Walking away from sexy Detective Diego Sandoval was one of the toughest things security specialist Becca Haney ever had to do. But her past is a direct threat to his future, to the career he's working so hard to rebuild. Now, with a witness from a horrific case implicating Diego, Becca must decide whether to listen to her head or her heart.
Diego is a big-city lawman used to cracking the hardest cases, but he'll never understand why Becca ended their passionate affair. When he's assigned to help keep her safe from a human trafficking ring, he's determined to stay by her side and learn about the woman behind the passionscars and all.
But Becca has another admirer. Known only as "the Fan," he believes he's the perfect partner for herand he'll kill to prove it. When the stakes are raised in the killer's deadly game, Diego will be called upon to save livesincluding Becca's.
About the Author
Anne Marie has always been fascinated by people—inside and out—which led to degrees in Biology, Chemistry, Psychology, and Counseling. Her passion for understanding the human race is now satisfied by her roles as mother, wife, daughter, sister, and award-winning author of romantic suspense.
She writes to reclaim her sanity.
Find ways to connect with Anne Marie at www.AnneMarieBecker.com.
Read an Excerpt
Friday, 4:03 p.m., early February
Hoboken, New Jersey
Becca followed the instructionsboth partsto the letter. She'd told no one, and she arrived at the diner alone. The window that separated her from the sleet-slick street outside proclaimed the breakfast specials in ketchup-red and mustard-yellow stencil, which only accentuated the day's shades of gray.
Then again, it was February. In Hoboken.
"Another refill?" The waitress's attitude had gone from cheerful to weary over the past hour.
"No, thanks." Three cups had already shifted her usual state of heightened awareness into downright jittery territory. It went against all her self-protective instinctsand in a personal security specialist and bodyguard, those were strongto continue to sit and wait, but she wanted this interview. Had worked for months to chase down this lead that might provide new information about Samantha Manchester's disappearance. The trail had been cold for twenty years, which was why Becca needed Selina. So she didn't protest when the tired waitress misheard her and moved to top off her cup yet again.
Her hand shook slightlyadrenaline and caffeine were a potent mixas she lifted her cup to her lips.
She set it down too hard, sloshing a bit over the rim, splashing droplets onto the table. As she reached for the napkin dispenser, the tiny diamond stud in her nose reflected in the metal surface, winking at her like sun on snow. During the weeks they'd exchanged emails, Becca had learned that eighteen-year-old Selina loved piercings, extreme hair color and all things city-chic, so Becca had opted to wear the stud she normally removed for her daily job. Her nearly white-blond hair was a constant. Still a year shy of thirty, Becca was short enough, her appearance young enough, to get away with wearing ripped jeans and a T-shirt advertising a popular punk band.
Another minute ticked by. Resigned, she took out her phone and sent the text she'd been composing in her mind. So sorry. Going to miss rehearsal but will be at party. Will make it up to you.
She was, technically, in New York City to serve as a bridesmaid in a wedding, but the proximity to this lead in Hoboken had been crucial to her decision to fly in early. However, she hadn't counted on her lead being late for their appointment. She was going to miss the next train back to the city.
A moment later, Vanessa texted a reply. Because of Diego?
Becca's body went still. Months ago, she'd reconciled herself to seeing her ex-lover again, since Diego was the groom's best man. She was dreading it, but she would pull on her big-girl panties for the sake of her friends' wedding. Vanessa and Noah deserved happiness.
She texted back. No. Work.
I know this weekend is tough for you. If you want to talk, I'm here.
Though Becca appreciated the offer, sharing wasn't in the cards. Her two-week affair with Diego last summer would be forever locked away in a vault in the back of her mind. Unfortunately, her masochistic side occasionally whipped out those memories like little jewels and re-examined them in all their sparkling, stunning detail.
A young woman peeked through the diner's ketchup-and-mustard window and Becca hastily returned Vanessa's text. See you soon.
Swallowed up by a trench coat that appeared secondhand, the woman looked all of twelve years old, especially when she rapidly blinked away snowflakes as if she were lost and confused. But the highlights in her hair were expensivenot homegrown, but from a quality salon. She winced as the tinkling of a bell announced her entrance, then she spied Becca in the corner.
With halting steps, as if she were facing a firing squad, she made her way to the table. "Becca?"
"That's me." Becca smiled warmly and gestured to the opposite side of the booth. "Thank you for coming."
After another glance around, Selina slid onto the bench. "I almost didn't, but I had to meet the woman who thinks she can take down the Circle." Selina's gaze flicked over her. "Kind of small, aren't you?"
