BOOK 4 in the Damaged Heroes Series
Everything about this mission stinks. Including falling for his sexy new boss.
FBI Agent Jace Quinn has a massive chip on his shoulder. Held back to an inferior rank because he hasn’t finished his degree, the decorated former SEAL has a problem with authority, especially the female kind. So when his new boss turns out to be the woman he flirted with at a cousin’s wedding, he’s horrified. Worse, so is she. Assigned to infiltrate a dangerous white supremacist group, Jace seizes the opportunity to prove to her this lone-wolf lawman doesn’t need handling.
ATF supervisor Heidi Hall is still reeling from the suicide of an agent under her command, and her quest for redemption means that in this joint task force op she’s going to work extra closely with the arrogant hottie who nearly talked her into bed. But in getting past Jace’s defenses, every intimate debrief only deepens her desire. And her rookie undercover agent seems headed for disaster—personally and professionally, which will bring down both their careers.
When Jace’s intel reveals a staggering terror plot is about to go down and Heidi discovers a traitor on her team, the pair race against time to thwart the deadly conspiracy before the city is blown sky high.
is BOOK 4 in the Damaged Heroes Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
- Book 1: Tall, Dark and Damaged
- Book 2: Capturing the Queen
- Book 3: A Savage Trick
- Book 4: Incendiary Attraction
THE EXCERPT: Start Reading!
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FBI Special Agent Associate Jace Quinn crept through the dewy grass, breath steady, senses on high alert. His night-vision goggles depicted the green form of Case Agent Mark Hennessey leading the team toward a shingle-covered duplex some twenty yards to the right. The swish of FBI windbreakers, creak of leather holsters, and an allergic-sounding sniff from someone bringing up the rear broke the predawn stillness.
At the end of the thick boxwood hedge, Hennessey dropped to a crouch, and Jace and the six other multi-agency personnel swiftly followed.
“You two,” the case agent murmured, pointing to Gibbs and Fontana, “go ’round back. Wait for the all-clear.” They eased away.
Jace press-checked his Glock 26 for the umpteenth time. He was so damn ready for this takedown. The intensive four-month investigation, mired in dead ends and mounting frustration, had finally yielded a suspect: Thomas Bradley. This morning’s arrest warrant would hopefully uncover evidence that Bradley was the mastermind behind the Mosque Mohammed bombings that had killed two hundred and forty-five Muslims last June. The success of this dedicated task force was about to explode across international headlines. Today was for the history books.
“On my signal.” Hennessey’s harsh whisper floated back to the team. As one, they resumed their stooped positions and threaded their way to the edge of the quaint, whitewashed porch. “Go, go, go!”
Hennessey dove to the left of the door, Jace plastered himself opposite, and the four men barreled forward with the battering ram. The boom of impact and the door slamming into the foyer wall exploded the morning silence. Hennessey lunged inside, tossing a couple of flash-bang grenades, and Jace hurtled into the first room on the right. A dining room. “Clear!”
Bootsteps thundered upstairs. Another door was breached, presumably by Rogers and Gonzales, who were assigned the basement. Calls of “clear” echoed rapidly as rooms were systematically secured.
Jace sidestepped into the hall. An overpowering stench cut through the sulfur smoke, one he instantly recognized from his SEAL days. A decaying body. He breathed through his mouth as he cleared the rest of the ground floor—a rote procedure now. No one was here. No one could live with this overwhelming stink. He met Hennessey in the kitchen, who nodded toward the back door. Jace let in Gibbs and Fontana.
“Basement’s secured,” Gonzales yelled from below. “Looks like he was busy making pipe bombs.”
“Upstairs is clear,” Peters called in a strangled voice. “Body in the master.”
The four men in the kitchen traded despondent looks as they lowered their weapons. “Let’s go,” Hennessey muttered, and led the way upward. The stench grew with each step, burning Jace’s eyes, and he spastically swallowed sour saliva. He had to avoid the gruesome sight at all costs. No one but his SEAL Team Three partner, Dirk, had discovered his weenie secret. And Dirk had died in the May blast that started this horrific chain of bombings.
Peters and Morgan loitered green-faced in the hallway. “Too decomposed to recognize if it’s the suspect,” Peters said.
“And I think the cat’s been hungry,” Morgan added, then brushed by them with a breathy “Oh, shit” as he tore down the stairs and out the door.
Hennessey stopped in the threshold. “Aw, shit.” Jace stared at the case agent’s back, so it looked like he was peering over his shoulder. Gibbs crowded in, then muttered an obscenity that was interrupted by a gurgling retch as he too scrambled downstairs. “Call for the ME and forensics when you’re done,” Hennessey yelled after him.
“I’ll do it.” Jace half turned, relief flooding through him when Fontana, still in the stairwell, raised his walkie-talkie.
“On it.” He pivoted and descended into fresh air.
Jace clenched his jaw. Between the ungodly odor and his growing panic, his breathing grew erratic and dots swarmed his vision. How in the hell was he going to get out of dealing with whatever horror lay inside that room? And yet here was a chance to impress the case agent. Everyone but Peters had wussed out…
With a sigh, Hennessey cautiously stepped into the bedroom. “Scat.” A black cat burst through the doorway, its unholy, almost-human screech blending with Peters’ panicked yelp as the cat shot between his legs and down the hall, disappearing into the last room on the right. Heart thundering, Jace exhaled an obscenity and braced a hand against the wall. His breathing mimicked a hyperventilating teenage girl at a boy band concert. What made him think he could do this? He had to get gone. Now.
“I’ll go assist Rogers and Gonzales with pipe bomb inventory.” Jace stepped toward the stairwell and blessed escape just as Mark’s cell phone rang. He was halfway down when Mark shrieked an obscenity.
Jace swung around, frowning up at the commander who now paced the hallway, eyes wide and dazed. “Is she okay? … And the baby?”
Jace stilled. The whole department knew of Mark and Julie’s decade-long struggle to get pregnant. She was due near Thanksgiving, appropriately, but it was only October fifth.
“I’m on my way.”
Jace dug in his pocket and retrieved the van key, which Hennessey snatched like a relay baton as he raced down the stairs. “Hope everything’s okay, sir,” Jace called to his retreating back.
“Car accident,” the case agent said. “Peters, take over.” He blew out the door.
Peters looked like he’d just been sentenced to hang. “I’m gonna need your help, Quinn.”
