When his coinvestigator was attacked just moments after Detective Nick Fensom left the scene, he swore he'd never let her get hurt again. Thanks to their tense relationship, criminologist Annie Hermann wasn't happy to have Nick as her newly appointed protector. And although Nick couldn't blame her, being together 24/7 caused him to see Annie in a whole new light. Before long, he couldn't stop picturing the beautiful brunette wrapped up in his armsand in his sheets. But allowing unfamiliar feelings to get in the way of the job was completely unprofessional especially once Annie discovered the evidence that could cost her her life.
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"Happy New Year!"
The shouts and whistles and horn blasts from the apartment across the hall drowned out the television program KCPD criminologist Annie Hermann was watching.
As the party from her neighbor's gathering cranked up several more decibels, she twirled her finger in a sarcastic whoop-dee-do and watched the lighted ball drop above Times Square. The music leading up to the countdown to the New Year had been entertaining enough, and the pomp and pageantry half a country away had always been a celebration she'd like to see in person one day. But not on her own. And right now, on her own seemed like the only option available.
Nothing said "Here's to the promise of a new year" like a twenty-eight-year-old woman sitting at home by herself watching television with her cats while the rest of Kansas Citywhile the rest of the worldpartied together.
She scratched behind the velvety ears of the Siamese cat nestled in her lap. Her gaze settled on the bare space on the third finger of her left hand. Had it already been two years since the New Year's Eve when Adam had proposed to her? That had been a celebration for the ages. Then she'd spent last year's holiday crying her eyes out because Adam had dumped her. He'd needed to move on, he saidto a new job in a private law firm instead of the public defender's office, to a new life that was more practical and less idealistic than the one they'd envisioned together. He'd claimed he was doing her a favor by leaving her and not forcing her to change into some sort of party-planning, connection-making trophy wife who could be a helpmate for his new ambitions.
Some favor. So what if ending the engagement wasn't her fault? Dumped was dumped.
Feverish tears burned in the corners of her eyes. But she suspected they were more about the sting on her ego than any lingering heartbreak at this point. Or, perhaps, she was indulging in a little pity party because she'd grown far too used to being alone on holidays like this one. And even being part of a mismatch like she and Adam had been was better than a solo celebration of these landmark events.
She stroked the Siamese's warm, seal-brown ears again. At least cats stayed.
"Happy New Year, Reitzie." Blinking away her tears, Annie tucked a curly tendril of chin-length hair that was equally dark behind her own ear and called out through her empty apartment. "Happy New Year to you, too, G.B." But there was no answering meow or rustle of movement. She petted the cat in her lap again and let her gaze wander to all of G.B.'s usual hangoutsthe snow boots by the front door, behind the drapes in the second-story bay window, on top of the armoire that housed the TV. "So where is your brother hiding this time?"
Her visual search stopped when her gaze reached the fireplace mantel. Annie smiled. She had no excuse for crying tonight. The framed photograph of a man, a woman and a dark-haired little girl from a Royals baseball game reminded her of happier celebrations from her childhood. Her parents' image smiled back at her. Both of them were gone now, and their time together had been far too short. But it had been the grandest, most loving adventure to be Steve and Amaryllis Hermann's child for eighteen years. "Happy New Year, Mom and Dad."
So maybe she had no family, no fiance, no date. She had two rescue pets and wonderful memories. She had friends from work and in the neighborhood. Heck, she'd had an invitation to Roy Carvello's party across the hall if she'd really been interested. It wasn't as though she was truly alone.
That was the lie she told herself every time this feeling of isolation from the rest of the world pricked at her spirit.
The rapid gunfire of illegal firecrackers exploding in the courtyard area below her window startled the cat sitting in her lap, spilling both the bowl of popcorn and the glass of wine she'd just poured before she could catch either one.
"Reitzie! Oh, man."
A flurry of shouts and applause followed quickly after as Annie jumped to her feet to right the goblet and dash to the kitchen to grab a handful of paper towels. Like she had time to feel sorry for herself.
While the strains of "Auld Lang Syne" filtered up from the courtyard, a door thumped open across the hall. Annie dropped to her knees, mopping up the spilled drink from the hardwood floor and area rug to the sounds of laughter and mumbled words. The breathy smacks of sound could mean only that someone was out there kissing. Then there was a soft crash against her door that made the pictures on the mantel rattle before the giggling and laughter and smacking noises retreated.
