Brutal. There was no other way to describe the night. The discovery. The pain of seeing those tiny bones being unearthed. The pale, pink blanket. The dirty, small, stuffed rabbit that had been left with the bones…
Weariness and sorrow pulled at her, but Antonia Rossi—Tony to her friends and colleagues—kept her spine stiff and her shoulders squared. She couldn’t leave the scene, not yet. Even though every part of her just wanted to run away as fast as she could. This particular scene stirred too many of her own long-buried secrets.
The van’s back door slammed. The sound jolted her, and she stiffened. The driver turned toward her, tipping his head. A sign that he’d be pulling out soon. The remains would be taken in for review by the medical examiner.
Beside her, the police chief exhaled on a long sigh. “This property had been searched before. Right after the disappearance. All the properties that belonged to the family were searched, just as a matter of course. How the hell was this missed?”
This…the body of an eight-year-old child. A death that had occurred over twenty years ago. All but forgotten by everyone.
But not by me. Because Tony’s job was to work the cold cases. To keep hunting when others stopped. “It’s possible the body was moved here after the search.” More than possible. She suspected that was exactly what had occurred. “Forensics will be able to tell you more.” Though she had plenty of suspicions on her own.
Forensics would also confirm the identity of the victim. But based on the remnants of clothes—the little blue jeans, the tattered yellow shirt, and the very distinct shoes, blue converses with yellow laces—Tony felt certain she’d found her girl. After all, Meridian Duvane had last been seen in those exact clothes so very long ago.
Banshee, Tony’s German Shephard, brushed against her leg and stared up at her with worried eyes. The dog had caught the tension in her voice. Banshee always knew when Tony was upset. Dammit, I hate finding the kids. When you didn’t have a body, then you could still have hope. You could still think…Maybe she’s out there. Maybe one day, I’ll wake up and she’ll be back home. But that hope was gone now. Because little Meridian had been found.
The van pulled away, and Tony’s head tilted as she watched the taillights fade into the distance.
“Yeah, forensics will have a field day,” the chief agreed. “Especially with that blanket and the damn bunny. Killer had to touch them, right? Maybe his DNA is on them.”
She hoped like hell it was.
“You okay?” the chief asked her when she remained quiet. Chief Hardy Powell. Fairly new to the job, only in the position about six months. Sounding shaken. Nervous. Probably his first time to find one of the kids. They were always the hardest.
So she decided to be honest with him. Maybe he needed some honestly. “I’m not.” Her lips curled down. “You’re not, either, and that’s okay. That’s what makes us normal.” If they were both completely okay with digging up a little girl, then there would be a problem. Slowly, deliberately, she gave a long exhale. “I’ll be around if you need me.” Since only bones remained—and bones were her specialty—the chief medical examiner very well might need Tony’s services. She didn’t have plans to leave Biloxi, Mississippi, anytime soon. When she’d come down for the case, she’d rented a house near the beach. She’d planned to work the case and then take some long overdue personal time. Her fingers sank into Banshee’s coat. “Come on, sweetheart, let’s go.”
She and Banshee turned for her rental car, and Tony’s long, black braid slid over her shoulder. It wasn’t a particularly cold night. Did they even get cold nights this close to the Gulf? There was definitely no chill in the air. Quite the opposite. The air felt humid. Heavy. A hot breeze blew over her cheeks. A breeze that swept away the tear that had leaked from her left eye. Dammit. She hated crying at a scene. So unprofessional. But Meridian had been so small, and when Tony had seen those bones unearthed, she’d been shoved right back into her own past.
At the questioning male voice, Tony stiffened. Escape had been so close at hand. Denied. Thinking it was a cop or one of the members of the crime scene team trying to get her attention, Tony turned around and she even had her game face in place when she looked toward the speaker. Points for her.
But she didn’t find herself staring at a cop or one of the crime scene analysts. Instead, a tall, broad-shouldered male in an elegantly cut suit stared back at her. He gave her a quick smile.
She didn’t particularly like smiles at murder scenes. Half of his face was in shadow, half spotlighted by all the illumination the cops had brought in for the investigation. He looked sinister when she suspected he’d meant to appear charming.
“My name is Smith Sanders, and I’m here on behalf of my employer.” He extended a business card toward her.
She took it automatically, but since she was a few feet away from the spotlights the cops were using, it was too dark for her to clearly read anything on the card. Tony just shoved it into her back pocket.
“My boss is Aiden Warner,” he added. Then waited, as if the name was supposed to mean something to her.
