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Pitting oneself against a drug lord definitely had its downsides, Tony Cooper thought as he sat in his car in front of the Sacramento County Courthouse, watching for any sign of his ex, Linda Delaney.
The first time he'd challenged Mark Guapo, he'd still been reeling from his breakup with Linda some eighteen months before and hoping that by narking on his former drug supplier, he might be able to win her back. The downside? Six months after that, Linda had been lying in a hospital bed, recovering from the wounds that Guapo's men had inflicted on her, and he'd been forced to leave her and accompany his sister Mattie and his niece Jordan into the Witness Security Program.
Now, eighteen months later, he was back, this time to infiltrate Guapo's organizationwhich despite the other man's prison address, had been steadily expandingand convince people he was taking over. His main objective? Identify the supplier of a dangerous hybrid bath-salt drug, Rapture. The downside? Too many to list, but the biggest was making sure Linda stayed safe this time and that meant staying the hell away from her.
Yet here he was, hoping for just one glimpse of her. One glimpse to replace his last memory of her, beaten and bruised. One glance to get him through the next few weeks, months and years without her. Then he'd start his car and leave. No one would guess he was here to see her.
Just in case, however, he visually swept the surrounding area, just as he'd done every few minutes for the past half hour.
No one appeared to be watching him, but he knew what they'd see if they were.
What Linda would see.
Would she even recognize him? Sometimes he didn't even recognize himself.
Every detail of his appearance had been chosen with care. Gone was the curly brown hair that had made him look boyish even when he'd been breaking the law. In its place was a shaved head that showed off his eyebrow piercing to its best advantage. The scars on his face, the ones left over from the beatings Michael Sabon, Gua-po's brother, had given him, added to the overall look, declaring him to be a badass to the nth degree.
But he didn't feel like one.
He felt like the weakling he was. The same weakling who'd gotten addicted to prescription painkillers in the first place, ultimately losing the love of his life as a result. The same weakling Linda hadn't trusted to refrain from using again.
To some extent she'd been wrong. Just as he'd told her, he hadn't used since before he'd met her, which meant he'd been clean for over five years now. Even so, there had been several close calls, including the night she'd caught him with those damn pills. And there were still plenty of times he doubted his ability to stay clean. Plenty of times his behavior had been affected by his cravings. Plenty of times he felt a hair's breath away from saying to hell with it and giving in.
That was yet another reason to stay away from Linda. Even if physical danger from others wasn't a factor, she'd already made her decision about him. In the end, it hadn't mattered that he'd helped send Guapo to prison. Hell, it probably wouldn't even matter that he'd joined the police academy soon after he and Linda had broken up. Why would it? Just months away from graduating, he'd been too weak to protect Linda or his sister. Guapo's men had beat Linda into a coma and his sister had almost died. Tony had failed everyone he loved.
Once an addict, always an addict.
And for Linda Delaney, an addict wasn't good enough.
Tony again scanned the street.
His pulse accelerated as he finally spotted her, exiting the courthouse's main entrance. Automatically he stiffened and pain zipped across his back and down his leg. He barely felt it past the mixed joy and longing that squeezed his heart.
As he watched, Linda sat on a bench outside the courthouse and ate a sandwich, watching the antics of a pair of squirrels warring over someone's littered potato chips. It reminded him of the days they'd spent at the local pet store, playfully arguing about what kind of animal they'd adopt someday. He'd wanted a dog. She'd wanted a cat. She'd argued a cat would be less work. They'd ended up getting neither, and it hadn't occurred to Tony until after they'd broken up why Linda would want an animal that was less work to care forbecause Tony had been too much work for her as it was.
But that wasn't fair, he thought, willing away the slight taste of bitterness in his mouth. Linda was a busy woman. A successful woman. Just because she hadn't wanted to be tied down to an addict for the rest of her life didn't mean she hadn't given their relationship a fair shot. She had. She'd made him happy. And for a time he'd made her happy, too.
With him out of her life, she appeared to be happy again. Healthy. Safe.
