Reunion Under Fire
Book 6 in the Silver Valley PD Series
When police psychologist Annie Fiero stumbles across a case of abuse in her hometown, she takes the assignment. In the process, she is reunited with her childhood friend Josh Avery, who is all grown up and a lethally handsome detective. But as Josh and Annie hunt down a vicious criminal, they must also resist deadly desire…
Heat Level: Boat Rocker
Reunion Under Fire
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Reunion Under Fire
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Annie watched Josh’s attention shift from being totally on her to someplace over her shoulder. As much as his intense scrutiny had been flattering, it was also a relief to be able to breath. This man was the same Josh she’d known, had the same smile, but he was far more potent. Heart-lethal, because she was already imagining what it’d be like to kiss him, and she didn’t even know if he was available. The brief thought of him involved with someone else made her inexplicably sad. Crap.
“Josh? You okay?”
His eyes were sexier than she’d remembered, shrewder, but had glazed over a bit. As if he didn’t believe her professional choice, didn’t accept the damn proof in front of him in the form of her IDs. Was it that crazy to think she’d become a police psychologist? And since when did she get so aroused by talking to a guy? Her hormones had been conducting rapid-fire drills since the instant she’d seen him across the office bay. Since before she realized it was the same Josh Avery who hadn’t been able to get the condom on after prom, giving her time to back out of their plan to lose their virginity with one another and thus ending their planned night of passion. An awkward end to an otherwise emotionally intimate relationship. He’d been the first boy she’d ever loved.
Maybe the only man, but he’d been so young. Not like he was now, all sexy muscle and deep voice conversation meant to make a woman drip with want.
“I’m great, Annie. Just thinking. You look a little peaked, though, if you ask me.” Wham. Without warning he turned the tables back on her. This was a new skill of Josh’s, because the teen she’d known was too sweet, too kind to play mind games. She shook her head.
“I’m fine. I came in here—”
“On a suspected domestic violence. Who’s hurt you?” His last word ended on what sounded like a feral growl.
“Not me. A woman who came into my grandmother’s shop.” She forced herself to calm down and stick to her purpose. “I know what signs to look for.” She didn’t have to remind him it was her job, did she?
“She told you she’s being abused?”
She recognized the practiced neutral expression, knew it intimately. He was used to people throwing accusations around, claims that if true could be life-saving. If false, they could ruin a person’s reputation and potentially waste police time and worse, risk an officer’s life.
“Of course she didn’t. If she’d be willing to tell me, she’d be willing to come to the police, right?” She leaned back in the chair and shoved off her thin, summer weight sweater. It’d kept the chill of the AC off her shoulders but no air conditioning unit could keep up with the heat wave. She rubbed her shoulders, trying to undo the myriad knots that had sprung up at the top of back. “I do this for a living, Josh. I know you have no reason to believe me, other than you knew me a long time ago, which is why I’ve brought these.” She took out her credentials for the second time in ten minutes and handed them to him. “Feel free to call it in and talk to my boss. I’m the real deal. I see this all the time. And I saw finger marks on her throat. She’d covered them with makeup and was wearing a turtleneck. It’s ninety degrees out, Josh. No one wears heavy clothes in this heat unless they have a reason. I only got a glimpse of the bruises because of the way she leaned over. But I also saw some higher, on her jaw. Probably older ones.”
“You’re sure?” His direct look was focused, his demeanor professional. Unlike her reaction to his nearness, which was chaotic as heat rushed to her face and her nipples tightened under her lightweight T-shirt. If his gaze moved lower, he’d see her physical reaction to him, and it wasn’t from the air-conditioning.
“I’m sure.” She paused, not wanting to tell him how to do his job but needing to know Kit would get the help she needed.
“I hear you.” He nodded. “But she’s not reporting it. So even if you have her name—”
“I need more information. I prefer to talk to her directly if at all possible and—wait, what did you say her name was? Valensky?”
“That’s right. You know her?”
“Not personally.” His mouth was a straight line; his fingers drummed his desktop.
“But?” She’d wait him out. He knew something he didn’t want to tell her. Or maybe couldn’t, if it was a confidential police case. She was privy to whatever she needed to do her job in New York, but Silver Valley wasn’t the jurisdiction she was assigned. Josh didn’t have to tell her anything.
