He’s bearded, angry, highly trained, and has a job to do.
She’s the damsel in distress who’s smarter than she looks, and doesn’t want anyone’s help.
Could it be they both need something neither will admit to? Fate fueled by the laws of attraction may just decide for them.
I didn’t ask for this. I was just doing my job, and they have the nerve to put me on a Witness Protection detail? This is crap. I’ll do my assignment, then go back to my job and what I love – kicking ass and taking names. I hadn’t spent 6 years in the Marine Corps to be put on babysitting duty once I’d joined the FBI. The witness they assigned me to, Rayanne, is an annoying, brainless blonde with a sassy mouth and a body that belongs on a website you had to pay to access. Not that I noticed or anything.
I can look after myself. I don’t need anyone’s help, and the government is being ridiculous for putting me in Protective Custody. I’ll testify against my former bosses and then go back to my life as a single girl in the big city. I love my career as a paralegal, and once this Neanderthal they’d assigned to babysit me is out of my life, I’ll go back to it. I just wish he wasn’t so easy on the eyes. The beard, the hard body, and that voice. Why couldn’t they have sent me someone ugly – and nice? Because Duke is neither of those things.
ABOVE PROTECTION is book 1 in the Imperfect Heroes Series. For readers 18+
Please enjoy the first three chapters below!
Three wrong turns aren’t going to get you anywhere. They’re going to bring you right back to where you started.
Intense, wise brown eyes narrowed at me through clear glasses then back down to the report he was reading. His desk was littered with papers, manila folders, a clunky government phone, and a scuffed Blackberry that looked as if it had been dropped too many times. His entire office was just as dull as he was.
I didn’t want to admit to being nervous, so I discreetly wiped the palms of my hands on my slacks and waited for my boss to say something – anything.
“This is the third one, Hawthorne,” he finally said, yanking his reading glasses off and fixing me with his beady stare. He pinched the bridge of his nose and continued, “What am I supposed to do with you?”
I threw him a cocky smirk. “You could let me off with a couple unpaid days of leave. I could use some beach time.”
“Not funny,” he growled, letting out a huff. He reached up and hooked a finger into his tie at his throat, loosening it.
“A guy’s gotta try,” I replied, trying to sound cooler than I felt.
He shook his head, closed my file, and then folded his hands on top of it. “Three counts of excessive force and you think Headquarters is gonna be satisfied with a few days of unpaid leave? Yeah, nooo. Not gonna fly.”
“It wasn’t that excessive,” I muttered, shaking my head.
“Three strikes, Duke. This is serious.”
“Whatever,” I snarked, waving a dismissive hand.
Lifting an eyebrow at me, my boss, Jeffery Howard, turned toward his laptop, hit a few buttons, and then turned it around to face me. On the screen was a cleverly constructed montage of my not-so-excessive force infractions, filmed by, of course, bystanders who would rather record cops doing their jobs from their cell phones than actually help people, or, God forbid, support law enforcement.
My jaw clenched hard. I tried to keep my face impassive while he showed me the first clip of my knee digging into the back of a suspect on the ground. The shitbag was drunk and resisting arrest after rear-ending a school bus full of kids on an Indian reservation. I was just a tad pissed off. So what if I broke his wrist? He shouldn’t have been resisting – or drinking and driving. Screamed like a little bitch, too, that one. I bit back a grin at the memory.
The second clip was of a guy convulsing from my Taser. I really didn’t understand the issue with this one. We had a warrant to search his house, and the result was about six kilos of cocaine, thirty grand in cash, and a bunch of pipes and other drug paraphernalia. He didn’t want to go to prison, I get it, but he took a swing at me. With a knife. I pulled out the Taser and let him have it. So what if I didn’t exactly pull the Taser prongs out in a timely fashion? The asshole had taken a swing at me! With a knife! He had stopped convulsing eventually. Did he die? No.
The last clip was the worst. We’d responded to an armed robbery at a local bank. Banks were federally insured, therefore, the cases always belonged to the FBI instead of the local police, and honestly? I really hated those types of calls. But my partner and I had been the first responders, and I had seen the suspect speed away on a motorcycle. Hopping in my government ride, I’d given chase. The dumbass crashed into a guardrail on the freeway during rush hour, and when I stopped the car and got out to arrest his ass, I jumped on him before he could get up from his bike. Except he pulled a gun from the bag where the stolen money was kept. He pointed it in my face, and seeing the gun, I’d completely snapped. Snatching it out of his hand, I tossed it to the ground and… I may or may not have smashed his face into the pavement more times than maybe was necessary. He sort of needed facial reconstruction on his cheekbones and nose after that.
