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This was a switch.
Deputy US marshal Brent Thompson stood in a Chicago hotel ballroom among a throng of impeccably dressed political big shots that, for once, he didn't have to protect.
Tonight he was a guest.
Whether that made him happy or not was anyone's guess. But he'd stay another hour for Judge Kline, a woman he'd spent two years watching over after her husband and children were murdered by some nut who'd been on the losing end of a ruling. Judge Kline had ordered him to pay a $1,200 fine and somehow he was mad enough to wipe out her entire family, leaving her to deal with guilt and rage and heartache.
Sometimessometimes? Really?Brent didn't understand people. Or maybe it was their motivations he didn't understand, but the human race baffled him.
Tonight Judge Kline, who'd refused to allow her life to collapse under grief, was smiling. A welcome sight since her eighty-five-year-old mother had decided to throw one hell of a shindig for the judge's sixtieth birthday.
Brent turned and found the ever-polished Gerald Pfennings, Chicago's highest-profile defense attorney, weaving through the crowd. Accompanying him was a petite blonde in a floor-length bright blue gown. She had to be over fifty, but may have had a little work done to preserve her extraordinary looks. Her perfect cheekbones, the big blue eyes and sculpted nose were duplicates of the ones Brent recognized from Hennings's daughter, Penny. Didn't take a genius to figure out this woman was Mrs. Hennings. Brent held his hand out. "Mr. Hennings. Nice to see you."
Five months earlier, Brent had been assigned to protect Penny Hennings after yet another nutplenty of nuts in his worldhad attempted to kill her on the steps of a federal courthouse. Penny had nearly put Brent into a psych ward with her relentless mouthiness and aggressive attitude, but he'd formed a bond with her. A kinship. And, much like Judge Kline, they'd remained friends after his assignment had ended. For whatever reason, emotionally speaking, he couldn't let either one of them go. The fact that they'd all experienced tragedy might be the common denominator, but he chose not to think too hard about it. What was the point? None of them would ever fully recover from their individual experiences. All they could do was move on.
Hennings turned to the woman at his side. "I don't think you've met my wife, Pamela. Pam, this is Marshal Brent Thompson. He was the marshal."
She smiled andyephe was looking at Penny in twenty-five years.
"I know," Mrs. Hennings said. She stepped forward and gripped both of his arms. "Thank you."
The gesture, so direct and heartfelt, caught him sideways and he stiffened. Freak that he was, he'd never gotten comfortable with strange women touching him. Most guys would love it. Brent? He liked his space being his.
But he stood there, allowing Penny's mother to thank him in probably the only way she knew how. He could go on about how he'd just been doing his job, which was all true, but even he understood that he'd worked a little harder for Penny. She reminded him too much of his younger sister, Camille, and he hadn't been able to help himself. "You're welcome. Your daughter has become a good friend. And if I ever need legal advice, I know who to call." Mrs. Hennings laughed.
Mr. Hennings swooped his finger in the air. "You're not working tonight?"
"No, sir. Judge Kline is a friend."
"How nice," Mrs. Hennings said.
"Yes, ma'am. I worked with her for two years. She would always tell me if my tie didn't match. That happened a lot?''
"As the mother of two sons, I'm sure your mother appreciates that."
Mr. Hennings cleared his throat and, in Brent's mind, the room fell silent. He glanced around, looking for
what? Confirmation that the room at large wasn't listening to his conversation?
All around people gabbed and mingled and pretty much ignored Brent. Imagined it. He exhaled and once again the orchestra musicsomething classicalreplaced the fog in his brain.
He'd fielded comments about his mother almost his entire life. It should have been easier by now. Except for the nagging.
Twenty-three years of gut-twisting, anger-fueled obsession that kept him prisoner. "My mother died when I was five, ma'am."
Social pro that she must have been, considering her husband's wizardry with the press, Mrs. Hennings barely reacted. "I'm so sorry." She turned to Gerald, shooting him the stink-eye. "I didn't know."
Moments like these, a guy had to step up and help his brother-in-arms. "No need to apologize. I think about her every day." And knowing how this conversation would go, the curiosity that came with why and how such a young woman had died, Brent let it fly. "She was murdered."
Social pro or not, Mrs. Hennings gasped. "How horrible."
Brent sipped his club soda, gave the room another glance and came back to Mrs. Hennings. "My sister and I adjusted. We have a supportive family."
"I hope they caught the person who did this."
"No, ma'am. It's still an open case."
A case that lived and breathed with him and had driven him into law enforcement. If the Carlisle sheriff's office couldn't find his mother's killer, he'd do it himself.
"Are the police still looking into it?"
