Every Dark Corner

Excerpt

PROLOGUE
Saturday, August 8, 12:45 p.m.

Cookies. Chips. Fruit Roll-Ups. Mallory Martin gritted her teeth harder with every package she tossed into the grocery cart. Crossing the fruit snacks off his list, she made her way to the frozen food section of the store. Frozen pizza. Ice cream.

Then on to the toppings—one of each type on the shelf at the end of the aisle. Chocolate syrup, candied walnuts, peanuts, caramel. No store brands, he’d said. Get the most expensive. Bile burned her throat. Only the best, Mallory dear. Only the best.

She dropped her gaze back to the list, double-checking that she’d gotten all that he’d specified. Don’t forget any-
thing, Mallory darling, he’d said, his smile tight as he’d run his finger down her face. You know how I hate to have to punish you.

“Looks like somebody’s having a party.”

Mallory jerked at the deep male voice, her grip tightening on the jar of cherries she’d just pulled off the shelf. Because we must have cherries. She could hear the lilting, mocking words inside her mind.

Always inside her mind. Always. Everywhere. She hated that. She hated him. She stared at the jar of cherries in her hand. She hated herself.

“Are you all right, miss?” the man standing in front of her cart asked with concern.

Mallory shoved the hated voice from her mind, lifting her eyes to the stranger standing in front of her. He was about thirty, with wide shoulders and a slight paunch. Looked like a used-to-be football player, once upon a time. She knew the type. She knew all the types. He was watching her, his expression wary. Like she was a lunatic just waiting to do something crazy.

And he’d be right, she thought.

“I didn’t mean to startle you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“I’m fine,” she said quietly. “Thank you for asking.” She tried to move her cart, to get around him, but the man took a step to the side, blocking her movement before it had a chance to become an escape.

She took a step back, but once again he mirrored her movement, stopping her. “I know you,” he said, his eyebrows bunching as he studied her more closely. A shiver ran down her spine. Fear. Disgust. Despair.

She forced herself to smile. “No, I’m sure you don’t. I’m new in town.” A lie, of course. But after so many, what was one more?

He tilted his head, eyes narrowing. Mallory pulled the cart backward a few paces, gritting her teeth when beefy fingers closed over the metal, keeping her in place.

She could tell the exact moment he recognized her, his lips curling in a Grinch-like smile. She didn’t know this man, but that smile? That she knew. Once again bile burned her throat, but this time it was mixed with desperate fear.

“Let me pass,” she said, hearing her own panic. “I have to get out of here.” She yanked her cart from his hands and careened around him. Briefly she considered abandoning the cart and running like hell.

Running as far as she could. As fast as she could. Running until she reached a place where no man would ever wear that smile.

But that wasn’t possible.

Because the Internet was everywhere. Mallory was everywhere. Even though she wanted to be nowhere. Which also was not possible. So she pushed her cart to the dairy section and opened the door to the milk. For a moment she stood there, the cold air of the fridge a blessed relief to her overheated face.

Her heart was racing, her pulse pounding in her head until it was all she could hear. Still holding on to the door, she carefully glanced over her shoulder. Her stomach pitched.

The man stood at the very end of the aisle, texting, his phone small in his big hands. He looked up,saw her watching him, and smiled that Grinch smile again. Fluttered his sausage-sized fingers in a wave.

And took her photo.

No. No. No. Not again. Please, she wanted to scream. Not again. No more.

But she didn’t scream. Didn’t cry. Didn’t run. Instead, she chose a gallon jug of milk with as much dignity as she could muster, placed it in the cart, and checked his list once again.

Whipped cream. It was the last item on the list and her hand shook when she reached for the red can. It should be a normal thing, buying a can of whipped cream. But she knew why he wanted it. Knew he’d use it for far more than topping an ice cream sundae.

Tell someone. For the love of God, Mallory, tell someone.

Shut up, she wanted to snap. How many times had she told herself to tell? But it wasn’t that simple. Nothing was ever that simple. If it was simple, I’d’ve done it by now, she thought wearily. The red can went in the cart and she made her way to the lanes of cashiers.

The used-to-be football player with the deep voice was in the checkout line to her left, trying to catch her eye with flirtatious winks. Mallory ignored him, keeping her head down. She paid the bill with cash, as she always did.

Can’t be leaving a trace now, can we, Mallory dear?

No, she thought dully. We can’t. But I did. She’d left a trace that could be seen from goddamn space. She’d never meant to. It wasn’t my fault.

