Tattooed as Trouble ONLY
a Vegas Vixens novel by J.L. Hammer
He would protect her body, but she had to protect her heart.
For Raegan “Rae” Storm, the trouble in her life is as permanent as the tattoo stamped on her shoulder. After witnessing a double murder, she becomes the target of a bloodthirsty mafia and enters the Witness Protection Program in exchange for her testimony. With her life on the line, the last thing she expects is to lose her heart to the mysterious, handsome Quinn Bronson, the U.S. Marshal protecting her.
Driven by honor and his commitment to his job, Bronson rescues Rae from threats time and time again, but fighting off hit men is easier than ignoring his attraction for the one woman he should never desire: the witness. As danger presses in on Bronson and Rae, neither knows whom they can trust, and their forbidden love could be what destroys them.
Title: Tattooed as Trouble
Series: Vegas Vixens, #3
Author: J.L. Hammer
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Length: 296 pages
Release Date: February 2016
Imprint: Select Suspense
Price listed is for the U.S. digital format. Please confirm pricing and availability with the retailer before downloading.
An Excerpt from:
Tattooed as Trouble
by J.L. Hammer
Copyright © 2016 by J.L. Hammer. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
Surrounded by the glow from the half-moon in the night sky, Raegan Storm shimmied her curvy body out of the top-hinged window of the rundown factory. She grimaced as the metal frame cut into the tender skin on her stomach.
“Get a move on! The rent-a-cop’s break is over at ten,” her older brother True said, and gave her legs a shove with enough force that she crashed head first into an open Dumpster.
Pointy corners of cardboard boxes jabbed into her. She cringed at the pungent, vomit-like odor as her fingers met something slimy. Please just be rain collected from the recent April shower, and not body fluids. She swallowed against the gag that threatened to surface and shoved her long auburn hair out of her face.
After a few failed attempts she finally managed to roll to her feet. I’m going to strangle my brother. Why had she let him talk her into this? As usual she’d been her brother’s champion when the owner of the factory had taken True’s innovative idea and then fired him as their engineer. That morning True had barged into her apartment, his reddish-blond hair disheveled, his green eyes, the shade almost identical to hers, darting around the room as he spoke. “Breaking in won’t be hard. The factory’s not alarmed. I just need you to hold the flashlight and be a look out. I’ll get the prototype and then patent my design.”
“No way!” She’d paced a tight circle in her tiny living room. “I know you’re brilliant, but jail is not on this week’s agenda.”
“How many times have I been there for you, Rae? I stood by your side when Mom and Dad disowned you.”
The truth hurt. He was the only one who really cared for her. So she’d agreed. And look at her now. He had his prototype, and she smelled like vomit.
With gritted teeth, she poked her head out of the top of the Dumpster in time to catch a glimpse of her brother’s silhouette as he hoisted himself up to the windowsill. Just then, beams cut through the inkiness. Tires crunched over a road more dirt than asphalt. Raegan dropped to her knees and then covered her face with the back of her shaky hand to block the stench. Another car pulled up, the rumble of the engine sounding deeper than the first. Was it the cops?
Just be still and maybe they won’t find me. Like the Dumpster wouldn’t be the first place they’d check. Oh, she was so stupid. She couldn’t get arrested now. The people of Chicago were finally forgetting the notorious Storm family, and she wouldn’t be able to endure it if she was shunned again. For the first time in so long, Rae’s life was looking brighter. She’d actually been offered a hairdressing gig at an uptown salon.
She stayed crouched so long, her legs grew numb. Where was True? Probably hiding inside the building. Curiosity made her careless, and she had to sneak a peek. The cars faced each other. Two silhouetted forms climbed out of an older Cadillac, and two others slipped out of something sporty, probably a Porsche. Not cops—she almost collapsed with relief. With her head low, she peered toward the headlights that illuminated two men clad in suits. Each of the men had someone with him, but Rae couldn’t get a good look because they hugged the shadows.
“You have five minutes of my time, so hurry it up,” a heavy-set man said in a raspy voice.
