Sirens blared. One after another the police cruisers and fire department vehicles sped by in a rush. A honk sounded from behind James Brock’s SUV. Tony Ramirez, one of the Federal Paranormal Unit team members, glanced over his shoulder on the driver’s seat.
“This moron is trying to cause an accident,” Tony yelled at the rearview mirror.
Brock shifted to glimpse over his shoulder. A black Sedan tailed close behind them. Too close.
Ramirez gripped the wheel so hard his tanned knuckles turned white. “I’m already doing eighty.”
“Tony, let them by.”
There was something big going on. He curled his hands into fists in his lap. He knew what it was. They all knew.
“Where do you think they’re all going, Brock?” The concern in Jane Donovan’s voice momentarily choked him. Her soft lilt reminded him of his mother’s voice. At first appearance, you’d think Donovan was a weak woman, but make her angry, and you’d have hell to pay.
Tension turned palpable with its own heartbeat in the fast-moving SUV.
“I can take a wild guess.”
They made a sharp corner on a bend onto a dirt road. The SUV skidded on its wheels for a second. Everyone held on while they bounced in their seats.
“Jesus H. Christ, Ramirez! Can you not to get us killed before we get there,” Donovan growled.
“Sorry, cariño, but there is no time to be worried about your delightful ass bouncing on the seat when we have to find a missing kid.”
“I told you to stop calling me darling!”
“Ramirez…” Brock sighed.
Their constant bickering wasn’t unusual, so he ignored it and focused on the scene ahead. Multiple police cars parked outside the house he’d called the local PD on. The house he knew had the latest missing person they had been searching for.
“Oh, God!” Fear laced Donovan’s whisper.
They were thinking the same thing. That whoever kidnapped little Kyler Jones had killed her. That his request for the county to get to the house in question had been too late. His gaze roamed the area through the darkness of the early evening. Multitudes of tall willows surrounded the large house set in the middle of nowhere. Perfect. If he’d been looking for a place to do some of the things the person in that house was known for, this was the right spot. There wasn’t a body around for miles. Nobody to help. Nobody to hear the screams.
Ramirez hadn’t fully stopped when Brock jumped out of the SUV, his feet hitting the ground with a thump. Immediate perspiration gathered on his upper lip. The humidity from August had brought intense heat. Though it was closing in on nighttime, the air sizzled with the high temperature from earlier.
He ran for the SWAT van. Instinct told him they’d know more than the local sheriff’s department. Radios beeped. Concern expanded in his chest. Everyone seemed to want an update on the situation. He recognized one of the FBI department heads—Martin Galvez—standing off to the side of the SWAT van.
The older man stopped mid-sentence to give him one of his degrading piercing glares. “Brock. What are you doing here?” Command oozed from his Latin accent.
Brock glanced from Galvez to the other two lower ranked agents. Took both men all of a second to move away. That allowed him and Galvez to talk.
“This is our case. We found Kyler Jones through intense searching of phone records and—”
“Save it,” Galvez cut him off. He turned away from Brock to study the area.
“How are you going to retrieve the child? Do we know if she’s alive?” Brock tried to tamp down the surge of power dancing through his veins. It wasn’t usually difficult to do. He’d mastered his darkness. But Galvez had a tendency of pushing his anger. The older man’s attitude lit a fire in his stomach.
Galvez smirked. “We have a man who went in through the back.”
Gathered men and women avidly stared at the house. Watching. Waiting. Brock knew there were no guarantees of getting the child out alive. They all knew that. It’s what made his job that much harder.
Power swirled at his fingertips. He need only know what to do, and he could end the entire thing in a matter of seconds. “Do you need me to—”
“What I need, is for you to keep yourselves out of the way,” Galvez ordered.
Anger licked at his skin, growing at the speed of a derailed train. He shot a glance at Galvez. For a split second, Galvez paled.
“I’d watch how you talk to people, Galvez,” Brock said, no longer caring that his voice sounded hard. Steely.
An explosion rocked the ground. He jerked his gaze to the house. Flames consumed the structure. Screams and shouts filled the night. Men moved in all directions toward the house, gunfire blasting through the shouts. Brock’s muscles tightened.
“Can we do anything?” Donovan yelled over the sirens and shouts. She ran a hand over her mussed up ponytail. Her fingers shook. He saw the desperate need to help in her eyes. It went against her nature not to.
