Cold case investigators really should stay away from karaoke machines and alcohol. The combo was criminal.
Especially when fellow investigators from the FBI, AISOCC, and dozens of experts from cold case units around the country were gathered together in the same bar listening.
Taylor Sinclair scanned the room as she swished the two fingers of scotch around in her glass. The country’s top minds in forensics, law, behavioral science, and medicine had gathered together this weekend in DC to share the latest in solving cold cases, and yet, a handful of them were now killing off brain cells and possible career advancement opportunities while belting out Prince songs in the wrong key.
The woman on stage singing I Wanna Be Your Lover with a bright orange drink in one hand and the microphone in the other hit a high note—flat, of course—and Taylor flinched.
Her bar buddy didn’t seem to notice as he jabbered on beside her, nursing a light beer. A journalist who’d applied to the American Investigative Society of Cold Cases but had been rejected, Tom—or was it Ted?—explained his lifelong obsession with missing persons. She understood the passion; it was hers too.
But she also knew why AISOCC had turned him down for their Academia Committee. They only accepted people with the credentials and motives to fulfill their mission of assisting law enforcement professionals with solving cold cases. Tom/Ted might have the passion, but he didn’t have the experience, even though he was boasting about his professional skills in the hopes of wooing her to his room upstairs.
He was sort of handsome in that academic way—wire-rimmed glasses, bow tie, and a large vocabulary—but she’d sworn off sex, and alcohol, for the weekend.
At least she hadn’t failed on both counts. The scotch had been a prop to help overcome her social awkwardness. To make her seem friendly and normal. Approachable.
Like that’s ever going to happen. Who was she kidding? Put her to work on a case and she was a rock star, but in a social situation where she had to make small talk and pretend interest in drunk people’s lives? Failure with a capital F.
It was enough to make her drink.
Which she was, thank you very much.
Sex, though, no way. Out of the question. The last thing she needed was to hook up with some random conference attendee and risk the fallout from that. Being the best of the best required keeping her nose clean in public—Meredith’s orders. Her boss ran a tight ship and had no patience for agents who let their personal affairs interfere with their careers.
No problem there. Taylor had no personal life.
Even if she did need alcohol to numb herself to the stares and advice from all the experts dying to ‘help’ her find Isabel.
Cutting her eyes to the huddle of three men at the bar on her right, she could practically feel the power oozing off Leo Wellington. The FBI profiler was six feet of confidence, nerve, and a close record that made Taylor green with envy. Only last month, he’d helped her and her cold case team nail the Coffin serial killer, a man who had victims he’d buried alive stretching back thirty years. She had to admit, working with Leo had been no hardship. The man profiled killers and other high-profile criminals with the ease and accuracy Taylor’s one-time mentor had until he’d gotten himself fired from the FBI.
She missed Grey. A lot. She’d learned so much from him in the few short months they’d worked together. Before he’d shredded his career.
Now she had Leo. Amazingly proficient and incredibly sexy. Listening to him on the Offender Profiles and Crime Scene Assessment panel at the conference that afternoon, Taylor had toyed with the idea of making Leo Wellington her next unofficial case. One that involved one-on-one, in-depth investigation…and a lot fewer clothes.
He was her perfect match—smart, driven, successful. Sex with Leo and a bottle of scotch—the perfect cocktail to kill the anxiety humming under her skin over this conference.
Leo had his back to her, casually leaning on the bar and close enough for her to touch. He smelled like a warm day at the beach all sun and water. He smelled like power.
Taylor looked away, shaking her head to rid it of the thoughts tumbling around in her brain. She wasn’t about to shred her career like Grey, and Leo, the shark, wasn’t about to play nice. He’d use her, like he did everyone else, and take her team away from her if she wasn’t careful.
No way in hell. No one was worth that.
Her cold case team had gained national media attention with their success rate. Nothing played on the nightly news as sweetly as missing kids being found alive and reunited with their families. Taylor and her team had returned three this year alone. Three kids still alive, and by God, she intended to find more.
