Sensory Ops, Book 4
Journalist Lana Quinn has a way with hard-hitting news. The story she’s uncovered has potential, but she needs the help of her best friend’s FBI team. She’s been rescued by them, worked with them, and partied with them, but convincing the second in command to believe her theory—that a killer’s touch sets off a lethal allergic reaction—is a frustrating challenge.
Especially since he excites her, body and mind. He’s a danger she shouldn’t indulge.
Aidan Burgess is resistant to helping Lana, but not for the reason she thinks. She has a knack for landing herself in trouble, which means she needs protection. Protecting her means staying near her, a journalist, who like all journalists uses whatever—and whomever—it takes to get her story. It’s a case he wants to refuse.
Especially since she lights a fire in his blood. She’s a danger he can’t afford.
As Lana follows up on lead after deadly lead, learning to trust and rely on each other becomes their only lifesaving hope. If their pride doesn’t become their final pitfall.
Warning: This title contains a grudge-holding hero who gives “kiss my ass” new meaning, a heroine out to prove herself, and a danger that dares them to trust.
The heavy door banged at Lana Quinn’s back with the dull thud of thick wood. Pulling her sunglasses off, she glanced around the traditionally decorated pub. The last person she wanted to see sat in a back booth with a resigned scowl on his handsome, often arrogant, face.
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to see him. Perversely, she always wanted to see him. She simply preferred to know when he was going to be near so she could arm herself.
Damn it, Kieralyn. Mentally shifting her guards into place, hoping they were strong enough since she only had moments to prepare herself, Lana approached.
That the man she’d allowed herself to fall for watched her wasn’t a happy surprise. She’d fallen hard and fast despite his inability to decide if he wanted her or hated her. She’d fallen and settled into a pattern of trying to avoid him. Of trying to avoid an inevitable argument.
“You’re not who I called for.” The snipe in her tone told her she wasn’t well guarded. He would gain the upper hand and they would either argue or land in the nearest bed.
“I’m who you got.” Aidan winked, and with a knowing tap on the table, indicated the seat across from him.
When he looked at her with those secretive eyes her hormones went bat shit. She was never sure if he was keeping a secret or uncovering hers. Then there was his wink. Half invitation and half dare. Her blood pressure rose and awakened her in all the clichéd ways.
Her heart raced. Her knees trembled. Her palms tingled.
He was the man she couldn’t resist and the one she needed to avoid, because he was simply too dangerous.
“Join me, Lana.”
Gaah. The way he said her name, all suave and polite, grated. It was a cover, because he was only suave and polite toward her when Kieralyn made him promise to be. Not even his adoration for his teammate, her best friend, would win Lana the favor she was asking for.
Aidan’s selection of the booth in the back corner was evidence of his bid for control. She may not have the upper hand in this meeting, but she wasn’t ready to be defeated. “Where’s Kieralyn?”
“There was a development on a case that needed her touch.”
Which meant they were likely dealing with someone resistant to their questions. Kieralyn had a knack for getting her way while making others think it was their idea.
“Why’d you agree to meet me when you refuse to acknowledge me in a room full of people?”
“We both know it would take more than that to get you over your hatred of me.”
“She’s very persuasive.” He shrugged, like he wasn’t quite comfortable with whatever popped into his head. “And I don’t hate you.”
Lana plopped her bag on the table but didn’t sit. Persuasive was an apt description of Kieralyn. It seemed she was using the skill now to set up her best friend with the mighty wolf.
“Your scowl when I’m near says otherwise.” Lana buried her recent wish for more excitement. Things got too exciting when she baited Aidan.
Aidan stretched his long arms across the back of the booth, tapping his strong, narrow fingers on the red leather. “You gonna sit or are we done before we’ve even begun?”
She should ignore the potential double meaning of his question and walk. She could figure the story out on her own and call her dad if she needed Bureau help. She was more resistant to the idea of pulling her dad into one of her cases than she was to working with Aidan.
She’d already faced one serial killer with Aidan and his team at her back. She wanted the truth of the deaths, but not without backup. The cops were good, but the FBI’s Specialized Crimes Unit was better, and if her suspicions were right she wasn’t tracking a run-of-the-mill serial killer. Not that a serial killer was run-of-the-mill.
