A ringing phone fills the air, cutting through the heavy fog of sleep I was enjoying. By the time I tear my eyes open the annoying buzzing has stopped and I groan at the slashing pain cutting through my temple.
“Thank god,” I grumble, covering my face with an arm and rolling over, my leg brushing against the warm smooth one of my bed mate.
I slowly turn my head and peek through my arm to get a glimpse of the beautiful woman lying next to me. I take in her long, dark hair and the curve of her lower back, silky soft golden skin stretching down to the curve of her lower back and disappearing beneath the white sheet where there’s a small tattoo of a bumblebee she got on a dare at college sitting on her right hip.
Detective Marlee Manning. My best friend’s little sister. A former colleague. Someone who’s known me since she was ten and I moved in next door to her and her brother, Marcus. And… the only person who didn’t write me off after I fucked up royally two days ago.
She stirs slightly as I watch her sleep and I find myself holding my breath and praying she won’t wake up. I want a little longer with her. I want to steal more time before the outside world encroaches and the realities of my actions take hold again.
This isn’t the first time we’ve slept together over the years, but right now my memory of last night is still a little fuzzy thanks to the untold amount of liquor I ingested.
After I left the hospital and said goodbye to Alyssa, the woman I risked it all for—my career, my reputation, my life–and lost anyway, I went to Marilee’s precinct and was grilled about the events leading up to the kidnapping and shooting. After giving my statement and talking to my superiors in San Francisco, I was told what my options were.
Unfortunately, in the light of day, I’ve realized that the door I chose was the wrong one.
The phone rings again and this time, luck is not on my side. Marlee groans and moves onto her back, stretching her arms up above her head, her bare breasts distracting me as flashes of last night come flooding back to me.
Marlee texting me.
Marlee coming to the hotel bar I was drinking my weight in alcohol at.
Marlee telling the bartender to cut me off.
Marlee walking me up to my room.
Marlee saying goodbye. Me grabbing her hand to stop her.
Me kissing her because I couldn’t stop myself.
“Please shut that thing up,” she pleads against the pillow. How is her voice sound even more sexy in the morning?
Marlee kissing me back.
Tumbling into the room.
It was comfort. An escape. The perfect way to lose myself with the perfect person at the perfect time.
The ringing stops and I stare up at the hotel room ceiling, the imaginary ice pick stabbing my brain making its presence known as debilitating pain slices through me. I embrace the pain because it’s self-inflicted in so many ways. Drowning your sorrows in whisky while lamenting the loss of not only your career but also having the woman you thought you loved choose a man you’ve always viewed as the villain in your story? Zero out of ten, do not recommend.
Turning my head, I lock eyes with Marlee, a woman I’ve wronged in more ways than one over the years, and one she doesn’t even know about yet. “Hey,” she whispers, her gaze a mixture of wary, happy, relieved, yet nervous.
“Hey, Beautiful” I say in a rough whisper, my voice as rough as sandpaper. Despite feeling like the physical representation of death warmed up, her smile warms me up like a hot sun on a Summer’s day. It’s always been like that with her. No matter how bad I’m feeling, Marlee always manages to turn my day, my night, my life around. Knowing that this might be the last time she ever wants to look at me has a suffocating weight bearing down on me.
“I fucked up,” I say, the guilt eating me alive. How can I have this moment with her when I know I’ve done her wrong.
“Oh.” She pulls the sheet up over her chest, bunching it up and moving to the edge of the bed away from me, obviously misunderstanding.
I reach out, my hand resting on her arm as I shake my head. “Shit. Mar. No, not that. Fuck, never that.”
Her whole body relaxes and she huffs out a relieved sigh, a soft smile curving her lips again and making me want to kiss her breathless. Before I can let myself do that, I must come clean.
“What is it then? You should know by now that you can tell me anything.” Her lips tip up as she roams her eyes over my bare chest. “I mean, I’m here aren’t I…”
Without even realizing I’m doing it, I lean toward her, my gaze pinned to her lips. Just has our mouths are about to touch, the phone rings…again. Except this time, it’s Marlee’s cell, not mine.
“Hold that thought.” She presses her index finger to my lips, her gaze alight with heat and promise. Reaching over to the nightstand, she picks up the interrupting device and answers the call, soft eyes watching me as she does.
