Excerpts

Hard To Kill

Prologue

“Get the hell out of there. Now.” Jenning’s voice crackled to life in Sabrina’s earpiece.

She ignored his command even while her skin itched, foretelling her sixth sense was kicking in. Yep, she was close.

“Now, Shaw. His friends are heading your way. You—”

She clicked off the receiver to stop the tirade that no doubt would follow.  A few minutes. That’s all she needed.

Tip-toeing up the metal staircase in her black combat-style boots, she inched her way to apartment 203. Eddie Ramer might be able to fool the cops but not her. The bottom feeder had been enticing Caitlyn for weeks with his promise of high paying modeling gigs. And then she’d disappeared.

Coincidence? Yeah, right.

A heavy smell of weed permeated the air, despite the open balconies outside the apartment doors. The metal railing and no-tell-motel-appearance of the building didn’t shock her. In fact it worked in her favor. The thin walls made her privy to the conversations along the journey to her prize.

201. 202. Finally, 203.

Peeking inside was made impossible by the closed drapes. Instead, she crawled under the window, then slid along the wall stopping outside the apartment door. A cacophony of motorcycle engines in the distance signaled Eddie’s friends were getting closer.

Her heart beat heavily while her fingers tingled. Everything inside her longed to grab the gun strapped to her thigh, but she resisted the urge. Only if necessary. She held her breath, keying into the conversation on the other side of the door.

“Let me see what you’ve got, baby.” The voice came from inside.

Sabrina closed her eyes, dispelling the vile thoughts racing around her head. Focus remained the key to her success.

“I thought—” The girl’s shaky voice signaled her fear.

“You have a smokin’ bod, but I gotta know you can sell the goods. That’s the way this works. Only then can I open doors for you.”

Enough.

With one strategically placed kick, her boot separated the lock from the flimsy door. Seconds later, she charged inside, tackling Eddie to the ground. He tried to reverse her dominant position, but she was one step ahead of him, bringing the tip of her blade to his throat, a mere flick away from his carotid artery.

She slid off his chest and eased them both to a standing position, never wavering on the location of the blade. “Now Caitlyn and I are going to leave without any trouble from you or your ragtag group of merry men. Got that?”

His eyebrows furrowed while his lips curled into a smirk. “Caitlyn? She’s ancient history.”

A sinking sensation settled in her gut as Sabrina turned toward the girl. Hovering close to the bed, a young Hispanic girl with striking looks and long dark hair stood, her blouse partially unbuttoned. Definitely not Caitlyn Collins.

Not good.

That half second of non-focus on her part was all Eddie needed to grab her forearm, dislodging the knife and sending it flying across the room into the wall. Despite his bulk, the alcohol reeking from his pores slowed his reflexes. She easily ducked the clumsy punch he sent her way. When he grasped her bicep and pulled up, that left him open for her counter strike to the round part of his shoulder, followed by a punch to his liver through the intercostal nerve, robbing him of breath, then a chop to the side of his neck, hitting his vagus nerve with enough force to stun.

Sabrina grabbed the girl and ran.

Dread chilled her bones as she bounded down the steps, yanking the frightened girl along with her. For the first time in her life she’d failed her mission. She’d given the Collins family hope when she’d promised to rescue their daughter. Now she was coming back empty handed. There had to be another way.

***

Eddie’s words rang in her ears: She’s ancient history. What did that mean besides the obvious?Over the course of the last day and a half, those words had cycled through Sabrina’s brain constantly as she waded through every possible meaning, from the mundane to the tragic. Yep, she was grasping at straws, but right now that was all she had to hold on to.

Right now she couldn’t think of anything worse than stepping up to the Collins’ door in Scarsdale and seeing the evidence of failure reflected in their eyes. They’d trusted her above everyone else at The Alliance, and she couldn’t deliver.

Instead of dwelling on things she couldn’t change, she sucked in a breath and steeled her spine. Seconds later she pushed the doorbell.

John Collins opened the door to let her in, but Martha was right behind him. Both their eyes were red-rimmed, while Martha had a tissue to wipe the perpetual leak of tears clogging her nose. Evidence of the perilous hold on her emotions was displayed in the tight clench of her jaw.

“I’m so sorry.” Sabrina shook her head. How could she make the words come out to mitigate the impact? She couldn’t. And that’s what hurt the most. “She wasn’t with Eddie like we thought.”

Even though this wasn’t new information, Martha sucked in a sob. “Isn’t there anything else you can do?”

“I’ve got to take another look at what she was doing online.” While it was a shot in the dark, it was the only possible lead she had. They’d already explored friends from school, and that had resulted in a big fat zero. None of them knew a thing about what happened to Caitlyn, except to tell her about Eddie.

They looked at each other, and tears began to leak from the corners of their eyes. Kill me now. Failure was tougher than she could ever have imagined. The taste of it rolled around her mouth until she felt like the she might gag on it.

“She never gave us any trouble.” John shrugged. “Except for her fascination with Eddie. We were so positive—” His voice trailed off into the abyss of grief.

“Let me see what I can figure out. Show me her room again.” Sabrina trailed them down the hall, praying for a crumb of information, even while knowing the possibility of success was remote.

The pain of being in Caitlyn’s room must have been too much for them to bear as they left her alone seconds later. She chewed on her lip and flexed her fingers as she searched Caitlyn’s computer history finding nothing unremarkable. Then Sabrina dug a little deeper and found the deleted history. The search instantly got more interesting.

Something called Trinity Modeling had been deleted by an eraser program through the website. Interesting.

There was almost always a way to get deleted information, unless the hard drive had been physically damaged—which thankfully it hadn’t. She needed to find a way of retrieving what had been expunged, but it would no doubt be a painstaking process given the level of sophisticated data cover-up she’d encountered so far.

Untangling the information must have taken hours, but she’d lost track of time so couldn’t say for sure. Finally a sliver led to a thread which led to another which led to a chat room Caitlyn had apparently been visiting over the last couple of weeks. Sabrina’s heart kick started inside her chest as hope bloomed. Gotcha.

“Martha. John. You need to see this.”

When they arrived seconds later, she pointed to the screen. “Caitlyn had been corresponding with somebody named Marco about modeling in Europe.”

Martha sucked in a breath even as fresh tears began to flow. “She’s had this modeling bug for a while now, but I told her no. Why didn’t I—”

“You couldn’t have known. This Marco guy took advantage of her naiveté and made a lot of promises about putting her in runway shows in Paris with something called Trinity Modeling Agency.” She held up her hand to stop their questions so she could finish. “I did a search. There is no such modeling agency.”

“How did you find all this stuff?” John asked.

“Even when you delete information from the computer, it’s never really deleted.” The itch started as her sixth sense kicked in. Without a doubt she’d hit the motherlode.

Martha grasped her hand and held tight. “You’ve got to help us.”

“Count on it.”

All she knew was she couldn’t face this with family with another failure. She was going to get Caitlyn back or die trying.


The Christmas Curse

Tessa Stevens grimaced as she fought to ignore the drunken carolers singing an off-key and rather lewd version of “Jingle Bells”. bahumbug.

Christmas was her Achilles’ heel. Her kryptonite. The mother of all curses. She was a menace to society and shouldn’t be out in public.

But to get this over with, she’d agreed to come to the home of her soon-to-be-ex Max, despite the warning bells ringing inside her head. With only ten days left until Christmas, she should be in hiding, not traipsing into the night to remedy this last little glitch in their divorce.

Max, of all people, should remember the curse that voodoo priestess cast on the women in her family, the one that was especially potent at Christmas. But nooooo, he had to have the papers signed tonight, not after New Year’s. He’d recited something about tax liabilities and a vacation to St. Mortiz, but she’d blocked out the details.

