-Sweet Justice Excerpt-

          Justice.

          Did any word sound sweeter?

          Too bad Finn had nearly lost all hope of finding it after all these years.

          To add to the frustration, he was an FBI agent with resources civilians didn’t have access to.

          Still, he hunted.

          And as of—he glanced at his Bvlgari watch—an hour and a half ago—he possibly caught his first break in a very long time.

          The loud rap came at his back door, and he knew who stood on his porch before the doorknob turned. Oscar Finn stood from the kitchen chair, the leather sticking to the dried sweat on his legs and bare back, feeling like he’d stripped away the top layers of his skin.

          Ronan Tran opened the door, disappointment on his face, not surprise.

          Ronan had come dressed for an upscale drinks night out in Alpine—designer slacks, Brioni button-up with the sleeves rolled up to mid-forearm.

          Alpine, Wyoming was a bit of a drive over windy mountain roads from their location in Murdock, but it had been too long since they’d taken a night off. Especially since controversial shock jockey, Nathan Quest had been gunned down on Murdock’s mostly quiet streets a few months before.

          “You haven’t even showered,” Ronan said.

          Finn reached for his tank and slipped the sweat-dampened shirt over his head. Ronan’s eyes dropped to the pile of papers on the kitchen table. Finn couldn’t remember making the conscious decision to shove the table against the half-wall to keep the piles from falling off the other side. But since Finn tended to down his meals standing at the kitchen counter, it wasn’t like he needed the table space for eating.

          “I just—” Finn cut himself off. Anything he added to that sentence would only make Ronan ask more questions, and Finn didn’t have it in him to argue on a Friday night after a long week. He hitched his thumb over his shoulder in the direction of his bedroom. “Give me fifteen minutes, and I’ll be ready.”

           “You completely forgot we had plans, didn’t you?”

Finn didn’t bother denying the truth. Ronan, no doubt, saw it on his face. They’d been friends since grade school. Not even Finn’s ex-wife knew him inside and out the way Ronan did.

          Ronan tossed him an aggrieved smile. “You confirmed two hours ago. You were heading out for your run, and then we’d—”

          “I know.” Finn went to brush by Ronan to take his shower, even though the last thing he wanted to do was go out. But Finn had agreed to go, so he wouldn’t go back on his word.

          Ronan caught his shoulder. “Sit.”

          His friend had that quiet, no-nonsense tone that tended to get peoples’ attention. Even Finn’s.

          “You telling me as my boss or as my friend?”

          “Jesus Christ, Finn, does it matter?” Dropping his hand, Ronan took a step back. The exasperation hit Finn almost as hard as Ronan’s earlier disappointment had.

Instinctively, Finn knew there’d be a breaking point when Ronan decided being his friend was no longer worth the effort even after Ronan had stuck by Finn’s side all through the years. Even during the darkest times after his sister’s death.

          Finn’s ex-wife, Sondra, had found her breaking point a lot sooner. Ronan would find his as well.

          Ronan was a stubborn, persistent fuck, but it was only a matter of time.

          Finn dropped into the chair he’d vacated at the end of the table next to the wall, and Ronan pulled out the one beside him.

          With his thumb, Ronan’s riffled the stack of papers of the police file in front of him that included some of his sister’s crime scene photos. A photo of his sister’s body before the coroner had her removed her from the scene flicked by. “Oscar, I—”

          “You did not just first-name me,” Finn said.

          Ronan almost smiled. “Thought it would get your attention.”

          Finn scrubbed his hands over his face and caught a whiff of himself. “Can you hold that thought? I really need a shower.”

          Ronan followed him down the hall of the three-bedroom bungalow Finn had bought, gutted, and restored after his divorce. Not that he was home enough to enjoy it. He could have afforded newer and much better but having wealth didn’t mean he had to have more. He had all he needed right here.

          You don’t have Soto.

          But that wasn’t something that would ever change, so he shoved that unwelcome thought out of his mind.           Money couldn’t buy everything. Least of all, a woman like Soto.

          She has a first name. Maria. Maybe if you used it instead of treating her like one of your men, you might make some headway.