"The best things come in small packages." It was something Becca's brothers used to say to her, before ruffling her hair. Or trying out the latest wrestling moves on her. Not that they'd dared to attempt such a thing in years, not since she'd shown up to a family dinner wearing her black belt in Tae Kwon Do. "I'm tougher than I look." And at five and a half feet tall, she wasn't that tiny.
"Me, too." For an eighteen-year-old, Selina's eyes were hard with life experience, her jaw set in concrete.
"You'd have to be tough, to survive what you've been through."
The waitress approached, some semblance of her cheerful smile back in place at the prospect of another paying customer. Selina ordered a cup of coffee, then waited until the waitress was at the other end of the diner before speaking. "How'd you find me?"
"I'd been looking for anything about the Circle. You were mentioned in a police report."
Selina stiffened. "There's not supposed to be anything to connect me to them."
"It was under your previous name, not your new one. That took some more digging. The rest you know."
"You bribed my friend for my email address."
"Pretty much." There had been weeks of trust-building there, too, during which they'd exchanged increasingly lengthy emails until Becca had convinced Selina she could be trusted.
Selina ducked her head, pretending to be absorbed in stirring her coffee. "You believe the police report?"
Becca sensed her response was critical to the success of this interview. "There was very little to it, which surprised me. You were a witness, a survivor, one of a kind, who could have testified against a major crime syndicate. But then you disappeared. I'm guessing the former is the motivation for the latter."
Selina set aside her spoon and met Becca's gaze.
"I'm only here because you think you can take those monsters down. I want to help, but "
"But you're afraid. I don't blame you for not trusting anyone. I know what the Circle is capable of. I've been gathering information on them for months now. I've read every police report I could get my hands on from Chicago to New York to Las Vegas."
"To find out if they took this Samantha Manchester girl like they took me."
"Yes, but she was taken in Chicago, so it's a little different. My boss at SSAM"
"Damian Manchester he's Samantha's father?"
Becca nodded. "Sam was thirteen years old when she was taken from a mall in the North Shore area of Chicago twenty years ago. A year later, they found her skeletal remains in a wooded, rural area outside of the city."
Selina shuddered. "That could have been me. If I hadn't been rescued, death would have been the easy way out."
"Except she might not have died."
Selina looked up sharply. "What?"
"Recently, we found evidence that suggests it might not have been Sam's body in that shallow grave after all. The Circle may have taken her, then faked her death and identification to throw the police and Damian off the trail." It was precious little to go on, but it was something new, when hope of finding justice had nearly been lost.
Becca waited a moment and watched Selina absorb her words before she continued. "From what I've learned, I believe the Circle deals in the trading of human flesh, including sex slaves and children for pornographic purposes. You were almost one of their victims." That was only a part of their extensive operation, and looking for information about Samantha had been like trying to chip away at an iceberg, searching for that one bit of helpful information.
"Help me stop them," Becca pleaded when Selina remained quietly thoughtful.
"You don't know for sure that the Circle was involved in Sam's disappearance."
"True. That's why I need your help. You're the only person known to have escaped the Circle and survived." Others had been killed before they could testify. Selina had taken off before she could suffer the same fate. And the police report had been notably vague.
Selina seemed to weigh this, then sat back, her shoulders dipping a notch as she made her decision. "It's not a pretty story."
"In my line of work, few stories are."
"You see this kind of thing at SSAM often?"
The acronym for Damian's agency, the Society for the Study of the Aberrant Mind, was a tribute to his daughter Sam. SSAM's clientele enlisted Becca and her fellow agents to hunt violent repeat offenders when local law enforcement agencies or FBI failed to apprehend the criminals, for whatever reasonoften a lack of resources or a case that had gone cold or fallen out of the public eye.
Like Samantha Manchester's case.
Becca leaned forward on the tabletop scarred by water rings and knife marks. "I can teach you ways to protect yourself. You're doing a good job hiding, but I have a lot of experience in staying safe." And plenty in getting hurt, too, and how to avoid it in the future. "My job, my entire world, is all about personal security."
Selina pressed her lips together, then shook her head. "I'm here now, and I'll talk. But then we can't meet again. I can't risk it."
"I understand." Becca hoped to get what she needed and leave this woman in peace.
"I hope so, because it's a matter of life and death and not just mine." Absently, Selina's left hand rubbed her upper right arm as if warding off a chill.
Who else was she protecting? "I made sure nobody followed me," Becca assured her. "I haven't told anyone I'm here. Not even my boss."