Jace swallowed the primal scream. If he laid eyes on the decomposed corpse, his body’s response would mark the end of his career. “You don’t need anyone else’s DNA in there,” he said in a surprisingly steady voice. “In fact, you should remain where you are until forensics can take over.”
“Guess you’re right.” Peters’ worried expression cleared.
Jace had ten years of combat experience and decision-making on him, despite Jace’s lowly special agent associate rank. All because he’d chosen to serve his country while Peters got a college degree. How was that even fair?
“I’ll go help Rogers and Gonzales,” Jace repeated, his equilibrium finally returning as the crisis died away. “Just take copious notes for Hennessey on any ME or forensic findings. Thomas Bradley was our only lead, so we better hope there’s a written confession lying around that points to him as the sole bomber.”
Peters nodded. “Will do.”
Jace jerked his head down the hall. “And find that cat. Take it to PAWS on North Clybourn.”
“There’s gotta be a pound closer.”
“It’s a no-kill shelter. Go there.” Something good had to come of this op.
Jace headed for the basement, steps as heavy as his heart. Joining this MOSQMO task force last June had been a professional lottery win. How had it morphed into such an albatross for his career? He shouldn’t have been surprised that their primary suspect ended up as decomposed cat food and their fearless leader was winging his way to the ER. Nothing had gone right in months, and Jace couldn’t bury the niggling sense that this house and this suspect had been yet another waste of time.
Three bridesmaids click-clacked past Jace and Kevin, ogling them with all the subtlety of Logan Square prostitutes. “Hello, ladies,” Kevin drawled, eyeing them right back. “Kevin Quinn, table four.”
Their giggles echoed throughout the near-empty hallway. Their hips swayed even more provocatively. The petite blond had to plant her feet and open the heavy ballroom door with both hands. A burst of amplified eighties dance music that had already been annoying decades ago filled the air. Before she slipped inside, the curvy redhead glanced over her shoulder and winked at Jace.
Kevin raised a palm. “Score.”
“What?” Kevin looked over incredulously. “You don’t recognize when you’re being waved in for a landing? It’s a law of nature that bridesmaids want to hook up.”
“They look like they’re still in college.”
“Hey, if they’re legal and they’re game, it’s a night of uncomplicated sex.”
Jace scoffed. “Uncomplicated? The entire female species—especially bridesmaids—are at their most desperate during weddings. All those romantic expectations and rosy-ass glasses?” He scrunched his fingers. “They’ve got their claws out tonight, Kev.” He dropped his hands, not bothering to hide his disgust. “Take it from me: of all the times you need to run from women, it’s at weddings.”
A broad grin lit Kevin’s face as he gazed over Jace’s shoulder. “Good evening,” he purred.
Neck prickling, Jace spun around. Oh, crap.
An attractive woman in a floral dress stood feet away, eyeing him with amused contempt. “No rosy-ass glasses,” she said, then scrunched her fingers on either side of her face. “No claws. Please don’t run away.” Her smile twitched like she might burst into laughter.
Jace had a distinct urge to loosen his tie. “I—I, uh…” But she was already walking by, curling her short black hair behind a shapely ear.
“Nice stuttering,” his younger brother murmured.
Jace ignored him, eyes still on her slim, athletic shape and no-nonsense walk. She looked to have a decade on him, and he flashed back to the days when pretty teachers used to call him out in class for some idiotic, attention-seeking stunt. Yep, here he was at forty, feeling like an eight-year-old turd again.
He prayed for her to keep going, straight through to the hotel foyer, but no such luck. She effortlessly opened the door that had almost taken out the petite blond and disappeared into the pounding beat.
“This night is really looking up.” Kevin shot his cuffs. “Those bridesmaids are like fish in a barrel. The challenge is landing the MILF.”
Jace slanted him a look. Why couldn’t she have caught that remark?
The door swung open again and Pop poked his head out, his scowl at odds with the lively music. “Boys!” He beckoned them over. “One of you needs to take Gage home. Right now.” The last two words were barked from lips white with tension.
Inwardly Jace sighed as they headed toward the ballroom. Kevin and Gage, the third and fourth sons respectively out of five, had finished their tours of duty over the summer. Integrating back into society had been rough, to say the least. Kevin humped anything that moved, marital status be damned, and Gage relied on enough daily alcohol to topple an elephant.
“I’ll do it,” Jace said. Why not call it a night? Weddings were so not his thing. He didn’t dance, didn’t eat cake, and hated this music. It also meant he could avoid the bridesmaids and reliving the ass he’d made of himself in front of that woman. And he sure as shit did not need to witness Kevin trying to seduce her the rest of the night.
“No.” Pop pointed at Kevin. “You go.”
“Me?” Kevin huffed a martyred breath. “I want to stay.”
“You’re the only one who can get through to him when he’s like this.” Pop held the door wider, and even among the two hundred guests mingling in the vast room, Gage was easy to spot. Face beet red, with a glower that resembled Pop’s, he staggered past shocked guests, his thigh brushing the leg of an old lady’s walker, throwing her off balance. As she teetered, almost in slow motion, a nearby waiter dropped his tray of drinks and caught her. The sound of shattering glass started a ripple of swiveling heads, comically resembling a stadium audience doing the wave.
“And fuck that,” Gage hollered to someone over his shoulder. “It’s just another Democratic hoax to keep you sheep afraid!”
“Get him out of here,” Pop said through his teeth. Jace hustled behind Kevin, multitasking snaking blindly through the crowd while bringing up the rideshare app on his phone. It’d take both of them to manhandle their beer-soaked, muscular brother into a car.
Before they reached him, Trick appeared. Please, God, don’t let him spout any of that peace-loving brotherly shit. Jace began shaking his head to preempt him, but as usual, Trick only had eyes for the downtrodden and wounded.
“Hey, man.” Trick planted a palm on Gage’s shoulder. “You gotta let that toxic stuff go and open up your heart to all the love in this roo—”
“Shut the fuck up.” Gage shook out of the grasp as Jace nodded apologetically to everyone near enough to make eye contact.
Kevin immediately gripped Gage’s bicep, with much more authority. “Let’s call it a night, bro.”
“I’m not goin’ anywhere! This is my favorite cousin’s wedding—”
As Gage ranted, Jace motioned Trick away from his other side, but Trick shook his head. “I’ve got it under control.”
