Special Agent Tanner Cohen blinked several times, but her eyes weren’t the problem. Sydney Braswell, the love of her life—make that former love, former life—had just strolled into the briefing and slipped into a seat at the back of the room.
Ducking her head to keep from staring, Tanner stole a few glances at Syd, drinking in the sight of her long legs, trim figure, and the waves of auburn hair that used to fan out on the pillow next to hers. Damn, she’d aged well. Tanner shook her head to scatter the memories bubbling to the surface. She hadn’t seen Syd in forever, but staring at her now, the years slipped away.
Tanner felt a sharp jab in her side and Assistant US Attorney Bianca Cruz shot her a quizzical expression. She looked from Bianca to the front of the room at AUSA Peyton Davis, who was running the briefing, and back again, slowly realizing everyone was waiting on her, but she didn’t have a clue why. “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?”
Peyton looked deferentially at her boss, US Attorney Herschel Gellar, and then at Syd. “Agent Cohen, would you like to fill us in on the recovery of Queen’s Ransom?”
Tanner felt like she’d missed something. She and the rest of the rogue task force had been contacted by Gellar’s secretary over the weekend and told to meet at the US attorney’s office first thing Monday. Tanner had reached out to Bianca, who didn’t know much more than she did about the purpose for the meeting, but the consensus was that their activities the week before, although putting them within striking distance of arresting the fugitive drug lord Sergio Vargas, had also exposed that they’d been running an operation they’d been told to shut down weeks ago.
She figured they’d been called in for a dressing down, but that didn’t explain what Syd was doing here and why had no one said anything when Syd, a total stranger to everyone but her, had walked into the room acting like she owned the place.
Filing away the slew of questions for later, Tanner cleared her throat and focused on a bare-bones recitation of the facts. “The horse, Queen’s Ransom, was exactly where Razor, uh, Enrique Garza, said he’d be, in a stable on a piece of property about an hour west of Denton. Like the barn where Lindsey Ryan was held when she was kidnapped, the property was listed for sale and the owners haven’t been there in months.” She paused before offering up the piece of information she knew everyone wanted to know. “There was no sign of Sergio Vargas anywhere on the property.”
Gellar pushed up from his seat and strode over to edge Peyton from the podium. “And I’m hearing you people offered Mr. Garza witness protection in exchange for Sergio Vargas’s location? Looks like you screwed us over.”
Tanner started to object, but Peyton beat her to it. “Giving us the location of the horse was his good faith overture. The next step is ours. We give him immunity and protection, and he delivers Sergio.”
“Except the deal is off.”
Tanner whipped her head around at the eerily familiar sound of Syd’s voice, and watched her stand and walk toward the front of the room. All these years later, but it was like no time had passed between them. Syd was as beautiful as ever and her confidence was one of the sexiest things about her. Except it was completely out of place here, in this room. She watched in disbelief as Syd took Peyton’s place next to Gellar, and she found a spot on the wall to keep from making eye contact.
Herschel Gellar practically drooled as he introduced Syd to the rest of the group. “I’d like you all to meet Sydney Braswell,” he said, licking his lips. “She’s here from Main Justice, appointed by the attorney general to oversee this task force.” He stopped to wag his finger at the assembled group of agents and attorneys. “Everything you’ve done so far is being called into question because of various conflicts of interest, and don’t think I don’t know about them.”
He turned to Syd. “Ms. Braswell, I run a tight ship, but in my focus on certain aspects of the case, this task force has run roughshod over the rules by which we conduct our investigations. I went as far as disbanding them last month, but I’ve recently found out they have been working on the case behind my back. I appreciate your help in getting this investigation back on track, and I assure you everyone here will give you their full cooperation.”
Tanner shot a look at Peyton, who had moved to a seat next to DEA Agent Dale Nelson. She raised her eyebrows in question, but she got nothing in response from either Peyton or Dale, who remained characteristically stoic. Something wasn’t right about all of this. Just a few days ago, they’d been talking about contacting the Department of Justice to investigate Gellar. Had he beaten them to the punch?
And then there was the whole Syd thing. Her last memories of Syd included Syd yelling words like “partner track,” “civil litigation,” and “annual bonuses,” none of which had anything to do with a job at the Department of Justice. But if Syd was really assigned here by the attorney general to oversee an investigation, she had to have some significant experience with the department. Definitely not the direction Syd’s fast track had been headed when they’d parted ways.
Bianca poked her in the side again, and she did her best to focus on the front of the room, while trying to look nonchalant doing it.
“As I said,” Syd continued, her voice strong and confident, “the deal with Mr. Garza is off. He hired an attorney and he’s filed a motion to suppress any statements his client gave us while he was in the hospital.”
“Damn.” Tanner shook her head vigorously, angry Razor had turned on them. She thought she’d been very convincing when she’d spoken with him in the hospital.
“Agent Cohen, you have something you’d like to say?”
Tanner looked up and met Sydney’s deep blue eyes square on. “We had a deal.”
“He says you forced his confession.”
“Oh, he did, did he?” Tanner scoffed, more pissed at Razor’s about-face than uncomfortable about this little one-on-one with Syd in front of her group. “And how exactly did I do that?”
“He says you threatened to kill him.”
Syd watched Tanner stalk out of the room with the young Latina woman who’d been seated next to her following fast behind. She wanted to follow them and say or do something to make up for this stormy first meeting, which was not at all how she’d envisioned their reunion, but a room full of people was waiting for her to finish talking. Plus, she had a role to play.
After outlining the gist of the motion Razor’s attorney had filed to suppress his client’s confession, she instructed the group she’d be meeting with them individually to discuss their work on the case and to determine the plan going forward. Gellar, letch that he was, tried to corner her before she could leave the room. She dodged him with a promise to join him for lunch, but by the time she made it to the hallway, Tanner appeared to be long gone.
“What kind of language is that for a big-shot attorney from DC?”
Syd smiled at the sound of the familiar voice and turned to see Peyton Davis smiling at her. She started to respond, but Peyton placed a finger over her lips and pointed down the hall. “My office, this way,” she said.