“Fine.” Slipping into the seat across from him, her knees bumped Aidan’s. A spark shot up her thighs, as electric as the time he’d touched her there with arousing intentions. She pulled closer to her side of the booth, but it didn’t offer enough distance. His butterscotch and coffee scent blended with the leather of his jacket and reached her across the table. Sweet scent. Hard attitude. Aidan Burgess was a contradiction.
He narrowed his dark gaze, intensifying his focus. “What brings us together, Lana?”
“We are not together.” And why did he have to use her name so often? The way he said it, with the rumbling roll of his Scottish accent nudging it off his tongue was a seduction she didn’t want. A seduction she didn’t need.
“I don’t see anyone else in this booth.”
Do not argue. Do not take his bait. Do not stray from business. You know where you’ll end up. She angled her head to the left, clenching her back teeth in an effort to obey her own advice.
“What do you need help with, Lana?”
Her jaw twitched. Her tummy flipped. “A story.”
“Sorry.” He straightened and slid toward the end of his seat. “I don’t do stories.”
“You’re not the center of it.” She whipped a foot up beside his leg. Blocking him would be impossible if he really wanted to leave, yet she could slow him down. “It’s not about you or one of your cases.”
He stopped with his thigh pressed against her foot.
“I think it should be though. A case for you and your team. Not about you.” Her brain floundered to keep the focus on the case while trying to win a point. His heat was seeping into her leg.
Aidan glanced from her to her ankle and back to her. His hand dropped and rested heavily over her bare skin. The heat magnified.
“You have two minutes to convince me.”
Convince him to help or to take her to bed?
Shivers tripped a path up her leg. Her pussy trembled. Even if she hadn’t forgone the nylons due to the soaring Miami temperatures his touch would have burned into her. Hell, the first look from him was all it had taken to ignite her blood. She pulled her leg back and slowly set her foot on the floor.
“There are some deaths I think are related.” She didn’t have to look around Delaney’s Pub again to know they were secluded in the pre-lunch hush, but she checked the dimly lit room anyway. She wasn’t going to be scooped or appear like a fool if her hunch was wrong. “I don’t think they’re accidental.”
“Each victim had a rash suddenly develop, but not any rash. We’re talking pustules, big and juicy, covering their skin.”
“Sounds like a freak thing.”
“Yeah, and it would make a great story if it were a ‘freak thing’.” She did air quotes around freak thing. “It would also make an easy one.”
“And you don’t do easy.” Harshness hardened his tone.
“Easy is for amateurs.” He said he didn’t hate her. That didn’t mean he liked her, though more accurately it was that he didn’t respect her. Fine. She didn’t need him to like or respect her. She needed him to listen. “I’m no amateur.”
“So what makes these deaths different? Why do you think they’re connected?”
“For starters, a confidential informant with solid information that led me to the Medical Examiner’s Office. According to my source there, each rash is indicative of an allergic reaction. A severe one with an instant onset.”
“Death by allergy?” Aidan shook his head and tapped the tabletop with his free hand. “Come on, Lana. You can do better.”
He’d given her two minutes. She wasn’t going to waste them and risk losing his attention. “Pustules cover each victim’s entire body, but there is also a concentration of smaller pustules. The location is different on each body, but the smaller pustules are half the size of the others.”
Braced for an impact, she reached across the table and with her four fingers together touched Aidan’s arm. “And they’re all in the shape of four fingertips.”
He flinched and his eyes flared, but he didn’t pull away. “You have a theory.”
“At first I thought someone was injecting these people or somehow dosing them with something. But the concentration of smaller pustules makes me think the reaction is set off by the killer’s touch.”
“That’s something that belongs in a sci-fi show.”
“If I were saying it’s in the killer’s genetics, sure. For all I know it’s something topical. He’s immune, but when he’s wearing it and touches someone, they die.”
“You assume it’s a man because it looks to you like a serial?”
“No. I assume it’s a man because while women serial killers lean more toward poisons, which this could be, most look for more emotional intimacy in their kills.”
