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Authors: Amber Malloy

the ringer




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The Ringer

Copyright © 2014 by Amber Malloy

ISBN: 978-1-61333-694-6

Cover art by Lacey Savage


All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work, in whole or in part, in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.


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The Ringer



Amber Malloy







For Flo and Go. Two crazy cuckoo birds who I love dearly.

And Melissa Ringsted: Thanks for sprucing up the place. I couldn’t have flipped this house without you.




Chapter One



Lane Garrett wanted nothing less than a warm bath and a hot cup of cocoa, but the mark she’d picked up at the bar had other plans.

A college haunt of all places, she noted with a snort.

Six foot two and balding, the man appeared to have careened into his fifties kicking and screaming. He clung to her body as if she harbored the last available life preserver under her mini skirt.

All hands, he pawed and grasped at her with amazing gusto for someone his age.
Frat boy in a different life
. Lane gave a healthy amount of resistance to the Viagra-type-horny strength the man exhibited.

Assault would have been a better word for what she endured. In good consciousness, she could settle upon the term pervy instead. After all, she had gone with him to the dingy parking lot behind the bar on her own accord.

For what it was worth, Lane gave him all of the appropriate signals. She fought hard to make sure he didn’t touch any body part that could have been referenced by a Georgia O’Keefe in vivid oil color detail.

The time to rethink her life choices should have come well before this moment. Fresh from a separation, she took a mental note of how things had gone so wrong so fast.

“Are you sure you’re not married?” She giggled in his ear. “A good-looking guy like yourself.” Lane waited for his reply, tilting her left boob up to get every word of his denial.

Of course any audio evidence she obtained would be inadmissible in court, but it always dried the ink on the divorce papers much faster. After hearing the evidence, the wives didn’t tend to waffle.

“I told you, honey, she died, and I ain’t been with nobody for months,” the mark growled in his best attempt at a sexy voice.
He’s practiced it for hours
. She fought the overwhelming urge to puke.

“Well, how about I get in my car and follow you to somewhere more private,” Lane said, bearing in mind they stood in a parking lot. Anywhere would have been more private.

“No, now! I want it now!”

An icky wave of panic began to bubble in her gut. The man tightened his grip on her arm while he hit the car alarm on his midlife crisis—a BMW sports convertible.

“What’s your hurry, big guy?”

He snatched the passenger’s door open. She didn’t want to blow her cover quite yet. Nevertheless, if this maniac didn’t let up on her arm soon, she would be forced to take drastic measures. To buy herself some time, Lane made her body go rigid.

“Come on, baby, let’s do this.” He tongued her ear.

Grossed out, Lane slipped her free hand into her purse. She used her other arm to fend the freak off of her ample breast. “Well, sweetie, you just might have to buy me a diamond.”

“A whaaa—”

“Di-am-ond,” Lane repeated the safe word for the security team into her own cleavage.

“Honey, you’re going to have to do me something real good for a diamond,” he said while he pushed her head south toward the bulk of his beer gut.

Close to committing a crime far worse than adultery, she heard the sound of footsteps.
At last, the cavalry
. He loosened his grip. She used the distraction to slip the ironclad grip her mark had on her head.

“Johnny Mac?” a man asked. Lane tried to save her tacky blonde wig from the dingy street. Somewhere between the bar and the car door, her cute little pageboy cap had met its demise.

“Beat it,” the mark growled over his shoulder at the interloper.

“You got something for me?”

Crouched too low to see over his beer belly, she tried to look past the cheater in hopes to implore the intruder for assistance. However, the hefty bulk of her horny mark’s body kept her from noticing anything other than his cheap leather jacket.

“I said—” The mark’s words got covered by a loud boom, and his big frame jerked away from hers. A look of pure shock ran across his bloated face when he tried to turn around.

In the throes of some sort of fit, he rocked from left to right before he tipped over backward.

Confused, she leaned toward the guy’s motionless body at the same time she found her can of pepper spray near the bottom of her purse. Operating on automatic pilot she flipped the safety off the canister with her thumb. A twitter or a flash of something drew her attention, perhaps the shiny gleam of the gun reflecting off the streetlight. Lane opened her eyes and whispered a silent thank you. At least she wasn’t dead. Of course, she couldn’t say the same for the cheater.

