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Authors: Mandy Baxter

At Any Cost

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AT ANY
COST
Mandy Baxter
ZEBRA BOOKS
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.
http://www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Chapter One
“What in the hell am I going to do with you, Brady?”
Deputy U.S. Marshal Nick Brady worked his jaw as he stared at his chief deputy, Doug Metcalf. Not even three months on the job and already he was being reprimanded. A new record. It had taken his SWAT captain a full year before he'd put Nick's ass in a sling. Obviously he was getting better at pissing off his superior officers.
“Well?” Oh, he was actually looking for an answer? Metcalf passed his hand over what was left of his hair and fixed Nick with a stern eye.
“I suppose you could say, keep up the good work, Brady. Keep taking those fuckers down.”
Metcalf snorted. “You'd like that, wouldn't you? Hooking and hauling is what you're supposed to be doing for the next six months. Warrants are off-limits until your probation is over. You've had that badge for all of sixty days and you already think you're some sort of badass fugitive hunter. Shit.” The chief looked away, disgusted. “You're lucky your brains haven't been splattered all over some poor son of a bitch's wall by now!”
It wasn't for lack of trying. Nick had joined the USMS for one reason and one reason only: fugitive recovery. Hooking and hauling—babysitting sorry bastards as he transported them to and from court and trying to stay awake while their lawyers attempted to save their law-breaking asses—wasn't what he'd had in mind when he applied for the job. Six months of courts duty would be the death of him, so he did what any ambitious cop would do, he went out and found the action on his own.
“I'm working courts now. So what does it matter what I do with my free time?”
“Yeah,
now
. You were working with the warrants squad for a damned month before anyone realized you weren't with that division! I'll give it to you, Brady, you know how to work the system. How in the hell did you make it past the entrance interviews?” Metcalf asked with disbelief. “You're a smart-assed, insubordinate pain in my ass. I'm starting to think that SWAT gave you a glowing recommendation because they wanted to get rid of you.”
Nick had earned every word of that glowing recommendation. He was a
stellar
cop. That's not to say that his coworkers weren't anxious to see him go. They didn't buy into Nick's Wild West mentality. The way he saw it, the only way to catch a criminal was to step a toe over the line that separated him from them. If that meant bending a rule or two, so be it. And if it resulted in one less murdering son of a bitch on the street, even better. Which was why he'd snuck into warrants his first day on the job, rather than reporting to courts like he was supposed to. He didn't want to escort criminals who'd already been caught. He wanted to do the catching.
Man hunters.
That's what they called the marshals on the warrants squads. They were relentless. Like dogs after a bone, they hunted down the most violent and notorious criminals in the U.S.—hell, the
world
. They kicked down doors knowing that once they walked inside a room, they might not ever walk out. And they did it to make the world a better place. To protect innocent people from evil bastards who wanted nothing more than to do harm. Those men were the reason Nick joined the USMS, and they were the reason he wouldn't ever be satisfied playing babysitter to some piece of shit while he had his day in court.
“There's not a man in this district who wants to work with you right now.” Nick had never been much of a team player, but that stung. “You're stubborn, cranky, and goddamned bossy. You need to remember something right now: You're the new guy. You don't pay your dues just like every other man out there”—Metcalf stabbed a finger toward the cubicles beyond his door—“not a damned one of them is going to respect you no matter how many fugitives you haul in. This is a brotherhood, Nick. Believe me, you're going to need them as much as they need you.”
Nick wasn't opposed to paying his dues. He simply wanted to pay them out in the field. He got brotherhood. It came with the badge. He wasn't trying to alienate anyone. He needed the opportunity to prove himself. “I've made five arrests in two months. That has to count for something.”
“Case files that you stole from other deputies' desks.”
Okay, so that probably didn't do much for him in the brotherhood department. “I
borrowed
them,” Nick stressed. “Put them right back where I found them and even filed the paperwork when I was done.”
“Well,” Metcalf said dryly. “Wasn't that big of you?”
