Authors: Julie Miller
But Audrey Kline? One head shot on the news and he'd been thinking of ways he could peel those pin-stripes off her. So maybe he'd been a little obsessed with work lately, and hadn't really dated since he'd accepted
the SWAT gig. Needs that had been put on hold for too long, simmering too close to the surface, were the only reasons that made sense when it came to explaining his instant awareness of the red-haired attorney and his knee-jerk reaction to her assignment to the Smith case.
Logic said there could never be anything but distance between a rich daddy's girl like her and a streetwise cop like him. She probably owned shoes that cost more than his monthly salary. Unless she went slumming for some secret kind of sex life, he could guarantee that a former gang member turned weapons and recon specialist for KCPD wasn't the kind of guy she'd even deign to noticeâmuch less want to connect with.
And an attorney who lacked the
to go after Smith and win wasn't the kind of woman
wanted to be with anyway, right?
Carrying the oversize pretzel bowl in one hand, Alex made his way between a row of booths and two pool tables, sparing a moment to trade winks with a cool blonde.
was who he should be gettin' the hots for. She was interested, willingâand not responsible for bringing Demetrius Smith to justice. But he moved on with a thanks-but-no-thanks smile when giggles and chatter erupted around her table. Too perky. Too easy. While Alex wasn't averse to spending time with a beautiful woman, he just wasn't in the mood for light and playful and meaningless tonight.
Besides, he had a feeling that if he didn't deliver these snacks soon, he'd drop even further down that invisible hierarchy of prove-you-deserve-to-be-here attitude he got from the members of his team.
“Pretzels are up,” Alex announced, setting the bowl
on the table and sliding it to the middle. “Josie's bringing the drinks.”
“Thanks, shrimp.” Joseph Jones, Jr., nicknamed Triple J and often shortened to Trip, stuck a finger into the thick paperback book he was reading and helped himself to a handful of the salty twists.
So Alex was only five-ten. He hated the nickname Trip had stuck him with. Of course, as tall and powerfully built as the tank-size Trip was, anyone under six feet probably seemed small. “At least my mama knew more than one letter of the alphabet when she was coming up with names.”
Trip looked up from his book as the others, including Holden Kincaid on his cell phone beside him, laughed. “Good one, peewee.”
Yeah. Like that was better than
“Thank Josie.” Alex pulled out a chair and took a seat between Sergeant Delgado and Captain Cutler. “She saw us on the news. She wouldn't take my money.”
“What? Hell.” Rafe Delgado glanced over his shoulder at the bar where Josie and her uncle, the Shamrock's owner, Robbie Nichols, were busy serving drinks. “She can't afford that.”
“I left a twenty in the tip jar for her,” Alex assured him.
“Can't even get one lousy order straight,” he grumbled. The lanky, dark-haired sergeant spun his chair around and shoved it under the table. “I'm going to see if I can at least save her the trip over here.”
“She's the one who offered toâ”
But Rafe was already striding away. Alex turned at the strong hand that squeezed his shoulder. Captain Cut
ler's typically stoic expression was eased by a fatherly smile. “Let him go, son. It's not personal.”
The reprimand sure felt as if he'd insulted Josie in some way. And he hadn't meant to. “I paid her for the drinks, I swear.”
“I know you did. And somewhere under the strain of having that boy die in his arms this afternoon, he knows it, too.” Cutler swatted Alex's shoulder and pulled away, including the other two men at the table with them in his explanation for the sergeant's abrupt departure. “Josie's a hell of a lot prettier to look at than any of you. With what we've been through today, I don't blame Rafe for choosing her company over your ugly mugs.”
“Sarge likes her?” Alex asked.
“I think it's more of an overprotective big brother thing,” Cutler explained. “His first partner when he joined KCPD out of the academy was her dad. He's watched her grow up.”
“So no hitting on Josie or Delgado will cut you off at the knees, shrimp.” In one smooth motion, Trip pointed a warning finger at Alex and scooped up half the pretzels remaining in the bowl. He glanced over the top of his book. “And you can't afford to be any shorter.”
Alex flicked a pretzel across the table, hitting Trip in the middle of his forehead. The book went down on the table. Alex caught the pretzel that came flying back at him and crushed it in his fist, crumbling the dregs down into the bowl.
“Oh, you da man, Taylor.”
