By the Gods, what have I done? The tang of salty sea air assailed T.J. as she sped away from Cami's house in the grayness of the pre-dawn.
By 4:00 a.m. T.J. had awoken to find herself blissfully wrapped around a warm, naked Cami. And while the sensation was delicious, T.J.'s over-active brain had kicked into high gear.
This is too good, too stable for you, old girl. What would you do if the Reynoso's hurt her? And what would she say if she knew the whole truth about you? Her conscience and her checkered past washed over her like a rip tide and pulled her away from the sweet paradise she had found in Cami's arms. She was adrift in a sea of secrets and half-truths, and she was damned if she would pull Cami in after her. Careful not to disturb her companion, she had dressed quietly and quickly and slipped out the front door. She was vaguely aware of someone watching her and she deftly scanned the neighborhood until she spotted one of Jake's men, discreetly watching over Cami's house - as ordered. T.J. gave a brief nod in his direction and climbed into her car.
You owe Cami some sort of explanation. You can't just leave her like this. T.J. had debated long and hard over that. The cynic in her saying that Cami was an adult, she could handle the notion of T.J. disappearing from her life forever. But her heart, that traitorous instrument that was the source of T.J.'s pain at the moment, cried out that at the very least she could explain things to Cami. But explain what? That is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the hatred and loathing I would surely see in Cami's eyes, or to take arms against that bastard and suffer the sorrow of losing Cami because I committed murder. If the situation hadn't been so serious, T.J. would have laughed at the tenor of her thoughts, sure that Mr. Shakespeare was turning in his grave to hear his words bastardized in such a way.
If I continue to see Cami, I put her in danger. True. But if I continue to see her, I can also personally protect her. Her head was rational, but her heart just wouldn't play fair, insisting that she couldn't lose Cami - not now - not knowing how wonderful it was to lose herself in Cami's loving embrace and healing soul. And if you can't protect her, what then? Are you prepared to risk her life, just so you can be with her? No. That much was certain.
So, that left the singular thought that T.J. would just have to rid them both of the problem. Take down the Reynoso's and remove the threat. Then Cami is all mine, safe and sound.
Until she learns you are a murdering, thieving mercenary, that is. T.J. was speeding along the highway towards her condo. The sun had still not shown it's face this morning, but the top was down on the car nonetheless. The crisp, morning air was doing wonders for waking up T.J.'s brain. Yeah. So no matter the outcome with that bastard Frank, you'll lose the girl in the end anyway. She could feel the pounding in her heart; feel the aching void that such a thought left in her.
Why did you do it, old girl? You were safe from such pain, weren't you? But no. You had to go and kiss her; to taste what heaven feels like. Weren't you better off NOT knowing? Better off living in Hell and scoffing at the saps that write silly, romantic songs and poems about what love is like? Whoever said it is better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all, was a damned fool. You can't miss what you don't even know exists!
But the truth was, she had tasted paradise. Every time she looked into Cami's eyes, she read the love plainly written there - tasted the deep, abiding wonder of having another human being look right into your soul and lovingly hold onto the joy they found there.
But she doesn't really know what is in your soul, does she? And if she knew….?
However, T.J. was aware that a part of her rambling was right. She did owe Cami some sort of reason why they could go no further along the path. She sighed heavily and swiped at the long, dark tresses that the wind kept whipping in her face. Reluctantly, she turned the car around and headed back to the sweet, Victorian House where she had left her heart. Cami would still be asleep, but she would leave her a note, and they could talk later.
And you can say goodbye to her. Before you have to see the fear and loathing in her eyes when she hears about who you really are inside.
A wonderful smell assaulted Cami's senses, and as she opened her eyes, she could tell from the brightness of the room that it was morning. She knew without looking that T.J. was gone, she felt the woman's absence from the bed as though she had left a cold void in her wake.
But before Cami could think about where she might have gone, she noticed that T.J. had left her a note sitting on the empty pillow, folded around an incredibly beautiful peach-colored rose. Cami had no idea where T.J. had gotten the rose at this time of the morning, or when the woman had left, but she grinned foolishly at the romantic gesture just the same. She picked up the rose, inhaling the sweet fragrance before she reached for the note. Unfolding the scrap of paper, Cami thought that T.J.'s handwriting was just what she expected from her enigmatic friend - it was bold, decisive and powerful.
