Authors: Linda Winfree
Tags: #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense
Ash pitched two feathered corpses into a bucket and chuckled. “Maybe if you thought about something other than work, it wouldn’t be.”
“I’ve got three dead girls, another missing and no leads. What should I be thinking about?” Tick hefted the five-gallon bucket of carcasses and carried it to the door. One lifeless pullet tumbled to the grass. How had he gotten roped into doing this anyway? He’d stopped by to check out a witness’s story and here he was, helping Ash Hardison clear a chicken house. Fine, he owned a hefty portion of the no-waste farming operation, but none of his assignments when he’d been with the FBI had ever involved dead poultry.
“When was the last time you did something non-work related?”
“I took Mama to church Sunday.” Tick stepped into the glaring oppressive sunlight of a June afternoon in Georgia. The putrid scent of death and manure lingered in his nostrils, and he dragged in deep breaths of the hot, still air. “At least I date. I haven’t turned into a hermit chicken farmer like you.”
“You don’t date. You browse.”
“Shut up, Hardison.” Tick tugged off his gloves and shoved them in the back pocket of his jeans. Sweat trickled down his spine, T-shirt clinging to his skin. Today was supposed to be one of his rare days off, but he’d spent most of it verifying details from the witness statements spread across his desk at the Chandler County Sheriff’s Office. It simply didn’t feel right, taking a day off with those cases quickly growing cold.
Ash laughed, undisturbed. “Go home and shower. We’ll get a beer later, and you can cry in it.”
“Sorry, too much to do. Now tell me about Nate Holton. He says he was out here the night Sharon Ingler disappeared.”
“He was.” Ash shrugged. “For about an hour. Picked up a load of chickens for McGee’s.”
“Remember what time he arrived? When he left?”
“You’re kidding, right?” Ash lifted an eyebrow at him and Tick suppressed a frustrated sigh. “It was still light when he got here, and dark when he left. I guess he arrived around eight thirty or so. Probably left at nine thirty.”
Exactly the story Nate had given him. “Anything else?”
“He was sober.”
Yeah, with Nate Holton, that would be unusual. To be honest, Nate wasn’t really on his radar as a suspect, but checking the veracity of any witness’s statement was standard procedure. “I’m out of here. Thanks for the information.”
“Anytime.” Ash rested a shoulder on the chicken house door. “And if you change your mind about that beer, give me a call. We hermits have to get out every once in a while.”
Tick waved in acknowledgement and headed for his truck. Behind him, the door squeaked closed. A water spigot stood at a crooked angle by the driveway and he stopped to wash up. After splashing icy water on his face, he pushed his hair back and tried to ignore the annoyed dejection dogging him. Damn it, he needed a lead on this case.
A beige Chevy sedan pulled into the driveway and Tick paused by his dusty 4x4, a hand raised against the glare off the car’s windshield. Another lost insurance salesperson who hadn’t figured out Long Lonesome Road turned into Old Lonely Road two intersections back.
The car door opened and a pair of black, high-heeled loafers kicked up tiny puffs of dust. No-nonsense shoes, but nice ankles. If she was blonde, maybe he’d have his life insurance coverage reevaluated. The woman stepped from the car and sunlight glinted off glossy black hair. Recognition slammed through him, stopping the breath in his throat.
She walked toward him, a black suit and ivory blouse hugging her slim, athletic body. His gaze dropped to long runner’s legs, made to wrap around a man’s waist, and he couldn’t help remembering having them around his. Arousal jolted him, hard, and fury rushed through him, even harder. He jerked his attention back to her face, the deep green eyes he knew so well hidden from him by dark sunglasses.
He’d always loved hearing her say his name, the way her husky voice with its hint of a cultured Texas drawl wound around the syllables. He still had dreams about that voice. Holy hell. This was really happening. Caitlin Falconetti stood before him in all her Bureau glory, and he was dirty, wet, and smelled of dead chicken. He swallowed and pushed all the relentless anger into his voice.
