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Trouble in Texas
Trouble comes in all guises, something undercover Fish and Wildlife Service agent Mark Kincaid knows better than most. As he recovers from a gunshot wound in the tiny coastal town of Redfish, Texas the last thing he expects to find is trouble…especially of the female variety.
Cat Randolph is everything Mark shouldn’t want, but does. The enticing wild bird rehabilitator is beautiful, feisty and definitely intriguing. But when evidence about the huge bird-smuggling ring Mark has been working on for years is uncovered practically in Cat’s backyard, she becomes a suspect. And off-limits. Yet the closer Mark gets to his delectable neighbor, the more he’s convinced Cat herself is too dedicated to the birds she rescues to ever be involved in such despicable acts.
Cat is ready and willing to work with her hunky neighbor to catch the bad guys and bring them to justice. And maybe find a little romance along the way.
There’s just one problem—the prime suspect is Cat’s brother. Now Mark has to choose between busting the smugglers and a life with Cat.
And what should have been a simple choice is the hardest one he’s ever had to make.
The shapely blonde in Mark Kincaid’s arms whispered an erotic suggestion that sent his blood pressure rocketing eight miles high. Smiling, he muttered an appreciative “yes.” She sighed and snuggled closer. Ran her hand over his chest and began a slow journey south, her talented fingers tracing a warm, steady path to paradise.
Until she screeched in his ear.
Mark shot up in bed with an explosive oath and a wild-eyed glare for the blonde—who was nowhere to be seen. His heart rate slowly steadied. He’d been dreaming. But the obnoxious noise that woke him continued, joined by others, equally loud and grating. Even in his half-asleep state, he recognized the sounds. He spent fifty weeks a year putting up with sounds exactly like that.
Birds. A lot of birds. Damn, couldn’t he ever get away from his job?
Especially since he wasn’t even on the job, but still on sick leave. He rolled out of bed, wincing as a bedspring poked him in the ass, and stumbled over to the open window of the second-story room. He scrubbed his hands over his stubbled face, then propped them on the windowsill and grimaced as the screen fell off and crashed to the ground below. Bleary-eyed, he trained his gaze on his next-door neighbor’s yard. He blinked. Then shuddered at the sight that met his eyes. “Oh, man, what did I do to deserve this?”
An aviary. A very large aviary, taking up nearly the entire yard.
And a female caretaker, he realized, his gaze narrowing. She was about as far from the luscious blonde of his dreams as it was possible to get. Chin-length dark hair and a nice, curvy little body. Young, but somehow he didn’t think those curves belonged to a teenager. Too far away to see her face clearly, but man, oh, man, that body was definitely worth looking at. Nice, if you liked your women small, dark and sexy.
Which he did. But sure as hell not at six in the flippin’ morning after four hours of sleep on a mattress that made sleeping on rocky ground seem more appealing.
“What the hell are you doing?” he shouted. She didn’t hear him. Not surprising, since the birds made such a racket. He shouted again, and again, until she finally glanced up at him. For a moment she looked startled, then smiled and waved—just as if she hadn’t been responsible for blasting him out of the best dream he’d had in months—and turned happily back to her business. Which seemed to be stirring up a dozen species of birds.
Gritting his teeth, he snatched up a pair of cutoffs, yanked them over his hips and fastened them. On his way out of the room, he grabbed his gray T-shirt from the chair and pulled it over his head.
An aviary. His frown deepened as his annoyance increased. There had to be some ordinance against so many animals at one residence, or if not, surely there was one about excessive noise, even in this godforsaken little town tucked away on the Texas coast. He’d go over there and very politely tell the woman that if her birds woke him up again at such an early hour, he’d call the cops on her.
He splashed cold water on his face to force himself awake. It made sense now—the Realtor’s hesitation when he asked why there hadn’t been a whisper of interest in the house. Then the blunt reply that he’d better come down and take a look for himself.
Which he had, finally. After being sidelined with a bullet wound to the thigh, courtesy of the case from hell, otherwise known as the Parrot Blues, Mark had decided to put his downtime to good use and take a look at the house his uncle had left him here in Redfish, Texas.