The statistics were daunting, but she wouldn’t stop until she found every kid who’d disappeared, dead or alive, and gave their families closure.
She owed it to Isabel. If only Isabel were still alive.
Maybe she is. Maybe she’s still out there, waiting for me to find her.
Taylor knocked back the last of the liquid in her glass along with the familiar twinge of guilt over Isabel.
“Agent Sinclair.” Leo turned, suddenly at her elbow. “Nice to see you. My friends and I were just discussing your case.”
Agent Sinclair? She’d thought they were on a first-name basis after working so closely together only last month. “Enjoyed your panel today, Leo. Your insights on the Yvonne Coleman case were fascinating.” Leo’s friends eyed her with equal parts eagerness and smugness. She recognized both of them from the same panel. “Exactly which case of mine were you reviewing?”
He looked bemused. “Why, your sister’s case, of course. Today is the anniversary of—”
Another screech echoed through the bar, courtesy of the Prince wanna-be, and Taylor set her glass on the bar a little too hard. Everybody was a flippin’ expert. Everybody had heard about poor Taylor Sinclair and the hunt for her missing sister. Everyone had a goddamn theory and a profile on the abductor.
As if the Bureau’s lead cold case investigator hadn’t gone over every possible aspect of the case a million times already, eviscerating her heart each and every time.
“Of course. Silly me.” Taylor pasted on a fake smile and used her equally fake cheery voice. “Why don’t you grab those two agents from Vermont? They’re over there at that table. You all can have fun discussing your meaningless theories while I go gag myself.”
Tom/Ted raised his brows as Leo sputtered something she didn’t hear.
Unfortunately, the Bureau hadn’t sprung for any of her teammates to accompany her to the conference. She needed a wingman—or another drink—but there was no one else in the vicinity she was remotely interested in talking to, and even liquor couldn’t dull the ice in her chest. She should just call it a night. Try to sleep.
“I used to like that song,” a deep male voice said from behind her.
One distraction coming up.
“Me, too,” she said, hoping the man matched the voice as she pivoted to take a peek.
And, ho-boy, he was as sexy as that deep voice, but dammit, why did it have to be him?
Even in her heels, she had to look up. There she saw blue eyes so vivid in the subpar lighting they nearly blinded her. The smile wasn’t bad either. A little crooked, with a couple days worth of beard growth on the jawline, but it matched the messy hair and made his eyes crinkle good-naturedly in the corners.
“Matt Stephens,” she said. “What a surprise.” Not.
Matt “Mad Dog” Stephens looked pleased that she remembered his name. Hard not to when he’d stolen a case out from under her a year ago. Hard not to remember those intense, sky-blue eyes and that crooked smile that irritated the crap out of her.
“Special Agent Taylor Sinclair.” The way he rolled her name off his tongue made it sound like he was sucking on a piece of sweet candy. “I didn’t take you for a Prince fan.”
The karaoke had mercifully stopped and someone hit the jukebox, a Rhianna song kicking in.
Taylor was about to blow Matt off even though he was cute and kind of charming, because no way was she cavorting with the enemy. But then, from the corner of her eye, she noticed Leo and his friends staring at her with that look. The one people used for poor Taylor Sinclair, sister of an abducted girl and from a broken family.
Show them you’re fine. Better than fine.
She gave Matt a flirty smile and playfully punched his arm like they were buddies. Hello, new wingman. “Why wouldn’t I be a Prince fan? That’s practically sacrilegious or unpatriotic, or something, isn’t it?”
“I’ve been trying to talk to you all day,” he said, flashing that infectious, quirky smile again.
She fought to keep her lips from mirroring his. “Why?”
“Duh. You’re the brainiest chick here. Your close rate makes me a huge fanboy. Plus, I'm not one to ignore beautiful women. Why wouldn't I want to talk to you?”
Damn, he was cute. A liar, but a cute one. “Yeah, so you can steal my cases.”
His eyes grew serious. “Look, I know you think I stole the Riley Miller case, but the FBI was limited in what it could do. I have more…”—he shrugged—”resources.”
