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Authors: Michelle McGriff

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BOOK: Swerve
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“Don't be so quick to call the kettle black,” Stone sneered with sarcasm in his words, his gun aimed at the man.

All were dead in the room now, except this man. He was desperate and had little to lose. He knew that. Stone knew that.

“Go get Tripoli, Stone,” the beauty whispered before the man hit her against the side of the head with the butt of the gun. “Please, go,” she begged.

“Shut up! You little bitch,” the gunman said.

Stone felt his eye twitch, as her eyes rolled in pain. She grabbed at the man's bloody arm that was clasped tightly around her shoulders, holding her close to him as a shield.

“Let go of her and I won't kill you,” Stone lied.

The man laughed between gagging on the blood that was continually forming in his mouth. “Oh, so she is special to you, yes?” the man sneered before flicking the side of the beauty's face with his tongue.

“Tripoli's gone,” Stix called as he slid back into the room, right into the tense action. He put on the breaks upon seeing the situation. His gun instantly fired, hitting the man right between the eyes, but not before the man fired on Stone, whose attention was taken away for just a second when Stix reentered the room.

The rules had been broken.

He had flinched.

The beauty screamed out as she broke from the grip of the dying man to run to Stone's side.

“Shit, Stone!” Malik panicked as he entered the penthouse.

Stone groaned in pain. “Damn it.”

“Oh, God.” The beauty panicked, squatting down at Stone's side.

A devilish smile covered Stone's lips as the two of them noticed the blood soaking his shirt from the inside out in his belly area.

“Is he hurt bad?” Malik asked, also squatting down beside him, giving the beauty a quick glance.

“Stupid question, Malik,” she fussed, looking around for something to apply pressure to Stone's wound. Ripping the shirt of one of the dead men, she held it against his rib cage over the bloody opening. “He's a man. He bleeds. He dies…”

“Stop now! You gotta get the fuck outta here,” Stone growled, pushing her away, showing no self-pity or dereliction of his duty as her senior.

“Vous allez être bien mon amour
,” she whispered, but not so low that Malik and Stix didn't catch the affection in her voice.

“My love?” Stix asked, looking down over the scene playing out. He understood her French perfectly, although it was not his primary language.

With green eyes dazzling like diamonds, she pleaded, “Stix, help me. Please help me get him up. We have to get him back to the Phoenix.”

Shaking his head emphatically, Stix barked. “No! Leave him!”

“You hate him. You've always hated him. You're jealous because he is chosen.”

“Chosen? For what? You're a fool!” Stix snapped. “If he is truly as
chosen
as you believe, he'll cure himself.”

“Help me, Malik,” she begged now, ignoring Stix's comments, turning her attention to a more loyal friend.

“No, Stix is right. I am but a man and now a burden. Leave me with the dead.” Stone's voice was low, pained, and guttural. He resisted her efforts to pull him into a sitting position.

“He's right. We must. We must leave him,” Malik told her now, accepting Stone's injuries. He pulled her hand from the grip she had on Stone's clothing. She reached for his ankles, struggling to lift his legs, then finally dropping them and falling back against the wall, all but out of hope.

“Do you love me?” Stone asked her, his voice just above a whisper upon seeing tears coming from her eyes. “Do you love me?” he asked again.

“Yes,” she answered. Her voice was beaten and full of surrender.

“What will you do for me?”

“I will die for you.” She spoke to him, and then looked at Malik and Stix, telling them both without a word that she had chosen to wait behind. She then reached to pick up an abandoned weapon, as if that alone would be enough to protect the two of them when the authorities came.

“And your death would have not been in vain,” Stone promised. “But you will not die today.”

“Keep her safe, my friend,” Stone whispered in Malik's ear. Malik nodded in reply, as he gently allowed Stone to lie back onto the blood-soaked carpet and quickly turn away, hiding all emotion. “Take her!” he ordered Malik.

“No!” she screamed as Malik rose now, pulling her to her feet and pushing her toward the door. She was hysterical.

Suddenly, two shots were heard behind her and Malik's backs. The woman fought Malik like a wildcat as she knew what had occurred. Stix had finished Stone off.

These were not the rules. Of this she was certain. Stix was murdering him. If what she knew to be truth truly was, there would hell to pay for this act of treason. Capri's thoughts were jumbled, coming faster and faster with more and more clarity.

“Now he's chosen. He's chosen to die. Let's leave,” Stix suggested, then quickly moved past them in the doorway.

