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Authors: Virna Depaul

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BOOK: Deadly Charade
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Chapter 13

T
ony and Justine were more than a mile away from the courthouse when he said, “Damn it, what am I doing? I can’t leave Linda by herself. Not now.”

Realistically, he knew he shouldn’t go back for her, but he also shouldn’t have said anything to her when she’d been walking down those stairs to go to her car. He’d done so anyway. He hadn’t been able to help himself. He’d seen the hurt on her face when he’d kissed Justine. How devastated she’d been when he’d smiled at her and called her “babe,” as if he hadn’t cared one iota for Linda’s feelings.

That had been so far from the truth.

Now she’d almost been shot and he’d walked away and all he could think about was how she’d come to see him in the jail infirmary. How concerned she’d been about his pain. His needs. And this was how he was going to repay her?

“We have to go back.”

Justine glanced at him from the driver’s seat of her car. “And do what? Confess that you’re not the heartless criminal you’ve been pretending to be? You already publicly threw yourself in front of her to take a bullet. Why not advertise to the whole world that you care about her? I’d give her less than twenty-four hours before someone comes after her in order to prove he and not you will be replacing Guapo.”

“Maybe she already has someone after her. Despite what I said, I’m not so sure the people who shot at us were after me.”

“How can you say that?”

“Why would someone shoot me? Like you said, it would only be to get me out of the picture and get their cut of Guapo’s drug ring, but they wouldn’t risk shooting me down in front of the county courthouse. Plus, I know who Guapo ran with, and the guys in that car? I didn’t recognize them.”

“It isn’t just the men who were loyal to Guapo who want to take you down. You’re open season for every wannabe drug dealer thinking to get in on the action. You made me a promise, Tony. You said you cared about my brother, enough to find the scumbag responsible for getting him hooked on Rapture and to shut him down so another kid doesn’t die. Have you changed your mind about that?”

“Damn it, how can you say that after the past few weeks? I did care about your brother. I did everything I could to convince him to get clean and finish high school. To get away from Guapo and turn his life around. And you know I’ll do whatever I can to find the Rapture supplier, but—”

“Then be smart. That woman? Linda Delaney? She’s with her friend the prosecutor. He’ll protect her in a way you can’t.”

Like Tony could forget Neil. Asshole. “I don’t like him.”

She smiled slightly. “No? Good-looking, upstanding guy like him? What’s not to like? Other than he’s trying to put you in prison, that is.” Her smile disappeared. “And all for a crime you didn’t even commit,” she said softly.

Tony glanced at her. No, he hadn’t killed Guapo, but he had a lot of other things he was guilty of. Each one of those things had made him feel like he was lying when he’d pled not guilty in court. He
was
guilty, but he could still do some good. Starting with taking the blame for Guapo’s death and making sure Justine didn’t have to go through the trauma of a trial. Hell, the woman was still grieving the loss of her younger brother and she’d been helping Tony with his mission any way she could. That was the only reason Guapo had attacked her in the first place, causing Justine to kill him in self-defense.

Plus, Tony copping to killing Guapo had made sense for another reason altogether—once word spread to the streets, it would give more legitimacy to his claims that he was taking over Guapo’s drug business and that he was tough enough to do so. Granted, he’d probably also issued a challenge to countless thugs who would try to prove they were even badder than he was, but hopefully word of Guapo’s death would keep them away long enough for Tony to find out the identity of the Rapture supplier. “None of that,” he told Justine.
I
killed Guapo, remember? Me. That’s our story and we’re sticking with it. If the man who was supplying Guapo Rapture believes I killed Guapo because I wanted in on their drug partnership, he’ll contact me. And we’ll be able to shut him down.”

“If that’s what you still want, then you really can’t go back to see that woman, Tony.”

Leaning his head back against the seat, Tony closed his eyes. Damn, his entire body ached. And even worse, he really wanted to take something to make the aches go away. Something strong, like Oxy. That, more than Justine’s pleas, made up his mind about Linda. “I know.”

One thing he didn’t know? When the lies would stop. Hell, he hadn’t even explained to Justine why he’d kissed her and he could tell she was looking at him with even more interest now. An interest he didn’t return.

