Authors: Julia Sykes
Our next steps?
“I already told you; I’ll take the note to the lab in the morning.”
“No. I’ll take it now.” He didn’t ask. He informed. “And tomorrow we’re going to look into possible suspects. Before you say anything, you and I will keep our focus on The Mentor. But someone needs to look into this, starting with questioning the men you’ve put away. Who can help us with that?
God, the man was pushy. But I had to admit he was right. I couldn’t focus on The Mentor case if I was constantly looking over my shoulder for a stalker.
“Colton Hughes,” I sighed the name, resigned. “He’s captain of the Chicago PD Special Victims Unit. We’ve worked together in the past to put away the criminals I’ve hunted. He’s a friend. I’m sure he’ll help us look up the status of the prisoners. I don’t want Dex on this. We can’t afford to distract him, either. He has his own work to do.”
And if I give my friend free reign to track the man down, we’ll end up with a dead stalker on our hands.
I didn’t want Dex to get in trouble with the Bureau on my account. Because if he found the man who was threatening me, there was no way the perp would get out alive. Colton was fond of me, but he was a bit more level headed than Dex. He was my best option.
“All right,” Reed said. “We’ll go see Hughes in the morning. And I’m getting the guys at the lab to put a rush on analyzing the notes.” His black eyes softened to deepest brown as they focused on me again. He shifted from commanding to comforting in the space of a second. “We’ll catch this creep, Katie. You won’t have to be scared anymore.”
I hauled my walls all the way back up. “I’m not scared.”
His expression hardened. “I won’t push you tonight, but we’re going to have another discussion about lying tomorrow.”
I licked my lips nervously. Reed’s eyes turned jet black again as they watched my darting tongue.
“Okay,” I heard myself agree. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
With that, I retreated into my apartment. It was a relief to put the door between myself and my imposing new partner. Exhaustion washed over me, and I leaned back against the wood. So much had happened in the last few hours, and I was overwhelmed by the emotional rollercoaster. I had gone from terror at the first note, to embarrassment in front of Frank, to prying two alpha males away from one another, to arousal at Dusk, and back to terror with the discovery of the second note.
Before I realized it, I
slid down to the floor. The door was at my back, and my knees pressed to my chest.
A sound that more closely resembled a scratchy groan than a meow pulled me back to reality. I gave my old ginger tabby a wan smile and scratched him behind the ears.
Gizmo always knew when I needed a furry shoulder to cry on. All too often, animals were far kinder to me than humans. The scumbags I hunted every day were proof of the horrors man was capable of inflicting on others.
“I should have been a vet,” I told my cat. It was something I never admitted aloud, but Gizmo would keep my secret. I had always wanted to work with animals, but Frank convinced me that the work I could do for the FBI was more important. And while I did get a sense of satisfaction out of putting heinous criminals behind bars, my job was more upsetting than I would ever say to Frank, or even Dex.
“No one can make you feel powerless unless you give them your permission.”
Frank was right. I wasn’t weak. He had helped me fully realize my own power, and I was grateful to him for that. I had felt so helpless after my father’s death, but Frank had stepped in and shown me how to be strong.
I could handle pain, mental and physical. My second father had taught me how.
Does my little pet like pain? We are going to get along so well.
The sickening words seared across my brain. I ran to the bathroom and vomited.
Colton ran a hand through his shaggy blond hair, and his chiseled jaw clenched with anger. Disgust twisted his lips and accentuated the fine lines around his dark chocolate eyes.
“Don’t be like that, Colton,” I ordered before he could start acting like Dex and Reed. “I’m fine. I just need help catching this guy so I can focus on my work.”
The older man fixed me with a stern glare, and I resisted the urge to shuffle towards Reed for backup. “Tell me what the notes said. Word for word.”
I swallowed against the lump in my throat. It blocked the horrifying words. Instead of complying, I managed to circumvent his demand. I gestured at the folder I had placed in front of him. “You have copies of the notes right there.”
His brows rose. “I know what they say. But if you’re fine, why can’t you read them out to me?”
“Katie is having trouble with lying lately,” Reed remarked.
Colton’s attention focused on him for the first time, and the captain’s eyes narrowed as he sized up my partner. Some form of silent communication passed between the two men, and after a moment, Colton inclined his head slightly.
This was getting old fast. Didn’t they realize I could handle myself?
I clearly wasn’t doing a good job of convincing them. I ground my teeth. “Are you going to help me or not?”
Colton’s eyes returned to mine, and I suddenly felt pinned in place by his intense gaze. “Both the notes say ‘Come and find me.’ He obviously wants you to try to track him down on your own. That means he has some sort of trap planned. So yes, I will help you, because you’re not going anywhere near this.”
“Fine.” Snappishness masked my secret relief. “I’ll stay away from it, because I have a more important case to deal with. I don’t need a distraction.”
His gaze turned impossibly harder. “This is more than just a distraction. It’s a serious threat. I’m going to look into the men you’ve locked up. Whoever this is has a personal vendetta. I don’t know how one of them would get these notes to you, but maybe he has
an accomplice on the outside.”
“Is there anyone you know personally who might be behind this?” Reed asked me.
“An ex, maybe?”
I immediately shook my head. “George wouldn’t do this. He’s a good guy.”
He might have been a great guy, if he hadn’t broken it off so suddenly.
I really should have taken that up with Frank, but I didn’t have the guts to accuse him of running off my boyfriend. I couldn’t bring myself to rail at him for looking out for me. I wasn’t going to spurn the only father I had left.
“I’ll look into him,” Colton told Reed.
I fought the urge to stamp my foot like an ignored child seeking attention. “I’m telling you, George wouldn’t do something like this. We only went out for a few months, and he was the one who left. And that was over a year ago. He has no reason to want to hurt me.”