With the prospect of finally having this whole marriage fiasco behind her, she’d thrown her coat over her leopard print pj’s, stuffed her feet into her Uggs, started up her trusty Toyota and made the short drive to his brownstone. While she’d never been to his house, she knew the neighborhood well—upscale, trendy and uber expensive.

Max was a flashy kind of guy so his home choice wasn’t too surprising. She, on the other hand, liked to keep a low profile and had a home/artist’s studio on Printers Row in Chicago.

With the two of them being such polar opposites, she shouldn’t have married him in the first place. She’d never loved him. But then, not loving him was the point. The cautionary words of her great grandmother reverberated in her ears, ‘Never marry for love, or it will surely bring disaster.

Stuffing back the memories, she turned the knob on the front door Max had promised to keep unlocked. Upon entering the poorly lit entryway, she stumbled over a pair of shoes as she fumbled for a light switch.

“Couldn’t you have turned on a light?”

Not a word.

Eerily quiet and creepy dark, this place would be a perfect haunted house. She tried to keep thoughts of voodoo, hexes, juju, and all things reminiscent of her New Orleans heritage at bay as she fingered the crystal hanging around her neck. She trailed her other hand along the wall, finally locating the evasive light switch and flicked it on.

Nothing.

“Damn it, Max. This is not funny.”

It would be like him to scare the crap out of her by jumping from behind a door or something. Though Max was Harvard educated, his practical joke repertoire had never moved beyond junior high.

Getting the hell out of there and leaving him to his own devices was a potent temptation right now. Seconds away from giving in to the warning bells, she spotted a flicker of light towards the end of the hallway. Shuffling toward it, she found a dining room table set for two with black candles blazing in silver candlesticks.

Was he right now upstairs in bed with a woman?

Eww.

Did he forget about his plea not an hour ago for her to come over?

Freaky power outage aside, the setup had romantic interlude written all over it. She picked up one of the crystal glasses and sniffed as bubbles popped along the surface. Champagne?

Oh jeez, was he vying for some kind of reconciliation? “Max?” She tried to keep the irritation out of her voice and hoped he wasn’t upstairs naked in one of the bedrooms, waiting for her like some kind of pervert.

Talk about a Christmas curse! Sex with him had never been very good in the first place, but to give it a go during this time of year would no doubt lead to disaster. Even the very idea brought bile into her throat.

A floorboard creaked overhead. “Max, is that you?” Grabbing one of the candlesticks she moved towards the stairs. As the flame flickered, a prickly sensation tunneled down her spine, stopping her mid-stride. Her heart kaboomed inside her chest.

Blood. The coppery smell wafted in the air. Maybe the eeriness of the situation was playing tricks on her.

Then she heard what sounded like footsteps overhead.

“Max.” Somehow she managed to keep the hysteria out of her voice as she fought for control. “Max, where are you?”

Something inside told her it was fruitless, but as she climbed the stairs she continued to call his name. She found a switch at the top of the stairs and flipped it, but wasn’t surprised when nothing happened.

“Max.” She placed her hand on her chest and held her breath as she opened the first door to the right even while her creepy radar was going off with each step.

With the help of the candlelight, she spotted a gigantic desk in the corner of the room. Seconds after she breathed out a sigh of relief at finding the place empty, she suddenly noticed feet sprawled at an awkward angle on the other side of the desk.

“Oh…my…God.” Her breath hiccupped. She went closer and saw that it was Max. Sucking in a giant gulp of air, she touched his still form with trembling fingers. Her pulse rate shot through the roof.

“Max, are you all right?” She grasped his shoulders and shook him, even as the voice inside her head said, ‘Of course he’s not all right, he’s dead’. No doubt about it, she’d slipped over the edge into crazyland.

A buzzing sensation filled her ears, blocking out everything but the site of his bloodless face. The room swam before her eyes and sweat popped along her skin. She struggled not to faint.

Unsteady, she braced herself on the corner of the desk and searched her purse. A small red bag of gris gris to keep away evil spirits mocked her as she rummaged for her phone.

“There’s been a murder.” She recited the facts to the 9-1-1 operator before hanging up.

Only then did she give in to the urge to scream at the top of her lungs, “You’ve got the wrong guy. I didn’t love him. I never loved him. Ever.” She pumped her fist in the air and hoped the curse gods would somehow rectify their mistake and bring Max back to life even though she knew that would never happen.

She gripped the candlestick, shakily made her way downstairs and staggered into the first vacant room she found. Plunking onto a brown leather couch, she contemplated her life. It had been complicated for as long as she could remember.

Before she was born, Tessa’s great grandmother had caught the wrath of a voodoo queen in New Orleans by flirting with the woman’s husband—and by all accounts a tad bit more than flirting and involving fewer clothes—so the woman had put a curse on Tessa’s family for the next hundred years.

The queen had sworn the curse couldn’t be broken. She had further proclaimed that every female member of the family would bear the mark of the devil and suffer the wrath of black magic with every man, woman or child in their life, especially during the Christmas season.

Always worried about inadvertently causing harm to others, Tessa tried subtle hints as a way to keep others at bay—just in case.

When that didn’t work, she informed anyone who would listen about the curse. Predictably, they’d laugh and call her crazy. But when they lost their jobs, got speeding tickets, crashed their cars, or broke a leg taking out the trash, inevitably the finger would point back at her.

Word got around quickly. She didn’t need a megaphone announcing ‘danger, danger, danger’ as she walked down the street. Most heard the stories and would either recoil or, at the very least, walk the other way when they saw her coming.

When she entered Tulane University, she’d decided to keep a low profile. There was no sense in everyone knowing of her problem, especially in a city where black magic was the norm rather than the unusual. For the most part she’d been able to escape the wrath of the curse.

Except for the business with Jack Sloane. That night eight years ago when she’d met him had been nothing short of magical. It was as if she’d conjured up the perfect man through an act of sheer will.

Bored out of her mind at a party in the home of a Tulane Alumnus in the Garden District of New Orleans, she’d been biding her time until she could gracefully make her exit. The alum had been a huge contributor to the arts so she felt that she needed to smile and act friendly as she sipped on a glass of champagne. And suddenly there he was, standing outside the wrought iron fence staring at her so intensely, she felt as if her body simmered on the inside. The rest, as they say, was history.

For the next five plus weeks, they were inseparable. It seemed they couldn’t get enough of each other until she recognized the negative trajectory of his luck.

In love and desperate to change the family legacy before it was too late, she contacted her grandmother, who attempted to get the curse removed by enlisting the help of a powerful spiritualist in New Orleans. It had cost a fortune and produced only mixed results. The spiritualist couldn’t remove the last and most deadly part of the curse: the one involving Christmas and any man she might love.

At that point Tessa had no choice. She did what she had to do and broke it off with Jack. Every minute she stayed with him put him in more danger.

But that didn’t explain why the curse had struck Max.

She didn’t love him. She wasn’t even sure she liked him very much. So why had he fallen victim to the powerful curse? It didn’t make sense.

Absorbed in the past, the sudden knock on the front door made her jump.

“Police,” a voice hollered from the other side.

When she opened the door, candlestick in hand, she found two men dressed in dark blue uniforms and carrying guns. A study in contrast, one officer was tall and lanky, his uniform loosely fitting his frame. The other was short and stout and looked as if he’d been squeezed into his uniform with a giant shoehorn.

She pointed to the stairs. “First room on the right.” She clenched her fingers tight to keep the shakiness at bay. “But I hope you have a flashlight. The lights aren’t working.”

The lanky policeman flicked the switch on the wall. The lights went on. After looking at her strangely, he said, “I guess they’re working now. Do you mind showing us where the body is?”