It didn’t, so she just kept staring back at him. Tony didn’t exactly spend her time following the business world. So if his boss was a bigwig, the name didn’t ring any bells for her.
“He wants to hire you,” Smith continued determinedly. “I have a car ready, so if you will just come this way…” He motioned to the right. To the right, where a black limo waited about fifty yards away.
Tony blinked. “Uh, no.” She would not be going that way. Tony had seen the limo arrive earlier and had figured it belonged to a local politician who’d wanted to get his name tied to the discovery of Meridian’s body. Knowing the way politicians worked, she’d thought he’d rolled in to do a press conference about finally getting closure for the family. About never giving up on the missing. The usual spiels that she’d heard people in power say dozens of times.
Though since they didn’t have the killer yet, she hardly thought there was any closure to discuss on Meridian’s case.
“Excuse me?” Smith seemed to be struggling to get his words out. “Did you just say ‘no’ to me?”
She had. What Tony didn’t get was why he seemed so surprised. With a shake of her head, she informed him, “Tacky to bring a limo to a crime scene. You should tell your boss that. Try arriving in something less flashy.”
“I…will?” A question. “I’ll, um…” He coughed. “I’ll tell Aiden you think he’s tacky.”
She nodded. “You definitely should tell him. Less is more. And as to the offer of a ride, no, I’m not getting into a car with a stranger.” Seriously? “That’s not how my world works. Cute, though. Really.” No, it wasn’t. She huffed out a breath and fought to hold onto her composure. Meridian had gotten to her. “I’m not looking for a job at the moment. I’m just finishing up a scene.” Which he should be able to tell—clearly—on his own. “So thanks, but no thanks.”
Smith’s mouth opened, then closed.
“Good night.” She turned away. Banshee instantly turned with her.
“But…but people don’t tell Aiden Warner no!”
“Really? That’s odd.” She kept walking. “Could have sworn I just did.”
She wasn’t coming to the car.
Aiden Warner watched as Dr. Antonia Rossi turned away from Smith and strode toward her small sedan. She opened the passenger side first and let her dog jump inside. Bending low, she spoke to the dog, rubbed it behind its ears, then shut the door. Moving with an elegant, if somewhat stiff grace, she headed around the car to the driver’s side.
And drove away.
So much for the first meet and greet with the doctor of the dead.
The back door of the limo opened. Clearing his throat, Smith slid inside. He tugged the door shut behind him.
Aiden’s fingers tapped on his thigh. “She’s not with you.”
“Astute of you to notice.”
He raised a brow. There was enough illumination in the back of the vehicle for Smith to easily see his expression. An expression that Aiden knew would clearly say…What. The. Fuck? Smith had been given one job. One.
Get Dr. Rossi in the limo.
“Ahem. Sorry, but she said no, boss.” Smith shrugged. “Not like I could physically force the woman into the vehicle. Pretty sure that shit is illegal. There are rules, you know. Rules that even people with more money than God have to follow.”
His fingers stopped tapping. “You mentioned me specifically by name?”
“Yeah, and I don’t think your name did jackshit for her. Didn’t seem to recognize it at all.” Smith settled back along the leather seat. “I don’t think you two run in the same circles.”
No, they didn’t. That was the point. “Her circle is the dead.”
Smith reached for a glass decanter. “That’s creepy as hell.”
“That’s the reason I need her.” And she’d just fallen perfectly in his lap. Or, she should have. Because he’d been in Biloxi on business. Another casino opening. Another hotel acquisition. And then, as if fate had decided to smile on him, he’d learned that the target of his latest hunt was there, too.
Antonia Rossi. So he’d gotten her exact location. Easy enough when you had money to burn. And he’d gone straight to her. Since he didn’t want any of the nearby reporters snapping his picture, he’d asked Smith to handle the meet and greet. A mistake, obviously. While his head of security—and best friend—excelled in many areas, clearly this was not one of them.
“I think she found the kid.” Smith’s voice was different. A little ragged around the edges. Very unusual for him. His fingers trembled a bit around the decanter. “Saw something—someone?—get loaded into the back of a black van before I approached your doc. And I swear, I think the woman was crying.”
He stiffened. Aiden also noticed that her car had just driven away. No, you can’t run. He leaned forward and lowered the privacy screen that separated him from the driver. “Follow her.” A curt order. “Not close enough to scare her, but do not even consider losing her for a moment. I want her vehicle in sight at all times.” He knew where her rental house was located, but what if she went somewhere else? What if she left town entirely? If she’d already closed this case, then she could disappear on him. Sometimes, she vanished from the spotlight for weeks. The woman had a tendency to go off-grid, and now that she was within his grasp, he couldn’t lose her.
