Authors: Julia Sykes
“Katie?” His expression turned more serious as he prompted my answer. No, not prompted.
I did my best to school my features to nonchalance, but my voice came out fainter than I would have liked. “I’m fine.”
His brows drew down. “Katie.” This time, my name was a sharp warning. “What have I told you about lying to me?”
“What can I do for you?” I blew out a sigh of relief when Josh Dover cut into the tension between us. I turned my attention to the owner of Dusk. He wasn’t quite as tall as Reed, but he was broader, harder. The harsh line of his jaw was a bit mean, and his light brown eyes regarded my partner and me with annoyance.
“Mr. Dover.” I adopted my official Agent voice and flashed him my Federal credentials. “I’m Agent Byrd, and this is Agent Miller. We have some questions about Lydia Chase.”
Dover shook his head. It was a sharp gesture, but his expression turned weary. “I’ve told you everything I know. Or everything I don’t know,” he said on a frus
trated growl. “How many times do I have to tell you cops that I had nothing to do with her abduction?”
“We’re not cops,” Reed corrected him calmly. “We’re FBI. And we’re going to need a list of your patrons.
The real list, not scene names.”
Dover’s jaw firmed. “I won’t betray the privacy of my customers. You should know that, Agent Miller.” He eyed my partner significantly. The men obviously weren’t strangers. It seemed Reed had spent some time in Chicago before joining the FBI.
An image of Reed dressed in the same tight leathers as Dover – and wearing nothing else – bloomed in my mind. It was far too enticing. I wondered if his abs would be just as ripped as Dover’s. How would his muscles ripple under his tanned skin when he wielded a whip?
I shook it off before I started drooling, feeling more than a little guilty that I was fantasizing about my partner while I should be tracking down a sadistic killer.
“We will get a subpoena if we have to,” I informed Dover.
He turned a dark glare on me, and Reed smoothly moved into my personal space, positioning his body so that it was angled slightly in front of mine. I couldn’t help but feel that he was staking a claim over me.
He’s your partner. He’s just backing you up,
I reminded myself before I could cook up another lurid and completely inappropriate fantasy.
“Listen, Josh. I don’t want it to come to that,” Reed addressed the owner with more familiarity. “I swear the identities of your customers will be kept confidential. This is about protecting the people who come here, not outing them.”
Dover’s glare turned to Reed, but my partner met him with an implacable black stare. After a moment, the owner of Dusk gave a single, nearly imperceptible nod. “I’m trusting you with this, Reed. Don’t make me regret it.”
“You won’t,” Reed assured him.
The exchange confirmed my suspicions; the two men did know each other. Reed had visited this BDSM club before. Another vision of him holding a coiled whip, his powerful muscles bulging, flashed across my mind. I told myself my inappropriate thoughts were fueled by the pervasive sights and sounds of sex around me. I told myself they were sick and wrong. But my body couldn’t be convinced of that.
Dover left us so he could retrieve the information we had requested, and Reed’s attention turned to me. When his eyes met mine, his lips tugged up in a knowing smirk. I felt trapped by that black stare, bound by it. I couldn’t have looked away even if I wanted to. I swallowed back
the erotic whimper that threatened to ease up my throat. Reed’s lips twisted up further. His smile was almost cruel. It made my sex flutter.
“Here.” Dover’s clipped voice penetrated whatever it was that was passing between us. I blinked and looked away. How long had I been staring up at Reed? It seemed like an all-too-brief eternity.
Blushing furiously, I focused my attention on Dover. He studied me carefully, his eyes flicking from my reddened cheeks to my eyes and back again. I reached out and practically snatched the flash drive from his outstretched hand.
“Thank you, sir.” I wasn’t sure why I was being so formally polite, but the words seemed to roll off my tongue of their own volition. To my surprise, Dover flashed a smile, his first genuinely warm expression of the evening.
“You’re welcome.” His eyes turned to Reed. “Let me know if I can do anything else to help.”
My brow furrowed. Dover was suddenly very accommodating. I wondered what had ch
anged to make him soften toward us.
“We’ll be in touch,” Reed told him, his own stance suddenly much more relaxed than it had been
since we entered the club. He touched his fingers to my elbow, applying gentle pressure to turn me toward the door. I followed his direction without question. It occurred to me that I should express some sort of indignation at his treatment, but it just wasn’t there.
However, the heat he awoke deep within me even with that lightest touch was entirely unprofessional, so I made myself step away from him as I began to walk out of the club. I kept careful distance between us, even once we stepped out into the night. The nearly stifling sexual atmosphere dissipated, but Reed’s allure didn’t fade.
I caught sight of my black sedan, and annoyance helped pierce my consternation.
“Damn it,” I mumbled under my breath in response to the small slip of paper tucked under my windshield wiper. There was no reason to have gotten a parking ticket in the lot for Dusk. I strode forward and snatched it up, grimacing as I braced myself for the damage. But the words on the paper were so much worse than a fine.
Now, what are you doing at a BDSM club, Kathy? Does my little pet like pain? We are going to get along so well. Come to me and we can play. Come and find me.
Nausea hit hard, and I swallowed to keep from retching. My skin crawled at the sensation of his eyes on me. He was watching me. I backed away from the car, as though his toxic presence lingered there. I hit something solid, and I whirled to face the threat.
Reed caught my upper arms, preventing me from lashing out. His brows were drawn, his eyes deep pools of concern.
“What is it, Katie?”
I’m Katie. Not Kathy.
I took a deep breath, clinging to that distinction in order to distance myself from the threat. It wasn’t meant for me. The sick fucker who had written the note didn’t know me.
