“Brock, he’s doing it again!” Erica glared at the Casanova walking beside her, hating how good he looked in his black T-shirt and ass-hugging jeans. Trent Buchanan. He was her daily temptation and ultimate fantasy. And she’d rather wax her nipples in public than admit it to him. Butterflies swarmed her stomach, twisting and twirling her into one giant, aroused mess.
“What’s Buchanan done this time, Villa?” Brock, their team leader, asked without looking up from the papers on his desk.
“He’s staring at me.” She growled and dropped in one of the empty chairs, huffing out a breath.
Buchanan, The Bastard, as she liked to refer to his cute ass, grinned at her. His full, sexy lips caught her immediate attention. “Excuse me, I can’t help it if it’s a beautiful day, and I’m glad it’s Friday. You’re a grump, Villa.”
It was so unfair that she had to keep pushing him away when her body wanted to curl around his big frame. But if she ever did that she’d turn into another Trent groupie, and that was not her thing. She’d seen the other women in the department walk after him, ogling and almost drooling, as if he were the lead singer in a rock band. Pathetic.
Buchanan folded his arms over his massive chest. Erica’s entire body throbbed every time she looked at him. She drank in the inciting vision and argued with her lust for dominance. Disgusted with her body’s responses, she glared at him again. Her eyes strayed to the scar on his upper lip. She gulped and curled her fingers into her palms, digging her nails deep. Whenever she glanced at the tiny scar, she wanted to nibble and run her tongue over it. It was driving her insane. Thankfully he couldn’t read her mind, or he’d be having a hell of a time making fun of her tough talk.
“Villa, just look at me.” He opened his muscled arms wide and did a full circle for her. Once he was facing her again, he leaned on the wall. He winked at her. “If you didn’t have a stick the size of Texas up your ass, you’d realize what a catch I am.”
“Ouch.” Jane Donovan, the youngest member in their team exclaimed as she entered the office. “You are looking to get your little boy parts cut off when you least expect it, Buchanan.”
Donovan sat next to Erica and played with her phone, or what appeared to be a phone. She was a systems expert and always had some strange gadget in her hands.
Erica peeked at Buchanan again and frowned. It wasn’t smart to let him get the best of her, she knew that, but something about him made her speak without thinking.
Buchanan grinned, lifted a hand to his lips, and blew her an air kiss. “Villa knows she wants me. If she would stop fighting her instincts we’d have moved past this awkward foreplay.”
And that was the reason Erica would rather swim in shark-infested waters with a paper cut than admit her attraction to the six-foot-two wall of sexy muscle. Even if her body was strung so tight she thought she’d soon burst a blood vessel, she would not admit to her growing desire for Buchanan.
“Settle down. Where the hell is Ramirez?” Brock asked, finally looking up at the three of them.
“Probably getting some in the men’s room.” Donovan muttered under her breath.
Erica choked on a giggle. They were so going to get written up. Brock didn’t allow that kind of talk around the building, ever. It was hard enough that they were held to higher standards than the other teams. The senior directors expected miracles from them. Erica was lucky Brock took the brunt of the stress from his superiors.
Buchanan groaned. “Am I missing out on something that awesome? Because I had no idea women were doing that in the men’s room.”
Erica’s smile fell from her lips. He continued to grin at her. “Don’t worry, Villa. I’m all yours whenever you want me. Just say the word.”
“I said settle down,” Brock ordered again. “This is not the time or place for this type of behavior. You know we have a strict code of conduct here.”
Did Buchanan ever not think of sex? Probably not. Shit, even she had a hard time keeping her thoughts away from sex whenever he was around.
Before she got the chance to give him a sarcastic response, Tony Ramirez strolled in, an easy smile over his wide lips. He was a specimen of male perfection, able to make the strongest of women pant. Of course, he also had an ego the size of Alaska. But as much as she’d tried, her panties just didn’t go into a desperate twist with Ramirez. Oh but with Trent…er Buchanan, her body buzzed in awareness the moment he swaggered into the room with her.
“I’m here. Sorry, I was caught up.” Ramirez’s tone dripped with innuendo.
“Oh, brother.” Donovan’s complaint was loud. “Are we here for another lesson on who can get more? Ramirez versus Buchanan? Because, I gotta say, I have better things to do than figure that one out. As far as I’m concerned the women both of these dumbasses get don’t count. They’re all easy.”
“Hey!” Both men complained at once.
Brock’s patience snapped. “Enough!” His voice thundered in the office, making the entire team go silent. “We are not here for a competition on who has the biggest anything, so put your rulers away and pay attention. I don’t want to write anyone up on misconduct, so please, shut your mouths before I’m forced to.” He took a deep breath and rubbed his fingers over his eyes before looking up. His gaze pierced each of them as it traveled the room. “Let’s get to what you’re here for. You all have a new assignment.”
He handed each of the team members a file. When Erica opened the folder, her heartbeat slowed to a thudding crawl. She dropped the file on her lap and stared. A photo of a woman’s naked, lifeless body sat at the top of the paperwork.
“That is Lisa Summers. Age: Nineteen. She was a student at a large state college in upstate New York. She was walking home after her last class and never made it back to her apartment.”
