A Taste of... Storm's ruin

Chapter One

Ben Storey wanted to enjoy the short trip from his house to his children’s school, but a nagging suspicion he couldn’t explain prickled the hair on the back of his neck. His focus alternated between the rearview mirror and the sides of the street.

How long had that white car been behind him? Was it following him? For what reason? And why?

Stop it!

He was driving himself crazy.

Besides, who in the world even knew he’d left his office early enough to pick up his kids? His chaotic work schedule rarely allowed him the opportunity to do the school run for Dylan and Janis. Classes ended at three-thirty in the afternoon, and Ben was normally stuck at the campaign office until way past dinnertime most nights.

He’d made a special effort to pick them up today, knowing his wife would be in court all afternoon, but his grand plan for family time had been thwarted thanks to a surprise call from FBI Special Agent Amelia Storm.

She’d caught him just before he’d stepped out of the office and adamantly insisted they meet in an out-of-the-way location…tonight. If the FBI was contacting him for a time-sensitive meeting, he couldn’t refuse, even though he doubted the news was good.

Maybe that was the reason for his feelings of unease.

Yes, that was it.

The digital clock in his car’s center console read three-twenty as he circled the school and pulled up in the back of what felt like a mile long line in what his wife lovingly called “school zone hell.”

Thankfully, both his kids attended the same public school. He couldn’t imagine waiting in lines like this twice. He didn’t know how parents with more than two kids did this every single day without going out of their minds.

As he waited, he slumped back against the headrest of the driver’s seat and tried to calm the worry in his mind.

Maybe his wife had been right. Iris usually was.

Maybe he should have stuck to local politics. Ben had sought his seat as a city councilman to help represent the lower-income portion of Chicago—people like him and his wife—but lately, he’d wondered if pursuing politics on a national scale had been a mistake. He’d never cared for the divisive, partisan nonsense that dominated Washington, and his aspirations to bring a reasonable mindset to D.C. seemed more farfetched as each day passed.

Challenging an incumbent senator as entrenched as Stan Young came with a laundry list of risks and obligations, not the least of which was Ben’s ridiculous work hours. Still, any time he thought to take his name out of the race, he was reminded of who Stan Young was.

Sure, Ben’s personal history wasn’t squeaky clean. He’d made plenty of decisions he wasn’t proud of…mistakes too.

But Stan Young existed on an entirely different level. Ben hadn’t dug deep, but in just scratching the surface, he easily uncovered more skeletons in Stan’s closet than a centuries-old graveyard.

According to Iris’s most recent candid observation, Stan Young’s secrets were like a carrot on a stick, and Ben was the horse. The horse never got to eat the carrot unless the person with the stick showed mercy. Ben doubted Stan Young was capable of that.

Iris had always been the one to keep him grounded in reality, but Ben couldn’t leave a job half-finished. As the son of two blue-collar parents, he’d been instilled with a healthy work ethic that had served him well during his five years in the military as well as his time in law school. Wanting to continue the race no longer mattered. He’d made commitments and invested himself into this. Giving up was not an option.

The school bell sounded, calling Ben from his introspection. He put his car into drive and rolled forward about five inches as the first wave of kids rushed out from the tall double doors.

Some students walked with friends while others took off at an outright sprint. At the sight of the kids and their eagerness to get as far away from the school as possible, his glum thoughts loosened their hold.

Ben was forty-three now, but memories of his youth didn’t feel that distant. Back then, he’d have been first out the door when the bell sounded at the end of the day. He and his friends would race to their favorite neighborhood comic shop, pool their spare change, and buy one of the cheapest comics they could find.

Times had changed more than Ben could have imagined. He and Iris, thankfully, had far more financial stability than their parents did. And rather than rush off to some comic store in a sketchy Chicago neighborhood, Dylan and Janis hurried home to finish their schoolwork so they could play virtual reality games with their friends.

As he continued to inch forward, Ben caught sight of Janis taking the stairs two at a time. Her hair bobbed and whipped in the wind as she skipped along the sidewalk. He waved at his daughter to get her attention, and she threw her arm up to return the greeting. Dylan was a few steps behind, too cool to acknowledge his dear old dad, but he kept pace with Janis as they headed toward the car.

Ben smiled to himself and threw the car back into park before stepping out to wait for them on the sidewalk. Judgy moms might look on with disgust as he acted as chauffeur, welcoming his kids and opening doors for them, but Ben lived for these innocent memory-making moments with his children.

