MATERIAL WITNESS by LA Mondello
Who does she trust when she’s living the real-life horror of one of her crime novels…
Bestselling crime novelist Cassie Alvarez, aka Cassie Lang, has murder on her mind when she walks into Rory's Bar underdressed and undercover to research her latest crime novel. Researching the cool, blue-eyed and dashingly handsome man at the end of the bar stirs her senses more than she wants to admit. But is this man of leather armor all he appears to be?
Playing White Knight to an innocent wasn't how Detective Jake Santos planned to spend his time undercover. But there’s no way "CJ" is what she claims to be, and that nagging tightness in Jake's chest tells him he'd better take her home to safety and leave it at that. Then the barroom explodes with gunfire, leaving a trail of dead that includes a notorious Providence crime boss and an undercover FBI agent. When Cassie’s name is leaked to the media as the only witness to the grisly murders, Cassie insists she only trusts Jake to protect her.
The FBI wants their star witness happy and will do anything to make sure Cassie testifies. But it is clear to Jake that the shooter isn’t the only person who wants Cassie dead. Not knowing who to trust, he vows to protect Cassie at all cost despite the fact that guarding the beautiful novelist is a serious distraction.
* * * * *
She was going to kill Maureen. There was no doubt about it now.
Cassie Alvarez yanked down the hem of her too-short red spandex mini-dress, trying to conceal what every man with a pulse at Rory's seemed to be ogling over. She was tired, cold and exposed, but it was no use. No matter how much she covered her bare flesh, she was all out there like the woman of the night she was pretending to be.
Damn Maureen…and damn her for listening.
It had taken Cassie all of ten seconds after seating herself at the bar to realize just how big a mistake she’d made in coming to a bar owned by one of Providence’s most notorious crime bosses. When you walk through fire, you get burned. With all the stares she’d gotten just walking across the floor, she felt like burnt toast.
Definitely murder. It was her forte. The only question left was how? She’d plotted many murders in the past. She was good at it. And nothing was too harsh for what Maureen was putting her through tonight. The least Maureen could have done was come here with her since it was her idea.
Maureen’s idea. But despite all the convincing, Cassie couldn’t figure out exactly why she’d actually agreed. Her editor had always been good at pulling her strings. And that nauseated Cassie even more than having her thighs stuck to the barstool.
Note to self: Learn to assert yourself with your editor even if she is your best friend.
Cassie vowed to do just that right after she was finished wringing Maureen's bony little neck.
Turning her attention to her diet soda, Cassie used her red-striped straw to play with the maraschino cherry that had sunk to the bottom of the glass. The bartender wiped the polished surface of the bar as he made his way closer to Cassie. She made eye contact with him when came close enough. With her hand still holding the sweating glass, he snatched her drink and dumped the contents into a bucket behind the counter.
“Hey, I was still drinking that.”
“You’ve been stirring it for an hour. It’s nothing but melted ice and you’re making a mess of my bar. Doesn’t look good. Here’s another one.”
Before she could protest further, he had a clean glass full of ice under the soda fountain and was filling it.
“Don’t worry. I don’t expect you to tip me twice.”
While her mouth was still dropped open, he made his way down to the other end of the bar, wiping as he went. She'd give anything to be home right now wearing her favorite Boston Bruins tee-shirt and the Brown University sweat pants that, even though they’d seen better days, Cassie refused to give up. Instead of three-and-a-half-inch stilettos, her feet would be warm in her fuzzy slippers. Instead, she was stuck in a bar watching people who’d be the inspiration for her next crime novel.
“Life mimicking art,” she mumbled. “How’s that for stupidity, Cass?”
She blinked her sore eyes as the haze of the neon lights on the window assaulted them. The quickest way to get out of here was to take notes and get into the head of her character. How could she write about a woman who was so devastated by circumstance, who felt trapped in a life beyond her control, if she hadn’t lived it? She needed to step outside herself to break this block.
The room was thinning out now, but there were still enough people to talk to. The couple in their fifties, arguing at a table, looked too self-absorbed to do her any good. The “suit” with the combed-over shiny head, sitting alone at a table by the bathroom, looked like he was about to fall asleep in his martini.
