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Authors: Virna DePaul

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BOOK: Shades of Temptation
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The victim, Cheryl Anderson, had been found two days ago, but
only after her killer had mailed the SFPD several gruesome pictures of her being
embalmed—while still alive. He’d also left directions to a warehouse on Mission
Street where police would find Anderson’s ashes along with trace DNA sufficient
to confirm her identity. The responding SFPD officers had processed the scene
and entered the murderer’s M.O. into the criminal database that could be
accessed by all California law-enforcement agencies. It had taken only a few
hours for SFPD to connect Anderson’s murder with the murders of two women that
had occurred over a year ago in Fresno, six months apart. The older cases hadn’t
been solved and had been well on their way to becoming cold. Importantly, the
specifics of the murders had been kept out of the press, just like Anderson’s
had.

Now, with the Anderson murder, San Francisco appeared to have a
serial killer on its hands. No other jurisdictions had reported murders
committed in the same manner, which meant the killer was acting thoughtfully.
Methodically. Taking his time picking out his victims and planning everything to
the last detail to ensure his continued success and freedom, even as he tempted
the police with evidence of his crime.

If he kept to his routine, which serial killers usually did,
that meant they had some time to find him. And Carrie was almost certain the
killer was a man. For one thing, serial killers were almost always men. But more
specifically, the way The Embalmer had applied makeup to his victims’ faces, as
depicted in the photos, had a decided air of inexperience about it—like a kid
playing with his mother’s cosmetics, experimenting with colors and shadows. It
might sound strange to a man, but chances were another woman would have used the
enhancements more effectively, even on a corpse. Even Carrie, who rarely wore
makeup and wasn’t a girly girl by any stretch of the imagination, knew the
basics. The Embalmer’s heavy hand with lip liner and blush screamed “male” to
her.

She wasn’t sure she wanted to posit that theory to Stevens,
however. It would only serve to remind him that she was, in fact, female, and
that was something she strenuously avoided where work was concerned.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as if she had many other leads to report. It wasn’t a
reflection of her skill, simply what the evidence failed to show.

The only thing the victims had in common was that they’d all
been teachers, but they’d taught at different schools and different grade
levels. Johnson had taught seventh-grade biology. Steward had taught elementary
school. And Anderson had taught English at a local college. It was a connection,
true, but it was far from a solid one. Unlike the other victims, Anderson had
lived alone.

Given the information they did have, the first thing Carrie
would recommend was canvassing witnesses at Anderson’s college. Talking to her
students. Also checking out the facilities and who had access where. The man
who’d killed Anderson had spent a lot of time on her. He’d needed the supplies,
space and privacy to perform the embalming. It was unlikely he’d pick a busy
college campus as his base camp, but she needed to make sure. After that, she’d
have to explore other options. Places near the college. A mortuary? A hospital?
And that was assuming he didn’t have an embalming facility set up in a house
somewhere. Maybe that’s why there’d been a year-long gap between his second
murder and his third. He’d relocated. Needed to set up shop someplace in San
Francisco. That meant she’d need to check out businesses that sold embalming
equipment. Track down individuals who might have stocked up on relevant supplies
recently. And she’d have to speak personally with the detectives at Fresno
P.D.

She already had their written reports. Of course, the Fresno
P.D. had looked into a possible connection between Johnson and Steward, as well.
They’d concentrated on questioning witnesses in neighborhoods near the victims’
homes and businesses, but had come up empty. They’d interviewed the victims’
families and friends, and SFPD had done the same with Anderson. But this was
Carrie’s case now, and that meant she’d probably reinterview everyone herself,
just to be sure all bases had been covered.

It wasn’t a matter of believing the other police officers had
been sloppy or incompetent. It was a matter of speaking to the witnesses
directly, being able to look them in the eye, study their demeanor and body
language and tone of voice. In the same way that a jury needed to be able to
assess a witness’s credibility on the stand, Carrie needed to assess the
credibility of the witnesses who might be able to help her or prevent her from
finding a killer.

