossible for him to be stern, St. Peter struggled to hold back a smile. He didn’t usually handle the problems of ordinary souls, but these were two of his favorites and they obviously needed his help. “What am I going to do with you two? You blew it again.”
“It was my fault. I had no idea when I took that earlier train to New York in 1901 that I would miss my one and only chance to meet her—”
“No, I was ready,” she quickly cut in, giving his fingers a squeeze. “I should have left for the station instead of waiting for the weather to clear. But I was worried about ruining my new shoes, and by the time I boarded the next train, he was already gone.”
So they had missed each other. Again.
Flipping through their joint file, St. Peter studied the recorded images that moved before him like a motion picture. They’d spent numerous lifetimes together on earth, lifetimes when they should have met and fallen in love, then spent valuable years together learning necessary lessons that could only be mastered in the physical realm. But in Medieval England, before their paths had ever had a chance to cross, he had left for the Crusades and died before his time on the hot, dry sands of Arabia. Then there was the middle of the nineteenth century. Everything should have worked out perfectly then. They were both headed for the California goldfields, where they should have come face to face in the ungodly little town of Black Bear Gulch in the Cascades. Instead she had never made it to California because she had left the wagon train in Kansas to become a teacher in a backwater community that no one but God had ever heard of.
In each incarnation, having missed their one true love, they had each gone through their lifetimes unmarried, choosing to be alone and lonely rather than mated to someone else. Considering that, it wasn’t surprising that neither had lived very long in lifetime after lifetime.
It was, St. Peter decided, frustrating enough to make an angel second class despair of ever earning his wings.
“This cannot continue, dear hearts,” he told them with a frown. “You must know that. There are things you need to learn and experience, and if you can’t find each other on earth, then you have to find someone else.”
They cried out in unison, staring at him in horror as if he had just suggested they stab each other in the back. Wincing, St. Peter sighed in defeat. He’d never seen two soul mates more devoted to each other, more loyal to a love that showed every sign of lasting an eternity. But if they were ever going to get together on earth, it was obvious they were going to need some help.
That’s against the rules, Peter. The most important lesson a soul learns on earth is the consequences of free choice.
The voice that echoed in his head was kind and loving and gently reproving. Under normal circumstances, Peter would have obeyed it in a heartbeat. But the two unhappy souls standing so pitifully before him gave strong testimony to the belief that some rules were meant to be bent.
Taking a chance and praying he wasn’t making a mistake, Peter told his two charges, “I’m going to give you another chance, but this time I’m going to personally see that your paths cross. And to make sure that nothing goes wrong, one of you will recognize the other as the love of your life the second your eyes meet.”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he continued. “And it will be that soul’s task to convince the other that you were made for each other. It won’t be easy,” he warned when they started to smile. “You will be different ages and have numerous obstacles thrown in your path. But true love is worth fighting for and you can’t let anything get in your way.”
“Oh, we won’t. We won’t.”
Reaching out to place a big strong hand on each of their shoulders, he smiled down at them lovingly. “I have all the faith in the heavens in you. Now go. You’ve got a journey to prepare for.”
In the blink of an eye, they were gone, so excited their feet hardly touched the clouds. Staring after them, St. Peter’s smile turned rueful. They were all taken care of. Now all he had to do was square his plans with the big guy.
Peter, what have you done?
“Nothing too radical, Lord,” he said hastily. “I admit I bent the rules a little, but only because I know how strongly you feel about true love.” Behind his back, he crossed his fingers. “Trust me. Everything’s going to work out fine.” He hoped.
Something wasn’t right.
Her eyes on her feet, Prudence Sullivan took a slow turn across the concrete floor of the east wing of what was to be the Fifth Army’s new state-of-the-art communications center at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. As a substitute for Eric Thompson, the government inspector normally assigned to the construction site, she wasn’t expected to do much except make sure nothing went wrong while Eric was on sick leave. She certainly wasn’t supposed to concern herself with a floor that had been approved weeks ago. But a familiar knotting in her gut warned her a mistake had been made somewhere. A mistake it was her job to catch.
Not liking her suspicions, she squatted to run her hand over the bare concrete. It felt fine, but she knew from experience that that didn’t mean diddly. If an unscrupulous contractor wanted to save some money and cheat on the specs, he could make a concrete floor that wouldn’t hold office furniture without cracking look like a work of art.
Still balanced on her haunches, she pushed her hard hat to the back of her head and frowned up at Roy Wilkins, the field superintendent. A bear of a man, he cast a shadow that would have done an oak proud as he returned her frown with a wary one of his own. The big boss was gone for the day, and Roy had obviously been told not to let her out of his sight. He’d stuck to her side like glue from the moment she’d shown up at the site an hour ago.
Another time Pru would have been amused by his watchdog hostility. She never understood why builders and contractors were so resentful of inspectors—she just made sure they did what they’d originally promised to do, which was put up a good building. But today, with the knots in her stomach drawing tight as a noose, she was anything but amused. “Who approved this floor?”
Pru nodded, her green eyes shifting back to the concrete. She didn’t know Eric personally, but that wasn’t surprising. She was new to the job, new to the city, new to Texas. In fact, if she hadn’t visited Laura, her college roommate and best friend, on Labor Day, she’d probably still be in Kansas City, where she’d been born and raised. But she’d taken one look at San Antonio and had instantly known that that was where she belonged.
Her family had thought she was crazy, of course, and she’d had to agree. But that hadn’t stopped her from moving. And the moment she’d driven into the city with everything she owned packed in the U-Haul trailer attached to her Jeep, she’d felt like she was coming home.
It was almost as if the powers that be were lighting her path, she’d thought whimsically. She’d stepped right from her old job as a city inspector into one with the government. She’d started two weeks ago and loved the work, even though it didn’t give her much of a chance to meet other inspectors. When she was on the job, the man she was replacing wasn’t.
Which meant she didn’t know a damn thing about Eric Thompson. He could be conscientious and dedicated...or an unethical jackass who took money on the side to look the other way when something wasn’t up to code. Torn, she pushed to her feet. She hated to doubt another inspector, but the feel of the concrete under her feet gave her no choice.
“You’re not going to like this—” she began, but before she could give Roy Wilkins the bad news, her beeper went off. One look at the number that flashed across the small screen and she swallowed a groan. Great. As if she didn’t have enough problems, she now had to deal with her boss. Wonderful.
Bruce James didn’t like her and probably never would. He’d resented her from the moment his supervisor had hired her...because she was a woman. A chauvinist right down to his shorts, he’d made no secret of the fact that he thought females had no business on a construction site and just as soon as he could find a way to send her packing, he would.
Wishing she could drop the beeper down the nearest open drain, she turned to Roy. “Is there a phone around here? I need to call my boss.”
