Free Novels Online Read Home Old Version

Perfect Redemption by Kyanna Skye (1)

Kyanna Skye

 

Copyright 2016 by Kyanna Skye - All rights reserved.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. In no way is it legal to reproduce, duplicate, or transmit any part of this document by either electronic means or in printed format. Recording of this publication is strictly prohibited, and any storage of this document is not allowed unless with written permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Respective authors own all copyrights not held by the publisher.

 


Kiefer was on his way to an appointment with a new client. He wore a dark-blue Armani suit with a silk tie, cuff links, and shoes that cost him what he used to make in an entire month. Luxuries were not a treat for him; they were a lifestyle. Since he’d started his new business with three of his closest friends only five years ago, he’d had to learn how to wear clothing meant to impress. He could do it; but it still didn’t feel entirely comfortable. He felt it didn’t fit his personality.

 Kiefer defined himself by what lay beneath his clothes. Tattoos told the story of places he had been and things he’d done. Some of the memories were pleasant, others were situations he’d barely escaped with his life. Scars on his body marked the wounds he’d collected, the battle scars of his life. Except for a small, white mark above his left eyebrow in the shape of an accent mark, his face was free from scars. He still kept himself physically fit and fight ready.  His ability to handle himself in difficult situations had saved his life more times than he could count.

But on this particular day, what was needed was his intelligence and finesse. The client, Hal Kittredge, hadn’t wanted to discuss exactly what he needed Kiefer for. It was commonplace for his clients not to share information over the phone, so he wasn’t surprised.

Hal’s office was located in the heart of Century City, in a suite on the twenty-fifth floor, which took up the entire level. The lobby of the law offices of Kittredge, Plant, and Hemmings boasted marble floors and an indoor fountain that flowed over river rock and into a small pool below.

The receptionist smiled at Kiefer as he walked in. “May I help you, sir”

“I’m here to see Mr. Kittredge.”

“Mr. Lawrence?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“Oh, he’s expecting you, sir. Come with me.”

She hopped from behind her desk, straightened her skirt, and led me down a long hallway. All the way to the back, and to the left was an office with a door that stood open. Kittredge’s back was to us, and he spoke with someone else, a woman standing at the window.

“Hal,” the receptionist called.

He turned. “Thank you, Gloria,” he said to the girl. She took off swiftly down the hallway.

“Come in, Mr. Lawrence,” Hal called. “And close the door behind you.”

I stepped further into the room and realized someone’s eyes were on me. The woman who’d been standing at the window, looking out at the Los Angeles skyline, looked at me with a smile.

“Hello, Kiefer,” she said.

“Shari,” I said. “Nice to see you.”

It was the best I could say after years of not seeing her. She was just as beautiful as I remembered: big, round, brown eyes, curly, dark hair, and a round, voluptuous mouth, always ready with a smile. She took a seat across from Hal, and I took the chair beside her.

“You two know each other?” Hal asked with a twinkle in his eye. 

“Yes,” we answered in unison.  Shari gave me a rueful smile and continued. “We were friends in college,” she said lightly.

Yes. Friends in college. Or something like that.

“It is nice to see you’re all in one piece,” Shari teased.

“Well thanks. I do aim for it,” I said. Turning to Hal, I said, “What can I help you with?”

“I find myself in a very uncomfortable situation,” he began. “I’m not sure how to get out if it.”

“Do you want me to tell him?” Shari asked. Hal was obviously her boss. It was interesting, the dynamic between them. He sounded like he was chewing her out a few minutes before, but she seemed not to care. In fact, it appeared she was babying him. He was a tall, gray haired man, in his late fifties by my best guess.

Hal sat back in his chair and threw up his hands. “If you must.”

Shari crossed her legs and turned to me. Not the best move to make Kiefer comfortable, but she was clueless about such things. She kept her voice low. Hal listened, fingertips pressed to his lips, his quick, dark eyes following Shari.

“First off, everything needs to be highly confidential. If anyone is to ask you, we would prefer that you say Hal is representing you as an attorney in a private matter.”

“Should I say it’s a criminal case?” Kiefer teased.

Shari cut her eyes at me. “Kiefer. Don’t embellish.”

“I had to ask.”

“You would,” she said. “The other thing is none of the partners know about this, and it’s in Hal’s best interest if they don’t find out.”

“I am the founding partner,” Hal said. “But I can be voted out of the position if I should come under scrutiny for any type of impropriety.”

“I see,” Kiefer said. “What type of impropriety are we talking about here?”

“You’re going to have to show him. I’m not doing that part,” Shari held her hands up.

“Suddenly, you play the shrinking violet,” Hal said. “Figures.”

Hal reached into his desk and pulled out a paper bag, which he handed to me.  I reached in and found a stack of glossy photographs. Some of the pictures were so close up that I had to turn them to see what I was looking at.

All the pictures were erotic in nature. I saw enough to determine Hal was the male partner in them, but the photographer seemed to focus mostly on the female. She was much younger than him—possibly by twenty years.  Shari looked at the wall one moment, the carpet the other. She didn’t want to look at the photos, and Kiefer couldn’t blame her. He cleared his throat, handed the pictures back, and tried to maintain a straight face. It was more difficult than he anticipated. It took a lot to surprise Kiefer, but he was flabbergasted.

“I’m assuming the young woman here is not your wife,” Kiefer said.

“Correct. Part of the problem is, I don’t know who the woman is.”

“Excuse me?”

“She was one of….a  few women I shared time with. These pictures literally showed up on my doorstep. I don’t know who sent them.”

“Have you received a blackmail letter yet?”

“No.”

“Were these the only pictures they sent you?”

“Yes.”

“How long has it been since you received them?”

“Three days,” Hal said. “I can tell you it’s been a stressful three days indeed.”

“Well,” Kiefer said. “You should be receiving a communication from these people anytime. If not a threatening letter, they will send you more pictures. Try to ramp up the tension on you, and possibly threaten to hit the press or social media with them. Here’s where we get to the difficult question. You say you don’t remember this woman. How many women like her could there be out there?”

Hal held his gaze for a long moment. “It depends upon what time period you’re talking about.”

“Say in the last year.”

Hal tapped a pen against the desk. “Maybe five, six.”

“Really, Hal? I think the number is a little higher than that,” Shari interjected. 

“Not necessarily.”

“Yes,” she insisted. “What about the escort service?”

“They were arm candy,” Hal snapped. “I never slept with any of those women.”

“Really? You sure? Because it might explain why you don’t remember this one chick.”

“I will want to look into this escort service one way or the other,” Kiefer tried to calm the tone between the two. “Is it possible someone got you inebriated and posed you?”

Hal shook his head. “If you had paid attention to each frame it would be clear to you I may have had a couple of drinks, but I was not that inebriated.”

“All right. Are there names and numbers of other women you’ve been intimate with which you can give me? I can make some quiet inquiries. My team and I are very discrete.”

“Yes,” Hal said.

“I’ve already compiled a list, because I told him whomever was going to look into this would need it,” Shari said. “I will email you.”
“Good. Hal, do you and your wife have an open relationship?”

“Let me put it to you like this: My side of the relationship is open because I like it that way. If hers is, I don’t know and I haven’t paid attention.”

“Oh good grief, Hal,” Shari said. “Kiefer, you can take that as a no.”

“Don’t take this the wrong way then, because it’s not meant to be an insult. Do you think your wife would care about your extracurricular activities if she were to find out?”

“I suppose she might. She’s as mercurial as any woman I know.”

“Besides those of us in this room, who else knows about this?” Kiefer pressed.

“It’s just us, and whomever is doing this to me.”

“Obviously you want this to go away as quietly as possible, sir,” Kiefer cleared his throat, still trying to put the images out of mind. “Are you willing to pay money, if that’s what it takes?”

“Within reason. If these people are looking for upwards of a million dollars, they can forget about it. If they’re looking for a payday of a few hundred thousand, I can manage it. I don’t want this to interfere with my work life. And it probably would be better if my wife never knows, but I’d rather face her about this than my partners.”

“All right. Give me a few days to see what we can come up with. Someone is either looking to make a lot of money from you, or it’s possible someone is just out for revenge. Is there anyone in your life who would have a reason to wish you harm?”

“This firm defends a lot of people who may not really deserve representation, or at least I have in my particular practice. Shari would tell you everyone she’s ever lawyered for was an angel being prosecuted for nothing, but I digress. I would think I have quite a few criminal friends by now. They’re white collar, most of them, but a crook is a crook no matter how you slice it.”

“I do take a few pro bono cases a year,” Shari replied. “And I actually believe my clients deserve a vigorous defense, regardless.”

“It’s something to think about,” Kiefer said. “Even people who appear not to have a reason to want anything bad to happen to you could be plain greedy. Sometimes you become a target simply because you’re wealthy.”

“You don’t have any enemies you want to talk to him about?” Shari asked.

“How much time do you think the man has, Shari?” Hal asked.

“Right now you’re the only client I’m here for. This is our time to work on your issue,” Kiefer said.

“Ah hell,” he said. “Shari, have Gloria order us some lunch. It’s going to be a long afternoon.”

***

Our meeting ended around four thirty. Shari offered to walk out with me, which gave us a few minutes to talk.

“I heard about you getting your law degree,” I told her once we were clear of the building. “How’d you end up working for that guy?”

“You mean because he’s a piece of work?” Shari asked. We were walking towards the parking structure. In the sunlight, Shari’s nearly black hair had reddish brown highlights, an effect that never failed to fascinate him. Her teasing smile brought back warm memories.

“I wasn’t going to put it that way,” I said. “But I am curious.”

“Luck of the draw, I guess. I started interning here during my last year of school, and for whatever reason, I was the only person who could get along with him well enough to work with him. And at that time he really needed an assistant.

The same day I started, he sent a paralegal running out of the place in tears. But I stepped up to him and didn’t take any of his bullshit. The first time he threatened to fire me—for not mailing a client a pair of sunglasses she left in his office I told him he could go ahead, because my rent was already paid and I could work for someone else who had the sense of a flea-infested pigeon.

“I thought that was it, but I just refused to be barked at. You know what he did? He stood there and laughed. And then he said, ‘Okay, I was an ass, what else is on our agenda today, kid?’ I have been with him ever since. I noticed he didn’t mention it to you, but over the last year or so he’s begun to cut down on his client list. I’ve taken the lion’s share of litigation for him. He’s still as smart and strong as ever, but he isn’t as young as he used to be. He told me a while back he would like to head into retirement young and healthy enough to really enjoy it. I mean, I can’t blame him for that. This is a hard profession and can take a lot out of you. I’m fairly certain I will do something else before I’m forty.”

I smiled at her. “You’ve always been so shrewd. It’s good to see you look so well, and gorgeous as always.”

“Thanks, Kiefer. I could say the same about you.”

We stopped walking. We’d reached my car and we both stood, uneasy for a moment. How do old friends part under these odd circumstances? She was technically working with a client, but she wasn’t the one footing bills for my services. She was a girl I’d loved for years, but she never belonged to me. I was her friend in all the ways except the one I wanted. I didn’t think she was exactly clueless about my affection for her back then, or my enduring attraction to her in the present. One thing she had always been was loyal. Whatever feelings she might have had for me, the promise she made to another man kept me at arms distance.

“It looks like I will have my work cut out for me with Hal,” I said. I reached into my pocket and gave her one of my cards. “I will expect the email. Call me anytime you want. My personal number is on the back.”

