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Dana Gray Mystery 02-Girl on the Hill

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A missing legislative aid. A desperate senator. A secret that could blow the political world apart.
Dana Gray never expected to see FBI agent Jake Shepard again. Let alone be working with him on another high-profile case in her backyard. But when a missing person turns out to be her former best friend, she finds herself pulled from the safety of her research library at the Smithsonian into the dark political underbelly of D.C.
Within the sinister world of politics, Dana uncovers a secret society more dangerous than anything she’s discovered in her field of occult studies. The closer she gets to discovering the truth in her friend’s disappearance, the more danger she’s in.
Dana finds herself caught in the crosshairs when she points a finger at a powerful opponent who’s used to making his problems disappear. She’s quickly learning, in this town, money is power, and some people will pay any price to keep their secrets buried.
Will she and Shepard be able to unravel the tangled web of crimes before another person vanishes in the night?
Year:
2021
Publisher:
Liquid Mind Publishing
Language:
english
ISBN:
B098KHCXRT
File:
EPUB, 858 KB
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Dana Gray Mystery 02-Girl on the Hill

Year:
2021
Language:
english
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Dana Gray Mystery 01-Girl Left Behind

Year:
2021
Language:
english
File:
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Girl On The Hill





C.J. Cross





Liquid Mind Publishing





Copyright © 2021 by C.J. Cross.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be copied, reproduced in any format, by any means, electronic or otherwise, without prior consent from the copyright owner and publisher of this book.

Liquid Mind Publishing

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and events are the product of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously.





Contents




Prologue



Chapter 1



Chapter 2



Chapter 3



Chapter 4



Chapter 5



Chapter 6



Chapter 7



Chapter 8



Chapter 9



Chapter 10



Chapter 11



Chapter 12



Chapter 13



Chapter 14



Chapter 15



Chapter 16



Chapter 17



Chapter 18



Chapter 19



Chapter 20



Chapter 21



Chapter 22



Chapter 23



Chapter 24



Chapter 25



Chapter 26



Chapter 27



Chapter 28



Chapter 29



Chapter 30



Chapter 31



Chapter 32



Chapter 33



Chapter 34



Chapter 35



Chapter 36



Chapter 37



Chapter 38



Chapter 39



Chapter 40



Chapter 41



Chapter 42



Chapter 43



Chapter 44



Chapter 45



Chapter 46



Chapter 47



Chapter 48



Chapter 49



Chapter 50



Chapter 51



Chapter 52



Chapter 53



Chapter 54



Chapter 55



Chapter 56



Chapter 57



Chapter 58



Chapter 59



Chapter 60



Chapter 61



Chapter 62



Chapter 63



Chapter 64



Chapter 65



Chapter 66



Chapter 67



Chapter 68



Chapter 69



Chapter 70



Chapter 71



Chapter 72



Chapter 73



Chapter 74



Chapter 75



Chapter 76





Also by C.J. Cross



About the Author





Prologue





This is going to work. It has to work. I trust him. He loves me. Everything’s going to be okay.

That was easier to believe when she wasn’t alone in the dark. But she promised him she’d wait. She hadn’t expected it would take quite this long. She knew he was busy. Important men were always busy, but still, he’d always made time for her.

He made her feel special. That’s why she was here. But how long could she wait? People were goi; ng to start to miss her.

She reminded herself of the promise she’d made. She stayed put. Not that she had a choice. She didn’t want to go back to her old life. He’d promised to take her away from all of that.

The door creaked open, flooding the cramped space with light. The brightness momentarily blinded her. Holding up an arm to block the light she spoke, her voice hoarse thanks to her parched throat. “I thought you forgot about me.”

“I never forget a pretty face. Speaking of, you look just like her.”

She shivered, fear slipping beneath her skin. It wasn’t him. Did he send someone for her? “Who-who are you?”

“That’s not important.” His hand shot out grabbing a fistful of her blonde hair. He yanked her to her feet, and she screamed. It was a mistake. He wanted her to scream. With her mouth open the rag slipped in easily, gagging her until the only sounds that escaped were weak gurgles.

“Good girl,” he crooned, stroking her hair. “Play along and this will go much easier.”

He slipped something over her head, and the world went dark.





1





“Why are you staring at me like I’m one of those crusty old books you’re trying to decode?” Jake asked.

Dana tilted her head. “Because you look different.”

He couldn’t help himself. He’d missed her more than he should have and now that they were finally back together, he couldn’t seem to rein in his flirtation. “Good, different?”

“Tan, different.”

He laughed. “Well, Florida tends to do that to a person.”

“So you enjoyed Key West?”

“Everyone enjoys Key West. Palm trees, sunshine, piña coladas. It’s paradise. I’d move there in a heartbeat.”

“Why don’t you move there now?”

“‘Cause I still have work to do here. Like teaching you how to shoot. Come on, you have to hit the target at least once before we call it a day.”

Jake sent the untouched paper target back down the lane and reloaded his Sig Sauer 9mm. “Square up.”

Dana pulled her ear protection back in place and did as instructed. Her long brown hair was pulled into a ponytail. It swayed down her back as she moved into her shooting stance. Even with her safety glasses on, she still somehow managed to be the best thing Jake had laid eyes on in months.

A few weeks of vacation had turned into a few months. Key West had no shortage of gorgeous women, and Jake had enjoyed himself with a few, but none were Dr. Dana Gray.

That was the problem, and partly why Jake had extended his vacation. He’d been trying to get the sexy librarian out of his head. They weren’t partners anymore, no matter how much he might want her to be. He couldn’t blame her. Their last case had even made Jake reassess his commitment to the FBI.

Ultimately, he still felt he had unfinished business to atone for. But it was different for Dana. She wasn’t an agent. She’d only been consulting on the case, and it had almost gotten her killed. He understood why she wouldn’t be eager to go down that road again.

He told himself it was for the best. Dana was a distraction. In his line of work distractions could be deadly. Yet here he was, appreciating her ass when he was supposed to be correcting her form.

Jake had only been back in D.C. for two weeks before he caved and called Dana, using these promised shooting lessons as an excuse to see her. But then again, if her aim hadn’t been so bad, they could’ve ended their last case before things got out of hand.

Refocusing, Jake nudged Dana’s stance wider, tapping his shoe against her boots. He moved his hands to her hips and shifted her balance back into her seat. “Now bend your knees a little. That’s it.”

Feeling her warm body against his was testing his willpower, but he fought through his desire, determined not to be one more person to take advantage of Dana.

She deserved better.

Certainly better than him.

Reminding himself of that, Jake brought his hands up, correcting Dana’s grip and lowering her arms a bit more. “Okay. Now pull in a breath and squeeze the trigger on your exhale. Three round bursts in one breath, like I taught you.”

Dana gave a slight nod and Jake stepped back, giving her the lane. He watched her shoulders rise on the inhale and relax momentarily before she discharged the weapon. Three shots in succession, just like he’d instructed. And this time, she nicked the target. Dana whirled around glowing with delight. “I did it!”

Jake reflexively neutralized the gun. Pointing it down-range until the safety was on, he holstered it and grinned. “Nicely done. A few more lessons and you might be able to hit the broad side of a barn.”

She cut her eyes at him, before striking out with a playful right hook meant for his shoulder. He dodged it and pulled her into his arms instead. For a moment they were both caught by surprise. Dana glanced up at him, her brown eyes full of questions. He could feel her heart beating against his chest.

How many nights had he’d ached to have her in his arms like this? Had she thought about him, too? He had to know. His whole body was vibrating with anticipation as he gathered his nerves to just man up and ask her already.

“Jake?”

Dana’s voice brought him back to reality. “Yeah?”

“Your phone’s ringing.”

“Oh. Right.” He cleared his throat and straightened, backing away until he had enough space to think coherently. He wasn’t vibrating, his phone was. Moron. Swallowing his embarrassment he answered the call. “Agent Shepard.”

He listened intently as his new supervisor filled him in on a missing person case. “I know you’re still settling in, but we could really use your help on this one. It’s high profile, and I don’t want to see it get out of hand. We need to get ahead of the Press.”

Jake agreed. “Text me the address. I’ll head there now.”

“Report back here ASAP.”

“Roger that.”

Jake hung up and turned to Dana. She was already putting her jacket on. “Sounds like shooting lessons are over for today.”

“Yeah. Missing person case just came in.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Yeah, these are never easy.”

“I know.”

Their eyes met. Of course, she did. Dana had been through more than her fair share of heartache. “It’ll be strange not having you in the field with me. You’re good at it. Ever think about a career change?”

She shook her head. “I’m done with that, Jake.”

“You sure? We’ve proved we work well together.”

“I’m sure. I’ll stick to my area of expertise.”

Jake nodded, but he couldn’t fight his disappointment. He knew it was probably for the best that Dana wouldn’t be involved in another high stakes FBI case. He cared about her too much already. A little distance would be safer for them both. “Need a lift back to the Smithsonian?”

“No, the weather’s nice for a change. I’d rather walk.”

“All right.” They moved toward the exit together. “This case is probably going to keep me wrapped up for a while. But I’ll touch base when I resurface.”

Dana caught his hand and gave it a squeeze. “Take care of yourself.”

He grinned faintly. “Always do.”





2





“Dr. Fredrick?” Dana couldn’t hide the shock in her voice at seeing her boss in her office when she returned to the Smithsonian. The occult studies library didn’t get many visitors. “Is there something I can do for you?”

“I’m not sure there’s anything anyone can do.”

Dana shrugged off her coat and hung it on the antique Alcott in her office. She gestured for her boss to have a seat, while she took the worn leather one behind her ornate fourth century desk. “What’s this about?”

“The Kincaids.”

The name needed no further explanation. Everyone in D.C. knew the Kincaids and their wealth. Archer and Elizabeth Kincaid were the Smithsonian’s largest donors. It was no wonder Dana’s boss looked so distraught. He was probably preparing for their visit, or maybe the Kincaids wanted to host another gala at the museum. Dana knew how stressful it could be trying to impress such a prestigious family. They were intimidating, but to Dana they didn’t seem so bad. Mostly because she’d befriended their eldest daughter, Meredith, during her summer internship at the Smithsonian a few years back.

Dana briefly wondered how her old friend was. It had been ages since they’d spoken. Last she’d heard, Meredith was following in her father’s footsteps, working her way up the political ladder as a junior aid.

“Do you need help preparing something for the Kincaids?” she asked, hopeful they were planning something extravagant that Meredith would have to make time for.

“No, the opposite actually. I’m afraid I have some bad news.”

Dana frowned. “I don’t understand.”

Dr. Fredrick sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. “I don’t know how to tell you this. I know you’re close to the family, so I wanted you to hear this from me first. Their daughter’s been abducted.”

Dana’s stomach dropped. “Meredith?”

“Yes.”

“When?”

“I don’t have all the details. Just that the FBI has officially taken over the case. Are you still in touch with Agent Shepard? He might know more than I do.”

Dana nodded. “I’ll check with him.”

“Please do. And keep me informed.” Dr. Fredrick stood. “My heart just breaks for that family. Meredith was such a sweet girl.”

