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Fourteen Years Later
All he wanted to do was make a clean getaway.
But Dan Gallagher knew the minute he stepped out of the Bullet Catchers' headquarters that this exit would be anything but clean.
Leaning against his Maserati was the one person who wouldn't let him get away with anything.
"Slinking out so soon?" Max asked, crossing his arms over his massive chest, his hair still sweaty from the company touch football game.
"Slinking is generally done through the back door, Roper. I'm going out the way I came in."
Max narrowed dark eyes at Dan. "Out for good?"
"Out for now."
Dan laughed. "No, but if you don't get out of my way, you will be." He pulled his keys out. "I got a plane to catch."
"Not taking a Bullet Catcher jet?" Of course he didn't move.
"Nope. It's personal business."
Max just cocked his head, never wasting a word. They hadn't had "personal business" they didn't share in twenty years.
"Come on," Dan said. "I'm seriously late getting to the airport."
"Did she tell you everything?" Max asked.
Dan glanced up to the second-story window overlooking the drive, to Lucy Sharpe's private library and office. She'd probably gone to the back patio to celebrate with the others. These were happy days for her company. For her.
"She didn't have to tell me anything. It's all over her glowing face. And I'm delighted for her."
Max choked. "Delighted?"
"What?" Dan countered. "You don't believe I'm not happy that a woman I've worked for and been friends with for years has found..." Freedom from whatever misery had kept her in an emotional prison for a long time? He'd never had the key to that jail cell, butJack Culver had proven himself more than capable. "Has found bliss," he finished.
"Delighted and bliss in the same speech?"
"Shut up. She's happy, and I'm..." Free to move on. "Happy for her. We're all just one big, happy Bullet Catcher family. And a growing one, at that." At Max's look, he just shook his head. "I swear to God, I'm not lying."
"You're rationalizing. Which is another word for lying, only to yourself. And while your ability to bend the truth has served you well in countless undercover situations, this is real life."
Dan scowled at him. "Did aliens come and take Mad Max Roper? Or has marriage and fatherhood turned you into Dr. Phil? And since when isn't a UC situation real life?"
"I'm worried about you."
"Fear not, my man. I've never been better. I'm free."
"Yeah. Free. Lucy, in case you haven't surmised from her radiance, has made the ultimate commitment with Culver. Do I agree with her choice of partners?" He shrugged. "Not my problem. Do I wish it was me up there perusing a baby name book? Hell, no. I know you think you've cracked the code with Cori and little Peyton, and maybe you have. But I don't want that key. I like the status quo."
Unrelenting brown eyes narrowed. "More rationalizing."
"Call it whatever you want." He gave Max's meaty shoulder a smack with the file in his hand. "Now go eat some charred meat like a good Rottweiler. You're missing the party and all the gossip about the reasons behind my leave of absence."
"A leave of absence, with a Bullet Catcher dossier still warm from the Research and Investigative Department printer?"
The son of a bitch didn't miss a trick. "Just grabbed a file on an old friend I might look up in the Keys."
"You're going to Florida? Cori and I are going down to Miami tomorrow, to her place on Star Island. Why don't you stay with us for a few days?"
"And get psychoanalyzed by the two of you? No thanks. Anyway, I'll be a couple of hours south, in Marathon."
"Doing what?" Max pressed.
"You don't own a tackle box. What's going on down there?"
"Nothing." He hoped. "I'm taking some time to myself. See an old friend. Learn the difference between a trout and a...nother kind of fish."
"Who's the old friend?"
It was a waste of time to try and sidestep him. "A young lady I knew from my Miami days."
Max's wheels visibly turned. "Not the girl from the Venezuelan money laundering ring?"
Dan sighed. "Do you have to have a memory like a steel trap?"
"How could I forget? For one thing, the takedown of Alonso Jimenez and company was a major operation that involved the DEA and the FBI. And, not exactly a lady, as I recall, though she was young then."
He bristled at the comment. "She's fourteen years older now."
