Romantic Suspense


By Amy Eastlake

(First Chapter Only)

This novel is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real-life people is entirely coincidental.

Copyright 2000-2004 by Robert Preece, all rights reserved. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission, except that a single printed copy may be made for the personal use of the registered user.

This is only the first chapter of TOUGH LOVE. The entire novel is available for only $1 from, or by clicking the 'Buy Now' button below. Funds processing is performed by PayPal for your security.

Chapter 1

It was only a hard metal chair with 'Wisconsin State Penitentiary' stenciled on the back, but to Zoe Anderson, it looked like heaven.

Zoe reminded herself she'd actually asked for this assignment. Begged was more like it. According to the propaganda, the Tough Love prison program persuaded young offenders to straighten out before they got sent to jail themselves. It sounded like exactly the sort of story she liked to write. More important, it was the sort of program Scott needed.

Nothing else had worked with her wayward younger brother.

She'd failed him as the only adult in his life, and now she was almost afraid to let herself hope that something like Tough Love might reach him. But that's exactly what she was hoping for. This program could be a new start for Scott, and for herself.

That's why she was here in this briefing room, posing as a social worker: why she'd spent the past three hours walking on the prison's hard concrete floors. She was ready listen to the prisoners talk tough to the kids, and worry about how to get her brother into the program. But she wanted to sit down first.

None of the prisoners, the guards, or the kids milling around seemed to be paying her any attention, though she was the only female in the room. She straightened the metal chair and gratefully sank into it.

Except, when her bottom hit where the chair seat should have been, she kept going down.

Completely off balance, she windmilled her arms, tried and failed to regain her feet, and resigned herself to a major splash when she hit the floor.

Out of the corner of her eye, Zoe caught a glimpse of Philip holding her chair and smirking. The oldest of the offenders in the program, Philip had a serious case of facial herpes, the worst set of dead fish eyes she'd ever seen, and the moral conscience of a slug. She closed her eyes, tensed her muscles, and got ready for pain.

Inches before she hit the tile floor, one of her madly circling arms slammed into something hard. And that something caught it and seized it.

Zoe found herself rising. She might have just gone from the frying pan into the fire, but she opened her eyes anyway. She was a reporter, not an ostrich.

Wary, golden brown eyes met her own. A man she'd never seen before, but would have noticed if she had, stared her in the face. "You all right?"

His deep voice sent little shivers down her spine. He should be a politician, not a criminal. With a voice like that, he'd have every woman voter in the state panting after him. If they even bothered paying attention to his voice.

His hard-muscled body could create a traffic jam in any shopping mall in the country.

He had to be the single sexiest man she'd ever seen. On him, even that baggy prison coverall looked good.

"F--fine," she finally managed to gasp.

Two years without a man had obviously caught up to her. They didn't give those prison uniforms out for walking old ladies across the street.

"Get your goddamned hands off the social worker, Mayoux."

A guard drew his nightstick and hustled over.

"I guess this is good-bye, Ms.--"

"Anderson. Zoe Anderson."

"Tom Mayoux." He dropped his light grasp on her arm and turned to Philip.

"That chair belongs to Ms. Anderson, punk."

"Don't see any names on it." Philip hunkered down in his captured seat.

"Don't worry about it," Zoe interrupted. Philip might be only seventeen, but he had to weigh three hundred pounds and had spent all morning bragging about his karate black belt.

"It's written right here." Tom gestured toward the back of the chair.

Philip followed his gesture.

In that instant of distraction, Tom picked him up by the collar and belt and tossed him to the floor as easily as if he had been a sack of potatoes.

"You can read that, can't you, punk?"

Philip scrambled to his feet, his huge hands making Popeye fists. He took two steps toward Tom, who simply stood there, hands at his side. A slight smile played across Tom's face.

To Zoe's complete surprise, Philip stopped, muttered something about the guard, and backed off.

"Let's get this program on the road," a guard shouted.

"You fish better listen," one of the prisoners shouted.

He grabbed one of the smaller kids by the shirt and hauled him to his feet. "Around here, we have a name for kids like you.

"Yeah," another convict agreed. "You don't straighten up, the man's going to knock you straight. Maybe you'll end up looking real pretty like me." He gave them a grin showing large gaps in his dental work.

Zoe looked at her prisoner, Tom Mayoux. He stood slightly behind the other inmates, his eyes flicking from person to person, watching, judging, assessing.

"What about it, Mayoux?" one of the guards called out.

