Authors: Julia Sykes
She flashed me a brilliant smile. “Katie. What can I do to help?”
My show of good humor was short-lived. How could telling Lydia she could be my friend possibly make up for the horror I was about to make her face? “I have to ask you about The Mentor. I’m sorry.”
Her expression became pinched with strain, but her posture remained strong. “I know. And it’s okay. I’ll do anything I can to bring him down. I won’t allow him to hurt any more women.” Her remarkable eyes sparked into mine. “I won’t allow him to hurt you, Katie.”
“Thank you,” my voice was hoarse with emotion. I was deeply touched by her show of strength and compassion, after everything she had been through.
I cleared my throat, forcing myself to focus on the matter at hand. Putting Lydia through this again went against my nature, but I didn’t have a choice. “What do you remember about The Mentor?” I began in my best Agent voice. “I know you never saw his face, but can you tell me anything else that might be an identifying marker? Did he have an accent, a particular scent? Anything you remember will help.”
Lydia took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Her face went completely blank, detached. When she spoke, it was as though someone else was using her body to say the words. “He spoke like someone who was used to being in a position of authority. He had a broad, Midwestern accent. And he had that sort of scratchiness to his voice men get as they age. Like maybe he was a smoker at one time in his life. He didn’t smell like cigarettes, though.
“I definitely got the feeling he was older than Martel. He spoke to Martel like a father figure would.
If your father figure was willing to murder you to save his own skin.
“He smelled like expensive cologne, like sandalwood. But underneath that was a rough saltiness, his natural scent.
“He was… Brutal. Cold. It was as though he didn’t possess a shred of compassion or any human emotion. He spoke in a bored monotone most of the time, unless he was annoyed with Martel. That was the most emotion I ever heard from him; annoyance.
“Physically, he was fit, muscular. He wasn’t saggy or wrinkled, from what I could feel. And he had a big penis. I couldn’t say exactly how big.
Bigger than Martel.”
Nausea gripped me. I couldn’t imagine living through that and being able to talk about it. I couldn’t imagine being able to go on at all.
Much less fall in love.
“Thank you, Lydia. That’s a big help.”
Her eyes opened, and she blinked, as though she was waking up from a dream. “Is it? I feel like it’s not much of anything.”
“All the details are helpful. We have an idea of where to look for The Mentor, but we don’t have anything to help ID him. Now if we locate a suspect, this will help us know if we’re moving in the right direction.”
Lydia gave me a weak smile. “I’m glad I talked to you, then. Thanks for letting me help. Smith wants to keep me away from all this, but it’s important for me to be involved.”
“How do you do it?” I asked in awe. “How are you so strong? How can you-
” I stopped abruptly, realizing that I was asking deeply personal questions that had nothing to do with the investigation.
“How can I go on every day after what happened to me?” She finished for me.
“Love. Smith showed me that love was still possible for me. I don’t think anyone else could have. He has his own unique way of showing affection.” Her smile turned wry. “I know you want to ask me about BDSM, Katie. It’s okay. Yes, I’m in a D/s relationship with Smith. I was interested in it before I was taken. I think I’m wired for it. It took me a long time to come to terms with that. Then it was turned against me; Martel took me because I could handle pain with sex.” Her lips thinned. “But he didn’t understand. He took something beautiful and twisted it. Smith smoothed it back out for me. I needed his…
,” she half-laughed the word, “to see that what I had always wanted wasn’t wrong. Sometimes his support was all that kept me going. He simply wouldn’t let me fall. I needed that. I still need it. And not just because of what happened to me.”
“D/s is all about trust,” I said. “How were you able to ever trust anyone again?”
“Smith didn’t really give me an option. It wasn’t the healthiest thing for me, from an objective viewpoint, but it was what I needed. He’s what I need.” Her grin was knowing. “Reed’s been talking to you,” she surmised. “Good for him. You can trust Reed, Katie.”
D/s is about trust. You can trust Reed.
I connected the dots. My cheeks flamed.
Lydia’s hand covered mine. “There’s nothing to be ashamed about. Don’t waste your time letting embarrassment hold you back. What other people think is right doesn’t matter. Only your own happiness matters. Find it how you can.”
My phone beeped in the pattern that alerted me to a text message, and I jumped away from Lydia, grateful for the reprieve. Then I checked the text, and I instantly forgot my relief.
If you keep playing with Carl’s toy, I’ll have to take her away. You aren’t allowed to have toys, pet. You only have me. You belong to me.
Two seconds of pure terror registered before I responded to the threat. It wasn’t just about me this time. I had to protect Lydia. I wasn’t going to allow anything else to happen to her.
“Come with me,” I kept my voice low and controlled, but she paled.
“What is it?”
“We need to go see Smith and Reed.” I didn’t want to frighten her, so I kept it to the necessary truth.
Lydia’s hands shook as she stood to comply. The men were downstairs in the hotel bar, giving us some privacy but not going too far. They felt too far away now. Even though we were indoors, I felt exposed. Thousands of strangers populated this space. Any one of them could be The Mentor.
As we walked, I positioned my body beside Lydia’s in the most protective stance I could manage. I couldn’t guard her front and back by myself, but my eyes carefully searched the faces
of everyone we passed on our way from the elevator, through the lobby, and to the bar where the men sat.
Reed was instantly on his feet when he took in my expression, and Smith was at Lydia’s side in a flash. I quickly showed him the text message.
“Get her out of here,” I ordered in a low voice.
“What’s going on?” Lydia demanded.