Dressed from head to toe in black, a man stood above her unfaithful mark’s limp body. His thin, hardened face twisted in a genuine look of surprise when Lane pulled out the can of poison and aimed.




Thirty minutes earlier

A line formed in front of the neighborhood college bar, Paddy’s, and snaked around the block. Jax Thornbird leaned his driver’s seat back in his classic Plymouth 1969 GTX. He sat idle outside of the packed pub while he tried to knock out a couple of Zs.

The college haunt split at the seams with grads and undergrads. They came from assorted institutions of higher learning in the downtown area.

Autumn in Chicago brought out the small town kids with big city dreams. The reality of their wasted weeks of drunken exploits sunk in once winter came around. Those stars in their eyes dulled to a lack luster shine when the first start of snow hit the ground.

Thankful he had been off the street beat for some time, he tried to think about anything other than the current state of his career. The sudden yank at his passenger door interrupted his thoughts and made him reach for the sidepiece, which made things worse. Jax forgot he’d had to turn in his gun.

“My man, wha’cha know, no good?” Sherman, his old partner from vice, hopped into his car with a huge smile from ear to ear. “You’re getting rusty in your old age, or should I say retirement.”

“You’re lucky I don’t have my gun.”

“Ha! Get in line,” Sherman joked. “So what’s up with this poster for erectile dysfunction?” The dark-skinned man, who could be mistaken for a college nerd instead of a narcs officer, ran his hand across the GTX’s dashboard.

“Sweet, huh.” He smiled. It had taken him forever to rebuild the ol’ girl, but he got her in top order.

He’d added some extras to the car such as an iPod dock, GPS, and satellite. If other people wanted to suffer under the guise of being a purist, then let them. He had no desire to be uncomfortable.

“What’s the deal, man? Raff called me for a favor.” He nodded toward the bar. “You got a bust or something?”

“Nope, but you do.”

“Funny,” he said with no humor at all. He faced an investigation from Internal Affairs for a wrongful shooting. Of course, Jax felt he wasn’t the least bit wrong.

“Ah, Raff’s always up to new business ventures.” Sherman jerked his thumb at the ever-growing crowd in front of the bar. “You see the platinum blonde in the hat and the mini. Stacked like a brick house, not skinny and frail like the rest of these kids.” Sherman peered at him over his glasses. His former partner had never been a fan of the waif.

“Get to it,” he pushed, since Sherman could draw out the simplest of conversations.

“She’s a decoy. In about one minute, a sweet honey will saunter past the bouncer and get right into the bar. Inside is a hellacious cheater whose wife has paid top dollar to get the goods on him.”

“And this means what to me?” he asked as Sherman tossed a small headset over to him.

“You’re the tail. Make sure nothing gets out of hand or goes too far, and in case there’s a problem, listen for the code word

Jax sighed, knowing he couldn’t back out of this.

“Tell me Raff at least called someone else?”

Sherman flashed him one of his famous smiles before he opened the door to the brisk fall night. “Nope, you’re the only rich dude with time on his hands, Thornbird. Everyone else is on the job.” He stepped out. “And for God’s sake, man, get a haircut. You may be unemployed, but you don’t have to look it.” Sherman laughed before slamming the door shut on the gritty sounds of the city’s nightlife.




Chapter Two



Lane sprayed her assailant straight in the eyes. A yelp of a scream came out of the gunman, not at all satisfying. She sniffed.

While the shooter stumbled around, aiming any and everywhere, Lane tiptoed toward the cheater’s keys. They fell away from his limp body. Panicked, she snatched them up and dove into the BMW, scrambling to get to the driver’s seat.

Whispering silent prayers under her breath, Lane hoped her pleas reached the heavens when she shoved the key in the ignition, quite aware the roar of the engine would tip the psycho murderer off to her spot. She twisted the key anyway.

A bullet hit the windshield while another whizzed past her ear. She tried not to waver. Lane pulled at the gearshift, and froze when the killer flashed the gun at her.

“Get out of the car you stupid bitch!”

Don’t scream, don’t cry, don’t scream, don’t cry
. She chanted as she braced herself for a blow.
Have a semblance of dignity
. Lord knew she didn’t want to be shot dead in the parking lot of a shitty bar.

“Slut,” he growled.