“That's right, big guy. I'm the man.”
“Childrenâ¦” Captain Cutler warned with a smirk of his own.
Alex's and Trip's respective pretzels were dutifully
stuffed into their own mouths. The silliness of the interchange lightened Alex's mood, and while Trip went back to reading with a grin, Alex turned to spot Sergeant Delgado plucking the tray of beers from Josie's hands and trying to squeeze a word in through the argument his actions triggered.
They were finally shaking off the grim events of the day. SWAT Team One was going to be okay. Alex was fitting in. No one was on his case for being too new, too young, too shortâtoo lucky to have this job because he was a Taylorâtoo anything. He shifted his shoulders inside the black cotton sweater and leather jacket he wore and relaxed against his chair.
“Liza said to tell everyone hi.” Sharpshooter Holden ended the call to his wife and set his cell phone on the table. “I'm leaving after the first drink. I have orders to come home with cookie dough ice cream or not to show up at all.” He tapped his cell phone and grinned in a boyishly excited way that belied his ability to go stone-cold still to make a kill shot or bring down a suspect.
“With the way her appetite's kicking into high gear, I think we could be having the baby any day now.”
Captain Cutler chewed around a pretzel as he spoke. “I thought Liza wasn't due until Christmas.”
“It's practically Thanksgiving already.”
“In two weeks. You're hopeless, Kincaid.”
“Oh, and when you and Jillian decide to start making babies, you're going to be all cool, calm and collected about it?” Holden challenged with a grin.
The captain smoothed his palm across the top of his short, salt-and-pepper hair. “I have a teenage son. I know about making babies.”
“So you and Jillian
working on giving Mikey a little brother?”
“Mind your own business, Kincaid.”
“Or maybe a little sister.” Holden whistled through his teeth. “I'd hate to be the guy who tried to date her.”
Alex easily pictured an image of Captain Michael Cutler, suited up in body armor, weapons and badge, greeting an already-nervous teenage boy at the front door. His daughter's unsuspecting date would probably pee his pants. Wisely, Alex buried his amusement by pulling the snacks away from Trip and helping himself to a bite before they were all gone. Only golden-boy Holden could get away with such teasing.
“You finished?” The captain arched an eyebrow as Holden's chuckle erupted into laughter.
“I can't hear myself think over here,” Trip groused, giving Alex the evil eye as he easily reached across the table and pulled the pretzels back in front of him.
“You can think?” Holden snatched the book and the bowl from his hands before pointing to the booths behind Alex. “Read on your own time. Single women. Go.”
Trip grabbed the book right back, but turned his focus to Cutler. “Permission to take him down, sir?”
The captain grimaced, looking very much like a babysitter who'd lost control of his charges. “Where are those beers?”
“Right here.” Rafe Delgado had returned, seemingly even more grumpy than when he had left. He plopped the tray down, sending foam cascading over the top of the frosty pilsner glasses. “Help yourselves.”
Wisely, each man kept his comments about the testy waiter to himself and reached for a beer.
Holden's phone vibrated on the tabletop just as the cell on Alex's belt buzzed. He set down his beer and wiped his hand on the leg of his jeans before answering. Trip and Sarge were opening their phones, too, as Captain Cutler's went off. The noise of the bar instantly muted and the tension around the table thickened as the captain picked up the call. Alex checked his watch. After 10:00 p.m. They'd been off the clock for more than an hour. A call summoning KCPD's premiere SWAT team at this time of night couldn't be good.
Alex was clearing the
message off his touch screen when the captain rejoined them at the table. “Got it. My men are still with meâI'll notify them. Cutler out.” He disconnected the call and addressed the team. “Hold off on those drinks.” He glanced at Holden. “Tell Liza the ice cream will have to wait.”
“What's up, boss?” Alex asked.
“Looks like we're getting some overtime tonight. Rafe, I need you to head on back to HQ to get the van. We'll need all our equipment. We'll meet you at the Plaza address Dispatch gave and suit up there.”
“Yes, sir.” Rafe nodded, his surly mood hidden behind a face that was pure business. He grabbed his jacket and jogged out the door.
“Captain?” Holden prompted. They still didn't have an explanation for the off-duty call.
