Why do I not like this?” Detective Connor Pierce, with the Anniston Police Department’s Drug and Gang Unit, put his hand close to his weapon as he and his partner eased down the alley. Darkness and danger hung heavy. The only streetlight, about twenty-five yards down, cast a bluish hue on a parked car as they approached.
A breeze carrying the scent of garbage from the dumpsters lining the graveled path flowed past. That smell was welcome compared to the foul smell of human urine. A few murmured voices echoed in the distance like background noise. His ears automatically tuned in to listen.
Detective Donald Adkins froze. “Is that him?” His voice lacked the concern Connor felt.
“Can’t tell.” Connor stared at the two figures standing at the back door of what he thought was the liquor store, wishing they were not still too far away to see clearly. Rumor had it that Carter Thompson, a small-time drug dealer, did business behind that liquor store.
They weren’t even after Carter. They were after his cousin, a guy known as Dirt. He was a more serious and harder-to-find dealer. Dirt was suspected of selling counterfeit oxy containing fentanyl.
There had been fifteen overdose victims and a total of eight deaths. Three of those fatalities had been teenagers. Adkins, who was ten years older than Connor, had a teenage son who went to school with one of the victims. For him, this case was personal.
After seeing a comatose sixteen-year-old girl on a respirator yesterday, it felt pretty damn personal to Connor, too. They had to catch this guy before more people died.
“I don’t think that’s him,” Connor said as they drew closer.
“Too tall,” Adkins confirmed, just as they were spotted.
“Cops!” someone screamed, and loud popping noises followed.
“Shit!” Connor and Adkins dove behind a dumpster. Both hit hard on the gravel. Connor pulled his weapon and peered around to locate the shooter. “Two of them, behind the car.”
When Adkins didn’t respond, Connor looked over his shoulder. His partner for the last year lay on the ground, a pool of blood collecting around his head.
Before Connor’s knees even hit the ground, he saw white matter mixed with Adkins’s spilled blood. Then he saw his partner’s eyes.
“No!” Another bullet whizzed past. He grabbed his phone, hit dial, and yelled out, “Shots fired. Officer down.” The words physically hurt to say. No one could save Adkins. “Two one three Fourth Street. Alley behind Lone Star Liquor Store.”
A car’s engine roared to life, and it started backing out. Panic pumping through his veins, he peered around the heavy metal container and saw movement behind a pile of boxes.
“Anniston PD, drop your weapon!” He darted out and ran to the next dumpster. “Throw down your weapon!” He’d give the bastard one chance. Then all bets were off.
Another bullet clanked against the metal. The car sped out.
Connor shot off three times. He heard a grunt, saw a figure fall. Racing forward, heart hammering in his chest, gun held out and ready, he cut behind the boxes. There on the gravel, bleeding from his chest, lay his shooter.
“Shit!” Connor yelled out in both fury and horror when he saw the young shooter desperately trying to breathe. He was just a pimply-faced kid. A weapon lay beside the boy’s hand. Connor kicked it away. “Fuck! Why did you do this?”
“Tell my mama…” Blood trickled from his lips as he took a raspy breath.
“I’m scared,” he whimpered.
Emotions raged in Connor’s chest as the image of his dead partner flashed through his mind. Somehow Connor found it in himself to reach for the boy’s hand. “Help’s coming.”
The boy’s head slumped to the side and his young dark eyes went as empty as Adkins’s.
Three and a half years later.
How had she lost him? Brie Ryan white-knuckled the steering wheel and slammed her foot on the gas pedal so hard, so fast, the Mustang’s rear end fishtailed.
“Fudge bars!” She could lay down some trash talk that would make concrete blush, because sometimes you had to keep up with the guys to earn respect. But when really mad, she deferred to the creative cursing of the one true parental influence in her life, her manny.
Sucking air through her teeth, she kept looking. One minute the Porsche was there then it wasn’t. She hit redial on her phone, hoping to reach Carlos Olvera, the only person who knew what she’d been up to for the last four months. The call went straight to voice mail. Again. It didn’t make sense. He never turned off his phone.
Had something happened? No, she refused to believe that. His part in this hadn’t come with risks.