Sometimes, he got a great big hug from Janis. Other times, Dylan would nod as he dove into the back seat of the car. He was at that tender age where being seen with “the old man” wasn’t considered cool. But whether he got the greeting he wanted, Ben knew his kids would remember that dad was there, waiting with a smile and open arms.

At least sometimes.

A rush of unseasonably warm November air blasted through his hair, bringing with it a hint of ozone. The sky was partially cloudy, but forecasts promised a cold front would roll through Chicago, drenching the city in a series of back-to-back storms.

“Dad, Dad, look!” Janis held out her smartphone for Ben to see. “Look! That’s Emma’s dog, Frank, and he’s wearing a tie.”

Kids could find joy in everything. A lesson adults too often forgot as the years stretched on.

Ben relished every available chance to soak up some of their enthusiasm. And just as described, the phone showed an image of a golden retriever wearing a blue and black tie around its neck.

“He sure looks happy.” Ben chuckled at the good boy sitting so pretty for his picture. “Someone just gave him a promotion. Head butt sniffer.”

Janis rolled her eyes at his dad joke, but she couldn’t hide the amused grin. The one that revealed front teeth that were still too large for her face. “Frank always looks like that. He’s always happy.”

“That’s because he’s a dog, honey. Dogs are always happy. They don’t have responsibilities, jobs, or chores.” Ben turned to clasp Dylan’s shoulder. “Hey, buddy, how was school today?”

“Fine, I guess. Pretty boring, like usual.” Dylan answered in monotone with a casual shrug and turned toward the car. “Where’s Mom?”

A woman in the minivan behind him blasted her horn, her face a mask of anger that he dare hold up the line for even a few seconds. He gave her a friendly wave instead of the middle finger salute before gesturing for the kids to climb into the back seat of the navy-blue sedan.

He glanced at his watch. “Well, based on the time, I’m guessing she’s still in court. There’re a couple big trials going on this week, so she’s pretty busy.”

Dylan’s head bobbed as he climbed into the car. “We just started a unit about the courts in social studies. I don’t think my teacher knows that Mom’s a judge yet, though.”

Janis climbed in next, shoving at her brother to get him to make room.

“No, I’d imagine they don’t.” Ben was about to close the door when he noticed a shadow of trepidation darkening Dylan’s face. “You okay?”

Dylan’s gaze dropped to his backpack. “My teacher knows who you are, and I don’t think he likes you very much.”

Janis popped a piece of gum in her mouth and held out the pack for her brother. “Why doesn’t he like Dad if he’s never even met him before? That’s not very nice.”

The mini-van’s horn blasted again, much longer this time, and Ben gently shut the door and walked around to the driver’s side. Ignoring the angry driver, he took a moment to breathe, not wanting to appear anxious around his kids. Politics was not a popularity contest in the real world. Most politicians, even those trying to do good, made enemies faster than friends.

And he had painted a giant target on his back after sharing information with the FBI.

Ben sent up a silent prayer. He needed the meeting with Amelia to bring more good news than bad. But for the moment, he needed to focus on what was important. Spending what little time he had with his kids and reassuring them that their dad was bulletproof when it came to the haters was priority one.

With one final breath, Ben opened the driver’s door and took his seat. He put the car into drive and rolled forward about three and a half feet before having to stop again. He wanted to throw his hands up and ask the biddy behind him if she was happy now.

He didn’t, of course. Not that he would have been rude before his half-cocked senatorial plans, but now, his every word and gesture and facial expression were studied and dissected to death.

Just like his daughter was studying him now.

“I wouldn’t worry too much if someone doesn’t like your old dad.” He added a chuckle to soften the message and smiled back at Janis through the rearview mirror. “It’s not his fault. He’s never met me, so all he knows about me is what he reads in the news and what he sees on television. He might just really like Senator Young too. I’m running against him, so in a sense, that makes me the enemy. You know, like the Rebels and the Empire.”

Janis laughed, a high-pitched giggle that made him smile. “Which one are you again?”

He narrowed his eyes at the reflection in the mirror and deepened his voice. “Search your feelings.”

Janis threw her head back and nearly choked on her gum. To Ben’s surprise, Dylan cracked the smallest of smiles at Ben’s poor impression of Darth Vader.

It was all fun and games now, but in reality, Stan was so much worse than a Sith, maybe even worse than the Emperor. But the kids didn’t need to know that. They needed to hold on to their innocence for as long as possible because the world would do its damnedest to strip them of it in due time.