When was he going to stop hurting those he cared about even as he was trying to do the right thing?

He opened his eyes and straightened. When he’d done the job he was supposed to do, he told himself. When Rapture, the same drug that had killed Rory, Justine’s brother, was taken out of the equation.

But despite telling Neil Christoffersen to do his job and take care of Linda, Tony knew he couldn’t leave it at that.

He said nothing about his intentions to Justine, but he had to make sure Linda was safe. He was going to learn the identity of the Rapture supplier, but he wasn’t going to sacrifice Linda’s life to do it.

Justine drove him back to the house where they’d been staying before Tony had been arrested, a dingy dive where Guapo’s less loyal acquaintances hung out. There, Tony took a few hours to make the rounds and brag about what he’d done to the man who’d made the mistake of messing with him. Then he went for a walk, bought a disposable cell phone and called Ash Yee, a Sacramento P.D. detective who used to work with Dominic Jeffries, his sister Mattie’s husband.

Though Mattie, Dom and Tony had been in WITSEC in Texas, Dom had temporarily come out of hiding to arrange for Tony to work undercover with the Sacramento Police Department. Weeks before, Tony had just graduated from the local police academy, but despite missing Linda desperately, he’d had no intention of ever returning to Sacramento.

Then he’d heard about Rory Maverick’s death.

At one time Tony had been close to Rory—at least, as close as anyone could be to a street kid, which wasn’t very close at all. The boy had looked up to him and, despite knowing the kid smoked pot and ran drugs for Guapo, Tony, quite simply, had liked him. Had even started to steer him straight. Talk about college.

When Tony had stopped buying drugs from Guapo, he’d likewise cut off any contact he’d had with his associates, and that had included Rory. Again, before he’d moved to Texas, he’d often thought of tracking Rory down, but he hadn’t kidded himself. His qualifications as any kind of mentor hadn’t improved. Keeping off the drugs was a constant struggle for him and he’d barely been holding things together even before he’d lost Linda. Who was he to interfere in someone else’s life and tell him what to do?

Then, just when Tony was set to begin his career as a cop, he’d learned about Rory’s death.

And he’d known what he had to do.

He’d talked to Dom, who’d been working as a sheriff’s deputy. Dom had made some calls, not to anyone at the Sacramento P.D., but to a few friends of his with the FBI.

It turned out that despite his obvious inexperience, the FBI had been all for Tony going deep under cover in Sacramento, not only to bring down Guapo’s organization but to determine if there were any other corrupt cops in the police department. According to the FBI’s contacts,
someone
on the force was still dirty and they suspected someone in the courts was, too. Maybe even the D.A.’s office. It seemed to be the only explanation for how Guapo’s men were managing to elude capture or prosecution time and again.

Right now Tony was placing bets on Neil Christoffersen. But he also knew that was probably his jealousy guiding him more than anything else.

So far Tony hadn’t caught a whiff of corruption, certainly not from Yee. As far as the Sacramento P.D. was concerned, Yee, his partner, and their boss were the only ones besides Tony who knew he was working undercover and trying to shut down Guapo’s operation, but he only kept direct contact with Yee. Yee worked undercover, as well, except he was posing as a Rapture user and, like Tony, was trying to find out the identity of anyone with any connection to Rapture manufacturers, suppliers or dealers.

Tony had no clue what Yee thought about Guapo’s death or his participation in it. He hadn’t tried to contact him while he’d been in jail, but he was betting they’d had something to do with his grant of bail.

“Where are you?” Yee asked as soon as they were connected, which confirmed he knew Tony had gotten out.

Tony was standing across from Linda’s house. He wanted to make sure she’d gotten home all right and it appeared she had. Her car was in the driveway and even now he could see glimpses of her moving around inside. Of course he didn’t tell Yee that.

“I’m staying at the house on Tortuga Boulevard.” He walked around, canvassing the streets, looking for signs that someone had followed Linda or posed any kind of threat to her.

“What happened with Guapo?”

“He came after me,” Tony simply said. “I did what I had to.”

Yee remained silent for several seconds, then said, “Word’s spread to the street. Even the small-time dealers have heard about it. They’re impressed. But they’re also wondering whether you’ll be able to supply them with the same drugs Guapo did. And if you’ll be upping the cost of playing. Any suppliers contact you yet?”

