Excerpt for Bruised: The Complete Series Books 1-5 by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

BRUISED

(THE COMPLETE SERIES)

BY

STACY-DEANNE



Copyright © 2018 Stacy-Deanne

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. Criminal copyright infringement is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.

All characters and events in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is strictly coincidental.

Readers: Thanks so much for choosing my book! I would be very appreciative if you would leave reviews when you are done. Much love!

Email: stacydeanne1@aol.com

Website: https://www.stacy-deanne.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/stacy.deanne.5

Twitter: @stacydeanne

Other titles by Stacy-Deanne Include:

Worth the Risk

Outside Woman

Sometimes Money Ain’t Enough

An Unexpected Love

The Seventh District

To receive book announcements subscribe to Stacy’s mailing list: Mailing List

Want recommendations on great BWWM books and authors? Stop by BWWM Romance Books on Facebook and find some great reads!

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Want recommendations on great BWWM books and authors? Stop by BWWM Romance Books on Facebook and find some great reads!

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Synopsis to Books 1-5



Bruised (Book 1)

When Baltimore Homicide Detective Lisa Swanson and her partner Dee Quarter are called to investigate the murder of Ernest Juarez, Lisa meets wheelchair bound Jake Jenson, a man determined to find his best friend’s killer at all costs. Jake is instantly attracted to the standoffish Lisa yet can’t understand why Lisa keeps him at arm’s length.

What Jake feels is resistance toward him, is really Lisa’s distrust of men caused by a previous relationship centered on domestic violence. Lisa desperately searches for Ernest’s killer while fighting her feelings for Jake and trying to mend the pain from her past.

Jake just might be the man of Lisa’s dreams, but will she let shame and fear stand in the way of a new love?

Captivated (Book 2)

When she first lays eyes on Mya Riley’s slashed up body, Baltimore Detective Lisa Swanson is certain that the Sandman, a ruthless serial killer from her past has reemerged. Lisa dives headfirst into the case with her partner Dee, and lovesick Winston Lewis, a detective who grows more captivated with Lisa by the day.

The Sandman wreaks bloodthirsty havoc throughout the city, and this time he is determined to make Lisa his victim.

Armed with intense hatred for the Sandman and a stifling fear of who might end up dead next, Lisa struggles to solve the case by the book. But when the Sandman switches up his plan and goes after her lover Jake…Lisa ignores all the rules.

Disturbed (Book 3)

Baltimore Detective Lisa Swanson is stunned when Detective Winston Lewis informs her that Devon Barnes, a young man stabbed to death in a park, had her name and number in his phone. Lisa insists she never met or heard of Devon and has no idea why he would have her information.

As Winston investigates, he has an eerie feeling that Lisa’s information being in Devon’s phone connects to his murder as well as a belief that Lisa might be hiding something. Lisa remains adamant that she does not know Barnes, but when her fingerprints show up on the knife used in Devon’s murder, Winston finds himself choosing between his feelings for her and doing his duty as a police officer. Pushed into a corner, Winston arrests Lisa for Devon’s murder.

After Lisa makes bail, she teams up with Winston to find out how and why the evidence points to her as Devon’s killer. The investigation leads to Lisa questioning someone from her past who not only could have the answers to her questions, but could also be the reason for her recent nightmare.

Entangled (Book 4)

When local mystery author Grayson Paul’s ex-wife is murdered, Baltimore detectives Lisa Swanson and Dee Quarter are thrown into the most complicated case of their careers. When the officers first meet Grayson, Lisa is convinced he’s hiding something while Dee, who happens to be one of Grayson’s biggest fans, is immediately taken in by the older gentleman’s good looks and charm.

What starts off as innocent flirtation between Grayson and Dee turns into a steamy affair which leaves Dee torn between guilt for sleeping with a man she doesn’t love and her torturous infatuation for Detective Winston Lewis. Winston, who’s deeply in love with Lisa, refuses to accept Lisa’s decision to be with Jake Jenson. Meanwhile Jake’s jealousy of Winston becomes so out of hand that it threatens to destroy his relationship with Lisa forever.

Between forbidden attractions, self-destructive decisions, and determined suitors, Lisa and Dee manage to solve the case. Before it’s over they’ll both get a crucial lesson in life and love that they will never forget.

Twisted (Book 5)

When Baltimore Detectives Lisa Swanson and Winston Lewis discover a sexually explicit profile of Dee Quarter on an online dating site, they are horrified. Dee swears the profile is fake and has no idea who’s behind the vicious attack.

Winston and Lisa think Dee’s scorned ex Grayson Paul is to blame, but Dee believes it could be the actions of a much younger admirer who won’t take no for an answer.

Lisa is happier than ever with Jake Jenson, but the arrival of a new woman in Jake’s life threatens the couple’s bliss. Lisa sets off to prove Rayne Jessup is trouble, but will realize Rayne is every bit as dangerous as she is beautiful.

Secrets are revealed and motives are discovered in the final installment of the popular Bruised Series.





BRUISED



CHAPTER ONE


“You okay?” Homicide Detective Dee Quarter followed her partner, Lisa Swanson, out of Ernest Juarez’s living room.

Uniformed officers and forensics examiners cleared the way for the beautiful, black detectives.

“Why you asking me that?” Lisa popped chewing gum into her mouth. “If I am okay?”

“Mmm.” Dee shrugged. “Well, it’s not every day we see a victim battered and bruised.” She lifted an eyebrow. “So I wondered if it—”

“Evoked any memories?” Lisa stuck the gum wrapper in her pocket. “No. Not everyone who’s battered and bruised reminds me of what happened. Can we get to the case, please?” She gestured toward the crowded hall. “So we got a huge Hispanic male beaten to death in his living room.”

Dee nodded. “No murder weapon.” She glanced around the area leading to the kitchen. “Or at least not one we see.”

Lisa chewed. “No witnesses. Neighbors said they didn’t see or hear anything.”

“Except our friend in there who discovered the body.” Dee nodded toward the kitchen.

“You spoke to him yet?”

“Nope. I decided to wait on you before I spoke to him.” Dee presented a cunning smile. “Just didn’t expect it to take a year.”

“Well, excuse me for taking my sweet time, but Baltimore traffic is hell this time of night.” Lisa pointed to the kitchen. “What’s his name?”

“Jake Jenson.”