He wouldn’t lose her.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Smith asked him. “Maybe you should just, you know, cool down a bit. Send her an email on Monday. An official notice with an offer of employment. Do something normal. Not like, oh, I don’t know, stalking the woman to a crime scene and trying to get her into your car. FYI, I’m pretty sure she thought that was super creepy. And, ah, trashy. She definitely thought the limo was trashy. Or, actually, maybe she called it tacky.”
“A limo? Tacky?”
“Tacky at a crime scene. The doc thought it was something one should not do. Driving a limo up when there was a murder. Just passing along her opinion. Not mine.”
Aiden settled back in his seat. He’d had a reason for arriving in the limo. “The car would have given us privacy to talk. The last thing I wanted was for a reporter to film me trying to convince her to take my case.” He kept his voice emotionless even though Smith, of all people, would know just how emotionally impacted he really was by the situation. I need Dr. Rossi. “I have emailed her, and you know that. I have also sent her several official letters offering employment. She hasn’t responded.” He got that the Ice Breakers were slammed. Their sudden notoriety had propelled them from the shadows straight into the spotlight.
The Ice Breakers. A cold case solving group that had started online. All from different backgrounds. All driven by, Aiden suspected, their own demons. He could certainly understand that. His dark demons tormented him every single day. Their group had come together to try and solve cases that had gone ice cold.
They’d had a streak of successes. Such big stories that the media had started to run profiles on them. And so big that everyone with a lost loved one or an unsolved murder in their past was clamoring to get the attention of the Ice Breakers.
Add me to the clamoring list.
“She seemed tired. Even as she, ah, politely said for you to go to hell.”
He’d been in hell for a long time. “That’s what she said?”
“Technically, she said to tell you ‘thanks, but no thanks’ but the rest of the message was in her tone. Hard to miss it.”
“Her tone said for me to go to hell?” Why the fuck did he find that intriguing? Because no one ever tells me that.
“Yep.” Smith took a long gulp of his drink. “I even mentioned to her that most people don’t usually tell you no.”
“I’m sure she loved hearing that,” Aiden murmured. He found himself intently curious about everything Antonia—Dr. Rossi—had said.
“I don’t think she’s gonna take the job.” A warning. “You need to move on and find someone else.”
Hardly the first time that Aiden had been told to move on when it came to this case. But, as before, he wasn’t in the mood to take the advice. There were some things that just couldn’t be forgotten. “I’ve tried other people. They weren’t her. They didn’t get the job done.” Because everyone knew that Dr. Rossi found the dead.
“You just gonna toss more money at her?”
“One day, you’re gonna find someone you can’t buy.”
“Absolutely.” He just hoped like hell that today wasn’t that day. Because he needed Antonia Rossi, and he would do whatever it took in order to get her on his case.
She didn’t quite understand why the casino was open twenty-four hours. When Tony walked past the rows and rows of slot machines, they were empty. The whole place seemed empty.
She’d gone to her little rental house, but hadn’t been able to stay inside. As soon as she’d walked through the door, the place had felt chilled. Or maybe she’d felt chilled. Too dark. Too quiet. An escape had been needed. She’d thought the bright lights of one of the nearby casinos might push her darkness away.
But, instead, she just found more emptiness. Sure, there was plenty of light. Glaring lights. Too bright. And a few people sitting at the poker tables. That was it. Hardly the distraction her soul needed. But she’d take what she could get.
Tony sat down, not at a poker table, but in the blackjack section. Gambling wasn’t a hobby. Wasn’t a vice for her. Wasn’t something she usually did at all, but what the hell? Why not give it a go?
The dealer exchanged her cash for some chips, and Tony glanced to her right as someone else sat down to play.
A familiar someone else.
He pushed some cash toward the dealer, just as someone else sat down on Tony’s left. Her gaze slid to the left side, and she saw the black sleeve of a man’s suit coat. His wrist. His long, tanned fingers. Her nostrils flared as she caught the rich, masculine scent that clung to him, and a sudden, almost dangerous awareness flooded through her. The kind of awareness that she suspected a deer felt when it was being stalked by a hunter.
The men put down their chips. The dealer slid out the cards.
Her gaze snapped back to the dealer. A blond woman, pretty. Maybe mid-twenties. With steady hands and bright red nails. A warm smile curved the dealer’s lips, and when she looked at the man on Tony’s left, that smile lit the woman’s eyes. She leaned forward a bit, letting her cleavage dip. Was that flirty move because she was interested in the man? A man Tony hadn’t actually seen yet. Not his face, anyway. She’d avoided looking directly at him. Instinct. Preservation.
