For the Tactical Crime Division, no case is left cold.
When Benning Reeves’ twins are kidnapped, the frantic father knows who can help: the TCD and Ana Ramirez. Even if Ana once shattered Benning’s heart, the special agent’s the only one he can trust. But Ana’s still tormented by the unresolved case that brought them together years before–a case somehow entangled with Benning’s children. It’s up to TCD and Ana to discover why… before it’s too late.
“Congratulations, Ramirez.” Director Jill Pembrook swiped her index finger across the tablet’s screen in her hands, and the entire network of monitors embedded into the conference table came to life. “You’ve got your next assignment.”
A new case? It had been so long she was starting to think her past mistakes had caught up with her and negatively impacted her profile with the team. Agent Ana Sofia Ramirez bit back her smile as exaggerated congratulations and clapping from two other agents on the team filled the conference room. Her leather chair groaned as she leaned back to study the main screen behind the director, her fingernails skimming the table’s surface. “What’s the case?”
“Abduction of a six-year-old boy,” the director said.
The room quieted, the silence almost a physical presence as the tendons between Ana’s shoulders and neck tightened. Drawing a deep breath, she focused on the monitor in front of her. This was what she’d been trained for—finding the missing—but not a single agent around this table would volunteer for an assignment like this. “Timeline?”
“We’ve been given twenty-four hours. The father is adamant no one but the agent he requested can get involved in the recovery, but the clock is already ticking, and we’re going to use all available resources we have whether he likes it or not. That’s where you come in.” Director Pembrook turned to the largest screen at the head of the conference room, pulling up a map pinpointing a small section of private property a little outside Sevierville, TN. The petite, graying woman with sharp features at the head of the room had been a force to be reckoned with within the Bureau for nearly forty years. She wasn’t a woman to disappoint, and Ana didn’t plan on testing that theory. The director tossed a manila envelope across the table. “You’ll go undercover as a former lover who’s in town visiting and has heard the devastating news his son has been taken. I want you to get close to the father and find out what he could possibly gain from this abduction by keeping us in the dark. Agents Cantrell and Duran will provide support from this location until you say otherwise.”
Maldicion. Damn it.
“If this is a targeted abduction, the kidnappers will have done their research. They might’ve already sifted through the people in the boy’s life.” Ana lifted her gaze to the men across the table from her. Agent JC Cantrell handled surveillance, Evan Duran worked hostage negotiations and Ana did whatever it took to find the missing. Together they made up only part of the Tactical Crime Division, and it looked like they were headed to Sevierville, TN, the last place she’d intended to set foot again. Too many memories. Too much pain. But the thought of passing on this case, when she’d battled so hard to make up for the past, built pressure behind her sternum. “What’s the guarantee my cover won’t be blown the instant I come into contact?”
“That won’t be a problem during this investigation,” Director Pembrook said.
While the FBI had massive resources and vast intelligence relating to criminal activity, they were headquartered in DC. The Bureau had regional field offices in major cities across the country to assist local police when needed, but that left smaller or rural towns with sparse populations without rapid support. More and more, agents and federal law agencies mobilized to remote locations to address large-scale crime scenes and criminal activity. Terrorism, hostage situations, kidnappings, shootings. But with the growing concern and need for ever-increasing response times to these criminal events, the Bureau saw the need for a specialized tech and tactical team, combining specialists from several active units. Together they made up Tactical Crime Division.
“How long has the boy been missing?” As one of the most successful hostage negotiators in Bureau history, Agent Evan Duran saved hundreds of lives over the course of his career by getting more information out of a suspect with as little commitment as possible on his part. If the kidnappers had made any kind of demand, Ana trusted him to mine for the intel she needed to find the victim. “Any demands?”
“Six hours.” Director Pembrook took her seat at the head of the table. “And, no.”
“There hasn’t been a ransom call?” Ana swiped through the file directly from the monitor in front of her. Every forty seconds a child went missing somewhere in the United States. More than 460,000 children were reported missing each year. Of those missing children, almost 1,500 of them had been kidnapped, with most of those reports narrowing the suspect list to a parent or close relative as the abductor. There was a chance the boy’s mother was responsible, which would account for the lack of demands or ransom. Or… Ana froze, paralyzed as she read the father’s name on the police report. “Benning Reeves.”
The boy who’d been kidnapped was Benning’s son, Owen.
“He asked for you specifically, Ramirez.” The weight of Director Pembrook’s attention crushed the air from her lungs. She was the agent Benning had requested. Was that why she’d been given the lead on this case? Not because of her experience in recovering the missing but because she’d actually been intimate with the man keeping the FBI at arm’s length during his son’s kidnapping investigation.