“Judge Eiseman, you took the money, and our cousin’s still behind bars when he should be eating dinner with his mother.” The guy’s accent sounded Eastern European.
The fine hairs on the back of Raegan’s neck stood to attention.
“Not much I can do with a jury. It was out of my control. I ruled the audio evidence inadmissible, which raised some eyebrows, I have to tell you,” the judge said, and she identified him as the owner of the raspy voice. “And don’t ever contact me at the courthouse again. Our arrangement is over.”
“You don’t take money from the Boczar family and then spit in our faces.”
She should sink back down, but her eyes stayed glued to the confrontation. The judge shifted into the light enough for her to determine he had white hair, a bulbous nose, and a rotund figure. The person with him remained in the shadows.
“Don’t tell me what to do. With the snap of my fingers, I could have your warehouse on West Seventy-fourth Street raided.” Then the judge released a deep, long laugh. “You should see your face. You didn’t think I knew your drug trafficking operation had expanded from Detroit?”
The gangster opened his jacket. “You son of a—”
Then something silver flashed in the judge’s hand.
“No!” The gangster reeled back.
In rapid succession, shots pierced the night air. As if time slowed, her eyes registered a series of blinding flashes from the gun nozzles held by the judge and his shadowed companion. The dented metal of the Dumpster vibrated against her palms. Both gangsters’ bodies collapsed to the ground and jerked about. Rae dropped into the debris. Her heart ricocheted against her ribs. A heavy silence stretched out. Her breathing was too rapid; they’d hear her for sure. Be quiet. Be quiet. Sweat beaded across her forehead.
“Now, that saved our dear taxpayers a pretty penny on future prison costs.” The judge’s voice filtered past the pounding in her ears. A motor fired up and then a vehicle drove off. It took a moment for Rae’s body to unfreeze, and when it did she rushed into action. She secured her hands on the top of the cool, slimy metal, and with a hop tried to lift herself out of the Dumpster. She only made it part way before gravity yanked her back down. She shook out her arms and tried to take a deep breath, but the fear that pressed down on her lungs made it impossible. I have to get out of here! She was on the verge of calling her brother’s name when footfalls crunched nearby.
“Holy crap, dead bodies!” True said, as he hurried to the Dumpster. “Rae, are you okay?”
Relief flooded her. “We need to help those guys!”
“Are you insane? We’ll call an ambulance from a pay phone. Hurry up and get out already.”
“I can’t lift myself out.” She glared at his silhouette.
A growl rolled in his throat. “Back up.”
She did as instructed, and in a fluid motion True hopped into the Dumpster. “I’m buying you a gym membership for Christmas.”
She positioned herself next to the Dumpster wall and placed her foot on his interlocked fingers. Just as True gave her a hard boost, he yelled, “The cops!”
Blue and red lights flashed through the inkiness. Unable to stop her upward momentum, she lost her balance and fell out of the Dumpster. Her head slammed hard against the ground. Pain zigzagged through her skull as she squeezed her eyes shut. True called her name, but she couldn’t seem to move.
“Freeze! Lift your hands into the air!” a masculine voice echoed over a loudspeaker.
She cradled her head in her hands. Something warm dripped down her forehead and stung her eyes. Nausea sloshed in her stomach. A commotion followed. Beams of light hit her in the face. Her brother’s voice trickled past her disorientation. “My sister needs help. She’s hurt. Oh God, she’s bleeding!”
She failed to process the words being shouted. Someone touched her arm, spoke to her. Without opening her eyes, she knew it was a cop. A numbing warmth hugged her body. Thoughts and regrets surfaced in her mind as the edges of her consciousness dissolved into gray.
Absently, Rae touched the scar near the hairline on her forehead, courtesy of the headfirst dive into a sturdy piece of metal during her botched breaking-and-entering attempt six months earlier. The inch mark would always be an outward reminder of her stupidity—the curse of her DNA. It was difficult to believe that November had arrived. These past months she’d had nothing but time to dwell on her misfortune as she wasted away in a solitary jail cell with a few books, magazines, a stainless steel commode, and a built-in counter.