Which was the truth, but who the hell cared?

She shook her head mutely when the cashier asked if she needed help with her bags. She was eighteen years old, after all. She could load her own damn car. 

Well, not her car. It was his. Everything was his.

Even Mallory. And he never let her forget it.

The intense heat of the August noon slapped her in the face as she pushed her cart out of the store. On edge, she glanced both ways before crossing the street to the car. The used-to-be football player was gone. “Thank you,” she breathed softly.

Quickly she loaded the groceries in the trunk, making sure to put the ice cream in a freezer bag so that it didn’t soften on the drive home. He got angry when the ice cream softened. It was never good when he got angry. Mallory had the scars to prove it. Not that anyone would believe her.

He’d seen to that, she thought bitterly, slamming the trunk shut with both hands. For a moment she stood there, her palms flat on the blisteringly hot metal, holding herself up because her legs were trembling. No one will ever believe me again.

A shadow fell over her shoulder. “Well, if it isn’t Sunshine Suzie!” the deep voice drawled.

Mallory froze, her hands clenching into fists. She didn’t move away from the car. She wasn’t sure that she could.

The used-to-be football player was back. Standing behind her. She could see his wide shoulders reflected in the car’s rear window. He held a phone in front of his face. “I told you it was her,” he added smugly, then turned the phone in her direction. In the window, she could see the fuzzy reflection of another man’s face. A video call. Shit. “Turn around, Suzie. Say hi to my friend. He’s a big fan, too.”

Mallory slid her hand into the pocket of her jeans, her fingers closing over her keys. Just a few feet. Get in the car and you’ll be safe. She bolted, only to have those beefy fingers close over her upper arm in a grip tight enough that she’d have a ring of bruises. This she knew from experience.

“Let me go!” she cried. “Please, just let me go.”

“Not a chance,” the man said, cruel laughter in his voice. “Nobody’s seen you for a few years,sweetheart. Now that you’re back, I’d like an encore performance. What do you think, Justin? Don’t you think Sunshine Suzie owes us a show?”

“Oh, man,” the guy on the phone whined. “I think you’d better be fucking making a video.”

“Abso-fucking-lutely.”

Mallory fought the bile that was rising once again. “No!” Keys in her hand, she whipped around, grazing the big man’s cheek and startling him into dropping his phone on the asphalt. The screen shattered and the face of the man on the other end of the call splintered into a hundred different pieces.

Mallory tried to run, but Mr. Football grabbed her tighter, his face grown dark. “That was a new phone, bitch,” he snarled. “You’ll pay for that, one way or another.”

“Excuse me,” a female voice said quietly. “Is there a problem here?”

A lady cop. In uniform. Mallory wanted to scream YES! Instead she heard herself saying, “No, ma’am.”

Mr. Football abruptly dropped his hand and Mallory was free. “No problem, Officer,” he said with an easy smile. “Just a misunderstanding. No harm done.”

“None,” Mallory agreed. She gave the policewoman a fast nod of gratitude, then ran to the driver’s side of the car, pressing the key fob to unlock the door.

“Wait!” the cop ordered. Mallory froze again, her hand clutching the now-open car door. “I need to go,” she said, her panic out there for all to see. “My ice cream will melt.”

“What happened here?” the cop asked sharply.

Tell her. Just tell her. Tell her everything. For a moment Mallory teetered, but then she remembered the last time she’d tried to tell, and the time before that. Nobody listened. Nobody believed her. And the punishment for trying to tell was far too severe to ever try again.

“Nothing happened,” Mallory insisted. “Just a case of mistaken identity. He thought I was someone else.” She locked herself in and started the engine, grateful there was no car parked in front of her, because the cop and Mr. Football still stood behind her. She pulled straight through the parking place and made her way to the exit, expecting the lady cop to follow. Breathing a sigh of relief when the woman did not.

Her grip on the steering wheel white-knuckled, Mallory drove . . . home. The word stuck in her throat. Hurt to even think it. But it was where she lived, no matter how much she hated it. When she pulled into the driveway, her hands ached from clenching the wheel.

You should have kept going. There was enough fuel to get her to Columbus, or maybe even Toledo. Then what? Don’t be stupid, Mallory. You came back here because you had to. There was nowhere else to go. No way out.

Not that she’d run even if she could. Because of Macy. Always Macy. Macy who runs at the sight of me. As if I’m the monster. Macy didn’t know the monster. Would never know, just as long as Mallory behaved. So Mallory would behave.

