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Nick Matthews marched into the precinct, a wave of silence rippling in his wake. His life had changed forever. Even here, with the men and women who had been his friends and defended his life, the shadow of doubt tainted his return. He wouldn't be able to repair the damage to his honor overnight, but he wasn't about to walk away.
Fighting crime was his life.
Nick noticed a petite woman walk into the building next to him and turned to investigate. Opening the door to the administrative wing of the police station, he held it as she hurried through.
"Thank you," she said, tossing her full hair over her shoulder.
He nodded, trying to turn off the guilt of admiring a pretty woman. He wasn't committed to anyone anymore. Ronda had taken care of that with one swift judgment.
With his conscience cleared, Nick turned to introduce himself, stopped when the FBI seal on her navy polo shirt stole his interest.
His adrenaline kicked into high gear, like it did when he was working a case. Why was the FBI here? What was she investigating? Or should he ask who?
Before he could say anything, she turned down the hall toward the shift commander's office and disappeared without another word.
Nick entered the men's locker room preoccupied with thoughts of the woman in the FBI shirt. As he made his way through, he heard someone say, "There was another assault last night."
Nick listened, wondering if they had a serial criminal on their streets. Maybe that was why "Miss FBI" was here.
"Was it the same M.O. as the rape last spring ?" The officer's voice faded the minute he saw Nick.
"No, didn't get that far. Three students walked by and scared him off." Thelower voice was easy to identify. Jared Daniels.
Steeling himself against the dreaded silence, Nick wondered how the chief thought returning to patrol duty rather than to his position as detective would build trust again. But Nick didn't voice his questions. Those were his orders.
"Hey there, Matthews, welcome back," Officer Jeremy Logan said as he walked past.
Nick nodded. "Thanks, Jeremy. It's good to be here." He fielded a greeting or two, and more than a few skeptical glares from other officers. No one wanted to be associated with a troublemaker, let alone a cop suspected of being on the take. Lockers clanged shut as the whispers turned to silence. One by one, a half-dozen men slipped out of the room in quick succession.
He silently repeated Isaiah 43:2, the verse that had gotten him through this ordeal. "When you pass through deep waters, I will be with you: your troubles will not overwhelm you." Some days, like today, Nick questioned how much tribulation God thought he could handle. His own opinion was obviously very different from God's.
Opening his locker, Nick took a quick inventory. He hadn't been in here for weeks, and hadn't worn his uniform since he'd moved to the investigative unit three years ago.
Ignoring the silence was impossible.
These officers had been like family. He couldn't believe any one of them would think he'd have gone along with anyone on the force selling confiscated drugs. Worse yet was the implication that three officers had been involved in the underground drug ring. So if it wasn't Nick, they were still looking for one more culprit.
Nick noticed Sean Randall hurry in, stopping to open a locker nearby.
"Hey, Matthews, how're you doing?" he asked, as if he'd forgotten Nick wore a scarlet letter on his badge.
"Doing okay," he said simply. He wasn't about to jump in and make the same mistakes again. Figuring out who he could trust was going to take time, no matter how good a detective he'd been. He couldn't interrogate each of his colleagues.
Vic Taylor and Jed Tate had been convicted and were awaiting sentencing. Even with the promise of a lighter sentence, they wouldn't give up any other names, which left a whole lot of suspicion running rampant.
Nick didn't want to believe another officer on the force was involved. That those two had been working drug cases, forming a drug ring, was unbelievable.
He had to get to the bottom of this.
This is not a demotion. It's not even discipline. Much as he tried to convince himself of that, it wasn't working.
He pinned his badge and name tag to the shirt, then began putting on the required layers for traffic officers. The Kevlar vest and uniform shirt weren't nearly as comfortable as his plainclothes uniform, and he was pretty sure they hadn't been this snug last time he'd patrolled the streets, either.
Nick took the shirt off, checked for his name on the label ironed to the collar, to be sure someone hadn't switched them. When had he put on weight? He tugged the shirt across his chest to button it. He'd need to order the next size larger soon. That, or buy a thinner vest. With the gang activity in the area on the rise, he wasn't about to take that chance. He sucked in and fastened the shirt, praying it held through the shift. I look like a body builder trying to look buff, he thought. Just what I need tonight.
"Put on a little weight since you left the streets, huh, Matthews?" Sean said with a laugh. "Welcome back."
"Thanks," he said gruffly. "It's all muscle. I've been working out in my time off."
"Yeah," Randall muttered, "Me, too. My wife says it's sympathy weight. She expects me to lose it as soon as the baby arrives."
