Fatal Exposure (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1757)

Fatal Exposure (Harlequin Romantic Suspense Series #1757)

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by Gail Barrett

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Silence is her only protection

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist B. K. ("Brynn") Elliot chronicles Baltimore's grittier side with her lens—a talent cultivated from her years as a teenage runaway. A reclusive figure, Brynn lives under everyone's radar…until a photo from her past plunges her into the crosshairs


Silence is her only protection

Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist B. K. ("Brynn") Elliot chronicles Baltimore's grittier side with her lens—a talent cultivated from her years as a teenage runaway. A reclusive figure, Brynn lives under everyone's radar…until a photo from her past plunges her into the crosshairs of powerful enemies.

Detective Parker McCall has devoted fifteen years to trying to solve his brother's murder, and with the release of a photo implicating Brynn as a potential suspect, he feels close to finding justice. Determined to get answers, Parker must ignore the inexplicable attraction he feels for the haunted beauty in the photo. And Brynn must decide if Parker will protect her or betray her in his hunt for a killer.

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Buried Secrets , #1
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Cold case detective Parker McCall tightened his grip on the newspaper, his gaze riveted on the photo of the woman splashed across the Baltimore Sun's front page. She could have been any affluent shopper strolling out of the pricey art gallery—her long, glossy hair tumbling over her shoulders, the collar of her woolen coat turned up against the brisk November wind.

Except for her wary eyes.

The eyes of his brother's murderer.

The eyes that had eluded him for fifteen years.

He lowered the newspaper to his cluttered desk, the laughter and banter of the detectives beyond his cubicle receding to a distant buzz. Then, hardly breathing, he tugged his wallet from the back pocket of his jeans. Working as carefully as a scientist handling nuclear material, he extracted a worn, faded photo and placed it alongside the page.

For several excruciating seconds his gaze lingered on the image of his younger brother, his heart making its usual lurch of guilt and remorse. Sixteen years old, his cheeks badly hollowed, his body wasted by his addictions, Tommy leaned against a graffiti-sprayed wall near Baltimore's Inner Harbor, one emaciated arm slung over the waiflike girl at his side.

The girl Parker had failed to find.

Until now.

He shifted his scrutiny to the girl, taking in her sparrow-thin legs, the baggy sweatshirt dwarfing her scrawny frame, her unruly mop of auburn curls. Then he homed in on her eyes—bleak, world-weary eyes aged far beyond her years.

He sliced his gaze back to the woman in the newspaper. She was still petite, still thin and older than the adolescent slouching against the wall beside his brother, but he'd stake his life they were the same.

A punch of adrenaline making his heart sprint, he skimmed the article accompanying the front-page spread. Amazingly, the woman appeared to be B. K. Elliot, the world-renowned photojournalist whose exhibit had opened in the gallery that week—a photographer so reclusive that no one had known what she looked like until now. But rumors about her abounded, claiming she was everything from a traumatized war vet to a homeless woman disfigured in a fire.

Regardless of her identity, B. K. Elliot's photos had caused a worldwide furor in recent years, winning both the Pulitzer for Feature Photography and the prestigious Hasselblad Award. Even Parker, who didn't know squat about photography, could recognize the power in her unsettling work. Her photos chronicled the poverty and violence of street life with brutal, disturbing honesty.

A perspective only a former runaway could know.

The exhibit's grand opening had been mobbed, bringing the bigwigs out in droves. Parker's boss, Colonel Hugh Hoffman—head of the Baltimore Police Department's Criminal Investigation Division—had attended, along with his political mentor, Senator Alfred Riggs. Helping teen runaways was one of the Colonel's signature projects, as was this cold case squad.

Parker switched his attention back to his brother's photo, dead sure now that the women were the same. But he needed expert verification, something more concrete to go on before he charged off to find her, half-cocked.

Rising, he scooped up the paper and photo, then strode past the cubicles lined up like jail cells, the stained industrial carpet muffling his steps. Too late he spotted his supervisor, Sergeant Enrique Delgado, manning the coffee machine near the exit. Unable to avoid him, Parker slowed.

