Authors: Nikki Duncan
Tags: #Sensory Ops
To CIS. The most amazing man I know. You influence my heroes.
To Mom. The strongest woman I know. You always impress me.
The heavy door banged at Lana Quinn’s back with the dull thud of thick wood. Pulling her sunglasses off, she glanced around the traditionally decorated pub. The last person she wanted to see sat in a back booth with a resigned scowl on his handsome, often arrogant, face.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him. Perversely, she always wanted to see him. She simply preferred to know when he was going to be near so she could arm herself.
Damn it, Kieralyn.
Mentally shifting her guards into place, hoping they were strong enough since she only had moments to prepare herself, Lana approached.
That the man she’d allowed herself to fall for watched her wasn’t a happy surprise. She’d fallen hard and fast despite his inability to decide if he wanted her or hated her. She’d fallen and settled into a pattern of trying to avoid him. Of trying to avoid an inevitable argument.
“You’re not who I called for.” The snipe in her tone told her she wasn’t well guarded. He would gain the upper hand and they would either argue or land in the nearest bed.
“I’m who you got.” Aidan winked, and with a knowing tap on the table, indicated the seat across from him.
When he looked at her with those secretive eyes her hormones went bat shit. She was never sure if he was keeping a secret or uncovering hers. Then there was his wink. Half invitation and half dare. Her blood pressure rose and awakened her in all the clichéd ways.
Her heart raced. Her knees trembled. Her palms tingled.
He was the man she couldn’t resist and the one she needed to avoid, because he was simply too dangerous.
“Join me, Lana.”
. The way he said her name, all suave and polite, grated. It was a cover, because he was only suave and polite toward her when Kieralyn made him promise to be. Not even his adoration for his teammate, her best friend, would win Lana the favor she was asking for.
Aidan’s selection of the booth in the back corner was evidence of his bid for control. She may not have the upper hand in this meeting, but she wasn’t ready to be defeated. “Where’s Kieralyn?”
“There was a development on a case that needed her touch.”
Which meant they were likely dealing with someone resistant to their questions. Kieralyn had a knack for getting her way while making others think it was their idea.
“Why’d you agree to meet me when you refuse to acknowledge me in a room full of people?”
“We both know it would take more than that to get you over your hatred of me.”
“She’s very persuasive.” He shrugged, like he wasn’t quite comfortable with whatever popped into his head. “And I don’t hate you.”
Lana plopped her bag on the table but didn’t sit. Persuasive was an apt description of Kieralyn. It seemed she was using the skill now to set up her best friend with the mighty wolf.
“Your scowl when I’m near says otherwise.” Lana buried her recent wish for more excitement. Things got too
when she baited Aidan.
Aidan stretched his long arms across the back of the booth, tapping his strong, narrow fingers on the red leather. “You gonna sit or are we done before we’ve even begun?”
She should ignore the potential double meaning of his question and walk. She could figure the story out on her own and call her dad if she needed Bureau help. She was more resistant to the idea of pulling her dad into one of her cases than she was to working with Aidan.
She’d already faced one serial killer with Aidan and his team at her back. She wanted the truth of the deaths, but not without backup. The cops were good, but the FBI’s Specialized Crimes Unit was better, and if her suspicions were right she wasn’t tracking a run-of-the-mill serial killer. Not that a serial killer was run-of-the-mill.
“Fine.” Slipping into the seat across from him, her knees bumped Aidan’s. A spark shot up her thighs, as electric as the time he’d touched her there with arousing intentions. She pulled closer to her side of the booth, but it didn’t offer enough distance. His butterscotch and coffee scent blended with the leather of his jacket and reached her across the table. Sweet scent. Hard attitude. Aidan Burgess was a contradiction.
He narrowed his dark gaze, intensifying his focus. “What brings us together, Lana?”
.” And why did he have to use her name so often? The way he said it, with the rumbling roll of his Scottish accent nudging it off his tongue was a seduction she didn’t want. A seduction she didn’t need.
“I don’t see anyone else in this booth.”
Do not argue. Do not take his bait. Do not stray from business. You know where you’ll end up.
She angled her head to the left, clenching her back teeth in an effort to obey her own advice.
“What do you need help with, Lana?”
Her jaw twitched. Her tummy flipped. “A story.”
“Sorry.” He straightened and slid toward the end of his seat. “I don’t do stories.”
“You’re not the center of it.” She whipped a foot up beside his leg. Blocking him would be impossible if he really wanted to leave, yet she could slow him down. “It’s not about you or one of your cases.”
He stopped with his thigh pressed against her foot.
“I think it should be though. A case for you and your team. Not about you.” Her brain floundered to keep the focus on the case while trying to win a point. His heat was seeping into her leg.
Aidan glanced from her to her ankle and back to her. His hand dropped and rested heavily over her bare skin. The heat magnified.
“You have two minutes to convince me.”
Convince him to help or to take her to bed?
Shivers tripped a path up her leg. Her pussy trembled. Even if she hadn’t forgone the nylons due to the soaring Miami temperatures his touch would have burned into her. Hell, the first look from him was all it had taken to ignite her blood. She pulled her leg back and slowly set her foot on the floor.
