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Authors: Virna Depaul

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Deadly Charade

BOOK: Deadly Charade
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MAD, BAD AND DANGEROUS TO KNOW…

District attorney Linda Delaney never imagined she would reunite with her former lover in a courtroom. Tony Cooper has been accused of murdering a notorious drug lord. In order to distance herself, Linda assigns Tony’s case to another. But she can’t escape him….

A threat to their lives brings Linda and Tony together once more, and their passion resurfaces. Despite his feelings for Linda, Tony can’t reveal his true identity as an undercover cop. In order to bring a drug supplier to justice, he must convince Linda that he is a criminal. Will he complete the assignment…or will his mission be jeopardized by new desires and hidden enemies?

“Because I need to hear the truth. The full truth. Please, Tony. If you love me, if I ever meant anything to you, please tell me the truth now.”

Staring into her beautiful green eyes, he felt the moment it happened. He accepted the inevitable. No matter what the street said, no matter what people thought of him, Linda would never believe he had turned so completely dark. Men had threatened her life. A reporter was threatening her career. He couldn't keep her safe if he kept her ignorant.

And whatever he did, he had to keep her safe.

“Are you sure you're ready for this?” he asked, wrapping a strand of her hair around his finger.

Dear Reader,

Alpha males are some of my favorite heroes because they are strong and sexy, but most of all complex. They’re also very good at hiding their emotions and vulnerability, which makes their ultimate surrender to love so satisfying. When I first wrote about Tony Cooper in
Dangerous to Her,
I viewed him as a flawed man who, while not classically alpha, was strong enough to fight for others. In
Deadly Charade,
Tony returns to the woman he’s always loved, but he does so in shackles, charged with a violent crime. By words and action, he seems to have truly changed. As Linda discovers, however, Tony is still the same loyal, courageous and loving man he’s always been. I hope you agree that getting him to admit that, to both himself and Linda, makes for lots of sexy fun.

Wishing you much love and happiness always,

Virna DePaul

Virna DePaul

Deadly Charade

Books by Virna DePaul

Harlequin Romantic Suspense

Dangerous to Her
#1674
It Started That Night
#1706
Deadly Charade
#174

HQN Books

Shades of Desire
Shades of
Temptation

VIRNA DEPAUL

was an English major in college and, despite a passion for
Shakespeare, Broadway musicals and romance novels, somehow ended up with a law
degree. For ten years, she was a criminal prosecutor for the state of
California. Now she’s thrilled to be writing stories about complex individuals
(fully human or not) who are willing to overcome incredible odds for love. She
can be found on Twitter at
@virnadepaul
or at
www.virnadepaul.com
.

For Cyndi, Rochelle and Susan for rooming with me and still thinking I'm fun even when I'm
on
deadline!

Acknowledgment

Thank you to Rochelle French, Grace Callaway, Vanessa Kier, Karin Tabke, Joyce Lamb, Cyndi Faria, Susan Hatler, Kristin Miller and Sacramento Sheriff's Deputy Paul B., for your help with this one.

Prologue

L
inda Delaney woke feeling optimistic about life and love. Even so, the comforting haze of sleep beckoned to her. She pushed it aside, longing for her lover's embrace. Nothing felt as good as being in his arms.

She shifted, intending to burrow closer to Tony under the warm, protective haven of the sheets, but only coldness greeted her. With it came an immediate sense of panic. Dread.

Her eyes popped open and she sat up, alone in her bed. A quick glance at the clock confirmed it was the middle of the night, not even three o'clock. The bedroom door was slightly ajar, allowing tendrils of the illuminated hallway light to sneak inside, much the same way she imagined Tony had snuck out of bed, cautious not to wake her.

For a moment she closed her eyes and fought it off. The suspicion. The feeling of betrayal. The knowledge of what she had to do. But it was no use.

