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12

Under normal circumstances, Lily would never have minded stepping in to help Jackie out because one of her kids was sick. She hadn’t met them yet, but her coworker’s son and daughter looked adorable in the pictures on her desk, and she obviously loved them deeply.

Unfortunately, tonight wasn’t normal. As Lily escorted their witness, Samantha Dalton, to the downtown hotel where they intended to keep her under protection, she mentally scrambled to figure out what to do.

She’d told Anspaugh she would be available this evening to continue posing as Tiger Lily. She had started the charade last night, in a chat room on the site their suspected pedophile had frequented before. Having no luck, she had left a chatty post on a message board. And this morning, Peter Pan responded to it.

God, he responded. This could really work.

Anspaugh and his team were salivating, smelling the end of the chase. They wanted her online again tonight to lure their prey farther into the trap, and they had to be so cautious. No way could she chat from a hotel with an easily identifiable Web connection; she had to use the proxy server that had been set up for this undercover operation.

That would have been just fine had Jackie been able to take the first shift with their witness. But she hadn’t. Now Lily was stuck needing to do two things at once.

It’s your own fault for not just going to Wyatt about this.

If she’d been more forthcoming with her boss, they could have dealt with the conflict. Of course, if she’d been more forthcoming with her boss, he might have asked her what she thought she was doing getting caught up in somebody else’s case when she had her own to work on.

Okay. So get out. Tell Anspaugh you can’t do it.

Maybe it was time to let go of the need to catch Lovesprettyboys. Time to let the crimes-against-children specialists do what they did and focus strictly on the job she’d been so grateful to get with Wyatt and his team.

More, maybe it was time to let go, period. Her sanity, not to mention her dreams, would probably be better off if she did what everyone from Wyatt to her therapist and grief counselors said she should do-got on with her life. Catching Lovesprettyboys wouldn’t change what had happened. He was just the substitute, another monster to take down, since the one who’d destroyed her family was already safely locked up. There would always be another one out there; she couldn’t catch them all.

But God, how she wanted to catch this one.

“Is everything all right, Agent Fletcher?”

Lily realized her concern must have been showing on her face, because Samantha Dalton was watching her closely, concern visible in the line between her eyes.

“Oh, yeah, fine. Nothing to worry about. And please call me Lily.”

Pulling her lips up at the corners in what would hopefully pass for a smile, Lily led the woman to their room, swept it, then beckoned her inside. As far as safe houses went, it wasn’t bad. Not five-star, not on Uncle Sam’s dime, but it was clean and modern. Two rooms, one with a bed, the other with a sleeper sofa, plus a small kitchenette. A decent home away from home until they could get their witness out of the danger they had so unwittingly put her into.

Now Lily just needed to get herself out of the mess she’d unwittingly put herself into.

Brandon would come and stay with Sam Dalton if she asked him; she knew that. But she hated to drag him deeper into her situation. Dean, Kyle, and Alec were all still in Baltimore. Jackie was unavailable, and there was no way she could ask her boss.

She couldn’t bring in an outside agent because she didn’t think one would come. Sometimes, it didn’t pay to be part of a team so on the outs with the rest of the bureau. At other times, it was great, incredibly freeing.

Tonight was not one of the great times.

She needed to talk to Wyatt. No more of this off-hour maneuvering between jobs. Lily wasn’t doing anything wrong; in fact, some would say she was going above and beyond. She doubted, however, that Wyatt would see it that way. Especially not since he’d warned her not to let herself get caught up in something because of her own history.

“I guess there are worse places to be imprisoned,” Sam mused.

“Would you like me to order some dinner?” They had stayed in the office all day and hadn’t stopped for a bite en route to the hotel. “I can order in.”

“I’m fine, thanks.” The other woman walked to the window and peered out at the city, spread far below them. The dome of the Capitol was visible in the distance, and she stared at it for several moments. “Since Agent Stokes can’t come tonight, will someone else be bringing some clothes for me?”

“Yes,” Lily said, her hopes quickly rising. She’d almost forgotten that. This might work out after all. If one of the other agents showed up with clothes and toiletries, Lily could ask him to cover and slip away for an hour or two.

As long as they show up on time. For all she knew, they could be pulling an all-nighter.

“Did she have to leave before Alec-um, Agent Lambert-got back there with my keys? I mean, was she there to gather my things?”

Hearing a hint of embarrassment, Lily reassured her. “They’re all good guys, Sam. I can promise you none of them went through your underwear drawer.”

The other woman looked away, not meeting her eye. Her hands fisted on the windowsill. “You don’t know that about Agent Lambert yet, do you? Isn’t he pretty new to your team?”

Lily nodded slowly, hearing the frank curiosity. She had the strange suspicion, as she had earlier at the office, that their witness was personally interested in the newest member of the Black CATs. “He just started this week.”

