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THis was the perfect missionunbeatable, the kind Navy SEALs like Justin Brandt dreamed about, prayed for and rarely got.
His target was locked in. No opposition in his periphery. He maneuvered through the water easily, focused on his one, his only intent. The temperature had to be close to eighty degrees and the sun was starting to go down. Darkness gave him the perfect cover, especially with the moonlight reflecting dimly on the water.
There would be no stopping him.
He closed in, swift, silent, his one-hundred-pound advantage on the intended target rendering resistance futile. He met his prey with determined contact. There was a slight struggle, some splashing, and then, success, at last.
"Justin, I have to check on dinner." Monique giggled as she held the bikini top he'd just unhooked against her breasts in one last attempt to subvert his efforts.
He held her, her back pressed against his chest, with no intention of letting her go. "Not hungry. Check on me instead."
He nuzzled her neck as he eased the tiny squares of fabric away from her. She gave up protesting and the garment in question floated away. He turned her to face him, and when she smiled up at him, he prepared to sink his body into her eager one. Because this was what he needed. Twenty-four hours in her arms, skin on skin, and he'd be a new man.
Or at least that's what he told himself now. He'd have his regrets later, but he was in the moment and that's what mattered.
She moved her mouth closer to his ear, and he waited to hear her tell him she wanted him, that she couldn't hold on anymore, because he was going to take her so well the entire neighborhood was going to know about it "Justin, your clothes are ringing."
"I'm not wearing any clothes, so ignore it." He took her hand, guided it between his legs.
"Sounds like it might be important," she said, glancing toward the jeans he'd pulled off hurriedly and left in a pile on a lounge chair where his cell and beeper had started to ring angrily in tandem. Never a good sign.
"Damn," he muttered. "Don't move." He pulled himself out of the pool and rifled through his jeans.
"I'll be right back," Monique said. She'd followed him out and headed inside, her bikini top left floating in the water. He stared after her, and then flipped the cell phone open with a groan.
"This had better be world war frigging three," he said by way of hello. A low chuckle answered him, and immediately his focus shifted. It was Turk, aka Leo Turkowskihis best friend from childhood, and this sure as hell wasn't a social call.
"Close enough, buddy." Turk was smoking again. Justin could hear him take a deep drag and exhale. Normally, he would have called his friend on it, since he'd promised everyone for the millionth time he'd quit for good, but it wasn't the time for a lecture. "You busy?"
Monique chose to come back out of the house at that moment, the lights from the kitchen highlighting the fact that her bikini bottoms were now conspicuously absent. She handed him a beer and trailed a finger along his neck before slipping back into the pool. He fought another groan and put the beer down. "What did you do now?"
"What did I interrupt?"
"Nothing. Really," Justin lied through clenched teeth. It had been a long, dry deployment for his entire team, who were stationed in Virginia. Every eighteen months they deployed. This time, their six-month stint had found them in the mountains of Afghanistan working recon missionshis specialty. The team had taken some heat, taken down some tangos and returned slightly worse for wear and ready for some downtime.
He'd been home for less than twelve hours before he hit a local bar and met up with Monique, a full-time stewardess, part-time actress whose schedule seemed as busy as his and who'd told him back at the bar that she didn't want any strings. It was goddamned perfect.
But when a friend called, his one-night stand would be shoved to the side no matter how much it hurt. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger and all that crap.
He heard the scratch of a match and a deep inhale as Turk lit another cigarette. "You on leave?"
"Four days' worth."
"I need some help," Turk said quickly, like it wasn't easy to ask.
"It's about Ava," his friend said quietly, and Justin's stomach dropped at the mention of Turk's younger sister. Ever since Turk started working deep-undercover cases for the DEA, he'd asked Justin to be on call to help Ava. Turk and Ava's father had died when Ava was still in high school and they had no significant family, save for each other.
Justin had agreed, of course, but in all the years Ava had his phone number she'd never, ever used it. To be fair, he hadn't used hers either. "Is she all right?"
"She bit off more than she can chew. And this time, it's going to bite back."
"Start talking, man. I need more information." Justin was already pulling on his jeans, not giving a damn about being soaking wet.
"I can't give you much. Just go to her."
This was nothing Justin hadn't done before. He'd always managed to do so without Ava knowing. As if guarding her from afar could make up for the way he'd hurt her. For the way he'd hurt them both.
Secrecy was better for all of them. And he'd always been able to take care of the problems plaguing her without much effortusually some lowlife threatening her because of her job as an assistant district attorney, and because of her tendency to refuse to stand down when she was up against it.