When they were safely behind closed doors, she settled into a chair in front of Peyton’s desk. “Do you think he bought it?”
Peyton laughed. “Gellar thinks he’s the center of the universe, but it would never occur to him that he’d be the center of your investigation. He bought it all right.”
Syd relaxed into her chair. She trusted Peyton’s judgment. They’d worked together for several years at the Department of Justice, and she knew she could rely on Peyton to shoot straight with her. For a second, she considered returning the favor and telling Peyton about her history with Tanner, but it was one thing to reconnect with a former colleague and quite another to unload a bunch of personal crap. Processing her unexpected reunion with her first love would have to wait until she could grab a few hours alone.
“So, what do you recommend next?” Syd asked.
“We’ve been using my family’s ranch as a meeting place. I think we should convene a meeting tonight and let the rest of the crew in on our plan. Things will go a lot easier on you around here if they don’t think you’re on a witch hunt.”
“Can everyone be trusted? If Gellar gets wind of what we’re up to, I’m not going to be able to offer protection.”
“If they couldn’t be trusted, they wouldn’t be working with me.”
Syd nodded, needing no further assurance than Peyton’s word. “Well, if you don’t need me here, then I’m going to check into my hotel before I have to endure a meal with the monster.”
Peyton stood. “Need a ride?”
“I’m just down the street, thanks. Wish me luck.” She strode out of the office and walked briskly out of the suite, relieved that she didn’t run into anyone from the morning’s meeting on the way. Once out of the building, she walked back to the Adolphus Hotel where she’d dropped off her luggage that morning.
Her room had all the modern amenities, but the refined leather and wood furnishings were in keeping with the grande dame status of the historical venue. When she’d checked in late last night, the talkative desk clerk had told her all about the hotel’s recent remodel, pointing out many features she seriously doubted she’d have time to use. She’d barely listened anyway, since all she’d really cared about was getting some sleep before she had to face Tanner this morning, and now that she’d seen her, Syd was drained. Thinking she couldn’t remember the last time she’d spent any time in a hotel by herself, she crawled onto the plush but firm king-sized bed and leaned back against the fluffed-up pillows, taking a moment to savor the luxury since it was the only redeeming thing about this assignment.
Sometime later, a maid’s voice in the hallway woke her, and Syd crawled her way out of a cloud of sleep and wiped drool from the edge of her mouth. A glance at the clock on the nightstand told her she’d been asleep for thirty minutes. She lifted the phone, placed an order for coffee, and walked to the bathroom to freshen up.
She dreaded meeting with Herschel Gellar, but thankfully, the appointment involved lunch since she was starving. What she’d much rather be doing was finding a moment alone with Tanner to break the ice. She’d received Peyton’s email with the notes about the case just before she boarded her flight and had no idea until she was midair that Tanner was living and working in Dallas, let alone assigned to the task force working the Vargas brothers case. If she had known, would she have agreed to this assignment?
She wasn’t sure of the answer, and she wouldn’t be sure until she faced Tanner alone. Only then could she determine if they could put their past aside and work together. If their encounter this morning were any indication, it wasn’t looking good.
She freshened her makeup and looked in the mirror to check the result, knowing full well she was mostly interested in seeing what Tanner had seen. She definitely wasn’t the same young, third year law student who’d pledged to spend the rest of her life with fellow student Tanner Cohen, but Syd was proud of how she’d aged. A rigorous workout schedule kept her in shape, and the tiny lines that were starting to creep up around her eyes could easily be written off as laugh lines.
Tanner, what she’d managed to see of her anyway before she stalked out of the briefing, had aged well too, and Syd couldn’t help but wonder if Tanner had someone special in her life. Maybe she’d called that person after she left and bitched about her ex who’d traveled back in time to chastise her in front of her peers. Or maybe that someone was the Latina woman who’d rushed after her when she’d left the meeting.
The idea of Tanner with someone else left Syd with a dull ache, but she wasn’t sure if the feeling had anything to do with Tanner or if it was a reflection of her own empty personal life. Someday Syd hoped to find someone special to share her life, someone she could call when she need to decompress.
She reached for her phone to see if Gellar had called and saw she had a new text. It wasn’t Gellar. She pressed the number, deciding to call back instead of text because she needed to hear a familiar voice.
“How’s my favorite legal eagle?”
Syd sighed at the sound of her friend Kate Johnson. She and Kate had started at the Department of Justice at the same time, and they formed a fast friendship. Kate knew about Tanner, the details having been divulged during a late, too much wine girls’ night out where they’d swapped stories about the ones that got away. They’d woken up the next morning, both resolved to embrace the lives that allowed them to focus entirely on work. Remembering their pact caused Syd to hesitate about sharing the news that her new assignment had placed her in close proximity to Tanner, but the pause didn’t last. “Tanner’s here.”
Silence. Syd waited for a few beats before venturing a cautious, “Did you hear me?”
“I heard you. I’m processing. She’s the one, right?”
“She was. And then she wasn’t.”
“And when you say she’s here, you don’t mean standing right there next to you while we’re having this surreal conversation, right?”
Syd laughed. “God no! She’s here in Dallas. She’s working with Peyton’s task force.”
“Holy shit. What are you going to do?”
Good question. Syd pondered her options. She’d traveled to Dallas, and she’d made a commitment to Peyton. If she left, she’d have to come up with some plausible explanation for her abrupt departure, and “I don’t want to face my past” seemed more than a little chickenshit. So, she’d do what she always did, no matter how much focus it required. “My job. I’m going to do my job. And then I’m going to get the hell out of here.”
Tanner sank into a bench in the park across from the courthouse and wished the world away. A few days ago, she’d managed to turn a major player in the Vargas organization, and the anticipated next step was taking the entire operation down. Enter Sydney Braswell, and now not only was her achievement at risk and her badge on the line for making it so, but her heart, which she’d managed to keep on serious lockdown, was pulsing with unwanted anticipation.