Seconds later she was seated at the desk in the small portable shed that served as the contractor’s office, her voice coolly professional as she greeted her supervisor. “This is Pru, Mr. James. Is there a problem?”
“That’s what you’re getting paid to tell me, Sullivan,” he retorted coldly. “How’s the site?”
Later, Pru couldn’t say what set the alarm bells clanging in her head, but something in his tone jarred her. He knew, she realized suddenly, astonished. Somehow, some way, he knew something was wrong at the site and he was just waiting to see if she was going to turn in one of her fellow inspectors or keep her mouth shut. If she did the former, her name would be mud with her cohorts; the latter, and she’d be fired so fast she wouldn’t know what hit her.
The rat had set her up! she thought indignantly, clutching the phone as if it was his skinny neck. She could smell the stench from here. Wishing she had the financial independence to tell the jerk exactly what she thought of him, she asked sweetly, “What did you say Eric Thompson was out on sick leave for?”
“I didn’t,” he snapped. “Not that it’s any of your business, but he fell on the site about a month ago and cracked his head. He’s been having headaches ever since, so his doctor had him come in today for some tests.”
“The fall...was it before or after the cement was poured?”
“Before, I believe. Why?”
“Then that would explain why he approved this spongy cement,” she said, the triumph she couldn’t quite conceal turning her voice the tiniest bit smug. “His brains were obviously scrambled and he wasn’t thinking clearly. Don’t worry, though, I’ll take core samples just to make sure my instincts are right. Gotta go, boss. Talk to you later.”
“Damn you, Sullivan, don’t you hang up on me!”
Her dimpled grin full of mischief, Pru gently replaced the receiver in its cradle.
“You’re not serious.”
Lost in the satisfaction of the small victory, her eyes flew to the open doorway where Roy had appeared without her noticing. From his glare it was clear that he’d caught enough of the conversation not to like what he’d heard. “I’m afraid so,” she said quietly, her smile fading. “I’m pretty sure Thompson made a mistake approving that cement. I’ll need to see the results of the slump tests and the cylinders, but even if they’re okay, I’m still going to take core samples. You can’t pour any more, though, until the results come back from the lab. I’m sorry.”
He cursed, her apology offering little consolation when he was all ready to start pouring the west wing. Each day she held up construction cost them not only time but money. “If you think I’m ticked, wait till you have to deal with Murdock,” he warned. “He’s going to be madder than a rooster with a bee up its butt.”
* * *
An understatement of the grossest proportions. Zebadiah Murdock was, in fact, livid. “What the hell do you mean work’s been shut down!” he barked into the phone an hour later. “By who?”
Wincing, Roy held the phone farther away from his ear. “Pru Sullivan,” he said in disgust. “The new inspector who’s substituting for Eric Thompson. She’s being a real hard ass, boss. Going over everything with a fine-tooth comb, not giving an inch. She claims the concrete’s not right in the east wing, so she’s getting core samples. Until the test results come back, we can’t pour squat.”
“But Thompson already approved that!”
“I know,” Roy grumbled. “But try telling her that. Once the lady makes up her mind, you can’t move her with a forklift.”
Murdock swore long and hard. He’d had nothing but problems with the Fort Sam project from the very beginning—delayed permits, bad weather, missing blueprints and tools—and now this. A lady inspector with a chip on her shoulder, looking to prove herself in a man’s world by being hard as nails. Dammit, why his project? And why did this kind of crap have to hit when he was stuck in Austin testifying before a state committee? Trouble was brewing, and he was tied up with politicians who liked to hear themselves talk when he needed to be back in San Antonio.
“Put her on the line,” he ordered.
He could practically hear Roy swallow. “Uh, do you think that’s smart? You don’t sound like you’re in the best of moods and if you say something to get her back up, we ain’t ever going to get anywhere on this job.”
“Put her on, Roy. I want to talk to her.”
When he spoke in that tone, people—especially his crew—listened. “Okay, but don’t say I didn’t warn you. Hang on and I’ll get her.”
Murdock waited impatiently, promising himself he wasn’t going to lose his temper. He wasn’t like a lot of the other builders he knew. He had no problem with women on a construction site...as long as they did their job just like everyone else and didn’t get in his way.
“This is Pru Sullivan.”
Her voice in his ear was low and husky and sexy as hell. Surprised, Murdock felt a heat he was unprepared for streak through him like summer lightning. Stunned, he almost dropped the phone. This was a government inspector?
“Hello? Is anyone there?”
The throaty query snapped him back to attention, bringing an uncomfortable flush to his cheeks. “This is Murdock,” he said curtly. “The builder whose project you just shut down. You want to tell me what the hell you think you’re doing, lady? I know you’re just a sub, but you ought to check things out before you start throwing your weight around. That cement you’ve got a problem with has already passed inspection.”
Well used to dealing with angry men, Pru refused to let him goad her into a sharp comeback. “My title is inspector, not ‘lady,’ Mr. Murdock, and I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that in the future,” she said in a voice that was as cool as his was heated. “If you have a problem with that, then Pru or Ms. Sullivan will do. I don’t answer to lady.”
“What I have a problem with,” he said through his tightly clenched teeth, “is a woman who obviously doesn’t know what she’s doing and refuses to admit it. If you’re not qualified to do the job, have the guts to say so and let James send over someone who is. In case you didn’t know it, you’re costing me money, lady, and I can’t afford you.”
For just a second the temper that went along with the red glints in her mahogany hair flashed in her eyes before she brought herself up short. No, she wasn’t going to let the insufferable man get to her. After all, it wasn’t as if she had to work with him on a regular basis. She just had to get through today, and he wasn’t even on the site.
Cheered by the thought, her eyes started to dance. “Don’t blame me for your own incompetency, Mr. Murdock,” she said sweetly.
“Murdock,” he growled. “It’s just Murdock.”
Willing to be gracious when she was about to win an argument, she said easily, “Okay, Murdock it is. You should have seen how thin that concrete was when it was poured, so if you want to blame someone, blame yourself. And, yes, it’s true, Thompson did pass it. But he’d just suffered a blow to the head and couldn’t have known what he was doing. If he’d have checked the results of the cylinder tests, he would have seen there was a problem.”
“Thompson was the problem,” he stressed. “When those cylinders were filled, he didn’t handle them properly and everyone knew it. He had them rolling around like bowling balls in the back of his pickup, so don’t talk to me about test results. They aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.”
“Maybe not to you—”
“Dammit, there’s nothing wrong with that cement!”
His angry roar startled Pru’s heart into a crazy pounding and, unexpectedly, tugged up one corner of her mouth in a smile. Lord, the man had a short fuse! Did he think that just because he barked at her like a drill sergeant she would jump to attention and salute?
Grinning, she shrugged. “I wouldn’t take any bets on that, Murdock. I know my onions...and my cement.”