Lane steadied herself for quick pain and decided a quiet bliss would come next. However, the shooter interrupted her on-the-spot burial plans when he gave a grunt and slumped forward.

She watched as another man yanked her assailant from inside of the car. He threw her attacker’s limp body to the ground along with a huge chunk of plywood.
I’ve seen you before

Flustered, she couldn’t summon up the place or the time where she had met the guy. The perfect man, with his squared jaw and hazel eyes had just saved her. Afraid because she couldn’t make sense of anything, Lane’s whole body began to shake.

The sexy man she knew, but couldn’t remember, jumped into the passenger’s seat. He shut the door behind him and commanded her, “Drive.”



It was too dark to see the woman’s face, but he recognized something about her. The glow from the streetlights ran over the car, creating a quick shadow before slipping back into the night.

He couldn’t get a good read on her face.

Even with her strange blonde hair and oddly matched clothes, he remembered the decoy.

This woman reeked girl-next-door wholesomeness, but without direct light, he couldn’t place her, underneath the heavy makeup and the two-times-too-small Hello Kitty tank she wore.

“I know you,” she said. It came out in a hushed whisper while they sped down Wacker Drive. The underground tunnel had dangerous twists and turns.

“I-I-I remember—”a bit more panic lacing her voice.

A sedan whizzed past them, missing the sports car by mere inches. Overcompensating for the close call, she jerked the wheel too hard, careening them into a massive spinout.

Adrenaline thrummed through his veins, Jax reached over to grab the steering wheel.

“Put your foot on the brake,” he instructed as they continued to spin in the opposite direction. She didn’t utter a single word, not even a peep, while he maneuvered the car into the slide.

Almost too late to save them, he noted very few cars passed them before they spun out over the median divider.

“I know you,” she wheezed. The woman dropped her head on the wheel.

The car idled in the middle of the road as he tried to calm her down. “You’re going into shock,” he told her. “I need you to take three deep breaths, hold for five seconds, then exhale. Come on, I’ll do it with you. One.” Getting close to her, he inhaled and waited before he released.

After a moment, she followed his lead. Once they got through their first repetition, she had calmed down a bit. “Hot,” she said before she snatched the blonde wig off and shook her dark hair loose. The light from the street caught her eyes. Jax gazed into her dazzling green globes.

“Yeah,” he admitted as he stared at her. “I know you, too.”




Five months earlier

A wisp of elegance swept across the room. The banquet hall brimmed over with the high society crowd. The Chicago Ritz Carlton swarmed with people made of money.

Society affairs always bored the hell out of Jax. He had promised his father he would attend this one since he’d dodged so many in the past.

A good charitable cause helped take the sting out of most prissy events, but not tonight. The new case on his desk gave him a bad itch. He checked his watch again, frustrated to find that minutes had ticked by from the last time he checked.

“The sheer power of your mind, Jackson, will not make this go by any faster.” His old man, Truman Thornbird, chuckled near his ear before he passed him a stiff drink.

“Power of persuasion, I never thought I’d see the day,” Nathaniel Thornbird chimed in. His big brother slapped him on the back from the other side, eliminating any possibility of a clean getaway. “How did the old man get you here?”

On the tip of his tongue lay a whopper of a lie. He wrestled around with something plausible but decided to settle on the truth. “I picked the Cubs,” he mumbled.

“Against?” Nate pretended to play stupid over last season’s baseball finals.

“The White Sox,” he muttered as raucous laughter erupted from his brother and old man.

“He never learns,” Nate hooted. He wiped the mist from his eyes before he rolled into another bout of amusement all over again. Since his family always got a good laugh at his expense, he decided to wait them out.

“Uh oh, the vultures have gathered in formation.” Their father nodded toward the den of single ladies circling in for the kill.

The trio of Thornbird men must have sparkled like tasty treats in the dry wasteland of the married and the old who attended. The tallest of the three, Jax stood an inch above his brother at a good six-five. With all their teeth accounted for and a full head of black hair, they would win best in show.

Everyone was privy to their father’s longstanding arrangement with the widow Christie, his father’s high school friend. To dodge any unwelcome advances, they pretended to be an item at such affairs.

This alone took his father out of the running for eligible bachelor. Due to Nate’s engaged status, he was also off-limits, which left him to suffer alone.

