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A woman was standing over him.
It couldn't be. He was hallucinating.
Jeremy Barnes rolled over on the hotel bed and groaned. This was worse than any hangover he'd experienced during his early days at university. He moved slightly and his muscles ached in protest.
What the hell had happened? He opened his eyes, but couldn't read the clock without his glasses. He hated feeling this weak, out of control.
Must be some sort of flu, he thought, closing his eyes and focusing on taking deep, slow breaths. He'd felt fine last night. He ground his teeth. He should be out there looking for the boy who'd gone missing off the Oregon coast.
Instead, he lay in a sweat-drenched bed. "Bollocks." He swung his feet to the floor and gripped his head. It pounded a blaring verse of "God Save the Queen."
"You finally ready to get up?"
His eyes snapped open at the sound of the woman's voice. Blast, he hadn't been hallucinating. A tall female stood not five feet away from him.
"What the hell are you doing in my room?" he said.
His firearm"where was it? He reached for his weapon on the nightstand, but instead knocked over the water bottle. His fingers trembled. Like he'd be able to shoot, much less aim the bloody thing.
"Rough night?" she said, a slight accent to her voice.
He found his glasses on the nightstand and placed them on the bridge of his nose. The female came into focus"tall, slim with tan skin and round dark eyes" eyes that burned fire.
"You with the hotel staff?" he asked. Who else would have access to his room?
She narrowed her eyes. "And if I were blond with blue eyes you'd ask me that same question?"
"No, I'm not hotel staff," she said. "Your boss sent me."
"Max sent you?" He stood, but the floor shifted and he sat back on the bed. "I'm late?" He ran his hand through his hair.
"I'd say so. It's almost noon."
He glanced at the clock. He'd been asleep for more than twelve hours. He usually never slept more than six.
"We expected you hours ago," she said. "You didn't answer your phone. Must be some hangover."
Hangover? The woman assumed too much. Jeremy was not one to overindulge. He was in control. At all times.
She seemed fascinated by his personal items, flipping open his wallet with her pen, then poking at his university ring.
He wanted to order her to get away from his things and get out, but he was still struggling to get his bearings and figure out what the hell was the matter with him.
He'd only had half a glass of wine with dinner, a mild red to complement his beef tenderloin. The Blackwell Group seemed healthy enough last night. Leader, Max Templeton, was his usual demanding self; Eddie Malone was lighthearted, but focused; and Bobby Finn and Joe Spinelli were anxious to get started on finding the boy.
What was his name again? Jeremy pinched the bridge of his nose. Bugger. What was his name?
"Are you coming or what?" she said.
He glanced at her. "Who are you?"
"Mercedes Ramos. Your new partner."
It couldn't be.
She reached out and shook his hand, vigorously. His head ached.
He retrieved his hand and studied her. "You looked so shocked," she said. "What, you think a Puerto Rican girl is only good for cleaning your room?"
"I didn't realize."
"What that I'm Latina? That bothers you?"
"No, it doesn't." What bothered him was he didn't know his partner was a woman, a gender he had trouble communicating with on a good day.
"I'm sorry about the misunderstanding." He wanted to ease that tense look on her face, that look that meant he was in for more verbal sparring. He didn't have the energy for it.
"More likely you're sorry you drank too much whiskey last night."
He stood. "I did not overindulge."
The room went into a full spin. He grabbed the headboard for support. "Tell Templeton I'm on my way."
She sighed. "I was ordered not to come back without you." She knelt beside his minifridge. "Got anything good in here?"
"I wouldn't know," he said, rubbing his temples.
"Oh, I think you would." She swung open the door to reveal it was half empty.
He hadn't paid any attention last night when he'd checked in. The hotel staff must have forgotten to restock it before he'd arrived.
"Even the booze is gone," she said, holding up an empty liquor bottle. "You had a party and didn't invite me? I'm hurt." She stuck out her lower lip in a pout.
She was playing with him. Jeremy Barnes did not play"at anything. "Get the hell out of here."
"Now you swear at a woman? I thought Englishmen had better manners."
"You break into my hotel room and accuse me of having bad manners?"
"I didn't break in." She leaned against the dresser, arms crossed over her chest. "The maid let me in."
Grinding his jaw, he swiped a shirt and trousers from his open suitcase on the dresser and made for the bathroom. He slammed the door and locked it. Max said he'd found a new promising agent, but why pair this pushy female with Jeremy?
Max knew Jeremy worked best alone.
They didn't need a new team member to complicate things, especially when a boy's life was at stake. Why the change in team structure? Blast, Jeremy had created Blackwell, found the right combination of professional investigators to solve crimes quickly and efficiently. Why had Max made this crucial decision without Jeremy?