          No. She worked directly under him. Did. Does. Hell, he didn’t even know anymore. He couldn’t allow himself to think about the possibility of her not returning to his joint task force once her medical leave ended.

You certainly don’t have a problem thinking about her when you can’t sleep at night, when you reach your hand down and—

          “It’s been twenty-five years.” Ronan followed Finn into the bedroom and straddled the corner of Finn’s bed when he sat. “You really think you’re going to find who killed your sister after all this time? The police never found anything.”

          In his bathroom, Finn stilled. Ronan’s words landed like a nauseating kick to the balls. They made his stomach queasy, and sweat form at his hairline. Good thing Finn hadn’t had dinner yet. He tossed his running shirt into the hamper and almost told Ronan about the text Massey Yates, the computer guru over at Steele-Wolfe Securities, had sent him.

          But considering Ronan’s words, he thought better of it. “The police never found anything because they didn’t even try.”

          Finn wasn’t telling Ronan anything he didn’t already know. He hooked his thumbs into the waistband of his running shorts and stopped. He looked at Ronan pointedly over his shoulder. “Do you mind?”

          “I’ve seen your junk before. I’ve had bigger. And you never had any modesty anyway. Don’t change the subject. I’m trying to talk some sense into you. Maybe I should have tried harder when you got the hair-brained idea for us to join the FBI years ago.”

          “Maybe you should address your boundary issues.” Finn dropped his shorts and underwear because Ronan clearly wasn’t going anywhere. He started the shower and stepped in before the water warmed.

Ronan didn’t say anything for a bit, then Finn caught movement out of the corner of his eye.

          “I don’t have a problem with boundaries,” Ronan said.

          Finn turned and looked through his shower’s frosted glass. He couldn’t see Ronan clearly, but he could make out his friend’s general shape. “You standing in my bathroom doorway while I shower would say otherwise.

          “I’m not here to talk about me.”

          “I thought that’s why you wanted to go out? To get some advice about that woman you—”

          “That was before I walked into your house and found your sister’s files all over the kitchen. Again.”

          He didn’t have the balls to tell Ronan that he’d taken the files out several months before and had been working on them almost nightly. If they both hadn’t been so busy, Ronan would have been over to his house earlier and found out for himself.

          Finn finished rinsing and turned off the water. Ronan tossed him a thick, fluffy towel off the warming rack. He rubbed his face dry when all he wanted to do was scream into the towel. No matter what people said, he wouldn’t—couldn’t—give up until he brought his sister’s killer to justice in whatever form that took.

           She deserved no less.

          He wrapped the towel around his waist and stepped out of the shower. He glowered at his oldest friend. “You’re starting to sound like everyone else. I thought you were on my side. On Ali’s side.”

          “Fuck you.” The hurt flashed in Ronan’s dark eyes as he tossed Finn a fresh pair of gym shorts and a T-shirt.           Finn couldn’t say he was disappointed that Ronan had given up on the idea of going out. “I’ve been by your side from day one. I joined the FBI because of you. And I’ve fucking looked the other way for you, for Ali, when you and I both know it could have cost us our careers.”

          Finn leaned in, a tight leash on his words when he said, “I never asked you to do any of that.”

          “No. You didn’t. But you’re my friend. You didn’t have to ask.”

          Whatever head of steam Finn had been building dissipated. “Turn around so I can get dressed.”

          Ronan rolled his eyes and turned his back to Finn. “Just because I’m bi doesn’t mean I’m into you.”

          Finn only caught the hint of frustration in Ronan’s voice because he knew his friend so well. “You know damn good and well it has nothing to do with that.”

          “Then what’s it have to do with ?”

          “Expecting a little privacy in my own damn house.” Under normal circumstances, Ronan wasn’t argumentative or defensive. It was one of the things that made him so effective at his job. Something was up, but Finn would circle back around to that later.

          Finn pulled on his underwear and shorts and reached for his T-shirt. “I’m decent.”

          Ronan turned around. “I’m not finished with you. Where’s your Scotch?”

          “Same place it always is.” Finn followed Ronan down the hall.

