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CHAPTER ONE

 

Mathias O’Halleran stared at the grisly crime scene photos on the flat-screen mounted on the wall of the strategy room. It had been two weeks since they discovered a crazed killer kept his victims in a dank basement, and the rancid smell of death still lingered in his nostrils. Unbidden, a different, equally horrific crime scene invaded his thoughts. A little four-year-old girl’s lifeless, dark brown eyes stared up at him—

“Mathias?”

At the sound of his brother Jonathan’s voice, he blinked hard to erase the image, scrubbed his hand down his face and tore his eyes away from the screen. “Sorry.”

His brother gave him a long look tinged with a mixture of concern and understanding, then continued.

“Sandy’s parents and her husband asked that I convey their deepest appreciation to everyone for finding the man who murdered her.” Jonathan clicked the wireless mouse, and the photos were replaced with a screen saver of the O’Halleran Security International crest. “It’s given them a sense of closure and solace, knowing he can’t do to any other women what he did to Sandy.”

Mathias worked for Jonathan, who was the head of the Pacific Northwest operation of O’Halleran Security International, OSI. They specialized in close protection, private security, national and international hostage retrieval, tracking, and cybersecurity. Forensics would soon be added to their already impressive list of expertise.

Beck’s deep voice boomed from the speaker at the center of the table. As the founder of OSI, his oldest brother often participated in debriefs from the headquarters in California. This one was especially important to him. To all of them.

“As you all know, there was a setback in this investigation when the lab botched the DNA work.” Papers shuffled in the background. “To prevent that from happening again, two months ago I met with and hired Dr. Beatrice Rose Parker to head up our forensics division. She submitted her design specifications for the new laboratory, and Jonathan tells me dad’s crew is kicking ass on getting it done. Anyway, she’ll be overseeing the rest of their project and will head up the facility once it’s operational. Her credentials are impeccable, and you’ll be meeting her sometime today. I’ve got a conference call with Burke, so I’ll let Jonathan get back to his briefing.”

Beck cleared his throat. “One last thing. This most recent investigation was intensely personal for all of us. I want you to know how much I appreciate your professionalism. I especially appreciate you destroying that piece of shit that made the mistake of coming after one of our own. Great job, everyone.” With that, he hung up.

Jonathan reached across the table and pressed a button to disconnect the call.

The investigation he referenced involved two young women who were kidnapped in broad daylight, held captive, then forced to write their last will and testament before being buried alive. Their bodies were found months later.

The case became personal for the O’Hallerans when they discovered both women had a connection to their sister, Emily. The sense of urgency to find the madman increased further when Christina Lambert, Emily’s best friend and OSI’s beloved office manager, was also kidnapped. Fortunately, they got to her before … Well, they got to her in time.

“Dr. Parker arrived earlier and is upstairs with Christina. Once she’s in the system and badged up, Christina will escort her down here to the strategy room.” Jonathan swiveled his chair to face Mathias. “You’ll be working directly with her to ensure she has everything she needs to get that lab up and running as soon as possible. Money is not an issue, and time is of the essence.”

“You got it.” Mathias nodded once. Helping Dr. Parker might not be as pulse-pounding as an operational assignment, but it was critical to the success of future missions.

“She’ll be staying in one of the furnished OSI townhomes until she finds her own place.” Jonathan glanced over at his wife, sitting to his right. “Same one you were in when you first started working with OSI, Andi.”

“I have some pretty yummy memories from my time there.” She waggled her eyebrows at Jonathan, who winked at her.

Killian, Mathias’s twin, groaned and scrunched up his face in mock disgust. “Oh, come on. Get a room already.”

“Jealous?” Andi teased.

 

“Maybe a little bit,” he grumbled. An unusual admission from Mathias’s carefree twin. Could his brother be tired of playing the field? Not likely.

Jonathan’s cell phone vibrated on the table, and he scooped it up. “Hey, Christina. Okay, no problem.” He hung up. “Beatrice has her badge, and they’re getting her settled in her temporary office. In the meantime, I want to bring you all up to speed on our other ongoing operations.”

“That woman is a miracle worker. I do not know how she manages to get people on-boarded so quickly. Especially considering what she just went through.” Andi’s voice held a mixture of awe and concern.

After the killer kidnapped Christina, he’d drugged her and taken her to an old abandoned fire shack in the woods. OSI’s team found her chained up like an animal in the basement, with a dead body less than twenty feet away. She’d spent one night in the hospital and reported to work the very next day, acting as if nothing happened. The only outward signs of her trauma were the bandages around her wrists and the haunted look in her eyes that she couldn’t hide. No matter how hard she tried. Everyone was concerned about her, but she insisted she was fine.