Too busy with work, he couldn’t help but be AWOL at most of these meat market affairs gift wrapped in a good cause.

“Isn’t that Macy Beitterman?” Nate asked. He could tell by his tone he knew full well it was. “Hmm, maybe tonight will be her lucky night.”

Even as a homicide detective, nothing beat fear in his heart faster than a power-hungry, unrequited crush from middle school yesteryears.

At the precise right moment, his cell buzzed inside his tuxedo jacket. Downright thrilled at the prospect of paperwork, he took his phone out of his breast pocket.

“Don’t you dare—” his father began to threaten him, but Jax held up his finger to cut him short.

“Oh shoot, I gotta take this.” He feigned disappointment as he rushed off to beat the crush of women headed in their general direction. Laughter from his father and brother followed him across the hall and into the men’s washroom.

Out of view, he tucked his phone back into his suit and dumped his drink down the sink. He had no intention of staying any longer than need be, so he had set an alarm to go off about a half hour after he arrived. Amused by his own craftiness, he whistled his way to the urinal, grateful to have the rest of his evening free.

When he unzipped his pants, his Spidey senses went off. Jax peered over his shoulder while he chastised himself for missing the obvious. A sexy brunette sat upon the porcelain lid in the stall behind him.

“Don’t let me stop you, please continue,” she told him with a sly wave.

“Did I make a wrong turn?” he asked, surprised but amused. “When did the ladies’ room get urinals?”

“No, you’re in the right place. Believe you me, the women’s restroom needs them worse than you guys. These wealthy ladies of sophistication are slobs.” She had a raspy, smooth voice, not light and airy like the debs who hosted these things. “Did you take a good gander at The Daughters of the American Revolution table?” She opened her eyes wide. “With their hair, sequins, and makeup shellacked up to here for days.” The playful woman held her hand high above her head. “I’m just saying.”

Surprised he had begun to smile at the woman with all her splendid candor, he tried to catch himself. If he allowed the tug of attraction to grow, he would be in trouble.

An off-the-shoulder red dress clung to her full breasts, complementing her creamy skin. Straight dark hair fell to her waist, setting off her amazing emerald-green eyes.

This woman doesn’t belong here

“You got a name?” he asked the washroom intruder.

Her eyes flashed with humor before she opened her red-painted mouth.

“Lane,” a masculine voice called out. Someone opened the outer door to the men’s room. The playful look on the beauty’s face disappeared. “Lane!” he said again, a touch angrier than before and very close.

Jax wouldn’t have described her expression as panic, but her brilliant face became pinched, conveying a sense of urgency he had seen many times. He put his finger to his lips to silence her and reached for the stall door. Nodding as he pulled it, she raised her stiletto-covered foot to keep it closed.


“Parker!” he groaned aloud. A throwback to another time and place; one he kind of hated. “Longtime good not to see.” He nodded at his high school nemesis. “Still trolling the men’s bathroom, huh, Park?”

“Jackson Thornbird.” The spoiled man’s face twisted into a sneer. “I haven’t bumped into you at a function in ages. Then again, I can’t imagine you could afford the ticket. Did Daddy foot the bill?” Parker leaned against the wall, the condescending expression he’d perfected since high school smeared across his face.

“Pops is a sucker for a good cause, and it gives us a chance to catch up. Unlike your old man, my father likes having me around.”

Jax grinned at his childhood enemy. He wanted nothing more than to rid himself of the dark slime the little shit brought along with him.

The antithesis of good and evil, and not just in looks, Parker Lockland didn’t carry an air of middle class in his blood. Close to his height, the blond Parker hailed from an impeccable lineage, pure blue blood all the way for the Lockland clan.

“How is the field? Oh, what is it?” Parker pretended to study his Rolex watch. “Public servant? Mailman, right, how’s it working out for you?”

“Better than twisting those old ladies’ faces tighter than a corkscrew,” he shot back, criticizing Parker’s skills as a plastic surgeon.

Gnashing his teeth, Parker pushed himself off the wall. Silently congratulating himself, Jax waited for the petty son of a bitch to spill out something ridiculous, while he fought off the urge to rabbit punch him in the throat like he’d always wanted.

“Parker!” his brother interrupted them. “Father would like a word.” The younger, and better tempered, Lockland walked into the restroom.