“But.” He blew out a breath and looked up from his desk, his eyes back on her. “She may be related to another Valensky in town. One we keep an eye on but never seem to have enough on, if you get my drift.”
“Maybe if I could talk to one of your detectives…” She looked at his badge, his uniform. She thought Ezzie had mentioned he’d been promoted, but maybe he didn’t like detective work.
“I am your detective, Annie. All of our officers and detectives are overcommitted right now, working a big case that’s spilled over from Harrisburg and Carlisle. Silver Valley’s got caught in the middle of an ROC op.”
“Ouch. That’s a lot of work for a small force.” She knew what ROC meant. They had more than their share of it at NYPD. Organized crime of any type weighed down the caseload, pushed the officers to their limits as they fought not only to keep the streets of Silver Valley clean but human trafficking, the inflow of heroin, and countless other ROC related crimes. She looked around the station. “What do you have, thirty, maybe forty officers?”
He nodded. “Thirty-seven officers, three detectives. Four when I work as one.”
“I wondered about that—I was pretty certain Grandma Ezzie had told me that you were a detective. Why aren’t you now?” She waved at his uniform.
“Personal reasons. I needed the more regular hours for the short term.” His tone was tinged with regret. Based on the energy that vibrated off him, she suspected he liked to be in the middle of a case, solving it.
“Oh.” He must have a family. She didn’t see a ring, but a lot of officers didn’t wear them. It was for practical safety as a wedding band could lead to a severed finger in the midst of an operation, and to protect their loved ones from the vilest criminals who’d stalk their families. For some reason her stomach sank, and she experienced her first wave of defeat since returning to Silver Valley. Not that she’d hoped he was single, like her. His chuckle shook her out of her emotional pothole.
“What’s so funny?”
“I’m not married, Annie.” Oh no, was she that freaking obvious? “What about you? Are you with anyone?”
“It’s none of my business if you’re single or not.” She bit her lip. “For the record, I’m not married either. Or with anyone.”
“Ever been?” His teeth were so straight, so white, so sexy in that strong face. His lips were full for a man, yet only heightened his masculinity. “Annie?”
“Hmm? What?” She blinked. “No, never married. A few close calls.” One in particular that swore her off serious relationships for a long while after college and probably doomed the other, longer relationships she’d had. And made her extra sensitive to women like Kit. “You?”
Josh shook his head. “No, but I came close, too. I was engaged for a few years.” His face was unreadable. She wondered if he’d been hurt, why the relationship didn’t work out.
“That’s a long time. What ended it?” Shame sent warmth into her face again, and she held up a hand. “Wait, nix that. Sorry, it’s none of my business.” She’d come in here to help out Kit, possibly save her life. Instead she was flirting with a man she didn’t know, not anymore, not as the man he was today.
A tall, sexy length of police officer.
“That’s all right, Annie. It didn’t work because of a number of things, but mostly me. I wasn’t willing to commit to anything other than…” He trailed off, his eyes misting over but not with tears. Memories.
“Other than your job. I get it.”
“It wasn’t, wasn’t… We weren’t right for each other is all.” He cleared his throat, and she watched the smooth movement of his Adam’s apple, looked at his clean-shaven jaw and almost groaned when she noted the cleft in his chin. She had to stop this. She wasn’t in town for a fling, and a relationship with any man she met in Silver Valley would be short-lived. Her heart couldn’t deal with that right now. It was achy enough, thank you very much. “What about you?”
“Me? Oh, I’m pretty much a career girl.” She hated how much of a coward she was. Here he’d admitted some pretty private stuff, and all she gave him was a cute Mary Tyler Moore reply? “And my job at NYPD is all-consuming. As I’m sure you can imagine. Do you have a psychologist on your force?”
“No, but we contract out as needed. Whenever there’s a shooting, suspicious circumstances around a case that might be due to an officer, or when we have a rough accident or other first response scene.”
She nodded. “That’s what my job was meant to be, originally. But now we have so many cops who are military veterans with PTSD, and who’ve seen the worst here at home, too.”
“You mean like 9/11.”
“Yes. And the human trafficking.”
“We’ve got our share of the sex trade here in Silver Valley, believe it or not. This past year we had a local strip club employing underage girls from Ukraine. ROC brought them in. We’re working a huge case right now, as a matter of fact. There’s another suspected ROC group of underage women en route to Silver Valley. We’ve been able to stop these shipments before, miles away, but each time it’s getting closer to Silver Valley proper.” She saw the enormity of it in the lines etched between his brows.