“But he’s doing a good job.”

“A very good job,” Lily admitted. “Nobody was quite sure how it would work out, but I think it’s going to be great. We’re lucky to have him.”

She didn’t know Alec very well yet, though she suspected she was going to like him. Still, there were a lot of stories about the agent. Stories about him getting too close to a female witness, and another agent getting killed because of it.

She had no business warning Sam off-though she wouldn’t hesitate to say something to Alec if she thought it needed to be said. Still, something made her murmur, “Agent Lambert’s a very handsome man.”

Sam’s head jerked.

Lily hid a sigh, knowing her intuition had been right. “Look, Sam…”

The other woman put her hand up to stop her. “You don’t have to say it. I am well aware that I’m a witness and he’s an agent, and there’s no way he’s going to let down his guard around me and get himself shot again.”

Lily gawked. It sounded as though Sam knew a lot more about Alec than even his coworkers.

Sam’s eyes were wide, as if she feared she’d revealed a secret. “You… Everyone knew he had been shot, right?”

“Well, yes. I’m just surprised you do.”

“We talked.”

That was obvious. “So, he told you about the shooting? That, uh…”

“That a woman shot him? Yes, he did. And I felt about two inches tall for being so judgmental about it at first, until I found out she was the elderly mother of a suspect and he felt sorry for her.”

Lily remained very still. This was more than even she knew. Not that she couldn’t have found out, if she had chosen to dig around in her new colleague’s past. She hadn’t, not wanting to be nosy. But she couldn’t deny an interest.

“This transfer to your team, it was kind of a new start for him, right? A chance to rebuild his career?”

Lily rolled her eyes. “More like a chance to bury it.”

Sam left the window and sat on the couch, eyeing her quizzically. “What do you mean?”

Taking the seat opposite her, Lily admitted, “They call us the Black CATs. But what they really mean is the black sheep.”

“You’re kidding. You guys are all so good.”

“We all have baggage.”

“Baggage,” Sam snapped. “I hate that word. What does it mean, anyway?”

“Okay, then, let’s say we all have reputations.”

“Even your boss?”

Lily curled one leg under her and made herself more comfortable in the chair. “Him more than anyone. Wyatt has a lot of integrity, and he sees things very black or white, right or wrong.”

Which made it even harder to tell him how far she’d gone into shades of gray regarding her job.

“He took a stand against a few things,” she said, not going into detail. “That earned him the enmity of some of our colleagues.”

Not pressing for more information, as if knowing Lily couldn’t provide it, Sam moved on. “And the rest of you?”

“Dean Taggert’s a badass former street cop with a temper.”

“That doesn’t surprise me.”

“Jackie has an attitude.”

Sam grinned. “Also not a surprise.”

“Mulrooney is a bit of a blowhard. Brandon’s a wild card.”

“And Alec?”

“The circumstances surrounding his shooting were… less than ideal.”

Sam rolled her eyes. “Especially for him. Getting shot and all.”

The woman was absolutely right, and Lily agreed with her. There was simply no way to explain bureau politics, that Alec’s survival might have been viewed with skepticism because the other agent had not survived. It wasn’t fair, especially now that she knew more about what had really happened. No more than what had happened to Wyatt was fair. It was just the way things went in an agency made powerful by J. Edgar Hoover, the king of intrigue himself.

“What about you? What’s your story?”

Lily wrapped her arms around one upraised leg, staring down at her own knee. “I’m a little too emotional.”

“Considering I’ve felt like screaming, crying, or punching someone since just about the minute you guys showed up in my life, I can see where that would be a problem.”

Unable to resist Sam’s sarcasm, Lily had to smile. She seldom spent time with anyone outside of the office these days, and had forgotten, since Laura’s death, how much she enjoyed simply hanging out and talking with another woman. As much as she liked Jackie Stokes, the other agent was older, and in a different place. Lily honestly couldn’t remember the last time she’d gone for a girls’ night out, or indulged in a man-griping session with a single woman her own age.

It had been at least two years ago; that was certain. Before Zach’s life had intersected with a monster’s.

The dark thoughts immediately pulled the smile from her lips and the good humor from her heart. Sam eyed her curiously, but before she could ask anything, Lily’s cell phone rang. Seeing Anspaugh’s name, she took a deep breath and answered.

“Where are you? What the hell’s this message you left, that you might have a problem?”

“Sorry, Anspaugh. Something came up. I’m at a hotel in the city. I have to stay with a witness all night.”

“Damn it, Lil, we need you!”

She bit back an annoyed don’t call me that response and said, “You guys know what you’re doing. It’s not like the suspect is going to realize a man is typing rather than a woman. None of us are children.”

“Yeah, but you can make it sound more legit; I know you can. Just that shit about knowing whether a real boy would call himself Peter Pan. I wouldn’ta thought of that, and you did.”