“Manning…. mmm hmmm…yes, sir…. OK…. sir?… I understand.” The long pause that follows has my whole body tightening like a coiled spring because I can feel the tension taking her over as she listens to whatever she’s being told. Then I see it, her gaze shuttering, her muscles tightening, her fingers clenching the sheet as she pulls it up to cover herself like a shield.
Yet she doesn’t look away from me and I can’t break the contact, knowing that witnessing her heart break with every word in her ear is my penance…my torture.
I can read every single emotion on her face, every single one like a stab wound full of regret, sadness, dread. All because of my epic failure, the mistakes I’ve made and keep on making.
I don’t deserve this or her. Marlee. The girl who trusted me to be her first. The girl who always stayed in touch despite time or distance. She followed me into law enforcement, and last night proved she’s still the woman who’ll turn up or me when no one else will.
I’m jolted back to reality when she dumps the phone on the bed and jumps to her feet, ditching the sheet and rushing to get dressed.
She freezes at the sound of my voice. Her head snaps up and her narrowed eyes full of fire, pain, and heartbreak lock on mine. “Out of everyone, Aiden. You’d do that to me?”
“I wasn’t thinking straight,” I rush out, sitting up straight. “All I was worried about yesterday was keeping my job. I fucked up. I know that.”
“You’re right. You did. You weren’t thinking at all. I told you what would happen, and you didn’t listen. There was never a chance of keeping your job. You had two options–ride it out and hope to keep your pension or leave on your own and avoid the bullshit. That phone call just told me you chose door one, which would’ve been fine if you didn’t do it by using me to throw doubt into the mix.”
“Marls, I love being a cop. Being a detective is all I’ve ever wanted to do,” I say, getting up and shoving my jeans on.
“What about me? You don’t think I love my job?”
“What did he say?” I say, my voice low and serious.
“Just that I’ve been called in for a meeting tomorrow. My lieutenant wants to go over my report with me again. The same report he’d already signed off on. On the case that was already signed, sealed, and delivered with a nice red bow. The case,” she says, her voice getting louder, “that was going to prove to him and everyone that I’m meant to be a detective.”
“You are, Mar. I know that.”
“Do you? Or is that just more lip service because you got me back in your bed and warming your sheets. You lost the woman you were fighting another man for and I’m the next best thing?” She grabs her purse from where it hangs off an armchair and I panic. I can’t leave it like this. Can’t let her leave like this. Not when she’s the only bright thing in my life right now. I can’t lose her too. Not if I can help it, anyway.
“Fuck, Marlee. No. It’s not like that. But I’ll fix it, OK. I’ll redo my statement. I’ll make it right. I promise.”
“What. Did. You. Tell. Them?” she demands before storming across the room and stopping right in front of me. “I swear to God, Aiden. This is the last chance you’ll ever get from me before I walk out that door and never look back. Tell me what mess you’ve gotten me into, or this will be the last time you ever—”
“I said it could’ve been you,” I blurt out, the room going dead quiet as my words hang in the air between us. She goes deathly still except for her wide eyes, her brows arched sky high.
Then she snaps out of it. “You what?” she whispers chillingly but there’s no going back now, the damage was done yesterday when I tried to save my ass by offering up hers.
“I said it could’ve come from you. I didn’t say it did. I just said it–”
“Just that it might have? Are you fucking serious? Since when did I become collateral damage in your fuck up?” She punctuates her words with her finger digging into the skin of my chest.
“I’ll dial it back. I’ll go in this morning and amend my statement. I wasn’t thinking straight. I wasn’t—”
She takes a step back as if she can’t stand to be near me, shaking her head and staring like she doesn’t know who the fuck I am anymore. She’s not the only one. “You weren’t thinking period. I can’t believe you’d do this. And to me…me? Who the hell do you thi—”
I kiss her. I can’t stop myself. My tongue sweeping against hers once before she jerks away, her hands shoving me back like she can’t bear to be close to me. I know the slap is coming before her palm connects with my jaw and I stand there and take it, welcoming the pain because it’s the least I deserve for breaking her heart.
“Don’t you ever touch me again. Not if you don’t want a pair of cuffs and an assault charge added to your growing list of fuck ups.”
She stalks to the hotel room door, angrily pulling it open before taking a step out into the hallway, stopping to look back at me and dealing her death blow. “Forget you know me. Forget everything, Aiden. You’re nothing to me now. I’m going to forget I ever knew you, ever touched you, ever fucking lo—all of it. Everything. It’s done now. Fix it, or don’t. Leave, or don’t, Aiden. I’m done with this, and I’m definitely fucking done being disposable.”