I snorted out loud, trying not to smile. I didn’t mean to. Jeffery shot me a warning look. I straightened up, putting my eyes back on the screen, my lips pursed.
Some shithead had filmed that one from their car while traffic had been stopped on the bridge due to our scuffle. The greedy dick had even tried to sell it to the local news before so kindly turning it in to the local P.D., who then forwarded it to the FBI.
“That last one was the worst, Duke,” my boss said.
I shook my head and stroked a hand over my beard, replying, “I don’t care who you are, you pull a gun on a cop, it’s gonna end badly for you.”
He nodded. “While I agree with that, you and I both know that once you disarmed him, the threat was gone. The face bashing was excessive…”
I cut him off. “Yeah, yeah. Whatever. Just dole out the punishment so I can get the hell out of here.”
His face got red and he pounded a fist on his desk. “First off, you aren’t running anything here, so just shut up and let me speak!”
I gave him the briefest of nods while I kept my narrowed eyes on him, my lips clamped in a firm line, my jaw pulsing in annoyance.
“You’re a good agent, Hawthorne, but you’re a loose fucking cannon. The government is cracking down on excessive force, especially in light of the news lately of police in the funny papers. Ferguson, Baltimore, you get the picture. The FBI needs to maintain its squeaky clean reputation.”
I snorted at that. He glared at me, but continued. “Because you’ve been a valuable asset to this department for,” he paused, looking at my record, “three years, I am gonna give you two choices. Either this goes to Internal Affairs for a full investigation, which could take up to a year, or you go on witness protection duty.”
My blue eyes bulged in their sockets and I shot up out of my chair. “A year! How is that even a choice?”
Fucking bastard! Nobody wants to catch an I.A. case. Nobody. It’s a mixed bag of horrendous questions and incessant visits to the government psych and, I shudder, anger management classes, combined with motherfucking desk duty the whole time. No thanks. But Witness Protection Detail? That’s a glorified babysitting position. You’re stuck watching over people who have cooperated with the government and now have a very hefty price tag on their heads for being a “snitch” and sending people, like big-time drug lords, to prison for all sort of hideous crimes ranging from massive drug deals to first-degree murder. Nobody wanted to be stuck on that detail.
“You’re kidding me with these choices,” I growled.
He looked at me, disbelief dancing across his face. “Sit down. And you’ve got to be shitting me with that comment. You’re getting off easy. You don’t even want to know what others in your position have been sanctioned with. Some have been fired, Duke.”
“Others in my position?” I snapped. I pointed at his laptop. “None of that was excessive force. Those pieces of shit deserved every ounce of what they got, and you know it, Jeff!”
He shook his head. “Calling them ‘pieces of shit’ is your first mistake. You can’t do that. You just can’t, Hawthorne.” He sighed. “Look, when I started with the bureau twenty years ago, this type of stuff happened all the time. But thanks to technology, we’ve become the KGB… the ‘kinder, gentler bureau’ – there’s no way of escaping your sins. They’re being recorded by every cell phone and traffic camera. You’re gonna have to decide which of these sanctions you want, or I’m going to decide for you.”
I sat back down, huffing as I leaned back in the squeaky chair. I raked a hand through my too-long hair. “So one WPD assignment, and I’m done, is that right? No matter how long – or short – the assignment lasts?”
“Then let’s just get on with it,” I groaned.
He smiled, but there was no humor in it. “Good choice.”
“Fuck me,” I murmured.
If you run from danger, you’ll just die tired. So what happens when you run toward it?
I stared at the subpoena in my hand and chewed on my thumbnail. I’d seen a million subpoenas before, being in my line of work, but never had any of them had my name on them.
What was I going to do? I couldn’t testify against my bosses. I just couldn’t, but it seemed the government was going to force me. My bosses had been good to me, and I loved my job. The paper began to blur behind unshed tears. I set it down and took a sip of my wine. I’d been a paralegal in the Watson Law Firm for five years. They had been the first ones to hire me after I had finished my paralegal schooling, and I truly loved my job. I couldn’t believe the Watson brothers would even be involved in something like this. I read over the subpoena again.
