Charged, p.19
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       Charged, p.19

           Jay Crownover
slower 1  faster

  I was sending a text to Avett to tell her I was on my way to get her from her parents’ house when I noticed the detective who was in charge of Avett’s ex’s case waiting for me by the elevators. I slipped my phone back in my pocket without waiting for her response and tilted my chin at the cop in greeting.

  “What’s up? Do you have any new information on the fire?”

  The detective gave a sharp nod and blew out a deep sigh. He lifted a hand to his face and rubbed his chin. “The fire investigator is calling it arson. There was accelerant poured all over the house and the gas line that ran to the stove was cut. The house was purposely burned down.”

  I wasn’t surprised, but I was furious. I hated that Avett and Brite were going through this. I hated that someone was capable of doing something so horrible to another human being.

  “That’s what we figured. Did the boyfriend offer up any insight as to why someone would be interested in burning down the Walkers’ home?”

  The cop sighed again. “We questioned him. The kid’s a punk. He’s the low man on the totem pole and completely willing to sell anyone and everyone out to cover his own ass. We thought maybe he had one of his tweaker buddies go after the girl in order to keep her from testifying, but he hasn’t had any contact with the outside since his arrest.”

  I swore and shoved my hand roughly through my hair, making it stand up wild on the top of my head.

  “So where does that leave us?”

  The cop frowned. “Well, the tweaker hasn’t had any contact with the outside but his lawyer sure has. Do you know who Larsen Tyrell is?”

  I grunted. “I do.” Larsen was the guy that took the cases the rest of us wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole. He was the guy that represented drug runners and human traffickers. He was the guy that got child pornographers set free and the guy that reveled in the media attention when he boldly and unashamedly represented cop killers and serial rapists.

  “Larsen is the druggie’s attorney. He also represents Aitor Acosta. When the kid was picked up the night of the robbery, he was babbling that he had to rob the bar because he owed Acosta a shit ton of cash. The kid was supposed to sit on a stash that he went and picked up from the border, but we all know what happens when you put a junkie in charge of several kilos of coke.”

  I swore again and pulled even harder on my now out of control hair. “He blew through the stash on his own and didn’t have the drugs or the money to give to his supplier.”

  “Yep. So Acosta sent the thugs looking for the goods. They shook up the girlfriend and that was enough to scare Dalton into robbing the bar so he could go on the run. Aitor has ties to every major Mexican gang operating behind bars. We think the kid told Larsen the girl has the stash, and that Larsen passed that info on to his other client. Dalton is trying to cover his own ass, like he has been from the beginning. He passed the buck to the girl, just like he did with the robbery.”

  “Son of a bitch.” My hand curled tightly around the handle of my bag and I had to breathe slowly and deeply to keep myself from throwing a fist into the nearest wall. “He’s going to get her killed.”

  The cop nodded in agreement and rocked back on his heels a little bit. “Understandably, the lawyer couldn’t tell us anything, but the way Dalton clammed up when he was ready to give us everything he had on Acosta and his operation speaks volumes. The D.A. had a pretty sweet deal on the table considering there were multiple felonies involved, but as soon as Larsen got involved, all of that information was taken off the table. We’re pretty sure the kid is being offered protection on the inside until the trial is over and until the drugs are found … which we know they won’t be.” He gave me a pointed look. “Since nothing is official, and all we have is speculation, and a sleazy lawyer with zero morals to go on, there isn’t much the DPD can do for her. She landed herself right in the middle of a big, fat, dangerous mess.”

  I pressed down on the corners of my eyes next to my nose as I felt the pounding of a headache start to throb there. “She is way too comfortable being right there. I’ll pass along the information to her and her parents so everyone knows to be hyperalert. Thanks for the information.”

  The cop snorted again as we moved to get on the elevator. “No problem. I usually consider you one of the guys that plays for the opposite team, but that girl …” He trailed off and all I could do was silently agree with him.

