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"You're the saddest bunch of heroes I've ever seen." The chiding female voice cut through the buzz of lively conversations, three different television broadcasts and the chattering clacks of pool balls breaking across a table behind Alex Taylor. "You got the guy. The D.A. will put him away."
"Let's hope." Alex slid onto the green vinyl seat in front of the Shamrock's polished walnut bar and pulled some cash from the front pocket of his jeans. Not even the bright blue eyes and sympathetic smile of Josie Nichols standing on the other side could shake him from the mood he was in. "I need to order some beers."
"Hello?" The bartender slapped her washrag on top of the bar with a purpose, demanding his full attention before glancing over at the flat-screen TV hanging in the corner behind her. "You hope? KCPD's standoff with that gangbanger Demetrius Smith is all over the news. Getting him and his lieutenants off the streets just made Kansas City a hell of a lot safer. If I can walk out to my car at night and not have to worry about getting mugged or raped or caught in the cross fire between his gang and someone else, then I'd say you got the job done. You should be celebrating. Not bringing down the mood of the bar."
"Smith's gotten out with nothing more than a slap on the wrist more than once. Evidence disappears. A witness decides not to testify." Alex closed his eyes and shook his head, seeing the gangly body of a ten-year-old boy cradled in Sergeant Delgado's arms as he crouched down behind an alley fence, waiting for their commanding officer's all-clear order. He'd have thought the kid was sleeping if it hadn't been for all the blood on Delgado's uniform. Two bullets in such a tiny bodyand there'd been nothing they could do. Alex opened his eyes, sharing a bit of the grim truth that was forever etched in his memory. "Smith was laughing when we brought him out of that house. An innocent boy died today, and he was laughing. Like he wasn't even accountable for what happened. He's got connections we can only guess at. If the D.A. doesn't make the charges stick"
"That won't happen this time," Josie insisted. "I can feel it in my bones. Smith's going to prison. That makes you heroes."
Try telling that to the mother of the boy they hadn't been able to save. If they'd cleared the house where Smith and his buddies had been holed up ten minutes sooner, Alex and his team of SWATSpecial Weapons and Tacticsofficers might have been able to get him to a hospital before he bled out. Calvin Chambers didn't even have any gang tats on him. And he sure as hell hadn't fired any gun. He'd been an innocent kid cutting through the wrong backyard at the wrong time.
Alex knew more about gang life than young Calvin probably had. He'd had the remnants of the Westside Warrior tattoo he once thought meant he belonged to something important lasered off his back a decade ago, after he'd been adopted into a real family as a teen. Once he'd been Alexis Pitsaeli, street punk and foster home nightmare with no father to speak of and a mother who prized her drug addiction more than her child. Up until Gideon and Meghan Taylor had set him straight and loved him enough to make him a Taylor, too, Alex had been headed straight to prison or an untimely death.
If Alex hadn't been adopted into the Taylor clan, it wouldn't have surprised anyone to find him shot dead in a gangbanger's backyard. But Calvin Chambers?
He swallowed the bile of irony and rage and guilt, and laid a twenty on top of the bar. "First round's on the new guy."
He nodded back to the corner table where Captain Cutler and the rest of his five-man SWAT team had taken up residence to lose the stress of the day to booze, camaraderie or the company of one of the pretty ladies who seemed to get a thrill out of flirting with the cops who frequented the Kansas City bar. Raucous laughter from the corner table bounced off the walls. Great. He'd missed the joke. It had probably been on him, anyway. Though he'd been on the force for five years now, he'd only been a member of SWAT for eight months. It was like surviving his rookie year all over again.
"Five drafts and some pretzels," he ordered.
Josie shook her dark brown ponytail down her back and pushed the twenty dollars beneath his fingers. "You need to learn the rules of the house, Taylor. On a night like this, the first round's on me." Apparently, she was more intuitive than a cheerleader. "I'm sorry about that
boy. I know it's hard to lose anyone on a call like that. But you didn't shoot him."
"I didn't get him home safe to his mom, either."
