At least that's what she hoped he meant.
They had a single edge. Haugen didn't know J.T. was awake and untied—an edge that wouldn't last long once Haugen regrouped.
She prayed Chris wouldn't ask about his father and remind the man. "Hon, I'm okay. Everything will be fine as long as we stay calm. And now that Bo's here, maybe he can help Mr. Haugen with the information he needs. Is your flight bag in the kitchen or the Jeep?"
"Whoa. Hold on a minute" Haugen interrupted with an easygoing smile, as if doing nothing more than asking friends to wait up for him on the golf course. "Nobody goes anywhere unless I say so. And I say we go to the kitchen and figure out what the hell's going on."
He jerked her forward—without sparing so much as a backward glance at J.T.—and ushered them all into the kitchen.
"I had a good thing going, pal," Haugen tsked at Chris, "until you opened your mouth." Frowning, he glanced back over his shoulder.
She had to keep this guy talking. Narcissists loved to talk about themselves, right? "What do you mean, a good thing?"
"The drug running, of course. Well, until your kid got weirded out by moving a little money for us. Geez, we would have paid him well. The two military dudes were more than happy to figure out a way to pay their maxed credit cards."
"Why not leave the country? Why take a chance breaking into our house, holding us this way? It sounds like you're smarter than that." Keep talking. Cover noises.
"Because I can't just run off, even if there was somewhere to hide from my boss. I'm accountable to people, people who expect something from me on this end—which I will have once I have the flight schedule. The feds are getting a little too snoopy after those surveillance flights. Once I have the schedule in hand, we can reroute our guys' paths and times accordingly for a final big payoff. Then the family will relocate me."
Like a kaleidoscope, his words and images jumped in her mind—drugs, family, threats, emblems…
Her gaze dropped back to his belt buckle. Finally she remembered why it had seemed so familiar painted on the brick. "Ohmigod."
The red circle, black triangle inside.
Revulsion shuddered through her. She knew exactly where she'd spotted those markings before, symbols that were well-kept secrets known only to those on the inside. This insignia represented one of the most powerful Mob families.
A perverted coat of arms she'd seen as a child while peeking through the banister rails at her father's "business" guests.
Voices fading with footsteps, J.T. shook his hands free of the loosely wrapped cord. He crouched low, peering through the thin gap between the hinges of the open door.
Haugen stood in the kitchen archway with Rena at his side. He jammed his gun deeper in her side.
J.T.'s hands fisted. He channeled the rage, training never more important than now.
Instincts. Breathe. Assess.
Rena asked Haugen some question that left the man furrowing his forehead in concentration. Good job, babe.
Sliding into the hall, J.T. kept his observation peripheral now. No looking at the bastard and setting off the internal radar that might cause him to check his six o'clock.
Haugen chuckled. "So you recognize my belt buckle, Mrs. Price. Not many would. Maybe it was a little egotistical of me to place it on my calling card through your window, but I figured your son would make the connection with Miranda's necklace."
J.T. processed the periphery view. Rena and Haugen in the doorway. Chris by the table. Bo, to Rena's right, by the refrigerator. Moving infinitesimally. Trying to work a rescue solo? Or had he seen J.T.? And what about Chris?
Come on, somebody. Get back to distracting Haugen. J.T. wound his way through the hall, grateful for the clutter and oversize plants that provided a helluva lot more cover than desert. This was his turf, damn it.
Chris backed until his butt bumped the counter. "You've been running drugs? And now you're going off with Miranda Casale?"
"Miranda?" Haugen's face whipped up, his body moving forward, deeper into the kitchen—way to go, Chris. "God, no. Aside from the fact that she's the don's niece, I love my wife. Why would I screw around with Miranda Casale? Besides, she's too young and too obvious. She was sent down to keep an eye on her uncle's interests."
Rena leaned on her right foot, the gun barrel inching out of her side. "If you love your wife, how could you leave her like this?"
Damn straight, Rena. Good men don't leave their women behind. He heard the message loud and clear, and wouldn't be repeating his mistake.
"I'm taking my wife and daughter with me."
Bo stepped closer. "Your wife's a part of this, too?"
J.T. flattened his back to the wall. Angled around a picture frame. Only five more steps and he would be hidden on the side of the archway. Out of Haugen's sight line.
"Of course not." Haugen looked past Rena to Bo, the man's gestures growing more erratic as Rena, Chris and Bo had him ping-ponging responses around the room. "They think it's a family vacation. No need to worry them. I'll explain things when we get … where we're going. They'll realize I did this for them, to give them the things they deserve. I'd do anything for them."
Two more steps. Past a plant stand.
Bo inched closer. "Even sell drugs and pump money into terrorist accounts?"
"If I don't do it—" Haugen shrugged, his gun pulling out of Rena's side, but his grip on her arm still tight enough to dig into her flesh "—they'll only find someone else."
Bo's chest expanded with outrage, bravado, as he strutted closer, an arm's reach from Rena. "That's a bullshit excuse to justify your own greed and you know it."
In place, J.T. nodded to Bo. Knew the young officer caught the movement even though he was smart enough not to alert Haugen by looking away.
"Are you an idiot or what to tick me off this way?" Haugen advanced around Rena.