Dylan’s anxiety seemed to dissipate as he set his backpack by his feet. “Yeah, lots of my friends think Senator Young is a jerk anyway.”

Replacing the pack of gum in the pocket of her backpack, Janis settled into her seat. “Haters gonna hate.”

Twisting around, Ben held his hand up for a high-five. “That’s right. They’re just doing their job. Pay ‘em no mind.”

After a hearty laugh and a round of high fives, Ben found himself smiling, all the worries of the day having lifted…for now.

When they were finally able to go faster than a snail, he zigged and zagged through residential neighborhoods, avoiding traffic that gridlocked the major streets. Even as he listened to Dylan and Janis chat about their classes that day, Ben kept one eye on the clock and one on the road.

Though he wanted to be more active in the conversation, to enjoy the time with his kids and away from work, his mind kept wandering. Ben threw in the occasional comment or question to keep the small talk alive, hoping that it might hold his stress and worry at bay.

It wasn’t working.

Ben had gone to the Bureau a couple months ago with a heap of information he’d amassed about Stan Young’s finances, as well as records from the man’s agricultural business, Happy Harvest Farms. There was no doubt in Ben’s mind that Stan and Happy Harvest were colluding with a shady labor contractor, Premier Ag Solutions. Premier’s ties to human trafficking had been swept under the rug more than once, but Ben didn’t have the means to track down the money trails or corroborate the accounts of employee abuse.

But after his and Iris’s friend, Vivian Kell, had been killed in the middle of an exposé about Premier’s misdeeds, Ben knew the time had come for him to act. Vivian’s article might never see the light of day, but Ben wouldn’t let her death be in vain.

He’d scraped together every bit of remotely useful information he had, including what he’d provided Vivian during her research. Armed with his evidence, he’d gone to the people who had the resources to confront a business the size of Premier Ag Solutions or Happy Harvest Farms. He’d gone to the FBI.

It was the right thing to do, he knew, but his cooperation with the Bureau had made him a Federal informant.

He was playing a dangerous game, which he’d elected not to share with his wife or family. If Iris knew Ben had taken potentially damning information about Stan Young to the FBI, she would…

Don’t think about it.

His hands tightened on the steering wheel, and he knew he could think about nothing else. He couldn’t predict how she’d react. Maybe she’d understand, or maybe she’d kill him before Stan Young had a chance.

No. She wouldn’t kill him. She’d knock some sense into him and insist on protection for their family, something he should have already done.

Federal informants required Federal protection. And a little extra protection would help to alleviate the stress he’d been under. He made a mental note to address that during his meeting with Agent Storm. She would surely understand. She was probably wondering why he hadn’t already made the request. And that would also solve any need for meetings in out-of-the-way locations.

The clock ticked closer to the agreed meeting time of 4:45, but Ben felt a little more confident now that he had a plan going forward. Good news or bad, he would solve at least one problem this evening. He breathed deep, filling his lungs and exhaling all the pent-up stress that had been weighing on him as he pulled into the two-car garage of his modest suburban home.

Iris’s sister, Sharon, arrived a few minutes after they had settled in. She’d agreed to watch the kids while Ben was “taking care of business” and ushered him out the door with assurances that they’d be sugared up and bouncing off the walls by the time he returned. Despite her teasing, he knew the kids would be well looked after.

With a quick “thank you” to Sharon and a kiss each for Dylan and Janis, Ben set off.

Agent Storm’s message had suggested they meet at a house in Englewood. Ben had looked up the address and confirmed the residence was vacant.

Since Stan Young was a member of the U.S. Senate’s Intelligence Committee, Agent Storm had expressed concern that the man might listen in on a phone call. Even though Ben hadn’t directly expressed the desire to keep his relationship with the Feds hidden, Agent Storm had picked up on the unspoken request.

He glanced up to the darkening sky as he slowed to a stop in front of a two-story house and turned his gaze outward, searching for any sign of Agent Storm or her partner, Agent Zane Palmer. He’d spotted a couple vehicles farther down the street but doubted any of those rusted junkers belonged to an FBI agent.

The area had seen better days, and the windows of nearby houses were boarded over, with orange warning signs plastered over battered front doors.

Tree branches rattled overhead as a gust of wind swept its way down the street. At least the tall oaks and maples had persevered where men had failed.

So many of the houses in the neighborhood had been left to rot. They showed signs of attempted remodeling with the intent of attracting higher-income folk. The cold truth was that people who could afford nicer homes didn’t want to live in Englewood.

