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Normally, Jennifer Prynne would've been glued to the task force's bimonthly meeting, taking notes on the latest developments in the Death Stare case and trying to think of new avenues the crime lab could explore. Today, though, she couldn't make herself focus, not just because there weren't any major developments, but because she had something far more interesting to think about.
Or, rather, someowe far more interesting.
While Chief Mendoza went over stats that said the police crackdown was working, with fewer and fewer Death Stare ODs trickling into the local hospitals, Jenn glanced a few rows over to where Nick Lang sat with a couple of homicide detectives, comparing notes in an undertone.
Nick's home base might be in sunny Florida, but the on-loan DEA agent blended seamlessly with the cops of Bear Claw, Colorado. Even though he'd only been in the city for twelve days now, he was wearing layers against the early winter chill and had a heavily insulated bomber draped over the back of his chair. His quick, intense blue eyes were all cop, and as he leaned in to say something, the others got quiet and listened.
But at the same time that he blended, he stood out, too. The men around him didn't have his jaw-length, raven-black hair or economical way of moving, and their bodies didn't give off the same sense of leashed strength and deadly control.
Not to mention that the sight of them didn't made Jenn's pulse kick up a notch, in a way it hadn't done in a long, long time.
A nudge in her ribs startled her, followed by a blush when Gigiher friend and fellow crime scene analystwhispered, "You're staring."
A few months ago when Jenn had first come to Bear Claw, recruited to her dream job by her old friend Matt Blackthornwho was Gigi's fianceJenn might've stammered an apology or tried to pretend she was paying attention to the briefing. Now, though, riding high on hormones and happiness, she just raised an eyebrow. "D'ya blame me?"
Gigi's glance went to the side of the podium where Matt was sitting. He was acting as the city's interim mayor after the former mayor and his deputy had been indicted as conspirators in the Ghost Militia. But Jenn had a feeling that Gigi was seeing only the man when her eyes softened and her lips curved, and she said, "Nope. I don't blame you one bit, because when it's right, it's damn near perfect."
Jenn couldn't help smiling in return, but she shook her head. "It's not like that."
She and Nick had been clear on that from the beginninghe was only in town for a couple of weeks, so there was no point in starting something serious. And besides, neither of them was looking for anything long-term. They were just having fun.
Lots and lots of fun.
Gigi rolled her eyes. "I've seen you two together. Trust me, it's exactly 'like that.'"
Not letting herself acknowledge the inner glow that brought, Jenn focused on the front of the room, where Mendoza had yielded the podium to Tucker McDermott.
Tucker was head of the Homicide Division and leader of the task force that had finally broken the Ghost Militia's hold on the local drug trade. After a few brief words of introduction, he started listing the top dogs who were still at largeincluding the mastermind, a shadowy figure known only as the Investorand bullet pointing the search for the fugitives and any remaining drug-distilling operations that might be out there.
Although the park service had shut down access to the diseased trees that formed the basis for the Death Stare compound, the word on the street was that there was still a mother lode of the highly addictiveand extremely deadlydrug out there somewhere.
"In other, better news," Tucker said with a grin. "Last night we got the go-ahead from the DEA to keep Nick Lang with us here in Bear Claw for the duration of the case."
As Jenn sucked in a breath, Tucker kept talking, saying things about the valuable perspective Nick brought to the team and how he would be continuing his street-level efforts to ferret out the last of the militiamen and, ultimately, the Investor himself. But she barely heard any of it over the sudden buzz of blood in her ears.
"See?" Gigi elbowed her again. "When it's right, it's right. He must've leaned on his bosses to let him stay so the two of you can have more time together."
"Or, hello, because he wants to help bring down the Investor." But Jenn couldn't squelch her silly-stupid grin, so she ducked her head to hide it. She and Nick weren't keeping their fling a secret, but there was no reason to go around broadcasting that she was doing inner handsprings right now.
"Either way, looks like he's going to be sticking around past this weekend."
"That's what the evidence suggests," Jenn quipped. And whether or not she wanted to admit that she'd been counting the days he had left, she couldn't be happier. She snuck a look over at Nick, and found him accepting a couple of back slaps, and nodding and grinning at something the officer behind him had said.
Her whole-body glow notched up at the confirmation. It was real. He was staying.
Gigi followed her eyes. "He didn't mention it to you?"
"Nope." Jenn made herself look away as Tucker started talking about the trail that Nick had been following through the shady contacts he'd already cultivated in the short time he'd been in the city.
That was what he did best. He made friends, gained confidences and got the gossip. That was part of what made him one of the DEA's best undercover agents. That, and his ability to make the worst-of-the-worst criminals believe he was one of them.
Strangely, the rumors rife on the streets and in the back alleys of Bear Claw said the Investor was still in the area even though he'd lost his manpower, his political pull and most of his equipment. Nobody could figure out why he would've stuck around, but the police force was following up on the rumors, hoping to hell that something would pan out and they would finally be able to nail the smart, slick criminal who had nearly destroyed Bear Claw over the past year.
