Chapter Onehhhh

Rebecca Menendez bur

 

 Chapter One

Rebecca Menendez burst through the doors of courtroom 5A, her pulse racing. Like a guided missile on a mission, she swerved past a rival TV reporter also pushing his way out of the crowded courtroom.

This was her story. She broke the news a year ago. She’d be the first to report the verdict today. Then, maybe she’d finally get that promotion into the Special Investigation unit. Her lungs tightened as she hit high gear and sprinted down the hall toward the south side exit of Tampa’s downtown courthouse.

“Slow down, Menendez.”

Out of the corner of her eye she caught Ike, one of the veteran bailiffs, standing rigid against the wall.

“You’re going to break your ankle on those stilts you wear for shoes,” he grumbled.

“Sorry.” Rebecca skidded to a halt, offering a guilty shrug. “Deadline to meet.” But she couldn’t stop a smile from stretching across her face. She was so damn proud. “Verdict came back. Finally. I’ve been working this story for twelve months.”

Ike nodded. “You keep speaking out for the abused, like you do.”

Her breath caught at the cynical old-timer’s indirect compliment. She lived for words like that. If only her mother had lived long enough to see her today, following in her father’s footsteps. If her papi hadn’t been murdered, she might have earned his respect today, too. Her chest burned with an odd mixture of both satisfaction and regret.

Ike waved her on and, at the last moment, delivered a thumbs-up along with a rare smile.

Rebecca grinned, heat rushing into her cheeks. Glancing at the clock at the end of the hall, her heart jumped. Five minutes to five. She’d make the top of the newscast if she bolted.

She powered down the hall, arms pumping in a barely controlled walk-run until she exited the courthouse. The summer humidity slapped her skin in one hot wave. Despite that blast, she took off down the sidewalk, sideswiping an attorney she knew, stumbling, regaining her balance, and sprinting to the large Eyewitness News van parked on the side of the street.

Dallas “Dawg” Jones, her longtime friend and photographer, was clicking his camera onto the tripod on the sidewalk.

“Hey Dawg,” she huffed, sweat dripping down the curve in her back. “You heard?” She couldn’t do a live report breathless like this. She leaned over, hands on her knees.

 “Guilty of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.” Dallas broke into a grin. “That fool got what was coming to him.”

“Sure did.” She stood up, swiping the sweat off her forehead and quickly brushing a hand over her long hair, hoping to straighten out any wayward strands. July heat always made her melt during live shots. “It took the jury less than an hour to decide.”

Dallas raised his eyebrows as he handed her an earpiece. “That man’s days were numbered after his wife put him on blast by talking to you. No one could look at that woman’s burned-off face and come back with anything other than guilty. Wouldn’t be surprised if the jury sentences him to life in prison.”

Rebecca nodded. “Sentencing is set for Monday.”

“No matter what his sentence, you know his jail mates are gonna get that ass in prison. John Fredrick’s gonna belong to a guy named Snake or the dude with the most cigarettes.”

 Rebecca bit back a smile. Dallas always broke the tension and made her laugh. It was his way. And on stressful days like today, they both needed his fresh, blunt humor. “The judge ordered everyone to remain silent as the verdict was read. But Adrianna cried with relief when she heard the jury found her ex guilty. No one shushed her sobbing. Not even the judge.” Rebecca bounced on the sidewalk, her heels barely touching the cement. She felt a little buzzed on adrenaline. “That moment made all of our hard work on this story worthwhile.” She gestured for Dallas to hand her a microphone. She wasn’t missing the top of the show. No way. She had too much to prove today. She was good enough to work with the investigative team.

Dallas put in his own earpiece first. “You ready?”

“I’ve been ready since the day her jerk of an ex-husband set her on fire.” Her stomach churned, recalling Adrianna’s ruined face in those first weeks—looking like raw meat, blistered and oozing puss. How could anyone value someone so little they’d set him or her on fire? Rebecca still had nightmares about it, but she couldn’t let her personal fears show now, so she pushed her shoulders down.

Dallas handed her the wireless microphone, a knowing smile lighting up his eyes. “Thought you reporter types were supposed to remain unbiased.”

Rebecca quickly clipped the microphone on her suit lapel. “Impossible in this case.” She lifted her chin. “There are some stories that don’t have two sides. Those stories simply have to be told.” She pointed a finger at Dallas, hoping her words resonated with her ambitious young friend. “No matter what the cost.”

“You’re damn straight.” Dallas nodded. “You hear Sandy?” He kept fiddling with a cord leading into his news camera.

As Rebecca shoved her earpiece in, her producer’s voice from back in the studio came through. “Two minutes till the top of the show.”

“Got it.”

“Stand by,” Sandy said.

Rebecca blew out a breath, wishing the fingernails of anticipation would stop scraping up her insides. Focus. Don’t get all nervous now. Turning back to the camera, she took a deep breath and wiped her forehead again.

“You’ve got two minutes total,” Sandy said.