She didn’t know that Anspaugh had the sense to know a boy wouldn’t call himself Cinderella.

“And if the son of a bitch suddenly asks for a voice chat, you’ve got a whole lot better chance of pulling that off.”

Lily blew out an impatient breath. “I in no way sound like an eleven-year-old girl.”

“Well, you sure as hell sound more like one than me or my guys do.”

Closing her eyes, she rubbed at the inside corners of them with her fingers, trying to figure out a way to give everyone what they needed. “Look, if I can work something out, I’ll let you know, all right? Otherwise, you’re just going to have to proceed without me. I’m sorry.”

When she opened them, she saw Sam waving and mouthing something from the other side of the room. Lily covered the mouthpiece with her hand and raised a brow.

“I can stay here by myself,” the other woman insisted in a loud whisper. “You don’t have to babysit me; it’s not like anybody in the known universe knows where I am.”

Lily was shaking her head before the other woman finished speaking. “If I leave my assigned position, I would not only lose my job; I would deserve to.”

Sam opened her mouth to persist, then closed it again, realizing Lily was right and not arguing it. A woman of common sense, this one, which made Lily like her even more.

“Look, if you’re sitting on a witness,” Anspaugh was saying, “why don’t we swap? I’ll send one of my guys over to keep watch; you come do this, and you’ll be back there in two or three hours, tops.”

She waffled. It made sense. She wouldn’t be leaving Sam with anyone other than another FBI agent.

“Come on, I know you want this guy as bad as we do.”

“Yeah, I do.”

“He’s been on this site for weeks. No telling how many kids he’s already been in contact with. Christ, for all we know, he’s already molested some of them.”

Lily felt the blood drain from her face. Anspaugh definitely knew which buttons to push.

“Let me think about it…”

“We don’t have time for you to think about it,” he said, his belligerence showing.

She kept cool. “Then the answer is no.”

Anspaugh breathed heavily through the phone, his anger a living thing. Men like him didn’t like being told no. One more reason Lily wanted to finish this double life and stop working with the man. Because sooner or later, she knew, he was going to ask her a more personal question, and would like hearing no even less.

“Would you just think about it?” he asked, every word bitten out from what sounded like a rigidly clenched jaw. “If you’re in the city, I can have a car pick you up within a half hour. It’s only seven twenty. If you can swing it anytime before nine, call me, okay?”

“Fine.”

He disconnected without another word.

“Problem?”

“Another case,” she admitted, shaking her head and wondering how on earth she’d gotten herself into this situation.

“Why would you need to talk like a little girl?”

Reaching into her purse and pulling out a bottle of aspirin, Lily popped a couple of them to ward off the headache building in her temples. Then she admitted, “I’ve been helping another team try to capture a sexual predator.”

“Sick bastards.”

“Yeah. This one is especially bad.” At least, if they were indeed on the trail of Lovesprettyboys, he was. Whatever else he had or hadn’t done, the degenerate had definitely tried to set up the pay-per-view murder of a little kid.

She looked at the door, wondering if she dared take Anspaugh up on his offer to have someone replace her. He was a supervisor, requesting her assistance, providing another agent to cover her. It was a legitimate solution.

Somehow, though, she sensed Wyatt wouldn’t see it that way.

Besides, she didn’t totally trust Anspaugh. He had such a big chip on his shoulder about her boss, she couldn’t count on him to send over somebody really good to protect Sam.

No. She couldn’t do it. If Anspaugh called back, she’d just have to make it clear she was not abandoning her post. Hopefully they could string Peter Pan along, get him on the line, and tomorrow she would be there to help reel him in.

It wasn’t an ideal solution for her, personally, but it was the professional one. She owed Wyatt her loyalty. And she owed Samantha Dalton the best protection she could give her, not a pass-off to someone she didn’t even know, who had no idea of the kind of crazy man who was after her.

“It’ll work out,” she mumbled, talking more to herself.

“If you say so.”

When a knock suddenly sounded on the door to the suite, Lily leaped up, gesturing for Sam to remain quiet. She skirted the wall, not approaching the entrance head-on. They had not ordered any food; no one was supposed to know they were here. Sam hadn’t even contacted her family members, who, she said, were used to her being out of touch and wouldn’t miss her.

Her hand on her service weapon, Lily moved to the peephole, looked out, and saw a familiar face. “It’s okay,” she said, reaching for the handle.

Definitely okay. As she opened the door, she nodded in decision. Because a solution to her problem had just landed in her lap.

She was going.

Alec didn’t seem too happy about playing babysitter. He’d agreed, when Lily had asked him to step in for a couple of hours, but he sure wasn’t smiling about it. Sam had the feeling he wished one of his fellow agents had been the one to swing by the hotel with a suitcase of clothes and toiletries from her apartment.