She looked good. More like she had when he'd first met her. By the end their relationship had taken a toll on her. She'd lost weight, the light in her beautiful green eyes had dimmed, and worry lines had etched themselves into her skin. That seemed far behind her now. Her blond hair was long and silky. Her body curvy beneath her crisp tailored suit. Her features relaxed and so sweetly familiar that he could almost forget the pain and the years that separated them
Then a polished, dark-haired man in a suit approached her, causing Linda to smile and Tony to frown. The guy was obviously an attorney, too, dressed in a finely tailored suit with a damned vest and shined shoes. He sat down next to her and handed her something. Their interaction was perfectly respectable, but Tony could tell the man's interest in Linda was far more than professional.
Sweat beaded Tony's forehead and he held his breath. He'd been hoping to see her and he'd been expecting to long for her, but he hadn't expected to see her with another man.
Then another man, this time a blond, stopped to talk to her. He, too, was probably a lawyer given how he was dressed. This man, however, Linda didn't seem to like. Even from across the street Tony saw her smile stiffen and wane. Before it could disappear completely, the blond guy pointed his finger like a gun, cocked it at Linda, then left. Linda immediately shook her head. In response, her dark-haired friend bent his head close to hers, placed his hand on her thigh, and said something that made her laugh.
Jealousy overwhelmed him, making him tremble. A faint buzzing sound filled the car and he vaguely wondered if he was losing it. But then he realized his cell phone was vibrating. With a shaky hand he forced his gaze away from Linda, pulled his phone out of his pocket and saw the number on the screen.
It was Justine, the woman helping him make connections inside Guapo's organization. She'd once dated Guapo's defense attorney, Grant Falcon; Guapo's men had killed him after Guapo had been convicted. Now she was dating another key man in Guapo's organization, Nicco Santos. The man was likely a key component to taking over Guapo's enterprise. He knew things he hadn't told Justine or Tony yet, and Tony was hoping one of those things was the identity of Guapo's Rapture supplier.
He snapped the phone to his ear. "What is it, Justine?"
He frowned at the note of hysteria in her voice.
"Guapo won his appeal. He'll be out on the streets in the next twenty-four hours and he's going to find out what you've been doing. What we've been doing. He probably already knows."
Guapo was getting out of prison? What the hell? Tony's shaking hands went cold. "Does Nicco know?"
"He's the one who told me. He's scared out of his mind. And you know what that means. He's going to give you up. He's going to give both of us up."
"Calm down, Justine. Did you try to get the name of the supplier from Nicco again?"
Justine took an audible breath, then said, "He still says he doesn't know. That Guapo's going to take the name to his grave."
How ironic that the tables had turned. At one time Guapo had been desperate to find out the name of the confidential informant who'd sold him out. Now that same informant was just as desperate to get the name of the man only Guapo seemed to know. Sacramento's main supplier of Rapture to kids and soccer moms. The man responsible for killing Rory Maverick, Justine's little brother.
Tony shot another glance at Linda. She was still smiling. The guy beside her reached up, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. Swiftly Tony looked away.
It didn't matter. He could still see them together.
He pictured them dancing the way he and Linda had danced. Making love the way he and Linda had made love. Spending their lives together and having a family and building a future together.the way he and Linda never would.
He had no place in her life. Not anymore. Hadn't he just been telling himself that?
Gritting his teeth, he just managed to hang on to his control.
I can't lose it. Not now. I have too much to do.
"Tell Nicco to trust me," Tony told Justine. "And remind him that I've been a much more generous boss than Guapo ever was. I'll be there in five."
Two weeks later
Anyone who had ever witnessed a felony arraignment calendar knew it just didn't live up to the grandiose images portrayed on TV. Anyone who'd ever worked in criminal law knew it was a crap assignment. But it was a crap assignment everyone did and, judicial campaign or not, Linda Delaney was no exception. To avoid the arraignment calendar in her office, you had to have risen to the rank of senior assistant, at least.
Loaded down with her files, Linda strode toward Courtroom Five, weaving around the throngs of people waiting for court to begin. Most of them were dressed well in hopes of making a good impression on the judge and gaining leniency for themselves or another. Others just looked pissed or hopeless. There were several kids crying or running around, too. She knew most of them, like the fancier clothes people wore, had been brought along in hopes of eliciting sympathy, as well.