Actually, he didn’t. At all. Jace bit back the urge to point that out, because time was now of the essence. Pop still stood by the door, his apoplectic expression disturbing the guests at that end of the room as much as this scene did these people. There was enough friction without engaging the brother who was closest in age, most competitive, and supremely annoying.
“Fine. Fuck it.” Jace wrenched the beer bottle out of Gage’s grip. “Get him the hell out of here before Pop bursts a blood vessel. I’ve ordered a ride.” He glanced at his screen. “A blue Sonata will be out front in four minutes and forty-six seconds.”
The three brothers plowed toward the door. Jace turned away, apologized to anyone within hearing distance, and wandered to the bar to trade Gage’s beer for a well-deserved cold one.
The DJ quickly redirected the audience by booming Gloria Estefan music. Across the ballroom a conga line started, rapidly sucking in guests like an EF-3 tornado.
“That’ll make tomorrow’s dinner interesting.”
Jace half turned to acknowledge Sean’s fatalistic remark. His nerdy youngest brother—and, until recently, the one he hadn’t understood at all—asked the bartender for another bottled water.
“If you invite Gretch, it’ll preempt Pop’s inevitable lecture.”
Sean snorted. “Subject her to a second night with our happy family?”
Jace tucked a couple of bills in the tip jar as the beer and water were placed in front of them. Uncle Pat and Uncle John walked over.
“Sorry about the scene,” Jace told Uncle John, the father of the bride, who sure didn’t look happy.
Uncle Pat pointed at the Grey Goose behind the bartender, then turned to Jace. “So what’s new with the investigation? Papers are calling the mosque bombing a copycat of Oklahoma City now. What was the building called? Edward R. Murrow?”
“Alfred P. Murrah,” Sean said. Always the brother with the answers, but in this case the expressionless tone hid fathoms of disdain, and Jace smirked.
“They arrested Timothy McVeigh an hour afterward,” Uncle Pat continued, without a flicker of acknowledgement that his nephew had spoken. “You guys’ve had, what—five months? What’s the deal?” The last three words slurred into one.
Jace took a long pull of beer. It’d been four months and three days…and this would’ve been the perfect time for know-it-all Sean to butt in with his precise answers. Jace swallowed and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “McVeigh being arrested for not having a license plate was pure dumb luck for the case.” He’d already been an hour into his getaway, the stupid shit.
Uncle Pat accepted his new drink, ignoring the tip jar. “And it only took seventy-two hours to identify all the nine-eleven hijackers.”
“Maybe if you brought in a profiler,” Uncle John suggested.
Jace’s shoulders tensed inside the too-warm sport coat. The nine-eleven hijackers hadn’t bothered to hide their identities—they’d had no plans to return. And the MOSQMO task force had consulted FBI profilers, right from the beginning. But suggestions like searching for an alt-right white male with a blue-collar job and an undistinguished, short-term military background hadn’t narrowed the field much in a city this size.
“Have you guys found another case agent?” Sean asked as Pop joined them, his bearing a lot calmer.
“Not yet.” Jace was sorry to see Mark Hennessey go—he’d been a decent friend and mentor. But maybe the new guy would interpret their collective leads a different way and finally start them down a successful track. “The SAC is still interviewing team members and some outside folks.”
Uncle Pat tugged his drooping earlobe. “I guess as special agent assistant, you’re not eligible for the promotion.”
“Special agent associate,” Jace said through his teeth. Blood thumped hotly in his face, causing his eye to twitch. “And no.”
“Maybe get the case agent from the Oklahoma City bombing to consult,” Uncle John said. “Although he’s probably long retired by now. Wonder if he’s dead?”
“No.” Sean left it there, and the older generation nodded like collective bobbleheads.
Screw this. Jace thunked his beer on the bar. There was only so much unsolicited advice he could stomach from these old fogies, when they had no idea of the long hours and hard work that were leading nowhere. Everyone else in Chicago was talking about the Cubs GM firing the coach. He eyed Pop. “What’s your take on the Flannigan scandal?”
His uncles and Pop spoke up at once. Sean’s expression morphed into instant boredom, his gaze tracking to Gretch in the conga line, twenty feet away and closing. Hands down, the lucky shit had snagged the sexiest woman in Chicago. She shimmied and waved, while at the head of the line, Caitlyn, the bride, eyed their group like a cat spying a cluster of mice.
Jace quickly hoisted his bottle again like its presence gave him an excuse to sit out. There was no way he was joining that. Humiliation-wise, conga lines were in a class by themselves.
He took a slow pull of beer. The worst part of weddings was yet to come, though. Being forced to participate in yet another damn garter snap. Sure as shit if he wasn’t sheltering in place in the men’s room this go-round.
Too much about weddings was irritating. The happily-ever-after vibe. Those desperate single women. He winced as the exchange with the pretty woman zipped back, and he instinctively scanned the room for her. She was approaching the end of the line, already snapping her fingers and swaying to the beat. A delighted smile lit her face, aimed at nobody. Everything about her bearing right now was the antithesis of how he felt.
Jace turned from the approaching revelry and raucous laughter. The noise made it hard to hear any comments about the fired coach, but he adopted a rapt expression and nodded intently.
Caitlyn was upon them, nabbing Uncle John, who readily acquiesced, given he was hosting this shindig. A passing bridesmaid tried to snake her arm through Sean’s, but—no surprise—his uncanny peripheral vision and black-belt skills saved him once again. Pivoting smoothly just out of reach, he beelined for the exit without a backward glance.
The same woman crooked a finger at Jace, but he held up his beer, shaking his head in mock regret. More revelers passed, with more calls to join in, more head shaking. Uncle Pat finally clunked down his empty glass and staggered into the hoopla like he was smashing through an offensive line. The woman behind him winced and limped.
Jace glanced bleakly around the ballroom. Faking a jubilant mood while avoiding the bridesmaids’ come-ons and his uncles’ criticisms was suddenly too much. What were the chances anyone would notice if he took off? Mom might, but it was worth her wrath.
“Uncle Jace!” He started at the pipsqueak squeal. Amy’s steps were clumsy in the stiff blue dress. She let go of one of her father’s coattails and jerked a thumb. “Get behind me.” In front of her, Trick’s lip curled in amusement; he was clearly and correctly interpreting Jace’s preference to crawl through shards of glass.
Jace managed another smile and reluctant head shake. “I don’t dance, honey.”