Cassie snapped her glance away from him as he lifted his head in her direction. Better to leave this man with his troubles and not make them one of hers.
The argument from the couple grew louder. Apparently they’d both had a little too much to drink and were loud enough for Cassie to hear every intimate detail. Someone was walking home tonight.
And then there was the black-armored thug seated at the end of the bar, staring at her. Yeah she’d noticed. His interest in her was unmistakable. Their gazes locked for a lingering moment. The heat in his eyes was piercing.
Cassie glanced down at her cleavage and to her bare legs. It couldn’t be the dress. There was nothing but a few scraps of fabric covering her.
Slowly, she turned to look over her shoulder, just to see if she was wrong and he was actually looking at someone else. The table behind her was empty. When she turned back, it was as if he’d caught her in a radar lock.
Terrific. “A little too eager beaver, but…” she muttered.
The guy was hunched over with his long arms draped stiffly on top of the bar with his black leather jacket encasing him like body armor. His strong jaw had a don't-fuck-with-me tightness she was sure was bred of years of hanging out in a dive like this.
Cassie wanted to feel bad for him. All of them really. What made a person come to a place like this thinking it could resolve their sorrows? She had to find out. Only then would she understand her character.
As she always did with people she encountered, Cassie began to formulate a character sketch. She couldn't quite come up with one for this guy though. He was…
Okay, so he was a good-looking thug. If she’d met him anywhere else she would have been…attracted to him. Her insides stirred violently, causing heat to rise from the pit of her stomach, up her chest and to her already warm cheeks, making them flame.
It’s only research, for God’s sake! She was only pretending to be a hooker to research her next crime novel. It wasn’t like she was actually going to pick up the guy.
She pulled her cell phone out of her purse and began texting.
You’re a dead woman, Maureen. Remind me tomorrow how much I hate you for this. Cassie pressed the send button.
A few seconds later, her phone vibrated. A quick look at the glowing screen and she saw Maureen’s name. Quit acting like a baby! You’re a grown woman. Shake your girls, ask some questions, and then get back to that computer! You’ll be writing in no time! M.
“If I shake my girls, I’ll fall out of the damned dress,” Cassie said.
The bartender must have caught her muttering because he was headed in her direction again. Before he could say anything, she said, “I’m all set.”
With a heaving sigh, Cassie turned her attention back to Mr. Thug with the cool leather jacket and smoky blue eyes. Might as well go for broke. Stretching one of her long legs over the other, tugging at the hem of the obscenely short dress to keep it in place, she tossed him her most seductive smile. She’d talk to him for two minutes tops and then she’d be gone. If she failed, she'd have to give back her advance.
Or come back here again.
Maureen would definitely make her come back.
Cassie shuddered at the thought. One evening out of her life in a bar with grease-lined walls and people was enough for any self-respecting woman. She was staying put until she gathered all the information she needed, and then she was hitting the pavement, back to her comfy but small apartment with locks and security in the nice section of the city.
CJ Carmen, the main character in all her crime novels, would have the stomach to dance right up to any one of these thugs and demand the information she needed. Too bad Cassie didn't have CJ's gumption.
That was the good thing about being a writer. No matter what problem she encountered in a book, she could keep working at it until she got it right. You couldn't do that in real life, and Cassie knew that painfully well. In real life, Cassie didn't have the grace and fluidity of CJ Carmen or the confidence with which she moved. She valued control in a world that was filled with so little of it.
Cassie took a deep breath and gathered all the courage she could muster. She’d created CJ Carmen. She could create a little gumption, too. If she had to take notes from someone, Mr. Smokey Blue Eyes seemed the most harmless of the bunch.
Which didn't say much for the clientele in Rory's.
* * *
He was a dead man. Jake Santos glanced at the clock over the line of liquor bottles neatly stored behind the bar and recalled the first rule of surviving undercover law enforcement. If your informant is five minutes late, you’ve waited four minutes too long. He’d been sitting there for fifteen minutes.
Ty would be pissed.