With each hour that passed, Carrie’s “to-do” list got bigger
and bigger. Long after she tired, she forced herself to keep working, reading
police and psychological reports, looking at pictures, trying to draw links
between pieces of evidence; even so, she was ever aware of the passage of time.
At just before six, she couldn’t avoid it any longer.

She had no good reason to miss Mac and Natalie’s wedding
celebration.

She’d been through the files multiple times and had compiled a
detailed report of her findings for her meeting with Stevens. She was tired,
mentally and physically, and she needed to take a break. Get a change of scenery
and wipe her mind clear before diving in again. Was she going to join the other
SIG members at McGill’s the way Mac had asked? Or would she continue to
hide?

Forty-five minutes later, she had her answer. Actually, she had
several, not all of them good.

As she stood on the other side of the street from McGill’s,
staring into the bar through the front windows, she realized this was what she’d
been dreading. More than she’d been dreading a reminder of her last encounter
with Jase, she’d been dreading
this
feeling.

She’d been away from SIG for just over a month, but it had been
enough. The passage of time had done more damage than Kevin Porter’s bullet. She
didn’t even need to step inside McGill’s to confirm it. She was on the outside
looking in.

Not just outside a bar watching her teammates talking and
laughing inside. But outside the team. At least, that’s how she felt. Forget
that she was the sole female on the SIG team. Or that she was one of only a
handful of female special agents at DOJ, just as she’d been one of only a
handful of female MPs in the army and the only woman on the Austin and SFPD SWAT
Teams. She respected all her SIG team members and truly felt they respected her,
but nonetheless her place within SIG had always felt tenuous, and tonight that
seemed glaringly apparent.

She didn’t fit in. She never had, not completely. Hell, she
wouldn’t even fit in with the other people in the bar, regardless of whether
they were law enforcement or ordinary citizens.

Automatically, she tugged at her already pressed-and-creased
button-down shirt. It was a far cry from what Regina had been wearing on her
date with Jase one month ago. It was nothing like what the other women in the
bar were wearing now. Unlike her, they wore makeup and their hair down. They
looked soft. Feminine. Touchable. Compared to them, Carrie probably looked as
brittle as she felt.

Without meaning to, she searched for Jase.

He was sitting with fellow SIG agent Bryce DeMarco and talking
with a couple of women who’d stopped by their table. They were stacked.
Gorgeous. As confident in their femininity as Carrie normally was in her
abilities as a cop.

Now she was just one jumbled mass of nerves and insecurity.

It was a hideous feeling, not because she didn’t have her fair
share of hang-ups, but because she was doubting her current ability to hide
them. No one could see how vulnerable she felt. No one. Whether they were cops
or criminals, strong personalities had a natural tendency to exploit weakness in
others.

To prevent herself from becoming easy prey, she needed to act
like nothing had changed. Like
she
hadn’t changed.
And that meant walking into that bar and congratulating Mac on his recent
marriage.

She didn’t want to. She didn’t feel up to any of it. Not
congratulating Natalie Jones, Mac’s new wife, a woman who, despite her
blindness, seemed to have the kind of life that had never been an option for
Carrie. Not seeing the faces of her teammates. Not bantering with Jase and
pretending she didn’t want him.

But she was going to go inside. She was going to pretend she
was fine. And hopefully, soon, she would be. She’d have her bearings back.

Work was the thing that had always been her comfort. Her
confidence. She’d never been the pretty one. Never fit in with the girls at
school or understood their need to shop and primp and gossip. She’d been more
interested in the things her brothers did. And she’d always been interested in
helping others. Taking on those bigger and stronger than her and besting them
through stamina and smarts.

That’s what she’d always been good at.

That was her place in the world.

Trying to expand it would only bring her grief.

CHAPTER FOUR

J
ASE
WAS
IN
A
PISS
POOR
-
MOOD
,
but
he wasn’t dead. That’s why, when Carrie walked through the door of McGill’s
after a month’s leave from SIG, his body responded the way it always did in her
presence—at full aching mast. Time spun away, and suddenly he was back outside
the bar with her body pressed against his, before Regina had come looking for
him. Just as he had back then, he imagined taking Carrie in every imaginable way
possible—with her standing up, sitting down, bent over or on her back with her
legs spread wide and over his shoulders. He pictured her mouth doing everything
but talking, while his own mouth got busy investigating the moist depths of her
body.