The director was right. Her cover wouldn’t be a problem during the investigation.
It was the truth.
Ana swiped her tongue between dry lips. “What about the girl? Olivia.”
“She was taken, too, but local police recovered her minutes after the abduction.” Relief coursed through her as the director’s gaze narrowed, but Ana didn’t have time to crumble under the pressure of Pembrook’s study. Someone out there had taken Benning’s son, and time was running out to get him back. The question was why. As far as she knew, Benning had kept his job as a building inspector for the city all these years, wasn’t in debt and wasn’t the kind of man to get himself mixed up in criminal activity. Assuming this was personal, why would someone target Benning through his children? “They believe she escaped her kidnapper’s vehicle while in motion, but it’s impossible to know for sure until her medical team lets law enforcement interview her. You need to be there when she wakes up and find out what she remembers to help recover the son. Whether the father wants the TCD officially involved or not.”
She nodded. They could at least exclude the twins’ mother from their list of suspects. Lilly Reeves had passed away giving birth to them six years ago. Ana struggled to control the racing pulse at the base of her skull. Benning had asked for her help with this case, but given the last time they’d been in the same room—the same bed—she didn’t understand why. A single phone call had changed everything between them, and he’d moved on. He’d married a woman in town and had children not long after Ana had left. Now she was expected to reinsert herself back into his life in order to find his missing son.
There were far more qualified agents to handle this investigation, agents who hadn’t put their entire career at risk because of one wrong decision. Agents who didn’t have a personal connection to the case. What was she supposed to say to him after all these years? They hadn’t spoken since that night, despite the small part of her that’d urged her to reach out, to reconnect with the only person she just couldn’t seem to detach herself from. She swallowed through the tightness in her throat. No matter what’d happened between her and Benning, she couldn’t let emotion cloud her judgment this time. A little boy’s life was at risk.
“I’ll look into the traffic cameras.” Agent JC Cantrell shoved to his feet, locking light green eyes on her as he stood. Specializing in surveillance operations, the former soldier led most of TCD’s surveillance ops, but whether those ops were completely legal was another question. Right now Ana didn’t care. There was a six-year-old boy out there—alone and afraid. This was what their division had been trained for, what she’d been trained for. She wouldn’t make the same mistake with this case as she had when Benning had been in her life the first time. JC headed for the door, Duran at his side. “With any kind of luck, I’ll have a license plate for you and a location of the getaway vehicle in the next hour.”
“Keep me in the loop and stay close to your phones. I’ll call you if I need you.” Ana pushed away from the conference table to stand, her long, dark hair inherited from her Hispanic father sliding over her shoulder in front of her. Sevierville wasn’t far, only thirty miles southeast of TCD headquarters here in Knoxville, but if she wanted to interview Benning’s daughter before the girl’s medical team gave permission to local PD, she had to leave now. With a nod toward Director Pembrook, she pushed her chair into the edge of the table. “I’ll brief you as soon as I’m finished interviewing Olivia Benning.”
“Be careful, Ramirez.” The director’s voice carried across the conference room, stopping Ana in her escape toward the double glass doors. The weight of those steel-gray eyes drilled straight through her. “I assigned you this case because you have a connection to the victim’s father and he’s made it clear he won’t play nice with anyone else, but don’t let your emotions and that connection get in the way of doing your job.” Pembrook’s voice softened. “We can’t afford to lose anyone else. Understand?”
The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, but she couldn’t turn around. She couldn’t face the reality of Jill Pembrook’s warning. Gravity increased its natural pull on her body. The backs of her knees shook as a fresh wave of memories penetrated the barrier she’d built over the past seven years. She curled her fingernails into the centers of her palms, and just as quickly as they’d charged forward, she closed the lid to the box at the back of her mind. She’d gotten good at that. Compartmentalizing, detaching herself from feeling the things she didn’t want to admit to herself.
Especially when it came to Benning Reeves. But underneath the numbness and denial, Ana understood the director’s advice. Getting Benning’s son home to his family would be her last chance to save her career. She’d failed a victim once. She wouldn’t let it happen again. “Yes, ma’am.”
BENNING REEVES CROSSED the small room for the eighth—or was it the ninth?—time in as many minutes. It’d been almost five hours since he’d woken in the middle of his house, his children gone. And Olivia… He slowed at the side of her hospital bed. Her small body nearly disappeared in the heaping of pillows and blankets he’d packed around her as her chest rose and fell in smooth, rhythmic breaths. The sedative the nurse had given her would keep his daughter unconscious for the next few hours. It was the only way to ensure her brain would get the rest it needed. He smoothed her short brunette hair away from her face. Truth was, the doctors had no idea if her memories would come back. Something about trauma-induced amnesia. Dissociative? She’d barely remembered her brother’s name when she’d been questioned, let alone what’d happened to him after she’d escaped the SUV.
