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Fatal Justice (Chapter 4)

Hours later, Sam stood in front of the mirror in her bedroom at her father's house and adjusted the cowl neck of the plum-colored cashmere sweater he'd given her for Christmas. Of course Celia had picked it out, but that didn't matter. It's the thought that counts, and her father had always been a thoughtful gift-giver. A tough, don't-fuck-with-me cop with a soft spot a mile wide for his family, Skip had loved to shop, to find the perfect gift, to hide it away, and then present it with a flourish for a birthday or Christmas or just because it was Tuesday.

Bitterness threatened to consume her as she added another item to the long list of things a nameless, faceless shooter had taken from her father, from all of them. But now when she imagined the person who shot her father, she pictured Clarence Reese. She just wished they could find him. They'd scoured the city all day but had turned up no sign of him either with family members or at any of his usual haunts.

Hands braced against the dresser, Sam let her head hang between her shoulders, rolling off the tension – or attempting to. Hours of sifting and digging had also found no connection between Skip Holland and Clarence Reese. Not an arrest, a traffic stop, a verbal warning, nothing – unless Skip had had some sort of undocumented altercation with Clarence. To find that out, she'd have to ask her father, but she wasn't prepared to do that until they had more. She refused to set him up for yet another disappointment.

Taking a deep breath, she attempted to shut down her mind, to leave the investigation for tomorrow. Tonight was for celebration – at least that was the plan. Sam didn't feel much like celebrating and was almost resentful that her new personal obligations were pulling her away from what she really wanted to be doing right now.

She ran a brush through her long toffee-colored curls and applied a light touch of eye shadow. Maybe she wasn't in the mood to party, but she'd be damned if she'd go out looking like crap.

As she bent to zip high-heeled black boots, Nick stepped into the room and closed the door behind him. From between her legs she saw that he wore a black sweater over well-faded jeans that hugged him in all the right places.

"Mmm, mmm, , that's one hell of a view," he said, taking a good long look at her ass.

She shot him an upside-down scowl.

"Uh-oh. What's wrong?"

Righting, she ran her fingers through her hair. "Nothing."

"Something."

"Stop acting like you know me so well," she snapped.

With a slow, sexy smile that she watched unfold in the mirror, he came up behind her and rested his hands on her shoulders. "I do know you so well." He punctuated his words with a brush of his lips over her neck that made her tremble. "See?"

Sam tried – and failed – to shake him off.

"I know you're frustrated, babe – "

"You don't know anything."

"I know I love you, and I hate to see you hurting."

Damn if he didn't always know just how to get to her! The starch left her spine, and she sagged into his embrace.

His chin settled on the top of her head, his arms tightened around her waist. In the mirror, he found her eyes. "Talk to me."

"It makes me so mad!"

"What does?"

"That my dad is stuck forever in that chair, and the person who shot him is walking around, living his life, like nothing ever happened. He took my dad's freedom! He took  He should have to pay for that." A lump of emotion in her throat reduced her voice to a whisper. "He should have to pay."

"Yes, he should. And I have no doubt that he will, because you won't give up. You'll never give up until you find him." He turned her so they were face to face. "And guess what?  knows that, too. He  about you. The best detective in this city is on his trail, and he  it, Sam. I'll bet it keeps him awake at night."

She rested her cheek against the hard muscle of Nick's chest. "It makes me mad."

"Mad is good." He held her tight against him. "Mad is motivating."

"Mad is debilitating."

"Only if you let it be. Your dad was so proud of you earlier." Nick's lips brushed through her hair as he spoke softly to her. "He all but radiated with it, Sam. Watching your sisters pin those bars on your collar, he had tears rolling down his face. That was enough for him today. So maybe it can be enough for us, too. Why don't we put Clarence Reese on the back burner until tomorrow so you can enjoy tonight? Every cop on duty in this city is out there looking for him, so why don't you let it go for tonight? You've worked so hard to get to this day. Don't allow anyone to make it less, especially someone who could do what that guy did to his family."

Begrudgingly, Sam looked up at him. "You're good."

His face lifted into the sexy grin that made her bones go weak. "I try."

"You're good for me."

"I want to be." He pressed his lips to hers and sucked the oxygen right out of her lungs with a soul-stirring, mind-altering kiss that cleared her brain of every thought except the urge to tear the clothes off his body.

"I know you're bummed about what I told you earlier, about moving in," she said when they came up for air.

Pressing another kiss to her lips, he said, "I'll be there whenever you're ready to join me."

"It's not you. I hope you know that. It's just that I lived with a man, for four years I  with a man who was capable of trying to blow up both of us, but I never saw that in him. I'm a cop, for Christ's sake, and not once did I imagine he had that in him."

"Sam – "

"I know you're going to say that has nothing to do with you and me, with us."

"It doesn't."

"It , Nick. My ex-husband tried to  us. How do I just put that behind me like it never happened and move in with you? There must be something wrong with me that I didn't see – "

Again, he kissed the words right off her lips. "There's nothing wrong with you. You were a victim. We both were. He's headed for prison, Sam. There's no sense in you going with him."

"I need some time to process it all. I need to be sure I've put the pieces back where they belong before I take the next step with you."

"That's fair enough."

Feeling madly vulnerable, she glanced up to find his hazel eyes hot with emotion and desire. She still had trouble believing that was all for her. "You don't mind waiting?"

"I'd wait forever for you. And in the meantime, I'll be three doors up the street any time you want to make a late-night booty call."

She laughed. "That'll probably be most nights."

"So you just want me for my body. I see how it is."

She slid her hands under his sweater and up to cup well-defined pectorals. "What are you doing right now, Senator?" she asked with a coy smile.

His jaw tightened with tension as he removed her hands from under his sweater. "Taking you to our party."

"Damn."