“Thanks, Kiefer,” she said, placing the card in her pocket. She surprised me by reaching up to give me a kiss on the cheek. I caught the corner of her lips, and wished for more.

“We do need to catch up,” she said. “It’s been a long time.”

“I’d like that,” I said. “We should have dinner. I haven’t seen Scott either. How’s he doing these days?”

There was a quick look of confusion, and then sudden understanding settled into her eyes. “Oh, you didn’t hear. Scott and I broke up.”

He tried to hide his smile. Kiefer could be a good actor when circumstance called for it, but Shari was usually able to detect his bull a mile away. When she wanted to. Other times she remained blissfully unaware by her own choosing.

The moment he walked into her bosses’ office, he looked at her left hand for a ring, and when she sat down beside him, he noticed not only was there no ring, but there was no imprint of one on her finger. He’d assumed Scott would be long gone by now anyway. Shari was too smart not to come to her senses about the jerk eventually.

“So when we do go out, it will be just you and I,” she said.

“Won’t be a problem. How’s Friday night sound?”

***

Shari was shocked but pleased to see Kiefer again. It was just her luck that his company would be the one Hal reached out to. She had heard that her friend was back in town and doing well for himself. But she had her own reasons for not reaching out to him. She didn’t want him to get the wrong impression, first of all. She didn’t like the way things were left between them the last time she saw him—right before he was deployed for a dangerous mission. Back in those days, he was still in the military, and he couldn’t give her any details about where he was going, what he was doing, or when he would be back.

Not knowing when—or if—he was ever coming home was a non-starter for her. She couldn’t live with such uncertainty. And she felt if he cared for her, even if it was only as a best friend, he would understand she needed to put some distance between them. She didn’t know if he took her intentions the way they were meant or of if he felt snubbed. Either way, she hoped he was over it now. He had a job that wasn’t sending him overseas anymore. And she was in a better place than she was before. She watched Kiefer pull away from the lot. She walked back into the building with a smile on her face and a bounce in her step.

When she came back upstairs to her office, Hal was waiting for her.

“What do you think of this Kiefer?” he asked.

“I know him to be trustworthy and responsible,” she said carefully. “Isn’t that what you’re looking for? He won’t spill your secrets. I think if anyone can do this for you, he can.”

“Since you know him, could you keep an eye on him?” Hal asked. “I’m paying him a fortune to get to the bottom of this mess and I want to know he’s really doing his work,” he spat.              

“Yes, Hal,” Shari said.

He walked away, looking pleased with himself. “Why?” Shari whispered aloud. “Why are there always complications?”


Chapter 2

Kiefer went home and changed before heading back to his own office. Jeans, a white t-shirt, and sneakers were more comfortable.

The office was only a block away. It was a three-story house converted for the purposes of being an official office and hang out spot for himself and his business partner. The first floor had been converted into what looked like a conventional office, complete with lobby, four separate office spaces, a kitchen, and a huge dining room with fireplace, which served as a break room or conference area. The second floor held four bedrooms. The guys occasionally crashed there, and it was convenient to be able to go upstairs to one’s own rooms and nap when they were working long nights. The third floor was an extended lounge space. There was a television and couches, two pool tables, a workout area complete with weights, punching bags, and a treadmill.

Kiefer, Alec, David, and Jesse all lived in the same neighborhood. They bought their properties together by design. With each of their houses and the converted office, they formed their own enclave, a compound behind a white gate surrounded by high tech security systems. They’d made their own share of enemies in the past, but there was comfort in being near each other. They were brothers, not by blood but by circumstance. None of them had much family in the traditional sense, and they stuck together.

When Kiefer arrived, Alec and Jesse were on the upper floor playing pool.

Jesse, at twenty-four, was the baby of the group. He wore his black hair in a buzz cut. At 5’10, he was also the smallest of the men, deceptively thin, but all muscle. He had bright-blue eyes (his calling card with the girls) and light-brown skin. His left arm was still bandaged over with a new tattoo healing beneath: a mermaid with flowing green hair, holding a knife. He was the last to join their cluster of soldiers, but perhaps the first to have his loyalty tested in an extreme way. He’d saved Kiefer’s life twice.

Alec was in his mid-thirties. He had blond hair and hazel eyes and high cheekbones. His face was lined with pale stubble. As with all the men, he was a motorcyclist. Unlike the others, he was a certified mechanic before he was scooped up by black ops. He seemed to have a natural affinity for fixing broken things, whether it was computers or car parts. He didn’t talk much, or at least, not until he trusted people. The only problem was he trusted very few. Alec said he tended to like his women broken too, always feeling the need to put things back as they should be. It was a quirk that had gotten him into some trouble over the years.

“Hey,” Kiefer called as he walked in. “Where’s David?”

“Tying up things with that last client,” Jesse said. “Texted me a while ago. Says we’re getting paid cash for that one.”

“Great,” Kiefer said.

“You have something for us?” Alec asked.

“More like I have some things for you. This one sounds like it’s going to be messy.”

Kiefer joined in their game of pool, and told them the basics of Hal Kittredge’s story.

“The man has a lot of enemies. He doesn’t like to call them that, but it’s the way I see it. He’s got some business partners he wants to hide things from, but my bet is that one of them is involved with these pictures. I say we start with them. But I’m going to need you to do some careful digging for me.”

“These pictures,” Jesse said, “how bad were they? I mean, are we talking cable after dark bad or….”

“Oh, it’s bad. I like porn as much as the next man, probably more, but that was fairly disgusting. He’s going to be humiliated if these ever come out. That and he’s claiming he doesn’t know who the girl is. Either he’s trying to protect her, or she isn’t of age, but there’s something up with that. He was answering all of these questions in front of one of his lawyers, and maybe he’d have been more honest without her there, but I’m not sure.”

“A lady, huh?” Alec said, scratching his chin. “Is she attractive?”

“Yeah.”

“Think he’s strutting in front of her? It’s weird for him to talk about it in front of her unless he’s showing off or he’s been involved with her before.”

Kiefer hadn’t thought of it. He felt himself blushing. Shari? With Hal? The thought was enough to make his blood boil and a shiver of distaste flow down his back. Simultaneously.

“I don’t have that impression; he’s a much older man. They seem to have more of a father/daughter bond.”

“A dirty old man who likes younger women,” Alec snickered. “Classic.”

“The woman in question is Shari Allen.”

“Oh,” Alec said. “Sorry. I’m sure that doesn’t apply to her. Moving right along.”

“Who’s that?” Jesse asked.

“A friend of mine,” Kiefer said before Alec could elaborate. “Anyway, she’s not what we’re focusing on here. Let’s get a plan together, figure out what we’re going to do to keep her boss from getting his naked behind pasted all over the internet tabloids.”

***

As promised, Shari emailed the names and contact information for the women Hal admitted to being intimate with.

Kiefer had to smile at the email, because with her usual thoroughness, Shari had added details he knew Hal would not have given him. She found pictures to attach with the info, mostly pulled off of social media. One was pulled off the firm’s website; the girl had worked at the firm in human resources. That bothered him a bit. He wrote back one quick question: had Hal been involved with the woman while she worked there?

“Don’t know for sure when they started,” Shari wrote back. “But they should both know better. I can verify they were together after she took another job. She used to pop into the office to pick him up for dinner sometimes.”

“Was she before the wife?”

“Yes, she was,” Shari typed back. “They broke if off just before he met Kimberly.”

***

Kimberly Kittredge lived in a house adjacent to Beverly Hills. Though she had been married to Hal Kittredge for two years, she never moved permanently into his house. Alec could think of all kinds of reasons she might not want to move in. Maybe it was because she was wife number four. It could have been because it was actually her first marriage, and having lived alone since she was seventeen, she couldn’t quite grasp the idea of being a traditional wife and living with anyone. She was thirty, and maybe becoming a stay-at-home wife wasn’t exactly her plan. Her husband had adult children from one of his other marriages, and perhaps Kimberly didn’t want any children of her own. Those were all possible reasons, but Alec was willing to bet it was more complicated.

Watching from afar gave him a chance to observe her a bit. He followed her from a safe distance for a couple of days to establish her usual morning habits. Kimberly definitely was a woman who was settled into her own routines. She worked as a physical trainer before she married, and though she still worked with a few private clients, she didn’t bother working more than ten hours in any given week. She walked her dog, a cocker spaniel, every morning. A stop at the local café for the largest coffee they offered was her next stop.

Kimberly was curvy but fit. She was a redhead, a color too bright to be natural, but it was lovely against her fair skin. She had green eyes, a pale color that reminded him of a cat. She was a looker for sure. Alec made sure he was on the street outside the café. As soon as she was in line, he went in and got behind her.

Her dog, which Kimberly had slung over her shoulder, barked at Alec.

“Sorry, puppy,” Alec said, running his thumb across the dog’s head. He stroked under his chin.

Kimberly slowly turned and smiled. “Sorry about that,” she said. “He’s snippy in the morning.”

“I don’t blame him,” Alec grinned. “I am too.”

She laughed.

Score.

When her dog got fussy while she fished in her pocket for her credit card, he offered to hold him for her. He crooned baby talk to the little dog. He panted and wagged his tail. From there, it was easy to strike up a little more conversation with Kimberly. Alec managed to get her to have her coffee at a table with him. He flirted lightly, but didn’t ask about her marital status. He mentioned to her he had a twelve-year-old daughter, and waited for her to pose a question to him. It was important she think it was her own idea, even as he guided her right into the questions he wanted her to ask.

“So you’re good with dogs and children,” she teased.

“I don’t know if my daughter would think so, but I hope so. She’s at that age where she’s unimpressed by anything I do and basically more interested in her friends than the old man.”

“Are you married?” she asked.

“Divorced,” Alec said. “And you?”

“Married,” she replied. She looked around. No one was near their table, and she kept her voice low. “It’s more a business arrangement with us though. I wanted stability, and he wanted arm candy,” she said lightly. “Really, I am a lucky woman. I get to live my life the way I want and he doesn’t mess with me. And I don’t know why I am even telling you this.”

Alec smiled. “It’s okay. We’re strangers, but I am so new in town, it’s not like I’d tell anyone,” he said, and took a long drink of his coffee. He licked his lips.

“Only thing about it,” she said, taking a brief look out onto the street, “I can’t exactly just date. It’s not like I can put my face on a dating site and go hey, here I am. I don’t want to put our arrangement out there for anyone to know about.”

“It’s a quandary, isn’t it?” Alec said.

“Yes,” she added softly. She fidgeted with a black straw, stirring her latte.

“I’ve been in town about five months,” Alec said. “You know, getting Emmie acclimated to her school, and just moving into my new house, I haven’t really done anything yet. Maybe we could get to do something, you know, between friends. It would be a reason to get out a bit.”

“You’re not seeing anyone then,” she said.

“No,” he confirmed.

They exchanged phone numbers, and Alec promised to call. The plan was that they would meet up for drinks the next day. Smiling, he went back to his car and made a quick phone call. David picked up on the first ring. David was the resident techie among the group.

“What are you doing up this early?” Alec asked, looking at his watch. It was half past eight.

“Coffee and energy drinks, man,” he answered. “I’ll go to bed around noon. What can I do for you?”

“Got a phone number for you. I need the phone hacked. This is for Kiefer’s latest client, so its high priority,” Alec said.