That, coupled with the litany of sub-prime mortgage loans in 2008 and then the housing bubble burst, and these overpriced homes never stood a chance. They’d probably been left empty for years.

Ironically, the government’s mismanagement of the recession of 2008 was part of what had propelled Stan Young forward to the U.S. Senate.

Ben snorted and pulled onto the driveway. How apropos that he’d come to one of the affected areas to discuss Stan Young’s alleged criminal activity.

Tightening his grasp on the steering wheel, Ben focused on the house. He doubted Agent Storm would risk parking in the ramshackle garage, but maybe she’d left her car in the lot of a convenience store a few blocks away. Aside from the impeding storm, the weather that day had been pleasant. Ben hoped their meeting would end before the wind and rain kicked up.

He rubbed his temple, wondering if he should also park on a different block. A flicker of movement inside the house stopped him from putting the car in reverse.

“Just get this over with and go back home where you belong.”

The sooner he did just that, the sooner he’d get the hell away from this veritable graveyard of houses.

With another glance to the splintered shutters and pockmarked shingles, Ben leaned forward to pull open the glove compartment. He pushed aside a pair of woolen mittens and grabbed a matte black handgun.

Before this damn campaign, he’d rarely made use of his concealed carry license, but since he’d dug up Stan Young’s dirty laundry, the precaution seemed necessary.

Granted, he was supposed to meet a Federal agent today, but that fact didn’t silence the nagging paranoia in the back of his mind.

Before his thoughts could wander off to another pit of anxiety, he opened the car door and stepped into the cool breeze.

A shiver ran down his back as he peered at the shadowy porch. The window to the side of the door flickered with warm light.

With a shack like this, there probably wasn’t any power to the property, and while he watched, the light just beyond the window seemed to shift rather than flicker. Ben reasoned that, if he had been stuck waiting with the threat of rain in a powerless home, he might have made use of the abundant kindling all around the deserted neighborhood to light a fire in the hearth too. Maybe Agent Storm had come early and needed the welcoming warmth.

Just to be safe, he kept his gun in hand and crept closer for a peek through the window before announcing his presence. Better that than to barge in on some squatter. Who knew what kind of reception that might earn him.

Leaves crunched underfoot as he followed the worn sidewalk up to a precarious porch that groaned in protest as his weight tested its splintering planks. He was surprised to see that the window’s glass was still intact. Through it, Ben caught sight of the living room fireplace. Flames licked up from the burning wood within the hearth like fingers crooking to call him inside.

Though the fire provided light enough to see the room, it appeared to be empty, leaving Ben to wonder what his next move should be. Chances were good that Amelia was in there, maybe exploring other rooms in the old home while she waited.

With his phone in one hand and his gun in the other, Ben debated whether to go inside or give Amelia a call. His phone told him the time was quarter ‘til five, but storm clouds had blotted out the daylight like the sun had already set.

A stiff breeze rushed through the neighborhood, and with it came the sharp smell of ozone and the first sprinkles of what would definitely become a deluge. That was enough to make his decision. Ben pocketed the phone and reached for the door. He needed to get this meeting done quickly, or he might be swimming home.

A few chips of paint flaked off the wooden door as Ben twisted the knob, pushed it open, and stepped into the skeleton of what had probably once been a welcoming family home.

“Hello?” Blinking to adjust to the change in light, he let the worn door swing closed at his back. “Agent Storm? Agent Palmer? Is anyone here?” He held his breath, listening for a response.

Nothing.

With the door shut to block out the scuttling of leaves and the drone of distant traffic, the only sounds were the steady rhythm of his pulse, the faint scratch of tree branches against the roof, and the crackling of the fire.

The floor creaked as he made his way toward the welcoming fire. “Agent Storm? Hello? Are you here?”

Pop.

Searing pain ripped through his knee.

A cry of surprise escaped him, but he barely heard the sound over the overwhelming red-hot pain. Fire traveled up his leg in a series of explosions, and as he toppled forward, his brain fought to put together the pieces of what had just happened.

He wondered if he’d stepped on a mine or run into a sharp corner, but he didn’t have to ponder the assumptions to know they were ridiculous.

His phone landed atop the carpet with a thud, followed by his gun. Ben threw out a hand, catching himself just before his face hit the floor. The force of the collision reverberated up his arm, but the sensation barely registered over the fire in his knee.

Gasping for breath, he attempted to tuck his good leg underneath himself so he could stand and figure out what in the hell was happening. He clenched his jaw and reached for his weapon.

The scrape of shoes on floor was as loud as nails on a chalkboard, and he closed his eyes against the invasion of sound.