“I just got out of jail, Yee. I’m gonna have to work on reestablishing my contacts. But like you said, word’s spread. I’ll continue to make it known where potential business associates can find me. But right now I have something else I need to talk to you about,” he said.

The house next door to Linda’s had a twitchy curtain. Nosy neighbor. Good to know. If anyone suspicious showed up—anyone besides him, he thought—the neighbor would probably notice and likely call the police if there was trouble.

“Did you hear about the shooting at the courthouse earlier?”

Yee sighed. “Yeah. And I heard you saved some woman, too. You both okay?”

Not just any woman, he wanted to shout. Linda. But Yee didn’t know about their prior relationship, so he simply said, “Do you have any leads on whether it was one of Guapo’s men?”

“Not yet.”

“Do you know anything about a D.A. named Neil Christoffersen?”

“I’ve heard of him. He’s supposed to be a straight shooter. Why?”

For a second Yee’s use of the phrase
straight shooter
tickled Tony’s brain, as if a memory was trying to surface, but the sensation was quickly gone. “He made sure I got out on bail just in time for that drive-by to occur. If the shooters meant to take me down, he certainly had a part in making sure it could happen.”

“I’ll check him out. See if there’s any reason to think he’s the mole in the D.A.’s office we’ve been speculating about. But you said
if
they were meant to take you down? I’d say a bullet is pretty good evidence of their intentions. Why the equivocation?”

“Because I’m not sure I was actually the target. The woman who was with me? She’s a prosecutor. District Attorney Linda Delaney.”

Yee let out a low whistle. “The one vying to be a judge. The one that Guapo’s men attacked? Hell, you were probably both targets, then. Not smart, man. If anyone saw you save her...”

“I know. They’ll be more suspicious of me. And more likely to use her to get to me. That’s why I need you to protect her.”

“In case you didn’t know, we’re already a little busy over here. You don’t ask a lot, do you?”

He fought off a smile. He didn’t ask for much at all—not for him.

But he’d ask a lot for Linda Delaney, a woman who grew wisteria over her front porch and sunflowers in her backyard. A woman who didn’t own a dog or even a cat to protect her. A woman who lived on a dead end cul-de-sac surrounded by neighbors who were never home, besides the window-twitcher next to her.

And judging by the amount of wooden ducks with gingham bows around their necks lining the drive, that neighbor was probably a woman in her eighties. Hardly an environment where one could turn to one’s neighbors if bad guys started shooting.

“No more than I’d ask of myself. I’d protect her, but I can’t do it if I’m trying to find the supplier, now can I. I need Linda taken care of.”

“You two...?”

Together? Having sex? Desperately in love with each other? Tony turned on his heel and heavily limped back the way he’d come. “No. We had something going once, but that’s over between us.”

“But not because you want it to be.”

“No, you’re wrong,” Tony said, trying to backtrack. “She wasn’t right for me.”

“D.A. Drug addict. Yeah, I’d say that’s the understatement of the century. Doesn’t mean you don’t care about her, though. That’s pretty obvious from what you’re asking of me.”

Why did Yee keep harping on whether he cared about Linda or not?

“It’s not merely a request, Yee. I need her protected or I’m pulling out,” Tony said softly. What the hell, he decided. Sometimes one had to admit to one’s vices. Maybe if Yee knew how much Linda meant to Tony, the cop would take his request for her protection seriously. He gave Yee Linda’s home address. “Take care of her for me, Yee.”

“Let me talk to some people. We’ll put a team on her. But you need to stay away from her, Tony.”

“I told you, there’s nothing between us. Not anymore.”

Even as he said the words, Tony knew they weren’t completely true. There
couldn’t
be anything between them, but he’d lost his heart to her long ago. For him, she’d always be the one. And he’d regret having lost her until the day he died.

Chapter 14

A
fter giving her statements to the police about the shooting and despite Neil’s protests, Linda went back to the office to pick up her files before she headed home. Aching and sore and still troubled by everything that had happened with Tony, however, she decided at the last minute to leave the files on her desk. She didn’t want to read any more files. What she wanted was to figure out what was going on with Tony. How he could be so aloof and cruel one minute, and then risk his life to save her in the next.