David repeated the number to confirm.

“You have it correct. How long’s it going to take you, bro?”

David laughed. “On an in town phone number? Child’s play. I’ll call you back in about an hour.”

***

David had a long history as a top-rate hacker. At age sixteen, he was already breaking into government systems. At eighteen, he enrolled in a college computer sciences program, which he didn’t graduate from because he found it utterly boring. By the time he was nineteen, his nefarious activities earned him more than a full-time living. Shortly after his birthday, he was recruited into black ops with the promise to make him wealthier than he ever dreamed of. There were a couple of conditions: he had to give up his previous identity, and he needed to travel along with a contingent of soldiers, operatives who followed orders on missions the army couldn’t legally complete.

It scared him at first. He’d never been near any kind of combat before. Kiefer was the one who actually trained him on how to fight; he didn’t know anything about self-defense before that. Now, eight years later, David knew three forms of martial arts and was a competent wrestler. Despite the fact that he was meant to be the agent behind the scenes, there were times he needed to be able to handle himself in the field.

Because he had grown up a scrawny, red-headed kid, he still looked at himself that way. These days his head was shaved. He was tattooed and built, his arms and abs just as strong as any of his friends. When he wasn’t behind a computer, he was meeting with clients or somewhere in the desert riding a bike. He’d had a hard start of it, but he liked the life he and his friends had managed to build.

David promised to call Alec, but he didn’t have to. He showed up at the office about forty minutes after the call.

“I see you’ve been woman hunting,” David said, without looking up from his keyboard. Alec laughed softly and pulled up a chair beside him.

“The absolutely best kind,” he answered. “What can you tell me about this one?”

“Not as much as I would have expected,” David told him. “Depending on what you and Kiefer need, I am not sure this is good news.”

“All right, well, tell me.”

“It doesn’t look like she’s dating anyone, first off. I went through her log of text messages. She’s got three regular workout clients. Same people, talks to them every week to set up appointments and asks questions about their fitness goals for the week. A few close girlfriends it would appear, whom she likes to chat with. There are conversations with her husband. None of those are too hot or cold.”

“What do you mean?” Alec asked.

“Well, just that they’re not arguing or anything, but this is not a particularly warm couple either. No sweet nothings between them. They talk about casual stuff. A little weird. Anyway. As far as pictures? Nothing incredibly salacious. Some fine pics of her in a bikini though,” David said. He clicked on a window, bringing up a whole screen full of bikini shots.

“Nice.” Alec whistled, leaning forward.

“Well, she is a trainer,” David replied.

“No pictures with her and anyone else. I mean, yeah, a picture of her with her girlfriends slamming back margaritas. I have an idea that this phone’s been cleaned. Either that, or if there’s any dirt going on, she uses a different phone for it. I mean, this one is under her name—it’s not hooked up to her husband’s account, but you know, some people are really careful. I think you should look for another phone.”

“Ah, hell,” Alec replied. “I should have known that was too easy.”

“Exactly. I mean, there’s really nothing bad on this one to speak of. There’s one other possibility.”

“What’s that?”

“She could just be clean. Maybe she’s as unassuming as she appears.”

“Maybe,” Alec chewed at his thumbnail, a habit of his whenever he was trying to work out a problem. “Okay. I saw what you pulled on her bio earlier. Can you go a little deeper into her background for me? She told me some things about why she got married. I want to know what her financials and her family situation were like—then and now. If she isn’t interested in the guy, maybe she figured a way to shake him down.”

***

By midweek, Kiefer was feeling irritated. He and the team were working on several leads, but nothing had revealed anything promising. He was surprised and a little concerned when he got a text from Shari. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to her. The one bright spot in the week so far was knowing he’d have a chance to see her on the weekend. He just had a feeling that she was reaching out because her boss wanted something.

Kiefer agreed to meet her for lunch at the mall, located just behind her office building. A bridge spanned the distance between the office buildings and the mall itself, and he waited for her there. He watched her walk towards him: hair blowing in the wind, hands crossed over her chest, high heels clicking. She wore a beige skirt and a black cashmere sweater. Simple office wear, but it showed off her curves.

“Hey you,” she said. He leaned down and gave her a kiss on the cheek. Kiefer remembered they used to kiss like that anytime they saw each other. He didn’t recall it being so difficult not to pull her into his arms and really kiss her. Or maybe it was just too uncomfortable to let himself think about.

“To what do I owe the pleasure?” he teased, nudging her with his elbow. She looked up at him with a little pout. “I admit to having mixed motives,” she said softly. They fell into rhythm, walking together.

“Really? Tell me.”

“First off, don’t take this wrong because I have missed you and wanted to see you. But I think it’s only fair you know Hal is already asking questions and wants to know about your progress.”

“If it takes any stress off, I kind of figured that might be your reason.”

“Yes, but you’re missing the more important reason. I did miss you.”

Kiefer didn’t know what to say. A few years ago, he’d have given anything to hear her say that. Right now he just wasn’t sure if she really meant it, or how he should feel about it if she did.

“Yes, well, I missed you too,” he admitted. “Problem is it got to feel like a usual state of being.”

He hadn’t chose for them to be apart. Before his very last mission, he had been home for two years, and things were beginning to really gel between them. Her jackass of a boyfriend was still in the way, but given a few weeks, even a handful of days, Kiefer believed he could have won her over. He was only given seventy two hours to prepare to leave the country, and once he told her, she completely shut down. He was a world away when he heard she was engaged. He was pissed, but there was nothing he could do about it. He told himself it was best not to think about her or how he’d like to wring the guy’s neck.

“I know what you mean,” she said. And then abruptly, she changed the subject. “I have a question for you. What happened right after you got home?”

It was a question he didn’t expect, but he had no real reason to dodge it. “Took me a while to get myself back together. My last mission was difficult.” That was a wild understatement, but the best he could do without giving away information he was still sworn to protect. “I bought a house and retreated. I wasn’t working or doing much of anything for a little over a year. And then I woke up one day and thought, ‘All right, it’s time to put myself together again.’ I got in touch with some friends, and we talked about it. Figured out what kind of work we’d like to do since we were no longer working for the government. And that took another six months maybe, because none of us were sure to begin with. It was like a process of elimination, figuring out what we didn’t want to do first.”

“I’m glad you did that. Took time for yourself until you were ready to get back into the world again.”

“Need a vacation?” Kiefer asked.

“Sometimes I think so,” Shari admitted. “But that’s another story for another time. Give me something I can bring back to Hal so he’ll shut up.”

“Things are simmering. Nothing fully cooked to give you yet.”

Shari sighed deeply. Her shoulders slumped.

“I wish I had more exciting news to give you. I find it interesting whoever is doing this hasn’t made a move yet.”

“What do you think it means?”

“Whoever did this is close. They want to see him sweat before they give him their next demand.”

“Okay. I am not going to tell him that.”

“Yeah, I’m not looking forward to saying that to him either. But I assure you we’re working on it.”

“If you tell me so, I believe you,” Shari said. “That’s enough for the Hal related portion of our working lunch. Which one of these restaurants do you want to eat at?”

They settled on a new burger place. Shari engaged him in conversation about lighter topics. It was nice to sit back and just enjoy being around her. She was still the bright, charming woman he remembered. Maybe, if he hadn’t been worried about what she would think about him, he’d have sought her out and they would be together. Anything he told her about wanting to see her again and not doing it would only sound like lip service. He was sure that’s what her gentle questioning was really about.

After lunch, he walked her back to the bridge and they stood there a little longer, talking. Finally, it was time to go.

“We have Friday,” she said. “I shouldn’t be chewing your ear off already.”

“You feel free to chew on whatever you want.”

She blushed a little at his comment, but she laughed. It was a moment before she sobered and looked him in the eye. “If I take you up on that, don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

And with that, she turned around and walked back to her building. Kiefer took pleasure in watching her ass framed in her skirt as she walked away.

Chapter 3

Kiefer’s phone rang when he was driving back to the office. Caught in freeway traffic and unable to move much, he was relieved for the distraction.

“Jesse, what’s up?”

“Remember how you wanted us to look into the partners in Hal’s firm? Well, I got a hit on something very interesting with one of them.”

“Interesting how?” Kiefer asked.

“I checked out Hemmings,” he said. “And her accounts are solid. Lived in the same house forever, two kids in college, husband—from what I can tell, a very stable life. Attorney Plant is another story. About sixty days ago he suddenly started selling off his stuff. And I don’t mean posting some old furniture online for sale. He started selling his cars, some very expensive art, and a couple of his homes. His main residence is in Malibu, but he also sold off property on the Westside and down in Laguna. Weird thing is if he needs the money, I don’t see why. He’s not in a bunch of debt or anything. I had David run a cross reference for me. Plant has bank accounts in the Cayman Islands and Switzerland, and there are regular, large amounts being deposited, none which correspond to with the amount he’s making or the dates he’s getting paid.”

“Sounds like someone getting ready to leave the country,” Kiefer said.

“My thoughts too. I mean, something has to be going on with him. Why would he be preparing to skip town?”

“That’s the question all right,” Kiefer mused. “If he’s our blackmailer, maybe he’s planning to leave once he can get a ransom. Good job. Can David tell where those mystery deposits are originating from?”

“He’s on it. He told me it will take him a day or two before he knows.”

“It’s still good news,” Kiefer replied. “At least we have something to pass on to the client.”

He hung up with Jesse and made another phone call.

***

Hal Kittredge’s home was a mansion nestled against the canyons. As Kiefer’s car               made the climb up the narrow roads, he looked up at the massive house, which looked smaller to the eye because it was nestled back against the rocks. Hal’s grandparents had bought the property back in the twenties, but according to the information he had, this was actually the third incarnation of the home. One had been swept away in a mudslide, the other destroyed by a fire. Despite the possibility of catastrophe with each coming season, Kiefer could definitely see the appeal. A thick swath of woods stood on the opposite side of the road from the house, lending a sense of privacy and a closeness to nature. Though the city was only a mile down the road, the area felt quiet and secluded.

Kiefer parked in front of the house and climbed the stone steps to the door. He rang the bell and a loud chime sounded inside. The top of the door held a large pane of ornamental glass, which he couldn’t see through. He was able to make out a shadow of a woman’s form. His suspicions were verified when Shari opened the door.

“Hi,” she said. “Well, don’t stand there. Come on in.”

Kiefer stepped inside. She closed the door behind him, but he stood stock still. “What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I’m working. Just like you. Are you serious right now?” She wrinkled her brow at him, placing her hands on her hips. “I don’t like your tone, and I certainly don’t like the insinuation behind it.”

“It’s a reasonable question. Most people don’t show up at their boss’ house after hours.”

“Hal’s in the study. Straight back through that hallway. Go find him yourself,” she said and stomped off.

He wanted to follow her and ask her other questions, but decided against it.

Hal was waiting in the last room at the end of the hall, just as promised. He sat in a leather chair with his feet propped up. Wearing khakis and a polo shirt, he looked like he had just come off the golf course. I looked over to his desk and noticed a purse and laptop sitting there. Shari’s things of course. It didn’t dispel Kiefer’s thoughts. Because she was his friend, he didn’t want to think Shari had anything going on with her boss. But if she had been anyone else, he’d have considered it, if only to rule it out later.

“Have a seat,” Hal said. “Do you smoke cigars?” he asked.

“Occasionally.”