“Come on, Uncle Jace!” She rolled her eyes toward the woman holding on to her shoulders, and his gaze followed, heartbeat skipping. Her. Still smiling like this was great entertainment.
“Yeah, come on,” the woman mocked, arching an eyebrow in challenge. The deep laugh lines around her eyes somehow heightened her attractiveness. Like she’d been there, done that in life and was unapologetically comfortable in her own skin. And here he was acting like a standoffish baby.
Well, shit. A conga line wasn’t really dancing.
Groaning, he put down the beer and loosened his tie. Amy brightened immediately. Caving for a kid. Jeez. He side-eyed the woman as he stepped toward them, and she released Amy, affably waving him in front of her. “I’ll try not to kick your heel.”
“If it gets me outta this, kick away.”
She laughed, the sound deep and musical. Despite himself, Jace grinned at her infectious joy.
He clasped his niece’s narrow shoulder blades as the woman clamped on to his traps. If she was imitating claws, he deserved it. “Party on, Garth,” she hollered, then sang along to Gloria Estefan.
He bounced off-rhythm a couple of times until he caught the beat and suddenly was sambaing and shimmying like everyone else. Guess this wasn’t so bad.
The photographer nimbly skirted tables, capturing shots of the dancing goofballs. When he got to Jace and Amy, Jace stuck out his tongue while flashing rabbit ears behind his niece’s head. No way would that make the bride’s album. The photographer then gestured for Jace and the woman to squish together, so Jace hammed it up like a teen girl’s selfie, posing cheek to cheek and puckering his lips. If Caitlyn managed to toss out every one of the photos featuring Jace, his mission would be accomplished. Weddings… What was the point?
The bride thankfully broke up the line with a final twirl, followed by wild applause from the participants. The woman’s grip disappeared, and a shrill whistle blasting near his eardrum made him wince. He glanced over as the woman took her fingers out of her mouth. Ah ha. The tomboy. The life of a Super Bowl party, or the loudest shouter at an umpire in Wrigley Field. The type who wanted to be a pal instead of a manipulative lover. His shoulders relaxed.
“Whew, that was fun!” Her rosy face glistened. She blew upward, and her bangs feathered back in a straggly mess, which was still a great look on her. She was unselfconscious and authentic—such a refreshing combination at a wedding.
“It was fun,” he agreed, as Amy bounced into his arms. “I’m Jace, cousin of the bride. And this is Amy, my rug rat niece.”
“I’m Heidi.” She shook firmly. “My plus-one is a friend of the groom’s father. You’re a very good dancer, Amy.”
Amy squirmed in his left arm. “I’m a better soccer player.”
“You’re a champ,” Jace assured her, then turned back to Heidi. Wedding pleasantries—he could do this. “So, what do you do?”
“Senior special agent with the ATF.”
Another check in her favor. He grinned. “No kidding? I’m FBI.” He left it there, loath to admit he was in an associate experimental program for returning vets without college degrees. He’d had a distinguished career as a Navy SEAL; he was more than qualified for special agent status, but trust the FBI to get stuck on policy and procedure. With any luck he’d finish the college credits needed by the end of the year, and this humiliating title would be in the rearview.
“Chicago office?” Heidi asked.
“Yep.” The fiasco at the bar was still too fresh to mention being on the MOSQMO task force.
She brightened. “Perhaps I’ll see you around. I’ve been assigned there starting Monday.”
He opened his mouth to ask in what capacity when a middle-aged man called her name. “There’s Dave,” she said, her smile widening as he threaded his way closer. “He always finds a reason to leave when the dancing starts.”
Trick approached from the other side, holding his youngest’s hand. “They’re about to cut the cake, and Amy and Tina wanted to be in the front row.”
“It was great meeting you, Heidi,” Jace said, nodding to her date as he put Amy down. “Maybe I’ll run into you in the hallowed halls.”
They shared a final grin, and he followed Trick back to the family table, his steps lighter. Hopefully he’d altered her initial opinion of him. The Chicago field office was mammoth, but he’d keep a sharp eye out for her. Maybe ask her to coffee.
“She’s not your usual style,” Trick remarked.
Jace shrugged. “She’s not usual.” Her wolf whistle, which had almost blown out his eardrums, was the deciding vote in her favor. He was comfortable around women who were one of the guys. “You get Gage sorted?”
“Poured him into the car. Kevin went with.”
Amy and Tina scrambled into the swarm gathering around a five-tiered princess cake on a blue satin tablecloth. “God save me from any of this,” Jace muttered, sinking into his seat.
“Not your cup of tea?” Zamira’s grin turned into a softer smile as Trick grasped her hand.
“All this pageantry?” Jace flicked a glance from the groom grasping the ribboned knife with Caitlyn to the photographer capturing the official end of this buffoon’s masculinity for all eternity. “I want a wife, not a bride.” His wave encompassed the ballroom. “When I get married, I’m skipping this whole deal.”
“When?” Trick mocked. “How about you score a second date.” He ducked as a blue napkin sailed past his head.
Zamira laughed. “I bet when you fall, Jace Quinn, you’ll fall the hardest of all.”
“I don’t know about that.” Trick shifted closer, causing her to blush.
Jace clamped his lips to stave off the sneer. This. This was the happily-ever-after vibe he was talking about. It permeated the room. He slumped back, catching sight of Heidi at the far end of the room. Both she and her date were turned away from each other, chatting with the guests on their other sides. Amicably. Comfortably. That was the kind of date he’d have wanted. But trying to find one other single woman that didn’t hear a gonging marital clock? It was easier going stag.
Heidi threw back her head as she laughed. Even this far away, that throaty, infectious sound reached Jace. He grinned and watched her unabashedly. When she lit up like that, she was really attractive. For an older woman. Well, older than him but not…old old. If only he was sitting at her table, they could’ve talked shop and ignored all this. Jace swigged the water in front of him while everyone else applauded the cutting of the cake like it was some Olympic feat.
“Next up is the bouquet toss,” the DJ announced gleefully. He tap-tapped on his laptop keyboard, and Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” filled the air. Single women chattered excitedly as they scurried to the dance floor.
Jace scraped back his chair. “I’m gonna get some air.”
“Jason Robert,” Mom called from the next table, “you sit back down.”