"Packing it in already?" Delgado asked, his shrewd gaze taking in the newspaper tucked under Parker's arm. "Another exhausting day at the desk?"

Parker tamped back a spurt of dislike. Nicknamed "Iglesias" for his slick Latin looks and equally slick reputation with women, Enrique Delgado had transferred in from the gang unit when his cover got blown and a shoot-out nearly claimed his life. But Delgado considered this assignment in the cold case squad beneath him—an opinion he voiced freely, not earning him any friends. Even worse, the Colonel had put Delgado in a supervisory position over far more seasoned homicide detectives, like him.

Brownnosing and office politics at their worst.

Parker leveled him a glance. "Yeah, I threw my back out opening a drawer."

"Whoa, you should put in for hazard pay."

Ignoring Delgado's mocking laughter, Parker shouldered open the door to the hall and strode out. Still scowling, he bypassed the snail-paced elevator and made a beeline for the stairwell, then started up the scuffed steps. Technically, he should have informed Delgado about what he'd found. Like it or not, the man was his supervisor—and with Parker's dubious family background, he couldn't afford to buck the rules. But there wasn't a chance in hell Delgado would let him investigate his brother's death. And Parker had worked for too many years to forfeit his chance at the killer now.

Silencing his protesting conscience, he exited the stairwell two floors later and veered to the nearest desk. "Is Sudhir in?" he asked the secretary, who was speaking into her headset. She nodded and waved him past, her silver rings glinting in the fluorescent light. Seconds later, Parker knocked on the police artist's door.

"Come in," Sudhir called out, and Parker strode inside. Balding, his paunch encased in a purple-and-black Baltimore Ravens T-shirt, Sudhir Singh had been a fixture in the precinct for years, long enough to warrant an actual office, albeit with a Dumpster view. He worked a variety ofjobs, from sketch artist, interpreter and polygraph test administrator to unofficial coordinator of the underground football pool.

"Hey, Sudhir. You going to the game this weekend?" Parker asked by way of greeting.

"You bet." Parker waited, muzzling his impatience until Sudhir wound down his tirade over the team's most recent trade.

"So whatcha got?" he finally asked.

Parker handed him the old photo. "This girl. I need you to age her fifteen years. I think I've found a match."

His attention instantly snagged, Sudhir swiveled toward his equipment, motioning absently in the direction of an empty chair. "Have a seat."

Parker pulled up the chair and sat. Leaning forward, he locked his gaze on the monitor as Sudhir scanned the photo in. Several seconds later his brother and the runaway girl appeared on the computer screen.

Parker's belly went taut, the sight of his drugged-out brother prompting the usual litany of self-reproach. He should have done more to save him. He should have found a way to keep him in rehab until he'd stopped destroying his life. He should have fired that useless counselor and searched for someone better, someone who could have found a way to reach him and convince him to stay off drugs.

And he definitely should have anticipated the effect their father's arrest and suicide would have on Tommy, who'd idolized the man.

But Parker had failed. Only twenty-two himself when his father had died, he'd been too busy salvaging his budding career, trying to prove that he wasn't corrupt. And his brother had paid the price, running away from home, embarking on a downward spiral of drugs and crime that had ended with his senseless death.

But the day he'd lowered Tommy into the ground, Parker had made a vow. He wouldn't fail his little brother again. He would bring Tommy's killer to justice, no matter how many years it took.

His jaw clenched, his gaze still trained on the monitor, Parker watched intently as Sudhir cropped his brother from the photo and zoomed in on the runaway girl. Several keystrokes later, her face filled the screen, those big, bleak eyes a sucker punch to his gut. She didn't look like a killer; he'd give her that much. She looked too young, too fragile, too harmless. But the most innocent face could hide the blackest heart.

"She looks about twelve, maybe thirteen, in this photo," Sudhir said, tapping on his keyboard. "So her current age would be what, late twenties?"

"Yeah, that sounds about right."