A small community with fishing as its major industry, Redfish didn’t run to condos and big beachfront developments. Not yet, at any rate. Still, with the town situated only thirty miles from Corpus Christi, Mark had thought the real estate market wouldn’t be totally dead.
Now he knew why the house hadn’t sold. Sold, hell. Nobody had even asked to see it, according to the Realtor, and it had been on the market four months. And why would they bother to look inside? The moon last night had allowed him a brief glimpse of the exterior, enough to depress him for a week. A perfect haunted house.
Face it, the place is a wreck. A falling-down, two-story, pseudo-Victorian monstrosity. Seeing it now, with its sagging ceilings and garishly dismal decor, didn’t make him any more optimistic about its prospects. As for braving the exterior in the daylight, he didn’t think he was strong enough to face that. Not before a bucket of coffee, anyway.
So, not only had he inherited a disaster that would take him a good six months he didn’t have to make habitable, it happened to be next door to an outdoor aviary, for God’s sake. Who wanted to live next door to a bunch of noisy troublemakers shedding feathers and bird droppings, and attracting even more birds to the area?
Nobody in his right mind.
As he limped across the sparse grass to reach the bird lover’s backyard, he wished he’d thought to put on his shoes. His uncle’s yard was as neglected as the house. It consisted mostly of sand, broken shells, stickers and rocks, with an occasional fire-ant mound thrown in to round things off.
A few feet away, he stopped and stared at the woman. Hands on his hips and his jaw twitching from irritation, he waited for her to finish feeding the heron before he spoke. She had tethered the bird to a table outside the aviary and seemed totally unconcerned with the infernal racket coming from the rest of the motley flock.
Unhurried, she held out a fish, and the huge gray-blue bird took it delicately from her. She had a way with birds, obviously. Mark wouldn’t have hand-fed a heron. Who knew when it would decide to take a bite out of her hand instead of the fish? But then, he had more experience with dead birds than live ones, unfortunately.
Finally, she turned, looked him up and down and offered another welcoming smile. “Hi. You must be Gilbert’s long-lost nephew.”
He didn’t bother to respond to the comment. It pissed him off even more that the smile did great things for her face. A pretty face, not gorgeous but intriguing. And, he noticed, big brown bedroom eyes.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?” he snarled.
She glanced at her watch and bestowed another bright-eyed, cheery smile on him. Didn’t the woman ever stop smiling? What could there possibly be to smile about at six-damn-a.m.?
“Six-fifteen,” she said, and turned back to the bird. “Come on, Rover. You know I have to check your wing. There’s a good boy.” She took the wing gently in hand.
Mark ground his teeth together. Another time he might have appreciated the fact that she was dressed in a pale yellow tank top, a skimpy pair of white shorts and battered running shoes. But not now. His bum leg ached, his head hurt, and the squawking and chirping of the birds made him feel like a drill was doing a tap dance inside his skull.
Still, he tried to be reasonable. “Could you do this later? Say, three hours or so later?”
She let go of the wing with a nod of approval. She turned a solemn face to him. Her dark eyes twinkled with, he was sure, ironic amusement. “No. They like to get up early and they want to eat first thing. You get used to it.”
“I don’t want to get used to it,” he snapped. “I want it to stop. I was trying to sleep.”
“Well, I’m sorry, but they’re birds. They make their own schedule and there’s not much I can do about it.” She didn’t look particularly sorry.
He crossed his arms over his chest and glared at her. “Maybe the cops will change your mind about that.”
She laughed, not a bit concerned. Mark couldn’t remember the last time someone had laughed at him when he was angry.
“You have a lot of nerve for somebody who only moved into the neighborhood yesterday. Go right ahead and call them,” she said in a voice rich with enjoyment. “I’m not breaking any laws.” She gestured at her other neighbor’s house. “Besides, you really will get used to it.”
He stared at her in his best intimidating manner, the one he usually reserved for low-life smugglers and poachers. “Excessive noise. Disturbing the peace.”
Didn’t anything faze the woman? Now she openly grinned at him.
