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To the untrained ear, it sounded very much like a car, backfiring. To the Cavanaugh ear, the noise sounded exactly like what it was.
The shot was followed by several more rounds, fired in rapid succession.
Standing at the edge of the steps leading to the county courthouse, Janelle Cavanaugh automatically began turning in the direction of the sound, even as it was drowned out by screams and cries of distress and fear. She never completed the turn because, the next thing she knew, she was pushed to the ground so quickly the very air rushed out of her lungs.
Startled, she still had the presence of mind to protect her head as she went down. This kept a concussion from becoming part of her medical history.
A man's body spread over the length of hers. A heavy body. Heavy, not in the sense that the person on top of her was fat, or even large boned. Just tall and muscular. And damn near overwhelming.
At first, she thought the man had been shot and was slumped over her. But then she felt his breath against the side of her face and along her neck. Whoever this lead weight was, he didn't breathe like a man struggling for air, or even one particularly taken aback by the preceding events.
"Stay down," the deep male voice ordered harshly when she tried to move. He made her think of a marine drill sergeant, one who took no prisoners, brooked no nonsense. She wondered if that was to mask his fear, or if he just liked bullying people.
Straining, Janelle listened. Growing up with three rambunctious brothers and seven cousins, most of whom were male, she had perfected the ability to hone in on sounds and isolate them. Amid the sounds of panic, she picked out the silence.
No more gunshots. "Whoever was shooting's gone," she informed the man, who was covering her almost as closely as a lid fit over a pot. A man who, for all she knew, was just taking advantage of the situation, playing hero while he copped a feel. "So if you have the slightest notion of what's good for you, you'll get off me."
"A simple 'thank you' will do," the man growled in her ear.
The next moment, she felt his weight lessening. Her human shield rose to his feet and then offered her a hand. He did not offer her a smile.
Janelle felt a wave of antagonism rising up inside her. She ignored the hand, preferring to get up on her own power.
She was well-acquainted with the workings of a male mind and she could spot chauvinism. It was right there in the man's deep blue eyes. Janelle might have tossed her head a little as she got up. She was sorry she'd worn her blond hair up. The sight of a long mane flying over a shoulder always managed to underscore the look of disdain in her eyes.
Straightening her jacket, Janelle took in a deep breath. As the youngest of the chief of detectives' children and, at twenty-nine, the youngest assistant to the assistant district attorney in Aurora, Janelle was acutely aware that she was the target of a great deal of attention, not usually the welcomed sort.
She had, however, never been a target in the traditional sense of the word before.
You're not one, now, she told herself. This probably has nothing to do with you.
Still, she glanced down to make sure no holes existed in her anatomy that hadn't been there before she'd walked out through the courthouse's electronic doors. Her body felt numb—probably from having a lumpy torso land on it—but there was no searing pain. And other than smudges of dirt, she didn't have a mark on her.
When she looked up again, she saw that the man who'd thrown himself over her like a human blanket was doing the same. Checking her out. Slowly. She could almost feel his eyes pass coolly over her.
Janelle raised her chin. She was tempted to ask if he was looking for something. Or if he liked what he saw. But that would be opening herself up to a lot of things she didn't have time to deal with. The word busy in the dictionary came with her picture beneath it.
"Thank you," she said crisply, finally responding to his admonishment. She would have gotten around to thanking the lug for making like a superhero and she didn't appreciate being prompted.
Just the barest hint of a smile curved a mouth that seemed more accustomed to frowning. "Too bad today's not one of those scorchers. The ice might have come in handy, then."
Ignoring the man and his impossibly broad shoulders, Janelle began to take in her surroundings. There were eight people besides herself, the Human Shield and Assistant D.A. Woods on the courthouse steps. Eight people who had all scattered when the gunshots had come. All of them were out in the open, no better than clay ducks along a shooting gallery wall. Cover was a few steps down, at street level, or several steps back, inside the courthouse building.
She moved around the Shield, uncomfortably aware that the man was watching her.