She knew why. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to be around her. She suspected the problem was that he did, a little too much. And he didn’t entirely trust himself to be alone with her in an anonymous hotel room.

Which was why, since Agent Fletcher had departed a half hour ago,Alec had been sitting on a chair by the window, far from the couch where she sat. His very posture discouraging conversation, he’d spent his time looking out at the cityscape. He’d answered a few questions-mainly confirming that they found nothing suspicious in her apartment-but beyond that had managed only a few comments asking whether she was hungry and if the room was too cold.

Finally, she’d had enough of it. “Would you please stop acting like you’re afraid I’m going to jump on you?”

He jerked his head to stare at her over his shoulder. “Excuse me?”

“For heaven’s sake, Alec, you’re sitting over there with an invisible chastity belt wrapped around yourself, as if you’re in need of protection. Like you have to be stern and pissy to keep the horny divorc'ee from tempting you into letting down your guard while on duty.”

He half coughed, or might have laughed. “Horny divorc'ee?”

Sam stood and crossed to the window, staring down at him. The lamplight didn’t extend far into this corner of the room. His face was bathed in shadow, so she couldn’t tell if those sensual lips were smiling or those amazing green eyes glinted with humor.

“I get it, okay?” she said. She wrapped her arms around herself, surprised by how much cooler the room was over here. “Despite what happened last night, this thing between us isn’t going anywhere else until the case is over. I’m not Eve. I know I can’t seduce you, and I’m not going to try.”

He slowly rose to stand before her, so close she felt the warmth of his body and the brush of his clothes against her own. The chill permeating the glass windows was suddenly banished, pure heat washing over her. His voice thick, he admitted, “It’s because you could that I’ve been staying put over here.”

She managed a weak whisper. “Could?”

“Seduce me,” he admitted. He lifted a hand, brushing the tips of his fingers across her cheek, sliding them into her hair. The touch was simple, restrained, nonsexual, but also loaded with possibility. She could tilt her face into his palm, kiss the pulse point at his wrist, whisper a plea for an even more intimate touch.

“You could make me forget what I’m doing here tonight and what the stakes are.”

“Really?” she asked. Part of her reacted with pure excitement, knowing she could make something happen between them tonight if she pushed it. Another with pure feminine pleasure that this amazing man genuinely wanted her.

“Yeah. Really.”

“I’m not much into the seduction game,” she whispered, “and I know I should retreat to my separate corner and let you keep this barrier in place. But I can’t deny a big part of me just doesn’t want to.”

“Ditto.”

A helpless moan emerged from the back of her throat when he touched her neck, sliding the side of his thumb against the vulnerable flesh beneath her earlobe. Sam closed her eyes, remembering what it felt like to have a man’s hands on her body. Acknowledging how much she’d missed it.

It had been so long. A year since her divorce, months before that since she’d realized how thoroughly her husband had betrayed her and had cut him out of her life. She’d grown cold and hard. Her nerve endings had dulled, her skin desensitized during all that time without any type of human connection.

All those sensations came roaring back with a vengeance, warmth turning into fire, want becoming desperate need.

“This has never happened to me before,” she said, unable to resist lifting one hand to his chest, running her fingers as lightly there as he was on her neck. “I mean, something this physical, this soon.”

She wondered if he could say the same. Alec’s innate charm and the glimpses of flirtatiousness she’d witnessed said he had a lot of experience with women. But his tension and aloofness also said that part of his life might have changed when he’d nearly died.

“It’s not just physical,” he admitted, not sounding exactly happy about it. “I want you, but I also like you, Sam. I think I could like you a lot. I don’t want anything to happen to you, especially not on my watch.”

She understood. He wasn’t stopping her, wasn’t pushing her away. With a few more whispers, the soft press of her mouth on his throat, perhaps, she could probably have what she wanted. What they both wanted.

Tempting. Oh, God, so tempting.

“So would you do me a favor?” he asked, even as he leaned down, his face so close to hers they exchanged breaths that further dispersed the chill. “Would you walk back over there and sit down?” He didn’t give her a chance to answer. Instead, he leaned even closer, until that last sliver of space between them disappeared and their lips touched.

No frenzied, frantic kiss like last night, this was a soft caress, a gentle plea. Even a promise that there would be more to come, later. When the time was right.

He lifted his mouth from hers far enough to whisper, “Please?”

Breathless and every bit as aroused by his tenderness as she’d been by his hunger the night before, she still somehow managed to nod. “Okay.”

“Thank you.”

On shaky legs, she retreated. Part of her should have resented that he’d done the unimaginable and kissed her before shooing her away. Another recognized that he’d been unable to stop himself, any more than she’d been able to refuse.