Lisa went in. “Jake Jenson?” She stopped when she saw the attractive, sandy-haired white man at the kitchen table.

He lifted his head and planted his hands on the arms of his wheelchair.

Lisa nudged Dee. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me he was in a wheelchair?” she whispered.

Dee slipped her hands in the pockets of her slacks.

“Jesus,” Lisa whispered.

“I might be in a wheelchair but I’m not deaf.” Jake turned his chair and looked Lisa straight in the eyes. “Wow. If I’d known the detectives on the case would be so beautiful I might’ve killed Ernest a long time ago.”

The women gaped.

“Sorry.” He smacked his lips. “That was a horrible joke. It just came out. I tell bad jokes when I’m nervous.”

Lisa huffed. “And do you think that joke was appropriate seeing how you’d be the most likely suspect?”

“Oh, I know I am. I discovered my best friend bashed to death. I wouldn’t expect anything less than you thinking it was me.”

Lisa took out her notepad. “This is a murder, Mr. Jenson. Can you try to be serious?”

“I’ll start by introducing myself properly.” He wheeled toward her. “I’m Jake Jenson.”

Lisa took his hand. “I’m Detective Lisa Swanson with Baltimore Homicide.” She let go of his hand. “This is my partner, Dee Quarter.”

Dee shook his hand. “Nice to meet you.”

“You too.” Jake laid his hands in his lap. “So fire away. Hey, why don’t I save you the trouble? Uh, no, I don’t have an alibi for the time Ernest was killed, which we all suspect was not long before I got here.”

The women exchanged glances.

Jake counted on his fingers. “No, I don’t have a reason to want my best friend killed. No, I didn’t think he’d been acting suspicious lately as if someone was after him, and I am not sure who would wanna do this to him.” He raised his hands. “Did I miss anything?”

Lisa opened her mouth to speak but tapped her notepad instead.

Jake chuckled. “I hate it when people do that.”

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“What you’re doing. I’m pissing you off. I’m annoying you.”

“No, you’re not.”

“Yes, I am. I’m being an arrogant asshole, but you won’t call me one even though you want to because I’m in a wheelchair. Tell me I’m lying.”

“Look, you’re not the first person I’ve—”

“Seen in a wheelchair? Flip it, Detective Swanson. How many times has someone told you that you weren’t the first black person they’ve known or met? Now how condescending did that make you feel?”

“So you’re being a jerk because I didn’t call you an asshole?” She stroked the side of her smooth haircut. “That’s a first. Yes, I do think you’re an asshole but my mission is to find Ernest’s killer and not trade witty insults back and forth with you.” She winked. “Better?”

He tilted his head. “We’re getting there.”

“And since you so graciously took it upon yourself to assume you knew what we’d ask, could you tell us a bit about Ernest at least?”

“We’ve been friends since high school and were very close. He was thirty-five, like me. He was a great friend. We always hung out. All of us guys get together regularly here to play poker.”

Lisa jotted. “And is that why you were coming here tonight?”

“We were just gonna hang out. Him and me.”

“So he invited you over?” Dee asked. “Knew you were coming?”

“Yes, ma’am. I know what you’re thinking.” Jake smiled. “That if he invited me over than the murder was a surprise.”

Lisa squinted. “Usually it is.”

“No, I mean he didn’t expect the murderer to come over. See, he knew I was coming over. The murderer knew Ernest, I’m sure.”

Lisa stood to the side. “And how do you know the killer knew Ernest?”

“No forced entry.” Jake wiggled his right foot.

He's not paralyzed?

He straightened up in the chair. “So no forced entry means Ernest let the killer in, right?”

“You’re not paralyzed?” Lisa shut her eyes. “Shit. Sorry. It just came out. It’s not my business.”

“No, I’m not paralyzed.” He clasped his hands. “I have incomplete paralysis.”

What the hell does that mean?

She wouldn’t dare ask.

“I can move my legs.” He sat back. “I can even walk a little bit, but that’s the extent of it.” He rolled his chair back. “And let me save you the trouble of asking. I was in a car accident, okay?”

“Look, I’m sorry.” Lisa exhaled. “I hope I didn’t offend you.”

“When people ask you a certain question a million times you tend to get used to it.” His smiled faded.

“What did Ernest do?” Dee asked. “For a living?”

“He worked at AM Pharmacy. He was a pharmacist’s assistant. Been working there for about ten years.”

“So you don’t know of anyone that would wanna hurt him?” Lisa tapped her pad.

“No, not bash him to death like that. I mean you gotta be pretty fucked up to do something like that. Course Ernest had beefs with people sometimes, we all do. But nothing that would warrant someone beating him to death.”

“What about someone close to him?” Dee moved closer to the table. “Any feuding relatives or men he’d gotten into a fight with recently? Any exes?”

“Well, there’s his soon-to-be ex-wife Tori. And, no, they were not exactly on great terms.”

“So I assume things were getting nasty because of their impending divorce?” Lisa nibbled on her pencil eraser.

“Things were beyond nasty between them. Look, Ernest didn’t want Tori anymore. He just wanted his daughter. They have a teenage daughter and they both wanted custody.”

Lisa jotted. “That’s a possible motive.”

“Yep.” Dee put her hand on her gun belt. “A very powerful one.”

“I’ve been pondering if Tori could do something like this.” Jake waved his hands. “As much as I don’t like her, I can’t believe she could kill him. Besides, she’s like five-five and Ernest was six-two and two hundred pounds. You think she could beat him like what we saw in there?”

“She could’ve hired someone to,” Dee said.

Lisa scratched the side of her head with the pencil. “You mean as intelligent as you are about crime, Mr. Jenson, that didn’t cross your mind?”

“Holy shit.” He rolled his chair back and forth. “Oh, man.” He tapped his lap. “That bitch did it, didn’t she?”

“We’re not accusing anyone until we see something substantial,” Lisa said. “But we’ll talk to her in the morning. You mind giving us her number and address?”

Jake did. “She should be at the dentist office on Fifth tomorrow. That’s where she works.”

Lisa nodded and jotted. “Can we have your information?”

Jake gave them his number and address. “Anything else?”

“No.” Lisa put her notepad away. “But we’ll definitely be contacting you again.”

“Is that a promise?” He sniffed Lisa’s pants as he left the kitchen.

