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The blasted sofa must have belonged to the Marquis de Sade in another life, Rick Sanchez thought as he shifted his body in a futile attempt to find a more comfortable position. Between the oddly solidified lumps and protruding springs, he was lucky he hadn't gouged out a vital organ. He was very careful to avoid lying on his stomach.
This was the fourth night he'd gone through this same torture, and he was beginning to wonder if he was wasting his time. Whoever had been breaking into the Yo, Amigo headquarters either knew he'd moved in to guard the place or had simply decided that there was more fertile turf for theft elsewhere.
Lord knew, that was true enough, he thought as he cautiously rearranged his body once more on the worn-out, too-short sofa. The program he'd founded two years earlier was perpetually short of funds and equipment. The sole, ancient computer he'd hoodwinked a friend into donating had been an early victim of daring neighborhood thieves. Now about the only things of value lying around were the TV and DVD player in the lounge. They were bolted down, though not so securely that anyone intent on nabbing them couldn't manage it with a little time and diligence.
They were also in pathetic condition, but at least they'd been obtained legally, unlike the collection of state-of-the-art electronic equipment a few of the boys had offered him the week before. He'd really hated turning them down, but Yo, Amigo was all about taking a moral stance and teaching values. Accepting stolen property would pretty much defeat the very message he was trying to send out.
Exhausted but wide awake, he closed his eyes and tried counting confiscated weapons instead of sheep. He'd turned over a dozen to the police two days earlier, another seven the week before. It was a drop in the bucket, but each gun or knife he managed to get out of gang hands and off the streets was a small victory.
Rather than putting him to sleep, though, the mental game left him more alert than ever. Images of boys killing boys, of babies being shot by accident in a violent turf war crowded into his head. He wondered despondently if the program he'd founded would ever be more than a tiny, ineffective bandage on the huge problem.
Such thoughts led inevitably to memories of Ken Miller, the decent, caring man who had been his friend and, some said, had lost his life because of it. Rick knew he would never have a moment's peace again if he allowed himself to share that conviction. His conscience, which already carried a heavy enough burden of guilt from the sins of his youth, would destroy him, if even indirect responsibility for Ken's death were added to the list.
He shifted positions and felt the sharp jab of a metal spring in the middle of his back. He muttered a harsh expletive under his breath and sat up.
Just as he did, he thought he heard a faint whisper of sound, an almost imperceptible scratching from the back of the old brick firetrap that had been condemned until he took it over and began restoring it room by room with the help of the boys in his program. He went perfectly still and listened intently.
The second subtle scrape of metal against metal had him on his feet in an instant. He grabbed the baseball bat he'd kept by the door and eased from the office.
Slipping quietly through the shadowy rooms toward the increasingly persistent sound, he wished for a moment that he hadn't sworn off guns. He also wished the budget had been large enough to pay for a cell phone, rather than the lone, ancient phone that suddenly seemed very far away on his desk. He might as well have wished for a fleet of shiny new vans to transport the teens to the job assignments that were a part of the program. All were out of reach on the shoestring Yo, Amigo budget.
Just as he closed in on the back door, he heard the heavy-duty lock give. Whoever had conquered it was skilled with lock-picking tools, he concluded with grudging admiration. It hardly narrowed the field, since most of the kids he knew had been breaking and entering since they could reach a door handle or heave a rock through a window. Most, however, didn't have the finesse or patience to work at a lock with the tedious determination that this person had.
The heavy steel door inched open silently on its well-oiled hinges. Pressed against a wall, Rick waited in the shadows. There was no point in risking his neck until he knew exactly what he was up against. One thief. Two. Or a whole gang, in which case his goose was cooked and he could kiss the TV and DVD player goodbye.
To his relief, the lone person who slipped inside was slightly built and dressed in black from head to toe. Black baseball cap, long-sleeved black T-shirt, trim black pants, even black sneakers. Vaguely taken aback, he concluded it was the working gear of a pro, not some daring kid intent on mischief. The kids he knew wore the baggy clothes and colors of their gangs. Solid, formfitting black like this would have appalled them.