She refused to turn around. She didn't want to see what Stix had done to Stone. She didn't want to face how badly this had all turned out.

The authorities would be coming soon and their failed mission did not need to be compounded by being caught.

Everyone knew that.

Still, she felt remorse. It hit her like a brick, and instantly she changed her mind, clawing at Malik's face, causing him to release her. She then ran back to where Stone lay with two extra bullets in his chest. “No, we won't leave you. No!” she insisted, sweat coming to her forehead as she alone attempted to lift the now unconscious man, his weight surely doubling hers.

Stix stepped toward Capri and, without warning, raised his gun to backhand her with it. Malik could hear the crack of what sounded like her skull. It caused him to jump slightly. She fell across Stone's legs.

Stix paused for a moment and then shook his head. “Damn you, Stone,” he growled before hoisting the beautiful woman over his shoulder like a sack of grain.

With Malik leading the way, the three of them charged up the stairs that led to the roof of the hotel. There they awaited the drop of a ladder from the aircraft that hovered overhead. Tripoli was supposed to be on that ladder, but they had nothing to show for their day except disastrous results.

In the distance, a fire alarm could be heard from inside the hotel. The three of them looked at each other before ascending the ladder. They knew Stone, with all he had left, had started the fire, as this was his signature.

“Nothing remains in the ashes except the Phoenix,” he would say.

Chapter 1

Gold studs down the length of her black leather pants protected her long legs from the wind while she rode. She couldn't help but enjoy the cool air as it whipped up under the helmet. Three inch–heeled leather boots made her clearly over six feet tall, and a custom-designed leather jacket hid the holster that housed her service revolver in a covert pocket she'd had made especially for this purpose. She pulled into The Spot and parked.

Stepping from her black Ducati motorcycle, Romia pulled the bright red helmet from her head, releasing her long raven tresses that bounced lightly around her shoulder blades. Turning the helmet slightly, she ran her hand over the emblem of the golden phoenix that covered the back of the headpiece and matched the one she had painted onto the side of the bike's monocoque frame. She then attached the helmet to the handlebar with a custom-made, short-locking bungee cord.

The symbolic bird—which she'd found intricately woven into a large tapestry in her mother's attic, while watching the two women her mother trusted most cleaning it out after she died—meant everything to her. One of the women seemed instinctively to know that she wanted to keep that tapestry. Cutting a small square from the larger piece of fabric, she handed it to Romia instead of shoving it deep into the bag she and the other woman were filling with her mother's belongings. Romia was only six, but even then felt deep inside that the bird meant she'd reunite with mother again someway, somehow, someday. It spoke to her when she was afraid and comforted her when she was worried, it replaced her mother's loving arms—it was the connection she had with the past, the past she wasn't clearly sure she actually had.

Around her neck she wore a chain. On the end of the chain a small pebble was attached. It was yet another strange but precious belonging of her mother's. She'd taken it from the jewelry box that sat on her mother's dresser. She'd taken it before the women cleaning out the house could take it. She remembered seeing her mother fondle it often, to the point of making it shine like a precious stone instead of a mere rock. It was one of the first things she took when the packing started. It was another thing she held dear.

So few things, so few memories, but they were all Romia had. Her life seemed recreated from dreams and glimpses instead of full memories of her mother.

Entering the bar Romia and her colleagues frequented, she noticed tonight it was nearly empty. Two other officers, Hank and Aston, were sitting at the front table.

“You're late, Romee!” Out of nowhere, her former partner, Keliegh Jack, appeared. He'd attended a wedding earlier that day, but had discarded his suit jacket and slacks for jeans and his common T-shirt. She'd missed seeing him all dressed up and inwardly regretted it. What a treat that would have been. But still, he looked good in the casual clothes he wore, but she would never tell him that.

Moving to where she was, his body language was possessive as he quickly blocked her from view of the other men who might want to take a look at her.

Romia recognized his moves. He was always less than discreet with how he felt about her. It had been she who held off what could have happened between them.
It just wouldn't be right…not with a partner
, she had reasoned in her mind. They had never actually had the “what if” conversation, but she knew their body language said it all.

They'd been reassigned for a year now and sometimes Romia thought about those “could have happened” times. She wondered about them happening now, but so far nothing was growing between them beyond what was already there—so maybe she'd been wrong all this time about how he felt.

