He took his time crossing to her side. She was armed, her gun out and aimed.
“Call the sheriff,” she barked at the bartender. “These two have just assaulted a federal agent.”
“Wh-what?” Charlie shoved a hand through his thinning hair. “He ain’t no—he didn’t say—”
Oh, for f**k’s sake. Luke bent down and scooped up the ID that had been knocked from his fingers. “FBI, ass**le.”
Monica looked at him. Shook her head. “Two minutes,” she muttered when he drew close, and she didn’t lower her gun. “I was gone for two minutes.”
He licked his lip, tasted blood, and said, “Helluva lot can go down in two minutes.”
That eye would be black soon. Monica stood at the bar, watching as Luke lifted a rag filled with ice and pressed it to his already darkening left eye.
Her gaze skated across the room, to the redhead with the torn shirt that the sheriff was leading out of the bar. Monica sighed. “You’re always trying to save the ladies.” His M.O. As long as she’d known him, the guy had carried this rescue complex.
He turned toward her, sending droplets of water flying from his makeshift icepack. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
She lifted her brows. “It means every time you see a woman that you think is in trouble, you jump in—”
“He hit her.”
“She’s not going to press charges against him.” The woman kept calling good old Charlie’s name and saying everything had been a mistake. Maybe her face had mistakenly gotten in the way of Charlie’s fist.
Luke’s Adam’s apple clicked as he swallowed. “She damn well should. If she doesn’t get away from him, he’ll kill her one day.” Grim certainty.
And something else. Pain. An old echo. Personal. Her head tilted. “Luke? There something going on here?”
He lowered the ice. “Fucking makes me sick. Every time I see a guy punching a woman.”
She touched him and felt the steel of his muscles beneath the flesh. This wasn’t about Charlie Donalds and Lynn Front. This was personal.
“They don’t leave.” His fingers clenched around the sodden rag. “Why the hell don’t they ever just leave ’em?”
She forgot the sheriff, the crowd, and the country music that made her temples ache. “Who are you talking about?”
He’d never told her about his family. Okay, she’d never asked. Because she hadn’t wanted to share her own screwed up past. When you were just hooking up for sex, you didn’t have to share. And you weren’t supposed to care.
Why did he make her break the rules?
“No one. I’m not talking about any damn one.” He tossed the rag onto the counter. “Come on, let’s get out of here.”
She took a breath and hesitated. More was there, boiling beneath the surface, about to break right through that razor-thin control.
“We’ve got to head back to Jasper.” His hand pressed lightly against his stomach, and she was pretty sure he muttered “Sonofabitch.”
Getting hit by Charlie had to be like getting hit by a bus. If Luke was hurt like this, Lynn wouldn’t survive many more “mistakes.”
They left the bar. There wasn’t any more information to be had there, anyway. While Luke had iced his eye, she’d talked to the bartender and another waitress. Both had given her the same story about Saundra. A great lady. Lots of friends, but with a dick of an ex-boyfriend.
Outside, gravel crunched as a deputy’s cruiser pulled away.
“You sent them off together?” Luke demanded. Headlights cut across the bar’s parking lot.
Martin spun toward him. “She’s not gonna press charges. She never does.”
“Screw that. The whole bar saw what happened. There is no way…”
“The witnesses say you didn’t identify yourself, Agent Dante. That you attacked first.”
What? Monica’s gaze shot toward the star-dotted sky. Great. Just great.
“She was on the floor, bleeding, and he was getting ready to go at her again. So, hell, yes, I went in to stop him.”
Just like Luke. She glanced at him. Saving the world, one woman at a time.
“I can’t find anyone who actually saw Charlie hit her.” Martin crossed his arms and stared down Luke. “And they both say she slipped and hit her chin on the table.”
“Ah, Luke…” They could use a bit of tact with the local authorities.
“No, no—he knows this is bullshit, and he’s not doing a damn thing about it! That woman is his punching bag—”
“From what I hear, that woman jumped you, Dante.”
Yeah, she had. Monica’s jaw had dropped when she’d walked back inside and seen the woman going for Luke’s back.
“He’s got her brainwashed,” Luke said. “She thinks she deserves the crap he’s giving her, and she’s staying with him because he’s her man, and—”
“Luke.” Monica put her hand on his chest and felt the tension tightening his body. “Take a breath.” They hadn’t come to Gatlin for this. He had to stay focused.
“I don’t need a breath.”
“Box it up,” she told him, making her own voice clipped. “We’re working a case here, Dante.”
His eyes flashed at her. Fire there.
“I thought ya’ll already got the information on the Swain girl.” The sheriff’s voice came on a slow roll. “What you doin’ out here at Gatorbait?”
Monica kept her hand on Luke’s chest. The fire in his eyes was contained. For now. “We were talking to friends of the victim.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Sheriff, why didn’t the name Kyle West come up in the reports?”
“Don’t know, ma’am. That was before—”
“Before you transferred here. Right.” She licked her lips. “And the former sheriff? Patterson had a heart attack, didn’t he?”
“Yes, ma’am. Henry, bless him, passed away in September.” Not long after Saundra’s death and real close to Kyle’s disappearance from the county.
Things could never be easy.
“Well, thanks for your help, Sheriff.” She dropped her hand. “Looks like we’ll be heading out of Gatlin.”
His eyes were on her, studying way too closely. “And did you find what you were looking for?”