"You planning on getting involved with this workshop?"

Tom nodded. "I thought the guys were doing pretty well."

His eyes bored into each of the young offenders. "I wonder if you really know what it's like living as a criminal?"

"Hey, what do you think we're doing?" Phillip wanted to know.

To Zoe's surprise, the other prisoners fell silent when Tom began to speak. As if they too felt the strange compulsion in his deep voice.

"There's a difference between playing cops and robbers and living life as an outlaw. Let me tell you what it's like. You fear sleep because you never know what might sneak up on you. You have no one to call, because you can't trust anyone. Your friends stab you in the back if they think they can cop a plea. And women. Forget it."

His eyes sought out Zoe.

She felt as if he was undressing her, stripping away both her clothes and her defenses, leaving her totally open to whatever he might want to do to her. A small thrill of pure sexual awareness ran through her entire body before centering on her core.

Tom shook his head. "They love you when you're ahead. Doesn't last though. I've had women abandon me for the price of a dime bag.

Even if Zoe hadn't been a reporter, she would have recognized that the other prisoners parroted words written by a warden. Tom, on the other hand, shared anecdotes of his experiences as a criminal and prisoner. Rather than stressing the evils done to the prisoners by the police and the prison system, he drew them word pictures of the pathetic life of the professional criminal, both in jail and on the outside.

Zoe felt her heart going out to this man as he explained the loneliness of pretending to be something you aren't, of wondering whether the next bullet would come from the police or from one of your own partners.

"Completely irrational," she muttered to herself. How could she be getting all teary-eyed about a man who not only admitted to being a criminal but didn't even seem particularly bothered by the moral side of it? It wasn't like anyone had forced him to do whatever he'd gotten locked up for.

So what if he had a tough life? With her con-man father, she hadn't exactly had a life of luxury either, but she'd done all right for herself. And she intended to make sure her brother Scott did too.

So why did Zoe found herself fishing for a tissue to blot away her tears?

Zoe decided not to believe anything Tom said. She couldn't imagine any female would give up a claim on Tom for anything, let alone a cheap hit of crack. The man radiated a magnetic appeal. Even the guards seemed drawn into his story, moving closer to him to hear every softly spoken word.

Even when he'd satisfied the guards, the other prisoners started giving brief answers to questions so Tom could expand into another of his stories.

"That's all I've got to say." Tom folded his arms across his chest.

A hushed silence fell over the room. Zoe wanted to beg him to continue just to hear his insights into people, to learn more about the criminals he spent his life with, and, although she could hardly admit it to herself, to enjoy the sensual pleasure of his voice pouring out like warm honey drizzling over her naked body.

"Yeah, sure. If you're so smart, what're you doing in jail?" Philip might be reluctant to attack Tom physically, but he didn't appear to have the intellect to take in even Tom's simply worded message.

"A team is only as smart as its dumbest member," Tom answered. "I got stuck working with people like you."

Whatever had restrained Philip earlier wasn't enough to deal with his temper. He turned an unhealthy purple color and rushed Tom, his gestures right out of a Bruce Lee movie.

Tom watched him, unmoving, until the young man was almost on top of him. Then he stepped to the side and landed one chop to the side of Philip's neck.

Philip collapsed like a three hundred pound Pillsbury Dough Boy.

"That's it, Mayoux," one of the guards called out. "I've got to have to report this. You can hang up any hope of getting out next week."

Tom nodded. "I guess that's why they call it 'Tough Love' all right."

Philip struggled to his feet, shaking his head and rubbing the back of his neck. "Hey, man. That was a good trick. What discipline you learn that from?"

Tom looked at him for several long, drawn-out seconds, then turned silently, and walked to the door.

As he stepped through the heavy metal door, he twisted around and looked back. His eyes sought out Zoe's and he actually winked.

Zoe felt like she'd been kicked in the solar plexus. At twenty-eight, she was all grown up. She'd gone through the standard crush on bad-boys phase in high school, but she'd outgrown that. Even if working with newspapermen hadn't made her immune, a father somewhere in the Federal Prison system would have. With her background, there was no way a criminal could get under her skin. Except somehow, Tom Mayoux had.

She didn't say anything on the bus ride back to Milwaukee. Most of the kids were silent as well, but one had tried to challenge Philip for the back seat he'd claimed for himself. Whether Philip had learned the lessons Tough Love wanted to teach, Zoe couldn't say, but he had learned something. Rather than bluster, he picked up the smaller boy, tossed him over three rows of seats, silently shook his head and sat back down.

