In Hot Pursuit
Part of the Coltons Series
On the run for their lives…and straight toward a killer.
Sergeant Flynn Cruz-Street’s estranged half brother is a threat to society. To catch him, Flynn must join forces with JAG paralegal Vikki Colton. Vikki proves to be a brilliant investigator, and what starts as a reluctant partnership soon blossoms into an irresistible attraction. But as they work tirelessly to track down the dangerous criminal, Flynn and Vikki must resist the sparks between them…or risk losing their very lives.
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
In Hot Pursuit
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In Hot Pursuit
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“You didn’t have to wait for me.” Vikki spoke as she slid into the seat across from him in the bistro-style restaurant. “Is this coffee?”
“Yes. Let me pour.” He filled her mug and swore he felt anticipation coming off her in waves. He wished it were for more than caffeine. “You’re a coffee person, too?”
“Absolutely.” Her eyes closed as she breathed in the scent.
“I didn’t wait—this is my second cup.”
“I need to eat. Swimming always makes me famished. We help ourselves?” She added two healthy dollops of half-and-half to her brew and stirred.
“Yes. Go ahead. I’ll keep the table till you get back.”
Vikki’s eyes widened and she looked around the mostly empty dining room. “Um, I don’t think we have to worry about anyone taking our stuff.” She leaned over and looked at the chair next to him. “I see you brought your laptop, too.”
“Never leave home without it.”
“That’s right—you’re in school. I should really think about going back.”
His stomach grumbled but he didn’t want to break the spell of seeing more of Vikki as she revealed herself over her first cup of coffee.
“What would you go back for?”
“That’s just it. I finished my Bachelor’s two years ago, in criminal justice. But I have no desire to go to law school, or to be a cop. I think, truth be told, that I’m interested in getting out of the Army and working at my family’s firm.”
“Another CI investigator.”
She nodded, poured herself another half cup of coffee. “Yes. I have three more months before I have to re-up, so there’s some wiggle room. I plan to talk to my brother about it when I see him. By the way, CI has the full lowdown on what happened yesterday on post. No one’s seen Captain Joseph since. That reminds me…”
“What?” His gut tightened, the way it did when a battle buddy gave him the signal that trouble was imminent.
“I’ve already spoken to my brother about this, but since it’s still bugging me, I’d better let you know. I’m concerned that Captain Joseph is nearby.” She explained what she’d witnessed from the pool house, and her sense of being watched. “I’ve dealt with enough in my career to know that this could all be explained away as my sympathetic nervous system going into hyperdrive. Even though I didn’t feel unhinged at the time by Captain Joseph yesterday, he was being a jerk and did threaten me. It’s normal to be on edge for a bit.”
His back molars ground as his jaw clenched. If Captain Joseph was anywhere near them, he would be looking for Flynn. The fact that he’d scared Vikki infuriated him. And triggered another emotion he didn’t want to look at.
“I’m the person he’s after. Maybe I need to make myself more visible, walk around the building.”
Vikki looked across her mug. “That’s not wise. I know that, like me, you’re from here, and know how to deal with the cold. But let’s say Joseph is out there, lying in wait. You won’t be able to identify him in the first place, with all the cold weather gear he’d have on, and calling 9-1-1 wouldn’t help as the police have their hands full with keeping citizens off the streets until the storm passes.”
He liked that Vikki was able to dissect the simple, logical truths of what they were up against and still maintain her composure.
“You’ve done a lot during your Army time, I can tell. Why don’t we both get breakfast, then we can talk about it?”
As they loaded their plates from the heated chafing dishes on the buffet tables, Flynn took extra measures to look around the room, reinforce the exit point locations, notice where someone could look into the wide windows that spanned one wall, not unlike the pool area. He silently praised the updated security technology; cameras were evident in every corridor and he counted four in the dining room alone.
Back at the table, they dug into their meals. Flynn relished his eggs Benedict and noticed that Vikki was enjoying her French toast and scrambled eggs just as much.
“It feels kind of weird having all this space and food to ourselves. I’m used to eating in the chow hall and living in the barracks.”
She smiled and he watched as it traveled to her eyes, making her irises sparkle under the chandeliers. “Same, although I have a tiny apartment off-post. It’s like we’re in a fairy tale and can have whatever we want.”
He couldn’t agree more, except that her words made heat rush to his groin. The mental image of what he’d love to do with Vikki Colton had him reaching for the goblet of ice water.
She didn’t miss the invisible arcs of attraction that her comment triggered either, judging by the dark blush on her cheeks.