“Is,” Dana corrected. “Meredith is a sweet girl.” She reached across the desk and squeezed her boss’s hand. “We’ll get her back.”

Dana would make sure of it. And not just because Meredith was some rich donor’s daughter. Dana wanted to find her because they were friends. Or at least the closest she’d come to having a friend until Jake Shepard walked into her life.

With Dr. Fredrick’s footsteps fading further and further away, Dana’s mind filled with memories of her missing friend.

Meredith Kincaid had interned at the Smithsonian during one of her summer breaks from college. Dana had gladly taken the bright young girl under her wing. They were only a few years apart and had gotten along instantly. She remembered late night movies, philosophizing about politics over wine and popcorn and sneaking into the museum after hours to play tourist.

Of course, they hadn’t actually been doing anything illegal.

Dana had a key to the Smithsonian, but it made Meredith so excited to think she was getting away with something. The girl had a rebellious streak. Had she taken it too far?

Shepard’s offer itched beneath Dana’s skin. What was she waiting for? She knew there was no way she could sit this one out. Picking up her phone she dialed his number.

“Dana? Everything okay?”

“Not really.”

“What’s wrong?”

“Is your missing person Meredith Kincaid?”

“How did you know that?”

“Does your offer to help still stand?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Because I’ve changed my mind.”

“Dana. What aren’t you telling me?”

“I’ll explain when I see you.”

Dana opened the desk drawer. The temporary badge was right where she’d left it. She’d kept it as a souvenir. But apparently her work with the FBI wasn’t done yet.





3





Jake handed the sobbing woman a box of tissues. “I need you to answer the question, Mrs. Kincaid.”

Dana gave him a warning glance, then moved closer to the woman on the sofa, taking her hand. “Elizabeth, I know this isn’t easy, but we’re here to help.”

“I just can’t believe this is happening. Meredith is a good girl. She knows better than to get mixed up in anything like Agent Shepard is suggesting.”

Jake fought the urge to laugh. If he had a dollar for every time a parent thought they knew what their children were up to. He’d worked more than enough missing person cases to know nothing could be taken at face value, least of all the alibis of kids who still lived with their parents.

Granted, Meredith Kincaid wasn’t really a child. But the twenty-eight-year-old still lived at home. Not that Jake blamed her. The Kincaid Estate was hardly the average home.

The house Jake stood in was just one of the many dwellings on the massive property. He’d seen stables, a carriage house and even a private heli-pad on the manicured grounds once he’d been allowed past the manned iron gates.

It was easy to see why Meredith wasn’t eager to leave such a lavish nest.

A staff of three women whisked away discarded tissues, refilled teacups and offered Mrs. Kincaid her anxiety medication. Jake glanced around at the art-lined walls and the rich leather upholstery of the sitting room. The place smelled of old money; a mix of leather, mahogany and aloofness that just couldn’t be duplicated.

Elizabeth Kincaid, formerly Elizabeth Blair, wouldn’t know that. Her family had helped found the Nation’s Capital and carve out its political system. She’d never known anything but this level of lavishness.

Jake had done his research.

The Blair family was more than just old money. They were political royalty. Their bloodline was host to the founders of the College of William and Mary, Privy Councilmen, US Constitution signers and Supreme Court members.

The only deviation in prestigious stock came when Elizabeth married a nobody banker from New York. But it seemed she, like her forefathers, had an eye for success because Archer Kincaid quickly climbed his way up the political ladder. He was now Chairmen of the Council of Economic Advisers. That meant he was a cabinet member and the President’s chief economist.

It seemed everyone in this part of town had an office at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, which would only make this case more difficult.

The Kincaid home was on the same block as the Defense Secretary and National Security Advisor. Jake needed special top-secret clearance just to get in the front door. Clearance he wouldn’t be able to get Dana. Lucky for him, she didn’t need it.

The moment Elizabeth had seen Dana, she’d opened her arms, overcome with gratitude that her daughter’s friend was there to help. And she was helping.

Jake wasn’t good at dealing with the sickeningly affluent. Dana didn’t seem to have the same affliction, as she stroked Elizabeth’s stylish blonde bob. “I just want to know she’s okay.”

“She will be. Agent Shepard is very good at his job.”

Jake took his cue and started asking questions again. “Can you tell me what Meredith was wearing the last time you saw her?”

“This season’s white Alexander McQueen. I remember because I complimented her on it.”

“When was this?”

“Two nights ago. We had dinner at The Inn. We left around seven.”

“When did you suspect something was amiss?”

“When Senator Scott called me after she didn’t show up for work the next day,” Elizabeth snapped. “I already told the police and the other FBI agents all of this. Why are we wasting time going over it again?”

“It may seem redundant, but I assure you it’s important, ma’am. These questions might jog your memory and help you remember something new.”

Dana nodded her encouragement and the older woman conceded. “Fine. What else do you want to know?”

Jake went back to his original question. The one that made Mrs. Kincaid dissolve into tears earlier. “Is there any reason to believe that someone might want to harm your daughter?”

“No. Like I told you. Meredith is a good girl. She goes to work and comes home. That’s it.”

Yeah, as far as you know, Jake thought. “And where does she work?”

“She works for Senator Warren Scott in the Capitol Building. She’s his legislative assistant.”

Jake knew the answers to these questions already, but sometimes asking them repeatedly helped him read between the lines. He went over the details he’d scribbled in his notebook again.

Age. 28.

Height. 5’9.

Build. Athletic.

Hair. Blonde.

Eyes. Blue.

Scars. None.

Tattoos. None. That her mother knew about.

Vehicle. Silver Mercedes E-class.

Besides the age, it sounded like Elizabeth Kincaid was describing herself, right down to the matching Mercedes in the driveway.

Jake had already seen photographs of the missing girl, and the Kincaid home was full of portraits of the entire family: mother, father, Meredith and younger sister, Abigail. The resemblance of all three Kincaid women was unmistakable.

Despite his cool demeanor, Jake felt for Elizabeth. No parent deserved the stress of worrying about their child’s safety. Guilt coiled inside him, knowing he’d caused his own mother this same distress each time he’d signed on for another tour.

His Army days were behind him, but the danger wasn’t over. He was fighting a different kind of war now. This one was stateside, but he didn’t know if working for the FBI was better or worse. He just knew he had to do his part to make a difference.

It was the price he paid for being alive.

He had a lot more cases to solve before the life debt he owed was repaid. Even then he knew he’d never escape the survivor’s guilt of returning home without his teammates. But one thing Jake had learned in his recovery was mountains were summited one step at a time.

Returning his focus to the task at hand, he continued with the monotonous questioning. The fact that Meredith Kincaid was from such a high-profile family was making his job more difficult.

The Kincaids might have all the resources in the world, but loose lips weren’t one of them. And that was precisely what he needed if he was going to find their daughter.

Jake did his best to squash his rising irritation. He didn’t have patience for those who believed they deserved special treatment because of their bank balance. Death didn’t discriminate. And right now, the clock on Meredith’s safe return was ticking.

Someone needed to start talking.





4





“Have you called her phone?” Jake asked.

Elizabeth erupted. “Of course I’ve called her phone!” She glared at Dana. “Is this really the best the FBI has to offer?”

Deflecting, Dana changed the subject. “What about her computer? Do you have access to her social media accounts for any clues to her last whereabouts?”

“Meredith’s not very active on social media. It’s not in our family’s best interest. Anyway, her laptop’s not here. Even if it was, I don’t know her password.”

“What about Abby? Would she know?”

Elizabeth frowned. “I don’t want Abigail involved in this. She’s just a child.”

Jake looked up from his notes. “Says here she’s twenty-two. That’s hardly a child.”

Dana spoke before Elizabeth’s seething glare could set Jake on fire. “I just remember how close Mere and Abby are, that’s all.”

Elizabeth’s bottom lip began to tremble. “They are close. If something’s happened to Meredith,” she paused to sniffle, “it will kill Abigail.”

Just then, Abby burst into the room, streaking toward them like a blonde comet. “Mom! Mom! Is it true? Is Mere missing?”

She stopped in her tracks when she saw Dana sitting on the couch next to her mother. Abby surveyed Jake. Dana could only imagine how much scarier their presence was making this. But Jake was right. Abby wasn’t a child anymore.

Gone was the little girl Dana remembered. Abigail Kincaid was a young woman now. Almost the spitting image of her older sister Meredith.

The Georgetown T-shirt Abby wore tugged at Dana’s heartstrings. Meredith had worn one just like it the summer she’d interned at the Smithsonian.

Dana had always appreciated that Meredith never flaunted her family’s wealth. She briefly wondered if Meredith was still that same girl. Hearing about her expensive suit and luxury car made her think not.

Another concern spiked through her mind. How much help would she actually be if Meredith wasn’t the same girl she used to know?

“Will someone please tell me what’s going on?” Abby demanded.

“You’re Abigail Kincaid?” Jake asked.

“Yes. Where’s my sister?”

Before Jake could respond Elizabeth was on her feet rushing to her youngest daughter. “Darling, you should be at school. You have exams this week.”

“Like I can concentrate on exams with Mere’s face plastered all over the news.”

Jake pulled his phone from his pocket and shook his head, his shoulders tight with frustration. Dana stood and walked over to him, shocked by the headlines scrolling across his phone. Kincaid Kidnapping – Political Princess Imprisoned.

“Everyone’s saying Mere’s been abducted.” Abby’s blue eyes filled with tears. “Is it true?”

Jake spoke up. “I’m Agent Shepard. I’ve been assigned to your sister’s case. She’s officially a missing person. Anything you can tell us about the last time you spoke to her would be helpful.”

“I spoke to her on Wednesday night.” Abby sat down and so did Jake.

Dana took her spot on the upholstered sofa again, but Elizabeth went to stand behind the wing-backed leather chair her daughter occupied.

“Are you certain it was Wednesday?” Jake asked.

Abby nodded. “We talk every Wednesday.”

Dana’s heart squeezed. That used to be their thing. “Mere still does Wednesday Wine-a-thons?”

“We never miss them.” Abby glanced up at her mother. “Since I turned twenty-one, I mean.”

“Darling, your drinking habits are the least of my worries right now.”

Dana couldn’t help the wave of nostalgia that washed over her as she thought about the many Wednesdays she and Meredith had spent drinking wine and talking about boys. Meredith did most of the talking, since Dana and relationships didn’t really mix, but she loved listening to her friend’s exploits.

Thanks to the notoriety surrounding her parents’ death, Dana hadn’t made many friends in school and she didn’t have time for them in college. Working in the dungeon of the Smithsonian hadn’t helped her connect with her colleagues either, but then Meredith had come into her life. She became the little sister Dana had never known she wanted.

Jake’s voice broke through Dana’s memories. “Do you remember what time?”

“We chatted until around midnight.” Abby pulled her phone from the thigh pocket of her black yoga pants. “The last timestamp was 12:03 AM.” Abby held up the phone. “Does that help?”

“Yes. May I?” Abby handed her phone over, and Dana watched Jake scroll through the chain of messages. “Do you mind if I keep this?”

Abby’s eyes bulged. “My phone?”

“Abigail!”

