Sensory Ops, Book 5
After five years in Witness Protection, Greycen Craig’s life of careful routine is upended when she learns her sister is the victim in a hit and run, hospitalized, unconscious, and needing a kidney only Grey can give.
Despite warnings that this “accident” is a ruse to draw her out into the open, Grey risks everything to race back to Miami—where she comes face to face with the one man she aches to trust.
FBI agent Liam Burgess thinks he’s prepared for the moment Grey walks into her sister’s hospital room. But the moment the woman who holds his heart appears, his tongue is almost too tied to remember to ask one burning question—why she disappeared in Las Vegas two years ago.
As Grey struggles with what to tell him—everything or nothing—the danger that drove her underground resurfaces, threatening everyone she loves. And the only safe place to run is the arms of the one man she can’t tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
Warning: This title contains a hero who knows who he wants and isn't afraid to fight for her and a heroine with secrets she fears hold the power to unravel all their dreams.
Danger had motivated Greycen Craig to leave town. Fear had motivated her to stay away. And guilt had motivated her to return. Her return came with mixed feelings ranging from excitement to worriment and none of them had a thing to do with the curl-frizzing breeze brushing Grey’s neck. Instinct tugged at her hands, begging her to twist her now short and darker hair into a knot at her nape. There’d been a time when she’d have died her natural brown blonde, practically white, and slicked it back in a fierce ponytail. That time was gone so she kept her hands at her sides.
Humidity hadn’t been a problem in Vegas, but messing with her hair could reveal her as the once long-haired woman who’d vanished from Miami five years earlier. A woman who needed to stay invisible, Grey had bent to the will of the U.S. Marshals and long ago given up her ripped and edgy apparel. Mostly. Today’s choice of capri pants and a light sweater over a camisole was casual chic. Sweat glued the clothes to her skin, but they were still less stifling than her nerves.
Facing the automatic doors of Miami General, her last conversation with Marshal Micah Carpenter rushed back. His warnings were as adamant in her mind as they’d been in person.
“It could be a trap. Jessup’s trial is less than a month away,” he’d said. “You’re our only witness.”
“Maybe you’re right. Maybe it is a trap and Jessup’s getting desperate.” Maybe didn’t matter and for the first time in five years—okay, the second—Grey considered leaving WitSec.
“If he is, you’re putting Ruby at risk as well as yourself.”
“I could be, but I have to do this.” She wasn’t stupid. Besides, she’d learned a lot about protecting herself through the years. Those years had also shown Grey the kind of person Ruby had always said she could be, and she couldn’t turn her back on a lifetime of loyalty.
Grey had met Micah’s stone-hard gaze with a daring one. “Did you confirm Ruby’s condition, and its cause, with your sources?”
Violence flashed but was quickly controlled. His jaw twitched. “Yes.”
“Then she’s already at risk.” With less than a month before Grey was supposed to testify against a murderer, her sister being in a hit and run wasn’t likely a coincidence.
“Grey,” Micah had practically growled, as if he didn’t know what to do with her enforcing her opinion. “If you go back it’s without our protection.”
“I’ll check in to let you know I’m safe.”
"You're not going to find a hero there."
Her shrug had been anything but casual and only invited a more violent look from Micah. He’d argued harder, insisting she’d regret leaving his protection. She’d stood strong despite the doubts he’d planted. The thirty-eight-hour drive that followed had only intensified her doubts until every mile became a twisting pinch of alarm.
The choice to go help Ruby had seemed easy. It wasn’t the one she’d have made years earlier, but she’d changed. In part thanks to the help of her therapist. She only hoped it was enough.
Crossing the parking lot, with each step closer to the hospital weighing heavier on her conscience, she worried. Taking chances meant pain, but whose? Hers? Ruby’s? Jessup’s future victims?
