Gina Luca knew one thing right down to the very marrow of her wedding-planner bones: brides were the devil. And a bridezilla on her fourth round of tequila shots during the reception? A highly flammable devil capable of anything, including hijacking the videographer and projecting an impromptu Kiss Cam on the movie theater–sized screen behind the bridal party dais.
The screen was supposed to be showing guests in real time celebrating the happy couple’s nuptials. Instead, it was showing one of the bridesmaids going octopus on a startled guy in a brown suit holding a shrimp cocktail in one hand.
Gina stood on the outer edge of the crowd, watching the beautiful wedding she’d planned get turned into an episode of trash reality TV. “There is no way this is going to end well,” she muttered to herself.
“With as many of my co-workers as are here tonight?” a man next to her said. “It’s an HR nightmare.”
Startled, she turned and took in the man who spoke. Tall. Dark hair. Green eyes. The scruff of a trim beard. The tie on his tux was undone and hanging loose around his neck. She recognized him immediately.
The name fit. He was a cop. He was built tough—muscular, without looking like he couldn’t actually put his arms down. He looked hot, solid, and totally out of her league—not a shocker. Her league was microscopic. At least that took the pressure off trying to sound cool, which she most definitely was not.
“Aren’t you just a total romantic.” She softened the snark with a smile.
“With a Kiss Cam? At a wedding reception with an open bar? With about 53 percent of the Waterbury Police Department in attendance?” He snorted and somehow managed to make the rude noise sound sexy, because that’s the magic good-looking people had. “Romantic isn’t the word I’d use for it.”
She crossed her arms and stared up at him with amusement. The glittering lights in the ballroom must have flickered at that moment, because she could have sworn his gaze dropped down to her mouth, then to her breasts—totally covered in her high-neck green dress—before snapping back up to her face. And what she saw in his eyes then? It wasn’t the casual dismissal she was used to. Obviously, something wonky was happening with the lights. She’d have to follow up with the hotel staff about it.
“How would you describe the situation?” she asked.
His intense focus turned back to the wedding guests hooting and hollering as the Kiss Cam zoomed in on a new couple. “Inadvisable.”
“Agreed.” She stared at the couple on the screen. They’d been bumping and grinding on the dance floor an hour ago, the woman having matched the bride shot for shot earlier. “But at least we’re not them.”
The couple leaned into each other, mouths agape. Sloppy didn’t even begin to describe the resulting kiss.
“Oh man,” Ford groaned. “You can see their tongues. I should never have to see Partridge’s tongue. That’s gotta be a violation of something.”
Gina smiled up at him, calling his bluff. “You don’t use your tongue when you kiss?”
“On a Kiss Cam?” His eyes went wide but couldn’t seem to stop watching the horror unfold on the big screen. “Hell no.”
She laughed, she couldn’t help it. Something about his hot and uptight vibe got to her. “Have you been on many Kiss Cams?”
His jaw tightened. “Just this one.”
Her gut dropped to the center of the earth, and she looked away from him and back at the screen. The sloppy kissers were gone from the screen. Instead, it showed Gina and Ford.
While they stood there as if turned to stone, the crowd began to chant, “Kiss! Kiss! Kiss!”
And if that wasn’t bad enough, she got to watch in live high-def as embarrassment turned her entire face a blotchy red and her already-large eyes did the whole bugging-out thing that made them protrude even more than they normally did. Great. Add that to the big nose and the stress zit on her chin from organizing this wedding from hell—all shown in great detail on the huge screen—and she was so not the kind of woman a guy like Ford would kiss. Even in the dark. Even after eight tequila shots.
She forced her mouth to form as much of a smile as she could manage at the moment and shook her head. Of course, that didn’t stop the chanting and catcalls from the rowdy guests. And here she’d thought planning a wedding of a Waterbury cop to a nurse at St. Vincent’s would be a low-key, everything-according-to-procedure type of event. Wow had she been wrong.
“Kiss! Kiss!” the crowd continued.
A guy in the back yelled, “Give her a smooch, Hartigan.”
“We’re celebrating love, you gotta kiss,” the bride called out as she lifted another tiny glass filled to the brim into the air as if she was giving a toast instead of making a drunken demand.
Yeah. There was a reason why Gina planned weddings for other people. One, she hated—no, loathed—being the center of attention, which a bride always was. Two, she got off on color-coded spreadsheets, checking things off to-do lists, and organizing like nobody’s business. Three, she was really good at it. Love, however, didn’t have a single thing to do with her career choice.
“Kiss!” the bride’s grandmother yelled out.