“Maybe next time we can throw one of these fancy shindigs for your skimpy civil servant paycheck. Later, Thornbird,” Parker said.

Dustin nodded in his direction and took off behind his brother.

After a few beats, he gave a quick wrap to the stall. “The coast is clear,” he said before he pushed the door open.

“Geesh, you two have a hard-on for each other and not the good kind,” the woman he identified as Lane said with a big, infectious laugh. She uncurled herself from her spot. Jax held out his hand to help her down off the porcelain lid.

“Considering I’m not the one hiding in the head, I’m guessing you hate him, too.”

She touched his palm with her fingertips, forcing a brush of warmth to slide right through him. Taller than he believed, and curvy in all the best places, he noticed stepping back to let her out.

“I served him with divorce papers about twenty minutes ago.”

“Burn,” he exhaled, choking on her lack of decorum.

With no signs of visible nerves in sight, she popped the top to her small purse and pull out a tube of lipstick. “No coming back from that right? I didn’t want to pay for a process-server, and my lawyer advised me to do it in a public place.” She sauntered over to the mirror in the waiting room and refreshed the dark red color on her lips. Once she’d finished with her mouth, her eyes sparkled an even more brilliant shade of green.

“Who would have guessed he’d act like such a….” She screwed the cover on and threw the tube into her bag.

“Cry baby,” he offered.

“Bitchy baby,” she corrected. “But yours wasn’t too far off.”

“How long have you been married to Parker?” He volleyed into her corner.

“Long enough.” Lane sighed before she tiptoed her way up to the door. She shrugged. “You wouldn’t be familiar with a good way out of this joint?”

“What, no round two?” he asked, entertained by her.

“Honestly, I don’t have enough fight in me. I guess I never did for Parker.”

Jax filled the space between them. A whiff of a spicy perfume warmed his nose. With a Cheshire cat smile, the bombshell of a woman tilted her head up to look him in the eyes.

“After your smart comment about the Daughters of the Revolution, I’d imagine you can fight the best of them.” He elicited his first genuine laugh from her. “Go right down the hall until you reach the employees’ exit. This floor isn’t locked, so it will take you to the stairway. Head down to the third floor. That door will lead you toward the back of the hotel.”

“Should I ask how you’re privy to this top secret information?”

“Good luck, Lane.” He smiled before reluctantly taking a step away from her.

“Nice meeting you, Jackson Thornbird.” She pulled open the door and glanced both ways before heading into the hallway.

“It’s just Jax,” he told her before she got away.

“Okay then,” she said with a peek over her shoulder. “Goodnight, just Jax.”




Chapter Three



The present

The rapid beat of her heart increased her panic. Jax had managed to maneuver her from the driver’s seat. Unclear how it happened, Lane found herself riding shotgun.

Gears ground together before the car jerked them back onto the road. He shifted the BMW sports into reverse to pull it off the median.

“You cut your hair,” he noted.

Her tresses hung a couple of inches beneath her shoulders. Lane touched the soft layers around her face. Edgy is what she’d wanted but received a new do on the shy side of sweet.

Lane had lopped off almost a foot for Locks of Love charity. She’d also done it for a much sillier motive, not at all altruistic—breakup spite. Both reasons had seemed good at the time, but she still suffered from the slightest bit of insecurity about her cut.

“It looks great on you,” he told her with a wink.

Heat tightened her chest while she fought off the strange sensation of a crush. Her mind wandered to places best left alone.
I’m a grown-ass woman
. Which did not change the fact one good-looking man flirted with her.

Trying not to stare, she kept her eyes focused straight ahead. Everything about him set fire to her already singing nerves.

Lane resisted the urge to reach for the tips of his hair hitting his shirt collar. Big in every single way, he oozed sex appeal, a trait Parker never possessed.

Almost-instant guilt seeped into her. Her ex, Parker, a good-looking man, didn’t hold a candle to Jax. Even though women took notice when Parker walked into a room, Lane never once wished her clothes would spontaneously combust off her body.

A super-steamy relationship wasn’t in the cards. Her cheeks heated from embarrassment from her moment of weakness, but Jax even had a damn strong jaw.

“Are you okay?” he asked. His politeness was probably a cautionary measure to make sure there would be no more freak-outs in his near future.