Because Max was worried about him. He'd said as much last week when the doctor discharged Jeremy from the hospital. Max had looked at him strangely and asked if he needed a holiday, maybe a few weeks rest on a beach.
Sounded tempting, but not now, not when a boy was missing. Maybe this one he could save.
Jeremy ran the cold water in the sink and stared at his reflection in the mirror. He looked one step away from death with pale white skin and bloodshot eyes.
It didn't matter if he was dying. A boy was out there, scared and alone.
Jeremy would not abandon him.
"Dios mios,"Mercedes whispered. Multiple bottles of alcohol, candy and snack wrappers, along with a crumpled pack of cigarettes filled the garbage can.
God was punishing her by partnering her with this man. She paced the room and stared out the second story window at the ocean. Calm, peaceful waves danced onto the Oregon shore, so opposite from the storm brewing in her chest.
She'd busted her tail to get on the Blackwell team, finally breaking through Templeton's objections by agreeing to do him a favor"keep an eye on Jeremy Barnes.
Templeton didn't say why, but she sensed the importance of this assignment. She wondered if he thought Agent Barnes had gone bad.
She had done her research before joining the team. During his years with Scotland Yard, Barnes had had an impeccable reputation as an analytical thinker, a brilliant man with sharpened investigative skill. She thought she could learn from him, perfect her own skills, maybe even join this team of elite investigators and bypass all the chauvinistic garbage of a government agency.
She wanted to be equal with the men in her field, to prove to her little sister, Ivy, that a woman's worth was not dependent on how beautiful she was, or how well she cooked.
Old voices taunted her. Make my dinner, Mercedes. Iron Papi's shirts, Mercedes. Clean up Juan's mess, Mercedes. Ordered all the time. Expected to wait on the men like they were special.
When she'd announced her plans for college"not marriage"Papi had told her not to reach beyond her abilities. She'd only be disappointed.
Maybe she should have chosen another line of work, one that wasn't so heavily populated by men. But her gender shouldn't matter. She was smart and hardworking. That should be what counted most.
It wasn't. Being an attractive female had nearly gotten her fired from the FBI. Because she was female, her partner, Will Crane, felt it necessary to put his life in danger to protect her, making her look inept. Because she was female, everyone jumped to conclusions when the first word out of his mouth after he awakened from the surgery was, Mercedes.
Of course, wifey assumed her husband and Mercedes had been having an affair, so she let the boss have an earful"in front of the rest of the division. They all knew Mrs. Crane didn't appreciate her husband being partnered with an incompetent agent who couldn't take care of herself, an agent who had seduced her husband.
Mercedes tried to ignore the looks from the rest of the guys in the office that day, and the day after and the day after that. Although wifey's accusations weren't true, it was too easy to believe, and Mercedes had been marked for a desk job.
She'd been burned. Again. She hadn't even had the pleasure of romance and love.
More like pleasure and pain.
Michael. She sighed. He'd been the first man she thought had treated her with respect, yet he'd just wanted to sleep with her. She'd been sheltered and naÃ ¯ ve thanks to her strict upbringing. After the Michael disaster, she'd learned never to mix work with romance. Which was why the accusation of having an affair with Crane was ridiculous. But it didn't matter. She still got burned.
Â ¡ Basta! Stop thinking about the past and get your head in the game"playing nursemaid to a pathetic drunk.
"Four months of hell, chica."
She'd follow Barnes around, pick up after him and record his mistakes, all the while working to find a lost boy.
Why hadn't Templeton fired the man?
Because of the good old boys' network, right?
Damn, she half hoped to find Barnes doing something illegal so Templeton would shove him behind a desk. That would allow her to focus on her real job"finding Lucas Weddle.
Instead, she found Jeremy Barnes half-naked and barely able to stand.
She had to admit he was wildly attractive. His broad chest and stomach looked hard from weights and situps. She hadn't dared let her gaze wander any lower.
Heat rose to her cheeks. Pretty pathetic that she was lusting after a man like Barnes. Talk about intentionally torching your career.
But she was a healthy woman in her prime. She hadn't been close to a man for more than five years and intended to keep it that way, especially with men at work.
What was taking Barnes so long? She knocked on the bathroom door. "Did you fall in?"
The bathroom door swung open. "Do you have to yell like a high school cheerleader?"
He pushed past her looking nothing like the man who'd practically fallen on the floor a minute ago.
"I need tea," he said, pouring water into the coffeemaker.
"Tea?" she said. What kind of wimp drinks tea?
"I suppose you drink coffee, no cream or sugar?" he said.