She took the exit ramp off the freeway, hugging the wheel and praying she’d see the Porsche’s taillights.
She didn’t see shit.
Not even the cop car waiting on the side of the road. Well, not until she zoomed past it.
“Nooo.” Foot off the gas, she watched her side mirror. It was after midnight. Maybe the cop was sleeping. Holding hope and her breath, she followed the road around the curve. Right before the patrol car disappeared from her sightline, blue lights filled the night behind her.
Decision time. Drive like the devil or pull over and become a sweet-talking angel. She looked up. Four cars waited at a red light about fifty yards up the street. None of them, however, was Dillon Armand’s red Porsche.
She. Had. Lost. Him.
And she had a cop on her ass.
Rationalizing that she was better at sweet-talking than outrunning and outmaneuvering a cop, she pulled to the side of the road.
She prayed this decision didn’t get her arrested. There was a slight chance the car’s owner had left the club early, discovered his car missing, and reported it stolen. It wasn’t. She’d just borrowed it.
Putting the car in park, knowing she had a few minutes while the officer ran her license plate, she reached across the seat into the glove compartment. Relief came as she pulled out the car’s registration and insurance card. She might have even smiled when she spotted a credit card with the name TAYLOR DUNN on it. Probably good ol’ Charlie’s wife.
She tossed the registration and insurance card back into the glove compartment. Checking to make sure the cop was still occupied, she yanked open her purse and snatched her driver’s license and credit card from her wallet. Not that these had her real name on them either. Those had come from a job last year.
Eyes on the rearview mirror, she stuffed the two fake cards between the seats.
Next to her Glock.
Then she slid Dunn’s credit card into her wallet.
Leaning back, she outlined the story she’d pitch. Frankly, she was a better storyteller than driver.
Her job demanded it. More times than not, her life depended on it.
Three minutes later, the officer exited his car. She checked her mirror to make sure the red wig hadn’t slipped. In leaving the Black Diamond club, she’d snagged the wig off another girl’s station, just in case Dillon Armand spotted her following him and recognized her as one of the waitresses.
Eyes locked on the rearview mirror, she watched the uniform officer move cautiously toward the Mustang, his right hand at his hip in case he needed his weapon.
She waited for the big sandy-haired cop to stop at the driver’s door before she rolled down the window.
“Ma’am.” His on-guard expression faded when he saw her. “Can you cut off your engine?”
She turned the key and offered him her softest smile as she read his name embroidered on his shirt. “Sorry, Officer Johnston.” She let the Alabama accent she’d spent most of her life hiding roll off her tongue. “Was I speeding? This is the first time I’ve driven my mom’s Mustang and it has more power than my Smart Car.”
“I imagine it does.” A straight pair of white teeth showed behind his lips.
“But I know that’s not an excuse, so if you have to ticket me, I’ll understand. Thankfully, I got a new job and I can afford it.”
“Where’s your job?”
“Teaching at Jones Elementary off Oakwood. I love it.” Eliot, her manny-slash-bodyguard-slash-only-one-who-gave-a-damn-about-her, always said her best weapon was her ability to talk someone to death.
“What grade?” His smile widened.
“Kindergarten. They like to hug at that age. I was lucky Mrs. Brown is having triplets and they needed someone to finish out her year.”
He nodded. “Can I see proof of insurance and your license?”
“I hope Mom put her card in here. Dad’s always fussing about it.” She started to lean over then stopped. “It’s in my glove compartment. I watch police shows and they say I need to ask before reaching.”
“Go ahead, and thanks for being conscientious. You haven’t been drinking have you?”
“Just a glass of champagne with dinner. My best friend got engaged.” She reached over the seat and pulled out the car’s registration and insurance card. “Thank you, Daddy.” She passed him the paperwork.
He gave them both a look. “And your license?”
“Oh, sure.” She grabbed her purse. This was where the real acting began. Opening the wallet, she let out a big oh-my-gosh sigh. “Where…? No, no, no. I bet the bartender who waited on us at the restaurant didn’t give it back to me.” She flipped through her wallet. “And he has my credit card.” She reached for her phone in the console. “Can I call and make sure he has them?”
“Do you have anything else with your name on it?”
“I have another credit card. I’m Taylor Dunn.”