He’d have had to have been deaf to miss the laughter lacing her words, and he was a long way from that. “So you think this is amusing, do you? I—”
He broke off suddenly, cursing under his breath as a page announced that the committee was reconvening. “I’ve got to go,” he said shortly. “But don’t make the mistake of thinking this conversation is over, Inspector. I don’t lie or cheat or cut corners, and when I tell you that cement was poured according to specs, you can take it to the bank. But you go ahead and take your core samples and have them tested. When they come back, up to standard, I’m going to laugh in your face and have your job.”
It wasn’t an idle threat and they both knew it. She was holding up a government project worth millions of dollars solely because of a gut feeling that something was wrong. If she was right, she would have the satisfaction of throwing the truth in Zebadiah Murdock’s face. If she was wrong, then Murdock wouldn’t have to go after her. Her boss would beat him to the punch.
* * *
Standing at St. Peter’s side, his assistant, Joshua, shook his head sadly as the two souls hung up, each muttering about the other. “They seem to have gotten off to a bad start, sir. And they haven’t even met, yet. With Eric Thompson coming back in the morning, it looks like they never will.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” St. Peter gently disagreed with a smile. “I think things are coming along nicely. And don’t worry about tomorrow. I have a feeling that the wind is going to shift directions during the night, and you know what that means. Change is in the air. Watch.”
* * *
When Pru reported to the office the next morning, it was only to get her next assignment and get out of there. If she could do that without having to once lay eyes on Bruce James, all the better. Luck, however, wasn’t with her. The second she stepped through the door, her boss was there, almost as if he’d been waiting for her.
“I want to talk to you.”
It wasn’t, Pru decided, going to be her day. “If it’s about yesterday,” she began, “I’ve already taken the core samples—”
“I fired Eric Thompson this morning. The Fort Sam project is all yours.”
Pru couldn’t have been more surprised if he’d told her he was her Aunt Sally. Caught off guard, she just looked at him. He was lying. He had to be. As obnoxious as he was, even Bruce James wouldn’t be so cold as to fire a man who’d made a mistake right after he’d been injured on the job. But one look at his ferretlike face told her not only would he, he had.
She almost told him then what a low-life, scumbag of a weasel he was, and damn the consequences. But the slight curve of his mouth was expectant, his beady black eyes bright with anticipation, and she knew that that was exactly what he wanted her to do. Then he would fire her for insubordination and direct her to the nearest unemployment line.
Oh, no, you don’t. you little worm, she thought grimly, her expression carefully guarded under his watchful gaze. You’re not going to get rid of me that easily. “Fine,” she said indifferently. “I’ll get right over there.”
Judging from the way his already thin mouth squeezed into a flat line of annoyance, her reaction wasn’t the one he’d been hoping for. But Pru could find little satisfaction in the triumph. Now instead of just working with one irritating man, she had to deal with two. And there was nothing funny about working with Zebadiah Murdock.
Heading for the site, she tried to tell herself it wasn’t going to be that bad. She’d heard of Murdock long before she’d ever subbed for Eric Thompson, and what she’d heard, she’d liked. He’d started out as an ordinary carpenter, worked hard and learned fast, and gradually started his own small construction company. But with a talent for bringing projects in on schedule and under budget, he had become a success almost overnight. The Fort Sam project was his first with the government, but no one expected it to be his last.
In spite of the problems with the cement, he had a reputation for being honest and straight as an arrow. As the contractor, he could have spent his days doing paperwork in the air-conditioned comfort of his office, but Pru had learned from his men that he liked to work side by side with his crew in the hot sun. Evidently he hadn’t forgotten his roots, and she liked that about him. But it was also common knowledge that he’d never met an inspector that he thought was worth a damn.
They’d probably be at each other’s throats within an hour.
Common courtesy dictated that she immediately search him out and introduce herself as soon as she arrived at the site, but as she parked and plopped her hard hat on her head, she knew she wasn’t going to do it. She hadn’t forgotten their conversation of yesterday and she doubted that he had, either. She’d give him a little more time to cool off...and give herself a chance to adjust to the sudden change in her working conditions.
She learned from one of the plumbers that Murdock was handling a problem with one of the steel tiers in the west wing. Turning in the opposite direction, she intended to check the roughing-in the electricians were finishing at the other end of the building, but she’d only taken two steps when the distinct sound of a cement truck rolling onto the site stopped her in her tracks. Whirling, she turned just in time to see the truck rumble over to the west wing, where men were already waiting to spread the cement as it was poured.
Stunned that someone would dare to countermand her order that there would be no more cement poured until the results from the core sample came back, she started to run. “Who ordered this cement? Stop right this minute! Do you hear me? I said—”
Indignation blinding her to everything but the cement truck that was preparing to pour, she didn’t even see the man who cut across the compound with long strides to intercept her until she all but slammed into him. Staggering back a step, her breath escaped in a gasp. “Oh, I’m sorry! I didn’t see—”
The words died on her tongue, whatever she was going to say next lost forever as her gaze locked with the most incredible blue eyes she’d ever seen. Her heart pounding crazily in her chest and the cement truck forgotten, Pru stood dumbstruck, as dazed and disoriented as if she’d been run over by a train.
He was tall, a good six inches taller than her own five foot ten, his body lean and hard and fat free in faded jeans, a navy T-shirt and work boots. The yellow hard hat he wore proclaimed him one of the crew, but even without that giveaway, she would have known he was a man who labored in the sun. His bronzed, weathered skin was stretched tight across his chiseled face, the crow’s feet that mapped the corners of his eyes and mouth a product of age and years spent working in the elements.
With a touch of gray in the midnight black hair that peaked out from underneath his hard hat, he could have been anywhere between thirty-five and fifty, Pru acknowledged dazedly. But by no stretch of the imagination could he be considered old. Rugged, too roughly cut to ever pass for a polished diamond, he was the kind of man who could make a woman pant.
She knew him.
Recognition came out of nowhere, grabbing her by the heart, stunning her speechless. Oh, she didn’t know his name and she would have bet she’d never seen him before—she would have remembered those eyes!—yet somehow she knew all she needed to know about him.
He was the one. The one she’d been waiting for. The one she’d moved from Kansas to San Antonio to find.
The absurdity of the thought nearly knocked her for a loop. The one? she echoed wildly. Good Lord, was she out of her mind? She hadn’t moved to Texas to find anyone. She’d just been standing out in the sun too long.
Abruptly coming to her senses, she took a jerky step back, twin flags of hot color flying high in her cheeks. “Ex-excuse me,” she said huskily. “I—I didn’t s-see you.”