Erica studied the photo and placed her hands on the chair’s metal armrests. She knew if she touched the photo she would not like what she saw. The woman’s pale flesh was marred with bruising, cuts, and burns. A sick knot settled in Erica’s throat, growing with every second she stared at the body. Instant grief for the dead girl filled her. She lifted her gaze from the file and found Brock watching her. Only he knew of her ability.
Everyone else thought she did some kind of profiling. The truth was she got glimpses of people’s highest energy level moments by touching something of theirs, and that included photos of their deceased bodies. A photo could capture a small amount of a person’s energy. Captured energy, even the small bits caught in pictures, was enough to help her connect with the victim. “Why are we seeing a photo of a dead woman instead of a missing one?” Erica asked.
Brock shifted, glancing from one person to the next until his gaze landed back on Erica. She knew whatever he said next was directed just to her.
“Lisa isn’t victim number one. She’s the first one found. According to the medical examiner, she was killed forty-eight hours ago. Her body was placed in an alley.”
The nervous shaking of Ramirez’s legs never slowed as he crossed and uncrossed them. “Do you think it’s a ritual killing? Or something like an angry ex-boyfriend?”
Erica hated to think there were more young women out there being tortured to death. Tearing her sight from the horrific image of the dead body, she gulped, eyeing everyone in the office. Donovan scribbled furiously. Paper scrunched under her hands as she flicked from one page to the next, her red hair brushing her cheek and sliding forward when she lowered her face toward the notepad. Ramirez frowned, as if trying to solve the puzzle himself while staring at the photo. Buchanan’s gaze connected with Erica’s. Her heart flipped at his intense look. She gripped the chair, keeping herself from squirming in her seat.
“I don’t know, but we don’t think so.” Brock’s voice jerked her back to reality. Against her will, she broke contact with Buchanan’s dark stare and faced Brock.
Taking a slow breath, she glanced down at the photo again. “Not a ritual… This was a crime of revenge.” She swiped her tongue over her bottom lip, thinking of reasons, reasons why anyone would be battered and beaten the way Lisa Summers had been, and continued to contemplate the photo. “I’m almost inclined to say passion, but I can see a savagery to this scene I rarely encounter.”
“So you don’t think it’s a serial?” Buchanan’s breath tickled the side of her neck. He’d moved closer to her seat and peered at the file over her shoulder. He had his own, but he chose to look at hers instead.
She tried not to shudder, but listening to the raspy tone gave her goose bumps. “I didn’t say that. What I’m saying is whoever killed her had a reason. One we have to discover as soon as possible.” Her stomach churned at what she’d need to do. Tension slid down her spine, expanding with every inch it travelled. She glanced at Brock. “I need to see the body.”
Brock slapped his hands down on the file. The loud thump caught everyone off guard and made Donovan jump in her seat with a gasp. “All right. We’re going to do something different this time.” He stared at Erica. “I know that I have usually teamed up with Villa, but this time I need to stay here. The mayor has scheduled multiple meetings, and our department head wants me there. I tried to get out of it, but it was a no-go.”
His words ratcheted up the anxiety inside her, until it was hard for her to hear through her wall of unease.
What did that mean for her?
“I’m going to need you, Villa, Ramirez, and Buchanan, to head up there first. The three of you are going to work this case, ASAP. Gather your gear, and be ready to stay a while. I’m sure you all know what this crime looks like, and I’m not waiting around to see where it goes. Apparently a couple of senators have daughters up there, and they want this resolved immediately.”
Buchanan shifted away from Erica’s shoulder to stand upright. She couldn’t stop herself; she peeked up. She instantly missed his body heat, the scent of his musky cologne, and his warm breath by her ear. They had all mixed together to make her feel that much more wound up. “You said she wasn’t victim number one.”
Brock rubbed a hand over the back of his neck, his forehead creased with doubt. “I don’t think she is. Lisa had been missing for a week, but another student went missing before her. Gina Torres disappeared two weeks ago. There’s no trace of her anywhere.”
Donovan, who had been taking notes, stopped and looked up, her green eyes filled with curiosity. “How do we know she’s victim number one?”
Brock shrugged. Focusing on Erica, he gave a slight shake of his head. “We don’t know. In fact, we know very little. It’s your job to find out what happened to her. See what you discover. I want you to move quickly. I don’t want a string of dead college girls making the national papers.” His brows dipped low in a solemn frown. “Nichol’s in charge while you’re up there. Donovan and I will look into things from here. If there is any news on Torres or any other new victims, we’ll head your way.” He shut the file with a slam. “Go, find what you can, and let’s get some answers.”
She stood to go, but Brock shook his head.
“Villa, I need to discuss some things with you for a moment.”
Buchanan’s dark eyes locked on her, again. A measure of reassurance and something else were visible in his steady gaze. The urge to fidget and turn away coursed through her. She hated when he stared at her like that. She could handle his silly quips and sexual innuendos, but once he regarded her like he cared, it scared the crap out of her.