“I didn’t mean it that way. I mean there aren’t many other guests than us, and we have everything to ourselves.” She fussed with her napkin, a heavy linen number that was bigger than some tablecloths.
Flynn reached over and covered her hand with his, waited for her gaze to meet his again. “It’s okay, Vikki. I know what you meant. This is a bit unusual, being marooned in a snowstorm in a fancy hotel. But we’d get through it if we were downrange, right?”
She nodded. “Except we’d be in air tents instead of a grand ballroom. Or in a dugout.”
“And we’d be eating whatever the mess had on hand, till the sandstorm died down.”
“I’m sorry, I know I’m probably making you think I’m a rookie at something like this. I’m used to working with a team on the bigger cases, believe me. This has exploded in what feels like an instant.” She withdrew her hand and began to eat again. “I thought I’d find you, interview you until you told me where your brother is, then maybe get a chance to interview Captain Joseph. I never in a million years would have expected things to turn south this quickly.”
“Trust me, I never thought my commanding officer would barge into my barracks room and assault me, either. And then he fired his weapon—that doesn’t happen on a regular Army day.” It felt good to talk openly with Vikki.
“Unlike the movies.” She looked at him. “Something’s still bothering you about me. You’re looking at me as the enemy and not a colleague.”
“More like you think I know where Landon is. I have no idea. Don’t you think I’d want him caught, too? He’s caused nothing but pain and heartache for my family.”
“I do believe you, Flynn. Please understand that I had my marching orders, and it was easy to assume that you were hiding Landon from justice. I have a twin sister I’d do anything for. I’d give my life for any one of my five siblings, in fact.” Her obvious love for her sister made something in his heart region constrict. It’d be wonderful to have a sibling he could trust. An impossible concept, with Landon for a half brother.
“But I’d guess your twin hasn’t concocted a best-selling supplement that is suspected of sickening hundreds and now has killed someone.”
“You’d guess correctly. As I told you, I spoke with Riley earlier. He’s been working close with the post to keep the RevitaYou distribution and effects to a minimum. You probably already know this, as an MP. He’s concerned about Joseph coming after me. He’s already worked up about having to put my sister in hiding over all of this.”
“How so?” He knew the Coltons were well connected in Grand Rapids. CI had a stellar reputation and, matching his impression from the few times he’d worked with Riley, he’d heard nothing but good things about Vikki’s brother. The private investigative firm was known for its effective methods and excellent track record, without being overbearing to local and federal law enforcement. His office, as well as the CID—Army Criminal Investigative Division Command—shared information with CI on various cases as needed.
“Sadie was engaged to the scum who ran the loan shark operation that took money from investors in the project and enabled Landon and his lab team to come up with the supplement as fast as they did.”
“That kind of bank can make magic happen. But RevitaYou’s initial success came at a much higher price.” It reminded him of the diet pill tragedies he’d heard of from his mother when he was young and she was a senior enlisted soldier. The Army was strict about soldiers not taking certain supplements and over-the-counter medications for a reason. Personnel readiness began with keeping a soldier healthy and alive.
“Yes. Now we know there’s a secret ingredient, all right. Ricin, a byproduct of castor oil.” Vikki’s sober expression made something inside him want to do backflips or tell a joke. Anything to erase the deep concern from her features.
“That’s what I heard, too.”
“But it’s worked for people, Flynn. Lots of users have had zero side effects except softer, wrinkle-free skin. Or so they say. They’re not willing to turn over their supply.
“Not unless,” she added, “the creators and distributors behind it are stopped in their tracks. That’s why catching your brother is critical.”
“Half brother. If we’re going to trust each other and work together, you’ve got to understand that while my parents really tried to make us a cohesive family after they married and I was born, it’s never been that way. Landon never accepted my mother as a parental figure, and missed his mother, always.”
“Tell me about Landon’s biological mother. How often did he see her?”
“Never. Wait, that’s not true. Maybe two, three times over the course of ten years, that I can remember. Melissa is a piece of work. Abandoned her family on what seemed a whim. Now I wonder if she doesn’t suffer from mental illness, too.”
Flynn nodded. “Yes. My mother took him to psychiatrists all through his college years, way after our dad died. One said that Landon suffered from delusions of grandeur. That makes sense, with his agreeing to come up with this supplement. I always saw him as more of an inventor. I never expected he’d get into the pharmaceutical industry. And not an illegal product like RevitaYou.”
“I’m sorry, Flynn. It sounds like Landon’s issues put a lot on your family. How is your mother now?”