She sat in the driveway, staring at the pretty white farmhouse that was her prison. Trapped. She was trapped. And if she sat here much longer, she’d be whipped, too. The last time she’d made him angry it took two weeks for the welts to heal.

But her hands still shook and her gut still clenched over the encounter in the grocery store parking lot. Sunshine Suzie. Mallory hated Sunshine Suzie.

She closed her eyes, fighting not to throw up. It wasn’t the first time she’d been recognized. It wasn’t even the first time a man had tried to drag her away for an “encore performance,” but this was the first time a cop had become involved.

Should I tell him about the cop? she asked herself tentatively. The answer came swiftly. No. No way. Even if the cop noted the car’s license plate, it would never lead back here. Never to him. He was untraceable. Invisible.

He was Satan. And I’ll never escape his hell.

Wearily she climbed from the car and gathered the grocery bags, the words “encore performance” whirling around in her mind. The aroma of grilled burgers came from behind the house, nauseating her as she climbed the back stairs to the kitchen door.

Hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream. What more could a kid want?

Freedom.

Mallory looked in the window before reaching for the doorknob. She could see the kitchen table from where she stood on the outside looking in, and her stomach lurched again.

Oh God. There were four of them this time. Four sitting around the table. Usually there was only one, or maybe two. But today . . .

Four of them. Two girls and two boys. All young. Thirteen years old, maybe. All awestruck at their apparent good fortune. Hamburgers, hot dogs, and ice cream.

So pretty. All of them. Wide-eyed and innocent.

Not for much longer. He’d use them until they were used up. Until they’re me. And then people will recognize them in the grocery store.

No. Something within her broke. No more. She could feel the snap. Could feel the bile rising and could no longer hold it back. Her knees gave out and she fell against the stair rail, her head hanging over the side. The little she’d eaten that day came up and she was too weary to try to stop it.

Four of them, innocents. Sunshine Suzie. Encore performance.

She crumpled into a heap on the landing, shaking, the words tornadoes in her mind. Today he’d give them free ice cream sundaes. Next week free pizza. But the week after . . . Mallory wiped her mouth on the sleeve of her shirt.

There would be payment required. There was always payment required.

She lifted her head. But not this time. There would be no more Sunshine Suzies. No more encore performances. No more.

But what about Macy? Her resolve faltered. And then she heard the laughter in the kitchen. Four young kids, laughing at a joke. Mallory couldn’t remember the last time she’d laughed. If she ever had. But Macy laughed, and Mallory needed to keep it that way.

Encore performance. She closed her eyes. There had to be a way. To stop him. To end this nightmare once and for all without sacrificing Macy.

The door opened with an almost soundless creak. He stepped out of the kitchen, his shadow covering her. “Mallory, dear,” he said silkily. “Please come inside. The ice cream will melt.”

Mallory made herself stand. Locked her knees so they wouldn’t give out beneath her. Nodded without meeting his eyes. She never met his eyes. She hated what she saw there. Power. Smug, because he knew he held the cards.

“Let me introduce you to our guests,” he continued, and Mallory forced herself to meet their eyes. “Guys, this is my daughter.”

This has to stop. Mallory had to make it stop. She would make it stop.

Even if I have to kill him to make it so.

Even if I die trying.



CHAPTER ONE
Wednesday, August 12, 5:30 p.m.



Run. Run. Faster. Stop him. Please, God, let me stop him this time.

Kate took the stairs two at a time, her heart beating wildly. But not from the running. It was the fear. Fear so thick that she could smell it. Taste it. Feel it coating her skin as she charged up the stairs that never, ever seemed to end.

Because she knew she’d never stop him. She was always too late.

She reached the door and stopped. Can’t do it. Can’t do this again. Please, don’t make me do this again. But her hand moved as she watched, turning the knob.

Her hand always turned the knob. The door always swung open like it weighed five hundred pounds. Slowly.

Revealing him sitting in her easy chair, his head resting on the brightly colored afghan her grandmother had crocheted just for her when she was six, a mocking smile on his face.

And the barrel of a gun in his mouth. Her gun.

She flinched, closing her eyes a second before the gun went off. Because she knew what would happen. She knew how bad it would—

“Kate?” The voice was muffled but insistent, then became abruptly loud and clear, followed by a soft smack on her cheek. “Kate? Special Agent Coppola, you need to wake up.”