Brock shook his head. “We wait.”
The thought of doing nothing didn’t appeal to him either. In fact, it was hell to hold back and not run into the house and get the kid himself. His power shoved outward. Pushing to get out. To take control.
“Finally!” Galvez sighed.
Brock’s vision followed Galvez’s line of sight until he saw a woman running out through the flames with a bundle covered in a dripping blanket.
His breaths thundered in his ears. Everything narrowed until the only thing he saw was her. He couldn’t believe his eyes. Was his mind playing a trick on him? After all these years? But no, it wasn’t a trick. Soaking wet, she ran from the burning house toward them. Paramedics surrounded her and took the covered bundle from her arms. She gasped for air, coughing through the smoke she’d inhaled before she finally glanced up and met his gaze.
He didn’t know how long he’d been standing there, watching everything like a spectator versus an active participant. The beast inside him roared. After all the years they’d been apart, after she’d left him for no apparent reason, she was back. He watched her march toward him. Her dark gaze slid from him to Galvez.
In the background, firemen fought the burning house. Sirens continued to blare. Loud. Driving the point that chaos had ensued around them. But he couldn’t find it in him to care. His sole focus was on the woman he’d loved. Hard. The woman who’d left him.
“Vega.” Galvez’s clipped tone grated on his nerves. “What took you so long?”
Her brows dipped low, eyes flashing. “Get over it. I got the child out alive. That was my main concern. I did what was needed. If it took all night…” She shrugged. “It would have taken all night.”
The black T-shirt soaked and plastered to her brown skin, showed off the curves Brock had always loved. Curves he’d kissed, licked, and bit in the heat of passion.
Brock’s hands itched to grab her. Power surged inside him. Dark. Deadly. It swarmed his veins and expanded through his limbs in a wave of heat. A haze of red clouded his vision.
Cynthia met his gaze. Her perfectly arched brows rose. “Brock.”
He took a deep breath. Inhaled the soft scent of Jasmine she loved to wear. Fear seeped from her pores, mingling with the sweet Jasmine scent. But this wasn’t the time or place to discuss their past.
Pain flashed through her eyes for a millisecond before she went back to the detached professional. But he’d seen it. Knew that she’d heard the anger in the way he’d softly growled her name. She folded her arms over her chest. Defensive. He’d gotten to know each of her quirks. This was her I’m-not-at-fault move.
“We don’t need you here, Brock.” Galvez’s voice broke through the tension between him and Cynthia.
He eyed the older man. Saw the curious way he glanced back and forth between them.
“As you can see, we have it under control. You and your—” Galvez’s gaze slid over Brock’s shoulder to where Donovan and Ramirez stood behind him “—team can go. The child’s safe.”
He wanted to argue with Galvez, but it wasn’t his fault Cynthia had messed with his concentration.
Cynthia swallowed hard. Indecision marked her features. He gave her a slow once-over before turning on his heel to face Donovan and Ramirez. “Let’s go.”
“The child’s safe, Donovan. That’s what we came for.”
Confusion sparked in the depths of her eyes. “Are you sure she’s okay?”
“I wouldn’t leave otherwise.”
That was the absolute truth. All his team members knew it. He’d never leave a crime scene unless the victim was safe or— in a worst-case scenario he was much too familiar with —dead. While his gift was seen as a dark destructive force, he preferred to use it for the safe return of those victims he could help find.
Donovan nodded. He marched past her toward the SUV, leaving her and Ramirez to follow.
“Relax, babe. If he says the kid’s okay, then the kid’s okay,” Ramirez whispered at Brock’s back.
“Will you please stop calling me babe?” Donovan hissed.
“Brock!” The sound of Cyn’s yell reached him just as he was about to hop into the passenger side of his vehicle.
He stopped. The frustration he was tamping down surged all over again. She reached him a moment later, still panting from the run out of the burning house.
“I just want to say…thank you.” Her gaze dropped down to his mouth. Lust bubbled up inside him. At her slow lick of her lips, he had to grit his teeth to stop himself from hauling her to him. To taste her. “I know your team found the child.” She met his gaze. Desire sparkled in the depths of her hazel eyes. “I appreciate it.”
The beast he never allowed control roared inside, demanding a taste of her lips. Ah, those lips. She had the full luscious bow shaped lips that he knew were soft, decadent, and fit perfectly against his. Her lips, along with every abundant curve on her sexy body, had been his downfall.