Whether she wanted to admit it or not, she couldn’t deny Syd looked amazing. Sure she’d aged, but time had been kind, adding only the most subtle signs of maturity.
“Giving up police work to commune with nature?”
Tanner looked up at Bianca, who’d managed to sneak up on her and was staring at her with a concerned expression. “Maybe.”
Bianca shoved her over and slid into the space beside her, placing a hand on her thigh. “You did what you did in that hospital room because I asked you to. If you think I’m going to let you get in trouble for it or let it keep us from nailing Jade’s asshole uncles, you don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
Tanner couldn’t help but smile at the fierce tone from her petite friend as she reflected on her one-on-one with Razor in the hospital. He’d been shot after having stabbed Jade Vargas, who’d stopped him from harming Bianca’s daughter. He knew where his fugitive boss, Sergio Vargas, was hiding out with Jade’s prize stallion, Queen’s Ransom. Bianca, distraught about her daughter’s close brush with danger, confessed to Tanner that she was in love with Jade and begged Tanner to do whatever it took to retrieve Jade’s horse and bring her uncles to justice. Tanner had actually enjoyed watching Razor’s face as she pinched the IV drip to rob him of relief while she described telling his bosses that he’d cooperated with the FBI whether he did or not. She’d do it all over again. “It was my decision, not yours. I can take the consequences.”
“We’ll see. I’m going to talk to this new chick. I mean, where does she get off coming in here acting like we’re a bunch of rubes?”
This was the moment. Tanner should tell Bianca about her connection to Sydney, but what exactly was she supposed to say? Being vague on details would only draw questions. If she told Bianca even a little about their past, she knew Bianca wouldn’t let it go until she told her everything, and it was too complicated. Her personal life wasn’t something she’d ever shared on the job—not that she had much of one—and everything about Syd was personal. Besides, she hadn’t seen Syd since they’d graduated from law school. Did she really even know her anymore?
Tanner decided to hedge. “Any idea who called her in? Gellar’s acting like it was him, but it seems like a weird move for him to cede territory to anyone else.”
“Did you see those legs? Gellar’s a pig, and when it comes to a beautiful woman, he stumbles all over himself. You should’ve seen him the first time he met Lindsey,” Bianca said, referring to Dale Nelson’s girlfriend, a renowned international journalist.
Tanner didn’t want to think about Gellar drooling over Sydney, so she changed the subject. “You have any cases on the docket this afternoon or do you have some time to go over the evidence again?”
“That’s what I came out to tell you. Peyton wants to see us out at the ranch tonight.”
“She thinks that’s wise with all of us under scrutiny?”
Bianca shrugged. “Wise or not, she called the meeting. You want to ride out there together?”
Tanner grinned. Bianca’s little Miata didn’t do so well on the gravel drive. “Sure, I’ll pick you up.” She stood. “I’m going to take a walk. Thanks for checking on me.”
Bianca stared hard before she finally waved and headed back to the courthouse. Tanner knew she should follow, but she wasn’t in the mood to do anything related to this case, especially not if Sydney was going to be involved. Maybe Peyton would have some insights about why she was here. Whatever the case, she’d find out tonight, but in the meantime, she needed a break. She fished her phone out of her pocket and called Dale. When Dale answered, she launched right in. “Wanna take a ride with me? I’ve got a few ideas.”
Dale laughed. “Guess they didn’t bench you after all.”
“Not yet. You still at the courthouse?”
“On my way downstairs.”
“Pick you up out front in five.” Tanner disconnected the call and started walking to the parking lot down the street where she’d parked her car that morning. She’d planned on spending the entire day in the war room they’d created at the US attorney’s office, but the idea of spending any time at all within spitting distance of Herschel Gellar was more intolerable than ever. If Sydney was teamed up with him, that only made things worse. No matter what Gellar and Sydney had planned, she’d weather Razor’s allegations. All she had to do was keep a low profile and steer clear of her past, and her future would work out just fine.
Sydney drove down the dusty drive toward Peyton’s ranch, the Circle Six, and wondered what she’d gotten herself into. She remembered Peyton fondly discussing her family’s quarter horse breeding farm, but it was still hard to reconcile the career-focused woman she’d met in DC with the sprawling acreage, stables, and ranch house.
She was having similar troubles with Tanner. The last time she’d seen her was a month after they’d graduated from law school, both of them still nursing the wounds of their recent breakup. Sydney had come home from her bar review course to find Tanner packing a box with a few of her last remaining belongings.
“I’m sorry,” Tanner said, keeping her head ducked low. “I didn’t think you’d be home.”
Sydney bit back a bunch of potential responses, most of which were guaranteed to land them back in the middle of the argument that had broken them up in the first place and settled on, “I would’ve packed those for you.”
“I didn’t want to ask,” Tanner said, hurt shading her voice.
And those simple words summed up pretty much everything that had gone wrong between them. Deciding there wasn’t any point rehashing it all, Sydney strode toward the closet. “There are a few things in here. I set them aside in case…in case you wanted to go through them.”
Tanner stopped what she was doing and walked over to stand next to her, and Sydney pointed out the small box on the shelf, just out of her reach. She’d had to use a ladder to push the box high up on a shelf, far away from her everyday gaze. Tanner reached up and pulled it down, hugging it to her middle as she scanned the contents. It was a mishmash of memories, none particularly valuable, but each item painful for the sting of recollection it evoked, which was why Sydney had stuck them up high and out of sight. She was sorry now she pointed them out to Tanner, who sifted through them like sands of time.
“I remember these,” Tanner said, holding up a pair of ticket stubs to the Beyoncé Experience. “Fred gave us these because of his fear of crowds.”
Sydney managed a smile. “Right. I predict he’ll make a wonderful securities lawyer, locked away from all meaningful human contact.” As the words “human contact” left her lips, she was acutely conscious of how close Tanner was standing to her. No amount of emotional strife could negate the pull that had always existed between them. She wanted to slip her arms around Tanner’s waist and slip back into the comfort of her arms, but it wasn’t safe and it wouldn’t last. The comfort wasn’t real. Each day since Tanner had moved out had been easier, but seeing her here, now, the conflict came roaring back. Would they ever be able to get past the chasm between them?