Two minutes of airtime to sum up a year’s worth of work on Rebecca’s part. She rolled her shoulders. She didn’t need to explain the devastating physical damage to Adrianna. That would be obvious. What Rebecca wanted to share with her viewers was what they couldn’t see in two minutes on TV, like the way Adrianna flinched whenever she saw fire or blanched whenever a man raised his voice. Or the way she never made eye contact with strangers, or always held her head down. These were the details that still affected Rebecca as a reporter. As a human being. Adrianna felt worthless, and the man who supposedly loved her was the one who made her feel that way. She wanted her audience to realize some scars couldn’t be healed, and some stories weren’t just surface deep. They affected one’s soul. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment she couldn’t swallow.

Rebecca closed her eyes. Focus on the moment. Make everyone watching care about Adrianna and the bigger issue of domestic violence. No one should feel worthless.

Ever.

She opened her eyes, and the red light on Dallas’s camera turned green. Her heart stutter-stepped. The main anchors threw to her, and with a deep breath, she began to recount what she knew would forever be one of the best stories on one of the best days of her life.

***

Not even fifteen seconds after Rebecca’s live shot ended, her cell phone vibrated. She pulled it out of her pocket. It was Samantha Steele, her fellow reporter and best friend. Rebecca answered. “Okay, Sam, tell me you were watching.”

“I was. I’m stuck up here in Spring Hill, waiting for my six p.m. live shot. Watching from the live truck.”

“Sorry.” Spring Hill was two hours away. Sam wouldn’t get home until eight tonight. One of the downsides of being the station’s top reporter. “Think Stan will be impressed enough to give me the investigative reporter job after my story today?” Her news director was supposed to make a decision on the position in the next week or two.

“You rocked that live shot, and the emotion in that story made me tear up.”

Her heart beat faster. Coming from Samantha Steele that meant a lot. Sam had just uncovered a murder-for-hire plot at a local adventure vacation company, making national headlines. “Thanks.”

“So, listen.” Sam sounded a little distracted. “I’m calling about that party at the governor’s mansion coming up. You in?”

“Hell yeah, I’m in.” Breaking national news had its benefits. Sam had just scored an invite to the biggest charity event in Tampa. Samantha knew how much Rebecca longed to finally meet the governor face-to-face, so she could lobby for him to sign a bill sitting on his desk right now. The bill would secure funding for her favorite charity, Tampa’s domestic violence shelter. Sam had invited her to go with her and her fiancé, Zack Hunter. Hottest guy in town. A twinge of envy hit Rebecca’s heart. She longed for the kind of romantic, I’d do anything for you kind of love Samantha and Zack had. “I can’t wait. I just got my Alexander McQueen gown cleaned.” After renting it from Luxury for Less, a consignment store in Tampa. Everyone assumed Rebecca was rich because she worked in TV. She made good money, but not enough to buy a thousand-dollar gown. But she wanted to fit in, look like the classy, South Tampa elite. No one would know it was rented. After a childhood of wearing hand-me-downs, Rebecca certainly knew how to play the part without spending the money.

“All right, then. I’m off.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

“You bet.”

Disconnecting, butterflies tickled Rebecca’s stomach. She looked skyward. Too bad her mom hadn’t lived to see her daughter cross over Kennedy Boulevard into the South Tampa elite, succeeding both personally and professionally. Rebecca would soon be dining with the governor, for goodness’ sake. Her throat tightened, and she hoped both parents were somehow watching. She was so close to achieving all of her dreams. And she had established a platform to do good for others in the process. She liked to think her parents would be proud.

“You gonna shake a leg, Becca?”

She jumped at Dallas’s voice.

He snapped his fingers at her. “Let’s do this.”

“Sorry.” She swallowed. They still had another live shot and package to prepare.

“You got that story for the six written?”

“No.”

“Girl, get on it.” Dallas’s eyes widened.

“What?” Why was Dallas bugging out? “You know it won’t take me that long to write the story.”

 “What in the Halle Berry is that all about?” Dallas stumbled back two steps, both hands shooting out in front of his big frame. “Behind you! Get the hell outta the way!”

Rebecca jerked around. Coño! A white construction van was jumping the curb and speeding down the sidewalk toward her. Her heart sprinted, but the muscles in her legs locked up.

The van skidded to a stop, so close she instinctively stumbled back to avoid being hit. The scent of burning rubber whooshed up her nostrils. The side door slid open and a man jumped out. Tall, muscular, wearing shorts, he had tattoos covering his entire left arm. Dear Lord.

And he had on a mask.

Oh shit! “Wait. Don’t.” Rebecca threw out both hands. Her heart was racing so fast it hurt. “What’s going on?” She could barely catch her breath.

A second man sprang out of the passenger’s side of the van. This guy was beefy, also wearing a ski mask. He gripped what looked like a gun in his hands.

Holy shit! The hair on her arms stood up, and her throat tightened.

“Metete en la camioneta!” the tattoo man grunted.

“Get in his van?” Rebecca spun around, sure the tattooed man must be talking to someone behind her.

“Oh, my damn.” Dawg stood next to his camera, a statue on the sidewalk, his face frozen, mouth open.