Resuming their previous positions, they descended into silence for a few minutes. She could think only how lucky it was that they were in a two-room suite. If there had been a big, king-size bed between them, she didn’t know that she could have come down off of red alert back to just orange.

Finally, when she felt like she could speak without sounding as though she hadn’t drawn breath in twenty minutes, she said, “I could probably use something to eat now, if that’s okay.”

He nodded, glad for the distraction. “Yeah, sure. Check out the room service menu.” Glancing at his watch, he added, “Maybe we should order something for Lily, too.”

“Do you think she’ll be back so soon? What if this creep shows up and wants to talk?”

Alec, who had walked to the desk to retrieve a leather-encased room service menu, tilted his head in confusion. “What creep?”

“This pedophile she’s after.”

He still appeared puzzled.

“I guess it’s another case you guys are working on? She said she was going into a chat room posing as a little girl to try to lure a pedophile.”

With a frown, he admitted, “Doesn’t sound like something Blackstone’s team is supposed to be dealing with.”

“Don’t you mean your team?”

Sheepish, he nodded. “Right. I guess I’m just not used to that yet.”

Again, she wondered about the reason for his transfer. He had never come out and said exactly why he had taken it, but from the few things he had let drop, and Lily’s brief comments earlier tonight, she sensed the topic was a sticky one.

Things had been sticky enough tonight. So she avoided even going there.

“Why wouldn’t your group work on a pedophile case? Isn’t that exactly what the Cyber Action Teams do?”

“Not this one. Their-our focus is a little narrower. We look at murders with an Internet connection.”

“Oh.” She blew out a soft breath. “Then this pedophile, he must be someone who…”

“Yeah, he must.”

Though the idea that a sick degenerate was out there trying to find a child to molest and kill filled her with revulsion, Sam didn’t ask any more questions. She was in an odd position: a civilian, yet so wrapped up in an investigation she’d started feeling right at home with the investigators. She wasn’t one of them, however, and had no business being inquisitive.

Nor was she sure she really wanted to know any additional details. The one ugly corner of the world she had been sucked into was enough. She didn’t want to visit any more of them if she could help it.

Taking the menu, she glanced over it, told Alec what she wanted, and watched him call in an order. The tension eased, the simple act of deciding on dinner cutting through some of the physical awareness. It wasn’t gone, merely banked for now, set aside to deal with at a more appropriate time.

And that turned out to be a good thing. Because their evening together stretched out a lot longer than either of them had anticipated. A whole lot longer.

“It’s eleven o’clock; where the hell is she?” Alec asked later that night. They had expected to see Agent Fletcher back by nine and had easily filled the first couple of hours with dinner and some casual conversation, back-and-forth chitchat more appropriate to a first date than a night at a safe house.

Of course, given the tension simmering between them, they had moved far beyond first-date territory. At least, her first-date territory, though it had been so long since she’d had any kind of date, she couldn’t be sure.

“Isn’t this good news? I mean, doesn’t it mean she was successful in trying to get the guy she’s after to talk to her?”

“I suppose,” he said, not sounding convinced. The tension that had slipped away over the last couple of hours had eased back, evidenced by the tense set of his jaw and the stiffness of his shoulders.

“Still no answer on her cell phone?” she asked as she watched him try to call again, then slam the phone shut.

“No.” He ran a frustrated hand through his hair. “I don’t like this.”

“I’m okay staying by myself, really.”

He looked at her as if she’d said something utterly ridiculous. “I mean, I’m worried about Fletcher.”

“Oh.” Noting the lines on his brow as his frown deepened, she knew he meant it. He wasn’t frustrated about having to sit here with her and pretend they hadn’t kissed a couple of hours ago. He was genuinely concerned about his colleague. Which increased her concern about the other woman, too.

“This pedophile investigation, what else did she say about it?”

“Nothing more than I already told you.” She racked her brain, trying to recall every word. “She got a call, said she couldn’t help out with it because she had to babysit me; then you showed up and she realized she could go after all.”

“Who called?”

Sam closed her eyes to concentrate.

“Taggert and Mulrooney were with me all day; Jackie went home to her kids. Was it Brandon? Wyatt?”

She shook her head. “No. I would have remembered if she had said one of their names. It was something else-Anderson? Wait, I think she said Anspaugh.”

“There’s nobody named Anspaugh on our team.”

“Well, she certainly didn’t sound like she was making it up,” Sam said, truly confused.

About to go on asking why another agent would conceal her investigation from her own coworkers, she was interrupted by a brief knock on the door. As Lily had before him, Alec approached it carefully, flinging it open only after he peered out and obviously recognized whoever was on the other side of it.

“I’m so sorry,” Lily Fletcher said as she pushed past him into the room.

“Where the hell have you been?”