And thinking what? Who the hell was he? She came across a great many people on the job. More at Uncle Andrew's house whenever the retired chief of police threw one of his many parties. To her recollection, she'd never seen this man before.
Because taking the initiative was what she'd been taught to do from a very early age, Janelle raised her voice and asked as calmly as possible, "Is anyone hurt?"
It took her a second to realize that Stephen Woods, the flamboyant assistant district attorney she had been working with since the beginning of the year, was just now getting to his feet.
She watched him uncertainly. The A.D.A. looked thoroughly shaken. "Stephen?"
Running his hand through hair that was just a little too black, Woods took a moment to pull himself together. He held up his hand, warding off her concern. "I'm all right, Janelle," he assured her. "And you?" he tagged on after a beat, as if he realized he'd been remiss.
She flashed a smile, brushing off a dried leaf from her straight navy blue skirt.
"Shaken, not stirred," she responded. Looking around, she saw that everyone began to get up. There were no sudden cries of anguish, no one screaming as if injured. In fact, the only upset had to do with frazzled nerves.
Thank God for small favors, she thought. "Looks like whoever was shooting had rotten aim."
"Or very good aim."
Janelle looked back at her shield. He was stripping off the tie he'd had on. Stuffing it into his pocket, he offered another explanation for the hitless drive-by shooting. "Maybe 'whoever' just wanted to send a message to someone."
Since he'd left the statement dangling, Janelle pressed for an answer. "Which would be?"
There was no emotion in his eyes, she realized, and none on his chiseled features. No indication that he had just been through a harrowing experience, or even that it had left any sort of mark on him. The man obviously had ice water in his veins.
When he spoke, it could have been the voice of the shooter for all the inflection it held. "Toe the line, or next time, I won't miss."
Who the hell was he? Janelle wondered again. And was he tied to this somehow? "And that line would be?" she asked.
The broad shoulders beneath the tan sports jacket rose and fell carelessly. He wasn't quoting gospel, just the world as he knew it. "Don't testify, don't pursue the case, and don't dig too deep." His eyes met hers. "Take your pick."
It took her a second to draw her eyes away from his. She couldn't shake the feeling that she had just been scrutinized. Delved into. Janelle watched the stranger unbutton his collar. It made her think of a prisoner finally throwing open the door to his cell.
The image almost made her smile since it was a familiar one. Her brothers all hated wearing ties, which seemed rather ironic, given that they did it five days a week. More if the cases they were working necessitated their presence on days off.
Vehement dislike of anything formal was probably one of the main reasons her brother Jared had been so eager to volunteer to go undercover last year. He didn't have to be within spitting distance of a tie when he posed as a chef at a trendy restaurant suspected as a front for money laundering. His holiday from ties had gotten him a commendation when he'd nabbed the people responsible. It had also, indirectly, gotten him a wife.
That made Janelle the last of them. The last of the Cavanaughs who wasn't married or at least engaged to be married—if she didn't count her father. But Brian Cavanaugh had already been married once. For twenty-five years before his wife had died.
She herself had never gone that route. Had never pledged her heart to anyone, although she'd been mildly tempted once. With Barry, someone she'd met while clerking for Judge Teal, before she ever came to work for the D.A.'s office.
But whatever chances Barry might have had were aborted when he'd told her one night about wanting to "cut her out of the herd." The "herd" was the way he'd referred to her family. According to Barry, he felt as if he were competing against her family for her affections. An only child raised by parents who, as far as she could discern, made machines seem emotional, Barry couldn't fathom the concept of family loyalty. Moreover, he couldn't see why Sunday dinners—where everyone who could showed up at Uncle Andrew's specially made, oversize dining table to talk and catch up—were so important to her.
Barry had become history before they could make any. They had parted company almost two years ago, when there were still a few single Cavanaughs left.
Now there was only her. And her dad, she thought whimsically.
The next moment, Janelle mentally pulled back. Where had that even come from? Maybe it was a theme and variation of having your life flash before your eyes when you were in a life-and-death moment. The only problem with that theory was that she hadn't really been aware of it being a life-and-death situation, until after the last of the shots had died away.