A handful of other media members cluttered the walkway, gawking at the men from the white van. One reporter screamed and started running. Good idea.

“Rebecca.” The tattooed man's voice remained calm. “I’m talking to you two.”

Rebecca jerked back around.

“Just do what they say.” Dallas’s voice rose. “What these masked dudes want with my big two-hundred-and-fifty-pound ass, I do not know.”

She was too scared to turn and see what Dallas was doing, but she knew her cameraman would protect her if he could. She also knew better than to get into a vehicle with an armed person. You do, you're dead. My watch! She took off the Tag she’d recently splurged on. “Here, take this. Please, don’t shoot.”

 “You’re coming with me.” The tattooed guy gestured with the gun.

“Hey, someone's being robbed. They've got guns,” a high-pitched female voice squawked from somewhere behind her. “Call 911!”

The robber’s eyes flickered to a spot over Rebecca’s shoulder.

Finally, a chance. Every nerve in her body fired. She dashed for the news van, expecting the hot sensation of a bullet to tear into her skin at any second. Blood pounded in her ears, drowning out all other sounds. She ran hard, toes pinched in her stilettos. One heel sank into a crack, and her ankle turned. Reaching out, her palms broke her fall. The pavement tore at the pads of her hands as she skidded across the sidewalk, her skin heating like an iron.

She pushed up with a grunt. Someone yanked her back by her hair, pulling her off balance. She stumbled and screamed, “Let me go,” crashing into a big body, tattoos visible on the man’s arm. He smelled like onions and sweat. Gagging, she pushed away.

“Man, what the hell are you doing? Let her go!” Dallas yelled.

A damp cloth clamped over her face. What the? She tensed. The rag stank of something chemical but sweet. Chloroform? Tattoo guy forced the rag hard against her mouth and nose. She couldn’t breathe. Panic flooded through her. Her fingers started to tingle, and her head was spinning.

Lashing out, she dug into the man's arms, tearing his skin, feeling his warm, sweaty flesh lodge under her fingernails.

“Ready to go to Cuba?” The man dragged her backward.

Cuba? She'd die before she set foot in Cuba. Damn government would never silence her like it’d silenced her father.

Jerking her off the ground, the tattooed man stumbled toward the van. She had just enough freedom, and just enough air left, to drive her heel back up into his groin. Awkward and off balance, she missed.

A gunshot rang out. Rebecca’s heart froze. A woman screamed, but it sounded so far away. Rebecca kept struggling and blinking to keep her eyes open. Jesus. Her arms felt like steel appendages, impossible to lift, and her eyes were having trouble focusing.

The man yanked her head back. Assaulted by the sickeningly sweet smell flooding her mouth and nose, Rebecca retched. Her feet suddenly hit the ground. She stumbled, slamming her shin against hard metal as the gunman pushed her through the van’s open door. She hit the van floor with a grunt.

“No la lastime.”

That was a new voice. Ordering the tattooed guy not to hurt her? Too late.

She strained to see who was talking, but her vision kept narrowing. The chaotic mixture of sound and movement shrank from a long tunnel into a small black dot. She was going to pass out.

Someone gently brushed the hair away from her face and helped maneuver her into a more comfortable position.

“I won’t hurt you.”

The new voice spoke in English this time.

Her heart pounded harder, but the sensation of a different man’s soft touch faded.

And then…nothing.

through the doors of courtroom 5A, her pulse racing. Like a guided missile on a mission, she swerved past a rival TV reporter also pushing his way out of the crowded co

 

 Chapter One

Rebecca Menendez burst through the doors of courtroom 5A, her pulse racing. Like a guided missile on a mission, she swerved past a rival TV reporter also pushing his way out of the crowded courtroom.

This was her story. She broke the news a year ago. She’d be the first to report the verdict today. Then, maybe she’d finally get that promotion into the Special Investigation unit. Her lungs tightened as she hit high gear and sprinted down the hall toward the south side exit of Tampa’s downtown courthouse.

“Slow down, Menendez.”

Out of the corner of her eye she caught Ike, one of the veteran bailiffs, standing rigid against the wall.

“You’re going to break your ankle on those stilts you wear for shoes,” he grumbled.

“Sorry.” Rebecca skidded to a halt, offering a guilty shrug. “Deadline to meet.” But she couldn’t stop a smile from stretching across her face. She was so damn proud. “Verdict came back. Finally. I’ve been working this story for twelve months.”

Ike nodded. “You keep speaking out for the abused, like you do.”

Her breath caught at the cynical old-timer’s indirect compliment. She lived for words like that. If only her mother had lived long enough to see her today, following in her father’s footsteps. If her papi hadn’t been murdered, she might have earned his respect today, too. Her chest burned with an odd mixture of both satisfaction and regret.

Ike waved her on and, at the last moment, delivered a thumbs-up along with a rare smile.

Rebecca grinned, heat rushing into her cheeks. Glancing at the clock at the end of the hall, her heart jumped. Five minutes to five. She’d make the top of the newscast if she bolted.