“You don’t need to thank me. This is our job.”
“I know I don’t need to thank you. But you and your team…” She glanced over his shoulder into the SUV. Ramirez and Donovan were actively studying them with interest. “You got her and called for help before anything could happen. You saved this child.”
He gripped the door handle. “No. We found her. You saved her.”
The hairs on his arms rose. Something unlocked inside him. Her husky voice, pitched with that sexy Latin accent, was like a punch to the gut. It was low, so low over the still blaring sirens, over the shouts from the firefighters, if he hadn’t had enhanced hearing, he’d never have heard it. None of that mattered. To hear her say his name so softly instantly brought back memories of another time, another place. A time when they’d done much more than mere talking. She shifted. His attention was drawn to her chest. The material of her top plastered to her body, showing off her full breasts.
He pushed the unwanted memories and feelings back. “You got the kid, Vega. That’s what matters.”
Hurt clouded her eyes. Should he care that she’d been hurt because he called her by her last name? No. He couldn’t care. She’d left him and never returned. Until now. Those emotions weren’t part of him any longer.
He turned his back on her. He’d never done it before, but he did it now. Dammit, he hadn’t expected it to be so hard. He hopped into the SUV. Shut the door. And shut her out. Fuck. It filled his chest with a dull pain to leave her there with that gratefulness shining in her eyes. But he refused to glance out the window once he was in his seat. Instead, he turned to Ramirez and saw the questions in his team member’s eyes and ignored them.
“Let’s get out of here.”
Cynthia watched the red tail lights from the black SUV shrink with the distance. Drops crawled down her arms. It was soothing to have the coolness from the water beat away the heat from the summer. Plus, just seeing James again really knocked her axis off center.
“Anything you want to tell me?” The question came across as a demand for information.
She turned to the sound of Galvez’s voice. Short cropped, salt-pepper hair, perfectly coiffed showed off his wrinkled forehead and deep-set dark eyes. A thin mustache covered the pursed line of his lips. For an older man, he wasn’t hard on the eyes. Well, not for women who liked the know-it-all types, anyway. Unfortunately, for him, Cyn wasn’t the least bit impressed by him.
“We’re on a need to know basis here, Galvez.” She wrung the water out of her ponytail and headed for her car.
“Obviously there’s something I need to know about the relationship between you and Brock.” He barked the words over the shouts, following her toward her black, rusty Camry.
She stopped, whirled in place, and shook her head. Was the man growing delusional with his position? “Hang on a second here. You recruited me. You requested my expertise for the team. You wanted me to help lead the FPU. My past with Brock or anyone else has no bearing on my ability to do the job.”
“You know you’ll be working close to him.”
“And?” Anger simmered inside her.
Galvez’s nostrils flared. Disgust lit his eyes. Figures. He had never been the type for warm and cuddly conversations. And the last thing Cynthia expected was for him to encourage employee relationships. “He isn’t normal. He’s… He’s—”
“I know exactly what he is. If I were you, I’d be very careful what you say about him.” She snapped her mouth shut to keep from adding anything that could, and would get her fired. Dammit, she’d just started the job.
She yanked on the handle to her car. The metal creaked as it opened. Galvez placed a hand on the top of the door, stopping her from moving it further.
“Don’t!” She hissed. “Only my family calls me that. You’re my superior. Don’t get it confused. My accepting your job offer doesn’t make us friends. It doesn’t make us buddies. It just makes me your employee.”
“I’d like to think of us as more than just employer-employee. Possibly move things to where they should be between us.” His facial lines smoothed out. There was concern in his eyes for a flash of a second. Then an iciness entered his gaze as she shook her head.
“I don’t think so. All we’ll ever be is co-workers. Don’t confuse yourself.” She met Galvez’s stare with her own angry glare. He should know by now that intimidation wouldn’t work on her. Being raised by her grandmother, because her father had been missing in action, had toughened her up. Especially when her mother was more trouble than she wanted to think about. When her family’s reality finally hit her, some hard choices had to be made. And the result had been losing the only man she’d loved.
Galvez’s brow puckered. “If you can’t handle working with Brock, for whatever reason, just tell me. I won’t hold it against you.”