She pulled at her pants. “Did he just sniff me?”

“Told you about wearing that cologne and driving all these men crazy.” Dee straightened her blazer. “So what do you think of Mr. Jenson?”

“Strange as hell. I mean who cracks a joke like he did right after their buddy’s been killed?”

“Well, he did say he tells bad jokes when he’s nervous.”

“Yeah, but that’s… We gotta keep an eye on him.”

“So what is it? I mean you think he killed Ernest and called us?”

“It’s been done many times before. It’s the perfect diversion. Killer pretends to be the one who found the body.”

“But he’s in a wheelchair. I mean it’s hard enough for a regular person to beat a man Ernest’s size and so viciously. You really think Jake could’ve done that?”

“You know the biggest thing I’ve learned in five years of being a detective?”

“What?” Dee crossed her arms.

“That many times it’s the ones you least expect.”

“I don’t know about that but I do know one thing.” Dee glanced down the hall.

“What?”

“He sure is fine. Don’t you think so, Leece?”

“Please.”

She made her way down the hall.




CHAPTER TWO


Lisa entered the waiting room of the dentist’s office the next morning. A little old woman with a swollen jaw sat beside a dusty, fake plant in the corner. A middle-aged brunette looked up from her magazine then went back to her business.

“I said get out!” a woman yelled from the little room behind the counter. “I don’t know what you’re talking about!”

“Hello?” Lisa rang the bell. “What’s going on in there?” she asked the two women in the waiting room.

“I don’t know but I wish the dentist would hurry the hell up.” The old lady patted her jaw. “My head’s about to burst I’m in so much pain.”

“I said get out!”

“I’m not going anywhere!” Jake shouted.

“Jake?” Lisa ran around the counter and into the room.

A petite, Hispanic woman with blonde streaks and a stud in her nose was huddled in the corner with her arms full of files. “Get out!”

“What the hell’s going on here?” Lisa stood in front of Jake. “What the hell are you doing here?”

He wheeled away from a desk sitting in the middle of the room. “The same reason you’re here. I asked Tori to tell me where she was last night and she refused.”

“I don’t have to tell you a damn thing!” She moved toward the desk. “Who are you?”

“I’m Detective Lisa Swanson.” She showed her badge. “Baltimore Homicide.”

“Well, can you please get him the hell outta here?” Tori placed the folders on the desk. “I mean, he’s nuts! He just rolled in here and started questioning me and I have no idea why.”

“Uh…” Lisa held her waist. “Ernest is dead.”

The color drained from Tori’s face. “What?”

“Oh, come off it, Tori, you knew,” Jake said.

“Just hold it!” Tori waved her arms. “He’s…” She clutched her smock. “He’s dead?”

“I’m sorry,” Lisa said. “I know this is hard but I need to talk to you.”

“Oh.” Tori sat behind the desk. “So if you’re here it means that he was murdered. Oh, God.” Her eyes widened and then she looked at Jake. “So you think I’d do something like that, Jake?”

He pushed his wheelchair against the desk. “I demand you tell me where you were last night.”

“Whoa! Whoa! Whoa!” Lisa pulled Jake’s wheelchair back. “You’re not a cop so you don’t have the right to demand anything. She doesn’t have to talk to you.”

“Well, why would she not tell me where she was last night if she’s so innocent?”

“Because, once again, she doesn’t have to tell your ass anything.” Lisa held the door of the little room open. “You might think you’re a cop but you aren’t. Now please leave.”

“Leave?” he scoffed. “She might’ve killed my best friend and you want me to leave?”

“I want you to let me do my job.” Lisa gestured out the door. “We’re done here.”

He shook his head and wheeled out of the room.

Lisa shut the door. “I apologize. He had no right to even be here.”

“He’s dead?” Tori planted her hands on the desk. “How? Why?”

“He was beaten to death. Jake found the body.”

“Oh, my God.” Tori put her hand over her mouth. “I can’t believe this. We just talked yesterday evening. You sure it was murder?”

“Oh, yeah.” Lisa got out her notepad. “He was beaten so badly you could hardly make out his face.” She whistled. “Whoever killed him was extremely angry.”

“Oh, wait. So are you here to tell me Ernest is dead or to accuse me?”

“I’d just like to ask some questions so that I know where to begin.”

“Maybe I should call a lawyer?”

“Do you have a lawyer?”

Tori stood. “I didn’t kill Ernest. Yes, we hated each other and, yes, I said many times I wanted him dead, but I couldn’t kill him. Ernest is the father of my child. No matter what I thought of him, I couldn’t hurt him.”

“What you just said was quite interesting.” Lisa stood up. “What would make you want Ernest dead?”

“I used to want him dead.” Tori hugged herself. “But, uh, he finally let me go so I could live my life again.”

“Live your life?”

“The reason Ernest and I were getting a divorce in the first place is because he…” Tori’s voice shook. “He was very abusive.”

Lisa’s heart skipped a beat. “He…beat you?”

“I was with him for fourteen years.” Tori moved a strand of hair from her face. “I loved him.”

“You stayed fourteen years with a man who beat you? Had he done it the entire time?” Lisa tried to shake the weakness out of her voice. “Or did it start later on?”

“I should’ve seen the signs.” Tori looked away. “He was kinda controlling and jealous when we dated but—”

“You thought of it as a compliment, right?” Lisa’s hands shook. “That a man would love you so much that he’d get so mad over you?”

A tear fell down Tori’s cheek. “All my life that’s the only type of love I saw from men. My dad beat my mom.” She shook her head. “Damn near killed her, and I thought it was supposed to be like that. Then I dated men who beat on me and—”

“Pretty soon it was the only type of love you knew or even wanted.”

“I know to you that’s gotta be pretty fucked up, huh?” Tori wiped her eyes. “I’m sure a woman like you wouldn’t understand. I’m sure you’re stronger than I’ve ever been.”

“Being hit has nothing to do with a woman’s lack of strength. It has to do with her confidence.” Lisa moved away from the desk. “I hope you got that under control.”

“You know, I don’t even care about the past anymore.” Tori sniffled. “I just want to be with my daughter. She’s a teenager now. I want her to see that a woman doesn’t need to be hit to be loved. I don’t want her to continue that cycle.” Tori stood up and walked to the door of the room. “He was using this custody thing to get back at me for leaving him.” She balled a fist. “And despite all the hell he put me through, that’s the one thing I won’t ever be able to forgive him for.”