She and Keliegh Jack had been partners before he became a detective. He was now working with another female partner, Tamika Turner. Tamika, aka Tommy. Tommy, as most people called her, was of mixed racial descent. Romia had heard rumors that she only recently discovered that her father was a black man, a former judge who didn't claim her until he was forced to. The judge had been tied up in a murder trial, at the wrong end of it, but was freed. Perhaps the close shave with reality had given him a bite he could no longer ignore, as he soon after claimed Tommy as his daughter. Romia could relate to living her life without a father and was happy for Tommy's discovery, albeit under the not so great circumstances.

Each day, Romia looked in the mirror knowing the features on her face yelled loudly to racial ambiguity. She wondered who her father might be. It wasn't as if before her mother died she had time to answer any of those important questions Romia might need to know in life. It was many years later before Romia would realize that she and her mother were only about nineteen or twenty years apart. As young as she was, Romia often wondered if even her mother had known the answers to Romia's paternal questions.

Romia was fair. One could say she had an olive complexion in the summertime, but come winter, like now, she looked nearly white. Her dark hair was loosely curled and hung long and thick down her back, which she felt was typical of a person of mixed race. Romia's mother was fair skinned; a blonde with bright blue eyes. She would never forget her mother's eyes. Her own eyes were green.

There were no answers in the foster home she was raised in. Life wasn't bad in the foster home, just lacking in the information department. There was one good side, however: her foster parents had put her in martial arts to keep her busy.

Romia became a black belt by the age of ten and continued to seriously train, earning true marks as a master by the time she was in her late teens. For the others in the foster home it was just fun, but for Romia it was more than just something to do, it was life changing. Each move was perfection or she wouldn't stop practicing until it was. She fought hard and with a desperation that gave the impression that her life depended on it. By the age of twenty-five she was a fifth-level black belt, and had since climbed the ranks with determination. She was now twenty-eight years old and approaching the ninth level in the standard karate training. Yet her sensei had taught her many secret moves. He'd taught her moves he'd brought with him from his homeland.

Romia's fighting skills were amazing and beyond the comprehension of many. It was as if she was born to fight, like it was in her blood. He didn't need to teach her much. In reality, she had surpassed the levels of her training, but just could not be awarded any higher due to the rules of competition.

As she followed Keliegh over to the bar, she noticed Keliegh's date was sitting there in a hideous pink taffeta dress, but, with a body like hers, who cared, right? Keliegh always dated Barbie-doll blondes. You'd think a brother would have more imagination. But he didn't. He liked fake women who didn't give him a lot of lip. Maybe that was why the two of them hadn't gotten anywhere. Fake, Romia was not, and as far as lip, she was always putting him in his place with a little neck jecking and what he called his mama's attitude: no ifs ands, or buts. She didn't say much, but when she did, everyone knew she was serious.

Barefoot and tired, the little girlie he was with looked like she needed a drink.
A dress like that could drive one to drink
, Romia inwardly dogged while sliding up on the stool next to the girl, who had her feet up on the empty stool next to her. Maybe Keliegh had been rubbing her feet. Who knew? Maybe Romia was a little bit jealous.
Whatever
. “I see you're digging that dress,” she remarked to Shashoni, Keliegh's date, while grinning wickedly.

Shashoni rolled her eyes. “We just left the reception hall. I haven't had time to get home and all that, unlike Keliegh who changed in the car. God! I needed a damn drink. Quick,” she answered, apparently still waiting for her drink that was clearly long overdue since having been ordered.

“You had a drink at the reception. Quite a few,” Keliegh said, trying to speak in a lower than usual voice. Shashoni was pretty close to drunk, Romia could tell now that she'd actually looked closer. She also noticed Keliegh's overprotective tone.

Finally, the waiter brought her drink. It was a stiff one. Reaching for it, Keliegh intercepted it, pushing it out of her reach. “What do you think you're doing?” she asked, reaching for the drink again.

He blocked her hand. “Enough, Shoni, you've had enough.”

Shashoni looked around, to see if anyone was watching their exchange. Romia too felt uncomfortable. Perhaps it was because the spotlight was suddenly on them, or so it felt.

“Here's your drink, Romee,” the bartender said to her, drawing her attention back suddenly to her own business.

Standing and turning to the bar to gather her club soda, a man reaching for his drink a little too closely bumped her. Her arms rose over her head out of reflex and to keep from spilling her water on everyone. “Hey, watch it,” she yelped when he suddenly copped a quick feel of one of her breasts in the process. She pushed him away from her with a shove that normally would send someone to the ground, spilling the drink anyway.

“Watch it, ya asshole,” Keliegh quickly added, giving him another shove for good measure. Still, he merely stumbled and bumbled his way out the door.