Bars clanked and slammed. Rae shifted on the lumpy mattress; the coolness of the metal frame penetrated into her shoulder. The memory of the interrogation that had followed her and her brother’s arrests still made her pulse quicken and a rock-size lump form in her throat. At first the police hadn’t believed the word of a Storm that Chicago’s own Judge Eiseman, along with a mysterious accomplice whom she couldn’t identify, murdered the Boczar brothers. True hadn’t been much help, since he hadn’t been able to corroborate her story. Although neither True nor she had gunpowder residue on their hands, the detectives had already considered them the prime suspects. Figured it had been a deal gone bad, and that True had met up with a member of the Boczar family when he’d been in the joint. The police wouldn’t have stopped until True and Rae had been slapped with murder charges if it hadn’t been for the appearance of the DEA, who’d wanted the location of the Boczar’s drug warehouse—bad.
A week later the DEA had made one of the largest ecstasy busts in Chicago’s history, and the police investigation had found evidence linking Eiseman to the Boczars. But the evidence of homicide was circumstantial. For a murder conviction, they needed Rae’s eyewitness account. That sounded cut and dry, except for one thing. Rae pressed her lips together, wondering if fate had it in for her. Unbeknownst to her, she’d just snitched on the Ukrainian Mafia. In the home country they were known as the Криваві Boczars, which translated into the “bloody Boczars,” because when they were through with their victims, the bodies were unrecognizable. A shiver hit every vertebrae as it snaked down her spine. Since in all likelihood a contract had been placed on her life, she’d been safely tucked away in a solitary jail cell. But that was all about to change—today.
Rae’s attention jerked to the solid door of her cell as it opened. A stout female correctional officer stepped in and set a pile of clothes on the corner of the cot. “Change into these street clothes. The marshals should be here within the hour to take custody of you, and then you’ll proceed to the safe house.”
The door clanked shut with the officer’s departure. Raegan pushed to her feet, stripped off the orange garments—more than relieved to be rid of them—and slipped on the jeans and T-shirt. Even though she swam in the clothes, they felt like heaven. She leaned against the cinderblock wall, slid her socked feet into the off-brand white sneakers, and then tied the laces. She pondered her bleak future. Some girls dreamed of being high powered CEOs, supermodels, or teachers and here she was with a one-way ticket into the Witness Protection Program. Tears pricked the backs of her eyes. True had already been relocated. Sure, in exchange for her testimony they’d be exonerated of their crime but she would never see her brother again. Rae looked skyward, her gaze fixed on the circular air vent pushing out the stale, Lysol-scented air. If only she’d tried harder to talk her brother out of his plan. Because of that one choice, her life and True’s were ruined.
She straightened, a headache taking root at the base of her neck and across the span of her brows. Judge Eiseman’s murder trial had been going for months now, and any day she’d have to testify. The media was frenzied. The prominent Eiseman family also had an assistant district attorney in Chicago. Add the Storm name as the witness, and it just made the story all the more delicious.
She inhaled a shaky breath and returned to the cot. As asinine as it sounded, she was more than ready for her custody to switch to the U.S. Marshals. She craved new surroundings and hopefully interaction with a friendly face—anything to distract her from her dark thoughts and to get her out of this hellhole. Heavy footsteps sounded, distracting her from her musings. The cell door swung open and three formidable men—all appearing to be in their thirties—entered. Rae straightened on the cot. Silver stars glistened on their breast pockets. Bulky handcuffs and firearms protruded from under their suit jackets. The cell door slammed closed behind them with finality.
Alarm ricocheted through her as she peered into their narrowed eyes and absorbed the disdain reflected in the marshals’ pinched faces. When would receiving that look from people stop hurting? Five years? Ten? Never? In her eagerness to get out of the cell, she’d hadn’t really considered the marshals might be from the Chicago area. Rae clasped the metal frame of the cot in a death grip. Cop killer! Memories of how many times people had shouted that ugly word at her almost made her double over. Even after two years, the fact that she hadn’t been directly involved—hadn’t even been in the vicinity during the standoff at her parents’ commune—didn’t matter to anyone.