“A touch can be emotional,” Aidan argued with a little rattle in his voice. The word emotional landed a bit heavier than the others and had her recalling the emotions his touch aroused.
Focus. “If this were done by a woman I would think the touches would be in places that would indicate she was somehow caring for the person.”
Clearly amused, or simply humoring her, he arched an almost black brow. His lips curled in a small smile. “Go on.”
“A nurturing touch would most likely leave a rash on the back of a neck, as if she was lowering the person into bed. Or on their forearm or cheek…” Lana reached across the table and touched him in the ways she spoke of. The gestures proved two points. One was to show him that she’d thought her theory out. The second was to show herself she could handle his nearness.
The glide of his skin beneath hers called to the desire to be with him, but she locked it down. She didn’t allow herself to think of the enjoyment feeling his skin beneath hers offered. “Like she’d touch them if she was offering comfort or cared deeply.”
“And the rashes aren’t in these places?”
“No. One goes sideways over the victim’s shoulder, as if he’d been grabbed in a way to stop him or hold him still. Or like you would smack a friend to get his attention or say good job. The other was on an ankle.”
“Other than the rashes, have you connected the victims?”
“No.” He was asking questions, which meant he was considering her request. Buoyed by that victory she didn’t allow her answer to diminish the win. “They seem random. Though the guy with the mark on his shoulder worked as a medical insurance auditor, and according to a contact there, something was off in a file from a holistic allergist’s office.”
“Has the ME’s office reported the deaths as suspicious?”
This was the question she’d dreaded. Once she answered it, Aidan would shut her down. He’d stop listening and she’d be back on her own. While that generally would bother her, she didn’t want to pursue this story solo. “No.”
Aidan raised his hands in a silent rejection. “None of that is conclusive enough for us to take action.”
Damn it. Kieralyn couldn’t be the only member of their team capable of following her gut in pursuit of a case. As much as he played the role of unbending hard ass, Lana would’ve bet Aidan believed in gut instinct. But no. If he believed in instinct he was ignoring it because of some bizarre grudge against her or her profession.
She wasn’t finished with her argument.
“I dug more into the allergist and turned up a name. Dr. Grayson recently published a paper on a breakthrough cure. He claims a short series of treatments rids people of their allergies.”
She shrugged. “According to his article, he was successful in nine out of ten patients in a controlled study.”
“A study done with or without FDA approval?”
“He’s holistic, using natural plants and herbs. He doesn’t need FDA approval, especially if he discloses to his patients that the FDA hasn’t evaluated the supplement.”
“Do you suspect the doctor or number ten from the study?”
“Number ten—” the mystery patient not cured “—though I wouldn’t rule out the doctor or someone equally close to the study.” Finding a connection between the victims, even a small one, would help determine who stood to benefit from their deaths. The finger could either be pointed or redirected. “So far I haven’t been able to connect the victims, but without access to the doctor’s records I have no way of knowing if they were a part of his study.”
“So you admit to some limitations.” Aidan widened his eyes in mock shock. “Impressive.”
“You’re projecting your impressions of journalists on the wrong person.” Whatever woman or reporter screwed him over had done a great job of it. One day Lana may dig into his background to figure it out, but that was low on her priorities list. “I know my limits.”
“Says the woman I dragged out of a burning building with a bullet in her.”
“Oh, come on! One of your own team had to be dragged out of there.”
“She’s a federal agent. You’re a journalist.”
“Which would suggest I would be the one in danger of getting captured rather than her. And don’t forget, it was my lead that led your team to that case. Think of all the good that came from it. Kieralyn found Ian. Ian found the truth about his father. You guys found a way past the chip on Kieralyn’s shoulder which made you a better team.”
“Yes.” Anger like Aidan rarely displayed boiled in his voice. “The two of you nearly dying was a silver lining.”
Lana fisted her hands in her lap in an attempt to not remind him about the second time she’d helped his team. Reminding him reminded herself and she’d function better if she could forget about that night in February. Specifically, she functioned better if she could forget about what had happened between her and Aidan after they’d arrested The Killing Cupid.
“Aidan, I feel it in my bones. These deaths are not random. These victims are not random. My theories are not random.”