She sure as hell did, but she complied with their request. As she shuffled up the stairs they followed behind until she stopped outside the door. They stepped inside while she tried to stay at the periphery. Still, she found herself morbidly fascinated. Could it be that this had been one whopping joke?

Hardy har, har. She could see Max doubled over with laughter.

Except it wasn’t a joke. Reality slapped her upside the face when the short one checked for vital signs and shook his head, confirming what she’d already known. Max was truly dead.

“Do you live here, ma’am?”

“He’s my husband…I mean my ex-husband…almost ex-husband…Maxwell Armstrong III. The divorce will be final on Monday. I mean would have been final.” She sucked in a deep breath. “But I don’t live here.”

His skeptical gaze took in her attire before he spoke. “Did you see what happened?”

“He was like this when I got here.” Max was D-E-A-D. She fought with the idea and swallowed.  That fact was still hanging around the edge of her consciousness, waiting to attack. When it finally did, she knew she’d be in trouble. “I’m feeling a little sick. If you don’t mind, I’m going to go back downstairs and wait.”

“Okay, but when the detective gets here he’ll want to talk to you.”

He didn’t say anything else so she slipped down the stairs. Being in the same room as Max’s dead body brought guilt she didn’t want to think about. Her heart bubbled with remorse. Could she have somehow prevented this tragedy? She sat in the dark feeling more depressed and alone than ever.

She had no idea how much time had passed when one of the officers touched her arm. “Ma’am, the detective would like to ask you a few questions upstairs.”

“Can’t he come here? I’m not really up–” She didn’t want to move from this spot, let alone talk to someone in the room where she’d found Max’s body.

The officer shook his head and held out his hand. “I understand this is difficult for you but we’ll get this over with as soon as possible.”

With no other choice, she complied. Dreading every step that would bring her closer to her dead nearly ex-husband, she lumbered up the stairs and into the room.

She guessed it was the detective who was crouched down removing something from the rug with a pair of tweezers and putting it into a small baggie. From this angle, there was a sense of familiarity about him she couldn’t quite pinpoint. Suddenly, her breath caught in her throat as a sense of déjà vu skittered along her spine.

It couldn’t be. Coarse dark hair, broad shoulders, long lean legs, a muscular butt. There had to be oodles of men in Chicago who would fit that description. Now was not the time to indulge in flights of fancy.

Still, a sense of knowing clutched at her heart. When he finally turned around she knew what she’d see: Piercing dark eyes that could both challenge and seduce simultaneously. The combination had taken her breath away then just as no doubt it would now.

What were the chances they’d end up in the same city, let alone the chances of him being called to the scene of a crime she happened to be involved in? The odds had to be astronomical.

Surely this mind trip into the land of never-could-be must be some kind of trauma-induced aberration. But when he stood and turned, her heart plummeted to her toes.

The only man she’d ever loved had just walked back into her life after nearly eight years. The man she’d left without a word in an effort to save him from disaster. The man she’d never loved but married was now lying dead. Somehow, inexplicably, they were all caught in one wicked mix of fate.  This was a crazy mixed up night of super bad ju ju. No doubt the formidable voodoo queen was having the last laugh.

“Tessa? Tessa Stevens?”

The sexy tone of his voice broke along her nerves like a bad case of hives. Memories danced inside and she could almost feel his breath on her skin. Oh man, she remembered that voice. And she remembered the way he moved his hips when they danced to Cajun music down in the Quarter, the way his fingers and lips seemed to know the most erogenous parts of her body. And his body…she shouldn’t start thinking about that.

White spots spun before her eyes before her knees gave out. “Jack, I think I’m…” That’s all that came out before she fainted.


Accused

 


 

The old floorboards creaked and groaned under her tentative steps. Pacing lent itself to distraction: leg up, leg down—creak—leg up, leg down, turn, take a sip of cold coffee. Repeat.

The problem was when she stopped calculating each step, it became second nature. With her mind free, she remembered why her heart fluttered, her stomach clenched.

Glancing at the clock for the hundredth time, doubt surfaced.  Glowing numbers mocked her as if to say ‘you shouldn’t have trusted him’. Two in the morning. Where in the hell was he?

Jillian’s anger had smoldered until it exploded into fear as she waited for her sixteen year old son Travis to come home. She tamped down thoughts of the worst case scenario as she dialed his cell phone once again.

Directly into voicemail.

Damn it.

She must have called thirty times since his eleven thirty curfew had come and gone, each time with the same result. If he’d been in an accident, she would have heard something by now. Then again, the roads leading to their home in the hills were isolated, especially late at night. He could have run off the road and be lying unconscious in a ditch.

Being alone and filled with all sorts of tragic scenarios bouncing around her head was hell. But even when married, Archie was either never home or detached himself from any parental responsibility at inconvenient times like this. No doubt if he’d been around, he’d be in bed, sound asleep—no help whatsoever.

Jillian peeked out the window hoping for a shadow of headlights coming up the mountainous road. She felt sick to her stomach as her gut clenched and unclenched with each passing moment.

Two fifteen.

After everything they’d gone through he wouldn’t do this to her. Something had to be disastrously wrong. It wasn’t motherly pride that made her believe in his core Travis was a good kid.

She ran fingers through her overgrown, in-desperate-need-of-color-hair and considered contacting the police. Poised over the buttons she contemplated the repercussions…

Would they take her seriously given his recent history? No doubt they’d feed her the same bullshit: He’d run away before. No doubt he was back at it again. But her mother gut twitch told her this time was different.

Since moving from Orange County, the old Travis had slowly returned. Like the old days, they’d sit together on the deck in back and talk for hours about everything from music to books to TV. At first she’d attributed it to progress made with his weekly court-mandated therapy appointments. But it was more. Maybe not having Archie around had allowed them both to relax and enjoy life once again.

Damn it. She’d let her guard down.

Why hadn’t she asked for the phone number of one of his new friends, or even the number of his coach where he’d been, along with the rest of the football team, for a pre-season dinner? What was the man’s name? A former pro player, Travis had talked about him incessantly since football camp started. She should remember. But with her mind fraught with worry, she could barely remember her own name let alone anything else.

Now with him MIA, déjà vu’ reared its ugly head.

Wrapping in a sweater and grabbing her binoculars, she went onto the back deck. Despite her fear of heights and the fact the deck overlooked the canyon below, the tranquil atmosphere normally soothed her in a way she couldn’t quantify. Clean, fresh air swirled along the tree tops and filled her lungs as she pursued a sense of calm.

She perched next to Travis’ favorite new toy: the telescope she’d purchased for him to watch the stars. Grasping onto the railing tightly with one hand, she cradled the binoculars with the other and focused on the winding mountain road.

Tonight the sky was littered with stars so bright they were nearly blinding. Travis would have enjoyed a night like tonight. No doubt he would have taken the time to explain all the visible constellations with as much enthusiasm a sixteen year old boy could muster.

Jillian shuddered through a worried sigh. Any moment now he’d walk through that door. He had to. He was the only thing she had left. The only thing she truly cherished. Why hadn’t she told him that more often?

She blinked and rubbed her overly tired eyes. Was she hallucinating? A sprinkling of headlights meandered through the road below. Hope fluttered like a butterfly caught inside her chest as she spotted a couple of cars weaving their way through the night. With her pulse stopping and starting at infrequent intervals, she held her breath and followed the headlights and their continued ascent.

Theirs was the last house this far up the mountain. If the cars made it past the turn, surely one had to be Travis. She worried her lip while hope pulsed inside. After monitoring the last and final turn, she dropped her binoculars, ran through the house and threw open the front door.

First she’d hug him until he forced her away with foolish teenage pride. And then she’d ground him—perhaps for the remainder of his life.

He pulled into the driveway and got out of the beat-up Chevy Tahoe she’d purchased for his sixteenth birthday in July. Number one: take away his car.

