Still Waters

One: The Favor and a Compromise

They’re here.

Of course they were. They weren’t the kind of men to break a promise. The Garza brothers wove through Sammies & Spuds Deli ignoring the stares of appreciative women. Sara wiped her palms on her slacks, pressing down on her bouncing thigh. She shouldn’t be nervous; she’d asked them to come.

Because she needed a favor.

And it was illegal.

And they were the kind of guys that could do it.

The ice rattled in her drink, her leg’s mindless motion unsettling the table. The men defined bad-ass. Brooding Latinos, although Joaquin reminded her of an Aztec god, while AJ could be part Samoan. Both could kick her butt, and had every Tuesday and Thursday night for the last year at Brick Banning Athletics.

They owned a security company and were rumored to work for ‘unsavory characters’, as her third grade teacher would phrase it. Not that they bragged about it. AJ rarely spoke, and Joaquin never spoke about work. She’d seen a gang tattoo on Joaquin’s chest, although a religious icon covered the majority of it. Doubt wended its way to the logical part of her brain where she pushed it aside and reminded herself that she knew enough.

They were bad-ass.

And she needed bad-ass.

“Sara.” Joaquin’s voice slid across the crowded deli, low, distinct, and every woman turned and hoped he was talking to her. He lifted his chin and winked at a woman who was emptying a sugar packet onto her laptop instead of into her cup. The woman followed Joaquin’s path and gave Sara the evil eye. Sara fingered her Celtic cross, hoping to offset the curse.

Joaquin descended into the chair next to hers. His large frame engulfed the wooden seat, too much man for one space. He leaned forward and mesmerized Sara with the colorful tattoo on his broad forearm; a Hindu god dancing with a giant axe.

“Is that new?” she asked, fascinated by the reds and blues, and how precise the lines were drawn, outlining the god’s splayed toes as he kicked at his skirts. And why Hindu?

“Yeah.”

She wished he’d say more, but instead his gaze flicked around the room before settling on his brother waiting at the counter.

AJ was intensely silent, discouraging conversation, but gracious enough to lend a hand after tossing her onto the mat during kick-boxing practice. Twice now he’d even smiled when she’d kicked him upside the head. Because she was counting the number of times she’d managed to score points on them. Sixteen points in one year. It was enough to make her show up twice a week, like a gambling addict eager for the next win.

They both were dangerous. AJ more like a Rottweiler, and Joaquin a fast-striking scorpion. AJ was physically larger, but Joaquin’s strength was tightly-packed, barely-leashed, imposing. It could be his tattoos, or the fact that he could smile while his eyes were giving you a cold-hard glare. She’d practiced that look in the mirror, disappointed when the effect left her with a headache and facial tic.

Joaquin returned his attention to her, and heat struck her face, like the sun pushing past a cloud warming her. He edged closer and she caught herself from mirroring the motion.

“Thank you for meeting me,” she said.

He met her words with warm brown eyes and sweet, smooth voice, like melting chocolate on your tongue. “I like the food. You still working for the NSA?”

“Yes. I’m freelancing now, I mean, it’s not a salaried…” She shook her head to stop babbling.

“You like it?” His voice pitched low and soothing, as if she was skittish.

“Most days, yes. Somedays I think I’d rather be, you know…”

One eyebrow cocked and he smiled. “No, I don’t know.”

Amusement lit his eyes, and his angular features softened, and something softened inside her, too. The built up pressure in her chest fizzled, and she returned the smile.

He waited for her, giving her the opportunity to regroup. Not like when they sparred, and he was always there, and in her face, and crowding her so she couldn’t kick.

“It’s fine. It’s just I’m not good with incompetence,” she admitted. “I can be impatient.” Her voice lilted on the last couple of words making it into a question.

He lifted a shoulder, the shrug acknowledged her statement but didn’t pass judgement. “Do you think you’ll quit?”

She peered at him and huffed. “Every. Day. And then I remember I have a mortgage.”

“There are other jobs for someone with your skills.” His gaze pressed on her, making it hard to release her breath. He looked away and she deflated wondering if it was some kind of mental trick.

 AJ stalked over, tray in one hand and pulling the chair out with the other. He settled himself in one smooth motion.

Joaquin tapped a finger on the table. “So why are we here?”

Sara licked her lips, her mouth dry. “I need an unusual favor.” Her voice trembled, the feeling of ants crawling up her legs and settling in her chest, prickling her skin which grew hot and tight in her clothes.

Joaquin’s eyes followed the path of the ants.

AJ’s attention was directed on his sandwich.

“For you?” Joaquin asked.

“For a friend,” she said.

“Why?” Joaquin picked up his sandwich and took a large bite.

Sara reached into her purse, and pulled out an envelope. AJ’s brows knit closer, she assumed this was functional mute for “please continue”. He blinked again. It was probably meant to be intimidating, and it worked. 

She pushed the envelope containing four pictures of her friend Abigail. “She needs a new… Everything. To disappear… Her ex keeps finding her.” Sara pushed her fingers through her hair, twisting it up into a messy bun and closed her eyes, the image of Abigail’s brutally beaten face still fresh in her memory. She looked back down at the table; the envelope had disappeared.