“Looks like we've got another Rich Girl murder. Banking family this time. The Cosgrove estate. They found Cosgrove's daughter strangled to death in her bedroom. Signs of torture.” Cutler muttered a curse under his breath. “There was a party going on downstairs when they found her. Almost a hundred people on the scene with a dead woman upstairs.”
“That's ballsy.” Holden voiced what Alex was thinking. “Sounds as though this guy is trying to flaunt his crime.”
“That's the second death with that kind of victim in just over a year, isn't it?” Trip asked, sliding a bookmark between the pages of his paperback and cramming it into the pocket of his jacket. “The first one's never been solved. I thought a task force had been set up to narrow down a suspect.”
“Yeah.” Alex frowned. They were men of action. Troubleshooters. Protectors. They weren't the cops who sifted through clues at crime scenes. “Why call us instead of homicide?”
“It's up to us to secure the scene so the detectives and CSI can get in and do their job.”
“We're on crowd control?”
“Not exactly.” The captain pulled his KCPD SWAT jacket from the back of his chair and shrugged into it.
“The perp's upping his game. The party's no coincidence. This time he left a bomb threat with the body.”
Audrey Kline squinted against the swirling strobe effect of the four police cars and other official vehicles lined up on the street in front of the Cosgrove mansion as she climbed out of her Mercedes and tried to make sense of what was going on here. The scene outside the sprawling stone house resembled the aftermath of some kind of natural disaster, with people huddling under blankets, women wearing their escorts' suit jackets over designer dresses, one man sitting at the back of an ambulance with a blood pressure cuff around his arm, and many others silently weeping.
It was true. It hadn't been some cruel tabloid rumor that had blipped past on her local internet news site.
Gretchen was dead.
The certainty of it hit her like a punch to the gut and, for a moment, she sagged against the open door, her shocked breaths forming frosty clouds in the damp November air. How? Why?
Screeching brakes alerted her a split second before the glare of headlights spun around the corner half a block away, hitting her square in the face. A television news van. Audrey turned away and closed the car door,
instinctively shielding her face from the unwelcome intrusion.
There was already a slew of other reporters here, searching for someone noteworthy from the wealthiest and most powerful of Kansas City society to give them a sound bite. And more of those underground bloggers who'd broken the news of the murder half an hour ago were probably mingling with the guests, texting away.
But Audrey was in no mood to be a media darling tonight. Gretchen's death was personal. Private. She needed answers. She needed this to make sense. This was the second friend she'd lost in the past two years. Her mother had died the year before that. Standing around and waiting with the others would only give her time to feel, to remember, to hurt. And to have that kind of weakness caught on tape and posted in the public eye would only make the grief that much tougher to deal with. If she ever wanted to be known as something more than Rupert Kline's little princess, then weakness wasn't something anyone here was going to get a chance to observe.
With newfound resolve giving her strength, Audrey buttoned up the front of her cashmere blazer, stuffed her keys into the pocket of her jeans and slipped through the suits and cocktail dresses of the party guests gathered outside the front gate. They parted like zombies, shocked and murmuring, as she made a beeline for the uniformed policeman standing by the driveway's wrought-iron gates. “Excuse me, officer? I'm a friend of the family.”
Her father had taught her that standing as tall as her five feet five inches allowed and walking and talking with a purpose usually convinced people that she
belonged wherever she wanted to be. But the young officer wasn't fooled. Leaving one arm resting on his belt beside his gun, he raised his hand to stop her. “I'm sorry, miss. No one's allowed to come inside the gate.”
She tilted her chin to argue that she belonged here. “My father and Mr. Cosgrove went to Harvard together. I don't think he would mindâ¦”
And then she saw the two detectivesâone tall and light-haired, jotting notes, the other shorter and darkerâtalking to a pair of crime scene investigators, each wearing their reflective vests and holding their bulky kits in their hands. What were they doing outside the house? Had something happened on the grounds, as well? The blip she'd seen on her laptop said the victim had been found in her bedroom upstairs.
Why weren't they interviewing suspects? Taking pictures? Why were they just standing around? Didn't they know what a beautiful soul Gretchen had been? How much her parents and friends had loved her? Why weren't they tearing that house apart to find out who'd killed her?