“That’s debatable. But it doesn’t matter. Inside the city limits, you might have a case. But—” Her smiled widened. “Notice the pavement change? Your place is city. Mine—” she raised her chin and met his glare head-on with a smirk “—isn’t.”
Eyes narrowed, he stared at her, trying to figure out if she was bluffing. Somehow, he didn’t think so. He glanced at the street. Damn, she was right. The pavement changed right before it reached her house.
A muscle in his jaw throbbed. “You’re outside the city limits?”
“Just.” She gave a satisfied nod. “Look it up.”
Okay, time to pull out the big guns. He motioned at the heron. “Are you aware that bird is a protected species?”
In the process of putting the big bird back in its cage, she looked over her shoulder at him. “Of course. Why?”
As she shut the cage door, he pinned her with The Look. The one that made grown men quake and women cry. “Unless you have a license to care for a protected species, I’m afraid I’ll have to shut down your little operation here.”
“Is that so?” Far from crying, or even looking scared, she crossed her arms over her chest and shook her head indulgently. “I suggest you talk to the Fish and Wildlife Service before you threaten me.”
“Lady, I am the Fish and Wildlife Service.”
Her eyebrows drew together and she frowned, drumming her fingers on a bare arm. A moment later her expression cleared. “Oh, I get it. You must be new.”
He shook his head. “Nope. Now, where’s the permit?” This wasn’t going at all according to plan. He needed sleep or a big dose of caffeine, not to be arguing with the bird lady here.
“Forgive me,” she said sarcastically, “but you’re not exactly dressed for the part. Where’s your ID?”
He glanced down at his ripped T-shirt and cutoffs before he jerked his head toward his uncle’s house. “Up there. You don’t want to make me get it.” He didn’t like to advertise his exact position within the FWS. A secret agent should be secret. Something he should have thought about before he shot off his big mouth.
“Don’t I?” She arched an eyebrow. “Why not? What are you going to do? Arrest me?”
“If necessary. Let’s see the permit,” he repeated.
She huffed out a sigh and shoved her fingers, the ones that hadn’t been holding a fish, through her hair. “Look, let’s save time here. You can yell at me all you want, but it would be a lot easier if you simply called the local FWS and checked with them. They gave me these birds—” she waved a hand to encompass the whole passel “—among others. Which means, as you ought to know, if you’re who you say you are, that I’m fully licensed. I rehabilitate the injured birds and release them back into the wild when possible.”
Mark remained silent for a long moment, still glaring at her. “And when it’s not possible?”
She looked away, as if she didn’t want to address the question. Maybe she didn’t. In spite of his fatigue, his professional interest stirred.
Finally she said, “Different things. Sometimes they go to zoos, sometimes private owners. It depends. Now, are you through with the third degree?” She sounded vexed and she’d finally quit smiling. Mark looked then, at the other birds, several different species ranging from an Amazon parrot to a scarlet macaw, to a seagull, all in varying stages of recovery.
He didn’t like what he was hearing, and he wasn’t sure he bought it. But she was right. Her story would be easy to check. Too easy to check. All he had to do was call the local FWS for corroboration. Since she didn’t appear to be stupid, he figured she had to be on the up-and-up.
Which meant he was SOL.
He closed his eyes and leaned his head back. Opened them to see a seagull directly overhead, tail feathers twitching. He swore and jumped aside, hearing something that sounded suspiciously like a giggle. Spinning around, he found her watching him. That smile was back, tugging at her mouth. A mighty attractive mouth.
“You’re legit,” he stated. It wasn’t a question.
“Afraid so.” She let that hang a moment. “I’m Cat Randolph. And we seem to have gotten off to a bad start. Truce?” She offered a hand and smiled at him, a remarkably friendly smile considering what had just passed between them. “How about a cup of coffee?”
Coffee. God, he’d kill for a cup of coffee. But if he took her up on it, then he’d feel obligated to apologize, and that was the last thing he wanted to do. He glanced over her shoulder to see another woman bearing down on them. No way did he intend to eat crow, and sure as hell not in front of a witness.
Instead of answering, he gave her his iciest glare, turned his back and left her to her feathered friends.
It looked as though getting shot was only the start of his bad luck.