I didn't have the heart to disturb the angelic look on your face, and I know you need your sleep - but I couldn't leave without somehow saying goodbye. Your beauty makes my knees weak and your passion overwhelms me, but it is the power of your soul that has me speechless. May I see you tonight?
Cami felt unshed tears cloud her eyes, as she re-read the note several times before folding it neatly and placing it in her night stand. May I see you tonight?? Is she kidding? She'd better come over! She gently placed the rose in a glass of water on the nightstand, inhaling the rich, distinctive scent before she dropped herself back onto the bed. She reached over and impulsively hugged the pillow that still held a remnant of T.J.'s perfume. And in that bliss of happiness, she drifted back to sleep.
Showered and changed, T.J. felt much more clear-headed. She had allowed her passions to run away with her, but that would not happen again. Her Sig was neatly tucked into its shoulder holster and covered by her black, leather jacket. It was time to start re-taking control of this situation. And the Reynoso's had no idea what they were up against.
When T.J. arrived at the pub, Agent Knight was there, waiting with a disgruntled looking Tommy. "Morning boss. May I speak with you please?" He shot a meaningful look at the newcomer. "In private."
T.J. sighed. She figured that Tommy would have questions; namely, just what was she doing hiring another guy to do his job. T.J. had already carefully weighed her options in this matter. She knew in her heart she could trust Tommy, and that the lanky bartender would certainly protect her back when the going got tough. But the simple fact was, the more people who knew that Knight was F.B.I. undercover, the more chance there was for blowing the whole operation.
"Sure, Tommy." She turned to Knight, "Mornin', Peter. I have all of your paperwork filled out for employment, and if ya give us a second, Tommy here will show you where ta start." She smiled at him, and he easily played along with her lie about his paperwork.
The agent smiled pleasantly. He was dressed for work at the pub, with a pair of khaki pants and the deep green polo shirt that T.J. had given him, which bore the name of the pub and the Irish flag embroidered on it.
She led Tommy into her office, leaving Knight to putter around on his own. The agent had assured her that he knew how to mix drinks. In fact, he had worked his way through college at Georgetown University, working in one of the many local bars. But frankly, confidence in his ability to draw a Guinness was the least of T.J.'s concerns.
"Sit down, Tommy." She gestured to the chair opposite her desk, and quietly shut the door behind them. "Before ya get yer dander all up, let me explain."
"But, T.J., I . . ." He sputtered to a beginning, taken off guard that she recognized his simmering anger.
"Tommy, ya full well know that I adore ya. That ya are a savior to me, helping me in running this place." Tommy's face turned bright red at the compliment and he suddenly found his shoes very interesting, so he didn't have to make eye contact with his stunning boss.
"So. I figured, what with business picking up, we could both use an extra pair of hands behind the bar."
"Boss, you and I have the bar covered. I know that Katie mentioned we could use another couple of waitresses, but …"
"Ok. Done. And that will be your first job as my new manager - ta hire a few more waitresses, however many ya think we need."
Tommy's chin hit the floor. "You said…um…manager?" His normally baritone voice squeaked out.
T.J. smiled. "Aye. I said, manager. Tommy, you have been loyal and shown yourself more than competent enough to run this place. I hired Peter ta take over as bartender so I could promote ya - congratulations 'manager'!"
"But that is your job!" He protested.
"No. I'm the owner. I'll still make the financial decisions, do all of the ordering, and I still have the final say on menu changes and the like, but you will take over the day ta day operations. Make sure we are fully staffed, that schedules accommodate the busy times, and so on." She grinned at the dumbfounded look on his face. "And, of course, as manager if ya want ta tend the bar, that is your choice. I'm sure our regulars would miss ya if they didn't see ya hanging around back there."
A slow grin began to color Tommy's face. "Does this come with a raise?? 'Cause there is this motorcycle I've had my eye on…" He joked with his boss.