“The United States of America vs. George Edgar Watson and Elmo Gerald Watson.”
I shook my head.
“Two counts of Murder-For-Hire. One count failure to pay corporate taxes in excess of one million dollars.”
These were old, experienced guys. Like, legit attorneys. Okay, they were in their fifties, but I couldn’t believe George and Elmo would ever do anything like this. Sure, they sometimes took on some shady clients, but I did not peg them to be capable of anything even close to this.
And why was I being dragged into this?
I took another sip of my Malbec. Damn, this stuff was bitter and dry. I rarely drank wine, even though I had a bunch of it in my condo. My sister worked at a winery and was always bringing me bottles to try. I would sample it to appease her, but mostly, wine gave me a headache, and really, who has time for headaches? Tonight, though, I needed something numbing – relaxing. Anything to help me to calm the hell down, and her wine was all I had.
I sighed and set the legal documents down on top of the envelope which had been delivered by some random stranger. She’d rung my doorbell two hours ago to serve them to me and made me sign for the certified documents. I couldn’t believe this was happening.
Who did they murder? Not once, in five years, had I seen anything like that. As far as I knew, neither of them had even so much as a speeding ticket. And they certainly weren’t violent. I recall once when one of their criminal gang member clients had come in for a consult, George had secretly hired security to stay in his office with him.
I got up from the plush living room chair I’d just purchased last month, along with the rest of the new living room furniture, and walked to the bathroom, where I splashed cold water on my face. I breathed in through my nose, then I exhaled through my mouth. Then I did it again.
Drying my face on one of my new burgundy towels, I looked at myself in the mirror. Worry lined my forehead and made me look ugly. Never had I loved the way I looked, but this wasn’t helping.
Huffing, I left the bathroom with a claw-clip in my hand as I twisted my short blonde hair up and off my neck.
I spied my wine glass on the end-table and made my way toward it, swallowing it back in one gulp, and then stalking to the kitchen for more. Opening the fridge, I popped off the temporary cork and poured more.
Red wine doesn’t belong in the fridge. It’s to be served warm… I heard my sister’s voice ringing in my ear.
“I don’t give a shit,” I said into thin air. I can’t drink anything warm, not even fancy wine.
As it slid down my throat, I glanced at the papers again. This was huge, big, heavy, and… what the hell was I going to do?
Tell the truth…
The truth about what? I didn’t do anything! I’m no accountant. I had no idea what went on in the financial department. All I did was process the legal work and subpoenas from their clients. There was that one time, about a year ago, when Margie had quit and I had to try to sort out their finances, but that was short-lived until Angela had arrived…
Oh, my God!
I looked down at the date of the charges. They were recent, but the tax evasion dated exactly a year ago when I was trying to wade through their financials. The murder-for-hire charge was more recent.
Holy crap! George… Elmo… what have you done?
My rumbling Harley wound its way through suburban Tampa. Cookie-cutter houses and half-grown oak trees lined the streets until I reached my home. I killed the engine once I reached the garage of my mediocre house. I looked around my neighborhood and shook my head. This was not how I pictured my life going when I was a young 18-year-old recruit getting ready to join the Marines.
As I slid the key into the lock, I smiled to myself at the memory of my father yelling at my brother Mason and me about our choices to join the service after high school. The old man had been so pissed. A Navy vet, he couldn’t believe his only two sons had decided to join the Army and Marines. I had big hopes and dreams for you boys to join the U.S. Navy as proud seamen! he’d touted.
Mason and I snickered at him, and were rewarded with slaps upside our heads. But it never weakened our resolve. We were not going to become squids. No way. I tried so hard to get Mason to join the Corps with me when he had graduated the year after me, but he wouldn’t budge. He said the United States Army was calling to him, and that was the end of that. Mason had done well in the Army, reaching almost as high as one could get being enlisted, and discharging after two tours in Iraq with full honors. He was now a detective here with the Tampa P.D., and I couldn’t be prouder. I needed to go visit that asshole soon and see what he was up to.
Throwing my keys onto the kitchen counter, I rifled without much interest through the mail I’d collected at the community mailbox. Junk, bills, and coupons. I chucked what I didn’t need into the trash and went to my bedroom to change into something more comfortable. My phone buzzed in my pocket and I plucked it out with reluctance. I had no desire to go back into work. I was beat.