“So you’ve thought this out. What exactly do you want my team to do? Gather the intel, solve the case and hand you an exclusive?”
“I would want to be the one to break the story yes, but this is…” She paused for a moment, formulating the words to make him believe her. “There’s more at stake here than a front-page headline.”
“Right. Like one you could use to become an anchor?”
His condescension, though she knew it was his way of minimizing his interest in her story, was a backhand she should expect, but still it stung her cheek as viscerally as if he’d struck her. She’d done nothing to deserve his low opinion, and it irritated her that it irritated her. She’d been raised to recognize her own strengths and to fight for her beliefs. “Aidan, you have ambition. Without it you wouldn’t be second in command of the Specialized Crimes Unit. You work with strong women who have ambition, yet you have no problems with them.”
“They know where the lines are. I don’t have to worry that they’ll taint evidence so it’s inadmissible in court.”
She wouldn’t justify her career choices to him. He wouldn’t believe her even if she tried convincing him she had no interest in television journalism. “Tell me one time I’ve crossed a line. Tell me one thing I’ve done that has jeopardized a case or endangered a life other than my own.”
“The time you got shot.” He leaned forward, elbows braced on the table. His jaw twitched twice before he got his anger under the control he rarely lost. “Kieralyn wouldn’t have gone into that building if you hadn’t been in there.”
“That you think that shows how little you know her. She would go into that or any other dangerous situation if it meant saving a life.”
“It’s a move she won’t have to repeat, because she’ll never again feel like we don’t have her back.”
“Regardless, it’s a decision I appreciate her making, but it was her decision. I did not endanger her life, though for some reason you’re set on thinking different.” Rage rose within Lana, bubbling in the hollow of her chest and swelling her veins.
The meeting was turning down the path she’d known it would take. They’d been getting along well enough until it had come time for him to help or take a step back. Now Lana only wanted to fight. Well, that wasn’t all she wanted to do. She wouldn’t mind finding a bed and having him in it, but arguing was the safer choice.
“So what? I have goals. We all do. My goals aren’t what you seem to think they are.”
“You’re telling me you would pass on the chance to move from newspaper to TV if it came your way?”
Suddenly she didn’t have to research his background to know what had happened to form his view of journalists. Whoever he’d trusted had done just that. They’d made the leap from print to TV and he’d somehow been buried in the process. The insight didn’t make his attitude easier to tolerate. “Reading about a story from a teleprompter is way the fuck down on my no-thanks-and-go-to-hell list.
“If you’re not open to helping then say so.” She didn’t wait for Aidan to respond before she grabbed her purse. “I’ll figure this out on my own.”
He propped his booted foot on the bench beside her, blocking her like she had him, and jerked his head toward a waitress. “We’ll eat lunch and then decide what to do next.”
“I’d rather eat slop with swine.”
“And I’d rather not see Kieralyn worry about you when you get your fine ass in trouble again.” He angled his big body in the booth and kicked his other leg up beside her, crossing his ankles and settling in.
The man confused her. Made her want to scream. From the moment he’d picked her up in that club’s back room and carried her to the ambulance he’d run arctic and fiery.
Tender when she was hurt, a little playful while she shared Kieralyn’s hospital room. A jerk when she’d helped them bring down a serial killer on Valentine’s Day. A passionate lover with glimpses of tenderness while making love to her that night. A jerk again when the next morning dawned with him acting glacial as he claimed the encounter was an aberration.
An aberration. Just what every woman wants to be told the morning after multiple orgasms. But he’d walked out right after saying it. They hadn’t spoken more than three words at one time since. Until today. And today, just like their morning after, his attitude left her feeling battered and bruised.
Kieralyn was going to pay. She knew what had happened between them. She’d have known Aidan was the last person Lana wanted to deal with. Kieralyn could have sent Tyler, or even Liam. He was Aidan’s brother, but he was consistently kind and open-minded.
“What can I get you two lovebirds?” A red-haired, pale-skinned pixie of a woman sat two glasses of water on the table and then stood with a sweet smile.
“We are not lovebirds,” Lana corrected. “And I’ll have a mushroom Swiss cheeseburger. Medium well. All the toppings, but with the mayo and mustard on the side. Oh, and garlic fries.”