Zoe almost felt sorry for Philip. Before today, he'd known where he fit into the world and had been happy with it. In a few minutes, Tom Mayoux had changed the rules, smashed his complacency and made him think about what he was doing.

Zoe wondered if he'd ever had that kind of thought before.

Zoe could read Philip's face like a book. After all, she was going through exactly the same reaction.


Tom grunted under the weights, visualized himself lifting the bar over his head, and then pressed. With the three months the warden had tagged onto his time because he'd hit that Philip kid, he'd had plenty of extra hours to work on his technique.

"Yeah man, you've got it," Joey Ivanoff, his cellmate and spotter, encouraged.

He completed the motion, then lowered the weights to the support beam. "Getting harder as I get older," he said before standing and reaching out for the water bottle.

"Pretty stupid getting into a fight with that kid in 'Tough Love,'" Joey kidded him. "You'd 'of been long gone."

"Don't I know it?" Tom shrugged his shoulders, shaking out the kinks from his muscles at the same time. Eight months in the Wisconsin State Penitentiary left him in better shape than he'd been in since he'd resigned from the Marine Corps.

Joey nudged him again. "Sly dog. I heard about the babe you were making eyes at. From what the guys tell me, it would be worth a few months in the slammer to get some action from that little piece. Me, I've never seen a social worker didn't look like she'd just swallowed a lemon."

Tom fought down the urge to smack Joey in the mouth to shut him up. The man had already talked himself into a longer jail stay once, forcing Tom to come up with an excuse to extend his own sentence. That Joey always meant well made things worse, in Tom's opinion. It wasn't even easy to hate the poor slob.

"I guess she was all right."

Joey punched him in the stomach. He obviously intended it as a friendly gesture but if Tom hadn't been expecting it, it could have knocked his wind out. "All right? Man, I think you need to get your priorities straight. You need a woman."

"Yeah. Like a bullet in the brain."

Joey looked concerned and insulted. "I mean it. A man's got to settle down, have a couple of kids. That sort of stuff."

"I'll believe it when I see you do it."

Joey grinned. "Well, I guess I'm not in a big hurry. Why have one when you can have a couple of dozen?"

"Speaking of being in a hurry, I'm out of here tomorrow anyway. Don't get into trouble." Tom punched Joey on the arm. "Think you can manage for a week without me?"

"I don't think anybody's going to make trouble for Joey Ivanoff," Joey blustered. "They all want in good with my dad."

"Don't count on it, friend. The Columbians don't like him much." It was rumored the Columbians had a contract out on Joseph Ivanoff, Sr. "They'd probably pay something for your life, too."

It would be worse than ironic if Joey got himself killed after Tom invested a year of his life building an identity and rotting in jail to be close to the man. Besides, Tom had actually started to like him. Joey might have the brains of a befuddled housecat and the morals of a cockroach, but he had the loyalty of a golden retriever.

Joey's smile faded. "After I get out next week, I'm going back into business with Dad. I want you to come with me."

About time. Tom had planted enough hints.

"Nah. I'm going to work alone after what happened to me last time."

"Now who's taking chances? There's too many mobs out there looking to take over any private con. Back when it was just the Mafia, you could get away with stuff. Now it's them, us Russians, the Columbians, the Serbs, and the Nigerians."

The hook was set.

"Not to mention a bunch of home-grown talent." Tom toweled off his face then looked Joey in the eye. "I'll meet with your dad. I'm not saying I'll join you, but I'll talk to the man."

Joey looked completely gratified and Tom felt like an absolute heel.

"That'd be great. I'll make sure someone picks you up tomorrow when you get out of here."


It took three hours of paperwork to process Tom out of the penitentiary the next morning. He let the prison doctors take prints from just about every body part, he listened to long lectures about where he was supposed to meet his parole officer and how he was to avoid all contact with any of his criminal associates.

He answered every question in a monotone, fighting the urge to tell them to hurry up. If they wasted the entire day, would they send him back to his cell and put him through the same thing the following day? Probably. Jail had always been something like an existentialist novel, but that would be taking the Twilight Zone theme way too far.

Finally, the warden came down from his office on the second floor, shook Tom's hand, handed over an envelope with his prison payroll in it, passed over another envelope with the personal possessions he'd had when he'd been arrested, and let him go.