“Good,” Hal reached over and pulled a Cuban cigar from a box on the table beside him and handed it to me. He lit his up and offered me a lighter.

“Thank you,” Kiefer said. He took a puff and sat back. It was nice to be relaxed, but he couldn’t let himself get too comfortable. It was still a business call, and Hal was not a predictable man.

“How close are you with your law partners?” Kiefer asked.

Hal took a moment to think about the question before answering. “You know, the three of us get together once a month to talk business about the firm. Other than that, we really aren’t around each other much. It’s rare to even find all three of us in the office at the same time, and when we are, we’re usually in our own offices handling cases and giving advice to the younger attorneys. At this point, Shari has more contact with them than I do. She’s pretty much my gatekeeper.

“Maybe ten years ago we worked more closely together, but you know, the novelty of being around each other wears off after so much time. And of course the bigger the firm has gotten over the years, the less time there is to connect with anyone. We were never the kind to see each other on the weekends though, or over holidays. Why do you ask?”

“There’s been some really odd things going on with Plant. We traced large, unexplained deposits into his accounts. And over the last few months, he has been on a selling spree of his personal assets. Do you know anything which might explain that?”

Hal sat up and put his cigar down. “No. He should be in excellent financial shape.”

“Of course, I thought you should know this right away,” Kiefer continued. “If he’s gotten himself into some kind of trouble, he might be our blackmailer. I think if it is him, it’s very likely he’s sitting back, waiting to see if you’re in panic mode about the pictures.”

“Where’d Shari go?” Hal jumped up and rushed out the door. A moment later he came back, with Shari following him. She shot an angry glare at Kiefer, and then took a seat behind the desk.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“He’s got a theory about Plant being the blackmailer,” Hal said. “When did he take on the Rossi case?”

“About a year ago, but the case ended three months ago.”

“Rossi?” Kiefer asked. “What am I missing here?”

“Angelo Rossi is the son of an East Coast crime family,” Shari said. “The feds have never been able to get that family on anything. Ideally, they would want the father, because he’s the kingpin. Angelo came up on domestic violence charges against his live-in girlfriend, and it became a bigger thing than anyone could have guessed. They threw in charges of false imprisonment. There was cocaine in the house too, which the police found when they raided the house, enough to get him popped for possession with intent to distribute.”

“Why didn’t I hear about this on the news?”

“Because Plant is good at his job, and the Rossi’s have enough money to spread across the networks to keep it off people’s radar.”

Hal paced back and forth across the floor. “I have to fire him.”

“If he is the blackmailer, you don’t want to do that yet. Let him think he’s safe for now.”

“If Plant is accepting money from those people, the pictures might end up being the least of my worries!” Hal said.

“Look, let’s give this twenty-four hours,” Kiefer soothed. “I have someone who can go through your business accounts and make sure he’s not comingling funds. As long as he’s the only one accepting money and not sifting it through your firm, he’s personally liable if it turns out to be an illegal kickback of some sort. And while we’re at it, we can make sure nothing else is going on at the firm which shouldn’t be. He could be the blackmailer, but it’s possible this is something completely separate.”

Hal cussed under his breath. “If that turns out to be the case,” he said, turning to Kiefer, “I’m going to have to increase your fee for chasing two criminals instead of one.”

After another thirty minutes of getting plans together, Kiefer was ready to leave. He said his goodbyes. “Let me walk you out,” Shari said, popping up from her chair. Once they were outside, she turned to him.

“You obviously have questions for me, so you might as well get whatever it is out of your system. I’d prefer that to the silent treatment I usually get when you’re angry with me.”

They were standing on the porch together. Shari leaned back against one of the columns and looked up at him with fury in her eyes. Kiefer tried for his calmest tone, trying not to anger her further.

“I had to ask you about him, that’s all. Not exactly something I liked saying to you, but I’d have asked anyone else the question long before now.”

“Only you didn’t really ask me; you insinuated, which is even worse.”

“All right then, if you want me to be blunt, Shari, are you sleeping with Hal or not?”

“No. Not now, not ever. We’ve known each other too long for you to even need to ask that question. How would you think I’d be attracted to him? And he’s my boss. You think I’d really allow myself to be used like that?”

“I know Hal can’t be trusted, that’s for sure, or he wouldn’t be in this trouble for the first place. And really I have no idea what kind of men you like. I’ll never understand how you wound up with Michael.”

“Michael? We’re back to him?” Shari said. “You realize I’ve been broken up with him for three years now? I can’t believe you’re jealous of him after all this time. I never knew why you were back then and it sure doesn’t make sense why you would be now.”

“He was my friend before he got between us, that’s why!” Kiefer spat. “Since you want to talk about things which should go unsaid. If you’re going to tell me you didn’t realize it, I don’t believe you.”

“Were you ever going to tell me?” Shari asked.

“Does it matter? You just said yourself he’s been gone for years.”

“I deserved to know before now. And not just because you got mad at me,” Shari sighed.

“Look. I’m sorry if I insulted you regarding your boss.”

“It’s getting late,” Shari said. “And I have things to wrap up before I go home. I’ll see you later,” she added, and went back inside. The door thumped closed behind her.

***

Kiefer didn’t drive home. He went back to his office instead.

He went upstairs to work out, or more aptly, to take his aggression out on a punching bag. Things had been going pretty good with Shari, and in a matter of minutes, he’d blown it. He’d never intended on mentioning Michael ever again. Maybe she hadn’t known what he felt for her back then. It could be that all these years he’d assumed she knew he’d cared for her and made the choice to be with Michael anyway. If she hadn’t known he cared for her, it meant he had to rethink the way he’d judged Shari’s actions. She hadn’t run away from him after all—she simply went to the only man who was offering her a place in his life.

He’d made the mistake of trusting another man to not go after the woman he wanted. He’d been honest with Michael about it from the beginning. The man was his buddy, one of a very select few in those days. The painful part of it was that Michael knew and betrayed him anyway. The moment Kiefer was out of town, he’d gotten engaged to Shari. 

“Who pissed you off?”

David’s voice boomed through the room.

“It was a shitty day,” Kiefer said.

“Want a beer?” David asked. “I’m getting one for myself.”

Kiefer nodded and wiped his brow with the back of his arm. “Yeah.”

“Woman trouble?” David asked. He gave his friend a look of sympathy.

“Something like that,” Kiefer admitted. The only drawback of working and living so closely with his brothers was that everyone knew all about the others’ business. He’d long ago stopped trying to keep secrets. They always seemed to find out. It saved time and energy not to bother.

“Alec mentioned you’d ran into Shari on this new job. How is she?”

“Her usual self, I guess. Feisty.”

David chuckled.

“What?” Kiefer demanded.

“It’s just always something whenever she’s involved. Complicates things. She’s not still with that guy is she?”

“No.”

“She’s still speaking to you, right?”

“I messed up today, pretty bad. Other than needing to talk to me because I’m working for her boss, I don’t know if she will have anything to do with me anymore.”

“Happens.” David took a drink of his own beer. “You can fix it though.”

“Really? Because I’d love to know how,” Kiefer replied.

“Just keep talking to her until she calms down. You know the drill. Apologize. Beg. If there’s something she wants to hear from you, say it.  Lie if you have to. Do whatever it takes to make her understand you’re sorry and you don’t intend to mess up again. Send flowers.”

“You make it sound so simple.”

“It is, really. Think about it compared to stuff you used to do on a weekly basis. I’m guessing it has to be lot easier than shooting your way out of hostile territory or pulling a robbery on a drug dealer.”

***

After Shari closed the door behind Kiefer, she turned on her heel and found that Hal was in the hallway just behind her.

“How much of that did you hear?” she asked.

“Enough,” he said. “Jealous fellow, is he?”

“I guess,” she said.

“I’m going to be nosy and ask then. What really happened between you two?”

“I wish I knew. He sees things totally different than I do.”

Hal smiled. “I’ve found that tends to be the way things are.”

Shari raised an eyebrow. “I’m not looking for relationship advice.”
“I wouldn’t dream of giving it,” he replied coolly. “I’m only asking what’s going on. I don’t want to see you moping around over him.”

“Moping? I don’t think so.”

“Uh huh. Then I suppose you’re going to deny you’ve been in a good mood since Kiefer appeared on the scene.”

“You noticed?” Shari asked.

“Yes. My powers of observation are just fine, my dear. I didn’t become a successful lawyer without it. I could tell he likes you the moment he walked into my office. Neither of you cover it well.”

“I’m going to take that as a constructive criticism, Hal,” Shari replied. She walked back towards the study, and he followed her. “I seriously need to work on my poker face.”

Hal stood in the middle of the room. Shari settled behind his desk and powered up her laptop.

“I hope you don’t think you’re going to ignore me while I am speaking to you,” he said. “I am not playing with you.”

“Okay, well what is it you want me to say? It’s probably for the best if I stay away from him for a bit, at least outside of work. We have a lot going on and this whole personal thing with me and him probably isn’t going to work out well anyway.”

“Why do you assume that?” Hal sat down across from her. “I mean, really. My problems with work aside, I don’t see any reason for the two of you not to see each other.”

Shari bit her lip. “It’s easier for me.”

“No,” Hal said patiently. “It’s less frightening for you. Those are two different things.

“It’s completely up to you, how you decided to live your life,” Hal continued. “But you’ve been burying yourself in work for a long time now. Your personal life doesn’t need to be perfect, but you must allow yourself one. Which I don’t see happening at the moment. It sounds to me like there’s been regrets about how things went on both sides. Unless he’s done something egregious to hurt you that I don’t know about, the past isn’t a reason not to move forward if you both like each other. I don’t know about what you intend to do, but you don’t have to worry about him being attracted.”

“I had a real friendship with him before. We could talk about things with each other neither of us shared with other people. I used to be able to depend on that. And then there came this point where things started to change and I didn’t know what to do about it. It felt like we were moving towards each other. Some days he would look at me and I felt something there I never had with Michael. It was the difference between being really liked and being loved.

“I was already in a relationship with Michael for nearly a year, and I was guilty because I couldn’t imagine how I would tell him I wanted to leave him for Kiefer. I had never been in that situation before.

“I got my courage up, and I was going to do it. I was ready to tell Kiefer I cared for him and wanted to be with him. I was ready to leave Michael. And then Kiefer got called away…he had a government job and was forced to leave. They only gave him a couple of days of notice, and it felt like so little time. I thought it would be cruel to tell him right before he was supposed to leave. The assignment was open ended, so there was no telling when he would be back home. All I really knew was he was going overseas.

“I drew back from him because I didn’t know what else to do. I told myself it was for the best. Maybe it was a sign that Kiefer and I weren’t meant to be together. About a month passed. I don’t know if Michael felt me slipping away from him or what his motive was, but he proposed to me. I accepted. I told myself it was a good thing. I was going to put Kiefer behind me. I got carried away with the idea of a wedding dress, and a ring. People were flying in from all parts of the country to see us get married, and he was talking about what kind of house he wanted to buy and how many children he wanted to have. It was too much. I wasn’t ready for it, and I broke it off, a month before the ceremony.”

“It sounds like you made the right choice at the time,” Hal said softly. “The question is, what are you going to do next?”