She might not have noticed him, but Murdock had seen her the second she’d started running toward that damn cement truck with one hand flattened on her head to hold her hard hat in place. And he’d guessed immediately who she was. He hadn’t been expecting her, but he would have known that velvety rough voice of hers in the bowels of hell.
So this was the hard-assed Prudence Sullivan, he thought irritably, surprised to find himself nearly eye to eye with her. His brows snapping together in a dark, intimidating line, he glared at her and realized too late that if the lady was hard-assed, you couldn’t tell it from looking at her. Dammit, why hadn’t anyone told him? Warned him? Dressed in khakis, she was tall and willowy, with her long, wavy, mahogany hair, caught up in a ponytail under her hard-hat, flashing fire in the sun. How she still managed to look soft and feminine in that getup, he’d be damned if he knew.
His gaze slowly sliding over her cream-like complexion, his jaw flexed in reaction. She had the old-fashioned, porcelain features of a china doll and a sweet, vulnerable mouth that a man dreamed of—and ached for—in the dead of night. And if she was a day out of her twenties, he’d eat his shorts.
Too young, he thought, taking a mental step back. He’d be forty-five next July, and he only had to look at the lady to feel like a lecher. Dammit, what was the government thinking of, assigning a woman like her to a building site full of rough, crude construction workers? Didn’t those paper pushers know the hard hats would eat her up with a spoon if given half the chance?
Disgusted with himself for noticing anything about her, he said flatly, “You’re Prudence Sullivan.” It was a statement, not a question, one that only gave her a second to nod in surprise before he continued. “I’m Murdock.”
Pru’s jaw dropped. This was Murdock? This devastatingly handsome, well-put-together hunk was the same jerk who’d yelled at her on the phone yesterday? He couldn’t be. There had to be a mistake.
But a second, closer look at those incredible eyes that were lit with expectation, and she knew there was no mistake. This was Murdock, all right, and he was all set to tangle with her like he did every other inspector who crossed his path. More than willing to comply, her gaze shifted to the cement truck fifty yards away before swinging back to him. “Then I guess I don’t have to ask who ordered the cement, do I?”
“That’s right. I’m in charge around here, and the sooner you get that, the better. Nobody shuts me down, Inspector. Nobody.”
It was a taunt, pure and simple, his blue eyes so confident Pru wanted to slug him. Who did he think he was trying to intimidate? She wasn’t some piece of fluff who folded like a wimpy house of cards just because a builder dared to challenge her. And the sooner he got that, the better!
“Waste your money, then,” she said airily, a smile starting to flirt with her mouth. “Because if those core tests come back the way I think they will, you’re going to have to tear it all out. And if you don’t think I can make you do it, then you’re not as smart as I heard you are.”
They stood nose to nose, the electricity sparking between them so volatile, the air all but sizzled. Her heart slamming against her ribcage, Pru was suddenly struck by the wild, inexplicable need to touch him. Horrified, tantalized, fighting instincts she’d never had for a man in her life, she almost stepped back again. But he could only take that as a weakness and every instinct she possessed told her she was going to have to stand her ground when it came to dealing with this man.
Not budging so much as a muscle, she met his glowering gaze unflinchingly and forced a smile that didn’t come as easily as she would have liked. “Do we understand each other, Murdock?”
If she wanted a battle of wills, she had only to look into his grimly determined eyes to know that she had one. Nodding curtly, he said, “Precisely.”
Without another word, he stepped around her and walked away, leaving Pru staring after him. Her knees were shaking, her pulse jumping. Later she would be furious that she, who usually treated most men like they were her best buddies, let this one get her hot and bothered without half trying. But for now, all she could think of was that she should have touched him when she’d had the chance.
The music was loud, driving rock, the patrons young and wild. Seated at a table with Laura, Pru stared unseeingly at the energetic dancers crammed onto the dance floor. At any other time she would have found herself a partner and been right out there with the rest of the crowd. But tonight all she could think of was a six foot four hunk of a man who was at least a generation older than the oldest dancer on the floor. He probably wouldn’t be caught dead there.
“All right, that’s it,” Laura said suddenly when Pru sent the sixth good-looking man away like a dog with his tail between his legs. Scandalized by her friend’s total disinterest in Grade A prime males, she set her margarita down with a snap and frowned. “You want to tell me what’s wrong or do I have to guess?”
Jerked back to her surroundings, Pru blinked in surprise. “What are you talking about? Nothing’s wrong.”
Laura only snorted at that, unimpressed. “Tell that to someone who doesn’t know you so well. Did you even look at that guy you just sent packing? He was gorgeous!”
Pru glanced blankly around, unable to even remember what the man looked like. “Was he? I didn’t notice.”
“I know! That’s what I’m talking about. Something’s obviously bothering you, Sticks. Come on, what is it? I’ve never seen you so distracted.”
Smiling at the nickname the pint-sized Laura had given her in college, she started to tell her about her crazy fascination with Murdock, only to choke back the words before they escaped. What could she say? I’ve met a man who might be old enough to be my father and I think we were meant to be together? Talk about being a few doughnuts short of a dozen! Laura would think she’d flipped out.
“It’s nothing,” she hedged, forcing a grimace of a smile. “I was just thinking about work.”
Familiar with her problems with Bruce James, Laura immediately jumped to the wrong conclusion. “I knew it! Your boss has been giving you fits again, hasn’t he?”
Pru’s eyes turned rueful. “I think he lies awake at night dreaming up ways to make me miserable.”
Always ready to jump to the defense of a friend, Laura scowled like a ruffled hen. “So what are you going to do about it? There are laws against harassment, you know. Old Brucie baby may not like you, and he probably resents like hell that someone else hired you, but that doesn’t mean he can take his frustration out on you. Turn him in.”
“He’s not an idiot, Shorty. He’s made sure he hasn’t treated me any differently than anyone else.”
Laura nearly strangled on her drink. “You mean he treats everyone like dirt?”
Pru started to tell her about how Eric Thompson was fired, but she’d hardly begun when a tall, blond man appeared at her side and grinned down at her as if she’d been put on this earth just for him. “Hi, sugar. How ‘bout a dance?”
Pru almost rolled her eyes and sent him packing with the rest. But Laura gave her a pointed look and, with a resigned shrug, she rose to her feet. “Sure. Why not?”
For the next three hours she danced just about every dance and really did have a good time. Refusing to take any of her partners too seriously, she laughed at their jokes, shrugged off their flattery and graciously turned down all dates. And when she finally went home, she went alone, just as she always did.
It wasn’t that she wasn’t interested in dating or finding a man of her own, she admitted as she let herself into her silent apartment and got ready for bed. She would love to have a husband and a real, honest-to-God home of her own with the man she adored. And children.