Even though he towered over her five foot eight inch frame by several inches, Jillian managed to sweep him into a hug. She held on, relishing in the solidness of his frame, even enjoying the remnants of the bad cologne he’d taken to over using.

“Where the hell -” Blue and red lights swirled behind him casting awkward shadows among the trees before they stopped, disappearing into the night.

Something lethal and scary skittered down her spine as she glanced from Travis to the cop who’d emerged from his car and walked up her steep driveway. At a loss for words, she could only stare as the man approached, his right hand resting on the butt of his revolver. Seconds later, another cop car pulled in blocking any potential escape route. He got out and came around to the other side.

Cold fear clenched her gut making her whole body tremble. Based on the look on their faces and the way they made their approach, something bad had happened. Oh God, did Travis do something stupid? Like maybe scrape the hell out of his father’s prized Lexus with a nail, or even set fire to it? He’d threatened to do it once or twice in the past. But she’d thought Travis had let go of some of that anger with the help of his therapist.

“You’re going to have to open the trunk of that car, son.” The cop who’d approached first, spoke as his gaze shifted from her to Travis.

When Travis reached out with his key, she laid a hand on his arm. Even though she’d never practiced law, her father had been a judge and gave her many a cautionary tale about police overstepping their bounds. While it had been many years ago, some things you never forget.

“What is this about officer?”

“There’s been a murder in Brentwood. Your son’s vehicle matches the description of the car we’re looking for. We’d like to search the vehicle.” He placed his hands on his hips and rocked back on his heels. “Is that blood on your shirt, son?” He pointed to the bottom of Travis’ t-shirt where a reddish-brown colored stain appeared.

Dread seeped into his gaze as Travis yanked up the edge of his shirt. “I…I…I spilled some pop in the car.” Neither his voice, nor the tremble to his fingers brought about feelings of relief.

Not for the first time tonight, Jillian felt as if she’d stepped into some kind of alternate universe. The scarier part being she didn’t anticipate getting out of this hellhole any time soon.

“Based on what I see, one phone call and I can get a court order to do a search for a gun no problem.”

“This is insane. My son didn’t murder anyone. He couldn’t possibly have a gun. I don’t own one and he’s not old enough to buy one.” Her knees went weak. It took every ounce of willpower to remain standing. Something was very very wrong. She prayed any second she’d wake from this nightmare.

The cop gave her one of those ‘that’s what parents always say’ looks and snatched the keys from Travis. The other cop came around to join him and they rifled through the trunk, tossing out a soccer ball, a pair of football cleats, some DVDs, books and an old skateboard.

Jillian managed to squeak out a breath. Although she couldn’t imagine Travis doing something violent, she also couldn’t have imagined him getting involved with drugs and he had.

One worry at a time.

“We’d like to look through the house.”

“What for? You pulled in right behind him. It isn’t like he could have had time to hide a gun.”

“But he might have dropped it off earlier and then returned to the scene of the crime.”

“Are you crazy? We don’t own a gun. I don’t believe in them. And I told you Travis isn’t old enough to buy one.” She tempered the vehemence of her words as she recognized he could have purchased one illegally if he’d wanted to. By the time they’d left Los Angeles, he’d been hanging out with gangbangers and wannabes. Anything was possible.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

She glanced at Travis. Immediately, her fear escalated bringing about the shakes. He looked guilty, or confused, or scared.  While the motherly instinct to ask him what happened curled around her, caution took over. Based on the look on his face, he shouldn’t say a thing.

To ensure he didn’t, she held onto his fingers and squeezed. Although it might be foolish in the long run, she authorized permission for the officers to look through the house. At least she’d have a few moments alone with her son.

As soon as they marched through the open door, she drew him into a hug once again. “Travis, you need to tell me what happened?”

He shook his head. “Mom, I’m not sure. I can’t remember. But I…think…I might have done it.”

The earth opened up at that very moment and swallowed her whole.

***

Travis hated to see that look on his mother’s face. Unlike his asshole dad, she’d done nothing but support him.

Why couldn’t he remember? Sure this had happened when he’d taken ecstasy a few times. But he’d been clean since his arrest last March.

“What do you mean you might have done it?” She pinched his biceps. “You couldn’t have.” She drew her fingers through her hair like she always did when she was nervous. “You wouldn’t hurt anybody.”

“I pushed dad.” It was a stupid thing to do, but at the time, his dad had kept calling him a loser, and he couldn’t take it anymore.

“He’s an idiot. Besides, pushing isn’t murder.” She tsked as her eyes went wide. “Are you taking drugs again?”

“Oh God, no.” He needed her to believe him even while he wouldn’t blame her if she didn’t. “I swear mom. I’m only taking the prescription the shrink gave me.”

Tears sprinkled her lashes. “Then you have nothing to hide.” She sucked in a breath. “Who were you with and what did you do tonight?”

“I was at the football thing at Coach’s house like I told you. Then Lexie called. She was really upset.” He held up his hands. “I know you don’t like her, but she’s my friend. I wanted to be there for her.”

Tears pooled in her eyes. “It’s not that I don’t like her. She’s…well…she’s had a difficult life. My God, the poor girl is on her fifth step dad.”

Travis struggled to keep his focus. For once in his life, he wanted to get things right. “I know mom. But she needed somebody to talk to.”

“Couldn’t you have–” she shook her head. “Nevermind. What happened?”

He shrugged. “Nothing much. We met and talked for a while.” He gulped. “She wanted to go to this party.”

“Oh no, Travis.” She shook her head. “Are you sure you didn’t take any drugs?”

“I swear, Mom. I went there…” he squeezed his eyes closed, “I didn’t do anything.”

“Were there drugs there?”

He couldn’t look at her, afraid of the disappointment he’d see in her eyes. Instead he focused on the cracks in the driveway. “Yes, but that’s not my scene any more.”

She grabbed him by the arms and shook. “Then you shouldn’t have been there. You’re in violation of your probation.”

“I know. I know. I didn’t stay long.” At least he didn’t think so. He had a huge gap in memory from the time he hit that party until he was in his car driving home with that damn cop car trailing behind him since he hit the off ramp.

“But it’s nearly three. Where have you been?”

Fear riddled down his spine, not because of circumstances, but because he needed her to believe him. “I swear to you, mom, I don’t know.” His voice hiccupped as the rise of emotion caused tears to threaten. When had he become such a wuss? “The next thing I remember is driving home.”

She grasped his chin and forced him to look her in the eye. “Either you took drugs, or somebody slipped you some.” Her fingers trembled as they lingered on the sides of his face. “There’s no other explanation.” She sucked in a breath. “Think. Did you have anything to drink at the party?”

Hell, no. He’d worked too hard to turn his life around. “Just water. My water bottle’s still in the car.”

She stalked to the car and flung open the door, grasped the bottle into her hands and threw it into the bushes along the house. “Somebody might have put something in it. We’ll worry about that later.”

Seconds later, the cops came back out the door. Travis felt a hint of relief stream through him until he spotted the plastic bag with what looked like a gun inside.

He was in some deep shit.

***

Jillian’s heart nearly seized when she spotted what the officers carried. Where the hell had that come from?

“I’m afraid we’re going to have to take you in, son.”

“Wait.” She held out her hand as she forced her mind out of mother mode into legal mode. “I’d like to call an attorney. And you are not allowed to question him outside of my presence. He’s a minor.” She let go of the breath she’d been holding. “Besides, you don’t even know if that’s the murder weapon.”

This whole conversation sounded insane like some kind of crazy fucked up movie script her husband might direct. But there’d be no yelling ‘cut’ at the end of this and doing another take.

“We’ll have to run ballistics.” He grasped onto Travis’ biceps and pulled his hands behind clinking him into handcuffs.