She waited. Increasing apprehension gathered at the thought of the upcoming trip. The others marched out in single file. Ramirez, the last one to step out, shut the door behind him. Taking her seat again, she opened the manila folder on her lap. It took a minute to urge her mind to focus. Looking at the photo was like having hot coals burned into her eye sockets. She could visualize how the woman got her injuries from a hundred different angles and viewpoints. Because Erica connected with the victim’s energy, the clearest flashes were of moments where the victim’s energy spiked. Usually that meant a moment of fear, or worse, the moment of death. When she glanced up, Brock was observing her. Unease curled into a jagged ball inside her.
He sighed as he dropped into the seat next to her. “Villa, I know I’m the only person you work with. But we’re a team, and I need you to be able to work alone with the rest of them. It’s time to trust that we all have your back. This unit—our unit—is not normal. We all know that. Each of you has a particular trait that makes you necessary to the team. Yours is a little different than the others, but it is one of the most important. Because of this, I need you to take charge in this case.”
This was major for her. She didn’t trust anyone on a good day. Anxiety spread through her limbs in a cold sweep that made her shudder. Security dictated none of them share their gifts with each other. In case of someone leaving or getting captured, no vital information would be lost. But what if the others realized what she did? What she was?
“I want you to be very careful with this. There is something about this case that doesn’t sit right with me. This body, it wasn’t just displayed. It was grandstanded. Whoever killed her wanted us to find her.”
She regarded Brock, the only person who had not let her down so far. She nodded. It might be scary, or more like frickin’ terrifying, but she’d work with the others—without him. Although she didn’t want to admit it, the thought of working one-on-one with Buchanan sent a hot shiver up her spine, thawing some of the anxiety a new case brought. She glanced down at the photo, all the while keeping her hands from touching the glossy paper. Because reality was, she wanted to put off the nightmares of the woman’s last, painful seconds for as long as possible.
“Do you know anything about her? Her family or friends? Anyone who might have had it in for her?” She stared at the positioning of the body, made mental notes, and visually recorded several things that made her breath hitch. The girl was definitely on display.
Whoever killed her wanted her found in the way she’d been placed: spread-eagle with her arms open to her sides, allowing for everyone who looked to see the jagged wounds from the knife cuts on her stomach. She wasn’t a small woman, so whoever moved her around had to have the muscle to do so. A fuzzy image of the killer started to form.
Brock shook his head. “No. That’s one of the things you guys have to look into. The town she was murdered in is small, and their police force needs the extra help. This is the first murder they’ve seen in a long time. She was attending the university, but her body was found in a smaller township close to where she lived.”
Erica nodded. Brock watched her with the same concern and scrutiny he showed during every investigation. It was his big-brother attitude. “Do you think you can do this?” he asked. “You’ll be seeing more when you get to her house.”
She took a deep breath and let it out gradually, forcing her thoughts to stop jumping around.
“Will you be able to work with Buchanan? I’m worried about you. I need to know you can work this case. Can you handle working one-on-one with him?”
This was new, and she and Trent…Buchanan were going to be working long hours alone. Could she handle it? Probably not, but she’d never admit to that. No matter how hard it was, she never backed out of a new case. “Yes, I know. I can handle it. I’ll get whoever did this. I will do whatever I have to in order to solve this and find out who killed Lisa.”
Brock grabbed her forearm and gave her a quick squeeze. “Don’t touch anything unless you absolutely have to.”
His demand sounded more like a request. He was the only person that knew how hard it was for her, how much she struggled with each case. To see the things she saw of the victims inside her mind. She saw them all being held captive, tortured, and killed. And that could turn any day into a living hell for her.
All she visualized for months was blurred bits of the victims’ last moments. Sometimes, she’d get lucky and actually see. “I know that for you to get a glimpse of something—anything—helpful is the ultimate payoff. But there have been too many times when you don’t get anything useful, only the bad. I want you to try to focus on what you see with your eyes, what your instinct tells you, what the people say, and what you can uncover without your extra sensory sight.”
She frowned. “You know that the best images I get are from touching. I won’t have the same clear view after that first connection. Initial contact with something belonging to the victim is the biggest break we can get. Things become hazy, unfocused, and mangled after that. I will do my best, but if I have to touch…I will.”
Shutting the manila folder, and with it the torturous vision of the woman’s corpse, she got up to go. At the same time, Brock stood, towering over her. He placed a hand on her shoulder. “No heroics, Erica. I need you mentally and emotionally stable to work this case. Don’t overdo it. Don’t touch things if you’re not ready to see.”
“I’ll be fine. Stop worrying, Brock.” She smiled, her vision straying outside past the glass door. Buchanan sat on the edge of Donovan’s desk. The way he looked at her, so possessive and dark, fired more than her interest. If she wasn’t careful this case would turn into her biggest fight against her body and its desires.
Brock leaned down by her ear, and her heart leapt when Buchanan clenched his jaw. “Don’t let him get the best of you. He’s a good guy, but if you need me to handle him just let me know.”
She knew how intimate the moment appeared to Buchanan and added her own bit of fire into the mix by smiling at Brock. “Don’t worry, I can handle him.”
She left Brock’s office a mass of nerves. Her stress had just gone from hair-falling-out to won’t-be-getting-any-sleep level in the blink of an eye.