"Awesome!" His grin was from ear to ear now. "But, are you sure the bar can afford it, because I don't mind not…"
T.J. cut him off. "Aye. I'm sure, Tommy. Listen, my Da always taught me ta reward the loyal and they will remain so. You have more than proven your faithfulness to the company." She reached across the desk and patted his arm, causing a fresh round of blushing to stream into his cheeks. It was the first time in his whole life that someone had recognized his hard work and loyalty. And he was very glad that it had been T.J.
"Besides," her voice took on a very serious tone. "As you know, we've had some trouble brewing of late with my ex-husband, and I'd feel better knowing you were watching out for the place. And Peter seems like a competent, strong guy - it couldn't hurt ta have a couple of you around the place to keep an eye on things. I thought about hiring a security company, but I don't want ta panic the customers. I figured we could handle it internally."
"Has that son of a bitch, er…." Tommy stopped himself, realizing he was referring to a man Taylor had been married to. "Um…no offense boss."
"Believe me, none taken." Her eyes glinted with humor.
"Has he said something or done something to you, because I'd like nothing better than an excuse to knock that scum bag's teeth in." Tommy's normally friendly, open face hardened and sharpened at the idea. T.J. reflected that she had been completely right in Tommy - he'd be the right guy to have watching her back.
"No. Simmer down, turbo." She tried to keep the tone light. "I just want us ta be prepared if anything goes down." There. That is mostly the truth. Enough for Tommy ta be on the look out for trouble, and yet…not enough for him ta accidentally blow Knight's cover. "And Tommy, nothing heroic, ok? Your first order of business is ta dial 911, got me? Let's let the professionals handle the really tough stuff."
Tommy stood and stretched his hand across the desk to T.J., which she reflexively took and firmly shook. "You can count on me, boss. If that bastard starts anything, he's history."
"Thanks mate. I know you're the right man for the job." She locked eyes with Tommy, without releasing his hand. In that moment, a silent pact was formed. "Now would ya mind goin' out there and helping the newbie learn the ropes?"
"Gotcha. No problem." Tommy started for the door, a new spring in his step, but he paused before he left. "And boss? Thanks. Thanks a lot."
After he closed the door, T.J. took a deep breath. It had gone a lot smoother than she had expected, and she felt a great deal better knowing that Tommy was well prepared to deal with Frank or the Reynosos. Now if things would just go as smoothly with Cami. But the unfortunate thing was, T.J. couldn't just give the blonde half of the truth. No, telling her about the Reynosos is the least of my worries. Past images of gun-running, shadowy deals, and plastic explosives filled T.J.'s head, and she tried in vain to stifle the one lone tear that cascaded down her cheek. I'm sorry, Cami. Sorry I ever allowed you into my world. Forgive me.
She picked up the phone, her fingers brutally stabbing at the numbers.
"Er, yeah. Hiya Jamie." His voice sounded a bit sleepy, but bright and happy to hear from her.
"Can you come down ta the pub for lunch? My treat. I have some things ta run by ya."
"Uh, sure. Sure, no problem."
"I'll see ya then."
T.J. hung up the phone and stared at it for a minute. Trying to collect her thoughts before making the rather difficult phone call to Cami. Keep it light. Tell her you'll see her tonight and be done with it. With that, she reached again for the receiver.
Agent Knight spent the day restlessly cleaning bar glasses and serving the few customers that wandered in during the afternoon hours. Lunch had been busy and he knew that at dinner time things would pick up, but for the moment he was…well…bored. Going undercover was usually one of his favorite assignments - infiltrating, uncovering, and deceiving. His parents used to tease him and tell him he should have been an actor instead, if he liked pretending so much. At least acting would have been a less dangerous profession. But also not as exciting and nowhere nearly as fulfilling as bringing in the "bad guys."
Jameson had spent the better part of the afternoon in a meeting with a man who had identified himself only as "Jake." But Knight put his men to work on figuring out just who this "Jake" was, and if he might be related to the case in any way.
He anticipated that he might be able to get some good information about the Reynosos by working here. With Ms. Jameson's reluctant permission, he had set up a listening device in the far corner booth that the drug lords preferred. He was confident that between the tapes from their conversations and the information he hoped to get from their cronies that frequented the bar, he could build the rest of the case against them and finally bring them down.
But for now, he polished glasses…and waited.
