Following Nick out of the elevator, Dean started towards apartment 3G. The building was only a couple of years old and well out of his price range. The hallway was a deep chocolate brown and the lush, carpeted floor a merle grey. Everywhere he looked screamed opulence. What type of woman could afford a place like this?
A warm golden glow came from the rectangular wall sconces spaced a few feet apart, lighting the hall without blinding the occupants. At either end of the hallway stood a pair of identical leafy green potted plants. A bronze framed print hanging on the wall reminded Dean of Picasso.
The apartment three doors down had their music blaring, and beneath his feet he could feel the vibrations from the bass. Everything seemed so normal—so pedestrian it was hard to think they were here to investigate the abduction of a nineteen-year-old girl. They came to a stop in front of apartment 3G and Nick knocked. The door was opened immediately by a petite brunette who must’ve been waiting for them.
A pair of startling green eyes caught his and Dean felt like he’d been kicked in the gut. His heart thumped heavily in his chest as little pin-pricks of awareness washed over him and he found he had trouble breathing. His muscles tensed even as his body hardened and began to throb painfully. He bit back a curse. He’d never had such a reaction to a woman before in his life.
Her gaze flicked between him and Nick as he brought up his I.D. and made the introductions. The woman nodded and stepped back, allowing them to enter. She closed the door firmly and turned to face them, her expression fraught with worry.
“I know who you are. I just got off the phone with Amelia. She told me you’d be coming,” she said, twisting her fingers together anxiously. When she caught him watching, she stuffed her hands into her snug jeans. “I’m Megan Bailey.”
He gave her a slow onceover, unable to help himself. He was curious about this woman and the overwhelming desire he had for her. The entire world seemed to melt away until all that was left was her.
She was beautiful in an understated way with a honey complexion and a small dusting of freckles on the bridge of her nose. Rich mahogany hair had been pulled back into a messy ponytail. She wasn’t overly tall, the top of her head only reaching his shoulders, but she was nicely filled out with curves in all the right places, her breasts high and full beneath her shirt, which clung to her like a second skin revealing her tucked in waist and the flare of her hips. He swallowed hard, his mouth suddenly dry.
As if sensing his perusal, Megan glanced over at him and his knees weakened. Her eyes—those gorgeous emerald pools—pulled at him, so full of torment that his heart ached. Shit, this was crazy and so unlike him.
She blinked and he heard her sharp exhale, her mouth parted, and she looked so irresistible that he was sorely tempted to cross the short distance between them and find out if she tasted as good as she looked. He was at a loss, unable to pull away as she continued to stare at him. Was she feeling as out of control as him?
He forced himself back on track. He was here to work a case, not look for his next bed partner, and while Megan was quite delectable, she would hardly do. She wasn’t the type of woman a man fooled around with unless he had forever in his mind, and Dean Matthews didn’t do forever. No matter what his body was telling him.
He certainly wasn’t sex-starved, although it had been a while since he had hit the sheets with a woman. The case was taking up all his time, and he couldn’t think of anything else even when he had a rare moment alone to sleep. It was disconcerting and he wasn’t sure he liked it, bringing about feelings he’d long ago rejected.
Nick shifted where he stood and Dean remembered they weren’t alone. He looked away with effort and caught Nick’s knowing glance, so he scowled at him in return. Great, he’d witnessed his less than subtle once over. He’d be hearing about his reaction to Megan for days. Nick winked at him before turning towards Megan.
“How do you know the boss?” Nick asked—probably idle curiosity on his behalf, but the question was designed to put her at ease.
Her shoulders visibly relaxed and she cast Nick a wry smile.
“I’m a writer. I called your office a while back asking to speak to someone about police procedures for research on my first book, and I guess it was supposed to be a joke, but I was handed over to Amelia.”
Guilt crossed Nick’s face. Dean guessed he’d probably been involved in that decision. He was the perpetual joker, and when Amelia had been a part of the team, he’d loved to bust her chops.
Nick studied her. “And you managed to become friends?” It was a fair question. She wasn’t the warm and fuzzy type, and like the rest of them, her schedule left little time for building a relationship—any type of relationship.
“It took some persuasion on my behalf to get past that prickly exterior, but once I did, we hit it off.”
That was hard to swallow. No one just hit it off with Amelia. Although Megan was right about the prickly exterior. Dean had worked alongside her for years and the only things he knew about her was that she was passionate about her job, had a wicked aim when it came to pitching stress balls at him, and that the closest thing to family she had was her previous team and their wives. But then, Dean wasn’t much for sharing, either. He’d never told anyone what he’d endured overseas and how watching Emma die had fucked with him.
The memory of Emma had the effect of ice water being poured over his head. She was a good reminder of why he should retain a good distance away from this woman who was messing with his head, making him feel all sorts of things that he shouldn’t. He couldn’t afford to lose focus, or another woman might end up like Emma.
