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Dominic Jeffries stared at fellow detective Cameron Blake, wondering if he was dreaming. It was only a little after six in the morning, less than eight hours since he'd finished his latest undercover op, and he had stopped by to have a quick drink with his best friend, Joel Bustamante. Despite Dom having been gone for six months, their drink together had been quick because Dom had been focused on getting three things: a bed to sleep in, a woman to hold for a few hours, and then his next assignment before he was tempted to examine his life and exactly where it was going a little too closely. Likewise, Joel, a newly promoted sergeant and perpetually starry-eyed honeymooner, had been anxious to get back home to his new wife, Tawny.
After talking business and then listening to Joel extol the virtues of settling down with one woman, Dom had finally gotten the bed, had lost interest in the woman, and had been prepared to nail down his next assignmentand not the one Joel had wanted him to takelater today.
Now? Standing in his living room, shirtless and in baggy sweats, his hair falling in eyes that were still half-blurry, Dom locked his knees to keep them from collapsing.
He'd had a brief premonition of trouble before leaving Joel last night. Hard not to given Joel's ultimatum that Dom finally take some time off or settle for babysitting a judge who might be dirty, in danger or neither. Still, Dom had dismissed the premonition as paranoia. After all, he'd just spent six months living in deep cover with a group of ruthless criminals. But not once in those six months had he felt as defenseless as he did now.
Because this wasn't a dream. It was his life and, true to form, Dom had once again lost someone very important to him. For a flash, an image of a beautiful young girl with wild corkscrew curls flashed in his head. Ruthlessly, Dom pushed it away, but then all he saw was Joeldedicated cop, loyal friend, happier than he'd ever been.
"Dom? Did you hear what I said? Joel's dead." Cam's voice was pitched low but rubbed against Dom's skin like a jagged blade.
"When?" was all that Dom managed to croak out.
"Around 3:00 a.m. He was" Cam looked away, swallowing hard. "He was shot in the abdomen with his service weapon."
"His weapon? How's that"
"There's talk of suicide."
The nasty word pounded into Dom's brain, obliterating the fog and replacing it with a wash of rage. Cam's blue-blood British accent held a trace of something Dom didn't miss disdain. Dom growled and suddenly he had Cam pinned against his living room wall, his arm against the man's throat.
"Take that back."
Although his features reflected the shock Dom felt, Cam didn't resist. Didn't fight him. He simply stared at Dom, his muscles relaxed, his eyes shadowed. "I didn't say I believe it," he whispered. "He was my friend, too, Dom."
Instantly, Dom lowered his arm and took three steps back.
"Look, we've reason to believe Mark Guapo was involved.
At Cam's mention of Mark Guapo, a buzzing started in Dom's ears. Once again, his mind swept back to his conversation with Joel. Joel had been filling him in on the latest goings-on in the officein Dom's undercover absence, one of their fellow detectives had gotten separated and another had just been served divorce papersas well as the scoop on recently convicted drug lord, Mark Guapo. Prison, it seemed, wasn't keeping the man down. Last week, Guapo's men had thrown their boss's defense attorney off a twelve-story building. Lieutenant Masters was afraid the judge from Guapo's trial would be next only Dom had sensed Joel holding something back. When he'd pushed, his friend had dropped several small bombs.
"Something's bothering me with his whole Guapo case," Joel had said last night. "I mean, the affidavit Manelli filled out for the warrant was tight. It laid out more than enough probable cause for us to search Guapo's place. But after Guapo's defense attorney was killed, I ran his phone records and noticed something. A phone call made to Judge Butler's chambers just hours before his estimated time of death."
"Judge Butler sentenced Guapo to prison. So what was it? A plea for help?" Dom asked.
"Or a warning. Judge Butler said it was simply a personal callthey're golf buddiesand there's no reason to think the judge is lying or hiding anything. But either way, someone on the inside might be able to tell us if the judge needs further protection or if heor someone on his staffis receiving information relevant to a murder. Plus, despite Guapo's conviction, his operation is as strong as ever. There's talk that he's expanding beyond drugs and stolen cars to firearms. That's why, if you continue to fight me on taking some time off, I want you to go undercover as Judge Butler's bailiff. Keep an eye out for anything suspicious. I've already talked to the lieutenant and he's on board."
Stroking his chin, Dom tried to ingest it all. "And the Sheriff's Department? How do they feel about Sac PD infiltrating their territory?"
"The Sheriff's Department knows you're coming, but only the heads know why. As far as everyone else is concerned, you'd be going in as who you are, a cop suffering from imminent burnout who needs a low-stress assignment for a month until we can figure out what to do with you."
It wasn't the first time Joel had insisted Dom take a breakbut he sensed this was the first time Joel, now that he'd been promoted to being Dom's boss, was willing to follow through and make it happen. Pose as a bailiff or take some time off. For some reason, the latter held the most appeal. Maybe Joel was right. Maybe he could use some time to rest. To think. Lately, he'd been struggling against a strange sense of restlessness. An urge to dispense with the games and simply be himself.
Now why would he want something like that? He barely even knew who he was.
With the thought came a sudden cramping in his gut that had plagued him for the past week. His damn ulcer was acting up again. Refusing to rub it, refusing to acknowledge it, Dom gritted his teeth until it went away. A few seconds. Same as before. Which meant it was nothing. Just like his restlessness was nothing.