A bit of temper flared in the bartender's cheeks. "Smith and his thugs are the only ones you should be blaming. You and Rafe, Trip, Holden and the captain ought to all be commended for stopping those losers. That drug house was just outside a school zone. Kids walk by there every day. Bringing guns and drugs and violence into a family neighborhood just galls me. As far as I'm concerned, we're lucky no one else died. And we owe that to you and your team."
Josie shivered from the top of her head to the hem of her jeans as the emotions worked through her system, and Alex felt his lips curve with half a smile. "So how do you really feel about it?"
She reached across the bar and flicked his shoulder with the towel. "Don't you get smart with me, Taylor." Rocking back on her heels, she pointed a big-sisterly finger at him. "And stop battin' those baby browns at me. I can't help it when I get my Irish up."
"Yes, ma'am." Somehow, she'd successfully broken through the gloom and doom that had settled around his shoulders. Yes, a boy had died tragically today. But many more would be safe because of his SWAT team's actions. For the sake of Josie's smile, he'd look on the bright side.
"There'll be no ma'aming around here, hotshot. Heck, I bet I'm younger than you. What are you, twenty-six?"
"Ha." She tapped her thumb against her chest.
"Twenty-four. So no ma'ams. And put your money awayit's no good here."
When she turned around to pull out five frosted glasses and start drawing beers, Alex stuffed the twenty into her tip jar. He didn't know Josie all that well, beyond the fact she was a slain cop's daughter and could play a mean game of pool. But he'd seen the thick backpack and textbooks that meant she was in school, and suspected that tending bar at the Shamrock was how she supported herself. He wasn't going to let her big heart and true blue loyalty to KCPD keep her from putting food on the table.
While he waited for her to set up the tray of drinks and pour a bowlful of pretzels, Alex let his gaze wander back to the news broadcast on the television. Michael Cutler, the leader of SWAT Team One and the man who'd recruited Alex from a list of prospective beat cop candidates to join KCPD's most highly trained and specialized response team, was finishing up a recorded interview with the reporter. Cutler's tall build and salt-and-pepper hair cut a commanding figure as he answered the blonde woman's questions. Cutler was a good acehe reminded Alex a lot of his own adoptive father, Gideon Taylor, the fire department's chief arson investigator. He was no-nonsense, tough, but fair.
Cutler handled the interview with the same confident air of calm with which he ran the unit, explaining their mission to assist the drug task force in storming the house while protecting the security of the officers on the scene. When the reporter asked whether he thought the cops or someone in Smith's gang had shot that boy, a pointed glare from Cutler indicated the interview was over.
With the reporter on live back in the studio, Alex watched the tape continuing in the corner of the screen, showing Trip and Sergeant Delgado escorting a handcuffed Demetrius Smith into the back of a police car while Captain Cutler and Holden Kincaid stood guard over Smith's two compatriots being loaded into another black-and-white. Alex was nowhere to be seen in the camera shot. He'd had the inglorious duty of stowing gear and coordinating cleanup with the task force.
A gofer with a gun and body armor. Despite eight months of training and working together, he was still definitely the new guy. Any friendship, respect or trust Delgado, Kincaid and Trip showed him was on a strictly trial basis. He had yet to earn anything more permanent.
As the reporter turned to do a live interview in the studio with Kansas City's D.A., Dwight Powers, Alex's thoughts wandered. He half suspected that the main reason he'd gotten the SWAT position over several other older, more tenured candidates was because he was a Taylor. In addition to his dad's work in conjunction with the police department, his uncle Mitch was chief of the Fourth Precinct. His uncle Mac ran the day shift at the crime lab. He had two other uncles who were cops, and one who was an FBI agent assigned to the Kansas City Bureau. His uncle Brett, the only one who wasn't involved in law enforcement, was married to a cop.
His adopted brother, Edison Pike Taylor, worked in the K-9 unit. His two youngest brothers, Matthew and Mark, while still in college, were both already on their way to similar careers.