She pulled out the borrowed Visa. “Do you mind if I call the restaurant?”
He confirmed the name on the card then handed everything back. “Why don’t I just let you go, and you can drive there—slowly.” He smiled.
“You’re a lifesaver.” The words had barely left her lips when a red Porsche eased past, as if rubbernecking. Her heart raced, screaming for her to give chase. Thankfully, the light at the end of the street turned yellow, and with a cop nearby, the car stopped. How the hell did he get behind me?
“How long have you been in town?”
Now he got chatty? Fracking Hades! She needed an exit strategy and fast.
Suddenly Officer Johnston’s lapel mic went off. She couldn’t hear what was said, but his gaze shot up and she knew her exit strategy would have to involve more than sweet-talking.
“Out of the car!” He pulled his weapon.
Decision time. Her mind flashed images of her sister’s body: beaten and bloody. For four months, she’d lived with the guilt of knowing she could have saved her and hadn’t. Armand would do it again if someone didn’t stop him. Mind made up, she stepped out of her car.
“What’s wrong?” She kept up the innocent façade.
“Turn around,” he said, then spoke into his mic, which usually meant he was requesting backup.
She half-turned as Eliot’s instructions played in her head. One: Knee to the groin. Two: Right hand goes for the gun. Three: Left palm hits the throat. Not everyone had an ex-Special Forces officer for a manny. He’d taught her this move before she wore a bra.
At the wisp of the officer’s gun slipping back into his holster, and the clink of his handcuffs releasing, she swung into action.
He groaned as her knee hit the mark. And again when she hit his throat.
He reached for his gun. But too late. His frown deepened when he saw the muzzle of his Glock an inch from his nose. She snatched his handcuffs away and yanked his mic off.
Now she needed to find…she spotted the light pole. Perfect.
“This way.” She cut her eyes down the street, relieved the Porsche still sat at the red light.
The cop half stood while measuring her up. “Don’t think about it. I’m feistier than I look.”
His expression gave way more to fury than fear. “You don’t want to shoot—”
“Do as I say, and you won’t get hurt. Go to the light post. Now!”
With his arms around the pole, she cuffed his hands. No time to waste, she raced back to the Mustang, dug in her purse, and pulled out the business card—her get-out-of-jail-free card—she’d been hanging on to in case of an emergency. Detective Pierce, actually the Cold Case Unit, owed her after she’d helped them out on a case a few months ago. Of course, they hadn’t known her real identity, but…
She hotfooted it back and stuffed the card in the officer’s shirt pocket. “Do me a favor. Find Detective Pierce. Tell him to look into the Ronan case.”
“You know Connor?” he asked.
She tossed his gun in the bushes. “Ronan case. Got it?”
Minding her manners, she added, “Sorry about this.” Sirens rang in the distance. Before she got to the car, the light turned green and the Porsche took off.
“Mother Heifer.” She burned rubber trying to catch up.
* * *
Detective Connor Pierce walked into the all-night diner, with a headache throbbing in his right temple. Two waitresses worked the night shift to keep the drunk patrons under control. With three bars located within a block, the diner was a good place to grab some coffee and food, and sober up.
Connor showed up at least four times a month—sometimes more. Not to sober up. It was the nightmares and guilt that brought him here.
He paused at the door. When he saw Flora open a pad to take someone’s order, he moved to a table on her side of the restaurant. He always sat in her section. Her tired brown eyes cut to him and she offered him her normal generic nod. Never too friendly. Never hostile. At least fifty, twenty years his senior, her face was a road map of the hardships she’d encountered in her life.
She moved behind the bar, punched in the order, then grabbed a mug and the coffeepot, and came to his booth. Setting the cup down, she filled it, leaving room for the four creams she pulled from her apron and set beside his cup.
“The usual?” Her voice carried a slight accent.
“Yup,” he said.
She walked away. Talking wasn’t her thing. And that was okay; in fact, it was probably best. Opening the newspaper he’d brought with him, he started reading.
Ten minutes later, she walked up and set the two-egg special, with hash browns and pancakes, down in front of him. He pulled his finger away from his temple where he was attempting to rub the thumping pain away.
Her gaze met his. “Maybe you should stay home and sleep. When was the last time you slept eight hours straight?”