“Amelia?”

The world moved in slow motion, like a video that had been turned down to a quarter of its normal speed. Every movement was as sluggish as if he were underwater, no matter how much he willed himself to go faster.

Pop.

When he caught the faint disturbance, the pieces fell into place. The sound was quiet, more like a paintball gun than a weapon capable of real destruction.

A fresh inferno tore through his lower back, and in that moment, his brain registered little else aside from the pain. As his head bounced off the floor, the force of the blow jerked him away from where he’d perched at the precipice of shock.

Pressing a hand against the dingy carpet, he almost forgot why he wanted to shift to his back in the first place. His presence of mind was leaving him as surely as the blood pooling all around him.

Who?

He wanted to know who hated him this much. He had to see.

The effort to roll over was Herculean, and darkness nibbled at the edges of his vision by the time he made out his assailant’s figure. Or maybe his vision was fine, and the darkness was just this damn house.

He never should have opened that door, never should have stepped into this pervasive gloom.

Right now, he should have been at home, helping Dylan and Janis with their homework. He should have been breaking down a math problem for his little girl, not bleeding out on the floor of some decrepit living room.

Was Iris home by now? Was she stuck in traffic on her way out of downtown?

He’d been so terrible to his beautiful wife, and as he stared down the barrel of his own mortality, he didn’t know why. He wished he could apologize. A real apology. Not the platitudes he’d offered in the past. He wished he could let her know that none of what he’d done was her fault. That he was the only one to blame.

But he already knew he wouldn’t leave this house.

His teeth chattered as he squeezed his eyes closed, hoping to clear the haze from his vision, but opening them proved an even more difficult task.

A shadowy figure stood at his feet, and even as he focused the remainder of his energy, he couldn’t make out any details. They might have been a man, a woman, or the angel of death.

The person—the entity—spoke, but Ben was already on his way out. He was cold, tired, and just wanted to rest. Maybe he could see his family one last time, even if they were only figments of his imagination.

As his angel of death raised the handgun for the lethal shot, he hardly noticed the movement. The late-afternoon gloom gave way to rays of warm sunlight, and the dusty living room was transformed into the breakfast bar at the edge of his kitchen. Janis looked up from her waffle to flash him a lopsided grin. To her side, Dylan said a cheery “good morning” as he combed his unruly hair with the fingers of one hand.

Iris emerged from the walk-in pantry with a jar of raspberry jam. She smiled. A soft, genuine expression of contentment, the likes of which he hadn’t seen in over seven years.

He opened his mouth to tell her he loved her and to tell her he was sorry…

Pop.

Chapter Two

Smoothing both hands down the fabric of her black slacks, Special Agent Amelia Storm swiveled her office chair to face the man at her side.

Agent Zane Palmer’s slate-gray eyes were fixed on a sheet of paper on the table. The fabric of his ebony suit was tailored to his lean, muscular frame, and his sandy hair was styled with a slight part to one side with the rest brushed forward—a look that straddled the line between professional and fashionable.

At a glance, Amelia could almost fool herself into thinking he worked for a large bank instead of the FBI. Agents at the Bureau were compensated well, but Amelia doubted someone with their salary would opt for a timepiece quite as expensive as the silver watch on Zane’s wrist.

Then again, he was thirty-four, single with no children, and had a mother who’d made a fortune as an investment wizard. With her help, Zane likely tripled his salary each year. And aside from the expensive watch and suit, he lived well within his means. His silver Acura was sleek but not overly expensive. Chances were good that his watch cost almost as much as the car.

As the thought crossed Amelia’s mind, she bit her tongue to stop herself from laughing.

Zane’s head jerked up, and he met her eyes with a quizzical expression. “What? Is there something on my face?” Even after more than a half-year in the Midwest, his words were still tinged with a hint of his native Jersey accent.

“No, your face is fine.” Waving a dismissive hand, Amelia slumped down in her chair. “I was just spacing off, and I thought of something funny.”

“Uh-huh.” Zane’s tone dripped with sarcasm as he leaned to the side and propped his arm on the table. “It’s already three. When does your sister’s flight get here again?”

Why did he have to remind her? Amelia had made a valiant effort to keep herself focused on work, but with his question, her thoughts wandered right back to her sister, Lainey Storm.

Amelia had been eighteen when she escaped from Chicago to join the military and hadn’t been there to protect little Lainey from falling in with a sketchy group of friends. Binge drinking and late-night raves turned into cocaine, and eventually, Lainey was introduced to heroin.