And don't you just sound optimistic about life? one part of her asked.
The other part of her shrugged. The truth was the truth, no matter how unsavory. Didn't mean she was completely jaded. In fact, her ability to see things for what they were without letting it affect how she treated others would serve her well as a judge. If the citizens of Sacramento County elected her, of course. Although her boss, District Attorney Norman Peterson, believed she was a shoo-in and had finally convinced her to join the judicial race, Linda's past might be more of a sticking point than he believed.
People often asked Linda how she could do her job, day in and day out, and still maintain some level of optimism about the state of humanity. It wasn't easy. Felony arraignment calendar was a morning-long runway show of the most desperate, dangerous and sometimes stupidest human beings possible. It was a constant reminder of the frailty of life and how it could be changed forever by a crackhead in need of a fix or a husband enraged by his wife's relationship with a coworker.
Beatings. Shootings. Robberies. Rapes. Thefts. Gang crimes. Committed every day by everyday people with jobs, friends, families and pets. You learned that the age, gender and the socioeconomic class of victims ran the gamut. No one was safe when it came down to it.
Not Linda's father. And not even Tony, the sweet-faced man she'd once loved to distraction. So much so that she'd stayed with him far longer than she should have.
Linda cursed softly and swiftly shook her head as if doing so would actually keep thoughts of Tony at bay.
It had been difficult to keep him from her mind on his birthday last month. It was even more impossible now.
Mark Guapo, the drug lord Tony had informed on two years ago, the same drug lord whose men had almost beaten Linda to death six months later, had recently been released from prison. The reversal wasn't based on anything that had happened at trial, but on a faulty search warrant. Guapo could still be retried for his crimes, but the tainted evidence would have to be excluded. Linda had already spent the past few days trying to determine if they had enough for a retrial, but understandably, she'd also been plagued with concerns about her own safety.
And that of Tony.
Despite Linda's best attempts to protect Tony, Guapo had still managed to figure out that Tony was the CI who'd helped put him away. They'd gone after not just Tony, but Tony's family, too. Now, Tony, his sister Mat-tie and his niece Jordan were in hiding in the Witness Security Program; Guapo wouldn't be able to find them.
As for her? Recently free, Guapo would likely be on his best behavior, so chances were she was probably safe, too. Safe but still furious. She'd worked so hard to get Guapo behind bars. And Tony had risked his life, given up so much of it. It seemed the height of unfairness that Guapo had managed to play the system and was now walking the streets as a free man.
Not for long, she thought. Not if she had any say in it.
She paused at the courtroom doors, pushing away thoughts of the past and lost second chances. She'd almost gotten used to lugging around the heavy banker's box filled with files, but opening doors was always tricky. She balanced the box on her hip and reached for the outer courtroom door just as a male hand reached over her shoulder to pull it open.
It was Neil Christoffersen, one of her fellow deputies.
"Good morning," he said with a smile, before taking the box from her. He immediately handed her a cup of coffee. It was the way he normally approached her. He'd proffer her coffee and they'd end up talking about work or debating some legal issue or two. Then he'd try to make things a bit more personal.
Linda took the cup, wrapped her cold fingers around it and closed her eyes at the heady aromatic smell. The box was heavy and she could use a little treat. No harm done, right?
Well, so long as she discounted the subtle flutter in her stomach. A slight flutter that evidenced her growing attraction to him. She was just thankful the attraction was slight and nothing more. She wasn't open to starting another relationship again. Not when she still dreamed about Tony. Not when she so often second-guessed her decision to break up with him, as well as her failure to reverse that decision even after he'd informed on Guapo, putting his life at risk to do the right thing. She'd been tempted, so tempted, of course. She'd almost convinced herself that she'd been wrong about his inability to change. But then Guapo's men had attacked her and she'd woken in the hospital only to find Tony and his family gone.
He'd left her. For very good reasons, as he'd explained in a goodbye letter, but he'd still left her.
Just like she'd previously left him.