Authors: Delores Fossen
Joe almost decided to leave it at that, but there was something he couldn't leave unsaid. “I hope it's occurred to you that this plan is designed to send a killer after us.”
No hesitation this time. “It has.”
Good. At least underneath all that wisecracking talk, Katelyn O'Malley was smart enough to know what they were up against.
And what they were up against was a killer.
Even more, the moment they stepped inside Perfect Match, they would become the ultimate bait.
Katelyn fanned herself with the Perfect Match folder.
Even though the sun was on the verge of setting, the summer heat was still escaping in filmy waves off the asphalt. It was muggy. A Texas-June kind of muggy that even the locals complained about. The air was heavy with exhaust fumes and the steamy smoke from the mesquite grills of a nearby patio restaurant. Not exactly an enticing combination, but the aroma of spicy fajitas was somehow pushing its way through the rest of the less appetizing scents.
She willed herself not to sweat as she hurried across the parking lot toward the sprawling building that housed the Perfect Match Agency. Willing didn't work. A slick bead of perspiration slithered down the center of her back, and for a couple of seconds, she entertained a pipe dream of stopping by the restaurant for a virgin frozen margarita.
This wasn't, however, the time for pipe dreams or sweat-cooling margaritas, even virgin ones. It was time to look for a killer.
Katelyn stepped through the front door of the agency, mumbled a
for the Arctic blast of the A/C and made her way to the reception area.
An empty area, she soon learned.
Empty, no doubt, because she was early. But then, she usually was. Brayden joked that she'd inherited some bizarre fear-of-being-late gene, but her early arrival in this case would allow her time to double-check the few things she could actually double check. Exits. Bullet-accessible windows. Security cameras, like the one mounted on the light fixture in the center of the room. It also gave her some time to take a deep breath and steady her nerves.
Someone had decorated the spacious rectangle-shaped room. Unlike her earlier visit, tonight there were bunches of gold Mylar balloons in the corners, huge bouquets of cream-colored flowers in crystal vases and bottles of champagne angled into gleaming silver ice buckets. Soft, romantic music filled the background. The stage was set for love.
But hopefully not murder.
She was armed with a Glock in her purse. It was her preferred poison when she needed to carry light. And thanks to the flexible, pencil-size device beneath her collar, she had two-way communication with headquarters. However, neither of those two security measures would give her much protection if someone opened fire through the trio of floor-to-ceiling windows. For all practical purposes, she was on her own.
An obvious drawback to being early.
The sudden clicking sound sent her reaching for
her gun, but Katelyn forced herself not to draw. She needed to stay in character. It was a good thing, too. Because the click was a door opening, and the blond-haired man who came in through the side entrance wasn't carrying a weapon but another bottle of champagne.
He immediately made eye contact and smiled, a slightly too-friendly smile, before he proceeded to the table with the champagne. “Kate Kennedy, right?”
Katelyn didn't have to ask his name. He was Bruce Donovan. Age, twenty-nine. A local, but that sun-bleached hair, tropical tan and muscled torso seemed more suited to a California beach than the Alamo City. His official job title was office manager of the Perfect Match Agency.
He was also a prime murder suspect.
Of course, anyone associated with the agency was a suspect, but Donovan was near the top of that list. According to his background check, he'd been hit with not one but two restraining orders for stalking former girlfriends. The last incident had escalated into an assault. Combined with the fact that he was from San Antonio and a white male, it meant he fit their profile to a proverbial tee.
“I'm Bruce Donovan,” he greeted. “I run things around here. In fact, I'm the one who processed your application.” His face got a contemplative look for several seconds, then he snapped his fingers. “You're a P.E. teacher on break for the summer. You like old Indiana Jones movies, basketball and chili.”
He grinned as if pleased with himself for recalling that information. Katelyn didn't return the grin. If he actually memorized details about every client, it was a little unnerving. If he'd only memorized
details, then it went well past the unnerving stage.
