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Pack it up, Santino, you've got a murderer and a missing girl to find. His boss's words echoed in his mind as Joseph Santino, Special Agent for the FBI, watched the Greenville-Spartanburg International Airport spread out in tiny detail below him. He'd been fine with the assignment until the man had added, "Oh, and you'll be partnering up with a homicide detective there." He looked down at his papers. "Catelyn Clark."
At that point, Joseph wasn't fine anymore. In fact, he'd done everything to get out of going, short of quitting his job. None of his arguments worked. So, here he was mentally preparing himself to face the one woman he'd never gotten over. The one woman he'd vowed to banish from his thoughtsand failed.
The plane landed, and Joseph grabbed his carry-on, anxious to get this case started so he could get it finished and get back to New York.
An hour and a half later he found himself staring down at the face of a sixteen-year-old girl laid out on the slab in the morgue.
Victim: Tracy Merritt.
Cause of death: blunt-force trauma to the back of the head.
The murder weapon: unknown and still missing. The suspect: Dylan Carlisle.
Best friend to Joseph's seventeen-year-old brother, Alonso.
Only the police hadn't arrested Dylan because they didn't have enough evidence. Yet. Joseph's job was to find Kelly Franklin, the dead girl's best friend who'd been reported missing the day Tracy's body had been found. It was suspected that they'd been together and Kelly had been forcibly removed from the scene. Most likely, by the killer.
What a mess. Joseph sighed and turned away shaking his head.
His buddy, Victor Shields, captain of criminalinvestigations within the local police department, willingly offered Joseph his services and resources. Joseph had been a uniformed cop under Victor's leadership before moving to the FBI. About a year after working in New York, Victor had called him for help. Joseph had responded and found the man's runaway teenage daughter, bringing her home safely.
Now, business brought Joseph home once again. Only this time, the missing person hit close to home. A student at the Palmetto Deaf School, Kelly was not only Dylan's girlfriend, but she was also a friend of Alonso, Joseph's deaf brother.
Joseph's heart tightened as he thought about his family. Having a deaf brother, mother and sister, Joseph, the eldest of six siblings, had grown up as the protector of the clan. Active in the deaf community, knowledgeable about the tight, small world within their own culture, Joseph knew he was the perfect person for this job. Because he was accepted as part of the deaf world, he could ask questions and get answers where other hearing cops couldn't. At least not in a timely manner. And with one girl dead and another missing, time was of the essence.
He looked up at Kip Kennedy, the medical examiner, a balding man in his late fifties Joseph had known from his beat cop days. "I'm going to find out who did this to her."
Kip sighed, shook his head. "I don't know what this world is coming to. Kids dying, teenagers being snatched. It ain't right. Unfortunately, the killer didn't leave his calling card."
"I want to know everything you find on this girl. I don't care if you think it's not important. Okay?"
"Sure. I'll give you everything. I promise." He looked down at the girl who'd never smile, never grow up, never have her own family. "It's the least she deserves, and I'll do my best to give you the tools to find the one who did this to her."
Dead kids tied him in knots. Joseph did his best to shut down emotion and focus on the facts. "Thanks, Kip. I appreciate it."
A young woman in her mid-twenties popped her head in the door. "The Merritt family is here."
Kip nodded, looked up at Joseph and grimaced, his bald head shining in the overhead fluorescent light. "This is the part I really hate."
Grabbing a lightweight jacket, Detective Catelyn Clark headed back to the Palmetto Deaf School. Tracy Merritt's body had already been removed from the campus and taken to the morgue. As a homicide detective with the Spartanburg police force, Catelyn had been one of the first on the scene. She'd watched the crime-scene investigators do their job and had pitched in where she could. They'd found a baseball jacket and a flip-flop among other things that may or may not be related to the case. The flip-flop had been identified as belonging to Kelly Franklin, the missing girl.