Jake couldn’t say he’d blame him either. His former partner had taken a bullet for following emotion instead of the rulebook. But Angel had been insistent. This case was so close to breaking wide open that another few minutes may be worth his time.
Taking a long pull on his beer, he let his eyes crawl through the seedy bar. Scum bred scum, and Rory's was about as close to the bottom of the barrel as a person got. Most everything illegal that happened in Providence started with a handshake right here at one of these tables.
Where the hell was Angel?
He tossed a ten-dollar bill on the bar and waved to the bartender. As he turned to take one last look at the room, he saw her again. Yeah, he’d noticed the leggy brunette “lady” at the far end of the bar for the past fifteen minutes. It was kind of hard not to notice someone who looked as out of place here as his grandmother would.
He dragged his gaze from her legs and let his attention drift upward toward her painted cheeks. Her dark eyes were the most prominent feature of her round face. Her eyes—from this distance they looked sable—were bright and wide, but not as if she was supporting a habit, like most other women who took to the streets. She appeared more curious than anything as her gaze swept the thinning room, almost as if she were taking mental notes.
Jake cursed under his breath. He didn’t care how much paint she had on her face, he’d bet his next paycheck she wasn’t a hooker. The only thing they gave a damn about was getting money for their next fix. This one…she was looking for something and it wasn’t a john. She was tugging at her slinky red dress, trying to hide her God-given assets instead of advertising them like most other “ladies,” was another telltale sign she was way out of her comfort zone. No matter how much her high cheekbones were tinted with color to disguise her innocence, it was there just like a neon sign that screamed “hands off.”
And her eyes were too curious. Curiosity like that was going to get her mugged, raped or dead before the night was over.
Jake took another pull from the bottle, grimacing at the warm taste of its dregs. He placed the empty bottle in the perspiration ring it had left on the polished bar. He didn’t give a damn what this woman’s reason was for being here. Now that Angel was a no show, Jake was pissed. After weeks of gaining his trust, Jake was sure tonight he'd get a personal introduction to Ritchie Trumbella, bringing him closer to making a case against the local crime boss that would finally lead to an arrest.
But Angel wasn’t here. There were only a few locals drowning their sorrows at the bottom of a glass before staggering home. Well, them and the Painted Lady at the end of the bar who he knew was headed for trouble.
Jake groaned inwardly. He'd been fooled before. It may have been a long time ago, but his memory was long. The way she was casing the place…
Damn. He was a cop. A good one, too. And Jake knew that if he didn’t get this woman out of Rory’s fast, he’d end up reading her obit in the Providence Journal tomorrow morning.
He motioned to the bartender when he appeared in front of him. Sliding off the barstool, Jake tossed a crisp twenty-dollar bill to the finely polished surface of the bar and tipped his empty beer bottle toward the woman in red.
“Send another one down to the end, and get whatever she's having.”
“Diet soda,” the bartender said, stretching his wiry gray eyebrows up in a salute. His chipmunk cheeks glowed a shade darker with amusement.
“Diet…” Jesus. There had to be one hell of a story attached to this woman. He wasn’t sure he wanted to hear it.
He pushed an errant wooden chair back into place against a table as he made his way toward the end of the bar. As he got closer, Jake noticed her eyes were impossibly dark, almost black in color. It was the kind of deep color that made a man fall into them in a drugged daze. Her mouth twitched slightly. His eyes fixed on the small beauty mark just to the side of her lips, and he wondered if she'd put it there as part of her disguise or if it was natural. He fought the sudden urge to brush his thumb along her cheek to answer his question.
“Have another?” Jake said, sliding into the stool next to her just as the bartender served the drinks and dropped the change from his twenty on the bar. Leaving the money in place, he pushed the soda the bartender just served next to the woman's already nearly full glass.
The delicate features of her face registered steep panic. If every other signal she’d given off hadn’t been enough, this one just clinched it. There was no way this woman was working.
Jake's chest squeezed uncomfortably with an emotion he didn't feel very often and wished he could will away now. He almost felt bad for the girl, scared even. Did she have a clue what she'd gotten herself into by coming here? And dressed like this?