Romia's first instinct was to go after the guy who bumped her, but before heading out, she noticed a strange odor on her jacket. “What is this?” Romia asked, sniffing her sleeve. She'd never tasted liquor, having made the vow to never drink spirits since a drunk driver had killed her mother.

They were walking together when the car had come barreling around the corner right at her. Romia would never forget it. Her mother pushed Romia out of the way right before the car struck, and instead of killing Romia, the car hit her mother. The impact of the hit threw her over the hood of the car like a big hand slapping at a small bug. It sent her crashing through the windshield. Her beautiful dress was shredded. The blood sprayed everywhere. Her blue eyes, open and piercing. The screaming. Her screams…

“I said I was sorry for what I said,” Shashoni confessed, sounding less than sober, rambling on, apparently not noticing Keliegh's distraction with Romia's spilled drink.

“Smells like booze,” Keliegh answered after he too sniffed her leather.

“What is this, Mike?” Romia asked the bartender.

“Sorry, musta given you that loser's drink.” Mike shrugged absently. “I've never done that before.”

“I'm over that, Shoni.” Keliegh shrugged, turning his attention back to Shashoni, who had laid her head on her folded arms. “I'm worried about your drinking right now.”

“Look at my jacket! You messed up my jacket with this stuff. I don't drink this mess, Mike!” Romia fussed, feeling inexplicably enraged. She had been having a hard time controlling her temper lately. She was feeling hormonal, or tired, or something off, but lately she got angry very easily. The breathing exercises she used while meditating were barely capturing her inner emotions, barely keeping her grounded.

“I said I was sorry,” Mike pleaded, though sounding unconvincing in his attempt to prove that he felt he'd done anything wrong. Romia was fuming. Keliegh turned his attention back to her.

“Calm down, Romee. It's just a little spill. I care about you,” he said, turning his head back quickly to Shashoni. His head resembled a person watching tennis.

“Since when?” growled Shashoni, grabbing the drink and tossing it back before he could stop her. He shook his head.

“I didn't know you felt…” Keliegh began before Shashoni lowered the near-empty glass slowly from her full lips. She glared at him, as if daring him to expose the content of their private matters.

“You knew I did.” She turned the tumbler up, draining the very last drop.

Romia understood immediately what was going on here. Shoshoni had fallen for Keliegh and made the mistake of telling him. That was obvious even without them finishing their sentences. Romia could see love in Shashoni's eyes, and maybe a little in Keliegh's too. And besides, she'd seen this scene play out one too many times. Shashoni must have said the L word or even, heaven forbid, the M word, and now it was all ruined. Keliegh wasn't husband material. Romia could have told her that. But then again…

Who cares?
Right now, her jacket had booze on it. In her mind, her problem was a lot bigger than Keliegh hitting and quitting some chick in an ugly pink dress.

“I need a towel. Dang! You gotta towel back there?” Romia asked, leaning over the counter.

Still in the throes of his heated conversation with Shashoni, Keliegh whispered, “We were partners.” Clearly, he was hoping to keep his words private, but Romia heard.

Why does he have to explain that to this bimbo?
Romia instantly thought, but did not ask. “She's like my sister. I can't see her any other way. Why are you buggin'?”

Shashoni smirked and pulled her foot free from Keliegh's hand. He had taken it as if he was going to start rubbing or re-rubbing it after lecturing her on the protocol of being with him and where she fit in. Partner first, former partner second, and then, maybe, you! Romia understood that! This chick was crazy if she thought she would ever be placed before her—or Tamika Turner. Shashoni then stood and smoothed the froufrou pink dress down. Sliding her feet into painful-looking pumps, she stomped from the bar, leaving Keliegh with the tab.

While he dug for the money to pay, Romia noticed the slightly staggering young Shashoni heading out the door into the night, in this not so nice neighborhood that clearly she didn't belong in. Romia rushed to follow her, not waiting for the towel.

“Shashoni!” she called as the door shut in her face. Romia was thinking how crazy Shashoni looked taking off in that pink dress. “Let me take you home. I mean, sure you have on that lovely dress but…” she began, pushing open the door and heading outside. Looking around for Shashoni, she couldn't see her, only the dust of an apparent patron's car that was leaving the parking lot. Suddenly, the night sounds were added to by the sounds of a scuffle, which had increased recognizably in the darkness near where her motorcycle was parked. It was indeed a struggle, a fight, an altercation. “Shashoni?” Romia went immediately on alert.

BOOK: Swerve
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