Tony could be watching television. He could be reading. He could be doing a multitude of things, each of them perfectly respectable and ordinary, but deep down she knew he'd snuck away for a more nefarious purpose. To get in touch with his supplier. To exchange money for the painkillers that would take away the man she loved and replace him with a stranger.

According to Tony, the last time he'd used had been a year before they'd ever met. She'd chosen to believe him, but a small part of her had always suspected he wasn't telling the truth. Or that even if he was, it wouldn't last.

And she'd been right.

God, she wished he wasn't using again. But she knew better. She'd seen the signs of his relapse—his restlessness, the sleepless nights, his increasing agitation—but had simply chosen to ignore them. She'd prayed she was wrong. That he'd keep his promises to her in a way her father had never been able to.

She stood and went looking for him. He was in the kitchen, his elbows on the table, his head cradled in his hands, staring down at a plastic bag filled with pills. Hearing her, he looked up, his gaze tortured.

She sat in the chair beside him.

He shook his head. “I haven't taken one.”

Not yet. He didn't say it, but she heard it anyway. It was only a matter of time. He'd gotten hold of the drugs, obviously. That evidenced his intent to use them. And he would, no matter how hard he tried not to. He would.

“I know,” she said softly. She reached out and touched his arm. Desperately he pulled her toward him and she went willingly, wrapping her arms around him and cradling him close. He was shaking. His body vibrating with need—need for the drugs, she realized sadly. Not her.

His mouth sought hers and she opened it to him as automatically as she opened up her heart. Their tongues surged against one another, and she wished she could infuse him with strength, but his addiction was a dark, monstrous force. It gave him something she never could. An unnatural high. Forgetfulness. Oblivion.

And that's what hurt the most.

They were together. She loved him, more than she'd ever loved anyone. Loved him enough to have stayed with him, despite her job as a criminal prosecutor. But he wanted the drugs more than he wanted her.

Automatically she pulled away, shoring up her courage to ask him to leave.

Obviously sensing that, he pulled her back. “No, not yet,” he stated. “Stay with me. You're more important to me than these pills. You know that. Be with me. Please.”

One last time. Again, the words went unspoken. And truthfully maybe he didn't even realize that's where this was headed. But he'd inadvertently reminded her what a losing battle this was. Her father had used to say the same thing to them—her, her sister, Kathy and their mother. “You're more important to me than anything. You know that.”

In the end it had all been a lie. And that's why they'd had to cut him out of their lives.

Just like she'd have to cut Tony out of hers.

The finality of her thoughts had her panic and despair spiking, so much so that when he cupped her breast in one hand she felt nothing. Given her body's addiction to Tony's touch, that told her more than anything that it was time to let him go. But despite the seeming absence of true desire, her love for him was still there, and she couldn't walk away without telling him—no, showing him—how much she loved him. How much she'd always love him. Even if they couldn't be together.

She led him back to their bed, relieved he went without once looking back at that bag of pills. She straddled him, not wanting to dominate him, but to give to him. Even though it wasn't enough, would never be enough, the desire that had been absent just minutes ago washed over her like a tidal wave.

Her hands caressed him. The strong shoulders so gracefully padded with muscle. The defined grooves in his chest, lightly dusted with hair. The smooth curly locks that had first drawn her to him.

Their breaths grew ragged the longer she touched him, and she was aware of his hands on her hips, lightly gripping her as he arched beneath her. He was hard and she moaned at the sharp spark of pleasure that twisted through her. Frantically she reached down and guided him into her welcoming heat.

She bit her lip at how thoroughly he filled her.

Why, she longed to cry. Why couldn't this be enough for him?

But she kept the words inside. Later, they'd talk. Later, he'd seek to reassure her. To reason with her that he hadn't actually taken a pill. To tell her that he loved her and always would and would never jeopardize what they had together.

He'd mean every single word he said. And she'd be tempted to believe him, even though she couldn't.

All she could have was right now. His body in hers. Her body over his. Loving him enough for a lifetime when all they had left together was tonight.