Of course, Sean was still nowhere to be found. Zamira shook her head when Trick murmured something in her ear and stayed in her seat. Jace huffed out a breath and anchored himself sideways in the silk-draped folding chair. There were a lot of unmarried women out there. Gretch, taller than all the clustering women, examined her nails at the back of the group. Heidi halted beside her with a mischievous smile and a quip that made Gretch laugh.
Caitlyn made a couple of practice tosses then let the bouquet fly. It sailed over the crowd, heading straight for Gretch, who sidestepped gracefully away at the last second.
As if on instinct, Heidi lunged into the space and snatched the bouquet from a splattering death on the parquet floor. The surprised dismay on her face was priceless. Caitlyn shrugged to the crestfallen bridesmaids in the front and stepped off the stage.
“Way to go, Heidi,” Jace hollered between cupped hands, then let out his own wolf whistle. At her sideways glance, he openly snickered and clapped along with the cheers. “ATF saves the day!”
She acknowledged the applause good-naturedly and threaded her way back to her seat. Next up: the removal of the garter to striptease music, and enough erotic antics by the bride and groom that even Jace began focusing on anything but the couple. Poor Heidi. He glanced over his shoulder, where she sipped her wine as if unaware of what happened next. Her date was busy typing on his cell phone.
“Where are my bachelors?” the DJ called, and Jace rose without Mom’s prompt, inspired by Gretch’s example of pretending to play along. He wouldn’t let instinct overtake him like Heidi had.
Bracing himself to stand perfectly still, he plastered on a wide smile. The frilly blue garter whizzed center mass, passing a dozen men who all remained motionless too. Jace gritted his teeth as it dropped in altitude, arcing toward him. Not to be a poor sport, he didn’t slide away like Gretch. Let it land on the floor.
A cheer went up, and he smirked at the sucker behind him. The guy was jeering right back. Everyone was. Jace frowned and eyed his left shoulder. The damn lace was perched on his sport coat. “Oh, shit.” He snatched it off like it burned.
“What are the odds?” Trick laughed long and hard as he clapped Jace’s other shoulder. “The oldest bachelor in here.” The remark stung, but Jace caught those same three bridesmaids observing him with open disappointment, which helped ease the mortification.
“I need the lucky couple up front,” the DJ hollered, his eyes on his computer screen. Jace spun around and held out a hand as Heidi stepped toward him. Her blush made her seem ten years younger, and when she smiled up at him, there was a quiver to her lips. Suddenly this whole ridiculous situation was a vivid throwback to those geeky school dances.
“That garter belt just magically planted itself on you,” she said, eyes twinkling. “Reminded me of a heat-seeking missile.” They shared a chuckle as he led her to the silk-covered ladder back smack in the center of the dance floor. He ignored the whistles, whooping, and raunchy music as he knelt in front of her.
“Let’s get this over with,” he said kindly.
“Aw hell, the hottest guy in the room is about to feel me up in front of two hundred pairs of eyes. Take your time.” Wiggling her eyebrows, she scrunched up the hem of her dress a few inches.
His pants tightened with an instant chubby, and in his horror he fumbled with the garter, preemptively snapping it. It sailed a few feet away, and he lunged right, snatching it out of midair. More cheers and catcalls.
“No, it goes over the lady’s foot, Jace!”
“Hey, that’s not a toy.”
“They didn’t teach this in SEAL training, Quinn?”
On the plus side, the humiliation washed the blood right back out of his dick. On the minus—sweat blanketed his torso.
Heidi smiled encouragingly. “Garter virgin?”
“Slippery little thing,” he joked back. “Maybe it is magic.” At her chuckle, he wiped his damp upper lip and bent over her foot. Thank God she wasn’t wearing anything resembling a high heel. Imagine the horror of tangling up around that spike. He slid the scratchy lace around her shoe and up her shapely nyloned calf, careful to stretch the fabric wide enough to avoid accidentally caressing her.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the DJ crowed, “this is the fastest I’ve ever seen this done.”
“What’s your hurry, Jace?” a drunken voice bellowed. Fucking Uncle Pat!
“They want a show,” she said above the cheers and catcalls, those dark eyes merry with humor. “Go ahead and make a spectacle of us.”
What the hell. His humiliation couldn’t get any worse, and she was clearly along for the ride. Jace slowed down, trailing his fingers in millimeters along silky pantyhose and smooth skin. The cheers grew deafening. He inched up the athletic curve of her upper calf and leaned in, his left cheek all but in her lap. She threaded fingers through his short hair, nails gently scratching his scalp. The chubby was back and growing, but her throaty laughter urged him on. He kissed each kneecap and teased the lace higher, higher than where her hem lay mid-thigh, so his fingers disappeared up her dress. Her hands finally stayed his movements, and he sat on his haunches, bathing in her red, grinning face and returning a triumphant smile. The hooting and clapping were thunderous.
“Someone give this couple a room key!” The DJ spun the well-loved “Celebrate” song, and the noise turned to squeals of delight and scooting chairs.
Jace helped Heidi stand and navigate around the dancing bodies until they were off the floor. Then she turned and held out her hand, which he shook, even though he’d just been inches away from her crotch.
“If we happen to run into each other next week,” she said with a short laugh, “let’s not mention this. If your office is anything like D.C., the gossip will hound us past retirement.”
Her face was still flushed, almost glowing, and he couldn’t look away. Interesting. He had never been attracted to a middle-aged woman, but her uplifting energy was incredibly appealing. So was that self-confidence that took no one’s opinions into consideration. She’d been a champ up there. He gently squeezed the hand he still gripped. “I will definitely search you out. Maybe we can have lunch? Talk shop?”
“Oh, great! I’ll look forward to it.”
She walked back to her table. Her date, seeming not at all perturbed about the erotic display, smiled at her approach then gestured to a passing waiter. Who was Dave to her? There’d been no affectionate gestures in all the glances Jace had snuck their way.
Jace sat to laughter from his brothers—Sean having miraculously reappeared, of course. Mom beamed proudly from the next table. Jace pushed the slice of white cake aside and dabbed his damp forehead with the napkin tucked underneath. His gaze strayed back to Heidi, laughing with her date. Nope, they definitely didn’t act like they were involved. He’d find her in that mammoth field office first thing Monday morning and ask her out. God, when was the last time a woman had intrigued him like this?
She was an enigma—rare and exciting. A confident woman in a similarly grueling career, who could whistle like a man, shimmy with sexy abandonment in a conga line, and embrace the attention of that erotic show with self-assured poise. Monday couldn’t come fast enough.