The closest man towered over her as his gaze took in her appearance with casual appraisal. He was ruggedly handsome and appeared to be the most seasoned of the trio. “Miss Storm, I’m Deputy U.S. Marshal Bronson.” He spoke with a hint of a New York accent. He had sleek brown hair, long enough to run your fingers through, over a tan, wide forehead, and a raw masculinity that contrasted with the fine cut of his tailored suit. His expression was unreadable, his mouth straight, not even a hint of a smile.
Rae’s body tensed even more. Her grip on the metal frame turned painfully tight.
He gestured next to him to the agent with ebony skin, unblinking eyes, and a shiny bald head. “This is Marshal Gibbs, and the tall one in the back is Kranz.” His skin was a little too bronze to be natural, but Kranz’s blond buzz cut, thick vein-popping neck, and scowl made him a perfect candidate for a Marine recruiting ad. The walls of the room seemed to shift and close in on her. The air grew thin.
No way! Change of plan. Locked in a house with these guys for the duration of the trial wouldn’t put her at ease. She’d happily stare at these bland walls. Rae looked back to Marshal Bronson, fighting the onset of panic. “Y-you have the wrong cell.” She winced as her voice cracked.
“Ma’am, everything’s going to be okay. We’re here to take you to a safe place,” Marshal Bronson said as he widened his stance.
Yeah, right. Everything was not going to be okay. How could he actually say that with a straight face? If someone took a shot at her, he might even step aside just to let the bullet meet its target.
No. Be rational. These guys guarded witnesses they didn’t like all the time. She scrutinized Marshal Bronson’s attractive features. Intelligence reflected in his eyes. From the look of his broad-tipped nose and the low slash of his brows, she suspected he’d been a boxer or brawler in his youth. There was something compelling about him that made her want to stare a few moments longer. In her mind she envisioned herself as an entranced moth flying toward an enticing light…zap! She flinched and then blew out a long breath. “Here’s the deal. I-I would rather stay here. I’m really sorry you came all this way.”
Tension crackled in the air as the marshals stared down at her with such intensity she fought not to squirm. From outside a woman ranted. Bars slammed.
“You don’t need to be afraid. Our job is to protect you, should the need arise.” Marshal Bronson’s expression softened, making his square jaw, athletic build, and towering height somewhat less threatening. But that did little to reassure her as Kranz and Gibbs remained a wall of glaring statues behind him.
“Y-you all look like you could use a vacation.” She bit her lower lip and then pushed out the rest of the words. “Court’s only a few blocks away. I’ll be closer if I stay here.”
“Try seven miles. You’ve been here long enough. We don’t want to be predictable. That’s never a good thing,” Bronson said, not taking his unreadable gaze off her. “You going to let go of that bed so we can be on our way?”
Rae pretended to think about it. “Sorry, but no. It’s nothing personal.”
For a split second Bronson’s lips tilted up in a smirk, an expression she was sure he hadn’t meant to waste on her but it sure did look good on him. “Boys, you ever had to convince a witness to leave a jail cell before?”
“Nope,” Gibbs and Kranz said, the words coming out more like grunts.
“Try to relax, ma’am, the U.S. Marshals have been protecting witnesses since the program began in 1971,” Bronson said. “We’re the best, and we’ll provide round-the-clock protection. I know this isn’t easy, but I need you to trust us. I would really hate to have to tranquilize you.”
She gasped, her eyes widening. “You wouldn’t?”
“He would,” Gibbs announced, sounding excited.
She directed a glare at each man and then sighed. Trust them—no. But she’d go with the gruff-looking marshals. As if she really had a choice. Being tranquilized wasn’t on her morning agenda. She stood. “Fine. You don’t play fair.”
She smoothed her hair and felt a bit self-conscious by her total absence of makeup. From this position the men weren’t as intimidating since she reached Bronson’s and Gibbs’s chins. She didn’t bother to crane her neck to look at Kranz. “When will I have to testify?”