In his mind, he took her with a ferociousness completely
contrary to the way he’d actually kissed her before, when Natalie
Jones-now-McKenzie had been hospitalized. Carrie had been trying so hard to
comfort Mac, when in reality she’d needed comforting herself. And Jase had
needed to be the man to give it to her. No, that brief, closed-mouth kiss on the
lips had been nothing like the ones he currently fantasized about.

But knowing it was all he was likely to get, he cursed
softly.

From beneath hooded eyes, Jase watched as Carrie headed toward
Mac and Natalie, who were standing by the bar getting another round of drinks
for the table. Except for Simon Granger, who’d be acting supervisor for the next
two weeks, the whole SIG team was now present to celebrate Mac and Natalie’s
spontaneous trip to City Hall and their official new beginning. Tomorrow, they
were headed to Africa for an unconventional honeymoon. Jase didn’t doubt they’d
be spending a lot of their time indoors and horizontal, but they’d also enjoy
exploring the exotic locale. Mac had mentioned more than once that Natalie,
who’d made her living as a photographer before she’d gone blind, was excited to
try a new technique for blind photographers she’d recently read about. Knowing
what Natalie had overcome in the past few months, including nearly being killed
by a man nervous about some photos she’d taken, Jase couldn’t be happier for
them.

As Carrie made her way toward the couple, Jase rubbed his ear,
the same ear she’d tried to bite off the last time they’d been here together.
She wasn’t like any other woman he’d ever known, yet he couldn’t help comparing
her to the women she passed. McGill’s wasn’t exactly a trendy pickup joint, but
it wasn’t a bad place to meet women, either. There were always a few trolling
for men to spend some time with in and out of the sheets. Like the two friends
who’d just been chatting with Jase. Like the brunette who was at that very
moment eyeballing him from another table. Like the curvy blonde Carrie had just
passed. They’d been painted, plucked and slathered with lotion until they
radiated feminine allure.

On the other hand, Carrie looked just as out of place as she
had the last time he’d seen her at McGill’s. Her deep red hair was pulled back
into her obligatory ponytail, any makeup she’d been wearing had long since faded
and her pressed Dockers and starchy pinstripe shirt, while not quite disguising
her femininity, definitely radiated business more than romance. The files she
held at her side added to the professional image. Which was hilarious,
considering she was on medical leave, and therefore business was the last thing
she should have been dressed for. Hell, the woman obviously didn’t know the
meaning of the words
casual
or
fun.

Didn’t matter. She hadn’t even looked at him, but he was
already harder than an iron spike. His response to her was completely baffling,
especially given how fervently she denied the attraction between them.
Especially given she was a cop.

Professionally, Jase had no problem working with female cops.
Some of them, including Carrie, were the best cops in the business.

Personally?

Jase liked his women simple, tarted up and willing to please.
Carrie Ward, a former Army MP and now special agent just like Jase, certainly
didn’t qualify. So why did she get to him so much so fast?

It was barely noticeable, but he saw the slight way she favored
her right leg as she walked. It had suffered significant trauma. Since the
doctors had believed she wouldn’t walk for at least six weeks, let alone that
she’d ever walk without a cane, she’d obviously been doing her physical therapy
and pursuing recovery the way she did everything else—head-on, at full speed
ahead.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true.

She pursued everything that way except her desire for him. That
was the one thing she had no intention of facing. Ever. Her failure to even look
at him simply confirmed the fact.

