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by Kristin Daniels
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: Carli Jacobs wants revenge. For the last three months, she's been living in a world she knows nothing about, determined to see that the drug lord responsible for her sister's death is held accountable. From inside the kingpin's hideout, she seizes an opportunity to smuggle away enough evidence to put him behind bars forever. But the situation outside on the street is grim, and she finds herself thrown into a raging gun fight. Detective Wes Lucas has no idea how he's going to walk away from this one. In a matter of minutes, the quiet stakeout of a major drug dealer has turned into a vicious street war. With bullets flying, he and his partner, Ian Gray, are about as deep in it as they can get. And just when he thinks things can't get much worse, a civilian runs into the middle of the mêlée. In an instant he rushes into the street, only to be thrown completely off kilter when he comes upon a terrified, doe-eyed stunner with hair the color of midnight and lips the perfect shape for? Whoa. Untimely erotic thoughts like that will only get her--and him--killed. With the knowledge that this woman's safety is his top priority, he pushes past the distraction, picks her up and carries her to safety. He's floored by the heady way she looks at him, not to mention the amazing way she feels under his hands or the way she smells so damn good. Okay, what the hell? Time to regroup. But he can't. She's all but sucker-punched him. God, he can barely breathe. Later, when Carli tells them her story and turns over the evidence, the entire situation gets flipped upside down. Wes is amazed to learn of a close, personal connection he has to Carli, and it's one he can't let her or Ian know about. Toss that in with the fact the evidence she gave them will have the drug lord searching for her, and the stakes just went through the roof. Wes and Ian can see past her desire for retribution to the very real trouble she's gotten herself into. They have no choice. In order to keep her safe, they place her into protective custody. As Wes fights his attraction to Carli, Ian's picking up on the immediate draw his friend has for the dark-haired beauty. And damn if he's not feeling a pull toward her himself. Not that he'd ever do anything about it, not with his past heartaches, but the idea's something he can't readily shake. Carli's not so sure she can handle being stashed away with these two inimitable men to watch over her. She realizes now how much danger she's in, but even that's not enough to stop her from reacting to them. She's scared to her bones, but fascinated, too. Attracted. A precarious circumstance at its best. An emotionally dangerous one at its worst. Tension is in the air, and it's not just sexual. Secrets are being kept. Lives are on line, and trust is put to the test. As desire rips through each of them, heartbreaking truths will be revealed and lies will be exposed. Are the three running away from danger, or are they headed straight for it? In Wes and Ian's quest to keep Carli safe, will she end up surrendering her heart as well? To My Reader: Have you ever been driven by pure revenge? By searing lust? My heroine Carli throws herself into a world she knows nothing about, bound and determined to have her revenge, only to be taken away from it all by the power of lust. Would you do the same? Would you chose as Carli did?
eBook Publisher: Red Sage Publishing/Red Sage Presents, 2010 2010
eBookwise Release Date: August 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [207 KB]
Reading time: 131-183 min.
Safe Surrender: Chapter One
Wes Lucas didn't have a clue how he was going to walk away from this one. Penned in behind the godforsaken piece of shit truck he used as a shield, he raged at how fast this quiet little stakeout had turned into a full-blown, no-holds-barred clusterfuck.
What seemed like the thousandth bullet struck the building behind him. Fragments flew in a trajectory that could only be aimed straight for his head. Tiny bits of brick and mortar pierced his neck and the side of his cheek as pieces of the building blew apart around him.
Damn it, that shit's gonna leave a mark.
He twisted and sank even lower. Maybe if he edged around the rear bumper, he could get a better look, a better aim, hell, a better something to gain the upper hand. He duck-waddled, keeping his head low to peer around the backside of the truck. The entire area was dark since the bastards further up had already shot out the streetlights, and he really couldn't see too much as a result.
Sporadic bursts of star-shaped light exploded from the semi-automatic guns over the hoods and roofs of the cars across the street. These assholes sure as shit weren't taking aim and probably cared even less about who they might hit. Which if he wasn't careful, would end up being him.
And didn't it figure, this vantage point wasn't much better. But at least he could see the front door of their target's house from here, along with the string of men running from it to join in with all the other locked-and-loaded partygoers already shooting at him
Ooh-fuckin'-rah, as his dad would say. And didn't that seem to sum it all up right now.
