~ Chapter 1 ~
Allison McFadden walked slowly in the cool night air, her arms tightly wrapped around her slim body to keep the wind from whipping at her coat. The man with her saw her shiver and gently put his arm around her, sending an electric jolt of anticipation through her.
She laughed softly, slightly giddy from the dirty martinis he had bought for her all night. He’d actually taken her to Bemelmans Bar in the Carlyle Hotel; it was possibly the most romantic place she had ever been, complete with live piano music and a sophisticated, old-fashioned ambiance that had seduced her just as completely as he had.
He was witty and charming, and he was good-looking and chivalrous almost to a fault. He hadn’t even stolen a kiss yet.
Allison smiled as she remembered how he’d taken her up to the murals that lined the walls of Bemelmans and told her about them; how some writer who had lived in the hotel had painted them and they’d been part of some children’s books. She had tried to listen, but she had only been able to concentrate on his hand, resting just a little lower on her back than it had been earlier in the evening, and his lips moving next to her cheek as he spoke. She only remembered that the paintings were of animals in Central Park. There had been an elephant skating. And he had pointed out an armed rabbit stalking its fellow bunnies with an automatic weapon in one of the cartoon-like murals.
They’d both laughed at the morbid humor of it, and Allison loved the way he laughed.
Now, he was walking her home, like a true gentleman. He had asked the cab driver to stop several blocks away from her building to have the privilege of doing so. It was only their first date, and Allison couldn’t believe that she was going to do what she was planning.
“Do you… would you… I mean, would you like to come up? For coffee, or….”
He smiled, and Allison was lost in the way it made his eyes warmer. He reached up and ran his hands through her hair, watching the way the blond strands glimmered in the artificial light of the street lamps.
“Is your roommate home?” he asked her softly, his intimate voice cutting through the chilly wind and right into her.
She licked her lips and nodded. “But she won’t bother us,” she insisted quickly, her words almost breathless as she reached out and smoothed her hand over his lapel, feeling his badge under the material.
“Then lead the way,” he murmured with a smile.
It would have been the perfect time for him to kiss her, she thought, as she took his hand and led him into the building. It would have been just as ridiculously romantic as the rest of the night. But, she supposed, nothing could be perfect.
Hours later, as Allison struggled for her last breath, she couldn’t help but wonder if he’d never kissed her because it would leave his DNA behind.
The phone call could not have come at a worse time. FBI Special Agent Ty Grady was still pissed off and cursing about its unfortunate timing two days later as he sat alone in his living room.
Four weeks of undercover work—round-the-clock surveillance, phone taps, wires, bribing informants, and some high-speed tailing—all shot to shit because some rookie hotshot forgot to leave his cell phone at home. Bums begging on the street do not ring to the tune of a Mozart orchestra, and unfortunately for the team of tired undercover FBI agents tailing Antonio de la Vega, their target was aware of that particular bit of random information. He’d disappeared just as quickly as the rats on the New York sidewalks as Ty and his team had scrambled.
The operation had been blown, their target was now in some other country where they had no jurisdiction, and all their evidence would be bagged, tagged, and stuffed in a box in a basement, never to be seen again. The fact that most of what they’d done had been under Ty’s direction and slightly irregular, depending on a high-profile collar in order to keep them from getting their asses fired and thrown in jail, was not helping Ty’s mental state.
He sprawled on his sofa, still covered in sweat from his attempts to work out his frustration at the Bureau’s Baltimore gym, and stared out at the city through the large windows on either side of the television. He could see his own reflection in the black screen of the plasma TV on the opposite wall, and he looked even more exhausted than he felt. He needed a shave; most of his handsome face was covered in three days’ worth of beard, and his dark hair could probably use a trim. He was a large man, nearly three inches over six feet, and he usually carried his frame like a large cat, lithe and easy. Tonight, though, there was a slump to his broad shoulders as he sprawled. He had no intention of moving any time soon.
Not until his cell phone began to trill demandingly. With a heavy sigh, he snapped it off his waistband and flipped it open. “Grady,” he answered curtly, his West Virginia drawl still pronounced after all the years he’d spent away from home.
“Special Agent Grady, Assistant Director Burns would like to see you,” a clipped, professional voice informed him.
“When?” Ty asked flatly.
“Special Agent Grady, the Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigations Branch does not call to make appointments. He expects you in thirty minutes.”
“Thirty minutes!” Ty blurted. “Do you have any idea where I am?”
“In your dirty underwear, no doubt. Be here in thirty,” the voice answered in the same flat, businesslike tone before hanging up.
