From the back seat of Lyft, FBI profiler Grace Steele eyed the old Kline Textile Factory. One of hte man abandoned riverside structures she saw daily during her New York City commute, she'd never once given the building a second thought. She gave it that second thought now. And a third. And as trash skidded across the potholed utility road like urban tumbleweed, she gave it a fourth.
Windows not boarded up gaped open, their glass long since fallen victim to a game of hand-ball or a good rock-toss, and less than six feet away, the only somewhat-working streetlamp flickered ominously. Last week she’d watched a horror move that had started this exact damn way.
“You sure about this, lady?” Her Lyft driver pulled the car to a slow stop. “My ma always claimed I couldn’t spot a bad idea if it stared me dead in the eye, but I can see that isn’t a place you should walk in daylight much less after the sun goes down. I can take you back—no charge.”
Grace read her boss’s text message for the third time in as many minutes: 321 Pier Six. Nine o’clock. Be there.
Correct address. Correct time. And loaded with an invisible warning that to defy the FBI director would mean severe consequences. Disobeying orders had never been so tempting—except when Aunt Cindy forbade Grace from buying a prom dress she considered “lightyears too short.”
Thwarting Aunt Cindy had gotten her a month on laundry duty, which was no small punishment living with four overgrown male cousins. But disregarding Director Vance would get her fired.
She was already on her boss’s shit-list and couldn’t afford a second ding. Not that the first one was her fault. If given a do-over, she’d still tell her former regional supervisor where he could stuff his sexist comments. Except, maybe, with more explicit detail.
But Grace’s notorious Steele temper flare-up last month was the reason she couldn’t disobey orders now. Karma had a wicked sense of humor.
“Thanks for the offer, but I’ll be fine. I already put in a request for a ride back.” She tucked her phone into her back pocket as she climbed out of the car.
“It’s your life, lady. Hope I don’t see you on the morning news.”
Grace did too.
If it wasn't December, and if the text hadn’t come from Vance herself, she’d think this was an April Fool’s prank hatched by one of her colleagues—maybe Toby for the wasabi-toast incident.
But the director didn't joke, or smile, or make second requests, which meant Grace had ten minutes to get her ass inside. Grace tugged her coat collar up to protect her from the chilled wind whipping in from the Hudson and headed to the rusted iron door. She kept her head on a swivel and surveyed her surroundings, something she’d done even before entering the FBI thanks to her four military-trained cousins.
This far down the river, there were no tourists soaking in the sights, and any dock workers that frequented the place during the day were long gone, their statuesque cranes sitting unused.
But Grace wasn’t alone.
She’d sensed the tell-tale shiver slide down her spine the second she’d stepped out of car. It was the same one a woman felt while being eye-fucked on a nightclub dance floor, or when the creepy man from the produce section miraculously appeared in front of the milk, then again by the bakery, and ended up behind you at checkout.
Every woman everywhere knew how to pinpoint The Source, and Grace wasn’t any different. Beneath her jacket, Magdalena’s weight warmed her right side, her trusted Magnum .22 reminding her in its own way that it had her back. One man—no—two, stood on different sides of the front door. She came to a slow stop six feet away and unzipped her coat to give them ample time to identify themselves.
I'm going to throw out a warning because I'm feeling magnanimous tonight. I really hate being cold. It's a fact. I'm a perpetual bitch from the months of December to March—give or take an early spring. Just in case you lost track of time, it's December and we're supposedly int he crosshairs of an Arctic Blast. Do with that information what you want." Grace paused and waited for acknowledgment.
The one on the left stepped forward, leaving his partner in position.
Clean-shaven with close-cropped hair and a fit, lean physique, the man couldn’t have been much older than herself. Maybe early thirties. His long, confident stride and the cocky glint in his eyes gave him way as law enforcement right away. “Special Agent Steele. It’s good to see your reputation wasn’t exaggerated.”