Again, Gina shook her head. Her voice seemed to be disappearing along with her last shred of dignity the more time that damn videographer kept his camera in a tight shot on her face. Taking the if-you-ignore-it-long-enough-it-will-go-away philosophy that sometimes worked when her washing machine started making that clunking noise that always eventually stopped, she dropped her attention to the very pointed toes of her tan kitten heels.
A whir of sensation tickled her ear and made her pulse pick up half a second before the man stuck in the Kiss Cam spotlight with her leaned in close.
“Let’s just get it over with,” Ford whispered, the low timbre of his voice edged with tension.
Her gaze snapped up to his too-handsome face, with its perfect square jaw, dark green eyes, and high cheekbones, and her flush of humiliation deepened. He’d probably never been teased a day in his life about anything and had no idea what being laughed at by a group of people was like. Meanwhile, she’d spent her formative years getting called rabbit because of her buckteeth. She’d thought that after the braces came off, all of that would be behind her, but that’s when she’d gotten a new nickname that was even worse: Butterface. Why? Because her body was okay, “but her face?” Not so much. Annoyance at the unfairness of it all made her prickle. Just get it over with indeed.
“Aren’t those the words that every woman is just dying to hear,” she shot back, keeping her voice quiet enough that only he could hear and not letting her fake smile slip a millimeter. “I’m not kissing you.”
Unlike her, while the wedding guests continued to call for a kiss, he didn’t bother to hide his scowl. Of course, that just made him look even sexier. “Why not?”
Reasons! She clamped her mouth shut before that inanity escaped and called it a victory. Knowing the right thing to say at the right time had never been one of her gifts, so the fact that she managed to keep her trap shut was a total win. When he raised one dark eyebrow in question, she scrambled to come up with something besides because you’re too hot.
“I’m working,” she said.
Ford cocked his head and gave her some premium cop face, that blank suspicious stare that all but screamed you’re full of shit. “You don’t think our fine groom, Porter, was on shift when he met Meg at the emergency room after a guy he was arresting took a swing at him with a two-by-four? It’s just a kiss, and then they’ll move on to the next victim.”
She turned her attention back to the big screen display of this horribly awkward moment rather than meeting Ford’s unwavering gaze.
“Do not disrespect the Kiss Cam, Hartigan!” someone bellowed out as the chanting crowd grew more restless. And louder.
“One quick kiss,” he said, his tone grim with a thread of something more vulnerable underneath. “Then, they’ll leave us alone.”
That’s when Gina’s gaze moved from her own face, blotchy with embarrassment on the screen, over to him. The tips of his ears were scarlet, and he was tapping the tips of his middle finger and thumb together like he was keeping rhythm for a ska band.
He was hiding it better, but the reality was he wasn’t enjoying this anymore than she was.
Glancing from the screen to the actual man himself, her lungs tightened. He was a big guy, and she wasn’t just talking about his broad shoulders that filled out his tux to a mouthwatering degree. He had to have at least four inches on her own five foot ten.
He glanced down, making eye contact, and for a second they weren’t the hottie and the nottie. They were two people stuck in a completely socially awkward situation that they had no control over.
She nibbled the inside of her cheek and considered her options before deciding that Ford was right. A quick peck would get the videographer out of their faces and divert the boisterous crowd’s attention to another couple happier to indulge in this bit of insanity. Then, she could finish up the last of her duties and go home to her peaceful, if totally messy, mid-renovation Victorian.
She let out a shaky breath, not sure she was making the right decision. “Fine. A kiss. Whatever.”
Gina had barely gotten the words out when his large hands cupped her face, sending electric shock waves through her that made her lips part slightly with surprise. He dipped his head down—and he kissed her.
The roar of approval from the crowd faded to almost nothing when he seemed to groan involuntarily. Her body approved and made an answering sound of its own. At her encouragement, his tongue slicked across her bottom lip, and her mind lost all reasonable thought. Teasing her senses and sending her heartbeat into overdrive, she softened against him, practically melting against his hard, muscular chest. Somewhere in the back of her mind she registered that people were cheering. She just couldn’t for the life of her care. The world turned electric as the air practically vibrated against her skin as he deepened the kiss. His tongue swept against hers in a brief but oh-so-potent move that had her clutching his lapel before she’d even realized she’d lifted her hands.
Then, almost as soon as it began, he lifted his head and stepped back, breaking the connection.
Dazed, she released his tuxedo jacket and looked around, catching sight of herself on the giant screen. Her face was flushed and her eyes hazy. She pressed her fingers to her still-tingling lips. She looked like a woman who’d been kissed senseless, which made sense because that was exactly what had just happened.