Smith’s arm wrapped around her waist, pulling her close to his body. “We’re leaving, sweetheart. Now.” His expression had turned almost wild.
didn’t even begin to cover Smith James’ emotional response when Lydia was in danger. “Call me when you find something,” he snapped in Reed’s direction. “And keep her safe.” He jerked his chin at me and then hustled Lydia out of the hotel.
I glanced at Reed and gestured to my phone. “We need to trace this ASAP.” I turned to stride out of the hotel after Smith, but Reed’s hand closed around my upper arm, stopping me short.
“Show it to me,” he commanded, and I winced. I didn’t want Reed to see the text. If he read it, I wouldn’t be able to pretend like the only threat was to Lydia. His concern would make it real. I wasn’t sure if I could handle it, not after having The Mentor’s hands on me.
He had my phone number. It shouldn’t surprise me, not after everything else he had done, but it still shook me to my core to have my privacy so flagrantly invaded.
“I could take you any time I wanted.”
He seemed to know everything about me, and I knew nothing about him.
Reed plucked the phone from my fingers and read the text. As I had feared, his face darkened, and his arm closed around me, just as Smith had done with Lydia. I tried to pull away from him, but he held me firmly.
“We have to go to the field office,” I insisted.
“No. We’ll get Dex to trace it. You and I are going up to the room and staying there until we know where the text came from.” He was already pulling out his own phone to call Dex. I thought about protesting, but I knew he was right. The best thing I could do right now was not engage The Mentor. Staying out of sight was the best course of action.
I’m willing to allow Reed to keep me locked up to keep me safe.
Ironic, considering I had just been concerned over the fact that Smith did the same thing to Lydia.
But I had seen the dead look in Lydia’s eyes just after she was rescued. I had been touched by the same sick bastard who had helped torture her. He wanted to do the same to me.
I didn’t at all mind allowing Reed to protect me. All my concerns about losing my strong, independent persona by turning to him for support melted away. They seemed stupid now. Reed had been right. If I kept myself isolated, I was an easy target. Accepting his help – physically and emotionally – only made me stronger.
By the time we were back in the suite and Reed had ended the call to Dex, my lips were tilted in a small smile. His brows drew together in concern when he took in my expression.
“Are you okay?” He asked almost warily, as though he was afraid I was about to lose it.
I wrapped my arms around the back of his neck and answered him with a kiss. He was still for the space of a moment, but then his lips tugged up against mine before his tongue plundered my mouth.
“What was that for?” He asked when I finally pulled back for air.
“Thank you,” I said huskily. “For everything you’re doing for me.
For keeping me safe. For caring. I… I talked to Lydia, and I think I understand things better now. Well, I already understood them, but I’m starting to accept them. Does that make sense?”
Reed grinned. “Not really, but I think I have an idea of what you mean. We’re talking about BDSM, right?”
“Yes, but it’s more than that. You’re helping me to see that it’s okay to just be
I don’t have to try so hard to be something that’s against my nature. I don’t want to do this anymore, Reed. I don’t want to spend every day looking at pictures of murdered women. I’m sick of the violence and death. All I ever wanted to do was help sick animals, not hunt down sick criminals. And now, thanks to you, I believe Frank never wanted this for me, after all. He wants me to be happy. Lydia told me to find my own happiness.” I touched my hand to his cheek. “This is my happiness.”
Reed’s smile was blinding, and his lips found mine again. When we parted, gasping for breath, he pressed his forehead to mine. Regret filled his dark eyes.
“I wish I could finish this for you. I don’t want you anywhere near The Mentor. He wants you to be the one to find him. Maybe if you quit the FBI now, he’ll stop targeting you.”
I wanted so badly to believe that. “I don’t think he will. He seems to actually care about me in some twisted way, and that’s not how Lydia described him. I don’t know if it’s the fact that I’m hunting him that triggered his fascination or if it’s something else about me, but this is different. Lydia said he was cold, devoid of emotion. But he told me I make him happy. I don’t think he’ll stop, Reed. Not until we stop him.”
. I like the sound of that. I’m glad you’re not trying to handle this on your own anymore. Thank you for trusting me.” His lips brushed my cheek. “We’ll catch him, Katie. You’ll be safe, and then you can start the life you always wanted.”
What I want is to be with you.
But I was afraid to say what I truly wanted. It was too soon to ask for any sort of commitment. The case would end, and he would be sent back to New York. But if Reed was no longer my partner, then being with him wouldn’t be wrong. I could apply to vet school anywhere. I didn’t have to stay in Chicago.
Whoa there, crazy. Just because he likes you and he’s sleeping with you doesn’t mean he wants anything long-term.
I knew Reed cared about me, but he had probably been with dozens of women. I had only ever dated one other man. I wasn’t sure how serious this was for him. It was the most serious relationship of my life.
“What’s going on in that busy brain?” He asked.
“I’m just worried…” I chickened out. “I’m worried about The Mentor. We don’t know enough about him. How much longer will it be before we take him out?”
How much longer do I have with you?
“Don’t worry, Katie. I’ll keep you safe. We’ll catch him soon.”
That meant Reed would go back to New York soon. Sadness mingled with relief at the idea of all of this mess being over.
“The text came from a burner phone. We can’t trace it.” Dex’s jaw ticked, and he didn’t meet my eye. I knew his reluctance to look at me wasn’t because of the bad news. He was still angry about what had happened between us in the elevator. When he told me he loved me. When I slapped him.
The sadness that swirled within me didn’t match the level of anger I saw surging through every taut line of his body, but it was close. I had gained Reed in my life, but I had lost my best friend. And I wasn’t even sure how long I would have Reed. Was it worth losing Dex?
I shook my head wearily. I couldn’t change what had happened. I couldn’t change what Dex felt for me; what I didn’t feel for him.