A loud rap on the window jerked her from the memory. Peyton was standing outside her car window, a puzzled expression on her face. Sydney shook off her reverie and climbed out of the car.
“Are you okay?” Peyton asked.
“Sure. Fine.” She brushed out the wrinkles in her suit. “Just tired. Long couple of days.” And a complete inability to speak in complete sentences, apparently.
Peyton motioned for her to follow as she walked toward the house and grinned when her heel got wedged in the gravel. “You’re not really dressed for a ranch, you know.”
“About that.” Syd pointed at the house. “I kind of imagined more Dallasand less Rawhide. Is this really where you live?”
“It is indeed.” Peyton held out a hand. “Come on, city girl. We even have electricity.”
Sydney followed her up the steps, onto the porch, and into the large, rustic house. Did Tanner live in a place like this? The Tanner she’d known had definitely been a city girl. But then again she’d only thought she’d known her. Maybe Tanner secretly loved nature and horses and the great outdoors.
When they walked inside, Sydney was struck by the homey feel. Rough-hewn beams framed the tall ceilings, and the walls were lined with family photos and other memorabilia. She caught sight of a stack of bridal magazines on the coffee table and pointed. “Are those yours? Because if they are, then ranch air changes a person for sure.”
“Actually—” Peyton started to say.
“Actually, they’re mine.” A gorgeous dark-haired woman stepped into the room and swooped the magazines up into her arms. She turned to Sydney with a playful smile. “You must be Sydney.” She stuck out a hand. “Peyton speaks highly of you.”
Peyton gave the woman an affectionate smile and motioned between them. “Lily, Sydney Braswell. Sydney, Lily Gantry.”
Sydney paused for a second, her hand in the air. “Gantry? Ah, yes. Cyrus Gantry’s daughter.”
“The one and only.” Lily cast a mysterious look at Peyton, the kind only couples can interpret, and she hugged the magazines to her chest. “It’s a pleasure to meet you. You’ll have to come back when it’s not about business and join us for dinner.”
Sydney waited until Lily was out of the room before turning to Peyton. “Wow. Just wow. That’s Cyrus Gantry’s daughter?”
“I believe that’s been established.” Peyton grinned.
“Beautiful and charming. No wonder you couldn’t resist.” Cylinders began to click into place. “Wait a minute. All those magazines. Are you two getting married?”
Peyton nodded. “Wedding’s in a month. If you don’t have things wrapped up by then, you’re welcome to join us.”
“You’re marrying the daughter of a man who’s facing indictment by your office? Peyton, what the hell are you thinking?” She started to say more, but the sound of a throat being cleared behind her cut her off. She turned slowly, praying Lily hadn’t returned to the room, but it was worse. Tanner was standing behind her.
“I’m pretty sure she’s thinking she’s in love. Of course, love isn’t always about thinking,” Tanner said, pointing at the door. “I let myself in.”
“Guilty as charged,” Peyton said, seemingly oblivious to the daggers Tanner was sending Syd’s way.
Sydney nodded, but she was certain the look on her face still showed her incredulity. Tanner called her on it. “People do all kinds of crazy things for love.”
What the hell was that supposed to mean? “I’ve heard that,” Sydney said. “But I’ve never seen it in action.”
“Neither have I.”
The gall. If anyone had walked out on love, it had been Tanner, but this wasn’t the time or place to point that out. Sydney broke eye contact with her former lover. “Peyton, do we have time for a quick tour before the rest of your people get here?” She prayed Tanner would stay behind. She just needed a few minutes to regain her composure. Tonight was important and she needed to keep a steady head.
A few minutes later, she was walking beside Peyton, stepping gingerly over scattered rocks and tree roots as they made their way toward the stables. Peyton was saying something about horses and racing, but she barely heard because her mind was back on Tanner’s words. People do all kinds of crazy things for love. Yeah, right. Not in her experience. Not even close.
Tanner watched Peyton and Sydney leave, wishing she could take back her harsh words, but two unexpected encounters with Sydney in one day had left her feeling jangly, and her usually reliable ability to control her emotions was severely out of whack. Sydney had always had that effect on her.
“Hey, babe, I hate to rush you, but if we don’t leave in five minutes, we’re not going to make it.”
“Okay,” Tanner called out, hoping her voice projected confidence because she sure wasn’t feeling it. She’d spent the last fifteen minutes standing in front of the closet she shared with Sydney, dressed only in a towel, wishing school was back in session. But it was June, and she and Sydney had landed coveted positions with two of DC’s most prestigious law firms where they would make more money in a week than most people brought home in a month.
She knew she should be grateful, but after a few weeks of pushing paper for the firm’s partners and attending night after night of required social networking, she’d begun to seriously doubt she was cut out for big law.
Sydney’s hands slipped around her waist and her whisper tickled Tanner’s ear. “Wear the gray suit with the blue shirt. It’s super hot on you.”
Tanner turned into her arms and let the towel drop to the floor. “How about we both take a mental health day and crawl back in bed?” The moment the words left her lips, she saw Syd’s eyes twitch with frustration and she rushed to make her case. “Come on, Syd. It’s not like either of us are doing anything important at these gigs. They won’t miss us for one day.”
Syd inched away, but Tanner felt the distance between them breach into a large crevasse. “I know you’re bored, but it’s a rite of passage,” Sydney said, all business now. “All summer associates do nothing more than carry water while the partners size us up, but the offer rate at both our firms is over ninety percent—I checked.”
Of course you did, Tanner thought. Syd had done impeccable research for both of the jobs they held to make sure they fit in with the big picture plan. They’d graduate and start work as first year associates at their respective firms making piles of money that they’d earn by working ungodly hours with no vacations. The pain would last a few years until they were solidly on the partner track, and then they’d start planning more personal accomplishments like a big house, kids, and a vacation home. There was more, a lot more, but Tanner had started to tune out the rest, unable to conceive of a pot of gold worth working toward at the end of this particular passage.
