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Authors: Chris Taylor

Tags: #Mystery, #Suspense, #Thriller, #Crime, #Romance, #Australia

The Predator

BOOK: The Predator
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THE PREDATOR

Book Three in the Munro Family Series

 

Chris Taylor

 

Everything comes at a price…

 

When Australian Federal Agent
Brandon Munro
walked out on his wife without a word of explanation, he had no idea the price would be so high.

 

Alex Cavanaugh’s
world fell apart the night Brandon told her their marriage was over. Devastated over his refusal to tell her why and unwilling to keep him by her side out of a sense of duty, she conceals from him her pregnancy.

 

Four years later, Alex has rebuilt her life and has found success as an Australian Federal Agent working in a High Tech Operations team hunting online predators. In conjunction with INTERPOL and the FBI, her team is in pursuit of a pedophile ring that has its origins in Belgium.

 

When Brandon transfers to her Unit, Alex’s life is thrown into turmoil once again. Pitted together in a race to uncover a global ring of online pedophiles, Alex and Brandon are forced to confront each other…and their past.

 

As the pressure mounts, Brandon struggles to deal with his guilt and reconnect with the woman he still loves. Alex lives on tenterhooks that Brandon may discover he has a son. Despite her sound reasons for keeping the child a secret, she fears he will never forgive her once he discovers the extent of her treachery.

 

While both struggle with guilt and forgiveness and the resurgence of love, they are unaware of the predator who stalks close to home…

 

This book is dedicated to Detective Superintendent Michael Kilfoyle and as always to my husband Linden, who has made it all possible.

 

PROLOGUE

 

The tomb-like darkness of the room was broken only by the light from his brightly backlit computer screen. The murmur of late-night traffic passing outside the window of his cramped ground-floor unit, squeezed between two similarly ugly apartment blocks in the northern Sydney suburb of Hornsby, barely registered.

He opened his email and waited for new messages to appear. He chewed on his fingernail, nervous, excited, hopeful… And there it was. The email he’d been waiting for. His heart stuttered with excitement.

He moved the mouse and clicked on the file, his hand quivering. The thirty-inch screen filled with images. He clicked on a photo and his breathing quickened. His belly clenched at the beauty of the image before him. She was everything he dreamed of: dark curly hair, alabaster skin, guileless eyes. Young…oh, so young. Just how he liked them. She stared up at him from the tangled sheets, a dazed expression on her innocent, heart-shaped face.

His gaze drifted over the screen, across her unblemished, near-naked body that showed the first blush of womanhood. The picture was flawless, taken by a high quality camera and a photographer with a talent for lighting. The international supplier had boasted to him that the pictures were perfect and worth every dollar he’d paid for them. He was relieved and ecstatic the supplier hadn’t exaggerated. He’d be able to offer them to his own clients for a hefty price. The profit would be more than pleasing.

But first, he’d take his own pleasure…

His body tightened and he embraced the surge of desire that rushed through him, tingling his nerve endings. The tip of his cock twitched and hardened, pressing against the fabric of his clothes. He released his hold on the mouse and jerked at his zipper.

Her dark, vulnerable eyes held him captive.

Succumbing to his body’s urgent demands, he started to stroke.

 

CHAPTER ONE

 

Federal Agent Alexandra Cavanaugh stared at the flickering computer screen in front of her and willed a message to appear. She’d been logged in since the beginning of her shift, nearly twelve hours earlier, and hadn’t received a single bite.

Her gaze drifted around the squad room of the Australian Federal Police High Tech Operations Team and paused at the window on the far side. It was only a little after five-thirty, but night was already closing in. Darkness came earlier this time of year.

Alex had always loved winter, although a typical Sydney winter was so much milder than one in her native hometown of Canberra. A slight smile tugged at her lips. There was no chance she’d see snow in Sydney’s beachside suburb of Bondi.

With a sigh, she turned back to the screen and picked up the pen that lay idle beside her keyboard. Today she’d logged in as Casey, a thirteen-year-old schoolgirl who liked to visit chat rooms during her free periods and in the hours after school, before her mother called her to dinner.

But no one had been interested today. At least, not during Alex’s shift. The night shift usually fared better. There was something about the anonymity of darkness that brought out the worst in the men they hunted.

“Got any plans for the weekend?”

Alex glanced across at Ryan Boland, who’d turned away from his own computer screen and now faced her.

Ryan was a good agent. He’d been an Australian Federal Police Officer and a member of the online Child Protection Unit almost as long as she had and he was just as committed to seeing the cyber pedophiles locked up for a very long time.

Alex shook her head. “
Nup.
I’m staying home with Sam. It’s been too long since we had some quality time together.” She leaned back in her chair and stretched. “What about you? What are you doing with your weekend off?”

“Ah. Two whole days away from this place…” He sighed. “I can barely contain myself.”

“What are your plans?”

Ryan pushed his chair backwards and stretched his long legs out over his desk, crossing his ankles and stacking his hands behind his head. “I’m going to take my boat out.”

Alex raised one dark eyebrow. “You bought a boat?”

“I bought a boat.”

A grin threatened. “Do you even know how to drive a boat?”

A look of mock-outrage crossed his handsome features. “Of course I do. What kind of question is that? I went down to the Roads and Maritime Services and sat for their test. Passed with flying colors.”

“Okay, so you can read a handbook. Have you actually ever been
in
a boat—like, at the
wheel
?”

Ryan rolled his eyes. “It’s called the helm, for your information, and of course I’ve steered one before. It’s not like I just strolled into a boat shop one afternoon, picked out a vessel and drove away with it.”

She looked at him, askance.