Tremors racked through his hand, and he forced himself to back away for fear of waking her. The kidnapper should’ve made contact by now, given him further instructions or proof of life. His ears rang. He needed to be out there looking for his son, but he didn’t dare leave Olivia here on her own, either. Not after what she’d been through. Heat built in his chest. Someone had broken into his home, knocked him unconscious and taken his children. All because of what’d he found on that construction site.
The fire spread under his skin, and he closed his eyes as the all-too-familiar feeling of instability he’d kept in check all these years clawed for release. Benning unpocketed his phone, the sight of the photo behind the shattered glass immediately drowning the ringing in his ears. His pulse evened as he studied his twins’ smiling faces as they tackled him from behind on the screen. He’d get Owen back. He’d already lost too many people in his life.
He couldn’t lose his kids, too.
A surge of awareness hiked his senses into overdrive, and Benning followed it to the hospital room door. Brown eyes ringed with green centered on him, and the world dropped out from under him. She’d come. In the minutes following Olivia’s arrival at the hospital, he hadn’t known who else to call. Or if she’d come back to Sevierville. The kidnapper had warned him not to involve law enforcement before knocking him unconscious, but Ana Sofia Ramirez wasn’t just a federal agent. She’d been everything to him. Before she’d ripped his heart from his chest in the middle of the night without warning.
Her flawless Hispanic heritage intensified the angles of her cheekbones and nose, silky dark hair reflecting the fluorescent lighting from above, just as he remembered. Pressure built behind his sternum—had been for the past seven years—and he wanted nothing more than to close the distance between them in an attempt to release it. “Ana.”
“I came as soon as I heard the news.” She rushed toward him and dropped a duffel bag at her feet. Wrapping her arms around his waist, the woman who’d walked out of his life melted into him, and everything inside him quieted in an instant. The insecurity, the rage, the fear and the failure. Now there was only calm. Clarity. Hints of her perfume—something light and fresh—tickled the back of his throat as he buried his nose against the crown of her head. At five foot five, she fit perfectly against him. Toward the end of their relationship, he’d even believed she’d been made specifically for him. Skimming her chin along his shoulder, she set her mouth at his ear, eliciting a shudder from his spine, and lowered her voice. “The kidnapper could be listening. Pretend we’re two friends randomly coming back into contact, and my team and I will do whatever it takes to get your son back.”
His insides tightened. Right. Her team. The hug hadn’t been personal, simply a way to get her message across. She hadn’t come because he’d called in a personal favor. She’d come to do her job. But given the fact his kids had been targeted in order to get to him, he’d do whatever the hell she instructed. He just wanted his son back. No matter the cost. He increased the space between them, shutting down the internal reaction to her proximity exploding through him, and cleared his throat. “What are you doing here?”
“It’s my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. My brothers and I are flying in to surprise them, but then I heard about what happened, and I wanted to make sure you were okay.” Weaving truth in with the lie. He’d read about that, how law enforcement officials, especially those assigned undercover work, trained to remember their stories by inserting bits and pieces of their own lives into their cover stories. Ana did have brothers. Three of them. But as for the wedding anniversary and wanting to check up on him, Benning was sure she’d improvised. Ana pulled her hair back in a tie and turned toward Olivia still asleep in the bed. Her knees popped as she crouched to unzip the duffel she’d brought. In his next breath she straightened with a small black box in her hand and moved toward the bed with the device raised out in front of her. Pulses of green light strengthened on the screen as she moved around the room. “How is she? Any news about Owen?”
She believed the kidnapper was listening. That was what she’d said. Waiting for him to see if he’d call the police? But unless the man who’d broken into his home knew Olivia would escape the SUV and which hospital room she’d be assigned when she arrived, Benning didn’t see how it was possible after Olivia had been checked in. He’d been by her bedside the entire time, only her nurses and doctors coming in and out of the room. “Nothing yet. Olivia suffered a concussion when she escaped the SUV. Doctors aren’t sure if the damage goes deeper than her short-term memory, but they’ll—”
A red light flashed on the device in Ana’s hand, and she stilled. With a quick glance over her shoulder toward him, she reached behind the faux wood headboard of Olivia’s bed and detached something from the back. Swinging her hand toward him, she stepped away from his daughter and held out the miniature circle-shaped piece of metal. She extended her index finger of her other hand in a spiral motion to signal him to keep talking.