Correction. Someone was out there making out.
"Party on, dude." Annie lifted her glass in a wry toast and drank the last swallow of merlot before pushing to her feet and carrying the goblet and the wet paper towels to the kitchen sink.
Okay, so maybe she was absolutely and utterly alone on New Year's Eve. But she took heart in knowing it was better than being with the wrong person. She might still be with Adam, fighting to make something that wasn't meant to be work. He'd still be trying to fix her and she'd still be coming up short if they'd gone ahead with their marriage plans. So what if she was a little eccentric, a little unsuitable for his well-connected family? Her summa cum laudes and her fellowships had gotten their attention, but ultimately, it wasn't enough. She wasn't enough. Her lack of a pedigreed reputation and her desire to work for the crime lab instead of a revered research facility had trumped love. Adam Ma-tuszak had left her.
Just like every other boyfriend of any duration had left her. Just as her parents had left. She was alone. She was really, truly, freaking, horribly
The chirping ring of her telephone from the kitchen wall thankfully interrupted the negative spiral of her thoughts. Holidays were always the worst for her. Three-hundred-fifty-some-odd days of the year she coped just fine on her own. But on Independence Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas and New Year's, she longed to be a part of somethinga part of someone else's life without feeling like a charity case or an imposition.
She tossed the wadded-up towels in the trash beneath the sink and picked up the portable phone from its wall-mounted cradle and answering machine.
Recognizing the number of the KCPD task force commander she worked for, Annie took a deep breath to clear her thoughts and tamp down on the nervous spark of anticipation that made her stand up as straight and tall as five feet two inches of height allowed. She inhaled a second time before pushing the talk button and answering. "Happy New Year, Detective Montgomery."
"What? Oh, right. Happy New Year." The veteran detective offered the greeting without altering his no-nonsense tone. "Am I catching you in the middle of a big party?"
The amorous couple bumped against her door again. A quick glance across her quiet apartment revealed one cat creeping out from his hiding place to sample the spilled popcorn, and the other staring daggers at her as though she'd been the one to light those firecrackers outside. Some party.
"No, sir. I'm enjoying a quiet evening at home." She shooed G.B. away from the free food and stooped down to toss the kernels back into the bowl. "Did you need something?"
"Yeah, a favor."
Annie checked the big-faced watch on her wrist. At 12:03 a.m. on New Year's Day?
That spark of anticipation fired through her blood again with a sense of purpose this time, chasing away her nerves. Something bad had happened. Something that made her regret her little pity party. The only favors a senior detective would ask of her would involve her science and someone else's tragedy.
Annie left the popcorn where it had fallen and hurried back to her messenger-style purse on the counter to retrieve her case notebook. She flipped open the pink paisley flap and dug through the catchall of contents, seeking an elusive pen. "What is it, sir?"
"I know most of the crime lab has the holiday off, but I have a crime scene I need processed ASAPbefore the weather gets any worse and destroys what little evidence we might find."
Annie's purse was upside down, the contents tumbling across the quartz countertop when the import of what he was asking registered. "There's been another rape?"
Detective Spencer Montgomery led a group of investigators, public-safety specialists, criminal profilers and uniformed officers in a task force dedicated to solving a string of violent abductions and sexual assaults that had been terrorizing the professional women of Kansas City for several months now. Priority one for the team was to identify and apprehend the unknown subject, or unsub.
"Yes," Spencer Montgomery answered. "Partygoers taking a shortcut through the alley over by the Fairy Tale Bridal Shop found her in the snow." The wind created static over the connection, giving her a better picture of how the elements were deteriorating outside. But the detective's grim pronouncement came through loud and clear. "It's our man. The Rose Red Rapist has struck again."
Annie was the CSI from the crime lab assigned to the elite task force. Although she still did work on other cases, the bulk of her time in the lab was now dedicated to this investigation. She grabbed her boots from beneath the coatrack beside the front door and pulled them on over her jeans.
With a renewed sense of urgency that drove away any lingering mope to her attitude, Annie snatched a pen from the pocket of her coat and jotted down the particulars with one hand while she zipped up her boots with the other. "What hospital did they take her to? I've got a spare kit in my car. I can leave right now and process her."