  That girl … there was just something about her. She made you want to help her, to heal her, to protect her, even as she blindly chased after the very things that would hurt her, the things that would leave wounds on her mind, body, and soul.

  When I got to my truck, I already had my tie off and had stripped out of my jacket. Avett had texted back that she was making dinner for everyone, so I should be ready to eat when I got to her mom’s house. After her reaction to my kitchen in my loft, I figured she liked to cook, but considering her age, I figured I was in store for something simple like spaghetti and meatballs. When I was twenty-two, I lived off pizza and Chinese food. Lottie didn’t cook, and when I was in school and working to pay for it, there was no way I had time to be domestic. So even if it was something simple out of a jar and a box, I told myself to pretend that it was haute cuisine because there was no way I wanted to hurt her feelings and run the risk of her deciding to stay with her parents instead of coming with me.

  In the twenty minutes it took me to get across town and down into the Baker neighborhood where Avett’s mom lived, I decided that with the danger swirling around her and the scales in our relationship tipping into something far more serious than I had planned on, we needed to get away for a few days. She needed a breather from everything that had been tumbling down on top of her since the night she was arrested, and I needed a few days to acquire some peace of mind, where I knew she would be safe and secure. We had to go somewhere that no one would think to look for either of us. I wanted a place that was nearly impossible to get to. It was a place that was hidden and remote. I wanted her to see the area I had come from and to show her the man I had been, so that she would understand that we weren’t as different at the core of who we were as she believed us to be. I was going to show her where I called home and where I swore I would never, ever return to. This girl had been bringing me back to the start since the beginning.

  Taking her to my mountains meant letting her see a part of me that I had spent most of my adult life trying to cover up. Taking her with me, back into the past, meant there was no more hiding behind the gloss and shine of all the things in my life I used as camouflage. It also meant I was going to have to be as real with her as she had been with me from the very start, and that thought scared me to death. The last time I’d been honest about who I was, where I came from, I was packing my bags and headed off to boot camp a million and one years ago. That much reality at one time was going to be difficult to wade my way through, but the idea of stripping off the façade, of walking through the smoke screen and coming out on the other side as someone of substance, as a man of actual value and worth, instead of one that was nothing more than a disguise, was acutely stirring.

  When I got to her mother’s house, Avett threw open the door before I even lifted my hand to knock. I fell back a step as she hurled herself at me and I caught her with a soft “Oomph” as her tiny body slammed full force into mine. Her arms twined around my neck and her legs wrapped around my waist as I put a hand under her rear end to hold her up as her mouth slanted skillfully across my parted lips. I wrapped my free arm around her back and pulled her closer to me, enjoying the way her tongue tasted like something citrusy and tart and the way she moaned into my mouth as I deepened the kiss and used my teeth on her bottom lip. More than any of that, I got lost in how good it felt to have her excited to see me, the rush of having someone actually give a damn that I was gone all day. I couldn’t recall Lottie ever offering me more than a strained grin when I came home from a difficult day in court.

  Avett pulled back and put one of her hands on my che
ek as I slowly let her slide down my body. Her eyes sparkled with mischief when her middle dragged across the obvious arousal now tenting the front of my pants. “How was court?”

  I rubbed my thumb across the plump and damp curve of her lower lip and looked past her into the house to make sure I wasn’t going to have to dodge one of Brite’s flying fists for groping his daughter in broad daylight. “Court was court. How was your day with your folks?”

  She shrugged and stepped away from me, eyeing the bulge in my pants with a sexy little leer.

  “It was fine. I talked to my mom and worked some things out, so that was good. She reminded me that everyone has a story … not only me.” She looked down at the ground and then back up at me with what I was pretty sure was pride shining out of her colorful eyes. “I told my parents everything that happened with Autumn and everything that happened afterwards. My dad didn’t look at all surprised and my mom cried. It was a good talk.” Her gaze skipped away from mine and landed on the front of my pants. “Do you need a few minutes before we go inside?” She was laughing at me and while that normally made me feel furious and affronted, coming from her, all I wanted to do was smile at her and indulge her.