She leaned down to pick up her towel, but Syd caught her halfway and tilted her face toward hers. “It’ll all work out,” she said. “I promise.”
“I know,” Tanner replied with a confidence she tried to feel.
“I love you.”
“I love you, too.”
“Then that’s all that matters. The rest is just logistics.” Sydney looped her arm through Tanner’s and started pushing aside hangers. “Now, about that suit.”
“Where is everyone?”
Tanner turned at the sound of Bianca’s voice, schooling her face into a neutral expression. “Peyton’s outside with Braswell. Mary and Dale stopped to pick up some beer, but they should be here any minute. Any idea why Braswell’s here?”
“Can we stop calling her Braswell? She prefers Sydney, and she’s really very nice.”
“Et tu, Bianca?”
“Seriously. I spent the afternoon filling her in on everything to do with Lily’s dad and Jade’s uncles, and she wasn’t a jerk at all. Asked good questions. I looked her up, and she’s got a pretty amazing résumé. I don’t get the impression she’s gunning for you.”
“Well, it sure felt like it this morning.” Tanner mentally kicked herself for not employing a little Google on Syd, but she’d spent the balance of the day trying not to think about her. Big mistake. Huge. “I still don’t get why she’s here at the ranch. I thought we were meeting to figure out how to deal with her, not including her.”
Bianca shrugged. “You got me, but if Peyton invited her, she must’ve had a good reason.”
Tanner grunted. Bianca was a young lawyer and she had a tendency to think Peyton, her mentor, could do no wrong. For the most part she thought Bianca’s assessment was correct. She’d had her doubts when she’d learned Peyton and Lily were dating, but she’d come to see Peyton could separate work and home life. “You should probably watch your back. Syd made it clear she had a problem over the fact Peyton’s dating Lily Gantry. She might flip out when she discovers you’re dating the niece of the two most wanted men in North Texas.”
Bianca didn’t look worried, but she did fix her with a laser stare.
“Syd? That was zero to nickname in no time flat.”
Shit.Tanner felt a tinge of guilt for not coming clean about her past with Syd, but she’d dug in now. “Whatever. I’m just saying you should be a little more careful before you start cozying up to her.” The sound of the front door opening cut off Bianca’s response, and Tanner sighed with relief to see Dale and Mary stroll into the living room, each carrying a twelve-pack of Corona. The increasing numbers gave her comfort, and she followed them into the kitchen.
Dale jerked her chin toward the front door. “Any idea why the new girl’s here?”
Tanner shook her head, trying not to react to the words “new girl.” “Not a clue. I was hoping you would have some intel.”
“Not me.” Dale stacked the beer in the fridge and then offered one to Tanner and Mary.
Tanner took hers and drank a deep draught. They’d been meeting here at Peyton’s ranch for the last month since the task force had been officially disbanded. Dale had asked her to join them when they started to suspect Gellar was working around rather than with them, and they wanted to use her position as one of the lead agents on Cyrus Gantry’s case to find out what he was up to. With last week’s raid and the subsequent retrieval of Queen’s Ransom, the fact that the group was still operating as a task force had come to light, but now they met in secret in an attempt to keep the details of their investigation under wraps while they tried to figure out if Herschel Gellar was somehow involved in the case against Lily’s father and the Vargases. All of which begged the question of what Sydney was doing here, especially if she was working with Gellar.
“You want me to ask Lindsey to do a little digging?” Dale asked, referring to her girlfriend, a nationally known investigative reporter who’d been helping them out. “Any of us start poking around, someone’s going to notice.”
Tanner started to scoff at the idea. She was a fucking FBI agent. She didn’t need a reporter to do her job for her. But then she warmed to the idea of someone objective doing the digging, and she started to tell Dale to go ahead, but there was that guilt again, like it would be a betrayal to sic a reporter on her ex. And there was always the possibility Lindsey might discover their past relationship, and she’d feel like a fool for not telling them. She should just tell them now. Before she could pull the trigger, the subject of their discussion appeared in the doorway.
“Any chance I can get one of those?” Sydney asked.
Tanner shot Dale a warning look as she handed Sydney her beer and got a subtle nod in response. She’d talk to her later.
Peyton walked into the room and signaled for them all to have a seat. “Sydney, you met Bianca, Tanner, and Dale this morning. Mary Lovelace is our ATF connection and she’s been working with us since the beginning. I’ll let each of them bring you up to speed, but in the meantime, everyone meet Sydney Braswell, the newest member of our little task force.”
Tanner shot a look at Dale and Bianca, who both shrugged. “I thought you were here because Gellar called you in.”
“That’s what he thinks,” Syd responded, her voice calm and steady. “But I’m really here because of Peyton. She and I worked together at the DOJ, and she contacted me about the information you all found on Gellar. We’re not opening an official investigation yet, but I’m here to check into it, and the best way to do that is if Gellar thinks I’m here for some other reason. As long as my cover stays intact, I’ll have unfettered access to the office. If we develop some tangible evidence that he’s involved with the Vargases, I’ll convene a grand jury and we’ll start looking into prosecution.”
“So the stuff you said this morning about Razor was part of your cover?”
“No. You’re still going to have to answer for that. Judge Casey has set a hearing on the motion to suppress for next week.”
“Did you tell the weasel’s lawyer that he won’t get witness protection if he doesn’t testify?”
“He won’t need it if he doesn’t. He thinks he has more to lose from the Vargases than by crossing you.”
Tanner looked around, acutely conscious of the fact that everyone in the room was watching them like they were playing a high-stakes tennis match. “Well, maybe he underestimated me.”
“That’s entirely possible.”
Tanner’s ears pricked up at Sydney’s words, certain she detected hidden layers of meaning.
“We’ll need to meet to prepare for the hearing,” Sydney continued, her face slightly flushed. “You’ll have every opportunity to convince me your actions were justified.”