The text on the screen read: I’m lonely, baby. Come over here and rub that beard between my thighs.
Looking at the name on the screen, I chuckled. Tisha. Tish with the nice tush, that’s how I remembered her. Long, wavy brown hair, full lips, and an ass I could spank for days. But… damn… I’m so fuckin’ tired. Tish and her nice tush would have to wait.
I quickly shot off a text telling her I was tied up at work and couldn’t get to her place. Yes, it was a lie, but I wasn’t one to burn any bridges. Gotta keep them hanging on in case the need arose anytime soon.
I’m such an asshole…
I smiled, tossing my clothes into the hamper in the bathroom. I started the shower and stepped into the steam and water, tilting my head back and letting it wash over me.
This day had been taxing… horrible… and what I probably deserved. My mind was warring with my soul. I couldn’t do this. Yes, I could do this.
Witness protection detail…
I could babysit a couple of “victims” for a few months. Watch their homes, help them get new social security numbers and driver’s licenses and shit. But if I had to play bodyguard while they shopped, got manicures, and took their dogs to be groomed, I was gonna lose my fucking shit.
After drying off and throwing on some basketball shorts, I went into the kitchen and fixed myself a BLT on wheat. Grabbing a beer from the fridge, I popped off the top and carried them both into the living room. I needed to chill out. My leg was bothering me more than usual today and I’d had to grit my teeth throughout most of the day to stay off the pain. I was done with painkillers and all that shit. This pain was just something I’d have to live with and try to get used to. Still, some days were worse than others. Like today.
I flipped on the TV and smiled to see the Florida State game was televised. The Gators were playing the Seminoles and I would definitely have to give Mason some shit if the Seminoles lost. After finishing my sandwich and beer, my body was relaxed, the pain in my leg was lessening a bit, and my eyes drifted closed.
“Get the fucking medics now!” I hear Sgt. Ellis Anderson scream through the horrific ringing in my right ear.
I want to tell him no, I’m fine, I can just get up and walk it off. But then I couldn’t. My words are slurred and I can’t think of anything other than the searing hot pain in my right leg. Through my haze, I manage to look down and see something shiny and sharp sticking out of it. God, it hurts so damn bad I might pass out. And this ringing in my ear is like a bell that won’t stop. It’s wailing and getting louder. I feel dizzy. Is the ground still shaking? It feels like it’s still shaking. Make it stop before I puss-out and throw up all over myself. My leg, though, it’s burning and bleeding and I just want it to stop. Lifting my head to look once more, it flops back to the ground as I lack the strength to hold it upright any longer.
“Stay with me, Hawthorne!” Anderson yells, slapping my face.
I try to nod, but it’s of no use. My world goes black.
Jerking awake on the sofa, I gasped in a breath. I hated that damn dream. I hated it so much. But it never stopped plaguing me.
I decided to get up from the couch, put my bottle in the trash and my plate in the sink, and head to my bedroom. I crawled into bed alone and prayed I could fall back to sleep without that fucking nightmare coming back.
“St. Petersburg? Are you serious?” I asked, looking down at the paper in my hand.
“Shut up, Hawthorne. St. Petersburg’s still in our district. Just take the assignment. Single white female set to testify against her employer in about two weeks’ time,” Jeff said to me, not even bothering to look at me, but instead, his eyes glued to his laptop.
“And then what?” I asked, gripping my new WPD assignment in my hand so hard, the paper began to crumple.
My boss took off his glasses and turned toward me. “The entire assignment is detailed out for you in the folder.” He pointed to the manila folder still sitting on his desk.
I plucked it up and opened it. “Virginia! What the f–”
“I’m gonna need you to get out of my office now, loose cannon,” Jeff said, his face back in front of his laptop.
Huffing but saying nothing, I turned and walked out of his office and back toward my desk. I sat in a large room full of cubicles on a regular day, when I wasn’t out in the field (which is what I preferred). Just not Witness Protection Detail. I’d rather sit at a desk.
I plopped down, and as I leaned back in my chair, it squeaked in protest. I slowly opened the folder.
VICTIM: Rayanne Lynch, age 27, Caucasian female, single, no children, Paralegal, lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, Florida.