Abby’s shoulders slumped at her mother’s harsh tone. “As long as I get it back.”

“You will.” Jake slipped it into his jacket pocket, then handed Abby his notebook. “Can you write down the password for me?”

She did as she was asked and handed the notebook back.

“Thanks. I’ll have my analysts scrape this and get it back to you as soon as possible. Your text messages with your sister will be a big help. Without her laptop or social media, we don’t have a lot to go on.”

Abby perked up. “Would access to her social profiles help?”

Jake snapped his notebook shut. “I thought Meredith didn’t have social media?”

“She doesn’t,” Elizabeth insisted.

“Mom, she does. She just doesn’t want you to know about it.”

“Can you get us access, Abby?” Dana asked.

“Yes.”

Jake stood up. “Lead the way.”





5





Dana sat on the edge of Abby’s bed. Jake stood next to the desk, his phone to his ear. He nodded to Abby. She began typing the password to a Facebook account for Charli Maine.

“You’re sure this is your sister’s account?” her mother asked.

“Yes, Mom.”

“But why would she use that name?”

Abby shrugged. “Besides to keep it secret from you, I don’t know. Mere said it was some inside joke from work or something.”

Dana fought her urge to chew her nails as the screen loaded. Readjusting her glasses, she watched the profile load. There she was; Meredith, in vivid color, her bright smile lighting up the screen.

“Are you getting this?” Jake asked into the phone.

He was speaking to a software analyst at FBI headquarters. They would be worming their way into Meredith’s private life now. It’s not that Dana was against it—if Meredith was in danger, she’d do whatever it took to find her friend—but this was precisely why Dana didn’t have social media.

She didn’t like the idea of people being able to browse through her personal life like it was a tabloid magazine. The media was already having a field day with Meredith’s disappearance. Dana could only imagine what they’d do with access to the photos Abby was scrolling through.

Meredith in a skimpy bikini on a yacht.

Meredith laughing with men over martinis.

Meredith looking cozy with the Senator.

Dana knew exactly how the public would perceive these photos. They wouldn’t see a happy, vibrant young woman, with career aspirations. They’d see a D.C. debutant turned party girl, wasting her potential by sleeping her way to the top.

It’d been so long since Dana had an actual conversation with Meredith, she didn’t know which version was closer to the truth, but she knew it wouldn’t matter. Once the public judged her, there would be no changing their minds.

Photo after photo of Meredith and Senator Warren Scott filled the screen. It shouldn’t be strange considering he was her boss. But their closeness seemed too close; bordering on inappropriate.

Jake came to the same conclusion. “Was Meredith involved with the Senator?”

Elizabeth snapped. “What an absurd question! Of course not. They worked together.”

“Ma’am, I’m not judging anyone here, but if they were more than co-workers, that would make the Senator a person of interest.”

Elizabeth harrumphed. “My daughter is Senator Scott’s legislative assistant. Nothing more.”

Dana’s attention moved to Abby. The girl was still sitting at her desk watching whomever was on the other end of Jake’s phone take over her laptop. The screen moved on its own, scrolling through photos of Meredith’s life like a ghostly slideshow.

Abby watched, chewing her lip and cracking her knuckles.

She knew something.

Dana cleared her throat and stood from her perch on the plush white comforter. “I need some water. Abby, do you mind showing me to the kitchen while Agent Shepard has a conversation with your mother?”

Abby rose, wordlessly following Dana out of the bedroom. In the hall, she turned right taking the lead as she led Dana through a maze of creaking floorboards until they reached the first floor of the historic home.

Once in the kitchen, Dana placed her hands on the white granite countertops, letting the coolness of the stone seep into her bones. She craved the numbing effect it had on her, wishing it would carry all the way to her heart.

She had a sinking feeling Abby was keeping dangerous secrets. Dana needed to find a way to get her to spill them. Befriending people didn’t come naturally to her, but for Meredith, she’d try. “Mere moved out of the main house, right?”

Abby handed Dana a bottle of sparkling water. “She moved out to the carriage house after college.”

“When was the last time you were out there with her?”

Abby shrugged. “I’m not home much. I have an apartment on campus.”

“You’re at Georgetown?”

“Yeah.”

“Just like Mere.”

Abby nodded.

“You said you and Mere still talk every Wednesday?”

“Yep.”

“She and I used to do that, too.” Dana’s lips curved at the fond memories. “It started the summer she worked at the Smithsonian. We would go to my place and drink wine and eat popcorn and talk about guys. Well, Mere did most of the talking. I didn’t really have a lot of guys to dish about.”

Abby smiled. “That’s Mere. You can always count on her for the boy drama.”

“I guess some things don’t change.”

Abby sipped nervously from her own bottle of sparkling water.

“You don’t think some of her guy trouble turned into actual trouble, do you?”

Abby’s big blue eyes met Dana’s. Confliction flashed across them like lightning bolts.

“Abby, if you know something, you need to tell me. Mere’s life might be in danger.”

“No. He wouldn’t hurt her.”

“Who?”

“I’m not supposed to say.”

“She’s my friend, Abby. I want to help her just like you do. I promise I’ll keep what I can confidential.”

“What about that FBI guy? Are you going to tell him?”

“Not if I don’t have to.”

Abby bit her lip, weighing her options. Coming to a hasty decision, she grabbed Dana’s hand. “Come on. There’s something you need to see.”





6





Afternoon sunlight filtered through the antique Georgian windows in Meredith’s bedroom. It warmed the pale linen chaise Dana perched on as she waited for Abby to stop stalling. She knew the girl was reluctant to say too much because of her family’s notoriety. She was smart enough to know whatever she was about to share about Meredith and the Senator could have catastrophic implications in the powerful political world they were involved in, but Dana was growing impatient. Abby needed to understand the reality of the situation.

The FBI didn’t get called in to investigate idle threats. If they thought Meredith’s missing person case was important, then Dana had every reason to believe her friend was in trouble.

“Abby, you said you brought me out here to show me something.”

“I know. It’s just, Mere will kill me.”

Not if she’s already dead. Dana shook the morbid thought away. “She’ll understand you’re concerned for her safety.”

“I still don’t think he’d do anything to hurt her.”

“Who?”

“The Senator.”

“What makes you think she’s with Senator Scott?”

Abby shrugged. “He’s all she talks about.”

“Well, they work together.”

“It’s more than that.” Abby stood up and crossed the room to a mirrored dresser. Pulling open the top drawer, she reached in and fiddled around with the lining. Dana stood up and craned her neck, catching a glimpse of silk and lace as Abby pushed the velvet lining back in place. She held a slim white envelope to her chest. “These photos can’t get out. Mere will kill me.”

Dana held out her hand. “We have to find her first.”

Abby conceded, handing the envelope over before sinking dramatically onto Meredith’s bed.

Dana opened the envelope and slipped the photos out onto her lap, briefly wondering if she should be wearing gloves as she examined them. Unlike Jake, she didn’t make a habit of carrying latex gloves with her everywhere she went.

The FBI had already been here and thoroughly examined the home, but based on where these photos were hidden, this was new evidence. If the FBI had seen them, Senator Scott would be in custody right now.

While sleeping with your legislative assistant wasn’t a crime, it was certainly suspicious. In Dana’s experience, there was only one reason to keep a relationship secret during an investigation of this magnitude, and it didn’t bode well for Meredith.

Innocent people didn’t hide innocent relationships.

Innocent people didn’t belong to secret societies either.

Ignoring the explicit nudity in the photos, Dana zeroed in on the Senator’s hands. She hated the way he was gripping Meredith’s neck. But even more frightening, was the ancient symbol adorning the gold ring he wore.

A chill rippled through Dana at the implications of what Meredith might have stumbled upon. If the ring was what Dana thought it was, she might be more suited to this missing person case than she first thought. And Senator Warren Scott might not be who he seemed.

She slipped the photos back into the envelope. “I have to show these to Agent Shepard.”

“No! You promised!”

“The only thing I promised, was to help find your sister. And that’s what I intend to do. You shouldn’t have helped her keep this secret. She could be in a lot of trouble.”

“No, you don’t understand. They weren’t just sleeping together. They’re in love. She told me he was going to propose.”

Dana whirled around. “And you don’t see how that’s dangerous? What if he changed his mind and Mere was threatening to go public with these?” She waved the envelope.

Abby’s eyes welled with tears. “She wouldn’t do that.”

“How do you know?”

“Because, the way she talked about him … she sounded so … infatuated.”

Dana could only imagine. Powerful men loved captivating naïve women. And if Senator Scott was who she thought he was, they had a bigger problem on their hands than a political scandal.





7





“This will kill your father,” Elizabeth sobbed.

Speaking of … Jake spoke up. “Where is Mr. Kincaid?”

Elizabeth erupted. “Archer has nothing to do with this!”

“I didn’t say he did.” Jake was losing patience with the woman’s sensitivity. Ever since Dana returned to the main house with the photos, ranting about conspiracy, Mrs. Kincaid had been stonewalling him. “I still need to know his whereabouts.”

“You’ll have to ask his secretary.”

“I will.”

Jake had hoped with her daughter in a potential life or death situation, Elizabeth Kincaid would’ve been more cooperative. He’d also hoped that Mr. Kincaid would’ve made himself available. However, Jake knew better than to say that out loud.

He was pretty sure if his toe moved one more inch over the imaginary line the high-strung woman had drawn, she would have him riding a desk for the foreseeable future. It didn’t help that Dana was filling her head with cloak and dagger nonsense pertaining to some symbol she’d identified on the Senator’s ring.

Juggling emotional women was not his forte and right now, he had three on his hands. But he couldn’t afford to screw this up. It was his first case after coming back from leave.

Jake didn’t need any more friction with his new boss. He already worried he hadn’t made a great first impression since he’d extended his mental health leave while in the Keys. He’d been told to take as much time as he needed, but that was before Assistant Director, Victor Holt, took over. He wasn’t known for leniency.

Jake rubbed his brow. Everything about this case was making him second guess his decision to come back to the FBI.

Despite hating these high-profile cases, he found this one intriguing. It potentially gave him the opportunity to stick it to two things he despised. Corrupt politicians and violence against women. Plus Dana was involved.

Selfishly he wanted more time with her. And knowing how important finding Meredith was to Dana, made it even more important that he succeed.

He’d thought his days of playing hero were over, but the damn woman just brought it out in him. Not that Dana would ever be okay with being rescued. She was more than capable of saving herself, but that didn’t stop him from wanting to be the guy she leaned on from time to time. Sucker.

Jake took the photos Dana found in Meredith’s room back from Elizabeth. Mrs. Kincaid claimed she didn’t know anything about them. If she did, she wasn’t going to admit it. There was too much at stake for her precious reputation. Jake figured that out right off the bat, but he still had a job to do.

“You’re not taking those photos out of this house!” Elizabeth yelled, trying to snatch them back.

“They’re part of the investigation now, ma’am.”

“You don’t understand. If the media gets a hold of them, we’re ruined.”

“Do you want us to find Meredith, or not?” Dana snapped. “She could be out there in the hands of a very dangerous man right now, and these photos are the only leverage we have to get her back. That should be your only concern!”