“Falconetti. What brings you to the wilds and badlands of Georgia?”
“Looking for you. Your dispatcher told me where to find you when I called.” She frowned and her mouth thinned. “You weren’t expecting me.”
Thumbs hitched in his back pockets, he looked down at her. “No, I wasn’t.”
But he could guess why she was here, and he was pretty sure it had more to do with Amy Gillabeaux than with wanting to see him again. The hungry rage tried to grab him once more. Fat chance she’d look him up after using the threat of a sexual harassment charge to get rid of him in the first place.
Lord, when Stanton found out Caitlin was here, he’d bust a gut. Her frown disappeared, but as a gusty breeze washed hot air laden with the smell of chicken manure over them, she wrinkled her nose.
He forced himself to relax and adopt a false nonchalance. She couldn’t have turned up yesterday, when he’d just gotten out of court and was wearing a suit. He tugged a hand through his hair, oft-washed T-shirt riding up with the motion. “Let me guess. Tommy Gillabeaux called the FBI.”
“It seems Senator Gillabeaux and my assistant director were college fraternity brothers. He wants you to have the complete resources of the bureau at your disposal while you’re investigating his daughter’s death.” A cynical sneer twisted her full mouth. “Including the services of a CASKU profiler and the ERT if needed.”
He was looking at the profiler from the FBI’s Child Abduction and Serial Killer Unit. Guess he was just lucky the Evidence Response Team hadn’t appeared in full force as well. His pride struggled to lift its battered head. So local law enforcement wasn’t good enough for Tommy, and his own ten years’ experience with the FBI wasn’t sufficient. Now he understood why so many local cops hated seeing the FBI show up.
His pride called in stubbornness for reinforcement. He crossed his arms over his chest. “We’re not sure it’s a serial. The deaths could be unrelated.”
“I know that, Calvert, and I’m well aware you can handle a multiple-murder investigation.” Her cool professional smile made his skin crawl. The distant expression was one she’d used on him before—when she’d made it clear his ass was out of her life. Now more than anything, he wanted the sunglasses gone so he could see her eyes, see if any of the real Caitlin remained.
With a rough sigh, he rubbed at his nape and forced his pride into a deep, dark hole. Professionalism and practicality. “I don’t need you here.”
“Like I want to be here, Calvert. Neither of us has a choice.”
Oh, he had a choice, all right. At the first chance, he’d be on the phone, screaming for her to be on the next plane back to Quantico. If they wanted to send him another profiler, the ERT, hell, the entire Behavioral Sciences Unit, fine. But no way in hell was he working a case with Caitlin Falconetti. Not now, not ever.
His cell, lying on the dashboard, buzzed to life, a Gary Allan tune splitting the tension.
Thankful for the interruption, Tick spun away to snatch up the phone. “Calvert.”
“Tick.” Cookie’s familiar voice, usually filled with wicked and tasteless humor, vibrated with strain, and Tick straightened, senses alert. He and the other man went way back, and if Cookie was serious, something was
wrong. “We’ve got another body. Pulled her out of the river. You might want to take a look. We’re right off the boat ramp at Plant Chandler.”
The tense note in Cookie’s voice lifted the hair on Tick’s nape. “What aren’t you telling me?”
A rough sigh rumbled over the line. “I’m pretty sure it’s Vontressa King.”
“Oh, hell.” He rubbed his temples. The ache that had plagued him since he’d rolled out of bed after yet another mostly sleepless night increased. He glanced at Caitlin, her incisive gaze trained on him. “I’ll be right there.”
Vontressa. Damn it. While filling out the missing persons report for her mother, he’d hoped…he’d prayed over this, that the nineteen-year-old wouldn’t turn out to be another victim. Three already—their Jane Doe, college students Sharon Ingler and Amy Gillabeaux. Now, less than two days after Amy’s body had been discovered, there was another one.
Holy hell, this was going to kill Miss Lauree.
Breaking the connection, he tossed the phone on the truck seat. “Our discussion is going to have to wait.”
“You have another one, don’t you.”