“You’ll have to excuse me for not returning that sentiment—at least until you tell me who you are.” Grace’s eyes flickered to the pin attached to his suit’s left lapel, and she swallowed a curse.
“Agent Jake Corelli, ma’am. Secret Service.” He flashed a set of credentials. “Are you carrying a weapon?”
"Yeah, I have my service weapon like I do any time I'm called into the field."
“You’ll need to relinquish it to me before you go inside.” Corelli held out his hand expectantly.
Grace laughed…and realized she was the only one. “Oh wait. You’re serious? Yeah, sorry, but that’s not happening.”
“Sorry, ma’am, but it is.”
Again with the ma’am crap.
Releasing a heavy sigh, she carefully reached beneath her jacket and handed over Magdalena. “Only God can help you if something happens to her. You hear me?”
“Loud and clear, ma’am.” The secret service agent’s lips twitched. “I’ll take good care of her while she’s in my custody.”
“Good. And while you’re at it, you can stop the ma’am.”
“Noted…Special Agent Steele.” He smirked, the move showcasing an impressive set of dimples.
Once upon a time, the handsome, self-assured type had been her catnip. Oh, it was fun at first. Exciting. But reality always rushed back, and it usually did so with a harsh metaphorical smack on the face. Or the ass. Thankfully, Grace learned early on that the only way to ensure a happily ever after was to make it yourself.
Agent Corelli tapped the communication device hooked around his left ear. “Special Agent Steele has arrived and is on her way inside.”
The door behind him opened with a heavy thunk.
“And where exactly am I going once I’m inside?” Grace asked.
“Great. I love surprises that lurk in dark warehouses,” Grace muttered, her sarcasm earning her a small chuckle from the agent.
Truth was that she hated surprises with a passion, nearly as much as cliffhangers in books. Unanswered anything practically gave her hives which was one reason why profiling suited her perfectly…and why her boss’s severely-lacking-in-details text was driving her up the wall.
She gave Magdalena one last longing look and stepped through the doorway where she was instantly greeted by two more Secret Service agents, one of whom had traded her own weapon in for a metal detector baton.
“Arms and legs out, ma’am.”
Grace bit her tongue at being called ma’am again, and waited as the agent ran the baton over her body. Once satisfied, she nodded to her cohort.
“You can go inside.” The second agent opened the next set of double doors and Grace stepped into the large, and obviously unused, old factory.
When Kline Textiles declared bankruptcy a million years ago, they hadn’t bothered taking all their belongings. Stacked three high, old mildewed boxes took up the far left corner, and on Grace’s right, at least a dozen cob-webbed sewing machines had been lined up in two rows. The place was an industrial wasteland, but she didn’t spare any of it a second glance because her gaze locked on the lone table in the center of the room…and the man standing next to it. Grace’s earlier curiosity weighted her stomach to her feet.
Vice President of the United States.
Deemed too-pretty-for-government-work while on the campaign trail, the former senator sported a full head of salt-and-pepper hair and broad shoulders that remained from his days in the Army. Both his smile and his youthful appearance had been media fodder before he’d taken office, but neither was in the room with them.
Dark circles framed his once brilliant green eyes, and his well-known smile had been replaced by a tight-lipped grimace. This Brandt looked a far cry and a few decades away from the man on the news who effortlessly charmed foreign dignitaries.
This so wasn’t her typical office appointment with an FBI colleague or a direct superior. Agents at her level do not get private audiences with the second most powerful person in the country.
It made her all the more wary.
“Special Agent Grace Steele. Finally, we meet.” He held out a hand in greeting. “I’ve heard many great things about you from Director Vance, and I can see that my presence is a shock, which means the director didn’t tell you about this meeting.”
“Not a thing, sir.”
“Good. I’m sorry for all the secrecy, but it was a necessary evil. This conversation needs to remain private.”
Grace barely withheld a snort. “Because the White House isn’t secure, sir?”
He chuckled at her sarcasm. “Secure? Most definitely. Private? No. I’ve asked you here as a personal favor because, for a litany of reasons, I can’t involve local law enforcement or federal resources.”