Chapter 1

Three and a half years later...

P
itting oneself against a drug lord definitely had its downsides, Tony Cooper thought as he sat in his car in front of the Sacramento County Courthouse, watching for any sign of his ex, Linda Delaney.

The first time he’d challenged Mark Guapo, he’d still been reeling from his breakup with Linda some eighteen months before and hoping that by narking on his former drug supplier, he might be able to win her back. The downside? Six months after that, Linda had been lying in a hospital bed, recovering from the wounds that Guapo’s men had inflicted on her, and he’d been forced to leave her and accompany his sister Mattie and his niece Jordan into the Witness Security Program.

Now, eighteen months later, he was back, this time to infiltrate Guapo’s organization—which despite the other man’s prison address, had been steadily expanding—and convince people he was taking over. His main objective? Identify the supplier of a dangerous hybrid bath-salt drug, Rapture. The downside? Too many to list, but the biggest was making sure Linda stayed safe this time and that meant staying the hell away from her.

Yet here he was, hoping for just one glimpse of her. One glimpse to replace his last memory of her, beaten and bruised. One glance to get him through the next few weeks, months and years without her. Then he’d start his car and leave. No one would guess he was here to see her.

Just in case, however, he visually swept the surrounding area, just as he’d done every few minutes for the past half hour.

No one appeared to be watching him, but he knew what they’d see if they were.

What Linda would see.

Would she even recognize him? Sometimes he didn’t even recognize himself.

Every detail of his appearance had been chosen with care. Gone was the curly brown hair that had made him look boyish even when he’d been breaking the law. In its place was a shaved head that showed off his eyebrow piercing to its best advantage. The scars on his face, the ones left over from the beatings Michael Sabon, Guapo’s brother, had given him, added to the overall look, declaring him to be a badass to the nth degree.

But he didn’t feel like one.

He felt like the weakling he was. The same weakling who’d gotten addicted to prescription painkillers in the first place, ultimately losing the love of his life as a result. The same weakling Linda hadn’t trusted to refrain from using again.

To some extent she’d been wrong. Just as he’d told her, he hadn’t used since before he’d met her, which meant he’d been clean for over five years now. Even so, there had been several close calls, including the night she’d caught him with those damn pills. And there were still plenty of times he doubted his ability to stay clean. Plenty of times his behavior had been affected by his cravings. Plenty of times he felt a hair’s breath away from saying to hell with it and giving in.

That was yet another reason to stay away from Linda. Even if physical danger from others wasn’t a factor, she’d already made her decision about him. In the end, it hadn’t mattered that he’d helped send Guapo to prison. Hell, it probably wouldn’t even matter that he’d joined the police academy soon after he and Linda had broken up. Why would it? Just months away from graduating, he’d been too weak to protect Linda or his sister. Guapo’s men had beat Linda into a coma and his sister had almost died. Tony had failed everyone he loved.

Again.

Once an addict, always an addict.

And for Linda Delaney, an addict wasn’t good enough.

Tony again scanned the street.

His pulse accelerated as he finally spotted her, exiting the courthouse’s main entrance. Automatically he stiffened and pain zipped across his back and down his leg. He barely felt it past the mixed joy and longing that squeezed his heart.

As he watched, Linda sat on a bench outside the courthouse and ate a sandwich, watching the antics of a pair of squirrels warring over someone’s littered potato chips. It reminded him of the days they’d spent at the local pet store, playfully arguing about what kind of animal they’d adopt someday. He’d wanted a dog. She’d wanted a cat. She’d argued a cat would be less work. They’d ended up getting neither, and it hadn’t occurred to Tony until after they’d broken up why Linda would want an animal that was less work to care for—because Tony had been too much work for her as it was.

But that wasn’t fair, he thought, willing away the slight taste of bitterness in his mouth. Linda was a busy woman. A successful woman. Just because she hadn’t wanted to be tied down to an addict for the rest of her life didn’t mean she hadn’t given their relationship a fair shot. She had. She’d made him happy. And for a time he’d made her happy, too.

