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He'd gone rogue.
At least that's what his fellow FBI agents would think if they could see him now, entering one of the college theaters where a lecture was about to begin.
It had been years since FBI agent Mark Flynn had been in such a setting. As he opened the door to the room, heard the chattering of students eager to learn, saw the polished wooden lectern in the center of the stage, he remembered how much he'd loved college and soaking in the knowledge offered by each teacher and every class.
Brainiac, that's what his fellow students had called him when he'd been at university, but it had been his high IQ and his thirst for knowledge that had made him not a trust-fund baby, but rather a think-tank subject for the FBI.
The seating was theater-style and most of the seats were already taken. Knowing he wasn't going to sit through the entire lecture, he spied an empty spot in one of the last rows and slid into the chair.
He focused intently on the lectern where within minutes sociology professor Melinda Grayson would begin a lecture. He had no idea what the topic of the day might be, although he knew this course was about sociopaths. Still, he wasn't here to listen to what she had to say. He was here to observe, to form impressions and follow through on a gut instinct that had him at odds with most of the other members of his team.
Darby College and the small town of Vengeance, Texas, located forty miles outside Dallas, had been lucky to get a professor as renowned as Melinda Grayson. With her stellar credentials she could have found employment at any college or university in the country.
He found it slightly odd that she had chosen Darby and the small town as her home, but he found most people rather odd in the choices they made and the forces that drove them through life. Certainly he recognized that he was considered more than a little bit odd by many of his friends and coworkers.
The room began to quiet and expectancy shimmered in the air as a young man and woman took two seats that had been left empty in the center of the front row. He instantly identified them as Amanda Burns and Ben Craig, graduate assistants to Melinda.
For a brief instant it was as if everyone in the room had stepped into a vacuum, so great was the silence that stole over the group of students. And then Melinda appeared. She walked with measured strides toward the lectern and began the lesson for the day.
Mark leaned forward, his gaze focused intently on the beautiful woman who commanded the room. Her long black hair flowed across her shoulders and he knew from her photos that her eyes were an intense green. She appeared slightly fragile, tall and almost too thin. The white cast on her left arm only emphasized the appearance of frailty and was a reminder that she was a victim of an alleged crime.
However, there was nothing weak or vulnerable in her strong, low voice or in the way she owned not just the lectern but every space of the stage. Clad in a pencil-thin black skirt, high heels and a red jacket, she was dressed for power, and she had it.
Innocent victim or wildly dangerous?
That was what he needed to figure out about the lovely professor. Right now all he knew was that on September 5, Melinda had been kidnapped. She'd resurfaced almost two and a half weeks later. During her captivity, she'd been beaten and videotaped then released by some unknown perpetrators and, during the time she'd been supposedly held in captivity, three men had been murdered.
To Mark, it all seemed so obvious. She had been "kidnapped" three days before the murders were discovered and all three men had been dead for twenty-four hours when they'd been found. Somehow he believed that she was intrinsically tied to the murders, but there was absolutely no evidence to prove or disprove his theory that she was involved.
She'd taught her first class since her ordeal on Friday, but Mark had been tied up and hadn't been able to attend.
That was why he was here now, watching her, assessing her in an attempt to do what he did best.. crawl into the dark mind of a killer. It was this unique ability that had made him a respected name in the bureau, and it was also this ability that had destroyed his marriage two years before and kept him from actively parenting his three-year-old daughter, Grace.
His heart clenched tight at thoughts of his daughter, with her mop of dark curly hair and bright blue eyes. Of all the things good that he'd done in his life, Grace was at the top of the list. The last thing he wanted to do was in any way taint her with the darkness that sometimes gripped his soul.
He jumped as a hand touched his arm. He blinked, tearing his thoughts from his daughter to the woman seated next to him. Long brown hair framed a pretty face with large gray eyes. She was older than the usual student, perhaps in her late thirties, and as she smiled at him a hint of unexpected warmth whispered through him. She had a beautiful smile.
She had a laptop open and held several pieces of paper and a pen toward him. "For taking notes," she whispered, and then smiled again.
Rather than explain to her that he wasn't here to take notes on the lecture, suddenly aware of the faint scent of wildflowers that drifted from her, he took the pen and paper and whispered a quick thank-you.
As he turned his attention back to Melinda he tried to stay focused on her, but his fellow classmate had definitely broken his concentration.
How long had it been since he'd noticed the beauty of a woman's smile? How many years had it been since he'd paid any attention to the fragrance emanating from a particular female? Far too long.
Probably a wife and mother returning to college with her children in school or half-grown, he thought. But a quick glance showed him an unadorned ring finger on her left hand.
Maybe divorced and trying to find herself, get a career going after a few years of marriage. Mark admired anyone who sought education no matter what their age or their circumstances.
He frowned and tried to stay focused on the reason he was sitting here. He shouldn't be so acutely aware of the woman next to him, frantically typing on her laptop as if attempting to memorialize every word of the lecture.
It vaguely irritated him that, suddenly, his concentration was divided between the outrageously gorgeous professor commanding the room and the quiet beauty seated next to him.
There was a small group of students at the front of the theater who appeared to be hanging on to every word that fell out of Melinda's mouth. Groupies, he guessed.