Her outburst stunned Jake, and apparently Mrs. Kincaid because for the first time all day the woman didn’t have a comment. Personally, he was pleased Dana told her off. He’d been wanting to do the same thing from almost the moment he arrived. Unfortunately, he had to adhere to the unbiased professionalism of the FBI. Dana didn’t have the same requirements. But, since she was here under his invitation, her mouthing off to a victim’s family would be his responsibility.

“Dana.” Jake stepped forward, putting a hand on her shoulder hoping to calm her. She shrugged it off. “Take a breath,” he ordered.

“No! Not until I know if Meredith still has that same privilege! We need to stop wasting time and go after Senator Scott. He’s involved in this somehow. The photos prove it.”

He moved closer. “This isn’t the time or place to make speculations.”

“It’s not a speculation. If you knew what that ring represented, you’d understand.”

Jake grabbed Dana’s arm, not letting go when she tried to shake him off. “We have what we need for now,” he said, addressing the Kincaid women. “If either of you think of anything else pertinent to the case, please give me a call.” His gaze landed on Elizabeth. “I’d like to speak to Mr. Kincaid. Please let me know when he gets back into town. I’ll be in touch.”

Then he headed for the door, hauling Dana along with him.





“Let go of me!” Dana yelled as Jake shoved her toward his SUV.

“Not until you calm down.”

“I’d be a lot calmer if you’d stop manhandling me.”

“Get in the car, Dana.”

“I have my own car.”

“Yeah, well it’s staying here.”

“Um, no it’s not.”

“Yes. It is.”

She dug her heels in. “I think you're mistaking me for someone who has to follow your orders.”

Jake squeezed her arm, pulling her close enough to kiss. But that was the last thing on his mind at the moment. “The only one making a mistake here is you.”

Dana sucked in a breath, but before she could bite his head off again, he cut her off. “If you care at all about finding your friend, you’ll stop making a scene, get in my car and talk to me rationally about your theory, because that’s what it is right now. A theory. And you can’t arrest US Senators on a theory.”

“I know that.”

“Good. Then get in the car and help me find some proof that he’s involved. Because if he is, it’ll be my pleasure to help you nail the bastard.”

Finally, he’d said something right, because Dana conceded. She stopped fighting and got into his SUV. Relief swept through Jake as he jogged around to the driver’s side. It calmed him to have Dana where he could watch her. He didn’t trust her not to go after the Senator on her own, which was why he hadn’t wanted to let her get into her own car.

He’d learned previously just how much trouble her stubborn streak could cause when she was left to her own devices. Jake wasn’t taking that risk again. Especially not when politics of this level were involved. Being a Fed only went so far. If Dana pissed off the wrong people, he wouldn’t be able to protect her.

He knew how that felt and wasn’t anxious to revisit it.

Pulling out of the drive, he turned onto a street lined with scarlet oaks and cherry trees. Jake accelerated, hoping some distance between Dana and the Kincaids would help. At the very least, driving gave the illusion they were doing something. He understood Dana’s frustration. Sometimes investigating these types of cases was a whole lot of hurry up and wait.

Still, outbursts weren’t really Dana’s thing. He glanced at her while navigating traffic. “Wanna tell me what that was about?”

“Excuse me?”

“Your outburst back there with Elizabeth Kincaid.”

“Her daughter is missing. Do I really need an explanation?”

“I think it’s more than that.”

“Of course it’s more than that. I told you, we’re friends. At least, we used to be.”

She said that last part so quietly Jake wasn’t sure he was meant to hear it. But he did. Following his gut, he made a left on Maryland Avenue and changed direction.

“Where are we going?”

“To get something to eat.”

“I’m not hungry.”

“Fine, I don’t have much food at my place anyway.”

Dana’s dark eyebrows shot up. “Are you serious? My friend is missing, and you feel like taking me back to your place?”

The back of Jake’s neck prickled with heat. “That’s not what I had in mind.” Though now he couldn’t deny he was thinking about it. As appealing as the thought was, he was currently more interested in getting into her mind than her pants. How was that for irony?

Dana crossed her arms. “What did you have in mind?”

“Getting to the bottom of what’s eating you.”

“I told you. Meredith is my friend.”

From the way Dana had been staring at the photos, he had a feeling it was more than that. He knew that look—guilt, riddled with regret. He’d seen it in his own reflection enough times to recognize it and knew how destructive it was.

Jake wasn’t one to talk when it came to facing demons, but if Dana didn’t face hers, she’d be useless to Meredith. If he was going to get her to open up, he was going to have to be the one to do it first. And that would require a stiff drink and privacy, hence the U-turn toward his place.

He wished he’d reached out to Dana when he was in the Keys. Maybe if he’d gotten her to join him, she would be in a better headspace. But he’d needed the escape to get his own head right after being blindsided and backstabbed by his old boss. He’d also needed time away from Dana.

Jake spent half his time in the Keys trying to convince himself that they were better off apart. But it seemed fate had other ideas. Now that they’d been thrown back together there wasn’t much he could do but lock away his desires and help Dana get her head on straight so they could solve this case before she self-destructed.

“We’re still going to my place.”

“Why?”

“Because digging up dirt on a US Senator isn’t something we can do just anywhere.”

In D.C., everyone knew everyone. They couldn’t exactly discuss things like dirty politicians over a meal in public. Besides, Jake was still confident a stiff drink would help calm Dana’s nerves, if not get to the root of her incessant nail biting.

“I really don’t think it’s necessary. We could go to my office.”

Jake shook his head. “I have a secure network. And more importantly, whiskey.”





8





Dark, stiff, sterile. It was exactly what Dana expected an FBI agent’s home to look like. Or maybe it was just what she’d expected Jake Shepard’s home to look like.

It’s not that she thought he lacked character, but his home certainly did.

Just like Jake, it gave nothing away on the surface.

It probably looked the same as it did the day he moved in. Actually, she couldn’t tell the difference. For all she knew, he might’ve just moved in.

The walls were bare, painted stark white, no artwork, no personal photos, no hint of who he was beyond face value. The only thing someone might learn from visiting his home was his taste for whiskey.

The vast collection of whiskey was hard to miss considering the wet bar was his first stop. Jake pulled two rocks glasses off the spotless glass shelves above the liquor and placed them on the black granite countertop before selecting a bottle. He poured the deep amber liquid with a heavy hand before recorking the bottle.

Jake handed her a glass and carried his own over to the kitchen island. He set it down and shrugged out of his suit jacket, draping it over the back of the black leather and steel barstool. She watched him loosen his dark tie and undo the top button of his crisp white shirt before she turned away.

Though his home wasn’t very revealing, there was something intimate about being there. He’d made it perfectly clear why he’d invited her. There was no place for her lust. Taking a sip of the whiskey, she let the alcohol burn away her embarrassing reaction.

“Make yourself comfortable,” Jake said. “I need to grab my laptop.”

Dana nodded and moved from the kitchen to the living room. It only took a few steps thanks to the apartment’s open floorplan. She took a seat on the black leather sofa facing the floor-to-ceiling windows. The view was the most spectacular thing about the place.

Jake probably paid a pretty penny for his eagle eye view of the National Mall, but in Dana’s opinion it was worth it. She watched the busy city below. She bet it looked gorgeous at night. An image of her spending the evening here with Jake blazed through her mind, heating her to her very core.

She took another large gulp of whiskey trying to drive away the tempting idea.

What the hell was wrong with her? She could admit she’d missed Jake while he was gone, but was it more than that? Being in his apartment was reminding her just how much she liked having him in her life.

Dana took another sip of whiskey. She was starting to enjoy the warm feel of it.

Without Jake in the room, she let her gaze roam the rest of the apartment. She took in the tidy living space with the keen eyes of a researcher, picking out things she found interesting.

No television. Maybe he had one in the bedroom.

No plants or pets. He probably wasn’t home enough to care for living things.

No trace of his time in the military. That was unexpected. She’d seen a photo of his team in his office at the J. Edgar Hoover Building once, but other than that, it seemed like a subject he preferred not to revisit.

She knew it haunted him and with good reason. The small bit he’d shared with her about the friend he’d lost on his last tour had stuck with her.

Her attention snagged on the glass bookcase in the corner. It was the only item in the apartment that made the place look lived in. There was a collection of Time magazines, a mantle clock made of dark wood and brass, and a folded American flag in a glass case. It rested on the highest tier of the shelving, representing its importance.

The flag was folded neatly into a triangle, the way often done after a soldier’s funeral.

Dana wondered if it belonged to Ramirez, the friend Jake had told her about, or perhaps it belonged to one of the other soldiers whose dog tags he wore around his neck.

Her mind flashed back to their time in Las Vegas. Jake, bare chested and scarred. Three dog tags dangling around his broad neck.

Jake walked back into the room, pulling Dana from her memories.

She watched him cautiously, wishing she could ask him about the flag. But she knew it was none of her business. Even if they had the kind of relationship where personal questions weren’t off limits, she wasn’t in the right frame of mind to bring it up.

From its prominent display, it was obviously very important to him. Probably a friend or family member’s, and that wasn’t a subject she was well versed in.

She was lacking in the friends and family department. Reality came crashing down on Dana. She took another sip of her whiskey, relishing the burn.

If she’d been a better friend to Meredith maybe this wouldn’t have happened. Having a secret affair with a senator who also happened to be her boss? That didn’t sound like the Meredith she remembered. But that was the problem. Dana had been so absorbed in researching her parents’ mysterious deaths that she was too busy to check in on her friend.

Dana lost her parents through no fault of her own, but she couldn’t say the same things about her friends. Or more accurately, friend.

Meredith was it.

Dana was close to her intern, Claire, and sometimes Jake, but both relationships were professional. Could she even count them as friends?

Friends aren’t usually people you consider sleeping with, her subconscious chided.

Dana drained the rest of her whiskey.

“Whoa, slow down there, killer. That’s the good stuff. You’re supposed to enjoy it.”

“Who says I’m not enjoying it?”

Jake shook his head, a good-humored grin on his face as he joined her on the couch. He placed the laptop on the glass coffee table and opened it, logging on to his secure network with his FBI credentials. She watched him type Senator Warren Scott into the search bar.

“So you believe me?”

Jake’s blue eyes sparkled. “I never said I didn’t.”

“It didn’t seem that way at the Kincaids.”

He turned to face her. “Because you were ranting about going after him, guns blazing. I’m trying to find a way to trap him without losing my job.”

Relief swept through Dana. She didn’t know if it was because Jake hadn’t completely dismissed her or maybe the whiskey was taking effect, but emotion tightened her throat. It felt good to have him in her corner again.

She was stupid for driving him away after everything he’d done to help her find the truth about her parents’ murders. He’d helped her through her recovery and even gotten her a copy of their case file. Not to mention, he’d probably saved her life.

Her eyes misted. Shit.

Maybe she wasn’t as past it as she thought. She should’ve gone to more therapy sessions, but she’d felt foolish and quit after the first one. Opening up about her feelings wasn’t something she was fond of. But if she didn’t find a way to, she knew they’d eventually swallow her whole. Especially if she didn’t find Meredith and get a chance to make up for being such an absent friend.