****

Jake rolled his wheelchair up to the glass doors of the dentist office as Lisa walked out. “What did she say?”

“Jesus.” Lisa sauntered to her car. “I told you to leave.” She got out her car keys. “This is police business. How did you get down here anyway?”

“I flew.” He swerved his wheelchair beside her. “That’s my ride over there.” He dipped his head in the direction of a shiny, black truck.

The man in the driver’s seat waved.

“I can drive a little bit but he’s my primary transportation. What did Tori say? You think she did it?”

“What is with you, huh?” Lisa opened her door. “You think you know everything about solving crimes. What are you so fascinated about this for?”

“Well, if you must know…” He slid closer to her. “I was gonna be a cop but it didn’t work out.”

“Because of your accident?”

“Nah, it was way before then.” He rubbed the handle on his chair. “I probably know as much as anyone about solving crimes and what it takes, but as far as the physical aspect, I just never made the cut. So we done changing the subject? What did Tori say?”

“She has an alibi. She was in class at the community college last night.”

“You gonna check that out?”

Gee.” Lisa rolled her eyes and got in her car. “I hadn’t thought about that but I guess I should, huh?” She tried to close her door. “Move.”

He rolled back. “You don’t think she did it, do you?”

“Excuse me?” She put the key in the ignition.

“So did she lay some story on you and you started feeling sorry for her? It’s a game she plays. Tori’s always made herself out to be the victim. It’s how she gets away with every damn thing.”

“So you know so much, huh?” Lisa ran her hand down the steering wheel “Then why did she and Ernest break up?”

“Because they fought constantly. Ernest could do no right in her eyes but he loved her to death. He gave her everything.”

“Yeah, including black eyes and bruises?”

“What?”

“Seems to me you don’t know as much about your ‘good’ buddy Ernest as you think. He beat her.”

“What?” He laughed. “That’s crazy.”

“Well, that’s what she says and I believe her.” She tapped her foot. “The grief and fear she showed as she spoke about it…you can’t fake that, Jake.”

“Bullshit. Ernest was my friend. Sure, they had fights. Some bad, but he never hit her. Did she tell you about the time she hit him with a frying pan? If anyone’s been abusive, it’s her. She’s running a game on you, Detective. She’s never once acted like Ernest has ever looked at her wrong let alone hit her.”

Lisa gripped the handle of the car door. “And how does an abused woman act? Is there some script to follow?”

“No, but you’re a cop. I’m sure you’ve come in contact with those type of women. Does Tori strike you as being abused?”

“All types of women can be abused, Jake.” She put her hand on the steering wheel. “It doesn’t discriminate. Abuse can happen to any woman no matter her upbringing, her culture, her career, or her strength. The thing about abuse is it tears you down. It can take the strongest woman and completely break her. It’s clear to me that with your lack of sensitivity and ignorance you don’t know a damn thing about abused women.” She started the car.

“Wait a minute.”

She slammed her car door.

“Hey.” He tapped on her window.

She rolled it down.

“I’m sorry if I said anything insensitive, but if Ernest had been abusive I think I’d know. I never saw a bruise on her.”

“And do you have any idea how many women are abused and no one, not even the people closest to her, knows? It’s hard to hide bruises but it can be done.”

“Oh, really?”

“Yeah. Do you have any idea how much an abused woman works to hide that secret?”

“I…”

“Exactly.”

She drove away.


CHAPTER THREE


An Hour Later:


“Sleep? I haven’t slept well in days.” Lisa lay on Dr. Guzman’s couch. “They’ve started again.”

The mature woman sitting across from Lisa slipped on her glasses and grabbed her notepad. “The nightmares?”

“They went away for a while but no matter how much I try to put it behind me it’s like something doesn’t want me to forget.”

“That’s because you have to fully face what you went through.”

“I do face it.” Lisa laid her hand over her eyes. “I face it every goddamn day and I’m sick of facing it.”

“The only way you can come to terms with it completely is to not feel like you have to hide it. As long as you hold on to shame, you’ll never fully move on.” Dr. Guzman crossed her long legs. “For you to come see me out of the blue on your lunch break says a lot. What happened?”

“I’m on a new case and it turns out that the man murdered might’ve been abusive. At least that’s what his estranged wife says.”

“Do you believe her?”

Lisa hung her arm over the side of the couch. “She had that same fear in her voice and look in her eyes that I used to. It was like I was looking at myself, you know? My hands even started to shake.” She patted her chest. “Took me back, you know?”

“Do you think you can be objective on a case involving a man that was abusive?” Dr. Guzman jotted. “Do you think he deserved what he got?”

“No one deserves to die the way he did, but I admit my sympathy waned a bit. But I’m a cop, right?” She sat up. “It’s my job. I mean, I’ve had to solve murders of people I hated and it didn’t make any difference to me. But Jake…” She blew a breath. “He really hit a nerve.”

“Who’s Jake?”

“He’s the best friend of the deceased. He said that Tori didn’t ‘act’ like a victim.”

“Oh.” Dr. Guzman pouted her lips. “Must’ve been hard to hear that, huh?”

“You see why I work so hard to hide it? I mean, people have their own ideas of what an abused woman should be. They think it has to do with strength, but no. Anyone can be abused and I told him that. Hell, you think he’d not be so judgmental seeing how he’s in a wheelchair. You think he of all people would be more open-minded.”

“Why? Just because someone is disabled doesn’t mean they can’t be a jerk.” Guzman smiled. “Doesn’t mean they can’t be insensitive or wrong. He’s still human. Is what Jake said bothering you or is it bothering you that Jake said it?”

“And what does that mean?”

“You usually don’t care what anyone thinks, but you seem to have taken what Jake said to heart. Is there some kind of connection brewing?”

“What? You mean do I like him?” Lisa crossed her legs at the ankles. “I just met him yesterday. I don’t even know him.”

“Well, if you don’t like him then why are you so worked up?”

“Oh, maybe it’s because I was abused and he was a complete ass for what he said.”

“So you don’t like him? You don’t find him attractive?”

“I…I didn’t say that. He’s very good looking and kinda charming in a cocky sort of way. But if you think there is romance going on here, you’re wrong.”