“My mother, Rosa, is great. She’s worried about Landon, but learned that she had to have a healthy detachment from him. My mom’s worried about me, always. Even though she served in the Army and understands more than anyone what it’s like to be a soldier.”
Vikki smiled. “It’s a mother’s job to worry, I think.”
Her wistful tone reminded him that she’d lost her parents when they were still relatively young.
“Your brother Riley…is he a lot older than you?”
“Yes, by fifteen years. He held all of us together when our parents died. It was an awful time.” Her eyes reflected her stormy past and his hand moved to hold hers again, but he gripped the side of the table instead. She’d think he was some kind of needy weirdo.
“You’re all still close, it seems.”
“We are, which makes it hard when one of us is hurting. I’m gutted that Sadie has to be in a safe house. We’re used to clients at CI needing to be protected, and I’ve dealt with that in the Army, but when it’s my twin, it hits home.”
“I’m sorry, Vikki. Let’s get our plan formulated so that we can put an end to everyone’s stress ASAP.”
“You’re a man after my own heart, Flynn.” Vikki’s words were offhanded as she pulled her laptop onto the table, but there was no denying what Flynn’s conscience was communicating.
He wondered what it’d be like to be the man who had Vikki’s heart.
Don’t do it, man. Stay in your lane.
Flynn was easy to work with and they stayed at the breakfast table for another couple of hours. The service staff were hospitable, and since they were the only two in the restaurant, Vikki and Flynn had all the coffee and snacks they wanted. The few waiters on staff during the storm brought them an endless array of pastries, cookies and once it approached noon, sandwiches.
“This feels wrong, using government funds to work in such fancy surroundings.” Flynn shut his laptop and looked around the room for the umpteenth time.
“Do you ever stop checking the egress points?” She couldn’t help teasing him just this little bit. He was so serious.
Brown eyes rested on her and she recognized surprise. “It’s that noticeable?”
“Maybe to me, because I’ve been around enough MPs to know that your training goes bone-deep. You can’t help yourself, can you?”
A slow grin formed across his features. A shiver of awareness caught her off guard and she looked away. “I’m sorry. It’s not in my place to make fun of your skills. You save lives every day by doing what you’re trained to do.”
“Stop going back into your head, Vikki.”
“My head?” She shored herself to look at him again and those eyes, his bright smile, his pure confidence, hit her in the solar plexus. And rushed to all of her sexiest parts.
“Yeah. You’re retreating from an accurate observation by becoming all logical about it. Going back into whatever you’ve decided is your job description.”
“You mean what the Army gave me as a job description.”
“No, this is about you, Vikki. It’s clear to me that you’re excellent at your job. But do you ever take a break, let your hair down?”
“I could interpret that as a sexist remark.” Her hand jerked to her ponytail and she wished she’d blown her hair all the way out, left it down, since she was in civilian attire.
“If you stay in your head, yes. But if you listen to your emotions, to the attraction that’s happening here, you might see that I’m being exceptionally aboveboard, considering our circumstances.”
Her breath caught somewhere in between her lungs and throat. Flynn, a man she’d known for barely twenty-four hours, had seen past her most polished defense mechanism. Her identity as a soldier and paralegal. Peter had thrived on her being the professional, even in civilian clothes and at his work parties or with his friends. Flynn saw past it all, right to her soul.
“‘Our circumstances’? You mean being stalked by your boss and trying to figure out how to draw Landon to us?”
He leaned in and she was aware of the texture of the linen tablecloth under her palm, the scent of the fall flower arrangement in the middle of their table. But what she’d never forget was the heat that flickered in Flynn’s eyes, the curiosity that she shared. Wondering what it’d be like to take their mutual attraction and do something more constructive than wait out a snowstorm hunched over their laptops.
“No, Vikki. I mean… maybe we both need to take a break from this case and do something beneficial for one another. I’m offering this as a suggestion, and with intention of it not going any further than you’d want it to.”
She couldn’t take her gaze from his, as if it were her lifeline to the real Vikki, the woman she never let show in uniform. The woman who longed for a relationship where she could be one hundred percent herself, with a man who completely understood her commitment to country, too.
Vikki had known this assignment was going to be challenging. She’d been thrown off guard when Captain Joseph had threatened her. Having to go off post to be safe from him had been a stumbling block, too.
But Flynn Cruz-Street? He was the hurdle she knew she wanted to clear.
Just not now. Her heart was too raw after the way Peter had mashed it, like potatoes in a blender. And the case. She had to keep the case first.
