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As the elite of Manhattan sipped champagne and whispered in hushed tones, Rafe Mancuso patted the Glock hidden beneath his tuxedo jacket. Relaxed but alert, he strode through the room, certain he wouldn't need the gun in this highbrow crowd. Still, the Lancaster Foundation was paying him to remain vigilant at their auction of outrageously priced jewels. Instead, he was distracted by the woman who'd recruited him to work security, Sara Rios, his one-time partner at the NYPD.
She walked through the double doors, and he couldn't focus on anything else. They'd had a unique connection, working together like a well-oiled machine. Spending hours in a car together led to an immediate friendship and an emotional intimacy Rafe had never experienced before.
Not even with his fiancée.
He and Sara had never acknowledged let alone acted on the feelings simmering between them, but that hadn't lessened the impact. And if Rafe thought Sara had been a dangerous temptation back then, he was blown away now. The woman who'd worked alongside him in a police uniform had never looked this hot. In a sparkling silver dress that hit toned midcalf, her long blond hair draped over her shoulders and full breasts he hadn't known existed, Rafe couldn't tear his gaze away.
"Hey there, stranger! Long time no see." She greeted him with a wide smile.
She leaned over and pressed a kiss on his cheek, her soft lips and sweet scent intoxicating him, reminding him of why he'd switched shifts and broken up their partnership last year. Rafe's father had almost destroyed their family with an affair, and Rafe had sworn he would never follow in those footsteps. To an engaged man, Sara presented a temptation that simply had to end. Ironically, his relationship with his fiancée had imploded not long after, but as far as Rafe was concerned, breaking up the partnership was the smartest thing he'd ever done.
Sara would never commit to any man for the long haul, and Rafe demanded nothing less.
"I'm glad you took me up on this gig. It's good to see you." She tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and met his gaze, her brown eyes sparkling with pleasure.
He smiled. "It's good to see you, too."
"You dress up nicely," she said.
His stare never left hers. "I can honestly say the same about you. And as a bonus, it should be an easy night." He inclined his head toward the other side of the room, where the jewels were on display.
The Lancaster Foundation had insisted Rafe and Sara blend in and socialize, not crowd the items for sale. As trained professionals, they'd have preferred to set the parameters, but the foundation hadn't wanted the guests to feel too intimidated to view the items up close.
"An easy night is good," Sara said. "I'm supposed to lie low until I testify at a murder trial next month. And you can't get any more low-key than this."
He laughed in agreement. "I heard about your case. Started as a routine B and E on Park Avenue, right?"
"That's what we thought. Someone broke in and sur prised the wife at home, hit her on the head and stole some high-priced items. But the victim refused to go to the hospital and died in her sleep a few hours later." Sara shook her head at the senseless result.
They'd both dealt with their share of stubborn victims.
"As it happened, I was the last person to speak to her before she died. She implicated her husband or at least gave him motive."
"So you're the key witness at the husband's murder trial," Rafe said, repeating what he'd heard around the station.
"Yep. And it all comes down to money." She tipped her head toward the wealthy crowd. "Alicia Morley's capital was the only thing keeping her husband's investment firm afloat. He and his partners ran the firm into the ground, and she refused to continue to subsidize his bad investments. He hired someone to break in and make it look like a robbery gone bad, hoping to inherit her estate. But if he's convicted, her money goes to adult children from a first marriage."
A waiter passed by, and Sara grabbed a sparkling water from his tray. She took a sip, leaving a pink-rimmed lipstick mark on the glass.
Rafe couldn't tear his gaze away. Couldn't stop his mind from imagining other uses for those luscious, glossed lips. "Where's the husband now?" he asked, his throat parched and dry.
"Still in jail. Prosecutors convinced a judge he's a flight risk. But his business partners are connected to some dangerous people, and the D.A. wants me to keep a low profile until the case is over."
"Well, I'm happy to handle this low-profile event with you." Where he could look and not touch. "I saw your neighbor, Sam Cooper, earlier."
Coop and Sara weren't just next-door neighbors: they were good friends. And since Sara let few people get close, and Rafe trusted her instincts, he automatically respected Coop. He often crossed paths with the crime-beat reporter and professionally pegged him as a decent guy who'd never compromise the truth for a story.
Since Sara was territorial about her friends, Rafe decided not to mention that he'd caught sight of Coop sneaking out of the unused coatroom not long after a disheveled-looking woman had done the same. In the dead heat of summer, nobody used that closet unless they were getting some action. Rafe was actually jealous. He couldn't remember the last time he'd grabbed a quickie with a woman in a nearly public place, but looking at Sara in that dress had him thinking about nothing else.
Sara nodded. "I came with Coop, but I hope he'll be leaving with his girlfriend, Lexie Davis. If they settle an argument they had first." She pursed her lips and glanced around the room, her frown becoming more distinct. "I don't see them."
"It's crowded. Maybe they're somewhere making up," Rafe said in an attempt to reassure her.
Sex, then an argument, then makeup sex? Could any guy get that lucky in the span of an hour? Rafe shook his head and laughed.
"What's so funny?" Sara asked.
Rafe came up with a cover story. "Just wondering how Coop's handling his stint on the Bachelor Blog."