AJ cut his eyes to Joaquin, curiosity lurked in his expression, eyebrows raised, and she swore he might even offer a sympathetic smile.

Joaquin picked up his sandwich, took a bite and chewed.

Sara did the same, but the bread was dry, the lettuce had no crunch, and the cheese stuck to her teeth.

“What’s it worth to you, Sara?” Joaquin asked.

She’d considered this question already, hoping she could do some work, like she had for AJ in the past.

“Eight weeks consulting,” Joaquin said.

“Eight weeks?” Sara squeaked and swallowed. “When am I supposed to have time to do that?”

AJ put his sandwich down. His voice sounded low and strained. “Paid consulting, for us.”

“You do that now,” Joaquin said.

“Yes, but I’m on a project and I can’t just—” Sara wrapped up her sandwich.

AJ interrupted. “When’s the project done?”

Sara’s eyes pinched shut. Working for them for eight weeks? Was that safe? Her current project was done-ish, maybe a day or two of tweaking the integration of her program with the other parts. She hadn’t signed on for the next project, yet.

“Sara.” AJ said.

“Eight weeks?” She fumbled with her cup, pulling the straw toward her and almost tipping the drink.

Joaquin’s hand swooped over to steady it.

She tripped over her words. “I could maybe take some time off. I mean I don’t get vacation, but I could maybe swing four weeks. Starting in like, four days or so?”

AJ looked at Joaquin, his head tilted to the side, reminding Sara of a dog offering submission. The moment passed. He picked up his sandwich and resumed eating.

She swiveled to Joaquin. “What would I be doing anyway?”

“Networking issues for a local business. Stopping hackers, that kind of thing. Your kind of thing.” Joaquin watched her reaction.

She hid her surprise, a whisper of guilt niggled at her. She’d assumed the majority of their work was as body guards, using their hulking forms as tools, not a professional company handling all aspects of security.

AJ stood. “I gotta go. No less than six weeks.” His attention lasered on Sara. “We’ll have this ready in three days. Your friend will be okay until then?”

“Yes, thank you.” She sagged against the chair. Three days and Abigail would be free. Lightness settled in her chest, her body singing with relief, gratitude following in its wake.

 “She staying with you?” Joaquin murmured.

Sara froze, unwilling to part with any information, not now, not until Abigail was safe.

He seemed to understand, his posture relaxed and he changed the subject. “Six weeks of consulting, deal?” His hand thrust forward, expectant to receive hers.

“Deal.” Her hand slid into his, a perfect fit. She pushed back at the doubt, she could do this for Abigail. Her first friend in DC, she’d helped her acclimate to the all-male politically charged environment. Abigail shared her love of kick-boxing, iced-molasses cookies, and all things Tom Hardy. In all that time, Abigail never mentioned her past, or her stalker ex-husband. All that kick boxing practice hadn’t worked. The bastard tased Abigail first, immobilizing her. Then he crushed her face, leaving her for dead. He still hadn’t been found. Abigail was still recovering, hidden in a hospital, but soon she’d be free.

“What’s the NSA’s benefit package?” Joaquin asked, moving closer, his shoulder, hard and hot, pushed against hers, taut and cold.

It had to be for privacy. Right?

He finished up the last of his sandwich.

“Benefits? As a consultant?”

His face pinched. “Why are you still working for them?”

She wrinkled her nose. “It was part of my five-year plan after college.”

The corner of his mouth tipped up and he rested his arm on her chair back. “Go on.”

His arm warmed the back of her neck, and she scooted away. “It doesn’t matter. I never considered working for private security before.” She smiled, her lips in the practiced-polite-professional arch. “It could be interesting.”

He knocked on the table. “Good. Six weeks. Paid. Full benefits. Come by Monday to get her stuff and you can fill out the paperwork. Who knows, you might like it and stay.” Joaquin stood.

She reached for him, her fingers brushing against his forearm. The colored tattoo was smooth, his muscles bunched underneath and she pulled her wandering fingers back. “Joaquin, thanks for your help.” Embarrassed to admit that after more than a year, she had no idea of Garza Security’s location. “I don’t know where you work.”

A warm smile grew on his face and softened his eyes, and caused her to melt a little. His hand dove into his back pocket and returned, an ivory card perched between two fingers. She moved to take it, but instead his other hand captured hers. Long fingers, strong, tanned against her pale hand cradled in his palm. He placed the card wrapping her fingers around it, like he was protecting a treasure.

“Call first; make sure I’m there.” His voice was warm, perhaps even seductive. His lips quirked, in that impish way like she’d caught him stealing cookies.

She pulled her hand back. “Okay,” she said proud she’d found her voice. “After five okay?”

“Sure. Call me sooner if you need help. You got it?” He stared, an I’m-serious-and-don’t-argue kind of glare, but he had nothing on the nuns from her school days.

“Yes, sir,” she said. She watched him leave, noting appreciative stares from women also following his long legs and that ass. She’d never had a chance to appreciate it before. This could be the very first time the man had turned his back to her. She was glad she hadn’t left with him. Damn intimidating aura or whatever the hell it was messed with her head. And he wanted her to work with him for six weeks?

Maybe she could telecommute…