Brent shrugged. "If they get a tip or some new information. I work it on my downtime, but downtime is short."
Mrs. Hennings, obviously still embarrassed by bringing up the subject of his dead mother, turned to her husband. "Can't one of your investigators help? You do all sorts of pro bono work for clients. Why not this?"
"Pam, those are cases where we're defending people. This is different."
Brent held up his hand As much as he'd like help, he didn't want a domestic war started over it. "Mrs. Hennings, it's okay. But thank you."
Still, down deep, Brent wanted to find the person who'd wrecked his family and had saddled him with a level of responsibilityand guiltno five-year-old should have known. Every day, the questions haunted him. Could he have helped her? Should he have done something when he first heard a noise? Was he a crummy investigator because all these years later he still couldn't give his mother justice?
At this point, if he couldn't find this monster on his own, he'd take whatever help available. Ego aside, justice for his mother was what mattered.
Mrs. Hennings kept her gaze on her husband. "You were just complaining that Jenna is bored with her current assignments. After what Brent did for Penny, give Jenna his mother's case to investigate. It'll challenge her and keep her out of your hair. Where's the problem?"
Mr. Hennings pressed his lips together and a minuscule, seriously minuscule, part of Brent pitied the man. If he didn't agree with his wife, his life would be a pile of manure.
Mrs. Hennings shot her husband a meat cleaver of a look, then turned back to Brent. "My husband will call you about this tomorrow. How's that?"
With limited options, and being more than a little afraid to argue because, hey, he was no dummy either, he grinned at Mr. Hennings. "That'd be great. Thank you."
Jenna slid onto one of the worn black vinyl bar stools at Freddie's Tap House, a mostly empty shot-and-a-beer joint on the North Side of Chicago.
How the place stayed in business, she had no idea. On this Wednesday night the sports bar down the block was packed, while the only people patronizing Freddie's were an elderly man sitting at the bar and a couple huddled at a table in the back.
The bartender glanced down the bar at her and wandered over. "Evening. Get you something?"
You sure can.
"Whatever's on tap. Thanks."
He nodded and scooped a glass from behind the bar, pouring a draft as he eyed her black blazer and the plunging neckline on her cashmere sweater. "Haven't seen you in here before. New in town?"
As much as she'd tried to dress down with jeans, she hadn't been able to resist the sweater. When dealing with men, a little help from her feminine wilesalso known as her boobsnever hurt. "Nope. New in here, though."
"You look more Tiffany's than Freddie's."
Already Jenna liked him. "Are you Freddie?"
"Freddie Junior. My dad is Freddie. I took over when he retired."
He slid the beer in front of Jenna. Once more she looked around, took in the polished, worn wood of the bar, the six tables along the wall and the line of empty bar stools.
"Slow night," Freddie said.
Lucky me. She opened her purse, pulled out a fifty and set it on the bar. Next came the photo taken the week prior by a patron in this very bar. He glanced down at the fifty, then at the photo.
"I'm not a cop," Jenna said. "I'm an investigator working for a law firm."
She pointed at the photo of two men with a woman in the background. Jenna needed to find that woman. "Have you seen her in here?"
He picked up the photo and studied it. "Yeah. Couple of times. When a woman like that walks into a beer joint, there's generally a reason. Kinda like you."
Figuring it was time to put her cleavage to work, Jenna inched forward, gave him a view of the girls beneath that V-neck and smiled. Most women would love the idea that a fifteen-pound weight gain had gone straight to their chest. Jenna supposed it hadn't hurt her ability to claw information from menand maybe she used it to her advantage. But she also wanted to be recognized for extracting the information and not for the way she'd done it.
Did that even make sense? She wasn't sure anymore.
All she knew was her need for positive reinforcement had led her to using her looks to achieve her goals. That meant wearing clingy, revealing clothing. Such a cliché. But the thing about clichés was they worked.
"Any idea what her reason for being here was?"
Freddie took the boob-bait and leaned in. "No. Both times she met someone. Why?"
All Jenna could hope was he'd gotten the woman's name. "My client is being held on a robbery charge. He says he was in here the night of the robbery and he met this woman. Her name is Robin."
"Where'd you get the picture?"
"Friends of my client."
He dropped the picture on the bar and tapped it. "Birthday party, right?"
"Yes. My client and six of his friends. Any idea where I can find her?"
"Did she pay by credit card?"
If she paid by credit card, there would be a record of the transaction, and Jenna would dig into the Hennings & Solomon coffers and pay Freddie a high, negotiated sum for a look at his credit card receipts. From there, she'd get a name and two calls later would have an address for Robin-the-mystery-woman.