Thankfully, the videographer—whom she would not be subcontracting out to again—moved on to another couple.
Just when she thought the whole situation couldn’t get any more awkward, she and Ford were left staring at each other after the crowd’s attention turned to the next couple being projected onto the screen. Ford’s tux lapels were wrinkled, which just made the fact that his bowtie hung undone from around his open collar hotter, as if he’d just had a quickie in a linen closet. He’d probably done that at some point in his life. Gina had read about it. Did that count?
Nope. Not at all.
Ford cleared his throat. She tried to smile, but her mouth was so dry her lips sort of stuck to her teeth. Oh God, this wasn’t completely uncomfortable at all.
She should say something, preferably something smart and witty, like…her brain went totally blank. She had nothing. Who were these women who always said the right thing at the right time, and how could she learn their ways? Maybe there was an online class for the socially inept?
Ford rubbed his hand across the back of his neck. “Sorry about that.”
“What?” Oh, brilliant, Regina. You should be teaching the snappy banter class.
He shook his head. “I should have known something was up when Ruggiero and Gallo slipped the video guy money and then hightailed it out of here.”
“Well, it’s over with now,” she said, pulling herself mentally together. “Thank God.”
“Can I buy you a drink to make up for it?”
And there went all the work she’d done to get her brain back online. A drink? With her? This hot guy and her? In a heartbeat, her brain waves were all static and nothingness. Of course, that’s the exact moment when words came out of her mouth anyway: “It’s an open bar.”
His half-smile faltered.
Shit. He’d probably been trying to not be an asshole about the whole thing, and she’d given his peace offering the middle finger. Smooth move, Regina.
She took a quick step back, desperate for escape before she made a bigger idiot of herself. “I’ve gotta go finish up some things.”
His gaze dropped to her lips as he started to tap his finger and thumb together again. “Maybe another time.”
Like that was gonna happen. Women who looked like her didn’t end up with hot guys like him—especially not when the him in question was a cop and her family had ties to the we-never-met-a-law-we-didn’t-want-to-break Esposito family. Her overprotective brothers would lose their shit if she even hinted at dating a cop. Yeah, Ford Hartigan was straight up only jilling off material.
“Doubtful,” she said, turning and not running but walking away from the scene of her latest humiliation as fast as her kitten heels could take her.
What in the hell were you thinking to slip her the tongue, Hartigan? Have you totally lost it?
Finally escaping the never-ending wedding reception and still wondering just how bad his kiss must have been for the wedding planner to have blown him off without a second thought, Ford walked through the hotel lobby, searching for the chuckleheads who’d made the whole thing happen.
Shocking absolutely no one, he spotted detectives Johnnie Gallo and Tony Ruggiero at the hotel’s bar, sipping amaretto sours through cocktail straws like sorority girls at happy hour.
Like the jackasses they were, Gallo and Ruggiero raised their glasses in salute as he approached.
“Feeling all hot and bothered there, Hartigan?” Ruggiero asked, his shit-eating grin as wide as his ass, which had seen four thousand too many doughnuts. “Or did you come for some bleach Chapstick to sterilize your lips?”
He and Gallo bent over on their barstools and slapped the shiny bar as they laughed. And this was the braintrust that ran point on the Esposito case for the organized crime task force. Or as he liked to think of it: bear claws versus cannolis.
“She’s not bad-looking,” Ford said, hoping like hell this conversation would end with that.
And she wasn’t. She wouldn’t be winning any beauty contests, but neither were most folks. Plus Hartigan was trained to never trust only what he saw. The truth of a person was rarely on the surface. “The wedding planner chick?” Gallo sputtered. “Did you see the size of that nose and the general ugh of that face? Do we need to let the captain know it’s time to pull you in for a physical so you can get your eyes checked?”
Ford cut a deadly glare at the detectives who, technically, were his bosses. “Shut up, Gallo.”
The comments pissed him off. Of all the people in the world, they should be the last ones to fall for the whole hot-equals-good bullshit. They were cops, after all. They spent every day neck-deep in cases of people who might be beautiful on the outside but were a fucking radioactive cesspool on the inside. Yet these two morons still only saw the surface, which probably explained why the organized crime task force was circling the drain.
“Come on, you gotta admit the wedding planner is harsh on the eyes, not like that one.” Ruggiero glanced over at the boutique hotel’s reception desk. “You know, she asked about you when we came out here.”
Ford didn’t mean to look over at the hotel clerk, but he did anyway. She was a sexy blonde with big tits and an ass that would bring a sinner to church—the kind of girl his brothers would be chatting up right now. But him? Not a chance.
