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PROLOGUE

 

 

“Bye, Mr. Ramey.” Dulce Ramirez waved at the school crossing guard as she skipped by him. She’d turned six at her birthday party last weekend and was allowed to walk home by herself now. Her papi said it was okay since their house was right across the street from the school and her mami could keep an eye on her from the front porch.

She hopped up onto the curb with both feet and looked at her house, ready to show her mami the cool picture she drew, but no one was there. Maybe she forgot Dulce got out of school early today. There was an open house and all the teachers wanted time to make their rooms nice and clean and pretty before all the moms and dads got there.

“Where’s your mom?” Mary, her best friend, walked next to her rolling her princess bag behind her.

“I dunno.” Dulce shrugged and the strap from her backpack slid off her shoulder. “Prob’ly inside cleaning the house … again.”

They giggled and laughed because everyone in their little neighborhood knew how picky Lorena Ramirez was about keeping a clean house. Her mami once said it was because, as a little girl, she lived with her six brothers and sisters in a rundown apartment building in a dangerous part of town. She’d promised herself that if she ever owned her own house, she’d take great care of it.

“See you tomorrow.” Mary waved and started down the sidewalk toward her house, the gray one on the corner. Her dad worked at nighttime, so he always watched her from their big covered porch with a giant cup of coffee in his hand.

“Okay, and don’t forget to practice your new Spanish words,” Dulce called out. Her mami and papi spoke Spanish a lot and she was teaching her friend how to speak Spanish, too.

She walked up the little cement path leading to the front door and stopped to pluck a puffy dandelion from the grass. Dulce lifted the plant to her mouth, drew in a deep breath, and blew until all the little whispies were floating on the breeze.

“Yes!” She pumped her fist—it was the first time she blew them all off in one breath.

She smiled, tossed aside the stem, and headed toward the steps. At the bottom one, she heard loud music playing inside. That’s weird, her mami never liked it when people played their music really loud. Dulce wrapped her hand around the doorknob, started to turn it, and stopped when she heard a man’s voice.

“¿A dónde crees que vas?” Where do you think you are going? That was not her papi’s voice.

There was a crash and Dulce snatched her hand from the knob and stepped back. Her heart raced and the cluster of keychains clipped to her backpack jingled and rattled as she ran down the steps and around to the back. She caught her breath and looked around for something to stand on so she could see better.

Her mom’s gardening cart had wheels so she maneuvered it beneath the window and climbed up onto it. Standing on her very tippy, tippy toes, she was just barely able to look through the kitchen window, but couldn’t see anything. She jumped down and set her backpack on the grass, then took the three steps up to the kitchen door. Slowly, she swung it open and left it that way.

Something in the crockpot smelled yummy and made her mouth water and her tummy growl. Dulce ignored it and crept across the new tile floor her papi had installed right before her birthday. She ducked behind the cabinet, tilted sideways for a tiny peek into the front room, and her mouth dropped open at what she saw.

Her mami’s neat and tidy house had been wrecked. White fluffy stuff stuck out of the couch cushions, the coffee table was tipped over, and all of Dulce’s books were dumped off the shelf. The front of the big TV—the glass part—was cracked into a gazillion pieces. Seeing her mami’s collection of angels smashed and crunched into the carpet made her sad. They both loved looking at them and making up stories about them.

Her mami was on the floor and her face was bleeding right by her eye and her mouth.

Two men stood over her with big, black guns in their hands. One was also holding the fancy, silver frame with Dulce’s school picture in it.

Music blared but she heard her mom say, “Cabrón, vas a tener que matarme, porgue nunca dejaré que te la lleves. Bastardo.” You’re going to have to kill me because I will never let you take her. Bastardo. Her mami sounded mean, and even though Dulce didn’t know what that word meant, she knew it wasn’t nice.

The man holding her picture threw it like a frisbee and it hit the wall really hard. The glass shattered all over and the frame left a dent before it dropped to the floor.

Dulce flinched and bit her bottom lip to keep from crying. Were they looking for her? Something really bad was happening and she wanted to help her mami, but the mean men were too big and they had scary guns. What should she do?

Mary’s papi, he can help!

Dulce tried to move, but she was frozen in place—afraid to leave and afraid to stay.

“Funciona para mi.” Works for me. The man pointed the gun at her mami’s head and BOOM!

Sparks sprayed out of the front of the gun and Dulce’s whole body jumped.

Lorena Ramirez’s head rolled to the side and her wide-open, lifeless eyes stared right at her daughter. Blood trickled from a small hole in the middle of her forehead.

Dulce clapped a hand over her mouth to keep from screaming and a high-pitched ringing started in her ears. Her vision sheeted white then narrowed to a pinpoint, and she began to sway. The sound of the men yelling at each other pierced through the foggy feeling settling in her head and she gave it a quick shake.

