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Quinn Keller didn't often lose it. She tried hard to keep a rein on her temper. It was something she'd been working on her entire life, not wanting to hurt others with harsh words. Most days she succeeded.
She gritted her teeth, her body quivering with barely suppressed fury. Today wasn't one of those days.
Luckily, the object of her rage deserved every last speck of it, and she wouldn't lose one wink of sleep over anything she said.
Slick and condescending, Everett Warren thought he was above the rules. It had taken everything she had not to slam her fist into his smug face. Fortunately, her brain was working faster than her instincts for once, because if she'd given in to the urge she probably would have lost her job.
And then how would she be able to help Caroline Warren, the asshole's wife?
"There's been a grave misunderstanding, Ms. Keller," Warren had said, in that deep, solemn voice that was probably supposed to indicate just how important and trustworthy a man he was.
Unfortunately for him, Quinn had seen the evidence of the opposite with her own eyes.
An image of Caroline's body, marked and bruised, flashed across Quinn's mind. Not twelve hours ago she'd held the woman's hand while a doctor and nurse had taken care of her injuries. She'd been there as Caroline had stripped naked so they could take pictures of the damage for evidence. And the marks hadn't all been from last night. Several of the bruises were days and weeks old. All purposely positioned so they could be well covered.
And then Quinn had hidden Caroline in a safe house on a small farm on the outskirts of town.
Somehow, despite Warren's false concern, Quinn managed to bite her tongue, keeping the snide comments to herself. Misunderstanding, her ass. She hated men who felt putting a ring on a woman's finger equaled the right to dictate, intimidate and hit.
What made Warren worse than most was the smooth exterior he presented to the world. Most of the abusers she'd met over the years didn't bother pretending they were anything else. They didn't care enough to hide the truth.
Warren did. In fact, he worked hard at the perfect facade. He was a major donor to several high-profile charities in town. He'd won service awards and been hailed as a town hero for years. Hell, even she'd been sucked in by the pretense. How could she not be? He'd funded several of the programs for the people she assisted on a daily basis.
Although, according to Caroline, the money he'd been liberally spreading around town for years wasn't exactly clean. Certainly, he had legitimate business interests. But also ties with "families" that were well known for their ruthless behavior.
To put it bluntly, he laundered money.
The minute Caroline had told her that, Quinn had tried to call in the cops. But Caroline had flipped at the idea of talking to them. She was scarednot just of Warren, but also the men he worked for. Considering the evidence Quinn had seen, Caroline had good reason for that fear.
So Quinn had planned on giving Caroline a few days to settle in and begin to feel safe before pressing the issue again.
They had to proceed with caution, anyway.
Warren had money, a sense of entitlement and played poker at least once a month with a judge, several lawyers, two city councilmen and most of the financial heavy hitters in Barnhart, their small town just outside Fort Benning, Georgia. He'd built a network of friends and associates who'd back him first and ask questions later.
And Quinn didn't want Caroline to be their target.
She'd known Warren would be pissed. What she hadn't expected was a personal visit from the man.
"At least let me speak to her. I need to know she's okay."
His words held so much sincerity and concern Quinn almost wanted to believe him. And maybe she would have, if she hadn't seen the truth lurking deep beneath the surface.
He'd smiled at her pleasantly, even as his eyes had glinted hard and promised retribution. A silent shiver of apprehension shot down Quinn's spine.
Working as a counselor for a nonprofit assistance center that handled everything from court ordered drug programs and referrals from local shelters, to those who came in off the street looking for help, she'd seen some pretty shitty stuff. It shouldn't amaze her just how unfeeling the human race could be. Unfortunately, the moment she thought she'd seen the worst, someone like Warren came along and proved her wrong.
The problem was that Warren was too damn smart. He knew just what he could and couldn't say.
He hadn't actually threatened her or Caroline. He'd intimated that he was willing to pull all his financial support from their programs. When that hadn't gotten him anywhere, he'd started playing hardball, smoothly suggesting he not only knew exactly where Quinn lived, but could, with little effort, discover things like the name of her third-grade teacher, her credit score and where she liked to buy her gourmet coffee.