Something shifted deep inside her, something soft and tender and sweet, at the thought of a child. Her child. She could almost see it, a beautiful baby, its tiny features a fascinating combination of hers and its daddy’s, a treasured symbol of their love for each other. And if she closed her eyes and totally emptied her mind, she was sure it was only a matter of time before she caught a glimpse of him, the man who was going to give her that child.
But when she climbed into bed and closed her eyes, the only man she saw was Zebadiah Murdock.
She groaned, the defeated sound loud in the dark, quiet stillness of her lonely bedroom. She would not do this! she promised herself. The infuriating man had dominated her thoughts enough for one evening. It had to stop!
Flopping over onto her stomach, she punched her pillow into just the right shape and closed her eyes with a tired sigh. Exhaustion from a long, tense day of work and then hours of dancing came out of nowhere to swamp her senses. Her breathing slow and regular, she never knew when sleep overtook her.
Or when Murdock walked into her dreams.
Her defenses down, she never thought to question his presence there. He was just there, where he’d always belonged. Her lover throughout eternity, her soul mate, the man she was meant to go through time with, as much a part of her being as the familiar beating of her heart.
Entranced, she watched in fascination as a white mist swirled around him, obliterating him from view before suddenly parting to reveal the two of them together. Her breath caught in her throat, longing swelling in her as she watched herself move into his arms and gracefully dance to the faint strains of a melody that was hauntingly familiar.
Murmuring his name, she reached for the sensuous image, needing, just for one heart-stopping moment, to hold on to it. But her fingers encountered nothing but the empty space beside her in the bed and she came awake abruptly, the sensuous dream swept away on a devastating tidal wave of loss.
You’ve been waiting for him more lifetimes than you can remember, an unknown voice echoed in her head. Don’t let him get away.
Her heart thundering as if she’d just run a mile, Pru rolled onto her back and found herself blinking back hot, ridiculous tears. Stunned, she lifted her fingers to her cheeks and stared at the moisture that clung to them. Tears, she thought dazedly. She was crying for Murdock!
And hearing voices. Dear God, what was happening to her? she thought in growing hysteria. Murdock didn’t even like her! And she wasn’t actually crazy about him, either. So how could she dream about him, ache for him, picture a future with him?
You’ve been waiting for him for more lifetimes than you can remember.
The softly spoken words whispered through her consciousness, sounding so familiar she would have sworn she’d heard them before. But where? When? Agitated, her stomach churning, she got out of bed. Without bothering to turn on a light, she started to pace restlessly in the dark. It was just a bad case of lust at first sight, she reasoned. An experienced woman would have recognized that immediately, but then again, she was hardly what anyone with even a smidgen of brains would call experienced. Up until now the men in her life had just been friends, pals, big brothers. Not a one of them had so much as raised her temper, let alone her temperature. So how could she have possibly known that physical attraction could be as volatile as a charge of lightning in an unstable sky? No wonder she couldn’t handle it.
But lust didn’t explain the mysterious voice in her head. Sweet, loving, sure, it spoke with a conviction she couldn’t shake. And that, more than anything, was what scared her. She wasn’t one of those imaginative, daydreaming women with her head in the clouds all the time. She was practical right down to her white cotton underwear, and she didn’t believe in fairy tales, reincarnation, or voices that spoke to her in the middle of the night. So why was her heart knocking like crazy in her breast?
Feeling as if she was losing it, she threw herself across the bed, reached for the phone on the nightstand and quickly dialed Kansas City. It wasn’t until she heard her mother’s sleepy voice on the other end of the line that she glanced at the bedside clock. “Oh, God, Mom, I’m sorry! I didn’t realize the time—”
“Prudence?” Cynthia Sullivan gasped in alarm. “It’s after two! What’s wrong? Are you all right? You never call this late.”
Already hearing the panic in her mother’s voice, Pru wanted to kick herself for not checking the time before picking up the phone. “It’s nothing,” she assured her quickly. “I’ll call you back in the morning.”
Her mother only clicked her tongue at that nonsense and said dryly, “This is your mother you’re talking to, honey. I know when something’s wrong—I can hear it in your voice. Why don’t you tell me what it is?”
In the background, Pru could hear the grandfather clock down the hall from her parents’ bedroom striking the hour. Suddenly homesick, she could do nothing to stop the sudden tears that stung her eyes. “This is so screwy.” She laughed shakily, swallowing the lump in her throat. “I don’t even know where to start.”
Like a dam that had suddenly cracked open, the words came pouring out in a jumbled rush, unedited and flustered. “I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” she said after describing the dream and her working relationship with Murdock. “I hardly know the man, and he definitely doesn’t like me. And then that voice...I tell you, Mom, I think I’m losing it.”
Cynthia Sullivan laughed gaily. “Honey, you’re not losing anything! Didn’t I ever tell you about the first time I saw your father? I knew right then he was the man for me.”
“But what about the voice? And all this stuff about different lifetimes?”
“Who knows? It’s a strange world, sweetheart, and some things just can’t be explained. The question is, how do you feel about Murdock?”
Pru hesitated, but the truth wouldn’t be denied. “I don’t know,” she blurted. “I just know my heart started skipping the minute I laid eyes on him and I can’t get him out of my head. And now he’s in my dreams.”
“Then maybe you should find a way to get better acquainted with him,” her mother suggested. “If you’re still fascinated with him after you get to know him, you may have just found the man of your dreams.”
She made it sound so easy. “Was it that simple for you and Daddy?”
Even through the phone line, she could hear the smile in her mother’s voice. “It was just like falling off a log, honey. We couldn’t help ourselves. And if you and Murdock are made for each other, it will be that easy for you, too.”
Pru wanted to believe her, but long after she hung up and went back to bed, she lay in the dark, too restless to go back to sleep, her thoughts tangled and unsure. Images flashed before her mind’s eye, images that were part of her dream, part of what could be. Her and Murdock together...always. The whole idea was crazy. She was crazy. But for some reason she couldn’t explain, it felt right. She didn’t know where a possible friendship with him would lead, but she had to find out. She wanted to get to know the man, to figure out what made him tick...and turned him on.
* * *
Feeling like she’d already waited forever, Pru wanted to put her plan into action immediately, but it wasn’t that easy. When she arrived at the site the next morning, Murdock was already there, defiantly pouring cement, his smile mocking as he silently dared her to just try to stop him. She didn’t. Instead she walked right up to him and offered him her hand. “We got off on the wrong foot yesterday,” she said easily, and had the satisfaction of seeing his eyes narrow suspiciously. Suddenly wanting to laugh, she struggled to hold back a grin. “So I thought we could shake hands and start over.”
His eyes locked on her hand, Murdock didn’t move, didn’t so much as blink. He didn’t want to touch her, didn’t even want to think about touching her. But they were in full view of his crew and there was no way he could avoid accepting her handshake without looking like a jerk. Reluctantly, his fingers closed around hers.