Though Amelia couldn’t be sure when her younger sister began shooting up, she assumed it had to have started after Lainey turned eighteen. After all, a crippling addiction like that would have prevented her from graduating high school.

Lainey came by her propensity for addiction honestly. For seventeen years, their father had been consumed by alcoholism. Jim Storm’s downward spiral came on quickly after Amelia’s mother lost her year-long battle with cancer. Bonnie’s death cut Jim Storm off at the knees. He crawled into a bottle to numb the pain and had only recently emerged from it in the last three years. Rehab helped him to turn his life around, but only after he’d been willing to take the steps.

Whether it was witnessing Lainey’s fall from grace or finally being able to move on from the pain of his lost love, Jim had found the strength to get clean. Amelia wasn’t entirely sure which had been the trigger. Truth be told, she tried to avoid any emotionally charged discussions with her family.

Hell, she tried to avoid emotionally charged discussions with anyone.

Between her father’s absence and ten years of military service, she’d had to fend for herself for so long that she’d started to view feelings as a luxury for people whose heads were screwed on straight.

As far as she was concerned, her brother was the only one of their family to append some sense of normalcy to his life.

At least until Amelia dug beneath the surface.

From the outside, Trevor had a loving wife, two kind children, honorable military service in the Marine Corps, and served his home city as a homicide detective. Taken at face value, he was the best of all the Storms. But underneath the spit and polish, he had skeletons of his own.

Normal people didn’t wind up facedown on the streets of Chicago with two slugs buried in their back and one in their head. But dirty cops did.

Trevor had sold out to the D’Amato Family.

And when his demons had caught up to him, leaving him facedown, dead in a ditch, Amelia was forced to leave her military career, come home, and help the family pick up the pieces. Lainey was the last of those pieces she’d been struggling to put in place.

Lainey had reached out to Amelia almost a month earlier, and after three weeks of continuous contact, she’d assured Amelia that she wanted to return to Chicago to get clean.

“Earth to Storm.”

Blinking a few times, she forced her focus back to the windowless room in the heart of the FBI field office and smiled brightly at her partner. “Her flight’s supposed to be here at four-thirty. Do you think I should have just driven to Milwaukee to pick her up?”

Zane waved off the suggestion. “No. It’s a short flight, but the drive there and back still would’ve taken most of your day. And…”

Amelia blew out a breath so long and hard that her lips fluttered with the inhale. “And there’s no guarantee she’d even be where she said she was. I’d probably have wound up driving to a heroin den, getting into a heated argument with someone, and spending the trip back to Chicago stewing with rage.”

“Or you could fork over a hundred-fifty for a plane ticket and leave work early.” Zane flashed her one of his patented smiles. “Which means you get to bail on more of this.” He gestured to the sheets of paper strewn across the table.

Amelia rubbed her temple and held back a groan. “Old Leóne cases. Don’t remind me.”

Feigning a stern look, Zane waved a document at her. “No, Agent Storm. These aren’t Leóne cases, not according to the law.”

“Right, right, I’m sorry.” She fake gagged herself. “I meant to say possible RICO case fodder.”

With a snort of disgust, Zane let the paper drift back down to the table. “There’s nothing in any of these statements about the assholes working for the Leóne family, except for a few minor drug trafficking cases.”

Propping an elbow on the armrest, Amelia dropped her cheek into her hand, weary to the bone.

The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act had been established back in the seventies in order to combat the Italian Mafia. Rather than prosecute each individual member of a criminal syndicate, RICO allowed the Federal government to use past and present cases to establish a pattern of activity. The result was harsher penalties, as well as the ability to charge those who had given orders to commit crimes and not just the foot soldiers.

The problem with prosecuting a RICO case was that it was subject to the same criteria as any other criminal charge—proof beyond a reasonable doubt. And over the last couple weeks, reasonable doubt had been the name of the game. They’d dug around for old Leóne cases, but like Zane had said, only a few of the defendants had provided statements indicating they’d committed their offenses at the behest of the family.

Unsurprisingly, none of the three men were alive. Two had committed suicide, and the third had been killed in prison.

Amelia stretched both arms above her head until she felt a light pop in her back. “You know.” An involuntary yawn stole her breath for a moment. “The Leónes have been around since the days of Al Capone. They were small fish back then, but I think it’s safe to say that they’ve learned a few things from all the families that’ve come and gone in other cities.”