“All I know is that I’ve been working with you for the last year and this is the first time you’ve mentioned a man other than Mason.”

“Ugh.” She touched her stomach. “Please don’t say his name.”

“Well, he’s why we’re here, isn’t he? As for Jake, it’s okay to feel something for him. You don’t have to be afraid of that.”

“I’m not afraid.” She stood. “And this is ridiculous. I’m not interested in any man and certainly not some jerk in a wheelchair. Can we drop this, please?”

“If you like him you won’t be able to run from that forever. And you’re going to have to open up to people about what happened to you.” Guzman set her notebook aside. “I just hope you’ll be able to deal with it when the time comes.”

****

Dee stopped Lisa at the soda machine when Lisa got back to the station. “Guess who’s sitting at your desk with flowers.” Dee smiled from ear to ear.

“Flowers?” Lisa got a cherry soda from the machine. “No one ever gives me flowers.”

“Well, someone certainly did today.” Dee hooked her arm in Lisa’s and walked her to their desks.

Jake turned when he saw Lisa. “Hey.”

“What are you doing here?” Lisa unhooked her arm from Dee’s. “You’re the last person I want to see right now.”

“I know.” He took the bouquet from his lap. “These are for you. I’m sorry if I upset you earlier. Though I’m curious as to how I did exactly.”

Lisa took the flowers. “It’s been so long since a man gave me flowers.”

Dee smiled. “Well, I gotta make a trip to the file room.” She got a folder off her desk. “Be nice, Leece.” She left.

“You didn’t have to do this.” Lisa sat behind her desk. “It really wasn’t that big of a deal.”

“Oh, it didn’t seem that way to me.” Jake rolled to the side of her desk. “Why did you get so upset? I understand I might’ve made some idiotic comments, but it seems like more than that.”

“It’s nothing.” She opened a desk drawer and took out a cinnamon roll wrapped in plastic. “It’s just not right to take abuse lightly, you know? Just because you claim to not see it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.”

“Look, I do not agree at all with abuse in any shape or form. Anyone who knows me will tell you that.”

She unfolded the plastic from the sticky roll.

“But I knew Ernest and despite of the flaws he had, he’d never hit a woman. I’m telling you that he loved Tori to death.”

“Most men who abuse women think it’s a sign of love.” She licked icing from her thumb. “You ever thought of that? Look, if you never experienced it then you can’t understand it.”

“Have you experienced it?”

“I, uh…” She swallowed a piece of the roll. “I have a friend who has and you can’t imagine the hell she went through.”

“I’m sorry about that.” He scooted closer to her. “I bet your friend’s glad she has you.”

Lisa licked her thumb.

“You know I didn’t just come to bring you flowers.” He ran a rough hand through his hair. “I wanted to see if we could have lunch together.”

“That’s sweet, but I just came from my lunch break.” She flipped through papers with sticky fingers. “And, in case you’ve forgotten, I’m working on a case. Your best friend’s murder case, remember?”

“It doesn’t mean we can’t take time to get to know each other better.”

“You ever watch The First Forty-Eight?”

“Of course.”

“Well, they call it that for a reason.”

“Oh, you’re a hard one to crack, huh?” He sighed. “If you don’t wanna have lunch then just say so.”

She wiped her hands on a napkin. “It’s not that I don’t want to.”

“Then what is it?”

“I, uh…” She turned from his intense stare. “Just think we should keep our mind on the case.”

“Well, if that’s true then you’ll be glad to know I checked out Tori’s alibi and she was definitely in class last night.”

The sweet bread stuck to the inside of Lisa’s mouth. “You checked?”

“Well, yeah.”

“I don’t believe this.” She moved papers aside.

“Look, Ernest was my friend and I can’t just wait around. Anyway, I didn’t have anything else to do.”

“What will it take to get through to your obviously thick skull that I’m the one with the damn badge, Jake? I admit this was a little cute at first, but now you’re stepping over the line. Stay outta this case. I mean it.”

He smiled. “No chance.”

“I’m not asking you, Jake.” She put on her reading glasses. “I’m telling you.”

He squinted.

“What are you staring at?” She switched her computer off hibernation.

“You look pretty in glasses.”

She took them off.

He scrunched up his face. “Why did you do that?”

She logged on to the Internet.

“Oh, I get it.” He nodded. “This is your usual approach to guys, huh?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, Dee told me that guys have tried and failed.”

“Why are you all up in my business? Slow your roll big time, okay? There is nothing between us except this case. You’re just the dude that found the body. That’s all.”

“No, I think I’m more. It’s obvious that I push your buttons. I wouldn’t do that if I was just anyone.”

“So what are you saying?” She rested her hands on her keyboard. “What? You think I like you or something?”

He shrugged. “Do you?”

“Leece!” Dee ran up. “I just got a call. We might’ve found the murder weapon.”

“Seriously?” Lisa pushed back from the desk.

“They found a bloody, steel bat in one of the dumpsters about a block from Ernest’s place.”

“Shit,” Lisa said. “We need to get down—”

“Come on!” Jake moved to the front of Lisa’s desk. “We need to get down there.”

Dee covered her grin.

“Look, I’m sick of this.” Lisa stood. “You’re not going any damn where, Jake. You are not a cop.”

“Come on, let me go.” He threw his head back. “I won’t get in the way. I promise.”

“You’re in a wheelchair but are you deaf too? Hell no, you’re not going. Look, we, Dee and I, need to get down there. I don’t know what the hell you need to do.” Lisa closed her blazer. “Let’s go, Dee.”

“Wait.” Jake rolled behind them. “What the hell am I supposed to do?”

Lisa answered without turning around. “When they start paying me to care about what you do, I’ll let you know.”

“Wait.” He stopped between them. “Did you say a baseball bat, Dee?”

“Why? Does that mean something?”

“Ernest coached little league baseball at the Johnson Community Center. He recently got in a big fight with Jerrod Carson, the custodian there. Carson’s kid was one of Ernest’s players. Apparently, Carson didn’t like Ernest’s coaching methods, and they went to fists.”

“Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Lisa asked.

“I just now thought of Jerrod when she mentioned the bat.”

Dee got her keys. “So what do you want to do, Leece?”

“You go see about the weapon and I’ll go talk to Carson.”

“Okay.” Dee left.

“What about me?” Jake rolled alongside Lisa. “What do I do?”