Kate woke with a start, her heart racing faster than it had in the dream. She’d been too late again. But she’d always be too late, because he hadn’t wanted to be stopped.

He’d wanted her to see.

She blinked, her darting gaze taking in the hospital room, the chair in which she sat—fucking uncomfortable— and the deep, rhythmic breathing of the man lying in the bed next to her—Special Agent Griffin Davenport.

But mostly the unusual eyes—one blue and one brown— staring up at her from a woman’s face framed with bold white streaks that contrasted starkly with the rest of her inky black hair. Kate reached out a tentative hand to nudge Dani’s shoulder, just to be sure she wasn’t still dreaming. The shoulder was solid and real.

Kate exhaled sharply. “Dani,” she said, just to hear her own voice. It was raspy, like sandpaper. Like she’d been screaming. Oh God, don’t let me have been screaming.

Dr. Dani Novak spoke calmly, like one might speak to a feral animal. Or a wild-eyed woman just coming out of a nightmare. “Yes. I’m real. And yes, you’re awake.”

She was kneeling in front of Kate, holding the cord to her earbuds in one hand and her laptop in the other while Kate clutched the blanket she’d been knitting to her chest like a shield.

“You nearly lost your computer,” Dani explained in that same calm voice. “I came in as it was slipping off your lap. You were dreaming.”

Kate let the knitting fall to her lap so that she could press her fingertips to her temples. “Yeah,” was all she could muster. She hated waking up from that dream. Hated feeling fuzzy and disoriented. Hated the pounding of her pulse in her ears. Hated that the last thing she’d seen was a man’s head exploding. “Wish you’d come in a few seconds earlier,” she muttered.

Dani made a sympathetic noise. “Me, too. You were . . . talking in your sleep.”

Kate’s eyes widened, a different kind of fear giving her a hard jolt that woke her right up. “What did I say?” Please don’t let it have been too much.

Dani’s voice dropped to a whisper. “Just ‘I’m sorry, Jack. So sorry.’”

“That’s it?”

A single nod set Kate’s mind at ease, because even though she didn’t know Dani all that well, she did know the woman didn’t lie. Dani Novak was the sister of Kate’s close friend and former Bureau partner, Deacon, who was as honest as any man she’d ever met.

Deacon Novak was a rare find—a male colleague who was simply a good friend. And that was all. There had never been a hint of anything else, not even once. The attraction hadn’t been there for either of them, and Kate had been so very glad. She hadn’t needed a lover then. She might never need one again. But she had desperately needed a friend, and Deacon had been one of the best.

When Deacon had transferred to Cincinnati from Baltimore, Kate had missed him—his professional skill along with his sarcasm and blunt honesty. She’d missed her friend. So when a position opened up in Cincinnati, she would have taken it even if it had meant a demotion. Luckily it had been a move up the ladder. She’d told everyone that she’d taken the job because of the promotion, but the real reason she’d chosen Cincinnati out of all the possible transfers was because of Deacon Novak.

They’d no longer work side by side—Deacon had been assigned to a joint task force with Cincinnati PD, while Kate was squarely owned by the FBI’s field office—but just knowing he was close by, that she had a friend watching her back again . . . that was enough.

The news that Deacon had found love here in Cincinnati soon after he’d arrived had made Kate incredibly happy. She’d found her soulmate once upon a time, long before she’d ever met Deacon Novak. Deacon deserved his turn now, and Kate heartily wished him and his fiancée, Faith, the happiness she’d once known.

But she hoped Deacon and Faith would know their happiness for a whole lot longer than Kate had known hers, because the few years she’d actually been happy wasn’t much in the grand scheme of a life. Heartbroken and lost when she’d moved to Baltimore three years ago, she hadn’t realized how much she’d needed a friend until she’d met Deacon. Now—

Mocking smile, barrel in his mouth, gunshot—

Stop it. Viciously she shoved the image away. But it would be back. It never went far, a nearly constant taunt. But also a constant reminder of exactly how much she needed friends. And pathetically needy as it was, Kate hoped that Deacon’s sister might become one, too.

The Novak siblings had always seemed carved from the same rock,so Kate believed Dani when she murmured, “I don’t think anyone else heard what you said. You were more mumbling than speaking. Are you okay?”

Kate nodded, still shaken from the dream. From the knowledge that she’d spoken in her sleep, when she couldn’t control her words. At least “I’m sorry,Jack” wasn’t so bad. It could have been much worse. At least I didn’t scream.