Linda was still contemplating the question when Cynthia McCall, the receptionist, called her.

“Hey, Linda. You just got a fax.”

“I’m heading home in a bit. I’ll grab it on my way out.”

“Okay...but the fax, it’s pretty weird. I think you’ll want to take a look at it right away.”

What now, Linda thought. She gathered her things and quickly walked to the lobby and receptionist’s area that housed the office fax machine. When she got there, she frowned. Brian Heald was inside Cynthia’s office, leaning against the doorway and grinning. Cynthia was laughing, obviously pleased by the man’s attention. When she saw Linda, however, Cynthia immediately straightened and slid a white piece of paper underneath the receptionist’s tellerlike window.

“Thanks,” Linda murmured, simultaneously turning away and wincing when she heard Heald murmur something and Cynthia giggle. Heald had to have heard what happened to her, but God forbid he express any concern. Why women kept encouraging the man was beyond her, but she supposed there was someone for everyone.

Linda flipped the cover page of the fax up and frowned.

Tony Cooper is a good man. You know this. Trust your instincts about him, Linda.

Linda looked at the top of the page, searching for information about who had sent the fax and when. She kept her face calm for Cynthia, who was watching her closely. “Thanks, Cynthia. I’ll check into this.”

She turned around and walked back to her office, her steps keeping time with the pounding beat of her heart. She made several phone calls but still wasn’t able to track down who had sent the fax. The outgoing fax number belonged to a copy store in Vacaville and the man on the phone had no idea who had sent it.

Linda struggled once more with indecision.

The fax alluded to her prior relationship with Tony. Obviously she didn’t want that getting out. But the fax verged on being
Brady
material. Nothing about it expressly said Tony was innocent, but she should still tell Neil and Lock about it. Shouldn’t she?

If she kept the fax a secret and someone made a stink about it, valid or not, losing her bid as a judge might just be the first step. She could lose her job. Her reputation. Everything she’d worked so hard to protect.

Plus...she didn’t just have herself to think about. She needed to think about Tony.

Someone obviously thought he was innocent of what he was being charged with. Coupled with the way he’d saved her earlier, she was more than willing to believe it.

No, she reasoned. She couldn’t just think of herself.

She’d show Neil the fax in the morning. But what was she going to do in the meantime?

Undecided, she went home. Paced and worried. After an hour of that, she opened her closet door. She grabbed a banker’s box from the top shelf and placed it on the bed. Sitting cross-legged, she pulled out a smaller shoebox, and then a silver-framed picture.

It was of her, Tony, Mattie and Jordan. Tony’s hair was as curly as Mattie’s and flirted with the collar of his shirt. His eyes reflected a serious quality, but the sheer joy of his smile gave him an undeniably youthful appearance.

This was how she remembered him most of the time. Not as the man who’d sat at her kitchen table looking longingly at those pills. Yet at the same time, it was the second image that had the most power over her. That caused her to feel honor bound not to give in to her feelings for him.

But oh, how she longed to. Her chest ached at seeing not only how happy he’d been, but how happy
she’d
looked. He’d wrapped one of his arms around her from behind, resting his chin on the top of her head. She looked up at him, laughing, her eyes shining with happiness. Linda traced her smile with her finger, then her gaze shifted to Mattie and Jordan.

How she missed them and wished Mattie was here to talk to.

But she wasn’t. Linda didn’t have anyone but herself. She’d have to figure this out alone.

Linda gently placed the picture back in the box and closed the lid.

Well, maybe not completely alone,
she thought.

There was still someone she could talk to. Someone who still had answers, and she couldn’t give up until she got them from him. Determined, she changed her clothes, gathered her things and left her house. Instead of taking her car again, she’d walk the two miles to her office. It would give her a chance to clear her head, then she’d get Tony’s file and the bail form that should list his address.

She’d walked about four blocks before she froze dead in her tracks.

And stared straight at Tony.