It was a trait that ran long and hard in that family. And while Justin himself had a healthy appetite for living right out there on the edge, Turk and Ava brought it to an almost artistic level without even trying.
But this time, something in the tone of Turk's voice didn't sit right with Justin. "Tell me more."
"This is just between us, Justin. There's a possibility that her new case could blow my cover," he murmured, and Justin knew what his friend said could mean a death sentence for him, no matter the case Turk was on. It also meant that Justin couldn't bring in the local authorities for backup. "She's involved in something big and she doesn't realize it. You need to get to her tonight and get her out of New York."
"Where do you want me to take her? Maybe she needs more protection than I can give her."
"You're the only one I can trust with this right now." Turk paused for a long second, as if he wanted to say more but couldn't. "It's not going to be easy this time, Justin."
"Dammit, Turkdon't do this" But the phone clicked on the other end before he could finish. Frustrated, he slammed it against the table and stared up at the sky for a few minutes.
Turk had joined the DEA around the time Justin made it through BUD/S training and moved into SQT, the final step before he received his Trident. He and Turk were always helping each other out, especially when one of them found himself balls deep in something, but Justin had never heard fear in his friend's voice when Turk called for a favor. Not like this.
Turk was so deep undercover that he couldn't get out in order to protect Ava.
But protect her from what?
Justin closed his eyes, thought about what would've happened if he hadn't been home nowif he'd still been deployed and God almighty, his instincts were screaming.
If he hauled ass, he could get to Ava before midnight, maybe hitch a ride on a helo from Virginia to a base in New York. Then he could rent a car and drive to Westchester County. And that would've made him happy if the thought didn't cut him right off at the knees.
Nine years had passed since he'd actually had more than peripheral contact with her. Years full of some of the worst memories of his life, some of them softened by time and by a job he excelled at. A job that kept him too busy for more than a passing fling and no more commitment than a few hours could bring.
At one time, Ava had promised she'd be there for him. No matter what. That she trusted him. And then she'd never given him the chance to explainthe day he got married she skipped town and never looked back.
You wouldn't have been able to tell her anyway.
Yeah, loyal to the end. Loyal and stupid. And youngtoo young to know any better, although it only made him feel marginally better to be able to blame his stupidity on youth and misguided loyalty.
It's not going to be easy this time, Justin.
With Ava, it never was.
"YOUR HONOR, Miss Turkowski is making a mockery of this case, and her antics are becoming a hindrance to the prosecution." The defense attorney clenched his fists and made a face Ava recognized immediately as exasperation. The judge wore it, too, as did pretty much any man Ava had ever known.
"Your Honor, a continuance is not on the people's short-list of wants. However, some new evidence has come to my attention that will showcase the defense's arguments in a whole new light," Ava said.
Before anyone could protest, she turned to Paul, her new assistant on the case, and in a perfectly choreographed move, he handed her the file folder she needed to present to the judge. She bypassed the defense council, a man she'd often gone up against and with whom she had a fifty-fifty loss/win split and handed the folder off.
She loved this momentwhen she commanded the attention of every single person in the courtroom. She loved it because it didn't happen quite as often as she would've liked, and when it did, she savored it more than dark chocolate and good sex, neither of which she'd had time for lately.
But this was certainly not the moment to muse about that. Not when she was about to win this case.
The judge peered at her over the top of his glasses. "A.D.A. Turkowski, how did you come upon this information?"
"My source is protected, Your Honor. But, as you can see, the evidence has been verified by forensics."
"So it has." The judge closed the folder and handed it off to the defense. "You might want to take a look at this before you make any more motions on behalf of your client."
They were talking plea in less than two minutes, in hushed tones up by the judge, and Ava and the defense attorney agreed on a plea and punishment that would be put into place as soon as his client agreed.
"I wish all my cases wrapped this quickly," Judge Barrett told them.
"I don't," defense council mumbled before walking back to his client. Ava headed to her side of the courtroom, the smell of victory mixed in with the usual smell of the court-rooma combination of stale air, fear and old coffee.
Paul was busy putting his files in order. He looked harried, a perpetual state of affairs for any new lawyer working in the D.A.'s office, and one that never got any better. She'd just learned to hide it well.
"Nice job," Paul said. "Stanton's not happy with you at all."
"Stanton can kiss my you-know-what."
"From the way he looks at you, I think that's what he wants."