A photo was attached. While pretty in a Barbie sort of way, she didn’t seem the type to get tangled up in a case. But then again, they never did. This was my first Witness Protection case, but I’d heard my colleagues talk about them plenty. Most victims – “vics” as we called them – were scared shitless. I’m sure this chick was, too.
I flipped the page.
DEFENDANT: George Watson, Caucasian male, age 52. Married, two children, ages 23 and 20. Lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, Florida. Attorney. One count Failure to Pay Corporate Taxes over one million dollars. One count Murder-For-Hire.
DEFENDANT: Elmo Watson, Caucasian male, age 55. Married, four children, ages, 27, 25, 22, 20. Lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, Florida. One count Failure to Pay Corporate Taxes over one million dollars. One count Murder-For-Hire.
SUSPECT: Shane Watson, age 27, Caucasian male, single, no children. Lifelong resident of St. Petersburg, Florida. One count of Murder-For-Hire. Currently missing. Considered armed and dangerous.
I stared for a long time at the documents. Due to the defendants all having the same last name, I assumed they were all related, and the last one was probably the kid or nephew of one of the defendants. But who did they kill or try to kill since they’ve already been charged? That particular victim’s name was missing from the file. Probably already knee-deep in the program was my guess. I seriously doubted it was the one I was sent to protect. She’d already be dead if that was the case. I was anxious to dig into the case some more and find out what the hell these dirtbag lawyers were up to.
We’d had some classes on WPD during our training at Quantico, and it was those classes I was desperately trying to conjure up in my mind as I left the office and headed home to pack a bag. The instructions said I was to go to her house, help her pack, and then take her to Virginia, some place called Pembroke, to be exact.
I’d been a lot of places, thanks to the USMC, but I’d only been to Virginia once for my FBI training. Trying to think positively, I told myself, at least I’d get to see another part of it now. Not much of it, mind you, but it was the only positive thing going for me at the moment.
Parking my bike in the garage, I killed the engine and sighed as I stared at my beauty. I would miss her gleaming black paint with red flames painted on the side and shiny chrome pipes when I was away on that fucking assignment. The FBI was forcing me to take one of the undercover rides. A rookie agent was set to deliver a car to me within the next hour.
I rummaged through my closet until I found my battered camouflage duffel that was as big as I was. I stared at my gym clothes and sighed, realizing I probably wouldn’t be able to get a workout while I was on this assignment. I absently began to empty jeans, slacks, T-shirts, a couple dress shirts, my boots, sneakers, and one pair of dress shoes into it. I then emptied my drawers of underwear, socks, and T-shirts, zipping the duffel once it was full. I had no idea how long I’d be gone. Which reminded me.
Plucking my phone from my pocket, I dialed my buddy, Kyle Adams, and it rang three times before he answered. “Hello?”
“Hey, man. I gotta jet outta town. Can you look after my house?”
“Hey, Duke. Absolutely. You mind if Lucas and I use your pool? And can I bring Lucy?” he asked, his voice friendly, as usual.
Lucas was Kyle’s kid, and Lucy was his service dog. A yellow lab, I think. I’d done my first tour in Afghanistan with Kyle, and unfortunately, Kyle had come back from that tour missing half of his left leg. He was strong and determined and I was proud of him for handling such a loss the way he did. Unfortunately, his old lady hadn’t been cool with the whole disability, and had left him to raise Lucas on his own.
Stupid, selfish redheaded bitch.
“Absolutely, mi casa es su casa,” I said in the worst Southern redneck Spanish ever.
He chuckled. “Thanks, man. How long you will you be gone?”
“I honestly have no idea, and I can’t tell you why or where I’m going.”
“I get it, dude. Just take care of yourself. When do you leave?”
“Today, hopefully,” I replied.
“Okay. We’ll head over tonight. Mind if we just house-sit?”
I smiled in relief. “No, please do. It would make me feel better. Just please watch your boy near the pool.”
“Luke’s part fish. He already knows how to swim and I would never let him swim without me in the water. It’s all good, brother.”
I sighed in relief again. “You’re a lifesaver. Key’s in its usual spot, and I’ll call you when I can. Oh, and mow the grass when you get a chance. Fucking rain, it never stops.”
“Of course,” he replied, a smile in his voice.
I kept the key inside a planter in the backyard, and Kyle knew which one. I was gonna owe that guy big time.