Probably the same as you. “A long time ago.”
She walked away.
He’d only downed four or five bites when his phone rang.
Who the hell was calling at this hour? He snatched his phone out of his pocket. Billy Johnston’s name appeared on the screen. Connor worked with the Cold Case Unit, and Billy was a friend and patrol cop with the Anniston PD. “What’s up?”
“A friend of yours pissed me off.”
“That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Just get your ass here to the station and identify the woman on my bodycam. I want that bitch caught.”
“What?” The line clicked silent.
He ate two more bites, pulled three twenties out of his wallet, and set them on the table. Flora walked up to refill his cup.
“That’s okay. I gotta run.”
She spotted the money and frowned. “You always…that is too much.” When she looked up, he could swear for a second—maybe two—he saw something flash in her eyes. Had she figured out who he was? Hell, had she known all along?
“Never known a waitress who complained about a large tip.” He waited for her reply, willing to take anything she dished out—wasn’t that part of why he came—but she just walked away.
* * *
Brie had caught up with Armand’s red Porsche. Unfortunately, it hadn’t been worth the hornet’s nest she’d stirred up with the Anniston PD. But if she’d learned who Armand was working with—who helped him do his dirty work—even jail time would have been worth it.
But the man just went back to his hotel.
Parked at the Omni, she waited thirty minutes before feeling assured that Armand was retiring for the night. She tried to reach Carlos. Again. And got nothing. Again.
Disappointed, she drove to a grocery store parking lot, returned the credit card to the glove box. She stuffed her red wig into her purse, prepared to return it to its rightful owner, and left a twenty on the seat for gas. Stepping outside the car, she slipped her arms into the leather jacket that served to hide the Glock tucked inside her jeans. With a don’t-mess-with-Brie gait, she walked a block to a bar and called Uber.
The downtown area of Anniston was, by far, the most happening place in this medium-sized college town. Under other circumstances, she might have even enjoyed living here. Well, except for the god-awful Texas summer heat.
Thankfully, that part of the year had given way to fall. As if to prove her point, a cool late-October breeze stirred her blond hair into her face.
A couple of men leaving the bar offered her a ride to anywhere she wanted to go—to heaven, the tall cowboy offered—but she turned them down. She excelled at sending men packing. Even before she’d started waitressing at the strip club, saying no came easy. She could thank her ex for that.
While she waited, she tried Carlos again. This time, she left a message. “Carlos, it’s me. I’m officially worried now. I’m going to drive by your hotel.” They’d spoken briefly when he’d arrived in from their hometown of Baton Rouge, but hadn’t connected since.
Her Uber, a white Equinox, pulled up, and Brie crawled in. “The Black Diamond, on Rayford.”
The driver gave her the once-over at the mention of the strip club. He tried making chitchat. She grunted undistinguishable answers until he got the message. Giving him a tip, for not being completely obnoxious, she hurried to her car. She hadn’t turned the key in the ignition when her phone rang.
Carlos’s number flashed on her screen and she smiled. “Where have you been?”
“Ma’am,” the voice said, one that wasn’t Carlos’s.
“Who is this?” Concern lodged in her throat.
“I’m Officer Heyes. Does this phone belong to a friend of yours?”
“What happened?” Brie demanded.
“Can you tell me his name?”
“Where is he? Let me speak to him.”
“He can’t talk now. He’s been brought into Westside Hospital emergency room. Can you tell me his name?”
Panic-fueled adrenaline coursed through her body. “Can’t talk because he’s busy or because he’s unconscious?”
His nonanswer told her what she needed to know. “How bad is it?”
“If you’d just tell me—”
“How bad?” she bit out.
“Critical. He’s in surgery.”
Brie moaned. “Look, his name is Carlos Olvera and he’s FBI. Make sure he gets the best care. I’m on my way!”
“FBI?” The officer’s tone deepened. “Was he working—”
She hung up and drove like hell was chasing her. Because it was. This was on her. She had brought Carlos into this.
How much guilt could one person take before it ate their soul away?
Brie parked and sprinted into the ER. Upon being told Carlos was in surgery, she rushed up to the surgical waiting room. When she walked in, she spotted two other families, prayers in their eyes. Then there was the cop walking toward her.