But maybe the dealer was being flirtatious and sexy because she wanted to distract the guy. Distraction would mean he probably would be more likely to lose on his hand. Good for the house, right?
“Oh, my God.” A sudden whisper from the dealer.
Tony had been looking at her own cards. A ten and a Jack. Not too bad.
“You’re the new owner. Aiden Warner.” Breathless. Husky. Awed.
“I am.” From the corner of her eye, Tony saw Aiden wave his strong hand over his cards to indicate that he didn’t want more.
“You’re even better looking in person,” the dealer told him in a rush.
Really? The flirtation was taking over the whole hand. Pain beat behind Tony’s right eye. This was not the escape she’d hoped to get.
Smith tapped to show he wanted another card, and an elegant queen was placed before him.
“Bust,” he groused. “The ladies always do me in.”
Tony wanted the bout over. She didn’t even care about her winnings. Fleeing was her priority. Standing quickly, Tony prepared to make a dash for the nearest exit.
“And the lady wins,” the dealer announced.
All the cards had been turned over.
The dealer pushed the chips toward Tony.
“Thanks.” She scooped them into her hands and turned from the table. She’d cash those babies out someplace else in the casino.
“What’s the rush?” A deep, dark voice that belonged to Aiden Warner. “Aren’t you feeling lucky?”
The low taunt stopped her as nothing else would have. In general, Tony wasn’t a runner. She didn’t flee from trouble. Not her style. She preferred to confront things head on. But this wasn’t your typical night—not even typical in her unusual life—so she’d been having a moment of weakness.
She didn’t like being weak.
Her head lifted and turned toward Aiden even as her hold tightened on the chips. “I don’t feel particularly lucky,” she informed him flatly. “Because two men are stalking me. That sort of behavior tends to make a woman feel exceedingly unlucky.”
A sharp gasp came from nearby. The dealer. It was instantly followed by a passionate, “There is no way Mr. Warner is stalking—”
“Not two men,” Aiden cut in smoothly. “Just me. Smith tagged along because he’s my chief of security.” He rose, too, and Tony realized that he towered over her. Power and arrogance in a too expensive suit. A man who spent too much time at fancy offices and in towers looking down on the rest of the world. A man who probably had no idea of just how violent and twisted life was for most people.
She could see the strength in his shoulders. They stretched out his suit coat. A faint line of stubble covered his jaw. She was sure the dealer found that stubble sexy. He was tall, dark, and handsome, the old stereotype to a perfect T. His thick, dark hair was lighter than her own, almost more brown than black with faint highlights that were caught by the overhead lights. His amber eyes stared back at her with a faint hint of curiosity.
And with far, far too much satisfaction.
Just what did he have to be satisfied about? She was preparing to leave him in her dust.
“I have a business proposal for you, Dr. Rossi,” Aiden told her.
Goose bumps rose on her arms. His voice was really quite something when he pitched it so low. Deep and rumbling, it slid over her in the best—no, correction, the worst—way. She didn’t want to find anything about this man to be arousing.
Yet, she did. Because when she looked at him, one thought slid through her mind. Sin.
This man is built for sin.
Temptation. Recklessness. Passion.
In other words, a born heartbreaker.
“I have a room upstairs,” he continued.
Well, of course, he did. He owned the casino. Hadn’t that been established already by the helpful and flirtatious dealer?
“I would very much like to talk privately with you.”
“Sorry, but it’s past my bedtime.” Such a lie. She had trouble sleeping most nights. The dead had a tendency to haunt her. Wasn’t that one of the reasons she was out right then? Because she didn’t want the darkness to surround her.
“I will triple the winnings in your hands if you just give me five minutes.”
Tony glanced down at her winnings. “Triple, huh?”
“Yes.” Confident. Casual. As if money meant nothing to him. Probably because it didn’t.
“Can you hold out your hands for me?” Tony asked him sweetly. She could do sweet. Occasionally. Her friends would say that when she did sweet, though, you really needed to watch out.
A frown tugged at his rather noble brow, but he lifted his hands and offered up his palms to her. The calluses that she saw on his fingers surprised her, but only momentarily as she deduced their source. Probably from working out. That would fit with his lifestyle. She lifted her own hands and poured the chips into his palms. “There you go,” she told him with a cold smile. “Payment for you to leave me alone.”
Another gasp from the dealer. It absolutely sounded as if the woman might be choking this time. Mildly concerned, Tony glanced back at her.
“You—he…it’s Aiden Warner.”
