The blow was sharp and unexpected, an elbow slamming AJ Decker in the gut, followed by a bite to his left hand. His grunt bit off into a curse, drowned out by a shout from the uniformed officer hustling around the car.

“Watch out, lieutenant! Willie likes to go for the–!”

The warning faded as the prisoner, hands still cuffed, kicked out with regrettable accuracy. Blood drained from AJ’s face, and little more than a huff of breath escaped him as he sank to the ground on hands and knees. Pain washed up in waves, creating a roaring in his ears that reduced the pounding of feet and the struggle between prisoner and officers to a distant rumble. Oh, God, he was going to be sick.

Gritting his teeth, he willed the nausea away. He would never live this down–the growing crowd of witnesses spilling out of the police department confirmed that–but damned if he’d make an embarrassing situation worse by puking up his guts in front of the whole damn department.

His vision cleared as three or four officers dragged Willie away, kicking and screaming obscenities, and he focused on a hand stuck out to him. He took it, and Tommy Maricci, one of the detectives who worked for him, pulled him to his feet. He was trying hard not to grin when he let go.

“Rule one in dealing with Willie Franklin: always protect your ‘nads,” Maricci said mildly.

“I’ve never dealt with Willie Franklin.” AJ’s voice was reasonably strangled, since even the shallowest of breaths hurt deep down inside. “Please God, I never will again.”

The officer who’d been bringing Willie in for booking–thirty pounds over department fitness guidelines and two years short of retirement–reluctantly approached. His cheeks were red, and sweat gleamed on his forehead. “I should’ve warned you sooner, lieutenant, but I just figured everyone knew you don’t give Willie a chance to kick.”

“Yeah, well, now everyone knows.” AJ straightened to his full height, then sucked in a pain-filled breath. He’d managed to reach the age of thirty-eight without ever taking a hit to the testicles, but now he understood why guys who did curled into the fetal position. It hurt. Like hell.

As his audience drifted back inside the building, he took a tentative step, then another, grinding his teeth against the throb. He wasn’t sure he would ever walk normally again. He managed a few more steps before a voice cutting through the warm afternoon brought him up short.

“Jeez, Decker. Brought down by a woman–and a scrawny one at that. You’re slipping.”

Slowly he turned, staring at the owner of said voice. The man stood on the curb ten feet away, wearing a gray suit, a lighter gray shirt and a burgundy tie. He looked as if he could be on his way to court, except for the lack of a briefcase . . . and the fact that the courtrooms where he prosecuted cases for the State of Texas were nowhere near Copper Lake, Georgia.

“Scrawny women are usually the dirtiest fighters,” AJ replied evenly before extending his hand. “Donovan. What the hell are you doing here?”

Ray Donovan closed the distance between them, shaking hands. “Looking for you.”

That couldn’t be good news. They’d been friendly enough back in Texas, but not really buddies. It had been their jobs that brought them together: AJ had been a homicide detective with the Dallas PD and Donovan had been an assistant district attorney. You catch ‘em, I’ll clean ‘em, and we’ll let the state fry ‘em, he used to joke. They’d done just that often enough.

AJ drew a careful breath and decided he might live after all. “Ray Donovan, Tommy Maricci.” He didn’t bother with any further introduction. Donovan had probably already noticed the badge clipped to Maricci’s belt, and any cop as good as Maricci recognized a prosecutor when he saw one.

The two men shook hands, then Donovan gestured toward a bench shaded by an overgrown crape myrtle. “I’d ask you to walk, but since you probably wouldn’t make it to the curb, can we talk over there?”

Maricci snickered as AJ scowled. The hell of it was, Donovan was right. He wasn’t going to be moving too fast or too far for a while.

“I’ll give Wilhelmina your best,” Maricci said, slapping AJ on the back before he headed back into the police station.

Hiding a wince, AJ limped the ten feet to the wrought-iron bench and gingerly eased down. Damn. Sitting was no more comfortable than standing. Lying down–after guzzling half a bottle of whiskey–was the only thing that was going to make him feel better.

Donovan didn’t sit but stood gazing into the distance. The state didn’t pay him anywhere near what he was worth, but he had family money. He didn’t need the salary. That helped make him a hell of a prosecutor: he couldn’t be bought.