The ominous crackle of wind stilled her frantic multitasking. "We're taking her to the morgue, Annie."
Her phone tumbled from between her jaw and shoulder. She caught it and set it firmly against her ear. "He's a rapist, not a killer. We determined his last victim had been killed by a jealous boyfriend, not our unsub. Are you sure it's the same guy?"
"The rose I'm looking at says yes."
Annie scooted the cats aside and sank down into her chair. She wasn't sure if she was feeling shock or sorrow or frustration that after three different attacks, they were no closer to being able to identify the rapist than they'd been eight months ago. They'd figured out what type of woman he preyed on. They knew the neighborhood where the Rose Red Rapist chose those women. They knew he abducted them from one location and assaulted them in another, and that he sterilized the victims afterward to remove any trace of DNA. But thus far, the man himself had proved untraceable. "It's bad enough that he's hurting those women, but now he's killing them?"
"Looks that way." She heard the slam of a car door and the windy static on the line suddenly cleared. She didn't have to be a scientist to deduce that the detective had gotten inside his vehicle. "I'm calling all the task force members who are still in town for the holidays. Can you come?"
"Of course." Annie was on her feet again, crossing to the kitchen and tossing everything back into her purse. Work was one place where the loneliness didn't get to herprobably because her science demanded facts, not intuition. Plus, most of the cold, hard truths she dealt with required her to be able to turn off her emotions, whether they stemmed from her lack of a personal life or her empathy for the victims she processed. "I'll be right there."
"I'm leaving a couple of uniformed officers here with a tarp," Detective Montgomery went on. "I'm going to follow the body to the morgue to see if I can get a preliminary report from the M.E.'s office."
Annie hooked the flap of her bag shut and carried it to the coatrack beside her door. The giggles and smooches from the couple on the landing had faded to inconsequential white noise. Her focus now was solely on the task at hand. "Have the M.E. check for trace as soon as possible and send it upstairs to my office at the lab. The cold air should preserve anything that's on the victim, but once she gets inside and the snow on her starts to melt, the water could wash away or compromise anything useful."
"Will do. I'll send Nick over to the crime scene with you until I can get back."
"Nick?" The scarf she was wrapping around her neck suddenly strangled like a vise. She hoped her mental groan hadn't been audible. "Nick Fensom?"
Detective Montgomery's partner and fellow task force member, Nick Fensom, was the sour to Annie's sweet, the oil to her water, the four-wheel-drive Jeep in her energy-efficient green car of a world. Nick Fensom got under her skin like no other man since Adam hadand not necessarily in a good way.
He thought he was funny. He teased, he taunted, he spoke his mind the way most people breathed airwithout thinking. And even after working with him on the task force for several months now, Annie still had no clue how to tell when the man was being serious and when he was making a joke. Either way, for some reason, it usually felt like the laugh was on her.
She knew his dark brown hair, deep blue eyes and what was probably supposed to be streetwise charm captivated some women. But she didn't see it. He was probably compensating for his relatively short heightmaybe five-nine if he was lucky. Okay, so she had no room to fault him there; he still towered over her petite height.
But Annie felt no empathy. She clung to whatever predictability and balance she could hold on to in her life, or else she'd sink into those lost little funks like the one she'd been in at the stroke of midnight. She didn't understand Nick Fensom. She had to be on guard against the chaos he brought to her world. And that made him more of a distraction than a teammate, even if they did both work for KCPD and the task force.
"Is there a problem, Annie?" Detective Montgomery reminded her that she'd been silent for too long.
"Um, no." Not nearly as snappy a comeback as Nick Fensom would have come up with. She could do better. She would not let the man get to her, especially when he wasn't even here. "I can manage the scene by myself, sir. You don't need to bother anyone else from the task force. I'm sure Detective Fensom is out on a date tonight."
"He won't be," her commander assured her, much to Annie's chagrin. "Holidays mean family for Nick. Besides, I need as many good eyes here as possible. The snow is coming down harder, and my crime scene is disappearing as we speak."
Fine. For the investigation, for Detective Montgomery and the sake of tonight's unfortunate victim, she'd find a way to make spending time with the irritating, muscles-for-brains detective work.