The blonde’s eyebrows shot up. “I didn’t mean to inconvenience you…”

“It’s not the inconvenience. It’s you dropping off the face of the earth, not answering your phone. And a pedophile investigation? Why haven’t I heard about it? What is going on?”

Lily looked back and forth between Sam and Alec. The other woman certainly hadn’t asked Sam not to say anything about the mysterious errand she had to run, yet Sam still felt a little embarrassed, as if she’d betrayed a trust.

“I’m helping another CAT, trying to track a pedophile who operated at Satan’s Playground. He slipped through the cracks then; we think we have a line on him now.”

Alec crossed his arms and leaned against the small kitchen counter. “Why did you say you could cover Jackie’s assignment here, then? Wyatt could have called one of us back sooner.”

Seeing a slight flush in Lily’s cheeks, Sam suddenly rose. “I’ll leave you two alone,” she said, heading into the bedroom. The aura of secrecy surrounding Agent Fletcher was undeniable. The other woman’s color was high, her eyes bright. Excitement and nervousness had wafted off her from the minute she’d returned, and, though they were close to the elevator, she had been out of breath, as if her heart were racing after a run.

Oh, yes. The agent was hiding something.

Sam shut the door behind her and stayed in the bedroom, trying not to hear the voices. It wasn’t difficult; there was just a low, dull hum, indistinguishable as anything more than brief conversation.

Then Alec’s voice grew a lot louder. “You mean Wyatt doesn’t know? He didn’t approve this? Damn it, Lily!”

More mumbling. Sam winced, feeling sorry for Lily. Because as intimidating as Alec probably was right now at having been kept out of the loop, their boss, Wyatt Blackstone, would be much worse. Sam found his very presence intimidating. Strong and intense, serious and intuitive, he didn’t look like someone who even knew how to crack a joke. She suspected a mind like his was always going, always working. As if he could read the thoughts of everyone around him, anticipate their actions.

Well, one thing was sure: He hadn’t known what Lily Fletcher was thinking, and he apparently hadn’t anticipated her actions.

Which, she suspected, meant some very serious trouble was heading straight at the pretty young agent.

Though there were three state penitentiaries in Maryland, James T. Flynt was incarcerated in the closest, in a town just south of Baltimore. Since they didn’t have to leave too early for their one p.m. meeting, or allow much time for the drive, Alec spent much of the morning planning his interview with the convicted felon.

Well, that, thinking about Sam, worrying about how deep she was getting in this, angsting over how little they had discovered about their unsub, and wondering what the hell he was supposed to tell Wyatt Blackstone if he was asked about Lily’s unexpected departure from the hotel last night.

To say he had a lot on his mind this morning would be an understatement. Which would probably be pretty obvious to Sam. Not to mention to Lily, who opened the hotel room door to him, looking as tense and nervous as she had the previous night.

“Morning,” she said, her tone subdued.

“Good morning.” Alec didn’t pull any punches. “You’re still planning to talk to Wyatt while Sam and I are gone, right?”

That had been their deal last night. Alec wouldn’t make an issue of Lily leaving her post for so many hours as long as she brought their boss in on what she was doing.

Not that Wyatt should mind. Cooperation between CATs was a cornerstone of the division. Another group reaching out to Wyatt’s was a sign that maybe they were on the road to being accepted. At least, that was one way to interpret it.

Lily, however, was nervous as hell. Which meant she did not think Wyatt was going to approve of her extra duties.

Obviously there was more going on here than he knew; something was at work beneath the surface. Maybe even between Lily and their boss, though, from what he’d seen of Wyatt so far, the man would never allow anything personal to develop between him and one of his employees.

“I’ll talk to him; I swear.” She ran a weary hand over her eyes, drawing attention to the dark smudges beneath. Her face pale, her eyes bloodshot, she looked as if she hadn’t slept at all.

“Are you all right?”

“It’s this case. I’ve been working on it for so long, I just didn’t expect it to come together so quickly. Despite his responding on the message board yesterday, I half expected him not to show up in the chat room last night and still can’t quite believe he did. Boggles the mind that I actually talked to this bastard.”

Lily had told him a little about what she was doing last night, though nothing in depth. “And you really think this is the same guy you were after last summer, from the Reaper case?”

“I do. I’ve gone over all the transcripts from this site, checking it against everything we saw Lovesprettyboys say. And I believe we’re dealing with the same man who tried to hire Seth Covey to rape and murder a young boy for his own viewing pleasure.”

He shook his head in disgust. “So hopefully this will be over soon.”

She nodded. “God, I hope so. Once Wyatt finds out… Once I tell him I truly believe we’re getting close to that sick degenerate, I’m sure he’ll understand.”

Alec didn’t respond, knowing she was trying to talk herself into it.

“Why wouldn’t he?” she mumbled.

“I don’t know. Why wouldn’t he?”