He gripped his Glock tighter and was beginning to pull back in search of a better position when a subtle movement from between two cars drew his attention. Only this wasn't one of the goons shooting at them. No, this in-the-wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time lottery winner was all hunched over, flinching with each staccato burst, clearly trying to get away.
Another volley of gunfire nailed the side of the truck and he ducked once again on a foul-mouthed curse. Christ, wasn't it just his luck some innocent bystander would get caught up in the middle of this mess. Although in his experience, innocent and this area of town never went hand in hand. But damn if it was his duty to find out for sure.
He snuck a quick peek around the bumper, his rage mounting with each attempt these fuckers took to shoot him down. And, holy shit, the person was still coming, now crawling on hands and knees out into the middle of the goddamned street.
"Stop! Get down and stay down!"
The slender body dropped to the street like a stone as another bullet whizzed by, inches away from Wes's head.
"Ian!" he shouted to his partner, who was crouched behind the rusted-out Chevy Impala parked behind the truck. "Cover me!"
Ian gave a curt nod and waited for the dickwads up the street to stop and reload before he jumped up to initiate his own feeble barrage of return gunfire. Wes holstered his gun, stooped and bolted into the middle of the dimly lit street. The person lay curled into a fetal position on the greasy, damp asphalt. Dark hair peeked through small arms wrapped around the head for protection. With feet out in front, Wes slid to a stop and landed hard on his butt, break-dance style.
"Come on, let's go!" He scrambled to right himself and grabbed the arm of -- What in God's name? A woman?
Holy Christ, a woman. A terrified, doe-eyed stunner with hair the color of midnight and lips the perfect shape for....
Nope. No, no, no. Not now. Shitty-assed timing to be having those kinds of thoughts. They'd only get him--and her--killed.
He had to do something--anything--and like right now. Because if he didn't get them off the street in five seconds flat, they'd both end up full of holes. Too close to Sonny Corleone at the tollbooth in The Godfather, if you asked him. Not a pretty sight. Not at all.
He pulled her to her feet, took off in another crouched run and dragged her by the crook of her elbow behind him. Just as he turned to yell "Keep low!" she tripped over her own feet and nearly yanked his arm clean out of its socket.
He spun and swung the woman over his shoulder in a fireman's hold and beat feet back to the cover of the truck. Thank God she was small. No way could she weigh more than one-twenty, even soaking wet.
He dropped her--hard--beside the tire and squatted next to her as he reclaimed his Glock and reached for his radio.
"Lucas to Dispatch. Where the hell is backup?" Pumped full of adrenaline and a fair amount of uneasiness, he felt as if every breath burned its way out his lungs.
A crackle broke from the radio. "Dispatch here. Squads plus a SWAT crew are on their way. You should hear them any second."
Yeah, right. Not like he could hear shit over the incessant chatter of those automatics. The whole situation was getting way out of hand, which royally pissed him off. He'd love to know just where in the hell these derelicts got this many automatic weapons.
He leaned in closer to the shaking woman. Fear radiated off her in rolling waves and he had to quash the strange urge to pull her into his arms to offer a little comfort. Instead, he went for the verbal approach. "Help's on its way, miss. Hold on just a few more minutes."
His throat tightened at the slender hands still wrapped over her head and the dirt that smudged her forehead and cheek. She lifted her face and peered up at him through the shadows cast by the single remaining streetlight behind the truck. Her pretty brown eyes were rimmed bright red with unshed tears, and when she lowered her arms to hug her knees tight to her chest, her eyebrows drew together in a harsh wince. The skin on her knees was bloody and raw and had to sting like a bitch.
"What... Oh, God--" she cried, and ducked in closer to him after another burst of gunfire.
He inched toward her, sheltering her with his body as best he could. "It's okay. I've got you."
The terror in her eyes didn't fade at his lousy attempt to reassure her. One lone tear spilled over, and for some insane reason he brushed it away with the pad of his thumb before he could stop himself. She grabbed his hand with one of hers, held on, and squeezed tight.
The wail of sirens drowned out the rest of her words. A SWAT van skidded to a stop in front of the truck and half a dozen beefy guys in full riot gear jumped from the rear doors, shields and rifles held chest high. The corner of his lip twitched when the commander exited last and turned to face him. Dean. Wes's own brother.