He saw the confirmation in Vikki’s eyes when her irises deepened in their green intensity. It was at the same time that she let go of a long sigh, as if she’d been lost for hours and in need of a cold drink of water.
But when the clouds came back and turned her gaze stormy, he knew he’d overstepped.
“I’m not taking your, um, offer the wrong way at all, Flynn. The truth is that, besides the obvious—” she waved her hand over their laptops and stacks of papers “—I’m not ready to get involved with anyone right now. I’m coming off a pretty sucky breakup.”
An instant flash of hate for whomever had hurt her made him unable to reply right away. Vikki seemed to take it as a signal that he was upset with her.
“I’m sorry, Vik.”
“I don’t want this to change how we work together on the case. We’ve accomplished a lot in the past few hours, and I like working with you so far.” Her eyes were clear pools of honesty. Integrity.
“Hold on, I’m not going to start acting like a jerk because you turned me down. What kind of guy would I be?”
“Not the man I’m beginning to know.” Her gaze didn’t waver and Flynn knew he was on a path to destruction. Vikki’s words, her calm demeanor in the face of a monumental case, her solid nature, were rare qualities in a person, and then add in that she wore the uniform, too, able to understand his line of work. Vikki was his dream.
She was also his colleague and a fellow sergeant.
“Thank you for that. May I suggest we take a break, go over our notes individually, then meet back for dinner?” He needed some time alone to lick the minor wounds her refusal had caused. But, dang it, Vikki even made turning him down something sweet, between her straightforward honesty and dedication to duty.
He got it.
And he hadn’t missed the one thing he’d bet she wished she’d not revealed. She hadn’t denied the gauntlet he’d thrown down, that they were experiencing a shared attraction. Vikki was just as attracted to him.
They gathered their belongings and walked to the bank of elevators. Flynn waited for Vikki to enter, holding the door for her.
“Thanks.” He caught a whiff of the hotel shampoo when she passed. Mingled with Vikki’s scent. Soft and feminine but with a spicy edge. His desire raged and he fought to keep from getting a hard-on in the dang elevator.
They didn’t look at one another as they waited for their floor. Alone in the brass-trimmed space, the mirrored doors reflecting two figures intent on getting to the next destination, he couldn’t think of anything but how her skin would feel under his hands.
Back off, buddy. She said no.
Had he been too quick? Maybe she would have regretted being with him when the snow cleared. He looked at her, found her staring at him. With a wide grin to boot.
“Ask me again after the case is wrapped, Flynn.”
“All right. Will do.”
No, she wouldn’t regret their being together. He might, though. Vikki was different from the women he usually dated. Not in anything he’d be able to name off the top of his head, but deep down, where it counted, he knew Vikki was a woman who could bring him to his knees.
The elevator bell dinged and the doors slid open. Again he nodded for her to go first, then walked alongside her to their adjoining rooms.
“I’ll make sure you’re locked inside.” Hers, 707, was first. His was 709.
She waved her phone in front of the keypad and the green light flashed. Her slim hand turned the handle and Flynn prayed she’d please just go inside. Don’t turn around. Don’t prolong this. He needed to be alone in his room, ASAP.
“Can you come in for a minute? I have one question I need an answer for, before I go back over my notes.”
Relief sluiced through his muscles and he almost laughed. “Sure thing.” Work. She wanted to talk about work. Vikki had already forgotten their conversation and her elevator suggestion. He could work with this. As long as they kept things about business.
“After you.” She waved him ahead this time and he acquiesced, figuring she wanted to be the one to lock the door behind her. As soon as he stepped inside her room, he felt like a wild animal caught in a domestic backyard, lured into a trap by a tasty treat. But the cage was worse, because it hit him with Vikki’s essence from all sides. The bath product fragrance, her scent, her luggage left open and revealing a pile of panties and bras in several shades of red and pink.
Awareness slammed right to his crotch once again.
Her hand on his shoulder startled him, more so when she tugged and turned him around to face her. Her expression was not one of Sergeant Colton, but of Vikki, the beautiful woman who’d walked into his life yesterday but felt like she’d been there all along.
“Um, Vikki?” He took a step back but she followed, until she was inches from him. Her breath fanned the base of his throat and he thanked the heavens above for this moment. But what was Vikki thinking?
“Flynn, listen to me. I know I just said no to being with you in any capacity other than Army business. And I’m certain that we can’t—or rather shouldn’t—get involved. But I can’t help but wonder…”
“What?” He could barely breathe.
“Can I kiss you?”