Illegal ones. “So you’re feeling guilty. That’s good. You can buy me a fresh drink.”
He grinned and took her hand, stroking his thumb over her palm. “How about a dance instead?”
She should pull her hand back. “Oh, hell, no. I don’t dance with the enemy.”
He grabbed her hand again, tickled the palm. “But you’d drink with him?”
Her turn to grin, the ice in her chest melting a smidgen. “Depends on whether he provides top-shelf sustenance.”
They stared at each other for a long moment and something changed between them. Something hot and sexy that warmed Taylor’s blood even more than the scotch she’d consumed listening to Tom/Ted.
What was she doing flirting with Mad Dog Stephens?
Down girl. She glanced away, toward the bar.
Leo and friends were still watching, still talking. She could tell by the way they kept sizing her up that they were discussing Isabel.
God! Enough. Like she wasn’t already struggling to not let pain control every moment of her life without everyone always trying to fix her. If she believed that any or all of the experts here tonight could actually find Isabel, she would have been the first one to huddle up with them and explore their theories. But she’d heard them all, tried all the angles, got her hopes up with every new expert who came along and wanted to analyze the case. She would never give up looking for her sister, that was a given. If only hoping for something made it real.
Mad Dog Stephens tugged on her hand. “Taylor?”
She sighed, giving him her attention again and saw a touch of concern behind his smoldering eyes. Men like Stephens—unpredictable and mouthy—were generally a handful, but she liked a challenge on occasion, and it had been one hell of a dry spell. Plus, he wasn’t FBI. He couldn’t screw up her career or take her team away from her.
Your odds are looking up, wingman. At least he was an alternative to the scotch for now.
She withdrew her hand from his gentle grip and took a step closer to him, invading his personal space. Would he run when she moved in for the kill or stand his ground?
“Why are you here at the conference, Matt?” She ran a hand over his tie. “Are you looking to steal another of my cases? Why did you leave the police department? Who are you working for now, or did you go out on your own?”
“Jeez, Sinclair.” He frowned, but didn’t back away. Undaunted by her provocation, he moved closer, his chest grazing her nipples. His eyes searched hers and his voice lowered a notch. “What is this, an interrogation? If so, why don’t we take it somewhere more...private?”
Hot damn. He wasn’t running. She stood her ground, not letting him intimidate her. She liked—no, loved—his cockiness. “I don’t trust you, Mad Dog.”
“Dance with me and I’ll answer all of your questions.” He ran a finger over his left chest area. “Cross my heart.”
A negotiator. Even better. She could get what she wanted and leave him happy too.
Challenge danced in those blue peepers and she sighed. Men came onto her all the time, but few gave her pause.
Funny, this one did.
Her phone buzzed, the ringtone she knew all too well and avoided skillfully.
“Do you need to take that?” Matt asked.
“Nah, it’s nothing.” Just my mother. And wasn’t that exactly what she needed on top of everything else tonight? Her mother calling to sob about Isabel. Perfect.
Pain pinched her heart. Sorry, Mom. I just can’t tonight. She had enough demons for both of them.
I may need that bottle of scotch after all.
But then she looked into Matt’s eyes. He might be the only numbing agent she needed tonight in order to forget about the significance of today.
With all the old shit the conference had brought up, the one thing she didn’t want was to be alone with the memories of Isabel. No way she could face that cold, sterile hotel room tonight.
She tapped her foot for a moment. “One dance,” she agreed.
The challenge in Matt’s eyes morphed into self-assured confidence. If possible, his smile grew even wider. “You won’t be sorry.”
“You will be,” she said, as she let him lead her to the floor. “I have two left feet.”
The song was pop with a fast tempo and Taylor had no rhythm on a good day. Luckily, her new wingman was a skilled dancer and she had enough alcohol in her system to make her limbs loose. Matt twirled her out, brought her in close, guided her through a sexy bump and grind. She grew dizzy trying to keep up with him, but the light graze of his fingers on her shoulders, hips, and lower back, kept her moving in time with the beat and loving it. At one point, she laughed just because it felt so damn good.