And the surprises keep coming.
Secret meetings and personal favors didn’t ease Grace’s mind one bit. Nothing good ever came from them, especially when they involved politicians.
She chose her words carefully so as not to offend him. “You do realize that I’m a federal agent, right?”
He smiled, but the act never reached his eyes. “I know many things about you, Special Agent Steele. I know that you graduated at the top of your class at Quantico. I know that you could’ve written your own ticket to any high-valued branch of the Bureau you wanted, and yet you chose criminal profiling.”
Grace shrugged. "I've never been a glory seeker. I'm more than happy to work behind the scenes and let others get their time in the spotlight."
Brandt leaned against the table, crossing his arms over his chest. “And from what I understand, you also work well with a team.”
Grace’s internal warning light blinked to life.
Criminal profiling was a solitary job. She dissected people--psychologically. She picked away at their thought processes, examined their motives, what made them tick, and why they did the things they did with the hope of stopping them before they did it again.
Though trained like any field agent, most of her time was spent behind a desk, or across an interview table…which made her even more suspicious about the vice president’s comment.
There was only one time in her eight years of service that she’d worked with a team.
“Sir,” Grace treaded carefully, “I don’t mean any disrespect, but this Cloak and Dagger business isn’t my thing. Director Vance summoned me down here in the middle of the night for a reason, and I’d really like to know what that reason is.” “I like your no-nonsense attitude, Special Agent Steele. And you’re right. You were asked here because I’ve hired Steele Ops to help me deal with my personal matter.”
And there it was.
Steele Ops. Her four overgrown cousins who made laundry punishment hell on earth.
“I believe that you worked with the private security firm in the recent past.”
“I was actually consulting with the DCPD on the Beltway Cupid Killer case, but you didn’t ask me here about the BCK. Are you looking for a personal recommendation? I may be a bit biased, but you’re in good hands with my cousins. Failure isn’t in their vocabulary.”
“Which is exactly why I hired them…and why Steele Ops has requested the use of your expertise.” Pierce Brandt’s gaze slid over her left shoulder. “Isn’t that correct, Mr. Wright?”
A common name. Thousands of people had it in New York alone, but only one possessed the power to raise her body temperature a good few hundred degrees. Right now, she was dangerously close to finding out how hot a human had to be before bursting into flames.
It didn’t make sense. This was New York, not DC where her cousins had been deep in the throes of wooing him into the family business.
Steeling her spine, Grace turned, and came face-to-face with the last man on which she ever wanted to lay eyes—or anything except a strong right hook.
Cade Wright leaned against the far wall, looking better than he had any right to in worn blue jeans and a long-sleeved Henley. The shirt molded to his upper body and didn’t leave much to the imagination as to what was under it—a rock hard chest and eight pairs of abs the last time she’d counted.
Grace forced her gaze off his body and up to his eyes.
Big freakin’ mistake. More times than she could count, those cobalt-blue eyes had been her undoing. Lord knew they’d been a key factor in gifting him her virginity a million years ago. And when she’d been in DC for the Cupid Killer case, those eyes—and an ample amount of Jack Daniels—were directly responsible for her sexual relapse.
Grace fisted her hands at her side, barely resisting the urge to throw the nearest object at his overinflated head. Probably a good thing, since that thing happened to be the vice president. “What the hell are you doing here?”
“It’s good to see you, too, Grace.” Cade smirked, the move showcasing the old scar on his chin. His few days’ worth of dark blond stubble nearly covered it, but she knew it was there.
She’d been the one to give it to him during her one and only motorcycle lesson.
Not a day went by that she didn’t wonder how her sweet best friend Zoey shared an entire genepool with the cocky ass. Cade Wright made her cousins seem humble, and that was saying a lot since each of their pictures could’ve been published in a visual dictionary under the term smug.
Granted they had the right.