Then she disappears, leaving me stunned, stumped, and frozen in place. The heavy hotel room door slams shut, the sound echoing around the room, leaving mussed sheets, fuzzy memories, and an empty silence in its wake.
That’s the day I vowed to leave Vegas and never return. But before I did, I went to the station and amended my statement, taking full responsibility and submitting my resignation. Then I left the city and the events that happened in my rear view and didn’t look back.
The scene with Marlee making one thing glaringly obvious. I was never the victim. I turned myself into one of the villains. That’s something I never thought I’d be.
Then again, I didn’t think I’d ever have Marlee Manning tell me to forget her either. That’s something I cannot and will never do.
12 months later
Regret is a petty bitch.
It screws you up, tears you down, and if you let it, it can dictate the future direction of your life.
When you destroy your life as spectacularly as I did, you get two choices–wallow in pity and stay down or try to rebuild everything from the ground up.
At first, I chose the former. After Vegas, I returned to San Francisco and didn’t leave the house. I drank myself into a hole until I’d black out. It was the only way to numb the pain and block out the disappointment and self-loathing. Then I’d wake up the next day and do it all over again, just sitting on my couch and locking myself away from the world.
I lost everything in one fell swoop. I did not pass go, I did not collect two hundred dollars and I definitely did not get any semblance of a happy ever after. All I had was a ruined reputation, a broken heart twice over and an empty bed. All because of one stupid, dangerous, reckless decision that led to the kidnapping of two innocent people, one of which was shot, and being royally screwed over by a third. The only good thing to come out of it was that the man behind it all went to prison and will never breathe fresh air again. Then I screwed over the last person I had in my corner, one who had my back but who I hurt so badly, she cut ties forever.
Ten months ago, when I was at my lowest and considering things I had no business considering, I received a phone call. It was a lifeline, an opportunity, a chance that I grabbed hold of with two hands. I’m still plagued with guilt and regret for what I did and what could’ve been, but I also have a new life here in Seattle, away from all the bridges I burned in my past.
“You’re in early,” my friend and boss Harry says as he walks into our small, seen-better-days office in Tacoma and sits behind his desk. It was Harry who dragged me out of the deep black hole I was burying myself in and offered me a job as a private investigator.
“Couldn’t sleep. Figured I might as well work on this stealing case.”
Harry’s brows arch. “The one with the sticky-fingered employee?”
“That’s it. He’s a wily one. Seems to know where all the cameras are, even the pinhole ones I put in last week. And he hasn’t stolen a thing since. It makes me think he’s got his own surveillance in there.”
“Makes sense,” he says, rubbing his chin. “But how would he do that? Or know to do that? He’s what, twenty-two?”
“Yeah, but he’s also studying computer science at Seattle University. So, he’s smart with stuff like that.”
Harry’s gaze turns calculating, an expression I’ve seen him wear many times since I started working for him both here and back when we were detectives for the SFPD together. “Maybe we can use his skills,” he muses, tapping his pen against the desk. “I think I’ve just come across a case that may need an amateur hacker. It could be right up his alley.”
I lean forward, leaning my elbows against my desk. “You want to bring in the thieving employee of a client for a job interview?”
He shrugs. “Two birds, one stone. It would get him out of the shop and away from his computer while you go in and install some of my new cameras that can’t be seen, and I’ll distract him with a fake job interview.”
“You think that’ll work?”
“It’ll give us a chance to close the case sooner rather than later and he won’t see it coming. You know just as well as I do that sometimes the only way to outsmart people like that is to beat them at their own game. If he’s watching the feed and lining his pockets on our client’s dime, then let’s give him the chance to become the star of his own show. Except this time, it’ll be us dictating the plot and the outcome.”
I nod, impressed with Harry’s cunning plan. He’s always been the kind of man who’s one step ahead of the game. It’s what made him a successful detective with one of the highest closing records in SFPD history—until he retired, and I picked up the reins and beat his standing record a year later.
It’s the same tenacious approach to life that has made him an even better private investigator. “Alright, I’ll set it up and talk to him. But we need to make sure he doesn’t suspect anything.”
Harry nods in agreement. “Leave that to me. I’ll handle the fake job interview and keep him busy while you work your magic.”
“OK. Sounds good. I’ll call the owner.”
He gets up and walks around his desk, resting his ass on the wood. “Since you’re here, be prepared to hand over this case to me because I’ve got another one coming in hot, and I want you to take it.”