He leaned in to catch her earlobe between his teeth. "But later we'll be having our own private New Year's party."

Sam shivered with anticipation and marveled at how he had managed to put her in the mood to celebrate. This love stuff definitely came with some major benefits.

" is your idea of a  party?" Sam asked an hour later as she took in the mobbed K Street lounge Nick had reserved for the occasion. When she suggested a beer and pizza party at O'Leary's – her favorite cop bar – he'd turned up his senatorial nose, so she'd left it to him to orchestrate this joint celebration.

"I can't help it if you have a hundred cop friends."

"I don't even know most of these people."

"Like who?"

"Her." She pointed to a voluptuous brunette flirting shamelessly with Freddie. "An old girlfriend of yours?"

"Hardly. That's Ginger, one of the legislative aides in my office."

" needs to get her filthy hands off my partner," Sam said, even though she was relieved to see Freddie smiling again after the gruesome day he'd put in.

"I think we've got a bigger problem over there."

Sam's head whipped around. "Where?"

Nick pointed to one of the cozy booths where his chief of staff, Christina Billings, was having an intimate conversation with Detective Tommy "Gonzo" Gonzales.

"Get her off him!"

"Why?" Nick asked, amused. "They're both consenting adults."

"She doesn't like me."

"So she can't talk to your friend?"

"He's not just my friend. He's my subordinate now. She'll turn him against me."

"Honestly, Samantha." Nick led her to the dance floor. "The twists and turns of your mind are a constant source of fascination to me."

"Glad I'm available to entertain you," she grumbled.

"You do." He brought his lips down on hers. "Endlessly."

"Get a room, you two," Sam's sister Tracy said as she danced up next to them with her husband Mike.

Sam tried to put some space between herself and Nick, but he just tightened his hold on her.

"Great party," Mike said.

"Thanks," Nick replied. "Did your dad get something to eat?"

"Celia's on it," Tracy said. "He's having a great time visiting with all his cop buddies."

They glanced over to find Skip with Celia, Chief Farnsworth, Deputy Chief Conklin and their spouses, as well as Detective Captain Malone and some of the other department captains.

"He's in his glory," Sam said to her sister.

"It's been a good day for him," Tracy said.

"Yes." Sam thought of Clarence Reese and wished she could share the possibility with her sister, but didn't want to disappoint her, either.

"The O'Connors just got here," Nick said, his eyes on the door. "We need to go say hello." To Mike and Tracy, he added, "You guys have a good time."

"We're kid free," Tracy said, beaming at her husband. "We're already having a good time, and it's only going to get better."

"I like her," Mike said with a lascivious grin. "I like her  much."

Laughing, Nick and Sam left the happy couple on the dance floor.

"They're awfully cute together," Nick said.

"They always have been. I've been envious of how easy they make it look."

He squeezed her shoulder and leaned in to kiss her cheek. "No need to be envious anymore. We'll show them easy."

Heartened by Nick's words, Sam tried not to feel awkward as Senator and Mrs. O'Connor greeted her with warm hugs. Nick thought of them as his adopted family, and Sam knew she needed to get over the resentment she harbored from when they lied to her during the investigation into their son's murder. Sam had uncovered John's illegitimate twenty-year-old son who'd been kept hidden from the public in deference to the senior Senator O'Connor's political career and reputation. That son, his mother and that secret turned out to be a motive for murder.

"What a lovely party," Laine O'Connor said to Nick.

"I'm glad you could come," Nick said.

"Oh, we wouldn't miss it. Royce and Lizbeth are right behind us," she said, referring to her son-in-law and daughter. Laine reached for Nick's hand. "And what you're doing for Terry. I just can't thank you enough.  can't thank you enough."

"It was a generous move, Senator," Graham added gruffly. "He won't let you down."

"Of course he won't."

"Julian sends his regrets," Graham said. "He'd hoped to be here, but his meeting at the White House ran late."

"I'm sure they've got a  to talk about."

"Gonna be a battle royal," Graham said with a gleeful grin. "The Republicans will flip their lids – especially Stenhouse." Graham O'Connor's bitter relationship with Senate Minority Leader William Stenhouse went back decades, and for a brief time, he too had been on Sam's short list of suspects in John's murder.

"Good thing we don't need'em," Nick said with a grin of his own.

Graham rubbed his hands together. "I love being in the majority."

Sam found his use of the present tense interesting. You could take the man out of the Senate…

"Hopefully, he can find a free night for dinner next week," Nick said. "I want to show you all my new place in the city."

Sam wondered if he had lost his mind. A dinner party for a potential Supreme Court justice at the place he hadn't even moved into yet? Next week? Right. But even as she thought it, she knew he would pull it off the same way he had pulled off their party – effortlessly.

"Sounds like a plan," Graham said.

"I can't wait to see your new house, Nick," Laine said. "I'm sorry. I should call you Senator now."

"You should call me Nick." He kissed her cheek. "Why don't you grab a drink, have something to eat and we'll catch up to you in a bit?"

"Excellent," Graham said, putting his arm around his wife to lead her to the bar.

"They seem better," Nick said to Sam when they were alone.

"What did you do for Terry?"

Nick had his eyes – and obviously his mind – on the O'Connors. "What?"

"Terry. What did you do?"

"I offered him the deputy chief of staff job."

" Why?"

"Because he knows his stuff, and he's wasting away in that bullshit lobby job. He's also John's brother. It felt like the right thing to do."

"But he hates me, too! Your two most senior staffers hate me!"

"I've made it very clear to both of them that if they can't treat you with courtesy and respect they'll be looking for new jobs."

"You did?" Sam squeaked, her heart pounding in her chest. The emotion could hit hard when she least expected it.

"They can be replaced. You can't."

"You have a way with words, Senator," she said with a sigh. "You really do."

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