Roman’s Special Forces career wasn’t exactly spent behind a desk. No one knew what he actually did in SF, but considering his perpetual grumpiness, it wasn’t hunting for Leprechauns at the end of rainbow. And Ryder and Liam, a Marine and Navy Intelligence officer, saw more action than a movie director. Like Knox, her oldest cousin, Cade had spent his service years in the 75th Ranger Regiment—high demand, high stakes, and high bragging rights.
Cade Wright and each of her cousins were heroes without the glittery capes.
Grace ripped her gaze away from her ex and turned to Brandt. “I’m sorry, sir, but I’m going to have to politely decline Steele Ops’ request. I can’t help you.”
Brandt’s eyebrows rose into his hairline. “I haven’t even told you what the job entails.”
“You obviously need a criminal profiler, right? I’ll happily give you the names of a few colleagues who would do a fantastic job.”
“I’m afraid you don’t understand. Your name is the one that’s been recommended—not only by Steele Ops, but by the director herself.” The vice president’s tone didn’t leave room for debate. “I’m not taking any chances with my daughter’s life, Special Agent Steele.”
Grace didn’t read social magazines, and when the news programs ventured into gossip territory, she turned them off. But she would’ve heard about a threat against the politician’s daughter. “Isn’t your daughter studying art abroad? In Europe?” “That’s the public excuse we gave to explain her absence.”
“Absence? If she’s not in DC and she’s not in Europe, then where is she?”
"With a group I believe that you're familiar with."
Brandt squared his shoulders and looked her dead in the eye. “The Order of the New Dawn.”
Grace’s blood froze.
Making a living diving into the disturbed minds of criminals, her shock factor was practically zilch. But that name. That group.
No wonder the vice president wanted her working alongside Steele Ops. No one knew the OND like she did, but she hadn’t studied them at Quantico or used them as her dissertation topic.
Grace knew the organization intimately because from the age of five to thirteen, Grace Steele had been considered a Child of the New Dawn.
She'd spent most of her childhood in a cult.
Ӂ No matter how bad Cade wanted to intervene, he couldn’t for two reasons—and they stood less than six feet away in an epic stare-down. They were both confident, both stubborn. Brandt, a former Army General, had been trained never to retreat, and yet if Cade had to bet money on who the winner would be, he’d choose Grace.
Grace was a Steele, through-and-through, and like her cousins—his best friends—no one could talk her into something she didn’t want to do. And there wasn’t a doubt in his mind that she didn’t want to do this.
It was why he’d been volunteered to represent Steele Ops at this meeting. Grace already hated him, and his presence kept her cousins in her somewhat amiable good graces.
She straightened her spine. “Mr. Vice President…sir. I’m sorry about your daughter, but—”
“Then help me. You know New Dawn better than anyone. Steele Ops has been working tirelessly to get into Teague Rossbach’s inner circle, but it’s proven more difficult than expected. You’re the missing link. Both your training and your history with the group could help bring my daughter home.”
Jake Corelli stepped up to Brandt, clearing his throat. “Sir, we need to be moving along.”
The vice president locked Grace in his sights. “I’m not going to lie, Special Agent Steele. My daughter isn’t perfect. She’s made some personal choices in her life that I don’t particularly care for, but until now, they’ve been her choices. And like any self-respecting parent, I want to support her. New Dawn wasn’t a choice. They preyed on her weakness and used it to their advantage.”
“I’m flattered that you and my cousins have so much faith in me, sir, but it’s been seventeen years since I’ve lived with the OND. There’s no way that they’re the same organization I remember.”
“You’re right. They’ve had time to grow, to damage more lives.” He gestured to a manila envelope on the table. “That’s everything we have on Sarah’s activities leading up to her disappearance, including intelligence on the man we believed recruited her. All I’m asking is that you try.”
Grace remained statue-still. Hell, even Cade temporarily stopped breathing, waiting for her response. As close as they’d gotten after she’d come to live with her father’s family, Grace still hadn’t told Cade everything about her time in New Dawn. He’d respected that privacy. Taking the little snippets she did share, he’d listened and hadn’t pushed.