Chapter 4

Alec took Kimberly on a standard first date—dinner at a small, out-of-the-way restaurant in the marina, and then back to her house for cocktails. Kimberly made it easy. She was talkative and friendly, seemed to know something about most topics. It was too bad he was just there to get information, and that she was a married woman, even though she said the relationship was open. Otherwise, he wouldn’t really have minded dating her. She was too young and gorgeous to be married to someone she had no interest in. The woman had a body that wouldn’t quit. Despite the fact that she made her living as a personal trainer, she still was well endowed and had curves.

Alec told himself to keep his mind on the job. It was what he was really doing here, after all. Though Kiefer was working on other leads, Alec was bound to finish what he started. Whenever things went wrong, the spouse was usually the first suspect. And lovely Kimberly, with her separate life and interests from her older husband, was certainly no exception to the rule.

Alec treated her to a nice dinner at an intimate restaurant, a little steak house where they ate in a booth all the way at the back, the two of them in their own universe. He had no doubt he would get her back to her house easily enough. He was only concerned about finding her second phone. It was a big house, and he didn’t know her well enough to be able to say exactly where she put it. If she was one of those odd people who put her phone in a drawer instead of leaving it out, he was screwed. It really meant he’d have to break into her house at another time, which was always a risky proposition. He didn’t want to have to do that.

They left the restaurant and headed back at her place around 9:30. The second phone had been easier to spot than he would have guessed: It was charging in the kitchen. They passed it on their way in from the garage.

He knew it was the second one because he’d spotted the other phone—the one which David had already scanned for him—in her purse. He had something like a pang of regret about sneaking her phone number and having David pull up all her messages. But if she were innocent, then there would be nothing for her to worry about, right? He tried to think of it as assisting her rather than hurting her.

Alec wasn’t sure why he was so concerned. This was one of the lesser of many things he had done over the years. Certainly he didn’t need to feel weird about it. But he did.

***

 Alec and Kimberly settled in for cocktails.  He sat with her for what felt like a reasonable amount of time before he excused himself for a moment, saying he was going to the bathroom. He actually went that direction and circled back down the hall, slipping back into the kitchen. He pocketed it and went to the bathroom. The phone wasn’t a burner, but it was cheap, not something he’d have expected to find on a wealthy woman.

Once he was behind closed doors, he slipped the phone out, typed a code into the keypad, and attached a small electrical device. He counted to four and unplugged it. He went back through the kitchen, plugged the phone back into the wall where it had been, and returned to the living room. All done in less than three minutes flat. The wonders of hacker technology.

It was becoming obvious to him that the evening was going to drag on a bit longer. Kimberly had the look in her eyes. She licked her lips.

Kimberly smiled as he walked back in. He settled beside her on the couch.

“I lit the fireplace,” she smiled. “I know it’s not that chilly out, but I love a good fire in the grate.”

“I do too,” Alec said. His house had several fireplaces, including one in the bedroom. But there was no use telling her that, because he didn’t intend on taking her home. At least he told himself she wouldn’t.

“Other than your daughter, and the fact you’re new in town, I feel like I know so little about you,” she said, twirling a strand of red hair between her fingertips.

“I guess there isn’t too much to know.”

“How about your daughter’s mom. Do you get along?”
Alec bit his lip.  His ex-wife wasn’t really a topic he liked to get into. If he were going to make her think anything about him was real, he had to give her the kind of details she was looking for. “We’re oddly chummy, actually. I never expected we would be. It wasn’t the easiest of divorces, and her family was throwing a party as soon as we let everyone know we were splitting up. Pretty ugly. But we get along, plan things for our daughter, and manage to be cordial to each other. It’s like we skipped over being exes and went back to being friends. I won’t say it’s not awkward sometimes, especially when her boyfriend is around, but we’re making it work.”

“That’s good. I was just curious. Some people have to stay in a relationship in order for things to be amenable.”

Now why does she care? Alec wondered. She’s married!

“It would be almost better if you were involved with her, but no matter.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Because I can’t give all of myself to anyone.”

“Well. Maybe it doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

“Maybe not,” Kimberly said. She grabbed his collar and brought him to her for a kiss.

It was a long, hot, slow kiss.  Just as Alec was getting into it, pulling Kimberly into his lap and running his fingers through her red, wavy hair, his phone rang.

Alec cursed under his breath.

“Do you have to get that?” she asked.

“Let me see,” he said, fishing in his pocket. “Oh, I’m sorry. This is work.”

***

Forty minutes later Alec was back in the office. David was sitting behind a bank of computers, typing away at his keyboard. He looked up at Alec and grinned. “Well what did I interrupt, lover boy?”

“What are you talking about?” Alec asked.

“You must be losing your edge. Didn’t look in the mirror on your way over? You’ve got red lipstick smeared all over you.”

Alec was prepared to laugh that off until he went to the bathroom and glanced at his reflection. He was covered in lipstick. He did the best he could of wiping away the evidence. Joining David back at the desk, he crossed his arms and tried to clear his head. He’d told Kimberly he had to go, but they spent a good thirty minutes kissing like teenagers after David’s call came through. He was still horny and vaguely irritated they’d been interrupted. Just do your job, he reminded himself. Don’t get tied up in the game.

“What did you find?” he asked David.

David ran a hand over his shaved head and scratched his chin. “Well, here’s the thing: she’s been making a lot of calls on this phone, but all to females. Something suspicious. Why have a separate phone to call other women?”

“Unless it’s a side business. All her personal trainer stuff was on the other phone, right?”

“Yeah. Maybe she’s running a side business that’s not legal.”

“Call girls?” Alec asked. The team had run into more than one such business over the years. High class call girls were more common than most people guessed, especially in big cities.

“Not sure yet. I haven’t pulled the text messages down, and that’s what will really tell us more. She never talks for more than a few minutes on this line. We’ll see.”


“That’s what you called me for? Speculation?” Alec grumbled.

“No, I called you to let you know I had the all clear and you were free to leave. Which is protocol. What’s wrong with you?”

Alec felt himself blushing. “You’re right, I’m sorry. I must need some sleep.”

“Or a cold shower,” David chuckled. “See you later, stud.”

“You’re not helping,” Alec called as he headed out.

***

Shari debated whether or not she should get in touch with Kiefer. She was the one who told him to stay away from her other than for business. If she changed her tone now, she risked coming off as flaky. Instead of declaring a truce, she decided to call him under the pretense of business.

She was still figuring out what she was going to say to him when he called her instead.

“I need to have a chat with Attorney Plant,” he informed her. “Can you be there when I do it? I don’t want Hal in the room when I talk to him. It will come across the wrong way.”

“Sure,” Shari said.

“I think we should meet up for drinks,” Kiefer added. “We need to discuss strategy.”

“Oh?” she replied lightly. “You mean you’re not coming up with those on your own these days?”

“You know the players better than I do,” he replied. He was still keeping that cool tone with her, but there was some emotion behind it. Nerves, most likely. Shari knew Kiefer better than most.

“Okay. Tell me where you want to meet and I will be there in an hour,” Shari promised.

***

Kiefer chose a restaurant called Alta Vista. It was a small, Mexican restaurant with a view of the ocean stretching from Santa Monica to Malibu. Despite the upscale locale, they kept the menu simple and the drinks strong. It was a place which had significance to them—or at least it did to him. I can never be sure what’s important to Shari these days, he thought.

One of the things Kiefer struggled with was trying to remain positive. When it came to work, he always had the attitude that he could make things happen. In his personal life, it was a different thing. He still felt like an idiot after his last argument with her, and he hoped he would do better this time.

Kiefer waited for her at the bar. He was downing his second shot of whiskey when she appeared in the doorway.

The restaurant was fairly dark, and the momentary blast of sunlight blowing in around the edges of the door created the optical illusion of a halo around Shari’s body. She wore a little, black cocktail dress with spaghetti straps and heels.  He was encouraged to see she had not worn her usual business attire. Kiefer smiled.

“Hey, you,” she said as she slipped into the chair beside him. The bartender took her order and pushed a bowl of tortilla chips her way.

“Hey yourself,” Kiefer said. “You look beautiful.” He hoped it didn’t sound like a come on. He certainly didn’t mean it to be, but hell. She was a sexy woman and she knew it.

“Thank you,” she said lightly. She didn’t meet his eyes, but instead looked past him, out the window to the ocean. “I guess we’re having an official truce now?”

“I should hope so,” Kiefer said. “Look, the fight we had was completely stupid and was totally my fault. I’m hoping you can forgive me for that. And as far as only talking to you regarding work? I think that would be a real shame. Hal’s not going to be in trouble forever, but I am going to need my friend back.”

“Friend?” Shari said with a raised eyebrow.

The bartender returned with Shari’s drink. Kiefer waited until he had went back down the other end of the bar to help a group of patrons before continuing.

“I only say friend because I know we’ve always been something more and less than that. I guess it’s whatever we’re labeling ourselves as today. But whatever that might be I don’t want to lose it.”

“Well you said a mouthful,” Shari said. “What caused the sudden change?”

Kiefer sighed. “I saw the tactic I was using the other day was not working for either of us. One of my friends reminded me recently sometimes you just have to try again and admit when you’re an ass.”

“Who gave you that advice?”

“David.”

“Oh. I always liked David.”

“Hey,” I nudged her arm. Shari smiled.

“Really, when you’re not huffing and puffing, it’s adorable how easily jealous you become.”

They were both quiet for a while. Kiefer was the one who broke the silence.

“Shari, what would have happened if I hadn’t left town?”

She turned to him, and gave him the saddest little smile. “Now there’s the question I was hoping you’d ask.” She tucked a strand of stray hair behind her ear and leaned forward. “I was going to tell you how I felt. In fact, I planned to do it the day we met here. But that was the night you told me you had to go overseas, and I just couldn’t lay that kind of information on you.”

At that moment, Kiefer was floored. How could he explain to her knowing she loved him would have given him something to hope for during the darkest times in his life? If he were truthful with himself, he would have realized he had hoped to be with Shari one day anyhow. During his mission, he’d almost been killed twice; once from Dengue fever and the second time from a bullet wound. And both times, Alec told him in the worst of his delirium he’d cried out for Shari.

It would have been an unfair burden for Shari, to wait for him to come back, not knowing if or when he would return home, or in what condition. Kiefer and his friends were all black ops. Depending on the mission and if it were successful, the government could have disavowed knowledge of their unit at any time. He couldn’t make her feel guilty by telling her how much three words would have meant to him before he left for a war zone.

“You…you were ready to leave him?” Kiefer asked.

She stirred her drink. “Yes. I was already making plans to. I had been for several weeks. I just waited too long to tell you.”

“Don’t do that. Don’t blame yourself. Neither of us can change it. But that means something to me. Not only how you felt back then, but your willingness to tell me now. A lot of people would never have bothered to say it. Especially with things being tense between us.”

“It’s the reason why things got tense,” Shari said. “Because we never resolved it. We can talk about the past all we want but I guess the real question is what’s happening now?”

Kiefer leaned over and kissed her. There weren’t many people in the establishment, but those who were had their eyes fastened to the couple. The bartender stayed on the far end of the bar, shook his head, and smiled.

“Just so we’re clear, I never stopped having feelings for you,” Kiefer told her. He stroked her cheek, smiling. “What man in his right man wouldn’t have feelings for you?”

“Good,” Shari said, her eyes sparkling. “I am glad we are clear. Maybe when things are over with Hal….”

“Not maybe,” Kiefer said. “Definitely. And the way Hal’s case is dragging on, it might not be a good idea to wait.”