Her only thoughts were run, hide. Without looking back at her mami, she hopped up, darted across the kitchen, and out the back door. She stood in the backyard and looked around, not knowing what to do or where to go. Dulce started to reach for her backpack when a crashing sound came from inside. The sound kicked her into gear and she left it behind. She dashed around to the front of the house, headed straight for the crosswalk, and weaved her way through a flood of kids rushing toward her.

Mr. Ramey shouted her name, but Dulce kept running and running to keep the bad men from finding her.

 

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Cole Lambert sensed multiple sets of eyes on him as he made his way along the dark, narrow path winding through the park. He hoped like hell that whomever it was would have the balls to make a move. It had been too long since he’d heard the snap of bone or felt the satisfying crunch of a nose beneath his fist.

He tugged his phone from his pocket and, head down, started scrolling through a random website as he walked along.

His ploy worked.

Behind him, like a herd of fucking elephants, three sets of footsteps joined his own. Their appalling lack of stealth spoke to their misplaced confidence.

He settled his mind, blew out a slow breath, and relished the thought of showing them the error of their ways.

Three steps later, the air shifted behind him, he ducked forward, and a baseball bat whizzed past his head with a low whoosh. He reached up, wrapped his long fingers around the metal, and with a quick twist of his wrist, jerked it from the asshole’s hand. Lightning quick, he kicked out, and his size fifteen boot connected with the guy’s kneecap.

There was a resounding crack as the smallest of the three dipshit’s leg bent in a way it wasn’t designed to. The idiot yowled and collapsed to the ground, writhing in pain as he cradled his fucked-up knee.

“You missed.” Cole turned to his buddies, cricked his head side to side, and allowed a slow smile to creep across his face.

The one people feared.

“Who’s next?”

Bat in hand, his arms hung loosely at his side. He was almost a foot taller than the remaining two and had years more experience with maiming and killing. Yet, these two rocket scientists decided to showcase their stupidity by spreading out around him. Guess they felt pretty confident about their two-on-one odds.

They side-eyed each other and nodded. The bush-league action telegraphed their next move. Sure enough, they charged at him.

The guy with bad skin lifted a chain overhead, circled it around like he was getting ready to lasso a horse, and swung it at Cole. He raised the bat and the chain twisted around it. He gave the bat a powerful yank and the guy stumbled closer. Cole drew back his fist and punched the knucklehead square in the center of his face.

His body whirled sideways and blood sprayed from his battered nose. Cole planted his boot against the guy’s ass and pushed him into the third guy. Their legs got tangled up and they both tumbled to the ground in a heap.

“You broke my nose.” Bad skin guy’s words were muffled behind his hands.

The third guy scrambled to his feet. He flicked open a butterfly knife and tossed it from hand to hand. “Let’s go, asshole.”

Cole couldn’t help himself, he laughed. “You sure you wanna do this?”

“I’m sure, motherfucker.” He tried showing off by flipping the knife closed and open, closed and open.

“Okay.” Cole tossed the bat away—he wouldn’t need it.

The stupid ass lunged and jabbed with the knife.

Cole batted his hand away and the knife flew into the bushes. He hauled back his arm and slapped the societal reject across the face with a resounding smack. The guy put his hand on his cheek and stared at him in shock. Cole took advantage. He drove his shoulder into his gut like a tackling dummy, lifted him off his feet, then slammed him down onto the ground by his buddies. Nimrod’s head bounced on the gravel like a coconut, his eyes rolled back in his head, and out he went.

Cole retrieved the bat and squatted next to the three of them.

“Here’s what’s going to happen.” He directed his comments to the two who were still conscious. “You’re going to scoop up your buddy over there and the three of you are going to leave this park and never come back.” He poked the first guy—the one with the fucked-up knee—in the shoulder with the end of the bat. “You listening?”

“Yeah.” He nodded and grimaced.

This was an affluent part of Georgetown populated by professors, politicians, diplomats, and people whose descendants could be traced back to the fucking Mayflower. These three thugs were definitely not from around these parts.

“If you come back here, I’ll know it, and you’ll be seeing me again.”

A total bluff.

Cole was only here because he had a meeting with his boss, Jeffrey Burke. He’d wanted to discuss options for his future with the powerful head of the National Security Agency. He wasn’t ready to make a change yet, but he was getting closer.

“Are we clear?” He stood and glared down at them.

“Yeah.” The guy with the jacked-up knee looked at the bat as if expecting to get it back.

“Not happening.” Cole casually rested it on his shoulder.

The guy with the broken nose spit blood, crawled over and shook his buddy awake, then helped him to his feet. Between the two of them, they managed to get the dude with the busted knee up on one leg. They each ducked a shoulder beneath one of his arms and hobbled away.