“I’m not going to fall apart on you,” she murmured, still raw. She tried to close her ill-fitted blazer over her too-small T-shirt. After her little panic attack at the bar, Lane believed she couldn’t have come off worse. Uncomfortable in her own skin, she just wanted to go home.

“Can you tell me what happened?”

Uh no!
  She wanted to say, but instead she took a deep breath, trying to get her bearings. It seemed like the beginning of her evening had taken place a year ago instead of a mere hour.

They drove at a quick clip along Lake Front. Anxious, she pushed herself farther into the seat. “My mark.” She splayed her hands out, not sure what to do with them. “I call the cheating husbands marks. Someone from the service told me to meet the guy at the pub.

“When I got there, he appeared nervous. Looking behind his back every few seconds…twitchy—worried about his wife, maybe. So I suggested we get out of there.” Lane swallowed. “As soon as we left out the back, he was all over me. The next thing that happened…
” She pulled the trigger of a fake gun, putting her hands down before he could see them shake. “Dead.”

“Your decoy agency—”

“Honey Pot,” she offered.

“Yeah, did they tell you to leave with the…mark?” He concentrated on the road ahead of him. He slid the dead man’s vehicle in and out of traffic while still managing to pay close attention to her story.

“No,” she admitted, more than a little ashamed. “I am never to leave with them.”

Lane always made it a priority to not regret anything.
Well, up until this very moment
. Because tonight, she regretted an awful lot.

“How many of these
have you gone on?”

“Uh.” She didn’t want to confess to her naiveté but had a strong sense he could already tell. “Three. Maybe if I got the guy at ease, he’d give up the goods faster.” Lane shrugged. “Then I could go home.”

“Hmm.” Jax steered the stolen car onto an off-ramp.

No one said anything for a while. Since Lane deemed herself too stupid for words, she gladly melted into the silence.

He pulled the BMW through the open entrance of a parking garage. “Give me a second.” He swung the car into a remote corner of the lot before he hopped out. Jax crossed the street, disappearing into the attendant’s booth.

Exhausted, she dropped her head back on the seat and tried to think about the highlight of her day. Often, she would tackle this chore before she went to sleep at night, a strong believer of positive affirmation. However, the dead guy in the parking lot of the pub put a damper on her efforts.

The image of his big body, facedown on the pavement, ran through her mind on repeat. Sure, she may not have liked the cheating bastard, but somebody did. He may have been screwing around on that somebody, but at one point, she had to have loved him. Lane tried in vain to convince herself of a silver lining, but conceded one wouldn’t be found tonight.

A small earthquake rumbled from beneath her. She blinked, unaware she had closed her eyes. Jax wasn’t back yet, and she was still in her stupid outfit. Groggy, Lane opened the car door and planted her feet on the pavement. “What are you doing?”

He worked his way from underneath the car with a boxy unit in hand. “Getting a souvenir,” he said before he nodded at her boots. “How much mileage can you get out of those things?”

Five-inch heels, black and shiny leather made its way up her leg to the top of her thigh. “Three blocks give or take one.”.

“Good, let’s put them to the test,” he said, offering his hand to her. Lane grabbed his calloused palm from her spot in the car and pulled herself up. He didn’t take the obligatory step back, which would allow her to get by, nor did she try to push him to move out of her way.

Instead, she sucked in a deep breath. She wanted to bask in the smell of his crisp, fresh scent. It had been awhile since she had been around such a strong man. If only for a moment, she wanted to enjoy it.

“You okay?” He smiled down at her.

Slowly, Lane took her hand from his. She didn’t want to get too used to his strong touch. Instead, she slipped through the small space left between his body and the car. Not a tiny girl by any means, her ample breasts brushed against him. “Getting there,” she admitted, unsure of the actual truth.




Chapter Four



One hell of a trouper
. He waited for Lane in the booth while she freshened up in the washroom. He was impressed she had walked three blocks to the diner with no complaints.


Quiet as ever, his partner Raff had slipped into the restaurant. If the bell over the door hadn’t signaled her arrival, she would have surprised him. Anyone would have found it hard to believe this cagey-looking woman could be on the right side of the law, let alone a homicide detective. The rail-thin, spiky-haired blonde slid into the booth across from him. She flipped a cigarette to her mouth and then patted down her fitted leather jacket for her lighter.