She powered down the hall, arms pumping in a barely controlled walk-run until she exited the courthouse. The summer humidity slapped her skin in one hot wave. Despite that blast, she took off down the sidewalk, sideswiping an attorney she knew, stumbling, regaining her balance, and sprinting to the large Eyewitness News van parked on the side of the street.

Dallas “Dawg” Jones, her longtime friend and photographer, was clicking his camera onto the tripod on the sidewalk.

“Hey Dawg,” she huffed, sweat dripping down the curve in her back. “You heard?” She couldn’t do a live report breathless like this. She leaned over, hands on her knees.

 “Guilty of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.” Dallas broke into a grin. “That fool got what was coming to him.”

“Sure did.” She stood up, swiping the sweat off her forehead and quickly brushing a hand over her long hair, hoping to straighten out any wayward strands. July heat always made her melt during live shots. “It took the jury less than an hour to decide.”

Dallas raised his eyebrows as he handed her an earpiece. “That man’s days were numbered after his wife put him on blast by talking to you. No one could look at that woman’s burned-off face and come back with anything other than guilty. Wouldn’t be surprised if the jury sentences him to life in prison.”

Rebecca nodded. “Sentencing is set for Monday.”

“No matter what his sentence, you know his jail mates are gonna get that ass in prison. John Fredrick’s gonna belong to a guy named Snake or the dude with the most cigarettes.”

 Rebecca bit back a smile. Dallas always broke the tension and made her laugh. It was his way. And on stressful days like today, they both needed his fresh, blunt humor. “The judge ordered everyone to remain silent as the verdict was read. But Adrianna cried with relief when she heard the jury found her ex guilty. No one shushed her sobbing. Not even the judge.” Rebecca bounced on the sidewalk, her heels barely touching the cement. She felt a little buzzed on adrenaline. “That moment made all of our hard work on this story worthwhile.” She gestured for Dallas to hand her a microphone. She wasn’t missing the top of the show. No way. She had too much to prove today. She was good enough to work with the investigative team.

Dallas put in his own earpiece first. “You ready?”

“I’ve been ready since the day her jerk of an ex-husband set her on fire.” Her stomach churned, recalling Adrianna’s ruined face in those first weeks—looking like raw meat, blistered and oozing puss. How could anyone value someone so little they’d set him or her on fire? Rebecca still had nightmares about it, but she couldn’t let her personal fears show now, so she pushed her shoulders down.

Dallas handed her the wireless microphone, a knowing smile lighting up his eyes. “Thought you reporter types were supposed to remain unbiased.”

Rebecca quickly clipped the microphone on her suit lapel. “Impossible in this case.” She lifted her chin. “There are some stories that don’t have two sides. Those stories simply have to be told.” She pointed a finger at Dallas, hoping her words resonated with her ambitious young friend. “No matter what the cost.”

“You’re damn straight.” Dallas nodded. “You hear Sandy?” He kept fiddling with a cord leading into his news camera.

As Rebecca shoved her earpiece in, her producer’s voice from back in the studio came through. “Two minutes till the top of the show.”

“Got it.”

“Stand by,” Sandy said.

Rebecca blew out a breath, wishing the fingernails of anticipation would stop scraping up her insides. Focus. Don’t get all nervous now. Turning back to the camera, she took a deep breath and wiped her forehead again.

“You’ve got two minutes total,” Sandy said.

Two minutes of airtime to sum up a year’s worth of work on Rebecca’s part. She rolled her shoulders. She didn’t need to explain the devastating physical damage to Adrianna. That would be obvious. What Rebecca wanted to share with her viewers was what they couldn’t see in two minutes on TV, like the way Adrianna flinched whenever she saw fire or blanched whenever a man raised his voice. Or the way she never made eye contact with strangers, or always held her head down. These were the details that still affected Rebecca as a reporter. As a human being. Adrianna felt worthless, and the man who supposedly loved her was the one who made her feel that way. She wanted her audience to realize some scars couldn’t be healed, and some stories weren’t just surface deep. They affected one’s soul. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment she couldn’t swallow.

Rebecca closed her eyes. Focus on the moment. Make everyone watching care about Adrianna and the bigger issue of domestic violence. No one should feel worthless.

Ever.

She opened her eyes, and the red light on Dallas’s camera turned green. Her heart stutter-stepped. The main anchors threw to her, and with a deep breath, she began to recount what she knew would forever be one of the best stories on one of the best days of her life.

***

Not even fifteen seconds after Rebecca’s live shot ended, her cell phone vibrated. She pulled it out of her pocket. It was Samantha Steele, her fellow reporter and best friend. Rebecca answered. “Okay, Sam, tell me you were watching.”

“I was. I’m stuck up here in Spring Hill, waiting for my six p.m. live shot. Watching from the live truck.”

“Sorry.” Spring Hill was two hours away. Sam wouldn’t get home until eight tonight. One of the downsides of being the station’s top reporter. “Think Stan will be impressed enough to give me the investigative reporter job after my story today?” Her news director was supposed to make a decision on the position in the next week or two.