Hell, he should be glad. He’d fought his attraction to her from
the instant he’d seen her. Had gone out of his way to avoid her since the night
they’d shared that brief kiss. At least, he’d gone out of his way until that
last night at McGill’s. That night, he’d been standing next to Regina but
studying Carrie’s reflection in a mirror on the wall. He’d been watching her the
entire time since she’d arrived. As such, he’d noticed when she’d turned and
spotted him with Regina. For a split second, she’d looked hurt and then she’d
left. Something—a flash of loneliness he’d seen in her eyes or perhaps the empty
ache he’d felt in his own chest—had compelled him to follow her. To proposition
her. But she’d rejected him quite thoroughly. Not all that surprised, he’d
cursed himself for a fool and counted himself grateful that she’d ignored his
little moment of weakness. Then she’d gotten shot, and the severity of her
injuries had reminded him exactly why she was the kind of woman he needed to
stay away from.

The kind that would eventually destroy him whether he kept her
or lost her.

He’d almost gone crazy when he’d learned she’d been shot. He’d
beat everyone to the hospital and had been hollering for an update before Mac
had arrived and tried to calm him down. But even when he’d heard Carrie was
going to be okay, he hadn’t calmed down. He hadn’t felt calm in over a damn
month. No matter where he went, no matter who he was with, inevitably he thought
of her. For a man who enjoyed women in all their infinite variety and had no
problem moving on to the next great thing, it had scared the shit out of him.
Afraid of what he might reveal, he’d forced himself not to visit her, at least
not after that first time, and instead had settled for the occasional update
from Mac and the commander. In the past few weeks, even though she was never
completely out of his mind, he’d managed to think of her less often. It was an
achievement he had to continue.

When she returned to SIG, things between them would be back to
normal, with him dating his women and her… Well, he had no doubt she’d once
again use her sharp tongue and another man to keep her distance from him. At one
time, that man had been Mac. Now, it looked as if she’d be using several new men
instead.

According to DeMarco, before she’d been shot, Carrie had been
dating her way through San Francisco P.D.’s SWAT team. Was that why she’d gone
to McGill’s that night? Had she been planning on bedding a SWAT officer only to
be distracted by Jase?

“Jase, you dog. You’ve been holding out on me.”

Jase reluctantly dragged his gaze from the sweet curve of
Carrie’s khaki-clad butt and turned to face DeMarco. “What?”

DeMarco grinned. “You were checking out Ward.”

Rolling his eyes, Jase leaned farther back in his seat,
automatically smiling when the brunette at the nearby table caught his eye
again. “I wasn’t checking her out. The last woman I’d be interested in is a
whack job like Ward.” Even as he spoke, he felt a twinge of guilt. Not for being
dishonest but for being disloyal. He was attracted to Carrie and fighting it,
but first and foremost he admired her. She wasn’t a whack job so much as the one
woman who was completely wrong for him but still managed to drive him crazy with
lust. Somehow, it seemed wrong to disparage her just to disguise his own
vulnerability, but he didn’t have much choice, did he? Not with the sudden gleam
in DeMarco’s eyes that told Jase he wasn’t going to let the matter drop.

“Come on. Fess up. You can’t take your eyes off her, and with
good cause. Ward is smoking hot.”

Because Jase wanted so badly to agree, he forced himself to
continue the charade with a bit more force than necessary. “She’s a lunatic. An
adrenaline junkie proud of her man-eater reputation.” At least that last part
was true. Carrie was tough and rarely showed fear. Not even to the team.

Probably, if he was honest with himself, the team would be the
last people she’d let see her afraid. It was true for him. Why not for her,
too?

“Yeah,” DeMarco continued, completely unaware of Jase’s
thoughts. “But she’s still
muy caliente.
If it
wouldn’t be like kissing my sister, she could eat me up anytime.”

Another image of long limbs, smooth skin and moist, pink
secrets flashed before his eyes. He tried superimposing the nearby brunette’s
exotic features over Carrie’s face, but it didn’t work. “Different strokes, my
man,” he managed to drawl.

“You’re protesting way too much. Why don’t you just admit you
want her?”

“Uh—because I don’t.” Lie. Such a big lie. “She’s got a fine
ass, but everything that goes with it is way too much trouble. Besides, I’m
dating that model I met at the grocery store.”