Selina stared out the window for so long Becca wasn't sure she would share her story after all. When she spoke, it was in a bitter, miserable tone. "I was at a party where there was alcohol. I was out beyond curfew. My parents didn't care. I'd run away so many times, they'd stopped trying to get through to me. Besides, I was going to be eighteen in a month. An adult." She huffed out a breath. "As if I knew what that meant. I was an idiot."
Stealing Selina's innocence was yet another of the Circle's crimes.
Selina shook off her self-flagellation and refocused. "My phone's battery died so I went to the car to charge it while I called a friend who was supposed to meet me. Before I could dial, two guys opened my door and yanked me from the front seat." She paused and swallowed. "It was dark, and everything happened so fast. They put something over my head and tied me up so I couldn't see or move. In a matter of seconds, they had me it was all so efficient. I was scared, but that was just the beginning." Remembered fear contorted her face.
"It must have been horrible." Becca resisted the urge to reach out and comfort with a touch of the hand. Her source still looked as if she might bolt at the slightest provocation.
Selina's lips pressed into a hard line, and a flash of warrior-like determination glinted in her eyes. "It was a fucking nightmare. But I got away. And then nobody believed me. Do you know what that's like?"
"Yeah, I do," Becca said quietly. Inside, her heart rate spiked with memories. Years of repressing fear and anxiety, pleading with the authorities to listen to her story. Years of being dismissed. Just when she thought she'd moved past it, the horrible memories would pop up again. And now that the man who starred in her nightmares had been released on parole, those moments had occurred more frequently.
Selina must have seen the truth in Becca's face. She took a deep breath, then continued. "When they pulled the bag off my head, I was in a basement with no windows and barely any lighting. There was a row of cells maybe four or five metal doors, side by side. They" She broke off and put a hand to her opposite shoulder the same one she'd been rubbing earlier. Tears shimmered in her eyes. "They branded me."
Selina traced a circle on the table. "With a hot iron. A symbol that I was theirs. Then they put me in a cell with nothing but a cot and a scratchy blanket. One guy tried to touch me, but the other guy stopped him. Said to save me for the clients. I'd bring in more money if I was pure." Her laugh hitched in her throat. "The other guy said I was nowhere near pure. Assholes. Later, a third guy came to film me. I was so scared they were going to send it to my parents or something."
"What did they film?"
"That's just it I wasn't doing anything interesting. They encouraged me to plead with them, like they enjoyed seeing me begging for my life. It was bizarre."
An introduction to the merchandise, possibly? Something to show potential clients? No doubt, interest from buyers would have led to worse scenarios for Selina. Chills ran down Becca's spine at the thought of what could have happened if the teen hadn't escaped and what had probably happened to many similar girls, maybe even Sam.
"If Sam was a victim, do you think she could still be alive?" Becca asked. "Or maybe she escaped like you did?" And somehow didn't find her way back home. If there was hope for Selina, perhaps there was hope for Sam, though she would be in her mid-thirties by now. She'd be an entirely different person than the daughter Damian remembered, but at least he'd have closure.
"I don't know. Part of me hopes she isn't alive if she didn't escape early on." Selina's eyes met Becca's. "The things I've read online about human trafficking these people have to be animals. Fucking monsters'" Selina glanced away to compose herself, but she couldn't hide a shudder. "When they were taping me, the camera's light was bright. It lit up the walls of my cell. There were names everywhere, like a warning or something. It didn't matter what we didor who we were beforenow we were theirs'" Her hand moved to her arm again. They'd marked her as Circle property, but she'd reclaimed her life.
Goose bumps erupted on Becca's arms. Had Sa-mantha's name been on that wall? She'd been taken in Chicago. Would they have trafficked her through New York City, maybe to keep the authorities from locating her when Damian was putting the pressure on?
"How did you get away?" Becca asked.
For the first time, a small smile curved Selina's lips. "I was lucky. I had a guardian angel who let me out. Told me to be quiet and follow him. The guard was passed out, snoring. I think my angel might have drugged him." Selina's gaze flitted away from Becca's. "And don't ask me any more about my angel because I don't know. And I wouldn't tell even if I did know. He took me to another man who helped me set up a new identity. He saved my life."
Someone in the Circle risked his life for this one young woman? It had to be an undercover agent. The Circle was known for a wide range of crimes in a number of big citiesNew York, Chicago, Miami, Dallas, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were all infected with their influence. This man could be FBI, CIA, ICE or DEA. Or maybe he worked alone.
"The police report says you couldn't remember where you'd been held," Becca said. "Or how you got out."
"That was for my own protection. I was stupid."
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Great rainy day read.