Meanwhile, Leo watched, a subtle tick under his left eye.
Eat your heart out, Wellington. I am not discussing Isabel’s case with you.
Not tonight. Not ever.
As Matt spun her across the floor again, a bubbling sensation rose up from her chest into her throat.
My God, I’m having fun.
Fun wasn’t in her vocabulary. Not since that night.
But mostly, she needed to forget for a few minutes about the ice in her chest.
Because tonight was the anniversary of her little sister’s kidnapping.
She’d hoped the conference could make her forget, but that was stupid. She’d known better, and yet had hoped she could drown herself in work. Now…
The song ended, and out of breath, Taylor clung to Matt. Another song started—this one slow and sexy—and he raised a single brow.
An invitation to stay on the dance floor.
In the middle of the other couples now gluing their bodies to each other, Taylor held his gaze. “Who are you working for, Matt?”
“Schock Investigations,” he said, and then pulled her close and started rocking her body to the slow tune.
“Private investigations, huh?” She liked the way he felt against her. Solid, strong. Competent. “I’ve heard of them. They work a lot of cold cases, don’t they?”
“It’s our specialty.”
“That’s why you’re here.”
His eyes danced with humor. “You were worried I was only here to stalk you?”
He wanted information on some missing persons case, no doubt, but she gave him credit for trying to seduce her first. “Anyone who stalks me is going to get more than he bargained for.”
She believed in giving fair warning.
“Sounds like fun.” One of his hands went to her lower back and rubbed a thumb through her silk blouse over the sensitive flesh there. Leaning forward, he sang softly in her ear, “I wanna be your stalker,” to the Prince tune.
And damn, if he didn’t hit the notes perfectly.
A man who could sing and dance.
My lucky night.
Three dances later, Leo and the other experts in the room were a distant memory as Matt pressed her up against the door of her hotel room while she tried to get the keycard into the lock. His lips nibbled at her earlobe as his hands cupped her ass.
“Will you stop for a second and let me unlock the door?” Taylor chided, but she was laughing. She didn’t really want him to stop, but letting him molest her in the very public hallway wasn’t professional.
“Here, let me do it.” He snatched the card from her hand.
“I’m not used to sleeping with the enemy,” she told him, flipping on a light as he went to work stripping off her white, button-down shirt.
“I returned Riley Miller to her mother but I’m a bad guy in your book?” He unzipped her pencil skirt, not looking the least bit chastised. “Something about that seems wrong, Agent Sinclair.”
The image of the eleven-year-old girl reuniting with her mom after six years of being held captive by her estranged, drug-dealing father filled Taylor’s memory. It had been her first case with the FBI’s missing persons unit and they’d never been able to solve it. Six years later, Taylor had had the file in her desk drawer, one of the cases she’d still been trying to close when Matt Stephens had come along and done it for her.
He was a hero and the press loved his boy-next-door looks and cavalier attitude. She could only imagine the number of women who had thrown themselves at him after that.
But those women weren’t here and she was. Good for me!
Having a weekend fling with him wasn’t the best idea, but it wasn’t the worst either. He was a playboy and playboys didn’t want commitment—that worked for her. Her job was everything.
“I think you owe me some mind-blowing sex in order to make it up to me,” Taylor said, kicking off her shoes.
Matt let her skirt drop and then he shoved her unbuttoned shirt off her shoulders. For a moment, he stood still, his eyes raking over her from head to toe.
Taylor sucked in a breath, pulling in her abdomen at the same time. Total vanity, but she couldn’t help the reaction. She wanted the man in front of her to continue thinking she was the brainiest, sexiest woman in the place.
He reached out and touched the satin of her bra, brushing his knuckles against her tight nipples and whistling softly. “You are stunning, Agent Sinclair.”
Taylor sat on the bed and reached for the zipper of his slacks. “Bring it on, Mad Dog.”