Here are the first two chapters of Broken Toy (Suncoast Society 7). I love the heroine, Gabe, in this one. She’s a tough, crunchy FDLE agent with a painful history, and Bill (whom we first met in Pinch Me) is the perfect man for her.
And yes, of course, I had to insert a reference to The Walking Dead in there. LOL
Gabriella Villalobos survived a lonely, abusive childhood to become a dedicated cop who rescues children. Work is Gabe’s life. Which is why when she slugs a suspect, her boss orders her to leave town for three weeks of vacation she doesn’t want. When she stumbles into the Suncoast Society munch, she certainly doesn’t expect to meet a guy who makes her want more.
Det. William Thomas is a widower who’s decided to fish in the BDSM dating pond after years of failed attempts. When he meets “Ella” at his first munch, he suspects she’s hiding a secret, but doesn’t know exactly what.
Being assigned to a joint task force together forces Gabe and Bill admit their true identities to each other and confront their feelings. Gabe has spent her entire life proving herself through her work, but Bill wants to show her what love and happiness feels like and convince her that she’s anything but a broken toy.
“So that must be a really cool job, huh? You know, I totally love watching CSI. That is such a great show.”
Oh, my god. Kill. Me. Now.
Detective William Thomas forced a smile as his date, Cassie, took a sip of her Diet Coke, her dramatically overdone smoky eyes intently staring at him from across the table. “It’s not like it is on TV at all, believe me,” he assured her.
“Yeah, you don’t have commercials in real life.”
He’d started to laugh when he realized with dawning horror that she was totally serious.
Thank god we didn’t go to Marelli’s. I’d be embarrassed to death right now. “Uh, yeah.”
Scratch killing myself, I’m going to fucking kill Al for letting Sue set me up.
Normally, he wasn’t a fan of blind dates. As in he didn’t go on them.
Detective Albert Ogilvy, friend—former friend if this date dragged on too much longer—and coworker, had managed to catch him at a weak moment. It’d been two years since his last date, five years since the last second date he’d had with someone…
And nine years since Ella died.
By the time he walked Cassie out to her car an hour later, he’d tried to adopt a Zen attitude about it. It wasn’t like he had to endure a second date with her, much less spend the rest of his life with the woman. He’d gotten out of the house for the evening, which had kept his mind occupied.
And now I’ll have something to freaking guilt-trip Al over.
* * * *
The next morning, Al’s smile lasted from when he walked into the conference room until he got a look at Bill’s face.
Bill just glared.
“Um, I was going to ask you how your date went last night, but I can tell you’re not wanting to talk about it.”
Bill sat back and tossed his pen onto the conference table. He pretended to twirl his hair. “Wrong. I sooo totally want to talk about it. Um, I so totally think what you cops do is sooo cool. I mean, CSI and everything. Ohmagurd.”
Al froze before letting out a snort. “Wow. That bad?”
Bill glared in reply.
His face fell. “Man, I’m so sorry. I owe you. Sue was driving me crazy to ask you to go out with that woman.”
“What the hell, dude? I thought we were friends.”
Al sat next to him. Their morning briefing would start in a few minutes. They could see through the windows overlooking the hallway that other detectives and officers were already making their way to the conference room.
“She’s Sue’s best friend’s niece or something,” Al explained. “I’d never met her before, I swear, or I wouldn’t have agreed to it.”
“Yeah, well, tell Sue thanks but no thanks if she comes up with any other dates for me,” he muttered, his voice dropping off as two other detectives walked into the conference room.
“Ten-four,” Al muttered back.
Hell, he was only forty-six. It wasn’t like he was in danger of dying alone as a crazy old man with twenty cats or something.
He hadn’t even adopted a cat.
Although the last time he was in the neighborhood of the Humane Society over in Englewood, he had given serious thought to stopping by, just to take a look.
* * * *
Al stopped by Bill’s desk at lunchtime. “Want to go grab a bite to eat, or are you still pissed off at me?”
Bill’s first inclination was to say no, except he wanted to get out of the office and the only other option was a bag of chips out of the vending machine, or walking across the street for fast food at the Golden Arches.
Bill logged out of his computer. “I’m still pissed at you, so you’re buying.”
“And that still doesn’t get you off the hook.”
They drove a couple of miles south down US 41, to a small Greek restaurant they both liked. “Will this do?” Al asked.
“It’s a start.”
“You’re going to bust my balls over this forever, aren’t you?”