He ignored her quiet statement and pulled the spare department polo shirt from behind the truck seat. He jerked his damp T-shirt over his head and flung it in the floorboard. His jeans and work boots would have to do; he didn’t have time to go home and change. He yanked on the clean shirt and tucked it in with terse movements.
“I’m coming with you.”
Lord, had he ever had that trace of Fed arrogance in his voice? He turned a glare on her and settled his department cap on his head. “No, hell, you’re not.”
She wasn’t going to walk in here and take over. Over his freakin’ dead body.
“You might as well face it, Calvert.” Her mouth thinned. “The politics won this time. I’m here and I can help you. Do you really want me to have to report back that you refused the bureau’s services?”
He stalked to the passenger side, opened the door and moved his tackle box to the bed. “Get in.”
Her tiny triumphant smile sent resentment burning under his skin. Once she was in the seat, he slammed the door and strode to the driver’s side.
She slipped her suit jacket off, folding it neatly across her lap. Her hair shifted over her shoulders and he fought off an insane urge to separate the thick strands he knew felt like cool silk.
As he backed out of the driveway, he glanced her way. A black suit. Very FBI. He still had a closet full of dark somber suits—black, navy, charcoal.
She stared out the window, lips pursed in concentration. Her fitted skirt rode up along her upper thigh. The fabric parted at a short side slit, affording him a glimpse of her leanly muscled leg. He knew what that soft skin felt like, too.
First her hair, now her skin. He pulled his attention back to the road. He would never survive this investigation. Damn it, he shouldn’t still be attracted to her. The fact he was pissed him off to no end.
She shifted in the seat, tugging her skirt closer to her knee in an absent movement. His gaze wandered her way again. Her wrap-style blouse gapped a scant inch, exposing the upper edge of a fancy, lacy bra the soft color of a camellia bloom.
The bra she’d worn the last night they’d shared had been almost the same color. They hadn’t even made it to the bed in his hotel room the first time—he’d taken her against the wall just inside the door. She’d been anything but coolly professional then, her tongue invading his mouth as he’d driven into her body.
The right front wheel dropped off the pavement, bumping on the rough shoulder. He resisted the instinct to jerk the wheel and eased the truck back onto the road.
She looked around, arching one perfect eyebrow. “Problem?”
Yeah. She was here, making him crazy, and he had to act like a seasoned investigator. With Caitlin there, Stanton would be watching him like a bird dog anyway, and Cookie had the sharpest eyes he’d ever seen. Sounded like a problem to him. “No. Just zoned for a second.”
She flicked a hand toward the whirling blue lights in the distance. “Looks like this is it.”
The crime scene lay mere feet from the county line and patrol units lined the blacktop on either side. One car sat with its engine running, windows cracked, and in the backseat, the department’s German Shepherd waited, watching the commotion with eager eyes.
They left Tick’s truck parked along the narrow two-lane highway and hiked the hundred feet to the site boundary. He was grateful for the walk, using the opportunity to get his thoughts back under control.
He held the yellow crime scene tape for Caitlin to duck under. The officers had stopped at the barrier. Several greeted Tick and eyed Caitlin with open curiosity, a couple with a hint of resentment. In this part of the state, law enforcement remained very much a man’s game, and he tried to view her through their eyes. Her aloof authority screamed Fed and her impeccable grooming whispered old money.
He started to take her arm as they picked their way down the steep incline of the riverbank, but pulled his hand back. A few yards from the water’s edge, Stanton Reed and Jeff Schaefer, their newest investigator, gestured toward what looked like a huddled mass of wet rags.
Tick knew better. Caitlin damn sure did.
“Stan.” At his greeting, Stanton straightened to his full height of six feet six inches. He glanced at Tick’s companion and grimaced, angry surprise flaring in his eyes. Caitlin caught his gaze for a moment and looked away, scanning the scene.
“Tick.” The lines by Stanton’s mouth betrayed a tense weariness. “Schaefer, go tell Cookie to quit shooting the bull and get down here.”