"Move out. Two-by-two, boys," Dean commanded. "Watch your partner's six. Let's make this fast and nasty."
Dean sidled next to the truck with his rifle held high in guard position. "Move it, Wes. Go. Now."
With his fingers still held between hers, Wes turned back to the dark-haired beauty. He kept his lip tilted with a bit of cocky assuredness and held out his other hand to help her to her feet. "Cavalry's arrived, darling'. Come on, let's get you out of here."
She slipped her trembling hand into his and the shake from her grip ran clear up to his shoulder. For the first time since he'd spotted her huddled in the center of the street, he took a second to suck in a clean breath before he pulled her in next to him and tucked her close against his side. With an arm wrapped tight around her, he threaded his fingers through some of the silkiest curls he'd ever felt and pressed her head against his chest, moving them both quickly to one of the squad cars waiting farther down the street and around the corner.
Odd timing, but he couldn't stop the errant thoughts that chose that exact moment to rush through his mind. Maybe it was because she smelled so good, despite how terrified she looked. Summer flowers.... Yeah, her hair smelled just like the summer flowers his mom tended in her garden every year. What a strange thing for him to pick up on when all the cop side of him really wanted was to know who she was and why in hell she was caught in the middle of this love-fest in the first place.
"Let's move you over here, down around the corner. You'll be safer there."
She was pliant beneath his hands as he led her toward the car. She didn't say a word, only glanced up and blinked. The gratitude in her eyes he expected, but the flash he found there, well, that he certainly didn't.
It wasn't so much a spark directed toward him, but more a flare of passion. Determination. Strength.
And why the hell did he like that so much? He didn't know her, and she definitely wasn't the first woman he'd ever helped out of a serious jam, but the fire he saw there....
Whoa, okay. Damn it. Time to regroup. But he couldn't. She'd all but sucker-punched him. All the air had somehow left his lungs, and he had to struggle for each breath. He couldn't even blame it on adrenaline. Nope, every bit of that rush in his veins was about her.
Ian running up behind, breathing even harder, forced him back to the task at hand, which he supposed was a good thing, even as he attempted to breathe the scent of summer flowers a little deeper into his already ravaged lungs.
He pierced Ian with an incredulous stare. "What do you mean, gone?" Instinct took over, and Wes tightened his grip around the woman. The heat of her uneven breaths blew over the neckline of his bulletproof vest. Warm, moist air brushed along his skin, and when he glanced down at her, an itch raced up his spine.
"Gone. They all took off as soon as they heard the sirens."
Wes stilled for a heartbeat. Damn, he hadn't even noticed the gunfire had ceased. He grudgingly released the mystery woman and helped settle her in the back of the waiting squad car. "Are you okay for a minute?"
She looked from Ian back to him and nodded.
He gently smiled and said, "Good. I'm just going right over here. Give me two minutes." He stepped away with Ian, less than ten feet away, but kept her in his line of sight the entire time. "Which way did they go?"
Ian shrugged. "Every way. They'll be spread out all over town in less than ten minutes, guaranteed. A couple of our guys are headed inside the building now to see what's left, but if I were a betting man, I'd have to say there won't be much."
Dean caught up with them beside the squad car. He clasped Wes's hand and pulled him in for a one-slap, macho man-hug. When he released him, Dean quirked his lip. "Hey, pinhead. What the hell happened here?"
Wes ran a hand through his hair and ignored the nickname. "Simple stake-out turned to shit in a split second. They had us nailed down, but the sirens must've spooked them. Ian said the bastards took off."
Dean said, "Yeah, they scattered like the rodents they are."
Ian spoke up. "And Wes, DeSilva was among those that got away."
"Fucking hell." All that and the slimy bastard still gets away?
Ian stuffed his hands in his pants pockets and widened his stance. "Right when these guys got closer"--he inclined his head toward Dean--"I spotted four of his men surrounding him when he booked from the building. I knew it was him, even in the dark. Shit, I'd know that slimy son of a bitch anywhere. He and one other guy took off in an old El Camino. He was all hunched over, holding something flat and dark close to his chest." A familiar cocky grin spread across his partners face. "I got a couple rounds off before they sped away. I might've nailed him, but again, I can't be certain."