Aidan laughed. “I hope you don’t want anyone to kiss you after that meal.”
“You worried about who’s kissing me?”
“Hell no.” He turned to the waitress and ordered a cheeseburger and regular fries.
His jaw twitched just a tiny bit, like maybe he had it clenched against frustration. Did he think about who was kissing her? Did he wish he were? The idea held appeal. More appealing was the desire to use it against him.
The waitress left and Aidan shifted his attention back to Lana. His deep brown eyes bored into her. Arousal buzzed at a low wattage in her belly and spread through the rest of her. She lifted her glass and took a drink of the cold water. If she didn’t cool off, her entire body would be as red as a fire engine.
“Okay, Lana.” Aidan’s voice dropped to an almost whisper on her name while his other words stayed at a conversational tone. “Tell me why you want the team’s help and what else you know about the doctor.”
“It’s my job to write stories. It’s yours to stop killers. I’d rather not do yours even if mine leads me to one.”
She took another drink and set the glass down. He almost sounded as if he respected her response. “As for the doctor, he’s local. After suffering with allergies most of his life, almost to the point he couldn’t leave his home, he decided to find a cure. Part of his approach is that he gets his products from a local organic farm.”
“So, as an altruistic humanitarian, the good doctor set out to rid the world of allergies. To cure the suffering masses.” Aidan spoke as if he doubted that anyone could truly be motivated by a need to help others. Wasn’t that why most people in law enforcement were there? To make a difference?
“Wow.” She sat back and shook her head. “I knew you could be harsh, but you’re just plain jaded.”
He shrugged out of his jacket and laid it gingerly between him and the wall as if it were a precious commodity. Hell, he showed that jacket more affection than her. No. Not affection. Courtesy. Affection was the last thing she needed from Aidan Burgess, but she wouldn’t mind some civil courtesy.
“Come on, Lana. You’re keeping secrets.”
“Actually, I’m not. I tried calling the doctor for an interview, but he’s…unresponsive.”
“Can’t say I blame him.”
Again, she ground her back teeth to stop herself from launching into another argument. “I think he’s hiding something.”
“Other than his privacy?”
It was as if Aidan thrived on baiting her into a fight. “This is never going to work if you can’t stop lumping me in with every morally deficient journalist only out for a story. Many of us do have ethics.”
“Until they get in the way of your story.”
“Forget it.” She pulled a twenty out of her wallet and tossed it on the table. After shoving his feet to the floor, she grabbed her bag and slid out of the booth. “I’m not doing this with you.”
She pivoted on the ball of her shoe and headed to the front door. Aidan caught up with her three strides later, grabbed her wrist and spun her back to face him.
“You only willing to play with me if you can call the shots, Lana?” He pinned her in place with his gaze, moved in close, got in her face. So close his hot butterscotch and coffee scented breath rushed over her lips. Sex oozed along the seductive syllables of his words and her body was ready to listen.
“I’m not playing games here.” She refuted his question and the suggestion in his tone, but her body wanted whatever he wanted. Her panties grew wet. Her thighs trembled. “You’re not going to admit you’re wrong about me. I have no desire to continue defending myself.”
“Fine. I will try to stop giving you a hard time.”
The time he gave her wasn’t the only thing hard at the moment. His erection pressed against her hip and awakened memories best forgotten. Memories of him in her hand. In her mouth. In her.
The things they’d done that night went far beyond casual sex. At least for her. “Does that include admitting I might have some useful information? And that I’m not as bad as the slimy scum on the bottom of a boat?”
“I never said that about you.”
She wanted to push him back. They were drawing attention from the other patrons and the waitress was headed toward their table with the burgers. Lana wouldn’t give him the pleasure of knowing how profoundly he impacted her.
She schooled her voice to her practiced professionalism. “Maybe not verbally.”
“I never thought it.”
“I have no way of knowing that. And our lunch is ready.” She would endure his company a little longer if it meant enlisting his team’s help. If the deaths were freak occurrences she would write it that way. Every journalistic instinct in her body told her differently.
The deaths were connected, and they were not accidental. A murderer needed to be found.