She chuckled. “You have a point. Is it taking long? In comparison to other cases you’ve handled?”

“Yes and no. By now we would usually have a ransom note by now. There’s lots of suspects, but that comes with being a man of his stature.”

“Thank you for talking about him that way. Respecting him in general, I mean. I know he can be a handful, really, but he’s got a good heart, despite his proclivities. Sometimes I wish he would tone things down a bit, but I’ve accepted he won’t.”

Shari reached for his hand and he squeezed hers. He smiled. He felt his pulse jump. There was a feeling of relief…and love for her, which left him nearly breathless. He couldn’t put into words yet all he wanted to say. But Shari continued to talk.

“On my way down here, I was thinking about what you were saying about interviewing Attorney Plant. I think your best bet would be to talk to him at the charity ball.”

“Charity ball?”

“I apologize for not mentioning it earlier. It’s this Friday. The firm holds one ever year, and the benefits all go to children’s charities in the inner city. This gala will mark the twenty fifth year we’ve had it, so it’s going to be an even bigger event than usual. In previous years, I have had a hand in planning it but I gave it solely to an experienced party planner this time. Too many cases to work on, and too much with Hal to even think about it. Which is probably why I didn’t think of it until today. You should come. I can introduce you to everyone and that way it will seem quite natural for you to ask questions.”

“Don’t people think I am one of your, eh, clients?”

“Trying to find a reason not to show up already?” she teased. “Not all of my cases my cases are not criminal. I handle copyright and business law too. You’d be surprised how often people comingle business with pleasure.”

“Ah. So I will be the client you’re dating?”

“Something like that,” she batted her eyes at him.

“I’d be honored to go,” Kiefer said. “Regardless of whatever excuse you use to explain my presence.”

“Yes. You might surprise yourself, Kiefer. You may actually enjoy it.”

Shari’s phone rang. “I thought I had turned the ringer off,” she said. With a quick glance at the caller ID, she answered.

“Kimberly, what’s up?”

Kiefer could hear the person on the other end of the line was upset, though he couldn’t quite make out what was being said.

“Hell,” Shari said after she hung up.

“What’s wrong?” Kiefer asked.

“That was Hal’s wife just now. She said he’s been in an accident. He’s at the hospital.” She stood, grabbing her purse off the bar.

“I’ll come with you,” Kiefer offered.

***

When Kiefer and Shari arrived at the hospital, Hal’s wife was waiting outside his room. Kiefer couldn’t help but notice she was lovely. Alec had mentioned she was attractive. How did a man like Hal get her? It had to be his money.

Shari hugged Kimberly. “How is he?”

“Awake now. Stubborn as usual, but he was really scared when I got here. He’s been asking for you, Shari. I will let him tell you what happened. And you are?” she asked, turning towards Kiefer.

“Oh, he’s my friend, and he was with me when I got the call. You don’t mind if he comes in with me, do you?”

Kimberly looked over Shari’s dress and gave her a small smile. “No problem, hon. You might want to hurry, though. They gave him something to sedate him and it probably will take affect anytime now.”

Hal looked small and much older lying beneath white, hospital bedsheets. His eyes fluttered open as Shari came to the bedside. Kiefer took a respectful distance, hands in pockets, back against the opposite wall.

“Sweetheart,” Hal said, reaching for Shari’s hand. “You came.”

“Of course I did, silly,” she said. “What happened? Kimberly said you’d want to explain.”

“Someone ran my car off the road!” he cried, his blue eyes flashing with indignation.  “Son of a gun did it on purpose. Followed me up the canyon and ran me off into the ditch.”

“Did you get a good look at the car?” Kiefer asked.

“Silver BMW. Didn’t get the plate though. The windows were tinted, so I couldn’t see the driver. “

“Well, at least you’re okay, Hal,” Shari soothed. She rubbed his shoulder.

“I am not! The doctor says I have a hairline fracture in my arm and a slight concussion. Anytime your brain gets shaken like a martini, I don’t know how that can be ‘slight’ but that’s what these so called doctors tell me. Quacks, the whole lot of them! I wanted my own doctor, but he’s on vacation. Can you imagine the nerve of him?”

Shari exchanged a look with Kiefer. “I’m sure he didn’t know you’d need him, Hal.”

“Regardless, I am telling you the truth! This was done on purpose.”

“I believe you, Hal,” Kiefer said. “Can you remember when you first realized you were being followed?”

“I didn’t notice anything amiss until I turned onto the canyon. There’s not many neighbors up there, so any car you don’t recognize really gets your attention.”

“All right. We’ll look into it.”

“Be quick about it, will you?” Hal barked. “We’ve moved up from embarrassment to murder; I would say that’s a serious step up!”

“I agree,” Kiefer said. “I can arrange to have some guards for you until we get all this cleared up. Did they give you any idea when you might be going home?”

“Not tonight,” Hal sighed. “Though I’d like my own bed more than anything right now.  Apparently I should be fine to go home sometime tomorrow as long as my brain doesn’t swell through my skull this evening.”

“Hal!” Shari said, horrified.

“Well it’s true,” he said. He was still squeezing her hand. “You should know, my dear, in the event of my increasingly likely demise, you will be provided for in my will. A young lady can’t trust these idiots to do anything for them these days,” he said, sending an accusatory glare Kiefer’s way.

Kiefer thought about defending himself. He decided not to. It wasn’t the kind of argument he could possibly win. The man was probably frightened and was obviously crankier than usual. Apparently Hal knew something about the unease between himself and Shari. Interesting.

“We don’t need to talk about that right now. You’ll be around irritating people for a long time to come. And as far as anything else, mind your own business, Hal. Your wife is here and she looks upset. I hope you’re being kinder to her than you are to your doctors.”

“Yes, sure, of course,” he said. “She was in the room with me until just now. I told her to get some coffee.”

“I’ll arrange for that security detail,” Kiefer said.

“I think we should go. Let you get some sleep.”

“Sure, dear. I am sleepy,” he said and kissed her hand. “I’m tough, don’t you worry about me.”

***

Kiefer went downstairs and made some phone calls while Shari and Kimberly talked upstairs. It hadn’t occurred to him that the two were so chummy before, and he hoped it didn’t cause any problems. He would have to mention it to her later.

He put in several phone calls, but the last was to Jesse.

“What’s up? I haven’t heard from you in a few days,” Kiefer said.

“Chasing leads out of town. Listen, I talked to David today and he says it looks like Hal’s wife is clean as a whistle. She does have a side business, a small non-profit for battered women. She doesn’t advertise, but that’s probably because of the confidential nature of it. They literally hide women from their abusive partners. Apparently Hal gave her seed money for it a few years back and she’s been doing it ever since. Other than her little crush on Alec, she’s above board. Also explains the cheap phone. She would want something that didn’t cost her much money for that kind of business, and preferably something not easily traced.”

“I’m not sure whether I should be happy about that or not,” Kiefer said. He explained about Hal’s accident.

“Not good,” Jesse said. “Here’s what I have been looking into. Hal’s got a silent partner in the firm.”

“How come no one told us that?”

“My question exactly, brother,” Jesse said. “I’m up in Seattle taking a closer look at his holdings. He’s going to be in California at the end of the week though, according to his secretary.”

“That makes sense,” Kiefer said. “The firm is having a charity event Friday. He probably intends on being there. Will you text me his name and all the information you’ve got so far?”

“Sure thing,” Jesse said.

“Speaking of coming back home, when do you expect to be back?”

“Thursday,” he replied. “Can’t wait. It’s raining like Indonesia during monsoon season here,” he quipped.

“Well, safe travels then. I’m sure we’ll have sunshine to welcome you back home with.”

They talked a few moments longer before disconnecting the call.

Shari came through the sliding doors of the hospital entrance a few moments later. He noticed a look of quiet concern on her face. Kiefer put an arm around her as they walked out into the parking lot.

“Kimberly doesn’t believe him,” Shari said. “But the more I think about it, the more upsetting the whole thing is. I really do think someone is trying to hurt him! What really bothers me is Hal is too stubborn to do much about it.”

“Well, Kimberly doesn’t know what we do,” Kiefer said. “But as far as his protection, I have a detail for him and Kimberly. They will be very discrete. Once he gets out of the hospital, I am going to have a talk with him about coming clean with his wife. I had her checked out and she’s not involved. She deserves to know what’s going on with him—regardless of the potential embarrassment.”

“Oh. Good luck with that,” Shari sighed. “You see how he is.”

“I know,” Kiefer replied. “Come on. I’ll follow you home, make sure you get in properly.”

“No one’s after me,” she said softly. They had reached her car, and she stopped to look up at him.

“I know,” he said. “For once, just indulge me.”

***

After Shari broke up with her fiancé, the first thing she did was buy her own home. She had a two story townhouse in Studio City, tucked away on a quiet cul-de-sac. Shari pulled into the garage and Kiefer parked just outside. He walked up to the door.

“Why don’t you come in?” she said with a small smile. “It’s been a long night.”

I followed her into the house. She turned on the lights. The hallway divided the house; staircase on the left, living and dining room on the right, with the kitchen all the way in the back. The floors were a dark, mahogany wood, while the walls were painted a pale, cream color. The living room was decorated simply with a sofa and a couple of plush, red chairs. Everything about the home seemed to have her warm and casual personality about it.

She kicked off her heels and picked them up. “Nightcap?” she offered.

“No,” Kiefer said, putting an arm around her waist. “I’m all right.”

He laid a long, slow kiss on her mouth. Shari dropped her shoes with a clatter. She wrapped her arms around his neck, sighing into his mouth as he kissed her. With her chest pressed against his, she stood, legs apart, and looked directly into his eyes.

“I just got to thinking, Kiefer. What are we waiting around for? We have been separated for so long. There’s no one like you.”

“Back at you,” Kiefer said, running his hands down her back. “I was thinking along the same lines…about coming back here, but I didn’t know how you would take it. I know you’re worried about Hal.”

“He is like a dad to me,” she said. “Even more reason for me to have some comfort tonight. I don’t think you know how very glad I am to have you home in one piece. I knew there was always the possibility you might not come home.”

Kiefer caressed her cheek. “That’s why I’m not in that line of work anymore,” he reminded her. “You don’t have to worry about something happening to me.”

“I know,” she said. “It just makes me want to be near you anyway.”

“We want the same thing,” he said, putting his forefinger to her lips. “It’s okay.”

They went upstairs together.

Shari guided him through the darkness to her bed. She sat down and watched as he undressed in front of her. Off with tie and shirt. She stood to run her hands over his pecs. Kiefer smiled. He leaned in to kiss her again, and this time was more heat between them. Shari was a little breathless afterwards, eyes glazed with the building of pleasure inside her.

His belt came off next. Soon he was down to nothing, and Shari couldn’t help but stare. She had seen him shirtless before. She had seen him wearing swim trunks that left little to the imagination. But she had never seen him fully naked, and he was even more beautiful than she would have guessed. His toned abs, muscular arms and thighs were the standard of male perfection. And his cock was already swollen and erect for her.

“Um, did you forget something?” Kiefer asked with a smile. “I feel all alone here.”

Shari giggled. She pulled off her dress. Before she could get rid of her lacy underthings, Kiefer reached for her, pulling her into his arms. He kissed her breasts. Reaching around her back, she felt the release of pressure as he unhooked her bra. He caught her in his hands, pressing his mouth against her nipple, one, and then the other. Shari moaned. She ran her hands up and down his chest, and then his back. She got on tiptoe to kiss his neck.