“You can’t smoke in here,” the waitress said from behind the counter. Without acknowledging the smoking ban, Raff flipped her badge from her jacket.

“Down to a pack,” she mumbled lighting the tip with her lighter. A strange calm washed across her face before she sat back in the booth and put her leg up on the vinyl fabric next to her. Most people would have mistaken her for a teenager at first by her gangly boyish features, but the sheer aura of her confidence would dispel the notion quick enough.

“Some college freshman found the vic outside of Paddy’s,” she told him after she got comfortable. “What the hell, Thornbird! What made you go to the bar tonight of all nights?”

“You sent me there via Sherman with this.” Jax pushed the dismantled microphone across the table.

“Shit,” she hissed. A deep frown crinkled her handsome face. Since Raff’s usual demeanor never gave anything away, he knew there was a problem. “You think the squad got to him?”

“Doubt it, but not sure. Do me a favor and check when you get back to the precinct.” Jax dug in his pocket and took out the GPS unit he pulled off the dead man’s BMW. “Can you drop this off at the garage and run a diagnostic?” He handed it to her. “I have to go under for a while.”

Jax hadn’t thought he would be at this place so early in the game. Raff’s grim expression told him she hadn’t thought his freeze out in the department would lead to this either.

They sat in silence for a bit. He allowed her time to digest the fact he would have to go off the grid.

“Who’s the 50s pin-up girl?” Raff nodded. She knocked her dead ashes into one of the coffee mugs the waitress had placed in front of them.

He didn’t have to turn around. The sexy sound of Lane’s heels across the tile floor alerted him, but the spark of interest in his partner’s bored baby blues confirmed his belief.

“She’s your decoy,” he said with a lopsided grin before he took a hit from his mug of muck.

Lane slid into the booth next to him. “Hi,” she said with a wide-open smile as she held out her hand to his partner.

“Lane, meet your boss, Raff.” He introduced them.

“No kidding!” The beautiful woman swiveled her head in confusion. “But a guy always calls me.”

“Yeah, my kid brother, he’s the manager. My parents wanted a boy, but I came first. They named me Raphaela and my brother is named Ralph. Some sense of humor, right?” Raff sunk the rest of her cigarette in the black liquid she hadn’t touched and Jax wished he hadn’t either.

“Lane tells me you encourage your decoys to leave with their marks,” he lied to goad his partner.

“I, huh….” Complete dismay overtook Raff’s delicate features. “Oh God, you didn’t!” Raff said to Lane before she released a hearty chuckle.

“What?” Lane avoided his gaze.

“No wonder,” his partner grumbled with genuine humor. “Trust me, Thornbird, you got a regular grenade on your hands, here.” Raff continued to laugh, erasing the small crinkles of stress along the edges of her eyes, but just for a quick minute. “Do I get ‘my girl’ back?” Raff gave back the set of keys to his baby on the diner’s table.

“Who me?” Lane squeaked.

“She was a loaner, Raff, not a keeper,” Jax said, amused at Lane’s confusion.

His partner picked the chain up she just gave him and dangled them in front of his face. “Do me a favor, Thornbird, and make it out of this thing alive.” She tossed the keys to him on her way out of the booth. “And you—” She pointed at Lane. “—give great water cooler gossip, but you’re fired. There’s no way I can afford the insurance premiums with those kinds of stunts,” she mumbled on her way past them. “Ask the grenade what happened on the other dates.” She snorted before leaving.

Minutes ticked by while he waited for her to speak. “Do you want to share—”

“Nope, I’m good.” Lane shook her head before she took a sip from her coffee. Not at all surprised by her reaction, Jax raised his hand for the check.




The night had been a series of firsts. First, Lane witnessed a murder, then she had a gun pointed at her, and now she rode on the back of a motorcycle. The experience wasn’t on her bucket list. However, she never shied away from a new opportunity once it presented itself.

Lane wanted to take solace in the wind whipping through her hair while she clung to the back of a strong, sexy man. Instead, she sat on the machine with her ass damn near exposed for the greater metropolitan to see. Nonetheless, she could be happy in one thing. Her silver lining had been discovered. Thrilled at being alive, Lane thanked the heavens she had grabbed a pair of boy shorts instead of a thong.

With the right side of her face pressed firmly against his back, they made their way through the exclusive neighborhood of Wicker Park.