Nick slumped back in his chair. “Why am I being penalized for doing what we're trained for? Isn't it better for everybody if there's one less bad guy on the streets?”
The chief deputy sighed. “Jesus Christ, Brady. Do you always gotta swim upstream?”
Yeah, he guessed he did. Especially if it was the only way to get shit done. “Warrants are what I want to do. But since I've been reassigned to courts, I haven't missed a day.”
Metcalf rested his forehead in his palm. “True, you haven't. But every night, weekend, and hour you're not on shift, you're out hunting fugitives. Nick, you've got to slow down. You're going to burn out and you're not going to be any good to anyone. You put your life in those men's hands and they put theirs in yours. If they can't trust you, they won't work with you. You won't last a year here.”
“Fine.” Nick let out a gust of breath and raked his fingers through his hair. “What do you want me to do?”
“I want you to take a month off.” Nick sat up straight and opened his mouth to protest, but Metcalf cut him off. “This isn't negotiable. Take a month, think about this job, why you want it, and what it's going to take to be successful at it.
Then
, when you come back, you show up when you're supposed to, do your six months of court duty, without any after-hours fugitive hunts. If you can do that, I'll consider taking you off of probation and assigning you to a warrants squad for a full-time rotation. Deal?”
“Do I have a choice?” Nick couldn't do anything about the sourness in his tone.
The chief deputy leveled his gaze. “No. You don't.”
“I guess my ass is taking a month off, then.”
Without another word, Nick pushed himself out of the chair. This was absolute, utter bullshit. As he made his way down the hallway toward his cubicle, other deputies averted their gazes. No doubt every last one of them knew about the ass chewing he'd just endured. Perfect. His temper mounted with every step he took and it wouldn't be long before Nick lost it entirely.
A month?
Four fucking weeks of suspension—because there was no way this was a vacation—for going out there and arresting slimy bastards who ought to be in jail in the first place. Fan-fucking-tastic.
Nick threw himself down in his chair and swiveled around toward his computer screen. A file folder peeked out from the top desk drawer and he leaned back to look up the hall and down to see if anyone was watching. He pulled the file out and flipped it open to a picture of one of those slimy assholes who'd avoided a jail cell for far too long. Joel Meecum. Supposed
ex
-president of the Black Death motorcycle club and a lying, raping, murdering, gunrunning piece of shit. He'd been on the run for the past four years and hit the top of the USMS's Top 15 Most Wanted list at the beginning of the year. Nick flipped through the file at the notes he'd scribbled down. There was a promising lead in the case. One that everyone else had overlooked. A woman. A rumored ex-girlfriend to be exact. An informant had mentioned to the Oakland PD that Joel put the word out that he'd been looking for his ex, a woman by the name of Kari Hanson, and was willing to pay a healthy reward to anyone who might know where she was. The informant knew someone who knew someone who knew someone and so on, who thought Meecum's old lady was hiding out in Idaho somewhere. A small town in the mountains.
All they knew about Meecum's mysterious ex was that she had a tattoo on the inside of her right wrist. When the guys in Oakland ran her name, nothing had come up, which meant that Hanson might have been an alias. Without much to go on, the lead had gone cold. Something about it had stuck with Nick, though. Meecum never would have gone to the lengths he'd gone to find her if she was inconsequential. He was certain that Kari Hanson was the key to finding Meecum.
Nick looked over his shoulder, feeling a lot like a kid with his dad's
Playboy
. He could make the drive in about nine or ten hours. It wouldn't hurt to check out the lead. It's not like he was hunting a fugitive, per se. Just . . . the ex-old lady of a fugitive.
He opened a search engine on his computer and typed in
McCall, Idaho
. A road trip didn't sound like a bad idea. Besides, there were worse ways to spend a month off.
* * *
Livy Gallagher triple-checked the deadbolt on her front door, the locks on the windows that lined the tiny living room, and the ones beside the dining room table. She'd already checked the back door, kitchen windows, and upstairs windows. This had been her nightly routine for almost four full years. One thousand, three hundred and seventy days of checking, double-checking, and triple-checking every lock in the house before she went to bed.