Cami was grinning from ear to ear, and she knew that she looked an awful lot like the Cheshire Cat. She was also loudly singing along to the Melissa Etheridge CD she had put into the stereo, as she stirred the sauce for the Coq Au Vin she was making for dinner.
I wanna come over…to hell with the consequence…
T.J. had called a bit before lunchtime to ask if she wanted to have dinner tonight. Of course Cami had jumped at the opportunity and even agreed to make dinner for them. So a trip to the store and some hurried cleaning of the house later, and here it was late afternoon.
The petite photographer was in a full-fledged... something. Lust? Definitely. Love? She pondered that for a moment. Was she in love with Taylor Jameson? Her heart knew the answer. So did that place in her soul that recognized T.J. as though they were bound through many lifetimes. But love? Her rational brain struggled with the concept. It was too soon, too fast. After all, she really knew nothing about T.J. except she owned a bar and she was Irish. And let's not forget gorgeous, and incredibly sexy, and intelligent, and… Oh god….I'm so in love with her…
She grinned widely again - a look of serenity plastered on her face that she couldn't seem to stop today, nor did she want to. She just wanted to revel in the incredible way T.J. made her feel - in how complete she felt with her.
T.J. was due to come over in about an hour, and Cami couldn't wait for her to arrive. But for now, she stirred the sauce …and waited.
"I'm tired of waiting for them to come and get me. It's time to take some of this to their own turf." T.J.'s voice was low and determined.
"I'll put some of my guys right on it." Jake assured her as he stood and stretched on the opposite side of T.J.'s desk.
The two had shared lunch in her office, going over the plan that T.J. had formulated for not only getting the Reynoso brothers out of her life, but for getting Frank out of her life as well. Not revenge…call it 'just desserts.'
Jake Tierney was T.J.'s third cousin, by marriage, on her father's side of the family. The family tree was a bit long, but they were blood - distant blood to be sure, but for T.J.'s family, blood was certainly thicker than water.
Jake was a big man, about five inches over six feet, with tree trunks for arms and a barrel chest. He was certainly not someone you wanted angry with you. Just a few years older than T.J. was herself, Jake would do just about anything for his "little" cousin "Jamie". T.J. had not met Jake, or even known of his existence until she had settled herself in San Diego and had married Frank. One night in a rare phone conversation with her mother, Mrs. Jameson had mentioned her "cousin" Jake and had told her how to get in touch with him.
Irish immigrants, the Tierney family had gotten their start in Boston nearly a hundred years ago in the construction business, and had soon branched out into running some minor illegal gambling operations. Great Grandson, Jake Tierney, had the finest education and inevitably he had brought his "family" business to Southern California, where he had visited one Spring Break and decided was the perfect place to live - "paradise." He now ran a number of legitimate operations on the West Coast, and he had a small group of very loyal men that would do just about anything for him - as long as the price was right. Tierney construction was one of the largest contracting firms in the State of California, and J.T. Cruise Line operated weekend jaunts from San Diego into Mexico. Jake Tierney wasn't Mafia, nor was he really a criminal - but he could certainly see the shady street of organized crime from where he was sitting.
T.J. had filled him in on all of the details of the past few days, the Jeep accident, her suspicions, and why she wanted Cami guarded. Jake had listened carefully, feeling the range of emotions from anger to frustration to downright sinister glee as T.J. outlined her plan to sink Frank right alongside the Reynosos.
"I never like that little worm, Jamie. You know that, dontcha?"
T.J. sighed. "Aye. I know Jacob. But ya also know why I needed Frank's help. Now I'm an American Citizen."
Jake grunted and then frowned. "You know I would have married you myself, Jamie. But my wife would never have understood." Taylor laughed. "Still, I should have set you up properly with one of my guys." The "guys" on Jake's payroll would have just about fallen all over themselves to have a shot at T.J.
"Jake, what's done is done. I brought this 'problem' inta my life and now the 'problem' is creating even more problems. So, it's time ta get rid of the source."
"Jamie, you want him gone permanently, you just say the word." Jake's look was fierce, almost feral.
Taylor smiled at her overprotective cousin. "Thanks, mate. But ya know as well as I, if I wanted Frank dead, he'd already be gone."