“Then I’ll wait until I see what turns up with the inmates,” Colton allowed. “But I’m going to question him if nothing comes from that.”
“Damn it, Colton, I came to you because I thought you would be reasonable about this. Why aren’t you listening to me?”
“I’m being perfectly reasonable,” he told me coolly. “And I am listening to you. I said I would only question George if it came to that. Look me in the eye and tell me we wouldn’t go to the ex-boyfriend first if this case was about some other woman.”
I shifted my weight and cut my eyes away from his. Of course we would look at the ex first in a case like this.
“That’s what I thought,” he said with grim satisfaction. His voice turned gentler a moment later. “I’ll take care of this, Katie. And I’ll keep you informed every step of the way.”
I blew out a long breath, some of my irritation leaving me. “Thanks, Colton. I appreciate it.”
“No problem.” His attention turned to Reed. “You look out for her until we catch this fucker.”
“I will,” Reed promised.
Could they be any more high-handed? I pushed back my irritation. I would deal with my partner later. We needed to have a conversation about gender equality.
“Call me if you find anything.”
Colton nodded in response to my request, and I turned to leave. I couldn’t wait to get out of his office and away from the two domineering men. Reed had proven to be infuriating at times, but having both of them gang up on me was galling. It was time I talked to my partner about respecting his peers.
Reed flanked me like a bodyguard, even though we were in the police station. I was perfectly safe here. I waited until we were in the privacy of my car to lay into him. I couldn’t allow him to keep acting like this. Not if I was going to maintain the respect of the guys at the office. Not if I was going to keep up the charade that nothing about my job ever got to me.
“Listen, Miller.” His surname was cold on my tongue. “I don’t know what you think you’re playing at, but your behavior is unacceptable. You’re new to the Bureau, so maybe you don’t get it yet. You can’t treat me like this. I might only be a couple years older than you, but that means I have two years of experience on you. If anything, you should defer to me, not the other way around. I want to work with you as a partner, but that’s not going to work if you don’t see me as an equal.”
To my surprise, he gave me a wry smile. “You are so much like Sharon,” he told me again. He said it with fondness. “She doesn’t like being protected, either. But she’s also learned not to be stupid enough to take things on by herself. Would you have gone to Colton for help if I hadn’t asked you to?”
I huffed out a breath and sidestepped the question. “You didn’t exactly
You can’t be so controlling. That’s not what partnership is about.”
His light expression turned more serious. “I am controlling, when I need to be. I’m an FBI agent, but I’m also a Dom. I’m going to be demanding when it comes to protecting you. That’s my job as your partner, and that’s who I am as a man.”
A few heartbeats of silence passed as his black eyes bored into mine, impressing upon me the significance of his words. This was who Reed Miller was, and I could choose to either accept that or not. The forbidding glint in his eyes let me know that not accepting wasn’t in my best interest.
The flush that crept up my neck to flood my cheeks let me know that my body very much wanted to accept him. That dark stare did something to me. It awoke an answering darkness deep within me, something that was both fiercely hungry and softly pliant at the same time. I wanted, but I would wait. Because that was what he desired. Reed’s will
washed over me, and I didn’t even try to fight it. Fighting was exhausting, especially when what he was offering was so alluring; protection, comfort.
“Now, I believe we were going to discuss your lying.” He kept me locked in his gaze. “It’s okay to be afraid, Katie. It’s natural. Being afraid doesn’t mean you’re not brave. Your bravery is defined by how you face your fear. And facing it alone isn’t brave; it’s foolish. It’s dangerous.”
“You don’t have to be fearless to be a strong person.”
Reed’s words from the day before reminded me that I didn’t have to do this on my own.
I dropped my eyes, suddenly ashamed of my pigheaded denial of the truth that everyone could see: I was facing some scary shit. Accepting that was the first step to conquering it.
“Look at me, Katie.” My eyes snapped to Reed’s instantly in response to his stern order. “You’re going to be honest with me from now on. And you’re going to be honest with yourself. Colton’s right. Whoever is sending these notes wants you to seek him out on your own. Don’t isolate yourself in your own fear. Because that’s what will happen if you deny it. True strength is found in accepting every part of yourself, even the parts you’re not so proud of.”
Something flashed in his eyes at the last, an inner pain that I was able to glimpse in his moment of raw honesty. Reed had obviously wrestled his own demons in the past.
His words were a revelation. They were so different from how I viewed inner strength. In my efforts to make Frank proud, I had buried every trace of vulnerability for the last nine years. Now that I was faced with the threat of this sick stalker, I realized that my strength was a fragile thing. It was the illusion of strength, not the true power I saw in Reed.
His chin lifted, and I suddenly felt much smaller under the weight of his imperious stare. “You’re not going to
lie anymore, Katie. Tell me you’ll always be honest with me.”
“I won’t lie to you, Reed,” I promised softly.
“Good.” His approval was a deep rumble. My heart skipped a beat when he reached for me. My body remained frozen in place as his thumb gently brushed the single tear that had rolled down my cheek.
I pulled back and swiped at the wetness on my face. I never cried. I couldn’t. Frank had taught me how to bottle up my tears, how to be brave. But Reed was tempting me to allow my vulnerability to bleed out into the open.
Maybe Frank was wrong. Maybe burying my emotions makes me even more vulnerable when shit really hits the fan. I don’t know how to handle them.
I shook the thought away almost angrily and turned the key in the ignition with more force than was necessary. I didn’t look at Reed as I drove back to the field office, but I could feel his disapproval pulsing over me. Mercifully, he didn’t push me. He seemed to sense that I had taken as much as I could for the time being. I was grateful for his perceptiveness, even if I was deeply troubled by our conversation about personal honesty. Being honest with him was one thing; not lying to myself was another entirely.