Jillian could have sworn her heart ripped in half then got stomped on inside her chest all while her stomach did a free fall. Never, in a million years, could she imagine a day when she’d see her baby in handcuffs.

She gave Travis an awkward hug stymied due to his imprisoned hands and fought through the bout of tears waiting to explode. Breaking down and losing focus wouldn’t help either of them.

“I’ll follow in my car.” She ran into the house and grabbed her purse before scurrying out the door. Seconds later, she was in the car and pulling out of the driveway following two cop cars back into the City, one of which had her son handcuffed in the backseat like a criminal.

She never would have believed she could live through another nightmare like the one six months ago. But this was worse. This was murder. Her fingers trembled, her breathing felt like she was in the throes of an asthma attack.

She couldn’t face this alone. Not again. Despite what they’d been through, she called Archie. “Beckett” His voice was barely audible, lost in the sounds of loud music and laughter of his surroundings.

“Travis has been arrested.”

“What the dumb fuck do now?”

Jillian bit back the whip of anger, pushed back pangs of the all-too-frequent-mantra of ‘he’s the only one knows the truth about me’ and forced herself to focus despite the shakes and trembles inhabiting her body. “He needs a good criminal lawyer. Who do you know that will meet us in LA now?” To utter the word murder along with their son’s name seemed too much to bear.

The finalization of the divorce eight months ago only formalized the seventeen year rift in their marriage. Between his numerous affairs and emotional detachment, she’d somehow managed to kid herself into believing she needed to preserve the family. Reality slapped her in the face the first time Travis got into trouble, and Archie summarily washed his hands of the situation.

Archie could abuse her trust without repercussions, but what he’d done to their son was unforgivable. She’d filed for divorce the next day. In retrospect, she regretted nothing about her decision except how long it had taken her to reach it.

“Who’s going to pay for that?” His irritated tone jerked her back to the present.

“You’re kidding me? That’s the only thing you can think about?” Anger at her ex seemed healthy now considering the alternative of dwelling in past secrets.

“Yeah, because either way you’ll be hitting me up for more money.”

“Asshole.” Jillian pushed the end button as a torrent of emotion charged below the surface.

She didn’t need Archie to secure a lawyer. While most of their friends had abandoned her in the wake of the divorce, she still possessed a list of home numbers of movers and shakers she could call. And she’d call every last one of them until she got the help she needed.

 


Mama Said…

Gabriella shifted, clumsily finding the right gear. The Porsche responded with a lurch, the wheels spinning for a second or two before taking hold on the slick pavement. At three a.m. on a Thursday morning, I-294 North, the highway connecting Illinois with Wisconsin, was nearly deserted. After a glance in the rearview mirror, she drew in a long deep breath.

Her passenger moaned in his seat, excruciating pain etched onto his face. At least he was still alive. For a terrifying couple of minutes, she wasn’t sure he was still breathing.

Despite the circumstances, she nearly smiled as she envisioned the headline:   Gabriella Santos Saves Shane O’Neil

She imagined the details that would follow: Gabriella Santos, stiletto-wearing blues singer, courageously saves big bad Shane O’Neil, all six foot four inches and two hundred pounds of him. Then again, she shouldn’t get ahead of herself.

G.I. Jane she wasn’t. But still, by some kind of miracle, she’d pulled it off. At least for the time being.

Apprehensive after everything she’d gone through in the last several hours, she peeked at his still form. He definitely needed a doctor. But before he passed out, she had promised him no cops and no hospital. Since they had both been preoccupied dodging bullets at the time, she hadn’t asked for an explanation. For the time being, she felt obligated to honor his wishes. Fighting the urge to poke him just to hear him moan so she’d know he was still alive, she settled for finding a centimeter of skin not bruised or swollen and touched it. When he felt warm but not feverish, she let out a sigh of relief.

Since leaving Florida a month ago, she’d been followed, mugged, threatened and shot at. She wasn’t in law enforcement like her brothers. She wasn’t even gainfully employed most of the time. She was a blues singer, flitting from one gig to another, never quite knowing where she’d find herself.

But the very last place she would have expected to be during the early morning hours of August twenty-fourth was running from a carload of bad guys with a nearly dead man sitting next to her. How could she possibly take care of a half-dead guy when she couldn’t even take care of herself?

It had all started mere weeks ago when she entered the Blues Stop that humid August afternoon . . .

***

For Gabriella, getting ready for her first gig in Chicago took hours. Finally, she decided on a tailored silk paisley vest and paired it with a short jeans skirt. At five-foot-nine, several feet of mocha-colored legs peeked from beneath the bottom fringe. To show off sculpted and toned arms, she wore a coiled metal armband around her left bicep. On her right arm, she wore fifteen thin bracelets that dangled somewhere between her elbow and wrist. In the ‘V’ of her vest rested silver chains of varying lengths.

Satisfied with her sultry-blues-singer look, she left the hotel and hopped into a cab. Fifteen minutes and twenty dollars later, she yanked open the door to the Blues Stop on North Wells Street at exactly five minutes to four on August first. With one last fluff of her long, unruly black hair, she sashayed inside in a pair of to-die-for Jimmy Choos.

In contrast to the bright afternoon sun, the inside of the club was dark, almost cave-like. A blast of cool, air-conditioned air brought out goose bumps on her exposed arms.  Chairs were still stacked upside down on small round table tops, evidence a cleaning crew had been hard at work some time earlier. The scents of disinfectant and wood polish hung in the air providing the illusion of cleanliness.

“Hello?” A hint of trepidation slithered along her back as she made her way further inside, her four-inch heels echoing in the intimate confines.

Reaching the bar, she ran her hand down the polished wood and sat on one of the stools. Spinning it around, she faced the small stage. Considering she’d accepted the gig sight unseen, so far it didn’t look too bad. That nagging feeling playing the keyboard of her spine she chalked up to the eerie silence.

She heard male voices right before the back door was flung open and two arguing men rushed inside: one Black, one White. Instead of making her presence known, she crossed her legs and waited. Sooner or later they’d figure out they weren’t alone.

“You don’t make decisions like hiring a singer without consulting me. I’m the owner, not you. Right now we’re not making enough money to justify that expense. Besides, we have Donna.”  The tall White man spoke.

“Donna only plays keyboard. We need a singer. You haven’t been around long enough to know they come and go like that.” The shorter Black man snapped his fingers.

“That’s because you keep hiring junkies. No self-respecting singer is going to work in a place like this.”

Gabriella slid off the stool and stood. With hands firmly placed at her hips, she interrupted, “I take exception to that comment.”

They stopped arguing and whirled in her direction. After a second or two of hesitation, the White man approached, his stare boring a hole straight through her.

“And you are?” He let the question dangle in the air, half-question, half-threat.

She’d been around clubs long enough to know all managers were variations of the same thing, idiots and bigger idiots. She had a pretty good idea where this guy fit into the continuum. Instead of pondering the thought, she held out her hand. “Gabriella Santos, your new singer.”

He grumbled something which sounded like a string of very inventive curses before he blew out a breath and placed his hands at his hips. “There’s been a mistake. We don’t need a singer after all.”

She hadn’t come all this way just to return home with her tail between her legs. At least not if she could help it. “But I distinctly heard this nice gentleman say you did.” She pointed to the Black guy and gave him a flirtatious smile.

“Mack.” From the fake gold Rolex on his wrist, to the gold chain around his neck, to the vibrant blue shirt, this guy’s wardrobe screamed, ‘Look at me.’

“Mack said your singer left.” Barring getting fired right now, she wasn’t leaving town. Besides, she had a point to prove to herself and her family.

The White man scowled, which he seemed to do quite often. “Off on a binge, no doubt. I don’t need that kind of trouble.”