Switching to his mouse, Sudhir began using his age progression software to manipulate her face. "What kind of lifestyle does she lead? Does she smoke? Drink? Do drugs?"

"Drugs, probably." Tommy had only hung out with other addicts toward the end.

"Any other factors that might affect her appearance, like wind or sun damage to her skin?"

Parker frowned. As a runaway, she would have been exposed to the elements. But if this woman really was B. K. Elliot, her photos sold for thousands of dollars a pop—meaning her impoverished days were long gone.

"Let's say she was homeless during her teen years," he decided. "Then she straightened herself out and led a comfortable life after that."

Sudhir added a trace of squint lines around her eyes.

"Weight gain?"

Remembering the photo in the newspaper, Parker shook his head. "No, keep her thin."

"How about her hair?"

He studied the image taking shape on the screen. "Longer, just past her shoulders. And not so curly, just kind of wavy and thick."

Sudhir continued to work, slowly transforming the scrawny adolescent into a young woman. A hauntingly beautiful woman with a small, feminine nose, elegantly sculpted cheekbones and an intriguingly sensual mouth.

His heart picked up its beat.

But what held him captive were her eyes. Her eyes were wounded, poignant, raw, as vulnerable as those of the children in B. K. Elliot's photos. They drew him in, sparking a sense of awareness, an oddly tumultuous feeling that went beyond the usual pull of attraction for a pretty face.

Something he had no damned right to feel for a woman involved in his brother's death.

With effort, he shrugged off the erotic tug.

A moment later, Sudhir released the mouse and sat back, his chair creaking under his weight. He tilted his head to the side. "So what do you think?"

His heart beating triple time, Parker unfolded the newspaper and held it beside the monitor. Sudhir's low whistle echoed his thoughts. She was a dead ringer for the woman in the paper.

"I think I found a killer."

Now he just had to track her down.

Unable to shake the weariness dogging her steps, Brynn Elliot pushed open the door of her Alexandria, Virginia, row house and trudged inside, the blast of heat enveloping her like a caress. God, she was tired. A week spent scouring the streets of New York City in near-freezing temperatures had done her in—and not just physically. It was the suffering that got to her, the violence inflicted on those defenseless kids. And with every passing year the runaways looked younger, more cynical, their wounded eyes filled with more despair.

A feeling she'd once known well.

Knowing better than to go down that depressing track, she deposited an armload of newspapers and junk mail on the kitchen table, then shrugged off her backpack and coat. She couldn't change her past. And neither could she rescue the world. She simply tried to reveal the truth, to force the hypocrites in high society to face the hell of these children's lives—lives they had betrayed and destroyed.

Really not wanting to revisit those old ghosts, she glanced at her kitchen phone, its voice mail indicator light flashing like a squad car at a crime scene, then crossed the kitchen to the pantry and rummaged for a can of soup. The messages would be from Haley, a perpetual worrier, needing to make sure she was safe. Brynn had missed her weekly call-in thanks to the punks who'd stolen her cell phone in New York. She was just glad they hadn't noticed her camera. The photos she'd taken of the child prostitutes on Rocka-way Boulevard were her most poignant work to date.

Impatient to upload the photos to her computer and get to work, she dumped the soup into a bowl and stuck it into the microwave to heat. Then she called up her voice mail, set the phone to speaker and started disposing of her junk mail so she could clear a space to eat.

"Brynn, are you there? Pick up the phone," Haley's voice called out. Smiling at her friend's predictability, Brynn tossed several pieces of junk mail into the bin.

"Brynn, it's important. Call me right away," her next message said.

"I will," Brynn promised. "Just give me a minute to eat."

"Why haven't you called me back?" Haley demanded in her third call, desperation straining her voice. "Where are you?"

"In New York, fighting off a couple of punks." Punks she could have evaded in her younger days. Making a mental note to buy another disposable cell phone, she threw another batch of junk mail away.

"For God's sake, Brynn, why haven't you called me? Have you seen the newspapers? I need to talk to you right away."