The heat was instantaneous, like the flare of a match, jumping from his hand to hers. Startled, he felt it and knew she did, too. He watched her eyes fly to their joined hands, felt her fingers tremble and his own heart slam against his ribs. With a muttered curse, he jerked his hand back, but it didn’t do much good. He still burned.
Pru blinked and looked down at her hand as if she’d never seen it before. “Well,” she said, her voice catching revealingly, “I guess that takes care of the formalities. Maybe now we can be friends.”
But when she looked back at Murdock, he only nodded stiffly, his shuttered expression not giving her much encouragement. “Sure. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to work.”
It wasn’t the response she’d hoped for, but it was a start and not all that bad a one, she decided, considering how he felt about inspectors. Just because she generally knew what she wanted the minute she saw it didn’t mean that he did. She just had to give him some time. After all, it wasn’t as if either one of them was going anywhere. The project was a long way from being finished, and they would be dealing with each other every day. It would be much easier for both of them if they could manage to become friends.
But even though he’d agreed to start over, it soon became apparent that he really had no intention of doing anything of the kind. He was an attractive man and when he was dealing with anyone but her, he actually smiled and laughed. For the first time in her life, envy stirred in her, turning her eyes greener than normal, and she didn’t like it. She knew she was being ridiculous—she hardly knew him. But she wanted him to be as relaxed with her as he was with his crew. She wanted him to see her when he looked at her—Pru Sullivan, the woman, not an inspector he was forced to tolerate. And she wanted him to smile at her, just once, as if he meant it.
But it didn’t happen. The results of the core samples came in and the numbers were acceptable, but only by a hairbreadth. Murdock, so sure the test results would come back heavily in his favor, was shocked and grudgingly admitted that the test was justified. He could no longer deny that she knew what she was doing, but that didn’t mean he had to be happy about it. Because every time she found something wrong, he just had another problem to solve.
For the next three days he continued to look through her instead of at her. Then, just when she thought she was going to have to grab the man by the ears and shake him to get his attention, she discovered that the electricians he had hired to wire the entire complex were not using American-made materials.
It was a mistake that shouldn’t have been made. Regulations required that the majority of materials used on government projects had to be American-made. She might have been able to believe another contractor doing a government job for the first time might not have known that. But not Murdock. He was too sharp to make that kind of costly mistake.
There had to be another explanation, she decided. She’d heard about the problems on the site, problems that evidently went all the way back to the first day when ground was broken. Other, less reputable builders had those kinds of problems all the time. Zebadiah Murdock, however, had a reputation that was head and shoulders above such men. From what she’d heard around the site, he didn’t normally have those kinds of headaches. So what was wrong? It was time she found out.
Not looking forward to the coming conversation, she went looking for Murdock and found him standing outside his minuscule office with his back to her, talking to Roy Wilkins. Her heart lurching in its now familiar way at the sight of him, Pru had eyes for no one but Murdock. She hadn’t been this close to him all day, and for a moment she completely forgot why she had sought him out.
Then Roy saw her and stopped talking in midsentence.
Surprised, Murdock whirled to see who’d approached and just barely bit back a groan. He’d been trying to ignore her for days now, but even if she hadn’t been the only woman at the site, she was hard to miss. She always seemed to be just within the corner of his vision, impossible to overlook. And even harder to forget. Every night when he went home, she was right there with him in his head.
And for the life of him, he didn’t know why. Just because he was a confirmed bachelor at forty-five didn’t mean he was a recluse. When he was in need of female companionship, there were any number of women he could call. Women who were older, more mature, women whose interests matched his. Women, when he thought of Pru, he didn’t call. It was irritating as hell.
Ignoring the sudden heat in the air that hadn’t been there seconds before, he never took his eyes from Pru as he told his field superintendent, “We’ll talk about this later, Roy. Go ahead and take a break. I’ll find you after I’m through with Inspector Sullivan.”
Roy, witness to more than one of their discussions, was quick to cut and run. In the tense silence left by his leave-taking, Murdock drawled, “Don’t tell me. You’ve gone over everything with a magnifying glass and you’ve finally found something to complain about. What is it this time? Measurements a thousandth of a millimeter off, or what?”
The quick retort that sprang to her tongue caught between her teeth, Pru only grinned. The last time she’d let a male push her buttons, she’d been twelve and Tommy Stinson had teased her for being flat-chested while all her friends were blooming like roses. She’d socked him then and learned the value of taking a man by surprise.
“Actually, I was wondering if you’d like to go to lunch with me,” she said easily, flashing her dimples at him. “What do you say? Are you game?”
Murdock couldn’t have been more stunned if she’d tossed a bucket of wet cement over his head. His brows snapping together, he eyed her warily. “For what?”
“Either it’s been a long time since a woman has asked you to lunch or I’m not doing it right. Lunch,” she laughed. “I’m talking about lunch. You know...food...that meal you eat in the middle of the day?”
“Let’s just put it this way,” he retorted. “It’s been a long time since an inspector’s invited me to lunch. This is business, isn’t it?”
The truth hovering on her tongue, Pru almost told him no. The only business she wanted to discuss with him was a fascination that wouldn’t go away. But he obviously wasn’t prepared to hear that, so she had no choice but to agree. “Of course,” she said as if she’d never thought of suggesting anything else. “We need to talk about some of the problems you’ve been having here on the site and I thought the discussion would be less tense on neutral ground.”
It was a plausible excuse and one that Pru thought sounded darn good. But she saw in a glance that Murdock wasn’t buying it. He just looked at her and said dryly, “Thanks, but no thanks. You know how guys talk. We go off together and it’s going to be all over the site that I’m kissing up to the inspector. If you want to talk, we can do it right here in my office.”
Pru wanted to object—spending time with him on the job was not what she wanted!—but he didn’t give her the chance. Turning, he jerked open the door to his cracker box of an office and patiently waited for her to precede him. Ruefully accepting defeat, she gave in gracefully and stepped into the small, portable building.
Pru had been in her share of site offices and knew from firsthand experience that they were usually crowded and messy, with hardly enough room to turn around. Murdock’s was no different except for the fact that paperwork littering the desk that took up most of the available floor space was neatly stacked and organized.
Impressed, she lifted a brow in surprise, amusement glinting in her eyes as she turned to tease him about his neatness fetish. But the door shut behind him as he followed her inside, and in the blink of an eye he was right in front of her, so close she could practically feel the sharp breath he drew in in surprise. Between one heartbeat and the next, the playful words hovering on her tongue turned to dust.
Trapped between the desk at her back and Murdock’s hard, lean body in front of her, Pru felt her heart start to knock against her ribs. Still, she couldn’t move, didn’t want to. Lord, how could she have known just standing this close to him could turn her knees to water? Light-headed, her blood racing through her veins with an anticipation she couldn’t explain, she found herself holding her breath, waiting, waiting for his arms to slip around her. Somehow she knew it was going to be the best thing that ever happened to her.