9





Jake grunted his approval to his IT team on the other end of the call. He could feel Dana staring at him, her anxiety almost palpable. By the time he’d hung up, she’d inched so close that her thigh was pressed against his, vibrating with worry.

The friction of her warmth rubbing against him while her knee bounced like a jackhammer was so distracting, he’d had to ask the senior analyst to repeat himself twice. Jake told himself the double confirmations just made him appear diligent, but he didn’t like the lack of control he had over his body when Dana was around.

Putting the phone down, he reached for his glass. It was empty. Considering he was working, he didn’t need more, but it was a good excuse to get up and put some distance between them.

Dana had other ideas.

She followed him to the wet bar badgering him with questions. “So? What’d they say?”

“They’re still going through the Facebook account Abby shared with us, but so far, nothing.”

“Nothing? What do you mean, nothing?”

“Meredith has thousands of contacts under her alias. And each of those contacts has thousands of contacts, and so on. My team is combing through every one of them, looking for patterns, specific phrases, anything suspicious, but it takes time. Especially when every single person on social media overestimates their self-importance by oversharing selfies and pictures of every meal they’ve ever eaten.”

“So, we’re back to square one?”

“Not exactly. Because Meredith went through the trouble of creating an alias, she might be hiding something. We just need more time to figure it out.”

“We don’t have more time. Meredith is in danger. We need to go after Senator Scott before he can cover his tracks.”

†?We’ve been over this. We can’t go after him without a smoking gun. We can’t even let him know we’re sniffing around. I’ve dealt with politicians before. In a case like this, we need their cooperation and that means they can’t be afraid we’re going to point fingers without concrete proof.”

“You want proof?” Dana marched over to the coffee table. “Here’s your proof!”

She rushed back over, waving the photo of Senator Scott and Meredith in the midst of some very kinky sex. Meredith was wearing a blindfold. Her wrists bound behind her back by the same dark satin material. Jake had to admit, it was off-putting seeing a beautiful, young woman straddling a fat old man, but it wasn’t exactly unusual in the political world.

Sex was traded for power almost exclusively behind closed doors on Capitol Hill. As long as it was consensual, it was none of Jake’s business. Still, knowing Dana’s connection to the victim, he tried to be sensitive. “Look, I know she’s your friend and this kind of thing might seem disturbing, but—”

“I’m not talking about the sex,” Dana interrupted. “The ring is what’s disturbing. This is your smoking gun,” she said, pointing to it. “It’s all the proof you need that Senator Scott is behind Mere’s disappearance. He belongs to the Bonesmen.”

Not this again. Jake turned his back on Dana, pouring another two fingers of whiskey. “We tried looking up the symbol on the ring. We didn’t find anything. It’s a dead end.”

More like dead wrong. He’d actually heard more convincing arguments from the rantings of the homeless guy living in the cardboard UFO on 14th and P. But Jake wasn’t going to risk starting World War III by telling Dana her life’s research sounded more like a bad conspiracy documentary.

Since she’d been right the last time they’d worked together, Jake had humored her, searching the fabled secret society Dana was trying to pin everything on. But nothing came up. He was ready to drop it. Dana wasn’t.

She wanted him to ask the analysts to add it to their search query. There was no way he was doing that. He wasn’t looking to deep six his career.

Busting his former boss for satanic worship was bad enough. If he landed back-to-back cases tied up in occult rituals, he’d end up with a label that would get him laughed out of every department in the Bureau.

“Jake, please. We didn’t find anything because we’re not looking in the right place. We need to go to the Smithsonian. I can prove it.” Her hand wrapped around his bicep, desperate and clawing. “The Priory of Bones is real.”

Jake tensed. Her touch nearly snapped his resolve. He hated the Jekyll and Hyde reaction she evoked. Having her this close was driving him crazy. So was her refusal to let this go.

She was like a damn dog with a bone about her occult beliefs. Not that he could blame her. Strange deaths seemed to follow her.

He’d only had a few months to wrap his head around the sinister outcome of their last case, but Dana had been dealing with the fallout ever since her parents had been murdered by the same organization. Twenty years of trying to unravel something like that had to take its toll.

He felt for her, he really did. But not enough to throw his career away on her hunch.

“Jake …” she whispered his name, her impossibly dark lashes blinking up at him. “Please, I know I’m right. I just need your help to prove it.”

This was why he didn’t bring women to his home. Especially not women he’d been fantasizing about bedding. Getting involved with Dana Gray was a bad idea for so many reasons, but right now, staring into her pleading brown eyes, he couldn’t think of any.

Thankfully, his training kicked in when he needed it most. Jake was always a soldier first. His mission: find Meredith Kincaid. His twisted feelings for Dana would have to wait.

It was time for her to face the facts. If they were going to have a chance at rescuing Meredith, Jake was going to take point on this investigation. That meant doing things his way.

“Dana, we don’t have time for a field trip into your underground world of conspiracy and legends right now. This is a missing person investigation. I have protocol to follow and not a lot of time.”

“Then stop wasting it.”

“I’m not. We’ve been looking into Senator Scott all day. The man is squeaky clean. I can’t arrest him for liking kinky sex with co-workers. Or for being an alleged Bonesmen.”

“It’s not alleged. He went to Yale. All we have to do is find his name on the Skull and Bones registry to prove he was in the Order.”

“Also not a crime.”

“The Priory of Bones is different than Skull and Bones. They’re the real deal. And one of the most powerful and violent fraternal orders in the world. Did you know, they’re credited with starting human trafficking? They’re rumored to have a network so infiltrating and far reaching, nothing is off limits.”

“Do you hear yourself? I can’t arrest someone based on a rumor.”

Ignoring him, she continued. “What about talking to Scott in public? His agenda shows him at the IWP Gala tomorrow. We could go and question him and see—”

“We’re not crashing a black tie event at the National Gallery.”

“We have to!” Dana slammed her empty rocks glass down on his granite countertop to punctuate her frustration.

The sound surprised her. Shock turned her rosy cheeks paper white. That’s when he saw it. The crimson spiderweb spreading across the palm of her left hand.

She let go of the glass and it splintered to pieces.

Shit! He knew how queasy she got around blood. As her eyes widened with horror, he was reminded of their first crime scene.

Jake moved fast. He caught Dana around the waist before her knees gave out, easing her onto the cool concrete floor. “Breathe,” he commanded, pushing her head between her knees.

He knelt next to her, one hand propping her up while the other fumbled under the kitchen sink for the first aid kit he kept stashed there. He found it, making short work of locating the gauze. A cold sweat broke out across his brow as he took Dana’s blood-soaked hand in his. A flashback ripped through him—Ramirez’s hand in his, blood coating them both like rain.

Pull it together, Jake.

Dana was not Ramirez. Her injury was a papercut compared to the IED that had torn his best friend apart. She was going to be fine.

Jake took his own advice to breathe. He pulled in one steadying breath after another, assessing Dana’s injury. His training told him something so insignificant didn’t even warrant a second look. In the field he would’ve rubbed some dirt on it and moved on, but he reminded himself that Dana was a renowned research scientist, not a soldier. She’d probably appreciate her hand healing without inflection or big, ugly scars.

Defying his instincts, Jake gently treated the wound. Dana sucked in a breath when he cleaned her palm with the sterile wipe. “Damn. There’s a piece of glass in there.”

She looked down at the bright red laceration, her face paling further. “I think I’m going to be sick.”

“No, you’re not.”

“I am. I drank too much and the blood …” She squeezed her eyes shut.

“Mind over matter,” Jake ordered as he pulled the trash can toward them just in case her mind wasn’t stronger than her stomach.

He shook his head. Dana wasn’t built like a ballerina. A glass of whiskey shouldn’t make her pass out. Either the woman never drank, or her phobia of blood was worse than he’d expected.

When she began trembling, he reached out with his free hand, sternly grabbing her chin. “Hey, keep your eyes right here.” He maintained eye contact. “I mean it. I have to dig the piece of glass out, unless you want to go to the hospital.”

He wouldn’t blame her. But he’d have to call a cab to be safe. He didn’t need to add DWI to his already spotty record. Dana shook her head. “No. I trust you.”

The conviction in her voice made something in his chest ache. He pushed it down and concentrated on her hand.





10





Jake sat back, resting his head against the sturdy wood of his kitchen cabinets. The coolness of the concrete floor seeped through his pants, calming him as his adrenaline began to ebb. Even though Dana’s wound hadn’t been life-threatening, the injury had still gotten his blood pumping. He hadn’t been forced into crisis mode since he’d returned to work. Leave it to Dana to be the first. Trouble seemed to follow the woman.

Eyes closed, she pulled in a shaky breath. He could feel the emotion radiating from her—pain, fear, worry. He regretted involving her in this case. She wasn’t ready for it.

To her credit she’d held it together while he dug out the tiny glass shard and patched up her hand. But her pain tolerance wasn’t what concerned him. She hadn’t coped with what happened on their last case. And that meant she probably couldn’t handle being thrown into another one so soon. Especially one that, yet again, held personal interest.

Jake ran a hand through his short hair. He should’ve just left her alone. He’d meant to keep his distance, to keep her safe … but here they were, sitting on his floor in what looked like a crime scene thanks to all the bloody gauze still littering the kitchen.

What on earth had possessed him to contact Dana when he got back to D.C.?

She rested her head on his shoulder with a sigh, making his cock twitch.

There was his answer. Asshole.

He should’ve stayed away. She didn’t need him bringing more dark shit into her life. But walking away now would hurt her, and she’d been hurt enough.

Jake exhaled deeply, letting his cheek rest on Dana’s head. Her shiny brown hair felt like satin against his skin. She smelled like heaven; light floral perfume and fresh shampoo invaded his nostrils. He let himself soak it up for a moment before asking the inevitable. “Are you okay?”

She shifted, lifting her head so she could look at him. “Yeah.” She held up her bandaged hand. “It looks worse than it is. I’m sure it’ll heal pretty quickly.”

“I’m not talking about your hand.”

She looked down at her lap, understanding registering in the softness of her voice. “Oh.”

“Have you spoken to anyone about what went down with Cramer?”

She shrugged. “Once.”

He didn’t want to nag her. Baring his soul to a shrink wasn’t his cup of tea either. He’d done his FBI mandated counseling and then got the hell out of Dodge. He’d never found anything that worked better than salt therapy. As far as he was concerned a few days on the open ocean could cure anything. But that wasn’t the point. “I don’t know if working on this case is going to be the best thing for you.”

“Jake, I have to! Mere—”

He held up his hands. “Hear me out. I’m not saying I’m cutting you out of this, but I don’t think I should officially bring you on board.”

“You think I’m a train wreck?” She let her head fall back against the cabinets with a thud. “I can’t really blame you after today.”

“That’s not it.”

“Then what?”

“Well for one thing, I have a new boss, and he’s not as liberal as, well, you know.”

“As your serial murdering ex-supervisor? Yeah, I’m familiar.”