As he reached for his stainless-steel thermos, Zane’s gaze shifted to her. “Learned a few things, as in how to run a criminal syndicate without having any of their people tried for being part of the syndicate.”

She had half a mind to call him Captain Obvious but didn’t know whether he would have taken the joke or seen it as an insult. He wasn’t wrong. But his regurgitation of the facts offered little in the way of hope. “The Leónes wouldn’t be the first to figure out how to dodge RICO, and I doubt they’ll be the last.”

Zane’s gaze darted to the clock on the wall. “Shouldn’t you be leaving soon?”

Amelia forced her back to straighten. “Yeah. In the next fifteen minutes. I’ll probably be way early, but I hate driving around the damn airport, you know?”

“Oh, I know.” Zane snorted. “Midway is a zoo at this time of day.”

“Still…” Amelia hated being torn between work and her family, “I feel like I should be here for that three-thirty meeting with the Assistant U.S. Attorney.”

With a dismissive wave, Zane shook his head. “Don’t worry about it. It’s probably bad news anyway. I’ll call and fill you in once it’s over.” Zane took a gulp of coffee. “Oh. Were you able to get Lainey a spot at that rehab center you told me about? New Horizons, wasn’t that what it’s called?”

Amelia spun a piece of her newly blonde-tipped hair around her finger. “That’s it, yeah. And yes, I did. They’re holding a room for her, so all I have to do is bring her in. I talked to a few people around the office about it, and everything I’ve heard sounds good. It’s not one of those expensive resort rehab centers in Malibu or Miami, but it’s nice.”

“Good. It’s a lot less stress on you to have that all sorted out ahead of time.”

She wished that was true. Even with the arrangements made, her shoulders felt like a series of knots. “I guess. I just can’t help but think that something’ll get screwed up and that this whole thing’s going to be a disaster.”

As he tapped an index finger against the table, Zane tilted his head, appearing deep in thought. “Well, until now, that’s been the going rate whenever you’ve interacted with your sister, hasn’t it?”

“You could say that.” Glancing down at her hands, Amelia resisted the urge to pick at her burgundy nail lacquer. She had little hope for this meeting, though deep down, she was rooting for her sister to finally pull out of the tailspin her life had become. “She usually asks for money, though. I can’t figure out what she’d even be able to do with a plane ticket. It’s in her name, so it’s not like she can sell it to someone. And I paid for it with my credit card, so she can’t ask for a refund and run off with the cash.”

“So, what’s the worst that can happen? She doesn’t show up, right?” Zane shrugged, but the way he averted his eyes said he wasn’t entirely convinced of the line of BS he was feeding her.

Amelia could think of a thousand different ways for things to go south. But she understood the sentiment Zane was trying to relay. Stop being so damn negative. And again, he was probably right.

“Yeah, I guess so.”

His eyes settled on hers, and his expression softened. “I don’t want this to make me sound like an asshole, but try not to get your hopes up too high, okay?”

From what Amelia had gathered during their half-year friendship, he was just as guarded as she was. To see him let down the carefully polished veneer made her stomach flutter in a way she hadn’t felt since…since she’d met Alex Passarelli.

Which was a name she wished would stop popping into her mind, almost as much as she wished her traitorous libido would settle down when she was with her current partner.

Dammit.

Now wasn’t the time to ponder her feelings about any man, let alone Zane Palmer. Once Lainey was safely behind the doors of New Horizons Rehabilitation, then maybe Amelia could stop to mull over the stupid butterflies she got every time Zane smiled.

As for Alex, well, she wasn’t sure a time would ever come to consider her standing with him or the D’Amato family. And not just because of her history with them. The D’Amatos were long-time rivals of the Leónes, and though a ceasefire between the two families had held steady for five years, there was no way to tell when the feeble truce would crack.

What would happen then?

What choices would she have to make?

“You okay?”

Amelia snapped to attention, cursing herself for letting her mind wander again. “Sorry…what did you say?”

Worry wrinkled his forehead. “I said something stupid to the effect of not getting your hopes up too high, but I should have just kept my mouth shut.”

Emotion burned into her sinuses, but she forced that shit back down and smiled instead. “No shutting of the mouth necessary because you’re right. It’ll suck if something goes wrong, but I don’t think it’ll surprise me.” She paused to rub the bridge of her nose. This conversation was dragging up too damn many emotions, and she simply wasn’t equipped to deal with them. Especially not now. “I’m just not great at stuff like this.”