Most of the leads would turn out to be dead ends, of coursethe local criminals who had made up the Investor's mercenary army had become convenient boogeymen, and were being blamed for everything from petty theft to murder. But for every twenty dead ends there might be one nugget of truth. And sometimes that was all it took to crack a case.
Jenn loved that part. And over the past couple of years, when she'd been away from crime scene analysis, she had missed it more than she'd wanted to admit. She might not have the world's strongest stomach when it came to the actual crime scenes, but she rocked in the lab. She loved the rush she got when the pieces came together and helped put criminals behind bars.
As Tucker finished up and swapped places with another senior detective, Gigi leaned in and whispered, "Nick probably wanted to surprise you."
"He succeeded." Jenn wouldn't have pegged him as the kind of guy to go for such a public surprise but then again, she didn't really know him all that well.
Not yet, she thought with an inner smile, then glanced over when Nick rose, grabbed his bomber and headed for the far door. He had his cell in his hand and was reading a text message as he walkedno doubt something from one of his contactsbut he paused at the door and looked back, meeting Jenn's eyes.
Heat skimmed through her, but she played it cool and just cocked an eyebrow. Well?
He tapped his phone, then slung his coat over one shoulder and pushed through the door, easing it quietly closed behind him.
A moment later, her cell vibrated and a text appeared: Gotta make some calls. Meet me in Interrogation 3 when the meeting's over.
Gigi read it over her shoulder and made quiet hubba-hubba noises.
Jenn shushed her. "You're going to get us in trouble."
It was an empty threat, of course. With the kind of multitasking required in the crime lab, it was a no-brainer for the two of them to listen to the reports while teasing each other. Besides, every single member of the task force knew the value of a little friendship and stress relief at times like this, when they were working a high-profile case that was plagued with far more questions than answers.
Not to mention that Jenn had already earned a good, solid reputation around the lab, even though she was still in a six-month probationary period. Although Matt had personally vouched for her, the higher-ups in the Bear Claw P.D. hadn't exactly been enthusiastic about hiring someone with her background. Still, she had the necessary experience, the city was broke and she was willing to work for a fraction of her worth in order to get out of the paternity-testing snooze zone and back into a crime lab, doing the work she loved.
Even better, she loved it in Bear Clawloved the people, loved the cityand she was determined to earn a permanent place in the Bear Claw crime lab. But that didn't mean she couldn't have a little fun on the side, as long as it didn't interfere.
"Catch up with me later," Gigi said as the meeting wound down and the task force members started to disperse. "I'd like to have you take a look at a couple of soil samples."
Jenn nodded. "Will do."
Although all of the analysts in the six-person crime lab could handle a scene, they each had their strong suits when it came to the nitty-gritty: Alyssa was a whiz at facial reconstruction; Maya was a profiler; Cassie knew all the latest and greatest advances in DNA; Ravi was the local bugs-and-beasts expert; and Gigi was their crossover to active duty, with SWAT training in addition to a pedigreed resume in crime scene analysis. Jenn was hell on wheels, literally: tire tracks, footprints, soil samples and other assorted smudges were foreign languages for her to decodesometimes it took a while, but she could usually figure out what was going on, making her invaluable in the lab.
"And besides," Gigi shot over her shoulder, "I want to hear how the 'interrogation' goes!"
Jenn laughed and waved her off. "I'll see you later."
Stowing her cell in the pocket of the trim brown leather jacket she'd left on against the chilly airwhich was only going to get worse as the winter wore on Jenn grabbed the rest of her gear and headed for the far hallway, which led to the interrogation rooms.
As she slipped through the same door Nick had used, giddy flutters took root in her stomach and she was suddenly very aware of the weight of her jacket and the way the sleek lining of her wool trousers slid across her skin. And when she reached Room Three, she paused for a second with her hand on the knob. Take it easy, she told herself. Play it cool.
Not that this was a game, of coursethey had both been up-front and honest with each other from the very beginning about what they wanted and what they could give. But that was before a first date that had them up and talking until sunrise, a third date that had culminated with the best sex of her life and a fourth date that had seen them moving his things out of the hotel and into her apartment because there didn't appear to be any point in wasting the department's money for the remainder of Nick's two-week stint in Bear Claw. Which, it seemed, had just been given a stay of execution.
Letting out a long, slow breath and trying not to be too obvious with the happy-happy-joy butterflies, she pushed through the door into Interrogation Three.
The fifteen-by-twenty, gray-painted space, with its table and chairs, mirrored window and surveillance camera, should have been stark and unrelenting. But with Nick standing with his back to her, watching their reflections in the one-way glass, it became intimate instead. She saw his eyes in the mirror, saw him track her as she crossed the room and tossed her things on the table next to his bomber.
She moved to stand beside him, liking the pair they made in the mirrored glass. She was a good eight inches shorter than his solid six feet, and had wavy brunette hair and curves that contrasted with his big, lethal body. Even their eyes were differenthers alight with interest and anticipation, his level, almost reserved. Cop's eyes.
Nerves stirred, but it was just his work face, she knew. Trying to meet him halfway on that one, she bumped him with her shoulder, coworker to coworker. "Hey. Way to give a girl the heads-up that you're going to be sticking around. Guess I should lay in some more buffalo burgers."