“I remember because I kept thinking what a great match we'd be,” he continued. “But unfortunately since I work here, I'm not allowed to pair up with any of the clients. Well, not officially anyway.”
Good grief. As if he hadn't gotten his message across, he aimed another flirtatious grin in her direction.
“So do a lot of people actually find their
at these icebreakers?” she asked.
“Depends on your definition of perfect.”
“A lifelong partner,” Katelyn quickly offered.
“Ah, marriage.” He shrugged. “Sure, it happens.” But that was as far as he took the thread of conversation.
She pointed to the wall above the table. “You should put photos of the happy couples there. It'd be great publicity.”
“I'll pass on your suggestion to my boss.” He placed the bottle of champagne on the table, searched through the two dozen or so plastic-encased name tags and picked up one.
He crossed the room and reached out as if to pin it on her jacket, just over her left breast, but Katelyn intervened and took it from him instead. So he was
perhaps a groping pervert in addition to being a stalker and a killer.
What a pleasant guy.
His all-American surfer-dude smile faded. He probably wasn't happy with her insistence that she pin on her own name tag.
Katelyn nodded her greeting in lieu of a handshake, and she tried to pick up on any other vibes. There was definitely that little buzz in the back of her head, but it'd been there since she'd first stepped foot in the place. And speaking of stepping, she backtracked a little toward the door so she could take cover in case Donovan was aiming for a third restraining order.
Donovan tipped his head to the glossy gold-and-white Perfect Match folder she'd tucked beneath her arm. “So did you see any immediate prospects on your list?”
“One. But it could be a coincidence.” Since it was time to do a little more stage setting, she pinned on her name tag and opened the folder. She pointed to Joe's alias. “I dated a guy by that name in high school.”
Something darted through his coffee-brown eyes. Concern, maybe? “Is that good or bad?”
“Definitely good. He's the one who got away, if you know what I mean.”
He made a sound of superficial agreement and then quickly excused himself to leave when a man and a woman came in. Not Joe. But from the already
friendly chatter and come-and-get-me smiles, these two had already decided they were a good match.
Once the two newcomers had on their name tags, Katelyn whispered their identities so the tech back at headquarters could begin background checks. In case something serious developed between them, she didn't want this couple to become the sniper's next targets.
“Kate Kennedy?” she heard the now-familiar voice say. “Is that really you?”
It was show time. She took a long breath, braced herself and turned toward him to start the charade.
She obviously hadn't braced herself nearly enough.
At the wedding, she'd seen Joe Rico's
look, and over the past couple of days, his urban cop look of khakis and button-down dress shirts. But this was obviously his cool hot-guy look.
Black pants, perfectly tailored. A deep crimson red crewneck pullover that hugged his chest the way men's chests should be hugged. Well, men with great chests, anyway.
Which he had.
The breeze coming in from the still-open door stirred his lightweight jacket. Also black. He'd likely worn it to conceal his .357 Magnum, but it made him look a little mysterious, confident. And dangerous.
Katelyn bet he'd never had to take a deep breath to steady himself. On the other hand, she required several more.
“Joe?” she managed to say, when she remembered how to form words. Sheez, her throat actually clamped up. She added a staged giggle of excitement to unclamp it. “It
you. I can't believe this.”
As they'd discussed, Joe and she went to each other immediately, and he pulled her into his arms. Yep. He was definitely carrying concealed, and there was a backup in the slide holster on the rear waist of his pants.
“You're early,” he whispered.
“You're not,” she countered, also in a whisper.
“I was busy. We might have a little problem.”
didn't sound so bad. Little problems always arose during undercover missions. “Whatâ”
That's as far as Katelyn got.
Joe brushed his mouth over hers. A friendly sort of gestureâwhich they'd also discussed should happen. In theory, such a gesture was supposed to announce to the people at the agency that they were staking their personal claims on each other. Like his clothes, it worked. Katelyn heard the other couple and Bruce Donovan mention something about an apparent perfect match.
Katelyn also heard her heart pounding in her ears and felt her body turning soft and warm.
And she cursed herself.