The big man opposite her smiled ruefully. "Yeah, I know cuz….I know." Jake was privy to T.J.'s past, and her fierce protection of her brother was one of the things that endeared her to Jake; well, that and the fact that she looked like a beautiful fallen angel, and could deliver a right cross that would fell a guy even bigger than himself. He loved his cousin, not in spite of, but because of the fact that she could kick some serious ass when the chips were down.
"I'll put my computer guys to work on Silva, that should be no problem at all, and I'll put an extra guard on your woman. Believe me, no one will touch Camryn - on that I'll stake my life." He leaned over the desk and dropped a quick kiss on the top of T.J.'s head.
T.J. stood as he turned to go. "Jake, don't forget your check." She picked it up from the desk.
The giant man's eyes narrowed sharply, and anyone else but his cousin would have been shaking at the dangerous look in his eyes. "You tryin' to insult me? Rip that damned thing up, Jamie. This is personal, family business - I won't have you paying me for it."
T.J. shrugged and in his full view, tore the offending document into two pieces. "Sorry. No offense intended. I just wanted ta help ya out some."
Jake shook his head. "No. I'll let you buy me lunch and I'll even let you pay to hire my guys as extra security for you around here. But I will not let you pay me for going after that little bastard Silva - Believe me, the pleasure is all mine." He winked at his cousin and closed the door firmly behind him.
Family is certainly a double-edged sword. On one hand a giant pain in the ass and on the other… She sank back into the desk chair and looked fondly at the doorway where Jake had just stood. On the other hand, family can be a comfort when the going gets really tough.
She glanced at her watch and then reflexively smiled. It was about time to head to Cami's house for dinner. Oh god. Cami…how will I tell her… the smile faded from T.J.'s beautiful face. Part of her wanted to run, to just not show up for dinner and never return her calls. But the bigger part of her refused to be a coward. If you really care about her, you will at least give her the benefit of an explanation before you walk out of her life.
T.J. scooped up her car keys, and then strapped on the shoulder holster for her Sig before once again covering it with her favorite leather jacket. Normally she would forgo the firearm, considering she was having a nice dinner at Cami's house. But. She also knew it paid to be prepared for any eventuality.
T.J. waved to Tommy and Peter as she left the pub, smirking to herself at the change in demeanor of the usually recalcitrant Tommy. He had gone home and changed into a nice pair of slacks, dress shirt and a tie that was decorated in tiny shamrocks. Guess someone is taking his promotion very seriously. She chuckled to herself.
As she made her way to the car, her mind naturally drifted back to Cami. The photographer had sounded so happy to hear from her earlier, so excited to meet up for dinner. And T.J. could not remember the last time someone offered to cook dinner for her. Jake called her 'my woman'…not for long I'm afraid…
Her mind preoccupied with the details of how and just what she would tell Camryn at dinner, Taylor momentarily forgot she was being watched, forgot to be vigilant. So she never saw the four men that jumped her in the parking lot of the pub until she felt the heavy blow to the back of her head. Shit! Camryn!….. was all she could think before her world went dark and silent.
Cami sat on the balcony, drinking a glass of wine and trying in vain not to keep checking her watch. It was 8:00 p.m. - an hour and a half after T.J. had promised to be here for dinner. But still she hadn't shown up. The photographer had called the pub, but Tommy told her that T.J. had left around six. She had also called the tall woman's cell phone, but it went straight to her voice mail, and the number for her condo went unanswered.
Her mind tried not to think of worrisome thoughts. Not to imagine that T.J. had gotten into a car accident, or just as bad…that she had changed her mind. Dinner at home is a rather intimate invitation. Maybe she got scared… The image of T.J. scared was one Cami could not fathom, the tall, dark woman was intimidating herself. But, Cami could imagine that Taylor had just plain decided that this was all too much, too fast. Cami's own insecurities were kicking into high gear and feeling a bit of the same fears. After all, how much do I really know about her…?
Dinner was still simmering slowly on the stove; the sauce for the chicken had thickened and was likely no longer edible. And Cami once again ran a slightly trembling hand through her short blonde hair, heaving a heavy sigh. Taking another gulp of her wine, she looked again out into the twilight and whispered out to no one in particular: "Where in the hell are you, T.J.?"
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