Not enough to qualify as an actual threat, but more than enough to give her the heebie-jeebies. And make Daniel, her boss, worry.
Which only pissed her off more. And may have driven her to throw a coffee mug in the break room after Warren left. Something she wasn't particularly proud of but the coward couldn't even threaten her properly. He hadn't given her enough to file an incident report with the police.
But Quinn refused to let the prick intimidate her.
Unlike his wife, Quinn wasn't afraid of Warren. His words couldn't hurt her. It was one thing to beat a woman he had easy access to and thought he could control. Quinn was another matter. It would take effort to get to her and she seriously didn't think he'd bother. By not giving in to his intimidation she'd proven threatening her wouldn't work. So now he'd most likely try to find anothereasierway to get what he wanted. Bullies were usually lazy.
Daniel, however, wasn't so quick to dismiss him. "I want you to head home. You had a long night and deserve some downtime."
Quinn saw right through the ruse. But even as it irked her, she couldn't stop herself from appreciating the sentiment behind the gesture.
"Not necessary," she'd protested.
Daniel frowned, a tight line pulling between his bushy black eyebrows. "I insist, Quinn. Will you just, for once, not argue?"
She scoffed, a harsh sound scraping through her throat. "We both know how likely that is."
"Don't make me revoke your access to the server."
She sucked in a hard breath. "You wouldn't do that."
"Don't bet on it." Walking around her desk, he planted his wide hips on the edge and leaned down toward her. The skin at the edges of his eyes pulled tight, doubling the wrinkles that already radiated out into his receding hairline. "Quinn, you need a break. We all need a break. Last night was intense. Warren's visit only made it worse."
"But I have a ton of cases that need my attention." Both of their gazes scraped across the top of Quinn's desk. It was messy, littered with files piled haphazardly on top of one another. Papers stuck out of several of them. Post-it Notes in all the shades of the rainbow clung to every available surface.
It was ordered chaos, just the way she liked it.
But she didn't miss Daniel's wince when he took it all in.
She'd lost the argument.
Unfortunately, not only would her cases still be there waiting in the morning, no doubt more would have been piled on. There were days she wondered why she put herself through the wringer. Kids being beaten and starved. Addicts spiraling out of control, unwilling to accept help. Runaways. Veterans feeling lost and broken. Women being treated like property. Hungry, desperate and emotionally devastated peoplethat's what she dealt with all day.
The ones who fell through the cracks or didn't think they deserved better broke her heart the most. Some days she left the office with a seemingly permanent ache in the center of her chest.
It was hard, seeing that kind of devastation and desperation. It wore on a person. But just when she'd get to the point where she thought she couldn't take one more, something would always happen to remind her why she could. A runaway was reunited with a parent. A drug addict went into treatment. Or a battered woman discovered the strength to leave.
Those were the days she felt she was making a difference in people's lives. Just as others had made a difference in her life when she'd needed it most.
So Warren could try his best, but there was no way in hell Quinn was giving him a damn thing. It had taken courage for Caroline to leave, and Quinn wasn't repaying that by abandoning her.
Pulling up to the house she'd purchased over two years ago, Quinn sat in her car and stared at the sunny yellow siding.
A memory, one she hadn't thought about in a very long time, swelled up to overwhelm her. The moment Michael had seen the place he'd known it was home. She hadn't been as convinced.
Pulling her out of the car, he'd coaxed her down the cracked walk. "Come on, baby, you're gonna love it. Promise."
He'd tried to butter her up, wrapping his arms around her waist and nibbling on her neck as they'd closed in on the front door.
It had almost worked, although not even his enthusiasm could mask the flaws. "The walk is all cracked. And the paint's peeling off the door."
"Easily fixed. That's cosmetic stuff. What you can't change is the history of the house or the fantastic school district."