The idea that she had to coerce him in order to sing here rankled her. She was good. Not Billie Holiday good, but she could hold her own. Geez, the lengths she had to go to in order to prove herself.

When she’d found out her old manager, Vic, had been taking more than his fair share of her profits for years, she’d fired him on the spot. But good old Vic had showed her. Irate, he’d blacklisted her in every club in South Florida, telling them she was a diva, a Whitney Houston wannabe, without the talent. Needless to say, that didn’t bode well for getting gigs. So she did the only thing she could—she got out of Dodge.

The idea that her brother Enrique might possibly have been right when he told her not to take this gig in Chicago loomed large in her mind. She wanted to invoke his name and recite a litany of his accomplishments as a DEA agent in order to get this bozo to follow through with what he’d promised.

But she wouldn’t. Because someway, somehow, Enrique would find out about it, proving once again to him, his wife Sammie, and the remainder of her family, that she couldn’t make it on her own.

Mr. Cranky Pants narrowed his eyes. Reluctance showed in his slow move towards grasping the hand she stuck out.  “Shane O’Neil. And I’m telling you again, I don’t need a singer.”

“And I’m telling you I expect you to honor your commitment.” This was ridiculous. Maybe Vic had actually earned more than his fair share if this guy was any indication of how club managers operated. Her demo tape, combined with the fact he had no one else available, should be enough to convince him to at least give her a try.

“The last singer we had used the back room to shoot up heroin between sets.”

“You’ve watched way too many made-for-TV-movies. Not all blues singers are junkies.”

He eyeballed her from head to toe. “Don’t see any track marks on your arms, but the light in here isn’t the best.”

Had he just called her a junkie? “Then maybe we should go outside in the daylight.”

Shane reached out and grabbed her wrist, signaling in no uncertain terms he had every intention of taking her up on her offer. He pulled her into the sunlight of the warm August afternoon.

She blinked as her eyes adjusted. When she could focus again, Shane was towering above her, glaring.

Despite the scowl on his face, it was gentleness she felt in the touch of his fingertips. He probed the length of her arms, paying particular attention to the inside of her elbow, poking at the skin, looking for telltale track marks she might have disguised.

When he finished, his eyes rose to meet hers, his hands still holding onto her wrists. Absolutely mesmerizing, his eyes were the deepest, darkest blue she’d ever seen. The stark contrast with his coal black hair made them compelling and, wonder of all wonders, made him seem a tad vulnerable.

His face itself was nothing to dismiss either. Sharp angles and strong edges brought a distinct maleness to his features. If he didn’t have such a cranky disposition, he’d be downright gorgeous.

“You don’t look like a druggie.” The comment rolled off his tongue as easily as if he were remarking about the weather.

That forced her mind back into focus. “Just because I’m Black and a blues singer doesn’t mean I’m a junkie. In fact, I barely drink.” This guy seemed to be looking for an excuse to fire her and she was determined not to give him one.

He eyed her as if he wanted to say something, then thought better of it. “Keep it that way if you want to stay employed.” He placed his hands on his hips, notching up the intimidation factor once again. “What hotel are we paying for?”

“The Holiday Inn on Michigan Avenue.”

“Not anymore. There’s a vacant apartment above my office. You’re going to stay there.”

“But there’s no room service.” Not only was this guy cranky, he was cheap.

“No, but there’s a nice twenty-four hour diner across the street. I’ll have them run a tab for you.”

“What about maid service?”

His jaw clenched tight and he folded his arms across his chest. “You’ll have to do your own cleaning up.”

“Who’s going to move my stuff?”

“You and I, right after your last set.” For the first time since they’d met, he looked her up and down in a way that was sexual rather than intimidating. “For all this trouble, I hope to God your voice matches the way you look.”

Saving face was all about gritting her teeth and bearing it. “Are you kidding? Once the crowds start rolling in, you’ll want to sign me up for another month. In which case, I’ll agree only if you reserve a room for me at the Ritz Carlton.”

“Don’t count on it.”

She followed him back inside but he didn’t so much as hold the door open for her. More than likely he would have locked her out if he thought he could get away with it.

While she didn’t expect politeness, the guy seemed to be going out of his way to be rude. Then again, maybe that was his natural state, in which case it would be a heck of a long month.

***

Inheriting this dive of a blues bar because of a debt was bad enough. But with his partner Garrett out of the country for at least a month, Shane didn’t have anybody to share the workload.

His patience was wearing thin. And being around that slimeball Mack made him want to strangle the guy with those gold chains he was so fond of wearing. Hiring a blues singer when the place was losing money like a sieve made Shane want to torture Mack before he strangled him, even if the blues singer in question brought the idea of sultry to a whole other level. Judging by her clothes and hair, she also brought high-maintenance to another level as well.

But she sure was sexy, with her beautiful latte-colored face, her long, dark, just-got-out-of-bed hair, incredible legs that went on forever, and a body that should be plastered on the front cover of the swimsuit issue of Sports Illustrated. He’d take her to bed in a red hot minute if he didn’t think it would screw up his life in a major way. Shane knew the signs.

And Gabriella Santos had trouble written all over her.

***

For some reason, Gabriella couldn’t get him out of her mind. He was one of the few men she’d ever met who seemed to gloss over the way she looked and hone in on what was beneath, be it good or bad. It was as if he were peeling off a superficial layer of skin to examine what made her tick. That didn’t make her feel so good.

“What’s with that Shane guy?” Gabriella asked the keyboard player, Donna.

Donna shrugged. After turning around to insure Shane and Mack were both occupied in back, she answered, “He and his partner Garrett Ryan inherited the place when Walt Cummings, the owner, disappeared.”

“Really?” Now that she knew he wasn’t here willingly, his bad attitude made more sense.

“Walt was going through a nasty divorce and hired Shane and Garrett to do some detective work. Along with a retainer, he gave them a quit claim deed to this property as collateral. One of the checks he gave them bounced and then Walt headed for parts unknown with a slew of creditors chasing him. Shane and Garrett were the lucky ones. At least they got this place for their trouble.”

Gabriella mulled over the scenario. It made sense. “He does look more like a detective than a bar owner. But you’d think he’d at least try to be friendly.”

“As long as you’re here when you’re supposed to be, he’s fine. Besides, both Shane and Garrett make themselves scarce. Neither one sticks around past eight or so. For the most part, they leave things up to Mack.”

“If he hates being here so much, why doesn’t he sell it?”

“They’ve got it up for sale, but no takers yet.” Donna adjusted her seat behind the keyboard. “Most of the popular bars are a little further south, closer to Lincoln Park or Wrigleyville. This place has some potential, but it’s off the beaten path.” She smiled and her whole face lit up. “With your amazing voice, I have a feeling things might change around here for the better.”

“I’ll only be here a month.”

“A lot can happen in a month.”


Fractured

Isabella burrowed further into her jacket, and readied her gun. Despite the dark, she could sense their beady-eyed presence; hear them scurrying around in the over-full trashcans, and suppressed a shudder. No way no how would a bunch of rodents deter her.

Besides, they were the least of her problems. She fingered the worn edges of the handkerchief tucked into the pocket of her jeans for luck. Waiting in an alley, in this neighborhood at this time of night was dangerous. And stupid. Landry had taken down a gangbanger not even a block from here only about a week ago.

Landry Taylor . . .geez, thinking about him or anything remotely connected to him could only distract her. Right now she needed to focus. But every time she tried, he popped into her head. Why? Maybe because he’d tell her how crazy she was for taking this kind of risk. Maybe because it had been six months since they’d broken up. Maybe because he was tall, dark and sexy and she had a serious need to get laid.

The sound registered seconds before the bullet knocked her off her feet with the ferocity of an NFL linebacker. Searing pain spread through her chest and lungs leaking into her kidneys and abdomen.