"Don't worry about the bailiff assignment being too boring for you," Joel interrupted his thoughts. "Danger seems to follow you no matter where you go. Plus, you can always hope someone recognizes you from a previous undercover op. That would certainly spice things up."
"Quit trying to make me feel better," Dom growled, playing along even though Joel's attempt at humor sounded strained. "No one would recognize me once I'm out of this getup." With his hair dyed black and the dark contacts, Dom could have passed for Joel's brother. Once he was close-shaven, with blond hair and blue eyes again, no one, not even his last lover, would recognize him. "So what are the chances I'll actually see action on this?"
"Slim to none," Joel admitted. "This is all speculation. Chances are you'll probably just be doing regular duty for the entire month."
Which was why, in the end, Dom had said he'd think about ithe hadn't been able to decide between bored and deathly bored, but working. Joel had handed him a stack of files and told him to look at them before they talked later today.
But he was never going to be able to talk to his friend again.
Just like with Mattie, the only woman Dom had ever loved, he'd have to settle for memories. Memories that were never enough to comfort, only to hurt. To remind him why loving others and being an undercover street cop was so damn dangerouseventually, chances were someone ended up feeling exactly the way he was now.
He turned away from Cam, who was still talking. Dom blinked to stem the heat of tears in his eyes. The last thing Joel had said to him was how happy he was. How he hoped Dom would meet someone who made him as happy as Tawny made Joel. Dom had barely stopped himself from saying he'd had that kind of love once, only it hadn't lasted. That he'd given up the girl to ensure her happiness. Thatoh no.
Swiftly, Dom turned back, interrupting Cam midsentence.
Had his friend suffered that indignity as well? Had he watched the fiery street reporter, the woman he loved more than anyone or anything, die before he met his own fate?
But Cam shook his head. "She wasn't hurt. She was out on an assignment. But she" Cam winced and the broad, muscular man who was known for his cool under pressure suddenly looked ready to break. "She found him. She was the one to call 911."
Through sheer will, Dom walked to the couch and sat down, his head in his hands, his vision focused desperately on the beige carpet Joel had once given him grief about, telling him to add some color and vibrancy into his life.
Murder. Defense attorney. Guapo. Cam had said there was reason to think Guapo was involved in Joel's murder .
Dom sat up. "Guapo"
Cam nodded. "When patrol arrived and swept the place, they found bundles of cocaine in the back of Joel's garage closet. Based on packaging, it matches the stuff recovered at the Guapo sting. Testing will confirm if it's from the same source." For a moment, Cam hesitated, then forced himself to continue. "Frank Manelli's M.I.A."
"Manelli?" The same man who'd served the search warrant with Joel? The one who'd just been served divorced papers? He struggled to make sense of Manelli's disappearance even as he tried to reason out why Joel would have had bundles of cocaine in his garage. "Has anyone talked to Manelli's wife, Grace?"
Cam's eyes flickered only briefly, a sure sign that in the six months Dom had been away, he hadn't managed to get over his feelings for Grace Manelli. "Lieutenant Masters called her right after Joel was found. She said Frank's been staying at a motel in Del Paso Heights. The motel manager said the last time he saw him was yesterday afternoon. There was no evidence of forced entry in his room. People are saying that he and Joel were on the take. That Frank wanted to sell the drugs they'd taken and shot Joel when he refused to go along."
"No." The word came out as a whisper, punctuated by a loud crash when Dom stood and kicked his coffee table over. Again, although the coffee table came within inches of Cam's legs, the taller man didn't flinch. "No! No way does anyone think that Joel was on the take. Frank, maybe. I didn't know him that well. But Joel? That's as stupid as thinking he would take his own life. He and Tawny were happy. He proved that a cop could"
Biting off his next words, Dom clenched his fists. Joel hadn't proved anything except that Dom was right to avoid romantic entanglements, and now Tawny had to live with the tragic consequences. Dom paced. He tried to express himself, but couldn't, so he did the next best thing. He punched the wall, then did it again, confused when there was no pain as a result. No pain that could compete with the tight, gnawing despair in his chest.
Pressing his palms against the wall, leaning into it for support and hanging his head, he finally admitted what he'd been denying. A part of him had believed it was possible. That Joeldespite all odds to the contrarywould prove that a cop could have it all. The life and the wife. But now, before he'd had the chance, someone had taken not only his life and his happiness awaybut was trying to take his reputation, too.
"I've gotta make a call, Cam."
Cam shifted uneasily. He didn't blame the guy. Dom, like Cam, had a rep for being unflappable. He wasn't prone to spurts of uncontrollable violence, not even on the job. Not even when other friends had died in the line of duty. In fact, it was during those times that he was the most restrained. He had an unnatural talent to freeze his emotions and stand apart from any chaos brewing around him. But this was different. This was Joel. Punching a wall seemed insignificant given the emotions still threatening to burst out of him.
"Do you want me to?"
He shook his head. "I'll be fine."
"If you need anything"
Dom closed his eyes. "Thanks."
When he heard the click of the door shutting, Dom stared at the phone. It took him almost twenty minutes before he had the strength to reach for it. Another twenty minutes before his body stopped shaking long enough for him to dial the number. The grief was pushing harder now to get out, chipping at the ice encasing his heart.
Not yet. Not yet. I can't fall apart yet.
First he had to correct a mistake he'd made and do what he should have done from the very beginning. Backed up his friend. He punched in Lieutenant Masters's number.