          Ronan veered into the den as Finn continued into the kitchen. Ronan trailed after him a couple of minutes later, carrying two crystal whiskey glasses and one of Finn’s finer bottles of single malts. Maybe it was a good thing they weren’t heading into Alpine. Now, if they climbed too far into that bottle, they wouldn’t have to worry about finding a ride home.

                                                                               # # #

          Maria Soto pulled up to the Steele-Wolfe Securities’ building Friday evening, surprised to find cars in the parking lot, the roll-up doors on the lower level open, and the obstacle lights as bright as the Vegas Strip.

          Wyatt Wolfe, her soon-to-be boss and co-owner of Steele-Wolfe with his wife Geneva and partner Gil Brant, had requested she meet him inside to sign the final hiring documents.

          She should have been excited to start this new chapter of her career, but if she were honest, she’d spent enough years with the DEA, assigned to the local joint task force that even as she welcomed the change, a part of her heart would remain with the task force.

          You mean with Finn.

          Dios mio. Yeah, him, too. She wasn’t afraid to admit that, but a person couldn’t subject themselves to unrequited love forever.

          No, it was time for her to move on. There were plenty of men out there that could love her despite what she did for a living.

          What about finding someone who loves you because of what you do for a living? Don’t sell yourself short, chica.

          Yeah, well, she’d held out for that with no luck, so she would settle for the other if, or when, the time came.

          She climbed out of her red Rogue dressed for a workout at the facility after signing her employment documents, not expecting nearly everyone else from Steele-Wolfe to be there as well. But it wasn’t like she wouldn’t have to share the facility with them every day, so she might as well get used to it now. It would be harder to hide the limp she develops after a hard workout, but she’d dealt with that for a few months now.

          A month before, medical had cleared her after her undercover task force operation had turned into a shootout that left her with a bullet wound to the leg and two suspects dead. One from the hands of one of the suspects, one from hers.

          But being medically cleared didn’t mean that she didn’t hurt physically.

          Or mentally.

          Steele-Wolfe had offices on the facility’s second level, leaving the lower level for workout equipment, sparring mats, and various equipment. In the entryway, she considered taking the elevator to spare her leg the strain of the stairs, but since she thought about doing that, she made herself hike the stairs.

          She made it to the top with barely a twinge. The last time she’d climbed those steps a couple of months before, she’d stepped onto the floor with a limp she couldn’t hide. At least this time, she hadn’t opened the door to find Finn on the other side.

          The time before, she’d come to talk to Wyatt, unsure if she wanted to leave the DEA and her home with the task force. But after running into Finn—now her former boss—she’d recognized it was past time to move on.

          Emotionally, that is. He’d made that abundantly clear.

          Along with window offices, the upper floor also had a few dorm-style rooms, a kitchenette, and a large communal diamond-shaped conference table with banks of monitors overhead, so everyone had a good view of shared information.

          Massey, the company’s computer tech, and another man she hadn’t met yet had a stack of electronic equipment laid out on the conference table and were packing it all into protective travel cases.

Massey was sitting in his wheelchair, organizing all the cords. He had the kind of smile that pulled you in and made you want to be his best friend, especially when he focused that smile on you. “Here for good, now?”

          “All done but the signing.”

          The other man stepped over with minimal assistance from a cane and offered his hand. “Isaac Lang. I’m only filling in while Gil is on paternity leave.”

          She’d heard about Lang. He’d been Gil’s handler when Gil had been deep undercover with the ATF. Lang had barely escaped with his life when a bullet ripped through him, nicking his spine and nearly leaving him paralyzed from the waist down. Looked like she wasn’t the only one looking for work in the private sector.

          Then again, everyone at Steele-Wolfe, except Massey, had former ties to law enforcement in one way or another.

          “Glad to meet you.” Maria shook his hand. “I hope to see you around. Where are you two headed?”

          “Savannah. A surveillance case,” Massey said. “Heading out in the morning, but we shouldn’t be gone more than a week or two.”

          Wyatt hung up his phone and walked out of his corner office to greet her. His welcoming grin settled some of the nervous gremlins kicking around in Maria’s stomach and making it ache.