No, Bo wasn't an idiot. But Haugen was. This time, the enemy was going down.
Bo sprung toward Rena. Body blocked her out of the line of fire. J.T. launched through the cleared archway, tackled Haugen. They hit the tile. Hard. Teeth jarring as they skidded across the kitchen, bashing into chairs, the table. He pinned Haugen's gun hand to the floor.
Rena? He wanted to check. Didn't dare lose focus.
Haugen arched, swung his other fist. J.T. blocked. Slammed Haugen's hand against the saltillo tile floor, once, again and again until the gun clanked free.
J.T. channeled the roar, instincts honed and focused. This was home turf and damn anyone who threatened what was his.
Haugen panicked, bucked, tried to twist.
J.T. coldcocked the son of a bitch with an uppercut to the jaw. Haugen's head smacked tile, lolled to the side. Chris scooped up the gun, his too-long legs and awkward teen body never exhibiting more speed and grace.
That fast, it was over. Battles often were, and thank God this one ended with no shots fired. Rena? He searched, saw her shielded by Bo's body behind the pantry door.
Rocking back on his haunches, J.T. shook out his aching fist and extended his other arm. Rena untangled herself from Bo, shook loose her ties and flew forward. She landed against J.T.'s chest. Into his embrace. Covering his face with kisses.
"Ohmigod, J.T., you did it, holy crap, you really did it." She reached for Chris. "Come here, kiddo."
J.T. glanced over her shoulder to their son. "You okay?"
"Yeah, Dad, I'm cool." The teen passed the pistol to his father. "I'm okay, Mom. Geez, no need to pump out the tears."
"Shush up." Her arms closed around both of them. No arguing with a determined Rena. "I'll cry over both of you as much as I damn well please. And Bo, too, oh God, thank you."
Bo's face creased into his best bad-boy grin. "No problem. And as much as I'd enjoy a hot lady like you crying all over me, I'm not overeager to meet up with Tag's right hook."
Winking, Bo yanked up the phone, dialed, relaying clipped details for 911.
J.T. trained the gun on Haugen's prone body while keeping Rena tucked close.
Adrenaline still surged through him, but aftermath stripped away the numbness of battle focus. Emotions blazed through him—good, bad, some raw primal, some even downright Shakespearean poetic. And yeah, the force and collective roar still scared the crap out of him.
But not enough to make him run for the quiet of cover anymore. Not now that he understood exactly what he'd been missing by closing himself off from the full power of his love for his wife. Her love for him.
With the joint forces of Rena's indomitable will and his determination, they could accomplish anything—even rebuild a marriage made to last a lifetime.
Lounging against the porch post, J.T. sucked in a drag of pure night air as the last cop cruiser pulled away from the curb. Adrenaline still singed his insides, but tonight he would find peace with his wife rather than through the Bard.
Once he thanked Bo for a debt he could never repay.
The young officer leaned against the opposite post, flexing his fingers. Yeah, crap like this brought back some bad memories.
Crickets and june bugs hummed above the minimal traffic. Street lamps glowed into empty yards, lights flickering off in the windows of a neighborhood going to sleep. Chris, upstairs being fussed over by Rena, would likely be asleep soon, as well, the teenager exhausted, relieved. There would still be trial testimonies, but the badasses had been nailed.
Rena's surprise ID of the circle/triangle symbol even offered Spike the final link he'd been seeking. Now authorities knew where to look in tracking the drop-off point for the drugs once they'd been run up the coast.
And all without a bullet fired.
J.T. rubbed his hand along the tender knot on the back of his head. A small price for putting this all to rest. One of the flight surgeons had even made a house call for him, checked him over, deemed him perfectly well thanks to his thick head.
And hadn't Rena laughed at that pronouncement? Damn, but her laughter sounded good. God willing, he was through making her cry. "Thanks, Bo, for everything today. You really put your butt on the line for my family."
"I owed you."
"Well, we're definitely even."
"Nobody's keeping score. It's what we do for each other," Bo said in an echo of Spike's same words, not surprising since the credo ingrained itself in all of them.
Bo studied his bootlaces. "Besides, it felt damn good to strike back at the bad guys on this one. Makes everything that happened to us over there mean something."
"Yeah, I hear you." Understatement. It had taken them nearly four months, but finally, they'd completed their mission.
J.T. drew in a little more of that magnolia-scented air to ground himself in home.
It was time to return.
Bo pushed away from the post. "Well, man, I should hit the road. I'm betting I can milk this for a little TLC from someone of the female persuasion. What do you think?"
J.T. thumped the young officer on the back on their way down the flagstone path. "I'm thinking that you better stay the hell away from my daughter, sir, or I'll tell people your real name."
"Yeah, yeah, I know." Bo swung up into the front seat. "No crewdogs for your little girl."
"A player? Who me?" Winking, he cranked the Jeep. "Catch ya' later, dude. I'm off to romance my lady friend."
Bo revved the engine, shifting into reverse and roaring out of the driveway into the night.
Romance. Chuckling, J.T. shook his head. He and Rena had pretty much skimmed over that part, jumping from shared hamburgers to a shared kid, family, apartment, day-to-day get moving with life.
More lights along the rows of houses switched off, reminding him of his explanation to Rena about his work/life switch, his inability to blend the two worlds.