“You mean the blonde with big tits?” DeMarco tsked. “She’s
practically jailbait, man.”

“Twenty-four is hardly jailbait,” Jase said with a frown.
Although it did sound a little young. “And talk about hot. The last thing I have
time or energy for is Carrie Ward.”

DeMarco stared at him for several long minutes but, even though
her features were a blur, Jase didn’t take his eyes from the brunette who now
walked toward him.

“Well, shit. That’s no fun.”

Jase forced himself to grin. “I beg to differ. Lori used to be
a gymnast, you know.”

DeMarco snorted and shook his head. “For you, that’s par for
the course.”

Jase stood when the brunette finally reached them. “Hi. I was
hoping you were coming to see me and not my friend here.”

She laughed, the sound low and just as sexy as her tousled
curls and low-cut blouse. “Maybe I haven’t made up my mind yet.” Her gaze
flickered to DeMarco. “You both look like you can show a girl a good time.”

Despite his sudden weariness, Jase forced himself to play his
part. He leaned toward the brunette. “Thanks so much, darlin’. But you need to
know…”

Jase spoke with the brunette for several minutes. Before she
left, she handed him her business card and gave DeMarco a flirty wave
goodbye.

DeMarco just shook his head. “
Chica
doesn’t know what she’s missing out on,” he grumbled good-naturedly, his massive
ego obviously not in the least bit threatened.

Jase pocketed Kelly The Brunette’s number just as Carrie turned
and looked at him. She’d been chatting with Mac and Natalie, and had finally put
down her damn files. She smiled tightly at Jase before turning back to the
bartender, a tall, good-looking kid with dimples. Jase couldn’t resist. “So have
you heard when Carrie’s starting work?” he asked DeMarco. “I thought she wasn’t
coming back for another few weeks, but she looks…good.”

“She’s meeting with Stevens in the morning. She’s got a shot at
her first serial case. No way is she going to let it slip away.”

Forgetting to feign casualness, Jase straightened. “She’s
getting the lead on the big one? Damn it, I told Mac I wanted that.” And he’d
thought he’d made his request early enough for it to make a difference. Serial
cases were far more rare than people thought, but they were generally
high-profile enough that solving one could do wonders for one’s career. Besides,
the connection between the recent victim and two cold-case victims, the same
connection that had prompted the higher-ups to transfer the case to SIG, had
only been made less than forty-eight hours ago. When had Mac and Commander
Stevens made their decision?

“It’s her turn. And after what she’s been through—hell, after
how hard she’s worked—she deserves it.”

Instantly, Jase recalled how pale she’d looked the only time
he’d stopped by to see her at the hospital. She’d been groggy and trying to hide
the pain she was in, but he’d seen it. Hell, yeah, she deserved it. She was a
good cop. But so was he, and he’d wanted the lead on the case. He’d wanted the
accolades closing it would win him.

But Carrie wanted them, too.

He swiped a hand across his jaw. “Yeah, I suppose.” But he
still didn’t like it. His own ambition aside, Jase didn’t like the idea of her
working a case with a perp that was obviously as fucked up as this one. Which,
considering what Jase and Carrie both did for a living, was a joke. Carrie would
be the last woman to play it safe or let herself be coddled by a man. If she
knew he felt the slightest bit protective of her, she’d kick his ass, then jump
right back into the fray without a backward glance. And that was just reason
number two to stay away from her.

Reason number one was what she made him feel. Too much. He’d
spent his childhood witnessing exactly what kind of misery two strong-willed,
passionate people could bring each other. Plus, his job was intense enough. He
wanted a personal life that was indulgent and mellow. And if he followed Mac’s
lead and actually married someday? Well, he wanted a woman who was indulgent and
mellow, too.

Jase glanced at DeMarco and, for the first time, noticed the
dark circles under the man’s eyes. DeMarco needed some mellowness of his own.
He’d been working one difficult case after another. While he seemed social at
the moment, he was moodily silent at work. Word around the department was the
stress might be finally getting to him. “What about that witness in your Alvarez
case? You get anything on that?”

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