"So instead of licking new wounds, you're going to open old ones?" Max asked.
"The only thing I'm planning to lick is salt with my tequila."
"You sure that's smart, when you're on the rebound and all?"
Dan leaned right in his friend's face. "Let's get this straight, Roper. I'm not on the rebound and I don't need you to judge what's smart and what's not." He pulled back. "But since you're so damn nosy, I still have access to some of the FBI sites and I noticed that Ramon Jimenez got out of prison recently."
"El Viejo's son?"
"Yeah." Everyone who knew the case knew Alonso Jimenez was universally referred to as "El Viejo" the old man. "I just want to make sure she's okay."
"You think he'll go after her?"
Dan shrugged. "She was never implicated or arrested, and, per my request, she was left out of the trial since her testimony was superfluous, considering all the evidence we had. As far as she or any of them know, Michael Scott my cover name was accidentally killed that night in friendly fire. That's the way the agency wanted to play it. But Ramon has had a long time to put together the truth, and he might have figured out the leak was his girlfriend. He's a rat bastard, and I don't trust him."
"So what's your plan? Spring your real identity on her?"
"God, no. And she'll never recognize me, because that cover was thorough and the guy she knew had brown eyes, dark hair, and a prosthetic nose. I just want to check out where she lives and works, make sure she's safe. She goes by Smith now, so she's probably married with kids."
"Could be an alias and she's living in fear that they'll find her."
The same thought had occurred to him. "If that's the case, then I'll introduce myself as a former FBI agent who thinks she should be aware that Ramon Jimenez is out of prison. Then I'll leave, and she'll be safer. This is strictly a standard security check after a prison release. After I'm done, I'll be back." Probably. He gave Max a tight smile.
"Culver is a fact of our life, now," Max said, a warning in his voice. "Can you live with that?"
"Look, I know Lucy and I flirted with possibilities. But it would have screwed up a great friendship, and I'm not interested in..." A baby. "Anything that would tie me down. She knows that, and so do I."
Finally satisfied, Max moved. "Call me when you get there."
Dan reached for the car door. "Why would I even need a wife, when I have you?"
"And the invitation stands. Cori has a week of board meetings at Peyton Enterprises, and I'm going to go apeshit and melt in the heat. Hang out with me in Miami Beach."
"You're so full of it. You love all that time with Peyton."
Max beamed at the mention of his two-year-old. "It doesn't suck."
"Who woulda thunk it? Max Roper morphs into Father of the Year."
"Don't knock what you haven't tried."
Dan circled his throat and mock-choked, then took one more glance at the library window. He'd never have gone there with Lucy, so she really was better off now. He climbed into the car and shut the door.
Snapping on the CD player, he cranked up the volume, then took off down the driveway with the familiar relief that once again he'd successfully dodged a bullet.
"Oh, please, not again." Maggie clunked the empty tray on the service bar and put her hands over her ears but it did nothing to drown out the music echoing through Smitty's. "I swear, I'm going to go down to Margaritaville myself and shoot Jimmy Buffett for recording it."
"That'll just make 'em want to hear it more." From his favorite bar stool, Gumbo Joe threw her a wide, yellow-toothed smile. "Anyhoo, you're the one who put a jukebox in this joint, Lena. Smitty'd roll over in his grave if he saw how you turned his nice little watering hole into a tourist trap full of northerners who want to get wasted away again."
"Smitty, God rest his soul, ought to roll over in his grave, for the debt he left me in." She flipped the service door up and slipped behind the bar, dumping the empties into the recycle bin. "And I see the transformation from bait bar to tourist trap hasn't stopped you from swilling one dollar AmberBocks every Friday night, Gumbo."
"Well, a man's gotta drink after a hard day of trawlin'." He took a swig to underscore the statement while Maggie headed to the cash register to ring up the pitcher of draft she'd just served.
She hip-nudged Brandy out of the way, but not hard enough to make the superskilled bartender splash a drop of the tequila she was pouring. "Don't forget the lost shaker of salt."