More on edge than ever, and itching for action, he studied the person creeping slowly and unwittingly toward him in the narrow hallway. Rick figured he easily had a fifty-pound advantage over the intruder, plus several inches in height. Even so, he forced himself to wait patiently and watch for accomplices.
When none appeared, he bit back a sigh of relief and considered his options. The bat seemed unnecessary. He propped it cautiously against the wall. Then he slipped up behind the increasingly confident and fast-moving thief and, without uttering a word, slammed the jerk onto the hardwood floor in a full-body tackle that knocked the breath out of both of them.
Rick recovered from the fall first, latched on to a pair of skinny wrists and brutally wrenched the would-be thief's arms behind him.
He received a blistering earful of curses for his trouble. The words didn't shock him. He'd heard far worse. Used far worse, for that matter.
What flat-out stunned him, though, was the fact that the voice uttering such foulmouthed language was so evidently and self-righteously outraged. More startling yet, it was also very clearly feminine.
"If you don't let me up right this instant, I will slap you with a lawsuit that will take away this building and every dime you have to your name," the woman vowed furiously.
Rick was intrigued despite himself. Not intrigued enough to let her go, but fascinated enough to pursue the conversational direction for a bit.
"Is that so?" he asked, unexpectedly amused by her gambit. "And how do you figure you're the injured party here?"
"Because I've been attacked by an idiot with more muscle than sense. I wouldn't be at all surprised if half my ribs were cracked."
"You did break into private property," he reminded her.
"A technicality," she insisted.
"Some technicality. You a lawyer?"
"Sweet heavens, no," she said with such heartfelt distaste that Rick grinned.
"I'm not overly fond of them myself. I guess that gives us something in common, doll face."
"Dollface? " she repeated with more of that misplaced indignant outrage. "No one calls me doll face or honey or sweetheart."
"Too bad," Rick said sympathetically. He decided he could really enjoy deliberately aggravating this woman. "Mind telling me why you dropped by, doll face? Since you chose not to use the front door or to come during business hours, I have to assume your mission is less than legal."
"That's not true," she said.
"The facts say otherwise."
"To hell with your so-called facts. Are you going to let me up or not?"
"Not just yet," he said, wondering abruptly if the decision was the security precaution he wanted to believe or merely an attempt to prolong the distinctly provocative contact. Worry over his motives kept him silent for so long that his captive jumped back in with her two cents.
"If you're figuring on copping a feel, you'd better think again," she said in that imperious way that amused him so. "I'll slap you with sexual battery charges while I'm at it."
Rick chuckled. "Doll face, I do not need to get my kicks from accosting total strangers. In case you've missed the point, I am subduing a thief who broke into this building. I'm within my rights, believe me."
"I am not a thief," she retorted.
"Maybe not technically, since you never got a chance to lay your hands on anything of value," he agreed. "But you seem to be in deep denial of the seriousness of your position. Now, how about giving me some answers?"
She hesitated for a very long time, probably evaluating her alternatives, before asking, "Such as?"
"Who are you and what are you doing here?"
"Who are you?" she countered. "For all I know, you're just a thief who got here first."
She had audacity. Rick had to give her that. She was the kind of smart-mouthed handful who'd drive a man crazy. He wished he could get a better look at her to see if she'd be worth the trouble, but the lighting in the hallway was virtually nonexistent. The only thing he knew for sure was that she wasn't local. She had no accent. All of the girls in this neighborhoodand some of them were indeed tough as nailswere Latinas.
Based on her shape, though, this one definitely had promise. His own body had picked up on that without his brain even having to kick in. Another couple of minutes of close contact and he'd be dangerously aroused. Hell, he was already aroused. For a man who'd vehemently sworn to remain celibate through all eternity after his very brief and ill-advised marriage had gone sour, it was a troubling turn of events. He'd better settle this nonsense in a hurry and extricate himself from a dangerous situation.