“There are some deaths I think are related.” She didn’t have to look around Delaney’s Pub again to know they were secluded in the pre-lunch hush, but she checked the dimly lit room anyway. She wasn’t going to be scooped or appear like a fool if her hunch was wrong. “I don’t think they’re accidental.”
“Each victim had a rash suddenly develop, but not any rash. We’re talking pustules, big and juicy, covering their skin.”
“Sounds like a freak thing.”
“Yeah, and it would make a great story if it were a ‘freak thing’.” She did air quotes around
. “It would also make an easy one.”
“And you don’t do easy.” Harshness hardened his tone.
“Easy is for amateurs.” He said he didn’t hate her. That didn’t mean he liked her, though more accurately it was that he didn’t respect her. Fine. She didn’t need him to like or respect her. She needed him to listen. “I’m no amateur.”
“So what makes these deaths different? Why do you think they’re connected?”
“For starters, a confidential informant with solid information that led me to the Medical Examiner’s Office. According to my source there, each rash is indicative of an allergic reaction. A severe one with an instant onset.”
“Death by allergy?” Aidan shook his head and tapped the tabletop with his free hand. “Come on, Lana. You can do better.”
He’d given her two minutes. She wasn’t going to waste them and risk losing his attention. “Pustules cover each victim’s entire body, but there is also a concentration of smaller pustules. The location is different on each body, but the smaller pustules are half the size of the others.”
Braced for an impact, she reached across the table and with her four fingers together touched Aidan’s arm. “And they’re all in the shape of four fingertips.”
He flinched and his eyes flared, but he didn’t pull away. “You have a theory.”
“At first I thought someone was injecting these people or somehow dosing them with something. But the concentration of smaller pustules makes me think the reaction is set off by the killer’s touch.”
“That’s something that belongs in a sci-fi show.”
“If I were saying it’s in the killer’s genetics, sure. For all I know it’s something topical. He’s immune, but when he’s wearing it and touches someone, they die.”
“You assume it’s a man because it looks to you like a serial?”
“No. I assume it’s a man because while women serial killers lean more toward poisons, which this could be, most look for more emotional intimacy in their kills.”
“A touch can be emotional,” Aidan argued with a little rattle in his voice. The word emotional landed a bit heavier than the others and had her recalling the emotions his touch aroused.
“If this were done by a woman I would think the touches would be in places that would indicate she was somehow caring for the person.”
Clearly amused, or simply humoring her, he arched an almost black brow. His lips curled in a small smile. “Go on.”
“A nurturing touch would most likely leave a rash on the back of a neck, as if she was lowering the person into bed. Or on their forearm or cheek…” Lana reached across the table and touched him in the ways she spoke of. The gestures proved two points. One was to show him that she’d thought her theory out. The second was to show herself she could handle his nearness.
The glide of his skin beneath hers called to the desire to be with him, but she locked it down. She didn’t allow herself to think of the enjoyment feeling his skin beneath hers offered. “Like she’d touch them if she was offering comfort or cared deeply.”
“And the rashes aren’t in these places?”
“No. One goes sideways over the victim’s shoulder, as if he’d been grabbed in a way to stop him or hold him still. Or like you would smack a friend to get his attention or say good job. The other was on an ankle.”
“Other than the rashes, have you connected the victims?”
“No.” He was asking questions, which meant he was considering her request. Buoyed by that victory she didn’t allow her answer to diminish the win. “They seem random. Though the guy with the mark on his shoulder worked as a medical insurance auditor, and according to a contact there, something was off in a file from a holistic allergist’s office.”
“Has the ME’s office reported the deaths as suspicious?”
This was the question she’d dreaded. Once she answered it, Aidan would shut her down. He’d stop listening and she’d be back on her own. While that generally would bother her, she didn’t want to pursue this story solo. “No.”
Aidan raised his hands in a silent rejection. “None of that is conclusive enough for us to take action.”
Damn it. Kieralyn couldn’t be the only member of their team capable of following her gut in pursuit of a case. As much as he played the role of unbending hard ass, Lana would’ve bet Aidan believed in gut instinct. But no. If he believed in instinct he was ignoring it because of some bizarre grudge against her or her profession.
She wasn’t finished with her argument.
“I dug more into the allergist and turned up a name. Dr. Grayson recently published a paper on a breakthrough cure. He claims a short series of treatments rids people of their allergies.”
She shrugged. “According to his article, he was successful in nine out of ten patients in a controlled study.”
“A study done with or without FDA approval?”
“He’s holistic, using natural plants and herbs. He doesn’t need FDA approval, especially if he discloses to his patients that the FDA hasn’t evaluated the supplement.”
“Do you suspect the doctor or number ten from the study?”
“Number ten—” the mystery patient not cured “—though I wouldn’t rule out the doctor or someone equally close to the study.” Finding a connection between the victims, even a small one, would help determine who stood to benefit from their deaths. The finger could either be pointed or redirected. “So far I haven’t been able to connect the victims, but without access to the doctor’s records I have no way of knowing if they were a part of his study.”