  “I do need a few minutes, but not for that. I want to talk to you about something.” Her eyes widened and her brow wrinkled in an adorable fashion. I reached out to smooth the lines with my finger. “The police determined your house was burned down on purpose, Avett.”

  She gasped a little and lifted a hand up to cover her mouth. “Really?”

  I nodded and brushed my thumb over her winged eyebrow. “Yeah, and they think the guys that came looking for you when Jared ran off with that last stash are behind it. They’re looking for the drugs and if they can’t get their hands on the goods, then they’re going to come after you.”

  She scowled and crossed her arms across her chest in a defiant manner. “I never saw the drugs. I knew he was using, but I didn’t know how deep in Jared was. I would never agree to participate in something like that.”

  “I know that, but the guys with the missing drugs don’t. Jared is all about Jared, so there is a high possibility he is telling the guys in charge that you took the product and stashed it somewhere. He’s buying time while he’s locked up, and his story is still that you were behind the robbery. He’s put you directly in the line of fire.”

  Her mouth moved, but no sound came out as cold, stark fear moved into her eyes. “What if they come after my parents? What if they come after you?”

  Her voice was barely a squeak and I couldn’t resist reaching out and pulling her into my chest. I rested my cheek on the top of her head and told her, “They want the dope and they will go about the most efficient means of getting it. I’m going to tell your dad what’s going on so he can keep an eye out, but I think you’re the one that needs to be protected. Not everyone else. We should take the weekend and go out of town. We can take a few days off so you don’t have to worry about what’s next. What’s next can wait until we get back, and hopefully by then the police will have a better handle on things. We’ll take the bike and go for a ride. I promise to take you someplace safe.”

  She looked a little shell-shocked but nodded at me as she bit down on her lower lip. “What happens after the weekend, Quaid? The threat isn’t going to go away and it’s going to affect the people that matter the most to me.”

  “Let’s get through the weekend and the trial, then we’ll figure something out. Once Jared realizes he’s facing serious time behind bars, and that his lawyer has a bigger agenda than defending him, the kid might change his tune and we can leverage that to get to his supplier.” I didn’t have a better answer for her than that, and I wasn’t going to placate her with easy words and assurances, because I wanted her to stay alert and ready. The threat to her was very real and it made me want to wrap her up in padding and bubble wrap and put her on the highest shelf so no one could ever get to her.

  She bobbed her head up and down under my chin and her arms went around my waist so that she could squeeze me back. “Sounds like you’re suddenly working for the prosecution, Counselor. That’s the other team.”

  I let her go and set her away from me far enough so that I could bend down and brush my mouth across hers. “I’m Team Avett right now. That’s the only team I’m interested in seeing win. Now, why don’t we go in before your dad comes looking for us.”

  She barked out a laugh and turned to lead me into the house. “He’d be madder about your imported bike than he would that you had your hands on me, Quaid. He’s knows exactly how I am, but not buying American … well, that’s an unforgivable sin to a Harley man.”

  I’d heard it from more than one motorcycle enthusiast, but I didn’t like the idea that her dad, a man I had nothing but respect and admiration for, had a reason to find fault with me. No matter how superficial it was.

  “I like to go fast.” And I liked the way the Italian bike handled. I also liked that when I rode, I had to concentrate, to focus on the asphalt and the turns. When I rode, there was no room for anything other than the ride. It was the closest thing I had to wildness and freedom in my life. At least it was until Hurricane Avett crashed onto my shores.

  Speaking of my tempest, she looked over her shoulder at me with a grin I wanted to kiss off her face. “Don’t I know it.”