Melinda's power and beauty would automatically draw a band of devout followers, but now with the news of her recent kidnapping and beatings, she had risen in stature to rock-star celebrity.
Victim or killer?
He wouldn't discover the answer to that question just by sitting here, and he felt a sudden need to escape from the scent of wildflowers and the two women who were sparring for attention inside his head.
He slid out of his chair and eased out the door and into the hallway that would take him outside the building and into the fresh September air.
Once outside he drew in a deep breath and sat on a nearby concrete bench beneath a large leafy tree. It was only then that he realized he still held the paper and pen that the woman seated next to him had handed him.
He settled back against the bench. The lecture would only last an hour. He didn't mind waiting until the woman emerged from the building to give her back her pen.
The Darby College campus was a mix of brick-and-glass buildings amid a plethora of trees and meticulous landscaping.
Mondays were busy on the campus, and the students wore colorful clothing that competed with the autumn leaves on the trees popping with shades of orange and red.
September 25. It was hard to believe that it would soon be a month since Melinda's "kidnapping." Rumor had it that she was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, but nothing of that condition had been evident in her today. She'd given off the aura of strength and control despite the cast on her arm and her willowy figure.
He twirled the pen between his fingers and fell into thoughts of the case. The news of the kidnapping of the esteemed Melinda Grayson had rocked the small town, but shock had shuddered through Vengeance over the three murdered men who'd been uncovered by a geology class that was exploring a nearby area for minerals.
Lost. He quickly became lost inside his head as he thought of all the intricacies of the various elements of the murders and Melinda's kidnapping, beating and then inexplicable release from her captors.
A sudden flurry of students leaving the building jerked Mark back to the here and now. He was vaguely surprised that he'd been seated on the bench and zoned out for thirty minutes or so.
He quickly stood and watched the people walking by him, seeking the gray-eyed woman who had lent him the pen and paper and had captured his attention with her lovely smile and sweet fragrance.
Moments later she emerged from the building. Clad in black slacks and a white blouse with a black-and-gray lightweight sweater tossed around her shoulders, she definitely didn't look like the customary jean-clad young kids who swirled around her.
She clutched her laptop case to her chest and her eyes widened in surprise as she saw him approaching her. At six feet four inches Mark was accustomed to towering over people, but this woman was taller than most women. The top of her head would have fit neatly beneath his chin if he'd pulled her into his arms.
This kind of thought was so alien to his brain that when he reached her he merely held out the pen toward her, momentarily speechless.
She took the pen, her eyes filled with surprise. "Oh, goodness, have you been waiting here all this time to give this back to me?" She had a deep, melodic but slightly husky, voice. "You didn't have to do that. It's just a cheap pen."
"You loaned it to me," he said, finally finding his own voice. "I just wanted to return it and thank you."
In truth he wondered if he'd just wanted to see her out here rather than in the dim theater. The overhead sunshine transformed her hair from plain brown to chestnut, with strands of cinnamon and gold sparking bright amid the soft strands.
"You should have stayed for the lecture. Today was really good," she said as she tucked the pen inside her purse. "When it was announced that Professor Gray-son was teaching a class on the sociopath in society, the classes filled up the very first day. But I haven't seen you in any of her classes or in the lecture hall before." A faint blush stained her cheeks, as if she suddenly became aware that she was doing all the talking.
"I'm not a student here, but you obviously enjoy Professor Grayson's lectures."
"I think she's brilliant." There was no question of the hero worship that laced her voice as she spoke of Melinda.
Mark's brain once again began to work overtime, weighing possibilities and attempting to separate a personal attraction to the woman from his work. "I'm Mark Flynn," he said. "And you are?"
"Dora. Dora Martin." She pulled her laptop closer against her chest in a defensive gesture and yet her smile remained open and wide.
"It's nice to meet you. Are you a local?"
She nodded. "At least for the last three years. I've been attending school and I work part-time in the bookstore. I'm studying to become a criminologist." She raised her chin a notch as if to defy him to question her career choice.
"Actually, I'm an FBI agent," he replied.
Her eyes widened once again. "So, you're here about the murders."
"I'm part of the team working on the case." He felt his mouth curve into an unaccustomed smile as he realized he'd made up his mind. He needed a source, somebody who was familiar with the campus, somebody who might have inside information on the illustrious professor. Dora Martin might be just what he needed for a little insight into the professor she obviously worshipped.
"I noticed there's a little coffee shop on campus. Can I buy you a cup of coffee, Dora Martin?" he asked.
She gazed at him for a long moment and once again she pulled her laptop tight against her body, as if forming a barrier between herself and the world between herself and him.
His breath caught in his chest as he waited for her response, telling himself he could always find somebody else to use for information. Still, he was shocked by how much he wanted her to say yes.
"I only have a little while before I have to get to the bookstore," she replied with a touch of hesitation. "But a cup of coffee sounds good."
Mark released his breath and felt a natural smile curl his lips for the first time in a very long time. "Great," he replied. Despite his instant attraction to her his only goal was to use her for information. Maybe he could glean a little more information on the woman at the center of the mystery and the crimes that had plagued this town. And if Dora couldn't give him any insight, all that was lost was a few minutes drinking coffee.
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