Cole followed at a distance, keeping an eye on them as they made their way over the footbridge spanning the C&O Canal. They got to the sidewalk, turned, and headed down the street.

The entire confrontation was over in less than five minutes and left him frustrated and edgy, with a need to relieve the tension causing his skin to itch.

Across the narrow, uneven brick street, he saw a sign for a bar named The King George.

A drink might help.

He walked over the footbridge and watched the three knuckleheads get into an old sedan and speed off. Cole dropped the bat into one of the city’s decorative garbage cans and headed across the street.

The bar was on the main floor of a five-story, white clapboard-sided building with a bronze plaque on the wall designating it as a historic site. The plaques were a familiar sight in Georgetown. The sign overhead reflected off the set of tall, paned windows on either side of the entrance.

He grabbed the patinaed brass handle and pulled open the heavy wooden door to step inside. The place was similar to any other neighborhood joint, minus the stench of stale cigarettes and drunks falling off barstools. It had been around a while, but there was a pride of ownership in the way things had been maintained.

A football game blared from a television mounted high on the wall behind a solid-looking bar that had probably been there since before Prohibition. The bartender and two old men perched side by side on stools looked over to see who’d entered.

All three of them did a double-take. The skinnier old guy’s dark beer hovered just in front of his mouth. His buddy froze with his fingers in a bowl of peanuts. Their reaction was nothing new to Cole.

He tipped his chin up at them then took in the narrow, deep room.

The bar itself was about thirty feet long and ran along the left wall with pendant lights shining down on it every five feet or so. Sturdy-looking, wooden shelves covered with every kind of liquor imaginable rose all the way to the ceiling. One of those rolling ladders you’d see in libraries or bookstores had been secured at one end. Eight tables lined the right wall with a two-sided booth tucked in the back corner. Each had its own light like those hovering over the bar. On the wall next to each table was a different grouping of framed black and white photos—old buildings around Georgetown, national monuments, cars from different eras dating back as far as the twenties, and old farm equipment.

Four people sat at the table nearest the front window, three at the fourth, and a party of five sat at the sixth table. A total of seven women and five men. One person sat in the booth, but from where he stood, he only got random glimpses of their right elbow.

Somewhere in the back, balls clattered together on a pool table followed by shit-talk and laughing that tumbled into the main space.

Cole walked past the three men gaping at him from the bar and headed deeper into the building. He stopped at the sight of a beautiful brunette sitting in the corner booth.

She wore black slacks with a long-sleeved, peach button-down blouse made of some kind of soft-looking fabric that highlighted her narrow shoulders. The only jewelry she had on was a delicate chain around her neck, a pair of small hoop earrings, and a simple gold band on the middle finger of her right hand. The jewelry glowed against her warm, golden skin.

The large tote on the padded bench next to her was from a high-end designer whose logo he recognized. The red soles of her black, very high, spiked pumps stood out beneath the table.

She sat cross-legged on the padded bench with an electronic tablet, some papers, and rows of photos spread across the table. She tossed back the small amount of brown liquid in her glass, held it aloft, and, without looking up from her work, called out to the bartender. “Manny.”

“You got it, Jazz.” He grabbed a fresh glass, turned, and reached for a bottle of Woodford Reserve bourbon whiskey.

A regular, he thought. And she’s got damn good taste in whiskey. Maybe she lives in the neighborhood. Considering his encounter in the park, he wasn’t keen on the idea of her being out and about on her own.

She plunked her elbow on the table and rubbed her eyes with her thumb and index finger. As if sensing him watching her, she lowered her hand, and slowly lifted her chin until her gaze met his. One perfectly arched brow slowly rose in challenge then she crossed her arms and gave him a sort of what-the-hell-are-you-staring-at kind of look. She was a ballsy little thing; he’d give her that much. Most people shied away from him. And rightly so.

Cole got a nice long look at her eyes and they were amazing. Big, soft brown—like the color of cocoa—with a slight slant upward at the corners, and rimmed with long, dark lashes.

A zing of excitement zapped from his balls to his dick and he wondered if she might be the answer to the twitchiness he’d been feeling lately. Nothing long-term—he wasn’t that guy—but he could definitely visualize spending a night tangling up the sheets with her.

“I’ll take a Woodford neat, and put the lady’s drink on my tab,” he said, as their gazes remained locked.

Manny looked at her for confirmation and she didn’t respond right away.

Cole was surprised by how much he anticipated her answer and how thrilled he was when she finally nodded at the bartender.

He tossed a twenty and a ten on the bar. “Keep the change.”

Manny looked at her, then back at Cole and shot him an I’m-watching-you glare before picking up the bills and shoving them into the register.

“May I?” Cole moved up next to her table, hoping with the intensity of a thousand burning suns that she would invite him to join her.

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