"Well, that's something at least." But it wasn't enough. Romero DeSilva would pay for all he'd done, and he'd do it with his life--literally or figuratively--Wes would make sure of that. "We'll put out an APB and alert the hospitals, tell them to keep an eye out for a possible gunshot victim. Not that Romero would go to an ER. More than likely he's got some doc on his payroll, but it can't hurt."
Dean lifted his chin to the squad behind them. "Hey, who's your friend there?"
Wes glanced back to the car and another punch of heat he really couldn't put a name to blasted his gut. "Not sure. I was just about to find out."
His brother held out a leading hand. "By all means, then. Don't let me stop you. I've got to rally my boys anyway." Dean slapped him on the shoulder. "Nice save, bro. I'll catch ya later. Oh, and hey, don't forget that Zoe's counting on you to come to dinner later this week before we leave for the fishing trip."
Wes nodded. "I won't forget." Okay, he liked to see his big brother happy with his new wife. But this was neither the time nor the place to reflect on such sappy mush, so he pushed the sentiment aside and instead focused on the woman in the back of the squad car.
The woman who had his heart racing as fast as a stock car at Talladega.
As Dean headed off, Wes stepped toward the cruiser and squatted next to the open back door. She sat huddled inside with her arms wrapped around her midriff, still shaking like a leaf, but at least her breathing had calmed some. "Miss?"
When she lifted her eyes to him, he portrayed a sense of calm he still didn't quite feel. "I'm Detective Wes Lucas. Can you tell me your name?"
She didn't answer, only flinched when he shifted closer.
"Easy now, darling'. Take it easy. You're safe now."
A huff blew from her full lips.
"Are you hurt?" Out of the corner of his eye, Wes saw Ian appear and lean a hip against the rear fender of the car.
The woman shook her head. The action made a lock of dark, curly hair fall over wary, equally dark eyes. She surprised him with an answer. "Just a little banged up, but I'm okay."
"Do you need to go to the hospital?"
Her head rose, and she glared at him before pushing the lock of curls off her forehead. "No. I said I'm okay. I just want to go home. Can I go home now?"
"Not quite yet, Miss--?"
She took a deep, resolved breath. "Jacobs. Carli Jacobs."
He gazed into the depths of her tobacco eyes, and intrigue, along with a new emotion he didn't quite understand, poked at the back of his mind. "Want to tell me what you were doing here tonight, Ms. Jacobs?"
She straightened in the seat and stared at him. Irritation lit her eyes with a haunting chocolate glow. "Not particularly, detective. How about you? Want to tell me what was going on?"
The change in her demeanor popped up so suddenly that the annoyance in her voice and the switch in her posture caught him a bit off guard. She was hell-fire and sexy as sin, but her tone riled him nonetheless. She'd gone from compliant to pissed in the span of two seconds, and he just couldn't let that slide, no matter what she was doing to him or his libido. "Apparently, Ms. Jacobs, I was risking my life to save that pretty little ass of yours. So maybe you can tell me why you felt you had to get in the middle here?"
"You know," Ian said, shoving off the car and intervening, "I think we've gone about as far here as we should. Why don't we meet up at the station? We can all use a bit of a breather. Hell, I know I can. Then we'll settle in and get to the bottom of this."
When Wes didn't move out of the way, Ian stepped a foot closer to Ms. Jacobs, crossed his arms over his chest, and raised his eyebrows in a challenge. Okay, Wes would admit he should've held his tongue, but what the fuck was this protective show about? What did Ian think he'd do?
Christ, maybe he was too pumped up after all. He stood and backed off, even though his quick temper toward both of them was still set at a low boil. "Sure. Fine, you got it. The station." He spun and headed toward their car, but stopped before he reached it to glance back.
Ah, hell. He should apologize to the lady, he really should. What he'd said was unprofessional, not to mention offensive. But just as he started back to the car like a little puppy with his tail between his legs, a paramedic arrived to check her out and tend to her injuries, shoving Ian out of the way. Ian leaned into the squad car and spoke to Ms. Jacobs and the officer before sauntering over to Wes with a bemused grin.
"What?" Ian asked, all innocent.
"What the fuck did you just say to her?"
"Nothing much. I just told her you weren't usually such an asshole."
"Yeah, you know. Played up the whole adrenaline rush thing. Told her you hadn't come down yet. Didn't know what you were saying."
