CHAPTER ONE A Year Later "I'm going in." Ric laughed out loud, which was probably not the best thing to do, given the circumstances. "No, you're not." But Annie only narrowed her eyes at his amusement instead of delivering a smack to the side of his head. Which, he realized, was something she hadn't done to him since she was thirteen. Still, he could tell that she was tempted. "Look," he tried reason. "I said you could ride along. There's an unspoken understanding there that you'll stay in the car." Of course, they were both already out of the car, standing in this suckhole of a parking lot on the crap side of Sarasota. At least they were standing in the shade. Annie, too, tried reason. But hers was laced with attitude. "You can't go in. And unless Hutch is on his way over . . ." Damn, but he hated when she called him Starsky, even by omission like that. But this time he clenched his teeth and kept his mouth shut. This was definitely not the time or place to get into The Argument, which went something like: "Oh, that's right, Ric, you don't have a Hutch. You don't want one, don't need one, even though I'm standing right here, volunteering for the job. No, you prefer to believe despite years of police work that proved otherwisethat you don't need any backup whatsoever. You'd prefer to end up lying in an alley again, with the shit kicked out of you. You'd prefer to pee blood. Again." Annie's second day of work as his new office assistant at Alvarado Private Investigations hadn't been a particularly good day for Ric. Her third day, however, had included his successful apprehension and delivery to the FBI of the shitkicker's brother, who was wanted in four states for a variety of violent crimes. Ric had received a twenty-thousand-dollar reward for his diligent, but not particularly brilliant detective work. Twenty thousand. After adding up the time he'd put in, plus expenses, it worked out to just over four hundred dollars an hour, which was sweet. Well, sweet, with the exception of those particularly nasty twenty minutes during which he'd allowed himself to get stomped in order to gain possession of the kicker's cell phonewhich subsequently revealed the location of his even nastier older brother's girlfriend. And again, it wasn't Ric's skill as a detective, but rather the fact that Nasty the elder had just broken the woman's nose, that had worked to Ric's advantage. For a slim five percent share of the reward, plus a truckload of revenge, she'd eagerly divulged the wanted man's whereabouts. Still, four hundred dollars an hour, however he'd earned it, wasn't something to sneeze at. And the fact that he'd finally worked a lucrative case that didn't involve bored, wealthy suburbanites cheating on each other was another reason to cheer. Yet it was the getting-beaten-up-and-peeing-blood part that Annie brought up over and over again. Along with the fact that she had been sorely misled by her own asshole-of-a-brother-Bruceher name for him, not histo believe that Ric needed an assistant rather than a receptionist. Annie had taken this position, she'd told him, not merely because she needed a job where she could bring along her separation-anxiety-suffering little rat-dog, but because she didn't want to sit behind a desk all day. Yet all Ric wanted her to do was sit in his office behind a desk, take phone calls, and createagain, her words&amBrockmann, Suzanne is the author of 'Force of Nature ', published 2007 under ISBN 9780739327173 and ISBN 0739327178.