Bill grinned. “What do you think?”
“Oh, boy. I’m fucked.”
Once they were seated at the table and had menus, Al asked. “So, give me the deets. What happened?”
Bill gave his friend credit. Al tried not to laugh. Tried damned hard. But by the time Bill finished the story, Al finally had to let out a chuckle. “Uh, wow.”
Bill nodded. “Wow is right. Not the good kind of wow, either.”
“So, okay, serious question here. What is your type of woman? Or are you into guys, because man, I’ve got a cousin in Sarasota who’s single and he’s not bad looking, according to Sue.”
Bill scowled at him, earning another laugh.
“Come on, I had to yank your chain.”
“I don’t have a type. I’m not saying I don’t appreciate an attractive woman, but there’s got to be something under the hood to spark my interest. The chassis is irrelevant if there’s not much more than a hamster and a rusty wheel inside.”
“Such a romantic. I can see why ladies are flocking to you.”
“I’m serious. You asked, I’m answering.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He put his menu down. “So tell me. I’m listening.”
“Smart. A sense of humor. Someone who won’t be terrified being with a cop. Someone independent enough to stand on her own.”
“We talking Mensa-smart?”
Bill gave him “the look” again.
“You know what I mean.” Bill lowered his voice. He tried not to delve into his memories and make comparisons, but he couldn’t help it. “You knew Ella. She was curious and loved to try new things. She was laid back.”
The blanket of melancholy settled over him once more. “If I woke up on a day off and said, ‘Hey, let’s go to a car show,’ or whatever, she’d be game. She had a fun side. She had a playful side.” Bill rearranged his silverware on the table. “She was vulnerable and strong at the same time. She didn’t cling to me, but when we were together, she knew when I needed her.”
Al stared at him. “You just described a golden retriever.”
Al was the only person he’d tolerate that kind of crap from because they’d been friends for so long. Still, he gave Al “the look” once more.
His friend’s tone turned serious. “I’m sorry. I’m trying to help.”
“I know you are, and I appreciate it. Whenever it’s meant to be, it is. If it’s not…” He shrugged. “I was lucky enough to have the love of my life once. I’m not naive enough to think I’ll have that kind of luck a second time.”
* * * *
Bill spent the afternoon working on a case involving counterfeit prescription slips and took a man into custody for that. Then a burned car, reported stolen the night before, was found over near the mall.
Fortunately, that rounded out his day. By the time he was ready to go home a little before seven that night, he breathed a sigh of relief he hadn’t caught any disturbing cases. Not that they had a lot of those in their sleepy part of southwest Florida, fortunately, but it was always a good day when the worst complaint he had was getting a little soot on his pants while trying to read the VIN number stamped on a burned-out car.
“Did you want to come over for dinner tonight?” Al asked him on the way out.
Bill shook his head. “Nope. Look, don’t make Sue feel bad. Just tell her I said thanks, but it didn’t work out. For me, at least.”
He didn’t feel like cooking, so he stopped at his usual haunt, Marelli’s, a small family-run Italian restaurant not far off US 41. The same family had owned and operated it for over three decades. A few years earlier, it had been leveled by Hurricane Charley. The owners had rebuilt it better than ever while still retaining the homey, cozy feel of the old place.
Fortunately they weren’t very busy since it was a weeknight. Dori, one of the owner’s granddaughters, smiled when she spotted him walking in. “Anywhere you want, Bill,” she said to him.
He nodded and grabbed a menu and a set of silverware from the hostess stand as he headed toward the back, to a small two-person table right next to the kitchen. In this restaurant, he loved sitting near the kitchen. He enjoyed listening to the family’s banter, getting a few extra minutes to chat with the staff and owners, and he could even lean over and refill his own water and tea from one of the waitress stations without bothering anyone.
They made him feel like family, including to the point of insisting that he come to their homes to celebrate holidays for the past several years after they found out he was a widower.
At least they hadn’t tried fixing him up on dates with anyone.
After Dori finished with the table she was serving, she poured glasses of water and iced tea for Bill before walking over and setting them in front of him.
She flashed him a friendly smile. “I was beginning to think we weren’t going to see you tonight.”
“And miss spaghetti Tuesday on a Wednesday? Are you nuts?”
She cracked up over The Walking Dead references every time. “You’re too much. And it’s Thursday. The special?”
He nodded and handed her the menu. “Yep. Don’t know why I bothered grabbing a menu.”