Damn, there was definitely some undercurrent happening here, but Tanner forced herself not to react. She didn’t know current day Sydney Braswell well enough to presume anything. She’d meet with her and discuss the case, but anything personal was completely off-limits because there was absolutely no way she would risk her heart again. “Fine. But now we’re here to work.” She looked around at the group. “Let’s get started.”
Sydney held Tanner’s gaze longer than was comfortable for either of them, and she experienced both pleasure and disappointment when Tanner looked away first. “I’m not your enemy.” She directed the words to the entire group, but they were really only meant for Tanner. “I’m here to help. But we have to do this right, follow all the rules. You can’t knock down a man like Gellar. You have to knock him out.”
Her words were greeted with nods from around the table. “All right then. I’m thinking we should start off by going around the table and everyone can fill me in on their connection to the case. I know Peyton from DC, and she’s already told me that she’s engaged to be married to Lily Gantry.”
“Do you have a problem with that?” Bianca asked.
“Do you?” Sydney was careful to keep her tone even. She thought the idea of Peyton in a relationship with one of the key player’s daughter was ripe for friction, but she wanted to know what the rest of the team thought.
“No,” Bianca said in a firm voice. “Besides, Lily isn’t involved in any way with the investigation or her father’s business.”
“Could it be that you’re a little biased considering you’re dating Sergio and Arturo Vargas’s niece?”
To her credit, Bianca didn’t look away, instead assuming a more challenging posture, but Dale came to her defense. “You’re painting with a pretty broad brush,” Dale said.
“And so will the defense lawyers. They live for the appearance of conflict. And what about you? Aren’t you in a relationship with one of the Vargases’ victims, Lindsey Ryan?” She paused for a second to let her observations sink in and then kept going, knowing she wasn’t winning any friends. “Ultimately, you all have issues when it comes to this case, but you’ve done some amazing work so far and I think it would be a mistake to break up the team. That said, I have some recommendations, and I need you to follow them to the letter if we’re going to make this work.”
She watched Tanner’s face for any signs her remarks were being well received. To most people, Tanner’s expression would have appeared neutral, but she could tell by the slight twitch at the corner of her mouth that she was itching to get out of there. She could totally relate.
“What if we don’t?” Tanner asked.
“Then this case may come crashing down around you, and your careers with it. Haven’t you sacrificed enough?” Sydney met Tanner’s deep brown eyes and held her gaze. She’d promised herself she wouldn’t get personal, but there was no denying she still cared. Tanner had given up everything for this career, including her, and she’d be damned if she’d let it all go to hell because her team couldn’t keep their hands to themselves. Since the day Tanner told her she’d chosen to walk away from their planned future, Sydney had blamed her for the fallout as she’d picked up the rubble of their broken dreams. But somehow their paths had wound back together in a way she never would’ve expected, and a part of her believed there was a reason for this reconnection.
The room was quiet and Tanner’s stare consumed all of Sydney’s awareness. When Tanner finally spoke, it was as if nothing else existed.
“Tell us what you have in mind.”
Sydney looked everywhere but directly at Tanner. It was the only way she could focus. “I’ve read all the reports dating back to Maria Escobar’s death.” She offered a slight nod in Dale’s direction to acknowledge the loss of her wife, the AUSA who had led the task force initially until she’d been gunned down in front of her home. “I think that Gellar’s obsession with Cyrus Gantry and the Vargases, while perhaps warranted from a law enforcement perspective, is a distraction from something bigger.”
“Bigger?” Mary asked.
“Yes. There are too many pieces to this puzzle that don’t fit. Like all of you, I’m not convinced that the men who kidnapped Lindsey had anything to do with the Vargases, but someone sure went to pains to make it look like they were involved. And going back further to the Gantry Oil truck with all the dead bodies inside—it appears that Gantry’s company had filed a legitimate report regarding the theft of the truck. Whoever stole it wanted you to believe Gantry was responsible for those deaths, but more importantly, they wanted the public to believe it.” She folded her hands on the table. “Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think the Vargas brothers are bad news, but I don’t think they are responsible for all of this. Someone is trying to set them and Gantry up to take the fall.”
“And you think Gellar is involved somehow?” Peyton asked.
“I don’t know, but apparently you all think he’s up to something. The secrecy at the office, the rumor about a hidden bunker at his house, and the suspicious bank accounts—all point to someone who has something to hide. Maybe it’s related to these cases, maybe it isn’t, but there’s only one way to find out.”
“And what’s that?”
“We need to set a trap.”
“And how exactly do you plan to do that?”
“That’s your job. And I don’t have a clue, but we’ll figure it out together. In the meantime, I’ll distract him as best I can while the rest of you will need to gather more information about his activities.” She turned to Peyton. “We can set up a regular meeting here, right?”
“Sure,” Peyton said. “We’d be happy to have you join in at our regular poker game.”
Sydney smiled and shot a look across the table at Tanner, whose expression was mostly unreadable, except for the slight strain behind her eyes. It was clear her presence here made Tanner uncomfortable, but there was nothing she could do about it even if she wanted to. And she wasn’t sure she wanted to.
“Agent Cohen, isn’t it true you threatened my client in an attempt to gain his cooperation?”
Tanner started to say, “That’s Special Agent,” but she knew he was baiting her. Instead she leaned back in the uncomfortable witness chair and took a moment to size up Enrique Garza aka Razor’s attorney. She’d come up against this guy in court several times before, but he obviously hadn’t learned from the experience. A veteran of the courtroom would’ve taken his time, asking more specific questions to lead up to the conclusion he wanted to draw instead of leading with the overarching issue. His carelessness or impatience was to her benefit. She kept her tone even as she leaned forward slightly to speak into the microphone. “No, that is not true.”
“But you offered him witness protection, isn’t that right?”
Tanner cast a quick glance in Sydney’s direction and noted her nod before answering. “I explained to him that we could explore WITSEC as a potential option to assist him with his legal troubles.”
“And I imagine that you explained another, less palatable option as well.”