Jake frowned. “After what Cramer did, the Bureau’s been in major crisis mode. He shook a lot of branches, including the ones high up. Holt is in charge now, and he’s been running a tight ship while the dust settles, cracking down on clearances, not outsourcing to anyone outside the agency. I doubt he would even consider letting you come on board. Especially given you know the missing person.”

“But that’s why you need me. No one’s going to be as invested in finding Meredith as I am.”

“You’re wrong, Dana. This is what I do. I find people. And I bring them home.”

The majority of his time with Special Forces was spent locating high level operatives and bringing them to safety. Or eliminating them if rescue wasn’t the objective.

At least he knew he wouldn’t have to go that route on this case.

It wasn’t likely that Meredith Kincaid was a liability to national security. She was just a poor little rich girl who pushed her luck too far. Maybe it was with the Senator, maybe not. But Jake was confident of one thing, he’d get to the bottom of it. “I’m going to do everything in my power to find her and bring her home safely.”

“And what am I supposed to do? Just sit back and pretend everything’s okay?”

“I know it won’t be easy, but sometimes taking a step back is the best thing you can do in this kind of situation.”

“You don’t understand.” Emotion swam in Dana’s eyes. “I let her down. She was my best friend, and I didn’t have time for her. If I hadn’t been so self-absorbed, I would’ve seen this coming. I could’ve stopped it.” She pulled in a strangled breath. “If something happened to her, it’s on me.”

That wasn’t true, but Jake knew it was impossible to erase that kind of guilt, no matter how irrational it was. He teetered on the edge of it daily as he fought with his guilt returning from war, when so many others hadn’t. It was a losing battle. But still, he hated seeing Dana so torn up. It made him want to pull her into his arms.

He resisted, tucking a loose strand of her hair behind her ear instead. “Meredith Kincaid is her own person, Dana. Her choices belong to her.”

“I can’t lose her,” she whispered, her eyes dark pools of sorrow. “She’s all I have left.”

Jake took her good hand in both of his and squeezed. “Not true.”

Her lower lip began to tremble, and he couldn’t stop himself this time. He pulled her into his arms and crushed her to him while she continued to hold back her tears.





11





Dana didn’t know how long she spent on Jake’s kitchen floor, wrapped in his embrace.

Long enough for his warmth to seep into her.

Long enough for her legs to fall asleep.

Long enough to memorize his heartbeat.

Its steady rhythm reassured her, as did the deep tenor of his voice rumbling though his chest as he spoke. The more he explained the process of a missing person investigation, the more comfortable she felt. He obviously had a lot of experience. And just as much success. He elaborated on a few of his military missions, but she stopped asking questions when most of his answers were “it’s classified.”

Switching gears, he was back to talking about Meredith’s case. “This is going to be a jurisdictional nightmare once the Press gets involved, and with a high-profile case like this, they’re sure to. I need you not to read too much into what you see on the news.”

Easier said than done, but she nodded.

“And one more thing.” Jake’s blue eyes were tranquil pools of concern. “No running off on your own to play hero. If you think you have something solid, come to me with it first.”

“I thought you said I was off the case.”

He grinned. “I know you. You’re not going to let it go.”

Jake was right. Just because she wasn’t going to be working the case in an official capacity didn’t mean she had to sit by and do nothing. Her gut told her the Senator was involved and she wouldn’t be able to let go of her Priory of Bones theory until she ruled it out. But agreeing with Jake for now was better than working against him. “Fine, but only if you promise to do the same.”

Jake grinned at her defiance. “Two things I don’t do. Promises or apologies. But I’ll do my best to keep you in the loop.”

Knowing it was as much as she could hope for, Dana shook his extended hand.





12





Jake pulled Dana to her feet. “Come on, let’s get you cleaned up. You look like an extra for the Walking Dead.”

Her stomach rumbled as he led her to the couch, prompting Claire’s voice to pop into his head. Dana’s intern was always reminding her to take a break from her research to eat.

The girl was a master at ordering Thai food. It was her menu wizardry that had won Jake over. Now, thanks to Claire, he couldn’t go a week without visiting Thaiphoon.

It hadn’t only been Dana who’d frequented his dreams while in the Keys. Jake had been fantasizing about the dumplings Claire got him hooked on. He looked at his watch, frowning when he realized it was too late to call in an order. He glanced at Dana, guessing that she hadn’t bothered to eat today. It would justify her earlier wooziness. He’d blamed it on the whiskey and blood loss, but added to an empty stomach, it explained a lot.

Dana had spent her lunch break at the shooting range with him. Then the rest of the afternoon had been chewed up investigating Meredith’s disappearance. He’d bet money she’d missed at least two meals. “You eat anything today?”

She seemed to ponder the question before giving a shrug. “I meant to.”

He knew the feeling. It was easy to get sucked into work and forget about simple things like refueling your body. That’s why he started every day with a hearty breakfast and a protein shake. Today, he’d found time to scarf down one of the emergency protein bars he kept in his SUV. But that was hours ago. “Why don’t I see what I can scrounge up for dinner.”

Once Dana was settled on the couch, Jake returned to the kitchen to clean up the crime scene-worthy mess he’d made with the first aid kit. Thankfully, cleaning supplies were plentiful. His cleaning service left the essentials in the laundry room.

Jake opened the black cabinets above his never-used washer and dryer set. As far as he was concerned, the massive chrome beasts were a waste of space since he sent his clothes out to the building’s laundry service. If only he used the grocery service as well.

After cleaning up the kitchen, Jake stared glumly into his barren pantry. The only things inside were a large box of salt and the unused spice rack that had come with the apartment. He peered deeper inside, moving the spices aside. A flash of yellow near the back caught his eye.

He pulled out the box of Bisquick. There was a bottle of maple syrup tied to it with a red ribbon. Neither had been opened.

Jake briefly remembered the date who’d been so bold as to bring over breakfast assuming she’d be spending the night. He smirked. What was that saying about assumptions?

Either way, he grinned at the synchronicity of it all as an idea sparked to life. The woman he’d sent packing had given him a gift after all. He’d just be sharing it with Dana instead.

Jake read the ingredients. Eggs and water? Yeah, he could handle that.

Once he found the last item he needed buried among his seldom used pots and pans, the meal came together quickly.

Wishing he had some OJ, Jake opened the fridge one more time. He knew he wouldn’t find anything but eggs and his protein shakes inside, but it was hard to break the habit of looking for things that weren’t there.

He heard his uncle’s voice in his head as he stared into the mostly empty refrigerator. The answers aren’t in the icebox. You want something, get off your ass and get it.

Jake’s gaze drifted back to Dana. He could just see the top of her head over the black leather of his sofa. He looked back at the two plates in front of him. He was being stupid. And he didn’t do stupid. But the homemade waffles said otherwise.

Shit. This was a bad idea. But it was too late now. The foreign smell of fresh baked goods filled his apartment making his mouth water and his insides squirm. Feeling ridiculous, he straightened his shoulders, grabbed the plates and headed toward the couch, telling himself he hadn’t made the waffles because he knew they meant something to her.

That would make him soft. And he wasn’t soft.

No. He’d only made them because he happened to have the ingredients, not because of the sappy story she’d told him about how her parents used to make them.

It was one of the few personal details she’d let slip. It stuck with him.

Jake shook his head. He couldn’t help it. The girl got to him, even when she wasn’t trying.

Walking over to the couch, he huffed a laugh when he found Dana asleep. All his anxiety had been for nothing. He set the plates down on the coffee table as quietly as he could and returned to the kitchen for the syrup and utensils. While he was at it, he refilled his rocks glass.

Whiskey and waffles. It had a nice ring to it, and it was too late to be picky. At this point it didn’t really matter to him what he put in his stomach. It was just fuel to get him through the endless pages of data the analysts had compiled from Meredith’s Facebook account.

Jake settled on the couch, Dana on one side, his laptop on the other as he shoveled the warm pastry into his mouth.

It wasn’t half bad.

Dana shifted, stretching out her bare feet until they hit his leg. He paused, a forkful of waffle halfway to his mouth. The feeling of Dana tucking her toes under his thigh … that wasn’t half bad either.





13





Dana woke, the feeling of leather and warmth surrounding her.

It took her a moment to remember where she was. In the dim lamp light, she saw Jake, his head slumped back on the couch. His couch.

That’s when it all came flooding back. The whiskey, her embarrassing behavior, the cut on her hand, the way he’d bandaged it.

She sat up. A soft gray blanket slipped from her chest to her waist with the movement. Jake must’ve draped it over her. He was making this difficult. But her conflicting emotions over the brooding FBI agent would have to wait. Meredith was missing. Finding her was all that mattered.

Frustrated that they’d both fallen asleep on the job, she angrily rubbed the grogginess from her eyes. Untangling her glasses from her hair she put them back in place. The room came into sharp focus. Her eyes landed on two plates on the coffee table; one empty, the other clearly meant for her. The dull ache that lived inside her chest intensified.

He made me waffles?

Her eyes stung with emotion as she looked from the plates to the dozing FBI agent. She was grateful he was asleep or else she might’ve thrown her arms around his neck.

Why did he have to be so impossible?

One minute he was kicking her off the case, the next he made her waffles. She’d shared what they meant to her and he’d remembered. A lump formed in her throat. Was this his way of apologizing, or something more? She wished she had time to unpack all the questions racing through her mind. But they would have to wait. Meredith took priority.

Dana reached for the plate of waffles. She’d think clearer with a full stomach.

The meal was clearly made hours ago, but even cold it warmed her heart. She doused the waffles with maple syrup and dug in. The first bite was so sweet and delicious she moaned like she was slipping into diabetic ecstasy. Jake’s head snapped up, his blue eyes open and alert.

“Sorry,” Dana mumbled around a mouthful. “These were for me, right?”

He rubbed the sleep from his face. “Yeah. They’re probably cold.”

“They’re perfect.” She took another large bite then looked around for something to wash it down. Jake caught her eyeing his half empty glass of whiskey.

He passed it to her. “Whiskey and waffles might be my new favorite thing.”

She took a tentative sip. The sticky-sweetness of the maple syrup and sugary dough cradled the tingling burn of the alcohol. It was the perfect combination. “Mine too.”

Jake warned, “maybe go easy on the whiskey though.”

Her pounding headache agreed. “Do you have any water?”

Standing from the couch, Jake stretched, popping his neck from side-to-side, before padding barefoot to the kitchen. Again, Dana was struck by how intimate it felt to be in his home. They’d tracked down a serial killer together, but somehow this was more uncomfortable. Mostly because she didn’t like the feelings that kept distracting her from what was important.

She’d made her decision about Jake. They were better off as friends, and apparently occasional partners. And once Dana made up her mind, it wasn’t easily changed.

The notion comforted her. She was good at making decisions. She trusted herself. She just needed to remember that. And right now, her mind was made up about Senator Scott. If they wanted to find Meredith, he needed to be their focus. She just had to convince Jake.

He returned with two glasses of water, sat down on the couch and passed her one. After drinking deeply, she set the glass down next to her empty plate on the coffee table. “I know we’ve been over this, but if I can prove that the Priory of Bones is real and that the Senator is involved, will you agree to question him?”