“Oh yeah?” I ask, interest piqued.
“Got a call last night from a long-standing contact of mine. Seems he’s got a problem he wants us to help him out with.”
My brow goes up. “And you’re giving it to me? Anyone would think you’re taking my training wheels off.”
He snorts, his lips tugging up on the side. “You haven’t needed those since the first day you walked in here and you damn well know that.”
“I was a mess,” I state matter-of-factly.
Harry pins me with a stare. “I’ve told you time and time again, the day you stop beating yourself up about things you cannot change will be the day you get a good night’s sleep and stop doubting yourself.”
Now I’m the one scoffing. “You make it sound easy.”
“Probably because I’ve put criminals away for far worse than what you did who had far less punishment for it and they sleep fine.”
“Wish it was that simple.”
“Aiden, you made a mistake. It won’t be the first time and it likely won’t be the last. You wouldn’t be human if you didn’t fall on your ass sometimes. Tell me a man who hasn’t screwed up because of a woman and I’ll tell you you’re wrong every time.”
“OK, wise one. What do you suggest I do? I broke the law and it led to a man and a woman almost getting killed.”
“But they weren’t. The bad guy was jailed. You’ve more than suffered the consequences of your actions. If you keep focusing on the past and not the future, you’ll never sleep, you’ll never live, and one day, you’ll find yourself looking in the mirror at a has been with nothing to show for his life.”
I shoot him a wry grin. “You sound like you’re talking from experience when I damn well know you left the force willingly, not because you wanted to save your pension.”
“I was called in and dressed down more times than you can count, all for following my heart instead of my head. If you saw my record, your head would spin,” he chuckles.
Silence falls between us as I roll his words over in my mind. “So, this case…”
“Is the opportunity to face your past and move on from it.”
My head jerks back as a sinking feeling in my gut makes its presence known. “Tell me about it then.”
“Money is being skimmed off the top by his business partner, and not a small amount either. But he can’t trace it,” he explains.
“And that’s where I come in, I assume? You’ve seen my resume, I never worked financial crimes.”
“Ah, but you covered white collar and computer crimes at the FBI academy, didn’t you? You’re many things, Aiden Lawrence, but a fraud isn’t one of them.”
I shrug because he’s not wrong. It’s still not helping the uneasy feeling in my gut. “OK, then. Give me the Cliff notes version and I’ll let you know if you’re barking up the wrong tree putting me on this case.”
“The client is not exactly squeaky clean, but clean enough,” Harry starts, telling me all I need to know. He may not be on the up and up, but he’s up enough. Meaning as far as we know, he’s not doing anything that’ll hurt good people. That’s something I’ve had to learn to get used to since becoming a PI. As a police detective, everything’s black and white–at least it was until I decided to create a whole new shade of grey. Moving on…
“This other boss, how sure is the client that it’s him doing the skimming?”
“It’s one of the two of them so I’m thinking that’s enough confirmation. He just needs proof of whatever is going on. When he has that, he can act. It’s a lucrative operation and very high profile. All you need to do is go in, tread carefully, bide your time and make sure you dot all the I’s and cross all the T’s so the client gets the information he wants. It has got to be concrete though. Open and shut.”
“How are we supposed to do that and how long do I have to do it?” My mind is already racing with possibilities. Surveillance, a confidential informant on the inside, a wiretap, dummy transactions. None of it is foolproof though.
“He wants you to go in and stay in for however long it takes.”
It takes a moment to realize what he’s saying. “In as in undercover?”
“Yep. And you’re the only one out of the two of us who can do it.”
I stare at him, my eyes bugging out. “Out of the two of us, sure. Out of everyone on the West Coast, no.”
“He came to me for this, Aiden. We can’t turn it down.” Harry lets those words hang in the air between us. “It’s not like I can pass for security in a club like that.”
“Yep.” I realize that he’s acting suspicious. His answers are too clipped and non-descriptive. Which means there’s something he’s not telling me.
I narrow my eyes. “What kind of club?”
“It’s called Marquis.” I frown because I’ve never heard of a club called that in Seattle.
“Where is it?”
Harry watches me closely, his features tight as he confirms my suspicions. “Vegas.”
I’m already shaking my head as he speaks. “Harry, I can’t–”
“Yeah, that word never used to be in your vocabulary. Not the Aiden Lawrence I knew.”
“You know that man is long gone. There are now a lot of should nots, could nots and can nots in my arsenal and anything to do with Vegas earns all of those.”