          “I’ve got the papers in the office. Shouldn’t take long. Then we can meet everyone on the obstacle course. Winner gets a six-pack.”

          Maria had no chance of winning, but she didn’t want to skip out on a team-building experience on her first day of employment. She had nothing to prove to Wyatt. He knew her limitations… mostly.

By the time they finished signing all the paperwork, Isaac and Massey had cleared out with the equipment, leaving it on a dolly downstairs beside a white van.

          “You don’t have to do this,” Wyatt said as they walked to the obstacle course. “It’s all in good fun, and no one will think less of you if you don’t want to participate.”

          “Oh, hell no,” Maria said, not sure if that comment was more for Wyatt or herself. She hated having the injury, but she refused to back out of a friendly wager. And who knew, maybe she’d surprise herself. She’d worked with weights. She’d worked up her stamina for running. But she hadn’t yet pushed herself the way an obstacle course would.

          She had a lot to prove.

          More to herself than anyone out there watching.

          At the obstacle course, Massey had switched from his wheelchair to his crutches. Isaac stood nearby, taking the money for friendly side wagers, egging everyone on. Gil and Jericho would face off first on the course. Apparently, not even being on paternity leave could keep him from a little friendly competition.

          “Get him, Dad!” A six or seven-year-old kid sat in the grass, not too far away from the start, next to a baby’s car seat on the ground with a light blanket snuggled around a sleeping baby. How the baby could sleep with all the laughter and good-natured ribbing, Maria would never know.

          “Stay with your sister,” Gil said. “This will only take a couple of minutes.”

          The kid rolled his eyes. “Duh.”

          Still, Gil caught Geneva’s eye, and she nodded, indicating she’d keep an eye out as well.

          Gil walked over, ruffled the dark mop of hair on top of the kid’s head, and approached the starting line. Wyatt raised an arm as he took a stopwatch out of his pocket. “On your mark…”

          Jericho and Gil dropped down like they were in the starting blocks, grins on their faces. Jericho wasn’t a small man, but Gil was the type of big that made other big men look small. Jericho playfully shoved Gil in the shoulder a fraction of a second before Wyatt dropped his hand. Gil didn’t falter.

          They tore off in a sprint, over the rows of belly busters, across the easy balancer, under the belly crawl, over the inclining wall, through the monkey bars, swinging over the water hazard, and finally to scale the vertical wall with the climbing rope.

          Everyone else hurried down the side of the course, cheering the men on, not caring who won. Gil gained headway when he could sprint, surprisingly fast for a man of his size, but Jericho outperformed him on the areas requiring more upper body strength. That was where his relatively smaller frame allowed him to excel.

          On the last obstacle, Gil hit the vertical wall first, but Jericho scrambled over it like a monkey, dropping down to the raised platform on the other side and jumping the few feet to the ground, sprinting across the finish line a step ahead of Gil.

          They both bent at the waist, catching their breaths, sweat rolling off their bodies even as the night caught a chill. The little boy came running down with the biggest smile on his face, not caring that Gil hadn’t won.           “Daddy!”

          “You were supposed to stay with your sister.” Gil’s head popped up, catching the boy in his arms, his eyes immediately traveling down the length of the obstacle where he’d left the baby. He found Geneva walking up the course with the sleeping baby on her shoulder.

          “I hope it was okay,” she said. “I told Jack I’d watch the baby.”

          “It’s fine.” His son jumped down, and Gil took his daughter, his hands engulfing the little girl. The gentleness Maria witnessed by this hulk of a man had the back of her eyes stinging.

          Ohmygod. She needed to get back to work and bury herself in a case if the sight of a man holding his baby made her want to cry.

          All that time off work was making her soft.

          You know there’s nothing wrong with having emotions, right?

          Maybe not, but being in a male-dominated profession, she’d learned to bury hers deep under a thick layer of cynicism and sarcasm.

          Cassie and Geneva raced next, having trouble getting through the course not because they didn’t have the strength but because they couldn’t stop laughing and badmouthing each other.

          “Go, Cassie!” Massey hollered, waving a crutch in the air. “You go, girl,” he added when she sprinted through the finish line as Geneva came over the top of the climbing wall.