But still, she wanted to go over the scene one more time. Before the yellow tape was removed and the school went back to normal. Her partner, Ethan O'Hara, was away on vacation with his bride of one year. He'd return home tomorrow, but would still have a couple of days off before returning to work. He'd spend them with his wife, Marianna. The man was so happy, it was disgusting. And incredibly sweet. Longing rose up in her, and she immediately vanquished it.
Only one man had ever tempted her to think about the possibility of matrimony, and she'd gotten burned as a result. Two years ago Joseph Santino had been on the verge of asking her to marry himand she'd been so close to throwing caution to the wind and saying yes. Then she'd found out his true expectations of what he felt a wife should be and she'd shoved him away with both handsand he'd left, moved to another state. Which was just as well, she reminded herself. Joseph's actions had simply reinforced a decision she'd made long ago. She would never marry another officertempted though she might have been once upon a time.
Because if there was one thing she was sure about in this life, it was the fact that two cops married to each other simply created a war zone.
Her parents had certainly taught her that.
And why she was even thinking along those lines puzzled her. It must be because her boss had told her who she'd be working this case with: Joseph Santino. Groaning in frustration at her inability to shove her resurrected thoughts about that man from her mind, she desperately focused on the task before her. Find who killed Tracy Merritt and arrest the creep.
Pulling into the gate, she flashed her badge at security. This school had seen a lot of police action lately. Just a little over a year ago, teacher Marianna O'Hara, Joseph's deaf sister, had been held hostage in her classroom by a power hungry politician. Thankfully, that situation had ended peacefully.
And now this.
Briefly, Catelyn wondered if she should remove herself from the case. Being the ex-girlfriend of the main FBI agent called in to assist with the case might cause a few raised eyebrowsif they knew.
But that was the past.
She'd worry about him later.
Now, she turned her thoughts to the young man who was the main suspect in the case: Dylan Carlisle. A hotheaded teen who convincingly protested his innocence.
Yeah, right. She'd been up that road before, had the scar to prove it and wasn't buying it this time around.
Dylan hadn't been arrested yet, but if the evidence continued to build, she'd have him in jail so fast his head would spin, convincing protests notwithstanding.
At the crime scene, she pulled to a stop and stepped out of the car. The scene had been cleared by the authorities, but not yet cleaned up. Good. She'd have a chance to go over it one more time.
The lone figure standing inside the yellow tape made her pull up and stare. He couldn't be here already. Surely not. The figure turned and met her gaze.
Yep, it was him.
Sucking in a deep breath, she blew it out slowly, telling herself to calm down. Praying her voice didn't shake at the sudden shock of seeing him, she said, "Hello, Joseph."
Joseph stared. He couldn't help it. It had been two years since he'd seen Catelyn. Even though he'd returned home to visit family during that time, he'd never run into her. She'd made herself scarce during his visits in spite of the fact that she'd stayed friends with his sister Alissa.
But he'd thought about her. Thought about calling, finding her, asking her to clarify what went wrong with their relationship. And each time he thought about it, he pushed the feelings aside, not wanting to put himself back in a place where he could be hurt again. And she had hurt him because she'd seemed to walk away from him without ever making her reasons clear. At the time, he'd been furious with her, confused and pained by her actionsand, he admitted to himself, prideful. So he'd let her have her space and time passed.
But he'd missed her. She'd practically grown up in his house and Joseph had loved her since she'd been a teenager with a chip on her shoulder. She'd fit right in with his family, six brothers and sisters, his mom and dad and a grandmother.
Catelyn had adopted them all and learned the language they'd used most around the house: ASL, American Sign Language.
And now she was even prettier than he remembered. With a glint in her eye that said she wasn't happy to see him.
Well, too bad. He was here to stay until the end. No matter what it took to find Kelly and put Tracy's killer behind bars. Even if it meant dealing with Catelyn and old feelings that had never truly died.
"Don't call me that. My name's Catelyn."
Nope, she hadn't changed a bit. Just as contrary as she ever was. "Fine," he clipped. "Catelyn, what do you think about this case so far? Any new leads on Kelly or Tracy?"