Pulse-pounding euphoria, sheer panic and way too much caffeine… Not at all how Heidi wanted to start this well-won promotion. Despite her confident smile, her stomach knotted painfully as even more task force members streamed into the crowded FBI conference room. Curious gazes darted her way as personnel grabbed seats and greeted each other.
Heidi inhaled to steady her nerves. Heading this MOSQMO operation would be the new pinnacle of her career, and damn it, she had the experience and the drive to lead it. What rubbed her nerves raw was the additional clandestine task SAC Webb had assigned. Evidently, one of these smiling faces was a traitor. Someone in this room had leaked information to the bombing suspect, Thomas Bradley. Her secondary role was to uncover who here had betrayed their badge and this task force.
Could she lead these associates, support and encourage them, all while digging into their background? Hell yes. In fact, had it not been for her last op, this counterintelligence assignment would be a welcome challenge. But memory balloons of her prior op’s failure kept bobbing against the fragile barrier of her confidence.
To maintain her unflappable poise, she instinctively began interpreting body language—gathering data these associates had no clue they emitted. Like that CPD officer in the corner. One foot was turned toward the exit as he gazed sullenly out the window. Two nonverbal signals of wanting to escape. Why would he want to be anywhere but here?
Could be he was a loner and crowds made him uncomfortable. But then why become a cop? Could be his withdrawal was directed at her… She’d gotten that instant dismissal from male subordinates before, but she’d give him the benefit of the doubt that a simpler explanation—say, an argument with his wife this morning—had put him in this displaced mindset.
She continued her slow scan of the room. Most agents and analysts talked amongst themselves. Fourteen had settled in their seats and immediately become absorbed in their cell phones. Others glanced her way now and again. Most expressions held frank interest.
Heidi scanned past the final two empty chairs to the freckle-faced redhead—how was he not in high school?—chewing gum like it was a competitive race. His gaze flitted about, never resting on anything or anyone for long. Nervous? New? Impressionable? Clear potential, given his eagerness, but he’d need guidance and mentoring.
One of the eight women looked familiar, but Heidi couldn’t place her. She, along with five other women, sat forward, hands visible, expressions alert. Body language for open. Friendly. These were the type of associates who put in a hundred and ten percent. The other two jotted on a notepad they passed back and forth, smirking like junior high schoolers.
Heidi registered all the impressions, the foot tapping, fingers drumming, flitting eye contact, hands hovering around the neck. Interpreting nonverbal cues had been a survival reflex, rooted in her chaotic childhood. She’d honed the skill into her greatest professional asset. She got confessions. She called out liars. Her male counterparts assumed it was because she had that mysterious thing called women’s intuition. Why correct them?
“Let’s get started.” Beside her, Assistant Special Agent in Charge Felix Garcia rapped on the table. Instantly the room fell silent, postures straightened, and all eyes riveted to him. “As you all know,” he continued, “Case Agent Hennessey is on emergency paternity leave after his wife’s car accident. Happily, Julie and their new baby girl are in stable condition at Evanston Hospital. I’m pleased to introduce Mark’s replacement, Senior Special Agent Heidi Hall”—he gestured to her like she was a game show prize, and she half waved, half saluted the task force—“from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.”
An extensive list of her credentials followed—certified arson investigator, certified explosive specialist, blah, blah, blah… Heidi ignored the rising warmth in her cheeks. As hard as she’d worked achieving every one of those skills and commendations, listing them like this sounded like bragging, even if she wasn’t the one speaking.
The door behind her opened, fanning cool air along the back of her neck. All eyes swiveled to the late arrival. Most faces lit up. The teen waved in greeting. A popular member had arrived.
“—recognized as a leading authority on hate groups and has worked on more than thirty major investigations around the country,” concluded ASAC Garcia, smiling at her. “It’s great to have you on the team, Case Agent Hall. We welcome your expertise and fresh perspective.”
“Thank you, sir.”
Garcia gestured for her to take the floor. She folded her hands on the stack of case files in front of her and faced the team. The late arrival grabbed a seat next to the teen and looked at her expectantly. The steaming mug traveling toward his lips froze the precise second her heart did.
Those crystal-blue eyes, that rugged outdoorsy face… Holy hell. It was the hottie she’d enticed up her dress last Saturday. What was his name? Jace Quinn. Oh, crap! Her heart scrambled to pump blood back into her head, which effectively lit her cheeks on fire.
Of course she’d expected to run into him sometime during her assignment. Even looked forward to that coffee invitation and the mild flirtation that would follow. But to have him on her team? Be his supervisor after her two-glasses-of-wine, midlife crisis display? This was a disaster.
The teen fidgeted. Several associates frowned. Oh shit, she had the floor! “Good morning,” she managed to wheeze, sweeping her attention to the members on the other side of the room. “I’ve, um, begun reading your interview summaries and case evidence collected. I commend you all on the—uh—hard work that has gone into this investigation.”
She couldn’t seem to catch her breath. How had she not run into Jace’s employee file among the stacks she’d read late into last night? She should have finished them all instead of snatching a few hours of sleep. How many times did she have to relearn her lesson not to leave an assignment half-assed?
Enough. She was stammering and blushing and making a fool of herself. Calling on twenty-three years of mastering nightmare scenarios, Heidi drew a breath and plowed onward. “As ASAC Garcia mentioned, my expertise is hate groups, specifically the white supremacy groups that have exploded across the American landscape recently. I know together we’ll discover which group or groups are responsible for the mosque bombing.”
She couldn’t help it—she peeped in Jace’s direction again. He gazed back expressionless, but his jaw was locked tight, the slight flare to his nostrils unmistakable. Nonverbal cues for tense or upset. Or mirroring her shock. This wouldn’t do at all. It wasn’t that she didn’t trust him not to behave professionally with her… She didn’t trust herself. The pull of his sexual magnetism drew her like a love bug hitting a windshield.
No. Having him on her team was too much of a risk. As soon as this meeting was over, she’d find some menial task to keep him out of sight and way out of mind. Too bad, Jace Quinn, no hard feelings.
She wrenched her thoughts back to her presentation. “I agree with this task force that we’re looking for more than a solo perpetrator. Thomas Bradley had help, and here’s why. Your evidence suggests the truck was loaded with five thousand pounds of ammonium nitrate mixed with the common racing fuel, nitromethane, and an electronic detonating device.