“So you’re a writer,” Nick said. “Anything I might’ve read?”
Megan shrugged. “Probably not. I write under the name Meredith Baker.”
“No? Really? You’re Meredith Baker?” His eyes rounded. “I love your books. I’ve got the entire series and between you and me, I’ve fantasised about Dahlia Blake more times than I can count, although I prefer redheads.”
Dean’s eyebrow rose. He had no idea Nick read, let alone what he assumed to be a woman’s romanticised view of police work.
She glanced between the both of them. He froze as their gazes collided and he tried to remind himself of all the reasons he’d just told himself to stay clear of her.
“Thank you. I’m glad you liked them—and her.”
“I can’t wait for the next one.”
Megan looked uncomfortable under Nick’s enthusiasm. “Well, you’ll be happy to know I finished the next one yesterday and it was handed over my editor for review.”
“Please tell me she’s going to put Cole out of his misery and marry him? They’re so right for each other,” Nick said. “Dahlia will never find another man who understands her and accepts her like Cole does.”
Dean rolled his eyes. Romantic nonsense. But he found himself curious about the characters in her book and was surprised at how hooked his partner was. His mouth twitched.
Megan smiled at him, clearly as amused by Nick’s rapture as he was. His gaze drifted down to her lips and when he glanced back up, he caught the blush staining her cheeks before she ducked her head.
“I wouldn’t want to spoil it for you. But since you’re my biggest fan, I’ll make sure you get an advance copy.”
Nick placed a hand over his chest and sighed dramatically. “You certainly know your way to a man’s heart, Megan.”
Her face suddenly fell as if she’d only just remembered what they were doing in her apartment and tears pricked her eyes. She hugged herself tightly as if that alone would bring her comfort. Dean wanted to take her into his arms and hold her until she no longer hurt, but he wasn’t that type of man. He wasn’t someone to be relied on for sweet lies and false hope. He was a man of action and the best thing he could do for her was catch the man who’d taken Stacey and bring her home. Hopefully alive.
Nick laid a gentle hand on her shoulder as a tear escaped her eye. Dean was surprised at the anger that rose within him and barely restrained himself from reaching over and forcibly removing his partner’s hand. Dean frowned, feeling inadequate and pissed that he was unable to provide comfort. It seemed to be so natural for Nick, but Dean knew if he tried, it would come off as awkward. Emotions weren’t his forte, which was why he preferred other people deal with the grieving families while he dealt with the facts and evidence.
Why was he so incapable of reaching out to another human being and making a connection—any kind of connection other than the sexual? Just because he’d long ago denied himself certain feelings, it didn’t mean the rest of the world had. What was it about seeing someone so vulnerable that had him wanting to find the nearest exit? He already knew the answer. It brought back too many memories of when he’d been defenceless.
Megan apologised. “For a moment it wasn’t all bleak, and then it was like discovering her missing all over again. It’s like a nightmare. I keep expecting her to walk through the front door.”
“It’ll be okay.” Nick patted her shoulder reassuringly.
Dean directed her attention to him. “Stacey lived here with you?”
“Yes. She’s staying with me while she attends HBU. I’m her only relative besides her mother.”
“And where does her mother live?”
“A couple hours west of here. I’ve already called her, hoping maybe Stacey made contact. But she hasn’t heard from her in months and all I got out of it was her berating me for not taking better care of her daughter.”
Dean didn’t think the mother needed to tell Megan she hadn’t done a good enough job. It seemed like she was doing a pretty good job of blaming herself.
Nick studied a photo on the wall. “Is that Stacey?”
Dean glanced at the photo. At first he thought he was looking at a younger Megan, but then he noticed a few small differences. The chin was sharper on the girl in the picture and her smile was lopsided, unlike the rare one he’d seen on Megan’s face.
He removed the picture frame from the hook. “Do you mind if we borrow this?”
“No, go ahead.” Megan stepped forward and he breathed in her jasmine scented perfume. Her eyes locked on his and he felt the same pull as he had earlier. “Amelia said this wasn’t a ransom, so what exactly is it?”
Dean shared a look with Nick. Thank you, Amelia. Way to throw them into the deep end. He tried to be diplomatic. “We don’t know yet, Ms. Bailey. As soon as we have some answers, we’ll let you know.”
“You know something now don’t you? How else would you know it’s not a ransom? It’s not a—” She broke off and tried again. “He’s not a sex—” Again, she couldn’t finish.
Dean kept his gaze steady. “No, Ms. Bailey, we can say with absolute certainty that he does not want that from your cousin.”
She sucked in a startled breath. “You know who it is?”