The papers? Brynn paused, unable to ignore the urgency in Haley's tone. Had there been something about Haley's shelter in the newspaper, something that might have exposed her friend's identity—a danger they all had to avoid?

Worried now, she dumped the rest of the advertisements in the trash, then started flipping through various newspapers, not sure what she was supposed to find. But whatever it was had to be important. Haley wasn't the type to panic. She dealt with high drama daily in her shelter for runaway, pregnant teens. And if she was worried enough to call…

Her sense of anxiety growing, Brynn riffled quickly through the papers, scanning political columns and crime reports to no avail. Then a front-page photo caught her attention, and everything inside her froze.

It was a photo of her.

The room swayed. She gripped the table for balance, a dull roar battering her ears. Someone had photographed her leaving the art gallery—and splashed it across the front page. But how had they figured out who she was? She hadn't spoken to a soul. She hadn't even greeted the clerk. She'd simply strolled through the exhibit, discreetly checking the status of the photos, then left.

Praying she was somehow mistaken, she unfolded the newspaper, but there wasn't any doubt. The headline screamed "Mystery solved!"

Reeling, she sank into a chair. How could this have happened? She'd been so blasted careful. She'd lived off the grid for years—always on the move, constantly changing her identity with her friends' help. Even later, when her career had taken off, her agent had stepped in, doing all the promotional work, accepting awards on her behalf, never revealing what she looked like or where she lived. Now a momentary lapse—a quick visit to the gallery to estimate her earnings—had destroyed everything. And all because she'd needed to upgrade the plumbing in Haley's shelter before she left on her New York trip.

Staggered by the scope of the disaster, she pressed her fingers to her forehead and tried to think. A reporter had connected her to her work. Exactly how he'd done that, she didn't have a clue. But the media would come out in droves. Her stepfather would hunt her down. So would Tommy's killer, assuming he was still around.

Panic bubbled inside her. She was in danger. Terrible danger. So were Haley and Nadine.

No, Nadine would be all right. She'd called a few weeks back to let Brynn know she was heading to Peru, journeying to the remote mountain villages to do her charity medical work. No one would find her there.

But Haley… She was in D.C., running her shelter for pregnant teens—an open target for their enemies. If she wasn't already dead.

Horrified, Brynn leaped to her feet, knocking over her chair as she lunged across the kitchen and grabbed the phone. Punching in Haley's number, she prayed that she'd pick up.

The doorbell buzzed.

Meet the Author

Former Rita finalist Gail Barrett always knew she wanted to be a writer.  After living everywhere from Spain to the Bahamas, earning a graduate degree in Linguistics, and teaching high school Spanish for years, she finally fulfilled that goal.  Her books have won numerous awards, including the National Readers’ Choice award, the Book Buyers' Best, and RWA’s Golden Heart.  Visit her website: www.gailbarrett.com.