She sucked her lip into her mouth and shook her head, hinting that there was a lot he didn’t know. Frankly, he didn’t want to. He had no time to deal with any other conflicts right now; he just wanted to stop the Professor before he hurt anyone else. As much as he wanted Lily to help in that effort, he knew her quest was just as important to her.

“Tell Wyatt,” he ordered, quickly turning away to watch as Sam emerged from the bedroom.

Since Jackie hadn’t stuck around all day yesterday, Kyle Mulrooney had grabbed clothes from Sam’s apartment. Dean had been busy taking off every AC vent and outlet cover, looking for hidden cameras. And Alec hadn’t trusted himself near her lingerie drawer.

In Alec’s opinion, Mulrooney had done a damn fine job. The black skirt Sam wore wasn’t exactly an obscene length, but it definitely didn’t do much to hide those long, silk-covered legs, emphasized by spiked black heels. It was also tight, hugging her round hips, emphasizing every curve. For his own sanity, if it clung just as nicely to her backside as it did her front, she was going to have to walk by his side, definitely not ahead.

Of course, looking at the front of her wasn’t much easier. Her blouse was every bit as dangerous. Silky and slinky, it was cut low, revealing enough cleavage to make him breathe hard, though not quite enough to stop his heart.

Then he thought about who else was going to see it. “Go change.”

She gawked. “Well, good morning to you, too.”

“You’re not walking into a prison looking like that.”

Sam frowned, stalked over, and stuck her index finger into his chest. “Well, you should have thought of that before you grabbed a bunch of one-size-too-small dress clothes and a pair of do-me shoes from the back corner of my closet, rather than just pulling some jeans and sweaters out of my drawer. This is about the best thing I’ve got. Do you not know the difference between a pair of cords and a little black cocktail dress, for God’s sake?”

Beside her, Lily grinned. “She’s got a point. She showed me what you brought, Alec, and this is the best of the bunch.”

“I didn’t pack your stuff,” he admitted, deciding then and there to strangle Mulrooney the next time he saw the man. “Kyle did. Damn it.”

“I think he’s been watching too much late-night Cin emax,” Sam said as she shifted and plucked the black fabric away from her hips. “Women don’t consider this professional day wear unless they’re starring in soft-porn movies as secretaries about to get ravaged by the boss.”

He ignored the ravaged-by-the-boss part. “But jeans and a sweater would be?”

“For me? Are you kidding? That’s dressing up.” She grumbled, again tugging at the skirt. “And despite what you might see on the average Barbie doll, most women don’t like wearing their clothes this tight.”

He didn’t ask her why she had the tight clothes in her closet. It was a chick thing, the need to have entire wardrobes in various sizes. His sisters were the same way. Who knew why?

All he knew was that if Jimmy Flynt had a thing for Sam, he was going to love watching her walk into that jail today. Which already filled Alec with enough anger to make him want to yank a coat over the woman and keep it there.

“What about the clothes you had on yesterday?”

“You mean the pizza-stained ones?”

Crap.

“Look, let’s just go, okay?” She slipped into her coat, murmuring her thanks to Lily for the overnight babysitting.

Alec did the same, adding, “Call Wyatt,” before stepping out into the hall. He checked both directions, then beckoned Sam out. As they walked to the elevator, he murmured, “Maybe we could swing by a mall or something…”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake, I don’t look like a hooker.” She almost sounded amused by his he-man protectiveness.

Since Alec had never reacted that way toward another woman, he didn’t find it particularly funny. “You’re not going to lay yourself out like some kind of appetizer for a felon who’s already got a thing for you.”

“Not even if it makes him more talkative?”

“Especially not then. I don’t want him thinking you did this for his benefit.”

They reached the elevator and he punched the call button, wondering why the sight of her, so beautiful and feminine in the formfitting clothes, with her thick hair pulled back and a hint of makeup on her face, made him want to shove her back into her room and lock the door. To protect her. Since nobody knew where she was, he couldn’t say whom from.

Maybe himself?

Damn.

Alec’s annoyance and his worry, combined with Sam’s defensiveness, made the bulk of their car ride out of the city a silent one. Beyond asking if the hotel room had been okay overnight, he kept his mouth shut and his thoughts to himself.

Finally, though, as he began seeing signs for the exit, he bit out, “Try not to interact with him, if you can help it. In fact, the best thing that could happen is for you to come in with me, let him know you’re around, then step out while I talk to him.”

“Yeah, right. You’re going to think somebody put a muzzle on him the second I walk out the door.”

“What is it with you and this guy?” he asked, frustrated and, even more, confused by Sam’s relationship with the man.

Sam glanced at him from the passenger seat, her mouth opening, then closing quickly. He let her be, knowing she had to work up to whatever it was she wanted to say.

It took a full minute; then, finally, she admitted, “He thinks he did me a big favor.”