He realised his mistake. “We need a list of everyone your cousin comes into contact with. Friends, lovers. Everyone.” He ignored her question.
Megan looked lost again. Dean breathed a sigh of relief. The last thing he wanted was for her to make the connection between the Highway Dumper murders and Stacey’s abduction, although it was only a matter a time. He hoped he would have some answers for her first.
“Stacey isn’t much of a social person. She’s driven. Her studies are what’s important to her at the moment. I don’t think she’s made any friends. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her mention anyone from Uni, except maybe her art teacher.”
“Well, you also have to understand that she might not have—”
“Stacey tells me everything. I know what you’re going to say…there are some secrets a teenage girl has, but there’s no reason for Stacey to lie to me. She knows I won’t condemn her or rat her out to her mother. She’s an adult and I treat her as one. I’m not her mother, her conscience, or the moral police.”
He understood what Megan was telling him but the jaded part of him still believed teenage girls didn’t tell the authority figure in their life everything, even when that person was a cool older cousin.
“Ms. Bailey, is it all right if we go to Stacey’s room and look through some of her things?”
“Yes, of course. This way.”
They followed her down a hallway and for the first time Dean glanced about the apartment. It was a woman’s apartment. There was no mistaking the smell of clean linen and sanitised benches. No socks littered the floor nor were any clothes thrown about. He walked past an open door and spared a glance inside. It was Megan’s room clearly, the large queen bed covered with a feminine comforter. He could smell the vase of flowers on the bureau emanating from the open door.
They came to a stop out the front of a closed door and Megan opened it reverently. The room was just as clean as the rest of the apartment but there were several items of clothing left discarded on the floor.
Megan watched them from the doorway. She looked like she was scared to enter the room, as if afraid it might mean Stacey would never come home.
Dean flicked through her things, feeling like a voyeur. He wasn’t used to shifting through a live person’s belongings. It made what he was doing intrusive somehow, despite his best intentions. He found little evidence of a life outside her studies, as Megan had said. There were no emails on her laptop besides upcoming exams sent out by the university, no photos on either the computer or about the room that weren’t of Stacey and Megan.
His heart filled with dread. For a time, he’d been hoping that maybe the kid had simply taken off, but now it seemed more than likely that she had been taken by the very man he was searching for. The knowledge that she was out there, in the hands of this monster, made it so much worse. She was in great danger.
She was so young. So unprepared for the hell she was about to endure. He wished he could take her place. He was used to pain, had been trained to withstand it. He couldn’t be broken. He hardened his resolve, refusing to give up on her. Ever.
He flicked through a folder on her desk and scanned the detailed business ideas, price projections, and loan repayments for an art gallery. He smiled. The kid had certainly done her research.
“She’s going to call it Bailey’s Art Gallery,” Megan said softly, and he turned his head, surprised to find her so close. How had he not heard her, not sensed her approach? She stood beside him looking down at the folder in his hand.
“Is she? She certainly has a good business plan.”
“She’s studying business at school. Stacey’s a good kid. Do you honestly believe this will end well, Detective?” Her voice broke.
Dean opened his mouth but stopped when she held up a hand.
“Honestly,” she repeated, a cold steel in her voice.
Dean dragged a hand through his hair. “I have no idea, Megan.” Her name slipped from his lips before he could stop it. “I wish I could provide you some comfort. But that’s not who I am. God, I wish it was. We’ll find her. I promise you. No matter what, I’ll bring her home to you.”
Her eyes widened at his vow. Hell, even he was surprised to hear those words come out of his mouth. He’d made a point over the years never to put himself in this position. Never personalise the case. But he just couldn’t remain aloof this time. He was vested in the outcome just as much as she was, and accepted that if all went to hell, Megan would end up hating him.
He caught Nick’s disapproving stare in his peripheral vision. He ignored his partner and focused on the woman beside him. A lone tear trailed down her cheek and he caught it with his finger. The simple touch sent a bolt of electricity through him. Megan startled, sucking air in sharply. Her eyes widened and she stared at him in wonder.
Nick cleared his throat and Megan blushed. She stepped towards Nick who was waiting not so patiently at the door, holding Stacey’s laptop in his hands for the IT techs to scour.
“I’ll have my editor, Riley, send you a copy of the book as soon as it’s printed, Detective Doyle. I’ll even sign it.”
Nick’s voice was full of hope. “‘To my favourite detective’?”
Dean scowled at him and Nick winked. Bastard was purposely baiting him. He gritted his teeth.
Dean followed her to the door. “If you have any questions, please give us a call.” He handed her his card.
She took it. “But you’d prefer it if I don’t?”
Dean smiled at her directness and had to give credit where credit was due. Megan Bailey was smart and very astute. She also seemed to be the bottom line kind of woman. Dean appreciated that.