Reed released one of my arms to pluck the paper from my fingers, but one hand rose to rest on my shoulder, steadying me. I watched in silence as his eyes darted back and forth, processing the sickening words.
Mere seconds passed before he was crowding me, his large body almost folding over mine as he ushered me to the passenger side of the car. I silently allowed him to guide me into my seat. If I opened my mouth, I would vomit.
I’m not Kathy. I’m not Kathy.
The mantra did little to soothe me. My denial slipped away from me like a dream upon first awakening.
“Kathy can be short for Katherine. Don’t pretend like you don’t know it’s for you.
Dex’s words rang through my mind with cruel clarity.
Before I could process what was happening, Reed was in th
e driver’s seat, and we were pealing out of the parking lot. Something pressed insistently at the edges of my panic.
“Wait,” I rasped. “Go back. We have to go back.”
Reed shot me a look that told me I was teetering on the edge of sanity. “No. I’m getting you out of here. He might still be nearby.”
“I know! That’s why we have to go back,” I insisted. “We can’t catch him if we’re running away.”
“I’m calling this in. Dex can case the area. I’m not letting you anywhere near that club.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Reed! I’m fine. Turn around.”
“You are not fine,” he informed me. “And I’m not putting you at risk. He could have a gun.”
I had to make him see reason.
Even if the cold truth did cut me to the core. “He doesn’t want to kill me,” I said quietly. “He might still be back there. I don’t want to run.” The last was a lie. My heart hammered in my chest, the primal chemicals in my system urging me to flight.
“Too damn bad.”
Reed dismissed me. He already had his Bluetooth headset hooked into his ear. I zoned out as he put in the call to get the guys out to Dusk. It was much easier to give in, to let go, than to focus on the source of the fear that spread through me like poison.
I retreated into myself, putting up mental walls against my panic. Frank had taught me how to be strong.
“No one can make you feel powerless unless you give them your permission.”
He had told me that once, when he was training me to fight. Even though he was older, he was much bigger than me, and very fit. I had been intimidated, but he encouraged me to stand up to him, to meet his attack and hold my own. That training had saved my ass dozens of times. If I shut down my instinctive fear, if I believed in my abilities, I could be my strongest self.
“What are you doing?” Reed demanded.
“What do you mean?”
“You’re burying it. You have to deal with this, Katie. Ignoring it won’t solve anything.”
How does he know?
Frank had always told me I was an open book. It seemed Reed could read me just as easily.
“I’m just being practical about it,” I countered. I was relieved when my voice came out cool and controlled. “Freaking out over a piece of paper isn’t going to solve anything. We’ll take it to the lab and get it analyzed, just like the other note. There’s nothing more we can do about it now.
Especially since we’re running away.”
“We’re not running away. We’re just not being stupid. Staying out in the open there would have been a mistake, and you know it. So cut this bullshit bravado and start taking this seriously.”
I pursed my lips and shoved my walls up higher. Reed was trying to make me acknowledge my fear, but I couldn’t handle that. Fear made me weak, and I couldn’t abide weakness. Frank would be disappointed in me if I wasn’t brave.
“You don’t have to be fearless to be a strong person.” Reed’s voice was suddenly
lower, more soothing.
Those few words threatened to make me come undone. Reed was giving me permission to feel, to let go. Anguish curled up my throat, and it took all my determination to stop my sob. I couldn’t give over to my fear. I couldn’t make myself vulnerable to it. Steeling myself, I choked down my raging emotions.
“I’ve seen worse shit than this, Reed. You’re new, so you don’t get it yet. There are terrible people in the world who do terrible things. Words scrawled on little scraps of paper are nothing compared to what I’ve seen bad men do.”
“Just because you’ve dealt with horrific things doesn’t mean that it’s not okay to be afraid. This is a personal threat, Katie, not just another case.”
Just another case?
” I repeated shrilly. “No case I’ve worked is ‘just another case.’ The women I fight for have been horribly abused. I remember each and every one of them. I remember everything that was done to them.”
“And now you’re scared the same thing will happen to you.” Reed met my tirade with the calm truth.
“Just shut up and take me home.” It was childish, but I couldn’t listen to any more. He was going to break me down, and I wasn’t ready to face my emotions. Especially not in front of someone from the Bureau. I was Agent Katherine Byrd, and I didn’t cower away from dangerous men. They cowered away from me.
Reed’s jaw firmed and remained mercifully closed, but his dark expression told me he was pissed. The beginnings of guilt stirred within me, but I quickly quashed it. I couldn’t handle anything more than holding my fear at bay. The only words he spoke were to ask me my address, and then silence stretched between us.
Reed found a parking spot near my apartment block. Before I could finish unbuckling my seatbelt, he was at my door, opening it for me. He took my hand without asking and pulled me to my feet. He was acting too fast for me to process anything but his touch. It wasn’t until he began guiding me toward my building that I pieced it together. He was protecting me.
“You don’t have to walk me in,” I told him. “Whoever left the note can’t have followed us. We would have noticed. I’m not-”
Before I could explain to him that I wasn’t incompetent, he cut me off with a sharp glare. That was all it took for my mouth to snap closed. Damn, but the man was intimidating when he got like this. I was suddenly glad to have him at my back.
My eyes slid away from his. “Thanks.”
“Good.” He gave a short nod of approval at my acceptance rather than taking my gratitude with a typical “you’re welcome.” The gesture smacked of arrogance, but it didn’t really bother me. I was used to being on the receiving end of that attitude from Dex. The familiarity was comforting.
“This is me.” I fished my keys out of my pocket when we arrived at my door. “Thanks for walking me in.”
Again, Reed moved right past the courtesy I offered as though it was a foregone conclusion. “Now that you’re being sensible, we can talk about our next steps.”