“What?”
he protested at her doubtful look. “I had a few lessons. The boat shop owner took me down to the river and showed me a few things. How to get it on and off the trailer, how to get it started—you know, that kind of thing.”

Alex threw back her head and laughed. “Only you would get away with something like that, Boland. I don’t know how you do it. What was her name?”

He grinned, ignoring her last comment, and rose from his chair, closing the short distance between them. Propping a hip against her desk and crossing his arms, he spoke again, his face sober.

“I live up north of Avalon, not far from the Hawkesbury River. I leave here after a long shift with the world on my shoulders, wondering how there can be so many sick fucks out there and I pass one pickup truck after another—all towing boats. Heading out for some recreation time. Heading out for some
fun.
” His expression became earnest. “And you know what? Every one of those blokes has a smile on his face. They’re
happy.
They’re boat owners and they’re happy.”

Alex’s smile faded. She reached out and squeezed his arm, her voice gentling. “Okay, Boland. I get it. I really do. Have a break. Go and have some fun.”

Ryan looked away and let out a breath. “You ought to come out with me some day, Alex. Who knows? You might even enjoy it.”

Memories from an earlier time, a time when she’d been high on love and life, snuck up on her, stealing her breath. Her stomach knotted with a pang of regret. “No, I don’t think so, Ryan. But thanks.”

“I promise I won’t drown you.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that. It’s… I-I just don’t do boats.”

His gaze lingered on her face, curiosity lighting the dark depths of his eyes, but he said nothing. With a slight shrug, he returned to his seat. Reaching for his mouse, he turned his attention back to the screen in front of him.

Alex let her breath out in slow increments and willed herself to relax.

“Nearly time to log off,” Ryan said.

“Today it can’t come soon enough,” she murmured and tried to concentrate on her screen.

“Alex. Ryan.”

They both looked up as Superintendent Patrick Manahan approached them from the direction of his office.

“What is it, boss?” Alex asked.

Patrick ran a hand through his thick, closely cropped gray hair. “I’ve been meaning to tell you all week. I’ve got some good news, for a change. We have a recruit. An AFP officer who’s worked for ten years in counter terrorism. He’s transferring to the CPU.”

Ryan whistled. “Wow, that’s a coup—getting someone with that much experience. Has he worked in Child Protection Operations before?”

Patrick shook his head. “No, but he’s the one who requested the transfer, so I’m guessing he has some idea what he’s getting into. I expect the two of you to help him settle in and bring him up to speed.”

“When does he start?” Alex asked.

Patrick glanced at his watch. “In about five minutes. He opted to start on the late shift.”

Alex pulled back in surprise. “He wants to kick off on the night shift? On the
Friday
night shift? Does he have any idea how busy it can get?”

Patrick shrugged. “What can I say? Must be a glutton for punishment.”

Alex sat back in her chair. The new guy was either dedicated to the cause or just plain green. Most recruits to the unit chose to start on a morning shift—preferably a Monday morning when the cyber predators tended to be at their quietest: sleeping off the effects of a couple of late nights or attending to their day jobs. She could only guess at the reasons, but it was a fact the fake profiles set up by the unit’s team members in the various online chat rooms received much less attention from the cyber predators during weekdays.

The squad room door opened, snagging her attention.

“Ah, there he is now.” Patrick turned and met the newcomer halfway across the room.

Alex looked up and froze. It couldn’t be…

Patrick turned toward them and smiled. “Everyone, I’d like you to meet Federal Agent Brandon Munro. Brandon, welcome to the Child Protection Unit.”

The rest of what was said was drowned out by the pounding of blood in her ears.
Brandon Munro
. It
was
him. And he was striding toward her… Greeting Ryan with a polite handshake. Nodding toward the other team members who had gathered nearby.

Then, he directed his attention to her.

Her legs were concrete pylons, holding her to the chair. Her throat was desert dry. He was now close enough that she could see time had treated him well, although a myriad of fine lines crowded the corners of his eyes. Lines that hadn’t been there the last time she’d seen him.

Then, his hand came out. Her heart beat an erratic staccato against her chest. She hesitated, a rush of nerves paralyzing her.

A familiar flash of mocking humor lit the deep blue of his eyes. Lips that had once driven her wild with need now curved into a taunting smile.

Patrick filled the silence. “Brandon, this is our senior online investigator, Alex Cavanaugh.”

The smile turned feral. “Cavanaugh, is it? Funny, I seem to remember it was Munro.”

Anger erupted through Alex’s veins and fueled the heat that seared her cheeks. She was pleased to see he’d withdrawn his hand. She sure as hell wasn’t in the mood to offer him even the most basic of pleasantries.

The lines marring Patrick’s forehead deepened. “Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize the two of you had already met.”

“Met?” Brandon replied. “I guess you could say that.”

The tension in his stance belied the casualness of his tone. The weight of his gaze burned into her, but she refused to look at him.

From out of the corner of her eye, she saw him take a step toward her and she stiffened.

“I can’t believe you never told them, sweetheart.” He spoke with casual inflection, glancing around at her co-workers.

Her eyes closed reflexively. She fought off a wave of panic. Surely he wouldn’t? Not here, in front of everyone?

“Tell us what?” asked Ryan, curiosity plain on his face.

Brandon looked across at him and then over to Patrick. He gave a nonchalant shrug, but his voice rang with challenge.

“Alex is my wife.”

* * *

Alex was still fuming twenty minutes later when she braked sharply to avoid missing the turn into the parking lot of Bondi’s Sunny Smiles Long Daycare Center. The large, yellow sun with its wide, white grin gracing the billboard outside the Center usually brought a smile to her face, but the unexpected return of Brandon Munro into her life had left her tense and edgy, and she could barely think.

BOOK: The Predator
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