Wes gave him a sideways glower as they headed to their car. Yeah, he was feeling the adrenaline all right. Every last bit of it. But the cause? Well, that was up for debate. "I wasn't rude. I simply wanted answers. Wanted to know if she saw anything."
Ian opened the driver's side door. Over the top of the car, he said, "And we'll find out. But not until she's calmed down some. Damn it, Wes, this is one case we can't afford to fuck up. You know that. Keep that famous temper of yours in check, man."
"Yeah. In check," Wes repeated and climbed in the passenger side. "Shit." He dragged a hand down his face. "She's just... The way she looked and then how she... You know what? Fine. What-the-fuck-ever. Sorry."
Ian closed his door and started the car. On a chuckle, he said, "Hey, don't apologize to me, Wes. Tell it to the sweet little brunette you've got the hard-on for. She's the one that's got you all riled up."
Wes concentrated on peeling his fingers out of a clenched fist instead of using said fist to punch a hole in the windshield. Or better yet, into Ian's face. "What the hell are you talking about?"
Ian pulled away and headed toward the station, steering around the commotion created by the SWAT team and the investigating officers, smiling that fucked-up devilish smile he had. "I've known you, what? Ten years now? With all the shit we've been through together, you think I can't tell when you want someone? Please. You may not know it yet, Detective Lucas, but you got it bad." Another deep chuckle. "Oh, man, you have it so bad."
Carli slumped against the back seat in the police car, a fist pressed into the enormous pit in the center of her stomach. What the hell had she been thinking? As soon as she saw the first gun, she knew it was over, that she was having one of those proverbial life-flashing-before-your-eyes experiences. Even then, all she could think about was that death wouldn't be the worst that would happen if she failed.
She eased her free hand into the pocket of her denim jacket and fingered the small plastic flash drive she'd hidden inside. Still there, thank you, God. She'd risked life and limb for this damn memory stick.
When the shots first started, she assumed DeSilva's men had cornered a rival, or more likely, one of his many enemies. Lord knew he had enough of them, herself included. Attacks on Romero's crew were becoming more and more commonplace, and there'd even been a few hits on his headquarters. So when the G.I.-Joe-wannabe charged into the street and grabbed her, she figured she was about to be used as a pawn in some twisted game between him and Romero.
But a cop? A detective, no less? She didn't know if she should be happy, or leery as hell. He certainly wasn't what she expected. Then again, the whole frigging night wasn't what she expected.
Still shaky, she pulled the jacket tight around her and stared mindlessly out the car window at the city's buildings as they sped by. She supposed she owed the detective a bit of gratitude. When Romero's right-hand-man received a report from one of his lieutenants that two men had been sitting in a car down the street for three hours straight, the resulting uproar provided just enough distraction for her to take the thumb-drive from DeSilva's computer. But then the he-men had to start shooting at each other. That was when she'd panicked.
She'd yanked the stick from the laptop, stuffed it inside her pocket and took off for the door. Having what she'd worked so hard for, she knew she had a better chance of living if she entered the melee outside than if she stayed where Romero could possibly catch her with his precious information. Oh, God--if he ever even suspected her.... Fear lanced the cold ball of steel already in her stomach at the prospect.
The sway from crossing the uneven pavement when the officer pulled into the police station parking lot brought her out of the mind-numbing stupor. After parking, he circled the car to open the rear door. When she climbed out and eyed the young rookie, she took note of the serious strain painted on his face. "What exactly am I being held for?" she prodded.
When the officer squared his shoulders and puffed out his chest, she wanted to scream at all his ridiculous posturing. Lord, she really didn't have time for this.
"Detective Gray said to bring you here. I'm sure he'll inform you of more once he arrives."
Yeah. Great. She let the officer direct her inside, fully expecting to be searched and handcuffed. Instead, he showed her to a dimly lit room and indicated one of the two worn chairs on either side of a scratched up, dirty metal table. "Have a seat. The detectives will be with you shortly." He shuffled out of the sparse room and closed the door.
The snick of the lock made the ever-present ball in her stomach tighten even further. And damn it if "shortly" didn't turn out to be well over an hour.
An interminably long hour.