But he didn’t touch her.
He didn’t dare.
The air suddenly thick with sexual tension, Murdock stared down at her, his hands curled into fists at his sides. He never should have let her anywhere near his office, he thought too late. It was too small, too private, and she was much, much too close. If he leaned the slightest bit toward her...
He’d be in big trouble. Because something warned him that once he gave in to the need to touch her, she’d be nearly impossible to walk away from.
Fighting the outrageous need to reach for her, he abruptly stepped around her to get to his desk, his jaw hardening when his arm accidentally brushed against her. Just as when he’d been forced to shake hands with her, heat stirred, stealing the moisture from his mouth, stunning him. And her. Again. Her face an open book, she met his gaze wide-eyed, hiding nothing of her thoughts. And what he saw in her eyes shook him to the core. Dammit, didn’t she know better than to look at a man the way she was looking at him? As if he was the next best thing to sliced bread and she couldn’t get over the wonder of him? God Almighty, couldn’t she see he was too old for her?
He reached the comparative safety behind his desk, but it didn’t help. There just wasn’t enough room in the small office to put any real space between them. And how the hell was he supposed to keep his mind on business when that perfume of hers was guaranteed to drive him slowly out of his mind?
With a jerk of his hand, he motioned to the sturdy metal chair angled across from his desk. “Sit down,” he growled, then settled into the old leather office chair that he’d used at every building site for the last twenty years. “All right, you wanted to talk, so talk. What’s the problem?”
Any hope that Pru had had that they might, for once, have a nice, friendly conversation died a swift death at his cool tone. His eyes were dark with distrust, his mouth set and unsmiling. He even glanced pointedly at the clock, silently reminding her that she was wasting precious time. It shouldn’t have hurt—she’d known getting past the hostility he kept between them like a shield wouldn’t be easy—but it did.
Sternly ordering herself not to be so sensitive, she met his gaze unflinchingly. “I think it’s time you told me what’s going on around here, don’t you?”
In the process of reaching for a pencil, Murdock froze. “Going on? What are you talking about?”
“I would think that was obvious,” she retorted. “I’m not deaf, you know. I’ve heard the stories about the project and all the problems you’ve had. The tool thefts, the vandalism, the unacceptable materials—”
He stopped her right there. “Pick any building site in this city and you’re going to run into some type of theft and vandalism. It just goes with the territory, especially in today’s world. As for problems with materials, I don’t know what you’re talking about. True, there was a mix-up with the cement, but it was within the acceptable limits.”
Pulling a piece of the foreign-made wiring she’d found earlier out of her pocket, she tossed it onto his desk. “This has nothing to do with cement. You’d better look at this.”
A licensed electrician, Murdock knew before his fingers ever closed over the small length of wiring that it wasn’t anything he’d ordered for the Fort Sam project. “Where did you get this?” he demanded sharply, glancing up. “I didn’t buy this.”
“Then why are your electricians using it all over the site?”
“They’re not,” he snapped. “Roy ordered all American-made materials for this job, including the electrical supplies, then inspected them himself when they came in. If there’d been a problem, he would have told me immediately and corrected it.”
“Then someone’s pulled a fast one on the two of you,” she replied. “Because right now the east wing’s wired with this and I can’t pass it until it’s changed.”
“The hell it is!”
“I’m sorry, Murdock, but it is. If you don’t believe me, go look for yourself.”
He was already on his feet, stepping around his desk. “All right, I will. Let’s go.”
Following her outside, his long legs quickly carried him to the east wing where the electricians had started roughing in the wiring the second the cement had been approved. Another shorter woman would have had a difficult time keeping up with him, but Pru’s legs were only a few inches shorter than his and she matched him stride for stride. So when he stepped inside the shell of a building and inspected the wiring that was already in place and soon to be concealed behind Sheetrock, she was right there with him.
“Son of a bitch!”
The softly snarled curse echoed like a scream in the empty building. Watching him closely, Pru slowly released the breath she had been unobtrusively holding, any doubts that Murdock might have known of the subterfuge vanishing when she saw the fury in his eyes.
“Have you checked the rest of this wing?”
She jumped when he turned on her suddenly, his blue eyes dark and piercing. She saw in an instant that he wasn’t mad at her, but at whoever did this. And she didn’t want to be in their shoes when he caught up with them. The fur was going to fly.
She nodded. “It’s all the same.”
He cursed again, a low, fluent damnation of the bonehead who didn’t know the difference between American and imported wiring. “What about the material that hasn’t been installed, yet?” he asked tersely. “Have you checked that?”
“No, of course not. I only inspect the work in progress and after it’s finished.”
“Then let’s go check it out.”
With her at his side, he hurried outside and crossed to the stockpile of supplies that were stacked high under sheets of protective plastic. Tossing the plastic out of the way, he found the wiring right where it was supposed to be. A single glance told him all he needed to know. It wasn’t made in the U.S.A.
Stunned, feeling like someone had sucker punched him in a kidney, Murdock never knew how long he stood there staring in disbelief at the useless wiring. His teeth locked on a string of unprintable curses, he didn’t make a sound, but the rage building in him must have been apparent because Pru suddenly reached over and touched the tensed muscles of his forearm.
“It could just be an innocent mix-up,” she said hopefully. “Someone else’s order probably got delivered here by mistake. It happens all the time. You can straighten it out with a few phone calls.”
The lines bracketing his mouth deepening, Murdock knew the mistake couldn’t be explained—or corrected—that simply. Sure, screwups happened. But this project had had more than its fair share and each one hit him right where it hurt the most—in the pocketbook. If it didn’t stop, and damn soon, he’d be lucky to walk away from the job with the shirt on his back.
“I’ll take care of it,” he told her grimly. “And don’t worry about the east wing. It’ll be rewired, of course.” Letting out a heavy sigh, his eyes met hers. “It looks like I owe you an apology. Oh, yes, I do,” he insisted when she started to shake her head. “I did everything but accuse you of lying.”
“You’ve been under a lot of stress,” she said quickly, disturbed at the thought of him apologizing to her for something that was perfectly understandable considering their adversarial working relationship. “With everything that’s been going on around here, who can blame you?”
His lips starting to twitch, Murdock gazed down at her. “Let me get this straight. You’re making excuses for me being a jackass?”
Put that way, Pru couldn’t help but laugh. “Yeah, I guess I am.”
Her sexy laughter rolling over him like a heat wave, Murdock knew it was a sound that would haunt his dreams if he didn’t put some distance between them, and damn soon. Before the thought had fully formed, he took a step away from her. “Well, you don’t have to, but I appreciate your understanding.” His voice too husky, he took another quick step. “I’ve got to find Roy and see how this happened without anyone noticing. Thanks for your help.”