Kiefer’s hands roamed lower, resting on her hips, beneath the lace of her panties. He slowly pulled them away from her, cupping her soft skin in his hands as he did. The rush of cool air against her body was an aphrodisiac in itself, because she knew what came next. The warmth of his steady hands soon replaced the cool air she felt a moment before. If she could have anything, it would be this wonderful moment of discovery, right before everything would change for them both forever.

He pulled her down onto the bed, and she laid back. He trailed down her body slowly, kissing her gently as she went. He teased with his lips and tongue, his hands were also gently caressing as he went. By the time he reached her belly button, she was shivering.

She raised her legs for him, and he settled comfortably between, loving her by sucking gently at her core.

“Oh, baby, yes,” she said. Her fingers wrapped themselves in his hair. She closed her eyes and arched her back, so ready to give herself over to this happiness that was denied to them before.

He kissed and sucked until she felt the spasms of her climax rock her body. When he lifted his head he smiled. “I love you,” he whispered, crawling up to kiss her mouth.

“I love you too,” she said. He hovered over her for a moment. His eyes sparkled, and she reached up to touch his face. She wiped sweat away from his skin. She loved the scent of him, the elemental aroma of his body beneath soap and aftershave. Shari wanted to be engulfed in him, wrapped up in his arms and filled with his body. How had they both denied themselves of this for so long?

When he moved again, she felt him enter her. The feeling was exquisite: the way he handled her, the way he stroked her. His expert touch was gentle but steady, rocking her gently when she needed, harder as she moved further into the throes of passion.  She moved with him, rocking in time, her body following the lead of his movement. Her eyes blurred with tears, and when she came, the pleasure was so deep she couldn’t help but cry out for him. Her body shuddered with a long orgasm, heat from the deepest part of her core radiated out through her limbs, the warmth seeping all the way down to her toes. Kiefer reached his moment of crisis a few moments later, emptying his seed into her.

They lay silent and still beside each other for a while. And then Shari leaned against him. Kiefer opened his arms to her so she could lay against his chest. It was so perfect that for a while, there was no need for words. He snuggled against her neck, and whispered one word into her ear. “Finally.”

She nodded. Yes. Finally, release after so long. Love, comfort, and his body intertwined with her own. This was what she needed.

They drifted into a blissful sleep in each other’s arms, and did not wake until morning light crept through the curtains.

***

The rest of the week seemed to go by at high speed.

Hal went home the day after the accident, with orders to rest and not to work for the next seven days. Between Kimberly and Shari, they were able to make him promise not to come into work, though he insisted he would be at the charity event on Friday. “I am not an invalid!” he barked over the phone. “I just got throttled, that’s all.” Shari spent an hour talking to him on the phone, going over the status of his cases and in general smoothing his feathers.

“It’s really the best we can hope for,” Shari told Kiefer with a rueful grin. “At least at the party he doesn’t have to do anything but sit at a table and talk to anyone who comes by. Kimberly is staying at his place this week so she can make sure he doesn’t sneak into his home office and start working. He’s stubborn as they come.”

Shari was at Kiefer’s house, sitting with her feet curled beneath her on the couch. He smiled. She looked like she belonged there. Since their first night together they started bouncing between houses, Shari sleeping at his house a couple nights a week and vice versa. She was the first woman he’d invited back to the house since he had been back from deployment, and that seemed right somehow. She already knew all the guys except Jesse, whom she would meet soon.

“I didn’t know all you guys lived so close,” Shari said. “I know you said same neighborhood. Not quite the same as in a row on the same block. All behind the same, white wall.”

“Minor details,” Kiefer teased.

“I think it’s very cool,” she said. “Though it kind of reminds me of an adult, rich man’s version of frat housing.”

“Some days, I have to admit it’s very much so,” he said.

Things with Shari were great, but Kiefer was frustrated with the investigation. Nothing new had surfaced since Hal’s accident. Though Jesse was working on a lead there was nothing definitive there, and all other leads were coming to dead ends. Attorney Plant was the most viable suspect so far, but Kiefer remained unconvinced. He wished he could put his finger on the annoying feeling that he was not in possession of all the pieces of this puzzle.

Why someone would go from threats of provocative photos to actual attempted murder via car accident…it didn’t make much sense, unless one figured the person who was doing this was at the point of desperation. Maybe their guilty party was just lashing out in any way that they could. Such recklessness only made the situation that much more dangerous.

The night of the ball, Kiefer picked Shari up at her house. She wore a stunning, shoulder-less, red gown with a plunging neckline. Her hair was done in a complicated upsweep that revealed the lines of her graceful neck and shoulders. She wore a necklace with a ruby pendant, which glowed against her pale skin.

“Beautiful,” Kiefer said. “It’s going to be a feat to keep my hands off of you.”

“You’re not half bad yourself, sweetheart. When was the last time you were in a tux?”

“Now that you mention it? Probably not since Alec’s wedding.”

“Hasn’t he been divorced for three years?”

“Yep. It’s been a long time. You know me. I don’t clean up unless I have to.”

“Yes, but, baby, you do it so well,” Shari grinned.

The ball was being thrown in an exclusive Century City hotel, not more than a mile from the law firm. All kinds of people were present: school teachers, charity workers, a handful of celebrities, employees of the firm, and some of their competitors. You would hardly have been able to guess who was who, because everyone was donned in finery. Shari told him that each plate cost a donation of five hundred dollars, but some of the wealthier contributors were paying as much as a thousand. Many of the guests wore their very finest diamond-encrusted jewelry.

The ballroom was huge. Chandeliers glowed over each table, and all the chairs were swathed in fresh, white linen, as were the tables.  There were flowers everywhere, orchids and oleander strung together with baby’s breath. Had it not been a charity event, the venue would have been fit for a formal wedding.

“I’ll make sure I write my own check at the end of the evening,” Kiefer said. “But I’ve got other things to do first.”

“Might as well start schmoozing with all your suspects,” Shari said, taking in a deep breath. “Here goes nothing.”

Chapter 5

Everyone in the firm of Kittredge, Plant, and Hemmings were gathered around one, large table in the center of the ballroom. Hal sat at the head, flanked by his wife Kimberly on the right, and his partner Attorney Hemmings on the left. Attorney John Plant, who had been under Kiefer’s scrutiny for a while, attended with his wife, Stella. Together, the founding partners even smelled like privilege. Kiefer knew Hal well enough to like him, at least a bit, but these other people he wasn’t sure about. Even if he weren’t looking at them as possible suspects, they weren’t his kind of people.

The rest of the lawyers at the firm were much younger than Hal; most were somewhere between their late twenties and mid-forties, and somehow had the air of more middle class stock, even if they were making a six figure salary. In his travels, Kiefer found that how you were raised often dictated your habits. If you were the son of a postman and a maid, like he was, you tended not to have so much of an ego about you, even if you were wealthy, and had been for years. The firm’s receptionist was there, looking so gorgeous with her hair in an upsweep, jewels at her throat, and a blue gown, that he didn’t recognize her until she spoke. There were also the paralegals, admin assistants, and the human resources people, all clustered into their own sections of the table. He wondered if they had actually been seated according to job, or if they were only sitting next to the people they knew best.

Shari made the introductions for Kiefer and he settled beside her.

It was not hard to get people to talk. They were a garrulous bunch, and everyone was a little looser once the wine got to flowing. Kiefer made sure he mingled with several other people around the table before turning his attention to John Plant. Even then he made his question a general one for the table.

“So I was wondering, I have been many places for business but very few I have visited on vacation. I was thinking about maybe an island getaway. Where would you all suggest?”

Among the most popular answers were Hawaii and the Caribbean.

“The Caymans for me,” John Plant said. “Stella and I intend on retiring there in three years. We’re saving every penny we get, not to mention transferring all of Stella’s money.”

“It’s true,” she said proudly. “I don’t bother spending my own money anymore; we just stuff it away for retirement. We already have an eye on the house we want.”

“Has to be an excellent tax shelter,” Hal said with a raised eyebrow. “I wasn’t aware you were looking to retire early.”

“We only made the decision recently, over the last few months,” Attorney Plant said. “We have plenty of time to worry about transition for the company later.”

Kiefer wanted to shake his head. That explained the odd transfers into offshore accounts. He’d have David double check, but Kiefer felt the ring of truth in this story. If he was really doing anything covert, he wouldn’t be willing to brag about it so openly among his friends and colleagues. Especially not in front of Hal. If the situation was not so serious, he would find it laughable.

Kiefer slipped away to make a phone call. David answered on the second ring. He started speaking before Kiefer had a chance to speak.

“I was just about to call you man. Look, um, we have a possible new suspect. Jesse got back in town a few minutes ago. Ask Hal about his silent partner, a man named Tyler Rubidoux. We found some really suspicious goings on with him.”

As David poured out more information, Kiefer held the phone tight and took a look around the room. A band was playing and people were getting up to dance. Kiefer lost sight of where the attorneys were clustered together only minutes before. A crowd of people were moving across the middle of the floor.

“I’ve got to call you back, David,” he said, and hung up.

Kiefer shoved his phone into his pocket. Pushing through the sea of partygoers, he made it back to the table.

Shari was gone.

***

“Tyler, you made it!” Shari said. She stood up to give him a hug. He went around the table and shook hands with the partners. He smiled and straightened his tie.

Tyler had dark hair streaked with a bit of silver at his crown. His dark-green eyes shined. He had high cheekbones and a cleft chin. He was in his early fifties but managed to maintain his thin frame.

“My flight yesterday was delayed. They’re having some horrible storms out there right now. Luckily I was just delayed until today, because a lot of flights were canceled.  I just made it out here this afternoon. Sorry to join the party late.”

“Better late than not at all,” Hal said. “We don’t see enough of you as it is.  Go ahead and have a seat.”

“I will, but would you mind if I borrow Shari for a moment? I have a personal matter I’d like her opinion on.”

“Not at all,” Hal said.

“Sure, we can talk,” Shari said.

“I know someplace a bit more quiet where we can have a private,” he said. “Come with me.”

***

Shari had known Tyler since she first started at the firm as an intern. When she became a paralegal, he was one of the three attorneys she prepared paperwork for. By the time she obtained her law degree, he was no longer in the office full time, but he kept in touch. She had no reason not to trust him.

Shari went upstairs to the rooftop patio without a second thought. She had been up to this patio in the daytime. A lot of the employees in the general area came up during their lunch breaks when the weather was nice, or to have a quick smoke. There was built in seating and blooming flower pots all around the rooftop. At the center was a fire grate, and there was a gazebo structure on the eastern side of the building. She had never been up here at night. The view was spectacular. The city lights spread out like jewels before them. The Hollywood Hills were visible in the distance.

"I'm happy to give you legal advice, but I hope it's nothing too serious," she said. "What can I help you with?"

"No, I don’t need legal help. I really just didn’t want to speak with you in the front of the company we had downstairs. Quite honestly, I was wondering how Hal is doing these days. You seem closer to him than anyone else. It's not like he would ever give me a straight answer.”

"He's fine. I mean, he has dealt with some stressful things lately, but nothing he can't handle,” Shari said, smoothing her hair back. The wind was blowing, and she felt a slight chill. She looked out over the city lights, and then back at Tyler. His serious expression bothered her. He’d been happy and cheerful only a few moments before. It had been a long time since they worked together and she had forgotten how his moods could shift as quickly as the weather.