Tanner cocked her head. “I’m sorry, was there supposed to be a question there?” She looked at the judge and hunched her shoulders. She wasn’t sorry, and in front of a different judge, she might not let a hint of sarcasm invade her tone, but she and Judge Casey knew each other well and she knew exactly how far she could go before he’d admonish her to keep her remarks to herself.
“You threatened to put out the word that he’d cooperated even if he didn’t, a move that would place my client’s life in jeopardy. Isn’t that correct?” He overemphasized each word of the last sentence to punctuate his frustration.
“I’m confused,” she said, making a show of scratching her head. “If your client wasn’t working for the Vargases, then why would his life be in jeopardy?” She shrugged. “In any case, the answer is no. I didn’t threaten your client.” She delivered the lie coolly and calmly. This entire hearing was a colossal waste of time. Razor was well known as an enforcer for the Vargases. He’d tried to kidnap Bianca’s daughter, thwarted only by the quick thinking of Jade Vargas. They’d caught him in the act of a capital offense—no confession necessary. What she’d questioned him about at the hospital—the location of Jade’s horse and where Sergio Vargas was holed up—was extraneous as far as Razor’s fate was concerned. If he’d stuck to the deal, then he’d be able to live out the rest of his days in freedom, but he’d made the choice to go back on his word. Not her problem, and she wasn’t about to confess to strong-arming him when she’d essentially been offering him a way out of his troubles.
The back-and-forth continued for a bit longer, but eventually Razor’s attorney decided he wasn’t getting anything else out of her. Dismissed from the witness stand, Tanner stayed in the courtroom and watched as he and Sydney made their best arguments to the judge, who told them he would take the matter under consideration. As the bailiff yelled, “All rise,” Tanner slid out of her seat and ducked out of the courtroom, running smack into Bianca.
“Running from the law?” Bianca laughed. “Oh wait!”
“You’re hilarious,” Tanner said. “You have a hearing right now?”
“No, I was in Niven’s court, but I finished up early and thought I’d check on you. How did it go?”
“Okay, I guess. I never know how these things will work out until the judge rules. We’ll probably hear later this week.”
“And Sydney? She do okay?”
Tanner shifted her feet and glanced back at the courtroom doors. “Sure. She was fine.”
“Fine, huh? Faint praise. When are you going to warm up to her? I admit, I wasn’t keen on adding a stranger to the team, but Peyton vouches for her and she seems pretty on top of things.”
At that moment, Sydney burst through the doors and started walking toward them. Tanner looked everywhere but directly at her, planning an escape route, but Bianca enthusiastically waved her over. As Sydney walked toward them, Tanner let her gaze stray up Sydney’s long, well-toned legs. Sydney had always been athletic. They’d spent hours in the gym and the racquetball court during law school, making a game out of quizzing each other over what they’d learned in class between sets, each of them preferring to work out with a partner instead of going solo. Clearly, Sydney still kept up some kind of exercise routine. Did she have a workout buddy back in DC? Was it a girlfriend?
“Tanner says it went fine. What say you?” Bianca asked Sydney.
“Fine, huh?” Sydney looked at Tanner, her gaze appraising. “I don’t know this judge, but I’d say we have a better than even chance of winning the hearing. Never hurts to have an attorney on the stand.”
Bianca’s face scrunched into a frown, and Tanner shook her head, but before she could deflect, Bianca said, “Excuse me?”
Sydney looked between them, wearing a confused expression. “What?”
“Tanner’s not an attorney.” Bianca turned to Tanner. “Are you?”
“She is.” Sydney nodded.
“Which is it?” Bianca asked, looking between them.
Tanner cleared her throat. “I went to law school before I joined the agency. I’m still licensed. Obviously, I don’t practice law, but yeah, I’m a lawyer.” She watched Bianca for her reaction, but Bianca was staring at Sydney.
“And you knew this? How?”
“Long story,” Tanner interjected, tugging Bianca by the arm. She wanted to get her far away from Sydney before more secrets of her past leaked, but Bianca stood firm. “Wait a sec,” she said. “I want to hear from her, because if she’s digging around in everyone’s past, then maybe I misjudged our ability to trust her.”
Tanner looked at Sydney and saw sympathy reflected back, but what she couldn’t tell was whether Sydney cared if Bianca knew their story.
Sydney faced Bianca head-on and it was her turn to lie, apparently. “I reviewed Tanner’s file as part of my prep for the hearing so I could make sure she didn’t have any prior disciplinary actions that defense counsel could use to challenge her credibility.”
Bianca stared at Sydney for a moment and then broke into a smile. “Sorry about that. I have a tendency to leap ahead. I should’ve known it wasn’t anything. Hey, do the two of you want to grab lunch?”
Tanner watched the exchange with a mixture of relief and regret. On the one hand, it would’ve been nice to get the fact that she and Sydney had been a couple once out in the open, but on the other hand, she kind of preferred to hang on to the hope that she’d never have to deal with it.
“Actually,” Sydney said, “I need to go over some of my notes from the hearing with Tanner, and I don’t want to raise any conflicts by involving any of the rest of you. Rain check?”
“Absolutely,” Bianca said. “Catch you both later.”
As Bianca walked away, Tanner decided to act fast. “I should go too. We can talk later, right?” She was a step into her escape when Sydney’s silky but firm voice stopped her retreat.
“No, Special Agent Cohen. We need to talk and it can’t wait.”
They were early enough to be seated right away at Stephan Pyle’s popular Flora Street Cafe, located in what Tanner told her was the Arts District. Sydney took a moment to look around and size up her surroundings. They’d walked from the courthouse, and Tanner had barely spoken two words along the way. When they finally entered the doors of the restaurant, Sydney’s first thought was this wasn’t the kind of place she would have assumed Tanner would like, but then again it had been years since she and Tanner had shared a meal. People changed.