But was she okay? Hell, no. She might never be okay again.

“I will be,” she lied. Pasting a smile on her face and willing her hands not to tremble, she relieved Dani of the computer and earbuds. “Thanks for saving my piece-of-shit laptop.” She put it on the floor under her chair. “As much as I want a new one, this one can’t break until I’ve at least backed up my notes on the audio files I’ve been transcribing all afternoon.”

Dani shrugged. “The audio file was either finished or it was just a lot of dead air.”

Kate stared at her. “You listened? It was private.”

“Not intentionally.” Remaining calm, Dani grabbed the earbuds’ cord and held up the tail end. “It came unplugged when I grabbed your piece-of-shit computer.”

Now Kate felt bad. “I’m sorry. Thank you again,” she said humbly. “I was being surly. I don’t wake up very nice.”

Dani waved the apology away. “Neither do I. Anyway, all I could hear was static.”

“Because the speaker’s a piece of shit, too,” Kate grumbled, grateful nonetheless that she hadn’t inadvertently shared the contents of an ongoing investigation with every nurse, patient, and family member in the ICU.

“What were you listening to?” Dani asked curiously.

“Recordings he made while he was undercover.” With a quirk of her head, Kate indicated the man in the hospital bed.

Special Agent Griffin Davenport had been placed in an induced coma the week before so that he could heal after a bullet had bruised his lung, cracked a rib, and filled his chest cavity with blood. He’d been in intensive care all that time, a ventilator breathing for him, the steady rise and fall of the man’s massive chest evidence that the machine was doing its job.

Telling Dani that Davenport had made the recordings wasn’t an issue. The man’s cover had been blown sky-high while rounding up a group of human traffickers who’d retaliated by putting him here in ICU. It had been an ER nurse who’d found the envelope full of CDs in a pocket sewn onto the inside of his pants and turned them over to the police.

And truthfully? The contents of the CDs themselves hadn’t been terribly damning so far, and Kate had been listening to them for days.

Only days? Feels like weeks. There had been a lot of thug chatter, but most of it wasn’t anything new. Nothing to warrant Davenport getting shot over, certainly.

“Why you?” Dani asked.

Kate jerked her gaze away from Davenport down to Dani, who was still watching her carefully from her kneeling position. “What do you mean, why me?”

“Why are you listening to his recordings?”

“Because there’s something important on one those CDs.” Of that she was certain. “Davenport took a huge risk trying to get them out.”

The envelope containing the CDs had been addressed to his handler in the event that he was unable to deliver them personally, which, in the end, was exactly what had happened. Except they hadn’t gone to Davenport’s handler, because he was dead, shot by members of the same ring. So Kate had listened while Davenport healed.

“No, I mean why are you listening? There are a lot of agents in that office and Deacon said that you’re one of the bigger fish in the pond now. Why not have a smaller fish do the listening?”

Kate shrugged uncomfortably. “I’m the new kid on the block. A week in the job and I don’t have a caseload yet. Besides, I do have a few of the smaller fish listening, too.”

Dani tilted her head thoughtfully, just like Kate had seen her brother do a thousand times. “Why do you visit every day?” She chuckled at Kate’slook of consternation. “You think the ICU nurses haven’t noticed? You think they didn’t just try to pump me for information the moment I walked in the door?”

That the nurses would ask Dani questions wasn’t a surprise. The woman was an ER doctor in this very hospital, although currently on a leave of absence. That they’d ask about Kate was the mystery. “Pump you for information about what?”

Dani rolled her eyes. “They all but have you two as star-crossed lovers, tragically separated but reunited when he got shot and you raced to his aid.”

Kate’s eyes widened. “You are kidding me, right? Me and Davenport?”

“You do visit every day, Kate.”

That was true. Some of the time she’d listened to the recordings from the privacy of her desk at the Cincinnati Field Office, but she had made a point of visiting him every day. She thought she was the only one who did, and that bothered her. She hated the thought of him being so alone after being deeply undercover. The life of an operative tended to be very lonely.

So sometimes she talked to him about trivial things— the unrelenting heat and humidity, her search for an apartment. A few times she’d shared her frustration at not hearing anything of value on the damn CDs. She’d played him tunes from her iPod and read to him from the book she’d thrown in her carry-on when she’d left for Cincinnati last week. But mostly she simply sat with him and caught up with her knitting while she listened to the recordings he’d risked his life to share.