"Your wife is pregnant?"
"That's right," Sean bragged. "Our first."
"Congratulations." Nick was stunned that Sean continued the conversation. He'd expected total silence. "When's the big day?"
"Doc says December 8. We'll see. Noelle's showing already." The officer practically blushed as Nick chuckled. Sean finished dressing and closed his locker. "We'll catch up later."
"Yeah, take it easy." Nick made the necessary adjustments to his duty belt, adding his handcuffs, baton and flashlight rings before making his way to the briefing room. He sat in the back row, trying to lie low. Hushed voices dropped to a deafening silence the minute he took his seat.
Nick knew what they were going through. He even knew what they were thinking. He'd never known what to say when an officer came back after being disciplined for breaking policy. Now he knew how it felt to be the one no one wanted to get too close to. He looked around, trying to place names with the new faces. He was pretty sure Captain Thomas had said his trainee was a female officer. There were two women here he didn't recognize. The FBI agent was nowhere in sight.
When the shift commander entered the room and stopped to say hello, Nick's hopes of staying invisible were blown to smithereens. He fought the urge not to slump in his chair, as he had in high school when a teacher embarrassed him by calling on him when he'd walked into class after the bell.
"Let's welcome Nick back to street patrol," the commander said, obviously trying to break the awkward tension in the room. "Congratulations on the outcome, Sergeant Matthews." That ominous cloud of silence broke when two officers joined the commander's clapping, and the rest reluctantly followed.
Once the murmur of voices returned to normal, the commander began the briefing. "We have changes to the Field Training Officer assignments. Sarah Roberts," he said as a deafening silence took over the room again. Thomas motioned toward the front row, where the petite woman who had walked in with Nick, stood, barely clearing the heads of the men sitting behind her. Her dark hair was neatly braided and she looked like a teenager waiting for a growth spurt to befall her. "Officer Roberts comes to Fossil Creek with ten years of FBI field experience. You'll spend the next four weeks training with your FTO Sergeant Matthews."
Nick figured every officer in the room was thinking the same thing he wasthat Nick Matthews had a new watchdog.
Despite the annoyance, he nodded as Officer Roberts's glance met his. It can't be the same Sarah Roberts who went to Fossil Creek High, could it? As she took her seat, Nick struggled to focus on taking notes for the night's shift, BOLOs, outstanding warrants and cases to be mindful ofmainly the assault case from the night before. He struggled to keep his mind from drifting to the cute twin sister of his old basketball teammate.
He refused to look again. He forced himself to focus on the briefing as Captain Thomas went into detail on the BOLO.
"Be on the lookout for any suspicious activity near the campus," the captain explained as Nick struggled to link Sarah's assignment to the assault case.
" second assault in the vicinity of the university last night. Suspect is described as five-ten, Caucasian, brown hair and medium build. It occurred between nine and ten last night near the fine arts building off Pine Street and Gateway Place. The university police have asked us to provide assistance with additional patrols of the area. This assault has several similarities to the rape that occurred last April. All units in that area double your patrols on the university perimeter until further notice."
Nick's mind wandered again, and he found himself wishing he was the detective on the case. Sitting on the fringes had never been his strength. But there was never a dull moment in a city of almost a hundred twenty thousandthirty thousand more when the university was in session. Patrolling the streets had its perks, he realizedmore action, fewer dead ends than in investigations.And it would be a lot more difficult to find out if someone still had it in for him.
After the briefing, he waited at the door to meet Officer Roberts. The majority of their colleagues used the opposite door, thus avoiding the need to address Nick.
"Nick Matthews," Sarah said confidently, as she stopped next to him and looked up. Her brown eyes, framed with long, dark lashes and high arched eyebrows, were filled with intrigue and intelligence, he noted as he offered his hand.
She was even shorter than she'd looked earlier and even prettier than she had been in high school. He'd guess she was just over five feet tall, the bulkiness of the Kevlar vest and boxy uniform slacks hiding any semblance of a womanly figure. Her face was a dead giveaway, however. Totally feminine. Her full lips would have been too much on most faces, but fit perfectly with her square jaw. He imagined she wore her hair in a thick braid because of the job. She probably didn't remember himhe'd been two years younger.
She looked him over once and nodded. "It's nice to finally meet you."
"You, too." He didn't want to think about what she meant by "finally."
How long were people going to question his word? His actions? His honor? And how was he supposed to erase that shadow of doubt two crooked officers had placed on his badge, when his superiors assigned a former FBI agent to be his new partner? Heavenly Father, help me put the past behind me and move forward.