“By helping you with the book?”

“Not exactly. The reason I stopped reading his letters a few months ago was because one of them really bothered me. He wrote that he’d run into an old friend of mine.”

“A friend. In prison?” He made no effort to hide his skepticism.

“He said he had learned one of the men who helped ruin my grandmother was doing time in the same facility.”

He thought about the ruined my grandmother part, remembering what she had revealed yesterday about her passwords. Obviously there was a lot more to the story. But they were within a few miles of their destination and time was running out for storytelling, so he didn’t ask for more details.

“Jimmy told me he’d ‘put a hurting’ on the guy. I took it to mean prison-yard justice. Anyway, I didn’t really believe him, but I guess he thinks I did. So in his mind, I could be feeling appreciative and maybe I’m coming to ‘thank’ him in person.”

“Fuck,” Alec muttered, tempted to turn around. “The last thing you need is somebody like James Flynt deciding you’re in his debt.”

“No kidding. But you can see why I was pretty sure he’d talk to you if I came along.”

Of course he did. Good old slimeball Jimmy was thinking he could make something happen with this beautiful woman.

Fat chance, pal. You’re not getting one second alone with her.

“You really believe he was lying?” he asked.

“Yes, I do. It’s the kind of manipulative person he is. I don’t know if the con men who ruined my grandmother and caused her death were ever even caught, much less imprisoned. Jimmy said he-”

Caused her death?”

She swallowed, nodding once. “She was taken in gradually, over several months. First with standard pyramid schemes, fake stock purchases.” Her tone growing bitter, she added, “I tried to get help after they wiped out her checking account. Went to the FBI. Cyber Division, in fact. They did nothing.”

It was a wonder she hadn’t slammed the door in his face the other day when he had identified himself.

“I thought she had learned her lesson the first time, so it didn’t even occur to me that she would get sucked in again. This time it was a charity. Feed starving children in Africa.”

God, there were some sick people in the world to prey on the helpless and elderly. “I’m sorry. Sorrier than I can say.”

“Me, too. When she realized she’d given the thieves enough information to wipe her out completely, down to emptying every penny from her retirement account, she just couldn’t take the strain. They say it was natural causes, but I’m pretty sure the stress contributed to, if not outright caused, her heart attack.”

Something made him reach across and take her hand. Their fingers twined together. “I can’t imagine how tough that must have been.”

Sounding bitter, she said, “I gave her the damn computer to begin with, saying, ‘Come on, Grandma, join the cyber age!’ Oh, yeah, I’d call it tough.”

The whole story of Samantha Dalton suddenly came together. The picture of her life, why she’d made the choices she had, why she lived the way she did-all of it became clear. The pieces of the puzzle had started coming together the other night when she’d told him about her marriage. Now the rest filled in, explaining why she had started her Web site, why she had written her book. Why she took Internet fraud so personally.

Only one question remained in regard to Sam-was she ready to let go of the past, climb out of her self-imposed isolation, and start living again?

“This was how long ago?”

“It started right after I got married. But she died about three years ago.”

Of course, right around the time her site had gone up. Hard to believe how difficult it must have been, going from that nightmare into the pain of a cheating husband and a bitter divorce.

He could only repeat what he’d already said. “So sorry.”

She nodded her thanks, then hurried on, as if afraid to let herself dwell further on the past. “The bastards who robbed her were never caught.”

“How did this Flynt even know about your grandmother?”

She rubbed a hand over her eyes. “Honestly, I’m not sure. I certainly didn’t tell him anything personal about myself when I interviewed him.”

“Smart.”

“He claimed he has connections on the inside, found out who one of them was and ‘took care of him,’ whatever that means.”

“That’s a stretch. If it’s like most other Internet crimes, the men who did it were probably from far away, likely even in another country.”

“Actually, we know at least one of them was local. My grandmother apparently met with him a day or two before she died, and he somehow convinced her to give him access to her accounts. He cashed one out in person at a bank in western Maryland.”

Surprised, Alec couldn’t help thinking how much harder that must have made things for Sam. Not just knowing her grandmother had been ripped off online, but knowing she had actually been face-to-face with someone who wanted only to steal from her.

The possibilities of what could have happened at such a meeting must have kept her up for many nights afterward. And that somehow made it worse.

But it also made it at least possible the two inmates could end up doing time at the same facility. “It’s still a long shot. A very long shot.”

“Don’t I know it.” She shivered lightly. “But Jimmy doesn’t know I think he’s full of shit.”

Which could, indeed, work to their advantage. As long as Flynt kept a respectful tongue in his mouth. He’d better not make one single suggestion to Sam that was out of line.

If he did… well, honestly, Alec wasn’t sure it would matter how much the man could help them. No way would he allow Sam to be any more abused than she’d already been. No way in hell.


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