Ty closed his eyes and mentally kicked something. Thirty minutes to get into DC was going to require the flashy blue lights. Ty fucking hated the flashy blue lights.
“Great job, Special Agent Garrett. You are a credit to the Bureau,” the Division Director said as he shook the man’s hand. “A commendation will go in your file for your work, of course.”
“Thank you, sir,” FBI Special Agent Zane Garrett answered curtly as the other agents murmured quiet, slightly reluctant congratulations.
“And I get to reward you for your work well-done,” the Director continued smoothly. “You’re being promoted out of the division. I’m very sad to see you go,” he said smoothly, still pumping Zane’s hand vigorously.
Zane shook his hand somberly, his face a mask of pure professionalism that covered the brutally honest thoughts he harbored beneath it. “I’ve enjoyed working for you, sir. But you know me; always looking to be where I can do the most for the Bureau.”
“That’s a good man. Say goodbye and get yourself upstairs. Assistant Director Burns wants to see you in ten.”
Showing no hint of a smile—or the disdain for the praise over doing his boring-ass desk job—Zane turned and walked through the other agents he’d worked with in the division that pursued cybercrimes. He’d gotten along with them fairly well, considering he did his job, and sometimes theirs as well, with complete and utter focus. Zane knew many of his co-workers were just as happy to see him go as stay; his strict adherence to the rules and logical, single-minded work to achieve his goals were often tiring to those around him. He had goals, several of them, and they were all that mattered. None of them included working with this division any longer than necessary.
Looking around the open office, Zane knew with complete certainty he wouldn’t miss it. While his obsessive attention to detail had steered him perfectly while on these assignments, he knew he was worth far more to the Bureau than serving on this mind-numbing, numbers-crunching detail. Now he would get his chance to prove it.
Shaking some hands and enduring a few “so sorry to see you go” back slaps, he waved off his soon-to-be-former co-workers, told the office administrator he would be back later to clear out his desk, and walked out the door. He looked forward to seeing what the Assistant Director of the Criminal Investigative Branch had in store for him. He had worked damn hard for this promotion. It had to be good, since the man wanted to see him immediately.
Zane stopped into the bathroom to straighten his tie and check to make sure his close-cropped brown hair lay down neatly. The suit he wore was sharply tailored to his six foot five inch frame, but it didn’t hide the bulky muscles that moved under the fabric. His was not a body you’d expect to see riding a desk, a fact he was reminded of daily looking at the slightly pudgy agents who worked around him. He frowned slightly, surveying the crow’s-feet at the corners of his eyes and the ridges of his twice-broken nose. With a displeased twitch, he ran his hands over his close-shaven cheeks and dismissed his image before buttoning his suit jacket and heading upstairs.
The secretary gave Ty Grady a look over her glasses that clearly said she disapproved of the air he breathed. She lifted her chin and looked him up and down, wrinkling her nose at his appearance. “You’re early,” she announced with a touch of surprise to her voice.
Ty looked her up and down in return and cocked his head to the side. “I used the flashy blue lights,” he told her with a helicopter motion of his finger.
She sniffed as she glanced over his unshaven face, scuffed leather jacket, jeans, and dirty cowboy boots. His T-shirt seemed to be particularly appalling to her sensibilities, even though it was clean. It was black and had the words Cocke County FBI in large white print on the front. Upon closer inspection, there were smaller words between the larger ones, and when she squinted she was able to read the entire shirt: “I was probed in Cocke County by the FBI.” She made a small, insulted noise as she looked back up at him. Ty ignored her, leaving her looking slightly scandalized as he headed for the Assistant Director’s door.
“You can’t go in there yet!” she hissed as she stood from her desk and pointed at him.
He stopped at the door and turned around to look at her, blatantly putting his hand on the door handle and pushing it down with a smirk. Her mouth worked soundlessly, and she turned and scrambled for her intercom to announce him before he could get inside.
Assistant Director Richard Burns looked up at him in surprise and annoyance as Ty stepped into the office and closed the door behind him. “You wanted to see me, sir,” Ty greeted, the words perfectly professional, but the tone somehow just as insolent as it always was.
“Sit down,” the man ordered with a jab of his pen at one of the seats across from his desk. “We’re waiting for one more person.”
Ty moved to the seat and sat, his leather jacket sending up a tiny little cloud of dust as he flopped into the seat. He did a fairly good job of concealing his surprise. “Someone else?” he inquired evenly. “Am I being lynched?”
“If you keep your mouth shut for the next thirty minutes, you may not spend the night in jail. How about that?” Burns answered seriously without looking up from the papers he was signing.