“Let’s start with the ammonium nitrate. There are only two ways to gather that volume of fertilizer.” She held up an index finger. “One: buying in nationally allotted twenty-five-pound increments from a farming supply company over a slow enough duration to stay under the radar. Or two: a large amount was stolen from a manufacturing plant.” She gestured to the group. “Since your research indicates there haven’t been any reported plant thefts nationwide, it’s indicative of the first supposition—small acquisitions of fertilizer were purchased from a Walmart, then a Home Depot, etcetera.
“As you know, purchasing fertilizer requires a special license, and Bradley didn’t have one. Therefore we can presume we’re pursuing an established group with enough members to farm out all those shopping needs across many towns and multiple states. Does that make sense?”
The team nodded eagerly, many leaning forward in their chairs. Not Jace. Not the cop in the corner. Both wore hard expressions. Both had crossed their arms the second she’d begun speaking.
Heidi ignored the way Jace’s biceps popped. Brutally refused the temptation from her weaker side, a.k.a. the Flirt, to keep sneaking glances. She had no business showing him any special treatment. Someone in this room had betrayed the FBI. She hoped to hell it wasn’t Jace, but right now he was as much a suspect as everyone else in here.
“I’m confident we’re looking for something along similar lines as the Oklahoma City bombing in ninety-five,” she went on. “Why? Because the same ANFO ingredients—ammonium nitrate and fuel—used, the truck size, and the detonation being timed for when the Murrah building would be fully occupied is the same MO as Mosque Mohammed.
“It’s pretty obvious our perps studied the minutiae around Oklahoma City, and we’d benefit from a refresher analysis too. Point of fact: Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols were not the lone wolves the media made them out to be. They’d spent a great deal of time in Elohim City, Oklahoma, a town founded by the white supremacist group Aryan Republican Army.
“In the Oklahoma case, the ammonium nitrate was purchased throughout Kentucky over a several-year period. Granted, there was no national tracking like there is now, but I’m confident that to acquire just under five thousand pounds, the ARA gave them a hand.
“Given these similarities, I’d hazard a guess our bombers utilized great care planning this over a long time, rather than rushing for a specific target date. In fact, Mosque Mohammed may not have been the intended target, but rather the right place at the right time—unfortunately for the two hundred and forty-five men, women, and children who lost their lives.”
“Are you saying this wasn’t directed at Muslims?” the teen asked.
Heidi spread her hands. “My experience in studying white supremacist groups is they tend to harbor hate for anyone who isn’t a white Christian. Yes, they splinter into specific factions—the most famous anti-Black group being the KKK, the most famous anti-Semitic being the Nazis. But most groups are simply pro-white male, period. If you were born anything else, you’re not pure.
“The crusades and war crimes between Christians and Muslims have filled history books,” she went on, “but modern anti-Muslim hate groups are relatively new. One of the largest is ‘ACT for America,’ or ACT for short. Interestingly enough, founded by a woman. An example of their views is that any Muslim woman wearing a hijab must be considered an extremist. Period.”
“We looked into ACT,” the teen blurted with the eagerness of a schoolboy, which drew side-eyes from many. He hadn’t integrated well, she’d bet money on that. “No evidence pointed to them.”
“Exactly.” Heidi smiled at him. “At almost a million members, ACT is too big. Had they been responsible for that much death, you’d still be hearing their celebration. Most terrorist groups proudly take credit, for both bragging rights and recruitment purposes, but there hasn’t been a peep in four months. You have to ask yourselves why.”
A few nods. A lot of brows knotted in frustration.
“Let me familiarize you with smaller, stealthier white supremacy groups like the Race, Patriot Front, and Atomwaffen. Most of these groups are ex-military, millennials, and self-proclaimed extremists. They boast about how much more radicalized and prone to violence they are than old-school anarchists.”
Around her, the team’s solemn expressions reflected variations of determination and dismay. She spread out the top four files in her stack. “I’d like to follow up with the unit heads later today to see if we can probe a bit deeper than what you’ve uncovered. Maybe something will point to one of these groups. Shall we start with the evidence response team at ten?”
“That would be me, ma’am.” The teen raised his hand. “Special Agent Josh Peters.”
“Hi, Josh.” Seriously. That poor boy had to be carded everywhere he went. Heidi typed the appointment into her calendar app. “Witness interviews at one?”
The cop in the corner slowly raised his hand. “Me.” His breath came out like a sigh, his eyelids lowered to a squint. “Sergeant Bill Fontana, Chicago PD.”
Heidi ignored the passive-aggressive cues. She’d encountered guys like him in every step of her career. Had fought the boys’ club atmosphere and superior male attitude in every office she’d worked. The only thing they respected was straightforward competence and no hint of femininity. “Thank you, sergeant. CI leads?” Blank faces looked back. Maybe they called it something else in the FBI. “Confidential informants? Asset leads?”
Jace slowly raised his hand. The dread on his face was as palpable as when he’d knelt in front of her clutching that baby-blue garter.
“I guess that falls to me,” he said. “I assisted Case Agent Hennessey. I’m Jace Quinn.”
The anxiety clogging her throat loosened a notch. He was keeping their prior encounter secret. For now. “Yes, Jace. And that’s special agent?”
His hard mouth curled down. “No, ma’am. Special agent associate.”
Associate? What the hell was that? She glanced up, frowning between him and Josh. Jace had to have fifteen years on this kid. How was it possible he ranked lower? Jace glared at the tabletop. The tips of his ears were red. Okay. A conversation for another time. “Four o’clock?” Heidi said briskly.
“Sure.” The word came out sullen, and Jace cleared his throat roughly.
Three people were now glancing between them with knitted brows. She dared not look right to read whatever was on Garcia’s face.
“Explosives evidence?” One of those open, ambitious women raised her hand—the one who looked familiar. She had a TEDAC insignia on her navy polo. Heidi brightened as the memory fell into place. “Oh, sure. You worked with me on the McMorran investigation.” The fellow ATF agent was a brilliant specialist with the Terrorist Explosive Device Analytical Center in Huntsville, Alabama.
“Yes, ma’am. Special Agent Alma Reyes. I also provided remote backup support for your Wastewater team.”