A flash of impatience crackled across Jake’s face, but he rubbed it away with the last of the sleep still clinging to his shadowed eyes. “Dana, I’m not ruling the Senator out as a suspect.”

“But you said—”

He held up his hands, cutting her off. “I said I wasn’t going in guns blazing accusing a US Senator of kidnapping. The man is Meredith’s boss. He works closely with her; I’ll definitely be speaking with him to go over his statement.”

“Isn’t that a waste of time?”

“We go over the questions again in different ways at different times. It’s a technique we use to try to confirm accuracy and consistency. If someone’s lying it’s an easy way to trip them up. I meant what I said. I’m good at this. I need you to trust that I’m going to do everything I can to find Meredith Kincaid.”

“And the Senator?”

“I have eyes on him. And now that we know he and Meredith had a secret relationship, I have ammunition if we need it.”

“Are you going to confront him about it?”

“Showing my cards isn’t my style.”

“But it might rattle him enough to confess.”

“We have to authenticate the photos before we can use them as leverage. Without Meredith’s computer, or access to the Senator’s, that’s not possible.”

Dana exhaled, her temples throbbing with frustration.

“Trust me, I know how to handle this. With someone like Senator Scott, you only get one shot. I’m gonna make it count.”

“So you’ve said.”

“Look, it’s been a long night. There’s not much we can do at the moment. Why don’t you try to get some rest?”

Rest was the last thing Dana wanted. She wanted to beat down every door in the city until she found her friend. Jake assured her that the D.C. police had practically done that as soon as the report was filed. She appreciated they were taking the high-profile missing person case seriously. But she still felt useless sitting around in Jake’s glass tower of an apartment while Meredith was out there, potentially hurt and afraid, or worse.

Shuddering, she shoved the thought from her mind. Negative thinking bred toxicity, bogging down the mind with unproductive worries and depleting the body of precious energy. She needed to reserve hers to get to the bottom of this.

Standing, she collected her glass and the empty plates from the coffee table and carried them to the kitchen. She put everything in the dishwasher and started toward the door before she remembered Jake had driven. Swearing under her breath she pulled her phone out of her pocket scrolling for a ride share app.

“What are you doing?”

She turned back to see Jake staring at her from the couch, laptop back in front of him. “Going home to get some rest, like you said.”

“It’s nearly three in the morning. Just stay here.”

“It’s fine. I’ll just order a ride.”

“No. I don’t need to worry about you getting into a car with a stranger at this hour. Just use my room. The sheets are clean. I haven’t spent a night here all week.”

She didn’t want to think about the implications. It was none of her business where he spent his nights. “Don’t you need to sleep?”

“There’s a lot of things I need. I don’t always get them.” He turned back to the laptop. “Besides, I have pages of data to read through.”

“Can I help?”

He turned back toward her. “I thought I made myself clear about involving you in this investigation.”

“Right.”

“Bedroom’s down the hall. Make yourself at home,” Jake called, returning to his work.

Sighing, Dana set her things down on the sideboard near the door.

Jake was right. It was late. Staying here made sense. Her place was all the way across town. Not that there’d be traffic at this hour, but still. She could catch some quick shuteye here and then be on her way to her office at first light. Plus, she liked the idea of staying close by. It meant Jake would be forced to keep her in the loop.

Dana made her way down the dark hallway. The first door she passed was open, revealing a half bath. With only one other door remaining, she grabbed the doorknob with confidence. Her poise slipped the moment she entered the master bedroom and stared at the huge king size mattress. The linens were dark gray, the headboard black and modern, just like the rest of the furniture in the well-appointed space. This room was just as devoid of personal effects as the rest of the apartment but somehow, she could feel Jake all around her.

Her eyes raked over the bed again, skin tingling at the thought of slipping beneath Jake’s sheets. Get your mind out of the gutter, Dana!

Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea after all. She didn’t know how much rest she’d actually get in the massive bed that was clearly meant to be shared.





14





“Jake!†?

He startled awake at the sound of her voice. Dana stood in his living room wearing his dress shirt and a look of fear that made him sit up on the couch. “What’s wrong?”

“I can’t sleep.” She took a tentative step toward him, and he couldn’t help but let his gaze wander the length of her bare thighs. “I’m worried.”

He held out a hand coaxing her forward. She moved like a doe, her legs graceful and lean, footsteps measured, timid. “It’s okay.”

“No, Jake. I don’t think it is.” She moved closer until she was standing right in front of him. She leaned in, her hands gripping his shoulders as she straddled him, settling her knees on either side of his hips. “You need to find her.”

He nodded, unable to keep his hands from moving up Dana’s thighs. Her skin was warm and silken, like a rose petal in a greenhouse. He wanted to caress every inch of her. His grip moved from her hips to her waist. She leaned into his touch, and he throbbed for her.

“Promise me,” she begged, her hands moving to tangle in his hair. “Promise you’ll find her.”

“I will,” he breathed, gripping her tighter as his lips ached to meet hers.

She fisted his hair and tugged hard, forcing him to look into her dark eyes. “Promise me.”

“I promise.”

She smiled, throwing her head back as he pulled her closer. His lips grazed her throat, and she arched her back gasping with pleasure.

Hell yes. He wanted this. He needed this. How many times had he imagined this very moment?

“Jake.” Dana moaned his name in a way that made him want to come apart. She grabbed his hands and pulled them from her waist, moving them up her body to where she wanted them.

He gripped the warm column of her neck, letting his hands close around her slim throat. Her pulse pounded furiously beneath his grip. He felt his fingers tighten around the delicate skin. She gasped, and he squeezed tighter. She opened her mouth to scream, but no sound came out. But not because of his grip.

Dana’s mouth was full of dirt!

She tipped her head back further, and a spider crawled out of the earth-packed cavern. Suddenly there was a blindfold blocking the fear from her eyes, and her wrists were bound.

Throwing the nightmare off of him, Jake felt the floor rise up to meet his head. His fitful tumble off the couch brought reality racing back.

He rubbed the back of his head where it had hit the floor. “It was just a dream.” He needed to say it out loud to chase the last of the lingering vision away.

Christ! He needed to get a grip.

Rubbing his eyes, Jake righted himself where he’d landed on the floor. Heart still pounding, his head ached, and his face itched from the growth of stubble waging its daily war. It was the lesser of the uncomfortable itches he’d like to scratch at the moment. He should’ve known better than to invite Dana to stay. Knowing she was sleeping in his bed was wreaking havoc on his sexual appetite.

Jake had imagined her here so many times, but in his dreams, he hadn’t been sleeping on the couch. She also hadn’t turned into a creepy missing person nightmare. His attention shifted toward the dark hallway. The one that led to his bedroom. He briefly wondered if she’d locked the door.

He checked the time. There was no sense trying to go back to sleep. The watery dawn light would be reflecting off the National Mall any minute.

Jake stood up and grabbed his keys. It was going to be a shower at the gym kind of day. He kept spare clothes there for such occasions. Though he’d admit this was a first. He wasn’t usually sneaking out of his own place after not sleeping with a woman. It was usually her house, and he always left satisfied.

Ignoring his hard-on, he scribbled a note to Dana and left it on the counter, then he grabbed his gym bag on the way out the door. If the early bird got the worm, then he’d be fat and happy by the time he got back home. Too bad it rarely worked out that way.

He’d yet to work a case on the Hill that hadn’t gotten tied up in endless bureaucratic red tape. Involving the Kincaids wouldn’t make it any easier. But then again, Jake wasn’t the kind of guy to back down from a challenge.





15





Dana felt like a criminal sneaking down Jake’s dark hallway. But all her stealth had been for nothing. She stood in the kitchen, reading the scribble of a note he’d left for her.

Doc, heading in early.

Lots of ground to cover.

Keep you in the loop. — Jake

She checked her watch, comparing it to the military timestamp he’d left on his note, a remnant of the soldier that still lived within him.

She’d just missed him. Sniffing the air, she found herself disappointed that he hadn’t brewed any coffee. The lingering scent of baked dough still clung to the kitchen. Her stomach growled as she thought again of the waffles. It was a sweet gesture. Whether he’d meant it to or not, it meant something that he’d made them for her. No one had ever made her waffles except for her parents.

She ordered them out whenever she found them on a menu, but that wasn’t the same as having someone make them specifically for her. She firmly believed that homemade food held a specific quality that couldn’t be replicated on a commercial level. Homemade meals, if done right, could capture nostalgia and bring memories back to life, if only for a moment.

The perfect waffles could transport Dana back to cherished moments with her parents.

With one bite she’d been right back inside their cozy West Virginia home, the distinct smell of maple syrup in the air as they tugged on their jackets and mittens, boasting about who would have the fastest run on the toboggan. It was always her, but only because her parents let her win, their laughter the only sound as she raced through the falling snow.

She bit the inside of her cheek to chase away the memory. At this hour, even the leftover smell of waffles was too bitter a reminder. She needed to get to work. Meredith needed her.

Dana wasn’t able to save her family, but maybe she could save the Kincaids. If she could apply her knowledge of death to save the living, then maybe it wouldn’t have all been for nothing. The Kincaids had given her the keys to her library in the Smithsonian. It was time she repaid them.

Collecting her things, she headed out Jake’s door bound for sublevel three with the belief that she could apply her field of study in a practical way. Many objected to occult studies having a place in the science-based institute, but Dana had proven time and again that her life’s work was more than just a soft science. With the understanding of death, came the knowledge of life.

If she could figure out why someone would want Meredith dead, she might be able to stop it from happening.





16





Carefully brushing the dust off of the ancient leather cover with her soft bristle brush, Dana prepared to open the book. First, she secured it in the rare book cradle to protect the brittle binding from damage, then she lowered the protective lens over her lamp so as not to damage the pages with the harsh light. The book seemed to sigh when she opened it, as though it didn’t want to give up the secrets held in its pages to someone who hadn’t earned the right to call themselves one of the Bonesmen.

But Dana didn’t need to drink blood out of a skull or wear a long, dramatic black robe. She could discern fact from fable about the elite Yale secret society just fine from the safety of her office.

There was something fitting about being buried deep below the Smithsonian while she researched the history of a hidden subculture. The Skull and Bones fraternity was one of the most widely known secret societies on the planet. Being a famous secret society was a bit of an oxymoron, but when it came to Skull and Bones, it was unavoidable.

The rumors and accusations that plagued them only served to sensationalize their exclusive status. The fact that they churned out presidents, senators and an alarmingly staggering proportion of the world’s most powerful CEOs was always cannon fodder for conspiracy theories. But it was their belief about the concept of eternity that had always interested Dana.

Most of what went on inside the walls of The Tomb was known only to its members. Over their nearly two-hundred-year reign, some secrets slipped through the cracks of the Egypto-Doric style hall in New Haven, Connecticut. Put together, they pointed toward the Bonesmen’s preparation to rule in this world by putting together a group of insiders nearing Illuminati proportions. Their goal: to lift members into positions of power, ensuring the preservation and success of the one percent.

The little-known Priory of Bones took it one step further. They wanted to rule not only in this life but in the next. And from what Dana had been able to discern from researching the whisperings of the secret extremists, they’d tried some pretty experimental rituals to ensure their success in the afterlife.