“Emily’s keeping a sharp eye on her. If anyone can get Christina to open up and deal with what happened to her, it’s our sister.” Mathias admired his baby sister and wasn’t the least bit surprised by her commitment to her best friend. She was an O’Halleran, after all.

Jonathan flipped open a file folder with the distinctive red hashed border and the words TOP SECRET printed across the front.

“Okay, first up is Team Two. They are currently ten clicks out from their target’s primary location.” He jiggled the mouse, and the logo disappeared. A few taps later, and a collection of aerial photos of a large home in the middle of a dense jungle filled the screen, all taken from different angles and confirming the same thing—the place was heavily guarded and fortified.

An hour later, done with his briefing, Jonathan slid the mouse across the table and grabbed a remote to turn off the flat-screen. His leather chair creaked when he leaned back.

“I do not envy those guys tromping through that jungle.” Andi cringed. “Your feet are constantly soggy, there are venomous snakes that you can’t see until it’s too late, and the damn mosquitoes are the size of birds.”

“Please.” Killian stretched his arms high over his head, then laced his fingers behind his head.

“You spent three years on the front lines in Afghanistan. They have sand spiders the size of Emily’s grouchy old cat. Then there are the bad guys shooting real bullets at you.”

“Knock, knock.” Christina stood in the doorway.

All eyes swept her way.

Next to her stood a woman about the same height—five feet six-ish or so—wearing large, black-framed glasses, a royal blue, three-quarter sleeved cardigan sweater over a white button-down shirt with black pants, and flat shoes the same blue as her sweater. She was blessed with soft curves that made her look like a luscious librarian slash pinup girl. Her chestnut-colored hair was pulled into a high ponytail that fell in front of her shoulder and trailed down the left side of her chest. She turned and gave the group a tight-lipped smile, and Mathias’s heart tripped over itself.

Even from behind the big glasses, her eyes were traffic-stopping. They were the most enthralling shade of light gray.

“Are you guys ready for us?” Christina asked as they stepped into the room.

“Yes, we just finished.” Jonathan walked over with his hand out. “It’s good to see you again, Beatrice. Welcome to OSI.”

“Thank you. It’s nice to see you again, as well.” She shook his hand and quickly released it. “I am very happy to be here.”

Jonathan had flown to San Francisco to meet with her and Beck. He never mentioned how gorgeous she was. Then again, his brother thought all women paled in comparison to his wife.

“That’s my wife, Andi. She’s the head of special field training. When I can keep her from inserting herself into a covert op, that is.” He gave her a warm smile.

“It is such an honor to meet you, Mrs. O’Halleran. I have read all of your papers and research. I especially enjoyed the one on ‘Behavioral Anomalies and Investigative Interviewing.’ It was absolutely fascinating. I would love to discuss it with you sometime.”

“Thank you, and please call me Andi. There are too damn many O’Hallerans around here to be so formal. And I’m happy to discuss my work with you anytime.” They shook hands, and Beatrice stepped back, this time leaving a couple of feet between her and Jonathan.

“This is Mathias,” Jonathan said. “And the guy on the other side of the table is Killian. In case it wasn’t obvious, they’re twins. They’re also O’Hallerans.”

“It’s great to meet you, Beatrice.” Killian gave her one of his hey there smiles as he circled the table to take her hand.

Mathias sensed her growing discomfort at being the center of attention. He also felt the need to step in and rescue her from his brother’s charm.

“Hey, I’m Mathias.” She looked a bit overwhelmed, so he lifted his hand in a small wave instead of moving in to shake hers. “We’ll be working together to get your lab up and running.”

“It’s nice to meet you.” Her shoulders visibly relaxed, and he knew he’d made the right call.

Mathias loved his big, loud family, but they could be a bit overwhelming to some folks.

“We’ll leave you both to it.” Jonathan reached out for Andi’s hand. “Beatrice, if you need anything, just let Mathias know.”

“Thank you again. I’m looking forward to becoming a productive member of this organization.”

The others left, and she tugged the front of her sweater together, drew back her shoulders, and slowly turned back to Mathias. A pretty pink flush had settled across her cheeks.

“I apologize that you’ve been given the chore of monitoring me. I’m sure there are much more exciting things you’d rather be doing,” she said.

On the contrary. He was actually considering sending Jonathan a bottle of his favorite Scotch as a thank-you for giving him this sweet assignment.

“I’m not here to monitor you, Doc.” Mathias chose the more casual moniker in hopes of setting her at ease. “This is your project, and you have complete control over every aspect of it. I’m merely here to make sure you have what you need.” Mathias turned and headed into the hallway. Excitement zinged through his system at the thought of spending the next few months in the company of the fascinating and beautiful doctor.

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