Even though the paramedic had cleaned her scrapes, her knees still burned with a fiery sting. And, to make matters worse, she really needed to go to the bathroom. Her earlier fear had turned to worry and was quickly morphing into bitter anger. She'd done little else but flip-flop between the last two emotions for the better part of the past half hour. Pounding on the door didn't do anything. Pacing only made her angrier.
Finally--thank the Lord--the lock tumbled and the door swung open.
The detective who'd pulled her out of the street earlier waltzed in as if he didn't have a care in the world. Wes Lucas. Yeah, that was his name. In a snug black t-shirt that hugged his broad chest, well-worn jeans and dark shit-kicker boots, he sure had the menacing look down pat. Throw in the packed shoulder holster and she knew she was supposed to be downright scared.
She so wasn't.
It'd take a hell of a lot more than a hulking body and a steely glare to get her to quake in her boots anymore.
"Ms. Jacobs." He drew out her name with the slightest hint of a southern drawl that did more to her insides than it should. He sauntered farther into the room, and the man who'd apologized earlier when she sat in the squad car followed after him.
The two couldn't appear more different if they tried. While the one who saved her from the street had a mysterious, ominous quality about him that only complemented his dark hair and olive skin, the other had a fairer complexion, with blond hair and light eyes. Both of them, however, were as powerful as armored trucks.
Detective Lucas brooded in the chair across from her while the other man leaned against the wall with his ankles crossed, casual as could be. He reached behind her and shut the door with a thick muscled arm.
"Why am I being held?" she snapped. Far be it from her to try and control her resentment at this point.
"We're not holding you. We'd just like to ask a few questions."
"Uh-huh. I've been locked in here for over an hour, Detective. I consider that being held."
He glanced at his partner with a slight grin at the edge of his lips.
"Why is that funny?" Their private little joke stoked her ire even further.
His gaze returned to hers, more serious now. "It's not. I apologize. It seems the young officer was somewhat overzealous when he executed Detective Gray's earlier instructions."
The man against the wall, obviously Detective Gray, spoke. "I told him to keep an eye on you, to make you comfortable. Not for him to put you in a holding room. Sorry about that."
His sincerity was completely lost on her. She pushed an unruly lock of hair out of her eyes and searched the men's stoic expressions in turn. Nothing good could come from this much testosterone crowded into such a small space. The buzz they both gave off made her pulse rocket into an erratic rhythm. Yep, it was way past time for her to get the hell out of here. What she needed was a clear mind and a little space to consider all her options. No way would she get that with these two around. "Can I leave?"
Lucas shrugged a massive shoulder. "Sure you can." Arms even thicker than Detective Gray's splayed across the tiny table before he closed in and speared her with an icy stare. "As soon as we have some answers. And assuming, of course, that those answers satisfy us."
She held her own and kept--she hoped--an impassive expression on her face.
The detective leaned back in his chair and steepled his fingers under his chin. "You were witness tonight to a gangland-style shooting spree. But, aside from that, what I'd really like to know is why you were in the middle of it all in the first place. What were you doing running away from the same building that housed Romero DeSilva?"
The mention of that abhorrent name sent a mixture of fury and pain through her, along with a sudden sense of impending doom.
Another rush of weariness dragged her further down. For months now she'd been playing the part, acting out in a world she didn't belong, all in the name of vengeance. Settling the score. It was the only thing she thought about anymore, the lone force that drove her.
But in addition to the deceit that playing the part forced her to create and all those repugnant secrets she'd been keeping for the last three months, could she add lying to the police to her repertoire of distasteful acts, too?
The answer, aided by her exhaustion, came easily enough.
God, she didn't want to keep up this deception any longer. Could this be her chance to spill her guts and end it all? Okay, moment-of-truth time. Should I tell them everything or not?
She struggled with the decision, but only for a second. All she'd done--everything she'd lost--came down to what she would say right now. It didn't matter anymore how much trouble she could possibly get into. The important thing now was to tell the truth, to turn over the evidence and get DeSilva off the streets for good. Then it would only be a matter of excising herself from the hate and corruption of the last three months and moving forward into a brand new, easier life, one that didn't have Romero DeSilva or death involved in it.
Oh yeah, piece of frigging cake.
Carli sagged against the worn vinyl of her chair with her hand in her pocket and the flash drive held tight within her fist. She stared deep into the detective's ocean-blue eyes as the facade she'd kept in place for so long began to crumble around her. "What exactly is it you want to know?"