Freddie may have been lying. Jenna studied him, took in his direct gaze. Not lying. At least she didn't think so. Again with the wavering? Didn't she have a good sense about these things? Yes, she did. For that reason she'd go with the theory that Freddie seemed to be a small-business owner who wanted to stay out of trouble while trying to make a living. She dug her card and a pen out of her purse, wrote her cell number on the card and placed it next to the fifty on the bar.
"How about I leave you my card? If she comes in again and you call me, there's a hundred bucks in it for you."
Freddie glanced at the card. After a moment, he half shrugged. "Sure. If I see her."
Jenna took one last sip of her beer, slid off the stool and hitched her purse onto her shoulder. "Thanks." She nodded toward the fifty. "Keep the change."
* * *
At 9:00 a.m. the following morning, Jenna stepped into the Hennings & Solomon boardroom and found her boss, the man known around Chicago as the Dapper Defense LawyerDapper DL for shortsitting at the end of the table. Not a surprise since he'd called this impromptu meeting by sending her a text at 7:00 a.m.
Not that she minded the text. When that happened, it meant he needed help, and that little boostthat feeling of being the one that Gerald Hennings, defense lawyer of all defense lawyers, called onnever got old. From the beginning, he'd had faith in her. Even when her application to the FBI had been denied and she'd taken a job at a PI firm as their quasi receptionist-turned-investigator, he'd seen potential and had hired her as one of his two full-time investigators. She'd always be grateful for the opportunity to prove herself.
She'd also be grateful that he'd nevernot oncehit on her. Most men did. Simple fact. As a former Miss Illinois runner-up, part of her success came from men wanting to sleep with her. And, let's face it, some men were idiots. When those idiots wanted to seduce a woman, they started talking.
"Sorry for the sudden meeting," Mr. Hennings said.
"No problem, sir."
Given his choice of the conference room rather than his office, she assumed others would be joining them and took a seat two chairs down.
Penny Hennings, Gerald's daughter and a crack defense attorney herself, swung in, her petite body moving fast as usual. "Sorry I'm late."
She hustled around the table and took the seat next to her father. The guys around the office secretly joked about the killer combo of Penny's sweet looks and caustic mouth. A viper wrapped in a doll's body.
"You're not late," Mr. Hennings said. "Relax."
"Hi, Jenna." Penny high-fived her across the table. "I love these unscheduled meetings. It's always something juicy."
Mr. Hennings smirked. "Don't get ahead of yourself. It's not a client."
Penny made a pouty face. "Boo-hiss, Dad."
The boss laughed and shook his head at his daughter. "I ran into Brent Thompson at a function last night."
Now that got Jenna's attention. She'd worked with Brent briefly. He'd been assigned to protect Penny from a psycho who'd tried to blackmail her into throwing a case. Each time Jenna had locked eyes with the studly marshal, her blood had gone more than a little warm. He had a way about him. Tough, in charge and majorly hot.
"Really?" Penny said as if the idea of her father and Brent running in the same social circles was ridiculous. "You ran into Brent? Was he working?"
"No. He was a guest at Judge Kline's birthday party. Apparently he was one of the marshals assigned to her after her family was murdered."
"Huh. I had no idea. That man is full of surprises."
"We got to talking about his mother."
For whatever reason, Penny's eyebrows hitched. "Really."
Jenna cocked her head. "That's the second time you've said 'really.' What about his mother?"
Still focused on her father, Penny ignored the question. "He doesn't usually talk about her. I don't know the whole story. He mentioned it to Russ, and Russ told me."
RussPenny's FBI agent boyfriend-soon-to-be-fiance, if Penny had anything to do with itwas a great source of information, and Jenna had learned to use him sparingly, but thoroughly. "What about Brent's mother?"
Mr. Hennings turned to Jenna. "She was murdered twenty-three years ago."
Frigid stabs shot up Jenna's neck. If her boss wanted shock factor, he'd succeeded. "Wow."
Penny glanced across the table. Momentarily stymied, Jenna gave her the help-me look. "The case is still open," Penny said.
Her father turned back to Jenna. "You've indicated you'd like more challenging work."
Despite her temporary paralysis, Jenna sensed an opportunity coming her way. "Yes, sir."
"You know what they say about being careful what you wish for."
"Brent's mother's case, it's cold. My wife has gotten it into her head that we should have our investigators work it."
Jenna sucked in air. A cold case. Simply amazing. For months she'd been craving something more than paper trails and fraud cases. Something she could tear apart and hone her skills on. But this? Could she handle a murder? If it were here in the city, she might be able to pull it off. Her list of contacts was growing, and her retired detective father still had people who owed him favors.
"Hang on," Penny said.
Yes, hang on. "Did the murder happen here?"