In some respects. Tanner was still the trim, fit, beautiful woman Sydney had fallen in love with, but her eyes were harder now, as if she’d witnessed things she’d rather not have seen, which was saying a lot since she’d done a tour in Afghanistan before they’d even met. Sydney was well acquainted with the effect atrocities could have on a person’s psyche. She’d seen plenty in her time as a prosecutor, but working out in the field like Tanner did took a deeper toll, and she wished she could go back in time and do a better job of convincing Tanner to chart a different course for her life.
“This place okay?” Tanner asked as the hostess led them to a booth.
“Looks great.” Sydney settled into her seat and half listened to the hostess who was giving them a preview of the specials. When she finally left, Sydney waved a hand. “Seems a little froufrou for you.”
“Oh really,” Tanner said, eyebrows raised. “I thought you liked froufrou. The chef’s really popular with the foodie crowd.”
Sydney chose not to dwell on the assumption that Tanner had picked this place especially for her, obviously remembering her love of all things food. “There are a lot of things I used to like.” Sydney immediately regretted her choice of words, but rather than compound the implication, she buried her head in her menu. “What’s good here?”
“The lobster and the prime rib sandwiches are both solid bets, but you’re definitely going to want to start with the white asparagus soup.”
“Are you surprised these things are good or that I know they’re good?” Tanner set her menu down. “So what if I used to live on hamburgers and you used to be on the way up at one of the biggest firms in the country. Lots of things have changed for both of us.”
They placed their orders and Syd fiddled with her iced tea while she worked up to what she wanted to talk about. Tanner sat perfectly still, but Syd could tell she was simultaneously casing the place and her. Unable to bear the silence, Syd asked the one thing she wanted to know the most. “Are you happy?”
Tanner inclined her head and studied her thoughtfully. “That’s a tall question. Care to break it down a bit, counselor?”
“Never mind.” She’d had no right to ask the question. Tanner’s personal life was none of her business.
“Did you really bring me here to ask if I’m happy?”
“No. Yes.” Sydney shook her head. “I mean, both. I have a million things to ask you, but it’s hard to do when you seem to be trying your best to avoid me.”
“I never expected to see you again.”
Tanner’s voice cracked slightly as she delivered the words, but her expression was impassive. Sydney fiddled with her napkin, trying to decide if she wanted to keep going. “I can’t decide if you’re happy or sad about that.”
“I’m not sure how I feel, but I didn’t have much time to prepare. But you did. Do you think maybe you could’ve called to let me know you were coming out here?”
Sydney took a sip of her tea. She’d seen Tanner’s name in the file while she was still in DC, albeit within moments of boarding the plane to Dallas. She’d considered calling but settled on a very rational reason not to—she didn’t have time to track down Tanner’s number, and even if she did, the airport setting had too much ambient noise to allow them to conduct any kind of conversation. But the truth was a long-distance phone call to her ex-lover to say, “Hey, I’m on my way to your neck of the woods to help out with a secret investigation into the guy who’s running your task force, and oh, by the way, looking forward to catching up,” seemed insincere, not to mention crazy. She settled on a simple response. “Would you have taken my call?”
Tanner looked down at the table. “I don’t know. I put everything about us so far behind me I never imagined I’d have the chance to talk to you again.” She stared at her water glass as if it were an oracle. “There was a time when a call from you would’ve brought me running.”
Sydney wanted to ask when that was. Was it before or after Tanner had cleared out all of her belongings from the apartment they’d shared? Or was it later, after she’d entered the academy at Quantico? Tanner’s words, which in another context would have warmed her heart, magnified how far they’d drifted apart. The chunk of time when Tanner had loved her more than anything had passed long ago, and now they were just two women who shared a past but had no future.
“You said you wanted to talk. So, talk,” Tanner said.
Sydney drew back in her seat and placed her hands in her lap. Tanner clearly didn’t want to discuss anything personal, and that was for the best, but they needed to clear the air if they were going to work together and she said as much. “So, I don’t care what you tell your colleagues as long as we’re on the same page.”
“They don’t need to know specifics, but it’s probably a good idea to mention we know each other from law school. I already feel a little silly that we didn’t bring it up already.”
“Agreed. The sooner, the better. You handle Bianca. That girl is a pistol and if she weren’t in a relationship, I think she’d have a thing for you. If she knew we’d been a couple, she’d probably beat me up.”
“Especially if she found out you broke up with me,” Tanner said. “Don’t mind her. She’s super loyal, but she wouldn’t hurt you too badly.”
“If that were true.”
“I didn’t break up with you,” Sydney said, her eyes wide with surprise.
“You gave me an ultimatum, which is pretty much the same thing.”
“There was no ultimatum. I asked you to put our relationship before anything else.”
“You asked me to choose between a career that would make me happy and one that would crush my soul, and you made our relationship contingent on my choice. If that wasn’t an ultimatum, I don’t know what is.”
Sydney stared at Tanner for a moment, certain that pursuing this argument would be pointless for both of them but desperate to dissect their past. When all the anger and misunderstanding was stripped away, she could think of only one thing she really wanted to know. She’d already asked it, but she tried one more time. “Are you happy?”
“Happiness is overrated.”
“Said only the unhappy people.”
“Happy?” Sydney took a moment to reflect. “Comparatively.”
“Could you be any more vague?”
“Probably.” Sydney offered a smile to try to lighten the mood. “I have a job I like, a few good friends, and I’m healthy. Is there more to life than that?”
“I guess not.” Tanner relaxed back in her seat. “About this job. Any chance you want to fill me in on how you went from the partnership track at Chamblee and Ives to scrubbing it with the rest of us on a government salary?”
She wanted to tell Tanner everything. How she’d spent four years working her ass off and the only thing she’d had to show for it was exhaustion and compromised ethics, but she wasn’t in the mood for an “I told you so” from Tanner, who’d never hesitated to sacrifice personal gain when duty called. She distilled everything down to a simple conclusion. “That life just wasn’t for me.”
Tanner’s slow nod was a gentle acknowledgment of the truth she’d known all along but Syd had to trip over to find. What would her life be like now if she’d taken the shorter path?
She’d never know.