          Maria glanced back at Massey, then a few feet behind him where Isaac stood, his attention on Massey.

          Isaac caught her watching, his face flushing red under the vapor lights. Man, if only Finn looked at her the way Isaac looked at Massey, all lust, need, and hunger.

          Maria glanced away, feeling like she was intruding.

          “Can I talk to you a minute?” Gil’s good humor had vanished.

          At first, Maria thought Gil was talking to her but realized he was looking straight past her. She turned. Isaac stood with his hands on his hips, and a what’s your problem? expression on his face. He stepped into the grass as           Gil bore down on him with the baby nestled against his neck. His voice a harsh whisper as he took Isaac aside.

          Cassie and Geneva walked by, giving each other a high five. Wyatt clapped Maria on the shoulder, jogging backward toward the starting line. “You and me next.”

          It wasn’t like she wouldn’t take her boss up on the challenge. But she wouldn’t go easy on him either. If he wanted to win, he’d have to work for it. She grinned. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

          He pointed down at her feet. “Your shoe is untied.”

          She squatted to tie it. With everyone walking back to the start, she couldn’t help but overhear Gil and Isaac’s hushed but heated conversation.

          She caught Isaac’s words in the middle of a sentence. “… I don’t know what’s going on in that thick skull of yours or what you think of my prowess when it comes to men, but I can assure you even I can’t turn someone gay.”

          “Damn it, you know that’s not what I meant,” Gil ground out, the baby starting to fuss on his shoulder.

          “Then what do you mean?”

          “Maybe it would be better if I took this case with Massey. I—”

          “You’re on paternity leave. And that’s beside the fucking point. You don’t think I can keep my work and private life separate. You don’t think I can maintain boundaries,” Isaac’s voice rose above a harsh whisper catching the attention of everyone at the start of the obstacle course, though they were probably too far away to hear the words.

          Maria hurried up and double knotted her shoelace to give them their privacy, though they didn’t seem overly concerned about who heard.

          Then Isaac’s voice dropped again as he leaned in and added, “You don’t think I know that Massey isn’t into guys. I know that. I’m fine with that.”

          “You say that now. But you’re going to be holed up with him for—”

          Maria started walking away, and Isaac’s voice rose higher.

          “Fuck you. And fuck the fuck right off.”

          Isaac went to brush by Gil, knocking into his other shoulder as he passed, startling the fussy baby awake. The baby started crying.

          Gil patted his daughter’s back. “I don’t want to see you get hurt, Isaac.”

          Isaac turned around, giving him a double-barrel shot of the bird. “I could do without your concern.”

          Isaac strode ahead, and with Gil’s long strides, he quickly caught up to Maria as he patted his baby, talking softly to his daughter as he tried to get her to settle. “I’m sorry you had to hear that.”

          “It was kind of hard not to. Want a bit of advice?” She didn’t expect he did, but she’d give it a shot.

          “Yeah.” His response didn’t even sound sarcastic.

          “Do you trust your friend?”

          Without a fraction of a second’s hesitation, he said, “With my life.”

          “Then trust him to navigate whatever he’s got going on. Who knows. Maybe Massey is into him, too.”

          “Massey is straight.”

          “Massey told you that?” One thing Maria had learned was that sexuality was a wide spectrum. You couldn’t make assumptions about a person.

          “I’ve only seen him date women.”

          “Doesn’t mean he’s straight.”

          That shut Gil up. “You’re right. Maybe I should butt out of something that isn’t any of my business.”

          Maria grinned at him. “Always a good policy.”

          Gil shook his head but chuckled to himself, his baby girl squirming in his arms. Finally, Gil peeled off course and headed for the diaper bag.

          As Maria stretched her legs, she heard Gil call out to Isaac, “Hey man, I owe you an apology.”

          She glanced up to see Isaac straighten, a crooked smile on his face. “This ought to be good.”

          She headed for the starting line—too far away now to make out Gil’s words—preparing to get her ass kicked but determined to make it as close a race as possible.

        

Sweet Justice by Vicki Tharp.jpg