“Thank you,” Painted Lady said softly. “But I already have a drink.” She tilted her slender shoulder slightly and…she blushed with the gesture. Good Lord, when was the last time he'd seen a woman's cheeks turn color for something so minuscule? You'd think he'd just asked her to take her clothes off for a strip search.
“This your first time?”
“Ah, no,” she stammered, averting her gaze.
“What's your name?”
Curling her fingers around the sweated glass, she took a quick sip of her soda. Those dark eyes glanced away for a second before zeroing in on him like a radar lock. The blushing woman was tossed aside like a crumpled piece of yesterday's news. A seductress on the prowl had taken her place.
Jake's insides kicked hard and then squeezed into a tight knot. He hadn’t been in the company of a woman in… He couldn't recall. It had been way too long if he couldn't remember the last time he'd had sex.
It had been his choice, of course. Women his age wanted a commitment and he was damaged goods, too detached for intimacy or some such shit the department shrink had said. Who the hell needed that?
And how else could it be? A cop needed focus. He couldn't be effective in his job with his mind clouded with thoughts of someone at home. He'd seen just how distractions could destroy, not only a cop's career, but his life.
Jake focused on the woman's lips, unable to pull his eyes from the sheen of moisture settled there. With a move that seemed too natural to be deliberate, she ran her tongue over her top lip and wiped it clean.
Heat prickled his skin beneath his heavy jacket and settled like warm molasses in the center of his belly. He'd have to deal with his sexual appetite some other time. He was working and this woman was off limits with a capital “O.”
“My name is CJ,” she finally said.
After a moment, her penciled eyebrows lifted slowly, and she cocked her head to one side. It took a minute for Jake to realize she was waiting for him to respond.
“Nice to meet you, Jake.” She thrust her hand out, apparently to shake his.
He nodded and gripped her tiny hand. It was silky soft and lost in his much larger one. She quickly snatched her hand away and rested it in her lap by the hem of dress. Another strange move. She was too nervous, too polite, and she was starting to lose some of the confidence that had suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
“Is that your real name? Jake?”
Lifting his beer to his lips, he asked, “Why would I lie?”
“Oh, I don't know. I can think of a hundred reasons why a man would want to hide his true identity.”
“You have a wife at home?”
He paused, staring at her. “Would that bother you?”
Jake had to keep himself from laughing as he took a pull from the bottle. The way CJ rose up high on her stool, he was sure she was about to say yes, which for some strange reason, made him feel good. If she were really a hooker, she wouldn't give a shit if he had a Mrs. at home. He’d be just money to her.
“That's your business. Not mine,” she said.
He nodded again. “Damn right. But I'm not married.”
He couldn't fathom why, but Jake wanted her to know that fact. It shouldn't have made a difference. There was no way he was going to take this woman to bed. But he didn't lie when it came to relationships. Lies were too easy to trip over. He’d learned that one the hard way early on in his career.
“Are you waiting for a friend?” she asked.
“Why do you ask?”
“Well, you don’t work here. That much is clear. You weren’t sitting with anyone or even talking to the bartender. I’m just wondering why someone like you would come to a place like this. What brought you here?”
His lips lifted up at the corners. “Do you always ask so many questions of people when you first meet them?”
She shrank a little in her seat. “Well, I…”
“What about you?”
“I asked you first.”
He frowned “For the record. Men tend to avoid questions in places like this.”
She looked startled. Then, almost as if she were storing that tiny bit of information away for safekeeping, her face changed.
“What do men such as yourself like?”
Jake couldn’t help but laugh. This whole picture was too absurd. He didn't know if he should be hauling CJ out of here to make curfew or lock her up for the worst solicitation he'd ever seen.
Why did his mind keep settling on pulling her into his arms and wiping that God-awful mask off her face so he could really look at her?
Lord, he was long overdue…
He needed a weekend off. Something to remind him he was still among the living where men and women and sex were concerned. Where he didn't worry about streetwalkers who needed rescuing.