* * *

Tony cursed when he saw Linda walking toward him. Instead of one of the suits she’d worn over the past week, she now wore casual clothes. Jeans and a light sweater. Sneakers. The outfit made her seem approachable in a way her professional clothes hadn’t. And after having been in jail the past few days, and without her for three-and-a-half years, the picture of her walking toward him in the quiet residential neighborhood seemed surreal.

He literally shook his head to clear it.

Where the hell was she going? And why was she going anywhere, alone and unprotected, after she’d just been shot at?

He supposed she didn’t think of it that way, though. He’d told her
he’d
been the one getting shot at. But yet she was still walking toward him.

She stopped a mere five feet away. Close enough for her scent to cling to the slight evening breeze and wrap around him.

He felt his knees weaken and, just as he had when she’d come to visit him in the jail infirmary, he automatically reached for her. This time, however, before his skin could touch hers, he curled his fists and pulled back.

You can’t have her, Tony. Not if you want to keep her safe. Wasn’t having her shot at today enough to make you remember that, damn it?
Knowing he had to keep her at a distance, he forced himself to imagine her with her coworker, Neil. He tortured himself with the image of them together, not just making love, though God knew that was almost too much for him, but growing old together. Of them living years and years together, with not just a cat, but a whole slew of animals and photos of their children and grandchildren. Of them getting to have the life that he’d so badly wanted with Linda. The images flooded through his mind until he almost thought he hated her; only then did he speak. “Well, well. Where are you off to this evening, Linda? Heading out to meet your D.A.?” He made a great show of looking around him, as if Neil would suddenly materialize out of thin air.

Smiling tightly, Linda placed her hands on her hips. “Which one? There’s more than one interested in me.”

Damn her, he thought, for fueling his jealousy. “I’m not surprised,” he forced himself to say. “So besides Neil, who’s the lucky guy in the running?”

She stared at him then shook her head. “No one, believe me. So, Tony... You come here often?”

The woman had no sense of self-preservation. Just a steely determined expression on her face that told him quite clearly she intended to pin him down for answers to all her questions.

He turned swiftly, striding away and hoping she’d let him go without a fight.

But, of course, she didn’t.

He heard her scampering after him right before she grabbed his arm. “Wait just one second. What are you doing here, Tony? Were you coming to see me?”

Of course she’d jump to that conclusion. It was the only reasonable explanation for being here. But reason and logic had nothing to do with his life anymore. He was pretending to be a hard-core murderer, for God’s sake.

He jerked his arm away from her. “Get over yourself, Linda. I was here to see someone else and just had the misfortune of running into you.” He looked around. Still didn’t see anyone. But that could change at any moment.

She narrowed her eyes at him. “You must really think I’m a fool. When are you going to stop with your ridiculous lies? You saved my life this afternoon, Tony, and I—”

“Then don’t have it be for nothing,” he clipped out, no longer able to control himself. “Turn around and haul your butt back home, Linda. And stay there. For God’s sake, you’re a sitting duck out here.”

“So are you.”

“Yeah, but if I got shot and killed the world would be a better place. If you did—”

Her eyes widened at his inadvertent compliment and he mentally cursed. Shit. He was losing it. Messing things up big time.

“Jesus,” he murmured, then gently took her arm and started walking back to her house. “Go home, Linda.”

She stopped and wrenched her arm away. “No,” she said.

“Damn it!”

“Not unless you come back with me,” she challenged.

His eyes widened. “What?”

“I told you when you were still in jail, Tony. I want answers. I need them. Come back to my house. Talk to me. Convince me that you’re the baddie you’re trying to pretend to be. Only then am I going to let this matter drop.”

“This matter, meaning what?”

“This matter, meaning the little charade I think you’re playing. I want answers about why you’re playing it.”

Tony stared at her in frustration, then swept the street again. He’d wanted to make sure her neighborhood was clear of any obvious threats. And he’d wanted to call Yee and make sure Linda got some protection. The last thing he’d wanted—no, the last thing he could allow himself to want—was more alone time with her.

Especially out in the open. Exposed.

If anyone drove by and saw them together...

She’d left him no choice. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s go back to your house. Ask your questions. I’ll give my answers. And believe me, Linda, after that, you’ll finally accept I’m exactly who I say I am. Don’t blame me if you get all the answers you never wanted to hear.”

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