“That reminds me—when I spoke to Kit, I got the feeling that how she came to the States might be questionable.”
“Hold that thought while I look a few things up.” His fingers flew over his keyboard, and she had to fight the urge to stare at his masculine hands. A man’s hands had always been one of her weak spots, and Josh’s would have made the throb between her legs pulse even if they weren’t. Guilt hit her in her gut. She was here to help out an abused woman, not get all sexy on an old crush.
Josh frowned as he read an open file. “The woman you’re talking about, Kit Valensky, is married to Vadim Valensky, the scumbag we suspect has dealings with ROC but never have been able to nail. We’re fairly certain he has ties to Dima Ivanov, but since the death of the number two guy in that chain of command, Yuri Vasin, there’s no connection we can prove. Did you know that we took out Vasin right here in Silver Valley two months ago?” He waited for her to shake her head. Heck, what had happened to her hometown? “We were thwarting a human trafficking operation the ROC ran. They’re up to it again, I’m afraid. Valensky’s a dangerous character if a fraction of what we suspect he’s responsible for is true.” Josh’s smile was gone, his intention clear. He wanted Valensky off the streets as much as she wanted to make sure Kit was safe. And Annie knew who Ivanov was—everyone in East Coast law enforcement did. He was the head honcho for ROC on the Eastern Seaboard.
“Kit’s in danger, then. We have to get her out of there.” Would waiting until the next knit and chat night be good enough? Annie didn’t want to think about what could happen to Annie between now and then.
“There’ is a six-bedroom mansion on the top of Silver Hill, on the way to the mountains. The Appalachian Trail traverses right alongside its eight-foot wall. It’s a veritable fortress.” Frustration laced his words.
“You sound like you’ve tried to get on his property.”
“Maybe.” He stayed silent on the topic, and she respected that. She didn’t need to be privy to all the workings of a local case. But she still wanted Kit in a safe place.
“Josh, look, you don’t need to give me any details, but what I do need is a report filed that I witnessed those bruises on her. She’s supposed to come to our knit and chat tonight, between six and eight.”
“What’s that, a knitters’ meeting?”
“Yes. My grandmother has built quite the community with her shop, and the women as well as some men take care of one another like family. One of the regulars was in the shop earlier, and she was very friendly to Kit when she came in. Actually, you know the woman—it’s Ginny Vanderbruck.” They’d gone to school with Ginny’s granddaughter. “It’s clear to me that Kit is well liked and that the other knitters feel protective of her.”
“Let’s say she comes in tonight. Are you going to ask her point-blank if she’s in danger?”
“Absolutely. It’s my job. The only reason I didn’t yesterday is because I didn’t want to frighten her into not coming back. I gave her my number.”
“That’s good, all of it. I’m impressed, Annie. You’ve done more for Kit Valensky than anyone local’s been able to do in a long while. I don’t need her statement to press charges against Valensky, but if we can get her to confirm he did it, all the better.”
“So you’re saying she’s asked for help before?”
Josh’s expression stilled, and she knew the minute he trusted her. He shook his head. “Not here, not in Silver Valley. There are reports from where
they lived before, though, out of state, in a rural area. The neighbors called in the loud noises, shouting. She and her husband told the responding officers that it was a mistake, that she was fine. She refused to press charges. They lived in a smaller house in a subdivision, according to the records. We only have them because we’ve been watching Valensky. At that time there were repeated complaints from the neighbors of angry shouting, the sounds of fights. But each time, she showed up at the front door with Valensky and said she was fine, and the local officers let it go. Which as you know, means they didn’t do their damned job. If it’d been an SVPD officer, he or she would have handled it the right way. We would have separated the two and got statements. They would have been recorded on the officer’s police cams. Charges would have been pressed.” He sighed and ran his fingers through his chestnut hair. It was short cropped but just long enough to remind her of the looser curls he’d sported in high school. God, how many times had she tugged his hair when they’d made out ad infinitum in that beat-up station wagon?
“What are you thinking, Annie?”
“Uh, nothing. Sorry—I drifted.”
His eyes were warm, and the crinkles at their edges teased her. “I’ve been doing some of that myself since you walked in here.”
They stared at one another, and it was like being in a bright tunnel, only the two of them, the years melting away. Except her body was feeling very adult responses to his every glance, each sound of his voice.