“We’ll be contacted when it’s time to bring you to the courthouse. Trials are unpredictable, lots of waiting. We won’t take you into public until it is absolutely necessary,” Bronson said, stepping back to give her space. “Now, when we leave, follow Gibbs. I have a hood for you to wear. Don’t talk to anyone, and I’ll have a hold of your arm, so just follow my lead.”
A hood? Her heart rate spiked. She wanted to hide under the cot, but nodded instead.
Bronson accepted the hood from Kranz and slipped it over her head. Rae stiffened at the sudden darkness. She inhaled the scent of fabric softener from the smooth cloth.
“Go ahead and adjust the eyeholes,” Bronson said.
“Won’t wearing a hood draw unneeded attention to me?” Talk about being obvious.
“No. We need to keep your face hidden.”
Rae adjusted the eyeholes, shoving away the uneasiness clawing down her spine.
“Okay, here we go.” His calloused fingers clasped her arm and guided her out of the cell. Inside the hood her heated breath fanned across her skin. Don’t think. Just move. The cement floor bounced around in her vision. Her sense of hearing heightened: feet shuffled, hollow bars slammed, a screechy woman argued with a man. All the while, Marshal Bronson led her through a maze that would take her out in the open. Would a gunman be waiting? She reached out and grabbed onto the hand that held her arm. Sweat coated her palms.
“Take even breaths, you’re doing fine. Everything is secure,” Bronson said in a low voice, clearly not seeing her on the verge of a panic attack inside the hood.
She was completely focused on her breathing when a wave of cool air washed over her. The faint chatter of a bird, the hum of idling motors, and the musty scent of rain made her stride falter. It had been so long since she’d been outside that if she didn’t fear for her life, she’d have lain on the ground and basked in the fresh air.
“Keep walking. Almost there.” Bronson’s hold kept her moving forward.
She quickened her pace and couldn’t stop herself from peering through the narrow eyeholes. Three similar dark sedans with tinted windows were parked at the curb. She frowned and did a double take. Two other women in hoods, both escorted by a handful of men, climbed into the other vehicles. Moments later Rae sat in the backseat of a sedan along with Bronson. Gibbs drove, with Kranz in the front next to him. Ten minutes or so passed before Bronson removed her hood. She blinked against the bright sunlight cutting through the sporadic dark clouds. Her shoulders sagged in relief. She’d made it. Leaving the jail was the most dangerous part—she hoped.
A cell phone rang, startling her. Bronson produced a phone from his belt and answered it. After listening a few moments, he said, “Roger that.” He hung up and announced, “Change of plan. We’re headed to I-80 West toward Jolet. Coordinates of the Ranch Motel are forty-one degrees north and eight-seven degrees west.”
Someone grunted, then Kranz opened a small laminated map.
“Is-is something wrong?” She started wringing her hands.
“No,” Marshal Kranz said and turned slightly in her direction, revealing the sharp curve of his bronzed cheekbone and his downturned mouth. His voice sounded like he gargled gravel on a regular basis. “Sometimes our destination changes, keeps everyone on their toes.”
Rae peered over her shoulder. The other vehicles had gone different routes and were no longer in sight. She turned back and settled in the seat. She hadn’t expected such a dog and pony show just to get her out of jail. Grudgingly, she had to admit the hood made sense now.
No one spoke. The engine hummed as they hit the freeway crowded with morning traffic.
A van kept a steady pace next to them. “Is this glass bulletproof?”
“Yes,” Bronson murmured without looking her way. “Relax, Miss Storm, and let us do our job. Your safety is our first priority.”
Rae couldn’t agree. Right now she got the feeling that Gibbs and Kranz would rather toss her out of the car into a ditch. After an hour of driving around and then switching to a four-door Jeep with dark windows, they parked behind a weathered single-story motel on the outskirts of Chicago. Kranz and Gibbs stepped out and disappeared around the building. This place didn’t look too secure, with a field bordered with tall, bushy trees in the rear, and a two-lane highway in front. She’d envisioned something more like a fortress, not the Bates Motel. She glanced at Bronson. His scrutiny of the area made her sink into her seat. “Do you think we were followed?”
“Why are you so tense then?”
“I’m always tense.”