"I'm so interested to hear you say that. Yet in the past few years you have taken over the lion's share of the cases he used to handle.  Why is that?"

"Well, he is getting a little older and would like time to enjoy his life a bit more. He's by no means retiring. He just wanted to cut back. Besides, he’s my boss. I don’t get to control what he does or how he makes up his schedule. I’m not even a partner.”

"You’re not a partner yet, you mean. It’s very obvious you’re the rising star at the firm. He’s only sixty-one. He’s not ready to be carted off to a nursing home or something, for goodness sakes! There’s no reason he shouldn’t be able to carry a full work schedule like anyone else. And has it ever occurred to you what it is he's doing while he's 'cutting back?' Did it ever cross your mind he wasn't doing appropriate things in his free time in the first place?"

"Tyler, he's been a mentor to me. I don't get into his private life. And to be honest, I doubt he would do anything but scoff if I asked him. "

"Are you so sure about that?" he asked. Because I would say hiring someone to clean up his little messes is very personal. You have access to him that no one else does. You really don’t think people haven’t noticed? Or that I haven’t because I’m rarely in the office?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Are you sure about that?” Tyler said, taking a step closer to her. “You have an excellent poker face, but I don’t believe you.”

“I think you need to sit down and have a real heart to heart talk with Hal. You are his business partner; he’s obligated to answer these kind of questions. Frankly, I don’t appreciate being put in the middle of whatever dispute you may have with him. I’m only an employee at the firm and I take orders like everyone else. If you’d like me to set up a time to have you two discuss whatever is going on, I can have his assistant set it up. Other than that, I don’t really know how I can help you.”

 Shari started to walk away, but he grabbed her arm.

“Don’t you walk away from me, you bitch!” Tyler growled.

“What is your problem? Let go of me!”

“I kept wondering where Hal’s weak spot was,” Tyler spat. “He didn’t care about having his reputation ruined. He wasn’t scared when I paid someone to run him off the road. And then it occurred to me: He doesn’t really care about anyone but you. You’re the daughter he never had. And what better way to avenge my own daughter’s death than to take you away from him?”

Tyler dragged Shari forward. When she realized what he was doing—pulling her towards the edge of the building—she punched him. She ran towards the door, but he caught up with her. He lifted her over his shoulders like a bag of potatoes. Kicking and screaming, she tried to pull away from him. Shari felt a rush of vertigo as she saw the city lights tilt below.

There was a click, and then the sound of a man’s voice.

“Put her down or I’ll shoot you.” Kiefer’s voice was cold as ice and just as steady.

“You will? I think you’re bluffing.”

Shari turned her head and saw Kiefer standing a few feet away, pointing a gun at Tyler. Tyler was slowly backing towards the edge. If she fought him, even a little bit, he would drop her over the side of the building. She was holding onto his shoulder, trying not to tip over.

“How much are they paying you, I wonder? Hired lap dog, that’s all you are. Is it worth it, talking like you’re the big bad man, when I can toss her over the edge anyway? I’m sure it’s something you would like to see.”

Kiefer took a step forward. “I said, drop her, or I’ll drop you.”

“No, it’s not going to end that way. I’m going to get what I want! Vengeance for my daughter! She didn’t deserve to die the way she did.”

Two shots rang through the air in close succession.

Shari screamed, scrambling to grab hold of anything as she felt him let go of her.

Tyler fell to his knees, and Shari dropped to the floor of the patio beside him.

Kiefer came and pulled Shari to her feet and wrapped an arm around her, while Tyler screamed and groaned in agony. Kiefer kept his gun trained on him.  He’d shot Tyler in both of his knees.

“How did you know he wasn’t going to drop me?” Shari asked me.

“Um, calculated risk,” he said. “All I knew for sure was I couldn’t let him get any closer to the edge with you than he already was.”

“Okay. Next time I have to ask you a question like that, please lie to me. Save me some time freaking out.”

“Hopefully there’s no next time,” Kiefer said. “But it’s a deal.”

***

A few hours later, Hal and Shari were in Kiefer’s office, along with his entire team: Alec, David, and Jesse, who had only gotten back into town around the time the charity benefit began.

Shari sat with Kiefer’s tuxedo jacket wrapped around her. It had been an awful night. Partygoers had gawked as paramedics had taken Tyler down from the roof. The police were called, and statements were taken from both Kiefer and Shari. The partygoers had been forced to stay in the ballroom until they were satisfied no one else in attendance was involved with the incident on the rooftop. It made for lively gossip, but Hal expressed his concern that some people wouldn’t want to show up for the event next year. Others would just take it as another lively event in Los Angeles; just like high speed car chases and the occasional celebrity gone bonkers on the street.

“Okay, so I want the full explanation of what went down with Tyler,” Shari said. “What on earth was he talking about? I don’t even remember him having a kid, not one he ever talked to me about.”

“Do you want to tell her Hal, or should I?” Kiefer said.

The attorney made a long sigh. “I didn’t really level with you and Kiefer about everything I knew,” Hal said. “I apologize.”

“All right. So what did you know that you didn’t say?” Shari crossed her arms. Her dark eyes fixed him with a look to kill.

“I knew who the girl was in the picture. She was Tyler’s daughter, Camila. She wasn’t underage. She was twenty-five, but I didn’t want her father to know anything happened between us. I ran into her one night at a fundraiser last year, we got to talking, and one thing lead to another. It was only the one night. I never saw her afterwards.

“There was a ransom note, and I received it before we hired Kiefer. I paid what they were asking for—five hundred thousand dollars. I figured it was Camila trying to get money out of me. It never occurred to me her father knew anything about it. But I hired Kiefer’s firm and hoped he’d follow the bread crumbs back to Camila and let her know the gravy train had ended.”

“And here we were, literally hitting our heads against walls,” Alec said quietly. “But we were only working with a fraction of the information we should have had to begin with.”

“Only it was actually Tyler receiving the money,” Kiefer said. “It was an embarrassment for Hal, but the money was only a drop in the bucket, and as you heard him say, what he really wanted was revenge. He never really wanted those pictures released publicly, because someone would eventually find out it was Camila anyway. After that, he indulged in some scare tactics.”

“He hired someone to run Hal off the road, but he never had intentions of killing him,” Shari said. “Tyler wanted to make him suffer.”

“Indeed,” Kiefer said. “It was all about doing things to Hal that would keep him alive but make him suffer. Pretty sick when you think about it. What happened to getting into a fist fight with a man when you have a grudge to settle?”

“Okay, but I don’t understand,” Shari said. “If his daughter only slept with Hal once, what was the big deal? I mean, it’s not like she had a long relationship with him, or was planning on marrying him or something.”

“Well, that’s where it gets interesting,” Jesse spoke up. “I went out to Seattle in hopes of meeting Camila. As it turns out, she’s dead. She committed suicide in February of this year. It was all very hush hush. No obit for her in the paper, no funeral held.”

“The poor girl,” Hal said. “How?”

“We hacked some medical records,” David said. “She slit her wrists. There was nothing much in the way of a note. Camila had suffered from depression on and off throughout her life, from the time she was a teenager. There were a couple of suicide attempts when she was younger. Tyler wanted someone to blame. And that ended up being Hal.”

“I didn’t even know she had passed,” Hal shook his head. “I knew her to be a sweet woman. I mean, I thought it was strange that she would try to blackmail me but I didn’t think anyone else knew about it. And frankly, between two consenting adults, I am not sure why anyone would really care what happened. But putting those pictures out to the public was something I didn’t want for obvious reasons.”

“We can’t say for sure,” Jesse said. “But our guess is Camila had a thing for recording her encounters with men, and when she died, Daddy Dearest went through her things and found the pictures of you with her. It had to make for a hell of a surprise.”

“I wish you had been more honest with me from the beginning, Hal,” Kiefer said. “A lot of this could have been avoided. Including Shari almost getting tossed over the side of a building.”

“I never dreamed you would be hurt,” Hal said to Shari. “Can you forgive me?”

“I could. After a two-week, paid vacation,” Shari narrowed her eyes at him.

“Done,” Hal said. “I’ll foot the bill for wherever you want to go.”

“So, what happens to Tyler?” Alec asked.

“We’ll see. He could be up on a lot of charges. Attempted murder. Blackmail. Conspiracy, with whomever he hired to run Hal off the road,” Kiefer said. “He was actually pissed that I didn’t kill him instead of shooting him.”

“Will the pictures come out?” Hal asked.

“We can keep the pictures out of the press, though the gist of the story will still make it to the news unless we take action,” Kiefer said. “There’s ways to squelch the pictures and the story, Hal. But it will cost you a lot of money.”

“Whatever you have to do, do it,” Hal snarled.

“All right then. I’ll send you the invoice for our fee,” Kiefer replied.

“What about your wife?” Alec asked.

“Things will continue to go on with her as they have,” Hal said. “We’ll maintain our separate homes. What she does with her own time is her business, and vice versa. I’d prefer for her to not have to be embarrassed by this whole debacle.”

“The decision is yours, but it would be best if you did talk to her about the situation, so she’s not blindsided,” Kiefer said. “That’s my first advice to you and it still stands. Not to get too personal, but you’re not living together, any um…activity on your part shouldn’t come as a total surprise to her.”

“I’ll broach the topic with her,” Hal said. “I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Now about that vacation,” Shari said. “I’m going to need accommodations for two.”

***

Three days later, Kiefer and Shari were on the beach in Hawaii.

Not only was the room at their resort paid for, but Hal arranged for them to get the best suite in the hotel. They had a view overlooking the water. The suite came with two bedrooms (a sideways joke on Hal’s part, Shari claimed), a huge living room with fireplace, and a bathroom with a full hot tub.

“When was your last vacation?” Shari asked. She was laying on a towel while he rubbed suntan lotion on her back.

“You want to know? I am a little embarrassed to say. Actually, never.”

“Never?” Shari turned over. Her mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Kiefer Lawrence, are you kidding?”

“Not at all,” he said. “We didn’t do vacations when I was a kid, unless you count driving to my grandma’s house two cities away as one. And later, there was never time. I was serious when I told you all the traveling I’ve done has been for work.”

“Poor baby,” she said, caressing his abs. “You have to learn how to have fun.”

“Fun, I do know,” he said. He leaned over to kiss her.

“I have something to ask you.”

“Uh oh,” Shari said. “Is this going to be bad, because if so, I am going to need a drink, and some ear plugs.”

“Nothing bad, but just something on my mind.”

“All right. Spill; you have me in suspense.”

“So, it just occurred to me. I live a lot closer to your job than you do.”

“Uh huh.”

“And, we have been doing a lot of running back and forth between my house and yours. Through L.A. traffic, which is never fun.”

“Yes, that’s true.”

“I was wondering if, when we get back home, you might consider moving in with me.”

Shari grinned. “And how long have you been thinking about this?”

“A while,” Kiefer admitted. He didn’t want to tell her it had been a dream of his since way back when.

“Say no more,” Shari said, and planted a kiss on his lips. “Yes, I’ll live with you.”

“You will?” Kiefer grinned. Even his dimples showed.

“Absolutely,” she said, putting her hands on his shoulders. “I can’t wait to see what trouble we’ll manage to get into next!”

“I can’t wait to be with you all the time,” Kiefer said, wrapping his arms around her.

The End.