Brandy gave her a wry smile and lifted the tequila bottle. "Every time that tune comes on we sell more of this shit, and the markup is pure profit, partner. That song is what you would call a good sign."
"Ka-ching!" Maggie exclaimed as the drawer popped open.
Brandy turned, expertly threading her fingers around six shot glasses. "Oh, and speaking of good signs. Look who just came in. Your boyfriend's back."
Maggie froze, a little thrill tickling her tummy. "Don't care."
"You lie, Lena Smith."
"I never lie, Brandy Istre, and you know that. But I'm not looking, because I don't care."
"You should look, because, whoa, he is even hotter than the last two nights he's been in here, checking you out like you were his favorite library book."
Maggie rolled her eyes, closing the cash register with a quiet click. "Whatev, as Quinn would say."
"In case you change your mind, he's sitting down at the two-top by the window," Brandy continued. "He's looking at the table tent as if he's actually considering a dollar beer, but we know he's an import kind of guy. Look at those clothes, all Ralph Lauren expensive. I bet he came down in his yacht. Yep, he's looking out at the marina, running his hand through that dirty-blond hair, and over his jaw." Brandy dipped a little closer to whisper the rest of her play-by-play. "I don't think he shaved today. He wants your poor li'l thighs to get all rosy with a rash."
Maggie laughed, hiding her weak knees and high hopes.
The last two nights he'd been there, he'd just ordered a Heineken, nursed it, and then left. But the entire time, he'd watched her. No, he pinned her with eyes the same green as the bottle she served him, making her tense and prickly and...aware.
She turned from the cash register, and looked right at him. Another lightning bolt rocked her, this time right between those poor li'l thighs.
Holy mother of all that mattered, the man was edible.
Neither one looked away, and Maggie could have sworn those perfect lips tipped in a smile. She managed to breathe no mean feat.
"Shots are up, Mrs. Smith!"
His eyes flickered when Brandy called out the order.
Maggie instantly transferred her attention to the service bar, where Brandy stood with a hand on her narrow hip and a smug smile on her elfin features.
"Why'd you have to call me that?" Maggie scowled as she ducked under the bar to get to the other side.
"Thought you didn't care."
"Well, there's no reason to make him think I'm still married."
"Sure there is now you have to talk to him. Get your butt over there and tell him you're a widow."
Maggie shot her a vile look and scooped the tray full of shots in one hand. "Look, if I want to get a good look at his ass as he runs screaming out the door, I don't need to mention my dearly departed husband. The teenager at home usually does the trick."
"The teenager is at his uncle's fishing for two days...and two nights." Brandy leaned her whole body over the service bar to make her point. "And the merry widow hasn't had sex in four years."
"Four years?" Gumbo Jim slammed down his bottle and let his jaw drop. "Lena, that's a damn sin. Smitty would've wanted you to get laid once in a while. You're a beautiful woman, for God's sake."
Next to Jim, Tommy Sloane inched over and pointed at her. "You know, a hymen can grow back. I read that in Penthouse."
"A brain can grow back, too, Tommy, so there's hope for you yet." She nodded to a tall, dark-haired man who walked up to the bar and took the stool at the opposite end. "Brandy, you have a new customer. You're going to want this one."
Brandy glanced over her shoulder, then let out a low whistle. "Holy hell, the place is swimming in high-quality testosterone tonight."
Maggie balanced the tray. "Go get 'em, tiger. Our song's still playing." She headed toward the group from Philadelphia, who were already a little loud and loose. As she leaned to set down the drinks, she couldn't resist lifting her gaze to the two-top at the window.
He was staring. Hard. Right down the scoop neck of her top.
Oh, had she forgotten to wear a bra? They were small but mighty, as someone had once told her, and every once in a while the girls went free. She smiled at the customers she served, but the twinkle in her eye was for his benefit.
She'd also purposely worn the tight hip-hugging jeans and a little extra makeup. It was true; she didn't care if he came back for a third night but she hoped like hell he would. Especially tonight...the one time she didn't have a thirteen-year-old and his dog waiting at home.