“What . . .the . . .he . . .?” Her chest hitched while she struggled to breathe.

She’d been shot. As if that weren’t bad enough, her head, which had bounced off the concrete on her way down, screamed for attention as well. She’d bleed to death in this rat-infested, stench-filled alley because she’d felt a need to prove something to herself and, more importantly, to others.

Numb, she moved slowly, starting out with wiggling her fingers. Some thugs had shot out the alley lights long ago so she could barely see a thing. She couldn’t hear a thing except for the rats scurrying around her.

Even though it was against the paltry amount of medical knowledge she possessed, she inched to an upright position before feeling for damage. “Holy . . .crap” How could she have forgotten she’d worn a vest?

Maybe because the pain felt as real as if she hadn’t. A smart cop would call for assistance. Instead, she fought back nausea and light-headedness. Quickly losing the battle, she gave in and puked.

She didn’t feel much better as the shakes followed, but at least her efforts were now focused on more important issues—like getting out of there—instead of preserving her dinner. She’d limped maybe a house or two before the whirl of the siren caught her attention.

She’d never make it back to her car and out of the neighborhood to save her dignity at this pace. She willed her legs to move quicker. They weren’t ready to cooperate.

The unit careened down the alley with blue lights blazing. It settled into a slower rhythm as the spot light came on and the siren went off.

Most cops in this area knew her, so she waved her hands in the air and shouted. “It’s me, Sanchez.”

The car screeched to a halt twenty feet away and the doors flew open. “Thought that was your car down the block. Who you shooting at this time of night?” Memories skittered through her mind. He’d always brought out both the best and worst in her.

Why him? Why now?

Had her earlier fantasy somehow conjured him up? She squeezed her eyes shut with the hope she’d been mistaken. When she opened them again and spotted his unmistakable cock-sure gait, his short dark hair, she wanted to simultaneously weep and rail.

Anybody but him. Landry was the last person she wanted to see her like this. He always wanted to take care of her while she craved her independence, or as he called it, her intimacy issues. Blah. Blah. Blah.

“Had nothing better to do tonight so thought I’d use myself for some target practice.” She hobbled closer to the car, feeling a combination of relief and humiliation.

He rushed to her side, putting a protective arm about her shoulder. She tried to shrug him off but his grip remained tight. Had she been one hundred percent, she would have won the battle, but not tonight.

“Where’s Matthews?”

“He had a hot date.”

“Damn it, what part of working with a partner don’t you understand?” He hovered close, his tall frame dwarfing hers while he used his flashlight to check for damage. Meticulously separating her long, dark springy coils of hair, he inspected. “Are you okay?”

“Owwww.”

“Sorry, babe.” He cursed. “Just as I thought. Your head’s bleeding.” He pulled back the flaps of her coat and blew out a breath. “Damn. You took some shots to the vest. Jonas, call an ambulance.”

She stopped Jonas with a raised hand. “Don’t you dare. I’m fine. It’s not a big deal. I’m not about to be carted away in some ambulance.”

“Sometimes you don’t have a choice.” His voice lowered an octave or two which signaled some room for negotiation.

She glanced from one man to the other. Her odds were probably fifty/fifty of winning this round. The one had been her mentor when she’d been a rookie, and the other had seen her naked and vulnerable.

Somehow she managed a halfway decent shrug although not without a considerable amount of pain. “Probably only a mild concussion. They don’t do anything for that but keep you waiting for hours in the emergency room.”

Landry drew his fingers through her coarse hair. “But you might need stitches.”

Isabella’s knees nearly buckled from the intimacy of it until she reminded herself that no matter how good they were in bed, real life interfered.  “There’d be a lot more blood if I needed stitches. Besides I’ve got some of those butterfly bandages at home. In two seconds I’ll be good as new.”

Jonas spoke, his hand poised on the door of the unit. “What do you want me to do?” Aggravatingly, he looked to Landry. Then again, Jonas was old school about those things so she didn’t take it too personally.

“I’m not going to win, am I?” Landry whispered, giving her a tentative grin.

“You never do.” Somehow she didn’t feel a lot of satisfaction in her words.

“Then get in the squad and we’ll bring you to your car. We were nearly off shift anyway when we took the call so I’ll drive you home.”

“You’re bossy.” She eyed him and wished she didn’t feel that hitch inside her chest.

“We both are.”

She eased into the back of the squad as inconspicuously as possible. Still unable to take a complete breath without wincing, she kept that tidbit a secret. If she told him, he’d go into super duper mother hen mode.

Then instead of taking her back to her car, Landry would insist she go straight to the emergency room. If he did that, there’d be reports and paperwork and questions she didn’t want to answer. Nobody had no idea what she’d been up to tonight and she’d like to keep it that way for the time being.

Jonas double-parked alongside her car. Landry got out and opened the backdoor. He gave her the once over before rolling his eyes. “Are you sure you don’t want to go to the hospital?”

“A couple of pain killers, a heating pad, some bandages and I’ll be good to go.” She bucked up and headed toward the car, hoping he’d forgotten the part about driving her home. She didn’t need to get babysat. And she definitely didn’t need to complicate her life by having Landry by her side again.

“Keys.” He placed his hand on the door and gave her a deceptive smile.

If her legs weren’t so shaky, she’d try to out-muscle him. “I’ll be fine. I live like what? Ten minutes from here.” Even though she tried to sound flippant, she couldn’t quite pull it off. The only thing she wanted to do was down a couple of pain killers, crank up the heating pad and put herself to bed.

“More like fifteen or twenty. But it doesn’t matter. Taking you home is my compromise for not insisting on an ambulance.”

She tried to huff her annoyance but the sharp pain made it sound more like a squeak. Pick your battles. That’s what her grandfather would say.

Instead, she plunked the keys into his hand with as much oomph as she could muster. Using the hood of the car for support, she walked around to the passenger side and got in.

Landry downed the window and spoke to Jonas. “Don’t worry about following. I’ll call a cab.”

She didn’t need Landry taking care of her. Not now.  Not ever. “Let him follow. All you need to do is drive me home. I’ll take it from there.”

He shook his head. “No way. Since you won’t go to the hospital, I’m going to verify you’re all right. Considering you probably have a concussion, I should stay the night and wake you up every couple of hours. Count yourself lucky.”

“You’re not getting laid.” She scowled and tried not to think about the last time she’d had sex with him.

He gave her a sideways glance. “Yeah, like your puke breath is turning me on.”

Enough said. She tried to cross her arms in front of her chest but it hurt like hell. Instead, she slumped back in the seat and struggled to catch her breath.

One of the many problematic things in her relationship with Landry was that they both had a sarcastic edge, which meant they tried to one up each other. Unfortunately, that was the only thing they had in common.

She was short and wiry, barely tipping the scales at one hundred and fifteen pounds, whereas he was tall and sculpted, probably weighing in at a little over two hundred. Landry was one of those ‘black Irish’ types, dark black straight hair, hazel eyes with a sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of his nose. Her skin was the color of coffee mixed with a whole lot of cream. She had coal-colored eyes and hair that made most hairdressers run for cover.

He was pure Chicago-bred, pedigree. His father, grandfather, and uncles all were cops. On the other hand, she came from a long line of misfits, degenerates and criminals.

She was a mutt, an unlikely mix of African-American, Native-American, Mexican-American, and Italian-American. Landry came from solid Irish stock. His grandparents had immigrated when they were in their teens. Both his grandmothers were alive and still spoke with thick brogues.

On the rare occasions her family got together, it was only a matter of time before a fight broke out and she had to bring out her gun and order somebody off the premises. His family gatherings were a mixture of eating, drinking, laughing and storytelling.