Audrey took a deep breath to cool her frustration, wishing she'd taken the time to don a suit and high heels instead of quickly pulling on jeans and a jacket over her pajamas. She'd been up late working at home instead of attending Gretchen's party where she might have been able to do some good by kick-starting the investigation and putting these people to work. With no makeup and her hair hanging down to her shoulders in loose waves, she knew she looked more like a teenager than a grown woman. But she wasn't about to let her appearance stop her anymore than had the two red lights she'd run speeding across town to get here.
She'd known Gretchen Cosgrove since kindergarten. Their adult paths had taken them in different directions, but they saw each other at social functions like this one often enough to keep in touch. A friendship like that didn't die. A woman Audrey's own age shouldn't die.
“Please.” She reached into her back pocket and looped the lanyard with her Office of the District Attorney identification badge around her neck. The job was new, her switch from private practice to public prosecutor a calculated bid to establish her independence beyond the shadow cast by her father. She hadn't had the opportunity to pull rank without her father's influence to back her up yet. But this was as good a time to try as any. “I'm an officer of the court. I'm sure there's something I can do to help.”
“Sorry, ma'am,” the officer apologized, “but my orders are strict. Nobody crosses the cordon tape until SWAT clears the scene, not even the commissioner herself.”
“I don't understand. Wasn't the body found a couple hours ago? The crime scene is getting cold.”
His gaze dropped down to her ID badge. Apparently, the judicial emblem held enough sway for him to lean in to whisper. “There may be a bomb inside.”
He put a finger to his lips. “That's what the note with the body said. Captain Cutler said until we know more, we don't want to say or do anything that will cause a panic.”
Cutler. She knew that name. That meant his SWAT team was on the premises, and that Gretchen's death might not be the only tragedy KCPD had to worry about. Audrey glanced around, recognizing many of the guests
in attendance. There was the party planner Audrey had hired herself in the past, Clarice Darnell, along with her staffâservers, caterers, parking attendants. These were friends, colleagues, acquaintances Audrey had met at society events similar to this one. They were already traumatized by the news that their hostess tonight had been murdered. She didn't wish more trouble on any of them. “No. We wouldn't.”
“You can check with me later,” the policeman offered. “I'll let you in as soon as Captain Cutler gives the okay.”
She nodded her thanks. “In the meantime, is there someone in charge I could speak with to get some details about what's happened? It's already on the internet. Rumors are going to fly if we don't contain this.”
“Ma'am, all I've been told is to keep people backâ”
“Never mind.” She put up her hands, knowing she was pushing too hard, knowing he was just doing his job, knowing she wouldn't get her answers here. “Thank you.”
She turned at the familiar voice and hurried to meet the tall blond man striding toward her. “Harper.”
He wrapped his arms around her waist and lifted her clear off the ground, squeezing her tight as he wept against her neck. “She's gone, Audrey. Gretchen's gone.” She held on tight and rocked back and forth with him. “I loved her, you know.”
“I know. We all did.”
He gulped in a shuddering breath and eased his grip enough so her toes could touch the ground. “We were always together at schoolâyou, me, Gretchen, Charlotte, Donny, Val and the others.”
Audrey rubbed circles at the collar of his gabardine suit, inhaling his familiar scents of tobacco and after-shave, sharing the loss with him. Their whole group of friends through high school had been tight, and though their lives and jobs had taken them in different directions after graduation, they'd found a way to keep in touch, trading calls and notes, coming together in times of tragedy like tonight.
“I used to think you were the one.” Harper sighed, recalling the brief time they'd dated in high school.
“But when I got back from law school, something about Gretch had changed. She was still as beautiful and fun and goofy as ever, butâ¦”
“She grew up.” She'd seen the new maturity in the once-capricious Gretchen, too.
“I asked her to marry me. We were going to announce it tonight.”
she didn't know. Tears welled up in Audrey's eyes, and she pulled back to touch his face. “Oh, Harper.”
“I saw her tonight. In her bed. Before the cops chased us out.” His red-rimmed eyes were dry now, and a brave smile creased his face. “You know she never gets anywhere on timeâshe changes her mind about what she's wearing or can't find the right jewelry to match. But after the guests had been here for almost an hour, I got worried. I went upstairs toâ¦” His smile faltered and Audrey's stomach clenched to receive the blow. “She looked so perfect lying there, like she was sleeping. But sheâ¦ That bastard hurt her. Tortured her. There were marks around her wrists and neck. Her face wasâ¦ I touched her and sheâ¦she was so cold.”