AJ didn’t have family money, but he couldn’t be bought, either. Though he’d run across plenty of people who could.

When Donovan didn’t speak, AJ did. “You ever get out of that suit?”

Donovan’s gaze flickered over him. “You’re not my type.”

AJ snorted. He knew Donovan’s type too well. How many women had he dated in Dallas who’d dropped him for Donovan? Two? No, three, counting the cheerleader.

They could make small talk until Donovan was ready, but AJ wasn’t very good at small talk, so he went straight to the point. “What do you want with me?”

“An old case came across my desk a few weeks ago. A pimp convicted of killing one of his girls. Got a life sentence. His lawyer didn’t like the verdict and wouldn’t leave it alone. She kept poking around, asking questions, reviewing statements. Now she thinks she’s uncovered some serious problems with the investigation.”

“What do you think?”

Donovan’s smile was rueful. “I’d like to believe she’s wrong. I prosecuted the case. Sending the wrong man to prison doesn’t look good on my record. But, based on what I’ve seen so far, she might be right.”

“You think he’s innocent?” AJ asked.

“Not by a long shot. But he might be innocent of this particular crime.”

“What does any of this have to do with me?”

Donovan glanced toward the parking lot where patrol cars were pulling in for shift change, then lowered his gaze to the ground. “Since word got out that we were taking another look at the case, she’s gotten some threats. Someone took a shot at her. Someone broke into her house. They’ve left messages and notes warning her to drop it.”

Which meant she was probably right. Still, Dallas was a long way outside AJ’s jurisdiction. He wasn’t with DPD anymore. He hadn’t stayed in touch with anyone once he’d left. Donovan’s story was vaguely interesting, but there was no reason for him to be telling it now, unless AJ had worked the case, which he hadn’t. He remembered every homicide case he’d ever worked, and none had involved a pimp and one of his girls.

“What does this have to do with me?” he asked again.

Still staring down, Donovan traced a crack in the pavement with the toe of his shoe before looking up hesitantly. AJ was surprised. He’d never seen Donovan anything less than supremely confident.

“I’m looking for a place to put the lawyer for a few days. I don’t want anything to happen to her while I go over her information.”

For a moment AJ looked blankly at him, then Donovan’s meaning penetrated. “You want to bring her here? To Copper Lake?” He snorted. “Come on, Donovan, the State of Texas can do better than this. You can set up a safe house almost anywhere. You’ve got the entire DPD to help you out, and if they’re not enough, there’s the Rangers  and the feds.”

Again Donovan avoided his gaze for a moment before sighing heavily. “I don’t know who I can trust in Texas. The guys who threatened her, who shot at her and broke into her house . . . we have reason to believe they’re cops.”

Damn. “Dallas cops.”

Donovan nodded.

Easing to his feet, AJ grimaced at the discomfort that intensified before settling into a dull throb. He wasn’t naïve. Cops were like any other professionals: some good, some bad, some indifferent. Some were tempted by power, by greed, by ego. The good ones outnumbered the bad a hundred to one, but it only took one to taint an entire department.

“So you’re requesting the assistance of the Copper Lake Police Department.” AJ shook his head. Big city coming to the small town for help. Who would have believed it?

“No, actually, I’m requesting your assistance. I’d like to put her up with you for a while. The fewer people who know, the better.”

“Why me?”

“Because I can trust you. You’d never be tempted by money or brotherhood or friendship. You do what’s right.”

Strict moral code. That was what AJ’s dad called it. Right and wrong, good and bad, were concepts Adam Decker lived by. He’d never wavered, even when it would have been easy, even when it would have profited him. AJ had done his best to do the same.

He walked a few feet, his gaze on the traffic on Carolina Avenue. Copper Lake was your average small town: twenty-thousand people, relatively pleasant, relatively safe. The population covered the spectrum of race, social and economic status, with an average ratio of criminals to law-abiding citizens and those skirting the edge. It wasn’t the kind of place anyone would expect a homicide detective from Dallas to choose.

Or a defense attorney in hiding.