He wasn’t the charming Hartigan. He was the boring, rule-following nerd who’d become a cop instead of a firefighter and never heard the end of it.
His brothers Frankie and Finian would have fallen at the clerk’s feet. Not him—especially not if Ruggiero and Gallo were the ones saying she was hot for him. They’d pulled so many pranks at the station that the captain had pulled them into his office and reamed their asses more than once for it.
“Like I’m gonna believe you two,” he said, looking around the lobby for Kapowski, who’d promised he’d be here if he could.
Gallo held up three fingers. “Scout’s honor.”
Ignoring the obvious set-up, Ford brought it back to business. Trying to shame these two into good behavior worked about as well as it did on a dog—momentary remorse followed five minutes later with Rover being snout-deep in the kitchen garbage. Again. “Has Kapowski showed up with the files about the latest Esposito surveillance yet?”
Gallo shook his head. “That would be a negative.”
“And you two are out here waiting on him so you can review it in a timely manner?”
“Fuck no.” Ruggiero held up his glass, clinking the ice cubes, in the international sign for another drink. “That’s what we have you here for, son.”
“You’re a real piece of work, Ruggiero.”
“I know.” He flashed him a grin, obviously unperturbed by the dig. “It’s why all the ladies love me.”
Gallo laughed loudly. “There is no one who believes that.”
“Tell that to my wife,” he groused. “She’s convinced I’m banging half the nurses at St. Vincent’s.”
Ford didn’t want to touch that, not even with Gallo’s probably radioactive dick. “I’m heading up. If Kapowski ever gets here, you can just have him deliver the info to room two-oh-five.”
Why was he so ready to spend a night working instead of following up with Gina, no matter what Ruggiero and Gallo said about her? Because there was nothing in the world Ford wanted more than nailing the Esposito crime family.
He’d been close, so close, to making a case against the organization. But as his grandpa had always said, close only counts in horseshoes and the backseat of a car. It definitely didn’t count in police investigations, and that’s why he was stuck getting brain rot as the task force’s low man on the totem pole for the foreseeable future. But he wouldn’t be there forever.
Growing up as the black sheep of the seven Hartigan kids, he’d learned early on that it wasn’t about winning the battle, it was about winning the war. Eventually, if he played it smart—which he always did—he’d move up to running the task force. Then, give him two decades and, at fifty, he’d be the youngest police commissioner in Waterbury’s history.
Gallo gave him a questioning look. “You’re staying here?”
“I’ve had two beers,” Ford said, stopping before he sang them song and verse on department policy and the law.
“Jesus, Joseph, and Mary,” Ruggiero said and took a drink from the red cocktail straw of the new amaretto sour the bartender had handed him. “Even my grandmother can drive home after two beers.”
“It’s against department policy.” Section forty-two point eight point three, to be precise.
“Fucking rule follower.” Gallo rolled his eyes and turned his barstool back around to face the bar and the giant TV screen showing the Harbor City Ice Knights losing. Again.
“We are law enforcement officers.” Which meant they needed to hold themselves to a higher standard, to put law and order above everything else.
Ruggiero snorted. “That doesn’t mean we have to be know-it-all assholes.”
Ford clamped his mouth shut and hammered the tip of his middle finger against his thumb, counting down from twenty-five because ten wasn’t going to do it with these two.
Once he tapped to twenty-five, he let out a breath. “Just have Kapowski bring up the files if he stops by. We need his detail tonight to pay off. If the tip about the massive drug deal we got was right, the Espositos will be flooding Waterbury with heroin.” Even Ruggiero and Gallo grimaced at his words. Despite their general assholery, even they knew a lot of people would suffer if they didn’t stop this deal—and right now they didn’t have jack shit on it. He grabbed his extra key out of his inside jacket pocket and handed it to Ruggiero. “Room two-oh-five. He can leave the files and the key on the desk in my room. I need a shower.”
Ruggiero shrugged, his grimace replaced with a shit-eating grin. “Maybe I’ll have that hot receptionist bring them up instead.”
“You’re hilarious,” Ford said and marched toward the elevators so he could get out of this monkey suit.
If Ford had been one of his brothers, he would have been able to cajole the other men into not being such giant assholes. However, Ford had long ago accepted that he wasn’t like the rest of his family. Brusque. By the rules. No-nonsense. That was him, the boring, dark-haired, odd man out of the wild, fun-loving, rough-and-tumble Hartigans—the guy who had women sprinting away from him after a single kiss. Yeah. He was a real catch, which is why he was going up to to his room and find some relief in the shower instead of with the wedding planner.