She guessed that was a good thing. A window at the rear of the motel lifted and the screen popped off. Gibbs leaned out of the room and motioned.
Bronson said, “Come on. Keep quiet and climb through the window.”
He opened the vehicle door, snatched her hand, and practically pulled her out of the backseat. Her feet barely kept pace as he rushed her to the window. Before she even knew what was happening, Bronson grabbed her around the waist, lifted her size-eight frame as if she weighed nothing, and then stuffed her through the window into Gibbs’s hands.
“Stay low and take a seat,” Gibbs said as he guided her to a worn two-person dinette set.
Rae shoved long, wayward strands of hair out of her face and sank onto a vinyl chair. After Gibbs shut the window, he locked it and closed the heavy drapes. He strode across the grimy carpet and unlocked the door to the adjoining room.
Kranz strolled out of the bathroom looking like a weightlifter with camo cargo pants and a greasy muscle shirt. At his side she could discern the bulk of a gun. He stuck a thin cigar between his lips and slipped out the front door.
She released a slow breath and glanced around the outdated room with a queen bed, TV, and a kitchenette. The odor from old cigarettes crept up her nose. She stifled a sneeze. Just then the door to the adjoining room swung open, causing Rae to jump. Bronson in a Chicago Bears’ jersey and jeans walked in. Their gazes met as he shut the door.
“You doing okay?” he asked straight faced, but she detected something like concern in his eyes.
“I’m gonna go change. Grocery’s one block down,” Gibbs said. “You got the food list?”
Bronson fished out a square piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Gibbs.
“You want something, ma’am?” Gibbs asked.
Surprised by the question directed to her, it took a moment for her to respond. “I could use some chocolate.”
That made Gibbs grin, his teeth gleaming white against his dark skin. “Just like my wife when she’s all stressed.”
Blindsided by the change in his demeanor, Rae stared at him as he walked through the door to the connecting room.
“Roger, K-man,” Bronson said, recapturing her attention.
She lifted her brows. “Huh?”
Bronson pointed to his ear. “Kranz just reported the perimeter is all clear. We always have radio contact.” She couldn’t detect an earpiece, but a barely noticeable microphone was stuck onto the collar of his jersey.
He slipped into the chair across from her. “Some clothes are in the dresser for you, and toiletries are in the bathroom.”
“Okay, Miss Storm, let’s go over the rules.” He placed a muscular arm on the table and leaned forward. She peered up into his hazel eyes, noting they had specks of liquid gold. He had really nice eyes. The slash of low brows came across more menacing, but he didn’t seem so bad. And something about the husky timbre of his voice and his take-charge manner sent a sweet shiver dancing through her, which had nothing to do with being cold. Clearly, she’d gone way too long without receiving the least bit of attention from a man if this uptight marshal, regardless of how attractive he was, had her body taking notice.
“Miss Storm, are you listening?” His mouth tightened.
Mentally she shook herself. What the heck is wrong with me? “Um. Sorry, could you say that again?”
“This isn’t a game. I will only say this once: I will not tolerate you breaking the rules. If you aren’t invested in your safety, then you place us all in danger.”
Rae stiffened. “I’m sorry, my mind drifted. It won’t happen again.”
He rubbed his jaw and relaxed—a little. “As I was saying, you must stay away from the windows and stay inside at all times. The phone has been removed from the room so that won’t be a concern. I brought some magazines and books for you to read, but the TV is off-limits.”
She pursed her lips. “Why?”
“It would block out the sound of someone approaching…one of us will be with you most of the time, always in the next room with the door ajar, but just in case, you must follow these rules.”
“If housekeeping knocks, let one of us answer.”
She nodded. She’d bet this guy had spent many years in the military. “Anything else, sir?”
He narrowed his gaze, making creases fan around his eyes. Was it being near her that brought out this guy’s charming side or was he always all business? “No. That’s it, for now.” He pushed to his feet and strode into the connecting room.
Finally alone, somewhat, she buried her face in her hands. Her unknown fate plagued her. Soon she’d have to walk into a courtroom full of people and face the man she’d seen kill someone in cold blood.