Audrey looped her arms around his neck and hugged him again, hiding her own face against the starch of his collar. “I'm so sorry.”
“It's just like Val all over again.” They'd consoled each other the night Valeska Gordeeva Gallagher had been murdered, too. “Only, I never saw Val's body until the visitation at the funeral home. I saw Gretchâ”
“Shh, Harp. Don't think of that. Let's remember how beautiful Gretchen and Val were.”
“You're right. You're always right. I can count on you to say the right thing, can't I?” Someone jostled them in the crowd and Harper pulled away, straightening his tie, breathing deeply, tightening his jaw to keep the tears from falling again. “She's not coming back. I'll never see her smile or hear her laugh again.”
With that grim pronouncement, the first tears spilled over onto Audrey's cheeks. She quickly swiped them away. “Harperâ”
“I'd better get back to her parents. The press want them to say something. I've been running interference.” He bent down to press a chaste kiss to her forehead.
“They'll be glad to know you're here.”
Another tear burned in the corner of her eye. She sniffed as her sinuses began to congest. Harper might have sucked it up, but she needed a minute to compose herself. “I'll be over to talk to them soon.”
He walked away, leaving her shaking. She'd listened and offered comfort without realizing how much she needed it herself. They might not have been the closest of friends anymore, or else she would have known about the engagementâGretchen had chosen a social
path while Audrey had focused on her careerâbut she had been her oldest friend. And now there was a spot inside her, splitting open, emptying out, leaving grief and regret and helplessness in its place.
Audrey pressed a fist to her trembling lips and surveyed the crowd. She wasn't going to lose it here. The size of the gathering had nearly doubled with press and police, people who knew the Cosgroves and curious strangers. She couldn't expect to hold on to her anonymity much longer, yet she couldn't afford to be spotted as a bawling wreckânot if she wanted to impress her father and his old-school cronies, not if she intended to win the case she'd been assigned this afternoon and solidify her position in the D.A.'s office.
But the tears were burning for release. Hugging her arms in front of her, Audrey ducked her head and shuffled through the crowd, trying to draw as little attention as possible as she desperately sought out a private refuge. Her exposed skin would flush with every emotion she was feelingâa telltale, redheaded curse she'd endured her whole lifeâand there'd be no hiding the ache blooming inside her.
She shifted directions, deciding she should just get inside her car and drive away. But she stopped when she reached the curb. A camera crew was setting up a remote broadcast post on the opposite side of the street, and they'd recognize her as soon as she walked by.
Her throat raw from the constriction of emotions she held in check, Audrey turned and followed the sidewalk around the fringe of the gathering and just kept walking. Once she realized the voices from the crowd were fading, she stopped and raised her head, pulling her hair
back from her face and tucking it behind her ears. She'd nearly reached the neighbor's house an eighth of a mile away.
There was her sanctuary. Not the house, but the red-leafed hedgerows and iron fencing that ran between the two properties. With the press and police focused at the front of the estate, the side yards were empty, shadowed and blessedly quiet. Audrey glanced behind her to Gretchen's house. They'd played hide-and-seek together on the massive grounds when they were children, and the memories of Gretchen's easy laugh and adventurous imagination reignited the grief that was set to consume her.
She needed to get out of here. Now.
She darted around the brick pillar at the corner of the Cosgroves' fence.
The security lights in the neighbor's front yard flashed on, reflecting off the white gold of her watch band. Reacting like the trespasser she was, Audrey tugged the sleeve of her jacket over her wrist and crouched down between the fence and hedge. The night was conspiring against her efforts to find a private moment to acknowledge her grief and center herself. Maybe she should just curl up in a ball here and let the tears flow.
But that would only add fuel to the paparazzi's rumor mill if they discovered an assistant district attorney huddled in the mud behind a burning bush shrub outside a crime scene.
“Why didn't I just stay home?” she muttered. Yet, as her jeans soaked up the chilly dampness from the ground beneath her knee, Audrey saw that she hadn't triggered the security lights, after all.
Instead, she got a clear look at the culprit. An armed
SWAT cop, wearing a flak vest over his black uniform, was lugging a large metal box to the back of the SWAT van parked in the driveway. Where had he come from? He was grinching to himself, maybe complaining about setting off the lights with his approach.