“Nothing!”

She turned the corner and ran downstairs.



CHAPTER FOUR


“Look, I’d like to help you any way I can, Detective Swanson.” Jerrod Carson sat his portly body on the bleachers in the Johnson Center gymnasium. “But I don’t know anything about Ernest’s murder. This is horrible. We didn’t get along, but I wouldn’t want anyone dead.”

“So why didn’t you two get along?”

“I never liked how he was with the kids. He was too rough. He’d be ranting and cursing when they did something wrong. It just wasn’t right. The other parents were scared to say anything, but I wasn’t gonna let him talk to my boy like that.” He flung his arm about. “They are just little babies. He’s supposed to teach them sportsmanship and how to win the right way. Instead, he taught them that you can do whatever you want as long as you win.” He pulled on his graying blond beard. “So I confronted him because he cursed my boy out. Had him crying his eyes out. Then he called him a sissy.”

Lisa jotted his words down.

“You don’t call no young boy a sissy like that and in front of the other kids. Because of that they started teasing him and my son didn’t wanna play anymore. So, hell yeah, I was mad. I confronted Ernest, he cursed me out, I cursed him out, and then we got into a fight. That was the last time I saw him.”

“How long have you known Ernest?”

“About ten years. In the beginning we were cool but then he started asking me for money all the time.”

“Money?”

“Yeah, he couldn’t ever keep no money. That’s one reason he and Tori didn’t work out. He’d take every little bit of money they had and gamble it away.”

“He gambled?”

Shit.” He leaned back. “If the casino was a state, he’d be a citizen. Man, he ate, drank, and slept gambling. Couldn’t keep two dollars in his pocket. He almost put his family in the poorhouse. Shit, I don’t know why Tori stayed with him as long as she did.”

Lisa pointed with her pencil. “So how often did he ask you for money?”

“All the damn time. I used to try to help him out but it got to where he never paid me back. Shit, I ain’t rich. I got a wife and kids myself. I don’t have money to be throwing away. Ernest begged all the time. That’s why he couldn’t ever keep any friends.” Jerrod rubbed his knuckles. “I bet you his death has to do with owing somebody money. He owed everybody he knew something.”

“Lisa?” She heard Jake’s voice behind her.

“I don’t believe this.” She hit her palm to her forehead. “Does a brick have to fall on you for you to get the point?”

“Nope.” He looked toward Jerrod. “Jerrod.”

Jerrod motioned to him. “I’m so sorry about Ernest. I know we didn’t get along, but I never wanted anything to happen to him.”

Jake looked Jerrod from head to toe. “I wanna believe that.”

Jerrod’s bushy eyebrows wiggled. “It’s the truth.”

“Forget him.” Lisa waved in Jake’s direction. “What were you going to say about Ernest before we were so rudely interrupted?”

“Well, maybe he owed someone money and they killed him,” Jerrod said. “I mean, I wasn’t the only one he was hitting up.”

“That’s a lie,” Jake said. “I mean, Ernest used to have a problem with gambling but he’d gotten better.”

“Either you’re a gambler or you’re not,” Jerrod said. “There’s no in between.” He stood. “I gotta finish my work.”

Lisa tapped the pencil on her chin. “You mind telling me where you were last night between seven and nine?”

“I went to see my mother.” He got the mop and bucket from the corner. “She’s in Ferritin Hospital. She slipped in the tub and broke her leg.”

“Ouch,” Lisa whispered.

Jerrod pushed the mop into the empty bucket. “I was there at least four hours. We watched Dances with Wolves. May I go now?”

Lisa nodded. “Thank you for your time.”

He left the gymnasium.

“So what do you think?” Jake asked. “You gotta check out his alibi.”

“Duh.” She put her notepad in her pocket. “You’re something else, you know that? I’ve had yeast infections that were easier to get rid of than you.” She walked toward the doors.

“One thing you should realize about me, Lisa, is that I’m very determined.”

She turned toward him. “You seem to forget that you’re just as much a possible suspect as Tori and Jerrod. You found the body.”

“Come on. You know I didn’t do it.”

“I don’t know that. You said you could walk a little bit, right? How do I know you can’t walk enough to kill a man?”

His face turned red. “Ernest was my best friend. I’d never hurt him.”

“I’m just saying that you shouldn’t be so cocky and think that you’re cleared. Tori and Jerrod have alibis. We know you were at Ernest’s.”

“Not at the time of the murder.” He clenched a fist. “You know I didn’t do it. I know you believe me.”

“You just met me so I wouldn’t be trying to read my thoughts if I were you.” She checked her watch. “I gotta go.”

“Hey.” He wheeled to the doors and blocked her exit. “How about dinner tonight?”

“I’m flattered, but—”

“I’m a big boy, all right, Lisa?”

“What do you mean by that?”

“It means if you don’t wanna date me because I’m in a wheelchair, you can be honest about it.”

“Don’t be silly. This has nothing to do with you being in a wheelchair.” She straightened up. “Don’t you want me to do all I can to find Ernest’s killer? How can I do that if I’m distracted?”

“Ah, I see.” His face lit up. “So I’m a distraction? See, I knew you liked me.” He sucked his lip. “I think you like me a lot.”

“You don’t know what I like.”

He held the door open with his chair. “Oh, I know you like me.” He rolled over the threshold. “I’d bet my money on it.”

****

That Night:


“No, trust me, Guy.” Jake placed their plates in his kitchen sink after dinner. “The person who killed Ernest definitely knew him.”

“Not necessarily.” Guy got two root beers out of the fridge. “He could’ve let a stranger in thinking it was safe and he got killed.” Guy closed the refrigerator door. “Happens all the time.”

“No, listen.” Jake took a root beer. “In at least ninety-five percent of murders with that much violence, and no forced entry, it’s usually not a stranger.” He opened the bottle. “You’re forgetting crime of passion.” He slurped. “You didn’t see the body.” Jake shivered. “It…man, if I didn’t know it was Ernest I wouldn’t have recognized him. Someone not only wanted him dead, they wanted him to suffer.”

Guy sipped at his root beer. “It has to be connected to gambling then.”

Jake yanked the bottle from his mouth. “But Ernest had stopped.”

“If that’s the case then why was he still hitting us up for money?” Guy picked lint off his jeans. “You really believe he wasn’t still gambling?”