Then something Donovan had said echoed in his head. You’d never be tempted by . . . brotherhood or friendship. Abruptly he turned back. “I know these cops?”

Donovan nodded.

“Who are they?”

“Your old running buddies from Homicide. Myers. Taylor. Kinney.”

Muscles tightening, AJ got a really bad feeling in his gut. He looked at the parking lot, scanning for a car that didn’t belong, and found it in a black sedan with tinted windows and a lone figure sitting in the passenger seat. From this distance and with the tint, it was impossible to make out anything about her, but he knew pretty much all he needed to.

Heat rose into his face, carrying with it anger that he’d thought he’d put behind him years ago. He scowled at Donovan. “This is about the Riggs case, isn’t it? Teri Riggs. Israel Rodriguez. And her.” He stabbed a finger in the direction of the car. “You brought her here, expecting me to take her in, let her stay at my house, keep an eye on her? You’re nuts!”

Donovan dragged his fingers through his hair. If AJ’s was long enough, he’d be tearing it out. “I brought her here because I know that case is important to you. You, of all people, would want to be sure that the man in prison for Riggs’s murder was the one who actually killed her. I know you two—“ his gesture toward the car showed agitation, a rare thing in a hotshot prosecutor—“have a history. But she trusts you, and so do I. There aren’t many people capable of protecting her that we can say that about.”

Before AJ could repeat his last words, Donovan went on. “Look, you’re off work now, right? Can we go to your house and talk about this, all three of us?

“You can go back to whatever the hell airport you came in at and go home. I don’t want a damn thing to do with it.” AJ spun around, wincing, and headed for the building fifteen feet away. He would clear his desk, go home, get an ice pack and a cold beer, then sack out on the couch and do his best to forget how crappy this afternoon had turned out.

But he’d gone less than five feet when another voice spoke. Hey, bitch, you know what’s good for you, you’ll mind your own business. If you don’t, whatever happens, it’s all on you.

Slowly he turned back.

Donovan was holding a small tape recorder. “You know that voice.”

AJ wanted to deny it, but he didn’t waste his breath. “Yeah.” Dave Kinney, former fellow homicide detective, an overall decent guy who cut a few corners but always for the better good. It was not only his voice, but the final words—it’s all on you—were a favorite phrase of his.

“Can we talk at your house?”

It took a moment to force the words out, but AJ managed. “Give me five minutes. You can follow me there.”

4 responses »

  1. Sandy Peterson says:

    Hi Marilyn!

    I definitely loved AJ and Mas’ story. It reminded me a lot of one of my other favorite books from you, The Sheriff’s Surrender. I enjoyed seeing Robby and Tommy back in the story. I was hoping you would give us more information on what they were up to though. Is Tommy a dad yet?

    When will we be back in Copper Lake? And with who? Sophie? Joe’s brother and Natalia? I think Kiki needs a career change!

    Sandy

    • Marilyn says:

      Thanks, Sandy! Glad you enjoyed it!

      The next Copper Lake up is a novella in the SRS Christmas collection which comes out the end of September, and that’s Josh Saldana and Natalia.

      Then, in October, there’s another short one that’s strictly online at eHarlequin that features Pete Petrovski and his high school sweetheart.

      After that, I’m really not sure. I’m kind of focusing on something else right now, but I do want to do Anamaria’s sister’s story, and I’d love to do one with Sophy Marchand. So far, every guy who’s mentioned in connection with her has fallen in love with and married someone else, so I think she needs a hero of her own!

      • Sandy Peterson says:

        Maybe some cute (of course) guy needs to come in and commission her to make a quilt for someone. You can see why I’m not a writer, but really appreciate the writing of others. I would love to see Annamaria’s sister’s story. Plus it would bring us up-to-date on what Robby and Annamaria are up to.

        Sandy

      • Marilyn says:

        LOL, Sandy!

        One of the things I really miss about the longer length we were allowed with Intimate Moments was that I could include a bit about previous couples in a series and catch up with them. Now our word count is so short that we have to keep the focus pretty narrowly on the hero and heroine.

        But Anamaria will definitely play a role in her sister’s story, so Robbie will be hanging around there, too.

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