“Yet here I am, looking at the same man I met over a decade ago. A man who never let anything stop him.”
I roll my eyes. “You know what I mean.”
Harry nods. “Yeah, I do. But I don’t agree. Look, I know it’s not ideal, but this is a case we have to take. We should take. And it’s the only way he can get the evidence he needs.
“Can you assure me it’s not connected to anyone from my past in Vegas?” I let that hang there because that’s a deal breaker for me.
He stares at me, his gaze intense and unwavering. “I’ll level with you. You’ve got to do this case. I owe this guy a favor and he’s calling it in.”
“How deep in this are you?”
“Nothing like that,” he says, shaking his head. “He helped me a while ago and now he’s wanting my help in return. So, when I say you’re the only man for the job, I’m not lying.”
I’m already working out the logistics in my head. My place here in Seattle may not be great, but it’s still mine. “How long do you think it’ll take?
“I don’t know. Money’s not an issue here. Well, it is the issue, but isn’t something you need to worry about. He just wants you there.”
There’s a giant but on the tip of my tongue but one look at Harry’s face tells me there’s no point arguing anymore. This is a favor he must pay, and I’m the only one who can do it. It’s pretty much a done deal no matter what I say because I owe Harry a hell of a lot and after letting down a lot of people in my life, he’s not someone I could or would ever do that to.
“It’s not like you’d have to break the law. I’d never ask that of you.”
My lips curl up. “Just bend it occasionally, right?”
“Maybe a little if needed,” Harry replies with a shrug. “The key thing is to get in there, snoop around, and report back if and when you find anything.”
I lean back in my chair, that uncomfortable feeling deep inside me not going away. But it’s not about the case. I can do jobs like this in my sleep. It’s about going back to the city where I lost everything. The mecca of my downfall.
It’s been almost a year since I lost everything and hit rock bottom. The memories are painful, etched into my mind like scars that will never fade. I have wrongs to right in Vegas, and this could be the opportunity to do exactly that. This case could be my chance at redemption, a chance to face my past and move on. It won’t be easy, but I’ve never been one to back down from a challenge. I never used to, anyway.
His brows jump up. “You’re in?”
“Not like I’ve got much choice but yeah. Yeah. But if it drags on for months, I’ll be blowing up your phone to get me out.”
“Deal.” The tension he’s holding leaks out of him as he slumps down with a relieved sigh. “I’ll make the arrangements with him. He’s rented a condo for you in Vegas too. Nothing that can be linked to anyone.”
My head jerks back as my brows rise. “Are there going to be people looking that deep into me?”
“Probably. But you’re going in as yourself. You do remember one of the first things they tell you about going undercover?”
“Stick close to the truth.”
“Exactly. An ex-cop who fell from grace who’s just trying to make a living and keep his head above water by taking whatever gig he can get. To a man like that, a security job at the hottest and most exclusive club in Vegas is the holy grail.”
“You sure you’re not just setting me up for a new life in Vegas to get rid of me?” I say with a wry smirk.
Harry grins, relief evident in his features. “Why would I do that? You’re stuck with me. If I was going to do that, I wouldn’t send you there.”
“Good. I’m not looking to move again any time soon.”
“I guess this is where I tell you that your flight is already booked for Monday, and I’ve got all the details so you can hit the ground running when you get there,” he says.
I chuckle with a shake of my head. “Doesn’t seem like I ever had a choice in this. Am I that much of a sure thing?”
Harry shrugs before leaning toward me. From his stance alone, I know he’s about to level with me in a way I might not like. The thing with Harry is that whatever he says, it’s always what he thinks I need to hear. Most of the time, he’s not wrong.
“You’ve come a long way, Aiden, and you’d continue to get back to the man you were before Vegas with or without this case. But take it from me, a man running from his past is not running toward a future he deserves. You’ve been going in circles and its high time you quit running. Maybe when you do, you’ll find a new path that leads you in the right direction.”
“That’s a lot of sage advice, boss.”
“Yeah. Too much. So how about we get on to closing this theft case and then you can get yourself in the right headspace to get on that plane in a few days? Because Aiden, chances like this don’t come along very often.”
“To bring down a bad guy? Had a few of those in my time, Harry.” I smirk, but Harry doesn’t return the grin, he meets my eyes and I know he means business.
“No. A chance at redemption. Something tells me this might be yours.”
Secure your copy of Love & Consequences HERE