“I met him for the first time less than an hour before he got shot, and that’s the truth.” She sighed when Dani just waited for more, saying nothing. “Deacon was on the team who breached the traffickers’ compound and he brought me in as one of their snipers.” She’d been in town all of two days, but had jumped at the chance. She didn’t get to use her sharpshooting skills as often as she would have liked, and Deacon’s case had been right up her alley. “I was doing recon and saw Davenport attempting to slip away. He was trying to get the CDs out, but I didn’t know that then. I dropped down on him from a tree.”

Dani moved to sit in the chair beside her, her delighted grin surprising Kate more than the nurses’ gossip. “You dropped him? Took him down? Goddamn, girl. You really are a super-chick. I thought Deacon was exaggerating.”

Kate’s cheeks heated at the praise. “I didn’t actually drop on him. I don’t think I could have taken him down, even from a tree.” Because Griffin Davenport was built like a freaking tank.

“Hell, maybe not even from a helicopter,” Dani murmured. “So what did you do?”

“I landed behind him, stuck my rifle in his back, and took him by surprise. But he wanted to be found, so he cooperated, which was a good thing. I would have hated to have to shoot him. Unfortunately the traffickers didn’t have that concern.”

Dani nodded soberly. “I haven’t had a chance to thank you yet.”

Kate frowned. “For what?”

“For saving Deacon’s life. He was standing next to Davenport when the bullets started flying. If you hadn’t stopped the shooter the way you did, there might be more patients filling these ICU beds. Or bodies in the morgue. So thank you.”

Kate fidgeted. “I was just doing my job. Any of the other agents there would have done it.”

Dani lifted one dark brow. “The way I heard it, none of the other agents there had the skill with a rifle to stop a speeding car half a mile away.”

“Deacon exaggerates,” Kate mumbled, now very uncomfortable even though it was true. She was a skilled shot, but she wasn’t a fathead. “Besides, they were already fleeing the scene by then. I didn’t mean to kill them. I wanted them alive for questioning.” She’d stopped them, but she’d also taken out the shooter and one of his trafficking partners. The only passenger who’d survived knew so little about the trafficking business itself that he was all but useless.

Dani shook her head. “You may have wanted them alive for questioning, but I’m glad my brother is alive period. I owe you one, Kate. Seriously.”

Kate started to laugh it off, but then she realized that Dani Novak really was very serious. “He’s my friend,” she said simply. “I would have done the same for any other agent, but the fact that it was Deacon made it easier to sleep that night.”

Except that she hadn’t slept. She’d woken with the dream. She hadn’t had the dream in almost a month prior to coming to Cincinnati, but she’d had it every single night for the past week. It might have been triggered by the gunfight with the traffickers or the fact that she’d been bunking down in a strange hotel bed. Or that she was plain exhausted because she really hadn’tslept at all. Or that she’d strained her back sitting in the uncomfortable chair in ICU.

Kate rolled her head, hearing her neck crackle. “I hate falling asleep in chairs.”

“Then maybe you should go home to bed,” Dani said mildly.

“So,” Kate said brightly, “I didn’t expect to see you here checking on Davenport.” She didn’t care that her subject change had all the finesse of a clubbing from a baseball bat. “Are you back on duty?”

Dani’s leave from the ER had started a few months before. Kate knew the bare bones of the story, partly from phone and e-mail conversations she’d had with Deacon over the past nine months and partly from the news she’d read online. Dani was HIV positive—and Kate figured that however that had occurred was Dani’s business and Dani’s alone.

But someone else hadn’t agreed, because Dani’s status had been leaked to the media, leading to negative press and finally to Dani going on leave. Again, Kate didn’t have details, but she knew the Novaks well enough to be sure that Dani had taken every sensible precaution on the job. Hopefully her presence here today meant that the hoopla had died down enough for the woman to resume the career she’d worked so hard to achieve.

But a shadow had passed over Dani’s face. “No. I resigned.”

Kate’s mouth fell open. “What? But why? And when? You mean just now?”

Dani took a deep breath and let it out. “I’m not actually here to check on Agent Davenport,” she said, her subject change equally clumsy, her tone so bright that it was brittle. “Deacon asked me to check on you. He’s worried you’re spreading yourself too thin keeping vigil.”

Kate wanted to ask why Dani wasn’t suing for discrimination. She wanted to ask if Dani had another job, because she hated the thought of the woman not being able to pay her bills. She wanted to make sure that Deacon’s sister would be okay.