“Why didn’t you ever come back, Annie? Really.” He wasn’t asking for her résumé.
“I got involved in school, and then graduate school, and then this job.” And she’d been too wrapped up in her own hurt, needing the time to work through and heal from the abusive relationship that had flayed her soul and broken her heart. “And, well, I had some personal reasons too, I guess.” Shame rushed her. “I should have come when your parents died. I’m so sorry, Josh.”
“It was a long time ago.” He shrugged off her too-late amendment and looked at her. “I wondered. About your personal reasons for staying gone so long.”
“You never tried to find me.” She didn’t mean for it to sound so accusing. “I never blamed you—we agreed we were done after prom night.”
His mouth hitched on one side. “What a freaking disaster, right? Again, I’m sorry, Annie. I was a bumbling teen, and I blew the best relationship I’ve probably ever had.”
“We were kids.”
“That doesn’t mean our feelings weren’t adult. We were pretty precocious, wouldn’t you say?” Was that a twinkle in his eyes?
“Precocious. That’s not a word you hear in police work every day.” She couldn’t help but tease him.
“I’m not used to a police psychoanalyst coming in here every day, either.” His grin was pure magnificence.
“Psychologist, thank you very much.” She mirrored his grin, and felt a warm glow that she’d thought had been eradicated from her emotional repertoire years ago. Was it possible to heal so much later, in such a spectacular way?
“Roger.” Josh spoke the police word for “I hear you.” He twisted his desk chair as he angled his long, lean frame to face her, their chairs next to one another. His forearm brushed hers in the cramped space, and the tingle it sent through her was positively delicious. It was at once sexy and alarming, as this police department felt like her workspace at NYPD. She’d learned early in her career to not get involved with another officer on the job, but she wasn’t working as a cop right now, not really.
She inched her chair away the mere inch his cubicle allowed and chose to ignore the sexy smile on his too-handsome face. He knew he turned her on, a worse crime than the fact that she was getting so hot and bothered in the middle of trying to help a victim.
“Josh, I can’t…”
He coughed, loudly, stopping her weak protest.
“The problem we have, Annie, is complex. You’ve reported what you think is a sign of abuse, yet the woman was in your store, perfectly healthy and normal in her behavior, correct?” His brow rose, and she knew what he was getting at.
“Except for how frightened she seemed, yes. And the bruises.”
“That’s your interpretation. I’m not saying I doubt you at all, but without Kit coming forward, we don’t have a lot. We’ve never had any complaints since they’ve lived here, but their house is also out of earshot of anyone but the bears.”
Annie swallowed and nodded. She knew everything he said was true. Still, she wished it could be taken care of more quickly, without the added risk of each hour Kit lived with that bastard.
“I knew you’d say that, and I do understand the legal issues. And there are problems with going to their home without her requesting help, and no reports of any noise or disturbance. Right now it’s my word, my observations only. But I also know you can go check things out, interview Valensky.”
The lines between his eyes deepened, and her fingers itched to smooth them. “We could. As I said, I’d prefer to do it with her corroboration, and when I know she’s not there. It’s admirable that you’re willing to help her, Annie. We’re far from at the end of the road for solutions. If she shows up at your knitting circle tonight, talk to her. Earn her trust. Get her to confide in you, to come in with you or at least agree to speak to me, and we’ll be able to move forward.”
“The odds of that…” She ran her fingers through her hair, her frustration familiar but no less dismal. Domestic abuse remained the toughest nut to crack.
He touched her forearm, a gesture of assurance that grounded her. “Normally, yes, the stats are against us in this type of case. But with you on her side, the odds of her opening up are high. That is, if you’re half as good a listener as the girl I knew.” His eyes blazed with the same heat that simmered in her belly and zinged straight to the intimate spot between her thighs, begging for release. If they weren’t in the Silver Valley Police Department, would he kiss her? She wasn’t sure.
Annie was absolutely certain, however, that she’d lean in and kiss him. Heck, who was she kidding? She’d straddle him in his chair and lay the hottest, sexiest, all-tongue kiss on him she had to give.
“Avery! Chief Todd’s called in a DUI on Silver Valley Pike.” The receptionist’s voice echoed through an intercom.
“Roger. I’m on it.” His gaze never left hers as he replied to the request and his mouth lifted in his signature half smile. “Until we meet again, Annie Fiero.”