She took it from him. “Just to make work for me.” Her grin made him smile in return. She stepped over to the pass-through window to the kitchen. “Bill’s here,” she called out. “Usual,” she said by way of giving them his order. Then she carried the menu back to the hostess station and greeted an older couple who’d just walked in.
The kitchen door swung open and an elderly man swept through, dressed in checked chef’s pants, a black shirt, and a kitchen towel draped over his shoulder. He wore a beaming smile on his face, his hand already extended for a shake. “There he is. How are you tonight, my friend? We missed you last night.”
Bill stood to give him a hug. “Good enough, Papa Tom. How are you?”
“Eh, no complaints.” He planted himself in the chair on the other side of the table. “I see you brought no work with you tonight. Must have been a good day?”
Bill shrugged. “Not the worst.” Everyone called Tom Marelli, the family patriarch and head chef, “Papa Tom” if they were considered part of the family. The eighty-two-year-old had been born in Italy, but emigrated to New York with his parents and siblings when he was two.
When Hurricane Charley had hit several years earlier, Bill had gone out of his way to track down the family and make sure they were all safe when he found out the restaurant had been destroyed by the storm. Much to his relief, they’d all been safely hunkered down at one of the daughter’s homes in North Port.
Dori called from the other side of the dining room. “Papa Tom!” She waved at him, motioning him over to the table.
The old man threw up his hands. “My apologies, it seems I’m wanted.”
Bill smiled. “You have a big fan base.”
He stood. “It could be worse. It could still be snowbird season.”
Bill watched, amused, as the man crossed the dining room, quickly leaning in to hug the couple who’d requested his presence. Now that it was May, the winter tourists and seasonal residents had mostly returned home. Even in the dead of summer, sometimes the worst time of the year for local eateries, Marelli’s always did a brisk business with locals.
When snowbird season hit, locals wanting to eat had to call ahead and make a reservation.
The food was good, better than average, and everything was prepared in-house. The prices were reasonable. But it was Papa Tom and the rest of the Marelli family who drew in the business.
The community had banded together after Charley to come help clear the property, salvage what they could of the kitchen equipment, and then get the rebuilding started. Even during the rebuild they served a limited menu of takeout in the parking lot, under tents donated by a local businessman who was a frequent customer.
Dedication. And that was why Bill usually ate there four or five nights a week, sometimes even more often.
It was also why he had to do a minimum of three miles on the treadmill every morning before work, to keep from gaining weight.
A small price to pay for the company and the food.
Tonight’s special, eggplant parm. They knew he liked a larger salad and smaller portion of pasta on the side to help counteract the stomach-spreading effects of their delicious food.
By the time he arrived home nearly an hour later, he felt physically stuffed. As he switched on lights on his way through the house, he tried to ignore how lonely and empty the house felt.
Nine years, and I still can’t get used to it. Maybe I should get a cat.
At least then he wouldn’t have to worry about not getting home on time to walk it, like he would a dog.
After a shower, setting the coffeepot up to start automatically in the morning, and checking his e-mail, he finally slid into bed. It was something he always put off as long as he could.
The lonely minutes between hitting the sheets and sleep taking him were always the most agonizing part of his day.
FDLE Special Agent Gabriella Villalobos took a deep breath and walked into the conference room. Currently, the four interview rooms they had were full, with people waiting. This would have to do.
In her hand she carried a file folder, but the truth was she knew the contents inside and out. Jorge Martinez was a piece of shit, of that there was no doubt. This wasn’t his first bust, but this one would put him away for the rest of his life, if she had anything to say about it.
This time, instead of a penny ante drug bust, it was for human trafficking, child endangerment, kidnapping, child abuse, aggravated child sexual assault—the list went on, growing more sickening with each charge.
The vanload of young girls they’d rescued from an industrial park in Hialeah before dawn that Thursday morning appeared to be from all over, including Haiti, Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Columbia, and Nicaragua.
He was, it would seem, a multinational scumbag. It also meant a paperwork and jurisdictional nightmare involving people from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Florida Department of Children and Families—since all but one of the girls was a minor—and a whole slew of alphabet-soup law enforcement agencies, local, state, and federal.
He sat manacled at the ankles, his hands cuffed to a chain around his waist, another chain locking his ankles to the table. Currently, his seven cohorts and a shit-ton of johns were being booked and processed and interviewed.
“So, Jorge. How are we doing today?”
He grinned. “No hablo.”