But I’m Fine had been her mantra, and the only way he’d been able to tell if it was true or an automatic response reserved for her family was by looking into her eyes.
That was the real reason he’d agreed to trek to New York.
He needed to look her in her pretty golden-brown eyes and make sure she was okay with what they were asking her to do. Grace picked up the file, her fingers slightly trembling. “I’ll do my best, sir.”
“Thank you. From both myself and my wife.” Brandt shook her hand before doing the same to Cade. “I trust you’ll keep me updated?”
When Cade looked back to Grace, she’d already retrieved her firearm from Corelli and snapped [MC25] it back into her holster. He waited until Brandt and his security detail left, and braced for impact. “Grace—”
“Not. One. Word.” She tucked the manila folder under her arm and stalked angrily toward the exit.
Cade followed from a distance, although judging by her silence, he wasn’t sure if the next county would be far enough to be considered safe. Quiet-Grace was more dangerous than her fly-off-the-handles counterpart. Quiet-Grace meant time to dwell and stew. Quiet-Grace plotted retributions that made grown men cry and call out for their mamas.
They’d barely cleared the front door when Grace whirled around, no longer quiet. “An ambush, Cade? Seriously?”
“Ambush is going a little too far, don’t you think?”
“No, I don’t. DC is the capital of the free world. They don’t have working telephones? Or hell, email? You let me walk into this freakin’ blind!”
Cade’s hackles rose. He crossed his arms over his chest, going on the defensive. “It’s not like we didn’t try to get hold of you. Knox, Roman, and Ryder. Liam was five seconds away from attempting carrier pigeon. We even roped Zoey into the coordinated effort, but surprise, surprise, all voicemails, texts, and emails went unreturned.”
“If I didn’t get back to you then there was a good reason. Oh say, my job!”
“That’s your go-to excuse these days, isn’t it?”
“What the hell’s that supposed to mean?”
“Pretty sure I meant it how it sounded. You don’t exactly make regular appearances home. You probably wouldn’t have come to town six months ago if the Bureau hadn’t sent you there for the BCK case.”
“I’d really like to not discuss six months ago with you.” With a low growl, she stalked away, even the clack of her heels telling him to fuck himself.
Cade couldn’t help but watch. Tall and curvy, she filled out her suit in a way that was meant to be business-smart, but instead, fueled every naughty librarian fantasy he’d had as a horny teenager.
Hell, he didn’t need the suit to fire up a Grace-inspired fantasy reel. He needed the woman herself—which was exactly what happened earlier that year. Stress and a little Jack had lowered their inhibitions, and they’d fallen back on old habits. Sex—the one thing during their nine years together that they never once argued about—except when he’d told her that he wasn’t taking her virginity after her Senior Prom. Hell had no fury like Grace Steele being cock-blocked.
The flash of headlights ripped his attention away from Grace’s ass and onto the approaching sedan. She flagged it down and it slowed.
“Where are you going?”
“Home. Which is where you should go.”
Cade spotted the Lyft sticker on the car window. “There’s no reason for you to pay for a ride. I’m parked around the corner.”
Grace stopped cold, aiming her glare his way. “Why would you think that I’d get in a car with you?”
“Because I'm your ticket to the Steele Ops jet. Or has your love of commercial flying changed? I bet on this short of notice, there’s a nice middle seat within toilet-sniffing distance. Or we can drive down to DC. Five long hours. You and me. Side-by-side.”
Her nose wrinkled as if smelling something bad, but he wasn’t sure if it was at the mention of commercial seating or close quarters with him.
“Or”—Grace smiled sweetly, and opened the Lyft door—“I can drive my own damn self. See you in DC.”
Without another glance, she slipped into the backseat of the waiting car, leaving him to stare after her like some kind of abandoned lover…which coincidentally, was pretty damn close to what he'd done to her nine years earlier.