With a powerful, venerated family history like that, it made good press within the department to assign one of the next generation of Taylor cops to KCPD's premiere SWAT unit. But it didn't mean a thing to the members of his team.
Especially when a cop had to die for the position to open up in the first place.
Not only was Alex the new guy, he had the unenviable task of replacing a well-loved friend who'd been shot down in the line of duty. He had a lot to prove no matter how he looked at it.
Better content himself with fetching the beer.
The wry thought faded when another photo popped up on the TV screen beside Smith's booking picture. The woman looked delicate, pretty in an icy-hot way. Striking light red hair. Creamy skin. Wide, slightly full, could-be-sexy-if-they-weren't-pressed-so-tight lips. She was a stunning contrast to Smith's mahogany skin and shaved head. She was all class, all uptown, compared to Smith's decidedly downtown street style.
Beauty aside, noting her knowing arch of one auburn brow, Alex could tell there was some fire under that buttoned-up suit and cool facade, as well. He'd bet those lips softened like honey when she smiled. He wondered what it would take to get her to smile, what a man might do to ignite the fire beneath the surface of her skin.
Alex's pulse shook off the last of its doldrums and beat at a healthy tempo. Nothing like a little sensual delight to take a man's mind off his troubles. He tuned into the storysomething about the attorney taking on Smith's prosecutiontrying to catch the name of the flame-haired fantasy.
Audrey Kline. Audrey. He grinned at how well the old-fashioned name fit her tailored suit and pearls. Was she another reporter covering the story? She must be new to this station since he hadn't seen
Wait a minute. Assistant District Attorney Audrey Kline?
Alex's pulse tripped over a warning as recognition kicked in. He leaned in slightly, tuning out the noise of the bar around him and reading the words scrolling across the bottom of the screen.
Audrey Klinedaughter of Rupert Kline of Kline, Galloway & Tucker, Attorneys at Law. That name he recognized. Rupert Kline was one of theif not the most revered lawyers in Kansas City. His firm often represented the wealthiest of clients and, more than once, had poked holes in the tightest of KCPD's cases and gotten various slime bags freed or released from jail time with little more than a slap on the wrists.
The enemy was arguing Smith's case?
"No way." Alex's Latin blood hummed through his veins as irritation mixed with the initial attraction he'd felt.
What the hell was the D.A. thinking, putting a pampered society princess in charge of prosecuting Demetrius Smith? Did he really think some rookie wannabe was equipped to handle one of Kansas City's most important cases? Nailing Smith for any number of charges, from drug trafficking and assault to witness intimidation and murder, would put a substantial dent in the city's gang activities and violent crime stats.
He hadn't risked his life to bring Smith inCalvin Chambers hadn't diedso that Red there could play at her daddy's game and get her picture on TV. Audrey Kline was too young, too pretty, too fluffy to be taken seriously and win the case.
What was she doing working for the city when she could be handling contracts or civil suits at Daddy's law firm, anyway? Was there some kind of political agenda going on here? If that murdering SOB Smith got off because Dwight Powers wanted to do a favor for her father.
"You okay, Taylor?" Josie was demanding his attention again.
Alex checked his temper as well as his hormones as the bartender scooted a bowl of pretzels across the bar. "Yeah. Just caught up in the news of the day, I guess."
"I can change the channel," she offered.
He shook his head and stood, tamping down the frissons of unexpected frustration and desire still sparking through his system. "I'm good. I'd better get back to the party."
"If you take this to the table, I'll bring the drinks over in just a sec." She pointed to the waitress standing at the end of the bar. "I need to get her order filled first."
Audrey Kline's picture disappeared and Alex cursed himself for breathing easier. Stupid move, Taylor. Twisting his shorts into a knot over some woman he'd never even met and a case that was out of his hands.
He tucked his money clip back into the pocket beneath his badge. Must be the guilt of the day combined with the pressure of the past year that left him feeling the need to connect to the right woman and get some of this pent-up frustration out of his system. He wasn't getting anything but a friendly one-of-the-guys vibe from Josie, and he was cool with that.