She grinned back and sat down, and in Spanish said, “Well, aren’t you in luck, asshole?” She switched to English. “I do hablo. In fact, I hablo quite fucking well.”
His smile faded a little, but he didn’t respond.
It wasn’t professional, and she knew it, but there wasn’t a recording device in this room. She intended to stretch the boundaries a little to soften him up before anyone else got to him.
She continued in Spanish. “I want to talk to you about the girls we rescued from the storage unit this morning.”
The smiled faded the rest of the way off his face, leaving the scar running at an angle across his right cheek, from the corner of his eye to his nose, a deep furrow in his flesh.
“One of them,” she continued, “her name is Luisa Gutierrez, and she says she’s only eleven and you raped her before you pimped her out.”
“She lies. I didn’t rape her. And she’s older than that.”
“Um, not according to the records we obtained from the Mexican embassy twenty minutes ago. Her parents reported her abducted six months ago. We were sent a copy of her birth certificate.”
He glared at her, his eyes reminding her of something dark and dangerous, like a Komodo dragon.
“Really? That’s what you’re going with?” She nodded. “All righty then.” She flipped to another page in her folder. “Maria Hondo. Thirteen. Guatemala. She lying, too?”
He’d been Mirandized, and they had that on video, but she knew what the fucker was doing. He had someone he worked for, someone who fronted the money that supported the operation, probably a drug lord, and wouldn’t lawyer up because he wouldn’t give up the next rung of the shitty ladder he clung to.
Fuckers like him didn’t say anything. They knew if they ratted out their bosses, someone would take them out their first week in general population, if not sooner. They considered doing their time a badge of honor and the price of doing business.
What he didn’t know was two of his guys, lower level shits she’d already mindfucked into thinking they were going to jail for life and a future filled with assrape and giving blowjobs—if they lived that long—had already rolled over on him and were asking to cut deals with the prosecution before they’d even been arraigned.
Goes to show what happens when you hire cheap help.
She slowly closed the file and stood, walking around behind him. “You know, Jorge,” she said, switching back to English, “it’s not nice to lie.”
She knew damn well he spoke English. They had over twenty hours of surveillance video of him speaking it just fine. He’d been born in Opa-locka, for chrissake.
Before he could finish the sentence, she grabbed a fistful of his hair in her hand and slammed his forehead against the conference table.
He let out a howl. “What the fuck’s your problem, lady?” he screamed in perfectly spoken English.
She knelt down. She’d split the skin over his left eye and blood trickled down his face. “Aw, wow, looky there. Amazing. A blow to the head, and listen to you hablo, asshole. It’s a medical miracle. Let’s put you on Dr. flippin’ Oz.”
The door burst open, her boss storming in first. “Villalobos, wait in my office, please.”
She snatched the folder off the conference table and leaned in close to Martinez to whisper, “Just think what your buddies will say when they learn a woman made you her bitch, huh?” She blew him a kiss.
The sneer fell from his face, giving her some satisfaction as she walked out the door and left him to the care of two other agents.
She sat in front of her boss’ desk and waited for him to follow her in a few minutes later. He shut the door and rounded his desk before sitting.
“You’re damn lucky, Gabe,” he said in the low, growly tone that told her she’d pushed her luck right up to the edge and was teetering on it, looking over into an abyss on the other side. “He said he tripped and hit the table earlier. That you didn’t have anything to do with it.”
“Clumsy, isn’t he?”
Walker glared at her.
“Look, I knew the asshole wouldn’t file a complaint. It’s too big a hit to his machismo.”
He continued glaring at her. “You have two choices. Take three weeks’ paid vacation time, right now, starting today, or face an IA investigation. Your choice.”
“I’ll take my chances with IA.”
He slapped his desk with his palm, making her jump. “Dammit, Gabe! You’re one of my best agents. I need you in the field. I cannot risk losing you because you blow your damn gasket over some scumbag.”
“A child raping, child pimping scumbag who didn’t lawyer up.”
“We have too much riding on too many ongoing investigations to have some goddamned public defender their first year out of Stetson getting these guys off on technicalities because of alleged improprieties.”
She knew he was right and decided it was time to keep her mouth shut. She’d never seen him look this angry.
And there were plenty of times over the years she’d seen him angry.
Some of those times at her.
He pointed his finger at her. “You have eight weeks of paid vacation time on the books you haven’t taken yet, some of it rolled over from last year. I know, because I just checked. Don’t make me force you to use it all at once. And not this bullshit you usually pull of you taking vacation days and coming in to work anyway while you’re not supposed to be in the office.”