“You rocked that live shot, and the emotion in that story made me tear up.”

Her heart beat faster. Coming from Samantha Steele that meant a lot. Sam had just uncovered a murder-for-hire plot at a local adventure vacation company, making national headlines. “Thanks.”

“So, listen.” Sam sounded a little distracted. “I’m calling about that party at the governor’s mansion coming up. You in?”

“Hell yeah, I’m in.” Breaking national news had its benefits. Sam had just scored an invite to the biggest charity event in Tampa. Samantha knew how much Rebecca longed to finally meet the governor face-to-face, so she could lobby for him to sign a bill sitting on his desk right now. The bill would secure funding for her favorite charity, Tampa’s domestic violence shelter. Sam had invited her to go with her and her fiancé, Zack Hunter. Hottest guy in town. A twinge of envy hit Rebecca’s heart. She longed for the kind of romantic, I’d do anything for you kind of love Samantha and Zack had. “I can’t wait. I just got my Alexander McQueen gown cleaned.” After renting it from Luxury for Less, a consignment store in Tampa. Everyone assumed Rebecca was rich because she worked in TV. She made good money, but not enough to buy a thousand-dollar gown. But she wanted to fit in, look like the classy, South Tampa elite. No one would know it was rented. After a childhood of wearing hand-me-downs, Rebecca certainly knew how to play the part without spending the money.

“All right, then. I’m off.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

“You bet.”

Disconnecting, butterflies tickled Rebecca’s stomach. She looked skyward. Too bad her mom hadn’t lived to see her daughter cross over Kennedy Boulevard into the South Tampa elite, succeeding both personally and professionally. Rebecca would soon be dining with the governor, for goodness’ sake. Her throat tightened, and she hoped both parents were somehow watching. She was so close to achieving all of her dreams. And she had established a platform to do good for others in the process. She liked to think her parents would be proud.

“You gonna shake a leg, Becca?”

She jumped at Dallas’s voice.

He snapped his fingers at her. “Let’s do this.”

“Sorry.” She swallowed. They still had another live shot and package to prepare.

“You got that story for the six written?”

“No.”

“Girl, get on it.” Dallas’s eyes widened.

“What?” Why was Dallas bugging out? “You know it won’t take me that long to write the story.”

 “What in the Halle Berry is that all about?” Dallas stumbled back two steps, both hands shooting out in front of his big frame. “Behind you! Get the hell outta the way!”

Rebecca jerked around. Coño! A white construction van was jumping the curb and speeding down the sidewalk toward her. Her heart sprinted, but the muscles in her legs locked up.

The van skidded to a stop, so close she instinctively stumbled back to avoid being hit. The scent of burning rubber whooshed up her nostrils. The side door slid open and a man jumped out. Tall, muscular, wearing shorts, he had tattoos covering his entire left arm. Dear Lord.

And he had on a mask.

Oh shit! “Wait. Don’t.” Rebecca threw out both hands. Her heart was racing so fast it hurt. “What’s going on?” She could barely catch her breath.

A second man sprang out of the passenger’s side of the van. This guy was beefy, also wearing a ski mask. He gripped what looked like a gun in his hands.

Holy shit! The hair on her arms stood up, and her throat tightened.

“Metete en la camioneta!” the tattoo man grunted.

“Get in his van?” Rebecca spun around, sure the tattooed man must be talking to someone behind her.

“Oh, my damn.” Dawg stood next to his camera, a statue on the sidewalk, his face frozen, mouth open.

A handful of other media members cluttered the walkway, gawking at the men from the white van. One reporter screamed and started running. Good idea.

“Rebecca.” The tattooed man's voice remained calm. “I’m talking to you two.”

Rebecca jerked back around.

“Just do what they say.” Dallas’s voice rose. “What these masked dudes want with my big two-hundred-and-fifty-pound ass, I do not know.”

She was too scared to turn and see what Dallas was doing, but she knew her cameraman would protect her if he could. She also knew better than to get into a vehicle with an armed person. You do, you're dead. My watch! She took off the Tag she’d recently splurged on. “Here, take this. Please, don’t shoot.”

 “You’re coming with me.” The tattooed guy gestured with the gun.

“Hey, someone's being robbed. They've got guns,” a high-pitched female voice squawked from somewhere behind her. “Call 911!”

The robber’s eyes flickered to a spot over Rebecca’s shoulder.

Finally, a chance. Every nerve in her body fired. She dashed for the news van, expecting the hot sensation of a bullet to tear into her skin at any second. Blood pounded in her ears, drowning out all other sounds. She ran hard, toes pinched in her stilettos. One heel sank into a crack, and her ankle turned. Reaching out, her palms broke her fall. The pavement tore at the pads of her hands as she skidded across the sidewalk, her skin heating like an iron.

She pushed up with a grunt. Someone yanked her back by her hair, pulling her off balance. She stumbled and screamed, “Let me go,” crashing into a big body, tattoos visible on the man’s arm. He smelled like onions and sweat. Gagging, she pushed away.