“You here for Carlos?”
After one nod, he wasted no time slamming her with questions. Some were easy. Some not.
“Who is Olvera’s closest family member?”
The thought of having to call Carlos’s new husband brought tears to her eyes and more guilt to her gut. Hell, she’d been the best woman at their wedding last year. “His husband is Tory Vale. I’ll call him.”
The man nodded. “Was the victim working a case? Is that why he was in Anniston?”
She hesitated. Carlos had told her his trip to Anniston had been approved, but the possibility of him doing it without permission was just as likely. He’d been pissed when the agency had refused to help her.
“He was looking into opening a case,” she offered.
She hesitated. “Yes, but I’m on leave.”
“You got ID?”
She opened her purse, unzipped the hidden pocket, and handed him her real identification.
“So you aren’t working the case?”
I’m not supposed to be. “I just gave him the lead.”
“What kind of case is it?”
“Here? In Anniston?” he asked.
“Possibly,” she answered in her vague FBI-trained tone. But she was certain of it. How else would her half sister’s body have ended up in Guatemala chained to a bed in a massage parlor? Then Dillon Armand’s name popped up on a Guatemalan police report as being seen manhandling her sister. He’d been their only possible suspect. Or was, until that witness recanted the statement. But that didn’t sway Brie, because Armand just happened to be a part of the largest organized crime family in South America. Guns. Drugs. Humans. If they could profit from it, they had a stake in it.
That stake had been driven through her heart twice before. Pablo. Then her sister. Now Carlos.
“Olvera family,” a doctor called out.
Brie rushed across the room. When she saw the doctor’s expression, it felt like that stake got pushed deeper. She didn’t say anything, just waited, waited for the guilt to consume her.
“He’s alive,” the doctor said. “But it’s bad.”
Sighing with relief, she grasped hold of the tiny thread of hope. With both hands.
“We got the bullet out of his chest, with few issues, but the head injury is causing brain swelling. He’s comatose. We’re running tests to see how extensive the damage is. The next twenty-four hours are critical. You may want to prepare—”
“He’ll make it.” She pushed the words through the choking emotion. “He’s not a quitter.”
The doctor met her gaze head-on. “Good, because he’s got a fight on his hands. A nurse will let you know when you can see him.”
The doctor had barely walked away when her phone rang. She frowned when the name TORY VALE came on her screen. Had someone already contacted him?
Heart ready to break, she took the call. “Tory.”
“Brie?” Panic sounded in his voice. “Carlos didn’t call me last night. He always calls me. I’ve tried him, but he’s not answering. Something’s wrong, isn’t it?”
She breathed in through her nose. Her sinuses stung. “He just got out of surgery.”
“Surgery? Why didn’t you call me?”
“I just found out and got here as fast as I could. I’m sorry.”
“How bad is it?”
She swallowed to keep her voice from trembling. “He’s alive.”
“What happened? Was he…shot?”
“Yes, and he sustained a head injury. But I just got to the hospital, so I don’t know much.”
“Damn it! I’ll get on the next plane to Texas. Anniston, right?”
“Right.” Her grip on the phone tightened to the point her hand ached. Glancing around the room, her attention was temporarily sidetracked by Officer Heyes, who was on his phone. And considering the way his gaze was riveted on her, she’d bet her bottom dollar she was the topic of conversation. Was she already suspected of stealing the car?
Tory’s next question eked through the silence. “Who did this, Brie?”
FBI agent Bree Ryan’s latest mission is personal. She’s posing as a waitress at the Black Diamond strip club, the same club where her estranged half sister worked until she turned up dead. When Bree’s undercover assignment is compromised, she turns to the only man she knows who can help her: Connor Pierce, a too-sexy-for-his-own-good, rule-breaking cop with a knack for solving cold cases.
When someone breaks into Bree’s apartment, Connor’s detective skills aren’t the only things that kick into overdrive. Although his job demands he remain detached, now he finds himself tempted not only by Bree’s beauty but also her intelligence and bravery. As the investigation—and their attraction—grows more intense, lives are in jeopardy, and Connor finds the most important rule he must break is his own. But can he put his heart on the line?