Grey had assured Micah she wouldn’t let him down or miss the trial. Her promise to step onto the witness stand, to re-tell everything she’d seen and experienced, was the only thing keeping a cold-blooded, drug-dealing executioner in prison. She’d also made a promise to keep Ruby safe; it was why she’d gone with the U.S. Marshals. Staying away from Miami meant breaking the bigger of the two promises.
Ruby needed help. Grey needed to know if she could be that help. Curiosity and the desire to repay immeasurable debts had pushed her past the limits of the program's safety.
Determined to see her choice through, despite the consequences, Grey continued forward. A little ahead of her, a man helped his very pregnant wife toward the hospital doors. They opened with a whoosh, admitting the couple whose matching wedding bands, smiles and the way they held each other suggested a shared strength that would get them through the new phase of their life together.
She’d dreamed of that kind of connection. Of a family. Briefly.
Rubbing her thumb over the diamond band circling her ring finger, Grey drew in an extended breath and wished for a partner to share her challenges. Having someone to lean on and trust with her secrets might have made things easier, but life hadn’t worked that way for her. She didn’t have anyone, which made her choices hers.
A newspaper article had pulled her from a surreal reality and since there had been no one around to help, she’d taken on the new challenge alone. Grey wouldn’t back down. She could help Ruby, make sure she was okay and still make it to the trial. She could do both, and she would.
Inhaling the scent of disinfectant she crossed the threshold and went from heated concrete to gleaming tile. The gleam would end, making way for battered linoleum before long. It was the way hospitals—life—worked.
Angling and turning her neck so it popped, relieving a hint of the tension building there, Grey finger combed the tips of her hair closer to the edges of her face and ducked her head. Shifting quickly from left to right, back and forth, she scanned the surroundings. It was a habit that had become second nature, but she paid more attention to the people than she did to the traditionally sparse decorations in the hospital entry.
Nurses and doctors bustled to and from the cafeteria on the left while visitors moved more leisurely or dejectedly. Volunteers or hospital staff smiled more from habit than genuine warmth as they directed the few people in front of her. No one captured her attention in a way that suggested they didn’t belong.
“Welcome to Miami General.” A young man who didn’t look to be more than eighteen greeted her. “How can I brighten your day?”
Wow. Talk about your greetings that miss the intended mark. Grey was lying low so she bit back the response that would have flown instinctively in Vegas. She kept her head slightly ducked and spoke in a quiet voice that only the boy could hear. “I’m looking for Ruby Donovan.”
“Room 420.” That he answered without looking at the computer before him tightened the tension in her back.
“You didn’t even look that up. Do you know her?”
“No,” the boy said, “but a man asked about her yesterday and another one just asked about her a few minutes ago.”
Ruby had always been surrounded by people, and she was sexy enough that many of them were men, but they’d never seemed like genuine friends who would visit her in the hospital. Somehow Grey didn’t think things were too different now. She'd bet all the sand in Miami she’d just walked into a trap and, no matter how expected, the idea chilled her.
Scanning the lobby area again, skimming past women and anyone not alone, Grey noticed a man sitting by a potted plant. Tall and tan with hollowed-out cheeks, he looked directly past her with an eerily blank stare. He seemed familiar, like she’d seen him but couldn’t think of when or where. Razors of agony sliced through her mind—severing her attempt to remember.
Her therapist's advice came back. The memories will come. When they become too much, envision your safe place and breathe through the pain.
The woman had sounded like a hippy stuck in the sixties, but she'd helped. Even now, the lessons learned in their sessions helped.
The boy behind the desk was giving her directions to Ruby’s room. It took every effort to focus beyond her suspicions and the building headache.
Her sister was the bravest person Grey had ever known, and at the moment she lay in a coma in need of a kidney transplant. Grey’s last conversation with Micah played again in her memory as she headed to and waited for the elevator. She’d hoped he was wrong but was now realizing he likely wasn’t. If Micah had been right, if Ruby had been targeted and the story in the Miami Herald detailing the car accident was part of an elaborate trap, she wasn’t sure she’d be able to hide from the danger she’d invited.