Tom stepped into the open air for the first time in eight months. He took a deep breath and exhaled, trying to get the stench of confinement from his lungs. At thirty-two, he was too old for this kind of thing. One thing for sure, he never intended to get sent back to the slammer. Not for anything or anybody.

A toot broke into his concentration and a tiny sportscar pulled up to the curb. Was this his ride?

He glanced down. The blonde hair looked familiar. She must be one of the lawyers who were always visiting Joey, he decided. What Joey lacked in IQ, he made up in hormones. He'd insisted on an all-female legal team and ended up with more female visitors than the rest of the convicts put together.

Tom scowled. In eight months, he'd been visited exactly once. The Milwaukee Police Chief had dropped by to tell him to straighten out and behave. All in all, Tom would rather have had the kind of attention Joey had received.

Sending a lawyer was a smarter stroke than he'd expected Joey to come up with. The guards had to be taking pictures of everyone who came near the penitentiary. He'd be in trouble with his parole officer if he drove off with one of the triggermen who made up most of Joey's entourage.

The passenger side door to the sportscar swung open and he took a breath. In for a penny, in for a dollar. He was committed.

"You one of Joey's lawyers? Did he send you?" he asked as he climbed in, slammed the car door and fastened his seatbelt.

"Joseph Ivanoff? Who else?" She squealed her tires as she roared away from the jail.

He knew that voice. It had been plaguing his dreams for the past three months. The blonde social worker who looked like a movie star. Zoe something.

Her voice was low, throaty, and made him want to tear the clothes off of both of them. Of course if he did that, he could count on being found in a vacant alley with a small caliber bullet scrambled through his brain. The mob may not respect women, but it certainly didn't let interlopers take advantage of one of theirs.

"I thought you were a social worker."

"Do I look like a social worker? Come on, Tom."

He'd always thought his name was perfect because it was so ordinary. When Zoe said it, it sounded almost erotic. "So what were you doing in that program?"

"Checking it out. And checking you out."

Tom knew better than to take that personally. Maybe Joey had been more on the ball than he'd thought. Maybe he'd wasted the past three months.

Neither maybe gave him an especially good feeling. He was supposed to be the one driving this scam; if he misjudged the opposition, he was dead meat.

Zoe drove without talking for several minutes, the silence broken only by the continual racket from the police scan radio she carried. He took the opportunity to admire the confident manner with which she handled her sports car and the responsiveness she got from it.

Not that he'd ever find out, but if she made love like she drove, and like her voice promised, a man might just go down and never come up for air.

"So what's the plan?" he finally asked. After all, he wouldn't be doing his job if he didn't figure out everything he could.


A good question, Zoe decided. Her original plan was to write a story about the life of a career criminal, with Tom in the starring role. But when Tom had assumed she was with Ivanoff's gang, the temptation to play along had been irresistible. She could see the headline. An Insider's View of the Russian Mafia. A thrill ran through her. If she could pull this off, she'd be able to write her own ticket at the newspaper, maybe even win the Pulitzer. One thing for sure, she'd never have to do garden clubs stories again.

"Joseph hasn't decided how to fit you in yet," she said.

Tom nodded. "Joey doesn't get out for a couple of days.

I was guessing you'll want me to lay low until then."

"Partly. It's no secret that not everyone thinks Little Joey has the judgment his old man has. They're suspicious of you."

She was taking a chance here but not too big of one.

She'd researched Tom Mayoux. He'd never operated in Wisconsin until about a year before. From the police reports, he seemed well connected in L.A. but nobody respected the L.A. mob. At any rate, he wasn't an insider here in Milwaukee. She knew enough to fake it.

"Good." He paused a moment. "Got a piece? I feel naked without one."

A shiver went down her spine but she wasn't sure whether his use of the word 'naked' or his cool request for a weapon started it.

Her body had reacted to Tom three months previously, but she'd finally persuaded herself that she'd just had some sort of cave girl reaction to the tough guy who could pick up a punk like Philip and toss him across the room. She might admire his muscles, and his body was so beautiful she'd line up to watch him drink Coke. Still, she'd never want even a brief relationship with someone who thought with a gun rather than with his brains.

During the couple of years since her mother had died, she'd learned more about criminals and the criminal mind than she'd ever wanted to know just trying to keep her brother out of trouble and bailing him out when she failed.

So why was she reacting to Tom like this? After all, he wasn't rescuing helpless Zoe now. On the contrary, she had pulled the wool over his eyes. She was in control, not him.