“Man, what the hell are you doing? Let her go!” Dallas yelled.

A damp cloth clamped over her face. What the? She tensed. The rag stank of something chemical but sweet. Chloroform? Tattoo guy forced the rag hard against her mouth and nose. She couldn’t breathe. Panic flooded through her. Her fingers started to tingle, and her head was spinning.

Lashing out, she dug into the man's arms, tearing his skin, feeling his warm, sweaty flesh lodge under her fingernails.

“Ready to go to Cuba?” The man dragged her backward.

Cuba? She'd die before she set foot in Cuba. Damn government would never silence her like it’d silenced her father.

Jerking her off the ground, the tattooed man stumbled toward the van. She had just enough freedom, and just enough air left, to drive her heel back up into his groin. Awkward and off balance, she missed.

A gunshot rang out. Rebecca’s heart froze. A woman screamed, but it sounded so far away. Rebecca kept struggling and blinking to keep her eyes open. Jesus. Her arms felt like steel appendages, impossible to lift, and her eyes were having trouble focusing.

The man yanked her head back. Assaulted by the sickeningly sweet smell flooding her mouth and nose, Rebecca retched. Her feet suddenly hit the ground. She stumbled, slamming her shin against hard metal as the gunman pushed her through the van’s open door. She hit the van floor with a grunt.

“No la lastime.”

That was a new voice. Ordering the tattooed guy not to hurt her? Too late.

She strained to see who was talking, but her vision kept narrowing. The chaotic mixture of sound and movement shrank from a long tunnel into a small black dot. She was going to pass out.

Someone gently brushed the hair away from her face and helped maneuver her into a more comfortable position.

“I won’t hurt you.”

The new voice spoke in English this time.

Her heart pounded harder, but the sensation of a different man’s soft touch faded.

And then…nothing.

urtroom.

This was her story. She broke the news a year ago. She’d be the first to report the verdict today. Then, maybe she’d finally get that promotion into the Special Investigation unit. Her lungs tightened as she hit high gear and sprinted down the hall toward the south side exit of Tampa’s downtown courthouse.

“Slow down, Menendez.”

Out of the corner of her eye she caught Ike, one of the veteran bailiffs, standing rigid against the wall.

“You’re going to break your ankle on those stilts you wear for shoes,” he grumbled.

“Sorry.” Rebecca skidded to a halt, offering a guilty shrug. “Deadline to meet.” But she couldn’t stop a smile from stretching across her face. She was so damn proud. “Verdict came back. Finally. I’ve been working this story for twelve months.”

Ike nodded. “You keep speaking out for the abused, like you do.”

Her breath caught at the cynical old-timer’s indirect compliment. She lived for words like that. If only her mother had lived long enough to see her today, following in her father’s footsteps. If her papi hadn’t been murdered, she might have earned his respect today, too. Her chest burned with an odd mixture of both satisfaction and regret.

Ike waved her on and, at the last moment, delivered a thumbs-up along with a rare smile.

Rebecca grinned, heat rushing into her cheeks. Glancing at the clock at the end of the hall, her heart jumped. Five minutes to five. She’d make the top of the newscast if she bolted.

She powered down the hall, arms pumping in a barely controlled walk-run until she exited the courthouse. The summer humidity slapped her skin in one hot wave. Despite that blast, she took off down the sidewalk, sideswiping an attorney she knew, stumbling, regaining her balance, and sprinting to the large Eyewitness News van parked on the side of the street.

Dallas “Dawg” Jones, her longtime friend and photographer, was clicking his camera onto the tripod on the sidewalk.

“Hey Dawg,” she huffed, sweat dripping down the curve in her back. “You heard?” She couldn’t do a live report breathless like this. She leaned over, hands on her knees.

 “Guilty of attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon.” Dallas broke into a grin. “That fool got what was coming to him.”

“Sure did.” She stood up, swiping the sweat off her forehead and quickly brushing a hand over her long hair, hoping to straighten out any wayward strands. July heat always made her melt during live shots. “It took the jury less than an hour to decide.”

Dallas raised his eyebrows as he handed her an earpiece. “That man’s days were numbered after his wife put him on blast by talking to you. No one could look at that woman’s burned-off face and come back with anything other than guilty. Wouldn’t be surprised if the jury sentences him to life in prison.”

Rebecca nodded. “Sentencing is set for Monday.”

“No matter what his sentence, you know his jail mates are gonna get that ass in prison. John Fredrick’s gonna belong to a guy named Snake or the dude with the most cigarettes.”

 Rebecca bit back a smile. Dallas always broke the tension and made her laugh. It was his way. And on stressful days like today, they both needed his fresh, blunt humor. “The judge ordered everyone to remain silent as the verdict was read. But Adrianna cried with relief when she heard the jury found her ex guilty. No one shushed her sobbing. Not even the judge.” Rebecca bounced on the sidewalk, her heels barely touching the cement. She felt a little buzzed on adrenaline. “That moment made all of our hard work on this story worthwhile.” She gestured for Dallas to hand her a microphone. She wasn’t missing the top of the show. No way. She had too much to prove today. She was good enough to work with the investigative team.