He was a beat cop and had been for twelve years. It wasn’t lack of ambition that kept him from taking the detective’s exam. He enjoyed being a beat cop and was content to stay where he was. He always said it kept him humble.

She knew the futility of believing their relationship could be anything more than burn-the-house-down, incredible-with-a-capital-I-sex. On the other hand, his naiveté allowed him to believe in happily ever after. Isabella knew first hand that wasn’t reality.

***

Landry tried hard to keep his hands from shaking even though his pulse still raced like he’d run ten miles in ninety degree heat. He couldn’t let Isabella see how scared he’d been.

What the hell had she been thinking? She was a great detective, probably one of the best in the Narcotics & Gang Investigation Unit, but she could have died pulling such a dumb move. What if she hadn’t worn her vest? What if whoever took the shots at her had come in closer to finish the job? Quelling those frightening thoughts, he kept his emotions in check. Barely.

Right now he wanted to shake her and then hold her tight until he could get her to see reason. Fat chance that would happen. Tonight she wouldn’t let him within ten feet of her without having a fit.

He knew the signs. She was feeling vulnerable and weak, and would keep her distance until she felt more in control.

Staying away from her had been pure torture. The fact that her need for space from their relationship coincided with her perceived fall from grace at the police department wasn’t coincidental to his way of thinking.

Now she tumbled back into his life reminding him once again how much he loved her.

***

He pulled to a spot on the street, shut off the car and turned in the seat. “What were you doing in that alley?”

“Did you forget I’m a cop? I was chasing criminals.” She opened the car door, hoping like hell he’d stop with the inquisition.

“Then why didn’t you call it in? Or wait for back-up? What are you hiding, Isabella?” When switching from cop mode, he always reverted to her first name. He tsked. “Ramirez again, isn’t it? You’re not going to give up, are you?”

She knew he’d make that assumption. Despite the fact he was right, she ignored his questions. “I don’t need to discuss my cases with you.” She brushed past him and hoped he’d stop prying. Knowing Landry, that wasn’t going to happen.

“If you’re taking stupid risks and putting your life in danger, you should talk to somebody.” He moved in front of her to block her path. While he towered over her in height and to some people he might seem intimidating, she saw gentleness and affection in his eyes.

But she didn’t want to see that in him, from him, or by him. Nothing good could come from it. “If I would have known you were going to be such a pain, I wouldn’t have let you drive me home.” With very little effort, she sidestepped past him and continued on her way.

Over one-hundred years old, the building she lived in was in the Old Town area of Chicago. Her grandfather had bought the place fifty years ago when it wasn’t safe to drive through the neighborhood, let alone own something. At the time, the area was a haven for hippies, druggies, derelicts and criminals. Now, with its close proximity to downtown, combined with the influx of people from the suburbs back into the city, the yuppies had moved in and the building was worth a small fortune. When he died three years ago, he’d left the place to her which angered the majority of her family members.

Normally she lived in the top unit and rented out the bottom. Sometimes fellow police officers rented it. Sometimes the place was empty. Right now her cousin along with his wife and young child lived in the downstairs unit.

They hadn’t paid her a cent in the six months they’d lived there. Considering Lou had been out of work for a while, she didn’t expect the rent anytime soon. But lately there’d been something strange going on. Lou had been acting weird but she couldn’t put her finger on anything specific. His wife Cynthia, who was normally bubbly and chatty, had been quiet and subdued the last couple of times Isabella had run into her. She would hate for her one and only relative who was half-way normal be in some kind of trouble and not be able to talk to her about it.

Landry’s voice interrupted her train of thought. “Let’s get you inside so I can take a look at the damage.” He gingerly held her elbow while ushering her up the front steps.

“I’m going to be fine.” She grimaced as even breathing seemed to cause her pain. She’d heard getting hit in the vest could break a rib. She hoped like hell that hadn’t happened.

Before they made it to the doorway, Lou barreled out his front door. At nearly midnight, it seemed like an odd time to be going anywhere.

“Oh, Bella, I didn’t expect you to be around.” Based on the guilty look on his face, he surely hadn’t. No doubt he’d thought he could slip out the door and no one would be the wiser.

“Where you off to this time of night?” She didn’t expect he’d answer truthfully but asked anyway.

He cut his eyes to Landry then back to her. “Picking up some milk. Junior isn’t happy when he wakes up and doesn’t get his bottle right away.”

“Babies are like that. I’ll see you tomorrow.” She didn’t believe him for a second, but nodded and watched him go because it was the path of least resistance. It was his life.

She inserted the key into the downstairs door leading to her apartment. Grabbing onto the railing, she shuffled up the steps with Landry at her elbow. “You don’t have to do this.”

“So you’ve said, hmmm, maybe a hundred times. That hasn’t stopped me yet, has it?”

“A girl can hope.” She inserted the key into the lock and turned the knob. The door seemed stuck, so she pushed. But it didn’t budge.

She wasn’t a weakling. She worked out regularly and could bench press her own weight. But this door wasn’t moving. And she had a distinct feeling it had nothing to do with her current physical condition.

Landry took over, first jiggling the door knob, then pounding on the top corner. “It’s like it’s stuck somehow.”

Could this night get any worse? They looked at each other and drew their guns. That trouble ‘vibe’ skittered down her spine.

“I can break through, but you’ll have to get a new door.”

Normally she would have argued with him about just who would be knocking down her door, but they both knew she wasn’t up to it. “Do it.”

Like her, Landry worked out on a regular basis and ran a couple of miles a day. He could bench press over three hundred pounds and was as strong as an ox. Even still, it took him five tries before the door broke free.

They barreled through the splintered door simultaneously although he had momentum going in his favor so moved out in front. Guns drawn, they began their walk through. He turned left toward the kitchen and dining room while she went right toward the bedrooms and bathroom.

The place wasn’t large, but there were more than enough places where somebody could hide. Other than the mess he’d made of the door, nothing looked disturbed. But still she had this awful sensation simmering low in her belly.

Gun ready, she hit the hall bathroom first. Nothing. Next the spare bedroom. She looked under the bed, in the closet and behind the door. Still Nothing.

“Clear.” Landry called from the kitchen. Seconds later she heard him walking through the place to join her.

“Master bedroom.” She headed toward her room. Landry scooted in behind. She flung open the bedroom door, gun raised. She checked the closet, then the master bathroom while he scoped out the other side of the room.

“Oh hell.”

That didn’t sound good.

By the time she’d left the bathroom to join him, he’d already re-holstered his gun. Hands on his hips, he was staring down at something on the floor by the window.

“What is it, Landry?” She didn’t expect him to answer as she’d already come around to the window side of the bed.

Her mind took a couple beats to process. When it did, a cold chill slithered down her spine. The body lay crumpled on the floor by the window. Somehow he’d landed underneath the desk her grandfather had fashioned out of an old French door. Her laptop sat in the middle undisturbed.

While one hand flew to her mouth, the other reached into her pocket. “Oh my God.” A memory from long ago hit her with the force of a Mack truck. The man’s right forearm. It couldn’t be. But what were the chances . . .

“Do you know him?” He glanced at her like she’d gone crazy.

Maybe she had because what she was thinking didn’t make any kind of sense. Still, she had to know for sure. She drew in a breath, oblivious to the excruciating pain that had been there ten minutes earlier and bent down to touch the man’s arm to turn it ever so slightly.

“Isabella, you shouldn’t–“ he didn’t finish his thought knowing she’d be aware of all the precautions about disturbing a crime scene.

It couldn’t be, but there it was. Just as she remembered it. A tattoo: two intertwined hearts with the letter ‘T’ inside each. In the middle, a smaller heart with the letter ‘I’.

She could barely breathe let alone utter the words. “I think it’s my father.”