“He told me he needed money because he was behind on his gambling debts.”

“Come on, man. You can’t just stop being a compulsive gambler. It’s an addiction.” Guy slid the door to the patio open. “Let’s go outside.”

They went out onto the patio.



CHAPTER FIVE


“It’s a beautiful night, huh?” Guy scooted a lawn chair closer to the little patio table and sat down. “Man, I just can’t believe he’s gone. I keep thinking about all the times we spent together.” Guy laughed. “Remember when he’d do his impressions? Remember his impression of Martin Lawrence?” He guffawed. “Remember when he’d do George Lopez? Shit, he could act just like him.”

“I keep thinking he’s gonna walk through the door or call.” Jake stared at the pavement. “But I know he won’t.”

“So you say someone who knew Ernest most likely did it.” Guy propped his feet up in the chair. “If it’s someone he owed money to then we’ll never find them.”

Jake rotated the bottle in his hand. “It could be the damn mob for all we know. You know the kind of characters he got involved with when he gambled.” Jake set his root beer on the table. “I wonder how well we knew him. What secrets he hid. I mean, Tori claims he was abusive.”

“That’s bullshit.” Guy took a few gulps of his drink. “He never laid a hand on her.”

“That’s what we think, but can we really be sure? Why would Tori lie? I can’t answer that and neither can you.” Jake scratched his head. “So how can we say it’s not true?”

“Well, there’s one bright spot to this case at least.” Guy stretched out. “Those detectives sure are hot, huh? When I first saw them I thought one of my porn fantasies had come true.” He wobbled his head. “Two sexy chicks with guns? Oh. I wouldn’t mind them taking me down for questioning.” He grinned. “Especially the one you like.”

“Lisa. Oh, man.” Jake scooted up in his chair. “I felt so guilty because of what I was thinking when I first saw her. I mean, I’d just found my best friend dead and all I could think about was her and me sweating in between the sheets.”

“Whoa.” Guy stuck out his hand. “Tell me how you really feel.”

“Look, it’s been a while since I met a woman and felt that instant spark, you know? That hasn’t happened since Katherine. She was the only woman I felt that way about. You think it’s a sign that it’s time for me to be in a relationship again?”

“Well, that depends.” Guy propped his legs up in the chair. “Does Detective Swanson feel the same way?”

“She’s not someone you can easily read, but that’s what I like about her. She’s a challenge.” Jake ran a finger down the bottle. “You never know what she’s gonna say next. I love her personality. She’s so cute when she’s trying to hide what she’s thinking.”

“And it doesn’t hurt that she looks like Nia Long, does it?”

“Hell no.” They bumped bottles. “But it’s not just because she’s gorgeous. There’s a connection I felt the minute we started talking. But she’s got a secret of her own. I can tell. Something she’s desperate to keep hidden. I wish I knew what it was.” He tapped the arm of his chair. “I’d like to be her friend, but I don’t know if that’s an option.”

“Ask her out.”

Jake finished his root beer. “I did twice and she refused. She claims I’m a distraction from the case.”

“And in women speak that means she likes you but is afraid.” Guy lifted his bottle. “Ask her out again. And next time don’t take no for an answer.”

****

Three Days Later:


Lisa and Dee arrived at Ernest’s family church just as the funeral ended. A hefty crowd of people made their way out of the entrance. Sobbing women hugged and kissed each other on the cheeks. Teary-eyed men shook hands and talked in tight circles. The reverend consoled people as they parted.

Guy Feldman wheeled Jake down the ramp of the side entrance.

“God, I really hate doing this.” Dee took off her shades. “I mean, at the man’s funeral?”

“We have no choice.” Lisa also took her shades off and put them in the pocket of her blazer. “Besides, I’m sure they would appreciate us being here since it’s to help find Ernest’s killer.”

“Well, we’d better get started.” Dee approached a group of elderly women in big hats.

Lisa greeted guests and then approached Jake and Guy.

“Detective Swanson,” Guy said. “I guess you came to see what you could find out?”

“I’m so sorry about Ernest. I know you both cared about him a lot.”

“I don’t care what anyone says.” Guy put his hands in his pockets. “I knew Ernest as a good guy and no one’s gonna change that image for me.”

“And no one should. May I speak to Jake alone?”

“Go on.” Jake tapped the side of Guy’s leg. “I’ll catch up with you in a little bit.”

Guy joined a group of distraught guests several feet away.

Jake blocked the sun with his hand. “What’s up?”

“Why don’t we go for a walk?” Lisa dropped her head.

Damn it.

“I…” She covered her eyes. “I’m…”

“It’s okay.” He buttoned his suit jacket. “I’m not offended at all.”

“Jesus.” She exhaled. “I don’t know why I said that. I mean, I swore on the way over here that if I saw you I wouldn’t say anything stupid or offensive and the first time I open my mouth—”

“Lisa.” He took her hand. “It’s okay.”

Something about the way Jake looked at her. So transparent. So real.

She snatched her hand away.

So consuming.

“Did I do something wrong?” He rolled backward a little.

“No.” She rubbed her hand. “I just don’t think it’s appropriate, you know?”

“Ah, yeah.” He waved his finger. “Because of the case.” He winked. “Got it.”

She grinned. “So now you’re mocking me?”

They strolled across the lawn.

“Look, I don’t want you walking on eggshells around me.” Jake repositioned his wheels. “I hate that I make you feel that way.”

“I try not to.” She stepped on a dead flower. “It’s just not easy to be the person around the person that’s…” She gestured to him.

“Disabled?”

“Yeah. I’m just being honest.”

“I get it. I was the same way before I was disabled.” He stopped beside a tree. “I just want you to be comfortable with me. I wanna be your friend.”

“Why?” Lisa tore a leaf off the tree.

He made a sucking noise. “Because I think you need as many people in your life that care about you as possible. I know what you’re thinking.”

“Oh, do you?” She stood against the tree. “And what am I thinking?”

“You want to ask me how I ended up in this chair.”

“No.” She tore the leaf apart. “I don’t ask anything that’s not my business unless it has to do with a case.”

“Oh, you’re curious, all right.” He rolled closer. “See, there are certain questions people have in their heads when they first see me. And by the stunned look on your face when we met, you had those same questions.”

“I came here to see if I could find information about who might’ve killed Ernest. Not to play your games.”