Yeah, she just bet he wouldn’t. He’d recruited her as a test. To see her fail. She knew what he was after, but she wouldn’t give it to him. He’d come to her. Right now, she had the upper hand. An upper hand she wasn’t willing to lose.
Her gaze strayed past Galvez to the ambulance where the child was taken. A paramedic shut the doors. It took off, sirens wailing. The thickness she’d felt growing at her throat expanded. Fuck. She had to hold it together or Galvez would see her as nothing more than a weakling.
“What happened to the suspect?”
His question brought her attention to his face.
“When I entered the house from the back, he was in the kitchen.” She gulped at the memory of the man, of what he’d been doing.
She ground her teeth. “And he was sharpening some large butcher knives, happily singing a song about making stew. Kyler stew. There. Are you happy?”
Galvez’s unwavering gaze was stuck on her face. She tried not to flinch, knowing that any sign of discomfort would be seen as a weakness. She inhaled slowly, mentally preparing herself for the torture of reviewing what just happened.
“He’d already started a fire in the kitchen. Stood there sharpening those knives. All the while, the flames spread through the place.” Her stomach clenched. Oxygen had frozen in her lungs. She’d seen the man light himself on fire when he’d seen her. “He walked to the blaze taking up one side of the kitchen. And just stood there. Burning.”
She still had a hard time believing what she’d seen. The maniac had continued to sing while he burned. That song. She’d have a hard time sleeping remembering the stupid song. It had made cold fingers of dread crawl up her spine.
“And the kid?”
She took a breath. Let it out slowly. “She was tied up to a tub filled with water. The entire house started to collapse around me. By the time I reached her most of it was on fire.” She gripped the door handle. Although it bothered her to have to go through what just happened, she knew it was procedure. Plus, she’d have to write it out on her report anyway. “I ran to the other room, grabbed a blanket, cut her binds, wet myself, shoved the blanket into the tub, wrapped it around her and got her out.” She swallowed hard against the dryness in her throat. “End of story.”
Thoughts kept whirling around her mind of all the possible things she could have found in that house. None of them good. She needed to go home. Right now. She was too raw. The throbbing in her chest since she’d first laid eyes on the child hadn’t dissipated yet. Too many emotions were clogging up her throat. Seeing that little girl tied up was like getting stabbed in the gut. Absolute hell. Kyler’s pale green eyes had been filled with fear. Watching the drenched six-year-old shaking, her lips turning purple from the icy water almost broke her. Jesus. But this was her job. She was damn good at it and no amount of stress on a case—or her pathetic excuse of a personal life—was going to make her give it up.
“Are you sure you’ll be fine working with Brock and his team?” Galvez asked. There was annoyance in the way he asked the question. Not concern. Never concern. That simply added to her rising temper.
She was tired. Tired of having to be the responsible one in her family. Of giving up everything she’d ever wanted. And she was especially tired of Galvez and his condescension. “Did you want me to promise that in blood or something?” His dark skin turned mottled with anger. Too bad. “I already said I’m fine. Now let me go home and let me do my job. I can handle Brock. And his team.”
Galvez stepped away, giving her space to slide into the car. He continued to watch her. Her muscles felt tight from the tension of the past hour. The engine’s roar was music to her ears. Galvez dropped down to eye level. Fuck. She thought he was done.
“I won’t have you or him messing with the plans I have in the Bureau.”
She bit the inside of her cheek hard, until she swore she tasted blood. Then she counted to ten before finally answering him.
“I know what it is you want.” She’d been informed he was gunning for a high-ranking position. “I don’t really care about it. That’s your problem.” She gripped the wheel, staring into his angry dark gaze. “But I think you should know, that you won’t ever be allowed to lead the FPU. It’s why they made you hire me.” She smiled coldly. “You see, you need to be paranormal to lead that team. It’s why I’m reporting to the head of the Bureau directly.”
“I don’t care what you think you know. I want to make sure that you are able to handle this. I’ll have the group reporting to me at some point,” he growled.
She shook her head. “No. You won’t. I know you’ve tried. You can’t lead a special team.” She shifted gears, put the car in reverse, and hit the accelerator. Tires squealed. Galvez rushed off in order to not be run over. She stopped, turned the wheel and put it in drive. “You know why you can’t lead a special team, Galvez?”
He stood there motionless. Watching her. His face clear of all emotions but the usual anger she’d come to know well.
“Because you’re not special.”