He turned, about to give CJ an earful when a gust of cold wind pulled his attention back toward the open barroom door. The smell of cold March air freshened the dank odor of the room.
The man of the hour had arrived.
Jake fought to keep his reaction from showing as Ritchie Trumbella strolled into the bar like a king with his court. The two women draped on each of his arms looked much like CJ with their bodyhugger dresses and 4-inch stilettos. As soon as Ritchie greeted three men sitting at a table, he motioned to the women to move along. They walked to the end of the room toward the restroom while Ritchie surrounded himself with the rest of his entourage.
Damn! Where the hell was Angel tonight?
The older couple that had been arguing most of the evening quickly got up and left the bar.
Jake turned to CJ and saw that her eyes were like saucers, glued to the presence of this new man. If she didn't already know him, she was definitely intrigued. And he wanted to know why.
His gut twisted with her interest. And a sudden emotion that vaguely felt like…annoyance. Regardless of what he'd set out to do, he didn't want CJ to meet Ritchie Trumbella any more than he’d want his own sisters to meet the man. Trumbella was bad news and the sooner CJ understood that, the better off she'd be.
“Friend of yours?” he asked.
She snapped her attention back to him like a rabbit caught in a snare. “No. Yours?”
“You ask too many questions, CJ. You never know whose toes you're stepping on.”
“I'll keep that in mind.”
She lifted her soda to her lips again and took a sip. Then another. Jake's eyes lingered where the glass had been, then to the mark her lips had left on the sweat-lined glass.
“Who is he?” she asked, going against his warning.
How could she be here like this and not know Ritchie Trumbella? Why on earth was she here at all?
He owns Rory's.”
Ritchie Trumbella owned a whole lot of other shady dealings, too. But if CJ didn't know this legitimate one, it was doubtful she knew anything at all about his non-paper dealings.
Taking her by the arm, he said, “Let's get out of here.”
CJ's dark eyes grew impossibly wide and her mouth dropped open. Her slender body lifted high on the barstool and went statue stiff. For a minute, Jake thought she'd actually stopped breathing.
* * *
Cassie sat paralyzed on the barstool, blinking hard as the shock caused by the man in front of her set in. Sure, talking to Mr. Cool Leather Jacket with the smoky blue eyes was fine but that he was trying to pick her up… If she were sure she wouldn't fall off her heels, she'd fly for the door. No matter how attracted she was to this man, there was no way she was going to go that route if he'd been willing to be with a…
Death couldn't come too quick for Maureen.
“I think I've gathered enough…had enough soda,” she said. The backs of her thighs were sticky from sweat and made a squeaky sound as she helplessly slipped off the stool while trying to keep her dress from riding up her thighs.
Jake stood next to her, his hand still gripping her upper arm. Her body tightened with the physical contact. He smelled of leather, a hint of the beer he'd just consumed, and something else. It wasn’t the cheap, heavy cologne so many men wore. He smelled musky, very male, erotically appealing.
“What are you doing?” she demanded, trying to pull free.
“It's a good idea I take you out of here.”
“That's not necessary,” she insisted.
“It is to me.”
“I just want to make sure you get safely to your car.”
“I didn't drive,” she blurted out when his grip on her arm grew tighter.
Brilliant, Cassie. So much for a quick getaway. She could have kicked herself for throwing him the advantage. She would have if she were sure her dress would stay firmly in place.
But Jake's reaction was suddenly different from what she'd expected. His dark eyebrows drew into a tight knot on his forehead. He glanced away and dragged his fingers over a head of course dark hair, letting his hand rest on the nape of his neck. She damned herself for wanting to lose her fingers in his hair. Three years since she had a decent relationship and her body picked now, of all times, to come back to life.
“Please tell me you weren't planning on walking home in this neighborhood,” he said tightly.
She straightened her spine. “Of course not. What do you take me for?”
He tossed her the most irresistible wry grin. He didn't have to say a word for her to know what he was thinking.
“I’m not what you think.”
Another grin. This one was more irresistible than the last. Her knees suddenly turned to rubber, making it difficult to stand. She cinched her purse strap higher on her shoulder and folded her arms across her chest.