When she did the math, it seemed so much more depressing. She went to sleep every night afraid. Woke up every morning afraid. Went to work, put in her eight hours, drove home, and the entire time, she looked over her shoulder. She'd been running scared for so long, she couldn't remember what it felt like to not be afraid.
With a long sigh she stared through the old warped glass of the antique windows at the snow falling gently outside. A chill danced over her skin, reminding Livy that she'd better rekindle the fire before she went upstairs or she'd be huddled under the electric blanket before midnight. The old house was quaint, in a this-is-where-Norman Bates-lives sort of way. She snorted. Okay, maybe it wasn't that bad, but it didn't scream
welcome
! It had been built around 1912 and along with the modest cabin next door, was one of few remaining houses on Payette Lake that hadn't been mowed down and replaced with a six-plus-million dollar “cabin” that the owners stayed in maybe once or twice a year. Either way, she'd scored with this old place because it fit her needs to a T. Out of the way and cheap. But it didn't exactly sport the type of modern insulation that retained heat or was even marginally energy efficient. And since there was a snowball's chance in hell that she'd ever have a man to keep her warm in bed, she left it up to her furry tabby cat and electric blanket to get the job done.
Livy let out a groan. She was living the life of a ninety-year-old woman. If not for the athleticism necessary for her winter job, she would have been convinced she was a twenty-five-year-old nonogenar-ian. She should have been living her life, damn it! Partying, club hopping, sleeping around and making shitty decisions that she'd regret well into her thirties. She should have fallen in love at least three times by now and had her heart broken at least twice. Instead, she was afraid of her own shadow, only talked to people when it was absolutely necessary, and stuck to routines that made people with OCD seem chill.
Livy missed
life
! She hadn't lived in a long damned time and it wasn't fair. She couldn't even remember what it felt like to be carefree. “Shit on a stick!” Her voice carried throughout the quiet house. And now, she was talking to herself. Great.
Livy grabbed her cell from one of the end tables and turned it over in her hand. She rarely used the prepaid phone, and in a few months, she'd recycle it and buy a new one with a new number. Who knew if it would help to protect her? With technology the way it was, she doubted anyone could stay completely hidden for long. Like the phone she'd eventually trade out, she'd put this town behind her soon as well. Four years was a long time. She couldn't allow herself to put down roots.
With a sigh, Livy swiped her finger across the screen and opened the phone app. She dialed her mom's number and left the pad of her finger to hover over the send button. Snow slid from the roof with a scrape against the tin before it landed on the other side of the porch. Livy's heart leaped up into her throat and she stifled a scream. “It's just snow, you moron. Chill the hell out.” Her heart hammered against her rib cage and a burst of adrenaline caused her limbs to quake. “Way to rock that tough-girl vibe.” Talking to herself
and
freaking out over a snow slide. She was one step away from a padded room.
She cleared the call from the display. She only called her mom once every three months. Still a month to go. Frequent calls were easy to track. At least, that's what she'd learned from watching cop shows. A call every few months wouldn't be as noticeable as one every few weeks. It was safer for the both of them if she kept her distance, no matter how damned lonely she might be.
“Come on, Simon. Let's go to bed.” The large tabby gave a forlorn meow as he hopped down from the hearth. “You're such a baby,” Livy said. “I'll turn on the electric blanket.”
He swished his tail from side to side, obviously pleased. It probably would have been better to own a rottweiler or a nice, loyal pit bull. Simon didn't mind being cooped up, though. A dog—especially a large breed—would have gone stir-crazy shut up in the cabin all the time. Besides, she didn't own Simon for protection. She owned him for company. For a warm body to curl up with when she felt as though the loneliness were sucking the air from her lungs. He was a poor substitute for human companionship, but he was a sweetheart. And unlike a boyfriend, at least Simon would never leave the toilet seat up.
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