But Dani had made it clear that she wasn’t willing to discuss it any further, so Kate drew a deep breath of her own and made herself smile. “You can tell Deacon that I’m okay.”

Dani’s eyes filled with a gratitude she didn’t voice. Instead she made her reply sharp and tart. “I’ll tell him that you were asleep in your chair and that you probably haven’t been eating properly. He’ll be here soon enough to yell at you in person.”

Kate made a sour face, just for form. “You’re supposed to be the nice Novak.”

Dani grinned. “Surprise! Well, since you’re okay, I guess I’ll just see you later.” She started to stand, and Kate found herself reaching for the woman’s arm to yank her back.

“No, Dani, wait.” She didn’t want to be left alone with her post-dream thoughts. She didn’t want to fall back to sleep. She didn’t want to hear that gun go off again. “Can you stay, maybe talk for a little while?” She tried for a brave smile. “You can keep me awake.”

Dani frowned at her gently. “If you’re that tired, maybe you should go home and go to bed,” she said, repeating herself.

“I can’t go home. I’m staying in a hotel until the movers bring my stuff.” But she didn’t want to go the hotel, either. Because I will dream again, and I just . . . A shudder passed through her, and that she didn’t even try to control it told her something. Either she was exhausted, or she simply felt comfortable enough with Dani to reveal her vulnerable underbelly. Or maybe a little bit of both. “Besides, I need to sit here with Agent Davenport, in case he wakes up again. I was one of the last people he saw before he was shot, so I’m hoping that I can calm him down if he’s disoriented when they try waking him again.”

“Again? They tried waking him up already?”

“Yeah, but it didn’t end so well.” Suddenly antsy, Kate stood up to stretch her back and to better see Davenport’s mask-covered face. A lock of the man’s blond hair had slid down his forehead, and she gently pushed it back. “They tried to bring him out of the induced coma this morning before I got here, but he became agitated. He was thrashing and trying to pull out his breathing tube, so they sedated him again right away.”

“He’s way too big a boy to be thrashing,” Dani murmured. “He could injure someone.”

She wasn’t wrong about that. Davenport was over six feet tall, his enormous feet nearly hanging off the edge of the bed. He had to weigh at least two-fifteen, and there was not an ounce of body fat anywhere that Kate had seen.

That she’d actually looked was something between her and the four walls. She wasn’t in the market for a man to share her life, but that didn’t mean she couldn’t appreciate the scenery while she made the journey. And Griffin Davenport, even in a coma, was very nice scenery. Apart from the chest full of muscles, he had a strong jaw, golden hair, and pleasing features, even though most of his face was still covered with the ventilator mask.

Like all the Avengers rolled into one. With liberal helpings of Thor and Captain America, her personal faves. Of course, she also knew he was going to wake up. The doctors had all but guaranteed a speedy recovery. If his life were in the balance, then looking would be just wrong.

“The nurse said it took three people to hold him while a fourth sedated him.”

“Agitation while coming out of sedation isn’t uncommon,” Dani said. “It can be a disorienting experience. Kind of like waking from a really vivid nightmare.”

The shrewd tone of Dani’s voice had Kate glancing over to see that the woman had stopped looking at Davenport and was now watching her. It was then that Kate realized she’d been stroking Davenport’s forehead. Tenderly, actually.

And it wasn’t the first time. She had found herself touching his face several times over the last week. She told herself it was because she knew that comatose patients had some sense that people were with them. She told herself it was because she didn’t want him to be alone or afraid, that touching him was simple human compassion, but deep down it was still disconcerting seeing her fingertips stroking another man’s skin, and she wasn’t exactly sure why.

Maybe because a caress that should have felt rusty with disuse felt so . . . natural? Or because she hadn’t recoiled in disgust at the feel of him?

“The doctor said that they weaned him off the paralytic that was keeping him immobile and they’ve started weaning him off the narcotics again. He could wake at any time.”

“I’m sure he’ll appreciate a friendly face,” Dani said softly.

“I thought so. I’d want someone to be there when I woke up.” She gave Davenport’s brow a final stroke, then sat back down, frowning when her stomach growled. “I need to eat or I’ll get mean. Meaner, anyway,” she added and saw Dani smirk. “I’ve eaten all my protein bars and the food in the cafeteria sucks. Do you hear that, Davenport?” she said tartly to the man in the bed. “You need to wake up right next time so I can leave this hospital for some real food.”

“Does he have family? Someone else you can call who’d be familiar to him?”