Yes, she knew exactly who the man was. Tony focused on him once more. “No more stalking. It’s an exceedingly unattractive thing to do.” With that, she marched away from him and headed between the line of slot machines. She’d take the elevator back down to the lobby and get the hell out of there. Surely, there would be a cab waiting. It had been easy enough to snag one on her way to the casino. Correction…casino-slash-hotel. The mammoth building was both.
But when she slipped into the elevator and turned to jab the button for the first floor, Aiden stepped into the too tight space with her.
Tony noticed that he’d ditched the chips.
Ignoring him, she crossed her arms over her chest.
“I haven’t made a good impression on you.”
The doors slid closed.
“No shit,” she replied. Tony could feel his eyes on her. The elevator just needed to go down three floors. Three little floors. How long could that possibly take?
“I apologize. I understand that I approached you in the wrong manner, but you had been ignoring my emails and letters, so when I realized we were in the same city, I seized the moment.”
The elevator was far too slow. Three floors should not take this long.
“Have you read my emails? Or the notes?”
“No.” Truth. “I’ve been working three cases, and the group has been inundated. You can’t even imagine how many people have been contacting us.” This was something that ate at her and wouldn’t stop. So many are lost. Her head jerked toward him. “Every single year, over 600,000 people go missing. And I wish—I wish I could help find them all, but I can’t.” Her arms dropped to her sides. Her hands clenched into fists because she’d just had an image of too small bones being uncovered from black dirt. Dammit. She blinked quickly. Tony absolutely refused to cry. Especially in front of strangers. Aiden Warner definitely counted as a stranger.
“My twin brother is one of those missing.”
More blinking. Her gaze shot to the floor so she wouldn’t have to look at him. Wasn’t this what she’d been afraid of? Hearing about his victim. Because when she heard about the victims, as soon as someone became personal to her, she was hooked. Another lost soul to haunt her at night. “I’m sorry,” she said, and Tony meant it.
“He disappeared when we were seventeen, and despite the thousands and thousands of dollars that I have spent hiring private investigators over the years, he has never been found. It’s like he just disappeared from the entire face of the planet one day. Disappeared while life kept going for everyone else.”
The elevator dinged. The doors opened. She should walk through them. She should. But it was already too late. It had been too late the moment Aiden Warner stepped onto the elevator with her.
“I can have a driver take you back to your rental house.”
All she had to do was walk out of that elevator. Stride boldly forward. But she’d already made a fatal mistake.
Tony had found out about the victim. There was a reason someone else in the Ice Breakers read the emails and the letters from families and desperate friends, even when the notices were addressed to her. As soon as a victim became known to her, as soon as the person whispered through her mind…
Swallowing, she glanced over at Aidan. She studied his handsome face. The high cheekbones. The long, strong nose. The jaw that seemed carved from granite itself. Window dressing. All of it. Gorgeous, sexy window dressing. What really mattered to her were his eyes. And when she looked into his gaze, she saw pain staring back at her. Pain and grief and a dark, simmering rage.
Aiden Warner was angry at the world.
She could relate to that.
“Was he your identical twin?” A careful question.
So she was staring at an exact copy of the victim. Victims always became personal for her, but this was different. A whole other level of different. Because she was staring at him and imagining this man…
Small bones covered in dirt.
The elevator doors began to slide closed.
Aidan threw up his hand to stop them. “I won’t trouble you again.”
He wouldn’t. But the ghost of his brother would. “Take me upstairs.”
She saw him tense.
“You can have five minutes, free of charge.” Such a lie. Tony already knew she’d be giving him far more than five minutes.
But Aiden didn’t move.
So she did. “Don’t make me change my mind.” Sighing, she reached for his arm so that he would stop blocking the elevator doors from closing again.
Except, when she touched him, something happened. Something she didn’t expect and something that spelled trouble for her. A shock of awareness. A bolt of almost electric tension. She touched him and knew that her world was about to change.
When she’d poured her chips into his palms, she hadn’t actually touched him. She’d been very careful. This time, though, her hand curled around his arm. Even through the fabric of his coat, Tony could feel the heat emanating from his body. That heat slid around her. Through her. It warmed all the cold spaces that she kept locked inside. Slipped past the ice that shielded her from the rest of the world.
“Oh.” A breath. Her hand fell away from him. “That could be problematic.”
He stared at her, never once changing his fierce expression. Without another word, Aidan pulled a keycard from his pocket. He slid it over the small, black screen on the elevator’s control panel, and then hit the button for the top floor.
The doors closed.
Her fate had been sealed.