The elevator doors opened in invitation for Grey to take the next step. Swallowing, she moved into the square box. The doors were inches from sealing her in alone when a large, dark-tan hand shot inside.
Blunt-tipped fingers. Clean nails and cuticles. The rubber guards smacked against a man’s wrist before retreating. The man who’d been sitting alone in the lobby stepped inside, lifted his hand toward the buttons and then dropped it without making a selection other than the one she’d pressed. He leaned back against the stainless-steel wall of the elevator and set his stare on Grey.
her stomach clenched with ghosts of pain. Her head throbbed.
He was creepy. Intensely creepy.
No longer able to use her hair to veil her face, Grey dropped her chin slightly and fought the urge to press against the wall. She couldn’t help but think she’d seen the man before, obviously in Miami. Thinking about it… The razor sharp pain sliced at her again.
Every instinct she’d trained herself to listen to said he was dangerous. To her and to Ruby. Grey couldn’t turn back, but neither could she do anything to jeopardize her sister.
The elevator ding preceded the shaky stop that announced their arrival at Ruby’s floor. The doors slid open and though her heart raced with anticipation of seeing Ruby, Grey hesitated long enough to see if the man would step out before her. He hadn’t pressed a button for a different floor so he’d have to get off or press a new one.
Paranoia may be setting in, but she wanted to exit second. She needed to know he wasn’t following her, though if he was she had few other hopes of shaking him.
Just before she thought she’d have to go first, the man stepped off. When he turned left, thankfully away from Ruby’s room, Grey went right. Not ready—or able—to breathe easy, she checked over her shoulder more than once to make sure no one watched her. The man didn’t look back. She was still checking after rounding two corners.
At her sister's room, Grey took a bracing breath in the empty hall, and pushed open Ruby’s door. She’d just crossed the threshold, relieved to not have been followed, when she stumbled to a halt at the sight before her.
The first bed in the room was empty and neatly made. In the second bed, surrounded by utilitarian decor and medical equipment, Ruby lay on white sheets. Bruised-everywhere skin showed, and with her left leg and arm in a cast, the only part of her sister that didn’t appear battered was her hair. Someone had taken the time to comb smooth her long blonde hair.
Seeing Ruby hurt and in a coma wasn’t what shocked her. No. The broad-shouldered and narrow-waisted man sitting in the corner shocked her. His dark-chocolate gaze moved over her. She was certain she read hatred in the depths of the eyes that had once smiled at her. A laptop with the power cord stretching from a nearby plug and a cell phone sat on the table beside him. He’d either been there a long time, or had planned to be.
“Grey.” The way he said her name, all smooth and serious with the roll of Scotland on the R made her stomach flip-flop. Damn, the man was delicious.
A masculine voice from down the hall reached Grey and had her closing the door. She hadn’t heard the man in the elevator speak, but even if he wasn’t following her, the fewer people to see her the safer.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.”
Except to breathe and blink, Liam never moved. He just sat there with his badge mocking her from its place on his belt. There was no inflection in his voice to convey his thoughts—not that she knew him well enough to read them if there were indicators.
Her left thumb began twisting her wedding band. He was her biggest regret, and now was not the time to unravel the mess she’d made with him. “Why? How?”
“She’s beach blonde. You’re seductive showgirl.” He nodded toward Ruby but he didn’t stop staring at Grey. “But even in a grainy newspaper photo, I’d recognize my sister-in-law.”
Grey flinched and reached for the hair she’d died so many different colors over the years, before and after leaving Miami. For her return she'd chosen a brown so dark it was almost black. All she could do was smooth the edges along her temple. Avoiding the sun had lightened her skin, and with darker hair she looked paler than usual, but somehow, seeing Liam, she suspected she’d lost even more color.
“So you do remember me.” He sounded as monotone as he could with that sexy ass accent of his, but his words were a bitter backhand.
“You’re a memorable man.” Liam Burgess. Amazing lover. FBI agent. Husband.