“You like my games.” He moved his wheelchair back and forth. “And you like me.”

She threw the leaf down. “I’m gonna go see what I can find out.”

“Whoa.” He rolled in front of her. “We were talking about all those questions people mentally ask when they first see me. I bet you were thinking, ‘Oh, poor little wheelchair guy.’”

Lisa rolled her eyes.

“Then you followed that with, ‘I wonder what’s wrong with him?’ Then it turned to, ‘Was he born like this? Is he paralyzed?’ Then we get to, ‘Is he slow or special too?’”

“Stop it!”

He rolled back.

“Yes, I did wonder what happened to you, but I don’t appreciate being treated like an idiot.”

“It’s just a point I was trying to make. Ever since I’ve been like this all everyone seems to see is my chair. That’s all that ever matters to most people. Outside of a few friends, people don’t ever wonder what I’m thinking or feeling. They just see me as a chair and not a man.”

“I’m sure that’s not true.”

“Yes, it is. But I appreciate folks who are honest instead of those who patronize me. I mean, I go places and people stare. The first thing they wonder is what’s wrong with him. Some ask, some don’t. I get doors opened for me. I get free dessert at restaurants. But none of it’s because I’m a nice guy.” He chuckled. “It’s because of this chair. To a lot of people all I am is a chair.”

“Jake.” She touched his shoulder. “I swear I don’t think of you as a chair.” She bent down and kissed his cheek.

“Don’t you see why I like you, Lisa?” He placed his hand on her back. “Because I know you understand how it feels to be seen as what you are and not who you are. I bet being a black woman, you’ve had to face that a lot, right? People seeing you as a color and gender but not always as a person.”

She looked down.

“It’s the same thing I go through. Only those that can experience it will understand.” He moved his hand to the curve of her back. “We have a lot in common, Lisa.”

Her nipples hardened against her bra. “I’m not so sure about that.”

“Bend down,” he whispered.

“Why?” She kept her eyes straight ahead.

“Because I wanna kiss you.”

She leaned over.

“Excuse me?” A tall, elderly man with a shiny bald spot on his head approached. “Detective Swanson?”

Lisa jerked up.

“Oh.” Jake turned his chair toward the man. “Hello, Dr. Oxford.”

“Hello, Jake,” he responded with a scratchy voice. “I’m so sorry about Ernest.” He patted Jake’s shoulder. “You know he was like a son to me.”

“That means a lot. Lisa this is Dr. Armin Oxford. He’s the pharmacist that Ernest worked with.”

“Oh, yes.” Lisa shook his hand. “We’ve stopped by the pharmacy a few times but you’ve been out of town.”

“Yes, family business. I wanted to let you know I’m willing to do all I can to help with the investigation.” He breathed into his hands. “It just won’t be the same without Ernest. It’s been hard to work without him around.”

“I can imagine,” Lisa said. “If this isn’t too painful, would you mind answering some questions now?”

“Certainly. I’d do anything to help find Ernest’s killer.” He put his handkerchief away. “Ask away.”

CHAPTER SIX

“I appreciate you agreeing to talk to me again.” Lisa sat on Tori’s couch the following evening.

Tori dumped clean towels beside Lisa and began folding them. “I don’t know what else I could tell you, but for my daughter’s sake I’ll help if I can.” She pressed a towel against her stomach and slapped out the wrinkles. “She hasn’t been sleeping well. Says she sees his face every time she closes her eyes.”

“I’m so sorry she has to go through this.” Lisa got her notepad. “How have you been? I know it was hard for you to open up to me about the abuse. If you need someone to talk to about it I wouldn’t mind you reaching out.”

Tori laid a folded towel on the coffee table. “I thought you came here for Ernest.”

Lisa crossed her legs. “Didn’t see you at the funeral yesterday.”

“You were there?” Tori laid another towel down. “My sister took Rita but I didn’t go. I suppose that makes me sound awful.”

“No.” Lisa got her pencil. “With what you say he put you through, I understand.” She cleared her throat. “I don’t want to waste your time so I’ll get this wrapped up as quickly as possible. Do you know of anyone Ernest owed money to because of his gambling habit?”

“Habit?” Tori snatched a towel from the pile. “I don’t call not being able to go one day without gambling just a habit. The man was completely obsessed with it. He cared about gambling more than he did Rita and I.” She laid the folded towel down. “The only time he paid any attention to me was when he was beating me upside the head. The gambling is what led to the fights.” She shifted her weight to one side. “See, I’d question him because there wasn’t enough money in the bank for some bill or other expense, and then he’d lie and cop an attitude.” She picked up another towel. “Then he’d hit me and the next thing I know I’m putting ice on some swollen body part.” She glanced at Lisa. “You get used to it.”

You have no idea.

Lisa pressed the pencil to her lips. “I met Dr. Oxford at the funeral. He seems nice.”

“That man is a god.”

“What do you mean?”

Tori untangled two towels. “If it hadn’t been for Armin and his wife we’d have been homeless a long time ago. They helped us out when no one else would.”

“So they gave you money?”

“The Oxfords were our lifeline. Ernest and I were thousands of dollars in debt. Well…” Tori shrugged. “I still am thanks to Ernest. Anyway, the Oxfords gave us loans, paid for odds and ends. They were always there when we needed them.”

“Well, that definitely is gracious but why would the Oxfords be that kind?”

“They thought of Ernest as a son. They don’t have kids and Ernest was the son they never had. He filled a void for them. Dr. Oxford even tried to get Ernest help with his gambling addiction.”

Just then Lisa’s phone rang.

“Excuse me.” Dee’s name and number popped up on the screen. “You got something, Dee?”

“I sure as hell might. I just came from the pharmacy again. Spoke to another one of Ernest’s co-workers and she said that a woman named Sofia Weathers was in the pharmacy just days before Ernest was murdered.”

Tori stared at her while folding a towel.

“So?” Lisa asked.

So the woman was irate. I mean, off the damn wall. She was so mad that they almost called the cops to get her to leave. Apparently, her daughter overdosed on prescription meds about four months ago and Sofia blamed Ernest because he handled the prescriptions.”

“Holy shit.” Lisa stood.

“What?” Tori asked.

“So you see what that means, Leece?” Dee asked. “If that doesn’t give Sofia Weathers a possible motive, I don’t know what does.”


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