Jake cocked his head to one side. “And you're so sure you know what I'm thinking?”
“You think I'm something I'm not. And I can assure you, I am definitely not.”
He had a full-blown smile now. One with straight white teeth and a dimple on his left cheek she was sure wreaked havoc with more women than her.
“You're not all that hard to figure out, CJ.”
Indignation swelled inside her. Despite her obvious attire, she didn't like his assumption. She hadn't had sex in three years, and she definitely wasn't going to have it tonight with him.
“If you'll excuse me, I'll go catch a cab and be on my way home. Alone.”
Jake shook his head and sputtered. “CJ, you couldn't be further from the Land of Oz. Cabs don't come to this neighborhood, honey. They know better.”
Cassie groaned inwardly. That would explain the cab driver's behavior earlier when he dropped her off. Admittedly, she didn’t frequent this part of town and was more thankful that the cab driver knew how to get here than curious about his reaction. As neighborhoods go, the street didn’t look ominous, but looks were deceiving.
A crescendo of laughter had Jake glancing over his shoulder to look at the man on the other side of the room. He was the owner of the bar, Cassie recalled Jake saying.
With his movement, Jake's jacket gaped open, and she had the first glimpse of what this man hid behind his black leather armor. A Beretta was tucked firmly inside a holster against his chest. It was hidden well, but easy to find for someone trained in what to look for. Cassie knew the gleam of the metal when she saw it. She knew the weight of it in her hand and the smell of gunpowder when it ignited.
Dark memories had her heart hammering wildly in her chest. But the boisterous conversation on the other side of the bar shifted her back to her reality. Cassie glanced in that direction, but she couldn't see a thing past the wide expanse of Jake's shoulders.
As Jake leaned his arm on the bar, Cassie’s breath lodged in her throat. Her pulse hammered. And she wished to God she hadn't been curious enough to look.
* * *
Jake saw terror flash across CJ’s face. Great, she was finally beginning to understand how stupid it was for her to be here. But just as he was about to lead her to the door, her arms abruptly came up to his chest. She gripped his leather jacket, leaning into him as if she were about to climb into his lap.
Confusion mixed with heightened awareness of this enigmatic woman suddenly so close to him.
“Gun!” she screamed. With an unbelievable force, Cassie yanked him forward to the floor until his body was stretched over the length of hers. The air in the bar exploded into a spray of bullets and flying glass shards. Chairs and tables tumbled over as people screamed and scrambled for cover.
The room and everything that was happening exploded right in front of him and registered at lightning speed. Primal instinct took over. Screams, bullets, breaking glass and the sound of his own heart pumping were deafening. Jake wrapped his arm around CJ's waist, shielding her body with his own as he slowly dragged her around the corner of the bar to relative safety on the other side. She buried her head in his chest as he encased her body, protecting her from the flying glass from the shattered mirror behind the bar and the bottles of booze bursting with every hit from bullets.
It seemed to take forever for the explosion of gunfire to stop. In reality it was probably less than thirty seconds. But as soon as it started, it was over. It took another thirty seconds for Jake to get his bearings once the massacre had ended.
From outside, the cold wind whistled through the blown out windows and brought with it the sound of tires peeling out as a car sped off down the narrow side street. Before Jake even lifted his head, he knew the car was gone. Whoever did this would go unpunished unless he could find a witness.
His chest tightened where CJ's face pressed against his shirt. He didn't have to see her face to know she was crying. Her fingers clutched his shoulders in a death grip and her body shuddered helplessly beneath him.
It would make it easier on this case to have a witness, but Lord help him, he didn't want it to be this fragile woman in his arms.
# # #
Order your copy of MATERIAL WITNESS at these links below.
AMAZON: Material Witness (Romantic Suspense Novel) (Heroes of Providence)
BARNES AND NOBLE: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/material-witness-lisa-mondello/1111435794?ean=2940014788687
AMAZON: Material Witness (Romantic Suspense Novel) (Heroes of Providence)
BARNES AND NOBLE: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/material-witness-lisa-mondello/1111435794?ean=2940014788687