"We're not ready to have you carry yet." Not to mention the fact she didn't have a clue how to get her hands on a gun.

If he got killed because he didn't have a weapon, she'd regret it for the rest of her life. On the other hand, if he managed to get one and discovered she was an investigative reporter rather than an underworld representative, the rest of her life could be measured in hours rather than years.

"So I'm going to lay low for a couple of days until Joey can get out and vouch for me?" He looked awkward. "I don't have a lot of cash. I was hoping someone in Joey's mob would put me up somewhere."

"I'm putting you up at a safe house."

The suggestion popped out before she had half a chance to think about it. Still, she kept all of her plaques and everything that would obviously mark her as a reporter at the office. Since she spent so little time at home, and Scott hardly ever came out of his room, it was as neutral a place as she could imagine.

She out of her mind, inviting a felon into her home. Still, she'd offered. If she tried to go back now, he would know something was wrong.

If he accepted, she'd have time to do some serious pumping. Who knows, maybe she could con him into inviting her along on one of his escapades. She'd just have to find a way to get Scott to keep his mouth shut. Maybe he could spend the night at a friend's house.

"Safe house? Sounds like Fed-Speak."

She turned all of her attention to the road trying to ignore the sensation of his golden eyes peering into her, stripping her to her bare essence.

"No big surprise," she replied after regaining some semblance of composure. "They have to teach us something in law school, don't they?"

He nodded reluctantly. "I guess. Am I going to be there alone?"

"I've been assigned to handle your debriefing. We'll be there together." It wasn't exactly a lie. She'd had the fight-to-end-fights with the city editor about getting this story. He'd wanted to assign a male reporter to the job.

When she'd refused to surrender her research notes, he'd offered to give her the biggest photographer on the staff to back her up and she'd turned that down too.

She tried not to feel guilty about deceiving Tom.

Newspaper reporters were expected to manage at least some dissembling if they wanted to get the story.

"The police scanner seems like a strange thing for a lawyer to carry."

When she'd been police beat reporter in college, she'd gotten used to listening to the scanner twenty-four hours a day. Even when sleeping, her subconscious mind could sort out what was important and awaken her if there might be a story.

And if she ever needed a story, she needed one now.

"The police aren't always real prompt about giving our people their phone calls when they get arrested," she improvised. "It's handy to keep track of them."

He looked at her as if he could sort the truth from lies just by staring. Finally he nodded. "Maybe."

She wondered if she could pull this off for long enough to do any good. Despite what she'd seen of Tom in the Tough Love session, she'd obviously underestimated his intelligence.

It was only a question of time before he discovered what she really did. And when he did, she sure hoped someone would be around to pick up the pieces of Zoe he left scattered around.

"I still need a weapon. Joey will vouch for me. What more do you need?"

"We've already agreed that Joey isn't exactly the world's greatest judge of character. Let's leave it at that, shall we?"

They'd better. The less she said, the longer it would take Tom to find out the truth.

Tom settled back into her car's leather upholstery. From her mirror, she watched the way his eyes flickered from her to the traffic around her. Even when he was still, Tom radiated energy and power like a breeder-reactor, powering both himself and everyone around him.

"We're not being followed," she told him after a couple of minutes of silence.

"How would you know? The way you drive, a pack of cub scouts could trail you."

Zoe exited the freeway and pulled over. "If you don't like the way I drive, you handle it."

He nodded. "At least this way you'll have to tell me where we're going."

"Head for Marquette. I'll give you directions when we get there."

"You got it."

She yanked up the parking break, opened her door, and they switched positions.

Tom threw her Miata into gear and screeched back onto the freeway.

During her days on the police beat, Zoe had spent a lot of time on ride-alongs and had grown accustomed to the aggressive but controlled way the police drove. Tom drove like that, but with even more intensity, both hands on the wheel except when he shifted, his eyes taking everything in.

Rather than simply ignoring the speed limit, he accelerated past it, holding a high rate of speed for several minutes at a time, then decelerated. Twice he left the freeway entirely, bumping along on surface streets.

"Satisfied?" she asked. The odds of anyone following a Milwaukee News reporter had to be right up there with those of finding a decent straight man with a job in Milwaukee. You knew it happened, but you certainly wouldn't change your life waiting for it.

"No," he answered. "Why'd you pick such a conspicuous car?"

"There've got to be a million Miatas in Wisconsin."

"It stands out."

He gave the engine gas, roared past a truck, then pulled into a construction zone. "Somebody was following us all right."

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