Talk about being a hormonal wimp. Somehow, she had to make herself immune to any carnal-related reactions to Joe Rico, and she did that with a simple reminder that he was not only her boss but also the man investigating her brother.
That immediately cooled off her body.
She pulled back, both literally and figuratively.
“Incoming, six o'clock,” Joe whispered.
In other words, someone was approaching from directly behind her. While Joe kept her firmly against him, she turned her head, already smiling, and came face-to-face with Addison Merrick, the owner of Perfect Match. He was also one of their suspects.
He seemed younger than Katelyn had expected, and she'd expected young. Merrick was barely twenty-six but could have passed for a teenager. Well, except for the gunmetal-gray eyes. There was something not so youthful about them.
Merrick wasn't alone. A broad-shouldered man came into the reception area with him and took up position near the door. It was Katelyn's guess that he wasn't a client looking for love but was rather a bodyguard. Maybe this was the little problem Joe had mentioned.
“I smell success,” Merrick greeted.
No all-American, surfer-dude smile from him. It was on the mechanical side. Probably no perverted, name-tag-pinning intentions, either. He looked more like the Ivy League type. And was. Old money. And from all accounts Perfect Match was a gift from his megasuccessful father. A way of keeping Addison a productive member of society. So far, it'd worked. Despite a fairly recent dip in business, it was the most successful agency of its type in the city.
“Kate Kennedy, Joe Farrell,” Merrick continued. “It's a pleasure to meet you. Welcome.”
She felt Joe stiffen slightly but couldn't ask him why. It probably had something to do with the guard who was studying them a little too carefully.
Joe extended his hand to Merrick. “Thanks. It looks like joining Perfect Match was the wise thing to do.” He smiled lovingly at Katelyn before he slid his attention back to Merrick. “By the way, a friend of mine said he might be here tonight. Chad Benton. Have you seen him?”
Chad Benton? Katelyn had no idea what this was about. There was no one by that name associated with this case.
Merrick shook his head. “We're expecting a big crowd so you might want to check to see if your friend's name tag is on the table.”
Merrick's suggestion was just the beginning, however, and not a prelude to a departure. He wasted no time latching on to her hand, and like a good host, he introduced Joe and her to the other couple. By the time he'd finished, more clients had started to trickle in.
Bruce Donovan did his hosting duties, as well. He began pouring the champagneâlots of it. Nothing like alcohol to kick up the libido and lower the defenses. The piped-in music switched to a slow, sultry beat.
“What about that little problem?” she asked Joe the moment Merrick walked away. She looped her arm through his and leaned against him, snuggling, so she could speak as softly as possible.
“Someone's watching the place.”
Okay. Maybe it wasn't so little after all. “Any idea who?”
Again, no explanation since groping-boy, Bruce Donovan, walked up to them with a tray of filled champagne glasses. Even when they both declined, the man didn't move far enough away for them to have a private conversation.
Joe remedied that. Smiling and whispering sweet nothings about how glad he was to see her again, he led Katelyn to the far end of the room and then just inside the hallway that led to the agency's offices. He angled them so they wouldn't be facing the camera in the reception room.
“Fiona Shipley,” Joe informed her. When the static crackled in their respective communicators, he turned his off, because the now close proximity was interfering with reception. “She's parked outside watching the building.”
Katelyn didn't have to ask who that was. Fiona was a regular client at Perfect Match and a former acquaintance of Raul Hernandez, the murdered groom, and that was
in a really bad way. After Fiona and Raul had met, dated and then broken up, she had apparently threatened him. The police had been looking for her but hadn't been able to locate herânot since she'd quit her job and moved out of her apartment. Apparently though, she'd come to them.
“No sign of her carrying an assault rifle, huh?” Katelyn asked, only partly joking.
“Not that I could see, but I've got two officers in a surveillance van watching her just in case.” Joe glanced over his shoulder and mumbled some profanity. “Play along.”
That was it. No other warning. No hint that he was about to launch into a full-contact charade.