Heidi barely held back a wince. Wastewater. Her latest professional triumph and greatest personal failure. She swallowed hard. On the one hand, Alma’s intelligence would be an asset, and as a fellow female, fellow ATF agent, she was someone to tap for deeper personal information on these team members. On the other hand, if Alma had somehow acquired inside knowledge about Evan’s death, she could easily turn into a lethal adversary. It didn’t take much to demolish a female agent’s reputation. There was only one way to find out whether Alma would end up being a friend or foe. Heidi pasted on a bright smile. “Great to have you back on my team, Alma. How about a working dinner at six?”
“Sure, that’d be great.”
Instantly three of the men around the table sat back and folded their arms, lips forming straight lines. No doubt they smelled favoritism or some kind of sisterhood-of-the-ATF-pants thing. Too bad. She didn’t play that way. She rewarded smarts, loyalty, and ingenuity. They’d learn fast enough that she didn’t tolerate entitlement or pouting.
Heidi opened the file on Thomas Bradley. Best to dive right in. “Okay, people. Have we received an autopsy on the suspect? Forensics from the scene?”
“Nothing from forensics yet, ma’am, but we expect the autopsy later this morning,” said the young, perky woman sitting beside Alma. “I’m Kelly Morgan, communications analyst, ma’am.”
“Looks like a straightforward suicide,” Bill Fontana added. The chest puffing made his CPD badge glint in the sunlight streaming in from the window. “Gun was found in his hand, no evidence of a struggle.”
He squinted again. This guy was racking up the nonverbal cues. “Nothing so far.”
“Have we found anything linking Bradley to any WS groups? Or any additional suspects?”
Expressions grew bleak. Kelly tentatively raised her hand again. “So far we haven’t, but we’re still looking into his social media presence.”
“Have you identified any similarities from other bombings with the ANFO remnants recovered from the mosque?”
“We collected fifteen pipe bombs, though,” Alma said. “We’re still analyzing them to identify a signature we can link with other crimes.”
Heidi drummed the stack of case files. Something didn’t sound right. “Question: if Bradley’s weapon of choice was pipe bombs, why did we home our investigation in on him in the first place?” That was the equivalent of using Roman candle fireworks versus an M-80.
“Rental surveillance,” the agent on the other side of Alma said, dipping his chin. “Special Agent Manny Gonzales.” He tapped his iPad a few times and continued. “Bradley rented the sixteen-foot Penske truck at the Home Depot on South Clinton last June the second. He prepaid for one day under the name of Robert Smith.”
“And it took until last week to identify him?” All activity ceased. Heidi took in the frozen expressions. She reviewed the shape of the question and her tone. It hadn’t been accusatory or critical. The collective sensitivity of this team, the sunken morale at the lack of success or slow progress, was a handicap.
Manny cleared his throat. “We identified him almost immediately, ma’am. It’s taken this long to be able to track his whereabouts. We were close several times, but he slipped through our grasp.”
Heidi nodded. It was this reoccurrence that had finally caught the attention and suspicion of SAC Webb. Someone in here kept alerting Bradley. She took another long look at the agents and analysts staring back at her. Whoever the leak was, they had great control over their limbic system. All humans learned how to control their face to lie or hide emotions early in life, so trying to interpret expressions was an exercise in futility. But the limbic system, that primitive part of the brain dealing with survival, gave off signals left and right. Fidgeting, rapid blinking, avoiding eye contact, folding arms, crossing legs… These were nervous or closed signals most people had no clue they were emitting. She finished the visual sweep of the room. Not one associate had moved.
“Well then,” she said briskly, “our task is to find out everything about Bradley’s movements and known associates. Volunteers?” Twelve hands shot up, among them Jace, Josh, Bill, and Alma. She took down every name. The leak would be in this dozen. He or she would want to drive away any investigation into Bradley’s background that could implicate him or her.
From that list, Heidi assigned five associates: one each from ATF, CPD, and FBI, and two analysts. “Until further notice, I’d like the task force heads to meet here every morning at eight for updates and brainstorming. To all of you, you’ll find I’m a hands-on, in-your-face leader. I’ll ride your ass until it’s chapped raw, but I’ll also go to my grave sticking up for you to the higher-ups. Trust your instincts. Start thinking outside the box.”
Garcia stood, stuffing his reading glasses into his breast pocket. “Allow me to speak for the team, Case Agent Hall—it’s good to have you on board.”
As he left, Heidi began shoving her case files in her briefcase. The room erupted in murmuring voices and scraping chairs. Jace was the only one who remained seated, bowed over his phone, texting or jotting notes. How remarkable that he wore the same navy polo as most of the FBI agents striding out, yet his muscular physique molded the fabric in such mouth-watering ways. Enough.
Jerking her attention to the associates filing past, Heidi noted who stopped and shook her hand, introduced themselves, and welcomed her. Josh, unsurprisingly, had a damp palm, weak grip, and ingratiating greeting. Sergeant Bill lumbered past without eye contact.
Once the room emptied of everyone except Jace, she allowed herself a long moment to absorb his stunning good looks. The broad physique, chiseled jaw, and his powerful self-assurance. Their sizzling interaction last Saturday had awoken a dark, dormant lust in her, which had smoldered long after the wedding was through. Even Dave had laughingly noticed.
But now Jace was a career-ending danger to her. He’d witnessed her other side: the single, middle-aged desperada she’d named the Flirt, who’d have gladly lost herself to an impulsive one-night stand. Being attracted to him, accepting that hypothetical casual coffee date, was no longer an option—full stop. How on earth would she grind that message into the Flirt, who was currently fantasizing outrageously creative things to do with him stretched out on this conference table?
“Thank you for pretending you didn’t know me, Jace. For introducing yourself.”
His thumbs stopped moving. He flicked a glance of such dark, sensual heat that her insides began dancing the cha-cha. Holy hell, this was not good. He was so off her team.
“You’d made it sound like you were only here in Chicago to consult,” he said mildly.
“I don’t believe I framed it that way at all.” She used her iciest none-of-your-business tone, and his seductive expression withered. She went on, “After an in-depth discussion with SAC Webb last week, I was offered this position. Will there be any issue between us?”
“No. No, ma’am.” He spread his palms in supplication. His smile was brittle. His eyes burned with the knowledge of how her thighs had trembled under his touch.
“Good. See you at four.” Heidi snatched up the briefcase. Seven whole hours to lock the Flirt back where she belonged—far away from Jace.