"School district?" She couldn't hide the squeak of surprise. Swallowing, she'd tried to force down the knot of anxiety and dread that had threatened to choke her. After three years of dating, she'd just finally agreed to marry him. And he'd instantly had them pushing strollers and walking toddlers to kindergarten.
Always tuned into her reactions, Michael had smoothed his hands down her bare arms and turned her softly to face him. "Not now. I know we're not ready. But some day, yeah?"
God, what she wouldn't give to go back to that day and let him get her pregnant right then and there. That way she'd still have a piece of him, one she could kiss and hug and love.
As always, Michael had been able to talk his way into what he wanted. Although, by the time they were finished with the grand tour Quinn hadn't minded. She'd fallen in love with the house as surely as he had.
They'd bought it together. Michael, ever planning for the future, had insisted on the insurance that would pay off the mortgage should anything happen to either of them. She'd scoffed. Michael was a finance guy, far from living life on the edge. They were both young.
Little did they know that five months later Michael would be gone. It had happened so fast .
With a sigh, Quinn pushed away the sad thoughts. Not for the first time, she wondered if maybe she should sell the place. It had been two years. And the house was big. Too big for one person.
Unlocking the front door, she pushed inside the cool foyer. Dropping her purse onto the antique bench she kept by the entrance, she toed off her ballet flats and nudged them beneath it.
No, she didn't want to give up the place. It had been hers longer than hers and Michael's. It was home.
Padding to the back of the house and her bedroom, she was already fantasizing about ditching her bra, putting on yoga pants and curling up with a good book.
But passing by the wide picture window in her den, she froze.
It wasn't every day she came home to a sweaty man mowing her back lawn. Especially a man with his shirt off, muscles rippling down his back with every shove of her ancient push mower over the grass.
For a few minutes, she had the luxury of watching him work. Or maybe she was just dumbstruck and unable to move. Her body flushed hot, as if the air conditioning had stopped working and the hot June air had rushed in.
Running her tongue across suddenly parched lips, she couldn't tear her gaze away from him. Or the twisting gray, black and red ink down his right arm, a helicopter surrounded by flames and chaos behind a group of shadowy soldiers, two holding one up. That was Jace Hyland to a T, always holding up the people around him, sacrificing and supporting with a silent austerity that mostly intimidated.
Every time she saw it, that tattoo made the center of her chest hurt. It was an amazing piece of art, but it was the emotion behind it that got to her. That, and the silent reminder that Jace was the kind of man who put himself in harm's way without hesitation.
However, it was the huge angel wings, feathers so detailed Quinn thought they might lift straight off his body and take flight, spread wide across his broad shoulders that always made her throat tighten and close. They were for Michael.
As was the swirl of black ink, a scrolling tribal pattern that snaked up from the band of Jace's loose gym shorts over his abs, left hip and up his ribs, camouflaging the scars.
Not that either of them would ever forget they existed. Four of them. The biggest one was just below and to the left of his belly button where they'd taken out his kidney. Another smaller one above and two more along his side where the cameras had been inserted.
The only reason she knew they were there was because she'd seen them before the stark black marks had covered up the pink, puckered flesh.
The familiar knot dropped into Quinn's stomach, dread, grief and something she'd been fighting for a very long timeinterest.
She thought about leaving, just walking back out the door and pretending she hadn't seen him. But before she could move, he reached the end of the row he was mowing, turned and, with the instincts she knew he'd honed over years in hostile territory, zeroed right in on her standing there gawking.
He held her gaze for several moments, too far away for Quinn to really decipher his expression. Then he left the mower and crossed her lawn in sure, powerful strides that ate up ground and left her insides a little shaky.
The sound of the door bouncing against her kitchen wall echoed deep inside her chest, rumbling and rattling and skittering across her skin with a flush of something she really didn't want to think about. Didn't want to want.
It had been weeks since they'd seen each other. Jace made a point of checking in with herusually by arranging to meet for dinnerat least once a month. Those nights were often strained and fraught with things neither of them wanted to say, so Quinn ate quickly and disappeared as fast as possible.