Dallas put in his own earpiece first. “You ready?”

“I’ve been ready since the day her jerk of an ex-husband set her on fire.” Her stomach churned, recalling Adrianna’s ruined face in those first weeks—looking like raw meat, blistered and oozing puss. How could anyone value someone so little they’d set him or her on fire? Rebecca still had nightmares about it, but she couldn’t let her personal fears show now, so she pushed her shoulders down.

Dallas handed her the wireless microphone, a knowing smile lighting up his eyes. “Thought you reporter types were supposed to remain unbiased.”

Rebecca quickly clipped the microphone on her suit lapel. “Impossible in this case.” She lifted her chin. “There are some stories that don’t have two sides. Those stories simply have to be told.” She pointed a finger at Dallas, hoping her words resonated with her ambitious young friend. “No matter what the cost.”

“You’re damn straight.” Dallas nodded. “You hear Sandy?” He kept fiddling with a cord leading into his news camera.

As Rebecca shoved her earpiece in, her producer’s voice from back in the studio came through. “Two minutes till the top of the show.”

“Got it.”

“Stand by,” Sandy said.

Rebecca blew out a breath, wishing the fingernails of anticipation would stop scraping up her insides. Focus. Don’t get all nervous now. Turning back to the camera, she took a deep breath and wiped her forehead again.

“You’ve got two minutes total,” Sandy said.

Two minutes of airtime to sum up a year’s worth of work on Rebecca’s part. She rolled her shoulders. She didn’t need to explain the devastating physical damage to Adrianna. That would be obvious. What Rebecca wanted to share with her viewers was what they couldn’t see in two minutes on TV, like the way Adrianna flinched whenever she saw fire or blanched whenever a man raised his voice. Or the way she never made eye contact with strangers, or always held her head down. These were the details that still affected Rebecca as a reporter. As a human being. Adrianna felt worthless, and the man who supposedly loved her was the one who made her feel that way. She wanted her audience to realize some scars couldn’t be healed, and some stories weren’t just surface deep. They affected one’s soul. Her breath caught in her throat, and for a moment she couldn’t swallow.

Rebecca closed her eyes. Focus on the moment. Make everyone watching care about Adrianna and the bigger issue of domestic violence. No one should feel worthless.

Ever.

She opened her eyes, and the red light on Dallas’s camera turned green. Her heart stutter-stepped. The main anchors threw to her, and with a deep breath, she began to recount what she knew would forever be one of the best stories on one of the best days of her life.

***

Not even fifteen seconds after Rebecca’s live shot ended, her cell phone vibrated. She pulled it out of her pocket. It was Samantha Steele, her fellow reporter and best friend. Rebecca answered. “Okay, Sam, tell me you were watching.”

“I was. I’m stuck up here in Spring Hill, waiting for my six p.m. live shot. Watching from the live truck.”

“Sorry.” Spring Hill was two hours away. Sam wouldn’t get home until eight tonight. One of the downsides of being the station’s top reporter. “Think Stan will be impressed enough to give me the investigative reporter job after my story today?” Her news director was supposed to make a decision on the position in the next week or two.

“You rocked that live shot, and the emotion in that story made me tear up.”

Her heart beat faster. Coming from Samantha Steele that meant a lot. Sam had just uncovered a murder-for-hire plot at a local adventure vacation company, making national headlines. “Thanks.”

“So, listen.” Sam sounded a little distracted. “I’m calling about that party at the governor’s mansion coming up. You in?”

“Hell yeah, I’m in.” Breaking national news had its benefits. Sam had just scored an invite to the biggest charity event in Tampa. Samantha knew how much Rebecca longed to finally meet the governor face-to-face, so she could lobby for him to sign a bill sitting on his desk right now. The bill would secure funding for her favorite charity, Tampa’s domestic violence shelter. Sam had invited her to go with her and her fiancé, Zack Hunter. Hottest guy in town. A twinge of envy hit Rebecca’s heart. She longed for the kind of romantic, I’d do anything for you kind of love Samantha and Zack had. “I can’t wait. I just got my Alexander McQueen gown cleaned.” After renting it from Luxury for Less, a consignment store in Tampa. Everyone assumed Rebecca was rich because she worked in TV. She made good money, but not enough to buy a thousand-dollar gown. But she wanted to fit in, look like the classy, South Tampa elite. No one would know it was rented. After a childhood of wearing hand-me-downs, Rebecca certainly knew how to play the part without spending the money.

“All right, then. I’m off.”

“Thanks, Sam.”

“You bet.”

Disconnecting, butterflies tickled Rebecca’s stomach. She looked skyward. Too bad her mom hadn’t lived to see her daughter cross over Kennedy Boulevard into the South Tampa elite, succeeding both personally and professionally. Rebecca would soon be dining with the governor, for goodness’ sake. Her throat tightened, and she hoped both parents were somehow watching. She was so close to achieving all of her dreams. And she had established a platform to do good for others in the process. She liked to think her parents would be proud.