“None that I’ve been able to identify so far. He’s been undercover for a couple of years. Usually those guys get picked for the deep undercover jobs because they don’t have families. He listed his handler as his emergency contact, but the handler was killed last week by other members of the trafficking group. The line for a second contact was blank.”

“How lonely,” Dani murmured.

Kate had thought the same thing. It made her feel an odd sort of bond with him, because she no longer had an emergency contact, either. But at least she had a few people she could ask. Which she needed to do ASAP, because HR had been on her case about it for the last week.

“Listen, Dani, you remember that favor you said you owed me? I’m ready to collect. Of course, if you don’t want to do it, I totally understand.”

“Just ask,” Dani said patiently.

“I went to fill out all the transfer forms in HR and realized that my emergency contact was . . . no longer available.” Don’t think about the dream. Don’t— She flinched when she heard the echo of that gunshot once again. “I’d ask Deacon, but . . .” She let the thought trail with a shrug.

Dani tilted her head. “But?”

Kate sighed. “But he’d ask me why I needed a new contact and I really don’t want to get into it with him right now.” Or ever. “He doesn’t mean to be nosy, but . . .”

“But he is,” Dani finished. “So am I, actually, but I’m a bit more discreet.” Her voice softened. “Your old contact, was it Jack?”

She’d asked so kindly, so compassionately, that Kate felt compelled to nod. Her voice didn’t want to work and the nod was all she could muster. But at least it was the truth.

Jack Morrow had been her emergency contact. Until he’d blown his brains out all over the chair in her living room. And the wall, and the carpet, and the ceiling. And the afghan her grandma had crocheted just for her when she was six.

“Then I’m sorry for your loss,” Dani said gently.

“Thank you.” Kate forced the words out, knowing she should feel guilty for allowing Dani to believe that Jack was someone she’d cared for, but she couldn’t muster that, either. And it wasn’t entirely untrue. She had cared for Jack as a treasured friend, but that had changed.

Jack had changed. And so had Kate. In many ways not for the better. What if Johnnie could see you now? What would he think of the woman you’ve become?

If Johnnie could see me now, then he’d be here, which means that Jack would be here and I wouldn’t be having this idiotic conversation with myself, so shut the fuck up.

A sharp pain in her neck made her realize she was grinding her teeth hard. And of course Dani had noticed.

“You gonna be okay?” Dani asked soberly.

“Yeah. Peachy.” I just can’t fall asleep again. Not until I’m alone. Because the nightmare always returned. She might not dream again for a week or two, but it always came back, usually when she least expected it.

Like when I’m fucking asleep, she snarled to herself.

“Call me if you need anything,” Dani said.

“Same goes.” Kate’s brain kicked into gear just as Dani got to the door, and she remembered what she’d most wanted to ask about Dani’s resignation. “Dani, wait. Do . . . do you have another job lined up? I know Deacon won’t let you starve, but I just want to make sure you’ll be okay.” Her voice broke, mortifying her. She lifted her chin. “I need to know that you’ll be okay.”

Dani’s smile bloomed, a sweet smile that reached her incredible eyes. “Yes, I’ll be okay. Thank you. I’ve been working part-time for the free clinic that’s part of the Lorelle Meadows shelter. The board just approved the creation of a full-time position and they offered it to me. Frankly I resent the hell out of being pressured into leaving emergency medicine by the media and general bigotry, especially when I followed all of the AMA guidelines to the letter. But I’ll be an important part of the community at the clinic and that makes me feel very okay. I start on Monday. When you get settled, come down and I’ll show you around.”

“I will.” When Dani was gone, Kate let her gaze fall back on Griffin Davenport, whose chest continued to rise and fall. “No offense, Griff, but I wish you’d hurry and wake the hell up. I really need to sleep and that’s not happening here. Not again.”

She straightened abruptly, thinking she’d seen the quirk of one of his fingers against the white sheet. She even called the nurse in to check, but the woman found nothing to indicate he was waking up. In the end, she patted Kate’s hand and advised her to go home to sleep. Told her that she was starting to imagine things.

Biting back what would have been a completely unacceptable reply, Kate sat back in the chair,set up her laptop, retrieved her knitting, and prepared herself for another rousing evening of listening to Davenport’s undercover tapes.

She paused, holding her earbuds in one hand. “You realize that if you’d just wake up, you could tell me what I’m looking for. So come on, Davenport.” She watched again, but there was no further response, so she put the earbuds in and got to work.