Ty cleared his throat and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
Zane Garrett entered the wide outer office to see the Assistant Director’s secretary scurrying around her desk, obviously flustered. He paused, folding his hands behind his back. “Ma’am?” he asked politely when she didn’t notice his entrance.
She looked up at him in surprise. “Special Agent Garrett, thank you for being prompt,” she said, looking him up and down and nodding in approval of the tailored blue suit and silk tie. “You may go in now.”
“Thank you, ma’am,” he said evenly, proceeding to the door as she announced him through the intercom.
Burns looked up from the papers he was shuffling and gestured him in. “Come in, Special Agent Garrett. We’ve got some things to thrash out,” he said to Zane, with a narrow-eyed look at the man sitting slumped in a chair in front of the desk.
“Yes, sir,” Zane answered, moving to sit as the Director gestured. His eyes followed Burns’s gaze. Only a blink betrayed Zane’s surprise. The unkempt man sitting opposite Burns was a complete mess. Zane barely restrained the urge to sneer at him. Maybe he was an informant of some sort. He had that burnt-out, fidgety look to him.
Focusing on Burns again, Zane waited, composed and attentive, ready to start jumping through the next set of hoops.
Ty shifted in his seat, slouching further down and glancing over at the new man. God, the guy looked like he had just come off a printing press or something. “What are you doing, a how-to manual?” Ty asked the Assistant Director sarcastically. “Before and after?” he suggested wryly with a gesture at himself and then at the other man.
“Yes. You are sitting here before you get fired,” Burns answered studiously. “And he is taking your job after you leave.”
Ty pressed his lips tightly together and looked down at the shiny desktop sedately. Zane shifted his eyes between the man and Burns before narrowing them. He wondered why he had been asked to sit in on this meeting when the guy was obviously being fired. It seemed overly cruel. He clamped down hard on any further reaction and waited to see what would happen.
Ty licked his lips and looked up again to meet his superior’s eyes almost defiantly.
“Fortunately for you, Grady, you have more lives than a cat,” the man said to him with a small frown. “And you’re getting another chance to prove to us that you can do this job without blowing shit up. I won’t say one more, because God knows I’ll just keep giving you more until you get yourself killed. Meet your new partner, Special Agent Zane Z. Garrett.”
Zane couldn’t have been more appalled, and it showed clearly in his reaction. This wreck of an agent was his new partner? “Director Burns,” he started impulsively, but he caught his tongue and tightened his grip on the chair. What kind of reward was this?
“The hell he is!” Ty interrupted as he sat up straight. “I can’t do my job with a… a… poster-boy partner,” he practically stuttered angrily as he flopped his hand toward the squeaky-clean man next to him.
“And you can’t do it without a partner, either, Special Agent Grady,” Burns responded with a hard glare.
“Sir, it seems obvious,” Zane said, not bothering to keep any edge of disapproval out of his voice, “that this agent needs more than I can possibly provide to help him. Frankly, it will take a miracle to make him even remotely professional. No one will take him seriously.”
“Take me seriously?” Ty echoed in disbelief. “Christ, have those shoes ever even seen pavement? Shit,” he exclaimed in a sudden panic as he gripped the arms of his chair and leaned forward. “Are you sending me to Cyber?” he asked Burns, who was sitting behind the desk and grinning like a small child at Christmas.
“Your tone of voice implies that investigating technological crime and terrorism might be below you,” Zane said to him coldly as he leveled an even gaze on the other agent. “Perhaps you should consider requesting a transfer to professional staff. Or submitting your resignation altogether.”
“Hey, fuck you, candy ass,” Ty snarled without looking over at him.
“Quiet, both of you!” Burns barked suddenly. “Grady, you’re staying in Criminal until you get your ass killed or do something so illegal even I can’t cover for you, understand? Garrett, you’re to make certain he doesn’t do either of those things. Is that clear? And you will both like it.”
Ty’s eyes widened as he realized he was being assigned a bookkeeping babysitter, and there wasn’t a damned thing he could do about it. His stomach turned at the thought, but he supposed it was better than being fired. Or being in jail.
The thought of being attached to this troublemaking loose cannon was nearly enough to make Zane lose his composure. After all he’d done, all he’d worked for, this was all he was going to get. Despair threatened for a moment, and he had to take a deep breath to push it aside. He wanted to rail at Burns, but it wasn’t his place to object. He’d make the best of this clusterfuck, and then leave this agent behind, just as he had the Cyber Division. That or go down in spectacular flames.
“Yes, sir,” he acknowledged th