"Let me assure you, doll face, I belong here," he said. "I run the place."
The announcement had an odd effect on her. Though she'd remained relatively still since he'd taken her captive, it now seemed that the remaining breath whooshed right out of her. She was utterly and absolutely motionless. That didn't strike Rick as a good sign.
"You're Rick Sanchez?" she asked in a broken whisper.
Rick couldn't tell if her voice was choked by tears or was shaking with some inexplicable anger, but he definitely got the feeling she knew a whole lot more about Yo, Amigo than he'd assumed. He also realized that he was the very last person she'd expected to encounter here tonight.
"That's me," he told her. "Which leaves us with you. Who are you, doll face?"
Several seconds ticked by before she answered.
"I'm Dana Miller."
She said it in a tone so stiff and cold that it sent goose bumps chasing over Rick's body. Dismay slammed through him as the name registered. Ken's wife? Dear God in heaven, he'd tackled Ken's wife as though she were a common criminal. Which, of course, at the moment she appeared to be, but that was beside the point.
He released her wrists at once and leaped to his feet, holding out his hand to help her up. She ignored it and rose with a grace and dignity that belied the situation.
"I'm sorry," he said, trying to convey a month's worth of emotions in those two simple words. "For everything. For Ken. For just now."
"Save it," she said harshly. "Save it for someone who'll buy your phony sympathy."
Anger radiated from her in almost palpable waves. Rick had known she blamed him for Ken's death. A half-dozen people had told him exactly how bitter she was toward him and Yo, Amigo. In fact, he had stayed away from the funeral for that very reason, out of consideration for her feelings, justified or not. He'd figured Ken's graveside was no place to force a confrontation. Later he'd tried to see her, but she'd been gone, off in Florida to recover from the tragedy, her best friend had told him.
Now he realized that he should have seen her sooner, should have gone at once to offer his condolences, to explain how deeply he, too, was grieving over the death of her husband. He doubted she would have believed him any more then than she did now, but he knew how wounds could fester unless they were cleansed right away. This soul-deep wound was no different than one to the flesh. It had had more than a month to worsen dangerously.
Ironically, he had anticipated that sooner or later, she might come after him. He just hadn't expected it to be in the middle of the night.
Gazing into her bleak expression, he tried to tell her now what he would have said weeks ago, if he'd had the opportunity.
"Your husband was the best friend"
He never got to finish the sentence. Her open hand connected with his face in a stinging slap that rocked him on his heels.
"Don't you dare say that," she said. "Don't you dare."
Rick fell silent, uncertain how to cope with such anguish and outrage. Used to coping with broken teenaged dreams with words and hugs and timeworn platitudes, he could think of nothing that would touch Dana Miller's hurt, or calm her fury. Obviously, she needed to lash out at someone and she'd picked him.
Since the topics of Ken Miller and his death were clearly off-limits, despite their obvious connection to tonight's break-in, he decided to focus on why Dana Miller was at Yo, Amigo headquarters in the middle of the night. It didn't take a genius to figure that one out.
"You expected to find answers here, didn't you?" he asked softly.
The direct question seemed to surprise her. Her gaze clashed with his. "It's the obvious place to start."
"The police thought so, too," he reminded her. "They've searched through every file, talked with every one of the kids who comes here regularly, questioned every potential eyewitness. They've almost destroyed the program in the process." He regarded her defiantly. "I won't let you start the whole thing all over again."
"You don't have a choice in the matter," she told him coldly. "I will do whatever I have to do to find Ken's murderer. You can't stop me."
He found her resolve chilling, but it bolstered his own commitment to salvage Yo, Amigo, at any cost. "Oh, but I can. These kids need a safe haven. They need one person who believes in them. That's me. They had Ken, too, but he's gone now."
"Because of you," she accused bitterly.
"Not because of me or these kids," Rick insisted. "I'd stake my life on that."