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Fatal Exposure 4.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
SunMtnReviews More than 1 year ago
This story starts off with an effective hook that immediately pulled me into the story. Detective Parker McCall gets a major lead on who may have murdered his younger brother, Tommy, fifteen years ago. When a photo of the famed but reclusive photojournalist Brynn Elliot appears in the newspaper, Parker recognizes her from years ago as a runaway teen seen with Tommy. He suspects Brynn may be the one who murdered Tommy or at the very least can provide answers about his death.  Parker is a dedicated, loyal officer who takes his job seriously. He has worked hard to move up in the ranks, despite the suspicions of other officers that Parker may be just like his father, also an officer, who was found to be corrupt on the job.  Although Parker is a stickler for going by the books and following the chain of command, he doesn’t want to risk that this new lead will not be pursued to the fullest extent. Therefore, he decides to find and question Brynn by himself.  This first decision to break the rules of police procedure will soon lead to more decisions on how far Parker will go in his quest for justice. Brynn has been on her own since she was a young girl, running from a gruesome past and carrying deadly secrets. She grew up surviving on the streets with her two friends Haley and Nadine, also on the run for different reasons.  Now that Brynn’s identity has been exposed, she must flee again. Before she can escape, however, Parker finds and confronts her about her relationship with his brother.  Brynn soon realizes Parker will not let her continue running and hiding until his brother’s murderer is brought to justice: “Everything about Parker McCall reeked of danger-from the jut of his steel-hard jaw to those penetrating black eyes that scrutinized every move. He was too smart. Too determined. And there wasn’t a chance he’d leave her alone. “ Although Brynn is distrustful of others, especially the police, she and Parker form an initially shaky alliance that leads them to investigate a secretive plot of murder, perversion, and corruption that goes farther up in the chain of command than anyone ever expected.  Parker and Brynn work together in this intriguing mystery revealing random clues that they must struggle to put together while on the run from those who want them dead.  I appreciated how the author frequently reiterates the connections Parker and Brynn make as well as addressing the looming questions that still need to be answered. These tactics helped me to avoid getting lost or overwhelmed by the numerous complications and conflicts that occur in this fast-paced suspense.  The romance between Brynn and Parker develops gradually and realistically as both get to know each other, and the foundation for their love is based on mutual admiration and respect. Each understands the loneliness and pain that the other endures.  Although this couple’s observations and thoughts reveal their attraction for one another, I wished for more sizzling sparks to really show that ongoing passion between them. The protagonists, Parker and Brynn, are dynamic, well-rounded characters who gained my respect through their solid belief in doing what is right regardless of the sacrifices that must be made. Even though both characters have experienced heart-breaking betrayal and disillusionment in the past, each has emerged as a survivor, stronger than one might expect given their traumatic experiences.  In addition, to the external dangers surrounding them, I enjoyed watching these two characters grow over the course of the story as they are forced to deal with and resolve their internal conflicts.  This is a well written romantic suspense that answers many questions behind the mystery but also left me wondering about further aspects of the deeply embedded corruption that will lead into the second book in the Buried Secrets trilogy.  The second and third books will focus on Haley’s and Nadine’s stories, respectively.
jojoNE More than 1 year ago
As someone who doesn't read many suspense books I was left in awe of what Ms. Barrett has created. Fatal Exposure is a short read that packs a big whollop in its characterizations and overall storyline and the groundwork laid here provides big ramifications for future stories. By the end of this story it proves you can't run from your past forever and three young woman learn. B.K. Elliot and her two friends were living on the streets at a young age, all of them on the run from something. For Brynn it was being sexually abused by her stepfather, a prominent member of society. As if the danger he represented wasn't bad enough, there's even more evil that got the girls caught in the crossfire which ended in bloodshed and each of them on the run. The world and career Brynn's built unfortunately comes crashing down when the man who thinks she killed his brother discovers her hideout and refuses to let her get away again without giving him answers. With blood and violence invading her life once more she must rely not only on herself but Detective Parker McCall who refuses to take no for an answer. They must trust in one another if they have any hope of escaping dangers from the past that have returned to their present. But with Brynn's mistrust in the justice system and Parker's distrust in his bosses, trust is a commodity in short supply. Brynn is a strong-willed and immensely likable heroine who, through her experiences early in life, has made a career out of presenting the dark and dangerous world of runaways in a realistic way and helps them whenever she can. With all the darkness she's seen it's hard to admit there's any happiness to be found. Because of this she fights her attraction to Parker. Past experiences of being ignored when reporting her abuse further incites feelings of doubt where Parker's concerned so he has to work doubly hard to win her trust and love. Parker is a man on a mission who's desperate to learn the truth of what happened to his brother. He's hardworking and honest and as the truth about his bosses is slowly revealed he comes to trust in and rely on Brynn more and more to see true justice served. Brynn and Parker make a formidable couple. They're strong both mentally and physically and as their relationship progresses they get closer to who the real criminals are. The suspenseful aspects of this story keep you on the edge of your seat and constantly guessing through some clever twists and turns. The romance took a back seat to the mystery but was no less satisfying in the intensity of its sexual tension. The HEA, once it's reached, is immensely satisfying but leaves a door open for another of Brynn's friends from the past to return and have her own story be told.