“Memorable, but not worth staying with.”
“No. Yes. That’s not…” She shook her head and took another step into the room. Thoughts fluttered too quickly in and out of her grasp. “Things are complicated.”
Liam had been open and easy to be with in Vegas. Now that they were face-to-face he looked pissed. He wasn’t going to make their reunion easy. Stiffening her posture and resolve, Grey said, “Yeah. They are.”
He cocked his head and a dare danced in the depths of his brown eyes. “We got married, consummated said marriage, you walked. Simple.”
“We had so much to drink.”
“Not enough to forget getting married.”
“No.” No. She couldn’t say she’d forgotten getting married. Hell, she remembered every detail of the entire night, and she hadn’t suffered a hangover the next morning, so she couldn’t have indulged in that many drinks.
“You say that like it’s a bad memory.”
“It wasn’t my finest moment.”
He flinched. Though she knew he misunderstood, she didn’t want to rehash what happened two years ago over her comatose sister. She couldn’t stop her curiosity. “Why are you here? Why are you waiting for me?”
“You’re my wife, though you clearly wish you weren’t.”
“That’s not… It’s not that simple.”
“Let me keep this simple then.” Liam leaned forward and rested his elbows on his denim-covered knees. The sport jacket he wore over his pricey T-shirt strained across his shoulders. He’d sat the same way in his hotel room when he’d asked her to marry him.
Forward. Intent. Arresting.
She’d blamed the question and her answer on too many drinks in the casinos. The same intensity shone in his eyes now and she felt as weak to resist as she had then.
“I woke up two years ago to find my brand new bride gone. After looking for her, for two years, and trust me when I say I know how to find someone, imagine my surprise when I see her mirror image in a news story.”
The same one that had pulled Grey from Vegas.
“A few searches on the victim, Ruby Donovan, and I began putting some of the puzzle together.”
Grey twisted the diamond band anxiously as her heart sped. Liam’s gaze fell to her left hand. His words bled into one another as he told her about Ruby’s blog where she searched for her sister. Her guilt grew as she listened to him recap his repeat trips to Vegas in hopes of finding her and putting Ruby’s mind to rest as well as his own.
“My surprise quadrupled when my searches resulted, finally, in a phone call a couple days ago.” Liam hesitated again, locking his gaze on hers, as if making sure he had her full attention. Not that her mind could wander. “I believe you know him as Micah.”
Grey swallowed bile. Her knees shook.
Micah had warned her that returning to Miami would have repercussions. She hadn’t imagined the undertow would be so strong. Moving farther into the room, closer to Liam, Grey leaned against the edge of Ruby’s bed. Her voice, when she found it, trembled with uncertainty. “What did he tell you?”
“Marshal Carpenter,” Liam said, impactful, “apologized for blocking my searches.”
“He shouldn’t have called.”
“He cleared me through the director first, who you will be related to as soon as my brother and his fiancée say ‘I do’.” Liam looked pointedly at Grey's hand and sighed. The sigh seemed to soften him a little. “He said you left WitSec to come here. Then he mentioned Karl Jessup.”
Grey flinched. She'd been ashamed to tell the U.S. Marshals what had happened, and that had been a lifesaving necessity. She actually cared what Liam thought of her, so the idea of him knowing everything did not sit well.
In case he didn't know everything she kept her guard up. "I couldn't tell you."
She’d lied, but she’d had zero options. At least not after she’d seen his badge.
“Because you didn’t think I’d go into WitSec with you.”
“And I couldn’t leave it to come back here with you.”
“So you vanished.”
“So I vanished. Again. And I’ve regretted it since.”
The censure she deserved never came and its absence opened the floodgate that restrained pent-up tension. They may not have a future as husband and wife—she couldn’t think about that—but he was here and she could be honest for the first time in five years. Mostly.
The idea didn’t free her from the virtual tower she’d been imprisoned in, nor did it reassure her that Liam would be her prince.