Compassion softened her gaze for a moment. "No, nothing yet. Kelly's poor family, they're beside themselves. And her brother, Billy " She shook her head. "He's having a hard time. They go to my church and I've known them awhile. You never had a chance to meet them as they came after you left."
He ignored her dig. She'd been the one to send him on his way. His gaze swept the scene again as he wondered how to respond. Then decided not to.
In spite of the fact that the scene had been cleared, he'd slipped blue crime-scene booties over his shoes so as not to disturb anything in the area. He couldn't help it. He simply couldn't walk a crime scene without them. He watched as Catelyn went ahead and slipped a pair over her shoes. Appar-ently she felt the same way.
Attention to detail.
Notice everything; mentally record the scene to pull up later. And write everything down. Good notes were essential. He had no doubt Catelyn's would be unquestionably precise and detailed.
"Dylan's jacket was found there," she offered.
"Where?" Joseph's head snapped up. Victor hadn't mentioned anything about a jacket.
She scraped a hand through that silky blond mane that never seemed to stay where she wanted it. He remembered smoothing it down, around her cheeks, his fingers grazing skin so soft, he
Clearing his throat, he asked, "What was his jacket doing at the crime scene? He doesn't even go to this school anymore now that he's playing baseball with Esterman High."
"I know. We pulled him in for questioning and he claims he met Kelly here, they were walking, she was cold and he gave her his jacket."
"So how did it wind up on the ground?" He pointed to the marker indicating where the jacket had been found.
"He says he has no idea. That he left his jacket with her and he was going to come back to get it the next day, which would be today. Tracy was found last night. We still haven't heard anything from Kelly."
"You don't believe him." Joseph stated it as fact, his eyes never leaving her face. If he hadn't been studying her so intently, he would have missed the brief flicker of regret.
She shrugged, turning back to assess the scene. He wondered if she was just avoiding looking at him. She said, "I don't know, Joseph. And that's the truth. I don't want to think Dylan capable of something like this. Dylan's aunt is a dispatcher with the department. His mom is a single mother and while his dad's in the picture, he's not around much. Dylan's track record isn't great, and kids do stupid stuff all the time that turns deadly." Another shrug. "Who knows? I'm reserving judgment until all the evidence is in."
"Alonso sent me a text message. Dylan's a good friend of his, of our family. Alonso firmly believes in his buddy's innocence and is begging me to prove it." He blew out a sigh and looked at her. "You've already got him tried and found guilty, haven't you?"
"No." Her eyes got that glint again, the one that said he was walking a fine line, and she was having trouble holding on to her temper. Not for the first time he thought she should have been a redhead. "I didn't say that. I said I'm following the evidence."
"And what if that evidence is all circumstantial and yet still leads back to Dylan?"
"Then I'll arrest him."
Catelyn hated the tension between the two of them. Once upon a time, Joseph had been her best friend, her confidante, the only man who'd ever made her seriously think about tossing away her personal rule about never marrying a cop. She turned away from him, walked to the edge of the tape.
His voice came from her right. "What else did they find?"
"A ring with some blood on it." She kept her words clipped, professional.
"The girl's or someone else's?"
"Don't know yet. It just went into the lab. You know how fast the turnaround time is." Sarcasm dripped off the words.
Joseph snorted. "Yeah."
Catelyn came closer, asking the question she'd wondered for the last couple of yearsever since he'd left. "So, how have you been?"
"Good. Just working a lot. New York's a fascinating city."
"I'm sure." Now she was stuck. Backed into that awkward conversational corner, silence stretching, making her itch to escape.
Joseph walked the perimeter, just inside the tape. Bending down, he touched the grass. "There was some kind of scuffle here. The grass is really torn up in this spot. I mean, I know it's a school with kids everywhere, but this area's kind of off the beaten path."
Relieved to be back on a safe topic, she said, "Yes, the crime-scene guys looked it over, got the pictures. No prints, though. The ground's too hard."
Glancing at the sky, Joseph lamented, "Could have used the rain that's coming this afternoon a couple of days ago."