“You gonna shake a leg, Becca?”

She jumped at Dallas’s voice.

He snapped his fingers at her. “Let’s do this.”

“Sorry.” She swallowed. They still had another live shot and package to prepare.

“You got that story for the six written?”

“No.”

“Girl, get on it.” Dallas’s eyes widened.

“What?” Why was Dallas bugging out? “You know it won’t take me that long to write the story.”

 “What in the Halle Berry is that all about?” Dallas stumbled back two steps, both hands shooting out in front of his big frame. “Behind you! Get the hell outta the way!”

Rebecca jerked around. Coño! A white construction van was jumping the curb and speeding down the sidewalk toward her. Her heart sprinted, but the muscles in her legs locked up.

The van skidded to a stop, so close she instinctively stumbled back to avoid being hit. The scent of burning rubber whooshed up her nostrils. The side door slid open and a man jumped out. Tall, muscular, wearing shorts, he had tattoos covering his entire left arm. Dear Lord.

And he had on a mask.

Oh shit! “Wait. Don’t.” Rebecca threw out both hands. Her heart was racing so fast it hurt. “What’s going on?” She could barely catch her breath.

A second man sprang out of the passenger’s side of the van. This guy was beefy, also wearing a ski mask. He gripped what looked like a gun in his hands.

Holy shit! The hair on her arms stood up, and her throat tightened.

“Metete en la camioneta!” the tattoo man grunted.

“Get in his van?” Rebecca spun around, sure the tattooed man must be talking to someone behind her.

“Oh, my damn.” Dawg stood next to his camera, a statue on the sidewalk, his face frozen, mouth open.

A handful of other media members cluttered the walkway, gawking at the men from the white van. One reporter screamed and started running. Good idea.

“Rebecca.” The tattooed man's voice remained calm. “I’m talking to you two.”

Rebecca jerked back around.

“Just do what they say.” Dallas’s voice rose. “What these masked dudes want with my big two-hundred-and-fifty-pound ass, I do not know.”

She was too scared to turn and see what Dallas was doing, but she knew her cameraman would protect her if he could. She also knew better than to get into a vehicle with an armed person. You do, you're dead. My watch! She took off the Tag she’d recently splurged on. “Here, take this. Please, don’t shoot.”

 “You’re coming with me.” The tattooed guy gestured with the gun.

“Hey, someone's being robbed. They've got guns,” a high-pitched female voice squawked from somewhere behind her. “Call 911!”

The robber’s eyes flickered to a spot over Rebecca’s shoulder.

Finally, a chance. Every nerve in her body fired. She dashed for the news van, expecting the hot sensation of a bullet to tear into her skin at any second. Blood pounded in her ears, drowning out all other sounds. She ran hard, toes pinched in her stilettos. One heel sank into a crack, and her ankle turned. Reaching out, her palms broke her fall. The pavement tore at the pads of her hands as she skidded across the sidewalk, her skin heating like an iron.

She pushed up with a grunt. Someone yanked her back by her hair, pulling her off balance. She stumbled and screamed, “Let me go,” crashing into a big body, tattoos visible on the man’s arm. He smelled like onions and sweat. Gagging, she pushed away.

“Man, what the hell are you doing? Let her go!” Dallas yelled.

A damp cloth clamped over her face. What the? She tensed. The rag stank of something chemical but sweet. Chloroform? Tattoo guy forced the rag hard against her mouth and nose. She couldn’t breathe. Panic flooded through her. Her fingers started to tingle, and her head was spinning.

Lashing out, she dug into the man's arms, tearing his skin, feeling his warm, sweaty flesh lodge under her fingernails.

“Ready to go to Cuba?” The man dragged her backward.

Cuba? She'd die before she set foot in Cuba. Damn government would never silence her like it’d silenced her father.

Jerking her off the ground, the tattooed man stumbled toward the van. She had just enough freedom, and just enough air left, to drive her heel back up into his groin. Awkward and off balance, she missed.

A gunshot rang out. Rebecca’s heart froze. A woman screamed, but it sounded so far away. Rebecca kept struggling and blinking to keep her eyes open. Jesus. Her arms felt like steel appendages, impossible to lift, and her eyes were having trouble focusing.

The man yanked her head back. Assaulted by the sickeningly sweet smell flooding her mouth and nose, Rebecca retched. Her feet suddenly hit the ground. She stumbled, slamming her shin against hard metal as the gunman pushed her through the van’s open door. She hit the van floor with a grunt.

“No la lastime.”

That was a new voice. Ordering the tattooed guy not to hurt her? Too late.

She strained to see who was talking, but her vision kept narrowing. The chaotic mixture of sound and movement shrank from a long tunnel into a small black dot. She was going to pass out.

Someone gently brushed the hair away from her face and helped maneuver her into a more comfortable position.

“I won’t hurt you.”

The new voice spoke in English this time.

Her heart pounded harder, but the sensation of a different man’s soft touch faded.

And then…nothing.

Cuba Undercover

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