"Well, he's not getting it," she said. She certainly wasn't going to whine about her attractiveness. In her opinion, she'd had nothing to do with it. It was all good genes and such, and she knew the difference between using her mind and using her body to get what she wanted. She also knew how to use both simultaneously, but most men didn't seem to enjoy that.
She sighed, realized her feet were killing her. The price of trying to have fashionable feet to offset the conservative, mostly black attire she wore when she was on the job. She sat, kicked off a shoe and bent to massage a cramp in her arch.
"I'm late for a deposition. Are you going to need me tonight?" Paul asked.
She needed something tonight, but work wasn't it. "No, no, take the night off.You deserve it," she said, mainly because Paul looked more stressed than he usually did. "Is something wrong?"
"It's this case I've got." He looked pained as he went into the details. "It's a domestic abuse case "
"And the victim's decided she doesn't want to testify."
"It's an open-and-shut case, Ava. She could get him out of her life for good and she won't."
"Don't be so hard on yourself, or on the victim," Ava said, not wanting to break it to him that he'd have much tougher cases soon enough, ones that would wrench his heart out.
She'd been there, more than once, but especially with the Crafton case. She would never forget that one, or the look on her client's face whenAva had been forced to admit that the man who'd raped Martha Crafton and killed Martha's husband wasn't going to jail at all, was actually going free because the D.A. had bigger deals to turn in exchange for the murderer's testimony.
Thinking about that horrible day when her boss told her to cut the guy a deal made her stomach clench. In Martha's eyes, no matter how many other cases Ava tried and won, no matter how many other men and women she sent to jail, she'd always be a failure.
She'd been told many times that her job would eat her alive if she let it, if she didn't learn to shake it off, let things roll off her back. She had a lifetime of habits to unlearn, and so far, her success rate in that department was not looking good. "Just keep moving forward. It's all you can do," she said.
"Now get out of here before you're late."
"Thanks, Ava." Paul pushed his way out of the courtroom to head across town and she shouldered her briefcase and pushed through the mob of people as well. Not bothering with the elevator, she took the stairs down, went out the back entrance and debated going back to the office for only a second before getting into her car and heading for the freeway instead.
She really wanted to be home at a decent hour tonight. She deserved it. Although she knew she'd be working once she arrived homeshe'd been handed a new case last week. It was another seemingly cut-and-dried domestic abuse case, but as Paul now seemed to understand, there was nothing cut-and-dried about these cases.
Every case she won was not only a personal and professional victory, it was building her a stellar reputation as a strong women's rights advocate.
She wasn't always successful, not nearly as often as her pride would've liked, but her track record put her at the top of the A.D.A. list. She was being fast-trackedto what, she wasn't sure, but she'd heard the whispered rumors about herself too often to ignore it. Not that any of the rumors mattered. Justice was what mattered, a sense born and bred into her thanks to her father and his career, first with the army and then the DEA. He'd always been fighting the bad guys and she always did her best to do the same.
The fact that a majority of her cases were garnering her more of the spotlight meant she'd also received her share of threats from the men she prosecuted and their families. That part was only going to get worse, her boss had warned her, but she'd grown up surrounded by men, was able to put up her own version of male bravado when she needed to. She'd learned to shoot and carried a gun wherever she went, learned self-defense moves and knew to watch her back.
She'd also learned that being on guard all the time was exhausting.
Now she guided her car, weaving through the typical New York City traffic heading east on the Henry Hudson. She thought of her little slice of landand the small Cape Cod–style house she called home. She lived an hour outside of Manhattan in the hamlet of Carmel, and by the time she'd pulled into the driveway, the ride home with the top down and the radio blasting had relaxed her.
Still, she looked over her shoulder before going into the house and wished for the thousandth time she'd thought about buying a house with an attached garage.
Her older brother, Leo, had reminded her of that after the fact. She dropped her stuff, kicked off her shoes and began stripping off her business attire on the way to her bedroom. In fact, she hadn't heard from Leo in three months. It was driving her crazy, even though he'd warned her ahead of time that it would be this way on most of his assignments.
The only person who might have heard from Leo recently would have been Justin. He was her brother's best friend and still referred to Leo as Turkhis high-school nickname. At one time, she'd called Justin her best friend, as well.
Call Justin if you have any problems, Leo had repeated the last time she'd seen him, slipped her a piece of paper with a phone number on it the way he always did before he left on assignment. That paper was sitting in the bottom of her fire-safe with her other important documents, but she'd memorized that number. Thought about using it every single day for the past three months even though there had been no trouble in sight. At least nothing out of the ordinary.