  We made our way through the comfortable and cozy ranch-style home and my senses lit up with how normal and welcoming it all was. Brite rose from where he was sitting on the couch, offering me a hand to shake, and Darcy gave me a smile that was missing so much of the tension and strain that had been on her face the last time I saw her. Avett patted me on the arm and told me she was going to finish up in the kitchen and that we could all eat in ten minutes. When she mentioned food, I realized the entire house smelled like something fragrant and delicious. That was no Ragu or Hamburger Helper coming out of the kitchen.

  “Smells good.” I took a seat on a well-worn recliner and looked at Avett’s parents. I was waiting for the third degree or an interrogation. All I got was nods and easy smiles.

  “The girl is a natural in the kitchen. She can cook circles around me and I’ve spent years running professional and not so professional kitchens.” The pride in Darcy’s voice was evident.

  I lifted a hand to smooth down my hair and offered up my own rueful grin. “I was expecting spaghetti sauce out of a jar and maybe some frozen garlic bread.”

  Brite let out a booming laugh and slapped his knee. “No. When Avett gets it in her head to prepare a meal, it’s all from scratch and tastes like you should be paying her for the honor of eating it. When it was just me and her, I wasn’t around a lot because of my hours at the bar. She had free run of the kitchen. The leftovers she had waiting for me were better than anything you could get at any five-star restaurant in LoDo. The girl is a natural when it comes to food and I think in her own way that’s how she cares for the people that matter to her. She can feed them. Tonight she made chicken picatta and homemade pasta.”

  No one would ever accuse Brite of not being an observant man. I had wondered where Avett’s enthrallment with my kitchen came from and his insight into his complicated daughter made a lot of sense. She knew how to cook and how to do it well. She knew she wouldn’t screw it up, so that was how she went about caring for those that she loved. That was her gift and she wanted to share it. My mouth started to water at the same time my heart flipped over in my chest. I couldn’t hold back a soft, “Damn.”

  I pushed my suddenly acute hunger to the back of my mind and filled Brite and Darcy in on what the detective had told me hours earlier. Brite looked furious when I was done talking and Darcy nervously twisted her hands together. I told them my plans to take their daughter out of town for the weekend and was stunned that there was no argument. Brite agreed it was a good idea for her to lay low as much as possible until the trial, and assured me that when we got back to town he would rally the troops to make sure she was never alone. Darcy watched me, speculati
vely, and simply nodded as she muttered, “You’re both going to need to be very careful.” I wasn’t sure if she was referring to me being in danger because of the situation surrounding Avett, or if she was talking about the way her daughter and I were bound to detonate into an explosion of heartbreak and anguish by the time we were done falling in love with one another.

  Avett hollered that dinner was ready and we all moved to the dining room. She wasn’t merely a good cook, she was something magical. The food tasted better than anything I had ever put in my mouth, and I couldn’t stop telling her how impressed I was. She blushed prettily as easy conversation flowed around the table, and when I got her back to my loft a few hours later, I thanked her for dinner and for sharing her family properly in the shower, several times. The first time I thanked her on my knees, with her leg thrown over my shoulder and my mouth buried in her core as she pulled on my hair and demanded I give her more. The second time I thanked her, I did it with her bent over in front of me with her hands on those slate tiles I couldn’t even see because I was focused on the way water sluiced down the sexy curve of her spine, and the way it made her cotton-candy-colored hair stick to her skin as I pounded into her from behind.

  Losing myself in her sweet body over and over again did more to cleanse the cobwebs that clung to me from the dirty victory in court today than any amount of hot water and scrubbing could. She made me feel renewed. She made me feel improved. She made me feel like hearing her come on a long sigh, with my name dancing off her lips, was the only victory that was ever going to matter ever again.

  After we had the bathroom cleaned up and the things we were going to need to get through the weekend in the mountains packed into two backpacks, I took her to bed and told her I would keep her safe. I told her she had a real gift with food and that I really liked her parents. I told her that I liked the way she told me hello today, and that I really liked going to bed with her. She let me give her the words, she let me hold her close, and she didn’t ask for anything else.

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