“You’re doing fine.” He gave her shoulder a friendly nudge. “Honestly, I don’t think anyone’s good at stuff like that. Dealing with addict relatives isn’t easy. Not for anyone. Just take it one thing at a time, and seriously, don’t worry about missing this meeting.”

The calm tone of his voice, coupled with the sincerity behind the words, was usually enough to keep Amelia’s anxiety at bay. Inhaling and exhaling through her nose in a slow, steady stream, she nodded. “Okay. Yeah. Like you said, it’s probably just bad news anyway.”

Zane clapped his hands together and shot her another of his trademark grins. “See? That’s the spirit.”

She couldn’t resist that face. Or the genuine care reflected in his eyes. But before she could reply to Zane’s half-sarcastic comment, a metallic click drew their attention to the heavy wooden door.

The room was locked with a keypad and a six-digit code known only to four people in the office. But unless they figured out a tactic that would salvage their failing RICO case, Amelia suspected the pint-sized, remodeled closet would return to its former glory as a chair graveyard.

Shoving the door open with an elbow, Glenn Kantowski’s honey-brown eyes flitted between Amelia and Zane as she fumbled into the office. “Hey, Storm. Are you about to head home for the day?”

“Yeah, I was just about to head out.” Standing, Amelia scooped her handbag off a chair that was missing both armrests.

Agent Kantowski was a transplant from the FBI’s Public Corruption Division, and she’d been assigned to the Leóne task force to lend her expertise. Though the Special Agent in Charge, Jasmine Keaton, had personally vetted Glenn, and the team got along like old friends, Amelia wasn’t eager to reveal the true reason for her early departure.

As far as Glenn was concerned, Amelia was about to leave so she could go lay on the couch and watch the World Series of Poker while she ate a family-sized bag of potato chips. Just because she’d become more comfortable opening up to Zane didn’t mean the sentiment extended to any of her other friends.

Amelia headed toward the door. “Was there anything else you guys needed before I leave?”

Zane had already turned back to his computer. “No, I don’t think so. I’ll get ahold of you later and let you know how this meeting goes.”

“That works for me. I’ll see you guys tomorrow.” Amelia offered a parting mock salute before taking her leave.

If Glenn hadn’t been in the room, she would have been tempted to hug Zane goodbye.

So far, he was the only person she’d told about Lainey’s abrupt reappearance in her life. She didn’t want to give the news to her father only to have Lainey flake out or to learn that the whole request was a misguided effort to steal money.

Only after Lainey walked through the doors of New Horizons would Amelia update her father. Not a second earlier.

Amelia passed a couple familiar faces on her way out to the parking garage, but as soon as she spotted Joseph Larson, she was ripped from the cloud of thought like a bird shot in mid-flight.

Joseph Larson’s pale blue eyes were fixed on the phone in his hand, and he hadn’t noticed Amelia on the other side of the glass and metal double doors. Hand hovering above the lever, Amelia gritted her teeth.

Some days, when she arrived at the FBI office, she wondered if that not-so-distant night had even happened or if the whole ordeal was a vivid nightmare. Joseph had dared to use Alton Dalessio’s death to blackmail her into sleeping with him. The whole situation was asinine. Worse still was the fact that she’d almost given in.

Guilt over her own uncertainty in the Alton Dalessio incident had nearly tipped the scales. She’d come within inches of giving Joseph what he wanted, to satiate whatever carnal need had compelled him to take an interest in her. But she hadn’t been able to go through with the deed, and she’d had the strength to walk away.

How many women hadn’t felt they had that option? How many had the bastard manipulated and gaslighted into doing whatever he wanted?

The thought made her sick to her stomach, and she’d added taking Joseph Larson down to her laundry list of those she’d vowed vengeance against.

According to Zane and the members of the building’s cleaning crew with whom he liked to chat and gossip, Larson had become quite friendly with the Assistant U.S. Attorney, Cassandra Halcott. Amelia hated to admit that she’d been relieved when Zane gave her the news, and she could only hope that Cassandra and Joseph’s physical relationship was consensual.

But she refused to worry about that now.

Right now, she needed to get to the airport, and the smarmy agent wasn’t going to get in her way.

Lifting her chin, she readjusted her handbag and shoved open the door. Eyes fixed straight ahead, she painted an impassive expression on her face and strode past Joseph as if he didn’t exist.

He knew what would happen if he touched her again. She’d made sure there was no potential for him to misinterpret or twist her words.

If Joseph Larson ever laid another finger on her, Amelia would kill him.

To continue reading Storm's Ruin click HERE!

Storm's Ruin by Mary Stone and Amy Wilson

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