Someone had installed a bug in his daughter’s hospital room. Either they knew she’d wind up in this hospital room or—Benning curled his fingers into tight fists as he ran through a mental list of people who’d stepped foot inside this room—one of the people on Olivia’s medical staff had placed the bug while attending to her injuries. He swallowed, tried to keep his voice even as Ana stared up at him. “They’ll run more tests once she’s awake.”
“How are you doing?” She nodded before maneuvering past him to the other side of the room. Dropping the bug into the glass of water at Oliva’s bedside, she searched the rest of the room, not seemingly interested in his answer.
“It’s been a long night,” he said.
The light on her detector remained green. Physical relief smoothed her expression as she pocketed the black box into her knee-length coat when she was finished, and a hint of the woman he remembered returned. “The rest of the room is clear. They won’t be able to hear anything now. I’ll be sure to get the bug to one of the agents on my team. There’s a chance we can trace it back to its owner and find out who took your son.”
And there she was. The federal agent he’d fallen for the instant she’d walked onto that construction site seven years ago interviewing anyone on his crew who might’ve known about the disappearance of a local teenage girl. Benning latched on to the handrail of his daughter’s hospital bed in an attempt to keep himself in the moment. “Assuming the man who took him is the same one who planted that bug.”
But what were the chances the two weren’t connected?
“Yes.” She nodded toward him, her voice flat, unemotional, and his gut clenched. “You’re bleeding. Has someone looked at that cut on the back of your head? I can stay with her—”
“I’m fine.” It was a lie, but he wasn’t about to leave Olivia’s side. She’d already been through so much; he didn’t want her waking up without him in the room. He tracked Ana’s every move with an awareness he hadn’t experienced since the night she’d left Sevierville all those years ago, noted the slight bulge beneath the left side of her jacket. Her service weapon. He’d imagined confronting her so many times, memorized what he’d say, how she’d react. None of it included him asking for her help, her armed with a gun or one of his children missing.
She’d made her choice. She’d decided her career was more important than what they could have together and had run off to save the world. He’d stayed here, and in the wake of losing her, he’d made the stupidest mistake of his life. He’d rebounded. When Lilly told him about the pregnancy, he’d married her, worked at building a real family together for the sake of their twins, despite the lack of love between them. It’d been nothing more than a one-night fling the night he and his late wife had gotten together, but that one night had changed the course of his life. Benning tucked his hands in his jeans. “Ana, I know why you left, but—”
“All that matters right now is getting your son back.” Moving around the end of the bed, she hauled the duffel bag into an empty chair, her bangs hiding the dark shadows in her eyes. “That’s why you requested me to work this case, isn’t it? This is what I do.”
Right. He’d read the articles splashed on the front page of The Mountain Press, watched the interviews on the major news channels. According to the media, her recovery rates were the highest in the Bureau. When it came to finding the missing, Agent Ana Sofia Ramirez was the best. Right now he needed the best to find his son. He’d shut down the urge to reach out to her over the years, telling himself she’d left for a reason and he was the last person she wanted to hear from, but as far as he was concerned, she would always be unfinished business. “The guy who broke into my house, the one who took my son. I think he’s tied to one of the construction sites I inspected—”
A red dot centered over her heart, and Benning lunged.
A gunshot exploded overhead.
Broken glass hit the bottom of Olivia’s bed and sliced across the exposed skin of his arm. Pain shot up his wrists as they landed hard on the cold tile. Her sharp exhale rushed across the sensitive skin under his chin and beard, and his heart shot into his throat.
Rolling him off her, Ana pushed to a crouch, her service weapon already in hand.
A familiar scream pierced through the settling silence.
“Olivia.” He crawled toward the bed, trying to keep as low as possible. Sunlight reflected off bright blue eyes matching his own as he leveled his gaze with the mattress, and he wrapped his hand around hers. The bruising along his daughter’s wrists and arms had darkened over the past few hours, but even more terrifying: someone had taken a shot at them. “It’s okay, baby. I’m here.”
“Daddy.” Her whisper tore through him.
Ana pressed her back against the wall beside the window, then straightened to crane her head around the windowsill. “We have to get out of here.”
“I’m not leaving her.” His phone vibrated in his pocket. He extracted his cell as Ana turned hazel-green eyes onto him. The number was blocked.
Warning tensed the muscles across his shoulders. This was it, the call he’d been waiting for. Locking his gaze on Ana’s, he tapped the screen to answer then put the call on speaker. “Who is this?”
“I warned you about involving law enforcement, Mr. Reeves,” an unfamiliar voice said. “Now your son is going to pay the price for your mistake.”
“Let me talk to him. Let me talk to my son.” No answer. Benning tightened his hold on Olivia’s hand, his breaths coming shorter and faster. “Let me talk to my son!”
The call ended.