Leaving her with her own reports to file, he went in search of Roy and found him deep in a conversation with one of the plumbing subcontractors. He’d been Murdock’s right-hand man for more than five years. In all that time he’d never missed a day of work. He’d also never screwed up on a supply order. Murdock couldn’t believe he had this time, either. He was too dependable, too good at what he did. So what the hell had happened?
He was still asking himself that same question a few minutes later when the plumber went back to work. Roy turned toward him, took one look at his stony expression, and groaned. “Don’t tell me. We flunked another inspection.”
Murdock nodded. “The wiring in the east wing. It’s not American-made.”
“What? You’ve got to be kidding! It has to be. I ordered it myself.”
His words rang true enough, but it wasn’t what he said that concerned Murdock. It was his eyes. In his years in the construction business, he’d met his share of crooks and swindlers, and he’d become pretty damn good at spotting a lie in a man’s eyes. If Roy’s confused puzzlement was an act, he was in the wrong business. With that kind of talent, he should have been in Hollywood.
Just that quickly, a suspicion he hadn’t allowed himself to acknowledge shriveled up and died, abruptly easing the tension that knotted the muscles at the back of his neck. Relieved, he expelled a short breath and asked, “What exactly did you order?”
“Just what you put in the specs.”
“That’s not what was delivered.”
“The hell it wasn’t! You know I always double-check the supplies when they come in, and everything checked out. I’ve got the receipts to prove it.”
“Then we’ve got a bigger problem than I thought,” he said grimly. Quickly and succinctly, he told him about what he and Pru had discovered when they’d inspected the cache of supplies. “If the correct supplies were delivered like you say, then that can only mean one thing. Someone stole the right wiring and replaced it with the imported so the theft wouldn’t be noticed. Someone who knew the foreign stuff would be worthless to us.”
Jerking off his hard hat to wipe his sweating brow, Roy shot him a hard look. “You think it’s one of the workers?”
“I don’t know.”
Glancing at the crew that worked around them, he didn’t want to think that someone on his payroll was responsible for the theft. He’d worked with most of the men on and off for years. He knew their families, had been to their homes, had even, on occasion, loaned a few of them money when they’d gotten themselves in a tight financial spot. He couldn’t believe any of them would steal from him, lie to him.
But a common thief wouldn’t know the difference between American- and foreign-made materials. And if he was a junkie looking for something to hock to get his next fix, he sure as hell wouldn’t go to the time and expense of replacing what he’d stolen. No, the problems he’d had from the first day ground had been broken couldn’t be blamed on a sticky-fingered stranger. Only someone who knew construction could cause this much trouble. And only someone who had it in for him would. Now all he had to figure out was which one of the dozens of the crewmen he considered friends was working against him. And why.
“At this point, we can’t rule out anyone,” he said tersely. “Whoever it is, they’d damn well better enjoy themselves while they can, because their days are numbered. I’ll nail them even if I have to go the expense of putting in surveillance cameras to do it.”
Hoping it didn’t come to that, he made a few phone calls and, within an hour, he had a fencing company at the site to fence the entire area. The M.P.’s were notified of the theft and promised to increase hourly patrols. It was some consolation, but Murdock was through taking chances. By the end of the workday, he watched in satisfaction as two Dobermans were delivered by their trainer and locked in the fenced area, just as they would be every night until the project was finished.
It was Friday night and he’d done all he could do. The increased security drew comments from some of the crew, but he only shrugged and explained that he was worried about vandalism because of some increased criminal activity in the area. The thief, whoever he was, had to know better; he didn’t reveal his identity by so much as a flicker of an eyelash.
“Hey, Murdock, you comin’ or not?”
In the process of locking up his office, Murdock glanced over his shoulder to find Bill Dancer waiting expectantly. If it had been anyone else but Bill, he would have told him to stuff it, he wasn’t going anywhere. But he and Bill went back a long way, to the days when they’d both been young and wild and reckless, and he was the oldest friend he had.
“Where, you old reprobate? You come dragging in late on payday and Tracy’s going to have your hide.”
Unconcerned, Bill just grinned, the laugh lines at the corner of his eyes crinkling. “Nah—the woman’s crazy about me. So, are you going to Charlie’s or not? There’s a game tonight.”
Murdock grimaced. He’d forgotten.
A popular sports bar on the north side of town, Charlie’s was the usual meeting place of most of the crew whenever the San Antonio Spurs were playing a basketball game that was broadcast on pay-per-view on cable. For the cost of a couple of beers, they could watch the game on a big-screen TV and eat all the free hors d’oeuvres they could hold. For a bunch of construction workers who could eat just about anyone under the table, that was too good a deal to pass up.
As big a fan as the rest of the crew, he normally enjoyed the games and those nights out with his men. But for the past two hours, all he’d thought about was getting home and stretching out on his couch in front of his own TV with a cold beer. Not really in the mood for company, he almost made an excuse and let Bill and the rest of the guys go without him. But the men weren’t stupid. They knew about the problems on site and had noted the added security. If he started avoiding them, they’d begin to wonder which one of them he didn’t trust. Morale wouldn’t be worth spit.
So it looked like he was going to Charlie’s. “Yeah, I guess I can make it. You’re not going to get us thrown out of the place again, are you?”
“Who, me?” His brown eyes twinkling innocently, Bill’s smile was devilishly wicked. “I’m an old married man. I wouldn’t do something like that.”
Murdock snorted, his lips twitching with amusement. “Yeah, right. Tell that to someone who doesn’t know you so well.”
“I can’t. Nobody knows me as well as you do.” Chuckling, he slapped him on the shoulder. “Tip-off’s at seven-thirty. See you there, buddy. I’ve got to catch Pru before she leaves.”
Surprised, Murdock swore, but it was too late. Bill was already hurrying to catch up with Pru.
“Hey, Pru,” he called out. “You got plans for tonight?”
Standing at her Jeep and digging in her purse for her keys, Pru looked up to see Bill sprinting toward her. Hoping Murdock’s hostility toward her wouldn’t spill over to his men, she’d spent the past few days making friends with the crew. She’d thought she’d been careful—she knew the dangers of working with a bunch of men and how easily it was for some of them to take her friendliness for a come-on when it was nothing of the kind. But now, as Bill’s words registered, it was obvious she’d gone too far. And he wasn’t the man she’d thought he was—he’d made no secret of the fact that he was married.
Disappointed that she’d misread him, she began, “Well, as a matter of fact, I—”
“Aw, come on, don’t say no,” he cut in quickly, anticipating her refusal. “Most of the guys are meeting at Charlie’s Sports Bar a little later to watch the Spurs game on TV, and I thought you might like to come along, too.”
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