With him out of her life, she appeared to be happy again. Healthy. Safe.

She looked
good.
More like she had when he’d first met her. By the end their relationship had taken a toll on her. She’d lost weight, the light in her beautiful green eyes had dimmed, and worry lines had etched themselves into her skin. That seemed far behind her now. Her blond hair was long and silky. Her body curvy beneath her crisp tailored suit. Her features relaxed and so sweetly familiar that he could almost forget the pain and the years that separated them...

Then a polished, dark-haired man in a suit approached her, causing Linda to smile and Tony to frown. The guy was obviously an attorney, too, dressed in a finely tailored suit with a damned vest and shined shoes. He sat down next to her and handed her something. Their interaction was perfectly respectable, but Tony could tell the man’s interest in Linda was far more than professional.

Sweat beaded Tony’s forehead and he held his breath. He’d been hoping to see her and he’d been expecting to long for her, but he hadn’t expected to see her with another man.

Then another man, this time a blond, stopped to talk to her. He, too, was probably a lawyer given how he was dressed. This man, however, Linda didn’t seem to like. Even from across the street Tony saw her smile stiffen and wane. Before it could disappear completely, the blond guy pointed his finger like a gun, cocked it at Linda, then left. Linda immediately shook her head. In response, her dark-haired friend bent his head close to hers, placed his hand on her thigh, and said something that made her laugh.

Jealousy overwhelmed him, making him tremble. A faint buzzing sound filled the car and he vaguely wondered if he was losing it. But then he realized his cell phone was vibrating. With a shaky hand he forced his gaze away from Linda, pulled his phone out of his pocket and saw the number on the screen.

It was Justine, the woman helping him make connections inside Guapo’s organization. She’d once dated Guapo’s defense attorney, Grant Falcon; Guapo’s men had killed him after Guapo had been convicted. Now she was dating another key man in Guapo’s organization, Nicco Santos. The man was likely a key component to taking over Guapo’s enterprise. He knew things he hadn’t told Justine or Tony yet, and Tony was hoping one of those things was the identity of Guapo’s Rapture supplier.

He snapped the phone to his ear. “What is it, Justine?”

“Tony!”

He frowned at the note of hysteria in her voice.

“Guapo won his appeal. He’ll be out on the streets in the next twenty-four hours and he’s going to find out what you’ve been doing. What
we’ve
been doing. He probably already knows.”

Guapo was getting out of prison? What the hell? Tony’s shaking hands went cold. “Does Nicco know?”

“He’s the one who told me. He’s scared out of his mind. And you know what that means. He’s going to give you up. He’s going to give
both
of us up.”

“Calm down, Justine. Did you try to get the name of the supplier from Nicco again?”

Justine took an audible breath, then said, “He still says he doesn’t know. That Guapo’s going to take the name to his grave.”

How ironic that the tables had turned. At one time Guapo had been desperate to find out the name of the confidential informant who’d sold him out. Now that same informant was just as desperate to get the name of the man only Guapo seemed to know. Sacramento’s main supplier of Rapture to kids and soccer moms. The man responsible for killing Rory Maverick, Justine’s little brother.

Tony shot another glance at Linda. She was still smiling. The guy beside her reached up, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear. Swiftly Tony looked away.

It didn’t matter. He could still see them together.

He pictured them dancing the way he and Linda had danced. Making love the way he and Linda had made love. Spending their lives together and having a family and building a future together...the way he and Linda never would.

He had no place in her life. Not anymore. Hadn’t he just been telling himself that?

Gritting his teeth, he just managed to hang on to his control.

I can’t lose it. Not now. I have too much to do.

“Tell Nicco to trust me,” Tony told Justine. “And remind him that I’ve been a much more generous boss than Guapo ever was. I’ll be there in five.”

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