Her jaw clenched. She wouldn’t be able to talk her way out of this one. Although, to be fair, this was the first time she’d ever crossed the line so far with a suspect. She hadn’t planned on doing it, but indelibly seared in her mind was the terror those girls wore when the team burst into the storage unit and rescued them.
The scene would forever haunt her, along with the myriad horrors she’d witnessed in her ten years with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement working these kinds of cases. Child sex stings, child trafficking, child pornography rings, investigating the worst of the worst crimes and criminals, to protect the weakest and bring scum like Martinez to justice.
She deflated as she sat back in the chair.
Apparently, Travis Walker read the defeat in her manner. He opened a desk drawer and pulled something out. When he slid it across his desk, she realized it was a set of three keys and one of his business cards, with a Sarasota address written on the back, along with a four-digit number.
“What is this?”
“Your three weeks’ vacation. Those are the keys to my vacation condo there, and that’s the alarm code. My wife and I aren’t using it anytime soon. When you set it, hold the away button if you’re leaving, and the stay button if you’re staying so it deactivates the motion detectors. It’ll beep and start a sixty-second countdown. When you come in you have sixty seconds to disarm it with that code. The alarm pad’s on the wall just inside the door, on the left. You can’t miss it. And it’s a second floor unit. One of those keys is the front door, one is the garage and storage down below, and the last one is the mailbox.”
She stared at the keys and the card for a moment as his words sank in. “You’re forcing me to stay at your condo for three weeks?”
He smirked. “I can access the alarm logs online. I can see if you’re there or not.” His smile faded. “I’m serious. If I see you set foot in this office before three weeks are up, and I’m talking three weeks of workdays, not including weekends, I will call IA and file the report myself. You need some downtime. You’re wound tighter than a freaking cheap watch. If you snap, you’re not only going to take down your career, but a whole bunch of investigations that dozens of agents have spent thousands of man-hours working on. Think about that, Miss Dedication to Duty.”
* * * *
How serious Travis Walker was showed a few minutes later when, after she grabbed her stuff, he personally walked her down to her car and stood there while she got in. She didn’t crank it yet, ignoring the blistering waves of sunny Miami heat pulsing from the car’s interior.
He leaned in, arms braced on the door and roof. “Look, Gabe. You’re dedicated. I get that. We’re all dedicated. I wouldn’t have someone working for me if I didn’t think they would give one hundred percent to this job. But you take it to an unhealthy level. You’re going to be forty in a couple of months. You need to relax and get away from this shit for a while. You will burn out if you keep this pace up. You’ve lasted longer than most agents doing this work. Usually, people transfer out or request different kinds of assignments by now. I am very worried about you.”
She wrapped her fingers around her steering wheel and nodded. “Thanks, boss. I appreciate that.” She wouldn’t look up and meet his gaze.
“Gabe, go up to Sarasota. Walk on the beach. Eat good food. Read a freaking book. Go see a play at the Asolo. Meet people. Anything. Something other than…this. Something not horrific, okay? There’s even a community pool and hot tub at the complex. Use them. Lay out in the sun.”
“Why are you insisting I get out of town? Why isn’t staying out of the office enough?”
“Frankly? I’m worried Martinez, or the people he works for, might try to send someone after you.”
She snorted. “They can try.”
“You aren’t bulletproof. Besides, I know you. The temptation will be too great for you to try to do something resembling work if you’re in Miami. Twenty-one working days, Gabe. You set foot in this building before then, you’re gone. You know I’ll do it. Please, do not make me do it. It’d kill me to lose you, but I can’t and won’t risk our other cases.”
Yes, she knew he would do it. He was a man of his word. She finally looked up at him and recognized his serious expression.
He definitely wasn’t kidding.
“Enjoy yourself. I’ll e-mail you the WiFi password and anything else I think of that you might need.” He smiled. “To your personal e-mail account. And feel free to use the master bedroom. It’s got a newer mattress in it anyway, so it’s more comfortable.” He closed the door for her and stepped away from the car while she cranked the ignition.
When she pulled out of the lot a moment later, she glanced in the rearview mirror and spotted him still standing there, ensuring she really left.
She focused on the traffic. In his haste to get her out of the building, he didn’t seem to notice that she grabbed her work laptop and some files in the process.
At least that was something she could smile about.