The online and in-print feature now in the Daily Post targeted single men in New York City. The blog started by picking a bachelor and highlighting him. The spotlight led to people covering the guy's every move, from where he stopped for coffee to where he worked, and usually culminated in speculation about his love life. Women then came out of the woodwork in droves, hoping to snag the newest, hippest NYC bachelor. Despite the fact that he worked for the Daily Post, Coop was the blogger's latest sucker.
"You read that trash?" Sara sounded affronted by the prospect.
Rafe shook his head. "Hell, no. But Maggie does." As Sara knew, Maggie was their daytime dispatcher, and she loved to share station gossip and, lately, Bachelor Blog news.
"I don't know how Maggie finds the time," Sara said.
"Saves her from focusing on her own life."
Suddenly a loud shriek and the sound of shattering glass broke through the dull hum of the crowd, interrupting their conversation.
Rafe whipped his head toward the sound, hand on his pocket, ready to draw his weapon.
"The waiter has a knife!" someone next to them shouted.
"And he's got Coop's girlfriend," Sara groaned.
Instinct kicked in, and Rafe met Sara's gaze, both silently acknowledging they needed to get closer to the action.
Rafe inclined his head, and Sara immediately started clockwise around the room, heading toward the waiter with the knife. Rafe went counter and worked his way through the startled crowd.
Hopefully one of them, Rafe or Sara, could distract the waiter while the other got a jump or a clear shot.
"He's got the ring!" The warning came from the woman being held hostage.
A piece from the Lancaster Foundation. Rafe swallowed a curse.
"Shut up!" the panicked waiter yelled at her.
Rafe glanced over in time to see the man prick his hostage's skin with the tip of his blade.
"Just how do you think you're getting out of here?" Suddenly Sam Cooper stepped forward. Hands in the air, he eased toward the waiter who held his girlfriend at knifepoint.
Ordinarily Rafe wouldn't want a civilian trying to talk a crazy man down, but Coop wasn't stupid. And at least he was buying Rafe and Sara time to get closer.
"Who the hell are you?" the waiter asked.
"I'm with the lady. Now, just relax." Coop attempted to take another step.
"Stay there!" the waiter shouted.
Rafe still wasn't close enough, nor could he risk scaring the man who'd already escalated from stealing a ring to taking a hostage.
The waiter shifted his grip on the woman. "Look, I'm just gonna walk out of here, and nobody's going to stop me." He made his way toward a steel door marked Stairwell, pulling his hostage along with him.
Rafe sought and found Sara across the room. She was close enough to confront the man, and Rafe gave her silent encouragement, knowing she could handle talking him down. They'd been in negotiation basics together, though she'd had no interest in specializing.
Without warning, the waiter shoved the hostage into the crowd, taking everyone off guard.
In the chaos that followed, he yanked the door and bolted from the room. Sara took off after him.
Rafe surged forward, but the door slammed shut before he could reach it, costing him precious time. Heart lodged in his throat, he pushed his way through the guests, opened the door and ran up a dark stairwell.
He launched through another door and onto the rooftop, gun already drawn, only to find he had a different hostage situation on his hands.
The waiter had obviously misjudged his exit strategy. There was no way out from here, and he now held Sara at knifepoint. He'd obviously been expecting company and grabbed her as insurance.
Rafe broke into a sweat that had nothing to do with the heat and humidity swirling around him.
"Drop the gun," the waiter ordered.
Rafe gauged his chances of shooting the suspect and missing Sara. The moonlight was on his side, illuminating the roof. But considering the other man held her as a complete body shield, knife to her neck, his chances were not good.
"Come on, man. Let her go. You don't want to go down for assaulting a cop," Rafe said, beginning the process of talking the man down.
The waiter's eyes opened wide, but he didn't flinch or drop the knife. "Is she really a cop?" Sweat poured down the man's face.
"We both are," Sara said, voice calm.
Rafe admired her cool and hoped she could hold on to it.
The waiter spat a curse. The hand holding the knife shook, and the blade pricked her skin. A small trickle of blood oozed onto her neck.
Nausea swamped Rafe, but he pushed the feeling aside. "Your day just gets better and better," Rafe said, his gun level with Sara's chest. "Let her go. It'll still go easier on you if you don't stab a cop."
"I need to think," the man said, obviously shaken.
Panic warred with the irrational need to go down fighting, and his indecision was tangible.
Rafe had seen it before. The guy had to make a choice. So did Rafe. Where another trained negotiator might talk his guts out until he was out of time, Rafe had the advantage of knowing the hostage.
And she knew how to read his mind and his cues. Acting presented a risk, but Rafe trusted his ex-partner.
Decision made, Rafe met Sara's gaze, giving her an imperceptible nod. "Drop!" he yelled at the same time as he dove for the other man's legs.
Everything next happened in a blur. Sara's body went limp, surprising the guy while Rafe barreled into him, knocking him off balance. Sara rolled free, and Rafe tackled the other man but was unable to get a grip on the knife. He wasn't sure how long he grappled and deflected before he obtained the upper hand, landing a smooth blow to the man's jaw that ultimately subdued him.
"Don't move!" Sara stood over the waiter, gun raised.
Breathing hard, Rafe rose to his feet. "You okay?"
She nodded. "I would've been better if he hadn't gotten the jump on me," she muttered. "He knocked the gun right out of my hand." She shook her head in disgust.