A mist had started to fall, nothing too heavy or wet for Lane to worry about. Jax rode his bike through the upper middle class neighborhood. On top of “the baby” he and his partner referred to, they pulled the motorcycle over in front of a firehouse.

She allowed the mist of the earth to christen her face, while he turned off the bike and flipped down the kickstand.

“I can take you somewhere else if you’re not comfortable with this, but until I have a good idea of what’s going on….” He shrugged. “This will be…safe.”

Lane lowered her gaze away from the sky and focused on his handsome face.

“Or we can go grab another cup of coffee while I think about why you haven’t asked me what the hell is going on?” he asked.

He studied her with a bemused look on his face. It seemed as if he already knew everything about her but couldn’t make out what to do with her yet.

Too close
. Lane caught her breath and fought against the urge to cozy up to him. She resisted sniffing that space between his shoulder and neck, to take in the clean notes of amber and wood from his cologne.

She wondered if his proximity could be a cop tactic he used to intimidate people, since his presence seemed to scramble something in her head. The desire to take this hulk of a man down on the pavement and screw him in the parking lot crossed her mind.

If he wasn’t initiating one of those trained psychological tricks on her, then Jax merely practiced a good down-home flirt. The man appeared to occupy the same space without being inside of her, making Lane believe he was one heck of a tease.

“Look, I’m not one to engage in the Scarlet O’Hara routine,” she admitted, “but I’ve never seen someone shot before. Not to mention, I wanted him dead before the dead happened. Either I have telekinesis, or else I’m just an asshole.” She swallowed, in complete disbelief he’d gotten her to confess.

“Trust me, I would love to get the scoop on why an officer of the law didn’t call in a murder.” Lane counted his transgressions off on her fingers. “Doesn’t have a weapon on him, and is filching GPS units off of a dead cheater’s car.” He opened his eyes wide, but she plowed on. “I’m not an airhead or a celeb-idiot, but I am exhausted, which I hear is bad for good decision-making.”

“You mean like leaving a bar with a stranger and telling no one where you’re at?”

“Kinda,” she mumbled at the glint of humor she recognized in the sexy man’s eyes.

“Trust me, sweetheart, I think it’s safe to say you don’t have telekinesis.”

Caught off guard, Lane laughed, grateful for her first chuckle of the night, but she didn’t anticipate many more. A remorseful record of pity and shame had gone around in her head since the moment her mark died in front of her.

“You’ve had a big shock. I just want to make sure you’re comfortable with this.” Jax nodded toward the brick building.

“Is there hot cocoa?” she asked.

“Not one hundred percent sure, but maybe.”

“A tub?” she pressed. “Because no tub is beyond a deal breaker.”

“There are some areas under construction, but the bathroom is not one of them, so we’re good.”

She studied the structure with renewed interest. “This isn’t the kind of firehouse where I will be required to suit up in the middle of the night and slide down a pole, is it?” She walked toward the entrance next to the double door garage.

“If you want it to be.” Jax chuckled from behind her. “Only if you want it to be.”




Chapter Five



Startled, Lane sat up, confused. Sunlight streamed into Jax’s firehouse as the horrible events of the previous night flooded back to her in great detail.

The firehouse was under renovation. She took in his three-bedroom, two-bath home. The night before he’d explained his plans for the place when he ushered her up one of the cool, gravity-defying staircases to the bedroom.

For a split second, crazed by her female hormones, she had considered bailing when she didn’t get her promised hot cup of cocoa. However, the glorious marble bathtub convinced her she could rough it after all.

For at least an hour, she’d soaked the filth from the mark’s touch down the drain. Thankful for the fresh reboot, she had started to feel closer to normal and farther away from bat shit crazy.

Once she got out of the tub, she’d found men’s pajamas and a cup of tea waiting for her on the nightstand. The mere sweetness of Jax’s gesture had forced her to not hold the poor substitute for chocolate against him.

The overcast morning fell limp beyond the arched window. Lane caressed the “rich man’s sheets” of Egyptian fabric that cocooned her in comfort.

Eager to see Jax, she padded down the spiral stairs. An autumn draft cooled the fire station, and a chill ran through her body. Construction film covered areas in the house. A skeleton of wood boards and wires showed throughout his home.