Tonight, Magdalena Varcek Smith was going to have some fun.
Straightening, she nodded to him. "I'll be right there," she mouthed, taking the empty glasses from the table and wending around some chairs to make her way over.
He made no effort to hide his long, slow appraisal of her, the hungry gaze leaving a trail of heat and a thousand chills over every well-admired inch of her. By the time he got back up to her face, she'd reached the table and slid into the chair across from him.
"You want a Heineken?"
"Among other things." He added an imperfect, slanted, utterly decadent smile that took him from jaw-dropper to heart-wrecker in a pulse beat.
"Name 'em," she shot back.
He dropped his elbows on the table and folded his arms, a move that emphasized the power and size of his shoulders, and leaned closer. She got a whiff of peppermint and spice, a dose of raw sex appeal, and a chance to see that no, he hadn't shaved.
"Mrs. Smith. Are you married?"
His question was direct, simple, and delivered with a baritone that made her wonder if his chest rumbled when he spoke.
"Not anymore." She met him halfway across the table. "Are you?"
"Not even close."
"Well, now that we got that little detail out of the way, how about we finally introduce ourselves?" She held out her hand, bracing for the electricity she just knew was going to zing up her arm. "I'm "
"I know who you are." He didn't shake her hand. Instead, his long, strong fingers plucked at one of the silver bangles on her wrist. "You make noise when you walk, you know that?"
She just stared at him, unable to look away.
"I've been hearing you jingle in my sleep."
Oh boy. He was good. "What's it sound like?"
She laughed. "I'm no trouble at all. Everyone calls me Lena, and I'm the owner of this fine establishment and jingler of your dreams. What's your name?"
"For now, just Dan."
"How about for later?"
"That assumes there is a later. I don't want to be presumptuous."
She crossed her arms and matched his position, as into the game as he was. "Go ahead and presume. We've been dancing around each other for three nights. How long are you in town?"
"How do you know I don't live here?"
"Because I know everybody who lives in Marathon, which means you're a tourist."
"Are you going to close up again tonight?"
Another zing went through her, this time more of a mental alarm than a sexual buzz. "Maybe."
Since she'd just said she was the owner, it made sense she'd close the bar. But these days, she couldn't be too careful. Not after she'd read the prison release list on that website. Ever since, she'd carried Smitty's pistol in her handbag, made a habit of looking over her shoulder, and had one of the regulars walk her to her car.
And sent Quinn for long weekends at his Uncle Eddie's, so he wasn't home alone when she worked late nights.
"Can I meet you tonight?" he asked. "So we could talk when you're not working."
Talk. Right. "It could be late."
"I don't mind."
"We make last call around one."
He nodded and stood, looming over her, easily surpassing six feet. "I'll be back at twelve thirty."
She pushed herself up, pulled by that gaze and something else. A sensation that numbed her fingertips and toes.
Familiarity. That was it. There was something weirdly familiar about him.
"Have you been in here before?" she asked. "I can't shake the feeling that we've met."
He just gave her that wicked half smile again, revealing the slightest overlap of his front teeth, the imperfection wildly attractive on an otherwise perfect face. "Maybe in another life." He reached out and slipped his fingers right under her hair, flicking the three silver hoops so they clinked against each other. "See you later...Lena."
She didn't move a muscle as he walked away, didn't take a breath or blink an eye.
Lena. He said it as if the name amused him, as if he knew she didn't even think of herself as the name she'd adopted the day she showed up at this bar.
But he couldn't know. No one knew. Except Smitty, who'd given her a new, safe, sane life, along with a completely different name.
" 'Scuze me, miss? Can we get another round?"
She just held up a hand, making her grandmother's silver bangles ding against each other. A tendril of déjà vu curled up her spine and raised the hairs on the back of her neck.
From another life? If so, it must have been a good one.Copyright © 2009 by Roxanne St. Claire