From human sacrifice to being reborn in a coffin washed by the blood of those who’d passed on before them, the Priory of Bones had a reputation for taking things too far. The problem was with all the power and wealth behind them, they were nearly flawless at flying under the radar. Until now.

If any harm came to Meredith and they were involved, Dana wouldn’t stop until she brought the whole organization to its knees. The trouble was, she didn’t have much to go on. The naked photos of a senator wearing a ring with a signet that may or may not be related to the murderous cult weren’t a lot to go on. Especially since the phrase Memento Mori that was rumored to be etched onto the rings of members was missing, or undetectable in the photograph.

Still, even if the words were there, they wouldn’t prove anything. Remember that you have to die. Though ominous, the Latin phrase wasn’t obscure enough to imply guilt. Its use had become oversaturated thanks to pop culture’s goth era and its fascination with the macabre. Dana would be just as likely to find the saying adorning the fingers of dozens of patrons in D.C.’s underground club scene.

Even knowing all of that, she couldn’t shake the feeling that the ring meant something.

It was out of place on someone like the Senator. Furthermore, he was a missing woman’s boss and secret lover. It was too much to ignore.

Dana let her mind wander back to the photos of Meredith and the Senator. She wished she’d grabbed them. She knew chances of getting her hands on them again were slim thanks to Jake kicking her off the case. If only she had Claire’s eidetic memory.

Dana closed her eyes and let her mind fill in the details more clearly. She blocked out the way the Senator’s large hands had been wrapped around Meredith’s neck and focused on the ring. It was gold, a red stone set in the middle; perhaps ruby or garnet. It was a trillion cut, with a compass and square surrounding it similar to the Freemason symbol, except the masonic instruments were made up of bones. Two side emblems adorned the thick band. A snake coiled around a challis and a skull.

Her researcher’s mind wrapped around the symbology and ran away with her. There were almost endless possibilities for interpreting the meaning. But the one her mind kept returning to was the compass of bones. To her, that meant mapping death. But whose death?

Letting her eyes slowly open, Dana prayed she’d find a way to decode the ring before it was too late.





17





The knock on his door was a welcome distraction from the elevator music on the other end of the line reminding him how tired he was. Jake cradled the phone to his ear with his shoulder and waved his secretary in.

Margot approached his desk cheerfully, carrying a coffee and bag of pastries from his favorite coffee shop down the block.

“You are a godsend.”

She grinned, her cheeks glowing at his praise. “You know, I can do that,” she said, nodding to the phone pinned to his shoulder. “That’s why they pay me the big bucks,” she teased.

“They should.” God knew she earned every penny putting up with him for the past few years.

Jake was glad when he heard that she stayed after what went down with Cramer. He wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d been rattled enough to quit. A few of the other aids and secretaries in his department weren’t as resilient as Margot. The wisp of a woman just kept showing up with a smile and breakfast in hand.

She set her mouthwatering gifts down on his desk. “Two sugars, just how you like it,” she said, taking the lid off the coffee.

Jake stared down into the steam swirling up from the revitalizing black elixir. He preferred no sugar, but he didn’t have the heart to tell Margot that. It was his own fault for saying “just the way I like it” on her first day. She’d been bringing him his coffee with two sugars ever since.

Today, he’d drink hot tar if it made him feel human again. He was running on fumes when it came to sleep and sustenance. In the moment, he truly meant it when he thanked Margot, taking a large gulp of coffee before digging into the bag. He waited until she returned to her post outside his door before he pulled out the large chocolate almond croissant and tore off a hunk. He washed the sweet, buttery goodness down with another gulp of scalding coffee.

It managed to renew his resolve enough that he stayed on hold for another six minutes before hanging up.

Jake had been on the phone all morning trying to arrange appointments with Meredith’s coworkers. The problem was, they all worked in the Senate Building. Gaining access wasn’t a problem thanks to his FBI clearance, it was their calendars that proved challenging. Apparently, no one on the Hill had time in their busy schedules to talk to him face-to-face.

He’d had about all he could take. Even Dana’s idea of showing up at the gala was starting to appeal to him. He did his best to shake off the dead ends he was facing, but the roadblocks were starting to feel familiar.

This was nothing like the last case he worked, and yet he couldn’t help the sense of déjà vu that stippled his freshly shaven features. For once, he hoped Dana was wrong. Jake had enough darkness in his life without being dragged back down into her world of demonic death and conspiracy theories.

Finding Meredith was already a needle in a haystack scenario. He could do without setting the proverbial haystack on fire. And that’s what adding Dana to the mix would do. Finding a missing person in D.C. was challenging enough. Setting the town ablaze with outlandish accusations about senators involved in secret societies would only make it worse.

He knew she meant well. She couldn’t help it. Her mind just worked that way. The same way his was still battle ready even though he hadn’t worn a uniform in years. In Jake’s case, his instincts and abilities suited him for this case. Dana’s didn’t. She was too close to the victim. It made her desperate to see things that weren’t there.

She wasn’t wrong thinking the Senator was a suspect. But not because he wore some gaudy ring or attended an Ivy League university with an infamous frat. Senator Scott was on Jake’s radar because the politician was sleeping with Meredith Kincaid, and he didn’t want anyone to know.

Statistically speaking, those having sexual relations with vics were more likely to be involved regarding foul play. Whether that foul play went too far … that was what Jake needed to prove. He honestly didn’t give a rat’s ass if the boogie man told the Senator to do it. Murder was murder. All he needed was motive. But he had nothing.

The Senator’s alibi was solid. According to his initial statement, his whereabouts could be accounted for thanks to his meticulous calendar and multiple sites retweeting his public speaking engagements. He’d also been the one to first suggest contacting the authorities after Meredith had gone MIA. Jake hadn’t been the one to take the statement, but right now it was all he had to go on considering getting an audience with the Senator was impossible.

He leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers behind his head. So far, Dana had agreed to stand down, but he knew if he didn’t find a lead quickly, he wouldn’t be able to keep the tenacious woman at bay for long.

He stared at the timeline he’d constructed of Meredith’s last moments. They didn’t add up. The Senator was the easy suspect. But he was accounted for. Perhaps it was one of the men Meredith met at the bar the last night she’d been spotted. She snapped a photo with them, shared it on Facebook, then vanished.

Had a few drinks gone too far? Sometimes the simplest explanations were the most accurate. Jake’s gut resisted the idea. It didn’t feel right. Meredith wasn’t some nameless good-time girl no one would miss. In his experience, simple was seldom the case when dealing with people with too much power and money. Their influence complicated things.

That meant Jake had to go back to the basics. He studied the timeline again, ready to work it backwards just like he had in his Special Forces missions.

According to the details they’d gotten from her Facebook account, Meredith’s last known location was a bar in Deadwood. That in itself was a mystery. Deanwood wasn’t exactly the type of place girls from the Hill frequented.

The local PD had sent officers there to get statements from the staff. Jake had the report, but he preferred a more hands-on approach. Especially since the bar didn’t have any security footage.

He checked the time. The bar wouldn’t be open yet, but maybe he could throw the Bureau’s weight around a bit and get someone down there to open the place up and let him have a look around. It wouldn’t hurt to get his own statements from whomever he could wrangle in at this hour.

His energy spooled at the idea of doing something other than hitting Capitol Hill roadblocks. He could turn over his list of Meredith’s co-workers to Margot. She was exceptionally skilled at getting him in front of people he wanted to question. Plus, she would do it with more patience and finesse.

Jake was just picking up the phone to ask for her assistance when Margot poked her head into his office after a quick knock.

“Just the face I wanted to see,” he greeted.

Her pink lips pursed together with worry. The expression looked so foreign on her heart-shaped face that Jake stood up. “What’s wrong?”

“Holt wants to see you.”

Jake’s fleeting energy waned. He grabbed his jacket anyway. “Tell him I’m out.”

Margot slipped all the way into his office and closed the door, her large green eyes full of worry. Jake’s shoulders sagged. He knew that look. It was one the new assistant director instilled in everyone he stood in front of. †?He’s standing out there, isn’t he?”

She nodded and swallowed thickly.

Today just keeps getting better.

“I’m sorry. He ambushed me. I told him you’d been on the phone all morning pertaining to the case, and I wasn’t sure what your schedule was like, but …”

But he didn’t care. She didn’t have to finish her sentence. Holt had a reputation for impatience. “It’s fine, Margot. I’m going to forward you a list of contacts. Can you get me on their schedules?”

“Right away.”

Sitting back down, it only took a few strokes of his keys to send Margot everything she’d need. Jake slipped his jacket over his broad shoulders as he made his way around his desk. He wished it was his flak vest or any kind of body armor that might deflect Holt’s brand of aggressive leadership.

Jake was not in the mood for the assistant director’s trial by fire bullshit. He’d earned his stripes. He had the scars to prove it. What he needed was room to do his job. Squaring his shoulders, he remembered who he was. He didn’t back down from a fight. And if he had to go toe-to-toe with his new boss to get off the short leash Holt was trying to keep him on, then so be it.





18





It wasn’t even noon and Jake was unwrapping his fifth piece of cinnamon gum. Things weren’t going as planned. His tête-à-tête with Holt was turning into more of a dressing down than a conversation. It didn’t help that once again, Dana was keeping things from him. Yet here he was defending her.

“I don’t want her on the case either,” Jake argued with the surly assistant director, “but if Archer Kincaid is insisting it sounds like our hands are tied.”

“Maybe he wouldn’t be if you’d handled this properly. Why hasn’t anyone taken Kincaid’s statement?”

“I tried. He was out of town. Trying to get cooperation from the high and mighty on the Hill has been a bitch. I’m getting stonewalled left and right.”

Holt leaned closer, his coffee breath pungent. “You’re a goddamn FBI agent, Shepard. Get the job done or I’ll find someone else who will.”

“Yes, sir.” Jake barely managed to get the words through his clenched jaw.

“And I don’t care how rich Kincaid is. He doesn’t make the rules here. I do. Your Witch Doctor has no business in this missing person case.”

“With all due respect, sir, her insight might be valuable. She’s good at thinking outside the box. I wouldn’t have been able to bring Cramer down without her.”

“Cramer was a serial killer.”

“And without Dr. Gray, he’d still be working in this building. Sitting in your new office.”

Holt’s dark eyes flashed with anger, but Jake knew he’d gotten his point across. “Fine, but she’s your responsibility. Don’t fuck this up, Shepard. One more strike and your next vacation will be permanent.”

Jake watched his boss march away, replaying the unpleasant conversation they’d had in the hallway for everyone to overhear.

Nothing like having his shortcomings publicly broadcast through the building. But that was what happened when an enraged father and cabinet member called the assistant director and requested a Smithsonian librarian be assigned to the case because the FBI wasn’t doing its job.

For a heartbeat, Jake wondered if he even cared about keeping his job. But then Meredith’s face flashed in his mind along with all the other undeserving victims who crossed his desk during his time with the Bureau.

He couldn’t go out like this. Jake didn’t leave men in the field, and that’s what getting kicked off this case would feel like. Even back in his Special Forces days, he’d always brought his